Obituary: How sailor Arthur braved the U-boat threat to combat the Nazis
PUBLISHED: 19:32 03 May 2019 | UPDATED: 23:33 04 May 2019
Suffolk Second World War veteran honoured by France and Russia for helping secure their freedom
Arthur Simmons was working in a Woodbridge chemist's when the Second World War began. He was very much at the sharp end when it finished.
For May 8, 1945 – Victory in Europe Day – found him aboard HMS Rhododendron. The ship was returning to Scotland from what would be his final Russian convoy task.
“I was a coder, and when the news came through that the war in Europe was over I well remember the feeling of great relief,” he told us in 2015.
“At the same time I thought how, only nine days earlier, our convoy had lost HMS Goodall (a frigate), torpedoed by a U-boat with the loss of 95 lives, and the German navy also lost two U-boats.
“Later I found out they were the last U-boats to be sunk by the Royal Navy in World War Two.”
The ship was his home for an eventful 16 months, altogether. Arthur was part of two Russian convoys – protecting supply vessels from the Nazis – before HMS Rhododendron was readied for the D-Day landings operation designed to liberate occupied France.
In June, 1944, the ship escorted a convoy to the Normandy beach-head on the second day of the push.
“What an impressive sight it was to see all the ships and to hear the battleships firing their guns. We truly believed the war was going our way.”
As well as being there on the second day, Arthur was at the D-Day beaches every week for the next six weeks.
The former sailor has died at 95. His home was the village of Melton, near Woodbridge, where he lived for 94 of those years. He lived long enough to realise how grateful Russia, France and Britain were to people like him for helping to save them from Hitler.
In 2013 he received the Arctic Star. This new medal was for British Commonwealth forces who served on convoys north of the Arctic Circle during the Second World War. This was followed by the Ushakov Medal (from Russia, to recognise the same brave service) in 2014 and the French Légion d'honneur in 2015.
“Arthur was proud to receive these medals,” says son Michael.
He had the nickname Ski
Arthur James Simmons was born in Hackney Terrace, Melton, on July 16, 1923. He was the youngest of three brothers, after George and Charles. There was also a younger sister: Elsie. His parents, Walter and Harriot Simmons, had moved to Melton from Norfolk in 1913.
Arthur told his own children he had a wonderful childhood in the village, playing on Leeks Hill and swimming and canoeing in the summer on the River Deben. Then there were the attractions of Woodbridge, including the cinema.
Arthur attended Melton Primary School. “Father's first hobby was collecting cigarette cards and he continued this throughout his life,” says Michael.
“I have recently collated his collection and he has over 620 sets, making a total of 50,000 cards. Father would often meet with Arthur Smith, another Melton man, to exchange cards.
“Football was another pastime – first at school, then playing for the Melton village team. I was told he got the nickname Ski because he could swerve past opponents at times during matches.”
At 14 Arthur left school and was employed in Woodbridge at Gall's the chemist, in the Thoroughfare, doing general store work.
During 1939 Arthur canoed over to Sutton Hoo, on the opposite bank of the Deben, walked through the burial ship mound and collected a jar of iron nails!
“The dig had been completed and the ship's shape was left in the earth,” reports Michael. “Father walked through the ship's shape and collected what he said were old rusty-type nails (or rivets). I am quite sure he should not have been at the site!”
Arthur's dad later found the jar in the shed during the war and decided to dump the nails.
Michael adds: “Father was interested in history and Sutton Hoo. Last year, in father's belongings, I found a local paper, the Woodbridge Reporter and Wickham Market Gazette, dated 17th August 1939. Cost one penny.
“The paper covers the discovery and inquest to decide if the priceless items were treasure trove. There are several photographs, one showing the shape in the earth of the burial ship and part of the treasure that was exhibited in what they describe as Sutton Village Hut.”
Dog-fight over Melton
Village life changed dramatically on September 3, when war broke out. Arthur told us four years ago: “I joined the Home Guard and was trained to do arms drill and to fire a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. The Home Guard also did training exercises, with a local farmer, Captain Tyler, in charge.”
He remembered: “What is now known as the Battle of Britain started in the summer of 1940 and I saw German aircraft flying over to attack the RAF base at Martlesham Heath…”
Arthur recalled a dog-fight over Melton and a Messerschmitt 109 shooting down a Hurricane fighter. He was told later that the Hurricane crashed at Bredfield but the pilot escaped by parachute and landed safely at Bromeswell.
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I was glad to go home
“My war started in 1942, at the age of 19, when I volunteered for the Royal Navy. I joined as a medical orderly but soon decided that was not for me,” said Arthur in 2015. “I was sent to Leigh in Lancashire to re-train as a coder and this was where I met my future wife, Mavis Crowe.”
Having qualified as a coder in January, 1944, he was posted to HMS Rhododendron, the Corvette escort vessel that was part of those Russian convoys in the early months of 1944 and later the push into northern France.
“The rest of June and July was spent escorting merchant ships from Milford Haven to the beaches of Normandy.
“After repairs on the Clyde, the ship returned to Arctic convoy duties and we were part of the escort group for one more Russian convoy before the end of 1944.”
Those duties continued in 1945, the last being that return journey in May.
“I was glad to go home to see my family and my fiancée, Mavis. However, my war was not yet over and I was posted to HMS Holm Sound (Fleet Air Arm aircraft repair ship) for deployment to the Far East and the war against Japan.
“Then the two atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August brought about the surrender of Japan. HMS Holm Sound left Hartlepool and sailed to Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden, Bombay, Cochin, Ceylon, Cocas Island and Freemantle, Australia.
“The return journey was on a similar route and I returned to the UK on April 26, 1946. My war had taken me to the extreme weather conditions of the Arctic Ocean and the warm weather of the Southern hemisphere. I was pleased to be home.”
War put paid to that
Arthur's brothers and sister all came through the war. “Brother George joined the RAF and Charlie the Royal Navy, like me. Charlie had the most difficult war as he was on a destroyer that saw a great deal of action in the Mediterranean.
“My sister Elsie married an American, Louis Bombaci (USAAF Debach), in 1946 and went to the USA. They had two children: Elizabeth and Louis.”
Arthur married Mavis in June, 1946. He worked as a painter, decorator and sign-writer. In 1949 they set up home in Hall Farm Road, Melton, and would have three sons: Michael, Leslie and Darrell.
“One of my earliest memories of father was his talent at sketching,” says Michael. “I would sit in admiration as he drew wildlife, landscapes, cars, ships and aircraft. In fact, father was due to go to Ipswich Art School; the onset of war put paid to that.”
Final part of his journey
Arthur and Mavis went their separate ways in 1976. “He married Patricia Pickering in 1986,” says Michael. “The second marriage lasted until January 1, 2011, when Pat died in Ipswich Hospital after a fall at home.
“Arthur continued living at Hall Farm Road, remaining independent with the support of family and neighbours.
“During 2016 his health began to fail and it was necessary to bring in carers who did a wonderful job looking after him. Arthur had a fall at home in March, 2018, that resulted in him needing a partial hip replacement in Ipswich Hospital.
“He came through the operation but was in need of 24-hour care. For the last 12 months of his life Arthur lived at Priory Paddocks Nursing Home at Darsham, where he received excellent care.”
Michael is now retired, Leslie works in Dubai and Darrell is in Ipswich. There are 10 grandchildren and “numerous” great-grandchildren.
“The family will miss father but we know he has had a good life and that his passing is the final part of his journey,” says Michael.
Quiet, unassuming man
Among Arthur's hobbies and pastimes had been cribbage and playing team darts at the local Coach and Horses pub. He also had the occasional game of golf.
“Father retained a love of gardening from his schooldays at Melton, when some afternoons were spent tending the plants and vegetables. His garden was an important part of his life and he always had a vegetable plot – and, when he retired, a greenhouse.
“In his retirement, on Saturday lunchtime, he would go to the British Legion in Woodbridge for a drink and a chat with friends.”
Michael adds: “My father was a quiet, unassuming man of the generation that returned from war service and wanted to return to village life, find employment and raise a family. Father was never out of work. Mother was at home, looking after the house and the boys.
“Therefore I have very happy memories of both my parents. Christmas times were wonderful: full of fun, celebrating the festive season.
“The family looked forward to the 5th of November. Father built a bonfire in the garden and we boys would help make the Guy. Fireworks and food would follow. This went on for many years. His grandchildren still talk of it. Wonderful family times to reflect on.”