Jack Beckwith, Coal Miner
Jack Beckwith was born in 1901 near Durham in the Northeast of England. Durham was coal mine country back then and he went to work at the pit tending the pit ponies when he was 14. The entire County was dependant on coal, almost every village had a mine head and the income they brought keep the area at least fully employed, if not wealthy. His family was poor though, and his mother sent Jack to the pit instead of the butchers shop where he had worked as a child because it paid more. Jack worked in the mine through the First World War and beyond, being just too young to have fought in France, even had he been able to get a release from a critical war industry like coal mining.
During the 1920’s Durham’s coal began to exhaust and in 1927 the most important of the area’s coal seams was depleted. With fewer prospects Jack wanted out of mining so in 1924 he joined the Royal Navy and moved south, settling in Fareham, a small town near Portsmouth.
HMS Wren (D88)
Even as the war was coming to a close in 1918 the Admiralty was still ordering new warships. HMS Wren was ordered as part of two batches of Admiralty Modified W Class Destroyers which among other updates introduced the new BL 4.7inch Mark I gun, as well as providing triple torpedo tubes as standard. Yarrow Shipbuilders Ltd. in Glasgow were the chosen yard for the Wren. She was laid down in June 1918 and launched in November of the following year. The end of the Great War negated any urgency to completed her and after her arrival at HM Dockyard Pembroke the Wren was not commissioned for RN service until 27 January 1923.
Remarkably, the Wren’s launch can be viewed on YouTube.
After commissioning, HMS Wren was assigned to the 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the Atlantic Fleet. She served mainly in home waters and the Mediterranean. In 1938 Wren was assigned as rescue ship for the Home Fleet carriers, her role being to stand by to pick up downed pilots in the event of bad landing or aborted take off. It was during this period that the following undated photos of HMS Wren were taken; I would be grateful for any information about them.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jack Beckwith, RN K64162
Jack’s Navy career during the 1930s progressed well. He rose through the ranks to Petty Officer. He was a stoker and spent much of his time – ironically – with coal in the boiler rooms of the ships he sailed in.
At the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939 and now Petty Officer 1st Class, Jack Beckwith was on board HMS Alresford, a Hunt Class Minesweeper based in Portsmouth having joined her crew seven months earlier. Every morning the Alresford steamed out of harbour to sweep an assigned sector and returned in the late afternoon.
Jack and the Alresford saw action at Dunkirk, taking part in the evacuation and carrying the explosives used to destroy the harbour installations at Cherbourg. On 3rd June lookouts heard an aircraft approaching and the 12 pdr gun crew were given the order ‘Enemy aircraft — Red 30 — angle of sight 30° — Fire!‘ To the astonishment of everyone concerned, there was an explosion in the sky and a German bomber was seen to crash into the Channel in flames.
HMS Wren (D88)
At the outbreak of war HMS Wren was transferred to the 16th Destroyer Flotilla at Portsmouth for convoy defence and anti-submarine patrols in the English Channel and Southwest Approaches. In November she transferred to Nore Command for convoy defence in the North Sea and then subsequently being reassigned to the 18th Destroyer Flotilla, Western Approaches Command in January 1940 doing the same job.
While escorting Convoy OA.107 in early March Wren collided with the tanker S.S. Lacklan after it became separated from the rest of the convoy in fog. While manoeuvring to the tanker’s port stern to deliver a message the Wren’s helmsman inexplicably turned to starboard instead of port and drove the Wren’s bow into the tanker’s stern. Wren limped back to Plymouth for repairs, where she spent three weeks before putting to sea again.
After the Germans invaded Norway in April she transferred to Scapa Flow to carry out escort duties as part of the Narvik Operation. While in Norwegian waters she as tasked with patrolling the fjords looking for shore batteries to neutralise with her 4.7inch main guns. During one of these patrols she was hit by a 75mm shell from a German gun hidden in a tunnel.
The shell came through the ship’s side just above our mess, knocked the toilet pan for six, blew off the toilet door, turned sharp right through the steel partition, then went through a box of Cherry Blossom boot polish in the canteen, saw the canteen manager’s suitcase and passed through that; got diverted upwards and hit the deck head, and fell to the deck exhausted. Our Engineer Warrant Officer [Vernon S.T. Hunt] picked the shell up and dropped it over the ship’s side. He was awarded the DSO for his action but lost his life soon afterwardsActing Petty Officer Telegraphist Bill baker
On another occasion she was attacked by a German aircraft, the bombs falling close enough alongside to pepper the hull with bomb casing splinters and cause minor damage.
The threat from the air was constant and serious until HMS Glorious delivered Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft which were able to land and operate on a makeshift ice runway in the harbour. Subsequently the threat from the air was much reduced. When Glorious was sent back to bring more Hurricanes the Wren accompanied the aircraft carrier as its escort. During that trip one of Glorious‘ fighters shot down a German reconnaissance aircraft; the Wren recovered the pilot’s body, gathered his identification and buried him at sea.
After arrival at Scapa Flow, Wren undertook some minor repairs and maintenance. Once completed the Wren, with HMS Basilisk were due to escort the Glorious back to Norway with another batch of Hurricanes. However, both destroyers developed engine issues and their places were taken by HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta. On 8 June all three vessels were sunk by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau the while returning to Scapa Flow. HMS Basilisk’s seeming good fortune in avoiding that fate was for nought though, she was sunk on 1 June during the Dunkirk evacuation.
HMS Wren (I88)
At the end of May the Wren’s pennant number, along with most ships in the Home Fleet was changed when the Admiralty changed how the numbers were assigned. Now wearing I88 as her pennant number she returned to the 16th Destroyer Flotilla based at Harwich on 25 June for convoy escort and patrol duties in Nore Command area.
Just over a week later on 3rd July 1940 PO Jack Beckwith joined the Wren as one of the Petty Officers in charge of the Stokers.
At the time one of the 16th Flotilla’s tasks was called the T-Patrol. Every day two Destroyers patrolled between two locations marked by buoys, one close to the English coast and the other close to the French coast. They were to observe and report on any enemy shipping they encounter.
27 July, 1940
On the 27th July the Wren was detailed to replace HMS Wild Swan for the T-Patrol owing to the latter developing engine trouble. The Wren was paired with HMS Montrose. After completing the return trip from the T-Buoy near the French coast and completing their patrol for the day, the two destroyers spotted two minesweepers about to come under attack by up to eighteen German dive bombers. Both destroyers raced to come to the minesweepers’ aid in a scene which must have closely resembled the footage below.
The intense attack was over in seconds but the results were devastating for the Wren and her crew.
I was standing in the doorway of my office, which was under the bridge when an A.B. called out to me “Hey, Sparks! There’s eighteen bombers coming our way!”. I said “Don’t make me laugh!” or something stronger. He said “Okay. Count ‘em yourself, then.”
Now, within an arm’s length of my door was the tall thin front funnel, and behind that a platform with a two-pounder AA pom-pom. Within seconds the bombs were dropping. We were struck by five of them.Acting Petty Officer Telegraphist Bill baker
The ship was hit by a bomb that went down the funnel. I knew the ship was sinking, and the young stokers wanted to get out but no orders were given to abandon ship. No orders ever did reach our position and when I knew for sure the ship was going down I let them go.Petty Officer Jack Beckwith
The water by now was level with the upper deck, and I looked along the deck and saw my pal the Chief Stoker [Ed. this could have been PO Jack Beckwith, although at the time he was not yet a Chief Stoker] come up from the stokehole.
Over I went, after kicking off my boots, and swam as far as I could away from the ship. I suddenly had the desire to look back and saw the bow and stern sticking up in the air and plunge below.
There were bobbing heads all over the place, some covered with oil fuel, poor chaps. I swam towards the sloop, HMS Halcyon, and I came up with two of my radar operators. They were just about all in, so I got between the two and told them everything would be okay, and if they felt tired to grab hold of my clothing.Acting Petty Officer Telegraphist Bill baker
I got out and was able to grab a piece of wood. Soon after I found a wounded sailor who was struggling, him not being able to swim or unable to swim due to his injuries, so I gave him the wood.
Soon after, another sailor came towards us wearing three life belts who also made a grab for the piece of wood. I told him off, took one of the lifebelts from him and gave it to the wounded sailor.Petty Officer Jack Beckwith
When we got nearer the Halcyon’s side, the crew were throwing ropes to us survivors. I managed to catch one, and told these two lads to hold on fast as they were pulled to the ship’s side and helped on board. I took it easy, and eventually got to the ship’s side, and tried to climb up the rescue net. I got hold of the bottom rope, and as the ship rose on the swell, I thought my arms were being pulled out. But two lusty AB’s grabbed my braces in their hurry. And, lo and behold, twang went the strings of my harp, and I managed to get on board with my trousers around my ankles. And then made my way to the galley to get warm, took off my clothes, dried them out, and put them on again. Then took out all the money I had, which was six pound in notes, and dried them on the galley stove. And someone gave me a tot of rum, and that steadied me fine.Acting Petty Officer Telegraphist Bill baker
I was in the water for about two hours before being rescued. This all happened near Harwich and I was taken to Portsmouth Barracks when we docked.Petty Officer Jack Beckwith
Petty Officer Jack Beckwith, RN
That night Jack had to endure further bombing by the Luftwaffe when they attacked Portsmouth. The next day, while on the bus back to his home in Fareham Jack overheard two women talking about the bombing; something snapped and he couldn’t stand it anymore, he screamed at them to stop. When he finally arrived at his front door he was unable to open it, his keys were with the Wren. When my grandmother opened the door to him, she found him just standing there, unable to move or speak. She said later that said he was unrecognisable.
After his survivor’s leave was up, PO Jack Beckwith joined the crew of HMS Windsor (D42), another W & V Class Destroyer. He served on the Windsor until November 1942 and was later posted to HMS Talybont (L17) in January 1943 where he served out the remainder of the war.
Jack Beckwith, My Grandfather
Although he saw action again, the events of 27th July 1940 continued to haunted him. He blamed the Wren’s Commanding Officer for the loss of some of the young Stokers under his command because the order to abandon ship wasn’t given immediately the bombs struck when it was clear to everyone that the Wren was doomed (it should be noted that as the commanding officer of the Wren, Lt.Cdr. Frederick Harker did not survive the sinking and it’s possible the order to abandon ship never came because the officers had been killed or incapacitated by the bombs’ explosion). The crew were duty-bound to stay at action stations until released and crucial moments were lost for the men below to get up to the decks and off the Wren. By accounts handed down to me from my father, Jack nonetheless carried that bitterness the remainder of his life.
Today PTSD is a well known and largely understood result of the kind of experience the Wren’s sinking was; Jack’s generation didn’t have that, they coped as best they could, and not always as they’d wish or be proud of. None of us who didn’t experience what men like Jack experienced can imagine what it was like, or what to did to them; and nor can we whose world growing up was so far removed from that of even our parents’ imagine what it did to the families of men like Jack and how they coped with the aftermath of such debilitating trauma.
I remember my Jack as my Grandpa. To me he was a man who played dominoes with me every time we visited, and sometimes he’d let me win. He never failed to pretend to be amused when my brother or I punched the back of his newspaper while he read it held up high in front of him. I remember he’d create vast billowing clouds of pepper over, on and around his his Sunday roast, the preparation of which he always seemed to be an active participant. I remember that I never, not once, sliced the bread thin enough, and always put too much butter on it; and I remember that he’d always let me off with a smile. He would take me with him to dig the new potatoes in his vegetable patch in the large back garden, the same garden where my Nanna watched the Battle of Britain take place above her, where the wartime Anderson Shelter still stood off to the side of the house, ideal for boys’ adventures, and next to the bonfire patch were there was always something to burn. And, all this in the same house he returned to that late July day in 1940, when my Nanna, Ellen (a name my own daughter now has) helped him inside and no doubt tried to console him. Jack was my Grandpa.
As usual there’s a model attached to this piece, this one is of the Wren. Someone said to me while I was building it that he was sure Jack would enjoy seeing it. I’m not convinced that is true; aside from only being part of her crew for three weeks I imagine much of his memory of the Wren would be about the day she was sunk. It was perhaps the ship upon which the one of the most most impactful events of his life took place though. So, if he wouldn’t be pleased in a literal sense to see the model, I hope that he would like that I built it as a way to remember him, and to commemorate each of the other 136 men on the Wren that day, of whom 37 didn’t come home. I hope that he would appreciate the model for that, at least.
Showcase Models 1/350 HMS/HMAS Vendetta
The W & V Class Destroyers were modified throughout their service lives and for the uninitiated – me – that creates a researching challenge in order to build an accurate model of any particular one. With the Wren though, I was somewhat lucky. At the time of her sinking HMS Wren was actually very close to her as-built configuration, which the kit represents. She had not been modified to either a long or short range escort and so retained both mast and torpedo tubes. This meant that I didn’t have to make very many modifications to the base kit configuration to represent Wren as she was in July 1940. That said, the model is not totally accurate but nonetheless I believe it’s a good representation of how the Wren looked in July 1940.
The build began with assembly of the beautifully moulded hull and foredeck. I learned very early in this build that actually I couldn’t progress in the same manner as with an aircraft. Assembly, paint, detailing and finish coats would be concurrent processes and this narrative will be the same.
After attaching the decks I painted according to the references I could find, the most important of which is Sovereign Hobbies website which contains first class research and information on RN colours and markings. Wren was one of only six of her class that didn’t receive a major refit either before or at the start of the war. This meant she likely still carried her as-built cortescene decking (the red brick colour seen below).
With the deck painted, I began work on installing the deck items such as bollards, vents, winches, etc. They were tiny, and a big shock to this 1/48 scale aircraft builder!
I struggled with the PE early on, the railing seen above bottom right was my best attempt but clearly not very good. I continued working from the stern towards the bow. While not yet at the standard I was hoping for, I was becoming used to the scale and feel like I was improving. The searchlight station was a lowlight though…
The Wren, like all of her class had a modified bridge structure installed during the 1920s which the kit does not represent. The photo below is dated late 1930s and clearly shows Wren’s bridge structure post refit.
I sourced a new bridge from Shapeways and began the assembly. After painting the basic structure I added the wing railings and ladders. This went remarkably well and significantly boosted my confidence with the PE. Next I applied some tissue to represent the canvass cover with diluted PVA glue.
I added the 4.7inch gun to its decking and the bridge was finished with paint and some basic weathering before installation.
The basic assembly was more or less complete, I needed to add the markings and then the forward mast as well as the foredeck fittings and anchors.
Next came the markings. Throughout her career Wren had carried the pennant number D88 but in May 1940 the Admiralty changed the pennant numbering system and she became I88 along with all the destroyers in her class. Although not terribly visible, I painted a rectangle of slightly different grey to represent the painted-out “D” before applying the kit decals for “I88” each side and on the stern. I also completed the foredeck fittings.
At this point, the only construction task remaining was the forward mast (I had already completed a small but necessary modification to the aft mast).
With the mast assembled and installed, I decided it was time to give the model its flat finish and weathering. Weathering was kept light with some pastel chalk staining and a little dry brushing of both highlights and in some cases darkening.
Rigging and Rails
It’s hard to describe how much I wasn’t looking forward to the rigging. However, using the elastic rigging wire I had used on the Wessex antennas, it turned out that I was fretting for nothing.
I worked methodically from various sources on the rigging arrangement. I’m quite sure it’s not correct as I’ve done it, but I’m also happy it’s a good representation.
Lastly, the railing needed to be added. This was another task I was not looking forward to but which turned out to be easy. Adding the rails to the entire ship took around 20 minutes.
This will not be my last ship model. In fact, I’ve already added the next two to my stash. Once I overcame the initial shock at how small everything was, and more importantly adjusted to the different cadence that ship building is, I settled into a very comfortable place with this model. Ship modelling isn’t like aircraft modelling and I must say that I found it quite… relaxing isn’t the right word, something more akin to crafting. I liked it.
If you would like more detail on this build, a full diary of this build can be found in my Work in Progress thread at Britmodeller.
References and Sources
The quoted sections attributed to PO Jack Beckwith RN were transcribed from notes given me by my own father, Jack’s son. Whether Jack ever used those words and phrases I don’t know, but they are as recorded by my father and are as likely as not how Jack described those events.
The quotes attributed to Bill Baker are sourced from the Wren’s page at the V & W Destroyer Association website, an excellent resource for anyone interested in the type.
My historical references on this piece were more or less the photos included plus the sites listed below.
For the model, I was the beneficiary of some great advice and assistance from a few individuals on the forums at Britmodeller.com where my full build diary is logged in the Maritime WIP Section.
This article, its text, and photos of the model is my original work and is protected by copyright in its entirety, except where noted. All research sources are listed in the References and Credits section above, including photos from official sources. All other images and quoted content were sourced from the internet and are used here under protection of fair-use. Any copyrighted content will be happily removed and/or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.