Francis Johnston was born at Breckan, Harray on 23rd February 1917, the youngest son of farmer James A. Johnston and Helen Johnston (née Flett). Frank started his apprenticeship as a blacksmith in Harray with Jack Wilson, who died three months before his apprentice, while serving as an engineer on board SS Tacoma Star, and is commemorated on the Firth Memorial. Frank completed his apprenticeship at the Kirkwall marine engineering firm of John Scarth.
Frank was musical, played the button key accordion and the Jewish Harp. He started his own smithy at Isbister in Rendall. Frank married Emily Murray of Stoneyhill, Harray on 26th July 1940. He had been called up under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939 and left his new wife and Orkney next day to join the Royal Navy.
Frank reached RN shore base HMS Drake 2 at Devonport on 29th July and was allocated service number D/MX 70060 as an Acting Engine Room Artificer. On 31st October Frank joined the 750 crew of the 13,175 ton improved Southampton Class light cruiser, HMS Edinburgh. It had already served over a year on Home Fleet duties as part of the 18th Cruiser Squadron. When Francis Johnston joined HMS Edinburgh it was working up after shipyard repairs to correct deck design weakness and had been fitted with a new Type 279 air warning radar set.
A Royal Navy Engine Room Artificer (ERA) was ranked as a Leading Hand, but on board ship enjoyed most of the privileges of a Chief Petty Officer. These included a private and enclosed mess, with its own steward to serve meals and wash up, while ERAs were also allowed to take their rum ration neat (rather than as grog, one part rum and two parts water). Frank had become a father, with a son also called Francis, before HMS Edinburgh resumed sea duties with the fleet in November.
Light cruisers were the work horses of the Royal Navy and HMS Edinburgh was much in demand. She spent most of November in the Atlantic, escorting convoy WS4B from Liverpool to Freetown, then in December patrolled off Iceland with the battlecruiser HMS Hood. HMS Edinburgh spent the early months of 1941 in northern waters, including covering the Commando raid on the Lofoten Islands.
In May 1941 HMS Edinburgh played a minor role in two of the most significant events in the early years of the war at sea. On the 7th HMS Edinburgh was diverted to join the cruisers HMS Birmingham and HMS Manchester and four destroyers in the successful attempt to recover an Enigma codebook from the German weather ship, München. On 24th May HMS Edinburgh joined every other available ship of the Home Fleet and Force H in the hunt for the Bismarck. HMS Edinburgh did not make contact with the formidable German battleship, but did intercept and capture a German supply ship, SS Lech, on the 25th.
HMS Edinburgh returned to convoy escort duty on 29th June, when joined WS9B in the Clyde for passage to Freetown. The cruiser detached on 3rd July to join the escort of Malta Convoy “Operation Substance”, which came under heavy air attack (HMS Manchester lost 26 killed on the 23rd) but HMS Edinburgh escaped damage and all six transports reached Malta safely.
HMS Edinburgh joined Convoy WS11 in the Atlantic on 10th August, escorting it to Cape Town via Freetown. Frank joined in the “crossing the line” ceremony as the cruiser crossed the equator on 24th August. After escorting another convoy to Malta in September, HMS Edinburgh returned to Scapa Flow. Frank was lent to the depot ship Dunlace Castle for engine room duties for a day in November, then to HMS Norfolk for four more days.
HMS Edinburgh joined Arctic Convoy PQ6 on 12th December. Russian Hurricanes drove off attacking German planes on the 20th, when the cruiser sailed into Murmansk harbour. While anchored there, Frank was promoted to ERA 4th Class on Hogmanay. HMS Edinburgh sailed home as escort to Convoy QP4, then went into a Tyne shipyard for a two month refit.
When HMS Edinburgh returned to Scapa Flow on 7th March 1942, Frank was allowed home on a week’s leave. HMS Edinburgh was in distant cover to Convoy PQ13, which was attacked by German destroyers on 29th March. In the mêlée the cruiser HMS Trinidad sunk Z-26, but was badly damaged when one of her own torpedoes circled and hit her port side.
In April HMS Edinburgh was the close cover cruiser for Convoy PQ14, which was badly scattered by severe weather and only 7 of its 24 merchant ships reached Murmansk. When HMS Edinburgh reached there on the 19th she delivered steel plate to repair HMS Trinidad. When HMS Edinburgh left Murmansk on the 28th with Convoy QP11, she had loaded 4.5 tons (465 ingots) of Russian gold (then valued at £1.5 million) for payment to the Americans.
Two days later, U456 fired two torpedoes which both hit HMS Edinburgh’s starboard side. While on tow back to Russia, HMS Edinburgh was attacked by German destroyers on 2nd May. The cruiser hit the destroyer Hermann Schoemann, but was struck by another torpedo on the port side. When both ships had been scuttled, HMS Edinburgh had lost 57 crew dead.
The survivors of HMS Edinburgh returned to Murmansk. Frank was lent to HMS Trinidad from 5th May, joining its engine room staff. After temporary repairs, the cruiser sailed for home on 13th May escorted by four destroyers and covered by four cruisers. During heavy air attacks next day, HMS Trinidad was hit amidships by four bombs.
Desperate attempts to save HMS Trinidad were abandoned on the 15th and the survivors taken off before the cruiser was sunk by her escort. 69 of those on board went down with the ship, including Frank. He is officially listed as part of the crew of HMS Trinidad, although three marines from HMS Edinburgh are listed as “ex-Edinburgh”.
Emily had not had the opportunity to tell her husband that she had become pregnant again during his last leave in March, so he never saw his daughter Yvonne, or she him. Son Frank has only vague memories of seeing his father.
Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Francis D.P. Johnston is commemorated on Panel 68 of the Plymouth Naval Memorial, Devon and in Orkney on the Harray War Memorial.