I watched proudly as my youngest, Jack, played on the beach. He was skipping stones into the sea and lazily exploring the rockpools with their temporary miniature aquariums trapped by the sea’s tide. What was he thinking as he gazed towards the shipwreck? It was covered from bow to stern with barnacles and seaweed, hiding a jagged hole in the hull.
“Hey, dad, dad, come and see what I’ve caught,” said Jack.
I smiled as I walked towards him and saw the massive grin on his face. “What’s this?”
“I don’t know dad, but it’s prehistoric. Look at those long spiny fins covering its back.”
“With those mottled brown and white blotches, I’m pretty sure it’s a Blenny. Take a photo, then you can check it later?”
My gaze drifted seawards, and my thoughts became less carefree. I came here to reminisce, to try to remember more about my father. I could hardly remember the man and that was sad and frustrating in equal measure. I yearned to know more so I could love him for simply being my dad.
“Do you like my photo?” Jack’s strident voice broke my concentration as he showed me his phone. He had framed the Blenny beautifully, if that’s the right word to describe quite an ugly fish, and the photo was perfectly in focus.
“That’s brilliant Jack, great shot. Are you pleased with it?”
His reply was mischievous, “Yeah, it’s perfect. So ugly, it’ll scare mum to death.”
We laughed and playfully talked about how scaring mum might not be such a good idea if we wanted our tea.
My dad would have been only a few years older than Jack when he joined Dartmouth’s Britannia Naval College to start his career just before World War One. His first post, in his early twenties, was as a Sub Lieutenant on HMS Nomad.
“Can we go swimming dad, let’s see if we can find some crabs around the wreck?” Jack’s banter brought me back to the present.
Before I could reply, he quickly removed his clothes revealing a pair of bright red Speedos.
“Race you to the water,” he said.
And with that we both ran painfully, hobbling across the pebble beach, to get to the waves. Jack got there first but hesitated, so I caught up. He offered me his hand and we jumped into the sea, shrieking from the shock of the cold water.
Within months dad’s ship, HMS Nomad an M Class Destroyer, was one of 250 vessels involved in the Battle of Jutland. They were right in the thick of it, fighting German Destroyers. In a letter to mum, he described being in battle, on the ship’s bridge as, “Like the worst and loudest peel of thunder whilst being on a 100mph train with all the windows open just as another one passed the other way.”
But today is a chance for me to relax with Jack and enjoy his playful company
without a care in the world. A day that I hoped would last forever with blissful summer weather, blue skies, and azure sea.
But for dad, it would have been very different. The sky and sea were an angry grey and the water off the Danish coast, cold, unhospitable, and deadly, as the wind whipped up white sea horses. An exploding shell entered her engine room, disabling the ship, and the Nomad sank. As she went down there were just 72 survivors, including dad. That day, 25 ships slid into the icy depths of the cruel North Sea, with 8,600 souls, forever lost.
With an easy crawl, Jack moved confidently through the water at quite a pace for a youngster. It had been a great idea to encourage him to swim at the local club. He had done well too. Won several County races, but what I valued most, was the confidence it gave him in the water.
That’s probably how dad was. He was lucky that day, as he was rescued from the burning sea, covered in oil and fuel to become a prisoner of war. Although the first telegram my mum
received said he had died in action. He ended his war days in Germany’s Holzminden prison. A hostile and unpleasant place. Eventually he escaped. A book and film, called the original Great Escape told his story, rather eclipsed by Colditz Castle’s, ‘Great Escape’, from the second World War.
“C’mon Jack. It’s sandy here. Let’s make a sandcastle.”
No encouragement was needed. Jack was quickly out of the water furiously digging to start construction. It was a grand affair too. Multiple turrets, vast abutments, and big walls to keep the enemy out. It was surrounded by a moat which he filled with foaming sea water from his bucket. “No-one gets into my Castle,” he said proudly.
This place was special because the shipwreck right in front of us was HMS Penarth, a coastal Minesweeper, and the final part of dad’s legacy. She hit a mine and, as the ship was sinking, dad had gone down into the hold and rescued two Stokers. He was awarded the Albert medal, for bravery at sea. A very special honour, only 216 were ever awarded.
Sadly, after that, dad’s luck ran out. In 1939, he’d just finished a minesweeping course, and disappeared after he had left for home. He was presumed drowned somewhere on this coast, but his body was never recovered. He died so young, in his 40s. I was just 14. If only I had got to know him better, perhaps I’d feel less empty now. He was a real action man. I’d hate to disappoint him. I’ve so much to live up to, I hope I have half his courage to help me through life.
Jack laughed. “OK, dad. You’re my very special hero, I’ll let you into my Castle.”
“Thanks Darling, that means the world to me,” I replied, starting the serious business of Sandcastle re-enforcement, before the changing tide brought its inevitable destruction.