Harrogate WW2 veteran - my war on deadliest battleship in Royal Navy

Hundreds of thousands of Allied military personnel contributed to the success of D-Day in 1944.

Monday, 20th January 2020, 5:03 pm
Updated Monday, 20th January 2020, 5:06 pm

Each of them was a hero in different ways, though they did not think so at the time and the few who are left do not think so even now.

Such is the case of 93-year-old Harrogate man Maurice Hammond, who is believed to be the only surviving member of the 1,200 crew members on board HMS Warspite from the Second World War.

So modest is this amazingly lively and likable character, he hasn’t even got his WW2 medals, though a fellow Harrogate war veteran is now aiming to sort out the situation.

HMS Warspite D-Day veteran Maurice Hammond, GED 93, at his home in Harrogate. (Picture Gerard Binks)

John West, 89, a fellow Royal British Legion member is launching a fundraising campaign to purchase the missing medals for Mr Hammond, a D-Day hero who signed up at the age of 17.

Boasting some of the biggest guns in the whole fleet, the Warspite’s long range shells played a major role in bombarding German positions on the French coast from June to August of that momentous year.

Not that the young Mr Hammond, who lives at Newby Crescent in Harrogate with wife Mary, felt special or in danger.

Then aged just 18, Maurice said he never felt worried on HMS Warspite, which was known affectionately as ‘The Grand Old Lady’ after being built in the early 1910s.

He said: “I never worried on the Warspite. I always felt safe. It was a massive ship. The Germans were firing 11-inch guns on us from land but they didn’t reach us; they would just hit the water.”

One of the Royal Navy’s most famous battleships, the 33,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class Dreadnought had the honour of being the first ship to open fire on D-Day as the allied forces swept onto the beaches of Normandy.

Mr Hammond joined the Warspite after the initial offensive as the bombardment of German positions to support the Allied invasion continued on the French coast from June to August.

Barely old enough to take part, he had only made such swift progress in the Royal Navy because he had been a sea cadet since the age of 12.

He said: “I came from a poor family of six brothers and sisters in Ipswich and we couldn’t afford a holiday.

“I loved the uniform and always wanted to be a sailor as a boy. But my mum hit me when I told her I was going to do the test for the Royal Navy.”

Born in 1926 and nicknamed “Titch” because of his height, Maurice received his training in Portsmouth before joining HMS Warspite and setting sail for France. As a Royal Navy signalman he had a key role.

He not only had to communicate with other battleships at sea during engagements with the enemy, his job was let everyone know whether the Warspite’s shells were hitting the right spot.

He said: “I could take down six words a minute flashing and 12 in Semaphore. Anyone can send a message quickly but the trick is not to send one quicker than anyone can read it.”

Despite the 194,89 metre long vessel’s awesome scale, the ship remained vulnerable.

At one point after pounding enemy troops, vehicles and gun positions in the early days of the Normandy landings, it hit a magnetic mine on its way back to Rosyth in order to change its guns.

He said: “Four destroyers were guarding us. When we fired our giant 15-inch guns, a whistle would blow. There would be flashes, flames would be coming out. What a noise it would make.

“I helped a wee bit but most of the good work was done before I joined. I treated the navy as a holiday, not a war.”

Maurice knew the risks and was particularly aware of the dangers submarine torpedoes posed. Not that it seemed a big deal at the time.

He said: “As a signalman, I was allowed on the ship’s bridge with the captain and got a good view of things. I’d see bodies floating past, drowned. I didn’t know if they were ours or theirs. We never stopped to pick them up. We couldn’t.”

After bombarding the cities of Brest, Le Havre and Walcheren in August 1944, HMS Warspite fired her guns for the final time at the The Battle of Walcheren in Holland in November before returning to port in Deal, Kent.

By that point Maurice had already been transferred from the battered and weary battleship to HMS Cowdray.

As part of the crew of the Cowdray, he sailed to Norway in the dying days of the war.

The war may have been over but the Royal Navy’s job had not been completed.

Maurice and the Type II Hunt-class destroyer were sent to Bavaria where the Nuremberg Trials saw high ranking Nazi war criminals brought to justice between 1945 and 1949.

He said: “Germany was a mess at the end of the war. Hamburg had been bombed to the ground. In 1946 we went to Nuremberg. They expected trouble in the town during the trials but there wasn’t any.”

Maurice was ‘demobbed’ in 1947. But his good fortune continued thanks to his service at sea.

He’d already met Mary at a dance in Rothesay during earlier naval trials. On leaving the Royal Navy, he returned to Glasgow and married her in Clydebank in 1948. That was 71 years ago. They’re still happily married.

Maurice still has happy memories of his time on the Warspite: “Every time we left port during the war, the captain would tell us ‘We’re going on a mission, if we get hit you have to get our confidential books and fling them overboard’.

“The Royal Marine Band was on board. When the Warspite crossed the boom in the harbour as she was setting off, they would play ‘we don’t know where we are going but we’re going anyway’.”