William Hugh Freeman was the son of William Hugh and Mary Freeman. He was born about 1921. The family lived at Church Street, Cookstown, He became a blacksmith like his father. He joined the Royal Navy in the summer of 1938. He was a member of the crew of HMS Exeter which engaged the Graf Spee. Blacksmith William (Billy) Freeman was in service on board HMS Leonian when he died on 7th February 1944, aged 23. The details of his death are unknown.
William Hugh Freeman was the son of William Hugh and Mary Freeman. He was born about 1921.
The family lived for a time at Church Street, Cookstown, William (Billy) Freeman was well known in the Cookstown area because his father, William (Hughie) was a very popular blacksmith.
Prior to the war, young William worked with his father as a blacksmith.
He was a keen motor cyclist and took part in the Cookstown 100 motorcycle race in 1938.
Billy Freeman joined the Royal Navy in the summer of 1938. He was a member of the crew of HMS Exeter, with the rank of Seaman.
William Hugh Freeman was the husband of Iris Elvina Freeman.
HMS Exeter played a heroic part in the battle with the pocket battleship Graf Spee off the River Plate on 13th December 1939. On the morning of 13th December, shortly after 6am, Billy was lying on deck when the order came for ‘action stations’. Distant guns flashed and soon HMS Exeter had received her first baptism of fire.
Seaman Billy Freeman was a member of the crew of one of the 4.7 inch guns that returned fire until the gun itself was disabled by a hit that killed and wounded many men, a piece of shrapnel cutting a hole in Billy’s cap and a slight cut to one hand.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 12th February 1940:
Mr William H Freeman, of Church Street, Cookstown, who joined the Navy about eighteen months ago, is a member of the crew of HMS Exeter, which arrived home during the week from the south Atlantic, where she took part in the epic battle with the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. The cruiser, which suffered heavily in the action, was given a tremendous welcome on arrival in port.
While serving on board HMS Exeter, Billy served with 14 men from Northern Ireland as well as men from the Republic of Ireland.
Blacksmith Freeman was home on leave on 2nd March 1940 for 28 days to visit his parents in Cookstown. It is recorded that there were very enthusiastic scenes in Cookstown when he stepped off the bus from Belfast at the Transport Board’s parcel depot in William Street where he was surrounded by a large crowd of well-wishers. That evening he was met by the members of Killymoon and Derryloran bands and paraded to his home carried on the shoulders of some of his neighbours. There was much loud cheering and Billy Freeman was heard to say ‘I hope I live to see Hitler scuttle himself too’.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 9th March 1940: Cookstown’s Exeter Hero – Seaman W H Freeman Welcomed – What he saw of the Graf Spee Battle.
Council Chairman’s Welcome
Seaman William H Freeman, of Church Street, Cookstown, a member of the crew of H.M.S. Exeter, which played such a heroic part in the battle with the Nazi pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the River Plate on 13th December, received a hearty welcome when he arrived home in his native town on Saturday evening to spend 28 days leave with his parents.
There was enthusiastic scenes when the bus in which he travelled from Belfast arrived at the Transport Board’s depot in William Street. When it became known that he was arriving by the 6:50pm bus, a large crowd gathered and Mr John Glasgow J.P. (chairman) and members of the Urban Council; Mr John W Fleming, Town Clerk; District Inspector A H Wolseley, and others, were there to welcome the young sailor, who after little more than a year’s service in the Royal Navy, had the thrilling experience of being under fire in the first naval action of the present war, and helped to defeat the Graf Spee, which sough safety in Montevideo harbor and later scuttled by her crew. Many Cookstown residents were proud of the fact that their town had been identified with the River Plate battle in this way, and it was this thought, no less than the desire to offer professional congratulations to young Freeman (whose plucky riding as a novice in the last 100 Miles motor cycle race through Cookstown in 1938 will be remembered) that prompted the public demonstration of welcome.
When the bus stopped it was immediately surrounded by a excited throng. The first to greet Seaman Freeman, who was undoubtedly taken aback by the reception, was his sister. Then Mr John Glasgow J.P., on behalf of the Urban Council and the town, gave the blushing sailor a hearty handshake, a pat on the shoulder, and a welcome home. Others who shook hands with him were Mr John W Fleming, District Inspector Wolseley, Mr Joseph Allen and Mr John Cadden (Head Postmaster) and as friends and well-wishers surrounded him, there was a cheer for the young Exeter hero. Everyone was eager to grasp him by the hand or to get a glimpse of him. On the suggestion of Mr Cadden, several members of the Services on leave lifted young Freeman shoulder high, and in this way he was escorted to his home, where is overjoyed and proud parents awaited his return. A union Jack was secured and carried in front of the escort.
Later at night, some members of Killymoon and Derryloran Bands got a few instruments together and assembled with a large crowd at the Freeman home. Ther hero of the hour had to reappear and on the shoulders of young men among whom he had spent his childhood, he was carried in procession through the town, with the band playing patriotic airs. When the party returned to Church Street again, young Freeman briefly thanked the assembled crowd for the warmth of the welcome that had been given to him. There was a loud cheer when he concluded with the words: ‘I hope I live to see Hitler scuttle himself too!’
His Impressions of the Battle
Seaman Freeman joined the Navy in the summer of 1938, and after a period of training he went to sea in the Exeter, his first ship, which had come home from Foreign Service. When she went abroad again sometime before the outbreak of war, there were about fourteen North of Ireland men on board, as well as a number of men from the Free State. He was among the younger members of the ship’s company, being 19 years of age at the time of the River Plate action. Young Freeman is very reticent about the memorable battle in which his ship played a gallant part and suffered so heavily on 13th December, a date which was most unlucky for the Graf Spee.
On that fateful morning in the South Atlantic, shortly after 6am, he was lying on deck when the order came to action stations. Perhaps it was just another merchant ship on the horizon, another false alarm. But those aboard Exeter were not long left in doubt as to the nature of the ship that had been sighted. Distant guns flashed and soon those aboard Exeter has received their first baptism of fire. It was an exciting time in those first moments as the heavy shells from the Nazi cruiser’s 11-inch guns fell close to the British ship. Seaman Freeman paid tribute to the accuracy of the German gunners, whose fifth salvo scored a hit. Many others followed, but Exeter returned shot for shot and inflicted considerable damage by her steady and accurate fire, until almost all her guns were out of action. Freeman, who was a member of the crew of one of the 4.7in guns, helped to send the Graf Spee a few surprise packets, until their gun was disabled.
Sang Songs Amidst Burning Shells
The coolness of his comrades under fire he described as wonderful. They chatted away and sang songs as shells burst all around them, killing and wounding many men. A shell splinter made a hole in his cap, but with exception of a slight cut on one hand, he was fortunate to escape almost unscratched. Modestly he disclaimed any important part in the Exeter’s heroic fight as she closed with the enemy, drawing her concentrated fire, while Ajax and Achilles maneuvered into position to shoot up the Graf Spee. Only when pressed did he reveal that he was engaged in the highly dangerous task of throwing sand on the shells in the shell-lockers, or dumping them overboard to prevent them being ‘touched off’ by enemy fire.
He speaks highly of the kindness shown to the Exeter’s company when they arrived at the Falklands on the Saturday after the battle. Among the mementos of the battle he brought home with him is a piece of the Graf Spee shell and a special memento of the Falkland Islands News Weekly, inscribed to Captain F S Bell and his Sea Pirates. It contains a brief account of the battle, the casualty list, and the funeral of those who lost their lives.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 16th March 1940:
Seaman William H Freeman, of Church Street, Cookstown, was one of eight member of the crew of H.M.S. Exeter, who with two men from H.M.S. Ajax wee the guests of Lord Craigavon at Stormont on Tuesday. The party spent some time in the House of Commons, and some of them were accommodated in the Distinguished Strangers Gallery at the direction of the Speaker. They were entertained at tea in the Members’ dining rooms.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 23rd March 1940: Cookstown Sailor Honoured – Guest of Tuesday Night Club
Seaman William H Freeman of Cookstown (HMS Exeter), who goes back to duty in a few days’ time. After spending four weeks leave with his family, was honoured by the Tuesday Night Club, Cookstown, on Wednesday night. When he was presented by the members with a solid silver cigarette case, suitably inscribed, in recognition of his service with H.M.S. Exeter in the River Plate Battle on 13th December. The members of the club were, for the occasion, the guests of Mr and Mrs R Jones, Bank of Ireland House, who entertained the company to tea and spared no trouble in making in making the function a happy and enjoyable one.
Seaman Freeman, who was accompanied by his sister, had just returned from Belfast, where he and other Northern Ireland sailors from Exeter and Ajax were presented by Lady Craigavon with parcels of comforts from the Ulster Gift Fund Depot.
He was congratulated by the host and hostess and by members of the club, and afterwards the company took part in community singing and popular games. Miss M Morrell, secretary of the club, took the chair for a short time and explained the object of their meeting. They wished to extend to Mr Freeman their heartiest congratulations for the part he played in the battle with the Graf Spee. Everyone had been thrilled by the account of the action, and the gallant fighting of the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. Seaman Freeman might say that on that occasion he only did his duty, but he played a man’s part in helping to win the victory – a victory which incidentally they in Cookstown could claim to have a share. The club wished him luck, added Miss Morrell, who then asked Mrs Jones on their behalf to make the presentation. Mrs Jones handed over the gift and wished Seaman Freeman God-speed wherever his duty took him. Miss Mary Porter (treasurer), Mr Jones and others also spoke briefly and joined in the congratulations. Seaman freeman thanked the members of the club for their kindness. During the night an impromptu musical programme was contributed by Misses M Porter, N Ferguson, E Gilmour, D Freeman and Messrs George H Hanna, R H Vigor and Seaman Freeman. A vote of thanks was enthusiastically accorded to Mr and Mrs Jones for their hospitality and kindness, on the motion of Miss M Porter.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 23rd March 1940: Wireless Operator Francis Kane
Another Cookstown man who took part in the Battle of the River Plate on 12th December was Mr Francis Kane. He was on H.M.S. Ajax. At an early age (he is 24 now) he joined the Royal Marines and about five years ago he went to Ajax as a wireless operator. He came through the action uninjured, but when his ship returned home last month he did not visit his native district. Instead he took the opportunity afforded by his leave to get married to a young lady in England, and he spent the remainder of his time with his bride.
From the Mid Ulster Mail dated 30th March 1940: Cookstown Honour Townsman – Presentation to Seaman W H Freeman
Seaman William H Freeman, of Church Street, Cookstown, who on board H.M.S. Exeter, took part in the River Plate action against the Admiral Graf Spee, was the recipient of further congratulations from his native town on Wednesday night, when he was the guest of a number of business men and merchants in a special gathering held in The Café. The function was due to the initiative of Mr Joseph Allen, who arranged to present young Freeman with an inscribed gold wristlet watch in recognition of his service on the Exeter.
Mr John Glasgow, J.P., Chairman of the Urban Council, presided, and the others present were Messrs:- Samuel McKinney, UDC; William Alexander, UDC; James Wright, UDC; R Stewart Twigg, Joseph Allen, James McCammon, Clerk RDC; A Cameron, RDC; Robert J Allen, William Parks, William Anderson, T Greer, A McConnell, Rankin Faulkner, George H Hanna, Robert Hughes, David Wilkinson, C H Tomb, Samuel Glasgow, Mr Thompson.
The toast to the King having been loyally honoured. Mr Glasgow said he appreciated the honour of being asked to preside at a function arranged in order to do honour to their fellow townsman. Seaman Freeman, who had taken part in the battle with the Graf Spee. They were as delighted to welcome him among them as they had been with the result of the battle with the Nazi warship. Most of them had read in that day’s press the story of how members of the Graf Spee’s crew in harbour after the fight mutinied rather than go out again and fight. Out of the entire crew of over 900 men, only sixty men had volunteered to face the British ships, which showed that the crew had a healthy respect for the British Navy, even though the ships were not more than half the strength of their German opponent. They hoped their young friend would be spared to come back to Cookstown. Some of the residents in the town had thought it right to present him with a memento which he would be able to carry about with him and perhaps remind him (if he required any reminder) on what took place on 13th December. The Chairman then asked Mr Joseph Allen to hand over the gift.
Safe in the Navy’s Hands
Mr Allen, on behalf of the subscribers, presented Seaman Freeman with the watch, and said that they felt that his services should be recognised in his home town. They were proud that he was in the Navy. They heard a lot about the Army and the Air Force, but it was the British Navy that kept them safe and would continue to keep them safe. Everyone was safe in the Navy’s hands (applause).
Mr Twigg joined in the congratulations, and said her would have felt it very much amiss if young Freeman had been allowed to go away without some appreciation of his services being shown. It was not sufficiently appreciated, he thought, what the lads in the Navy were doing for them. They had passed through one of the worst winters on record. Were it not for the Navy in the present war, the people of Britain would find themselves in a very tight place, and it was only right that everything should be done to make the task of the Navy men easier, and to show their appreciation of what they were doing. He wished Seaman Freeman God-speed.
Seaman Freeman, after the company had sung ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’, thanked them all for the pleasant evening and for their nice gift, which he was proud to have.
An enjoyable programme was contributed by the Chairman, Messrs J Allen, William Parke, R S Twigg, George H Hanna, R Faulkner, Thompson, R Hughes, W Anderson and James McCammon. The proceedings ended with the singing of ’Auld Lang Syne’ and the National Anthem.
Blacksmith William (Billy) Freeman was in service on board HMS Leonian when he died on 7th February 1944, aged 23. The details of his death are unknown.
Blacksmith William Hugh Freeman is buried in Cupuccini Naval Cemetery, Malta. He is buried in a communal grave, probably due to the lack of space. His inscription reads ‘LEAD, KINDLY LIGHT AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM, LEAD THOU ME ON R.I.P.’
William Hugh Freeman is commemorated locally on Cookstown Cenotaph.
The CWGC record Blacksmith William Hugh Freeman as the son of William and Mary Freeman. He is also recorded as the husband of Iris Elvina Freeman of Devonport, England.