Remembering Ben Skeates, WW2 submariner

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, here’s a story about someone who fought in that war and ended up in Mount Isa. Ben Skeates died in 2010 so I never met him but I feel as if I know a little about him having read a book in which he features and having spoken to his son-in-law who still lives in Mount Isa and who says Ben was “his best friend” for decades before he died.

Ben Skeates and crew aboard the submarine Utmost. Ben is the petty officer on the right.

Come the start of the Second World War, Englishman Ben Skeates knew exactly what he had to do. After all he had joined the Royal Navy as far back as 1935. Four years in the sea had given him a thirst for the crazy life of an underwater mariner. And for six long years this small band of highly trained specialists and generalists took on some of the most dangerous missions of the war. The island of Malta got a George Cross for its refusal to buckle to the Nazis but it was Skeates and his submarine comrades that kept them alive.

Ben Skeates stayed alive too and after the war this sea wolf who saved Britain founded his own early electronics business. He followed family to Queensland and then the North West where he lived out most of the rest of his life, fossicking for opals. Until his death in 2010 Ben Skeates proudly wore his medals each year to Mount Isa’s Anzac Day parade though few people were aware of just how to close to death his service put him. His medals are among are among the proud possessions of Rod Lovelock, his son-in-law.

War hero Ben Skeates late of Hampshire, Barrow, Mary Kathleen and Mount Isa.

Skeates’ story featured in Tim Clayton’s book Sea Wolves: The extraordinary story of Britain’s WW2 Submarines. The book recounts how submariners battled innumerable dangers in difficult conditions. Being a submariner was a particularly dangerous role and they spent most of their time defending the fortress of Malta, an island that had refused to buckle under siege from German forces for well over two years. Despite the war Skeates loved the warmth and fun of Malta. He helped keep Malta alive though it almost killed him too.

Ben was born in Andover, Hampshire and his father Albert was a painter and decorator and an injured veteran of the First World War. Mum Lilian brought up four kids, Ben the second arriving on 5 February, 1919 just after the war ended. Ben was handy and after leaving school aged 14 he got a job with an electrician in Winchester until the work ran out in 1935. Rather than take a job plumbing he joined the Navy.

“Mum reckoned that the Navy life would be (too) rigorous for me, as the doctors had stated I wasn’t very robust in my formative years. This naturally had the opposite effect to that intended, and made me even more determined, to join the Navy,” he wrote in his diary.

He served mostly in cruisers in the Mediterranean and home waters and enjoyed the freedom the Navy brought though the discipline was memorable too. He never forget the day in training his class was ordered to climb the mast in threes without boots.and the entire 30 of them had to do in it in three minutes. If they failed they were marched to the mess and ordered to throw in the bin the breakfast they were about to have. “If you hesitated at swimming you were pushed in and when you came out of the shower you received a whack on the backside from the instructor,” Ben recalled.

Ben’s five official medals. He often wore three or four other medals on his right side: these were unofficial and awarded by the British Submariners Association.

But when war broke out, Ben decided to leave the relative safety of the cruisers and volunteered for submarines, the most dangerous part of the service. At his farewell he ignored the fatalistic jibes of his Navy mates. “Sooner you than me sparks.” “Mind you don’t fire them bloody torpedoes as us, that’s all”.

They were right to be worried. Of the British 49 subs, 19 went down in the war, 13 of them in the Mediterranean where Ben was headed. Ben was drafted into HMS Dolphin submarine base at Portsmouth to learn the ropes – and there were a lot more ropes to learn here than above water. The training was tough and it needed to be for the claustrophobic environment of the submarine.

Dealing with pressure – atmospheric and psychological – was the biggest concern and they started in a tank. Not an army tank but a water tank for long periods where both kinds of pressure could be measured. “Some people who passed the test in the tank could not stand the submarine once they got in, the atmosphere of being in this sardine can locked up,” Ben told Sea Wolves author Clayton.

Each man aboard was trained to do everyone else’s job because in an emergency they might have to. “If you were in the control room and near the main ballast diving vent panel, you pulled the vent levers in the correct order else the bleeding sub would go down head first,” Ben said.

Initially he was in the spare crew and could sneak home for weekends using rum as currency to bribe guards. That suddenly changed when he was assigned to the submarine Utmost to support the island of Malta which was surrounded by German positions in the Mediterranean.

Ben Skeates served on HMS Utmost. Photo by Royal Navy official photographer – This is photograph FL 4279 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2356022

HMS Utmost was a British U class submarine soundly built by Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness. These small submarines, of around 570 tonnes and 50m long and less than 5m wide, were originally intended as unarmed training vessels to replace an older class to be used as practice targets in anti-submarine training exercises. Initially converted fishing boats, more were built from scratch as war approached. The U Class proved to be useful warships in the confined waters of the North Sea and particularly in the Mediterranean.

Skeates’ electrical knowledge scored him a job in the Utmost radio office and on March 9, 1941 he radioed in a signal that three enemy Italian cargo ships were close by. They took out the Capo Vita, carrying gasoline and ammunition, and it detonated in a huge explosion sending debris in all directions, killing all on board. A second ship was torpedoed a day later.

When the submariners had shore leave they spent it in Malta where they let their hair down drinking and talking to “sherry queens”. The women were so named because if they bought them a sherry they would sit and talk with the soldiers. At a pound a pop, it was too expensive to take them home for the night.

At 11.30pm one night and alone, Ben heard the air raid siren sound. He could hear the screamers on the bombers as they dived but the all clear sounded and he dozed off. He didn’t hear the second raid and remembered dreaming the bedroom wall was splitting open. When Ben regained consciousness he was pinned down with an immense weight on his chest. He lost consciousness again and woke up a second time in a Maltese hospital. “A nurse was busy with scissors, trying to cut away the hair from my head,” he said. “There were some deep gashes in the scalp and she thought my skull had been fractured in several places.”

Rescuers had spent an incredible 27 hours digging him out of the rubble from a 500lb bomb though he was fortunate an unbroken sandstone block fell over his chest allowing him to breathe. With no anaesthetic available the nurse gave him a tumbler of brandy to dull the pain. The wound turned septic and he left for Gibraltar in a hospital ship.

A heavily bomb-damaged street in Valletta, Malta. Photo Imperial War Museums. Crown Copyright expired.

When he recovered he was assigned as a petty officer telegraphist at the submarine building yards at Barrow-on-Furness, England. There he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Muriel, the daughter of the family who owned his lodgings. Ben and Muriel married a year later. In 1944 Ben paid his first visit to Australia when he was ordered on to the sub HMS Maidstone to accompany a convoy to Fremantle. “The Yanks were already there with their inane jokes about our toy submarines,” he said. “Their’s were like battleships with deep freezers full of chicken and ice cream.”

Ben Skeates with wife Muriel and their three children in Barrow-on-Furness.

Ben survived the war and he and his young family carved out a life in Cumbria starting his own electrical business. His son-in-law Rod Lovelock said Ben was the first man in Barrow to make his own television. “He used a broomstick as an aerial and made a cathode ray tube out of radar parts,” Rod told me.

Rod played an important role in Ben’s later life and Rod said Ben would become his best friend for the last 50 years of his life. Rod, from Wiltshire, met and married Ben’s daughter June and they decided to move to Australia in 1974.

Son-in-law Rod Lovelock with the Skeates and Lovelock family history book that was compiled by Ben Skeates.

After a stint in Brisbane Rod got a job at Mary Kathleen uranium mine, east of Mount Isa, where he worked at Bell & Moir’s service station. Sadly by then Ben’s wife Muriel had died aged just 42 and at a loose end Ben decided to follow his daughter out to Australia. But there was no ordinary way out for this intrepid submariner, with two younger mates Ben decided to do the overland hippie trail and they took 18 months to get from Britain to Australia.

Ben Skeates (left) with one of his companions somewhere on the overland trail to Australia.

Rod said Ben followed him and his wife out to Mary Kathleen where Ben worked as the garbage man. “Later he went down to Kynuna to go opal hunting,” Rod said. After 18 months at Mary K, Rod and June moved to Mount Isa where Rod worked as service manager for Max Platt (now Malouf Auto) and Rod would later start his own business. “Ben stayed at Mary Kathleen till it closed and then moved back to live in a donga in Mount Isa,” Rod said. “He worked on the buses for Campbell Coaches running the midnight shift to Hilton (now George Fisher mine).”

Ben Skeates on Anzac Day in Mount Isa. Year not known.

Anzac Day was always important for Ben, Rod recalls, but he didn’t like talking about his war days. “The only time he talked a lot about it was for two days after his wife died,” he said. Rod said that in 50 years he and Ben almost never argued except when in 2010 when Ben decided to leave his extended Australian family and return to live in England where he had two other children. Perhaps Ben must have known something Rod didn’t at the time. The the old sea wolf died within weeks of returning home to England, aged 93 and he was buried in Barrow. But Ben Skeates’ legacy remains strong in England and his adopted Australia.

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