Albert Riddle, a boy sailor in the Royal Navy during World War 2. Fought the Bismark and was sunk on HMS Prince of Wales but survived the war.
Unlike the Army where front-line service was generally restricted to adults, service in the Royal Navy was open much younger boys. Boy Sailors were actively recruited from the age of 15-years-old during World War Two (WW2).
Albert Riddle was one such sailor. Having tried to sign up a year earlier aged just 14-years-old and been rejected, he'd joined up as soon as he was old enough. After a brief period of training he was posted to HMS Prince of Wales with over 100 other boys and he was off to war. He describes himself as "5 foot 5 inches tall and very excited".
Albert's first taste of combat was against the Bismark. Despite a narrow miss, he survived. However HMS Hood, accompanying HMS Prince of Wales, was sunk with the loss of 71 boy sailors.
On 10 December 1941, HMS Prince of Wales was in Singapore. Winston Churchill was confident that ships would not be susceptible to the Japanese bombing and so would be able to protect the island. This was to prove somewhat over-confident and, despite having the most advanced anti-aircraft technology of the time, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk.
Albert Riddle was lucky. Initially Albert ran below decks determined to save his close friends, James and Robert Young. He found them clung together, one so seriously injured he had no hope of escape. Despite his pleas, the other refused to leave his brother and Albert found himself swimming for his life in the oil cover sea.
“As I abandoned the Prince of Wales the sea was black with oil, three inches thick. There were bodies around me. If you were a poor swimmer or injured you would go down, even if you took a mouthful you would die. I tried to keep some people afloat but it was too hard.
“A lot of people were badly burnt in the attack. I don’t know how I escaped injury – my overalls had been blown clean off in the blasts, I was naked.
“All that went through my mind was that I needed to survive. I didn’t notice the exhaustion although I was in the water two hours. Finally a destroyer picked me up and took me and other survivors to Singapore. But I suffered terrible shell shock.
“I think it was only because I was so young that I could eventually move on from it. Terrible things happen in war, lives are destroyed. Boys soon become men - I learnt a lot. But if we were the better for it I can’t say.”
Albert Riddle was rescued from the water after two hours and taken to Singapore. He was evacuated when the Japanese invaded and eventually made it home safely after the war. He went on to have his own family and continued to serve in the Royal Navy. The memories of his experience as a 16-year-old boy stayed with him. It is hard to imagine how anyone comes to terms with that experience and Albert admits he struggled too.
“We were shell shocked,” he says. “I had lost a lot of pals. The older men became father figures, but of course we struggled to sleep. And the docks were bombed every day. Every time a siren went I fled to the jungle. I ran over the sentries, no one could stop me. I’d creep back hours later.”
He adds: “We couldn’t get word home we were alive for three months. My parents were distraught.”
- Mirror; 03 Jul 2014 - http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/real-life-stories/boy-soldier-torpedoed-age-15-3801384
- Child Soldiers of WW2; Channel 5 - http://www.channel5.com/shows/child-soldiers-of-ww2/episodes/child-soldiers-of-ww2
During Remembrance 2015, The Gravity Youth Project will be publishing a number of stories, biographies and reports that reflect the contribution made by children and young people to our freedom, our communities and society as a whole. In the the spirit of The Poppy Appeal, they remember the service of both the fallen and the living. Check back daily until 11th November for the latest update and please, share your favourites with your friends online.
We will remember them.
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