- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Gritten
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 December 2003
After peacetime conscription was introduced for the first time ever in the UK by an Act of Parliament in May 1939, I mustered at Devonport barracks (HMS Drake) with the first 500 men called up into the Royal Naval Special Reserve on August 16 and was given RNSR 1 as my Official Number. I had already been informed by a Commander Rump RN that, since I was a junior reporter on a national newspaper, the Admiralty had decided to make me 'No.1' so that I should write about the Naval side of the call-up and give it a little of the buckets of publicity the Army's 20-year-old Militiamen had been getting in the media.We were supposed to do only six months disciplinary training and would then have been called up annually to serve with the Fleet for a month. But war was declared on September 3 and my 'six months' became nearly seven years.
I first served as a stoker in the Tribal Class destroyer HMS Afridi which was bombed and sunk in the first (pre-Dunkirk) evacuation of the war, from Namsos, Central Norway; was then in the Humber Boiler Cleaning Party, including during the Hull bliz; served briefly in the cruiser HMS Danae before being commissioned in order to become an Official Naval Reporter attached to the Press Divison, Admiralty.I was the only ONR to land on a D-Day beach after abandoning a holed landing craft; spent months in France writing beach-head and other stories, some of them censored for wartime security reasons; covered the Walcheren operation at the mouth of the River Scheldt; and became the British East Indies Fleet's ONR, covering landings in Burma and sweeps in the Indian Ocean. In the last operation in which I would be involved before VJ Day, I was by coincidence aboard another Tribal Class destroyer, HMS Tartar,which had a near-miss from an invisible Japanese bomber.
The following is an episode I have described in Full Circle: Log of the Navy's No. 1 Conscript.
As an Official Naval Reporter(Lieut RNVR)after landing in France on D-Day I later spent some time with the Royal Marine Commandos as they liberated Seine Inferieur. The following took place in Yvetot, a small town north-west of Rouen:
Strolling through the town I met directeur d'ecole Henri Cahan who insisted I and the Royal Marine driver of our jeep should come home with him. But the head teacher wanted to show us something first,took us to a cross-roads almost at the gate of his house and pointed to a splodge of dried blood on the gravel. He explained:'This morning a German motor- cycle despatch rider screeched to a halt just here,his engines still running, and shouted to me: "Which way to Caudebec?" I shook my head. Caudebec is only the next village, a few kilometres down the road, but I wasn't going to tell him and I began to turn away. He swung his gun around at me. Whether he intended to shoot or merely to threaten me I'll never know for the next moment there was a burst of automatic fire and he collapsed, his motor-cycle on top of him. The FFI [French resistance]had shot him. Boche he might be but we gave him a decent burial.'
The Forces Francaises de l'Interieur were an amalgamation of various resistance movements which had grown,gradually at first after the initial shocks of the occupation and Petain-Laval collaboration with the conquerors, into a figure one estimate put at 30,000 in 1944 and which swiftly swelled after an Allied victory seemed certain. After the BBC gave the 'mobilise' signal it was reckoned some 200,000 troops were raised, their arms supplied largely by Allied air drops.
Inside Chez Cahan, we were introduced to his wife and family; neighbours began to come in too. When his wife started setting the wine glasses on the table, Monsieur le Directeur d'Ecole held up a restraining hand. Wait, he said, he had a surprise for which different glasses would be needed. He went out of the room and came back with a pair of step-ladders, placed them alongside a wall cupboard, climbed up and opened a pair of doors at the top. He rummaged inside for a while, then: 'Eureka!' he exclaimed and descended gingerly with a couple of small dark brown bottles with labels which even at a distance seemed familiar. He announced triumphantly: 'I have kept these for four years. They were in the stores your Army left behind at St Valery in 1940. I got there before the Germans took everything away and I vowed to keep these until you came back again . . . et voila!'
With that, off came the metal caps of the bottles and he poured the four-year-old Guinness into our glasses. If it had retained its head it would have qualified for the Guinness Book of Records. If it had been like vinegar we would have still drunk it to show our appreciation of such faith in our return, such optimism conceived in France's darkest hour. (A considerable proportion of his compatriots, however, had for a long time regarded Britain as the traditional Albion perfide responsible for the pagaille (mess) in which they found themselves and who had then abandoned them.)
Henri Cahan proved a pastmaster of ceremonies, with a nice feeling for the dramatic. Out came another bottle which had been kept for such a day, a rare port. The ancient gramophone was cranked up and as we drank to La France liberee the four-note motto theme with which Beethoven's Fifth Symphony opens crashed out full volume,its notes escaping freely through the open windows into the street - the most significant illustration which anyone could have devised in the circumstances that at least this portion of France was free from the detested Nazi yoke and that the rest soon would be. Had this schoolmaster been brooding for years on just how such a day should be celebrated ? As every wartime adult knows,in Britain and on the Continent, the four-note motto corresponded to the three short dots and a dash of the Morse Code's letter V - and V stood for Victory. The repeated: Boom - boom - boom - BOOM call-sign preceded the BBC's broadcasts to Nazi-occupied Europe. Those who dared to tune-in had to keep the volume to a barely audible minimum in case collaborators,the police or the Germans themselves heard it. That would mean a visit from the Gestapo or their French stooges, with some kind of hell to follow. Hence the significance of it now being played full blast.
When the glasses had been refilled, 'Tipperary' came into its own again, a song of a vintage even older than the port. It had been top of the pops over a quarter of a century before; now its nostalgia was transferred from a British Tommy yearning to get away from France back to the sweetest girl he knew, to these people around the table who had been longing to be freed from a foreign tyranny. To these French people and all like them, 'Tipperary' represented the dual association with their anti-Boches ally of 1914-18 and anti-Nazi ally of the current war. For the French it had become our national anthem.
[This episode is from FULL CIRCLE - LOG OF THE NAVY'S NO.1 CONSCRIPT by John Gritten (ISBN 0 9535036 9 0 published by Cualaan Press.]
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