Orders, Decorations and Medals (8 February 2010)

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Date of Auction: 8th February 2010

Sold for £720

Estimate: £600 - £800

A well-documented Second World War Coastal Forces group of six awarded to Chief Petty Officer R. J. Wood, a long-served Coxswain who was present in a number of Channel “firefights”, one of them a memorable encounter at 60 yards range with armed trawlers – an action recorded on canvas and in print by Peter Scott, C.O. of the 1st Steam Gun Boat (S.G.B.) Flotilla

Naval General Service 1915-62, 1 clasp, Palestine 1936-1939 (JX. 135855 R. J. Wood, A.B., R.N.); 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; War Medal 1939-45; Coronation 1953; Royal Navy L.S. & G.C., G.VI.R., 2nd issue (FX. 670529 R. J. Wood, C.P.O., H.M.S. Siskin), mounted as worn, contact marks, very fine and better (6) £600-800

Footnote

Reginald James Wood was born in Rye, Sussex in January 1916 and entered the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class in June 1931. Advanced to Able Seaman in the cruiser H.M.S. Norfolk in November 1934, and to Leading Seaman in the net-layer Protector, off Palestine, in April 1939, he had removed to the destroyer Wivern (Lieutenant-Commander W. Evershed, R.N.), by the renewal of hostilities.

Subsequently employed on coastal escort work in the Western Approaches, he participated in at least 10 convoys prior to coming ashore to the torpedo establishment
Defiance at the end of the year. Then in the late summer of 1940, his career took a turn in a different direction, when, as verified by his Certificate of Service, he qualified as a Coastal Forces’ Coxswain, and was advanced to Acting Petty Officer.

Coastal Forces

Having gained experience in M.Ls 104 and 166, the latter while based at the Milford Haven Coastal Forces’ base, Skirmisher, Wood removed to M.G.B. 318 at Midge, the Great Yarmouth base, in September 1941 – interestingly, in March 1942, 318 was ordered to join the clandestine coastal forces’ flotilla under Captain Frank Slocum, R.N., the Deputy Director, Operations Division (Irregular), a unit charged with inserting and collecting agents from the French coast. Whether Wood participated in such trips prior to his brief transfer to M.Ls in May of that year remains unknown, but he undoubtedly saw action in the course of his next appointment as Coxswain of the dogboat M.G.B. 614 (July 1942 to September 1943), initially operating out of the Gosport base Hornet, and later the Newhaven base Aggressive. On the night of 28-29 May 1943, 614 fought a sharp engagement with E-Boats off the Isle of Wight. Dog Boats at War, by Leonard Reynolds, O.B.E., D.S.C., takes up the story:

‘Further down the coast, off the Isle of Wight, S.G.B.
4 (Lt. T. Boyd, D.S.O.), M.G.B. 614 (Lt. P. E. Mason), and M.G.B. 615 (Lt. R. Ball) had been called from Newhaven with reports of eight E-Boats approaching the convoy route. By the time the unit sighted the E-Boats they had already been attacked by Albacore aircraft, which claim to have sunk one. There was certainly a fierce exchange of gunfire before the E-Boats made off. 614 [with Wood aboard] was hit and set on fire in the after crew space, and her C.S.A. canister was hit.’

Steam Gun Boats (S.G.Bs) 1943-45

As it transpired, Wood was destined to see further action, for in September 1943, Lieutenant P. E. Mason was appointed to the command of Steam Gun Boat (S.G.B.) No.
4, Grey Fox, taking with him his Coxswain – both men would have quickly noticed the swastika emblazoned on the front of the ship’s bridge, representing an R-Boat sunk in point-blank action in July 1942, but neither could have guessed a second swastika would shortly be added to Grey Fox’s honours.

In fact the S.G.B. Flotilla had been operating out of
Aggressive at Newhaven since early 1942, seven boats under the overall command of Lieutenant-Commander Peter Scott, R.N.V.R., son of the famous Antarctic explorer and himself a noted pre-war artist and Olympic yachtsman. It was Scott who won Admiralty approval to grant the numbered S.G.Bs proper names, since at a length of 156 feet they just qualified for the accolade – hence a bevy of names influenced by the natural world, in lieu of the Flotilla C.O’s other area of expertise.

According to David Jefferson’s
Coastal Forces at War, Grey Fox rarely departed Newhaven without her signature tune - the “Post Horn Gallop” - blasting loudly from the ship’s speakers and, in common with her consorts, was armed to the teeth and much respected by enemy E and R-Boats: by 1944, S.G.Bs boasted a 6-pounder, power-mounted gun forward, a 3-inch hand operated gun aft, four sets of 20mm. twin-Oerlikon guns (either side of the bridge and aft), six sets of twin-Vickers .303 machine-guns (pairs on the bridge, below the bridge and by the torpedo tubes), two 21-inch torpedoes, and 4 depth-charges for good measure – and were still capable of a maximum speed of 30 knots.

As Leonard Reynolds concludes in his
Dog Boats at War, S.G.Bs were involved in numerous actions that indicated ‘an enormous amount of gallantry and of attacks pressed home whatever the odds’. Casualties in the Flotilla were indeed high, but so, too, the number of distinctions won by the 30-strong crews – in Grey Fox’s case a total of four D.S.Cs, four D.S.Ms (one as a Bar) and three “mentions” during Wood’s time aboard as Coxswain in the period September 1943 to August 1945. And one of those D.S.Cs was won by Peter Mason, just a few days after joining Grey Fox with his Coxswain.

Range 60 Yards – “Grey Fox” in action with Armed Trawlers off Cap D’Antifer

Fortunately for posterity’s sake, Peter Scott was aboard
Grey Fox on the night in question, in his capacity as Flotilla C.O., and he commemorated the occasion with an evocative oil painting of the engagement, in addition to his own account of the night’s proceedings in his history, The Battle of the Narrow Seas:

‘It was a night of brilliant phosphorescence and heavy storms, with lightning but no thunder. The four of us had been down to Le Havre and drawn blank, and we swept northward again towards Cap D’Antifer. Just before 2 a.m. we found the enemy and stalked him for about an hour. I wondered if he could sight us in the lightning flashes, but I finally came to the conclusion that, unless someone happened to be looking directly at us the moment of the flash, he wouldn’t.

There was a very black storm approaching from the nor’-nor’-east, and we decided that there was a good chance of an unobserved attack if we could time it to coincide with the arrival of the storm. Gradually we worked our way round until the black cloud of it was behind us, and then we turned in to close the enemy as the storm broke. The hail pattered down on our tin-helmets and the night was inky black.

We came down the wind so that it was at our backs; all sight of the enemy ships was blotted out, and it was useless to try to use glasses because of the rain. Peter Mason, the Commanding Officer of the boat (
Grey Fox), was at the torpedo sight and I stood just behind him. Rather impatiently I kept asking, “For Heaven’s sake, can’t you see them yet,” for I knew we must be getting close. Suddenly he saw them and said very calmly, “Yes, I can see them now – port ten,” in order to bring his sights on. The range was less than 600 yards when he fired both torpedoes. The enemy had been unable to keep lookout upwind into the driving hail, and he seemed to be taken completely taken by surprise.

We disengaged to starboard and fired a spread of starshells. By their light we saw two trawlers quite close together. The First Lieutenant, John Erskine-Hill, put the guns on to the second one and opened fire at once. From that time the illumination was continuous, partly supplied by our second in line and partly by the Germans. Although the rain restricted the area of starshell illumination, the scene directly below the bright white light seemed to be quite as bright as day. The two trawlers were so unready that they did not reply at all and all our guns ripped into the second one, which was about 300 yards away. A small fire appeared to start at once, just forward of the bridge.

Suddenly I saw a third trawler right ahead, and as we turned to starboard [Wood at the helm] it came down the port side at very close range. Just as John, without a moment’s delay, made all his guns change target to this trawler, there was an explosion on the after end of the leading trawler as our torpedo hit. A vivid flame of bright cherry red, with streaks of blue and green in it, shot out of her – not vertically, but sloping to the right, and after it had gone there was a white column of either smoke or spray, which must have been at least 100 feet high. At the same time all guns engaged the third trawler, now no more than 60 yards away. I think that one small machine-gun was firing back at us, but that was all, and everything we had was going into her. The gunners couldn’t miss. There was a roar of escaping steam, and suddenly a white cloud came out of the ship’s stern. Whether this was steam or white smoke, I don’t know. At the same time she altered course to port round our stern. Bits were flying off the upper works as every gun hit. At that range and with bright starshell illumination, it was quite impossible to miss.

As soon as we had passed this third trawler, two more ships began firing at us out of the rain. The fire was not very accurate, although we were hit twice by 20mm. shells in the port torpedo tube. The torpedo had already gone, and so these two hits did practically no damage, although a splinter scratched the Midshipman’s ear. We increased speed and disengaged.

We were 3,000 yards from the cliffs of Etretat, we had achieved complete surprise and fired our torpedoes, we had emptied our Ready Use ammunition lockers into the third trawler, but the Hun was now fully roused. The starshells burst continuously overhead and the shore batteries joined in with a vengeance. I collected the flotilla together, and found that two of them had not fired their torpedoes yet. Richard Hall, in
Grey Owl, was still away, and from his signals it appeared he was still manoeuvring to make his attack. It seems that he had missed us in the thick of the hailstorm (he had narrowly missed a collision with his next ahead), but by the light of the starshell he had seen the enemy ships, nearly three-quarters of an hour after our attack. That he was able to approach to within 900 yards, under the continuous glare of starshell, can only be attributed to misidentification. In some way the Germans must have thought that he was one of them, returning perhaps from the pursuit of the rest of us. It seems likely that the Hun was either stopped or nearly stopped at the time, and the torpedoes probably missed ahead. At any rate, no result was observed.

Richard then disengaged, still unshot at except by the shore batteries. He could still see a ship burning to westward, which was presumably the trawler we had shot up 55 minutes before. It was after 4 a.m. by the time he joined up with the rest of us. The wind had freshened to about Force 5 from the north, and the sea was rising. I thought the time and weather were not very promising for another attack, so we set off home. The Germans kept firing their starshells for another half-hour, by which time we were well on our way to Newhaven.

We all four entered harbour in company at 7.20. The only damage whatever suffered by the whole force was the two 20mm. holes in the port torpedo tube and the only casualty was Peter Platt, the Midshipman, with a scratch on his ear. He was most annoyed when I insisted he should go to the sick bay and have the blood washed off it before he came in to breakfast.’

Scott goes on to quote two enemy accounts of the action, one broadcast on the German European Service and the other on the German Home Service, both, predictably, with inaccurate claims of damage inflicted on the S.G.Bs – apparently the latter were up against one of the most successful German flotillas in the Channel, a flotilla that had won a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross ‘and ten others the German Cross in gold.’ Be that as it may, the following extract from an interview with one of the enemy C.Os
does have ring a truth about it:

‘In the glare of our starshells, I saw an English “Gun Speed Boat” (in English) quite close, about 50 metres to port. I immediately gave orders to open fire, but the British opened up at the same moment. I received a direct hit in the wheelhouse and was thrown down. As both my legs were stiff I thought at first that my spine had been injured. I dragged myself up by the compass, and was surprised to find that my boat was still manoeuvrable. The man at the wheel had been mortally wounded and was groaning heavily. His place was taken by the Quarter-Master. I was especially pleased with the performance of the gun served by Ordinary Seaman 1st Class Borzer, who calmly poured one round after the other into the English boat … ’

As Scott observed, this last claim may be literally correct as, in fact, two rounds hit
Grey Fox. Utterly beyond dispute – and subsequently verified – was the fact the torpedoed German trawler was sunk, thereby permitting another swastika to be added to Grey Fox’s bridge. As verified by official reports, Grey Fox had expended around 1200 rounds of assorted calibre ammunition, including 8 rounds from her 3-inch gun and several hundred from her 20mm. Oerlikon and .303 Vickers twin-mounted guns.

Normandy and beyond 1944-45

Back in action again in the Baie de la Seine in March 1944, and the target of enemy shore batteries in May,
Grey Fox was also kept busy off the Normandy beachhead in June-July – on D-Day she acted in support of the American landings on Omaha, her Captain on that occasion being awarded a Legion of Merit. In fact Grey Fox carried out 31 consecutive all night patrols off Normandy, with only 48-hour re-supply calls at Newhaven in between each.

Shortly afterwards, her long-served Jimmy the One, Lieutenant John Erskine-Hill, D.S.C., R.N.V.R., assumed command, but was dismayed to learn that
Grey Fox and her fellow S.G.Bs were to be refitted as minesweepers – according to Their Lordships a more relaxing pastime than chasing E-Boats. In point of fact, Erskine-Hill - and no doubt his Coxswain, Reginald Wood – found minesweeping anything but relaxing, and judging by an interview with Lieutenant “Bob” Gaunt, D.S.C., S.A.N.F. (V.), who was then serving as Grey Fox’s Jimmy the One, made in the 1990s by the Coastal Forces Veterans Association (C.F.V.A.), it is easy to understand why (see C.F.V.A. website for further details). More contemporary evidence of the S.G.B. Flotilla’s dislike of minesweeping duties is reflected in the Flotilla’s song, the first verse and chorus stating:

‘A Steam Gun Boat Flotilla is putting to sea
Bound for the Belgian shore
Trying their hand at minesweeping they say
A job they’ve not tackled before
There are Oysters, Magnetics and f------ great mines
Waiting for us we know
Though they say it’s a cinch
We’ll all feel the pinch
If the wind starts to f------ well blow.’

Chorus:

‘F--- ‘em all, f--- ‘em all
The round ones, the big and the small
‘Cause you get no promotion
For sweeping the ocean
So why sweep the b------ at all.’

Another duty to befall Grey Fox was taking the surrender of assorted enemy craft at the War’s end, a case in point being a heavily-armed flak-ship whose Nazi captain remained belligerent to the end – Gaunt took much pleasure in raising the White Ensign over the German’s naval ensign, and then removing the latter as a souvenir. Grey Fox also participated in “Operation Forget” on 6 May 1945, the reception of surrendering German coastal forces’ craft off Dover – throughout all British crews remained at action stations.

Post-war

Having then served in
Grey Wolf from August 1945 to February 1946, Wood transferred to the Fleet Air Arm as a Chief Petty Officer (A.), Aircraft Handler, and served with 827 Squadron from December 1950 to January 1953. Confirmed as having added the Coronation Medal to his accolades in the latter year, he had earlier been awarded the L.S. & G.C. Medal while serving at Siskin, the Naval Air Station at Gosport, in January 1949. He was finally pensioned ashore in January 1956.

Sold with a quantity of original documentation, including the recipient’s Record of Service, Coronation Medal 1953 certificate, a fine watercolour of H.M. Steam Gun Boat
Grey Fox, two photograph albums and much besides.

References:
Original sources from accompanying archive; Jefferson, David, Coastal Forces at War (Haynes Publishing, Yeovil, 2008); Reynolds, Leonard C., O.B.E., D.S.C., Dog Boats at War (Sutton Publishing Limited (in association with the Imperial War Museum), Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1998); Scott, Peter, Lieutenant-Commander, M.B.E., D.S.C. & Bar, R.N.V.R., The Battle of the Narrow Seas (Country Life Limited, London, 1945), and White, Denis, “A Hammock in a Gun Boat”, The Review, the Journal of the Naval Historical Collectors & Research Association (Spring 2002, Volume 14.4), being an account of life in Grey Fox from her commissioning until 1943.