On This Day…December 31st.
On December 31st, 1940, the HMS Hood was berthed at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland. United States Naval officer, Joseph Wellings, recorded the day in his diary…
“Last day of 1940 – up at usual time 0745 – breakfast, a good mile and a quarter walk on quarterdeck, more snow last night – Hills are really very pretty – wish I were home. On bridge watching ship shift berths – Not a very good job – cut mooring buoy. Watched the crew get their ration of rum – quite a ritual.
Called on the Warrant Officers – had a gin(s) (2). Lunch, read, nap – First Lieut. In for a cup of coffee at 1730. Dressed for dinner – at 1830 called on the midshipmen in the gunroom and the Warrant Officers before dinner. Had a very fine turkey dinner.
After dinner remained in wardroom – talked with Warrand, the navigator, and Owens. Just before midnight the officers returned from the C.P.O. party. Browne (Lt. Paymaster) rigged up ships bell in Anteroom of wardroom. At 2400 bell was struck 16 times, an old custom. Captain, Admiral, his staff, exec, and practically all officers returned to Wardroom.
We all drank a toast to 1941 – Peace and Victory. One of the midshipmen from the gunroom came in with a bagpipe and played Scotch (sic) tunes. Everyone started to dance the various Scotch dances from the Admiral down to the lowest midshipman. The Wardroom tables were cleared away and a regular party was in full swing. It was a very unusual sight to see the Admiral, Captain, staff, Wardroom, gunroom, and Warrant officers dancing.
Included in the party but not dancing was the Chief Master-at-Arms and Sergeant Major of the Marines. Such a comradeship one would never suspect from the English who are supposed to be so conservative. I was impressed very much. Such spirit is one of the British best assets. This spirit will go far to bring about victory in the end. At 0145 I left the party in full swing and turned in but not before thanking God for his many blessings in 1940 and saying goodnight to my two sweethearts.”
The photo below is of the Hood as seen from between the guns of the HMS Rodney.
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On December 31st, 1943 a B-17 made an emergency ‘wheels up’ landing on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea, England. Walt Skinner, a a gunner on the dorsal turret of the bomber, talks about his New Year’s Eve.
“We were serving with the 351st Battle Group which had suffered many losses due to mid-air collisions. The December 31st mission was considered to be a milk-run as little or no opposition was expected and so we were to fly at a lower than normal altitude with several top brass flying the lead plane, checking on the formation flying.”
“It was anything but a milk run. It was the longest mission and most costly for our men and planes throughout the war for the 351st Battle Group. A total of 296 planes headed for German-held targets in France.”
“The 351st and 401st Battle Groups flew towards their targets of Bordeaux/Cognac whilst the others flew south. As we approached Bordeaux we were attacked by a group of FW 190’s. Bordeaux was cloud covered and so the Fortresses headed north to our secondary target of Cognac where we were attacked by guns from a train and from a ship. Four planes went down in the target area, one in the Atlantic and two in the English Channel.”
Walt and his crew, with one engine smoking, survived a fighter attack over the Brest peninsular and, short of fuel and alone, desperately looked for some place to land. They were too low for the crew to bale out and, expecting the pilots to ditch the plane, all except the two pilots took up their crash positions. However, they managed to fly to safety across channel into the Burnham-On-Sea area and, flying over St Andrew’s church, the pilots saw the beach and made a successful wheels-up landing.
Walt reported, “we didn’t even get our feet wet! Many people ran out to the plane as it skidded to a halt, with little boys gathering as many souvenirs as they could. Bits of the plane ended up in sheds all over Burnham but a camera and the photos only came to light in recent years. We stayed together as a crew and carried out 26 more missions. For the remainder of our missions we flew in a B-17 named ‘Black Magic’. Several weeks after, the plane was assigned to another crew it went down with the loss of the crew.”
The only time Walt returned to Burnham was in May 1995 where the Mayor, Brenda Brown, gave him a civic reception and invited him and his family to the 50th anniversary ceremony in the Manor Gardens. It was a day Walt that never forgot.
Walt passed away in 2013 in Delaware Veterans Home and was given full military honours.
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Happy New Year to all!