It was Early May 1941 when the ship's company boarded a special train
in Chatham depot "HMS Pembroke" and so began a journey that would
last almost two years. We joined Lightning on Friday 9th May 1941. Many
of the crew were just off the Ashanti and already knew each other. She was
lying in Hawthorn Leslie's shipyard on the river Tyne, where she had just
finished fitting out. When I first saw her I was struck by her beautiful
lines. We all felt very proud of our new ship. She was the most modern,
most powerful and fastest destroyer in the fleet and the pride of Hawthorn
Leslie. My eldest brother Tommy had worked on her and said that the men
in the yard always thought of her as their 'pet' ship.
Here are some of my old shipmate Tom King's personal recollections of joining the ship, taken from a letter that he wrote to me - his style has not been changed by the intervening years.
"Well my old son lets start at the beginning. Hebburn on Tyne, G55 laying alongside. First of all they searched Chatham Barracks for me - Leading Seaman King QR2. They found me in the lower shooting battery below the parade ground near the drill shed. Pass doctor, pass dentist then join the draft. By train to Hebburn ...On the way up I found out that a lot of the lads were from the Ashanti, so I happened to ask who the cox was, and lo and behold the great Joe Pickersley. He was one of the boys' instructors on HMS Kent in 1934. Well we fall in alongside and there he is Joe and the Gunner's Mate. 'Hello Tom King' and I was in, Leading Hand of the gunner's party and what a number. Overalls all day and gym shoes".
The ship's company formed up along the jetty in front of her and the Captain, commander 'Blossom' Stewart, gave a short speech welcoming us all to the ship and said that he hoped that she would be a happy and successful ship. She was - in both counts.
There were many raw recruits aboard. Tom King (killick of 1 mess) said that when he asked how many of his men had been to sea before only three out of fifteen raised their hands. My mess (number 3 - killick 'Tug' Wilson) was the same, and after the first few weeks I became the mess caterer as the 'younger' (I was only just 20) lads hadn't ever cooked anything before. When we looked around the ship we were amazed at how advanced she was - with covered in gun housings. I had previously only been used to ancient pre World War 1 six inch guns from HMS Cathay. Tom said that he had only been trained on muzzle loaders! I think that he may have been exaggerating slightly.
We spent several weeks commissioning her in the waters off the Tyne. As soon as we had finished commissioning on 28 May 1941, the Captain signed for the ship and we set off to work up and join the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. As we slipped, a shipyard matey shouted up to me "good luck sailor, she's a fine ship, look after her". I was to be with her until the end.
Almost as soon as we were under way the 'action stations' alarm sounded. I made for the 4 inch anti aircraft gun, on the after deck, where I was the layer. In the excitement, I found that the gun would not elevate however much I forced it. Upon closer examination I found that I had somehow got my fingers jammed in the gearing. Depressing the gun, by winding the mechanism backwards, I removed my damaged hand. Blood was everywhere. I thought that this was lucky - a nice ticket ashore. No such luck - the ship's surgeon put a couple of stitches in each finger and told me to get back to the gun!
On our way up to Scapa, when I was a lookout on the bridge, the Captain opened her up and she fairly sped through the water like a greyhound, she fair shivered with the speed. It was dark and we accidentally brushed a small fishing smack that had strayed across our path. We quickly turned around to see whether they were all right. The skipper of the tiny fishing boat called up to us "are you all right, do you want a tow into harbour"? Now commander Stewart was a seasoned Royal Navy Captain, and this was a brand new, powerful warship. His reply to the fishing boat skipper was colourful to say the least - and contained language that I had never heard before. Needless to say we were soon on our way again.