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The Little Ships - Part 1

by BBC Open Centre, Hull

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Contributed by 
BBC Open Centre, Hull
People in story: 
Cyril Hutchinson (Deceased)
Location of story: 
Normandy, France
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 July 2005

Since the end of the Second World War, much has been said, written, and even
filmed about the different kind of ships which took part in those six years of trouble. But to my knowledge very little has been heard of one kind of vessel which took part in just one major episode, and along with the men who manned them did a very good job indeed. I would like to take this opportunity to put down on. paper an account of my time spent on one of these craft, and the craft I refer to were Landing Barge Vehicle, better known as L.B.V’s, Thames barges commandeered by the Admiralty, and converted to carry military vehicles, and land them on the beaches of France.

I begin my story with a brief account of my time leading up to my service on these barges.

I left school at Christmas 1933, at the age of twelve, because my father, after several years down the pits of Yorkshire, went back to the job he spent most of his early years doing, a Keelman plying the rivers Humber, Trent and Ouse, and the inland waterways of Yorkshire, and my mother having died when I was four, my elder brother and sister married, and no longer at home, there was no—one there to look after me while he was away.

My father was one of the old school of Keelman, who didn’t believe in paying money to be towed up and down the rivers by tugs when we had a mast and nine square yards of good canvas, so my apprenticeship with him was achieved the hard wa.y, and as any person who sailed on the Humber can tell you, it can be very frightening at times, especially to a young boy. However, it was an apprenticeship I wouldn’t have missed for it stood me in good stead later on in years.

At this time the waterways were heavy with traffic, the largest firms being “Bleasdales”, “Furleys” and “J.J. Tomlinson”, the latter being the one we worked for, and I made a lot of good friends in the same position as myself.

Six years with my father brought me up to that fateful morning of September 3rd, 1939.

We were at home in the little Dutch village where I was born, Waterside, Thorne near
Doncaster, listening to the news on an old Burgoyne, battery operated wireless, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced “This country is now at war with Germany”. At the same time there was a knock on the front door, and on bpening it, it revealed a representative from the firm of Bleasdales seeking permission from my father for me to take command of one of their keels, the answer was “Yes, if I wanted to”.

Here was my chance, not quite seventeen, and skipper of my own keel, alas it was not to be. I went on board the Pretoria on the Monday, brought her to Hull and waited in Albert Dock for my first cargo. You made your money on what you carried, so much per ton, so if you didn’t keep getting cargoes, you didn’t earn any money. The Germans were already busy dropping mines in the North. Sea with the result that the ship I was waiting for was delayed for two weeks, at the end of which I was diverted to King George Dock Hull, for a different cargo with a lower rate.

In the meantime, word had got round that I had left my father, and I was asked to go mate on one of Furleys motor boats, which, by this time had just about taken over from, sail. So, after one round trip as skipper, I went to Furleys as mate for a guaranteed weekly wage.

The next two—and—a—half years I spent with a skipper only a few years my senior, and I enjoyed every minute, George Barrass was his name, and he was a good skipper and a good friend.

June, 1942, and I and a few others were in our office in Hull being give some information by the Manager. It appeared firms like ours all over the country had received circulars from the Admiralty for volunteers. The information we got was that the Navy had commandeered the Thames Barges for beach defences against a German invasion, which was expected that summer, and they wanted men to man them with experience in a hurry, as they hadn’t. time to train raw recruits. The arrangement was that we signed on for six months, I forget the exact rate of pay, but it was a good deal more than the normal’ Navy rate. At the end of six months we would be free to leave if we wished and would receive five pounds settlement. The result was, I, and hundreds of others signed on.

I soon found myself on a train bound for Devonport Barracks, where I was kitted out, and moved across’ Devonport Harbour into Cornwall to a place known as Trevol Rifle Range Camp. We spent two weeks here going through a stint of training; marching, rifle drill, Morse code, semaphore and so on. We were then despatched to different parts of the country, some to Torquay, some to Paignton for instance. I found myself with about thirty or forty others on the way to Salcombe, South. Devon. Our home for the rest of the period was a hotel called “Gara Rock”. It was situated on the cliff tops across the harbour from Salcombe and up through a small forest. It turned out to be, for me at least, just about the most miserable six months of the war. In fact, the only thing which kept me going was the limited amount of sport we were able to indulge in.

The complement of the camp was about fifty, including three Officers, Two Petty Officers, and a Royal Navy Chef. One of the Officers, a Lieutenant Pithers, was an ex—professional footballer, so he soon got something organised, playing the R.A.F. and the Army. I couldn’t get enough of that. Unfortunately, the food was bad, and the sanitation was terrible, only about three toilets were usable, ®so most of the time it was a case of behind the hedge, in a field.

However, to the barges. The first time we were introduced to them caused a few ribald comments. The stern had been cut out, and a ramp installed, but there was no means of steering. Powered, if that’s the word, by two small Ford engines. The idea was for one man to stand on the fore—deck waving his arms like a scarecrow, indicating the direction he wished to go, to another man standing on a plank at the stern end. This man was in view of the stokers, one sitting behind each engine, and would convey the directional messages to them Steering was by manipulating the engines, ahead with one, astern with’ the other, and vice-versa, in order to’ steer the course indicated. To put it bluntly, they were as much good as a chocolate teapot.

Six months of cold nights on board these barges, anchored in the harbour, firewatching, most days sat in the room with nothing to do but look at the weather through the window (it was a bad summer) and I had had enough. Came the day when the Lieutenant Commander called us into his office one by one, and asked us if we wanted to stay on for the duration or go home, there was no hesitation from me. A couple of days later, on my twenty—first birthday, I was in Chatham Barracks in London, getting my discharge papers, then on my way home. Back to my old job, but the joy was short-lived. Three or ‘four months later, I was at Furleys Wharfe at Gainesboro, where I was called into the office and informed that I should return to Hull to find my friends the Admiralty had not forgotten me. There was to be no volunteer job this time. I had been sent instructions to pick up my ticket, and make my way to a shore based establishment in South Wales — I’ was in the Navy again, as able seaman C. Hutchinson, Special Combined Operations, No. P.J.X.551996.

A week in this establishment proved to be as miserable as the time spent in Gara Rock, but things were to get better. A little more basic training, another medical, and I was off again, this time to Poole in Dorset. Away across Poole Harbour by boat to Round Island, consisting of two or three large houses, a Nissan hut, which was used as the Mess or dining hall and on to the highest part of the island another large house which was the officers quarter. The Commanding Officer I don’t remember, but the First Lieutenant I do, very well, he was Sub—Lieutenant Smith, later to be promoted to Lieutenant. He was a quiet, shy sort of person, a non—smoker, and a non—drinker. But he had everyone’s respect for doing the job he was stationed there to do, namely, Navigation Officer. by ‘now I had been separated from all my old friends from Hull, and had struck up a friendship with a young fellow from Leeds named Doug Walker, who had, apparently, spent some time on a tug on the Aire and Calder Canal. On landing on the island we were told to find our own room and bunk. I ended up in a room with five cockneys, all of whom were Thames bargemen and older than me. At first I felt despondent but needn’t have worried. Those five lads made me at home, and provided me with more laughs than I’d had in a long time. Their accent and the tricks they played on each other were a big morale booster. I must explain here that the men who elected to stay on after the six months volunteer period had. gone to some barracks to receive a bit more training and had been made Petty Officer Coxswains.

So now we have a crew for each barge made up as follows: one ordinary seaman, who was a conscript, and two stokers, also conscripts. After settling in, the Petty Officers were allowed to choose their own crews. The P.O. who picked me was a young fellow who had been a cabin boy on a Thames tug, sad to say, he knew more about cleaning brass—work than handling a barge.

The barges were split up into flotillas, consisting of nine barges for carrying cargo, one oil barge, one freshwater barge, and one workshop barge. These were anchored to buoys in Poole’ Harbour, and we eventually went on board for practice runs, both the P.O. and A.B. taking turns at the wheel. Once again an explanation is due. as a big change had taken place since I had last seen these barges, out had come the small Ford engine, and in their place were two ninety horse power Chryslers. A wheelhouse had been built on the Starboard after deck, in the shape of a bullet proof box about four feet high, a steering wheel installed, with one rudder on the Starboard side, and a fixed stabilizer on the Port. Contact with the stokers, who sat one behind each engine, was made by bells close to each stoker’s ear, and operated by thin steel rods in the wheelhouse. One gong for stop, two for ahead, three for astern, we devised our own code for different speeds. So there we were, still heavy on the steering, but one hundred percent improvement on the earlier method.

After a period on the island, from where I managed a couple of long weekend leaves, we took our craft to Wootton Creek on the Isle of Wight, and went into camp. “H.M.S. Manatee”, doing camp duties, the occasional trip across to Portsmouth for stores, and manoeuvres in the Solent. It was on return from one of these manoeuvres, that I had a bit of luck. What passed for an anchor on these barges was a concrete block weighing about two hundredweight, attached to a wire cable, to my mind these were useless. However, coming into the creek from one of these trips, I dropped the block, and when the time came to heave it in, I found it had fouled something. When I finally brought it up clear of the water, there wrapped around it was a light chain. Transferring this to the windlass I heaved it all on board to find at the other end an anchor similar to the type we used in the Humber. I asked permission to keep it, and this was granted, it proved invaluable later on.

We later went to Cowes to be fitted with hatches and covers. The week we spent there on the slipway I found very enjoyable, as in the evenings, while the rest of the crew were ashore drinking or at the pictures, I was in the workshop watching two old gentlemen wire—splicing, and making fancy fenders for the yachts.

Late November that year we were mustered in the Solent en route for the Firth of Forth in Scotland for six months extensive manoeuvres, we were towed up there by trawlers, one barge to each trawler. I’ll never forget that trip. The weather was rough, and I was sea—sick all the way. I had more experience of rough weather than anyone on board, but in the Humber it was short and choppy, with the water coming over the top. Out there you slide up one wave and down the next, and the constant tugging on the towing wire which caused us to yaw was too much for my stomach.

However, we finally arrived up the Firth of Forth, to our base, a little fishing harbour called Port Seaton. A narrow opening in a big wall with two bays inside, and a landing jetty.

The routine was as follows; small coasters would load up at Leith down the river, and sail up past Port Seaton to Gullane Beach, a few miles further up, and drop anchor, the beach was situated in a large bay, with rocky points at each end. Half the barges would then go out to them for a week, and then back into for a week while the other half took over. We would load up at the coasters, go on the beach, the Army would unload us into lorries, which would take the stuff back to Leith, to load back into the empty coasters when they arrived back there. This shuttle service was to carry on for six months. It was practice for the coming invasion of Normandy.

The routine of beaching was to run in as close as possible without touching the bottom, then turn round, drop the anchor, and reverse onto the beach, paying out the anchor cable till the stern was on the beach. This was about half an hour after high tide, so that with the tide going out we were soon left high and dry. Lower the ramp, and the Army took over. On the next tide, we would go off and do it all again. Our barge was in the first batch, and straightaway we hit trouble. We loaded up at the coaster and went on the beach in a gale of wind, which was blowing onto the beach at an angle, our position was the closest to the rock formation at the top end of the beach, and as soon as our stern touched bottom, we were blown broadside on, and there we remained, taking a hell of a pounding until the tide left us. This was where my earlier experience came in useful. Our P.O. just didn’t seem to have any thoughts at all as to what the situation was, but I knew that to just sit there and wait for the tide would bring us one heap of trouble. It was still blowing a gale and when the tide came in we were going to end up on those rocks, so I suggested to him that as soon as the tide was right out, we carry both the anchor and the concrete block as far out as the chain and wire would allow, and bury them in the sand, we would then have them tight to hold our bows until we floated and swung head on to the wind. It did the trick and at tide time, Lieutenant Smith, and another two Officers, stood on the beach—head and watched us ride out the worst of it, then we were ordered back to Port Seaton.

That’s when I learned something else, the P.O. climbed in the wheelhouse, and me and the other seaman heaved the anchor in, but as soon as we broke clear of the bay, and out into the roughest weather, he told me to take over, because nature was calling him, and there I remained, no way was he going to take that barge through the narrow opening in that kind of weather, and that’s how it went on for the remainder of our stay up there.

Time after time we went out for one or two landings, then the weather would force us back in, and each time, nature called in the same place. I got on well with the P.O. and I don’t remember ever having an argument with him, but even the rest of the crew used to ask me to take over the wheel in rough weather because they felt more secure.
Added by: Alan Brigham -

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