ONE of the most famous ships built on the Tyne was HMS Kelly, built at the Hawthorn Leslie yard in Hebburn on the banks of the Tyne before World War Two and then substantially rebuilt there after it was torpedoed by enemy action off the Norwegian coast in 1940.
Disabled and helpless, it was put under tow by HMS Bulldog, and its master asked Lord Louis Mountbatten, captain of the Kelly, where he wanted his ship to be taken.
He received an immediate reply: Hebburn.
Mountbatten had spent months in the town, watching his ship literally taking shape, highly impressed by the quality of the workmanship.
Huge crowds turned out along the Tyne to see her return in 1940, with a gash in a flank the size of a double-decker bus, her surviving crew standing to attention along both rails.
As a nine year-old boy, a man I know called Ron French stood outside the gates of Hebburn Cemetery watching Mountbatten lead a procession of gun carriages carrying coffins of the 27 sailors killed in the attack.
After the ship was rebuilt she was sent to the eastern Mediterranean in May 1941 and ordered to patrol the north coast of Crete.
Thousands of British troops who had been forced out of Greece by the Nazi invasion were based on the island, but a massive airborne landing forced a hurried and rather botched evacuation that led to the loss of the Kelly after she was bombed and sunk by Stuka dive-bombers of the Luftwaffe.
Kelly did succeed in shooting down two of her attackers and while nine of her officers and 121 lower ranks lost their lives, many were rescued from the water and survived, Mountbatten among them.
He tried to console the ship’s company by reminding them all: ‘We didn’t leave the Kelly, the Kelly left us.’
At the Kelly Memorial in Hebburn’s cemetery, the sailors who died are listed on stone memorials.
There’s something moving about the names, possibly the prosaic ranks, or even the profusion of initials: Leading Signalman A Amos, Boy First Class E W F Bethell, Leading Stoker V Gough.
I wonder what young Bethell’s mother called him – was it Ernie, or Eddie, or Eric?
In classic British fashion, the sad story of a ship that went to the bottom of the Med was refashioned and fictionalised to make a powerful piece of war propaganda: the film In Which We Serve, in which Noel Coward played the role of an iron-jawed naval commander with less than total conviction.
He intoned the film’s powerful first words: ‘This is the story of a ship.’
Some scenes were shot at Hawthorn Leslie’s, so the yard’s workers had the distinction of appearing in a film that was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and nominated for an Oscar for best picture of 1942 (it lost out to Casablanca).
In the 1970’s, by now a revered member of the Royal Family, Mountbatten himself died at sea, when the Provisional IRA blew up his fishing boat on a summer’s day in a ravishingly pretty bay off the coast of County Sligo.