war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper




HMS Warspite in 1942

Account from a crewmate of Len Saunders.

Following the ship's participation in the invasion of Sicily in July to August 1943, the Warspite returned to Malta, where some four members of the ship's company contracted polio, and as little was then known of the condition, the ship was placed in quarantine.

No one really knew what was the disease, and we were told to take all precautions. If we were to eat a piece of fruit we were not allowed to have it already peeled but peel it ourselves to ensure it wasn't contaminated. 

The Italian fleet proceeding to Malta after surrender in September 1943. Warspite's ensign is at the bottom of the photograph; she is following HMS Valiant   One of the Italian ships arriving at Malta, taken from the aircraft catapult deck of the Warspite


After covering the landing at Catania, Sicily, the Warspite was used to bombard as required. Above is a helmet picked up by a shore party at  Reggio


The ship moved from Valletta to Marsaxlokk, a bay further along the coast of Malta. The bay had a boom across its entrance. The Italians (they then had yet to surrender) had a well-known reputation for swimming, fixing timed explosive devices to the hulls of ships. To deter any attack from the swimmers the boom was patrolled by a motor boat  equipped with explosives in the stern compartment, and a small charge was dropped by the boat at regular intervals with a large charge at slightly larger intervals.

Len was the torpedoman (electrician) in the boat, together with another torpedoman, who could best be described as eccentric. Apparently he was smoking a cigarette close by the box holding the charges, lighting the fuse of a charge with his cigarette and then dropping it overboard; unfortunately he dropped his cigarette into the box of charges and they exploded.

There were ten men in the boat's crew, five of whom died immediately, a Royal Marine suffered a broken ankle, together with other injuries. He could not swim, but he managed somehow to cover the fifty yards back to safety. The cox'n of the boat, a Leading Seaman Bell, took the full force of the blast on his back, and had large splinters of wood driven into his legs and back from top to bottom. He was transfixed, but he did survive. It took over a year to get all the splinters out.

The ship had been refitted in Seattle, USA, after sustaining serious damage in the Mediterranean in 1941 in a dive bomb attack. Whilst in America, Len married a local girl, and when the ship left she felt it was desertion and divorced him. Unfortunately he did not alter the name of his next-of-kin, so the notification of his death went to the divorced wife, and Mrs Saunders did not know of her son's death until some three months later when she received a letter of commiseration form the ship's chaplain.

Along with the effects of the other dead men, Len's clothing etc was auctioned before the foremast, as was the naval custom. The effects would be bought for high sums; I bought Len's shoes for £7.50, and I was earning only thirty shillings a week. The other torpedoman had only a blanket and a couple of Woodbines, so they kept putting them back into the sale after they'd been bought until enough money was raised. The proceeds of the sales were sent home to the next-of-kin; in Len's case this must have been to the former wife.

Len died on 22 August 1943, when he was 22. He was a lovely chap, so clean and tidy - a glowing example of how everyone should be


Our Captain, Herbert Packer (later Admiral Sir Herbert Packer), had been the Captain of HMS Excellent, the main gunnery school, near Portsmouth, when Noel Coward was filming "In Which We Serve" (1942). Captain Packer had lent naval ratings as extras for various scenes. As a "thank you", when Noel Coward came out to Malta to entertain the troops, the Warspite had her own private show, on the aircraft catapult deck. Captain Packer is immediately to the left of the piano.



Post Script


(left) At Salerno the enemy were preventing the army from the toe of Italy coming up to reinforce the Salerno forces and break the encircling enemy forces.

The image shows the battle ensign being hoisted as the Warspite enters Salerno bay; the proximity of the shore can be noted in the background. From then onwards bombardments were carried out at the requirement of the army.

On 16 September 1943, the enemy sent over what we thought were six planes - they were actually three planes, each with its own radio-controlled glider bomb. One of the bombs exploded off  the starboard side, one off the stern, and the last went straight down the funnel and blew out the bottom of one of the boiler rooms. Nine men were killed.

(right) A night attack on HMS Valiant in Salerno bay. 


(left) The Warsprite was towed back to Malta. When we were hit we had been bombarding, so the guns were hot and had cooled around and gripped the charges. We had to fire the guns out at sea, in order not to hurt anyone, and men then went round with wood to fill up all the holes where the rivets had popped out. The Warsprite was patched with a big slab of concrete, and then towed a thousand miles from Malta to Gibraltar. Four tugs were used. The ship ahead of the tugs is HMS Palomares, an anti-aircraft escort which was a converted Fyffe banana boat. At Malta the bays were filled with ships hit by bombs; low in the water with the waves lapping over the gunwhales. When the Warspirte was first hit we were baling her out  for over a day until they the pumps were supplied. 

(right) "The illustration from The Sphere: An Illustrated Newspaper for the Home) what happens to a spick and span ship when she gets into the hands of the shipbreakers." The Warspite was scrapped in 1947. She was intended for breaking at The Clyde but a severe storm during the voyage beached her on the south coast of Cornwall, and there she was scrapped.


Note: The Sphere newspaper spanned three wars - the Boer, The Great, and the Second World Wars. It closed in June 1964.

words and pictures with grateful thanks to Mr Ronald Jarvis




Len is the first rower on the left

Envelope written by Len to his brother Roy. The letter was postmarked in Dover on 18 November 1941.

 On Dover seafront, Len, on the left, with a friend


On the right, Len Saunders, with Roy, his brother,
left, and, in front, their father

Christmas card sent from Len to his younger brothers Roy and Gordon


images with sincere thanks to Wendy Cunningham

Copyright 2011-17 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved