The School of Navigation during the War Years - 1939-1945

The following extract has been taken from the First Edition of All Hands dated April 1949 and kindly sent in by Michael Harry (currently a non-member). It was published in a later edition of All Hands and included in our previous website by Alan Ewart-James.

The first shadow of the coming war was felt when the School was approached for help by the newly-appointed town commandant of the R.A.F.V.R., Group Captain Busteed. O.B.E., A.F.C., R.A.F. For twelve months from June 1937 to May 1938 the School of Navigation was in the town centre, and even after the R.A.F.V.R. acquired their own headquarters at "Elmsleigh" in Glen Eyre Road, a close link was maintained between the two organisations.

In September 1937 the School instituted a course in Elementary Astronomical Navigation for the 51st Bomber Squadron of the R.A.F., at Boscombe Down. This course was taken by sixteen officers and non-commissioned officers of the squadron.

In 1938, the School of Navigation joined in some of the earlier A.R.P. exercises and produced some rather realistic conditions. The lecturers and senior students were all in reserved occupations and therefore unable to volunteer direct for A.R.P. service. Feeling, however, that they wanted to help, a scheme was devised, after consultation with the Southampton A.R.P. authorities, whereby they were to assist in rescue, demolition and warden duties in the event of an actual air raid.

During the first week of August 1939 the School moved from South Hill, Bassett, to South Stoneham House, Swaythling. A month later we were at war and the difficulties of maintaining a school and training establishment for Merchant Navy officers and cadets had begun. In May 1940 all cadets joined the Local Defence Volunteers, afterwards the Home Guard, forming No. 5 (Merchant Navy) Platoon of the Highfield Company. In 1941 this Platoon won the silver cup presented by the officers of the company for inter-platoon competition. Rifle practice was carried out on a range constructed in the long cellar passage below South Stoneham House.

The organisation of the senior courses suffered considerably during the first month or so of the war. Officers were recalled to their shipping companies with little or no warning and it was quite common for the mail-van to draw up at with a telegram for an officer to join the ship at once. Those who were in the Royal Naval Reserve went to the Royal Navy with equal suddenness, as did some, but not all, of the lecturers. In November 1939 evening classes were started in navigation and allied subjects, in response to local demand. From the early days of the war, at the request of the British Red Cross and St. John, the School undertook correspondence courses in sea and air navigation for prisoners of war from the R.N., R.A.F., and Merchant Navy.

In June 1940 the cadets took overnight guard duty at the Swaythling cross-roads road block, seven cadets sharing the duty from 1630 hours to 0500 hours. On the 4th June, twenty-five French officers arrived from Dunkirk, three of them from the Army and the rest from the French Navy. The School accommodated them for the night, nine of them sleeping on the classroom floors. At midnight on the 5th, the School was asked if thirty French army officers could be taken in. The cadets turned out to the bugle, took their mattresses and spare blankets to the classrooms and made up beds there. A meal was got under way and everything was ready in under half an hour. Capitaine de Frégate Adam of the "Jaguar" (one of the French ships that was lost) was with them, as was Capitaine de Corvette Lardier, who commanded the naval barracks at Dunkirk. He brought his tricolour with him and very little else. They left for the following day. On the 19th June another large batch of naval officers, this time accompanied by six ladies who had been working with the French Admiralty and in the dockyard offices, were accommodated until the 16th July. This last contingent had expected to be landed at a French port, but had instead been put ashore on the English coast with little more than what they stood up in.

In August a small group of cadets was selected by the Director to accompany him to Gordonstoun, to undergo the first experimental pre-service training course for youths of fifteen to eighteen years of age. While he was directing this course news came of the first slight air raid damage to South Stoneham House and of the arrival of thirty-five Polish midshipmen sent to the School for training, together with their liaison officer, Captain Antoni Zielinski.

During November the raid damage to the building was tiresome but not irreparable: 340 panes of glass, 200 tiles and a certain amount of wood and brickwork were damaged. Seven or eight bombs had been dropped in the grounds. Squads of cadets extinguished a number of incendiaries in various parts of Portswood, and helped firemen to get a blaze under control when a furniture store in Langhorn Road was set alight.

Between the 2nd and the 7th December a contingent of about eighty people, consisting of cadets, officers and lecturers, offered their services to the Garrison Commander for demolition and clearance work. For the five days that they were clearing various streets and buildings in the town the actual school work ceased. This was the only time during the whole of the war that studies were interrupted.

It was in December too, that thirteen homeless people found temporary shelter in South Stoneham House for a few nights, together with twenty-three men of the Bucks County Constabulary, who were drafted into this area and whom we invited to share our roof. They slept for ten nights on palliasses in the entrance hall and proved invaluable members of our community. By this time, there was no gas or telephone. Anyone who could deliver a message or who could stoke up a coal-fire for cooking purposes in the early morning was a considerable asset to the establishment. Their willingness to help and indifference to discomfort were remarkable. During the winter of 1940-41 the lecturers, officers and cadets gave their services on various occasions to the Civil Defence authorities to help in extinguishing fires, clearance and demolition work.

For the whole of the war the A.R.P. Wardens Post No. 2, St. Nicholas, had its home in one of the cellars.

Two three-week courses for 190 R.A.F.V.R. (A.T.C.) officers were held in July 1941. A month later the School was asked to undertake the instruction of Merchant Naval officers in the degaussing of their ships. It was the first Merchant Naval degaussing instructional centre in the United Kingdom, and for a long time was the only one in the south of England.

In 1941 when it became obvious that a real food campaign was necessary to relieve as far as possible the great strain on shipping, it was decided to plough up larger part of the lawns using a tractor. Despite a warning, it drove over the position of the subterranean passage leading from the cellars to the salmon pool, and, in the resultant collapse, broke some of the brickwork roof. It was got out with some difficulty and the damage made good as far as lay in our power. In subsequent years the work was carried out by horse plough.

Air raid damage over the whole period was never serious enough to endanger the fabric of the buildings. The south windows were blown out twice and the north windows once. It was at times a lengthy business obtaining window frames. The roof of the billiard room was shifted so much that rain dripped on to the billiard table.

Three new temporary classrooms were constructed in the grounds.

The School never closed during the war, senior courses were running continuously. The Cadet course was subject to the usual vacations, however, and during these periods special courses were run throughout the war for officers of the Army, Navy, W.R.N.S., and A.T.S. In December 1941, the Belgian Government decided to maintain a steady entry of approximately ten Belgian cadets per term. Some of these youths had been evacuated to England as children and some, during the later years, escaped from Belgium to join their Allies here.

The Polish entry was maintained, twenty being enrolled for the second one-year course. This was repeated for several years, and in 1943 the Polish Government asked the School to undertake a course for such senior officers as were qualified to sit for higher examinations. These included a number of the midshipmen who were trained in 1940-41. In recognition of the value of this work the Polish Government awarded the Gold Cross of Merit to the Director, Captain G. W. Wakeford, and the Silver Cross of Merit to the Head of the Junior Department. Captain H. Stewart.

A 6-inch gun, 6-inch loader, and a 4-inch Q.F. gun were allocated to the School by the Admiralty, in March 1943, and were invaluable in training officers, midshipmen and cadets.

A contingent of cadets invariably made an appearance at the Civic Centre forecourt ceremonies in connection with War Weapons Week, Warship Week, and similar events.

In April 1942, 180 Sea Cadets attended the School for training, and during that year twenty members of the Southampton Police Force took pre-sea service courses.

Early in March 1943, officials of the School paid their first visit to Warsash to see what was to become the School of Navigation's permanent home, then housing "H.M.S. Tormentor", the Combined Operations base. In this month work was started on the training vessel Moyana, though she was not in commission until the following April.

Previous to this, the School's boatwork and seamanship had been carried out in a large launch, the Water Beetle, Kitty Rose (on loan from Mr. R. Casson), two whalers, and the dinghy South Hill. Also on loan were the Sea View dinghies Bumble Bee, Adastrina, Blue Haze, Bockhara, Nebula, Piglet, and Q.E.

Christmas vacation courses were held for Canadian and United States Forces, thirty-six attending the first course and fifty-six the second. These were among the happiest and the most successful run at South Stoneham House.

The spring of 1944 was a memorable one for the School, for at last a regular cruising programme could be made up for the Moyana. As D-day was yet to come, only day cruises could be undertaken and she was restricted to the waters inside the Portsmouth-Isle of Wight boom. It did mean, however, that cadets could at last have experience of the practical work, weather conditions, dangers, exhaustion, and problems of the actual element where most of their future life would be spent.

Four cadets and the Boatswain started work on board on the 28th January, 1944. Much of the hard preliminary work was done by cadets who had left before cruising started. The first duty watch of six cadets took over on board in July, at the end of the summer term. On the 28th March the vessel moved to a berth off the Royal Pier, but on the 18th May, for obvious reasons, she was moved to a new berth off the Corporation Pier at Millbrook. No one who made those early cruises with her will forget the extraordinary craft to be seen coming and going and performing exercises in the Solent, or, for that matter, the extraordinary handling of some of them. The impressive paraphernalia of Pluto and sections of Mulberry, and so forth, were merely matters of private conjecture.

At the request of the United States Naval Headquarters in Southampton, a special navigation course was carried out in February, 1945, for twenty-two United States naval officers.

The last service courses held at South Stoneham House were a leave course for Members of the Canadian Forces in co-operation with the British Council and the Canadian Legion Education Service, in August 1944. These were followed in December by a five-day course for officers attached to the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Command, and the Aldershot and Hants District, Southern Command.

Ninety cadets and various members of the School staff attended the Stand Down Parade of the Southampton Home Guard on the 3rd December, 1944.

After the VE-day, news practically everyone went to a fifteen- minute service of thanksgiving at the little ancient church of St. Mary, South Stoneham, which as old students will remember, is almost surrounded by the grounds of South Stoneham House.

Work was abandoned, and after lunch everyone dispersed to celebrate according to personal dictates. Instead of having at 1730 the colours were left up until and were floodlit. The Belgian, Polish, American and Greek flags were flown in addition to the Red Ensign. There would have been more but there was not room for them on the signal-mast. Various people threw thunder flashes and lit signal rockets, and a few visitors strolled about to see the fun. The colour party hauled the colours down just before midnight. Everyone had coffee afterwards outside the front door and listened to the radio which had been linked up with an outside speaker.

VJ-day came during the first national residential summer school, held under the joint control of the Workers Educational Association and the Workers Educational Trade Union Committee. This was run concurrently with the Schools courses for senior students, and both groups seemed to find much of interest in each other. There was at least one attempt to introduce a spy among the staff, but this was frustrated as the authorities knew of the proposal before it took place.

It is not known and may never be known, owing to the difficulty of checking records, how many of the senior students were lost at sea and in the air. Twenty-four are known to have been killed. The same difficulty occurs in following up the movements of British and foreign midshipmen and cadets. There is however, official record of seven British cadets lost at sea before their time of apprenticeship had expired.