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A Naval career - part 2 of 4

by fireblade-sue

Contributed by 
fireblade-sue
People in story: 
John Malcolm ("Jim") Hirst
Location of story: 
At sea
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8164154
Contributed on: 
01 January 2006

A Naval career — part 2 (of 4)

HMML 557

My first real officer responsibility was to collect the crew from Devonport and get them to Looe (the coxswain was helpful) to await the arrival of the CO (Ty.Lt. J. Waugh RNVR) to commission the boat. The copper-sheathed, 112 ft. hull of ML557, built by Curtis at Looe, Cornwall showed that we were bound for warmer waters. When we were equipped with charts, a cancelled chart of Dar es Salaam, now Tanzania was supplied as wrapper, being intentionally `careless' started a lovely messdeck `buzz'. I cannot remember whether we completed trials from Looe or from Fowey where I remember we spent a day or two before departing for Costal Forces Base Brixham. However, foul weather caused us to be detached from a convoy and directed to enter Dartmouth. The CO asked for course and speed for Dart Buoy (my first bit of navigation that mattered), the night was pitch black and blowing hard but within a minute of stopping at my expected arrival at the buoy (to await the brief lighting of the boom gate) there was a gentle thud under the bow but nothing seen until next morning, when telltale red and white paint scuffing from the buoy was seen forrard. Beginners luck, and a degree of accuracy I have never equalled.

On Christmas morning, our most clueless rating put a short burst from one of the bridge Vickers K guns somewhere into Kingswear. We anxiously awaited the complaints. There being none, we left as soon as possible for Brixham, where trials were completed successfully, apart from a rather stroppy Gunnery Officer (who would brook no interference) and sent the barrel of an Oerliken sailing overboard because he had not checked that it had been rotated to lock it! In Plymouth, awaiting the assembly of the 31st ML Flotilla, we were kept busy patrolling the anti-submarine `loop defences'.

The SO of the 31 MLF was Lt Cdr. J Ivester (`Farmer') Lloyd, in civilian life a country sports writer and hunting enthusiast. His first task was to make sure that we arrived in Tobermory for anti-sub work-up training in a fit state to withstand the energy and zeal of the famous Commodore G.O. ("Gas-operated") Stephenson. We survived (having as an `evolution', festooned Macbraynes Pier for demolition with depth charges) and departed south a bit more shipshape and competent to fit five deck tanks at Milford Haven in preparation for our departure for Gibraltar.

Extract quoting comments from SO 31 MLF and taken from Flag 4: The battle of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean. By Dudley Pope, (1954) William Kimber, London. p98.

Almost every month small convoys of Coastal Forces craft were leaving the UK, rounding Ushant and crossing the Bay of Biscay on their way to the Mediterranean. Usually they had trawlers acting as navigators and although they mostly managed to get through without any severe brushes with the enemy, the weather was often far from friendly.

A typical convoy left Milford Haven in March .... included boats of the 31st ML Flotilla .... The convoy made its way westward to get clear of the coast of France which was liberally spattered with German air bases.... Crews went into sea routine and cooked meals arrived regularly.... After the convoy turned south it came on to blow, and the bad weather continued for many bitterly cold, sleepless hours. Then an aircraft diving down on the convoy sent the crews to action stations but it proved to be a Sunderland flying boat.... the next afternoon a Focke-Wulf Condor appeared, circled (out of range) and flew off... the next afternoon it appeared at the same time, did its prescribed orbit and departed. ... on the third afternoon.... the Condor came in and dropped four bombs... (but missed).

Otherwise our passage to Gibraltar was uneventful apart from one boat being missing one morning, as a result of having to `extinguish everything' through a serious petrol leak - she finished the trip cold, bored and hungry at the end of the accompanying trawler's sweep wire!

North Africa

After shedding the deck tanks at Gib. and restoring the full complement of “Y” gun and depth charges, we left for Mers el Kebir, the French naval port close to Oran and recently occupied after the landings in Algeria, operation Torch. Our main duty was to conduct 3 day, anti-submarine "fruit patrols" often ahead of convoys (or perhaps to delude the enemy that a convoy might pass that way). Probably all that was expected of us was that our constant asdic sweep might reduce the mobility of U Boats by keeping them submerged. I cannot recall any one having a firm `contact' but we all got very brown and much enjoyed the antics of the flying fish and the dolphins (especially the latter by night once we had learnt that their phosphorescent wakes coming straight at us (torpedo-like) turned forrard within yards of the ship's side to play about the bow.)

There were some lighter moments. The following is a quote from Farmer Lloyd on a visit to the port of Mostaghenum made by MLs 555 and 557, extracted from Flag 4: The battle of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean. By Dudley Pope, (1954) William Kimber, London. p102.

" ...where we helped the Americans, who were in charge of the port, out of a difficulty. They had salvaged cargo from a torpedoed British ship, and part of this was a mountain of unmarked cases. The officer in charge complained that this was `the durndest stuff' and that his sentries `got real crazy guarding it'. He wished that someone `would take the goddam stuff away'. After one glance at those cases we agreed to take it all off, .... for each case contained two two-gallon jars of army rum (which made us very popular and went under the code name of U235, from the powerful isotope of uranium).”.

They bartered well for bread and potatoes and provided us with a party or two.

We shared Mers el Kebir with Force H (HMS Nelson, Rodney and ? Renown) who were little loved by the locals, as they had been responsible for sinking much of Darlan's Vichy French navy by firing their heavy guns (howitzer-like, with reduced propellant charges) over the mountain to the west of the harbour. To make sure that we did not get too much sleep even when in harbour, we had to spend many nights exploding innumerable 1.5lb blocks of TNT to give any prowling limpeteers a tummy ache. For much of this time, 557's RT call sign was `Masterman' while HMS Nelson had to suffer being `Little Queen', but was not always amused by the tones of voice that we used. If they really got worried about midget subs, then we were told to drop a 300lb depth charge close by, only to be accused next day of having moved the ashtrays on the Ward-room Table!

Malta and Sicily

We matched the army advance eastward through Algeria and into Tunisia, with sundry diversions, eventually reaching Malta in the latter days of the siege. The remaining air raids were among the brightest ack-ack `fireworks displays' that I have seen. We took the opportunity of a bit of much needed overhaul. However our main purpose was then to help assemble, protect and lead landing craft onto the beaches of the "Bark South" Sector of the Sicily landings at Cape Passaro. To contact the landing craft, once radio silence was broken, we had about fifteen army signallers and their sets crowded around the bridge, wheelhouse and funnel. Once their units were ashore, they left us for the beach. The bombardment was awesome, with the capital ships firing over us at targets well inshore, while we were close alongside the fearsome launches of ripples of rockets from the LCR (Landing Craft Rocket). Daylight brought us the interesting task of acting as `Trot Boat' to the Admiral and senior soldiers, but by night, we joined the offshore defensive screen inshore of the destroyers (one night was trying because the recognition signals we had were three hours out of phase).

Progress was fast up the east coast of Sicily and (on D+4) we were about the first craft into Augusta and Syracuse. Some time later we escorted strings of unruly and unseaworthy military `ducks' (DKWS), swimming across the Straits of Messina to reinforce the landings there on the Toe of Italy. Back in continental Europe at last!. There was some consternation when four fleet destroyers bore down on them at speed from the north, enquiring of us "What ship?". Fortunately they slowed down through the gap we made in the chain, sank none with their wash and departed with the signal "To ML 557 from D4, (Captain of 4th Destroyer Flotilla)... Quack, Quack."

The Italian Campaign

The 31st MLF had a special duty associated with the Salerno landing. This is again described in a lengthy quotation from Farmer Lloyd (in Flag 4: The battle of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean. By Dudley Pope, (1954) William Kimber, London. p132.

As the campaign in Sicily neared completion the 31st MLF was withdrawn to Malta and then Bizerte where we came under US Navy orders (delivered by Lt. Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.)

"We start with Ventotene ...due west of Naples. As you probably know there is to be a big landing in the Gulf of Salerno. Four hours before that comes off we are to stage this little operation of our own. The object is to land a force of (US) Rangers, sixty strong who are to establish a fighter control station on the island. Another thing may interest you - Mussolini is thought to be hiding there!”

Other forces were to act as decoys to suggest that a landing was to be made north of Naples. Information about Ventotene was meagre and (in the dark) the harbour proved to be minute, the Rangers were landed and accomplished their first task. However, it is probably a blessing that the Germans had removed Benito Mussolini some time earlier, so the local Italian garrison were more willing to surrender than resist. Our opportunity to be famous passed but our tasks were far from complete.

We were soon intended to be based in Naples but, (as air raids were still occurring there) the NOIC (naval officer in charge) told us he did not want our petrol tanker in his harbour - wise man. We went in search of a suitable little harbour and found Porto d'Ischia, on the lovely (then) unspoilt island twin to Capri, but at the extremity of the northern arm of the Gulf of Naples. We were delighted to leave Naples, then in the throes of a typhus epidemic and a mist of DDT applied to everybody and everything. Ischia was heaven in comparison; the harbour fitted Coastal Forces perfectly. It was a circular volcano crater with an entrance to seaward but easily defended and well protected from weather. We were soon beginning to build CF Base Ischia and arrange repair slips. Our own rest and recreation facilities were soon available, with very memorable and very Neapolitan touches being given to music, food and drink.

We had to make several trips back to Messina to assist the build-up in Italy. Almost all were uneventful and navigation was easy even at night, as then active eruptions were causing fiery lava streaks down the cones of Vesuvius and Stromboli. These often provided running fixes over about 200 miles. Whether there was any connection with volcanic ash I know not, but I have never seen such vivid electrostatic displays of St Elmo's Fire and the electrostatic charges making the hair stand on end, as on those placid night sailings. One night when we were not in company, the hair stood on end for a different reason. All of a sudden we were exposed to a brilliant light charging at us and rising. At first collision seemed inevitable. Only just in time did we realize that it was an airborne searchlight, mounted in one of Coastal Command's `Leigh Light Wellingtons', which clearly suspected that we were a U Boat in need of bombs or depth charges. Fortunately the two-star Very Cartridge recognition signal got away just in time.

Advance on the land was slowed by the enemy's determined defence of Monte Cassino, so we were often called on to make smoke inshore of HMS Penelope if enemy fire got anywhere near her, as she bombarded shore targets. About this time we led the landing craft into the Anzio beachhead and later every other night escorted the two LST (Landing Ship Tank) which daily braved the artillery to land loaded lorries to dash up the beach. Until they emptied, we could lie-off out of artillery range until the night time return to Ischia. The water was shallow enough for us to set off one or two acoustic mines when we put the engines astern but we did not even get splashed!

JM Hirst
Bristol
20/5/1997

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