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Ben Waters: Six years in the RNVR.

by mary kendall

Contributed by 
mary kendall
People in story: 
Ben Waters, Jan ten Klooster, John Sutton, Anthony Heckstall-Smith, Allen Howarth, Ivan Black, David James.
Location of story: 
HMS Glenroy, England, Durban, SS Costa Rica, Suez Canal, Tobruk, Greece, Crete, Marlag und Milag Nord, Lubeck, Germany, Scotland.
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 May 2005

Lieutenant B.W.Waters RNVR

Introduction: Much of the material used in the following story has been gleaned from a book entitled “Greek Tragedy ’41” by Anthony Heckstall-Smith and Vice Admiral Baillie-Grohman published in 1961. Tony H-S travelled with my late father to the Middle East aboard the SS Costa Rica, and as a fellow Flotilla Officer sailed to Tobruk, thence to Crete and on to Greece where he was wounded while helping to evacuate troops. His name had been a household word during my childhood, but it is only recently that my research led me to the discovery of this book. (Mary Kendall, nee Waters)

Lt. Cdr. Ben W. Waters, D.S.C. and Bar, R.N.V.R.
His Story 1940-1946.

On June 7th 1940 Ben joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at HMS King Alfred in Hove, a training establishment for RNVR officers. From that day until some time in the following September records show that he was afloat, aboard HMS Glenroy. During June she went to Liverpool docks to be converted into an assault ship and we know that she was still there on 12th September as she was hit by an incendiary bomb during an air raid on Liverpool. At the beginning of December she was able to sail with the Commandos to the Isle of Arran, as they trained for Operation Workshop.

Ben, however, was on the books of HMS Victory in Portsmouth from 9th September, having been promoted from Sub-Lieutenant to Lieutenant, until 16th December when he was appointed Flotilla Officer. Churchill had been pushing forward the production of Tank Landing Craft to accompany amphibious assaults, and he tells us that their sea trials were underway by October. Training also took place for the crews of the LCTs and of the assault ships at Hayling Island, near Portsmouth, so it is likely that Ben took part in that training.

On the 16th December, to coincide with his appointment, Ben went on the books of HMS Stag, a shore base at Port Said, at the most northerly end of the Suez Canal. The first flotilla of Tank Landing Craft left for the Middle East shortly before Christmas, with Ben aboard the SS Costa Rica, a Dutch liner converted to troopship, sailing via the Cape of Good Hope to Suez. There are many photographs taken during this voyage, including one of a group of officers with the Mayor of Durban.

It was aboard the Costa Rica that Ben spent his 34th Birthday, and we see him celebrating with her captain, Jan ten Klooster. Ben is shown clutching Jan’s little dog, Costa, with large bottles of Bols in evidence!

Arriving in Egypt some time in February 1941, the LCT crews lived under canvas at HMS Saunders, at Kabret on the shores of the Bitter Lakes, which form part of the Suez Canal system, while their craft were riveted together at Port Tewfik, near Suez, at the southern end of the canal. The LCTs had been transported from England in sections, bolted to the decks of merchant ships.

Although the LCTs were originally intended to be part of Force Z and the amphibious assault on the Island of Rhodes (Operation Mandibles) they were called to take tanks and guns to Tobruk once the enemy had surrounded that garrison on 11th April.

Six LCTs, now called ‘A’ lighters for security reasons, were able to leave Port Said and make the run to Alexandria, where tanks (five per craft was possible) and field guns were loaded on. The ‘A’15 developed engine trouble and stayed in Alexandria. Thus five ‘A’ lighters made the two-day run to Tobruk, arriving on the morning of the 19th April to heavy air attack. They left that very evening for Crete.

Ben, as a Flotilla Officer, travelled on board the ‘A’6, which was captained by Lieutenant John Sutton RNVR. He and John remained together, finally going into captivity together as well.

The other ‘A’ lighters which sailed to Crete on this day were the ‘A’1, the ‘A’5, the ‘A’16 and the ‘A’19. In overall command was Lieutenant-Commander Peter Coates Hutton. The five ‘A’ lighters arrived at Suda Bay on the 21st April, and, after an air raid on the shipping in Suda Bay damaged one of the engines of the ‘A’16, there were only four ‘A’ lighters ready to leave to assist in the evacuation of Greece. This they did at 6 p.m. on the 22nd.

Thus began in earnest what Ben entitled in his report “The Cruise of ‘A’6”. The following morning he and John got to Lavrion Bay, near Sounion, on their way to the evacuation beach of Raphtis, where they were bombed and machine-gunned by enemy aircraft. They survived without serious damage.

As D-Day was the hours of darkness 24/25th April, they would have had to hide their craft during the daylight hours of the 23rd and 24th. Usually this was done by pulling up under cliffs in a bay, and using camouflage netting.

Thus, during the hours of darkness and before 3 a.m., troops were taken out to waiting cruisers, destroyers and troop transports from various parts of Attica and the Peloponnesus. Raphtis is on the east coast of Attica, where many New Zealand troops made their escape. 500 of these who were left behind on that first night were taken over to Zea Island in the ‘A’6 for safety. Ben and John then hid their craft in Kastri Bay in Zea Island, and they picked up the New Zealanders as darkness fell on the 26th, and took them back to Raphtis where they were transferred to the waiting ships. Particular mention was made of the work done in ‘A’6 in the citation for Ben’s Distinguished Service Cross.

During the daylight hours of the 27th, the ‘A’6 lay hidden on the south side of Zea Island but returned to Raphtis for the last time for the evacuation of troops on the night of the 27/28th. Once they had finished they set off towards Crete, but were bombed in a bay south of Raphtis. Ben took his men ashore in time, and the planes eventually left them alone.

As darkness came they continued on to Crete, and on the morning of the 29th they came across a caique towing a whaler and a skiff, carrying Greek civilians and allied soldiers and sailors whose ships had been sunk during the evacuation. The ‘A’6 took them all in tow and they arrived in Suda Bay at midday.

None of the other ‘A’ lighters returned from Greece, and the repaired ‘A’15 which had set off to join them was sunk with all hands, including Peter Hutton who had gone back to Suda to fetch her.

Then followed for Ben a month of loading and unloading ships in Suda Bay, under almost continuous air attack. He also took tanks, guns and personnel to Heraklion before the enemy landed on Crete. At Suda Bay he was Senior Officer in charge of three ‘A’ lighters, the ‘A’6, the ‘A’16 (still running with only one engine) and the ‘A’20 which had joined them. There were other small boats used in the bay including the smaller LCM (Landing Craft Mechanised) or ‘D’ lighter. Most work was done at night as daylight brought what was termed “the daily hate”, as the Stuka dive-bombers returned to the bay.

The invasion of Crete began on the 20th May, and on the 22nd Ben was ordered to sail to Heraklion and fetch three ‘I’ tanks (heavy infantry tanks called Matildas) back to Suda Bay to support the troops in that area. The journey to Heraklion would have been made on the night of the 22/23rd and the return on the following night. Ben used the skills that he had gained in Greece and Suda Bay to hide his ‘A’ lighter for 16 daylight hours while he waited to load and bring back the tanks, two of which only arrived in Heraklion from the south coast at midday on the 23rd.

He returned safely to Suda Bay with the three tanks, together with two gun detachments with their guns. As the allied troops retreated south to be evacuated yet again by the navy, these tanks and guns played an important role in protecting the fleeing soldiers, and every history book and memoir one reads details the actions of these three Matildas from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. Ben was awarded the Bar to his DSC for his work in Crete, and in particular for bringing the tanks and guns safely to Suda Bay, a perilous journey in view of the complete air superiority of the Luftwaffe over the north coast of Crete.

Work carried on in Suda Bay. Many wounded were taken off, and Commando reinforcements landed at the last minute, to protect the rearguard during the retreat, nothing like the assault tactics they had been practising in England, Egypt and elsewhere. Evelyn Waugh, intelligence officer with Layforce, landed on that last night in Suda Bay, the 26/27th, and he tells us that the Tank Landing Craft in which they landed were to be scuttled behind them. Ben was reported missing on active service on the 27th May.

One of my correspondents says that he saw the ‘A’ lighters under water in the northeast corner of Suda Bay as he was taken off Crete to face life as a POW. He is of the opinion that Ben blew out the bottoms of his lighters with demolition charges, since they did not have scuttling valves, and that this would have made it difficult for the enemy to re-float and use them for their own needs.

It seems likely that Ben was captured on the Akrotiri Peninsula. He was captured on the 29th May and held in camps in Crete and Greece before reaching Lubeck, in Germany, two months later.

With him into captivity went John Sutton, and Lieutenant Allen Howarth RNVR, the captain of the ‘A’20, as well as Lieutenant Robert Haig RN who captained a ‘D’ lighter at Suda. The captain and crew of the ‘A’16 were ordered to sink their lighter and they were evacuated from Suda Bay on that last night, the 26/27th May, in HMS Abdiel. It is possible that the crews of the ‘A’6 and the ‘A’20 were also evacuated that night, as we believe that Ben got all his men to evacuation ships before he was captured.

On the 3rd July 1941 Ben’s next of kin, his wife Kit, was informed that he was a Prisoner of War.

Ben was registered at Oflag XC, Lubeck, an officers’ camp, but on the 12th August he was transferred to Marlag XB, in the same area (Wehrkreis 10).

Marlag XB referred to the Marinelager, a compound within Stalag XB at Sandbostel, which was primarily intended for Royal Navy POWs, officers and ratings. An adjacent compound called Milag, which was short for Marineinterniertenlager, was for Merchant Navy prisoners who, as civilians, were treated as internees. In November 1941 the Red Cross reported 2138 men in Marlag and 610 in Milag. Together they formed a camp called Marlag und Milag Nord.

Although they were in a separate area, it was not felt to be right for such personnel to be kept here in what became a large concentration camp, so the Marlag und Milag Nord buildings were dismantled and rebuilt over a period of some months in Westertimke, about 12 miles south of Sandbostel.

In June 1942 the men in Marlag moved to Westertimke. By November a new and separate compound had been built to house Royal Navy officers, and this became Marlag O. The original Marlag became Marlag M and housed other ranks. As time went on only NCOs were held at Marlag M and all ratings were sent to work camps. Nobody at Marlag was made to work.

Ben moved from Marlag M to Marlag O during the autumn of 1942 and remained there until shortly before liberation.

Among Ben’s friends at this time was Lieutenant Ivan Black of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve, who was captured in Brittany on 13th February 1942 while working for the SIS in the fast Motor Gunboat MGB 314. Together they apparently assisted Lieutenant David James RNVR to escape by using parts of their uniforms to dress the decoy dummy, immortalised in the film “Albert RN”. Camp photos show that Ben was captured wearing battledress, but that Ivan had been wearing full naval uniform, a fact that probably saved his life.

David James wrote of his adventures and life at Marlag, where he arrived not long after his capture on the 28th February 1943. At that time there were 150 officers and 50 orderlies in Marlag O, and 650 chief petty officers, petty officers and leading hands in Marlag M.

According to James, in his book “A Prisoner’s Progress”, the theatre in Marlag O opened on the day after his arrival, and among the plays that he watched during his year at Marlag was “Night Must Fall” by Emlyn Williams. This was also among the plays in which Ben performed, in April 1943, as can be seen by looking at his scrapbook.

As the allied armies approached the north of Germany, prisoners were moved ahead of them. Since many were due to arrive at Westertimke, Marlag was marched off northeast towards Hamburg on the 10th April 1945. Apparently Ben and his friend Ivan used their remaining cigarettes to buy a pram from a lady they met on the way, and used it to carry their possessions, which must have included Ben’s scale model yacht which he brought home with him.

It was a long march, being strafed by US Thunderbolt planes at one stage, but eventually the column arrived at Bad Schwartau Artillery Barracks, north west of Lubeck, on the 23rd April.

By the 8th June 1945 Ben had been liberated and had returned to the UK, and on the 12th June was surveyed at Chatham Royal Naval Hospital and found fit for general service. He was then discharged, and assigned home to await Admiralty instructions.

On the 26th August 1945 his service record shows him again on the books of HMS King Alfred, then on the 23rd September at HMS Drake, Devonport, followed by three months at Zeals Airfield, on the Wiltshire /Somerset border, known as HMS Hummingbird. On the 9th November, to coincide with the move to Zeals, Ben was promoted to Acting Lieutenant Commander. The airfield was being wound down and by January 1946 the Fleet Air Arm had abandoned it. On the 16th February he was back at Devonport to celebrate his 39th Birthday.

On the 27th February 1946 Ben moved to HMS Merlin, also known as RNAS Donibristle, near Dunfermline on the Firth of Forth. He remained for 10 months at this airfield, which during the war had been used by the Royal Naval Air Service as an aircraft repair yard. Ben was released from the RNVR on Christmas Day 1946.

This account was written by Ben’s daughter, Mary, in February 2005, as the result of two years’ research.

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