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- 02 March 2004
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Here is a true-life story, written by my father-in-law, 'Engineman' Louis Caldwell Gray (born 1922 in South Shields), of a man and a ship, operational off Arromanches on the night before D-Day, 6 June 1944. I also have a number of photographs of the ship and her crew.
Harbour Defence Motor Launch 1383
Of the various classes of naval craft, none was so misnamed as the Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML). For the two and a half years of its commission, HDML1383 entered harbour only to refuel, re-store and, once, to carry out major repairs.
For the rest, we were constantly engaged on a range of duties, from escort and anti-submarine operations to rescue and mine-sweeping, as well as convoy guidance and investigative patrols. Wherever there was need for us, we, in common with most HDMLs, were there.
Hostilities Only recruits
I entered Royal Naval general service in 1942. As my experience is probably typical of Hostilities Only recruits, it might have some marginal, historical interest.
After induction and initial training at HMS Royal Arthur, in company with a large number of other recruits, a battery of aptitude tests left me classified as suitable for motor-mechanic engineering school. However, I had joined the navy to go to sea, not to be employed in a workshop ashore. So, on being drafted to barracks in Portsmouth and hearing a call for volunteers for Patrol Service, I put my name forward.
The Patrol Service had a reputation for hard and dangerous conditions, and maybe the payment of sixpence (2.5p) a day hard-lying money had a certain panache. I found myself on a train to Lowestoft and the engineering school at St Luke’s Hospital.
After a period of training on internal-combustion engines, I received a posting to HMS Memento, then busy with a variety of escort duties out of Oban on the west coast of Scotland.
No greyhound of the ocean
HMS Memento was no greyhound of the ocean, having been a ring-netter out of Buckie before the war. Tubby McCleod, the engineman, had in fact been her engineer then. The first hand had skippered his own trawler out of Fleetwood. The gunner was a fisherman from Grimsby. The cook, a good-humoured Liverpool docker, delighted in serving us his local delicacy, Scouse.
The captain, who we rarely saw, was a frail-seeming, reputedly very wealthy man. He spent most of his time in the spacious wardroom that had been constructed in the old fish hold.
Microcosm of the old navy
As with the recruits at Royal Arthur, the crew was almost a microcosm of the old navy of press-gang days. Then a ship took not only the fit and able but also the idle, the stupid and the criminal and made seamen of them.
For an impressionable youth, fresh from a merchant bank in the City, it was a glimpse of attitudes and life styles hitherto undreamed of.
One seaman returned aboard after a run ashore one night. He had met a girl, and together they had walked into a quiet hillside outside Oban. At some point he turned on to her to have his way, but she resisted. In matter-of-fact tones he related how he simply hit her until she submitted to being undressed and raped. It was the very casualness of his tale that was so chilling.
Crew conditions were primitive with ten double-tier bunks built around the curve of the ship’s hull in the stern. The foredeck steam-winch boiler stood next to the only water closet, so that one sat in warmth. It was no place for the prudish, though, as crew members passed to and fro, making whatever comment they felt appropriate. Of course, being sited so far forward, movement was hastened in rough weather.
Hot water for washing oneself or one’s clothing was obtained by pulling a bucket of sea water from over the side and blowing a stream of super-heated steam through it from the winch boiler.
The marvel of the engine room
It was the engine room that was the marvel. The main engine was an enormous six-cylinder Gardiner semi-diesel. The exposed domes of the six cylinders were fitted with individual blowlamps. The lamps had to be lit, and the domes brought to white heat, before compressed air was blown into the engine to get the pistons moving and the crankshaft turning.
Starting the engine was a brutally hot, noisy performance. It demanded great agility to orchestrate the entire ballet.
A harmonious nine months
HMS Memento was cramped, odorous and completely lacking in refinement, but after the initial shock I loved every minute of my nine months among the Western Isles.
We suffered brutal gales in the winter, when an enforced swim in freezing water left me wondering if my head were still connected. We collected seagulls’ eggs for breakfast from the islands in the spring. We enjoyed languid airs among the islands in the summer, when a cry of ‘Man overboard!’ from another ship found me in the water once again, pulling out a panic-stricken idiot.
We had freshly baked baps from a baker on returning to Oban in an early morning. We swam and rowed and sailed the sheltered waters when duty allowed. Even my leaving had its moment when the commanding officer (CO) expressed regret, for he had had, he said, ‘Plans for me.’
Ah, well, we’ll never know!
Training as an engineman
I left Memento in June 1943 and returned to St Luke’s. Here the commanding officer was reputed to have made the famous comment about how, ‘The petty officers walk around as though they own the place, and the men walk around as though they don’t care who owns it.’ I was to train as an engineman.
My wish was to go rapidly back to sea, but I was sent to Thornicrofts’ (known today as VT Group plc) in Reading for a six-month course on their diesel engines. I enjoyed the smell of machine oil and the creative satisfaction of seeing inanimate pieces of metal turning under my hands into sophisticated machinery.
At the end of the course I was delighted to find myself transferred from Patrol Service to Light Coastal Forces with a posting to a brand-new motor launch then nearing completion at Brightlingsea.
My first encounter with HDML 1383
I met my new commanding officer, Lieutenant B. Kingdon, RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve), in London, and we travelled together to the builders’ boatyard where we saw it: HDML 1383. What a contrast with HMS Memento.
The boat was 72-sleek-feet long with everything new and shining. She was fitted throughout in smooth mahogany to very high standards of workmanship.
It was a joy to have my own engine room to order as I wished. The twin Thornicroft diesels were responsive and easy to manage. The auxiliary engine for lighting and battery charging was a sturdy single-cylinder Gardiner diesel, which I was to meet ten years later pumping water from the Kafue river in Africa.
For once in naval construction, thought had been given to accommodation. The crews’ quarters were for’ard, as was the galley, with an internal companion way to the enclosed wheelhouse.
Behind the wheelhouse was an open bridge, where a hatchway led down to the engine room, while another gave access to the after quarters. These comprised a cabin with its own toilet facilities shared by myself with the coxswain. Across the companion way was a radio cabin and aft of that a well-fitted wardroom.
As an escort vessel we were quite well equipped. The 20mm Oerlikon aft was excellent. Two racks of depth charges looked purposeful, although we never dropped any in anger. The bridge carried twin Vickers .303 machine guns on each wing.
On the foredeck, at first we had a three-pounder gun, from which the shell would sometimes scream into the far distance or cause consternation by almost dropping out of the muzzle. Once it was replaced by another Oerlikon we were more effective. In my years afloat I never fired a weapon of any sort, nor was I ever hurt by one.
Minimal sea-going experience
The crew was typical of those found on most small craft. The majority were in their late teens or early twenties, plus an occasional older hand or two, but almost none with any previous seagoing experience.
Our commanding officer, known among the crew as Bert, was a quiet, self-contained man who had worked with the BBC before the war. The first lieutenant, Sub-Lieutenant de Nobriga, RNVR, inevitably known as Nobby, was fresh out of university.
He was young and keen for activity and new experience, and we became as close to being friends as was practicable. At the end of the commission and after demobilisation, he arrived at my home in west London one day in a dashing, red MG sports car, and we renewed our acquaintance.
The coxswain, Ernie Knott, was a street-wise character from the East End of London and, at 34, the oldest man aboard. He possessed a fund of earthy aphorisms, which tended to stick in the memory, and a street philosophy that sometimes shocked younger crew members. I quote: ‘A standing prick has no conscience,’ which seemed appropriate for the seaman mentioned on HMS Memento.
A motley crew
The seamen, stokers, signallers, cook, asdic, signals ratings and gunners were all no older than their early twenties. One, known as Tich, had the face and physique of a youthful boy but with adult tastes that gave him great success with young girls.
Another seaman had been a shop assistant before joining the navy, where he proved to have a natural talent with guns. With a 20mm Oerlikon he was a deadly shot and unless forcibly restrained would pick a soaring seagull out of the sky as easily as swatting a fly.
He was an oddity in another way by completely disproving the saying ‘There is no smoke without fire’. He was a compulsive liar, who told the most blatant and pointless lies for no obvious reason or advantage. All they ever earned him was punishment.
An astonishing endowment
One of my stokers, a competent and practical man fresh from a Manchester mill, was engaged to a girl at home. On hearing we were to spend several days in port on one occasion he arranged for her to visit.
As he prepared to go ashore, there was much loud speculation and backchat on the mess deck as to how he could possibly entertain her in such a dead-and-alive place. He stopped all speculation by appearing stark naked from the heads — the latrines — and displaying an astonishing endowment. It was quite remarkable.
But enough! They came from all walks of life with their own weaknesses, strengths and moral attitudes, but to the navy they were all seamen.
Enjoying enforced shore time
In the January of 1944 we carried out a shakedown cruise, in which a fresh crew got used to the new ship. We ran the full length of the east coast, during which a series of particularly severe winter gales drove us into the shelter of a variety of ports.
We lay in Hartlepool, where during a run ashore we found the biggest dance hall I have ever seen. On runs ashore the crew usually went as a body, except for watch keepers, and almost always headed for the local dance hall in search of company.
We ran into the Tyne for shelter, where I was able to contact friends not seen for years. In the Firth of Forth we were storm bound for several days, and I was able to renew family ties in Edinburgh with an uncle and aunt. Discipline was always easier on small ships, and by bottling my daily tot of navy rum I brought a gleam to my uncle’s eye when I presented the elixir.
Message in a pack of tobacco
I also took opportunity to get away from the coldest east wind I had ever known and slip across to Paisley to visit Marion, a girl whose name, address and photograph I had found inside a tin of Dobie’s Four Square pipe tobacco. This was something frequently done by girls working in tobacco factories making up duty-free issue for naval ships.
It was a harmless practice that brightened the lives of many sailors and illustrative of a time when all kinds of people reached out desperately for friendship and reassurance in what were very uncertain times. I had dinner with Marion’s family and paid a second visit but like all sailors eventually sailed away.
Powdered coffee and Scottish Sundays
We left Leith but were soon driven to shelter in Buckie harbour, where we experienced at first hand the full, drab, tedium of a Scottish Sunday. We moved on to Inverness, and rather than face the brutal tidal races of the Pentland Firth in winter we entered the Caledonian Canal to cross to the west coast.
At a small shop halfway through the canal I met Nescafé powdered coffee for the first time. I enjoyed the next leg of the journey, for we lay in Oban for several days. Then south to Falmouth.
A pipe line under the ocean
At first we operated largely out of Dover, which, after years of shelling by the big guns on the coast of Calais, was a desolate place. We tended to spend our shore leave in Folkestone. But, as plans for the invasion of Normandy began to take shape, we grew to know the English Channel and other channel ports very well.
During the months leading up to D-Day we undertook many and varied duties. One of the most interesting was acting as an asdic escort when PLUTO, the Pipeline under the Ocean, was being laid for the purpose of providing a continuous supply of fuel to the invading forces once ashore.
Guiding beacon for the invasion fleet
Nearer the day we were fitted with specialised navigation equipment and, with additional crew aboard, sailed under cover of darkness for a point off the coast of Arromanches. We anchored there to act as a guiding beacon for the first ships of the invasion fleet, even then leaving English Channel ports.
Dawn revealed the astonishing sight of serried ranks of ships heaving over the horizon and passing in wave after wave, packed to capacity with soldiers and weaponry. It revealed also seemingly endless flights of aircraft passing overhead to saturate the countryside behind the beaches. In full daylight we watched and listened with awe as heavy naval units with famous names hurled salvos of shells at selected targets ashore.
Remembering the little things
I have often been asked for my impressions and experiences of D-Day and the days that followed. So often it is the trivia that stays in the mind.
I was a pipe smoker and had recently broken mine. I was looking over the side one day when I saw a pipe floating past. Who had lost it and under what circumstances I do not know, but after retrieving it I could not bring myself to use it.
A highly planned operation
My overwhelming impression was of the almost incredible degree of imagination and ingenuity that had been planned into the whole operation. It was evident in almost every experience.
Perhaps the first sign of it was the impressive sight of the slow-moving arrival of the Mulberry harbour. At first the old cargo vessels, which were sunk as block ships, and then the immense concrete caissons sunk off the open beaches to provide shelter for the invasion force against the raging Channel gales, and, my word, how they raged.
Floating bakeries and kitchens
My second impression of detailed planning was the sight of landing craft fitted out as floating bakeries and kitchens. They served fresh bread and meals to the crews of the huge number of small craft without the time or facilities to provide for themselves.
I felt that if this degree of attention could be paid to such mundane provision, it must surely be reflected across the entire operation, and the war must inevitably be won.
With the invasion of Europe firmly under way, we resumed our dogsbody duties. We pulled a beached landing craft off the Arromanches beach under the cutting tongue of a fierce naval captain, Red Ryder, who thought Bert was showing lack of drive, whereas he was really trying to preserve my engines, which were never intended to serve in a ‘tugboat.’
We guided vessels between coasts. We escorted a small convoy in company with a destroyer through a brutal gale to Cherbourg, only to find, on arrival, that the others had been turned back by the weather. As the senior naval officer was not with us, the Americans refused us entry, and we had to sit out the gale in the outer roads, where at times I thought the engines would leave their mountings.
Sighting the first flying bombs
One night, while heading for England, we heard an aircraft engine overhead. The craft must have been in trouble, because it carried a long tail of fire and fell into the sea. We headed for the spot but found no survivors. It became clear later we must have seen one of the first of the German V1s, that is the flying bombs.
With the invasion launched, and the land action having moved well inland from the Normandy coast, our duties varied again. We were attached to a mine-clearance unit of fleet sweepers, and after the fall of Dieppe were sent there to see if the channel was clear. I imagine our arrival and return proved something. German pressure mines were becoming a problem in the shallow Dutch waters.
Acting as asdic escort
One spring morning, after a long and bleak winter, the clouds opened, and the sun poured down from a deep blue sky. We were acting as asdic escort to a flotilla of fleet mine sweepers trying to find an answer to the latest bit of horror. This perhaps allowed several ships to pass unscathed, but the next would activate the mine. The sweepers were towing a complex structure, which was said to exert the same pressure as a 20,000-ton ship.
We had cleared Ostend early and were moving slowly across a smooth blue sea about three miles offshore. I happened to be on deck getting a breath of fresh air and taking a series of unofficial photographs of a passing convoy of merchant ships, making perhaps ten knots towards Rotterdam.
Rocked by explosions
Astern of us a dispatch torpedo boat was leaving a broad, creamy wake across the blue water towards England. Suddenly, we were shaken by an explosion. The first glance was towards the fleet sweepers. Had they found a mine? A second explosion turned our attention seawards, where the eighth merchantman in the convoy line was burning furiously.
Bert, our CO, obtained rapid permission from the flotilla leader to stand by the burning ship. It was quite large, about 15,000 tons, carrying a mixed cargo of oil and ammunition. The explosion had caught it amidships, which was a blazing inferno. The flames fanned by its continued way through the water left a trail of blazing oil astern.
A hazardous rescue
As we drew near the sight was awesome. The hull plating amidships was white hot and gave an odd impression of transparency, while a thin line of flame ran right along the waterline. On deck, great shoots of flame and smoke carried the fire astern, and a new dimension was added when ammunition began to explode.
The only obvious survivors were grouped well forward in the bows. We ran to take them off, only to discover two hazards with the curve of the bows, forcing us up to the stem, where the ship’s way threatened to push us under.
We had to complete the rescue in instalments by holding position momentarily, while a man or two dropped on to our deck, then sheering off in a tight circle that brought us back under the bows again. We continued until all still alive had been recovered.
From tanker to scrap iron
The survivors were handed over to the flotilla leader of the fleet sweepers, where a doctor attended to injuries, preparatory to getting them ashore to hospital. The burning tanker eventually grounded on one of the sandbanks that littered those waters, where it burned for two or three days before turning into scrap iron.
For ourselves we earned a repaint because the port-side hull and superstructure were well and truly singed. We were just thankful the wooden hull had not caught fire. Someone must have been pleased because awards of a DSC or Distinguished Service Cross, a DSM or Distinguished Service Medal and a Mention in Dispatches followed.
Not all sound and fury
All campaigns have their quiet periods. During one such Bert must have been talking with his fellow COs in the flotilla and made a bet that he had the best-maintained engine room of them all.
The fact is that life at sea is not all sound and fury. There are long periods when hands need to be kept busy. In my case I liked to have engines painted silver, fuel and water lines painted distinctive colours and brightwork highly polished. An emery cloth, held against a rapidly spinning propeller shaft, produces a shining silver shaft.
All these things must have been in Bert’s mind when he issued the challenge. When the COs made their inspection of every ship’s engine room they admitted defeat when I removed the bilge covers and exposed dry and white-enamelled bilges. Our winnings gave the crew a good run ashore.
And so it went on week after week until the war in Europe was over.
We re-equipped for a long voyage in preparation for sailing to the Far East under our own power and to the war against Japan. Then the Americans could not resist the urge to see if it worked and dropped an atom bomb on Japan, and it did.
A haunting legacy
Suddenly, it was all over, leaving a legacy that still haunts us today. Yes, it was all over, and HDML 1383 became FDB 84. We puzzled over the new designation: Fast Dispatch Boat? Fleet Dispatch Boat? No! For Disposal Board.
We took HDML 1383 to East India Docks in London, left her alongside the wall and went home. For years I missed her.
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