A CHANCE find has shed new light on links between Hartlepool and a British battleship sunk by Germany during World War Two with the loss of 1,415 lives.
HMS Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy until destroyed by the Bismarck on May 24, 1941. Among those to lose their lives was 27-year-old Croft sailor James Leonard Pay.
“That a local lad served aboard Hood gives the town a strong link with the ship, but another has just been discovered as well,” said Stan Laundon, a former BBC local radio presenter.
“A guest book dating back more than 80 years was recently unearthed in the cellar of the Duke of Cleveland, in Church Walk, which shows Hood docked in West Hartlepool in 1932.
“The crew visited the Conservative Club in old Hartlepool, using the book to sign in. It is amazing that such a historic document has survived all these years.”
James Pay, known as Lenny to his friends, was born in Hartlepool in July 1914, just a month before World War One was declared, and lived in both Croft Terrace and Bedford Street.
It is amazing that such a historic document has survived all these years.Stan Laundon, former BBC local radio presenter
After completing his education at Anne Crooks School, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother Bill to join the Royal Navy - serving on HMS London before moving to Hood.
The year 1936 saw Lenny marry his sweetheart Hannah at Trinity Church, Hartlepool, and, in 1937, he won first prize in a gig race after securing a coveted spot in Hood’s rowing team.
But, as the storm clouds of conflict gathered over Europe, rowing was forgotten. Instead, Hood and her sailors hunted for German blockade runners between Iceland and Norway.
The battlecruiser later sailed as the flagship of Force H, taking part in the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, before being dispatched to Scapa Flow as a convoy escort.
Then, on May 24, 1941, Hood and new battleship Prince of Wales were sent to intercept two German ships, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, before they could break out into the Atlantic.
Hood opened fire on Eugen at 5.52am, with both German ships returning fire. It is believed Eugen was the first to score; an enemy shell setting fire to ammunition on Hood’s boat deck.
Just before 6am, as Hood was turning to unmask her rear turrets, she was hit again on the boat deck - this time by shells fired by Bismarck. A huge jet of flame burst from the ship.
Seconds later an explosion broke the back of Hood, and she sank within three minutes. The ship had been hailed as invincible - and her loss had a profound effect on the British people.
“Only three sailors survived the sinking of one of the world’s most powerful warships, and Lenny wasn’t one of them. He left a widow and a daughter, Joan, in Hartlepool,” said Stan.
“I would imagine relatives of Lenny still live in the town, and I’m sure they would find the guest books detailing Hood’s visit to Hartlepool as interesting as I do.”
From rowing star to victim of a great wartime disaster
Able Seaman James Leonard Pay hailed from a sea-faring family - as his Folkestone-born father William Robert Pay made a living as a sailor before settling in Hartlepool.
Lenny was one of at least seven children born to William and his wife Alice, although only four - Bill, Jack, Lenny and Mary - survived childhood.
“Both Bill and Lenny joined the Royal Navy after leaving school, as it was the time of the depression and there were few jobs around in Hartlepool,” said Stan.
“Times were hard, and it eased the burden on their families when they went to sea. Bill joined up in 1933 and Lenny followed in his footsteps shortly afterwards.”
Lenny was posted to HMS London before transferring to HMS Hood. He joined Hood’s rowing team and won a racing Skull in a gig race for the ship in 1937 after achieving first place.
Both he and Bill were accomplished rowers and regularly attended race meetings in Whitby and Scarborough before war broke out.
“Bill served throughout the war and was discharged in 1945, but Lenny - who was also a talented artist - had his life cut tragically short,” said Stan.
According to the website hmshood.com, Lenny’s sister Mary married Felix Rice, who also served on HMS Hood - but the sailor moved on to another ship before Hood was destroyed.
“Lenny’s widow Hannah remained in Hartlepool until her death in 1972. Their daughter, Joan, was just 18 months old when Lenny was killed. His death was a real tragedy for them,” said Stan.