Remembrance Day: Havering brothers who served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War
PUBLISHED: 13:11 05 November 2013 | UPDATED: 13:29 05 November 2013
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More than 50,000 men and women in the Royal Navy were killed in the Second World War but two Havering brothers survived their service and are still alive today.
When Bill and Len Churchill joined the navy at the start of the war, they set sail into battle not knowing whether they would ever see each other again.
But they were reunited on dry land and more than 74 years later can look back on their time at sea sinking U-boats and evacuating the beaches of Dunkirk.
Younger brother Len was celebrating his 16th birthday when war broke out on September 1 1939 and joined up just two days later.
Bill, aged 17, soon followed suit but they were split up at sea as Len was posted to trawlers and Bill started as a seaman on destroyers.
He said: “I don’t really know why I volunteered. I think it might have been seeing the ships leave from the Harland and Wolff yard at Woolwich from the cinema.”
But Bill, now 91, was soon a long way away from the relative glamour of shipbuilding on destroyer HMS Ajax.
There were only four basins on the whole ship for the crew to wash and some resorted to heating sea water to bathe on deck.
Bill said: “It could be terrible – in rough weather it was like being on a roundabout and you wanted to get off but they wouldn’t stop it.
“It just went on and on.”
During his time on the HMS Ajax, Bill lost dozens of shipmates in battle but the sea could sometimes be the greatest peril.
He said: “There was one skipper who always used to send down for a cup of hot cocoa in bad weather.
“One night it didn’t come for a while and he asked what happened.
“It turned out the man was on his way out with it and he got washed overboard. We never found him.”
Among the death and danger, there was fun to be had for the crew who even made games out of floating detritus when the mess hall flooded.
There were several near misses for the ship, which fought many battles in the Mediterranean.
In January 1943 it was disabled by a bomb that destroyed a boiler room in Algeria, knocking part of the hull and causing damage needing nine months of repairs.
Bill also had several close shaves during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, when he crossed from Dover to Calais seven times rescuing stranded soldiers.
He said: “You didn’t think about your life or being in danger – you just did it when you were 18 and took it as it came.”
Communication was hard to keep up with little brother Len, now 90, who was working on the Navy’s fleet of trawlers.
But they had an unlikely meeting in Alexandria, Egypt, when an accident delayed Bill’s departure.
He said: “We were just leaving and I saw my brother’s ship coming in.
“But the tug hauling us out hit us and we had to go back in. I went ashore with my brother that night.”
Bill rose up the ranks to be a petty officer on submarines and sunk a U-boat off the coast of Belgium.
He continued in the Navy after the war, serving 15 years in total, before going back to dry land.
He married wife Mary in 1954 and the couple moved to Hornchurch, where Bill still lives today.
Both he and Len, who lives in Cranham, are great-great-grandfathers.