- Contributed by
- Stockton Libraries
- People in story:
- Alwyn Thomas
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 November 2004
(Transcribed from audio-tape, January 1 1997)
My name is Alwyn Thomas, of Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees.
I joined the Royal Navy in 1942 as a volunteer for hostilities only. My civilian occupation was a clerk with Shellmex and BP Petroleum Company and I joined the Royal Navy in 1942 at the age of 18. I served on HMS Bruiser, landing ship tank, a 6,000 ton ship, from June 1943 - 1945.
My rank was Leading Supply Assistant and my stations were as follows. My beach action station was the tank hanger, and my action station at sea was the sick bay, and I was a first aid attendant on the action stations.
HMS Bruiser was a specially designed landing ship tank, built by Harland and Wolff, Belfast in 1941. It was 6,000 tons, it carried 20 tanks in a tank hanger in the lower deckm it had a lift which took lighter vehichles, armoured vehicles, and light guns to the upper deck, and fully loaded.
I joined HMS Bruiser on the Clyde in June 1943. There were tanks aboard and Canadian Army tank units. We left the Clyde with an assault convoy, of 9 landing ships infantry, 3 landing ships tank, The Bruiser, the Boxer and Thruster, for a fast convoy, a 16 knot convoy, across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. We zigzagged on the trip and after about ten days we arrived off Malta and we were told by the Captain that we were going on to make an amphibious landing at Cape Passero on the south-east corner of Sicily. Off Malta we ran into a 70 mph gale. There were 2,000 ships involved in this Sicily landing so they delayed the landing for 24 hours. We landed on a beach at Cape Pasero with very little opposition.
(That's just some comments on the first landing I did in the Mediterranean)
Following this landing, we then went on to make a landing at Salerno, south of Naples.
The Captain was a Lieutenant Commander RNR, which meant that Royal Naval Reserve officers had also served in the Mercantile Marine for may years before. Most of the crew were volunteers for the wartime only, and very young, from 18 to 22. There were some Royal Navy crews, who were much older men.
The living conditions on the ship were not particularly good. You slept in hammocks, the same as you did in Nelson's day, you slept and ate in the same space, the food was allright but the living conditions were very cramped. We did have entertainment. We did now an again do our own entertainment with ship's concerts and we had some very clever people that could sing, dance and do a bit of acting. We had a few cats, they were the ship pets. And we had a tannoy system, that's a system for broadcasting all over the ship.
The Captain had a brilliant idea, he played naval tunes as we were entering or leaving harbour, like 'Anchors Aweigh' or 'Hearts of Oak', which is an old Royal Navy Tune. The other oustanding thing about entertainment was a tot of rum at 12.00 o'clock every day, which many sailors appreciated. So I have given you some idea of the living conditions.
Training, not a lot of training was done on board ship except for firing at targets, anti- aircraft target guns.
One of the saddest experiences I had was my friend, who was also a Petty Officer, we were lying off a beachhead at Anzio, and a German shore battery opened up and a shell landed alongside our ship, and my friend the Petty Officer was killed and a number of others were wounded. The sad thing in the Royal Navy in action is that we buried him at sea, just sewn in a hammock and over the side he goes with a White Ensign. That is one of the saddest moments aboard that ship that i experienced.
The other interesting experience is when you put a 6000 ton ship on the beach, the Captain has to be very experienced and a good seaman. You hit the beach, a 6000 ton ship hitting the beach at two or three knots, you don't want to hit it too hard, because you have got to get off, and as the ship is approaching the beach you let out a stern anchor, which is a kedge anchor, and when we had got all our tanks and vehicles off the ship onto the beach and they went into action, we had to get off.
Well sometimes the ship was so stuck hard on the bottom that we went full astern pulling on the kedge anchor but we couldn't get off. So the Captain had a brilliant idea, he had 200 of the ship's company on the quarterdeck running from one side to the other to try and get some movement, get our ship off the beach, which was a bit worrying because there were air attacks and enemy aircraft all the time, and I thought it was a bit risky because if a German aircraft had come down and machine-gunned, they'd have shot a hundred men or more.
In fact this idea of getting a load of men running about on the quarterdeck to move the ship didn't work, and we did get eventually pulled off by a big ocean-going tug.
The next experience I would like to tell you about took place on a beachhead at Salerno, south of Naples. The procedure was that when the ship got on the beach, we opened the bow doors and extended a ramp, which was a hydraulic ramp, so the space between the end, you put the ramp on the beach from the end of the ship and you got your tanks off. Well on this occasion, we sent the first tank off and then there was a gap between the end of the ramp and the beach of about ten yards, fifteen yards or so, and the first tank went off and the result was it went in, it got covered by water, dropped in the water and the crew had to get out very quickly to save their lives.
So, this was a mistake, and what we should have done before that tank had gone off, we should have taken the depth of the water and known that it was too deep for the tank to get off. So there was always something to learn on these amphibious landings. That is just one particular incident.
Of course, our job was to get the tanks off. onto the beach as quickly as possible and unfortunately there was still shell-fire going on on these beaches and it was by no means an easy matter.
The biggest amphibious landing that Bruiser took part in was the Salerno landing, which was south of Naples. There were two other sister ships, called Boxer and Thruster, so there were three British LSTs and we left Oran with American tanks, British tanks, Oran in North Africa, for the beach at Salerno and we got there on the D-Day and it all went wrong for a start off, with a lot of ships being mined.
This was a combined amphibious operation that quite a lot of books have been written about. It was American warships, American cruisers, British cruisers, and we got our tanks on the beach under heavy fire and managed to get away all right, and then we ran continuously for about four weeks from North Africa to Salerno on the beaches.
The first three or four days were very difficult and the Germans pushed our troops back within a few miles of the beach and we were told to stand by to evacuate, which never happened. The significant thing about that landing that I always remember is that there was the USS Savannah, heavy cruiser, was hit by a german glider bomb on the fo'c'sle with 200 killed.
We were getting continuously shelled by German 88 mm up in the mountains, all the ships off the beachhead were getting shelled, so they brought up two Royal Navy battleships, Warspite and Valiant, and it was very heartening to see those two battleships opening up broadside with 15 inch guns and silencing the German shore batteries up in the mountains, but it was three or four weeks before the troops got further inland and established the beachhead.
The Germans were still very active in the air in those days and we had some heavy air attacks. They attacked the two battleships, with all the other ships firing anti-aircraft. They hit the Warspite and damaged her so she had to leave and go back to Malta for repairs. But we lost a number of ships, British and American, at Salerno. We got very friendly with the American tank Crews, we carried a lot of from North Africa.
In January 1944, the Bruiser and other ships in the assault convoy took part in the Anzio operation. This operation is well known to the Americans as well as the British. We were landing south of Rome to help the Army out really, and we didn't spend too long at Anzio because we got hit and damaged, and had to return to Malta, but on D-Day at Anzio we had a number of ships put out of action through heavy mining.
When you are organising an amphibious landing it is a very complicated operation because you have to sweep lanes with minesweepers to get your tank landing ships in, and you have to clear the beaches of obstacles, the infantry goes in first, so it is quite a complicated job. There was a small harbour at Anzio and we managed to get in there and managed to unload under air attack.
We had a problem there coming out because going full astern there was something wrapped round our propellers and we wanted to get divers down, but because of the air raid, we couldn't risk it, we just had to pull out and hope for the best, and hope that the propellers wouldn't get mangled up with some steel rope which seemed to be at the bottom.
I have a photo of the Bruiser and the Boxer under air attack taken out of an English newspaper on D-Day at Anzio, and there were a number of ships sunk at Anzio. and the Americans played a big part in it, and unfortunately ( whether you know the history of it ) the troops were pinned down on the ground, only a few miles off the beaches, for 90 days before they could make any headway and get to Rome, and a number of ships were lost, it wasn't really a successful operation.
Three months after Normandy (June 1944), in August 1944, we joined in an amphibious assault force to land in the South of France, on the French Riviera. We left from North Africa, and strangely enough we took French troops that had left France in 1940 when the Germans pushed them out of France, so they were going back to their own homeland. We also took some Americans and we operated from North Africa to the South of France and it was to a place called St. Raphael on the French Riviera. It was called the Champagne landing this one, I think, there was very little opposition because the Germans had pulled back and when we were on the beach some of the lads, some of the sailors went up and picked grapes out of the vineyards, and it was one of the easier or better operations that we had.
Next, later on in 1944, we did what we called the Greek Operation. This is probably not very well known by the Americans, or anybody else for that matter, but we took British troops back into Athens in Greece.
The Germans were pulling out of Greece because they were fighting on too many fronts, so we made a number of trips, from Egypt actually, from Alexandria, and took British troops to take possession of Athens, and in Greece as well. We had one unusual experience there for a Royal Naval ship, and that was there was a civil war developed, the Communist Party of Greece were fighting the Greek government and the British government decided to support the Greek government against the Communists. We had to go, it was Christmas Day, it was a bitterly cold day, we had to go into Corfu and pick, Corfu was being under siege by Communist guerrillas and we were told to go in there and pick up all the civilians that we could, take them out of Corfu and take them down to Athens. Well, we had hundreds of refugees all over the ship, on the upper deck, it was cold on the upper deck as well, we had hundreds of them everywhere and they were so frightened that we had to have sailors with their fixed bayonets stopping them rushing to get aboard when we were on the wharf, but the unusual incident, we had a number of pregnant women and we had a baby born which the surgeon, we carried a surgeon in the sick bay, and this was quite unique to have a birth on a Royal Naval ship, but in one way that was a very distressing experience for the Greeks to be fighting amongst themselves after they had already defeated the Germans.
(I'm just looking to see the number of the experiences, amusing or otherwise, that happened during wartime, and I have made a few notes of some.)
We had one unusual situation when we were going to Salerno from North Africa. We were taking French Moroccan troops, native troops with French officers, and with their tanks and vehicles we would have about 200 of them altogether and they wanted to bring their own women with them, their own brothel, and our Captain refused to do so at first, but after long argument, we more or less had to take them, so we had about 20 women, these Arab women, with them, which was another unusual thing to happen.
The other incident was we picked up about ten German U-boat prisoners at Gibraltar to take back to England and they were all in their early twenties and young and very pale, and in a way they looked frightened. Well, we had to feed them on the way back to England and under the Geneva Convention, they have to have more or less the same food we had, and it surprised me that we had a number of arguments with people saying why should they have bacon and eggs for breakfast when they were U-boat prisoners, and during the Battle of the Atlantic there were a lot of tankers, British, American and all nations, blown up and we lost a lot of ships, so on the way back we were hoping we wouldn't get sunk because we think these U-boat prisoners would have probably gone down with us.
The other thing I must mention is a lot of LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks). The Americans had a number on them, not names, and we had a lot of American LSTs on all these amphibious operations.
The other problem in Italy when we were making these landings south of Naples and at Anzio and Sicily, we had to come at these landings with carriers, airborne carriers, which was a difficult job because the Germans were bringing their aircraft from land-based airports, so this is a thing that we often forgot (or failed to remember) is that the aircraft carriers, they were mainly Royal Navy, that were covering these landings. The favourite time for attack by German aircraft off the beachheads was at dusk or dawn and one of the things that we did there was lay smokescreens to cover ships. One day we were making a smokescreen down the engine room, and the engine room nearly caught fire so we had to put that out.
( These are just a few things that I have added after reading the kind of questions that you needed answered. )
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