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- 22 January 2004
Sea Borne Assaults
I was still at grammar school at the start of the second world war. Our family were farmers and we were harvesting in the fields on Sunday 3rd September 1939. I can still remember Mr. Chamberlain announcing on the radio that as from 11am on that day a state of war would exist between our country and Germany. We moved into our present village when I was 16 years old and I immediately joined the local Firewatch group. I and a more senior member had to patrol the village throughout the night every Friday night to ensure that any incendary bombs that may be dropped would be suitably dealt with. When I was seventeen I joined the local Home Guard - meeting every Thursday night and Sunday morning.
In 1943 I joined the Army at the Highland Light Infantry barracks in Maryhill,Glasgow and it was mainly on that famous barrack square that I did my initial six weeks training. I was then posted to the Royal Corps of Signals at Kemmel Lines, Catterick on an intensive sixteen weeks communications course. After successfully completing my training I was somewhat surprised and intrigued to learn that I was being posted to H.M.S. DUNDONALD II at Gailes on the Firth of Clyde. It transpired that this was a Base camp for “COMBINED OPERATIONS” which was an amalgamation of all three services consisting of Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force personnel working together in unison. Further training took place at this camp including practising wet landings at dawn on the shores of the Isle of Arran in the Firth of
I was duly posted to H.M.S. LARGS which was a Combined Operations Headquarters ship. She was manned by Navy, Army and Royal Air Force communications personnel plus the normal Naval crew. She was actually in dry dock at Birkenhead when I joined her so I actually walked underneath her before sailing on her.I also had to very quickly learn not only how to assemble a hammock with it’s multitude of strings but additionally how to sling it appropriately and then perform the necessary gymnastics to safely climb aboard. We then sailed down to Portsmouth doing various exercises on the way. We were tied up on the Railway quayside for approximately five weeks working standard watches on special duties and like everyone else waiting for the great “Unknown”!
We moved out into the Solent on 25th May 1944 where we were visited and inspected by
H.M. King George VI , Admirals Ramsey, Vian and Talbot. Whilst still at the quayside Mr.
Churchill, Field Marshall Smuts and Aneurin Bevin(Foreign Secretary) also came on board.
As Mr. Churchill disembarked he turned back towards the ship and doffed his hat in salute
to the ships’s crew before proceeding to his car.
We then moved out into the Solent again on 5th June 1944 and in the early evening we watched an innumerable number of Assault ships of all types passing along the Solent on our Starboard side loaded with tanks, guns, Transport vehicles, troops etc and each ship was carrying a hoisted barrage balloon. We weighed anchor at 21.30hrs on 5th June in company
with LSI’s PRINCESS ASTRID and MAID OF ORLEANS with destroyer and MTB escorts to join the main flotilla at Piccadilly Circus - the designated collecting point for all ships in an area south of the Isle of Wight. Whilst we were proceeding to our designated spot in Picadilly Circus we were assembled in the Operations Room to be briefed on Operation NEPTUNE/OVERLORD which had already commenced. We were given a detailed explanation by the Senior Naval, Army and Air Force Officers onboard of every timed action that was planned to take place between the hours from midnight to 7.35am on 6th June.
H,M.S. LARGS was the Flagship of Force “S” controlling the landings on SWORD beach -
the most Easterly of the five beach-heads. She was under the command of Rear Admiral
Talbot. General Rennie, Commander of 3rd British Division, was also on board. As we sailed
across the English Channel they plus Group Captain Taylor and Colonel Middleton(Officer
Commanding 3rd Division Signals) gave us a detailed outline of operations to be carried out
from 23.00hrs on 5th June to 07.25hrs(H-Hour) on 6th June - D-DAY!
Having sailed through the night and as we approached the fringe of our beach-head the Battleships H.M.S. WARSPITE and H.M.S. RAMILLIES plus the Monitor H.M.S. ROBERTS were
already shelling the beach-head with their 15” guns. Suddenly at around 05.30hrs a
small flotilla of German “E” boats appeared out of the smoke screen that our aircraft and
escorting warships had laid in order that our vast fleet of ships could not been seen from the French coast. It caused considerable surprise and consternation to all concerned. They immediately fired off all their torpedoes at the various warships including LARGS. Fortunately the Officer of the Watch saw the wake of the torpedo heading for us and immediately ordered “Full Speed Astern” which slowed the speed of the ship. The torpedo passed within a few feet of our bows! Another torpedo hit the Norwegian destroyer SVENNER amidships about 200 yards away on our Port side. The ship almost immediately broke in two - forming a “V” in the water - and then sank quite rapidly . There were approximately fifty survivors picked up out of the water. Almost immediately afterwards
the destroyer H.M.S. WRESTLER struck a mine and quickly sank.
By 0600hrs H.M.S. LARGS in company with LSI’s PRINCESS ASTRID and MAID OF ORLEANS
had reached their lowering position preparing for touch-down at 07.25hrs(H-Hour).
By 08.00hrs the midget submarine X23 , commanded by Lieutenant Honour, approached
and tied up alongside LARGS after laying submerged just off the beach-head for more than 48 hours. Her mission had been to mark the precise area of the beach-head where the initial
assault craft and tanks were to come ashore by flashing a green light seawards from her mast. Also at this time scores of landing craft of all shapes and sizes could be seen approaching the beach-head. A Landing Craft(Assault) was blown up by a mine some 100 yards away from LARGS.
At 09.00hrs we moved inshore to take up our main function as Operational Headquarters
for SWORD beach. In mid-morning General Rennie - O.C. 3rd British Division - went ashore.
We came under spasmodic gunfire throughout the day from German coastal batteries. Each
time they started shelling us our warships would return the shelling and quieten them down.
Life however was very hectic over and around the beach-head!
During the day the Battleship H.M.S. RODNEY joined in the naval bombardment along with
cruisers assigned to Force “S”. A large force of Maurauders flew inland on a bombing mission
and LCRs(Rocket Ships) were firing their banks of rockets(100 rockets in each salvo!)over
and beyond the beaches. A strong Fighter cover flew constantly over the beach-head
throughout the day. At 20.00hrs 100 Flying Fortresses flew overhead on another bombing
At 21.00hrs the sky clouded with aircraft as two waves of gliders being towed by Stirlings
and Whitleys flew low directly over the ship. There must have been at least three hundred
aircraft with the same number of gliders. The Stirlings and Whitleys looked a monstrous
size at the very low height at which they were flying. Enemy flak could be seen bursting
all around the gliders as they circled to land - particularly the large amount of tracer. One
Stirling , having released it’s glider, with it’s engines on fire was heading straight for us as
we lay broadside onto the beach. It crashed in flames no more than 100 yards away from us.
It was an awesome sight seeing so many planes and gliders in the sky.
At 23.00hrs we received an air raid warning message and LARGS immediately made smoke.
The sky was lit up by all the tracer bullets being fired by many of the ships in the anchorage
plus the flares being dropped by German aircraft. At least one bomb dropped very close to our Starboard side.
ON D+1(7th June) in the early morning we received the warning code “INFLUENZA” which indicated the proximity of German E-Boats. Fortunately nothing transpired on this occasion.
A short time later there were cheers from the ship as a low flying plane was shot down in flames very close to LARGS and one could see tracers pouring into the plane as it dived into the sea. We later learned that the plane was one of our own carrying paratroops.
A continuous blaze of fire could be seen from the shore giving off a flame somewhat akin to phosphorus like a white incandescent glow. It was the result of a barrage from the LCT(Rocket) ships. The naval bombardment continued with two battleships and three cruisers. At one stage H.M.S. RODNEY was firing her three triple 16” guns directly over our
heads whilst only some 500 yards away. The noise and vibration was shattering! We in turn
continued to come under shellfire from the German coastal batteries. Whenever this occurred our ploy was to start up the ship’s engines and move round in a circle within the designated anchorage area.
Several old ships, including an old French battleship, were sailed shore and sunk to form an anchorage. The ship was called to “Action Stations” because of a warning of possible glider bombs. During the day RODNEY and RAMILIES continued their bombardment of enemy troop
concentrations. 100 Flying Fortresses flew over the anchorage on another bombing mission -followed a little later by 69 Marauders on their way to bomb Caen. In the afternoon we were attacked by two FW190s - one was shot down and the pilot was picked up and brought onboard.
From D+3(9th June) onwards life tended to become a little less hectic although on D+6 we were dive-bombed again - fortunately without damage to ship or crew. A few days later we detonated an accoustic mine which fortunately only caused minor damage to the hull. But three days later we were eventually hit by a shell which blew a hole some four feet square
just above the waterline!! A repair ship was called up and she simply bolted a plate over the
hole and we carried on.
We finally sailed back to England on D+24(24th June) - our mission completed.
Just over three weeks later (18th July 44) we sailed from Greenock(Firth of Clyde) to take part in the invasion of the South of France. We initially sailed into the Bay of Naples on 29th July and anchored near to Naples itself. During the next ten days the designated ships involved in the sea-borne assault assembled in the Bay. H.M.S. LARGS was once again the Combined Operations Headquarters Ship and served as the Flagship to Admiral Cunningham.
This time the base from where the assault was launched was Ajaccio(Corsica). THe date was
15th August 1944(Operation DRACULA). After successfully completing our task we returned to the Clyde on 14th September 1944.
The next phase of operation began when we left the Clyde on 10th March 1945 to sail out to the Far East calling in at Gibraltar, Port Said, Suez, Bombay and Trincomalee(Ceylon) where
we arrived on 8th April 1945. On 9th April we sailed over to Akyab and Ramree Island on the Burma coast to assemble for the sea-borne assault on Rangoon where LARGS again served
as Flagship under the command of Rear Admiral Martin. The assault took place on 2nd May
1945 (Operation DRACULA). We finally left Rangoon on 12th May and sailed back to Colombo.
On our final sea-borne assault we sailed over from Madras to Malaya. The actual assault took
place at Port Swettenham and Port Dickson on 9th September 1945 (Operation ZIPPER). we again served as Flagship under the command of Admiral Martin. We finally left Port Dickson
on 27th September 1945 and sailed back to Colombo.
H.M.S. LARGS finally sailed from Colombo on her “paying off” voyage calling at Bombay on 7th October. I parted company with her on 9th October at Bombay when she was sailing back to England. I was posted to East India Command serving mainly at Agra (Home of the Taj Mahal), Lucknow and Delhi.During this period of service I had the pleasure of taking
two ‘14 day’ leaves in the foothills of the Himalayas. I eventually sailed back home from Bombay in March 1947 on the Empress of Scotland and was demobbed shortly afterwards in York.
By way of historical interest H.M.S. LARGS has two unique claims to fame.
Firstly she was the only ship in the Royal Navy to take part in every major sea-borne
assault in the Second World War. These in chronological order were :
Operation TORCH - (Oran - North Africa) November 1942
Operation CORKSCREW (Panteleria) June 1943
Operation HUSKY (Sicily) June 1943
Operation AVALANCHE (Salerno - Bizerta) September 1943
Operation NEPTUNE/OVERLORD (Normandy - D-Day) June 1944
Operation DRAGOON (South of France) August 1944
Operation DRACULA (Rangoon) May 1945
Operation ZIPPER (Malaya) September 1945
Secondly and even more uniquely she was built by the French in 1938 at St. Nazaire as
a fruit carrying passenger boat sailing between Jamaica and France under the name of
MV CHARLES PLUMIER. In 1940 she was requisitioned by the French Navy and converted to an armed cruiser stopping other ships at sea to search for contraband. Later in 1940 the
French surrendered all her navy to the Germans who in turn ordered Charles Plumier to sail to Dakar in North Africa for a refit. In 1941 through our naval intelligence we knew when she was due to sail from Dakar to Marseilles(Vichy France). Having sailed some miles into the Mediterranean she was arrested by the destroyer H.M.S. FAULKNOR who placed an armed guard on her and made her sail into Gibraltar and subsequently to England. In 1942 she was fitted out with considerable communications equipment and converted to a Combined Operations Headquaters Ship.After her refit she was re-named H.M.S. LARGS whilst at anchor in Largs Bay. She then served as an H.Q. Ship for the rest of the war. In December
1945 she was returned to the French and resumed her name as MV Charles Plumier. She then
sailed as a passenger liner plying her trade in the Mediterranean until she was finally scrapped in 1968.
In conclusion Old Shipmates from the three Armed Services who served together on H.M.S.
LARGS now meet annually for a three-day reunion in different parts of the country each year during which time we hold a special Reunion dinner and endeavour whenever possible
to attend a local church on the Sunday morning. To date these reunions have been held sequentially in Portsmouth, Largs, York, Chester, Leamington Spa, Bournemouth, Shifnall
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