Thursday 1 August 2013

Action Stations

“Action Stations ! “ -- Tin hats and apprehension
Rush to guns and hoses, engine room
And wireless office - Air of tension.
Eyes uplifted, and some seawards gazing.
Ears are straining for a distant “boom”
Or sound of engines. Lips are phrasing
Prayers maybe, or curse upon the Hun.
Friendly aircraft in the distance loom
And are gone. Minutes pass. - “Carry On”.

17 July 1940

First Published 1943 - More Poems from the Forces {Routledge]

Monday 29 July 2013

Night Patrol

No moon tonight. Nor cloud to hide
That sparkling, silv’ry spray of stars
Splashed carelessly upon the wide,
Black-marbled dome we know as night.
Ashore, the wigwammed searchlights trace
The path of hostile aircraft bent
On murder, while some other place
Is canopied by bursting shell.
A winking buoy-light speeds us on
Our course. The lightship watch
Responds to greetings. Once there shone
A guiding beam .. Now there is none.

We turn, two trawlers hand-in-hand.
Untiring waves give way to our
Proud bows, assaulting as they stand
The gun’s crew. This a damp rebuke
For having been disturbed so.

The sky gives birth to dawn’s great show
Of gold. Triumphant, we return
To harbour. Anchored comrades wake
And greet us, reassured to learn
All’s well with us. Our job is done.

H.M.T.Norse, 1940

First Published “Poems from the Forces” [Routledge] 1941

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Convoy Episode

No sound save swishing sea is heard
Above the throb of engines. Ships
To starboard silently pursue
Their course; a single seagull dips
Astern, and dusk and the grey gloom
Steal ever closer from the dim
Horizon…..Mute, be-duffeled men
Stand grouped around their guns, as grim
As gravestones, peering eastward for
That shape which spells a welcome chance
Of action. . .Heroes ? . . No - beneath
Each muffled frame a heart a-dance
And stomach sickly strained
With apprehensive tension . . .
“Aircraft in sight !” The air at once
Is full of sound, alive again,
The pom-poms pumping death, swift red
Tracked tracer tears the sky -
Staccato clatter marks the quick-
Fed Bren. Green beaded streams let fly
From other guns. Ship shakes as shells
Are hurled from major armament,
Exhilarating cordite fumes
Escape as every charge is spent . . .
The Heinkel hesitates, then twists
And disappears beneath the swell…
A cheer…
“Cease fire !”…
A happy crew
Collects the case of every shell
Expended - souvenirs, as were
The boxing programmes years ago,
The thrill of victory the same,
And joy of contest. Well they know
The penalty for aiming low.


Published 1985 - Poems of the Second World War


“Wasted ! “
Despairingly you sip your tea
And sigh for me.

But, aunt, you do not know,
Do not understand.
Just think –
If I had always been a bank clerk
Behind a grille,
Talking weather
Counting up the till.
Weekend tennis
Drinking beer with Tom and Bill
Yearly to Devon,
Dreaming of France
{Book at the boarding house
Well in advance} –
A cabbage !

“But what is wrong with that ?”

Now listen, aunt –
I have lived with fishermen
A chorus boy, solicitors,
Paperhanger, journalist,
Drunk a Pimms with barristers,
Scrubbed decks with a coalminer,
And seen their homes.
Watched a darting flying fish
Been right up a skyscraper,
Seen bananas growing green,
And eaten real hamburger,
Danced to Teddy Wilson’s band,
Dinner at a consulate.

Yes, aunt,
And I have known the royal sea
And seen the myriad northern lights,
St Elmo’s fire, the coral reefs.
I’ve felt the wind, the snow, the heat,
And known two meanings of cold feet.
Oh, yes,
And spewed my guts clean out
And felt my knees give way with fright
Wished I were home again
Instead of keeping watch all night,
Seen men fight and laugh and sing –
And I wouldn’t have missed a single thing.

Wasted, aunt ?

Still No Letter

There's still no letter.......
In my troubled mind
I seek a reason, and quickly reasons find -
Indeed they tumble in, to be discarded
Each as it comes.... It could be that
You're very busy; missed the evening post;
Or else it's held up in the mail. A host
Of explanations....... Yet that gnawing fear
O'errides them - still keeps dunning at me that
You just don't want to write. And vainly I
Attempt to thrust aside the thought, deny
It with your last note and the one before.
But no. I must resign myself to wait
Until tomorrow, or the next day and
A day. Surely then I see your hand-
Writing and envelope. And life is sweet, until
A week or so, when....
Still no letter.....

[First published in “Poems of the Second World War, J.M.Dent/Salamander Oasis Trust]

Escort Duty

Five nights of hell in which
Five ships went down. The gale
Rose quick and lasted, hail
Bit into wind-stung flesh
Near blinding those on watch,
And endless, endless swell
Rose, trembling, hung and fell
With stomach-sickening strength.

And still they were groping blindfold for the U-boat
And still the depth-charges roared out at each find.
Tired eyes were kept striving to pierce through the darkness
While strain and the sleeplessness battered their mind.
The whole soul cried out for a puff at a Woodbine
But such was denied them for fear that a spark
Would show their position - and tea wasn’t easy
To make in a galley awash in the dark.
Each brain was near bursting protecting that convoy
And endless the struggle twixt tension and wit
When - Climax ! A thunderous flash and explosion
Flung hell into Hades.
The ship had been hit.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

To Ralph

Munich time, and you eighteen
I a year less.
“I just want to fly”
You said,
“Not die”
And we were quiet
In anxious contemplation..

For a year
You flew in peace
Each weekend.
Then Danzig came.
We changed our office suits
For blue
Of different hues.

Two years, nine months
Have passed since then -
Norway, Poland, Rhine -
Scharnhorst [our mutual friend]
Tirpitz, Brest,
You knew them all
[Once a trawler picked you up
As you swam].
And still you flew.

[God ! How you deserved it !]
A thin blue ring
Replaced the stripes.
You volunteered
To go abroad -
We joked about the snow
On Russian boots,
And bears.
Then one day, Malta !
You wrote
“The country’s grand
And bathing fine”
{The BBC filled in the gaps}
Soon, M.E.F.
“There’s too much sand”
I read.
“But the bathing’s grand”
{Tobruk was falling}
Still the battle rages
And you are there.
Oh, Ralph ! God bless.

{Flight Lieut.R.E.Walker, D.F,M.was a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire pilot and
was killed over Italy in July 1943 ].

Evening in Dumbarton Road

Drab capped, drab suited, booted men
Surge on to crowded trams,
The Citizen or Evening Times
Thrust under weary arms.
With hands in pockets, three or four abreast,
Some amble quick
To dreary tenements hard by.
Less hasty, Jock and Dick
Join in the queue for cigarettes,
Disinterested, mute…
And still they come, flood through the gates
To take their chosen route
With clinking hobs and tips
To supplement the sound
Of traffic moving slowly through
The mob now homeward bound.
Their thoughts ? Who knows ? Tea, perhaps
Then whisky [what a price !]
A little later with the boys.
Or, will the Rangers twice
Defeat the Papes this season ? Dogs ?
Or shall we dance at Green’s ?
That ruddy foreman. Jean’s new frock…
The shipyard walls entreat
A Second Front, or [odd!]
Ask youth to join the A.T.C….
And on the workers plod.

These are the men who wield the tools
Ensuring that Britannia Rules.

(written in HMS Mistral, in John Brown’s shipyard, 14th June 1942}


Two anxious hours to contemplate bleak death
At thirty knots consuming cold grey seas.
Action Stations, duffel coats, tin hats -
Below, a throbbing engine room reprise.

Junkers aircraft bombing from the clouds
Brought urgency, then "Enemy in Sight! "
The forward four point sevens bellowed out
Their challenge to the battlecruisers' might.
Tall shell-spouts cased her as she turned to fire
Torpedoes. As they leapt, cacophony
Erupted, brute bombardment wrenched apart
The bridge, chewed steel in vicious gluttony.

Five minutes’ devastation. Sudden peace,
Uncanny, as she wallowed without power.
Miraculously the lower hull survived
But Gibson, Dow and Grant, and twenty more
Lay dead. Doc Jackson's needle eased the pain
Of others. Pom-poms warned the RAF away.
Bizarrely, Junkers' recognition flares
Confirmed the wild confusion of that day.

So, vulnerable, rolling helplessly
She lay for seeming hours. Then nervous ears
Rejoiced at turning screws. By fits and starts
She staggered home, a frozen fifteen hours.

[Published “Memories of War “[Sahara Publications] 2007


She had no chance, a blow which shook
Our hull and made the watch below
Run up on deck, to see a surge
Of water first engulf, then lay her low,
Whilst all around were men and wood.

We manned our boat. No gala, this,
Of picking up survivors, cold
And hurt, we half afraid to miss
A head among the bobbing casks.

Nine men we saved of twenty two
Who but an hour before had left
The quay. They left a promise to
Return next day, a promise that
For thirteen will be unfulfilled,
And thirteen families will mourn
A son, a brother, father killed
At sea. Such things we don’t forget.

And some day, sipping tea, you’ll read
“The Board of Admiralty regret …..”


Wednesday 23 December 2009


Today I passed a khaki hearse
And scarce restrained an urge to doff my cap.
Odd was the sight which moved me so -
A shot-up aircraft on its way to scrap.


Tuesday 8 September 2009


As I sat here in my armchair
And listened to a dreamy tune
The wireless gave, and smoked my pipe,
Content, I used to think of you.

While walking when ashore, the air
Exhilarating me, the moon
Set pale in fragile blue, a curlew
Calling, I would sing of you.

And sometimes, reading, there would be
A page, a paragraph, a phrase
Which conjured up a memory
Of happy moments spent with you

And I would smile. A word maybe,
A soft perfume, the sun's glad rays,
A haunting song - these came to me
And made me dream. And I still do.