A little about Petty Officer John Harrison RN, HMS Belfast’s oldest volunteer, and a veteran of the ship’s first commission aged 105… and a half

Richard Maddox

JOHN HARRISON with ‘A’ turret behind him on the occasion of HMS Belfast’s 80th anniversary (left). John while serving serving the Second World War. Images via IWM.

JOHN HARRISON, HMS Belfast’s oldest volunteer and a veteran of the ship’s first commission died on peacefully on 18 January 2020 at the age of 105… and six months.

He loved the ship as only one who has lived protected by it’s steel flanks, who has worked in its labyrinthine spaces and found the sort of companionship that exists only between those who don’t just say they trust each other but do implicitly, as to not give your all could result in your death and those of literally hundreds of others.

He knew the ship like no one else, having been drafted to HMS Belfast when it was fresh from being fitted out – a ship where everything was new.

Finishing his training, he found himself Petty Officer Ordnance Artificer responsible for maintaining all the workings of ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets – the most forward of the four main turrets on the ship.

As he describes in an interview in IWM’s collection, initially much of what he learnt he discovered by trial and error.

His time serving on the ship was relatively short but action packed.

He was on the ship when only weeks into the war, HMS Belfast intercepted and captured the Cap Norte a German merchant vessel which was disguised as Swedish vessel ‘Anacona‘, which surrendered without a shot being fired.

JOHN HARRISON holds onto the handle on the port side of 'A' turret that saved his life. Image © R Maddox 2020 and used with permission.

JOHN HARRISON holds onto the handle on the port side of ‘A’ turret that saved his life. Image © R Maddox 2020 and used with permission.

On another occasion he was almost washed overboard by freezing waves in the Denmark Straits early one morning on his way to ‘A’ turret as Belfast patrolled, looking for German shipping.

Experienced in the ways of the the sea, he knew that the freezing cold waves were breaking over the ship to a rhythm and that there was a lull between the sets of waves.

Timing his move he made it to the port turret door and grabbed the handle…

But the sea sometimes has to remind Man that it can’t be tamed – or even understood.

Suddenly an unexpected wave knocked John’s off his feet.

What saved him from being swept away into the freezing water was that his bare hand had frozen to the metal handle.

John was also aboard when the ship hit a magnetic mine in the Forth of Forth on 21 November 1939.

He also describes how he was overseeing work a forward turret a German magnetic mine detonated beneath the ship, severely damaging it to such a degree that HMS Belfast would not return to the fleet for more than two years.

Once more the turrets would save his life.

One man died and forty-six were injured in the explosion and John would later suffer severe headaches as a result of the mine explosion and was discovered to have broken two vertebrae.

HMS BELFAST being towed by two tugs after being severely damaged by a magnetic mine in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1939. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference HU 16013. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205218582

HMS BELFAST being towed by two tugs after being severely damaged by a magnetic mine in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1939. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference HU 16013. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205218582

But as devastating as the damage was, the mine also probably saved his life.

Because of his engineering expertise he and a small number of others were asked to help assess the damage once the ship had been towed into Rosyth naval dockyard.

The majority of his shipmates from HMS Belfast were sent to HMS Hood, which was lost 24 May 1941 in the Denmark Strait while intercepting the German ships KMS Bismark and KMS Prinz Eugen.

More than 1400 men aboard the Hood were lost.

Just three men were rescued.

Later John served in the destroyer HMS Atherstone and then then undertook shore duties. 

 

Although at times frail-looking he was always strong of mind, recounting his career and responding to the questions he always received gently, but firmly correcting errors that people repeated within earshot. 

He will be truly missed by his family, by members of the HMS Belfast Association and by those thousands of school children, families and other visitors from across the globe who have been privileged to meet him or indeed to have heard from staff and volunteers of his exploits during the first commission that HMS Belfast undertook.

 

Source and further information

The information in this post is based on an interview with John in IWM’s Sound Archives. it can be found at https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80020219.

In addition a number of short videos featuring John and other veterans who served on HMS Belfast can be found at https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+harrison+hms+belfast

 

 

 

 

May 1945, Bergen Belsen and an image of Vermeer-like beauty by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt

Richard Maddox

LIGHT TRICKLES INTO A BUILDING AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP in northern Germany.

It gently falls on a group of women and children preparing to bathe and then – to underline the fact that this is not a painting by Johannes Vermeer or Caravaggio or William Russell Flint – it picks out the stripes of their prison camp uniforms.

A soldier stands almost hidden in the shadows.

AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP a group of women and children prepare to bathe. Image by Sergeant Charles Hewitt. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM Catalogue reference BU 5460. Original source http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215297

AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP a group of women and children prepare to bathe. Image by Sergeant Charles Hewitt. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM Catalogue reference BU 5460. Original source http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215297

He is not watching them. He is guarding them.

His eyes are on the photographer Sergeant Charles H Hewitt from the British Army’s No.5 Army Film and Photographic Unit.

And now 75 years later that same soldier seems to watch us.

The camp had been liberated on 15 April by troops of the British Second Army.

They found some 60,000 prisoners suffering from starvation, typhus, typhoid and dysentry. Huts with a capacity for thirty individuals held as many as 500. Unburied dead littered the huge camp and hundreds were dying each day. (1)

A BRITISH SOLDIER STANDS IN FRONT OF A SIGN erected at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945 by Britsh military forces. A similar sign in German was also erected. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference BU 6955. Image by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt, No.5 AFPU, British Army. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196979.

A BRITISH SOLDIER STANDS IN FRONT OF A SIGN erected at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945 by Britsh military forces. A similar sign in German was also erected. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference BU 6955. Image by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt, No.5 AFPU, British Army. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196979.

In an effort to control infection the liberators burnt much of the camp. (2)

For many of the prisoners this will be a familiar routine with just the language and the uniforms of the soldiers being different.

For some it will be the start of a journey that will see them travel across continent, struggle with almost unbelievable loss as they regain the Nazi regime tried to take from them.

And perhaps for at least a few of those pictured above this day in May 1945 will have felt a little different and a little hope will have warmed them together with the sunshine.

After the war Charles Hewitt worked for Picture Post – a British magazine specialising in photojournalism. When Picture Post folded in 1957 Hewitt found employment with the BBC contributing to its current affairs television programmes. (3)

He died in 1987 aged 72.

In May 2019 some three hundred of his photographs owned by his daughter were sold by an English auction house. (4)

Sources

(1) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205229738 – retrieved 7 July 2019

(2) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-liberation-of-bergen-belsen – retrieved 7 July 2019

(3) https://antique-collecting.co.uk/2019/05/10/rare-photos-capture-hidden-london – retrieved 7 July 2019

(4) https://www.mutualart.com/Artist/C–H–Hewitt/98329D97A6B936A0/AuctionResults?Type=Sold_Unsold – retrieved 7 July 2019-

 

An army underground – The Bevin Boys

Richard Maddox

THEY WORE NO GOLD BRAID or carried weapons beyond a pick and shovel and yet they were a vast army. Their daily battles took them far below their homeland. They returned home each night their bodies aching and their skins scrubbed clean and yet their lungs black with their fighting.

TWO ‘BEVIN BOYS’ and a passing coal miner near the lamp store at Ollerton Colliery, Northamptonshire in February 1945. Note the sandwich tin and water bottle carried by the man on the left and the Davy lamps hanging from the belts of the men on the right. Image copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23743. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196937.

TWO ‘BEVIN BOYS’ and a passing coal miner near the lamp store at Ollerton Colliery, Northamptonshire in February 1945. Note the sandwich tin and water bottle carried by the man on the left and the Davy lamps hanging from the belts of the men on the right. Image copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23743. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196937.

They were the Bevin Boys. Men who were conscripted or volunteered to work in the coal mines of the United Kingdom.

In 1943 with coal production dangerously low as thousand of miners had left the coal industry to serve in the armed forces or undertake better paid safer, cleaner war work Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin to devise a scheme to improve coal stocks. (1)

It was decided to that 40,000 men were needed and this number raised by diverting 10% of men eligible for conscription in the armed services into unskilled manual work in country’s mines. Those diverted were eligible men who’s National Service Registration Number ended with number drawn in a monthly ballot. These numbers were boosted by men who volunteered for mine work as an option to serving in the Armed Forces. (2)

After medical examinations, travel warrants and instructions quickly followed to report to one of the thirteen Government Training Centre Collieries in England, Wales and Scotland. Failure to comply with the order was an offence punishable by prosecution and possible imprisonment.

As with conscription into the armed services, each man was given medical examinations and then sent on a training course at one of thirteen collieries in Britain. This course included classroom-based lectures, experience of procedures on the surface and underground as well as physical training. Once qualified the men were allocated to a working pit. (3)

The scheme drew in men from all sections of society and a geographically-wide area, many with only a minimal understanding of what mining was. Initially the scheme produced resentment not only amongst some of the men who had been expecting to served in the Armed Forces but also amongst the families of miners who had relatives conscripted into the fighting services and serving far from home only to see other mainly unqualified men work in the mines and the general public who were suspicious of men eligible to serve in the Army, Navy or Air Force who did not do so.

Unlike their professional miner colleagues Bevin Boys were issued with a safety helmet, overalls and a pair of steel-capped working boots. Tools and other equipment had to be purchased by the individual.

Given the general lack of appropriate experience of the men drafted under the scheme most worked away from the skilled tasks at the coal face and were utilised on maintenance or general haulage tasks.

With victory in sight the ballot ended in May 1945 although with continuing shortages in the immediate post-war period the last Bevin Boys were not released until three years later. Unlike their colleagues in military service they were not awarded medals or had an automatic right of re-employment in their peace-time occupations.

For more than fifty years the 48,000 ‘Bevin Boys’ were largely forgotten or wrongly seen as conscientious objectors – only a very amount of their number objected to military service on the grounds of conscience. (4)

Approximately 43% of men on the scheme were chosen from the ballot with the remainder being volunteers from either civilian life or those who transferred from military duties. (5)

A MEMORIAL to the ‘Bevin Boys’ at the National Memorial Arboretum, Lichfield England. Image copyright © C Sweet. IWM catalogue reference WM 64364. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/64364.

A MEMORIAL to the ‘Bevin Boys’ at the National Memorial Arboretum, Lichfield England. Image copyright © C Sweet. IWM catalogue reference WM 64364. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/64364.

Official recognition of the men’s work and sacrifice has been slow in coming. The fiftieth anniversary of the last members being released from the scheme occurred in 1998 and that year saw the first official participation of Bevan Boys at the annual Remembrance Day Parade at London’s Cenotaph in Whitehall. (6)

Today it is possible for members of the scheme or their widows to receive an official commemorative badge from the British government, provided that the men were alive when the scheme was introduced in June 2007. (7)

Sources

(1) http://www.bevinboysassociation.co.uk/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(2) https://museum.wales/articles/2008-01-03/Remembering-the-Bevin-Boys-in-the-Second-World-War/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(3) http://www.theforgottenconscript.co.uk/who-were-the-bevin-boys/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(4) https://museum.wales/articles/2008-01-03/Remembering-the-Bevin-Boys-in-the-Second-World-War/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(5) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/615932/Bevin_Boy_Badge_Questions_and_Answers_QA_for_Gov.uk___with_1_Vic_St_address_added.pdf – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(6) https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/bevin-boys/z7qnqp3 – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(7) https://www.gov.uk/apply-for-bevin-boys-veterans-badge – retrieved 17 November 2019.

More Information

In addition to the sources listed above, the following links provide information that maybe of interest. The list is in no way complete as there are many other resources available.

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/bevin-boys/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/bevin-boys-ii-searching-living-memories/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-22440248 – retrieved 17 November 2019.