Lars, the Old Sailor Part 3 – Safety
A great fuss was made over them at Gibraltar, first at the pilot’s station, then at the harbor office. They were surrounded by congratulating well-wishers curious to know the details of their escape. First they were able to drink their fill of fresh water, then they were fed, and finally the six tired mariners were whisked off, Messel and Valvante to the Grand Hotel, Lars and the other three to the Victoria Hotel, for hot baths and some long-awaited sleep. The following day the captain and mate were taken to the Admiralty and to government offices where they were presented as heroes. Lars and his companions were largely ignored.
All of the men had decided they wanted to return to England as soon as possible to join a fledgling Norwegian navy squadron that was being equipped with British warships. The two officers and two crewmen were scheduled to return on a Polish merchant vessel leaving for London the following week.
In the meantime all of the men were given a two-day training session as machine gunners. Lars remembers that they used a water-cooled Colt (probably .30 or .50 caliber) and that for the session he and the others were each paid ten shillings. As soon as their machine gun course was over, Lars and Karl Linnerud, the young oiler from southern Norway, were told that they could sail on an old English steam trawler leaving in a convoy for Liverpool the following day. The catch was that they would have to work as stokers shoveling coal. Lars laughed about it. “The captain said when we signed on, ‘And you’ll have pay when we come to Liverpool.’” Since that seemed to be the only way the two young sailors were going to get to England, they agreed.
The next day they sailed, but they were hardly out of the harbor when the convoy commander radioed the master of the trawler that his vessel would have to return to Gibraltar. The convoy was making ten knots and the old six-knot trawler couldn’t keep up. Three days later the trawler left as part of another convoy and the scene repeated itself. Finally, when the trawler docked at Gibraltar the second time, Lars and Karl went to the captain.
“I asked the captain for some money,” Lars said. “But he said, ‘You signed on for Liverpool and you won’t have any pay before we get there.”
“Well, you told us we would leave [immediately] but we couldn’t keep up with the convoys…”
“The captain shook his head. ‘Too bad, it doesn’t make any difference.’”
The next day Lars again approached the captain and told him, “Have a good trip. We’re leaving here.”
“’Oh, you can’t,” he said. “You signed on for Liverpool and for full pay when we get there.”
“I don’t give a damn for the full pay,” Lars replied. “I’ll just leave. I’ll go to a Norwegian ship” (one was in the harbor).
The captain hurried off the trawler and Lars turned to Karl and said, “Oh, that’s good. He’s gonna have some money” [when he comes back]. “But he came back with three policemen, three bobbies. Then we had to go to court and they gave us a choice: go back aboard the boat again or to jail for fifteen days’ hard labor and get a fine of forty shillings.” Lars told the judge, “We don’t care about that [going back on the trawler]. We’ll take the hard labor.”
The two boys were put in Gibraltar’s dank dungeon of a prison. Lars laughed, “There were Germans in the prison and Italians in the prison. We had some Turks to watch [as they worked] on a road, up on the top, on Gibraltar.” Lars remembers this time with tears of laughter in his eyes. “We had fun anyway. When we were put in jail, we were dressed up in the old Sing Sing suits, you know, the kind you see in old movies, with stripes, stripes on the cap, stripes everywhere. The Germans and Italians had it a lot better than us Allied; they lived upstairs. They threw down cigarette butts to us, but I didn’t smoke so it wasn’t that bad. There was very tight security. The Germans came from schnell boats and planes. How long they were going to be there I didn’t know, and amongst them were military people, English, Scotsmen, Irishmen – at least Scotsmen. They were going to sit there for years, or at least many months.”
Lars continued, “We had to get up early and get the blankets folded us or we would be punished for that. We had to scrub the floor and had to stand at attention. We were civilians in all of this, and after we had been there two or three days, we were taken before the leader there. He looked at our papers and found that this punishment was all wrong. He said we had to get in touch with Norwegian officials when we got out of there. He said we didn’t have to work but we had to stay there for fifteen days.”
Shortly after their release from the bastille, Lars and Karl found another British vessel. They signed on and eventually made their way to Liverpool. From there they took the train to London and reported to the Norwegian shipping office. “Where have you been?” an official asked them (evidently they had been expected to return to London long before they appeared). “Oh, you know, here and there,” Lars replied. He asked for his back pay for working on the Nyhorn and was told that they couldn’t give it to him because he had not been eighteen at the time.
After a few months casting about in London, Lars joined the Norwegian navy. He went to Skegnes on England’s east coast for his training, part of which was a machine gun course. As a result of his merchant marine experience Lars was quickly promoted to decksman leader and then took more courses. His first sea duty was on the St. Albans, an old four-stacker, formerly the USS Thomas, which had been given to Great Britain as part of the lend-lease agreement. According to Lars, she was a good turbine-powered destroyer in spite of her age. But he wasn’t on her long before he received orders to proceed to Clyden to join the destroyer Svenner, which had just been launched and outfitted by the Scotts Shipyard in Greenock, Scotland. The Svenner had originally been named HMS Shark before being transferred to the Norwegian navy. She had been laid down on November 5, 1941, launched on June 1, 1943, and commissioned on March 11, 1944. She would be at sea less than three months before she was sunk. She carried a main battery of four modern 4.7-inch dual-purpose guns, which could be elevated for air defense. She also had a twin Bofors 40 millimeter, which had its own ranging radar mounted just aft the stack, and four twin 20 millimeter Oerlikons. Two banks of four torpedoes were positioned aft along with two of the four depth-charge mortars and two depth-charge racks mounted on the fantail. Her maximum speed was thirty-six knots and thirty-three knots fully loaded.
Many of the Svenner’s 235-man crew had been Lars’s shipmates on the St. Albans and so were experienced seamen. After their duty in the old four-stacker, the new destroyer felt like a luxury liner. The Svenner joined other warships for an arduous period of training in Scapa Flow. Rumors were rampant. All over the ship crewmen speculated about where they might be headed and what important mission awaited them. Something big was in the air but nobody knew what it would be. Finally on June 2, after their training was over, they headed south through the Irish Sea and joined even more warships, all gathering in various English and Scottish ports.