From the boy scouts to the mighty battleships

April 24, 2018

PAT O’Shaughnessy was just 13 and had just narrowly missed being hit by a German bomb.

It must have been terrifying, scarring, but Pat, now 92, said it was actually like something out of a dream — or nightmare.

The kind where you can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t blink.

One minute he was riding a bicycle across a bridge on the outskirts of his south England hometown, the next he heard a sound that made his blood run cold — the roar of a German plane.

Frozen to his bicycle seat, Pat watched, mesmerised, as the plane dipped low in the sky and dropped a bomb. Then another, and another.

And the plane and its stick of falling bombs was coming straight for him, at blinding speed and framed by explosions as bomb after bomb smashed into the ground.

Pat said he just watched, even leaning over the bridge to get a better look as the bombs exploded around him.

It was the first time he had faced death and demonstrated an unshakeable calmness.

A strength that would serve him well in the coming; chaotic years of war.

Even though he was just a skinny kid of 13 when England lay besieged, standing alone against the German juggernaut which now ruled Western Europe, he quickly found something to do to help out.

There were boy scouts, army cadets and then the Home Guard (a civilian force that could relieve Britain’s battered army from routine but essential guard, patrol, and transport and support roles).

His first job out of school was at Hamble airfield, bolting tails onto Hurricanes and Spitfires. It was tight work, jammed inside the narrow fuselage, but Pat didn’t mind — even then he was mad on planes.

Once the plane was assembled, they’d pull it onto to the tarmac to test it out.

It was a time before OH&S, with Pat and another bloke hanging onto either side of the plane to keep it on the ground as the pilots revved the engine.

“We heard about an occasion at another airfield where the plane actually took off with both blokes hanging on for dear life,” he laughed.

“Thankfully they managed to safely land it with the boys still on board.”

Pat tried to join the army when he was 14, but was knocked back for being too obviously young (although that did not stop 12-year-old American Calvin Graham joining the US Navy in 1942 and ending the war with a Bronze Star for bravery and Purple Heart for being wounded. Or Reg Earnshaw, an English cabin boy killed at 14 on the SS Devon when it was attacked by German planes).

“It was frustrating, especially when the Germans were dropping bombs on us,” he said.

“I wanted to fight back.”

At 15, Pat was finally accepted into the Navy.

That same year he was posted to the battleship HMS King George V – the lead ship of the Navy’s V-class fleet.

And “that’s when the fun really started”.

While Pat was still in the early days of his Navy career his ship, nicknamed KG5 by its crew, took part in the hunt for the feared German pocket battleship Bismarck – a bloody confrontation that saw HMS Hood, the pride of the fleet, sunk by the German with just three survivors from its complement of 1418 men.

But the Bismarck would be sunk just days later.

Looking back on the running four-day battle, shells raining down on the ship as they fought to cripple the German giant, Pat said it was just a blur.

“Let’s just say it’s no wonder I’m deaf now,” he said.

Two years later, at just 17, Pat had climbed the ranks to become a non-commissioned officer.

A daunting promotion – he was still a kid and suddenly found himself in charge of men who were the same age as his grandfather.

In March 1945, KG5 sailed for the Pacific as part of Task Force 57 – or, as Pat puts it, “to give the Japs a bit of a hiding”.

After setting up base in Australia, the ship fought its way to the Japanese Ryukyu Islands where, on May 4, 1945, his battleship led a 45-minute bombardment of Japanese land-based airfield facilities.

It was during this stint Pat saw something he could never have imagined – kamikaze attacks.

He and his mates watched helplessly as Japanese planes hurtled out of the sky, exploding on ships in devastating acts of suicide.

“It was very frightening. We knew, unlike the Germans, they wouldn’t pull out,” he said.

It was during this time Pat realised how lucky a ship KG5 really was.

Despite several kamikazes taking aim at his ship, she was never hit.

One night the ship was headed into Japanese home waters when she was told to withdraw. The next morning, they knew why.

“That morning we saw the American planes fly overhead with an atomic bomb,” he said.

“When it went off we were 80 miles away, so we couldn’t see it.”

On August 15, King George V sailed into Tokyo Bay.

As one of Pat’s mates exclaimed as they moved closer, “that whole bloody island looks like confetti”.

Every gun and every placement along the coastline was fluttering with white flags of surrender.

Several weeks later, on September 2, the war officially, finally, ended. But it would be a few months before Pat would be discharged from the service and when he did get his papers he immediately headed to Sydney, where he married Betty, a beautiful nurse he had met during the war years while on leave in Australia.

While Pat said he was excited to come home, he admitted it took a while to settle into the regular rhythm of life before the war.

“I missed my mates on the ship. They were like family,” he said.

“I didn’t have much of a childhood like most kids today. I was virtually a schoolboy then suddenly I was fighting a war.

“But we were all like that. We lived and breathed that ship. It was home.”

And it brought its crew home too.

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