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Life in the Services 1939-46, Chapter 5

by John Bartlett

Contributed by 
John Bartlett
People in story: 
John Bartlett
Location of story: 
'Sicily, Italy, Holland'
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 December 2004

Life in the Services, 1939 — 1946

Chapter 5
"Activities in Sicily & Italy"

Some months later, I was sent with two other A.S.F.D. officers, who I hadn't seen since Algiers days, to Syracusa in Sicily. This was an Italian Naval Base, which the British Army had been taken over. When we arrived, there was the usual chaos. I went to meals, talked to others, and gradually found out there was a party being formed for 'a secret destination'. I went to the C.O. and said I would like to join his party. He jumped at the idea. He informed me we would be boarding large landing ships at 5.30 a.m. the following morning for an unknown destination. He enquired if I had any weapon and equipment, which I assured him that I had.

The next day we set off. After some hours, I was told as the Navy was the senior service, they had to be lading the landings, which would be at Reggio in Italy.

As I was young and energetic, I would take the BBC and movitone newsmen to lead the Canadian soldiers to the beach landings just outside the town. Being naïve and reckless, I didn't raise any objections. We jumped ashore and ran up the beach. There was some rifle fire and we were attacked from the air by Stuka dive bombers, but we had no great problems. We took over the docks and the best hotel - we persuaded the manager to let us occupy his hotel, provide us with meals and drink. We let him use of a 15 cwt. truck with a driver to go inland to get supplies. We lived in great luxury from then on!

We put a few armed sailors to form a cordon across the main road and soon acquired about four hundred Italian/Sicilian soldiers. They were told we would feed them, but in return they had to work for us in the docks - which they did very well.

(Much later when I arrived home in the U.K. my parents told me how they had heard a BBC reporter talking about landings in Reggio with John Bartlett - the first allied officer to land in Europe since the start of the war!)

The C.O. enjoyed several brandies before breakfast, resulting in him being permanently under the weather! This made working for him very difficult.

The crunch came when he told me to swap an Alpha Romeo car for a truck. My retort was to say I would only do it he put it in writing and sent a copy to the Chief of Staff!

A few days later I was told to report back to Sicily to take over from a Lt. Commander in Messina as Beach Master.

The Army extended an invitation to me to mess with them and for the remaining Naval ratings to be billeted with the soldiers.

Almost immediately, I was befriended by a Lt. of the 51st Highland Brigade (Eighth Army). He had run away from Scotland at an early age to go to Canada. There he had been a lumberjack, a hunter etc., eventually becoming a surveyor on the Canadian Railways. He was tremendously energetic - a marvellous partner.

It meant getting up very early, 5.30 or 6.00 a.m., being greeted by a Colonel or Senior Officer of American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Polish, Czechs, Indian and other troops asking for instructions. An interesting study in different ways of handling men!

The objective was to transport the various forces and their equipment across the three-mile strip of sea to the Mainland of Italy. There were about 12 L.C.T. (middle sized landing craft) of the British Navy, each with an R.N.V.R. or R.N.R. Lieutenant in charge. I was only a Sub-Lieutenant, however they seemed to accept the situation.

Sometimes craft, vehicles, guns or mules would get stuck in the sand. Sometimes, especially lazy American soldiers, didn't take too kindly to being bawled at by a very young British Naval Officer, telling them to get out of the truck and push!

After about three months, when my time came to go back to the U.K., we had moved 30,000 units! I felt it was a really worthwhile job - a very positive contribution to the war effort.

We returned to the U.K. in a troopship. Officers were in bunks 4-tiers high, they queued up five or six deep behind each basin to wash, but otherwise not very eventful.

Having had some leave, I went back to my base in Dunoon in Scotland. I was given the task of lecturing to officers of all nationalities, including Russian, Norwegian, American etc.

I was also given the task of teaching the WREN's drill, rowing and shooting. They took their revenge by taking it in turns to try to teach me to dance at the Saturday night 'hop'. They also threw me overboard after a rather long arduous afternoon of 'rowing' (I wasn't rowing).

At other times I was employed on 'toughening up' the sailors by taking them on twenty/twenty-five mile marches each day. I was also expected to teach them about our equipment, signalling and a number of other subjects.

Sometime during this time, I received accelerated promotion to Lieutenant - an unheard of situation in this branch of the Navy.

This was followed by my appointment as second in command to an A.S.F.D. party, which was to go to Holland to build an A.S.F.D. station.

This involved going to Weymouth to persuade Betts Hut manufacturers to build special large huts for us. These were to be designed without any internal walls or pillars which would obstruct the area. These huts were to become the control room when we landed.

On another occasion, I went off with a sailor/driver in a three-ton truck to go to Bath. As we were too big to go over in the ferry, we had to drive right round Lock Lomond (about a hundred miles) before we could start on our real journey South. Our task was to obtain a trailer/generator and new equipment designed and made by the Americans, together with a number of stores. It took us several days to get there and longer to get back towing the generator. We took it in turns to drive - no motorways in those days!

When I got back I had the job of selecting the sixty men for the party. The great day arrived. We boarded a very old coal-burning steamer, which had been built for fast for runs to Ireland. It was therefore very narrow in the beam, and during a storm in the Irish sea it rolled most terribly. In fact, it was so bad that everybody, including the Captain and Chief Engineer, were very ill. The only person not affected at all was the Chief Mate. Even I felt queasy for the first time since joining the Navy!

We called in at Swansea to load up with special coal, which could only be obtained there. We were told by the Union leader that they would not load us because we hadn't any electric light. I told them my men would do it (I asked them first). The Union leader said he would bring all his people out on strike. I reminded him there was a war on, and we would therefore ignore his threat and would get on with the job. Nobody stopped us and we soon got out of Swansea!

We then called in at Weymouth where we were to load up with all the stores I had ordered at Bath and the huts from Bett's. The stevedores were working on three shifts. After about twelve hours I felt in need of a break and some food. When I returned, about half way through the second shift, I found the men had gone! I set off in the dock and found a dining hut with them lying on the benches asleep or playing cards.

They wondered what had hit them when I stormed up and down bawling at them to get back to work. Looking back, it was surprising they went back without any protest!

Finally, we set off from Weymouth for Holland, with great protests from the Captain who said we had overloaded the ship!

I should mention that my C.O. had decided to go over independently. He had taken on all the administration, but left me to deal with the men and equipment. I must say, for the first time, we were very well equipped. The men had a wonderful supply of warm protective clothing and we also had trucks and cars etc. for when we landed.

We arrived to find Breskens Harbour in Holland as a load of rubble, and the docks torn to pieces. The result of the RAF bombing and the British Naval bombardment from the sea.

The Captain of the ship complained bitterly at the thought of docking his ship. When the tide went out it would be left high and dry with the risk of the ship being stranded on a mud bank or wreckage, possibly resulting in the ship breaking in two. As it happened, all was well.

We found it very difficult to unload without cranes and no dockside. Anyway, after a week we managed it. The greatly relieved Captain was mighty glad to get away from us!

Naturally, the locals were not very pleased to see us as the British had destroyed so much of their docks. We made friends with the young Mayor of the town, so sailors were billeted in the centre of the town in the school. The officers were billeted in houses or bungalows with one of the locals. We started to build the station on a site some way from the town beside the dunes, so we were below the sea level. Whilst we were busy, the Allied forces were using Antwerp as the main port for unloading troops supplies for the invasion of Europe. The objective of our project was to build a barrier across the Scheldt to enable us to detect all shipping going up to Antwerp, even submarines or midget subs.

Amongst the other equipment our C.O. had organised were five special cable laying boats. They could hold about five-tons of cable. They could manoeuvre almost sideways because of the special fittings around the rudder. He had also arranged for a young 'laid back' old Etonian to bring them over by sea in convoy (no mean feat). Unfortunately, we had trouble with their engines. I was called in to help. This resulted in quite a friendship between him and me.

Ultimately, we laid eighty miles of cable (with the help of a cable ship from the U.K.), erected the special huts, wired up all the equipment, then we started watch keeping - very boring and trying in the dreadful cold weather.

However, it was all worthwhile as we detected and arrested seven German motorboats (filled with explosives) and their crews. They were heading for the docks at Antwerp. Later, we detected and, with the aid of seven British Trawlers using depth charges, blasted a German midget submarine to the surface (later installed in the Brussels War Museum).

When the day came for us to pack up to go home, after VE day, we had a most outstanding farewell provided by the Dutch. Nearly everybody had made friends with a family and they all turned out to see us off.

I can't clearly recall exactly what time, or how it happened, but I do remember being sent down from Dunoon in Scotland to Plymouth to start a new A.S.F.D. school based on a fully operational A.S.F.D. station on Drakes Island. This lies in the middle of Plymouth harbour. This was to be attached to H.M.S. Defiance, which was the Torpedo school for the Navy - all regular R.N. Navy. We, the A.S.F.D. part of the Navy, were all R.N.V.R. - wartime only. This was the first step to handing over this arm of the Navy to the regulators.

Although I was left to get on with the job, I had first a regular Lt./Commander closely followed by an R.N. Commander as a 'boss'. This meant they were office bound, leaving me to get on with handling the men and equipment to build the station on Drakes Island. We also had a cable ship, which laid about a hundred miles of cable in the harbour. The job of building the station was made easier by modern equipment, like we had in Holland, but we had the big task of bringing the cable into the control room. This meant drilling holes through massive armour plated steel. This had been put there in the First World War to protect the guns. Fortunately, we were able to borrow special drilling equipment from the dockyard staff, which made the job possible - but not easy!

Finally, I had the job of giving the lectures and arranging the practical exercises of laying cable in open boats to about fifteen regular R.N. Torpedo Officers. They were just finishing two years of training. This lasted about a week. Most of the R.N. officers were Lt. Commanders, but a few full Commanders.

During these months I was in the H.M.S. Defiance mess, which consisted of three old wooden bulks moored up in the inner harbour. This meant the sailors and myself going out to Drakes Island by open boat and back each day. The great thing was living in considerable comfort, with a good cabin and bathroom facilities.

I was told by the Commander, who 'sat in' on all the lectures, that I had done well and the R.N. officers on the course were equally complimentary.

Whilst I was in H.M.S. Defiance, I was offered a short service commission of four years with the Regular Peacetime Navy. On board there were a great number of older regular Navy officers, who all seemed to think it would be wiser to get into civilian life as quickly as possible. Because if I stayed in for four years, I would be behind the others in the race to get jobs.

I decided to take their advice, and turn down the offer. Not only because of the difficulty of getting a job later, but because I would be a special officer - not allowed to carry out watch-keeping at sea. In addition, I realised that the peacetime Navy would be a very different life from wartime.

I spent my last weeks wondering what I should do and even went to the trouble of filling in forms for both Hong Kong and East African police, but in the end I decided it was not for me, so tore them up.

Finally, sometime in August 1946, the day came to leave and catch the boat to shore.

A sad day indeed.

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