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SSEF and the Battle for Walcheren Island. (Part 1)

by ssef

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BASIL WOOLF PETTY OFFICER. Motor Mech. Mentioned in despatches
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Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
16 July 2005


My name is Basil Woolf, I am 82 years of age, I was born in Hackney, London, in January 1923. I volunteered for the Royal Navy in September 1940 my first overseas draft was to America, in November 1940 where we commissioned an LCI and after some training we were to sail this frail craft, we found later, to North Africa, with eleven other LCIs, without any protection, we left Norfolk Virginia, January 1941, I was just 18 years old.
This trip was to take thirty days, we were now given sleeve badges. with the anchor, Tommy gun, and Eagle, and were told we were Naval Commandos, some time after we took supplies to Malta, smuggled Greek women guerrillas into Crete, took part in the Sicily and Italy landings, and finally received orders to return to England, where we were stationed in Poole, Dorset, and became a part of the Support Squadron Eastern Flank
The Support Squadron Eastern Flank, (SSEF) was established to land and protect Infantry on the eastern flank of “Sword Area,” the British section of the Normandy Invasion, it was in this position, off a small village called Ouistrehan, that we came under intense shelling from the coastal guns and the mountain railroad tunnels, the mountain tunnels were spotted by a slow flying reconnaissance planes, Westland Lysanders, and only after heavy shelling by two battleships, the Roberts and the Warspite, which totally collapsed the tunnels,did we get a reprieve, however we were to become targets for several weeks from Le Havre and nearby coastal guns.
The SSEF was an assortment of flat bottomed beach landing craft consisting of Gunboats, Rocketships, Infantry landing craft, and the smaller personnel craft, headed up by a converted Infantry craft with additional communication equipment called a Headquartership, on which I served as an mechanic, it’s classification was LCH.269.
We had seen service in North Africa, Sicily, Malta, Crete, and Italy for eighteen months, prior to Normandy and our very able skipper was Lieutenant Commander Holdsworth RN, a high ranking officer, for this type of vessel, as LCH 269 was an important landing craft, it headed up the SSEF.
We were on the Normandy front, from the initial day, June 6 1944, until September 1944, at which time the French coast was firmly held and the SSEF was recalled to Poole, Dorset, where we were to undergo repairs and refitting for what we thought would be our next objective, maybe, the Pacific?
It was October 1944, the ship’s company had been given a well earned seven days leave. I was relaxing at my fiancee’s home in Leyton, London, the fireplace giving out a comfortable warmth, we were playing cards it was around eight p.m. a knock came on the front door, Anne’s Mother answered the door and returning, a little pale, told me that a constable wished to talk with me, I went out in the hall, the Policeman asked me if I was Petty Officer Basil Woolf, and when I acknowledged, he told me that I was to return to my ship immediately, the reason for his personal visit, was the lack of a telephone at Anne’s house!!


I packed at once, caught a bus to Waterloo station and boarded the
next train to Poole, wondering, why the recall? I arrived back on the ship in the
early morning, the ships crew were all asking questions about the call back. LCH 269 now had a new Skipper. Commander Kenneth Sellars RN, a
very high ranking officer for a Landing craft! he was mostly known as“monkey
Sellars” and had been in pre war days an international rugby star, he was
now taking over the command of the SSEF which comprised of twenty seven
various types of landing craft and approx four hundred naval personnel, and for
this operation had an additional five hundred Royal Naval Marines.
Commander Kenneth (Monkey) Sellars was born on August 11th 1906 in England, when he was still a small boy his family moved to South Africa and he did not return until he joined the navy in 1920, going first to the Osborne Royal Naval College, and then to Dartmouth his term Master at Osborne, Captain Bob Cunliffe took one look at him and immediately christened him “Monkey”, a name which he relished and adopted and which stayed with him throughout his life.
As a midshipman and sub Lieutenant he served in HMS Thunderer, Revenge, Repulse, Marlborough and Walpole before going on to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for Sub Lieutenant courses.
After which he was appointed to the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert, it was during these appointments that he played rugby, as full back for England.
In 1929 Sellars joined HMS Calcutta on the South African Station and it was here that he met and married his wife, Molly. in 1931 he returned to England, serving first in “Wallflower” and then “Nelson”
In 1935 he resigned and retired from the Navy. He did this against the advise of all his friends, and the personal opposition of his Commander In Chief, Sir John Kelly.
He joined a stockbroking firm, but came back again at the outbreak of the Second World War and went to Dartmouth as a term officer.
In 1941 at Lord Mountbatten’s instigation he was taken out of Dartmouth and sent to Lamlash in Scotland for Amphibious training in Combined Operations. He Commanded a squadron of Landing Craft during the Invasion of Sicily, returning to England in time for the invasion of Europe in 1944.
On the sixth of June he commanded the first flight of major landing craft at Ouistrehan on Sword Beach, the Support Squadron Eastern Flank, and then became Senior Naval Officer “Sword Area”, he was awarded a DSC and promoted to Commander. Later that year he led the assault on the Island of Walcheren in the Scheldt and for this he was awarded a DSO.
Sellars returned to stockbroking after the war, becoming a member of the Stock Exchange in 1946. He became senior partner of W.I. Carr in 1957, retiring in 1969.
He will also be remembered as rugby player and cricketer, in 1927 he won three caps playing for England and three caps again a year later, he also played for the Navy, for the Barbarians, and for Blackheath.


In 1982 after successive hip operations he and his wife emigrated to South Africa his wife died in 1984, he died at the age of 82 in Cape Town South Africa, he was survived by one son.
Lieutenant Commander Holdsworth personally spoke to each crew member, wishing us all luck, as he left the ship he stood on the quayside and smartly saluted us all, we were all sorry to see him go as he was a fine officer and a real gentleman.
It was October the 28th 1944, I had orders to have main engines running at 0500 hours, low clouds were moving across a gray dark sky, it was not yet daylight, the damp cold air foreboded the presence of the oncoming English winter, a stiff wind was blowing, whatever our destination, it was to be a rough uncomfortable journey, our landing craft with their flat bottomed hulls were made for landing on beaches in shallow water, and certainly not for long sea
We left Poole harbor and were soon rolling and pitching in the heavy seas, we would soon know where we were heading, at this point it was due East, soon to pass the Isle of Wight off our starboard side.
I couldn’t believe it! were we returning to France! but after a short time we changed direction and headed North in the English Channel, our ship heaving and creaking in the heavy swell, our decks awash, and huge seas breaking over our bow.
During weather like this, all crew members wore their regular oilskins and a safety belt with an attached buckle to be hooked to a cable that circled the ship, this saved them from being washed overboard by large swells that swept over the decks, to go from my cabin to the engine room or any other destination on the ship usually involved getting drenched, very uncomfortable for the seamen, their duties confined them to the upper decks, but the engine room crew were able to take off their wet clothes and dry out by the heat of the engines, and usually kept a spare pair of overalls in a locker, down below.
I stopped in at the wheelhouse, the coxswain was steering, the steering gear was unlike the wheel type usually associated to most ships, on this landing craft the rudder was controlled electrically. A small handle not unlike a trolley or tram handle, would turn the rudder from side to side, the coxswain sat on a high fixed stool, with a seat belt, a necessity in high seas, in front of him a dimly illuminated compass swung with the movement of the craft requiring full attention to keep the ship on course, in front and above was an illuminated clock face showing the amount of turn in degrees to port or starboard there were four portholes, covered at night, it was definitely not a place to be in if you were inclined to be claustrophobic, in this small space, the movement of the craft, the eerie glow from the compass, the odor of Diesel fuel from the engines, could turn the strongest stomachs, above the wheelhouse was the bridge, completely open to the elements, where they would convey orders to the coxswain through a speaking tube, and with double telegraphs for orders to the engine room.


The Coxswain told me that he had received an order changing directions from the Northerly direction, and that we were now heading North East by East, he said it looks like we are heading for Belgium.!
I returned to the engine room, where in a small space we had eight 285hp Gray Marine diesel engines, four to each propeller, lubricating oil had to be fed to the engines, constantly, a tricky job in this weather, using a funnel and gallon cans of lubricating oil, in addition to the eight main engines there was two generators which supplied the electricity to everything, a rheostat on the electrical board was constantly adjusted to keep the current at 110 volts for the lights, heating, navigation, toilets, bathroom, bilge pumps, and steering, the generators were vital to us, a problem with the generators and we would all be “dead ducks”, operating noise from the main engines and the generators was intense
The engine room was below sea level, no portholes. I had devised a communication with the bridge, using a very loud buzzer and a red light at the engine controls, the engine noise was so deafening we wore earplugs, the telephone inter communicating system was useless, I had arranged a series of flashes on the red light which signified a number of orders from the bridge, for instance, one buzz, raise speed by 25 revolutions, two buzzes, lower speed by 25 revolutions this worked very efficiently, the engine operator sat at a console with seat belts, with the telegraph system just about eye level, the throttles on the console, with the red light just above the throttles,
a constant sickening smell of Diesel oil, made a four hour watch just miserable, each order on the telegraph had to be answered to the bridge telegraph system.
Orders came to slow speed, I climbed above to get a look out and spotted land, we slowly made our way into Ostend Harbor.
The retreating Germans had sunk many ships in the harbor to prevent large ships entering with supplies for the allies, we were able to squeeze around the wrecks to finally tie up at a dock, everything was now stable, we were able to walk without being thrown from side to side.
We tied up and shut down main engines. No one had the faintest idea what we were doing in Ostend!
To the crews surprise, the Skipper announced four hours shore leave, which was very unusual as we were on active service. We were warned that the Germans had mined all the roads and pathways leading down to the harbor before they left. The Sappers had cleared a path from the docks into the main street and this was the only safe throughway, “keep to that path or perish” was our final warning!
The swept path was about four feet wide, marked on both sides with small signs depicting skull and crossbones, it led into a devastated ghostly city, that had once been a thriving tourist resort.
On both sides of the main street buildings had been leveled, small dark shops with empty and broken windows, some had been boarded up, were desolate. As I walked down the main street I felt sad for the people that had lived and traded here and had now lost all their possessions, the street was deserted, it was a ghost town.


I heard sounds of piano music and singing coming from a bar in a side street, men in uniform were drinking local wine, no beer was available, the bars had been ransacked by the retreating germans.
There was one or two cafe’s where they were serving french fries, (chips) no other food being available, and a couple of my shipmates were enjoying the food in the company of two ladies, sitting on their laps who appeared to have seen better times!
In the center of town I spotted a large store, I walked in to investigate and saw a large number of glass showcases completely empty, however by one of the cases a young woman was busy doing something, I could not imagine why she was there with no merchandise to sell, I asked her if she spoke english, she answered “yes” I then asked if there was anything available such as a gift or souvenir that I could buy to take home to my fiancee, she thought for a moment, then went over to a large walk in safe using the combination she opened the door and I looked into a completely empty vault except for a solitary, very small bottle which she brought over for me to see, it was Chanel 21, I was happy to purchase such a valuable item! from the safe, it did indeed cost me a weeks pay!
I placed the bottle in my money belt, (a government issue to all sailors) thanked the girl and left the store.
The sailors in the bars were really getting raucous, the cheap wine they were drinking was taking effect, I was a little concerned as they had to walk back to the ship along that four foot pathway, I returned to the ship and reported my concerns to the first lieut, who immediately stationed a couple of men along the swept pathway to ensure the safety of the men. All made it back safely, there were no casualties!
It was the 31st of October, I sat at the table in our cabin, eating breakfast, the radio was on the Armed Forces program, Vera Lynn was singing “The White Cliffs Of Dover”.
How nice it would be to be back in Blighty! we still had no idea where we were going, or what we were about to do. Most of the day was spent in routine engine maintenance, cleaning, etc.
The Skipper called for main engines at 1900 hours, we started them at 1830 for a warm up period, I entered his order in the log. At 1915 we received the first telegraph order, We were on our way!
Just after midnight , November 1 st 1944, we had left Ostende harbor and a few miles at sea rendezvoused with the remainder of the Support squadron, At 2100 hours all commissioned and non commissioned Officers, seven in all, were instructed to report for a briefing in the ward room, we were all invited to sit around the table.

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