- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Cockburn
- Location of story:
- England and France- D-Day etcetera.
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 May 2005
However it was once again time to move on ,this time to Poole in Dorset , and another stone frigate called "HMS Turtle".
HMS Turtle was a small hutted camp on the outskirts of Poole,a very pleasant town with a large harbour.We lived ashore for a while spending the days aboard ship putting our training into practice.Before very long we were formed into crews and moved into our LCGs.Those of us originally from 395 squad became part of the ship's company of LCG(L) 764.
This was a totally different experience from anything that had gone before .We quickly identified with our ship and crewmates.We were few in number , there being only 33 Marines 19 Royal Navy men but living as we were in fairly confined spaces it was essential that we all got along together.This we did and I never encountered any of the animosity we were led to believe existed between "bootnecks" and "matelots" , quite the contrary in fact.
There followed a period of intensive training involving many practice landings along the South Coast and we rapidly became proficient in both our roles ie; as naval gunners and as shipboard crewmen.My own action stations were as sightsetter on "B" gun and No1 on the port side Derlikon.As with every other Marine aboard my responsibilities for the ship were defined in the Watch and Quarter Bill.Initially I was Quartermaster ( watchkeeping again) but during next two years I had a stab at everything ,including two tours as "Captain of The Heads"**
Few of the exercises we took part in kept us out of port for very long so we had plenty of shore leave in Poole where we were made to feel very welcome.In that spring of 1944 the weather stayed mainly fine and I have lots of happy memories of that time.
However one sad one always intrudes when I think back.
It was a hot Saturday afternoon and Town Quay where we were alongside was thronged by local people and a great variety of servicemen ,all enjoying the sunshine.This pleasant scene was shattered by the sudden appearance overhead of an RAF Dakota with its side door open.Hanging there by his parachute cords was a paratrooper .Apparently he was the last of his "stick" to jump and his 'chute had opened inside the plane ,trapping him there.There were only two men left in the plane ,the pilot and the despatcher who could not combat the force of the slipstream to get the poor man back into the aircraft cabin.These events took place over Salisbury Plain during a practice drop where it was decided that the only chance of saving the unfortunate's life was to cut .
*The landing craft William Cockburn was later to serve in.
** Toilets on board ship.
him free over open water.Hence their appearance over Poole harbour.
The plane cruised around until a number of small craft had positioned themselves in Studland Bay .When everything was ready the plane made a run over the bay very low and as slow as possible ,cutting the para free to fall from a height of maybe 50feet or so.Sadly he fell into shallow water at speed and did not survive.We never got to know who he was .
The launch that fetched his body ashore was one of several flying boats based at Poole .Their take-off and landings were a regular feature of our daily life ,where did they go and who were their passengers ?
"D" day was fast approaching by now.The "stunts" became more and more complex and realistic.Several times we left harbour to the strains of "Come cheer up my lads 'tis to glory we steer " played over the flotilla leader's loud hailer , firmly believing that this time it was for real.Invaraibly we found ourselves back in harbour 48 hours later.
Then we moved to Southampton and tied up alongside in the docks there.I think this was in early May 1944.After the freedom of Poole Southampton was a grim place being vastly overcrowded and becoming moreso each day .Entertainment was non-existent for all practical purposes with thousands of bored troopsfor every cinema seat and even more it seemed for every pint of beer.
It did not matter too much because we were kept at it pretty well day and night.One night in particular we disembarked into assault landing craft to be taken downriver to be landed at Netley where we stealthily penetrated a huge compound containing hundreds of amphibious trucks ( DUKWS) or Ducks as we knew them.
Armed only with sticks of chalk our mission was to write "Quack" on as many vehicles as possible thereby theoretically destroying them.
Our mission completed we retreated to the pier to re-embark (supposedly in deadly silence) The effect was marred however as the Luftwaffe chose this moment to attack the invasion fleet in Southampton Water whereupon the whole area was illuminated by searchlights,flares and the like .Notwithstanding this final excitement we did successfully and safely return to the bosom of 764.
It transpired that the expedition arose from a bet made by our Wardroom to some American officers with regard to the lax security in their vehicle compound.
Although the weather that summer was generally good this was not always the case.On one particular landing exercise we were "fogged in" suddenly and had to post a lookout right up for'ard to safeguard against running down the craft ahead.The mist was bitterly cold ,so bad that the lookout watch was cut to two hours .I vividly recall coming off after my two hours and having to defrost myself in front of the bulkhead heater before I could remove my duffle coat.
Another memory..764 was sailing up Southampton Water after an exercise when the Skipper spotted a huge concrete structure anchored inshore.His curiosity (which cost us dear ) had to be satisfied so we went alongside this object and several of us clambered up onto it to find that it was a massive concrete barge ,the purpose of which mystified us utterly.While we were scratching our heads a destroyer came fussing up ,as is their wont, and via the loud hailer ordered us off at the double.
What we had found of course was a section of the Mulberry Harbour of which we eventually saw a lot more , but at that time it was unique and baffling.
One of the exercises that 764 carried out alone at this time was to try out a new and more powerful cordite charge for the 4.7's.It proved to be too powerful for the upper deck fittings and as a result we went up river to a small boatyard at Botley for repairs.While these were being effected I got a seven day leave and went home.
Whilst at home I learned that my elder brother's wife was stationed with her ack-ack battery just outside Southampton.My brother was in the army and had met and married his wife without any of the family having met her, so my mother wanted me - the nearest one to my sister-in-law's unit - to rectify this omission.
On returning aboard I learned that that the troops encamped in and around Southampton had been confined to their billets and all leave cancelled.In addition to the tented camps which occupied every park or open space all the roads radiating from the docks area were lined for mile after mile with military vehicles of all types with their crews living and sleeping by their trucks ,tanks ,etc.
Despite all these restrictions we could still get shore leave so with the importance of the occasion in the forefront of my mind I dressed in my best Blues and set off to find my sister-in-law.It was , in the event ,three days prior to "D" day.
It was extremely hot ,tens of thousands of sweaty troops who had been living rough for days lined every highway and byway .It was into this environment that ,having bussed as far as possible ,I had to walk the last four or five miles all dressed up in my fancy suit.You may like to imagine the kind of comments my appearance elicited from the Pongoes.
Whatever you imagine ,it was much worse !However I did find the object of my quest and we had a long chat.Sadly I was never to see her again because like many wartime marriages it did not stand the test of time.
Upon my return to 764 I discovered that shore leave had been cancelled and that the flotilla staff were being embarked.This had happened before for the purposes of exercises but on this occasion they had brought the flotilla typewriter with them , this hade never happened before....
We knew then that this was not an exercise .So it was with great excitement that we went to Leaving Harbour Stations on the morning of June 4th 1944 - only to suffer the anti-climax of falling out again following the arrival of a Don-R on the dockside with a message to abort.
24 hours later we did slip and sailed down Southampton Water to the Solent and out into the Channel in company with a huge number of vessels of all descriptions.That evening the Skipper confirmed that this was the long awaited invasionand we each received a short letter from General Eisenhower exhorting us to do our stuff.Several of our flotilla had LCA (HR)'s in tow
These were armed with spigot mortars which would be fired after they had beached with the aim of destroying barbed wire and other obstacles.None of the convoys were showing navigation lights of course but each craft had a shielded blue light on the stern.This was invisible except to someone directly astern.Our group played "follow my leader" up and down the channel gradually progressing to the French side.It was a hairy experience having to keep the stern light of the craft in front in view while avoiding runing down the LCA (HR) it had in tow.
We never heard what happened to these LCA(HR) or their crews but I read much later that none of them survived , being lost either during the crossing or in the action that followed.
"D" day dawned.We had spliced the mainbrace and now waited off the landing beach as the shore line gradually became more defined,both guns loaded and ready to take part in the barrage that was to precede the actual landing.
As we opened fire I was aware of a squadron of DO tanks "swimming" through the flotilla ,but after thta we were kept too busy to notice much.
Whereas thebig ships stood off to fire their salvoes ,we operated from quite close in and attacked specific targets directly .Amongst our targets was a terrace of guest houses which were suspected of having fortified basements .At such short range our 4.7's were extremely acurate so much so that we were ordered to put a round through the front door and basement window of each of these houses.As sightsetter and Communications No 1 , I passed orders from Control to the gun crew ,so after a house had received it's allocation of two rounds the instructions were
"Move next door - through the door - shoot - through the window - shoot - move next door....."
All along the promenade.
I have often thought these commands must be unique in the history of Naval Gunnery.My recollections of the happenings of the next ten or so weeks , particularly the chronological sequence ,has become confused with the passage of time but I will do my best.
On "D" day itself we were engaged in supporting the landings on Gold ,Juno and Sword beaches.
Apart from the boarding houses mentioned above we engaged several targets during the day including a church spire suspected of being an observation post .To our surprise and relief the Luftwaffe only made one brief appearance when two fighters made a run along the beaches and beat a hasty retreat .That first night was tense as all kinds of counter attacks were expected ,none of which materialised.Nerves were very stretched however and when one ship's guns opened fire on a plane outlined in the beam of a searchlight many more joined in and soon an immense barrage of tracers was hitting the plane which by now could be clearly seen to have broad white stripes identifying it as one of ours.Unfortunately the trigger happy gunners kept firing until the plane literally fell to bits.
During the storm that started on June 19th and which raged for several days we had to take refuge in the lee of a breakwater that had been formed by sinking redundant or obsolete ships.It was a miserable time when all we could do was hang on and wait for the weather to ease .
As a child I had collected cigarette cards ,one series of which featured warships of all nations.Amongst my collectiion there had been one most unusual vessel - a French submarine called the "Surcouf" .It's distinction was in it's size claiming to be the largest submarine in the world and the only one to carry a seaplane in a hangar on the upper deck ,attached to the conning tower.Plus a large calibre gunsomething like a six inch .Anyway ,one of the sunken ships forming the breakwater was such a submarine - was it the "Surcouf" ?
There was also a French battleship - Le Corbeau , at the height of the storm the waves were coming completely over this ship's decks.
When the storm abated we resumed our support of the troops ashore ,this included some indirect shoots where the targets were out of sight and we had to be directed by an observer ashore.One of these was quite complex involving three LCGs lashed together and secured by a system of lines to a Dan buoy.The buoy gave a reference point that we could leave and come back to at will .The lines ,in conjunction with the ship's capstan enabled the combined six 4.7's of our three craft to be brought to bear irrespective of the state of the tide.The effect was a powerful battery on a compact platform ,capable of doing considerable damage to the enemy.We were told on one occasion that our barrage had compelled a German mortar battery to withdraw with considerable casualties much to the relief of the troops who had been on the receiving end of their shells.
It was about this time that the attentions of the German artillery from the direction of Le Havre caused unloading of supplies to be abandoned on "Sword" the most easterly of our beaches.764 herself was hit twice ,once causing serious damage and the loss of life.
The projectile was probably a mortar round .It struck"B" gun damaging the gunshield beyond repair,perforating the recoil cylinders and exploding downward with shrapnel penetrating the raised gundeck and out towards the maindeck just forward of the wheelhouse.Fortunately the gun crew were not closed up at the time ,but sadly one of our telegraphists "Ginger" Gammie ,a Scot ,chose that moment to come up top and was killed instantly by a piece of shrapnel as his head and shoulders cleared the hatch .
This was our first casualty .As none of us were up to the task ,a couple of P.O.s off the Danae came aboard and sewed Ginger into his hammock according to tradition , passing the last stitch through his nose to ensure that he was dead.
The burial at sea that followed was very poignant ,especially as "Ginger" had been a very poular member of the ship's company and his death brought home to us that this game was being played for keeps.We did not receive any more direct hits ,but we did have several near misses.One of these was close enough for the shrapnel to hit 764 , it was on this occasion that I was taking the air with Len Perkins on "A" gun deck .Len was Mancunian like myself and we were enjoying a rare moment of relaxation away from the foetid atmosphere of the messdeck . We had been there for only a short time when we heard the familiar whoosh of mortar rounds.We couldnot see where they were falling but being of a nervous disposition I suggested that we put some steel plate between them and us.Len scoffed ,he being reluctant to end this pleasant interlude .So after a few moments I left him to it .
Within seconds of my going below we heard the rattle of shrapnel hitting the upper deck and on going up top again found a somewhat chastened Len nursing a minor wound.It's an ill wind etc..as his wound got him to the hospital ship and back to Blighty.
When clearing up the shrapnel later we found a piece of a driving band with the number 764 on
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.