- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Cockburn,Eric Ashurst
- Location of story:
- From Normandy to Glasgow via Southend,Belfast and Manchester
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 May 2005
Somebody must have told Jerry because that very night he mounted his most serious attack yet against us ,using explosive filled motor boats.Unlike previous attempts which were aimed at the soft targets behind us ,this time they were having a go at us with what was to us a new weapon.No longer inhibited by fear of revealing our positions the Derlikons proved more than a match for the enemy.The object of the exercise ,from the German point of view ,was to set these remotely controlled boats on a course to ram the target ,at which point the detonator in the bow exploded the deadly load.
Throughout the night the battle raged but by a combination of accurate gunfire on our part and lack of determination by Jerry the attack was unsuccessful , apart ,that is ,for poor old 764.
One of the German boats had lost power and was drifting about near us so it was decided , for good reasons presumably ,to make it fast alongside 764 .Many M.Ls **had been active through the night and one of these gently nudged the drifting bomb onto 764's portside.It was at this point I suspect ,that the Skipper's curiosity demanded an investigation of the prize.
** I don't know what these are.
From our positon on the aft port Derlikon Eric Ashurst and I watched as some of the lads amidships peered in to the boat when it blew.I doubt if anyone in the immediate vicinity could have survived .For my part ,the blast caught the Derlikon shield and spun the gun round with such force as to remove the welded steps from the mount.This allowed the gun to rotate through 360' taking me with it fastened in as I was.
I never saw Eric Ashurst again ,but my first concern was for myself ,having been briefly knocked out I came round unable to stand and feeling slightly panicky.
764 had a severe list to port having been holed on that side .I unclipped the shoulder straps holding me to the gun and with water lapping round the Derlikon's Zareba I hauled myself on to the deck.I was still unable to get my legs to work.The craft was goind down by the stern as the "Abandon" order was passed .Several fit bods were giving assistance to the injured and I saw some brave souls go down below to rescue who they could from the messdeck area and magazine which were adjacent to the explosion site.Being already on deck I was left where I had slumped
While assistance was given to those in greater need .I was feeling a little neglected when a wavelet washed over and dampened my backside ,this caused me to discover that my legs were not broken and that I could stand ,albeit with difficulty .By now two M.L.s had come alongside to take people off , consequently I was able ,with the help of a couple of the A.U.s to step off 764 without even getting my feet wet.The M.L. I was on stood by looking for survivors as 764 sank lower.Finally with only the bows showing above the waves we left the scene.
We were taken initially to one of the support ships in the anchorage and from there those of us requiring further medical attention were transferred to a hospital ship .The hospital ship sailed that same evening and docked that night in Portsmouth ,we were then taken by hospital train to an emergency military hospital run by the Canadian Army in Farnborough.Having stayed overnight the walking wounded were then sent on to hospitals farther afield which in my case was an ex mental hospital near Chester.Only two of us finished up in Chester and even we were split up when I was discharged first.As a result of the speed of these events and the amount of travelling involved I never saw my erstwhile shipmates again.I never knew what befell the majority of 764's crew ,nor how many fell or became casualties at Walcheren where some of the Normandy survivors undoubtedly fought.
On discharge from hospital I reported to the Naval Establishment housed on the Royal Liver building in Liverpool who kindly sent me on leave the short distance to Manchester.I had of course lost all my kit and having had to hand back the hospital "blues" I only had the clothes I'd been wearing when we abandoned ship.This comprised a pair of battledress trousers and shirt - both badly stained ,a pair of R.N. Gym shoes donated by one of my rescuers and a khaki army beret from some forgotten source.
So there I was ,walking the streets of Manchester dressed like a scarecrow and without documentation except for my leave chit.The Redcaps thought it was Christmas.That was the only time I was grateful to go back from leave.Having reported back to Liverpool I was sent to Plymouth where I arrived ,still scruffy ,in the middle of the night.This was my first time in Stonehouse barracks and after the sergeant of the guard checked his book I was amazed to find that I belonged to "A" company and had a place to sleep !
I was very thankful to be once more in a place where I felt I belonged.
I awoke next morning to find that my roommates were all threebadgers with "square numbers" *
in barracks.When they learned of my adventures they went to great lengths to make me comfortable so that my first stay in barracks proved extremely pleasant albeit short.For within a few days ,rekitted ,I was on my way to Westcliffe On Sea to join other waifs and strays reforming as ships' companies for LCGs.
The billets at Westcliffe were as at Southsea ,requisitioned boarding houses.Some of these were on the Promenade itself largely reserved for Admin offices ,with the sleeping accommodation in the side streets leading off the sea front.
It did not take me long to get noticed.On my arrival I was making my way along the front to report "aboard "when a fog horn ,masquerading as a human voice , bellowed "THAT MAN !!!"
Apparently a section of the promenade was designated a quarter deck on this stone frigate **and I had failed to salute the ensign which I now observed hanging limply from a flagpole in the hot afternoon sun.
The weather continued to be glorious throughout my brief stay at Westcliffe and as I had no duties I spent most of my time in nearby Southend.In normal times Southend had been a very popular destination for Londoners on a day out.Such visits came to an end at the time of Dunkirk when much of the southeast became a restricted zone.During my stay because of the improved situation across the channel the restrictions were lifted and we all had what can best be described as the mother and father of a "knees up "!
One of the problems which was now easing was that less and less V -1 s or Doodlebugs were arriving over Southern England .This was due to their sites being overrun by our troops.Unfortunately as one danger faded another loomed in the shape of the V - 2.This was a pure rocket carrying a large warhead which ,once launched ,could not be combatted in any way.The V -1 which had seemed such a threat when it first appeared over the bridgehead soon after D-Day could at least be seen even at night ,and could be shot down by our Gloster Meteor Jet fighters .( newly operational. )The V -2 on the other hand was completely undetectable the first intimation of its presence being its devastating explosion.I understand that the first few to arrive were dismissed as gas main explosions ,so stealthy was it.
Whether this was a genuine mistake or intended to stem panic I do not know .I do believe that had this terror weapon been available to the Germans earlier in the war then it would have had devastating results,and would have had a disastrous effect on the conduct of the war from the Allied point of view.A little while after moving on I heard that Woolworths in Southend had received a direct hit on a busy Saturday afternoon with heavy casualties resulting.
Fortunately our troops quickly advanced towards Germany putting England out of range of the rockets.
After Westcliffe my next port of call turned out to be yet another stone frigate called HMS Robertson.This was located just outside Sandwich on the Ramsgate road in Kent close to
* desk jobs
** land-bound RN station .
Where the Hovercraft now leaves from Pegwell Bay (Well at least it does at the time of writing.)
It was not a happy place ;built in the Great War for Kitchener's army ,cosisting of large poorly made brick huts housing large numbers of me on the move from one posting to another.It had all the worst features of a transit camp , a fluid population ,lousy food ,resentful staff etc etc...One learns something every day however ,even from a god forsaken hole like HMS Robertson. Apparently the Navy in its extreme wisdom realises that a large number of men congestedly living in a confined place can become slightly bloody-minded ,not to say mutinous.So in order to let any would be rebels reduce their blood pressure and "entertainment" is provided.
"Odds and Sods Opera " consisted of men being as obscene or disrespectful as they wished with no fear of punishment .Songs were sung to well known march tunes - to this day when I hear certain tunes the words they summon up are unrepeatable in decent company.
Among the original buildings of this camp were the toilets the like of which we had never encountered.Each latrine consisted of a large hut with two large gutterlike earthenware troughs running side by side lengthwise down the centre.These were separated down the middle by a shoulder high partition .The leading edge of the trough was covered by a narrow wooden strip - the technique required was to grip the leading edge of the wooden board firmly with the back of the knees and resting your back against the partition to do what nature intended.The whole arrangement was flushed at intervals by the Captain of the Heads .Should the said Captain be at all aggrieved he could create a tidal wave effect or bore which carried all before it .Woe betide if you were at the lower end of the hut.Combining the increased water flow with burning newspaper added to the excitement.
The sojourn in Robertson was soon over and I became part of the draft to Harland and Woolf's shipyard in Belfast.After travelling all day we boarded the ferry in Stranraer to carry us overnight to larne from whence we went by train to Belfast.On arrival we were bussed to the shipyard there to be told that we were the new Marine detachment for CG (L) 6 currently alongside but still being tropicalised by the dockyard mateys.As a temporary measure we were put on an aircraft carrier that had been converted from a merchant ship to food and lodging.
I went ashore on my lonesome that first night .It was an easy stroll from the dockyard to the city centre in which ,having explored ,I decided to quaff a pint or two .The bar I chose was right in the centre opposite an imposing building called ( I think) the Ulster Hall.The bar was just that
.A medium length narrow room with the bar running down one wall three or four of the tall stools at one end were occupied by a group of men talking to the barman who did not acknowledge my arrival in any way.Afetr waiting for a decent interval I rapped on the bar top to gain his attention whereupon he came to where I sat and to my amazement said " You won't get served here ! You've had too much already ."Not having touched a drop for more than a week I started to give him an argument when I noticed his other customers had sidled along to back him up .Discretion being the better part of valour I left and returned to the dockyard a puzzled and thirsty man.
.In our draft were several survivors from 764 and the next day three of us went ashore together .It was a Sunday afternoon and nothing was open ,Belfast on a Sunday was like a cemetary with traffic lights.We meandered around aimlessly for quite some time and had just about decided to give up and go back aboard when two young women approached us and invited us home to tea. Home turned out to be some distance away and involved a long bus ride .The district was similar to the one I lived in in Manchester , row on row of terraced houses one of which was our destination.We were made very welcome and enjoyed an excellent meal with the family.As time wore on more relatives and neighbours came in and we were kept busy telling them of our adventures , our own families ,our hopes for civvy street etc. Eventually ,as there was no question of a bed for the night we made a move and asked to be directed to the nearest bus stop , only to be told that on Sunday the last bus left at 9pm.As it was now after 10pm Shanks' pony was indicated and we would have to step out to get back aboard by midnight.One of the company escorted us to the corner of the main road ,pointed us in the right direction and left us to it.
On every street corner we passed stood armed police sometimes backed up by what were called "B" specials.We had gone a mile or so when a police sergeant challenged us to explain ourselves and what we were doing in that area at that time of night.We managed to satisfy him of our bona-fides but he would not permit us to continue on foot ,saying that it was too dangerous.He solved the problem by stopping a passing car and instructing , nay ,commanding that the driver take us to Harland and Woolfs.We felt a bit embarrassed having been imposed onto this civilian but he did not seem to mind and told us that there was a flap on because a prisoner had escaped from Crumlin Jail .We never could figure out which section of the community our erstwhile hosts had belonged to .Anyway we got back safely and the following day we were sent on five days leave to get us out of the way while No 6 was readied.For the first time in my service career I had to take my rifle home with me ,apparently to safeguard it from theft .I remember my Father being quite surprised that I had one !
Once again we crossed the Irish Sea to Stranraer from whence we went our various ways.There were four of us from the Manchester area and we arranged to meet in a pub outside Victoria Station on the evening we had to return.The leave passed quickly as they usually did and there we were ,ensconced in the saloon bar drinking our draught Bass while waiting for the train to Preston where we would make our connection to Stranraer.We mused as we boozed and were in a happier frame of mind when we boarded the train.
On arrival in Preston we found that our connection was several hours away ,so we settled down on the platform to while away the night.The station's facilities were closed and we faced a dreary prospect.As time wore on we were joined by more of our shipmates as they arrived from various parts of England and Wales.One group had a crate of beer ,others a variety of food.What had promised to be a dismal wait turned into a very merry party .I doubt if any of us had much recollection of our journey back to Belfast !
When we did get back we were pleased to be able to take over our new ship L.C.G.(L) 6 which was to be our home for the rest of the war.We had thought that the living arrangements on 764 were cramped ,but that was a Mark 4 craft ,whereas this was a Mark 3 and much less commodious.Nonetheless we soon settled in and 48 hours later sailed once again across to Scotland to another shipyard on the Clyde near Glasgow. We were promptly sent on leave again to make room for another gang of Mateys .
My family and friends had some very uncomplimentary things to say when I turned up again so soon.If they had known then that more than two years would pass before they saw my smiling face again they would have been kinder.This was in fact our embarkation leave and we had been instructed to report to the R.T.D. At Glasgow on our return because it was expected that G 6 would have been moved to another berth in our absence.
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