Friday, November 11th, 2016
With a hull form derived from the famous Brixham sailing trawlers, our Picton Castle started her life as a fishing vessel after she was launched back in 1928, fishing from the ports of Milford Haven and Swansea in Wales. The actual castle for which she is named is quite close to Milford Haven. When World War II came, many fishing trawlers vessels were pressed into service in Britain’s Royal Navy including our Picton Castle. She became HMS Picton Castle, was fitted with minesweeping equipment and became a minesweeper and convoy escort. Her crew were usually made up of fishermen who knew that type of gear so well and a few regular navy ratings to handle the guns and mines she carried, all in the command of a fairly junior Naval Reserve officer. These small former fishing vessels and their rough and ready crews made up a flotilla known as “Harry Tate’s Navy” after a dishevelled vaudeville entertainer of the times. Maybe a bit similar to “McHale’s Navy”.
In 1942, HMS Picton Castle took part in the Saint Nazaire Raid. The object was to destroy the drydock facilities in German-occupied Saint Nazaire. This was the only large drydock on the Atlantic coast that the Germans could use to drydock their vessels. If this facility was unavailable, the large German ships would have to go up the heavily guarded English Channel and all around Denmark to get to the north coast of Germany in order to drydock. This was a very vulnerable passage for a German naval vessel. The raid was successful, with the former US WWI Lend-Lease destroyer HMS Campbeltown smashing into the lock gates and later exploding with such force to take out the drydock for the remainder of the war. This also resulted in Hitler calling for shooting such commandos upon capture and skipping the prisoner-of-war scenario.
RN veteran and telegraph operator Tom Gamble who sailed in the HMS Picton Castle throughout the war tells of a time that his ship was blown clear out of the water by a mine. They steamed to port and drydocked her but found no damage. Back to sea she went.
Later in WWII, while sweeping for mines in the North Sea, HMS Picton Castle developed a problem and had to put in to the nearest port, which happened to be Bergen, Norway. The Germans had just decided to abandon Norway rather than fight and so decamped. The next day the HMS Picton Castle appeared in the desolate empty harbour flying the Union Jack, was greeted by some two officials and has since been hailed as the “Liberator of Norway.” From the VE Day May 8, 1945 until December of that same year our ship swept the waters of the recent hostilities for mines. We can be confident that she found many. Mines pop up to this day in the North Sea and coastal waters of Europe.
On this Remembrance Day, we laid a wreath at the ceremony in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in memory of one of Picton Castle’s early supporters (early as a sailing ship), Lunenburg’s Martin Eisenhauer and all, like him, who served in the Royal Navy and took part in some of the most grueling convoys of the Battle of the Atlantic. He may have seen the little Picton Castle sweeping for mines or escorting a convoy on its last miles into safe harbour.