Ronald Gordon Totterdell was brought up in Springfield where his father was the senior detective at Police Headquarters. He was educated at Trinity Road School until he joined the Royal Navy when aged 16. He was serving in China when the war broke out and returned to England in 1942 and was posted to convoy duties. He died in December 1942 when his ship. H.M.S. Firedrake was torpedoed and sunk in the north Atlantic. One of his brothers also died in the sinking. Their home was in New Court Road.
Ronald Gordon TOTTERDELL, Leading Telegraphist, H.M.S. Firedrake, Royal Navy
Killed when his ship was sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. Aged 21
On 21st May 1942 Ronald returned to England on board the S.S. Copacabana, landing at Liverpool after a near fatal illness had forced his return to recuperate. Once home he met his brother Gerald who had joined the Royal Navy and the two obtained the necessary special permit to enable them to sail together.
On 14th December 1942 Ronald, having recently passed his Petty Officer exams, went to sea with his brother on H.M.S. Firedrake, commanded by Commander Eric Tom Tilden, Distinguished Service Cross. The ship was part of the escort to the Liverpool-New York convoy ON-153, which totalled of 43 ships. Other Royal Navy vessels were the destroyer H.M.S. Ripley, and the corvettes H.M.S. Sunflower, H.M.S. Loosestrife, H.M.S. Alisma and H.M.S. Pink. The Firedrake was an F Class destroyer of 1,350 tons, launched in 1935, and had a complement of 196 officers and men.
Three days later, at 1.15 a.m. on 17th December 1942, the vessel was struck by one of two torpedoes fired from the German U-boat U-211, captained by Karl Hause, when she was at a position 50° 50' North, 25° 15' West.
The torpedo struck the starboard side the ship listed heavily to starboard, righted momentarily then broke in two about a minute after the explosion. The bow sank quickly, while the stern remained afloat for several hours, before sinking. The commander, five officers and 163 ratings, including the Totterdell brothers were lost. 27 survivors were picked up H.M.S. Sunflower. One rating later died from his injuries. Four other merchant ships from the convoy were sunk.
The U-211 was sunk on 11th October 1943.
At the time of the deaths of the Totterdell brothers their parents were living in Neu Court in New Court Road, Springfield.
Ronald’s father later recalled:
“My eldest son - Gerald - had joined the Police Force in January 1939, and after a time became a member of the C.I.D. at Clacton on Sea. My second son - Ronald - was then a Leading Telegraphist in the Royal Navy, serving in the China Seas. After recovering from a bout of black-water fever in 1942, he was invalided home and after his furlough returned to his depot at Chatham to await another ship.
On August 24, 1940, Gerald left the Police Service to join the Royal Navy and, by a stroke of good luck - so we thought at the time - was sent to the same depot. My wife and the rest of the family were glad that both boys should be together, if only for a short time. We had anticipated that Ronald would not be there long, as there was a great shortage of wireless telegraphists. While Gerald was training Ronald was enjoying frequent spells of leave waiting for his new ship. By the time Gerald has qualified Ronald had received notification that he would shortly be proceeding to Ireland to join the crew of a destroyer named H.M.S. Firedrake, which was being commissioned for escort duty in the Atlantic.
When Gerald got to hear of this he did not hesitate to seek an interview with his Commanding Officer and succeeded in obtaining permission to join his brother in his new ship. When my wife and I heard the news we were not at all pleased and endeavoured to persuade them them to change their decisions, but we were unsuccessful. Both boys were young and adventurous, and it was only natural that they wanted to be together. Home waters were then infested with enemy submarines, which had become a real menace to our shipping. We realised that there were considerable dangers, and I have no doubt they did also, but their brotherly love was too strong to allow them to admit it.
At the conclusion of their last leave they left home together in high spirits.
We prayed for their safety and speedy return; but, alas, some days later we received official notification that their ship had been torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic on the night of December 16, and that both boys were missing, presumed killed.
All my efforts to obtain details of the tragedy from official sources having failed, I made inquiries elsewhere and obtained the name and address of a survivor. I wrote to him and asked for any information he could give and received a reply giving such details as he was able to remember.”
Both brothers are commemorated on the Springfield War Memorial and by the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent. Ronald’s father retired from Essex County Constabulary in 1952.
Ronald was born in 1921 in Essex, the second son of George Henry Rookwood Totterdell (1892-1976) and Gertrude Lucy Totterdell (nee Oakley) (1894-1986). Gerald's parents had married in 1917 in Essex.
Ronald's siblings were Gerald Norman Totterdell (1920-1942), Doris Gertrude Totterdell (1923-1995), and a son born in 1926.
Ronald's paternal grandfather and father were both police officers with Essex County Constabulary; the latter rising to the rank of Detective Superintendent. His forename ‘Rookwood’ was a reference to Lord and Lady Rookwood for whom Gerald’s paternal grandparents had worked in the 1880s at Down Hall in Harlow.
Ronald’s father had joined Essex County Constabulary late in 1912. After training at Headquarters he was posted to Southend, then Westcliff; moved in 1914 to Maldon and in December 1915, and left to join the Royal Naval Air Service, seeing service overseas in Zanzibar. Now married, he rejoined Essex County Constabulary in 1919 returned to Maldon, and June of that year moved to Rayleigh where a house had been found for him.
In April 1921, the year of Ronald’s birth, his father was posted to the Criminal Investigations Department (‘CID’) and took up his duties in Romford as a Detective
Constable. In 1926 Ronald’s father was moved to Stanford-le-Hope, back to the uniform branch as the section Sergeant..
In October 1929 the family moved once again, back to Romford, with the promotion of Ronald’s father to Detective Inspector and head of the county’s CID. In 1932 he was promoted to Detective Superintendent, still head of a reorganised CID, but now based in Police Headquarters in Chelmsford. He also took on responsibility for a number of months for the new Mobile Section, the forerunner to today’s traffic units.
Now living in Springfield Ronald was educated at Trinity Road School in Chelmsford, and soon after leaving, aged 16, he joined the Royal Navy where he served as Leading Telegraphist C/JX 153884.
After training Ronald served on the ill-fated H.M.S. Cornwall and had spent three years in China, during which time the war broke out.