It’s been more than 70 years since 92-year-old Bill Matthews was called up for the Royal Navy, but he still has clear recollections of his time aboard HMS Belfast during World War Two.
The Sandiacre pensioner is one of just four remaining survivors who served on the ship which is now a major tourist attraction on the River Thames at Southwark in London.
As he proudly shows off his nine medals - soon to be ten when he receives the Russian Ushakov medal next month- he tells me about his time aboard the Belfast.
“We were a very fortunate ship,” he explained. “We were always at sea and never got hit.”
Not wanting to join the army, Bill got called up for the navy on December 4, 1940, at the age of 18, and can still remember his service number.
He served for eight-and-a-half years in total, mostly with colours. He was later called up for the Suez Crisis in 1956.
“I was on HMS Berrick to start with in 1941 as a stoker,” he said. “I left there to go on an auxiliary watch-keeping course on HMS Belfast to assist two Russian convoys. I joined HMS Belfast at the end of 1942 and did 12 convoys - they would be half convoys or full conveys - to Russia.”
Though sailing through the Arctic, Bill said he never got cold because he was always down in the boiler room, only going up on deck to help de-ice it to launch the ship’s spotter plane, when he was requested.
“There was just a bit of steel between you and a possible tornado down in the boiler room,” he said. “There were people that got scared, I was just an idiot, I didn’t care.”
He does recall one time when Belfast got damaged by shells while at shore and all that was damaged was one of the stations on the top deck.
In December 1943 he was on the Belfast when it joined the home fleet on a mission to seek and sink the German battleship Scharnhorst. A few months before that he had been on a mission escorting the Queen Mary into the mid-Atlantic, helping to avoid any potential attack from the Germans.
Bill said: “There was Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. We were in the mid-Atlantic and we were one of the ships escorting the Queen Mary. I was down below in the engine room but knew about it because it was broadcast.”
In May, Bill and his friend Tom Bott enjoyed an all-expenses-paid trip to London as part of the D-Day landing anniversary celebrations where they met the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson. Bill recalls that day in 1944: “We went out there and were the first to fire at the coast, we fired the first shots.
“After we left the French coast after D-Day we had to get the guns prepared, then headed straight out to the Far East to fight the Japanese.”
He spent 18 months in the Far East for which he received the Burma Star and Pacific Medal. Next month he hopes to go to the Russian Embassy in London to receive the Ushakov medal for his part in helping the Russians. The long-awaited Ushakov medal recognises foreign fighters’ efforts to protect Russia, though Bill and Tom have had to contact the relevant people to add his name to those due to receive the medal.
Bill has lived in his Sandiacre home since de-barking Belfast in 1952. He married his late wife Freda in 1944 and went on to forge a career in the lace trade where a role as an advanced foreman meant he was on-call and one of the first people in his street to have a telephone. He went on to become a manager at Long Eaton lacemakers R Granger and Sons.
Since his Royal Navy days his love of the sea has seen him go on 38 cruises. He also enjoys a daily tipple in his local pub The Tavern and still owns a car, meaning he can get out and about when he wants.
Reflecting on his war years, Bill said: “The best time on the Belfast was when the war ended and we went out to Australia, New Zealand, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We came back home on a ship called the Mull of Kintyre.
“They then wanted me to sign up for another ten years so they could advance me to chief stoker but I wanted to get back home. I’d had enough.”