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Walter Edward GOMERY


At Home in South Kirkby, Yorkshire

Walter Edward Gomery was the eldest son of Percival John Gomery, a miner at the Frickley Pit in South Kirkby, Yorkshire and his wife Charlotte Ainsworth. Percy and Charlotte had a family of seven children:-

  • Gladys Gomery born 1921 Mansfield, Nottinghamshire
  • Walter Edward Gomery born 1924 South Kirkby, Yorkshire
  • Frederick John Gomery born 1926 South Kirkby, Yorkshire
  • Kenneth Gomery born 1927 South Kirkby, Yorkshire
  • Jeanette Gomery born 1931 South Kirkby, Yorkshire
  • Brenda Gomery born 1934 Doncaster, Yorkshire
  • Robert Gomery born 1938 Doncaster, Yorkshire
Walter and his mother Charlotte photographed together before he went to war  

Walter grew up to be a likeable, fun-loving, mischievous lad about the local village. He is credited with trying to burn down the local cinema over some dispute, thought to be over him not having enough money to get in. He had a heart of gold but always seemed to be getting into trouble and fighting. Because of this, Percy was determined to make something of his three older sons and thought Australia had a lot to offer them. This idea didn't come to fruition, but Percy's idea that Walter should join the Royal Navy did.

Enlistment in the Royal Navy

Walter enlisted in the Royal Navy as a Boy 1st Class (D/JX 170203) and, after the outbreak of war, was assigned to the HMS Edinburgh on convoy duty between Iceland and Murmansk. His older sister Gladys was the last of the family to see him before he left to go to war. On the day he was due to leave to go to war Walter called in to the place where Gladys was working in South Elmsall looking for her, but when he couldn't see her there he walked off to catch the train. A friend told Gladys she thought she had just seen her brother outside. Gladys rushed out and ran down the road to the railway station, knowing that she had to see him before he left, in her heart fearing it would be the last time. She caught him up and gave him a big hug, and he said he was scared and felt he might not come back.

The Russian Convoys

As the war progressed the Germans pressed further into Russia destroying factories and industries essential to Russia's attempts to protect herself. The Allies promised the Soviet leader Stalin that they would supply Russia with armaments and food under a lend-lease agreement. The shortest, most direct, yet most dangerous route to do this was from Iceland to Murmansk, thus the 2000 mile convoy route through the Arctic Ocean was created. To stop these supplies getting through Hitler had established a large number of submarine, destroyer and airforce bases along the northern coast of Norway. Aside from the Germans, the Arctic Ocean itself presented problems, being one of the most turbulent and unpredictable oceans in the world. During the winter months the ice narrowed to a navigable stretch of water only 80 miles wide between the pack ice and the coast, leaving little option when trying to change course to avoid the enemy. The summer months gave 24 hours of light leaving crews exhausted, never knowing when the next attack would occur. At times navigation became almost impossible with freezing spray from the waves forming layers of ice so thick that some small ships became unstable and capsized. The decks and guns would become totally covered in great mounds of ice in the sub zero temperatures, sometimes becoming unworkable.

These dreadful conditions gave rise to a strong comradeship between the men, they found they were absolutely dependent on one another. Most were civilians conscripted from all walks of life who, after a few weeks training, found themselves at sea under the harshest conditions learning the hard way. There were few disputes and each man did his job with all the ability and strength he could find. Two thing eroded their confidence; one was the fear of being trapped below decks in a sinking ship; the other the exhaustion, both physical and mental, brought about by hour upon hour upon hour at action stations.

 

 

Walter and his mother Charlotte photographed together before he left for the war c.1942

HMS Edinburgh

The Edinburgh was a 10,000 ton cruiser, only one of two of this type, the other being the Belfast. Built at Wallsend in 1938 she was commissioned with the Home Fleet in 1939 and commanded by one of the most popular captains in the Royal Navy, Captain Hugh Faulkner (later to become Rear-Admiral Faulkner, CB, CBE, DSO). Edinburgh was 613 feet long with a 63 foot beam and an extensive fo'c'sle deck running beyond the bridge. She was powered by Parson's geared turbines giving 80,000 horse power and an official speed of 33 knots, but could unofficially reach 37 knots. The best of modern technical equipment had been incorporated into the ship - the most up to date asdic equipment to detect submarines; the latest radar equipment. Her weaponry was impressive - four triple turrets of 6-inch guns controlled from director towers which contained "highly technical electronic computer tables" which calculated the gun elevation and angles required to hit the enemy moving at a given course and speed; twelve 4-inch guns; four three pounders; sixteen smaller guns used to produce a barrage of fire against enemy aircraft; 21-inch torpedoes with a 750 lb warhead on TNT on either side of the ship; two hangers which housed Walrus aircraft launched from the catapult launching deck.

Arctic Convoy PQ14

Royal Navy destroyers and cruisers escorted the merchant ships from Iceland to Murmansk and back to protect them from attack by German U-boats, planes and navy. One thing could always be guaranteed and that was that they would be attacked at some time during the journey so there was no time to relax and let your guard down. If you were lucky there was fog, cloud and snow clouds to hide in; if your were unlucky it was 24 hours daylight and clear weather.

Convoy PQ14 comprised twenty three merchantmen carrying guns, tanks, planes, ammunition and trucks to supply Russia. Ten of these cargo ships were British, nine American, three Russian and one Greek. They sailed from Reykjavik at 1400 on Wednesday 8 April 1942 accompanied by eight small escorts of anti-submarine trawlers and minesweepers, making a rendezvous with Edinburgh, another large destroyer and a corvette on Sunday 12 April. Between Wednesday 8th and Sunday 12th the convoy had encountered a thick field of drifting ice, as the Polar ice barrier was further south than usual given the time of year. This coupled with heavy fog had made it virtually impossible for the cargo vessels to maintain convoy formation and many had been forced to turn back after suffering damage. Edinburgh joined a convoy of only eight merchant ships with an impressive escort of six destroyers, four corvettes, four minesweepers and two trawlers.

On Tuesday 14th the convoy was spotted by a German reconnaissance plane, and on Thursday they encountered a number of German submarines. Edinburgh's function was to guard the convoy against surface attack, and there was little she could do to help the destroyers in their job of forming a protective screen around the cargo ships. It was no place for a large cruiser vulnerable to U-boat attack, so Edinburgh took up position 10 miles astern of the convoy. The destroyers dropped pattern after pattern of depth charges chasing the signals from the U-boats. The cargo vessel Empire Howard was lost in this attack along with 2000 tons of military stores and 45 of its 54 crew. The remainder of the convoy arrived at the Kola Inlet at 1100 on Saturday 19 April.

Admiral Bonham-Carter sent the following dispatch about convoy PQ14 to the Admiralty in London:-

"Under present conditions with no hours of darkness, continually under air observation, submarines concentrating in the bottle necks, torpedo attacks to be expected, our destroyers unable to carry out a proper hunt and search owing to the oil situation, serious losses must be expected in every convoy. The remains of PQ14 were extremely lucky in the weather, in that when the first air attack developed, fog suddenly came down and though enemy bombers remained overhead for some time trying to sight Edinburgh and the convoy, they eventually had to leave.
I consider it was due to the fine work of the anti-submarine force that only one ship was lost, when several submarines were in the vicinity of the convoy. Until enemy aerodromes in north Norway are neutralised I consider convoys to north Russia should be suspended during the months of continuous light unless the very high percentage of losses can be accepted or sufficient air protection provided."

The difficulties of the Russian convoys did not go unnoticed, and concern was expressed by the Admiralty to the Defence Committee, warning them that the losses could become unacceptable. However the War Cabinet lead by the Minister of Defence Winston Churchill put great pressure on to keep the convoys going to aid Russia.

The Return Journey

Two days before Edinburgh was due to leave the Kola Harbour for the return journey to Iceland she was secretly loaded, in the dead of night, with scores of ammunition boxes containing over 5 tons of gold bullion. The bullion was part of a deal between the Russian Government and the US Treasury as down payment on thousands of tons of war equipment for the Red Army. The gold was believed to have been part of a stockpile of bullion accumulated by the last Czar before the Russian Revolution in 1917, so was probably claimed by the Bolsheviks when they murdered the Czar and his family. Convoy QP11 left Murmansk on 28 April to return to the base in Iceland. The convoy consisted of 13 merchant ships - seven British, five American and one Russian, escorted by the British cruiser Edinburgh, six British destroyers, two Russian destroyers, four corvettes, an armed trawler to pick up survivors should the need arise, and four British minesweepers, the latter who would be with the convoy for 300 miles before returning to base at Murmansk.

At 8.00 am on Wednesday 29th the convoy was spotted by a German reconnaissance plane, and a destroyer group plus subs lay in wait. Admiral Bonham-Carter was on board the Edinburgh and it was his idea that it was no place for a large cruiser to be plodding along at the slow speed of the cargo vessels, and he ordered Captain Faulkner to take the cruiser 20 miles ahead in a zigzag course to avoid U-boat attacks. They did this but the mistake was to do it alone, they should have taken a destroyer to provide a screen against attack.

Attack by U-boat 456

As it happened U-boat 456 was lying in wait and they couldn't believe their luck to up periscope and find a lone cruiser directly in their sites - they fired two torpedoes into her. On board Edinburgh the attack had come totally out of the blue. Their asdic operator had reported a contact but the Admiral decided that any U boat that close should be visible from the bridge, and gave the order to disregard - false echoes were not unusual, but it wasn't false. The two torpedoes did terrible damage and killed all personnel in the areas they hit. The ship was virtually unsailable because of the damage and seemed to want to move in circles - even towing was going to be a very slow business, and the Kola Inlet was 250 miles away. The captain managed to get her going on a forward course but the speed had dropped to 2 knots and they were leaving a huge oil slick to signpost their position. They received reports that many German submarines were massing between the Edinburgh and the Kola Inlet, and that German destroyers were heading their way.

The temperature was 10 below freezing with a steady wind blowing off the polar ice cap. The clothing stores had been destroyed, and the galley out of action so the men on lookout and manning the guns above deck huddled together behind screens to get out of the wind, only getting cocoa and sandwiches for sustenance. It was so cold that if a man forgot his gloves and touched exposed steel his flesh would be peeled off like paper. And so they waited. Edinburgh was protected by the destroyers Foresight and Forester, and was then joined by the minesweepers Harrier, Niger and Hussar.

The Final Blow

On the 2nd May they were again attacked and there was a fierce battle. The Edinburgh fought on, moving in her bizarre circular motion she could only fire at the enemy whenever her bows faced in their direction. The Forester took so much damage she was virtually made helpless but had managed to manoeuvre herself close to the Edinburgh when her engines failed and she became a sitting target. The German destroyer Z24 fired two torpedoes at Forester but both passed underneath, missing the keel by a hairsbreadth. One of these torpedoes nearing the end of its run was splashing along the surface of the water losing speed, when the Edinburgh, slowly completing another circuit, crossed its path on a collision course. The torpedo hit Edinburgh dead centre, leaving the ship open from side to side. The enemy ships were still engaged in a fierce gun battle and had no idea this had happened.

This final blow for the Edinburgh happened at 7.30 on Saturday 2nd May 1942, and it was this torpedo that would have killed 18 year old Walter Gomery along with many of his shipmates. Edinburgh was virtually split in two with only some deck struts and bits of hull holding her together. The Admiral, aware that she could break in two at any moment and sink with heavy loss of life, gave the order to abandon ship, and signalled the minesweepers to come alongside to take off the wounded, passengers and crew. Below decks there was a battle for survival - steam erupted from burst pipes, thick fuel oil spurted in all directions, and men struggled in complete darkness as the list of the ship increased. On deck the guns of the Edinburgh continued to fire at the enemy until the Germans retired. Captain Faulkner commented later, "I shall never understand why they didn't come in and finish us off. I think they had acknowledged defeat after being so heavily shot at."

About 800 crew and passengers were taken off Edinburgh by the minesweepers, then the lines were let go and Foresight and Forester moved away to watch Edinburgh go down. However, she did not continue to heel over and it was decided that she should be sunk by gunfire. When this failed two patterns of depth charges were dropped alongside and still she didn't sink. Finally Foresight was ordered to fire her one remaining torpedo, and Edinburgh went down with the bodies of 57 men in her hull and millions of pounds worth of gold bullion.

The gold bullion was recovered in 1981 and was valued, at that time, at 45 million. The recovery was made by Jessop Marine Ltd. who took 20 million, of the remainder the Russians, whose gold it was in the first place, took two thirds and the British Government one third. According to the millenium edition of the Guinness Book of Records the dive to salvage the gold from Edinburgh was the deepest dive ever made by man.

The death of Walter Edward Gomery is commemorated on panel 67, column 3 of the Plymouth Memorial situated on The Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound in Devon.

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References:-
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Last Call for HMS Edinburgh: a Story of the Russian Convoys; by Frank Pearce
My thanks to Patrick Gomery, nephew of Walter Edward Gomery, for his help with background details and the photo
URL=http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~gomery/waltegom.html
Last revised: 19 July 2007
Linda Hansen 2000-2007