Friday, May 12, 2006


Here in the states, we'd never heard of "Barehand" Bates, a UK Navy officer who did something quite remarkable during World War II. Now that Bates has died, his story has been fully told. The Telegraph offers a deep and satisfying obit:
Captain "Barehands" Bates, who has died aged 89, played a vital role in sinking the German battleship Scharnhorst by climbing the mast of his ship to adjust its radar aerial.

On Boxing Day 1943 Bates was electrical officer in Duke of York, the flagship of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, when Scharnhorst slipped out of the Norwegian fjords to attack Russian convoy JW55B, off the North Cape.

It was blowing a force 8 gale in the bitterly cold permanent dark when Bates, whose action station was high in the ship under the tripod mast, reported the echo of Scharnhorst, which had been trapped by Fraser’s tactical manoeuvring while being shadowed by the cruiser Belfast.

Bates’s report enabled Fraser to close within visual range at 8,000 yards, enabling Duke of York to surprise Scharnhorst with a first salvo.

German near-misses were soon falling around the British ship when, with a sudden whoosh, the radar failed.

Bates and his two operators were thrown in a heap to the deck, and when he picked himself up the radar, though seeming to work, showed no echoes.

Puzzled, Bates climbed two-thirds the way up the swaying mast. Feeling about in the dark, with the aid of a small torch between his fingers, he found that the aerial was pointing skywards: the shock wave of a German 11-inch shell, which had passed though the tripod mast and under Bates’s feet, had blown it out of alignment.

Bates returned the aerial to the horizontal and restarted the gyro-stabiliser so that within a few minutes the radar was working again, thus restoring to Fraser the advantage of a clear tactical picture in the prevailing low visibility.

At about 18:20, Duke of York scored a direct hit, which penetrated Scharnhorst’s starboard side and put a boiler-room out of action, thereby reducing the speed so that she was was sunk a few hours later.

Radar was still a complete mystery to most people, and the story of its restoration was therefore all but incomprehensible.

Afterwards the ship’s company believed that Bates, a strong man standing six foot three inches tall and weighing 19 stone, had climbed the mast to hold together the radar antennae; but the public was told that he had repaired wireless leads.

He was awarded the DSC for great gallantry, determination and skill while his radar operators, Able Seamen Horace Badkin and Geoffrey Whitton, were awarded the DSM.

Nevertheless, Bates was exasperated after the war by the way he was regularly depicted as "Barehands Bates", holding live electrical wires together, in comics and on the backs of cereal packets.
Bates' real name was Harold Raymond Kingsmill Bates. His friends called him "King." Postwar he became assistant director of Naval Intelligence before he retired in 1969.

His retirement was spent this way, according to the Telegraph:
Bates then bought and ran a filling station and shop at Yarnbrook crossroads, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he was assisted by an ex-chief petty officer, known only as "Mr Fido", who was vigilant in guarding the sweet counter from small boys.

Bates enjoyed a beer at the Long Arms opposite, from where he could view the forecourt and sally forth as necessary to serve customers.

Bates had a passion for motor cars, owning a Rover Speed 20 drophead coupé, a Jaguar XK120 and many later models of Jaguar.

He also bought one of the first Mini Coopers, which he had to drive with his large frame doubled-up. In his spare time he was usually head under the bonnet, stripping down engines and maintaining cars for family and friends - not always an easy task with his huge hands.

He preferred the company of woman and enjoyed being at the centre of things, never more so than at a good party. Latterly, with his second wife, he became an incurable traveller by cruise liner and by jet, usually to the Mediterranean.
Good night, Barehands.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding, his story is.
Wonder, I do if a better example of how to spend one's days there is.