The Making of the Guns in Harland's
From the Memoirs of William Cathro
(13 September 1915 - 21 December 1997)
A worker at Harland and Wolff during the Second World War
Taking up the story again, I should mention something about the work we were doing in Harland and Wolffs during the war. Even before I went there in August of 1939, it was known on Clydeside as the "gun-work" and for obvious reasons, the "glass-house." The latter was because it had a glass roof and glass walls which extended from the roof to 8 feet from the ground. I think every pane was smashed on the Friday night that the land-mine blew. However, we got on with the job, which was making naval guns. We built 4.7-inch single mount guns, which were commonly used on frigates and destroyers and later on Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (D.E.M.S). D.E.M.S. were variously manned by Naval or Army gunners and were some kind of defence against the submarine menace. Later, the 4.7-inch was superseded by a 4.5-inch. Then we also built 5.25-inch twin guns with independent elevation. These guns were the secondary armament on the Prince of Wales' class of battleship -- a 14-foot gun ship class which included the Anson, the Howe, the Duke of York, among others. We also did repair work on some war-damaged ships, such as the 8-inch gun cruiser sunk by a German bomber in dock on the Clyde. In 1941, we got a rather unique job -- to modify and rebuild a set of four pairs of 15-inch guns, which had been built originally by "Vickers" around 1922 or 23. These guns had been built for a battleship called H.M.S. Glorious, which was under construction in the early 20's. At this time, the League of Nations in Geneva was placing restrictions on the size of capital ships. This was intended to cramp Germany's naval program, but it was discovered that with the limitation on the size of the ships, the "Glorious" was 18 feet too long. So it had to be redesigned 18 feet shorter, but it had been designed originally for these four pairs of 15-inch guns. When the ship was completed, guns installed and everything ready for trial, they took it down to the gunnery range in the channel for its first test. The guns were far too heavy and powerful for the weakened hull, and as they tried to fire a real broadside, the ship was being shaken apart. Finally, all the guns were removed and sent to Devonport, where they lay till 1941, when they decided to have them modified to suit a battleship called H.M.S. Vanguard. The Glorious was converted into an aircraft carrier, one of two which existed when war broke out in 1939.
So we had the 15-inch guns to modify. This originally entailed fitting new trunnion blocks, which are the bearing blocks and allow the guns to be elevated or lowered. The new blocks were designed to give them a higher elevation and increase the range. The barrel & breech - blocks only needed cleaning and polishing, but it was still a huge undertaking. One interesting sidelight of this project was when H.M.S. Hood was sunk in the North Atlantic. There were only three survivors picked up from H.M.S. Hood, which was an almost certain indication that her magazine and powder bins had blown up. When this happened, there was a lot of controversy about how and why, but in Harlands we got a "hold everything" signal about our 15-inch guns. Then we got instructions and lots of modifications, and at the finish up, we had to have all powder conveyors, shell hoists and every possible surface lined with brass to avoid any chance of a spark setting off a chain reaction, which could reach the magazine! This was never given out in public, but we had the real indications about what had happened. We got the job done and the Vanguard was launched, but the war ended before the guns were even fired!
H.M.S. Vanguard never took part in any action, but it was used a year or so later to take the Royal Family to South Africa, which was still in the commonwealth at that time. They refitted much of the living quarters on the ship to make it comfortable for the Royal Party, and King George VI and his family set sail for what was really intended as a rest and relaxation trip for the King, who was never a very robust man and the stress and strain of the war had taken its toll. It was evident that his health was failing.