Francis, Ernest Benjamin

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NARRATIVE OF PETTY OFFICER (GUNNER'S MATE) E. FRANCIS, OF "X" TURRET

This represents a copy of a letter I sent to the Senior Surviving Officer
of H.M.S. Queen Mary, and I am asking that whoever reads this at any
time will please remember that the writer is much handier behind a pair of
13.5-inch guns than behind a pen.

I had the first dog watch (4.0 to 6.0 p.m.), in the battery so I made
arrangements with the Gunner's Mate on watch to send a man down and
let me know when it was 3.30 p.m. We lay down and had quite a com
-fortable sleep, having nothing on our mind to keep us awake.

At 3.30 an able seaman came down and said, "Petty Officer Francis, it
is nearly seven bells." I thanked him, and said, "Anything doing up
top?" He said "No." I got up, took off my jumper, and had a wash in a
bucket of water, and just as I had finished I heard in the distance a bugle
sound of "Action." I was so surprised that I could hardly believe my ears,
but the rush of feet by the door forced it upon me. I took the first hatchway
up, and came up to the foremost 4-inch battery, starboard side, and raced
for "X" Turret. When I got inside everyone was there. I yelled out
"Turret's crew, number." They were correct from top to bottom, and
I reported to the Lieutenant of the Turret. He said, "Test loading gear,
"but for goodness' sake don't let them go too rash." The loading gear and
machinery were tested, and immediately afterwards came the order to load
all cages. As soon as the cages were loaded, it was reported to the Trans-
mitting Station, and then came the order to load; the guns were loaded
and brought to the half-cock and reported, and then came the order to
bring the right gun to the ready, director laying and firing. Shortly after
this the first salvo was fired, and we had started on the great game.

I had no means of telling what the time was, and if I had I probably
should not have looked, because getting a turret started is an anxious rushing
time for a Captain of a turret; once started it is easy to keep going. Taking
everything into consideration, I put it as about 3.45 or 3.55 ; that's as
near as I can go.

The gun's crew were absolutely perfect, inclined to be a little swift
in loading, but I gave them a yell and pointed out to them that I wanted a
steady stride, and after that everything went like clockwork, until suddenly
both rammers gave out, my gun going first. This was caused through
No. 3 opening the breech before the gun had run out after firing; the
carrier arm part of the breech must have hit the rammer head and slightly
metal-bound it. I dropped the elevating wheel, got hold of a steel pinch
bar, forced the end in behind the rammer head, at the same time putting
the rammer lever over to "Run out"; out went the rammer, and I rushed
it back again, and then out again, and it went all gay once more. Then
the lever was passed over to the right gun, and both rammers were once
more in working order. I was pleased to get them going again, as it would
have been such a damper on the crew if we had had to go into hand loading.
My No. 3 said, "Petty Officer Francis, can you see what we are up
against?" Well, I had been anxious to have a look, but could not spare
the time, but as soon as my gun had fired and while the loading was being
completed I had a quick look through the periscope, and it seemed to me
there were hundreds of masts and funnels. I dropped back into my seat
and laid my gun by pointer, being in director firing, and while the loading
was being completed again I told them there were a few battle cruisers
out, not wishing to put a damper on them in any way; not that I think
it would have done so, as they were all splendid fellows and backed me
up magnificently.

Up till now I had not noticed any noise, such as being struck by a
shell, but soon afterwards there was a heavy blow struck, I should imagine,
in the after 4-inch battery, and a lot of dust and pieces were flying around
on top of "X" turret. My attention was called by the turret trainer,
A.B. Long, who reported the front glass of his periscope blocked up. This
was not very important, because we were in director training, but some-
one in rear heard him report his glass foul, and without orders dashed on
top and cleared it. He must have been smashed as he did it, for he fell
in front of the periscope, groaning, and then apparently fell off the turret.
I wish I knew his name, poor chap, but it's no use guessing. Another
shock was felt shortly after this, but it did not affect the turret, so no
notice was taken. The Transmitting Station reported that the third ship
of the line was dropping out. First blood to Queen Mary. The shout
they gave was good to hear. I could not resist taking a quick look at her
at their request, and I saw the third ship of their line was going down by
the bows.

I felt the turret training a bit faster than she had been, and
surmised we must have shifted on to the fourth ship of the line; being in
director firing no orders were required for training. I looked again, and the
third ship of the line was gone. I turned to the spare gunlayer, P. O.
Killick, who was recording the number of rounds fired, and asked him how
many rounds the left gun had fired, and he said 30 something odd figures.
I didn't catch the exact number. A few more rounds were fired, and I
took another look through my periscope, and there was quite a fair distance
between the second ship, and what I believe was the fourth ship, due,
I think, to the third ship going under. Flames were belching up from what
I believe to be the fourth ship of the line.

Then came the big explosion, which shook us a bit, and on looking
at the pressure gauge I saw the pressure had failed.

Immediately after that came what I term the big smash, and I was
dangling in the air on a bowline, which saved me from being thrown down
on to the floor of the turret; these bowlines were an idea I had brought into
the turret, and each man in the gun-house was supplied with one, and,
as far as I noticed, the men who had them on were not injured in the big
smash. Nos. 2 and 3 of the left gun slipped down under the gun, and the gun
appeared to me to have fallen through its trunnions and smashed
up these two numbers. Everything in the ship went as quiet as a church,
the floor of the turret was bulged up, and the guns were absolutely useless.
I must mention here that there was not a sign of excitement. One man turned
to me and said, "What do you think has happened?" I said "Steady every
one, I will speak to Mr. Ewart." I went back to the cabinet and said,
"What do you think has happened, sir?" He said "God only knows."
"Well, sir," I said, "it's no use keeping them all down here, why not
send them up round the 4-inch guns, and give them a chance to fight it
out. As soon as the Germans find we are out of action they will concen-
trate on us, and we shall all be going sky high." He said, "Yes, good idea.
Just see whether the 4-inch guns aft are still standing."

I put my head up through the hole in the roof of the turret, and I
nearly fell back through again. The after 4-inch battery was smashed right
out of all recognition, and then I noticed the ship had an awful list to
port. I dropped back inside the turret and told Lieut. Ewart the state
of affairs. He said, "Francis, we can do no more than give them a chance;
clear the turret." "Clear the turret," I called out, and out they all went.

P.O. Stares was the last I saw coming up from the working chamber,
and I asked whether he had passed the order to the magazine and shell
room, and he told me it was no use, as the water was right up the trunk
leading from the shell room, so the bottom of the ship must have been
out of her. Then I said, "Why didn't you come up?" He simply said,
"There was no order to leave the turret."

I went through the cabinet and out through the top with the Lieutenant
of the Turret following me; suddenly he stopped and went back into the
turret. I believe he went back because he thought there was someone left
inside. It makes me feel sore-hearted when I think of him and that fine
crowd who were with me in the turret. I can only write about the splendid
behaviour of my own turret's crew, but I am confident, knowing the Queen
Mary as I did, that the highest traditions of the service were upheld by
the remainder of the ship's company, from the Captain down to the youngest
boy. Everyone was so keen on being in a big fight, and each member of
our ship's company knew he was one of the small cog-wheels of a great
machine; it was part of a man's training as laid down by our Gunnery Com-
mander, and due to his untiring efforts to make the Queen Mary the splendid
fighting unit I knew her to be.

I was half-way down the ladder at the back of the turret when Lieu-
tenant Ewart went back; the ship had an awful list to port by this time,
so much so that men getting off the ladder went sliding down to port.
I got on to the bottom rung of the ladder, but could not by my own
efforts reach the stanchions lying on the deck from the starboard side.
I knew if I let go that I should go sliding down to port like some of the
others must have done, and probably get smashed up sliding down. Two
of my turret's crew, seeing my difficulty, came to my assistance; they
were A.B. Long, turret trainer, and A.B. Lane, No. 4 of the left gun. Lane
held Long at full stretch from the ship's side, and I dropped from the
ladder, caught Long's legs, and so gained the starboard side. These two
men had no thought for their own safety; they saw I wanted assistance,
and that was good enough for them.

When I got on to the ship's side there
seemed to be quite a fair crowd, and they did not appear to be very anxious
to take to the water. I called out to them, "Come on, you chaps, who's
coming for a swim?" Someone answered, "She will float for a long time
yet," but something, I don't pretend to understand what it was, seemed
to be urging me to get away, so I clambered up over the slimy bilge keel
and fell off into the water, followed, I should think, by about five other men.

I struck away from the ship as hard as I could, and must have covered
nearly 50 yards, when there was a big smash, and stopping and looking
round the air seemed to be full of fragments and flying pieces. A large
piece seemed to be right above my head, and acting on an impulse I dipped
under to avoid being struck, and stayed under as long as I could, and then
came to the top again, when coming behind me I heard a rush of water,
which looked very much like a surf breaking on a beach, and I realised
it was the suction or back-wash from the ship which had just gone. I
hardly had time to fill my lungs with air when it was on me; I felt it was
no use struggling against it, so I let myself go for a moment or two, then
I struck out, but I felt it was a losing game, and remarked to myself mentally,
"What's the use of you struggling, you're done," and actually eased my
efforts to reach the top, when a small voice seemed to say "Dig out."

I started afresh, and something bumped against me. I grasped it,
and afterwards found it was a large hammock; it undoubtedly pulled
me to the top, more dead than alive, and I rested on it, but I felt I was
getting very weak, and roused myself sufficiently to look around for some-
thing more substantial to support me. Floating right in front of me was
a piece of timber (I believe the centre baulk of our pattern 4 target). I
managed to push myself on the hammock close to the timber, and grasped
a piece of rope hanging over the side. My next difficulty was to get on
top, and I was beginning to give up hope, when the swell lifted me nearly
on top, and with a small amount of exertion I kept on. I managed to reeve
my arms through a strop, and then I must have become unconscious.

When I came to my senses again I • was half-way off the spar, but
managed to get back again. I was very sick, and seemed to be full up with
oil fuel. My eyes were blocked up completely with it, and I could not see ;
I suppose the oil had got a bit dry and crusted. I managed, by turning
back the sleeve of my jersey which was thick with oil, to expose a part
of the sleeve of my flannel, and thus managed to get the thick oil off my
face and eyes, which were aching awfully. Then I looked around, and
seeing no one else, believed I was the only one left out of that fine ship's
company. What had really happened was the Laurel had come up and
picked up the remainder, and not seeing me lying on the spar had gone
away out of the zone of fire, so how long I was in the water I do
not know.

I was miserably cold, but not without hope of being picked up, as
it seemed to me that I had only got to keep quiet and a ship would come
for me.

After what seemed ages to me some destroyers came racing along,
and I got up on the spar, steadied myself for a second, and waved my
arms. The Petard, one of our destroyers, saw me and came over, but
when I got up on the spar to wave to them the swell rolled the spar over,
and I fell off. I was nearly exhausted again getting back. The destroyer
came up and a line was thrown to me, which, needless to say, I grabbed hold
of for all I was worth, and was quickly hauled tip on to the decks of the
destroyer. The first words I heard spoken were English, not German,
and I must have managed to convince them that I was English. I re-
membered no more until I came to and found I was lying on what seemed
to be a leather settee, and someone was telling me that I was all right and
not to struggle.

I could not see the faces round me, so concluded I was blind, but
did not feel then that it mattered much ; my thoughts flew to the fine
crowd who had gone under. I cannot speak too highly of the way I was
cared for on board the Petard, and I thank them one and all.

I was given some spirits of some sort, and then must have gone to
sleep ; someone came over to me and said, " Don't get excited if you hear
any shooting, but we are going to carry out an attack on a big German."
I wasn't in a fit state to worry much about attacks on Germans.

My eyes were very painful, and I must have said something about
them, for I believe a young doctor came down and started to bathe them,
when suddenly there was a big smash, and I was told afterwards that a
shell came through, killed the doctor and eight men, and I never received
a scratch.

I couldn't see, and, being a gunnery man, I took the smash
to be a 4-inch gun being fired ; I had no idea it was a German shell.

I must have gone off to sleep again, when I was wakened by some
of the chaps who were taking me down to the Petty Officers' quarters, as by
this time they had found out I was a Gunner's Mate. I believe in the first
place I told them I was a Stoker.

Nothing happened after this of any importance, only I was in awful agony
with my eyes. I was told we were steaming at greatly reduced speed to
Rosyth, and arrived, as near as I can guess, about midnight on the 1st June.
The Hospital Boat came over, and I was very quickly taken to Queensferry
Hospital, where I was soon made nice and comfortable in bed, feeling that
my troubles were over, and thanking God, Who I feel was very near me on
that great day, and Who pulled me through. I fell asleep and woke up to
find the doctor waiting to clean my eyes ; he would not disturb me before.

After my eyes had been seen to I felt much relieved ; the doctor told
me to keep the bandage on and my eyes would be all right again soon. I
left the Hospital on the Monday (June 5th), having previously on two days
running asked the Fleet Surgeon to let me go south ; I felt the groans of the
burnt and wounded would have driven me mad. He told me that if I
could get some clothes I could go. I met a Ward Master whom I had
known some years ago, and he fitted me out with clothes gathered from
the Hospital Staff, and made me look quite presentable. I left Edinburgh
by the midnight train, and on arrival at London went to the Union Jack
Club, where I had a good breakfast. I left London and arrived at the
Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, where I reported myself, and was
allowed to proceed home. The next day I was given some clothes, and
saw the doctor who advised me what to do about my eyes, and very kindly
allowed me to go home on 14 days' leave. When I returned off leave I
saw the doctor again, and he said, " Your nerves are gone, you want a
rest," and sent me home for another 14 days. When I returned off leave I
was feeling much better, and my eyes were nearly quite well again.
At the time of writing they are all right, but tire very quickly.

To finish my account, I will say that I believe the cause of the ship
being blown up was a shell striking " B " turret working chamber and
igniting the shells stowed there in the ready racks, and the flash must
have passed down into the magazine, and that was the finish.

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