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- Kent Libraries- Shepway District
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- 11 August 2003
This is an extract from the memoirs of Stan Hook, transcribed from an interview tape by Byron Whitehead of the Folkestone Heritage Team.
Stan Hook was also a motorcycle messenger boy in the Auxiliary Fire Service. His account of the London Blitz, especially the bombing of Docklands and the City of London, has been published in We Remember the Blitz, compiled by Frank and Joan Shaw.
Not the Russian Convoy
I was determined to get into the services. I was 18, 18-and-a-half, and I wanted so much to get into the services. And I applied in the end. I wanted to get into the navy. [Stan is a descendant of Sir Francis Drake!] And I went and they said 'No you can't come in the navy... [But you can join the] air force.'
So I said, 'Alright.' So I had a medical, went into the air force and then the navy said: 'Oh... we can take you.'
I went into the navy, but then some [RAF] military police came down to the house and tried to arrest me [according to Stan's mother]. I wasn't there! I was in the navy... They thought I had gone from medical at the air force and joined. But of course, being the war, signatures didn't really matter. I was only 18 anyway. Only a kid really.
I was in the navy then anyway. I did six weeks up at what was called HMS Royal Arthur. It was Butlins at Skegness. It was an old holiday camp that they transformed into a naval barracks. It was a good place. We were there for eight weeks. They made 'Sprogs' of us - that was the slang word: Sprogs, people that had just joined the navy. We did some square bashing.
They told me, 'You can't be a sailor you have to be a mechanic.'
I said, 'Oh well, I wanted to be in the navy.'
They said, 'Well you're in the navy... You're what we call a PEM [Probationary Electrical Mechanic].
So I went on a six-month course fitting Rolls Royce engines and learning about Diesel Doxfords and things like that. That was in London, which was great, because I lived in London. Then, of course, I was in the navy proper.
I was on sweepers [and] escort work on the Atlantic convoys. Russian convoys. I was never actually on a Russian convoy... when they sent a convoy to Russia it used to go up the Baring Straits to what we called the Skaggerak... what isn't written in history is that, in order to draw the German bombers they used to go up the outside and we used to go up the inside. We used to take a load of old Tramps [steamers]. We were a dummy convoy really... so, while the real convoy went through, we would go out and then we'd turn round near Norway somewhere and come back again.
It was really cold and if too much ice formed on top of a boat it would capsize. So everybody, the skipper included, would have to spend two hours a day chipping ice.
I asked for a transfer and they put me on Sweepers, to teach me a lesson I think! If the [convoys were] dull, mine sweeping was even worse. Just going up and down and up and down the same stretch of water for weeks on end. We used to operate out from Hull. It was awful. One day a notice went up on board: 'Volunteers Required for Combined Operations'. I didn't know what combined operations were, but we all volunteered down to a man, anything to get away from mine sweeping!
Combined operations - D-Day landings at Courseulles
They sent me across to the States, where they were assembling landing craft in three sections. We'd take them over in the dockyard in New York, break them into three sections and put them on to a liberty ship, ship them over [to the UK]. One liberty ship used to take three major large landing craft, tank landing craft this was. We used to bring them over, assemble them and put them in every little creek all around Devon and Cornwall. Everywhere there was a little harbour, there was landing craft. They sent me up to North Africa and we did a landing in Italy. I finished up in Malta and then they said 'We want experienced men home now to train for D-Day.'
What they did was use a long beach - this one was near Purbrook. They built this beach with an exact replica of information the underground had sent from France. We used to land there. This went on for about six to nine months. We used to land there in all sorts of weather, sometimes about 30 foot high seas and sometimes it would be flat calm. We would practice, practice, practice and they would keep making improvements to the things.
Eventually, when we landed, our first job was to breach the sea defences at a place called Courseulles in France. We had been trained specifically for this, they had this beach rigged and they had it to perfection. When we landed there was the church, Courseulles church and I remember the skipper say to the coxswain, 'Coxswain, can you make out the steeple?' and he said, 'Yes Sir, I can just see it, just where the sky is getting bright.'
The skipper said, 'Steady on that, that's where we're going in.'
When we went in, first of all, the noise was horrific. I've never heard noise like it. The one thing they didn't allow for was the noise. They sent us a rocket ship for protection and this rocket ship was laying down this covering fire of rockets. I always remember two American fighters, just flew into this lot and exploded. The noise was horrific. By now bodies were beginning to float in on the tide and there was thick smoke everywhere. But, anyway, we'd done all the practice so there wasn't an order given. I never remember an order because everybody knew what they had to do. We had so much training, we all did it automatically.
The Germans had built scaffolding just on the water's edge and mines like huge quart milk bottles painted black were on the ends of all these. We manoeuvred our vessel in just between two of these. Now, the beach was mined. It was a sand beach. Then there was a convex sea wall, so that had to be got over. At the top of the sea wall there was a tank trap, an absolutely huge hole. So, somehow, we had to get our tanks across this mined beach, up this convex wall and across this thing. But we'd been trained and we had four tanks on board.
The first tank was what they call a flail tank. It had a huge thing built on the front and it had long bits of chain which banged down and exploded all the mines in front of it as it went up the beach. So the door went down and the first one made a road up to the convex wall. We went up this road that had been carved by the flail tank, then he pulled to one side. The 2nd tank off had a huge bridge built on to the front of it. He went up this cleared piece of sand and manoeuvred the thing into position then [the bridge] was detonated off and he slowly climbed this seawall to the top.
On the top of the third tank were huge logs. He went up the sand road, up the ramp, got on top of the wall, then detonated off all of the logs which filled up the ditch. The fourth tank off was a normal tank. That was it! That was the breaching of the sea wall, then they all came in behind us.
By then it was just about dawn and getting lighter and the rest came in. That was how we breached the sea wall at this place called Courseulles. We landed in the British sector. We landed near Gold Beach. There was Gold and Juno and we landed just about where Gold and Juno met at this place called Courseulles. Then there was Omaha, the other side of Gold and Utah.
I think it was Omaha, that was the American beach. [They] had just said 'Give 'em hell'. They lost thousands and thousands of troops on Omaha beach. We, OK, we lost a few hundred but nothing like Omaha. The Americans hadn't done their homework, they just depended on force. The airplanes were going to go in and soften up the beach and they were going to just land and that was going to be it. But, from experience, Monty had said 'No' and he had [made this plan]. All of our practice paid off at that point.
I was in what they called the wheel house so I had a first class view of this. At one point the door jammed right at the critical moment. After we'd dropped the tanks we started to pull the door up and the door jammed. I could see this, so I ran, there were shells and bombs exploding but I just ran up, freed this hawser from the door and we pulled it up. And the skipper said to me afterwards 'That was a fantastic thing you did there, I'm going to nominate you for decoration.'
And I said, 'Now you know what you can do with your decoration!' And that was it. But that's another story. There were hundreds of people that earned the Victoria Cross that day, but half of them dead, unfortunately.
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