Ordinary Seaman Ted Cutler, who was the oldest man in the destroyer Achates, tells how his ship, fighting to the end against a German cruiser, was sunk during the defence of a convoy on the way to Russia, on the last day of 1942. His vivid story is given here by courtesy of the B.B.C.
Four months ago I had my elbows on the bar of my own pub at Colchester. You see, I'm 48, and up till then I'd imagined that this war was a bit beyond me. But in that old pub, first the Australians, then the Canadians and then the Americans came roaring in. This one had been to the Middle East; that one to Persia – they'd all done something worth while. I got tired of this, and suddenly I made up my mind to become the only bald-headed sailor in the Navy.
I must say I was rather proud when I was passed A1, although I have lost my early streamline. In no time I was drafted to a training school. Within ten weeks came the great news – a ship. My highest hopes had been a patrol vessel, until I suddenly knew I was drafted to the destroyer Achates.
Gosh – here was action! The rigorous, down-to-the-bone life in the destroyer shrunk the last traces off me of 25 years of easy living. I should say 60 per cent of my shipmates in the Achates were about 23 years old. I kept my ears open for any remarks about "Grandpa". I wasn't going to stand for that – although, as a matter of fact, I am one.
I have never been so excited as when the Achates in a line of destroyers tore northwards all-out to take charge of its convoy. That was life! It wasn't long before we struck interference. Some big German stuff had manoeuvred up near to us in the darkness, and at 8.30 on the morning of December 31 the first salvos crashed out.
Our Achates was selected to make a smoke screen to shield the convoy, and the enemy picked us out for his early fire. We must have been conspicuous. The German cruiser got us the first time. It'll show you how green I was. I said to our gunnery instructor: "Was that our big gun?" He said: "No, you mug, we've been hit".
H.M.S. Achates went down valiantly defending a convoy to Russia on Dec. 31, 1942; the story of the destroyer's end is recounted in this page. She was completed in 1930, displaced 1,350 tons, and carried a complement of 138. Photo, British Official.
Later, I was down in the T.S. (Transmitting Station to you). Then another crack blasted open the side of the hull. We tried to block the gap with a six-foot-wide bookcase, but it fell right through.
By now it has occurred to most of us that it was time to seek pastures new, and we made for the deck. There was chatting and singing going on to the last. A lot of us lay on the heeling hull until it was evident the old Achates must go. Before the action, some of us had had a turkey put into the refrigerator to have for Christmas dinner when we got to Russia. One wag, just before the Achates rolled over, bawled out: "What about our blankety turkey?"
Once you dived into the water you became numb in a few minutes. I thanked my lucky stars I'd been a competition swimmer. I had thought to rip off my duffle coat and heavy gear, and now struck out for the rescue trawler about half a mile away. I wasn't doing very well and was getting very tired of it all when suddenly someone tore past me at knots, doing the trudgeon stroke. I thought: "I can do that, too" - and beat him to the trawler. I never saw my unknown rival again. I hope I meet him one day. He probably saved my life.