William Stone - Hero of the Fleet
By William Stone/Anne and Michael Davidson. Mainstream Publishing 7 Albany St Edinburgh. paperback £7.99
William Stone was a stoker in the RN in both world wars, and lived to the remarkable age of 108, latterly becoming a celebrity survivor. Personal accounts from boiler room men are rare, not least because the combat casualty rate was high. His autobiography, drawn from his notes and discussions, edited with additional background information on topics of the time, is thus unusual, apart from the obviously genial character of the man himself.
From a Devon farming family, but with brothers in the RN, he joined in 1918 and was in training at the end of WW I. In WWII he had a very active service, starting in the minesweeper HMS Salamander, and his first taste of action was at Dunkirk, where he made three trips. Later he was in North Atlantic convoys and an early Arctic convoy, then on the cruiser HMS Newfoundland in the Med, for the Pantelleria and Sicily landings, surviving a torpedo hit.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story for me, however, was his account of the year long Empire Cruise on HMS Hood in 1923/4. This was a “show the flag” exercise that would have a modern PR man in transports of delight. The ships of the flotilla were visited by almost 2 million people, including a sizable part of the population of Australian and New Zealand. Their crews were doubtless selected, but there was excellent behaviour and a warm welcome everywhere.
William’s relationships with his peers and officers were good. Early on, he had taken up barbering to supplement his pay. He obviously inspired confidence, as one unconcerned officer mentioned to William that he was cutting his hair whilst drunk, and William had clearly been too drunk to even remember ! The accounts of crew visits to local landmarks reminds us that the Navy was indeed the way to see the world before cheap travel.
His post navy life as a barber, Mason and supporter of the British Legion, and increasingly a celebrity, is briefly documented in the final chapters.
The book is an easy read, the interleaved background sections are italicised and easy to skip for those familiar with the topic. Some tend to wander beyond the immediate background. The book has a useful timeline, descriptions of ships, and letters from Prince Andrew and Admiral Jonathon Band. He was indeed an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Recommended.
Reviewed by Jonathan Seagrave
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