Innocent summer jaunt or a chance to spy on the Nazis?
- Credit: Archant
Essex author Julia Jones’ true-story book The Cruise of Naromis: August in the Baltic 1939
Were Skip, Fattie, Bill, Mike and Honest George simply slightly-naïve adventurers sailing to Germany on the eve of war – drinking beer and ogling flaxen-haired girls – or was their game really to aid British intelligence? Spying? STEVEN RUSSELL hears the evidence
Julia Jones was wedged in the corner of an attic when she reignited a story that had lain dormant for more than 70 years. She was looking for something else when she stumbled across her late father’s account of a voyage to the Baltic abroad a cruiser built on the Norfolk Broads.
No ordinary pleasure-trip for five carefree Englishmen, this. It happened in the weeks before Britain declared war on Germany. The holidaymakers’ voyage along the Kiel Canal saw their boat virtually rubbing its sides against Nazi battleships, while U-boats left the harbour to go on patrol. English cameras clicked – perhaps just one – clicked. Souvenir snaps or something more?
Though he didn’t know it at the time, George’s call-up papers had arrived while he was sea. The cruise was that close to the end of peace.
After she stumbled across her father’s writings, decades later, Julia felt a slight sense of shock as she remembered him trying to talk about the passage through the Kiel Canal with the Second World War about to break, “then giving up when he saw that I, at least, didn’t understand the significance at all”.
She sat for a long time in the cluttered, dusty attic last autumn, reading with tears in her eyes. “I felt emotional because I caught glimpses of the person I had loved, mainly in his receptiveness to beauty and his passion for small boats, and I realised how little I knew of his life before we met,” she writes in a new book that gives the story of that Baltic cruise a wider audience.
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Julia decided at the time to present the account to the family as a simple booklet at Christmas. “That it has become something more is largely due to my partner, Francis Wheen” – author and contributor to the satirical magazine Private Eye – “who was astonished at my cluelessness at not having noticed its interest as an historic document…”
And it was Francis who breathed the phrase “It looks like spying.”
Then she found another two suitcases, retrieved from under the eaves of her mother’s former cottage. They yielded some diaries, scrapbooks and a file marked GAJ Navy.
“I knew that I knew nothing about Dad’s time in the war. Because he was an administrator, not a hero, I had assumed it was uninteresting. I don’t now think so.”
Tenant farmer’s son George Jones was born five days into 1918 at Fornham All Saints, near Bury St Edmunds.
His father died in 1933, as the result of an accident. “The period of poverty and uncertainty that followed… left a permanent impression,” Julia says. The youngest of three brothers, George had to leave school and work in a paint factory for £1 a week and then Woolworth’s for 25 shillings.
He was eternally grateful to two aunts “for rescuing him from drudgery and giving him a home. ‘The Aunts’ owned a girls’ boarding school in Felixstowe – near the mouth of his beloved River Deben. They took him in, assumed responsibility for his well-being and sent him back to Ipswich School to finish his education”.
As he turned 21, George was in lodgings in Birmingham, completing three years as an articled clerk and dealing on the city’s stock exchange.
For much of that year, 1939, he kept a diary. By the end of April, George was clearly worried about his mental health. “I seem to have lost all idea of beauty, to have become ordinary, self-centred, aimless, completely static, unable to live, write, love or even work. I pray God help me to regain myself.”
The day after he wrote that, the Government announced it was introducing conscription for males aged 20 and 21. “By the following day, George had made his decision not to wait but to volunteer.”
He drove to Bristol and would later join the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve. In July he was made a Probationary Temporary Paymaster Sub Lieutenant RNVSR. “I tell everybody I am an officer – though nothing about the probationary, temporary part.”
Julia says: “The tone of George’s diary had become happier. Earlier in the year he had admitted that courage was ‘the commodity I lack most in the world’. Once he had visited Bristol and volunteered, he seems to have gained confidence.”
And then someone seems to have suggested going, that August, to the city we know today as Poland’s Gdansk. Then, it was a United Nations Free City giving Poland a route to the Baltic Sea.
Danzig was an odd destination for a summer pleasure trip, she notes, “and details of the planned cruise are tantalisingly few”.
Her father was part of a small group led by a man called WJ Clutton, a banker at Schroders in London, using his newly-built vessel.
George had learned to sail off Felixstowe in 1925, but wrote that summer: “I don’t see that I am going to be much use to them.” But he went, with this group of largely strangers – his first time abroad.
The cruise was short but, he reflected later, “packed with interest, especially as the ground covered took us to many areas our Naval forces would operate in during the forthcoming war.
“It was as though I had been conducted through the scene of a great drama and just managed to get off the stage before the curtain went up!”
He acknowledges it came “at a time so uncertain and pregnant with hazard”.
Naromis – a 37ft twin-engined motor cruiser built on the Broads in 1938 – would cover 1,300 nautical miles and visit half a dozen countries in three weeks.
She left Ramsgate for Belgium on Saturday, August 12, went on to Holland and then Cuxhaven in northern Germany.
“We were all anxious to go ashore and have a look at these people who had so disturbed our world for the last three years,” George wrote later.
“We lunched at the Dolles Hotel quite well. My first impressions were ugly, cheap-looking motor cars and comely flaxen-haired girls with delicious blue eyes.”
Later, going through the Kiel Canal (which connects the North Sea to the Baltic) they looked at the old outer harbour and were intrigued to see four German U-boats. “I was struck by the youthfulness of the officers…”
The subs went off into the Elbe. “I believe it was one of these U-boats that would be responsible for torpedoing the Athenia within four hours of war being declare, less than three weeks later…”
The five Englishmen just caught the news from London on the radio – the last they’d hear for some time. Ration cards were ready and war appeared inevitable.
In the canal they were passed by two of Germany’s latest destroyers. Some of the sailors waved.
“This was typical of the way in which we were received all through Germany. Some people were naturally more strained but nowhere did we find anything but good will. Politics was not, however, discussed to any great degree.”
They were even invited to use the impressive yacht club at Olympia-Hafen and dined royally in the ballroom, where paintings of the late military leader Paul von Hindenburg and Hitler dominated.
“There were quite a number of naval officers using the club and as they passed us, with their ceremonial dirks swinging at their sides, they greeted us with ‘Heil Hitler’. It was the greeting we used ourselves after a bit, getting accustomed to it.”
On they sailed to Denmark and then Sweden, where a newspaper revealed Germany had made a pact with Russia. It didn’t look good.
The crew of Naromis now had to decide what they would do. Returning home through the canal was a no-no. It would have to be up to Norway and across to Scotland.
In Norway, “Everyone we met was most kind and very eager for the downfall of Hitler – they rather treated us as instruments to that downfall. Stevedores stopped their work and waved their caps as we went by.”
The long leg to Aberdeen was “not notable for anything except its discomfort”. And the Calor gas ran out just after leaving.
On Saturday, September 2 they left the boat at Grimsby and took the train to London. At home, George found a telegram telling him to report to Rosyth in Scotland. It had waited nine days.
“Next day, war was declared and I was on my way north again, clad in a disgustingly new uniform.”
Probationary Temporary Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Jones had been sent to the ship HMS Forth, which supported a flotilla of submarines with provisions, equipment and other essentials as they patrolled. Soon, the subs would be patrolling the seas off Norway and Denmark where Naromis had just been!
George didn’t write then about the Baltic voyage, but he did take some photographs to his commanding officer, who at the end of September forwarded some (of the Nazi vessels Gneisenau and Konigsberg, taken in Kiel six weeks earlier) to the director of Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty. The director wrote back, asking that Jones be thanked.
The following April, Konigsberg was bombed and sunk in Bergen harbour. In June there was an attempt to sink the Gneisenau (a major battleship) and other vessels at Trondheim. But the bombs used weren’t potent enough, Julia writes.
Her father became a cipher officer, was promoted to lieutenant, and duties took him to places such as Newfoundland. There he began writing up the tale of the Baltic cruise two years earlier – possibly prompted by a chance meeting with one of his Naromis mates, now a naval surgeon.
He was in Sierra Leone by the time he’d finished it and collected the pictures to accompany it, possibly with a view to publication at some stage.
George had accumulated another 61 photographs – showing beaches, bridges, landmarks and so on in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Holland – and sent them to Naval Intelligence just before Christmas, 1941.
Nine were returned to him a year later, mounted and with reference numbers attached.
And the conflict continued. More depot ships – HMS Titania, then Philoctetes – and then based at HMS Badger in Harwich and a role in secret preparations for the Normandy landings.
George became a lieutenant commander, and remained in service until the spring of 1946.
So, then. All these years later, what to make of it?
“The whole business seems odd,” Julia admits in her book – a joint enterprise with her late father, in which she’s added to his writings of 1941.
“This list of photographs is clearly presented as a reconnaissance list, aids for identification if expeditions were being made to these enemy-occupied countries. Is that why they were taken in the first place?
“Even for a cruising yachtsman, they are not quite the usual summer holiday snaps. They seem to confirm that there was an aspect of Naromis’s August 1939 expedition that was consciously intended to be of assistance to the coming war.
“Then why did Jones not send them earlier? Because he was busy?”
Although she says in the book that “All I can do here is present the evidence,” the attic discovery sent Julia on “an extended voyage” through naval histories, memoirs and other sources of information that taught her more about her father “and the extraordinary time through which he lived”.
“The crew of Naromis were not professional spies: they were volunteers taking a good look round,” she concluded afterwards.
“Both their voyage and my own have left me more convinced than ever of the truth of Dad’s most characteristic saying: ‘Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted’.”
* The Cruise of Naromis: August in the Baltic 1939 is published by Golden Duck at £8.99. www.golden-duck.co.uk
What happened to George?
George and brother Jack settled in Waldringfield, near Woodbridge, after the war. Jack was a yacht designer, while George and a friend started a yacht agency, which later moved to Woodbridge.
One of his early customers was June Scott. They married in 1950 and children Julia, Nicholas and Edward were born in the town.
George died suddenly, in 1983, of a heart attack. He was 65. “He has been dead now for longer than I knew him during the time that our lives overlapped,” says his daughter.
He’s buried at Ramsholt Church, by the Deben. It looks across the river to Kirton Creek, a tributary he’d loved since childhood.