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15 October 2014
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Alf Mitchell’s War as a Landing Craft Coxswain

by ericgreening

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Alfred Mitchell
Location of story: 
N Africa, The Med and Dday
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 November 2004

Taking no chances!

This eulogy was read at Alf’s funeral and is a compilation of some of the stories with which he entertained his children and grandchildren. It is obvious that the for many years he was reluctant to talk about the more serious side of war and limited himself to light-hearted and amusing stories. He only started to talk about the more harrowing side in his later years when his recall was less sharp. Thanks to research on the Internet we have been able to put the stories together in roughly the right chronological order: -

“I want to remember Alf’s war in more detail not for the deeds themselves but for the pleasure they gave us all in the retelling.

For years, he told and enacted many hilarious stories of his naval experience that were more reminiscent of the Navy Lark than a serious fighting machine. It was only in his later years that he started to relate incidents from the more serious side of war from which we have been able to piece together a fuller picture of his years of service.

His children and friends never tired of hearing stories such as how he got a toy blackboard and easel off base, how he charmed the wrens into giving him extra ration coupons, of the infamous unattached kitbag – full of the luxury groceries – that through his ingenuity found it’s way back to Boyne Road, of the railway journey courtesy of the Director of Southern Railway. Probably the most amusing of all were the stories of the young sub-lieutenants trying their hand at navigation for the first time and getting lost, even sinking his craft and then having to explain it to the CO.

Alf joined up in July 1940 following the evacuation of Dunkirk. And I suppose it was inevitable that coming from a fishing family he joined the Navy. He was trained on Landing Craft – in the early days LCV’s – and in 1941 joined RMS Glengyle an Infantry Landing Ship. In January they set sail for the Med. via the Cape and he kicked his heels in Egypt – probably Sidi Barrani - for a while. In May he joined HMS Orion to take part in the operations around Crete. On the night of 28th May he was taking part in the evacuation of troops from Northern Crete. Alf described it thus: - “I had to go in with my LCV to pick up troops from the beach. Our orders were to leave the Orion at 3a.m. As I left I saw the Destroyer HMS Hereward get hit. We couldn’t stop to pick up survivors but had to keep going. Later back on the Orion at about 10a.m I was up on deck when Dive-bombers struck. We increased speed and took avoiding action but we got a direct hit on A turret. I saw the turret armour come sailing over me. Suddenly she stopped and it all went silent. I thought aye aye, Joyce will get a telegram! Then she started up again and although badly damaged she limped back to Alex. Some 200 men died that night but Alf came through. At Alexandria they were split up and he joined a flotilla of landing craft making raids along the North African coast. Following El Alamein he moved further along the coast to Mersa Metruh.

In 1942 he was back on the Glengyle on the Malta run for a while before saying goodbye to Africa and moving back to the Atlantic again taking the long way round via the Cape. This journey was to make a lasting impression on him because they broke down having left Capetown and were left behind by the convoy. They sailed the whole way back unescorted, permanently at action stations and expecting the worst at any time. Once again he was lucky but I am sure that it was this trip more than any other that caused him not to set foot in a ship again after he left the Navy.

During this time he was making steady progress through the ranks and had made it to coxswain. Alf was encouraged to apply for a commission but he declined, as he preferred being “one of the men”.

In 1944 he was sent to Scotland for training on LCAs (tank landing craft). At this time he had to return home on compassionate leave on the death of his baby daughter.

He took part in the ill-fated raid on Dieppe landing Canadian troops on the beaches and finally, of course, DDay. He sailed from Portsmouth on HMS Prince Charles with men from the US Ranger battalions – these were the ones who were featured in the recent series “Saving Private Ryan” – along with tanks and equipment of the 743rd Tank Brigade. He was to land the Rangers on Omaha Beach. The ship was some way out when his Landing craft was dropped into the water. Although the conditions were pretty grim Alf’s experience enabled him to land his troops and get off the beach without being hit. He recalled sadly that many boats from the same flotilla did not make it and he witnessed several of them bombed or swamped. Asked how many times he went in that day, Alf replied with some relief “You only went in the once. You were told to get in and then get out…”

He left the navy in November 1945”

Alf died on 26th December 2002 aged 91 years.

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