On 9 May 1940, H.M.S. Kelly, a K-Class Destroyer of the Royal Navy under command of Lord Mountbatten, was hit by German torpedoes during the Battle of Norway. It suffered extensive damage and twenty members of the ship’s crew were killed; one of those who died on board was my Maternal Great-Uncle, Herbert Pickering. Herbert was a Royal Navy Telegraphist and he was 23 years old. All I know about Herbert (or Bert as he was more commonly known) is the little that my Grandmother, his younger sister, told me and what I can gather from the small amount of his belongings that I inherited from her when she died a few years ago.
In spite of my deep aversion to the enforced and deceptive war ‘commemoration’ that unfortunately has become the norm in the UK, I do find myself thinking of Bert at this time of year. However, I do not remember him as a hero. I do not know what his motivations for joining the Navy were and I can only speculate. I imagine it was a decision based primarily on being a working-class lad in Essex without many options in life (and perhaps the allure of ‘adventure’ that the Navy offered), more than one borne out of an altruistic commitment to fight for ‘our freedom’, such is the ahistorical narrative that is forced down our throats with ever increasing crudeness.
My Gran suffered from depression throughout her life and in the last few years before she died, I noticed that when she was having a bout of the illness, her thoughts would frequently turn to her brother, Bert and his untimely death. In fact, even over 60 years after his death she could still be brought to tears remembering him and I don’t think that she ever really recovered from the trauma of losing him so young. She told me several times that he was a sweet, sensitive soul and in the small number of photos that I have of him, I think that is exactly how he looks. His tenderness as well as the closeness of the relationship that he had with his adoring younger sister are both hinted at in a short telegram that he sent to her on her birthday in March 1938 wishing “the cherub many happy returns of the day” and a comment on the back of a photo that shows several of his fellow young sailors and asks her “want any intros?”.
Not long before she died, my Gran sorted through a box of photos that Bert took during three cruises that he made on board the Royal Navy vessel, H.M.S. York, between 1936 and 1938. On these cruises, Bert travelled all over North and South America and the Caribbean and took some incredible photos in Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, the US and elsewhere. He sent them back home to my Gran in Essex and each one has a hand written caption or message to her on the back. I have subsequently inherited these photos, and when looking through them, I must admit that – politics aside – they really manage to convey a sense of the comradery, adventure and excitement that being a part of the most powerful navy in the world must have offered to an 18 year old like Bert when he enrolled.
This is the image of Bert that I like to imagine when I think of him, a working class teenager from Essex being amazed by the sights of Havana, New York and Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s; a more innocent time for him, before the chaos and destruction of the Second World War began and he was killed so young.