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Ron Wallbank's war

by CSV Solent

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
Ron Wallbank
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 September 2005

Royal Naval Beach Signal Section no 5 1942-1944. Picture taken in 1943 at HMS Saunders transit camp, Kabrit (Suez Canal)

This story was added to the People's war website by Jeanne on behalf of Ron and with his permission. Ron fully understands the sites terms and conditions.

I volunteered in late 1940 and joined the Royal Navy that year at the age of 19. I accepted the offer of a ‘vacancy’ to enter naval communications branch as a Coder. After a few week’s training at Liverpool (HMS Wellesley) and a short period at my Barracks — Devonport — I received a draft to the ‘Kelly’ (Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer, Flotilla) working from that port. In actual fact, I served on the ‘Kelvin’, as the party of draftees was divided between the ‘K’s’ in the Flotilla. This was around the time of the ‘Scharnhorst' and ‘Gneisnau’ being at Bresl — our Flotilla spend many nights escorting the ‘Abdiel’ laying mines outside that port. After a couple of months, a minor epidemic of Chicken Pox spread round the ship and ‘yours truly’ became one of the victims (having missed out as a child!). After hospitalisation, I was discharged back to Barracks into the ‘pool’, the 5th Flotilla having sailed for the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the next move was a draft to HMS ‘Quebec’ — on enquiry, I was told this was a cruiser. ‘Big laugh’, because it turned out to be the naval base at Inverary, Loch Fyne! Part of this was a Signal School, training what eventually became Beach Signal Parties. These were very early days to do with ‘landings’ — we came under the name of ‘Special Services’. It was not until Mountbatten became Chief of Combined Operations later that we became Combined Operations Communications Trained Ratings. My original duties as Coder disappeared as we were all re-trained as Signalmen-come-radio operators, so that we could always take over one of these tasks in the event of one of our mates ‘copping it’.

Our time over 1941/1942, was spent, apart from actual signals work, undergoing (suffering’s a better word!) similar fitness training as done by Royal Marines/Commandos. Many days were spent cross-countrying the Scottish hills in the infernal rain — also getting soaked doing ‘wet’ landings up and down the loch on exercises.

At that time, there existed the newly formed Beach Sig. Parties Nos. 1, 2 and 3 only. Each party consisted of a mixture of Sigs/Radio operators/Coders. As far as I can recall, it was No. 1 Section that provided the communications men with the Raid on the Lofoten 1s.

Then, in March 1942, the whole of the Beach Signals Unit was moved to Troon, where just outside the town, there was the base camp, HMS ‘Dundonald’, which became our permanent Head Quarters until 1944, during which period we were back and forth doing our operational times.

After arrival there, I became a member of Section No. 3. Then, sometime late in May, we were sent down to the Isle of Wight, for attachment to the base HMS ‘Vectis’, (Cowes). We were billeted in the ex Marine Hotel on the port front. Day and night exercises took place there on and off shore. We were even engaged in a full-scale exercise at West Bay one dawn (frightening the life out of the local residents!) Early July, we were ordered to embark on one of the L.C.T.’s (they were then ‘TLC’s), where we were briefed on a raid on Dieppe with the Canadian Army. Two day’s running, the operation was delayed and then the whole contingent was disembarked and we were all ‘incarcerated’ in the grounds of Osborne House, Isle of Wight, under canvas. The House was, of course, completely boarded up. Nobody was allowed in or out of the grounds, as it was thought we’d do the raid within a few days. After a week of hanging about, the whole thing was cancelled.

Eventually, as history is now known, the Raid ‘Jubilee’ took place on 19 August 1942, with disastrous results. Beach Signals Personnel were spread over the various ships, crafts and beaches. With some of my shipmates, I was embarked on L.C.T. 127 (Lt/Cmd, McPherson, RNR Commanding) together with Canadian Tanks and their Engineers.

We were allocated to Red Beach (Eastern Section) and reached the beach with the first waves. The tanks got off to the beaches but only one managed to get over the wall — the others being blown out of action. Our LCT was badly damaged - first the ramp mechanism was smashed, so that the ramp itself just dropped and hung under water as soon as the craft went astern. Secondly, as the LCT turned to face seaward, a shell hit the aft-side of the bridge superstructure, killing and wounding some of the permanent crew. The explosion ripped open the door of the Bofors guns’ ammunition locker, thankfully dowsed by the bursting water-tank above, otherwise I would probably not be writing this. We managed to limp back to Newhaven. Beach Signal Casualties — approximately 33 and a third percent (x 120).

After that fiasco, we returned to Dundonald where, with additional personnel, Sections 5, 6 and 7 were formed, each with about 30 of the usual mixture of comms. I was put in number 5, with which I stayed from September 1942 to October 1944.

After landing exercises in and around the Clyde area, No 5 found itself divided between various Landing Ships (e.g. ‘Ettrick’, ‘Reina del Pacifico’, ‘Winchester Castle’ etc — I was embarked on the first-named) and attached to the First Army with the Americans. Late October, we sailed and, of course, finished up as part of the ‘Torch’ Operation, Algeria. Our destination and target proved to be the French Navel Port at Arzeu (between Oran and Algiers). We did our ‘bit’ there, landing and setting up/taking over the local naval signals Head Quarters on 8 November.

We were only there a week, during which the small opposition was soon overcome, although pro—German snipers were rather a nuisance. The job done, we were withdrawn for voyage back to the UK via Gibraltar. Aboard the ‘Ettrick’ again we were part of a 9-ship convoy leaving Gibraltar, about 5.00 pm on 14 November. At 3.30 am the next morning, three of the ships were destined not to reach UK, including the dear old Ettrick’, struck and sunk by torpedo approximately 150 miles south west of Gibraltar. The others were an American merchantman and the ‘Woolworth’ Escort Carrier ‘Avenger’ (13 survivors out of 500 crew) which just blew up - no doubt with all the aviation fuel on board. After floating around in an LCA for about four hours, we were picked up by a Hunt Class destroyer ‘Glaisdale’ and returned to Gibraltar. Thence back to ‘Blighty’ via P & O’s ‘Mooltan’.

Reformed once again at Dundonald, B.5. were sent for signal exercises, etc, with the Royal Corps of Signals — first to Dundee until New Year’s Eve, when we arrived at Dunblane in time to celebrate (my first) Hogmanay! There until March 1943 when we were despatched to board the CPR Landing Ship ‘Duchess of Bedford’ at Greenock. A few days later, sailed to Liverpool for nearly a week and then, mid-March, left in convoy for voyage via Freetown and Cape Town, eventually arriving Port Tewfik mid April. Transferred to ‘S S Devonshire’ from which we did a landing full-scale exercise at Akaba (or Aquba). Then section sent by rail up to Hadera (Palestine, as was) for about a month, during which time we were transported to the plains near Damascus on another big exercise. Back to Tewfik, then returning to ‘Duchess of Bedford’, on which we set sail for what turned out to be the Sicily ‘Husky’ Operation — B5 landed just south of Syracuse.

Having seen that off, found ourselves in Malta for a so-called break. there until August, where we returned to Augusta, Sicily from where we were sent up to Messina for the landing across the Sraits to Regio Calabria. There for a short while, then back to Malta where we transhipped on to S.S. 'Sobreski' and found ourselves once again in the Middle East — this time at the Naval Transit Camp alongside the Canal near Kabrit (HMS ‘Saunders’). Whilst there from September to December we were given seven days leave, for which most of us went back to Palestine to the leave-camp at Nathanya to spend (some went to Cairo but were back at ‘Saunders’ after three days — ‘broke’!).

We were by the Canal until 30 December, when we were suddenly transported overnight to Alexandria. After breakfast there, we boarded the Cruiser ‘Phoebe’, arriving Naples at dawn on 1 January 1944 — a fiery salute from Vesuvius to welcome us! From there, we spent the next few weeks at Salerno, doing exercises on the beaches used in the actual landing operation there earlier. This was, of course, all in preparation for our involvement in the Anzio operation. I was on an American crewed LCI as liaison communicator for that one. After that was all over, we returned to Naples taking over the Signal Station at Nisida from the Americans until March, when we were put aboard the Dutch Trooper ‘Tegelberg’ for voyage back to the UK.

After home leave, it was back to the usual routines at Dundonald. There until May, then we found ourselves once again on the Isle of Wight at Cowes to await our own part in the ‘D-Day’ Overload Operation. The main part of the B5 were employed in the establishment of a Signal Station, set up one of the old ships half sunk to form a semi-circle block breakwater and named ‘Gooseberry’! Our station was on the most seaward of these. We were on the D-Day operation until mid August 1944, after which via a three week spell at the Transil Camp HMS ‘Mastodon’ at Exbury, Hants) we returned to our Head Quarters at Dundonald. By this time, the number of Beach Signal Sections had expanded to about 18 to cope with all the landings necessary in Europe and the Far East. It was then decided to break up the earlier sections (up to No 7), many of us resuming duties in General Service.

As it happened, I had at this time been recommended to apply for a commission as a Cypher Officer and having been successful, my long association with Combined Operations finally ended when I left Dundonald for the CW Selection Board at Chatham in October 1944. It was sad to part company from all my old B5 friends/shipmates after all our long time experiences in B5 — but that is war, is it not?

I eventually finished my time in the RN with Cypher appointments at FOCWAF Head Quarters, Freetown and lastly with SBNO at Naval Head Quarters, Oslo, demobbing at the end of June 1946.

Incidentally, I should mention B5’s Commanding Officer was Lt. Ray Evans, DSC, from formation to the Sections break-up. Over the last 10 years, he and six of us have met up again for reunions in the New Forest, Bramble Hill.

P.S. Although I was concerned with Beach Signals, we all knew and worked with a lot of the actual Beach Parties, which handled the landing craft arriving on the beaches.

The title of our Association, RN Commandos was a post-war honour and privilege given by the powers-that-be in view of our association and activities with the actual Commandos.

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