Seaman who survived Royal Oak disaster in Scapa Flow;
Born: September 25, 1920; Died: June 5, 2013.
Commander Philip Balink-White, who has died aged 92, was a 19-year-old ordinary seaman when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, six weeks after the start of the Second World War. He was one of only 375 men who survived as 833 of his shipmates perished, many of them "boy sailors" aged between 14 and 18.
After the war, he went on to become a top-class Navy diver and mine disposal expert. He also won small parts in several Navy-linked films, including as a diving double for actor Laurence Harvey in underwater scenes for The Silent Enemy (1958), based on the exploits of Navy frogman and MI6 agent Commander Lionel "Buster" Crabb. He also had a small role in the 1955 film Above Us the Waves, starring John Mills and, while living in Hawaii in the 1970s and '80s, he had regular small parts on the TV series Hawaii Five-O and later on Magnum PI.
It was in the small hours of October 14, 1939, that seaman White (he added his wife's maiden name, Balink, many years later) was awoken by a thud as a first torpedo hit the Royal Oak while she lay at anchor in the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow, an historic haven for the Royal Navy. Within 12 minutes, another torpedo (from submarine U-47, it was later learnt) struck the battleship and she began to list heavily.
White managed to get onto the side of the hull as she began to roll over and was catapulted into the icy water. He was picked up by a lifeboat but, overloaded and with men clinging to the gunwales, it capsized and he clung to its underside until a rescue boat picked him up. He recalled seeing sailors trying to get off the battleship's upturned hull - "and then she was gone".
In all, he spent two hours in the frigid water in the dark. Taken to the accommodation ship Voltaire, he was sent below to the boiler room to warm up. "Some hours later I awoke in the heat to see nothing but naked bodies and hissing steam. I thought I had got my just desserts, that The Devil himself would appear at any moment."
Many years later, he communicated with some of the crewmen of the German U-boat that attacked the Royal oak and remained in touch with them throughout his life. (The U-boat's captain Günther Prien was presumed killed in March 1941 when Royal Navy destroyer HMS Wolverine sank U-47 off the west coast of Ireland.) "He always carried a heavy heart for his lost shipmates, as well as his middle brother who died in an aviation accident during the war," White's family said.
Philip Arthur White was born on September 25, 1920, in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, youngest son of a naval officer, Thomas White, and his wife Mabel. He went to the local St Mary's Catholic School but gave up secondary school early, aged 14, to work as a boatman. He joined the Navy as soon as he turned 18, finding himself in Scapa Flow a year later.
A month after the Royal Oak disaster, White was back on duty, serving on the light cruiser HMS Aurora during the Norwegian campaign and hunting German supply vessels and the mighty battleship Bismarck.
Although he described his time post-Scapa Flow as run-of-the-mill on board the Aurora, he took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and on Mediterranean convoys. After the war, he specialised in diving and specifically clearing mines and underwater bombs, once leading a Malta-based team that disposed of a 1500lb German wartime mine in the harbour at Benghazi, Libya.
After retiring in 1970, he sought out US Navy Lt-Cdr Linda Balink, whom he'd met in London during the '60s, and they married on February 17, 1973, near her home base in Pensacola, Florida. He then "did my Denis Thatcher" and travelled the world with her for almost 20 years until she retired as a Captain in 1992.
They were based in Rhode Island, California, Japan, Hawaii, New Zealand (where his wife was US Defence and Naval attaché) and Portugal, where he became a much-loved professor at the Escola Naval (the Portuguese Naval Academy) at Alfeite outside Lisbon.
The couple retired to Pensacola, where Philip dabbled in painting, was a licensed radio ham and enjoyed sailing on smaller vessels. He was appointed MBE (military) in 1957.
He died in a hospice in Pensacola and is survived by his wife Linda, daughters Penelope and Jennifer from a previous marriage, and two grandsons.
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