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Sonny's War 5 of 5

by awhoworthg4lne

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ashworth William Howorth
Location of story: 
English Channel - D-Day and France
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 July 2005




PART 5 of 5

No one told us at the time but it was very close to "D-Day", consequently I was sent to Southampton to await a new ship. Southampton was packed with soldiers, sailors and airmen, and though it was supposed to be secret, everyone knew that we would soon be on the move.

I was sent to a general cargo coaster, to replace someone who had reported sick. I had never seen so many gunners on such a small ship. There were already 5 on board and only 3 bunks. I was quite prepared to sling my hammock but they insisted I have a bunk. I should have suspected something. I felt feverish all night and found in the morning that I was covered in lumps. Reporting to the M.O., he said straight away that I had been ‘bitten by bugs’, and the Port Health Authority would come to inspect. When they saw the conditions, as it was so near to "D" day they arranged to have it fumigated on our return, suggesting to the Captain that I should be allowed to sleep in the wardroom for a few days, but he wouldn’t hear of it, so I was taken off. I was thankful!

It was back to the depot to await a new ship. I didn’t have to wait long; I was on the next ferry to the Isle of White, to a camp in the middle of the island. Navy and Army personnel were held there for last minute emergency drafts. There wasn’t a lot to do, so we managed to borrow cycles and wandered round the Island, the MP's and Naval Police had to be dodged of course, because of restrictions on movement. We got quite good at it. One of the Army Sergeants ran a draw with a cycle as prize; we all took part. An Army Corporal won it and we all looked on enviously. Most people left within a few days, but we were still there a week later to see the same corporal win it again, so we started checking. Later in the day he gave the bicycle back to the Sergeant, who gave him a couple of pounds. We confronted them about the fiddle; they gave us ‘two bob’ each to forget it.

All too soon orders came for me to board a ship in Cowes Roads. It was ‘S.S. Empire Arquebus’, fitted out for troop carrying. Later in the day the gunnery officer sent for me, saying that they had a full complement, and didn’t really need me, but I couldn’t go ashore now as I had obviously talked to the other gunners and the crew who already knew our destination, so I would have to stay aboard until our return.

Before I knew what was happening we broke anchor and joined the other ships on the way to invade Europe.

Wandering round the ship I visited some of the troops in the holds. Bunks had been built in and all the other facilities needed. Most of the soldiers I talked to were in the Borders Regiment from Carlisle.

A sergeant was having a shave. He lathered his face for ages, then, using a cut-throat-razer he carefully scraped his beard and relathered and did it again. He said he was having a good shave because he didn’t know when he would get his next. I think we both thought that it could be his last.

On deck the gun crews were closed up and as night fell the sound of planes filled the sky, there was no let up all night. When dawn broke you could see that lots of them were towing gliders, so that there would be troops landing before we did. The sea was choppy and it made you think that they would have a better landing than us. It was light enough now to see that there were ships all around us.

The gunnery officer told me that I would man an Oerlikon on one of the Landing Assault Craft that we had slung from the Davits. I can't say that I was looking forward to it. I had never imagined that I would be landing on the beach. In good time the troops took up their stations for the landing. By now the shore was in sight and you could see fighting among the sand dunes. Suddenly there was an explosion and everyone thought we had been hit. Lots of the troops were thrown to the deck and there were minor injuries. It seems that ‘H.M.S. Ajax’, about 200yds to our rear had fired a broadside to the shore guided by spotter planes, and we had got the blast. I was glad we were not on the receiving end.

When the landing craft was lowered we found that the sea was nothing like as calm as it seemed from the deck of the ‘Arquebus’, in fact it was rough. The soldiers had all their kit with them, looking like they had everything on their backs including the kitchen sink. As the falls were released the engine took over and propelled us towards the beach. I fired the ‘Oerlikon’ at a German plane, but he didn’t seem interested in us, for which I was thankful. It didn’t take long to reach the shore. Tapes had been set up, making lanes that the troops and equipment had to keep to, as they had been swept to clear the mines. It was nice to know that we were not the first there. As we hit the beach the Landing Craft ramp was lowered and the soldiers poured out into waist high water, with their guns held high to keep them dry. I felt that they had a miserable day ahead of them, wet through with all their kit weighting them down. As they advanced between the tapes guns started firing from the ‘pill boxes’ on the sand dunes. The troops threw themselves to the ground till the firing ceased. Some of them didn’t get up. Asking our Sub Lieutenant about firing back, he said it was useless as they were out of range but they would have guns that could reach us, and it would only draw attention our way. Our main task was to get the troops ashore. We had to return to bring another load.

After a few more trips we were surprised to see that there were some prisoners to take back to the ‘Arquebus’. Most of them were quite happy to be going to England, which wasn’t surprising as they were mostly Russian troops who had been captured and forced to fight for the Germans.

Eventually all the troops had been put ashore and we were on our way back to Southampton. The sea was still covered in ships going both ways. I don't think that any of us had seen so many ships in one area at the same time; it was unbelievable. As soon as I arrived I had to report to the base, as I was no longer needed on the ‘Arquebus’. A couple of days were spent in a temporary camp until I was sent to another ship, a coaster again. She was loading mostly general cargo, foodstuffs and daily necessities, with lots of boxes of ammunition too. On "D-Day" plus 2, I was back on the beach at Port en Bassin, and I mean literally on the beach. At high tide we floated in and at low tide we were left high and dry. Watch was kept around the clock with the occasional shots at the German fighters that came close. The warships out at sea were still bombarding the coast, we felt very vulnerable with missiles going over us and hoping that none of them fell short.

This was the pattern for the next few weeks. As soon as we were unloaded, the high tide floated us clear, and back to Southampton to take on more cargo. At Port-en-Bassin, lorries drove alongside and using the ships winches the cargo was transferred. If the amphibious DUCKS were available work continued while the tide was in or out. The crew spent a lot of time painting below the water line with red lead. It was said that the Captain would be getting a bonus from the shipping line as he was saving dry docking time.

The weather finally improved giving us hot sunny days; so that we were able to sun bathe while on watch and apart from the fact that we were sitting ducks it was reasonably pleasant. One day when I was off watch, one of the soldiers said he would take me into Bayeux so long as I kept quiet about it. By now the Germans had been pushed back as far as Caen, and Bayeux was almost back to normal. Visiting the shops was fun, all the shop girls looked as if they were straight from the ‘Folies Bergere’, so that I didn’t need much persuasion to buy perfume and fancy soaps to take home.

At school I had heard of the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicted the Norman invasion of England and was over 200 foot long. The lovely Gothic Cathedral seemed the most likely place to see it, but I was told that it was normally kept in the public library, but had been stored for the duration. I managed to get to Bayeux again when there was a troop of travelling entertainers. The girls danced the Can-Can, but not like I had seen it performed at the Windmill and the Palladium. These girls gave value for money, they danced without knickers.

One day I managed a trip on the lorries to Caen, where there was still lots of fighting, our troops had got held up there by the Germans and everywhere you went the snipers still shot at everything that moved. As soon as the soldiers on the lorry had got rid of their load we made our way back to Port en Bassin, where we imagined it would be quieter but no sooner had we arrived when a German dive bomber came over. All the ships were firing at it without success. As we were high and dry I suppose we looked a sitting target, I fired the Oerlikon and seemed to be hitting him; I like to think that I spoilt his aim. You could see the bombs leave the plane and coming straight towards us. A bomb landed almost alongside, my face felt as if it had been slashed with a knife but I could not see any blood; I found out later that it was sand that had peppered us as the bomb landed alongside and left a big crater, fortunately the sand had absorbed most of the blast and in seconds it was all over.

Back in Southampton I was granted 7 days leave with orders to report back to Bristol to take a ‘Gun-Layers’ course on the training ship’ H.M.S. Flying Fox’. It was back to the old routine on board. A Petty Officer came round at 6 AM with the usual shouts of "wakey-wakey the sun is scorching your eyes out", or " hands off your cocks and on with your socks" or various other shouts that were supposed to make us laugh, but who feels like laughing at that time in the morning. Breakfast was a full-blown meal with sausage and mash, pilchards with mash or other such mixtures. It is no wonder I can eat almost anything now. After divisions and getting everything shipshape it was back to the classroom. Some of the Petty Officers were younger now, either keen to get on or enjoying a cushy number, and depending which you got, decided the sort of day you had.

Across the road from our mooring was the main road with a few shops. One of our favourites was a snack bar that we all made for at ‘stand-easy’. I will never forget the hot buttered scones they dished up, they may not have been good for the digestion but who cares at that age. In the evening if we were '’watch-ashore', out came our No 1's and on parade for the "liberty boat". Bristol had plenty of nightlife, shows for the troops in various halls, lots of cinemas and the odd theatre, not to mention the pubs and cafes. During daylight, wandering round the countryside made a change, through the Avon Gorge and over the suspension bridge, admiring all the young ladies in their cotton frocks, it was never dull.

After a few weeks, a few of us were put in billets to make more room for a new draft. We stayed with a woman and her teenage daughter across the road. It made life easier, away from the discipline, an extra hour in bed and lots of home cooked food. It was home from home. I was just getting used to the good life when I developed a sore throat. You didn’t have much choice, the Petty Officer sent me to see the M.O., who said my tonsils were in a bad way and would have to come out. I wasn’t at all keen but as he said, if I let you go to sea like that you would be in real danger and the Captain wouldn’t be happy either. That same day I was sent to a lovely modern hospital on the cliffs above the Avon.

For a few days I was supposed to rest and give the infection time to clear, but all to soon the operation was performed and I felt like my throat had been cut. I was living on minced meat and mash potatoes with ice cream for afters, a real luxury in the Navy. One compensation was the nurses, the young ones were called V.A.D's which was short for "Voluntary Aid Detachment", but we thought our interpretation was more apt, "Virgins Awaiting Destruction". I was sorry to say they were still ‘waiting’ when it was time for us to leave.

Reporting back to H.M.S. Flying Fox, I was given 14 days leave to recuperate before finishing the gunnery course. It was good to be home again. Everyone had their own tales to tell about happenings since I was last home and wanting to know what "D-Day" was like, hoping that this was the beginning of the end and that the war would soon be over.

All too soon it was back to Bristol to finish my course. Before long I passed out as a’ Gun-Layer’ and managed to persuade the landlady to sew the gold crossed guns on my No. 1's and the red ones on my working gear. Soon after I had to join ‘M.V. Empire Lundy’ a 500-ton tanker, at Avenmouth. Two gunners were already onboard and as senior rating I was in charge.

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