Interview by Peter White
But Roy Hollis was no ordinary sailor, and until recently he was one of only around 200 surviving sailors from the 66,500 who served in the Russian convoys.
Inspired by his paternal grandfather, his thoughts as a youngster were only ever ‘to go to sea’. However, even he could not have envisaged his meteoric rise to prominence in a 26-year career that saw him involved in four separate wars, including the horrors of World War II.
Yet when he was forced into premature retirement from the Navy, Roy was not the type to sit around and feel sorry for himself. Instead, he embarked on a career in teaching that ultimately saw him rise through the educational ranks almost as quickly as he did when at sea.
Roy was born in 1918, just before the end of World War One. Despite his sight defect and a severe hearing problem, he remained active and alert. And his mind was razor sharp, as he underlined when he recounted some of the incredible experiences of his life at sea.
“When I saw pictures of my grandfather’s sailing ship, I knew the sea was cut out for him, and I wished to follow in his footsteps. So after school and passing the necessary exams, a school friend and I were selected to become officer cadets for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. But my grandfather ‘blew up’ at the thought of me disappearing into the Merchant Navy, and ordained I should go into the ‘proper Navy’ and start at the bottom,” smiled Roy. “So I did as a Boy Seaman second class, when I joined the training establishment in Gosport on HMS St Vincent in 1933 on a weekly wage of one shilling and a penny-halfpenny (6p!).”
Roy reflected that during his varied and interesting Naval career, he came up against ‘greatness of one sort or another’ several times. In 1935 he was serving in HMS Hood when he was involved in his first conflict, the Abyssinian War. He said: “One of the first things I did as a boy sailor was to be rowed secretly into Alexandria Harbour where we waited in a dark corner. None of us knew we were there to rescue Haile Selassie, the then deposed Emperor of Abyssinia. We got him out, although one of his top aides had already been murdered trying to escape.”
Roy remembered being a young sailor in Destroyer HMS Boreas during the Spanish War. He had already become a boy First Class Ordinary Seaman, and at the earliest possible age was promoted to Able Seaman – and as he progressed he often found himself the youngest of his rank in the whole of the British Navy.
“During the Spanish War we once waited just outside the three-mile exclusion limit for a British merchant ship that had been machine-gunned as it left harbour. We were sent to lend a hand, and that was the role of the British Navy of that era – a majestic force representing the might of the British Empire right around the world,” he said.
“We boarded the ship and I was despatched to look for people in need of first aid. I ended up in the lower hold where I saw a woman crying. She was about to give birth, so as a teenage sailor I was introduced to midwifery at its crudest! I later heard via Admiralty Signal that ‘mother and child were doing well’. That experience showed that in the Royal Navy you were required to do anything, anywhere.”
Roy was serving in HMS Penelope in 1937 when he became engaged in his third conflict in as many years – the Palestinian War. He said: “By then I had reached the dizzy rank of Acting Leading Seaman. I was very proud of it, the only one of that age in thousands of British sailors. But it meant I was invariably picked out for special duties.
“Once I was switched to khaki uniform and found myself on shore, first driving a three-ton Army lorry, and then driving a train. I had never done anything like it before, but I was put on the train’s foot plate, and told to make sure it got there. I was given a pistol and told to shoot anyone who disagreed with the idea.
“Again that was part and parcel of life in the Royal Navy, although none of my training had prepared me for midwifery, driving a lorry or being in charge of a train!”
Roy’s promotions continued, and he told me: “I am blessed that my life seems to have been filled with these one-off experiences. As a newly-promoted staff officer attending an official lunch, I once found myself sitting between the King of Norway and the King of Sweden. I had gone beyond fish and chips by then but was not used to that type of occasion. I often wondered ‘why me?’. Fortuitously an opportunity occurred, and I was on hand to fill it.”
At the start of World War II in 1939 he was a Sub Lieutenant Officer of the Watch in a coal burning ship, HMS Sutton, sweeping mines in the English Channel. He said: “It was a strange experience on my first day on board seeing everyone carrying sacks of coal around the ship. My Captain told me I was to be his Correspondence Officer looking after all his confidential books and secret war documents. My cabin was fitted with a steel locker, so if we were sunk no one could find the documents. But every time I walked past the locker I tripped over the damn thing!”
Roy was trained to take charge of the ship in the absence of the Captain, and his first experience of minesweeping was to clear a route through the Channel for a convoy of merchant ships that were due to travel through it. They swept meticulously without bringing up a single mine, only to discover that the convoy had already gone through a few hours earlier – without mishap!
In 1941 Roy was transferred to destroyer HMS Ashanti, where he was introduced to the ‘real horrors and depravations’ of World War II. He said: “We escorted hundreds of merchant ships which were being attacked by packs of U-boats and diving aircraft. I remember vividly seeing ships blazing, and hearing the terrible cries of men in the water. We were not allowed to pick up survivors so as not to become a sitting target; we had to sail on to the next job. Even now sometimes when I wake up in the night I can still see the flames of the ships burning and hearing those cries. I think of the families who lost those men at sea.”
Roy was Navigating Officer in HMS Punjabi, engaged in convoys to Russia off the North Cape of the icy Barents Sea in 1942 when his ship was sunk with the loss of 136 lives. He said: “I had been on the bridge and got thrown into the water with a few other stragglers. I ended up on the hull of the ship holding the ship’s cat – and I am not a cat lover!
“Somehow we avoided mines, submarines and dive-bombing aircraft, and we were picked up by another destroyer. I had been in the icy water a long time, and my whole body was virtually stiff, but I was determined to get through it. I was one of the few lucky survivors, having been married just a few weeks earlier to my wife Monica. Her wedding present to me was a thick jacket, which unbeknown to me her mother had sewn a silver flask of brandy – which probably helped save my life.”
Roy met Monica while they were playing hockey against each other on St Helens Green. He smiled: “She was better than me, so I thought I better marry her.” They were wed at St Helens Church, and had been married nearly 71 years when he passed away.
Within three weeks of his ship being sunk in World War II, he was back at sea, and remained in the Navy until 1959. Then after taking premature retirement he became a teacher, via a spell with Rolls Royce. He said: “I felt ready to start again, and that is exactly what I did, but on a much-reduced income.”
After three years with Rolls Royce he turned to teaching, and was accepted as a mature student at Southampton University. Having sailed through exams as he sailed the oceans, Roy took a post at Cowes High School, was promoted to Head of Department at Priory Girls School, and then moved to Upper Chine Public School for Girls.
Education re-organisation resulted in a switch to the former Grammar School, now Carisbrooke High School, and he was promoted to Senior Master, where he pioneered teaching techniques that were followed in schools right across the country. During his life Roy visited some 50 different countries and was also an accomplished sportsman, enjoying football, tennis, athletics, boxing, cricket fencing, and of course hockey. Upon retirement he played bowls and bridge, and often sailed and swam.
When his beloved Monica fell ill, and he could no longer care for her, he visited her twice a day at the Elms Nursing Home until his passing. He once said: “When we got married it was for ‘better or worse’. While it could now be labelled ‘for worse’ I am cheerful enough to regard our continued, albeit broken life together as a happy ending, compared with so very many tens of thousands of others. So as we move into the final chapter it is ‘for better’.”