Looking south from the garden of Rear Admiral Tom Bradbury’s house, set high on the Weald at Dallington near Heathfield in East Sussex, you can see a blue ribbon of the English Channel on the horizon.
Now aged 93, fit and active, he casually remarks that if a shell from a 15 inch gun from one of the battleships in which he served in World War II had been fired from here, it would have been capable of hitting a target at sea sixteen and a half miles away.
This modest and twinkle-eyed former senior naval officer, who went to school in Sussex and has lived in the county for over fifty years, was born in December 1922 to a workingclass family in South London. Tom Bradbury’s father served as a Lance Corporal in the Royal Horse Artillery on the Western Front in the First World War. “We had a happy family life in Walworth with my three sisters where the streets were the playground for many local children who went to the school nearby. On our street the most admired person was a bus conductor because of his smart uniform! When I was eleven I won a London County Council scholarship to Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, the independent Bluecoat School founded by Edward VI in 1552 which had a long tradition of educating children from poorer backgrounds”.
“It was here, as a member of the School Boy Scout Troop, that I and four other boys, thanks to the generosity of a benefactor, joined the contingent representing the UK at the Boy Scouts World Jamboree in Sydney, Australia. In November 1938 we sailed in the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line’s steamship Esperance Bay on the five-week trip to Adelaide, calling at Malta, Port Said, Aden and Colombo”.
The return voyage from Sydney in January 1939 was in the same line’s Jervis Bay. It was this ship, when converted to an armed merchant cruiser and acting as the sole escort of an Atlantic convoy of thirtyseven ships, which was to achieve lasting fame by singlehandedly confronting the German battleship Admiral Scheer. Hopelessly outgunned and outranged, but in order to draw attention away from the convoy and give the ships time to scatter, Jervis Bay fought on until sunk, allowing all but five ships to escape. For this heroic action, Captain Fogarty Fegan, who went down with his ship, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
“As a schoolboy in the 1930’s I was introduced, like many other boys of my age, to stories of derring-do in the British Empire or heroism during the recent World War. The Boy’s Own Paper, was required reading. I also particularly enjoyed the naval yarns in books written under the pen-name of Bartimeus who captured the everyday up and downs of life on board His Majesty’s warships. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, I think some of his stories may have had an effect on choosing my later career. One event that certainly did was on the return voyage from Australia. As the Jervis Bay left the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, soon after dawn on 1st March 1939, we met coming from the west the combined Home and Mediterranean Fleets steaming into the Med for manoeuvres. We watched as lines of battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and countless numbers of destroyers sailed past. It was a magnificent and awe-inspiring sight of the pre-war Navy. With war only a few months away, it would never be repeated. It is something which remains with me to this day”.
“Although other historic events were rapidly unfolding, by the time the summer of 1939 had arrived I was more concerned with obtaining good results in my School Certificate, leaving school and starting work. Many of my contemporaries were destined for university, but as I was not particularly academic, I had obtained a post with Vestey Brothers, the long-established firm of frozen meat importers”. This form of internship with British firms who had strong colonial connections was a well-trodden path for boys leaving public school. After a short time at the firm’s head office in London they could expect to depart for every far-flung corner of the British Empire. To trading houses in Hong Kong, to tea and coffee plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or East Africa, to rubber plantations in Malaya or, in Tom Bradbury’s case, to the vast cattle ranches of Argentina. But with war being declared on 1st September 1939 his job with Vestey came to an end before it had hardly started. He was given five weeks pay for three weeks work and told he was no longer required.
“Fortunately Christ’s Hospital suggested that I should return to school for the winter term until I had sorted myself out. But as I was almost 17 I felt that I had to join something. The school thought that I should take the competitive Civil Service Examination. This was a means of entering all three Services as an officer. The age limits were 17 to 18 years 8 months. By December I was just eligible and sat the exam held upstairs at the Ship Inn, Brighton. I opted for the Royal Navy, but because I had specialised at school in Classics, the lack of Chemistry meant I could not join as a Seaman or Engineer. The only branch open to me was the Supply and Secretariat Branch, known then as the Paymaster Branch. Having passed the exam, the School arranged, as a final act of generosity, for the bill for my uniform, amounting to £150, to be paid by a charity. As a Paymaster Cadet I joined the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth on 1st January 1940. My pay was one shilling (5p) a day”.
As it was wartime, officer training was severely curtailed. After just one term, Tom was appointed to the Town-class cruiser HMS Liverpool. In the Far East at the beginning of the war, Liverpool had by then been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean and troop reinforcements had to be sent the long way round via the Cape. A fast convoy of ships, including the former transatlantic liners RMS Queen Mary, the Mauretania and Aquitania, all converted to troop carriers, had been assembled in the Clyde. Using their speed and zig-zagging to avoid attack by U-boats the convoy left Greenock on 25th June 1940 via Freetown and Capetown for Trincomalee in Sri Lanka. Here reinforcements for the Mediterranean were transhipped in British India line ships to Suez, thence by train to Alexandria. The convoy then sailed on to Australia to collect Anzac forces to bring them to the Middle East. Tom joined his ship Liverpool on 28th August. He was promoted Midshipman on the first day of September 1940.
“At that time Alexandria in Egypt, universally known as Alex, was the base for Allied naval operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The harbour was crammed with every type of ship imaginable. This included the French Naval Squadron disarmed and immobilised following the fall of France in June. The Commander-in- Chief Mediterranean Fleet was Admiral Andrew Cunningham and Liverpool was part of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron together with Gloucester and Kent”.
“Within days we were at sea escorting convoys to Malta and took part in an action in which three Italian destroyers were sunk. In another action south of Crete on 23rd October we were attacked at dusk by Italian torpedo bombers. Without radar it was a complete surprise and our anti-aircraft guns had no time to fire before one torpedo struck forward on the starboard side. At first there seemed no major damage, but twenty minutes later, 8,000 gallons of aviation fuel stowed there for our two Walrus seaplanes, exploded. Rushing onto the upper deck I had the unforgettable sight of giant tongues of flame shooting hundreds of feet into the night sky. The bows of the ship forward of ‘A’ gun turret had disappeared and the turret itself was completely destroyed”.