Memories of a Minesweeper

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| This is the 422nd story of Our Life Logs |


I was born in 1908, the third of four children, two boys and two girls, in Birmingham, England. I can still remember the smell of the city streets before there were cars. Trams and horse-drawn carts trundled past, merchants delivered goods daily, as we lined up to buy coal, bread, milk, and fish from them. If we weren’t in the streets, we’d watch them from the windows, as did our neighbors. If a horse left its droppings behind, everyone would rush out into the street and collect it for their gardens. It made great fertilizer.

At the start of the first world war, I was six years old, much too young to really understand what was going on. After the men marched off to war, suddenly, only women and children walked the streets. The city dug up the paving stones to have more space to grow vegetables in an attempt to keep people from going hungry. Eventually, the war ended, but life was never the same, at least not for my family. My father died when I was still learning how to be a man myself. All I had left of him was his old pocket watch. After his death, I never left home without it.

As a young man, I worked for the Norwich Union Insurance Company in Birmingham as an insurance clerk. While I was working, I did a degree in Economics by attending evening classes. At the time, I was still living in the family home with my widowed mother; my siblings all married and moved away. My life seemed to be moving steadily, without much change.

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Then came the second world war in 1939. At 31, I was old enough to be commissioned and more than capable to serve. I volunteered to join the Royal Navy, and as I had a degree, I was given a temporary commission as Gunnery Officer. I did basic training in the UK and was based in Cardiff before going to sea.

It’s funny. One day I’m going to work in a suit to sell insurance, and the next I’m off to greet the great unknown.

I should mention here that while I was on leave in 1940 between finishing my training and being posted abroad, I met Margaret Hill at a dance. She was a purchasing officer who was nine years my junior, and I fell in love with her instantly. Six months later, we got hitched! Because of the clothing shortage, Margaret couldn’t get a proper wedding dress, but I didn’t care. She was my bride. Then in 1944, our eldest son, “Kenny,” was born right before I was back off to war.

wedding day 1940
Margaret and me on our wedding day, 1940.

For the next two years, I went back to my position as a Gunnery Officer on HMS Squirrel, a vessel used to destroy naval mines. You might know it as a “minesweeper.”

I remember it well. The mines sat below the surface of the water like metal koi, tied down with a rope or chain. A diver on our team would cut their ties so it could peek above the surface and be detonated with careful hands. After sailing away, we’d send off one final shot, making it explode. There was a battle of wits going on, as the Navy conquered one type of mine, a different one would be invented. This would then require a new method of finding and destroying.

It was never a job you could just get used to. There is no routine in the fear of life or death.

Navy pictures that show HMS Squirrel and his crew
Old photos of the HMS Squirrel and its crew.

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While I was away, I often thought about my wife and young son back home. I missed much of my son’s first year of life, but I knew that I had a job to do. The war wouldn’t last forever.

In July of 1945, an operation was planned for our team of 85 men. We were to sweep mines for three days off the west coast of the Malay isthmus to the north of the Malacca Strait, near Thailand. We had a support crew with us which consisted of heavy units, aircraft carriers, and escorts.

I was on the bridge of the ship with the other officers when it happened. First the crash, then the flames. They shot up from the deck while the smoke and ash blurred the air in front of our faces. That’s when we felt the ship begin to teeter. We’d hit a bomb. The ship was preparing to sink.

Everything happened so fast, the crew began to panic and another officer gave the order to abandon ship. I could see men leaping into the choppy waves while I ran to the edge of the ship. I was never a very strong swimmer, many of us weren’t, so I had no idea what would happen when I hit the water. I found out.

When my head broke through the sharp crests, I felt my uniform become heavy. I prayed for our rescue. I prayed to see my wife. My child. My mother. The breeze wafted the smoke in my eyes and my nose while the saltwater buried into my wounds. I felt my father’s pocket watch begin to drift away from my body. It was something I wasn’t ready to lose, something I needed to give to my son. I shoved it deeper into my clothes and kept my focus on a way out.

Ken's father's watch he had with him as the ship sank and a note from his wife
My father’s pocket watch.

Then I saw the ship. The forward structure was wiped out. I spent the next two hours treading water, with nothing but perseverance to keep me from death.

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And then, I saw my crew who had managed to salvage the lifeboat and toss them in the water. Their muscles strained as they pulled body after body to safety. I knew I would have to endure the waves, otherwise, they would pull me under. Slowly, carefully, I paddled my limbs toward the rest of the crew.

Our support crew was planning a rescue operation via aircraft carrier; all men had to be accounted for. It took two hours for them to regain all the living. Seven of the crew that I’d been working with died during that operation. I remember how we pulled their dead bodies on deck.

The boat was still partly afloat but had taken on a heavy list due to flooding. As the Royal Navy didn’t want the Japanese to know that we had been sweeping mines there, it was scuttled two and a half hours after the mine had exploded.

However, we had already been found out by the Japanese, and a suicide plane attacked one of our aircraft carriers. It was gunned down before it collided with our support boat. Our support crew sunk the ship using gunfire and the wreck was left hidden below the water.

The minute I was back on dry land, I was able to send a one-line telegram to my wife. It read, “am well and fit anxiety unnecessary.”

the telegram to his wife 1945
The telegram I sent.

I looked at my pocket watch. It was still with me and still ticking. All my other possessions had been in my cabin and were now lost at sea, some keepsakes from my wife; our wedding photo and a picture of baby Kenny. And then, I thought of the men whose souls remained at sea. What war takes cannot be replaced.

Medals from WWII
The medals I received from serving in WWII.

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At the end of the war, in 1946, the Navy sent me to Bombay in India to work as a resettlement officer and organized the returning of people home after the war. After the war, I worked in Birmingham again for Norwich Union, they had kindly kept my job open for me while I had been in the Navy. Margaret and I had another son in 1947, whom we named Michael, and I settled back into family life.

One day I’m clinging to dear life and a pocket watch and the next I’m coming home for dinner with my family. It made me rethink everything.

Before the war, I had enjoyed being out in the countryside and reading all about agriculture. I decided that I wanted to put the theory I was learning from the books into practice, to have my own farm one day. I hadn’t pursued this because I didn’t want to lose my “stable” job. But after seeing the eyes of death, I had to ask myself, what was there to lose by chasing this pipedream? What was there to gain?

The following year, life took an interesting turn. I was promoted at Norwich Union and was moved from Birmingham to the head office in Norwich. My family of four were to live in Bedingham, a country village about 12 miles from town—the perfect place to have a farm. I would be able to keep my day job and a little family homestead.

We bought a smallholding, called Osbornes Farm, which required a lot of getting used to. The facilities were basic; there was no water or electricity when we first moved. And as we had always lived in the city, we had to learn how to collect and use the runoff water from the roof for washing, keep livestock happy, and sustain a healthy harvest. Good thing we were fast learners.

In 1949, our family grew again as our last son Simon was born. By that time, Margaret and I had a handle on the pigs, the hens, and had figured how to nurse a good apple orchard.

Ken with his three sons circa 1950s
With my three sons, c. 1950.

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In 1980, When I was 70 years old, I decided that the farm was becoming too much. It was a lot of work, and I was getting tired; it was time to downsize. I had a house built in the orchard of the original farmhouse, which we named Orchard Cottage. We sold the rest of the farm, and I lived here with my wife until 1994.

War does not define a life, but it does shape the future. What I saw, what I felt—it taught me that we can’t control what happens to us and that we don’t know how long we have on this earth. After a long life, I do not find this notion sad, rather, one that is full of freedom. One that urges us to take every chance that passes us by. 

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This is the story of Kenneth Latham

Kenneth Latham was born in 1908 and survived two world wars. When he was 31 years old, Kenneth served in the Royal Navy during WWII as a Gunnery Officer on HMS Squirrel which was sunk on July 24, 1945 in the Malacca Straits near Thailand. Kenneth was then posted to India where he worked as a resettlement officer. After the war, he returned to his job in Birmingham and was later moved to the head office in Norwich. After the war, Kenneth was awarded four medals for his service. He received the 1939-1945 War medal, the 1939-1945 star for serving in the second world war, the Burma Star for serving in the Burma campaign, and the France and Germany Star.

Kenneth died in 1994, at the age of 86, of a heart attack. He was preceded in death by his son Kenny, who died in 1963 from a sudden outbreak of influenza. Kenneth is survived by his wife, two sons, and two granddaughters. This story was written in his memory.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on August 17, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Colleen Walker |

 

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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