Bill Chapman 2015

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In February 2015 Bill Chapman shared some of his Second World War memories with Tauranga City Library Research Collections staff, Harley Couper.

Bill Chapman 2015 with the Ushakov medal

Bill was born in April 1925 in Dartford, Kent, in England. He was the youngest boy of eight siblings.  “I remember the bread and dripping days” he recalls, “things were very short, a bit of a struggle”. Bill’s Father, William Thomas Chapman, had been wounded in the First World War after just a few days at the front in France. A sniper had shot him, the bullet entering the front of his tin helmet, tearing a gouge down the length of his head and exiting the back. Bill remembers that tin helmet, and that his Father suffered with headaches throughout the rest of his life.

During the Second World War his Father, who made violins as a hobby, would raffle these off to finance Red Cross packages for one of his sons who was a prisoner of war. “My brother got captured on Crete” Bill recalls, “and he was a prisoner of war for four years… in Austria”. Initially he had been reported missing in action and the family had feared the worse. Bill recalls the relief he felt when hearing he was alive and a POW. He was in the Royal Engineers with mainly New Zealanders in the camp with him. After the war he worked digging out bombs which had, often, plopped unexploded into the soft mud of the Thames during bombing raids.

In 1939 Bill had just passed 16 years of age. His brother Tom, had joined the Navy, Jim had joined the army and a sister had joined the WAF.  Children were being evacuated out of at risk cities and Bill was on the list to join some of his siblings. But he refused, opting to stick it out with his parents in Kent. He and his father joined the ARP, or Air Raid Precautions, an organisation set up before the war in response to the development of bomber aircraft. Bill remembers the barrage balloons, search lights and batteries of anti-aircraft guns all around them. 

His family were bombed out of their first home and a neighbour’s air shelter took a direct hit, killing the whole family. These “Anderson Shelters”, were made of thick steel but some dug them too deep into the soil resulting in them being flooded out.  “I hated the bloody Anderson Shelters. It was like a mausoleum. In the winter time all the walls would drip with condensation. Dad would go down with mum, (but) in the kitchen we had a heavy oak table…and I used to put my bed under there. And when this bomb dropped over the road…I was quite safe underneath it…” Stirrup Pumps, a kind of siphon hand pump were handed out to the population to help them fight fires. “They (the German Luftwaffe) dropped thousands of incendiaries, thousands of them”. The phosphorous incendiaries would explode on contact with water, explained Bill, so sandbags were used to put the actual incendiary out and the Stirrup pumps were used to combat the fires created.   As part of the ARP both Bill and his father were actively involved with this. Twice they had to deal with incendiaries within their own house. ARP uniforms and equipment were fairly rudimentary: gas masks, tin hats and boots, trousers and jackets. 

“When we were evacuated from our house, three times, dad and I were fire watching we were in the front of the house in the porch and we heard this big one coming down… and when it hit the ground it shook the ground and it landed in the back of the house in the woods. And afterwards myself and some of the neighbours went looking for this and we found the crater, but the bomb was well buried. They evacuated all the houses and got some of the demolition squad to come around. They must have gone down at least 12 feet and it was what they call a Hermann bomb and it was about 12 feet long, a massive block buster but (this one) didn’t explode. It would be all the plane could carry you know. This old captain of the bomb squad, they dug down to it and he was sitting on this bomb with a stethoscope fiddling with the fuse and he managed to find the fuse and he defused it. But a week later he was doing the same thing and it was booby-trapped and half a dozen of them got killed. They were heroes in my…you know these guys…”

Bill also recalled bombs that would come down slowed by parachutes it order for the explosions to be at ground level. 

“I lived near Bighan Hill and they (the Luftwaffe) were over every day, bombing, machine gunning, trying to knock out the aerodrome. You’d see them about ten, twelve thousand feet up, weaving around criss-crossing. You’d hear the machine guns going…and sometimes you’d see a plane come hurtling out and sometimes you’d see a parachute…it was quite exciting!"

When the German focus moved off the airfields and factories toward London itself, the excitement didn’t let up either. “They started bombing London…cause I lived right on the Thames and they would come up the Thames on moonlit nights…we had the firemen billeted next door and they used to go up to London every night, and one night …they said “could you come up with us and help us run the hoses out and make a cup of tea etc.” Well that night … there were 500 planes raided London…it was hell on earth… They'd knocked out the water supplies so we had to try and get the hoses into the Thames, and it was the lowest tide on record, so we were wading through mud up to your knees.”

Bill recalls a sugar factory burning for weeks afterward and liquid sugar running into the Thames. Half of London was burning. He remembers coming home covered in mud, missing a boot and nicked by a piece of shrapnel. 

“After about (19)43 they knocked out a lot of the German planes…because when they stopped bombing the airfields (to focus on London) it just gave Britain a little respite to get more planes out…it just have them a little bit more time …to catch up…we were down to about 80 odd fighters”.

Nearing 18 years of age Bill wanted to join his mates in the Navy, and aware that if he didn’t volunteer early enough he’d be stuck in the Army. He did his training just outside of Portsmouth for 10 weeks after which we had 10 days leave. “I was quite proud marching out of that establishment”. Returning to Portsmouth they packed their kit and took a Flying Scotsman loaded with Army, Air Force and Navy boys up country, finishing at a Scottish Naval base at the Forth Bridge. This was right at the end of 1941.  From there Bill was taken up to Scapa Flow for Naval exercises aboard HMS King George V. “Then we got word that the Tirpitz  (a German battleship in Norway) was making a break for it”.  The thinking was that the Tirpitz was bound for an Allied convoy in the region and the King George was the only naval vessel nearby. A mad dash to intercept the Tirpitz followed with the King George punching its way through atrocious seas at 28 knots, staving in the front section of the ship in the process. Sadly the information was bad.  Bill recalls their collision between the HMS Punjabi who, in pursuit of a submarine in poor visibility and with primed depth charges on deck, cut in front of the King George and was itself cloven in two. The sinking depth charges exploded killing 49 of her crew. 

D Day had started but the need for repairs stopped HMS King George from taking part in that. While in the Mediterranean trying to engage a reluctant Italian Navy they were sent to Gibraltar after which the crew discovered they had Winston Churchill on board. “What we like about him was he spliced the main brace every day”. This was an extra tot of rum given out each day. Bill recalls the strike on Burmese airfields under Japanese command. This was his first encounter with the Japanese Kamikaze (suicide bombers). 

Afterward they operated in the Pacific based out of Sydney. “From Sydney we were around Okinawa when the Americans attacked (there) and they really got a hammering then, the Japs had that many Kamikazes but we were lucky, we knocked a couple of them down. Where I was, up in the director I could see all these, everything, the guns firing…you could see the shells leaving the guns, going right over onto the target”. The director was a location up above the bridge from where the big guns received directions from the spotters manning them.

“We got on to the target and the guns would follow us. The Kamikaze’s always used to come bow or stern on where we had the least armaments, but we were lucky enough to shoot them down. I can remember when the sky was just black with shell birds and all four Carriers all got hit by Kamikazes. One carrier they had all the planes all lined up ready to take off, bombs, petrol, and this Kamikaze came right round and crashed in amongst all these planes and I can see them all ditching them all off left right and centre. But they managed to get the fire out. Luckily our Carrier had steel decks where the American Carriers had wooden decks so when they got hit…and round Okinawa they lost 31 ships…we were quite lucky really”.

 “The Americans lost thousands on Okinawa. I can remember they were laying all these bags out on the beach with all these bodies in these plastic bags ready to go back to America. When they dropped the atom bombs…we weren’t that far away from them…I had a brother there in submarines and he went ashore there and got a
dose of radiation and he died just after the war…my eldest brother John. All along Tokyo Bay they had a big huge field gun every few yards … just goes to show they were ready to fight to the last man. We’d have lost a lot more men if they hadn’t dropped those bombs”. Bill’s brother John had been aboard a submarine operating in the Malaccan straits sinking Japanese barges. He recalls his brother saying that if any of the Japanese soldiers managed to get to the shore line the natives of these islands would immediately attack and kill them.

Bill Chapman showing a recent portrait taken for ANZAC DayBill turned 21 while around Okinawa. Part of the tradition was to drink the rum offered him which left him sick with alcohol poisoning for three days. Sleeping in hammocks he recalled in rough weather the hammock remaining stationary andmthe room rotating around them.  

“Japan capitulated and we went shore as a landing party in Yokohama and we were some of the first guys ashore in Japan. And just over the hill there were these thousands of Japanese soldiers that had surrendered, luckily. I can remember the only building standing was a warehouse where they had all sorts of Japanese supplies…I got a couple of ...swords…daggers”. Bill remembers trying to roll a barrel of Saki on board the King George and being told “oh no you’re not” by his commanding officers. He also remembers the Americans organising a “house of ill repute” early on after the Japanese surrendered.

“When we left Japan we went back round to Sydney…Tasmania…Melbourne. Melbourne gave us a set of drums for the band…going back home we went to Cape town”. Bill recalls being forbidden to mix with non-whites because of the Apartheid system there.

“I got demobbed in (19)46…everyone got new shoes and new could pick them a mile off. I tried to get a job and couldn’t get one (for a long time)”. In 1947, by then working in the building trade, Bill recalls the coldest winter in history and thinking “damn this, I’m emigrating”. 1947 was the year he came to New Zealand.

After landing in Wellington, he steam trained up to Hamilton to find it deserted (it was a Sunday), then he bussed up to Mangakino. Some of the boys found it so empty looking they got back on the bus and left. After a few months in Mangakino, Bill was transferred to Waharoa to work on buildings for drying milk. From there he worked in Taumaranui on State Houses, then Huntly which was booming at the time (1950s) and from there up to Auckland where he continued in the building trade. He shifted to Tauranga about 1995 to retire. It was “the best thing that ever happened to us”.

 Bill Chapman's Ushakov medal

In 2015 he received the Ushakov medal from the Russian government, in recognition of the bravery and valour shown by those who took part in the Arctic Convoys.

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