Freddie Treves is now well-known and highly recognisable actor, having appeared in countless plays, films and television programmes. But back in August 1943, he was seventeen, two weeks out of school, and a junior cadet officer in the Merchant Navy – and caught up in one of the most dangerous yet ultimately celebrated Allied convoys of all time…
FREDERICK TREVES JUNE 2002
Can I ask you about your childhood, where you grew up and so forth….
To start at the very beginning. I was born 29 March 1925 the son of a doctor in Margate, Kent. I went to a prep school called Selwyn House run by a friend of my father’s in Broadstairs. From there at 13 I went to the Nautical College Pangbourne. I didn’t try for a place at Dartmouth because you had to have Latin and I was very bad at Latin. My father died during my first term at Pangbourne. The family was then rather short of money and we had to move house. My brother John went to Epsom and became a doctor and my sister Vivienne went to a convent in Westgate. Whilst at Pangbourne I went from being a Cadet to being head of house. I was a chief cadet captain. We had a remarkable friend called Mrs Becker, we called her Aunt Dudie. Her husband had left Germany where he’d run a big chemical firm. She was a non-Jewish lady and a member of a large brewing family and very wealthy. My father had been his doctor and when my father died, Aunt Dudie took on our family and educated us. My mother paid no fees. I didn’t know what to do at 17, so I went into the Merchant service. By then it was 1942 and the war was on.
Had you decided that you wanted to go into the Navy?
No. In those days your parents often chose what you were going to be. My father was keen on me going to Dartmouth because it was the best place.
You just accepted that that was the way it was.
Oh yes. And it was run on military lines. The regime was tough. We were up at 6am, went for a run, had a cold shower, went on parade and all this before you even sat down to do any work.
And you didn’t resent it?
Oh no, not at all. Anyway I joined a sip called the Weimerama. It was converted for the war. She went at the colossal speed of 12 knots; most of them went at 6 knots. The convoy that I was in was a very special one. Having been a top dog at Pangbourne I went straight down to being an apprentice. I was officially a junior officer. There were 3 or 4 of us. The only man I got to really know was a senior apprentice called Hugh Ross. I was called Cadet Treves. I was 17 years and 5 months. I joined the Weimerama at Birkenhead. I watched the loading. There were torpedoes and high octane fuel, machine guns, larger guns, grain and food. I kept an unofficial diary – we weren’t allowed to keep them. One entry says â€œApparently we are going to Malta – I had seen a case on the jetty which had Malta written on it.
To go from the relatively enclosed world of Pangbourne to this ship must have been extraordinary. Suddenly you were in the middle of a war.
There was an air raid whilst we were loading which was terrifying. I’d never seen people move so fast but we were stuck in the ship – there was nowhere else for us to go. Anyway we finished loading and went to join the rest of the convoy about 12 ships including the very famous American ship called the Ohio. It only carried high octane petrol in all its holds. Our ship had high octane aero spirit in number 6 hold at the stern of the ship. The part of the ship that I was in at action stations was the part of the ship where we had no explosives at all, just cement and lime. Afterwards I was told I was the youngest apprentice in the whole convoy. After the war there was a big do in a London nightclub and I was introduced to Milton Hayes (?) a great friend of Prince Philip’s and he had been the youngest Naval cadet. We had nothing in common, it was just a press job. Anyway, we joined up with these ships just off Dunoon. We set sail with a cruiser and destroyer escort out into the Atlantic, north of Ireland, where we met up with the 2 largest battle ships at that time, the Nelson and the Rodney who’d come from Scapa Flow I presume.
It must have been an extraordinary sight.
Oh it was. There were 30 destroyers, 10 or 12 cruisers, 5 aircraft carriers, Rodney and Nelson….. We set sail on 30 July and by 8 or 9 August I was up on deck on watch, the first or middle. I used to keep watch with a senior officer on the bridge and I remember seeing across the straits of Gibraltar lots of little white lights. We were going very slowly at about 3 or 4 knots in an attempt to make no noise. There was no talking on deck, no lights. Then suddenly across the whole convoy there was a string of lights. I was told later it was a Spanish fishing fleet. They of course were pro-German and must have counted the ships and reported back on this vast convoy. If we hadn’t got through, there would have been no Alamein, Malta would have fallen.
Can you remember thinking the Naval escort was impressive?
I suppose I did, but I can’t really recall. I was so young and had no experience of being at sea.
Did you know at the time how crucial that convoy was?
No. We knew Malta was pretty crucial, but I was just a young man doing a job. The weather was marvellous, it seemed like a piece of cake to begin with. We got into the Med and nothing really happened for a while and then the Germans attacked……then it got terrifying. Night after night, day after day. There was high level bombing, Stukas – very frightening – the first time you hear a Stuka it’s petrifying. They dive bomb and they have one 500lb bomb plus smaller weapons and they have a siren on the wings and it’s like a banshee from hell and then there were the JU 88’s, there were submarines, the E boats from North Africa with torpedoes, there was a submarine under the Eagle which was torpedoed. I went on deck. I saw all the people jumping into the sea, heard them screaming. It was a terrible sight. I think some of them must have survived, but masses died. That was the first major happening of the convoy. The noise was unbelievable. 16mm guns crashing away. Tracer fire, orange flashes everything. We never slept. The Germans were relentless. When we got to Malta there were about 4 ships left. There was a wonderful old man who looked after me. He was a seaman. I was the youngest and he was the oldest. His sons had both joined up and he felt he had to. I went in to get a cup of tea. There was a terrific raid going on and everyone was pissed! The chief steward had opened the lock up in the saloon! My friend Hugh Ross was on the bridge with the captain, it was the 13 August and a bomb hit us directly. It was about 7am. It was a JU 88. I was blown across the deck. The flames went up about 600 feet and the smoke about 6000 feet. Then the wind changed and that was what saved me. Hugh and the captain dived over the correct side. The rule was that you should always go over the side nearest the water and I went over the port side. There were 19 saved out of 109. Most people were panicking, but I was calm. I had a whistle and I was giving orders. I was picked up by the destroyer called the Ready, by a chap called Roger Hill who had been at Pangbourne. I was wearing a kapok suit and it was so heavy they nearly had to abandon me. The coxswain came out in a little wooden boat.
So when the explosion happened, you were blown quite away away?
Yes. Onto the bulkhead and I went through the door, which was another fortunate thing because I didn’t actually hit the bulkhead because that would have killed me. I landed on the lime and Bowdray landed on top of me. I got up and went onto the fore deck, the well deck saw the flames and the bridge going like this and I’d had a premonition of being hit and the bridge slanting to starboard and I went immediately to the wrong side and dived in and Bowdray must’ve come straight after me. I kept my helmet on or I would’ve broken my neck. The kapok suit was buoyant so I would’ve broken my neck. I kept the helmet on for a bit. The last time I saw Bowdray, he was on a raft, he couldn’t swim. I began to go towards him then the ship began to sink. It sank in 2 pieces. I saw the bows go down – all this was so new, I’d never had any experience like this before. It’s only afterwards you think â€œMy God! Anyway Bowdray got sucked into the ship and I went towards him but then I had to turn round because I knew that I’d be killed if I went into get him. Then another chap was in trouble, couldn’t swim, so I got him a piece of wood and I told him to cling onto it and I pulled him out of the area.
The ship must have sunk extremely quickly.
Oh yes. About 2 minutes. It’s difficult to judge of course but it was incredibly fast. So much is going on. All the water around was on fire. And the wind changed towards the African coast which kept the flames away from our group. We were surrounded and the Ledbury which was being attacked was trying to get into us and Roger Hill was talking to us over the loud hailer from the Ledbury saying I’ll come back for you but I’ve got to get rid of this bloody plane. Then this Petty Officer came towards us in a wooden boat and picked us up. Later I found out that 19 survived. On board the Ledbury I couldn’t leave the bridge – I used to crouch – I was petrified for 3 days. Actually, I did leave the bridge – there was a chap on the Weimerama on the 6 gun who’d been very badly burned but had been picked up by the Ledbury and I went down and stayed that first night with him but he died in the morning and was buried at sea in a canvas bag. But that was the only time in 3 days I left the bridge. I was out of it. We got to Malta…
It must have been a great relief to get to Malta
Well, it was. The first 2 people I saw had both been at Pangbourne! I was sent to a hotel in Sliema because I was an officer. We had tried to tow the Ohio but we were too small. 2 tugs brought her in. Then an air raid started, trying to get the Ohio. We dived for the tunnels and I had no clothes, no possessions so they gave me some khaki clothes to wear and we had our first meal – I’ll never forget it it was eggs and bacon. I don’t know where the rest of them went but I was sent to this little hotel. I was on hotel rations there, not army and my first big meal was a little tiny square of beef, 2 Brussels sprouts and 3 potatoes and this was a special meal! Then the Ledbury took us back. Again I slept on the bridge and there was no action all the way to Gib.
You must have been terrified.
Well, it was the only way home! on gib an ex marine came on board, he thought we were going via south africa because he wanted to jump ship and stay in Australia. He got a terrible shock when we turned into the med. then another funny thing happened. I was walking down the high street in Gib and I came face to face with my cadet captain from Pangbourne, John Young. He said what are you doing here, so I said I’ve just been blown up and he said â€œWell come back with us on the Indomitable. He was a flyer in command of a squadron. He introduced me to a chap called John Arthur who was the second navigator of the Indomitable and I shared his cabin. They smuggled me on board, the captain never knew I was there! We went up the bridge and John said Would you like to give the orders? And I did! I gave the orders for 20 minutes and then he said â€œWould you like to steer her! A 17 year old boy! If the captain had ever found out! We got back to Liverpool and I don’t know how I got home. I suppose I must have gone to Basingstoke where my mother was nursing. Then I had a breakdown. We went to a village near Totness and stayed in a pub which a lot of Intelligence people used, so I met a lot of spies. It was the Durant Arms. My sister’s school had been evacuated down there and because there were a lot of barges in Dartmouth in readiness for the invasion of Europe, the Germans were attacking the area. My mother and I were machine gunned once. We were going to see my sister and this chap decided to have a pop at us so we dived into a ditch. But I was in such a bad way mentally. It has affected my whole life. Even now I sometimes wake up in the night and hear the screams. It has made me very nervous. But it’s very difficult to explain to people who have no idea about the horror of it – never seen that kind of thing. It was just relentless. That was another thing I forgot to mention, the straits off North Africa were all mined and so when we were limping towards Malta and got to these straits, the Fleet couldn’t go any further and they turned round and left us. That was traumatic. That was on the night of the 12th. We were sitting ducks. The Germans went to town again. It was terrible.
Can you remember arriving in Malta to cheering crowds?
Oh yes. They turned out. I wrote a couple of plays about it. Then I transferred to the Royal Navy. I was under contract to Shaw Saville and so they weren’t too pleased.
But what happened when you got to Malta because presumably there was no-one to report to.
No, well I suppose I gave my name and the Navy looked after us. I suppose they arranged for me to go back on the Ledbury.
And when you got back to England, was there no-one there to report to?
No. It was all secret. Anyway when I transferred to the Navy I joined to the Cumberland in Newcastle. I became senior Midshipman almost immediately and so I was the Captains â€œTankee which meant I was the dogsbody. I used to get the motor boat out, run errands and so forth. We went to Scarborough and then we joined 2 others Norfolk and Belfast and we went off to Colombo, then Trinkamalee. I stayed with the Cumberland for a few weeks and we took part in a bombardment of the Malayan coast and I was in charge of the 4 guns, that was my action station, anti aircraft. I started up broadcasting over the tannoy, first time it had ever been done I think. I did that on the Cumberland and the Springtime. Then I was promoted to Sub Lieutenant and I was transferred to another ship in the harbour called the Springtime. On the Springtime a huge generator was put in and we de-gouged ships. We went alongside when they were in dry dock, and put a cable round and took the magnetism out so they wouldn’t be blown up by electric mines. Then I navigated back to England and I was 18 by then. I got the wrong course at one point. Number One came up on watch and asked me where we were I said, â€œHere Sir and he said â€œWe can’t be, that’s the middle of Somalia! Thank God he was on board! He took a sighting and got us back on course. That was Thownsend, David Thownsend of Thownsend Shipping. He was Number One and he was the only real naval officer on board and could do everything. Another funny thing on that trip was off Algiers there’s a very strong 10 knot current and our top speed was 10 knots and we were making no headway at all, not moving and were running short of fuel. I’d made a mistake when I’d taken us straight through a minefield in the Bay of Serranto. Terrible! Terrible! We were 6 hours early when we got back to England and the captain St John Wallace told me to tootle round the lighthouse at Devonport! The final mistake I made was to have mistaken a wreck buoy for a starboard hand buoy! Luckily Number One shouted out and we missed the wreck – just! The war must have been over by then. My mother wanted me to go to Cambridge and I said I didn’t want to do that and I told her I wanted to be an actor. She said Thank God your father isn’t alive. My first job was at Amersham Rep with Sally Latimer. I was there for a month but got the sack when I let the counter weight slip through my fingers. I nearly killed the leading lady.
When did you decide you wanted to act?
It was in Trinkamalee. I was in a show called George and Margaret and I played the father and we played to about 6,000 troops. I’d just met John Guelgud who was touring out there with Blythe Spirit and when we were de-gouging an LCI came alongside and I met a charming man called Hugh Cross who was an actor and was in command of this ship. We got talking and he said â€œHave you ever thought of acting? I said â€œNo, but he persuaded me to give it a go. George and Margaret was a comedy and the troops seemed to love it and I suppose I must’ve enjoyed it. So I never went to Cambridge and that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
At least you wrote plays…
Oh yes. I wrote quite a few plays, radio plays and a few articles. I wrote a radio play about Operation Pedestal.