- Contributed by
- Peoples War Team in the East Midlands
- People in story:
- Eric Davies
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 July 2005
This story was submitted to the site by the BBC's Peoples War Team in the East Midlands with Eric Davies permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
It was 15th February 1939 when I joined the London Division RNVR HMS President at the age of 19. In September of that year I was called up and was sent to HMS ROYAL ARTHUR at Skegness as an Ordinary Signalman. By November 1940 I had been promoted to Temporary Sub. Lieut and served in HMS GLENROY.
HMS GLENROY was one of three Assault Ships, sent to the Middle East, carrying Commando troops. We had various tasks, one of which was being in Crete during the German Paratroops’ Assault, and subsequent evacuation made under heavy air attacks, in May 1941.
Around the beginning of March 1942 I was sent to Port Said where I took command of LCT 117 where we worked up the new crew going through the usual training procedures. We sailed to Alexandria about 150 miles to the west where we took aboard ammunition for the Eighth Army and sailed for Tobruk, Libya, about 400miles distant.
We sailed in company of three other LCT’s and kept station of each other two in line and two abreast. In the morning about 10.00am a flag signal was run up by the leading boat to seaward of us, ‘submarine in sight on my starboard side’.
Immediately each craft was turned ‘hard a’ port’ heading towards the shore. I was of course on the bridge and gave this order and I anxiously watched as the slow turn was being made. Suddenly I saw a torpedo coming through the water towards us and unconsciously I was pressing down on my right leg, willing the craft round out of the way of this danger.
Eventually it appeared that we had successfully avoided the torpedo, as it slid under our bow, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My right leg ached for some hours after we eventually got into Tobruk harbour. Meanwhile, my senior leading hand, who had been amidships on the catwalk, said that he had been coming up from the store room which was located there, ie half way along the ship, when he had seen a torpedo come out underneath where he was, so we were very fortunate. As we stood there, four explosions came from the shore about 2 miles distant as we headed that way. That submarine CO could not have known much about the shallow draft of our LCT’s….. Later that morning a submarine surfaced about half a mile distant and that was a nasty shock. Our armament was only 2-pounder pom-poms which would have been useless against a U-Boat gun. Fortunately he submerged and left us helpless LCT’s alone.
We finally got to Tobruk mid-afternoon, 20th June 1942, and secured to one of the many sunken ships with only their masts showing, to which we were directed. Shortly afterwards we were called in to unload our cargo on a beach alongside a jetty with the instructions to wait there. Later we were told to evacuate personnel from Tobruk. Activity increased in the harbour with the German aircraft around and the gunfire, whilst we were only getting stragglers coming aboard. Then German tanks appeared on the eastern escarpment and at that moment a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) came tearing back into the harbour laying a smoke screen. This was a very brave act by the CO (Lieutenant Solomons) braving the shell fire from his side of the harbour. The MTB then stopped laying smoke . The guns started firing at targets clear of the smoke which included us.
When no one was coming down to be evacuated I thought it was time to go — we had a stick of bombs across us and the jetty we were near. We went astern slowly until we had cleared the end of the jetty. We were turning round until the bow was pointing towards the harbour entrance and I had just called for ‘full ahead’ when the ship received a direct hit from a shell.
I was not sure whether it was more than one shell but think it must have been because the shell which hit the bridge put splinters in each one of us — that is 2x3 men on the pom-poms, the signalman and myself. In addition the engine room was hit severing the fuel lines which prevented the landing craft moving. The Wardroom which was the main office and Officers living quarters was fully ablaze, and I lost all my clothing and belongings. We had to organise boats and rafts for all those aboard — we had plenty.
After making sure everyone was OK we took all of the first aid aboard into the boat — we left in the last boat to leave. We were only a couple of hundred yards from the shore.
Just before we had taken shell hits — when straightening up to go ahead — there had been a Naval Motor Launch nearby which carried two depth charges and this took a direct shell hit and the boat just blew up. There was nothing left. As we passed the bow of our craft going into the beach we picked up a chap holding onto a towing eye just above the water line. He hadn’t a stitch of clothing left on him. We gave him morphine when we got him ashore, but he died in the night.
The Coxswain then checked the injured and bandaged where necessary. We spent the night on the beach partly in a cave, and early the next morning the German Army came along and took us away — those injured, to the hospital and the rest to a camp somewhere. It was very civilised — no rough stuff!
I spent the next six weeks in one of the wards of English personnel with English Doctors looking after us. In hospital, those of us who could move about helped the more injured. I particularly assisted a Naval Captain Smith, who had been in charge of Tobruk and was the NOIC who had been severely injured on a craft trying to run out of the harbour. I sat with him whenever there was an RAF raid as we had many bombs dropped in the hospital grounds and he was unable to move.
One other patient I can recall with some amusement. His injury caused him to have his left arm in plaster-of-paris, fixed in an upright position, so that he looked as if he was asking for a dance! As there was space between his body and the bandage, for some days he had a heaving mass of maggots there, keeping the wound clean…….
My own wound did not trouble me. The surgeon told me that in order to take out the splinter he would have to cut the muscle so left it there as it would most likely work its way out. I am still waiting……..
We were transferred by open lorry , which had two or three trailers, to Benghazi. The local people were very kind, offering us water. As soon as we reached our destination we boarded an Italian aircraft which flew up to Lecce in the heel of Italy. From Lecce we went by train to Bari (a transit camp) where we stayed a few days.
Our next move was to our permanent camp at Sulmona, situated just south of the cross-country railway from Pescara, on the east coast of Italy, to Rome — in the Appenine Mountains.
A very pleasant and healthy environment on the lower slopes of the mountains. Conditions were very reasonable really. We were mustered twice a day, otherwise free to do whatever we wished. We received Red Cross parcels regularly from which our Mess Officer withdrew items he could use to provide us with a mid-day meal. In addition he purchased vegetables etc, at the gate, from local sources.
From our captors we received a meat ration once a week which was about 2ins in diameter and daily a bowl of ‘skilly’ which was macaroni, of sorts, in a weak juice. Hence my permanent dislike of pasta of any sort. The Italian’s ‘skilly’ came once a day but our own catering could not always be available as it depended on whether the Red Cross parcels had arrived.
We were housed in long single-storey buildings with a single cast iron stove for which fuel was provided — mostly wood but a little coal. This was not enough for the really cold weather but better than nothing — after all, there was a war on……..Fuel shortages were experienced in all countries involved.
There were about 50 men in each hut. To keep us occupied a schedule of classes was organised with subjects such as Languages — French, German and Italian. Accountancy, Building and Surveying and others were run by experienced prisoners. Many of us talked about our work. It all helped to keep us occupied — some men did nothing but play cards all day and evening too. I learned to play Bridge and four of us played each evening all the time I was there. A friend of mine, Jim Taylor, was pretty good and I learned with him. We played the Culbertson 2½ tricks opener. Also we played football, England versus Australia and Scotland or against the Other Ranks but they had many men to chose from and were too strong for us.
Men in the prisoner-of-war camp enjoyed the freedom of choice and many of them grew beards. I always thought it was a lazy way out and I shaved every day. It gave me a sense of well-being. The Army never wore beards but the Navy could always request their CO if they wished to ‘grow a set’ as it was called.If a beard became straggly a rating would be told to shave it off.
There was one compound only of Officers but possibly six or seven of Other Ranks. Half of our compound was made up of Australians who were captured in the first push of Italians who somehow managed to capture Aussies in North Africa. Amongst these was one Naval Lieutenant but I never did find out how he got there.
One evening a Petty Officer, with whom I had been in touch since I arrived, came to see me. He had not been seen for some time. It appeared he had just come from the local Italian hospital where he had been recovering from meningitis.
He asked me if I knew what the Royal Navy men were going to do? I said all I knew was that I had to be packed up to leave shortly and thought perhaps that I was to take a working party out of the camp. So he said ‘well, the buzz is repatriation’-which I could not believe.
The Petty Officer said that he had become friendly with the Italian Padre in the hospital, where he said that, because he was very weak and under nourished, his meningitis had been diagnosed early, with the result that he had made a rapid recovery. The Padre had told him he must be sure to go back to camp as it would be in his interest to do so.
My instructions came to be ready to leave. I packed what little I had and, after the farewells, was let out of the compound and taken down to where the rest of the Navy lads were assembled. Our belongings were searched and they took every single piece of paper away from us. I lost all the names and addresses of people I had known on my travels.
Apart from the Navy chaps, there were New Zealanders (Army men) with whom we trained, private citizens in Alexandria who spoke French and to whose home I was invited — open invitation. Also people I stayed with in Durban etc. Obviously they would not want information, that could affect the course of the war, to be taken out of their country. I was upset at this action.
When this procedure was completed we walked the short distance to the railway station and boarded a train bound for Bari — the transit camp we passed through when we came into Italy.
On arrival at the camp in Bari I was suddenly surrounded by my crew from the LCT which had been shot up in Tobruk. What a lovely moment that was — to see them all OK and pleased to see me. True to form, they asked whether I had got certain items for my welfare, and whatever I had not got was produced instantly.
We were taken aboard a hospital ship the GRADISCA and we sailed to the Turkish coast — the Mersin Straits — where we anchored. Also there was a P&O ship at anchor. I think here I should point out what had happened.
When the Allied armies were liquidating countries in the Horn of Africa, Somalia was a Protectorate and was called Italian Somaliland. Sailors in the Italian Navy took their ships and escaped to Saudi Arabia. King Ibn Saud imprisoned them on an island at Jiddah and did not want them. However the Allies were not going to let 800 odd sailors go back to Italy and there were not sufficient sailors in Italian hands to make an exchange.
Eventually, as time went on, the British lost two destroyers and a cruiser in the Meditteranean and the numbers increased sufficiently to arrange an exchange of fit British Navy personnel. The numbers were 843 — this number included some disabled, amongst whom was the Captain Smith whom I had tended in Tobruk hospital.
I often wondered how the Australian Naval Lieutenant must have felt for the British not including him, but, of course, it could not be done.
Now back to the Straits of Mersin. The exchange was arranged that a boat load of British would leave the GRADISCA and a boat load of Italians would leave the P&O ship — this went on to the conclusion of the operation. This was the first time we had been able to feel free to do as we wished. Warnings were issued to us not to over-eat or drink as our stomachs would not be able to take rich food. Naturally Jack Tar isn’t one for being denied and quite a number were the worse for wear……FREEDOM, what a wonderful feeling that was.
I had only been a prisoner-of-war from June 1942 to March 1943 — 9 months. Others had been much longer. We were all glad to get to Alexandria. The Petty Officer who had meningitis needed a lot of attention throughout the journey back to the ship. Around 6 weeks after arriving at Alexandria, I was walking out one day and saw two Naval Petty Officers approaching me, one of whom I recognised. The other turned out to be my friend, who had been so ill, but now recovered and filled out to a condition I had never seen him in.
We went by train to Port Tewfik at the southern end of Suez Canal where we boarded ISLE DE FRANCE- a large French liner for the voyage home via South Africa. Our first stop was Durban where we were feted as returning prisoners-of-war. We were guests of some of the well-to-do people of Durban who made us extremely welcome. It was their summer time and the gardens and houses were a real luxury for us, after the times we had been through.
Our journey back to the UK was, fortunately uneventful. When we came up the Clyde, the most wonderful sight to see were the rolling hills of the lovely green fields and beautiful mountains. After so much sand and parched areas, green grass was something special to the eyes.
After returning from being a prisoner-of-war and a couple of months leave, I was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant RNVR and appointed to a new LCT, being built on the Clyde, in Scotland.
We then sailed round the British Isles training at various locations with Army personnel. Eventually we landed troops ashore in Arromanche on D-Day.
After six and a half years I was demobbed and returned to Civvy Street in May 1946.
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