- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Charles Reeve
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 March 2004
This is one of the stories collected on the 25th October 2003 at the CSV's Make a Difference Day held at BBC Manchester. The story was typed and entered on to the site by a CSV volunteer with kind permission of Charles Reeve.
The first day of war found me in Ailsham Sussex where I’d been evacuated to two days previously. Shortly after this time following Dunkirk, we were moved to Ferry Side in South Wales, because Dunkirk meant that the south coast was vulnerable to German bombers. Then, once again, we were re-evacuated to New Quay in Cardiganshire Wales. This meant that I’d lived in seven different homes in three different places in about eighteen months, it was a bit of a nomadic existence.
When the time came, when I was sixteen, I joined the Royal Navy as a boy, training for boys in the Royal Navy had also been evacuated from Ganges on the east coast, to the Isle of Man. The premises that we trained on had been Cunningham’s Holiday Camp. This was a holiday resort, I understand, for a lot of people from this area, Manchester. I did my training there and joined my first ship HMS Bologna.
Bologna was engaged in several naval actions off Norway and off France, and during that time we were at the Normandy landings. Those landings were largely United States, Canadian and British troops. I was with an American contingent, Omaha beach, which I think is common knowledge, is the beach that just might have failed, everything seemed to go wrong. We got the impression that the Americans wouldn’t listen to the British, who had had some experience of these sort of landings, and they thought that life on the beach would be pretty easy, but there were all sorts of nasties, land mines etc for which they weren’t ready. We heard, and we heard because that the admirals of the American contingent insisted that radios we manned by captains. I, by the way, was a wireless telegraphist. I would probably have been more involved in this than I was, but we could all hear through the loud speaker what was going on between the admiral and all the captains of ships, most of them American, but one or two of them ours. It wasn’t pleasant listening, you could hear the troops being landed far too far from the coast, in fact some of them just didn’t make it. In that rig, which was very heavy as a soldier they just couldn’t hope to swim any distance. Some of the tanks supposed to be amphibious were landed too far. What has to be remembered is that D-Day was actually supposed to be on the day before it actually was, but the weather was so rough they decided to hold it on the sixth of June, as we all know. With currents, tide, weather and the fact that the American soldiers, through no fault of their own, were stranded on a beach they couldn’t get off, with the remainder of the artillery coming on and trying to do something about it, you could hear cries for help of all sorts.
Our job as a light cruiser was to bombard beyond the coast so that any opposition that the soldiers got there would have been dealt with. We were then involved in arctic convoys, which was really taking munitions to help the Russians repel the Germans. I have all sorts of memories of that really. One is clearly that we were allies by accident, only because Russia had been invaded by Germany were we allies. They were very suspicious towards us when we landed. Most memories are about weather. We happened to be on one of the convoys that was called ‘the great gale’, and that’s quite a distinction on a run that was always rough anyway. So many of us will remember three or four days of force twelve gales with wind at well over a hundred miles per hour, that was for about half the journey home, we got a rest and they went down to about force seven.
Regarding the enemy, they had all the coast of Norway, so we couldn’t go too close there, and in not going close you got near the ice barrier and you had to take your choice as to which was the worst hazard. In my favour was my youth, there were men aboard who were in their fifties. They were probably grandfathers who had put their feet up thinking they wouldn’t be involved in the war, but forgetting they were naval pensioners and part of the price they had to pay was that they had to come back and serve. Since I’m well past that age now, I understand how that would have affected me.
My most vivid memories are of not being able to sling hammocks, which normally you would sleep in ‘in harbour’; this was for damage control reasons. People wouldn’t want to be bumping into hammocks while they were trying to plug a hole, to put it crudely. So you had to sleep on the deck, which was up and under and all over the place. Our ship was a fairly new one, but even then you were sleeping in water and in the case of communications ratings, you weren’t issued with anoraks or heavy clothing as you needn’t go on the upper decks, so you just tossed up which end of you would be warm, your feet or your head. It’s even true to say that breathing was difficult, sitting and lying was certainly difficult in those conditions. Some ships, ours included, had to be scraped of ice, as they had become top heavy because of the ice on the masts and aerials. We were lucky, we travelled fast, couldn’t use it in arctic convoys though. The speed of the slowest one was usually 4-5 knots, we could do 32 knots. That didn’t come into it until the last day when war was over and we were told to get into a port as soon as you can and enjoy your selves.
I can’t remember if I was in the Navy or an evacuee, but twice when I went home my mother was at a new address, she’d been bomber out. If you were in uniform you were made a great fuss of. Conductress on trams wouldn’t take your fare, if you went in the local the first drink was on the governor.
During the war I made some tremendous friends, the camaraderie was tremendous, what helped me was I was a boy, and in boys training there were fifteen hundred boys from all parts of the UK including Ireland. So me, as a near cockney, left and could understand jordies, jocks anybody you like, and they could understand me, which is vital on a ship. Some people were not in that position, they had been conscripted and posted straight on the ship, and didn’t meet the cross section of the community that they would if they had gone in as a boy. When you went ashore nobody was allowed to be broke, we were paid a pittance compared with what service men are paid now, they deserve what they get, but we got next to nothing, but ads I say nobody was allowed to be broke.
I go to a ships reunion, which is at the Union Jack Club in London. The outfit, we say with a smile, consists of geriatrics and these were the people who were on arctic convoys. I've just come back from Western Super mare where I had a reunion with them.
Not only do I see the war as an impressionable lad as a fight for freedom, I still think so today.
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