Feature: Naval career took Norman all over the world

Norman Albone as an officer (far right, second row)
Norman Albone as an officer (far right, second row)

PLENTY of people served during the war, but few can claim to have seen so many varied places as Royal Navy veteran Norman Albone. Richard Morris caught up with him for the latest in our series of features on Eastbourne’s many heroes.

CHANCES are many reading this will have come across Norman Albone.

The pensioner taught at Ratton during the Swinging Sixties and in the years since has become a regular on the golf course in nearby Willingdon.

Few though, if any, will appreciate what an amazing life he has had.

Born 92 years ago - in the bustling market town of St Neotts in Cambridgeshire - Mr Albone’s roller-coaster life started with a potentially perilous battle with Spanish flu.

It went on to see him witness first-hand the fire which destroyed London’s Crystal Palace, stand shoulder to shoulder with Winston Churchill, and meet King George VI – the inspiration for the recent Oscar-winner film The King’s Speech.

Those anecdotes though pale into insignificance compared to what he got up to during the war years.

After quick-fire training in a Butlins camp, he was moved north to work on the Naval convoys which negotiated the cold water of the North Atlantic, where Nazi U-boats skulked the seas trying to scuttle any Allied ships they came across.

Away from the Western Front he may well have been, but as Mr Albone recalled, he was far from out of danger.

“The sea was so cold that if you touched any metal on the deck your hands would freeze and the skin would be ripped off trying to remove them,” he told the Herald. “Sometimes we would sail through the Arctic-like frozen icebergs under constant attack from above and below.

In the water you had less than five minutes’ survival time. “When we survived our first Atlantic Convoy we marched through the streets of Halifax to the tune of Roll Out The Barrel.”

After impressing on these early manoeuvres, he was invited to attend officer training at Lancing College, which was where he came face to face with King George VI who had visited the Sussex school to give an inspiration speech to the young officers, delivered, according to Mr Albone, “without the hint of stammer,” despite sill being treated by the speech therapist Lionel Logue.

The rest of the Second World War saw the seaman work his way up through the ranks of the Royal Navy until he was made master and commander of his own ship – just in time for D-Day.

“I could not tell my crew about the secret orders for Normandy until after we sailed,” he revealed, and his boat was later partially sunk by the enemy (“A ship came out of nowhere and rammed us. We started to go down.”).

Luckily the crew managed to close all watertight doors and brace them as they were going down, managing to send a last ditch signal for help.

They were found and towed into Dover where temporary patch-ups were made before going on to Portsmouth for full repairs. As per regulations Mr Albone was relieved of duty until a full enquiry reinstated him back to command.

By then he was keen to join in the liberation of mainland Europe and, together with his loyal crew – one of whom he later recommended for commendation after showing outstanding bravery under fire – he helped free the French inland port of Pauillac – a risky operation, but one with unusual rewards.

As he explained, “As the first liberating forces into Pauillac we were given a mayor’s reception and wine from Rothchild’s vineyards. We sang danced and drank all night.”

Once the war in Europe was won, most servicemen returned home. Not Mr Albone. He was put on a ship bound for the Far East where he would suffer one fearful encounter with Japanese soldiers after another.

There he spent the last part of the war around Sumatra and Singapore, rounding up Japanese prisoners and taking them to the famous Raffles Hotel.

It was also during his time in Japan that he came into possession of one particularly exotic keepsake. “I took a Japanese officer’s samurai sword,” he explained rather matter-of-factly, “and put his crew aboard our vessel.”

Another memento stayed with him for four decades, “I kept a German Luger pistol taken in St Peters Port in Jersey for over 40 years before donating it to the Redoubt Museum along Eastbourne seafront.”

His work in Japan was soon finished, but his life stubbornly refused to become more mundane.

He retrained at Oxford University, spent time as an actor, and sailed off to Africa to teach.

Settled temporarily in Kenya, where the dreaded Mau Mau were running amok, he face the daily challenges of a school lit by gas lamps, impoverished conditions and, among other things, enormous rock pythons slithering in and out of classrooms.

He later returned to the south coast and is currently living in Hankham, content with his games of golf.

Quiet his life may now be, but it isn’t without the odd surprise. Earlier this year another medal arrived, out of the blue and 70 years late, for his participation in the Far East.

And his story has now been turned into a book, Norman, A Journey through Time, by Alex Askaroff and is available at Waterstones, online at Amazon and as an e-book download.

In war and peace, Mr Albone’s story is a remarkable one. Ask him about it next time his wayward tee shot ends up on your green.