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15 October 2014
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A Marine's Tale Part 4

by 1956baby

Contributed by 
People in story: 
William Cockburn
Location of story: 
Off Normandy............for months!
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 May 2005

The conditions we were living under deserve a mention here .Since H hour we had not been able to undress nor to sling our hammocks ,the first so that we were always ready to close up at action stations and the second because slung hammocks would have obstrycted the messdeck through which ammunition had to pass from the magazine to "A" gun.We therefore slept where we could .I acquired a most desirable spot on top of the lashed hammocks stowed in the netting .I rotated this cosy place with an oppo from the starboard watch.We all gained the ability to grab sleep whenever the opportunity arose ,and in the most unlikely places.We were on "watch and watch about " the whole time we were there and were often turned too when off watch for a variety of reasons - the main one of course being Action Stations - so sleep was a rare and precious commodity.
In our occasional free moments we played a game called "shoot" .This was ideal for our situation as it demanded little in the way of concentration ,could be played by almost any number of people and could be abandoned at short notice without regard for continuity.It was pure gambling which we could all afford to do because irrespective of our other deprivations we were paid every week but had nothing on which to spend the money.We did not even have to pay for cigarettes as every man was issued with 50 a day free.We understood that this bounty was donated by some school that had "adopted" us.
Anyway , shoot was conducted by the Banker ,a role held by each player in rotation.An experienced player could accumulate considerable winnings and at the end of a session whoever was Banker could end up holding large quantities of cash.

From time to time we had an unpleasant duty.When the sea chose to give up its dead we would come alongside a bloated corpse ,remove any form of identification and then puncture the body ,allowing it to return to the sea bed.The smell of putrefaction must be the vilest stink in creation and robs death of any dignity.

On one occasion we recovered a living being.He was an American pilot who came overhead in a very sick plane ,aThunderbolt Fighter.At the time we were on our own ,some way away from the main anchorage and he ditched in our vicinity.Having collected him and his dinghy he was made comfortable in the wardroom.It was evening by now and we had to take up our position on the "Trout line" so he had to spend the night aboard.Despite his own high risk occupation he was not at home on 764 and expressed himself very relieved when he started on the first leg of his journey back to the U.K. next day .I often wonder if he survived the war and what memries he has of his stay with us.

The solitary position of 764 as mentioned above was one we often adopted , sometimes to carry out a shoot but often we just stooged about aimlessly between the most easterly edge of the anchorage and the Seine estuary .It was on these occasions that we attracted the most attention from the enemy's artillery ,one large piece of which was rumoured to be housed in a railway tunnel and wheeled out to fire a few rounds before being returned to its lair .This gun was supposed to be part of the battery whose attentions had stopped the unloading operations on Sword beach ,and which had so far resisted the best efforts of ships such as the "Rodney" etc.
One day ,our minds full of these rumours ,and without visible means of support ,little 764 steamed towards the beach well east of the bridgehead with the object (we thought ) of drawing the this elusive gun's fire while our battleships came in to have a go at it.
I don't know if this gun existed or if the above was the plan .All I know is we attracted a lot of mortar fire and even some small arms fire .It was a relief to us all when our gallant Skipper withdrew and we returned to the bosom of the anchorage.
Another of our duties, sometimes alone but generally in company with other members of our flotilla ,was to make smoke to protect ourselves and the larger ships in the anchorage.This smoke was generated from large drums called smokepots which we placed on the quarter deck and which when ignited gave off clouds of noxious fumes that gave us burning throats and streaming eyes .We tended to the opinion that our interests would have been better served by dropping these smokepots on the enemy and blinding them rather than us.

The anchorage I have referred to was an area between the sunken-ships' breakwater and the beach.This was HOME for the various vessels that serviced us for food ,mail ,repairs etc.Amongst these I recall two ex-China type river gunboats called Locust and Nyth* and a light cruiser called Danae.Artificers from Danae carried out emergency repairs to "B" gun after the direct hit described earlier ,these consisted mainly of removing the Gun shield completely as it was beyond repair and welding patches to the recoil cyliders to seal the shrapnel holes.The shield , which barely protected our heads and shoulders ,was there for psychological reasons than for any practical purpose.Nevertheless we all felt very exposed after its removal .The patched up cylinders were still able to absorb most of the recoil although the barrel did come to the end of its backward movement with a sickening thud.Then it was impossible to run the barrel out again so we had to physically push to get the breech into the reloading position.
Fortunately we had less and less need of the 4.7's because as time went on our beachhead support role became secondary to the task of defending the anchorage from night attack.We fulfilled this function as part of the "Trout Line " .This was made up of LCG(L)s and LCFs forming a line from close inshore from close inshore to a point in deeper water ,the purpose being to intercept any small enemy craft coming out of Le Havre and using the shallows to avoid the outer defensive screen of destroyers etc.Whatever we had been about in daylight ,at dusk we had to take up our position and anchor to await whatever the night might bring .At dawn ,we upped anchor and got back to the protection of the main anchorage a bit sharpish.
We endured a lot of frights and excitements during the many weeks of "Trout" duty ,but the hairiest ,scariest time was the dawn retreat .As I have mentioned earlier ,the Luftwaffe were not a problem during the day , by night however it was a different story.Minelating planes dropped their cargoes between the Trout line and the easternmost flank of the bridgehead .These were acoustic mines which lay on the sea bed until activated by the engine noise of ships passing above.It would not necessarily be the first ship which would fetch the mine up ,as several ships' engine noises could be required to sufficiently "cook" the mine causing it to rise and explode ,generally near the source of the noise ,which in the case of our craft was aft at the engine room.
Several of our flotilla were lost in this manner with considerable loss of life and severe injuries ,notably compound fractures.
Thus ,each morning's return to safety was a form of Russian roulette as we passed over the minefield wondering whether it was our turn next and hoping to be out of the danger zone.
The safest part of the ship was up on deck forward.My action station was on the port twin Derlikons aft next to the wheelhouseand right above the engine room, so while the whole ship's company endured a terrifying 45 minutes once every 24 hours ,my mind ran riot ,imagining myself in far greater danger than most .Thoughts of others in the same position and in worse, stokers for instance , was no consolation at all.

*Could he mean Nymph ?
The first indication that a mine had detonated was to feel a jolt from below and a blast on one's face .Then a lookout would report which craft had been hit.The first thought was relief that it wasn't us ,soon followed by the shameful hope that we wouldn't be required to give assistance in case of another mine.
We did go alongside two stricken craft however and having seen the casualties all selfishness was forgotten while we did what we could to help .No LCG or LCF to be struck by one of these mines stayed afloat so the time to rescue survivors was limited .I do not know how many went down with their ships.

We spent every night for many weeks on the Trout ,always tense though on most nights nothing happened.The engines of aircraft were often heard droning away as the Luftwaffe carried out it's minelaying and we received orders not to open fire with the Derlikons in case the tracers revealed our position to enemy surface craft trying to get through to the juicy targets in the anchorage and the Mulberry Harbour.
One night however ,having listened for a long time to Jerry stooging up and down putting the next morning's welcome mat out for us I was suddenly confronted with a full frontal of a twin engined bomber coming straight at me at sea level.My reflexes took over and I opened fire with both barrels .I clearly saw the two faces through the perspex as the pilot heaved the plane upward to clear us , he stalled and crashed some distance away.
I am convinced the pilot was as startled as I was and that his attempt to gain height was knee jerk reaction .Whatever the cause of the plane's crash I was severely reprimanded for disobeying orders.

The enemy was expected to use specialist weapons such as human torpedoes or midget submarines in his attempt to penetrate the line.The former had one major success when LCF 1 was sunk with great loss of life .This craft was a veteran of Dieppe and action in the Med.
Whilst on their way to their target these human torpedoes travelled just beneath the surface with the heads of the two man crew showing above.Our leaders decided that our .303 rifles would be adequate to deal with this threat so we now kept watch armed with our personal weapons.Unfortunately I had not kept my rifle in the rack provided .For my convenience I kept it in the oil and paint store for which I was responsible.When I retrieved it my gun was very rusty indeed and did not respond to any of my efforts to clean it up .Consequently I now had two major worries ,the first was that if I had to fire it there was a good chance it would blow up in my face, the second and more fearsome possibility was that my negligence might be discovered.

By this time the continual grind of night watches ,the unhygienic conditions ,the poor diet ,but mostly lack of exercise and sleep meant we were all becoming unfit.To combat this shore leave was granted on two occasions for each watch.
The first run ashore consisted of walking up and down a short stretch of beach under the beady eye of the Beachmaster who forbade us from venturing further.The second trip came some weeks later when the beachhead was far more secure and our group found ourselves in the small seaside resort of Luc-sur-mer together with hundreds of squaddies having a break from the line .All the "facilities" were out of bounds or closed.So there we all were wandering around aimlessly in the hot summer sun , grumbling away then , suddenly - complete silence and total stillness as through our midst floated a vision.A very attractive young woman in a skimpy two piece swimsuit and high heels ,walking her pet poodle down the street.
Nobody breathed as she sauntered by and it was only when she disappeared into an out of bounds establishment guarded by two redcaps *that hundreds of lungs were emptied in one gargantuan gasp.
Returning aboard we found that another group had been more ambitious and on venturing into the countryside had discovered a farmer willing to accept the Monopoly money that had been issued to us. There were only two things available to buy - a type of rough local wine and Camembert cheese ,large quantities of which were purchased .Philistines all we did not appreciate this abundance and not being to our taste most of it went over the side .

We were in our third month at Normandy by now and a system of rotating craft back to the U.K. had begun.We waited impatiently for our turn but on two occasions when our reliefs arrived ,another craft was lost and we had to stay to keep the Trout up to strength.

It came to pass therefore that 764 was the only craft to have served continuously on the Trout line since it's inception.This dubious honour meant that we went about our tasks like zombies.The work got done ,the watches were stood but sleep had become more important than food to us .To ease the situation one out of each two man Derlikon crew was allowed to sleep on watch.So for two of the four hours on watch one man could curl up on the steel step of the gun well or Zareba as it was known.
The Trout line was the complete embodiment of modern warfare in that it involved long periods of utter boredom punctuated by brief moments of excitement or fear.
Then , wonder of wonders as the flotilla took up its positions for yet another night the gallant crew of 764 received the glad tidings that this was to be their last night and that she would return to the U.K. At dawn come what may.

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