A twice-decorated submariner who undertook dangerous convoy missions to Malta in the Second World War and plotted mines before the 1944 South Coast of France landings has celebrated his 100th birthday. Captain William Hedley Kett DSC* RD* RNR served for six years (1940 – 46) under the sea during the war at a time when submariners had a one-in-three chance of survival.
Out of the 16 people on his submariners’ qualifying course in 1939, just two or three escaped the war with their lives – including Captain Kett and Vice Admiral Sir John Roxburgh KCB CBE DSO DSC.
Captain William Hedley Kett, known to all as Hedley, served as navigator and then 1st Lieutenant on the submarine HMS Clyde before being promoted to command two wartime submarines – P555 and HMS Ultimatum. He later took command of HMS Otway, Taku, Tactician and Springer.
Hedley was demobilised from active service following the war and followed a distinguished career through the Royal Naval Reserve where he reached the rank of Captain and became Aide-De-Camp to Her Majesty The Queen.
Following retirement Hedley remained involved with Service life and in 2007 he took part in the naming ceremony of the new HMS Clyde.
Hedley, who lives in Cobham, Surrey, celebrated his centenary with family and friends and was presented with a special birthday cake from Captain Mike Walliker who is based at the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Portsmouth.
Capt Walliker said:
“I was delighted to represent the Royal Navy and the submarine service in particular at Captain Hedley Kett’s one hundredth birthday party.
“It was a very special occasion and such a privilege to meet him and be entertained first-hand by his recollections of an extraordinary life, in particular the crucial role he played in some of the legendary exploits of British submarines that belonged to the Tenth Submarine Flotilla and were based out of Malta.
“Their wartime record was such that the Flotilla has been known ever since as the Fighting Tenth.”
Hedley cut the cake, made by Royal Marine chefs at the Defence Maritime Logistics School at HMS Raleigh, with a ceremonial sword as Capt Walliker gave a speech commemorating his service.
“One in three submariners lost their lives during the war,” said Hedley.
“So for me to reach 100 years old is impressive when you look at it like that I suppose, but it does just feel like any other day.
“My daughter organised a party for family and friends which was nice and receiving a telegram from the Queen is special, particularly because I served as her ADC which I very much enjoyed.
“One of my favourite memories was having the honour of accompanying her from Buckingham Palace to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich for the Knighthood Ceremony of Sir Francis Chichester in 1967.
“I remember the Queen as a most gracious person.”
Hedley began his Service life with a ten-year career in the Merchant Navy, sailing the world in large cargo ships.
When war with Germany was declared, he was serving as 2nd officer on RFA Arndale and was returning from delivering oil to the New Zealand and Australian Navies when Arndale was diverted into Colombo to have two guns mounted.
“I don’t remember feeling particularly concerned about it, but I was a young man and trouble had been brewing for a while so we all knew it was imminent,” recalls Hedley.
“I had joined the Royal Naval Reserves in 1938 and so when war was declared, I was mobilised two weeks after RFA Arndale got back to the UK.”
After qualifying as a submariner, Hedley’s first operational submarine was HMS Clyde – one of the largest in the Navy.
With a crew of 57, Hedley was one of four officers. Conditions were fairly comfortable, except following a long dive when oxygen would be low and the air would become stifling.
Unless on duty, personnel went to bed at 4pm to conserve the oxygen and there were no showers or washing for long periods to preserve fresh water.
Yet the food was better than Royal Navy ships – with oily fish at every meal to give the submariners a good dose of Vitamin D – essential due to lack of sunlight.
HMS Clyde escorted several convoys carrying vital supplies across the North Atlantic, encountering German U-boats along the way – which were faster and harder to spot than British submarines.
As well as being involved in several U-boat skirmishes, Clyde also hunted out its own prey – sinking an Italian naval vessel in the Mediterranean and rescuing 16 of its survivors.
“Some of them had been badly wounded,” said Hedley.
“We were told when we dropped them at Gibraltar that the salt water had helped heal their wounds and the morphine we administered kept them alive.
“They all survived.
“There were no difficulties with them on board – their attitude was the same as ours really – “c’est la guerre”, it was war and that was what we all expected.”
Shortly afterwards HMS Clyde embarked on some of its most dangerous missions – to reach Malta which was under siege and suffering serious shortages.
Convoy efforts to reach the island with supplies were strewn with difficulties as they were systematically targeted by Italian fighter planes and lurking U-boats.
In a bid to reach the islanders with petrol, food and ammunition – HMS Clyde was loaded up and sent on a secret mission under the waves.
Forced to lie on the bottom by day and unload her precious cargo by night – the submarine was one of several to make the journeys and keep the island from breaking point.
Hedley was awarded his first Distinguished Service Cross for these duties – with the crew braving depth charges and bomb blast threats in order to sustain Malta.
“We worked very hard,” he said.
“Each trip we loaded 1500 tons of cargo and except for petrol, we manhandled everything ashore ourselves.
“I remember when we loaded the first bulk of goods and the Army officer handed me a crate of lipsticks.
“I told him to take it back, but he insisted it was good for morale on the island and so on the captain’s orders we ended up carrying it across.
“It was probably one of the stranger items we offloaded.”
Following his fifth cargo run to Malta, Hedley was sent on a Commanding Officers’ course and married his fiancée Doris who had just three days to organise the wedding. From there followed a short stint in command of P555, an ex-American submarine and then the U-class submarine HMS Ultimatum.
Hedley did 12 patrols in her – from Gibraltar, Malta, Algiers, Beiruit, and Maddalena – seeking enemy ships and submarines.
For Ultimatum’s last patrol came a very secret mission (along with three other submarines, Ultor, Unbroken and Upstart) – to search and plot minefields along the south coast of France to allow for the South Coast Landings – known as Operation Dragoon.
It was a dangerous plan – the submarine service had suffered losses to mines – but they successfully completed the survey and the landings commenced, helping to drive the Germans out of southern France.
For his work with Ultimatum, Hedley received a bar to his DSC.
“There are many stories I can tell of life during the war,” said Hedley.
“But I don’t remember feeling any particular fear or animosity – we all knew it was war and it was the way of it.
“Sometimes we would hear that a submarine had been lost, with people we knew as friends on board, and it would be very quiet for a while and we would then toast them, remembering those by name and then moving on to do our next job.
“We all knew it could be us next.”
In 1946 Hedley demobilised from active Service but continued as RNR and joined Trinity House.
He spent 32 years as a London and North Sea Pilot, latterly as Choice Pilot for both the British India Company and the Ellerman City Line.
He still enjoys an active life and took up painting on retirement, composing both landscapes and naval art.
Press Release, August 19, 2013; Image: Royal Navy