- Contributed by
- Jack Gaster
- People in story:
- Jack Gaster
- Location of story:
- Arromanches June to August 1944
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 May 2004
Jack returning to Arromanches on the 60th Anniversary of D Day June 2004
THE MILLIONAIRE MOB
Came the day when I received my calling up papers and was told to report to Chatham Barracks
on June the 8th. 1942 at 9am, or to use Naval parlance 0900. Arriving at the stated time I saw
that I was amongst many well known members of the River Fraternity including of course my
old shipmate Jimmy Jewiss. Another chap Bill Tewsley, a young Freeman Lighterman from
Gravesend, was also amongst the twenty or so people reporting that morning.
I suppose that I ought to have considered myself lucky to be there as about the same time that I
had gone to Tilbury to volunteer, I had received my notice to go for a medical re conscription for
the Services. I did attend and past all the tests with flying colours, I was then called in for an
intereview with an Officer wearing the uniform of a Major in the Army. “Are! Gaster”,he said, “I understand that you put in a preference to go in the Navy”, “I’m, Sorry to have to tell You”. Before he had the chance to say any more I said, “ excuse me Sir, Would You please look at this”, and showed him the Official piece of paper that I had been given at Tilbury stating that I was accepted for Service in the Royal Navy.
“Well done” he said, “Good Luck”, shook my hand as I left. I breathed a sigh of relief as I preferred wearing bell-bottoms than khaki. Our joining day at Chatham commenced with a Medical, though not too thorough, just enough to see that we had all the bits and pieces in the right places and that they were in reasonable working order. Then we were shepherded along to the clothing store to be issued with our uniform clothing. This consisted of Uniform, steel helmet, oilskin sea boots, and service respirator, together with a hammock, two white blankets, and a small steaming bag.The normal kit bag being considered too big for the amount of clothing issued.
We were expected to purchase our own boots and other clothing, this caused a little consternation to our Petty Officer when we eventually managed to wriggle into our jumpers and bell bottoms, some times forgetting that the collar had to be fastened in position before pulling on the jumper. Then folding the silk to the correct dimensions and knotting it into place together with the white lanyard correctly placed under the collar and finished in front of with the silk.
We were then supposedly ready for his inspection, we fell into line and awaited his critical eye. “Brown boots”, they stood out like saw thumbs, After explaining to the wearers of such footwear that unless they quickly obtained some black boots from the “slops”, or dyed their footwear black, they would not be allowed outside the barrack walls ever.
He also pointed out to us that we had better get our clothing marked with our names as quickly as possible to prevent it going missing, as there were some light fingered people in the barracks who would soon relieve you of any unattended clothing. One of the Leading Seaman allocated to us showed us how to fold our jumpers inside out also our bellbottom trousers, again inside out and in pleats that went across the leg in alternate folds making seven creases in all. It was then advisable to find a couple of pieces of flat wooden slats of approximately ten inches by three inches to bind tightly round the creased and folded trousers to make the creases permanent. Rather like a trouser press in miniature. The seven creases we were told represented the Seven Seas, the three white stripes on our collars or “dickies” as the ladies were apt to call them, were supposedly there to represent Nelsons famous Victories, and lastly, the black silk as a sign of mourning for that Great Man.
Our next learning process was in the art of preparing our hammocks, tying the clews so that the Hammock would easily opened when climbing into it, again, a wooden spreader at the head end would come in useful. Arrangement of the blankets, and finally slinging our hammocks on to the hammock rails then getting into them and remaining there. Not an easy task for the uninitiated, and for some of our colleagues who were less sprightly, “there were a few elderly, the over forty’s, amongst our ranks”. After a few struggles most of us made it. Then came the most important lesson concerning hammocks. How to “lash up and stow”, the order given every morning. Your hammock had to be lashed with lashing supplied so that the blankets were rolled evenly in the length of the hammock, the canvas sides brought tightly round so that the blankets remained completely enclosed, then starting from the head end that was sealed with a clove hitch, a series of half hitches, seven in all were passed around and along the body of the hammock, each pulled tight and finally secured at the foot end. The clews and the lashings were then secured along the length of the hammock to make a neat finish. When a hammock was properly lashed in this manner, it was supposed to support you in the water for several hours. Fortunately I never had to test this theory.
The lashed hammocks were then stowed in the hammock “nettles” this was a sort of pen with a wooden fence that the hammocks were stowed on end, so that they took up the least amount of room. I believe that n the days of wooden ships, they were placed to absorb any splintered pieces of wood flying about causing injuries to the crew during action.
We were given more information about rank structure, who had to be saluted, who had to be obeyed, what various “pipes” meant. Pipes meaning the orders coming over the Tannoy
following a Boatswain’s call being sounded. To salute the quarter deck when coming aboard, and generally to act like a sailor.
I must say that we were probably treated a little different from the normal intake of recruits to the Navy, though we were still subject to Naval Discipline and Kings Rules and Regulations whilst we were in uniform. We were almost given the kid glove treatment for the whole time we were at Chatham. We had the usual foot drills and rifle practice, though the first time I took aim on the rifle range my shot was wide of the target. It was pointed out to me that the old Long Lee Enfield rifle that I was using had wing foresight guards and that I had aimed sighting on one of these. I realized that Short Lee Enfield that I had been used to in the Home Guard had an aperture sight, I corrected my aim and scored a bull each time.
Before we leave the hammock drill too far, I should mention that after we had settled down in our hammocks on the first night, we were awakened by a din of noisy and somewhat drunken crowd of “Geordies” coming onto the mess-deck. These were the lads from Newcastle who had just arrived after a long and tiring journey. Obviously they must have been in need of refreshment when they arrived in Chatham and so went to the nearest hostelry, It may have been that they were not used to the local brew.
They tried several times to rig and get into their hammocks finally giving up and sleeping on the deck where at least they did not have far to fall. At the end of about three weeks in Barracks, we were entrained to Portsmouth where we shipped on board one of the old Ferries and were conveyed to the Isle of Wight, for some of us it felt like going abroad. On arrival at Ryde Pier, our Bags and Hammocks were loaded onto lorries whilst we were formed up into threes and marched to Puckpool on the north eastern point of the Island where a Holiday Camp formally owned by Warner’s had been taken over by the Navy and was now known as H.M.S. MEDINA, it had been used prior to our arrival to train Fleet Air Arm personnel. I can imagine that we were something of shock to the present Officers and staff of that establishment.
A meal had been arranged for us as soon as we arrived sometime after midday, then we allocated our quarters which were in chalets around an open grass covered area, two to a chalet so Jim and I had no problems on sharing, we had been chum’s for some time, and had often stayed over at our respective homes. Bill Tewsley was sharing with some other person in the next chalet. The following day we were given our station cards which allocated our duty watch, and put into parties of about twenty with one of our number allocated as class leader and made an unpaid Acting Leading Seaman. Our Class Leader was a chap named Sid Orde, He was a Stevedore in Civilian life working in the Royal Albert Docks. His choice was quite good as it turned out, aged about 45, a man of a quiet manner who could get the lads to comply with out having to shout or lose his temper.
We had training in weapon handling with Hotchkis and Lewis guns, these were the type that would normally be fitted to our craft, given basic training in Naval code flags so that we could operate in flotilla’s and try to keep station. Practise sending morse code with torches, and to learn the art of semaphore. Our teachers had to be very patient people. Finally we were introduced to our craft, some were moored in nearby Wooton Creek. Our first introduction to the craft came as a bit of a shock. The modifications that had been made to convert them into landing barges, left much to be desired. The wooden ceilings that had been the floor of the hold space, had been ripped out and concrete poured in to replace them. The concreting had been carried halfway up the sides of the hold between the stringers, providing some reinforcement and protection for the hold space. A section of the after bulkhead and cabin area had been cut away by some ten feet across and approximately five feet above the floor of the hold. A platform extended aft from that point to the stern of the barge, and the sides of this cut away area had been fitted with longitudinal bulkheads. A ramp rose from the floor of the hold to the platform area, on either side of which were located a pair of Ford V8 Engines fitted with Vosper Marine gear boxes. These were connected to a couple of shafts that extended through the after bulkhead of the hold, through the void that had been part of the cabin, to re-appear on the outside of the after swim where propellers had been fitted. These were a couple of feet below the waterline under each quarter and equi-distant on either side of the boarding ramp, The ramp was a heavy steel frame with a timber decking. There were hand winches fitted on either side of the boarding area with which to raise the ramp, an operation that required a lot of effort. Between the inner and outer ramp, a couple of slotted brackets had been fitted to each longitudinal bulkhead. These were about fourteen inches apart, in them were placed heavy wooden planks that stretched across the opening, forming two temporary bulkheads. These were held secure by wooden wedges and were always to be left in place when the barge was under way or on passage.
Across the ramp area and above the temporary bulkheads was a slightly wider plank upon which the coxswain was expected to stand whilst maneuvering the barge whilst under way.
It was the only position that the stokers in control of the engines could see the hand signals given by the coxswain, this being the only method that could be used. The Coxswain was expected to stand facing the bows in plain view of the stokers, then if he wanted to go ahead move his arms forward, at forty five degrees meant half speed, fully extended meant full speed. By his side stop engines, moved backward full astern. There were no half measures In astern movements. All very well if the engines were running at the same revolutions, there being no rudder to make any slight corrections to the course as the craft zigged and zagged as though on convoy evasive actions. As far as going astern, it was useless. The wash against the after swim defeated the thrust of the propellers.
With the ramp situated aft, which in these particular craft was the only option to keep them sea-worthy. It was necessary to approach the beach going full speed ahead, probably all of four to six knots, depending on the shape of the barge (all varied depending where they were built) then swing into the wind or tide whichever was strongest by going ahead on one engine and astern in the other. Then full speed astern on both engines whilst at the same time dropping the bow anchor over the bow with which to help hold the crafts head to stop it swinging towards the beach, and, to help pull the barge away from the beach when required. In theory, it sounded quite simple, all one had to do then was lower the ramp, job done. First and foremost communications between the coxswain and the stokers were not always easy, should a sudden swell catch the barge and the coxswain move his arms in an endeavour to regain his balance on that rather narrow board, or perhaps decide to scratch his nose or other part of his anatomy, misunderstandings sometimes occurred leading to some ather colourful expressions from the man at the helm so to speak. More time than not a volunteer was pressed to swim or wade ashore with a light line to tie round a tree or other immovable object for the remaining crew on board to pull the barge ashore.
My main worry was that I was going to be the man on the plank when running the craft ashore possibly on an enemy coast. I would not be protected from the weather let alone any thing that the enemy might throw my way. It was obvious to me that the barges would need a lot of work to bring them up to be reasonably safe and suitable to carry out the work for which they were intended. As it happens, I don’t think that they were a complete waste of time, I am of the opinion that the spy planes sent over from Germany and France, formed the opinion that we were ready to invade at any time after seeing all these barges moored in the many creeks and waterways of the south coast. So the German Hi’erarchy turned a lot of their labour and work forces into building the West Wall. Many of us were asked for our suggestion on the improvement of the barges, and I am pleased to say that they were listened to and acted upon. However that was to be some time in the future. In the meantime we settled down to boat training given by none other yhan Dod Osbourne a well known pre-war character who sailed an MFV around the Atlantic coast of Spain causing somewhat of a furor’e in the National Press at that time. The MFV was not his to take according to press releases and his navigation was supposedly done using a sixpenny atlas. When he returned to England he was sentenced to a short term of imprisonment. His story however was that he was testing the durability of this type of vessel for the Admiralty for further use of these vessels under wartime conditions. Well he had done that trip whilst the Spanish Civil War was raging. I also know for a fact that he was later holding a Commissioned Rank in the Navy for which a conviction would be an automatic bar. We found his instruction most enlightening, his words were “I can’t teach you lads anything that you don’t already know, so we’ll go for tea and cakes at a friend of mine’s bungalow on the Sea-front”. We all spent a lovely afternoon listening to his girl friends gramophone whilst the whaler we were supposed to be training in sat on the beach.
One day we were informed that we were to be inspected by the Chief of Combined Operations, none other than Lord Louis Mountbatten, I was picked to be one of the Guard of Honour as I had gained a little more of the rifle drill whilst with the Home Guard. Other members were ex WW1 ex service personel some with decorations earned in that previous war.
The Guard of Honour was drawn up on the lawn just inside the main gate when, shock and horror it began to rain quite heavily. We stood there at ease waiting for the great man to appear gradually getting wetter by the minute. The remainder of the SCO’s drawn up behind us as in divisions. It was then noticed that a number of the Officers were moving to the shelter of a glass canopy outside the regulating office. A loud voice was heard from the ranks calling “ You going to cover up?”. The First Lieutenant, a Lieutenant Commander called “Silence”, then from the ranks came a resounding cry of “Bollocks”. Perhaps I should mention that the cry are “You going to cover up?” is widely used in the docks when the rain becomes to heavy to work in. There ensued a deathly silence, and then the Officers came from under the canopy making their way toward the ranks. What had really upset the men was the fact that we had only one uniform and that was getting wetter by the minute and with only our overalls to change into by way of dry clothing it looked as though we might have forgo our shore leave to dry out.
At that precise moment, the main gate opened and in drove the Admiral to the shrill of the boatswains pipes as he was piped aboard. As Lord Louis alighted from his car, his Aide de Camp held up his coat for him to put on. Lord Louis took one look at us standing to attention in the rain and waved his coat away. Whether he had some insight as to what had gone on, or knowledge from above that the rain was about to stop, the miracle happened. The rain stopped and the sun shone.
He inspected the Guard then called everyone to break ranks and gather round whilst he gave us a pep talk and a few well chosen jokes before departing to the wardroom. Nothing was ever mentioned again about the incident on the parade ground, or the near mutiny of The Millionaire Mob. Soon after this incident, about one hundred of us were transferred to Poole where our arrival caused something of a stir among the local population. Observing us marching up the road from the station, with our small steaming bags and naval issue hand cases that held our personal effects, and noticing the great difference in ages; they came to the conclusion that we must be survivors from a Russian Convoy. Some of the lads were quite happy to take advantage of the resultant hospitality showered upon them,
Our new quarters were to be in the Shaftsbury Homes on Constitution Hill, formally the home of young lads in need of care, well now they had some bigger lads to take their place. It was now a Naval Establishment under the name of H.M.S.TURTLE, here we were to stay whilst learning all there was to no about being landing craft crews and coxswains, morse, semaphore, and flags pertaining to maneuvers of the flotillas whilst under way. We were encouraged to take part in exercises and sport which was entered into with enthusiasm. We had North versus South Football matches, or should I say Newcastle versus West Ham, Some of the rules were not quite as per F.A. requirements, more like Australian rules and fifteen aside rugby, but we had a lot of fun and made firm friends with our Geordie Comrades. It was not all fun and games, We were paraded into Divisions every morning and allocated our tasks for the day by, Chief Petty Officer Bull a navy pensioner called back for the duration and as Chiefy. I received my first promotion from Chiefy on my first day there. “Lad” he said, “You will be Captain of the Heads for the week”, I thought to myself that He’s alright, recognizes talent when he sees it. Then I was told where to collect the necessary bucket, brushes, cloths and disinfectant from the Bosuns Stores. Believe me when I say that it was a full time job that I was glad to see the end of.
The following week I stood in the back row, and succeeded only in being picked as Galley assistants, which entailed mostly in peeling the spuds along with half a dozen others around a large galvanized tub. There must have been a hundred and fifty men not counting the Officers to cater for, so there were plenty to do. The green vegetables were always prepared by the Cook and his assistants to ensure that there was sufficient left to go into the pot. After a few weeks, there were sufficient men under punishment and stoppage of leave to fulfill this task. Not that there were any serious misdemeanors, just the odd late returning on board after leave, or a case of too much imbibed whilst ashore. Although we were on board a “stone frigate”, as every shore establishment was termed, going out of the gate, meant going ashore, and not being aboard We had the occasional route march to exercise our legs and minds, and to eye up the local talent, “what’s the saying, your only young once?”. If there were any dances going in the local Woodside Hall the local dance, they were well attended. Bournmouth was not too far where a Services Club provided somewhere to spend a few hours and get a meal,also there was the Theatre where I saw my first Opera’s, the Barber of Saville and, La Traviata, I was hooked on Classical Music from that day on. Quite often we, that is my shipmates Jimmy Jewiss and Bill Tewsley would stretch our legs and walk the five or six miles back to our base. Sometimes we would have afternoon tea above a large store that I think was called “Bobby’s” on a Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed that part of the world, it was a little different to the surroundings where I was brought up in.
I spent my Nineteenth Birthday on one of these jaunts, it must have been soon after our arrival at Poole. It was about this time that I had a letter from my Sister to say that she had not heard from her Husband for some time, I knew that he was in “DEMS Air”, and had been for some time in charge of a catapult on a “CAM Ship” on Convoy Duties A CAM ship was an ordinary cargo vessel, in his case the SS Empire Tide, she was fitted with a catapult that would fly off a Hurricane Fighter if attacked by Enemy Bombers. The Pilot would have little chance if he was shot or forced down through lack of fuel unless an escort vessel was at hand. So they were only used as a last resort.
We did not know exactly where he was, but thought that he might be on one of the Russian runs. Soon after this I received a telegram to say that she had heard from him to say that he was on his way home, and could I get leave for the occasion. I went to see my Divisional Officer and explained that Alf was more like a Brother to me as I had none of my own, and was granted a long weekend from that Friday.
When I got home I learned that Alf had been on the ill-fated PQ17 Convoy where they were told to scatter because of the fear of the German Battle Cruisers being out of the Norwegian Fiords. We all know that was the real cause of so many ships being lost had to head north up into the ice and make the best way they could. Eventually they made Murmansk where the reception they had was anything but friendly, and then Archangel. I am not sure of the true figure of ships arriving, I think something like eleven cargo vessels in all. Once they had discharged their cargo’s and managed to refuel their bunkers and taken in fresh water and some supplies. (This took them some time). They were joined by another six vessels making seventeen in all for the return run home. Three of these eventually made it back to the Clyde. “Yes”, we celebrated his safe return. He had with him a shipmate who was a member of the crew, a Steward. I joined them at the bar, after all I was a Sailor, and could not let the side down! It was not long before it was my legs that let me down. I was fine until we left the pub, “The Rose and Crown” on Ilford High Street, there was an Alley Way that went through to Uphall Road this leading to my home. It was there that my legs went to rubber causing me to lose control of them. Fortunately I had my Father and Brother-in-law on either side to keep my Equilibrium, I do not think that I could have said that word to have saved my life, at that time. But I “knew” that I was “sober”, it was just my legs that were the culprits. Perhaps it was all those Whiskey’s and Chasers that we had managed to down. Yet it not seem to have the same effect on my Brother-in-law and his Shipmate. I think that I had learned just what it meant to be legless, and was very careful not to get that way again, Or did I?.
On returning to Poole I was asked by one of our Officers, a Lieutenant Bishop RNR, if I was interested in learning Coastal Navigation, if so he would be willing to teach any of us that were interested. I was more than interested, and together with a few more of the lads who showed an interest, He started some Evening Classes in one of the many school rooms on site. He advised us on our next long weekend leave to acquire a book of Norries Nautical Tables, and a copy of Tate’s Home Trade Guide, from a Maritime Dealers situated in Fenchurch Street. I new the place well, having haunted that area in my school days. From then on I was captivated in learning the art of Navigation. I had wanted to go to the George Green School of Navigation in Poplar, but was unfortunate in there not being sufficient scholarship places when I sat my exams. My parents thought that I would have earned more money as a compositor in the print trade. Believe me when I say that at that time my literary skills were not great. As a compositor, I would have been useless.
Lieut. Bishop gave us a good grounding in the art of Chart Work, taught us the meaning of Variation and Deviation and the affects they have on a Compass Course. He also showed us how to work out the tides from the phases of the moon using the High Water Full and Change as shown on the Charts. As we progressed under his tuition, we learned how to work out our longitude by chronometer and finally our latitude by meridianal altitudes.
A few of the lads dropped out, but this was something new to me, I was now in a world of logarithms, as long as I had the formula it sorted itself out for me. He then got us out of the classroom into a harbour launch that we collected from Beaulieu round to Poole Harbour. Even to testing my skills on the Aldis Lamp when challenged as we emerged from the Solent by a guard vessel.
A few months later when we were nearing the end of our six months contractual period, we were all asked whether we wanted to stay on in Combined Operations, or would we prefer to return to “Civvy Street”. If we stayed on, we would revert to ordinary Naval rates of pay, but we had a good chance of promotion,
A number of the SCO’s chose to leave including Bill Tewsley, I understood that he decided to go into the Rescue Tugs Service, of which I new little at that time. Jim and I decided to stay on. We were given a test in Seamanship, boat-handling, rope work, morse and semaphore signaling, We must have passed for just a few weeks later we were informed that we would be going to Chatham where we would be up-rated to Petty Officer Coxswain.
It was January before we left for Chatham, prior to that we had a wonderful Christmas at Poole. The lads put on a “Sod’s Opera” that was attended by all the Officers and their Wives, who were very surprised when “rounds” was sounded, and in marched “Adolf”, “Benito” and “Hiro Hito”, Goose-Stepping their way around the hall. I must say that the C.O. took it really well and laughed more than most. The famous three lads who instigated this charade were well known for their practical jokes, having worked together in the Regents Canal Dock in Stepney. On the 21st January 1943, after a thorough medical examination in Chatham Barracks, I was enlisted for a Period until the end of the present emergency, as an A.B., on the 22nd as a Leading Seaman, and on the 23rd., as a Petty Officer. I understand that the reason for the one day in each of the ranks of A.B. and Leading Seaman, was in case I was found wanting in the rank of Petty Officer, there was always a rank that I could be busted to. My pay at that time was Seven Shillings and Sixpence a day, half of what I was previously getting as a Seaman SCO. I was happy to say the least. I collected my full issue of clothing from the store, Shirt and ties, Uniforms two of blues, two of whites, in fact I had a full kit bag to carry around. We had to report to the East Camp in Chatham Barracks for our accommodation. Then to the Petty Officers Mess where I had to see the President of the Mess. He was a grey haired three badge man, meaning that he had many years service, “Right lad” he said, “give me your name, religion, and T or G.” , I gave my name, told him I was C of E, and told him I was UA.. “T” meant that I was Temperate, and did not take my rum issue for which I would then be entitled to three pence a day in lieu. “G” meant that I would be entitled to my rum issue or Grog (this a mixture of rum and water), though in the case of Petty Officers, Neat. And UA meant that I was under age. His face suddenly changed to a shade of purple, he stood up and threw his cap that had been on the desk onto the deck, he then executed a little dance on it.
“Cor blimey, they’ll be making bloomin babies next”. He spluttered. It had probably taken him the best part of twelve years to make the rank, and there was I nineteen years and five months with just three months service behind me holding the same rank. I felt slightly embarrassed, though, I believed that I had the necessary experience to do the job that I was picked for.
We only spent a few days at Chatham, during which time I was able to get home for a few hours to see my family in Ilford and have a few “Jars” with my Father in the “local”.
They were surprised to see me in my new rig though by the time I got home, the white collar of my shirt was almost blue from the dye of my jacket. It was some time before this rectified itself so I was forever “dhobying” my shirts to keep them white. I explained to them that I had been promoted to Petty Officer Coxswain In Combined Operations, and my new Official Number was
C/JS 332916, the C/JS showing me to be a Chatham rating, later to be changed to P/JS when I was transferred to Portsmouth.
On returning to Poole, we found that at least three quarters of the SCO lads had opted out and had returned to “Civvy Street”, many of them to be called up for service in the Inland Water Service of the Royal Engineers. We on the other hand were all Petty Officers with exception of one chap by the name of Learmouth who had chose to be an A/B Seaman. At first we wondered why until we learned that he had eleven children and that put him on the same pay scale as a Lieut/Commander with all his service family allowances. I still found this hard to believe. He enjoyed staying on to become the P.O.’s Mess-man during the remainder of our time there.
Again we had further instruction in the art of navigation and signals together with some foot drill from the Chief Petty Officer. We were to learn that another visit was being made by our Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, This time we were ready, a smartly turned out Guard of Petty Officer Coxswains, who were complemented for their effort and wished success in their forthcoming role. A few more Quip’s, and then the Salvation Army Tea Wagon arrived as we were dismissed. What a debt we owe to those people who looked after the Forces and their families during the War.
I was able to purchase for myself a doeskin suit of number ones for my ventures “ashore” and looked very smart with the gold wire badges denoting my rank together with the Combined Operations Badge on the sleeve. Though I did have trouble convincing a Black Labrador dog who had adopted us and spent many hours in the Sentry Box with us when we were doing our night duty on the main gate. He would tolerate anyone in bell-bottom’s, but drew the line at Officers and Petty officers who tried to pet him. I had spent many hours on that gate with him curled up in the sentry box behind me. He would appear to be asleep, then his ears would prick up and a little growl would bring you to alert. He would sense that someone was approaching long before they became audible to whoever was on sentry duty.
On my first day back at Poole in my new rig, “Turtle” as we had called him was just inside the gate adjacent to the sentry box, “Hello Turtle” I said as I reached out fondle his ears as per normal, I quickly changed my mind as he showed me his teeth and gums, as far as he was concerned, I was on the other side. An intake of Seamen and Stokers arrived to take over our old mess decks, these were the new crews who we would have to train to man the Landing Barges that were being modified in various parts of the Country. Some of my time was now taken up exercising them with a route marches, and having to sort out the “chaff” from the “wheat”. We had a few “skates” amongst them who tried it on to see what they could get away with. I left them in no doubt that I could deal with them if I had to. Mostly they were a pretty good bunch who, would sort out the awkward ones amongst themselves.
Within a few weeks, about a dozen of us Coxswains were moved down onto Round Island situated in Poole Harbour. It was a wonderful location, the island previously belonged to a very wealthy gentleman who had his own boatman and gardener living in purpose built houses on the island. This is where we found ourselves quartered. The main house situated on the east side of the island had a magnificent view of Poole and Sandbanks from the principal bedroom, this had mirrors set in the walls at a level so that if you were seated or lying down, a panoramic view of the harbour was there to be seen.
This was the classroom where the Coxswains were brought up to date with chart work and navigation studies. The remainder of the house was the Officers Quarters and Wardroom. Soon after arriving on the Island, I met our new C.O. Lieutenant Russel-Smith, an ex Tug Master employed by Tilbury Dredging and Contracting Company on the Thames . I was put in charge of a salvage team that had the job of re-floating some of the mark one LBV’s that were sunk at their moorings around the island. This was not such an awkward job as it would appear, Poole Harbour experienced four tides a day as did a number of the coastal resorts along that stretch of the English Channel between Weymouth and the Solent. The tidal range was therefore much less than that on the Thames and other rivers.
At low water the coamings and gunwhales of the water-logged barges were above the surface. So by plugging the pump boxes and using tarpaulins to reinforce the temporary bulkheads and using as many pumps, both motor and hand shifting pumps in unison, we were able to bring the barges up to a level where the ramp opening was above the external water level It meant “all hands to the pumps”, for an hour or so, and then a good cleaning session to rid the barge of the accumulated mud in the cabin and hold spaces.
There were about four or five of these craft to be re-floated in all in this manner, however another barge that had sunk in deeper water in the main channel, had to be tackled in a different manner. I was lucky to be able to call on the services of that very same tug-skipper that I worked with when I first started my apprenticeship on the Thames. George Doman, He was the person that I had met at Barking Station had who informed me about the Millionaire Mob. George was then in Command of a Tug called the “Primate”, this had been commandeered from Palmers Towage Company on the Isle of Dogs back on the Thames, several of the smaller tugs from the Thames had been acquisitioned for the purpose of moving the craft around..
With the assistance of an Engineer Officer who was Commanding one of the first Landing Barges that had been modified and converted into an LBE, Landing Barge Engineering. We were able to splice a number of five inch wire strops that we were able to pass under the sunken barge by using the tug to coax them into place. Then with four LBV’s on either side lying with the forward swims over the sunken barge, and a further two one at the bow and one over the stern, the strops were taken in tight at low water and then it was a matter of waiting until the tide did its work and hoping that the Bitts to which the wire was fastened would hold the weight.
As the tide rose the forward swims of the craft were pulled lower in the water, the stern lifting so that the screws and fixed budgets cleared the water. We held our breath and waited. The sunken barge did lift sufficiently for the “Primate” to push the lifting craft and their burden out of fairway into shallow water. The operation was continued on the next tide, the strops having been re-adjusted and any slack taken in. Then as before, came the clearing up operation.
Our next job was returning a barge that had been broken adrift from her moorings and driven up onto the beach on a spring tide during a gale. This was tackled by tunneling beneath her, then placing large 14” piles under her so as to protruded on either side’ then large hydraulic jacks were used to allow wooden rollers to be put into position along the length of the barge. The following day at high water, The “Primate” and another little Thames tug the “Tommy Lea” of Thames Steam Tug & Lighterage Co., working in tandem pulled the lighter back into deep water.
I was fortunate that most of these operations were carried out in a warm and sunny May, for I was working in my shallow diving gear, a pair of ordinary swimming trunks, as I positioned the strops etc. thankful that we were on the South Coast and not the distant North.
It was about this time that I was approached by Lieutenant Bishop RNR, He told me that he was being transferred to HMS Manatee on the Isle of Wight, and that he wanted me to take over the Navigation classes on Round Island .I was stunned and said that I had no sea time in and would it not be the blind leading the blind. He told me not to worry, and that I would have to make sure that I could answer any awkward questions by making sure of your answers, that way you will learn all the quicker, and in any case I was good enough.
His parting shot really threw me. “By the way , You are now a CW candidate”. What does that mean I asked, “I have put you down for a Commission with the approval of Lieutenant Russel-Smith,” he replied. I am not sure that I want a Commission I replied, I don’t want to be a Mid-shipman. He looked a little taken aback and asked how old I was, when I told him he said I understand that the age for Sub-Lieutenant is now being lowered to nineteen and six months, also that it would be a few months before I would be going to take the necessary exams. I said that I was quite happy within the Flotilla and that I would miss all my shipmates, his answer was that I would always have friends wherever you go, don’t miss this opportunity.
I did have the opportunity of taking a modified version of the LBV’s on trials bringing her away from the yard where she had been converted. She now sported a wheel-box on the starboard quarter alongside the ramp opening, this had some armour shielding around it giving some protection to the coxswain. Also it was fitted with a bell system for communication with the stokers. No more arm movements on a narrow plank that could be misinterpreted. The new and more powerful Engines were Gray’s Royal Marine Petrol Units. A rudder had been fitted under the starboard quarter that gave very limited steerage, a small fixed budget still remained under the starboard quarter.
This nearly proved disastrous as we sailed through Hamworthy Bridge, The LBV took a run to Starboard toward some light wooden built personel landing craft. Even with the rudder hard over o starboard it had little effect. I had to put the starboard engine astern before she answered the helm. I could imagine what a two hundred to barge would have made of those little craft against that quay wall.
The mark two LBV’s had a few variations, some as I previously mentioned had been converted into Engineering LBV’s, others for fuelling LBO’s, Water Carriers LBW’s, Ack Ack, LBF’s,
And perhaps the most welcome on the beaches Floating feeding stations, Landing Barge Kitchen,LBK’s. To continue:-
I went on leave shortly after this, my family and friends on seeing me thought that I had been in the Mediterranean area. I was as brown as a berry, and as fit as the proverbial fiddle. The following weekend, I went to the open air swimming baths in Barking Park and enjoyed some admiring glances from a few of the young ladies who were there, Oh to be young again!
As I was leaving the Park entrance in Ilford Lane, I met my former friend and workmate from my days and nights on board the “Redoubt”, Bill Hardy, dressed in a RAF Sergeant Pilot’s Uniform, he looked very smart. We spoke for just a minute or two. He explained that he had to catch his train back to Purfleet, it was due to leave very soon. However, he did have enough time to tell me that he was flying “Mosquito’s”. We agreed that the next time we had a get together, that a tot would be taken. Sadly, Bill was reported missing believed killed soon afterwards, He was never found.
On returning to Round Island after a very enjoyable leave, I was invited up to the Wardroom back at HMS Turtle for the evening together with a couple more lads who had been made C/W Candidates. We were made very welcome in a very friendly atmosphere that did not lack a few drinks to make us feel at home.We were given very friendly talk as to what was expected we arrived at the Officer Training Establishment in Scotland for Combined Operation Naval Officers, “HMS Lochailort”. for a six weeks intensive course that included navigation, signals, pilotage, and boat handling to name just a few. We were expected to undergo plenty of physical training including assault courses and running practically every day, on top of which we would have to last at least three one minute rounds in a boxing ring. All this would be under the scrutiny of a very critical staff. Looking for any failing that would eliminate your chances of a Commission.
I was lucky in that I had two cousins who were amateur boxers with whom I had sparred with on
numerous occasions, I was lucky that a chap by the name of Stan Everard who had run a weight training Club before he joined, was on the Island with us and agreed to give me some boxing lessons . and general training to get me in shape.
Stan took me under his wing, we set up some parallel bars with some odd bits of piping found on the Island, acquired some boxing gloves from the stores and set to work getting me fit and ready for Loch Ailort. Every weekend we would go ashore at Arne an adjacent little village that had been evacuated of its Civilian population to be taken over by the Army for training purposes. Then walk from there to Corfe Castle a distance of some ten miles and have a meal. Then walk all the way round Poole Harbour to Parkstone via Wareham a distance of some twenty odd miles accompanied by Jimmy Jewiss who was Stationed on the Island with us. We had a bit of excitement one day when the army lads were doing their usual tank training exercises with live rounds some of which landed on the southern edge of the Island.. It took some time before we were able to contact with a few frantic telephone calls before we succeeded in getting the shelling stopped.
Came the day when I eventually said goodbye to my friends on the Island and to the landing barges. I was off to Scotland via Portsmouth Barracks. The one night that I ever spent there, but not before a farewell drink was taken in the Wardroom of HMS Turtle and wished Good Luck by the Officers there.
The overnight journey up to Glasgow where We arrived bleary eyed the next morning was very uncomfortable in a well packed train, so the sight of a tea wagon manned by the Salvation Army was a welcome sight, the tea and rolls went down well.
We were soon on our way from Glasgow to Iveraray where we found ourselves accommodated
On what looked like a Mississipi Steamboat, there were two of these vessels there, The “Northland” and the “Southland” manned by Merchant Navy Personel and flying the Red Ensign, They were ideal accommodation vessels with plenty of cabins though a little on the Small side. The next day we had an interview ashore with a Commander RN. He saw us individually and had a word with us to see if we felt that we would feel at home in the Wardroom, I said that I had many friends who were officers and I had not felt uncomfortable with them. He wished us Good Luck on the Commissioning Course and for the future. We were then Introduced to the Establishment at Inveraray “HMS QUEBEC”,here we would two before going to Loch Ailort. This time would not be wasted as we were introduced to an. assault course where the Instructors seemed to take a great delight in firing their so called fixed, or so they said, Lewis guns over our heads whilst we were traversing a bog up to our necks in very muddy slime with our rifles held above our heads, so that we were forced to duck into the gooey mess. Should we have got our rifles contaminated with the slightest bit of this muck, it was a case of cleaning them and start over again. Eventually we satisfied their seemingly sadistic pleasures and finally emerged looking like walking mud covered mummies whose boots squelched green slime with every foot step.
Another time we spent a whole day on the firing ranges with both rifle and revolver firing at
targets that popped up from unexpected places, each time with a double shot. We felt happy
about that until we were informed that some of the targets were friendly. Eventually came the day when we proceeded to Loch Ailort where we were issued with a white band that we had to put round our caps, and were told that hence forth we were to be known and addressed as Cadet Rating regardless of any rank that we had previously held, also that we were to conduct ourselves properly at all times and that we should be correctly dressed in the rig of the day as required with oilskins folded neatly with buttons showing when carried over the left forearm.
We wondered why the special note regarding the oilskins had been noted, it soon became
obvious that rain was also the order of the day, for the whole six weeks that I spent at Loch
Ailort, it failed to on three days only. When it was not raining we were under constant attack from swarms of midges, these little devils seemed to take a delight in attacking us when we drawn up on parade where we were forced to stand to attention without moving a muscle or allowing a twitch to show. The instructor would take a delight in growling, ”keep your face straight laddie”. We just had grin and bear it. That first week showed us what to expect for the remainder of six weeks that we were to be at Loch Ailort, at 0630 it was up and into our shorts, vest, and gym shoes then out onto the parade ground for some rigorous exercises for half an hour, then back to our Quarters for a quick change into the rig of the day for breakfast. Then on parade in Divisions for 0800 from then till 1200 apart for a short stand easy, we would be into instruction classes for the whole of the forenoon. 1200 and lunch till 1300, resuming instruction classes until 1600.
It was then a race to our quarters to quickly change into P.T. gear again then fall in on the
parade ground once more ready for our last exercise of the day as follows. In the first week it was a run round the inner circle a distance of approximately one mile in the shortest possible time, each one of us were aware that we were under constant surveillance with notes being made of our performances. The following week it was the outer circle a distance of one and a half miles. Week three, entailed both circuits, whilst week four entailed the inner, outer and the assault course. By this time you were either fit or completely knackered, anyone seen to be not giving of his best was dismissed from the course and sent back to his division. On the fifth week doing endurance tests that required climb a nearby mountain then return to the parade ground in the shortest possible time. It was no use turning round halfway, you had to collect a card from a P.T.I. who had climbed up during the afternoon. I believe that the record time in reaching him was something like twenty-five minutes. My time was more like thirty-five to forty minutes though I did make up for this on the way down when I slid for what felt like a hundred yards on my posterior ending up in a bog at the bottom. This saved my neck, or should I say my bottom from further punishment.
During the latter part of this week we were all required to go into the boxing ring against an
opponent picked of equal weight from the preceding Division, the chap that I found myself
matched against was taller by some three inches with a corresponding reach, I feared the worst.
Fortunately I had that little bit of experience from sparing with my cousins, plus the extra training that Stan Everard had given back on Round Island. On the night of the fights I found myself third on the bill, I was somewhat put off when the first of my colleagues was soundly beaten and the second knocked out in the first round. I climbed into the ring prepared for the worst. When the bell rang and we met in the center of the ring and touched gloves, I instinctively kept my guard up and led out with my left into the face of my adversary contacting him hard on his nose. Immediately there was blood everywhere and it seemed to take all the go out of him, from then on I felt good though I was more than pleased to hear the final bell at the end of those three one minute rounds. I never realized just how long those three minutes could seem last when your legs felt like lead and every movement was an effort. The fact that I won was more by luck than expertise though I felt good. The fifth week was also taken up with examinations in all requirements of the course. Chart
work ,Seamanship, Signals, Pilotage, P.T., and Field training. The course was comprised of all
the requirements of the General Service Branch with the addition of the endurance and assault
course training to bring us up to the standard required by Lord Louis Mountbatten who believed that no Officer should give an order that he could not carry out himself. The sixth and last week was a little more relaxing, we had some time to go sailing on the loch in whalers, this I thoroughly enjoyed though I was a little concerned with regard to my results, I had not made a good start on my chart work paper due to over eagerness at the beginning I had written down the wrong course to steer, only to realize my mistake a little way through the paper I had rectified it but left myself little time to complete. Came the fateful day when we were to learn our destiny, promotion, or return to the ranks?.
We had been told that some of us were to be interviewed by the examining board, so it was no
surprise to me when my name was called. I was instructed that upon entering the room, I was to
turn left and advance to a spot marked on the deck facing a desk and there to announce my name and rank to the board that was sitting. I entered as directed and found myself facing more gold braid than I had seen since joining the Navy. The senior officer a Captain who I later learned was in Command of the Western Approaches asked me to explain why I had failed to complete my chart-work in the exam question. He informed me that I had pass marks but could not understand after doing so well in chart-work all through the course why I had not completed the paper.
I explained through exam nerves I had misread the course given at the start of the paper and
that it was not until I had laid out my first fix that I realized my mistake. Although I had restarted the paper I had insufficient time left to complete. He asked me whether I would be willing to take another test and I said gladly Sir. He turned to the Senior Instructor a Commander, and asked him to arrange the test right away. I was lead to an upper room where I was given a new set of question to tackle. After some fifteen minutes I was told that I had done sufficient work. The Commander had a quick check of the work and without letting me know how I had coped, bade me follow him down to the room where the board was sitting, He knocked and entered, It seemed ages that I was waiting outside that door, I had visions of them going over my work with a magnifying glass and shaking their heads. All the other Cadets had long left the building, I was on my own. Eventually the door opened and my name was called, “come in Gaster”. I entered the room and carried out the same procedure, advanced up to the desk and was about to announce my name when I realized that no one was sitting behind it. I then realized that the examining board had moved and were now propping up the mantelpiece drinking cups of tea, I turned to face them, the Captain spoke first, ”Yes you have passed, why couldn’t you have done that the first time. What would have happened if you had made that mistake aboard your tug back on the Thames?”. I replied that we only did lamppost sailing on the Thames.
“Whatever is that” he asked. So I told him that we were never out of sight of land an knew
every light on the River. He laughed and said I could go. I thanked him and made my way back
to my colleagues. I think that I was walking on air almost missing the ship’s postman who handed me a telegram, on opening it I read the one word Congratulations, it was from my parents. They were curious when they had to write Cadet Rating Gaster on letters addressed to me at Loch Ailort, so I had to explain that I was on a Commission Course, and that if I was still there on the Sixteenth of September then I would pass. Little did they know the sweat that I had shed those last few hours. I was sorry to say that my three colleagues who had left Poole with me failed to finish the course. Though I had met two other lads from the Thames who were Coxswains from the LBV’s, who, like me had made it. That afternoon we were paraded and handed our Commissions by the Captain, when it came to my turn, He shook my hand and asked, ”Feeling better now Lad?”, I assured him that I did. That evening we were all invited to the Wardroom for tea and light refreshments. We were also given our Postings. All of the sixty odd ratings who had been newly Commissioned were posted to Landing Craft as First Lieutenants with exception of six, myself included, who were required to report to H.M.S. “ARMADILLO” at Ardentinny for Royal Naval Beach Commando Training. My new role was to be that of an Assistant Beach Master. However first I was to take fourteen days leave during which time I was to purchase my new uniform of a Sub/Lieutenant R.N.V.R. and report back to Inveraray for Landing Craft familiarization. I often wondered what made me Commando material, was it the boxing or the poor chart work exam result, either way I was never going to find out so I just accepted the fact that I was going to do my best whatever I was called upon to do.
We had a slight hang-over the next morning after letting our hair down in the Canteen the night before. After abstaining from drink for the best part of six weeks, we celebrated. We, that is Joe Smith and Laurie Francis, my ex Landing Craft Colleagues who were previously based on the Isle of Wight, made our way into Glasgow the next morning and there at Rowan’s the big Naval Outfitters, spent some of the Fifty five Pounds uniform allowance purchasing a smart new uniform together with shirts and collars, ties, shoes and raincoat etc., so that we could travel home looking more like tailors dummies. It seemed strange to be on the receiving end of salutes and were a little self conscious in our new role.
Joe and Laurie lived fairly close to my home in Ilford, one in East Ham and the other in Plaistow both in East London. We spent a few days of our leave together but soon lost track when they went to join there respective Landing Craft, whereas I was destined to spend the next fifteen months more as a soldier than a sailor, it was an experience that I was to remember for the rest of my life and never once regretted. My leave went all too quickly, my Parents wanted me to visit Aunties and Uncles that we had not seen for years wanting to show me off. On one such occasion after returning from Pitsea by train to Barking Station, a woman wanted to know what time a certain train was due, I said sorry madam I don’t know. Well you aught to know she said thinking I was a railway guard.
My Mother who was with me at the time was most indignant though had a good laugh after wards.
On returning to Scotland and Inveraray in particular, I was again accommodated on the Southland with the six newly promoted Officers destined to become Naval Commando’s but first we had games to play, that is war games in mock landings with the Army lads and the use of live ammunition, so this was not the place to make mistakes.
It was very demanding during the dark hours trying to follow in the wake of craft ahead of you
onto an unknown beach where the only illumination was from tracer bullets flying over your heads, thunder flashes and gun-cotton charges exploding on the beaches in the landing area. Someone thought fit to cheer us up by saying that we were allowed twenty-per-cent casualties during training. I had the strange feeling that the person responsible for organizing these fun and games was trying to hit this target.
We were at Iveraray for something like a month during which time I was acting Provost Marshal in the town. I did not mind that duty as a supper was laid on at a nice little tavern and very little trouble came from the lads n shore leave. I enjoyed being able to handle all the various types of landing craft all of which were far easier to maneuver than our old LBV’s, The day eventually arrived when we packed our bags and baggage and said goodbye to the Southland and piled onto a three-ton lorry and headed for Ardentiny, the home of the Royal Naval Commando Training Establishment, H.M.S. ARMADILLO. Whatever we had done before could no way compare with what we were about to experience. Life was never going to be quite the same again, were we up to it?. We were soon going to find out.
At the end of a pleasant ride through the Scottish Country side, we arrived at a lovely old house set in pleasant surroundings over looking Loch Long. Here we were met by a smart looking RN Lieutenant dressed in a khaki Battle Dress with Combined Operation badges on the top of each sleeve and the letters RN COMMANDO above them.
Allow me to introduce myself he said, I am Lieut. WAKE your training Officer. The time is now twelve-o-clock, I want you to go away and have your lunch then be back here in your oldest rig at one-o-clock sharp.
We did as we were bid, it seemed strange when we entered the wardroom to see so many khaki uniforms about especially when they were being worn by Naval Officers. We hurried over our meal in order that we could change and be ready for whatever was in store for us that afternoon. At the appointed hour we fell in, not wishing to put ourselves in the bad books on our first day. On the stroke of one, our training Officer appeared and with a quick “follow me” he was half way down the drive leading to the road at a fair trot. We took off after him not wishing to be left behind and soon found ourselves running along the same road that we had traversed when arriving from Inveraray, the question “had we been found wanting?” and being returned as rejects crossed my mind. We carried on at a lively pace and I was beginning to enjoy it this cross country was fine, suddenly we darted through a gap in the hedgerow and began to continue to run up the side of a mountain.
I was beginning to regret eating quite so much lunch. The six weeks since we had any steady training at Loch Ailort was also beginning to take its toll, we had gone soft. Arriving at a point about halfway up rise, Lieut. Wake called out for us to rest. Most of us immediately sank to the soft mossy turf under our feet. I am sure that only a minute could have elapsed when again came the call “follow me”. We dragged ourselves to our feet and once more entered the chase after our leader, on and on and upward we climbed, for now it was getting steeper with every step and the pace did not slacken. I could sense that we nearly at the top and was looking forward to the enevitable break that surely must be waiting for us at the summit. We dragged ourselves those last few pacesthat put us on top of the mountain finding ourselves too exhausted to enjoy the wonderful view.
As we sank to the moss at the order rest, we thought, its all down hill from here. We were unaware of what further delights were in store for us before reaching our accommodation once more and to enjoy a nice cup of tea. With these thoughts going through my mind I was suddenly brought back to reality with the words “follow me”. I am sure that we had only just at down. Running in his “wake” we set off on the way down, I am sure that he must have been chuckling to himself as we started to follow the course of a stream. Not alongside it, but in it. It became deeper and faster flowing as we progressed, here and there were small waterfalls formed by the stream passing over outcrops of granite. These were negotiated fairly easily at first, however we found that they grew steadily bigger the more we progressed down stream.
In some places where the steady flow of water had carved through the rock, it became necessary to for us to brace our feet against one wall with our shoulders against the other as we eased ourselves down the slippery walls of the watercourse.
I cannot remember stopping on the way down, time seemed to stand still and the afternoon seemed endless. Eventually we arrived on the roadway bordering the Loch at a distance of about a mile from the camp. We collected and then proceeded at a trot along the road to our eventual destination.
At a point some two hundred yards from the gates we came to a halt. Right lads into the Loch and swim over to the pier, then you can go and get yourselves a hot bath and change for tea. How I or anyone else made it I do not know, we crawled back to our quarters soaked to the skin’ and though it was the first week in November, I don’t think any one uf us were aware of the cold. We were too exhausted to notice. That evening after we had changed, we had to parade in one of the training huts where Lieut. Wake gave us his introduction talk with a promise that we could look forward to more of the same in the weeks to come. He firstly impressed on us the importance of being able to carry out any order that we would be required to give and therefore would expect the best from us during the training period. He also told us that we would be issued with two suits of khaki and two suits of denims the next day,. You will be expected to parade in khaki for “Colours” in the mornings and to remain in that rig for training periods except where the assault course or beach landings are involved. On those occasions you will wear denims, these are easily dried in the large drying room provided where no doubt yesterdays rig was to be found. Luncheon and tea will be taken in your khaki uniform, but dinner will always be attended in blues, there will be no exception to this rule even though you may be taking part in night exercises later. You will find that ample time will given for you to change for these exercises, you will not, repeat will not, wear your Khaki for shore leave or home leave, During those following weeks it seemed that all our time was taken up in changing from one wet rig into a fresh dry one, only to change back into blues for dinner, then back into denims for night landing exercises, returning to the little kitchen at the back of the Wardroom in the early hours of the morning for a hot cup of thick “Kai” as the cocoa was called before climbing up to the drying room to exchange our wet clothing ready for the next days hard training, from there it was into a hot bath before crawling into bed to sleep the sleep of the exhausted.
We were soon initiated into the secrets of the assault course with its death-slide, this spanned the river going from the top branches of a tree on one side, to the base of a tree on the other bank around which were thick gorse bushes. This was traversed by using our toggle rope, an item that we were all supplied with. These ropes about a fathom in length with an eye splice in one end, and a stout wooden toggle in the other. By joining the toggle and eye splice together, this when passed over the death slide to form two loops and passed under each elbow to make a safe sling with which to descend at a rate of “knots”, here on arrival at the base of the tree, it was necessary to raise the feet to prevent contact with the tree itself throwing yourself sideways into the gorse bushes remembering to let go of the rope on landing. The toggle ropes had many uses, when joined together they could be fashioned into rope bridges or to assist in scaling cliff faces etc. or to overcome other obstacles.
The next and possibly the most daunting obstacle was crossing over a single rope strung between two trees one on each side of the river at a height of about fifteen feet. The idea was to pull yourself across by laying on the rope, this could be accomplished by hooking one foot behind you over the rope and allowing the free leg to act as a pendulum whilst pulling yourself along on your stomach. It was certainly more successful than trying to cross suspended below the rope by the arms. I know from experience having plummeted into a cold river a couple of times. The next crossing was a tree trunk laid from bank to bank, if you were to reach it before it got too wet your chances of crossing in one go were fairly good, however once it was wet and slippery you had to be very lucky to make it in one go.
Before getting to these obstacles, we had to negotiate some barbed wire by crawling through on our stomachs all the while whilst friendly instructors were speeding us along with a few well placed thunder-flashes. Then we had to negotiate a cliff face about thirty feet high, all this had to be done at speed, so by the time it came to the rope crossings etc. we were feeling a little off balance. When tackling barbed wire as a group, it was easier for one member to throw himself across the triple rolls using his arms folded to protect his face avoiding the metal posts, then allow the remainder of the group to use him as a bridge, It sounds a little suicidal but rarely did the bridge suffer any hurt. I know, because I was “volunteered” on a number of occasions, it was not a matter of where there is no sense there is little feeling. As you lay on the wire and you felt the patter of ammunition boots running over your spine, the wire gave a little with each person crossing so by the time a dozen or more had used the facility, you could just pick yourself up off the wire which by this time was flattened and run to join your colleagues for the rest of the days entertainment.
Two parallel ropes slung across the stream looked fairly easy, by tucking them under each arm and with your feel hooked over the ropes behind you, it was easy to make progress; that is with the proviso that you did not get too ambitious and reach just that little too far in front of you to have the rope suddenly slip from under one arm causing you to slip through the gap. With heavy ammunition pouches and webbing on, it was almost impossible to regain your position then almost inevitably came the descent into icy waters and start all over again. A footbridge crossed the stream further along, though we were not allowed to cross over it for fear of snipers, or so we were told, beneath the bridge was a metal strengthening rail about an inch in diameter. This was the what we had to use whilst swung underneath. By gripping the rail in each hand and allowing one hand at a time to slide along as the body adopted a pendulum motion, it was possible to cross successfully from one side to the other. This however had to be learned the hard way and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts I finally realized that trying to use the Tarzan style did not work.
The last and final obstacle on that run before doing the whole lot in reverse was to allow yourself to drop from a hump back bridge into shallow water, not quite so easy as it sounds if you have to protect your legs and feet.
I think that in the first few weeks that I was at Armadillo, I must have lost a stone and a half,
It would make a wonderful Health Farm in this day and age. However I soon began to put on a few muscles after regularly going over the same course and getting a little faster each time. On a number of occasions we took part in night landings with some army detachments both as the Beach Party responsible for handling the craft on the beach. This requiring the craft to be cleared into deeper water and away from the landing area if “hit”, or in the event of a “engine defect”, two anomalies that our instructors arranged when they felt we were having an easy time. To facilitate the removal of the damaged or defective craft, it was necessary to wade into the loch and bodily push the craft into deep water so that they could be towed away. I might tell you that the water in those loch’s at that time of the year were chilly to say the least, one could hear the gasps as the water reached certain parts of the body, we began to wonder, could there be any truth in this Brass Monkey theory?.
The other delightful exercise was a deepwater reconnaissance of the beach approaches in order to eliminate any possible underwater obstructions in the way of the landing craft, or deep holes where the poor bloody infantry man could stumble into after leaving the landing craft ramp with all his pack weighing him down. In this exercise we would join hands with tallest on the seaward end of the line, he would the wade into the water until he could keep his head just clear. Then we would turn and walk the whole length of the landing area, whilst the Beach Master made notes of the rise and fall of the reconnaissance parties progress. In this way he could produce a fairly reasonable chart of the area. We were further instructed in the use of explosive that would enable us to remove obstructions, and bangalore-torpedo’s for blowing gaps in barbed wire entanglements. Cortex instantaneous fuse was used to cut though fallen trees and other barriers that might prevent exiting from the beach area to the hinterland. It was our job to see that a way was quickly cleared for the invading force to move over the beach area as quickly as possible. Should any hold ups occur, we were to communicate with the Head-Quarters Command Ship lying of the beach so that they could regulate the landing craft that still having the option of using another beach. Therefore the use of Beach Signals was important to all of us. Each beach had its own designated morse signaling lamp and visual display of code. For instance the beach that I manned in Normandy was “ITEM”
“GREEN”, The morse signaling lamp would be set to flash “I”, --, This for the incoming
landing craft to spot during the hours of darkness.
As an Assistant Beachmaster, my job entailed going in with the first assault wave with a body guard to cover me whilst I did a quick check of the beach area to ascertain that we had arrived in the correct area. It was then necessary for me to get the information back to the Headquarters ship to confirm the position. It could then be decided whether the landings would continue in that area. The first three waves would of necessity be committed whatever happened. So one would always hope that we had got it right the first time. If not we would have to make our way to the designated area by whatever means was at our disposal. On one of our night landing exercises. The Instructing Officer told me to take over from the Coxswain of a Mark IV LCM. These were American built craft with a central wheel-house built over the engine room. The ramp had a solid section to the hull line, then it looked like a bedstead with a frame work top to enable better vision. The noise in the wheelhouse was deafening with both engines going. There were separate hand controls to each engine controlled direct from the wheel-house, and as I was approaching the beach I found great difficulty in keeping over to starboard and had to correct my course a couple of times. Eventually I beached the craft and successfully lowered the ramp in the right position. At that point the stoker came up on deck to report the port engine had stopped. The Instruction Officer who happened to be the Boat Officer at ARMADILLO asked the stoker how long had the engine been stopped. “Soon after we got under way Sir”, he replied. The instructor then turned to me and said what was your job before being sent up here?, A Petty Officer Coxswain, I replied. Well get out of there and let some one else have a go. You make it look too easy. The training was necessary rigorous we were tested many times over the ten weeks that we were at Ardentinny, I will say that by the time that I had completed the course which included unarmed combat, dealing with booby traps, and in general staying alive. I felt that I could tackle anything. The whole course instilled a feeling of self confidence that I sometimes wish I possessed today.
Our very last exercise was a landing from an LCM at Lochgoilhead where we bivouacked over night using a gas cape, a ground sheet and blanket. By pairing off we could make a reasonable tent by lacing the groundsheets together, and use the gas capes as insulation from the damp ground.
We washed and shaved using water direct from the loch and after a breakfast cooked over a small open fire set in a small trench so that our mess tins rested on the edges and formed a tunnel so giving a good draught to cook the better, we set out to return to Ardentinny the first eight miles was on a good road and we made good time as we swung along with a few marching songs that helped to keep the pace going, the next eight to ten miles seemed more like twenty, as we had to cross three ranges of hills. We set off in pairs so that we had someone who could, should an accident occur, assist you or get some help. It was tough going by any standard, there were sheer drops in places together with many boggy areas that could trap the unwary. We were not supplied with a map, and had not traversed this section before, so it was a matter of relying on our own sense of direction, and choosing the most direct route trying toavoid the worst of the terrain.
Our goal was reached in about six hours from the time that we had left Lochgoilhead, wet through with sweat and aching in all our joints, we sought a nice hot bath in which to relax before enjoying a welcome and relaxing cup of tea back in the wardroom.
The six of us who had been sent to Ardentiny from Loch Ailort, had all made it through the
course with flying colours, and by way of celebration accepted an invitation from one of the Wrens who lived locally to a dance in the village hall. I can honestly say that I did not know what I had let myself in for. We were heeling and toeing for the best part of three hours not being allowed to “sit this one out”, for the whole evening. the Accordion, Piano, and Drums kept us on our feet, and the wrens took no prisoners.
If I hadn’t known different, I would have thought that the dance had been arranged as our last endurance test. The next day the calves of my legs felt like bars of iron, I could hardly walk without wincing. I certainly had a new respect for people who danced the Highland Fling from that day on.
The day came when we received our postings to our Beach Parties, known as Commando’s,
Bob Campbell a young Midshipman who had been one of the six that made up our course was posted with me to “J” Commando who were then stationed in a little village outside Plymouth
on the River Tamar, Tammerton Foliot.
Bob hailed from Halifax in Yorkshire, we were to become lasting friends and shared quite a few adventures together. We travelled down by train from Glasgow, we seemed to take forever, it, was a nightmare of a journey that took all of twenty four hours, I think that we must have gone round in circles during the night, I cannot even remember whether we had managed to get any food or refreshment whilst on that train so we were more than pleased to be met at the Station by a Wren driver with a Utilicon to convey us to our new Quarters.
On arrival at our new base “HMS FOLIOT III”, we met our new colleagues, the officersd and men of “J” Commando, I was to be assistant Beachmaster with “J2” party, whilst Bob joined “J3” in a similar capacity. The Senior Officer, or Beachmaster of “J2” was Lieut. RNVR, “Mac” Mcauley, a Canadian, of Scottish abstraction who was a bit of a romancer though very easy to get along with. The other assistant Beachmaster was a young Midshipman RNVR, Ray Summers who hailed from Kent. The other Officers of “J”, were, Lieut. RNVR Bill Lindsey, The Beachmaster of “J1” with Midshipman RNVR Pete Snelling, and Midshipman RNVR Phil Lord as his Assistant Beachmasters. The Beachmaster of “J3” was Lieut. RNVR Ronnie Wheeler, a local man from Newton Abbot, who prior to the war, was with the Customs and Excise. His other assistant beachmaster was Sub/Lieut. RNVR Bill Stephens who hailed from Plymouth.
Each party consisted of twenty Seamen including two Leading Seamen, two Petty Officers,
a Lieutenant as Commanding Officer, with two junior officers assisting. The Commando comprised of three such parties making a total of sixty-six other ranks and eleven Officers, “J” was still short of a Principal Beachmaster, usually a Lieut.Commander, and an Assistant Principal Beachmaster usually filled by a Sub/Lieut. As these posts had not been filled to date. Lieut.Bill Lindsay was the Acting PBM.
I soon fell into the routine training that kept the Commando on its toes as it were. We had a twice weekly run over the assault course set up along the bank of the nearby River Tamar, This was as every bit demanding as that at Ardentinny. Then on two days of the week we had a twelve mile cross country run that had to be completed in two hours if you wanted to be back in camp in time to catch the first “liberty boat”.
Wednesdays were always allocated to an all day route march with full pack and equipment, this always consisted of twenty minutes marching, twenty minutes double time, twenty minutes marching again with a five minute break on the hour. We must have covered the whole of Devon and Nearby Cornwall, during our spell at Tamerton Foliot. Interspaced with these activities were little stunts like a march to Dawlish and back in two days. Or use the local landing craft unit to put us ashore at Whitsand Bay, leaving us to march forty miles to St.Dominick Near Bere Alston, where we could ford the River Tamar and then make our way back to Tammerton Foliot another ten miles or so. This was in December, so we had to keep moving to keep warm. What I should of added was we started at dusk, and we did stop at a local for an hour before closing time. The senior medical Officer at Tammerton decided that he would like to come with us to see what we had to put up with. He opted out when we left the pub. We were then in a position that we could not opt for a short cut over the Tamar Bridge.
When we did have our breaks of five minutes. It was always agony to get started again on our blistered feet. On taking my boots off when we arrived back in camp some twenty four hours after we had left. It was to find that I had blisters that reached from toe to heel on both feet. I went to the bathroom and lay in a nice hot bath utterly exhausted, only to be awakened some time later when the bath was cold by one of the other resident Officers at the camp who had heard me snoring and had physically shaken me after climbing over a partition wall.
In between times we carried out normal Naval routine such as duty officer when our turn of duty came round or guard Commander for morning Division and Colours. Soon after joining “J”, the new PBM Lieut/Commander Bell RNVR. Joined, together with his Assistant, Sub/Lieutenant Tom Hewitt RNVR who hailed from Rotherhithe and like myself an ex-Landing Barge petty Officer Coxswain.. Obviously we got on very well together having a lot of mutual friends though not having previously met one another.
Tom was probably around the thirty mark age wise, and married with a couple of children. He had been awarded the British Empire Medal for rescue work in the Surrey Commercial Docks during the Blitz on that first daylight raid on Saturday the 7th September 1941, when millions of tons of timber was destroyed. He was tough, though gentlemanly in character, his father had been a one-time Judo and wrestling champion in his younger days, Tom had obviously picked up some of his skills for we worked together as a team in training the lads in un-armed combat.
My part in the team was that of the “fall-guy”, rarely, did I get the opportunity to reverse that role. Tom was very quick to counter any move of mine. I soon found that it was better to learn how to fall when thrown and to roll back onto my feet.
The Senior Petty Officer in “J2” was a Petty Officer William Fedder, an advanced gunnery instructor who had spent a great deal of his service at Whale Island, the home of foot drill and gunnery in the Royal Navy. He was a tough experienced man who was invaluable in the running and training of the Party. Like his counterpart, Petty Officer Tunnely, he was a regular General Service rating. These two men held the respect of both Officers and Men alike. It followed that a lot of though had gone into their selection for Commando Service.
Whilst out for my first cross country run with the commando in the usual PT vest and shorts, I found myself running alongside of a lad who I recognised as previously being my Corporal when I was in the Home Guard back at South Benfleet in 1941. He seemed a little surprised to see me and asked how long I had been with “J”, then said that he would look me up later in the day when we returned back to camp. I discovered that he was a Leading Seaman with”J1” party. He was a little taken aback when he discovered I was the duty Officer inspecting the Liberty men that afternoon.
We spent Christmas at Tammerton Foliot that year, I had sought and got permission to take Bob Campbell with me for a long weekend leave to my home traveling on Christmas day.
Apparently this was to allow the civilian population to have the transport on Christmas Eve
because of crowding when too many service personel were on the move. All had been arranged
until I turned my ankle whilst doing a Tuesday run over the assault course and then developed a sore throat and headache that evening. Wednesday was the normal all day route march and “Mac” Macaully my C.O., decided that I had better miss that out and stay behind.
I was still in my bunk at 0830 when I was roused by the Duty Officer who informed me the Commander, wanted to see me in his Office, and to get there as soon as possible. As quickly as I could I attended at the Commanders Office, knocking at the door I was bade to enter. I removed my cap and was quickly told to keep you cap on. I stood to attention in front of his desk wondering what I had done. “What were you doing still in your bunk at 0800 he demanded”, I replied that I had been excused the route march because of a turned ankle and that I had been unwell with a sore throat and headache. He made a quick phone call then told me to report to the Sick Bay.
I was met by the Senior Medical Officer who asked, “what have you been up to?”, I don’t know I replied, and explained to him what had happened. He confirmed my ankle was sprained, and that I had Septic Tonsils, writing out a note and handing it to me he said, “give this to the Commander”. I reported back to the Commanders Office and handed him the note, He looked at it and then said, “that is no excuse for you still being in your bunk at 0800, You will be required for duty on board for the next seven days”. I was dumb struck, that was our Christmas leave wiped off in one stroke.
I went back to the room that the Commando Officers shared, a large Nissen Hut. And on approaching my bunk, the lower of two; Bob Campbell occupied the top berth, I spotted a note
Left for the Steward informing him that I was not to be wakened,. DO NOT SHAKE, in large letters. I had not noticed this before and wondered who on earth had put it there.
I eventually found the answer when the Commando returned from the route march, Bob Campbell came bouncing in all smiles and said, “Did you have a good sleep Jack?, I left a note on your bunk so that you would not be disturbed”. It was then that I told him what had happened and the consequences about my leave being stopped. In a typical Yorkshire way, he said, “Ee! He can’t do that, I am going to tell him what happened”, and taking the note he made for the door, I did try to warn him not to go, it was too late, he had already gone. Some little time elapsed, then Bob came back into the, hut his face as long as a “fiddle”, We did not have to ask how he got on, By this time everyone in the hut knew of the story. “What happened Bob” was the chorus?, “I am required to stay on board for seven days” he replied, “what did he say about the note”. “If Gaster can not get up under his own steam, then he deserves to stay on board” He replied. “And I am not to leave any more notes in future”. Well that was our long weekend up the Creek, Christmas and Boxing Day would be spent on board.
Christmas day arrived, we all required to attend a service in the nearby Church where we joined in singing Carols with the Congregation before returning to the canteen where drinks were on the mess before going to have our traditional Christmas dinner. I can remember Bob and I Propping up the corner of the bar “drowning our sorrows”, and vaguely going in the Mess and sitting down to eat my dinner. After that it was a bit of a blank that seemed almost like a dream sequence with me being made to stand in the Canteen and then subsiding back into a chair. When I eventually arrived back in the land of the living, it was to find myself lying in my bunk in a somewhat dazed condition. I must have uttered a groan, this was answered by another from the bunk above. It was dark and we were alone in the hut, “What has happened?” I asked Bob who was occupying his bunk. “We are under close arrest for conduct un-becoming Officers and Gentlemen”, he replied, I was stunned. I gathered my self together and went into the washroom to freshen up, and then looked at my uniform jacket and could see a tear in it where the top button had been pulled away but had been repaired in a fairly neat way. “What happened to my jacket” I asked who sewed it up for me”. “It was torn when you were made to stand up in the Canteen”. He replied, “You did the repair work yourself.
The following morning, Bob and I were brought before the Commander, I was the first one to be dealt with. I was told that I had acted in a way Un-becoming to an Officer and that If I could not hold my drink, then I could do without it for the next month when I would be required for duty on board. My wine bill would be stopped with immediate effect.
I apologised for my behaviour and accepted the punishment, then returned to my quarters, Bob followed a little later a little indignant that he had collected the same punishment thinking that he had not been drunk at all, that is until Ron Wheeler his C.O. in “J3”, said “well if you will go chasing the Wrens across the Parade ground flapping your arms like a bird, and shouting Goosey Goosey! What can you expect” Things were not so bad, whenever I had a “soft” drink in the Canteen somehow or other it always had that special something in it. Though I never had more than one and made it last. I was duty Officer on the gate on New Years Eve and supervised the ringing out of 1943, and the ringing in of 1944, eight bells for each, sixteen in all, and as per custom by the youngest rating on board. There was I feeling old at twenty! At about 0130, The Commander appeared driving home in his car,” He lived in the Village”. Winding down his window as I saluted him, He called out, “Goodnight and a happy new year”, as he drove somewhat, “over carefully”, through the gates.
We had a number of exercises that entailed the Commando being dropped twenty odd miles away having been transported out in covered lorries and told that we were the “enemy”, and that the Home Guard and local Police had been informed of our presence, and were out to prevent us getting back to the Camp.
Fortunately for us, most of the area we new like the back of our hand, we had covered enough of it during our route marches, Though we did have one funny incident when seeking cover when by-passing a village, we took to a dry ditch alongside a hedgerow. Several of our group were crawling along and making as little noise as possible when a rustling noise was heard on the other side of the hedge. It was dusk and the light was fading at the time, as I was in the lead, I signaled for silence then peeked through the leaves to find two big eyes and a white face looking at me. I very nearly fell over, it was the face of a cow that was seeking the shelter of the hedge and was as surprised to see me, as I was by her. She trotted away thankfully not making any noise. I think that the Home Guard had packed up and gone home for their tea.
Another exercise was carried out on Dartmoor, our opponents then were “E” Commando, I was advancing with a group from “J2” to a point where we had to cross a railway line. I was I thought very careful to keep a low profile as we moved across the track when an Umpire waved to us and said, “You lot are all casualties”, “how come”, I asked. “They” he said pointing to a hedgerow some fifty yards away, “Have been targeting you with mortars for a couple of minutes”. I said I never felt a thing, what happens now?. Go down to the Hotel over there, You will find the rest of the casualties”. When we arrived, it was to see a good few of both Commando’s happily supping a few jars at the bar. The rest of the afternoon was spent meeting old and new friends. In the end I quite liked that Umpire, I think that he knew what was good for me.
Not long after this, we were on the move again, but not before the Commander called Bob and I in to see him and wish us well, he wasn’t such a bad old stick. First we returned to Armadillo, our home base from where we were allowed to take some leave after a re-assessment of our proficiency together with a few replacements as some of the lads were promoted to Leading Seamen Etc. Whilst we were there, Mac McAuley , went on leave and failed to rejoin us. I never discovered what happened, though I did hear that he went to Ireland and for some reason was brought back under escort some time later after we left for our new base at South Queensferry, “HMS HOPETOUN”
HMS HOPETOUN, our new base, was very close to Port Edgar, a Naval Patrol Service Base. The men were all housed in Nissen Huts, the Officers Wardroom was shared with the staff of the Base in a nice Building that I can imagine had been a large country manor. It was very comfortable and what is more we were able to visit Edinburgh whilst on shore leave. Also there was a nice little pub almost under the Fourth Bridge, The Hawes Inn, well within walking distance for a nice quiet evening ashore. I was beginning to feel quite at home in Scotland.
The routine training carried on, Petty Officer Fedder and myself set about rigging up an assault course to keep the lads on their toes. A nearby valley with a cliff face at one end provided a most
suitable site to rig our death slide. We had a suitable tree near the top of the cliff and one at the bottom though a little further than we would have like, as the rope length supplied was in 120 fathom coils, standard issue from the stores. By the time we had secured the rope around the tree at the top with at least a clove hitch two half hitches and a lashing to ensure it would not slip. There was insufficient length of rope left to secure it to the lower tree. We had thought of splicing on another shorter length, though this would have entailed using a long splice and may have restricted the toggle ropes sliding down smoothly.
A word with the store keeper and we were soon in possession of a 3inch 150 fathom flexible steel wire rope, we were in business. Once rigged in position, I decided that I should do the test run before committing any of the lads to it. It was a far longer slide than any that we had undertaken before and by the time we neared the bottom, the wire rope dipped enough to make a running landing on the grassy patch at about fifteen feet from the end. It was “hairy” but safe enough
though, after a couple of runs, we noticed that the toggle ropes were beginning to chafe through.
Petty Officer Fedder came up with the idea of getting a shackle big enough to use directly on the wire with the toggle rope through this. The idea was okay and as he had come up with it, he decided that he should be the test pilot on this occasion. It certainly got over the chafing of the ropes, but his speed on the descent was almost doubled, so that when he hit the ground running
He was moving too fast to stop and made pretty poor landing, bouncing along a few yards, He was stunned for a while, and had managed to put a fountain pen that he carried in his battledress
Pocket through the flesh of his cheek, He tried to make light of it but I insisted that he go to the sick bay for a check up, He was detained overnight for observation which upset him as he had a date with one of the Wren drivers that evening. I promised that I would see that she was informed and I believe he had an unexpected visit from her, which he was very happy about.
The wire slide was dismantled, we did not want too many casualties before we needed to, so we tried to think of other ways to keep ourselves amused without breaking our necks. One of the tried and tested keep fit exercises was a game, called “Brighton Football”, this was played using a medicine ball. The two sides were picked from the twenty men in “J2” with P.O.Fedder on one side, Myself on the other, and P.O.Tunnely as referee, the rules, if rules existed?. Was get the ball through the oppositions goal in any way you chose. To mark the two sides, the ones in vests were my team, those not in vest were the opposition. It always amazed me that whenever I or P.O.Fedder managed to get the ball, we always finished up at the bottom of a huge scrum. I wonder if we had upset them some time and they were getting a little of their own back?.
Several times we went out for night exercises, mostly to live rough on our twenty-four hour ration packs to see how we could manage. By this time Lieut. Bill Stevens had taken over as CO of “J2”.
He was a very easy man to get on with, and was instantly liked by the lads. It transpired that he had taken part in the landings at Anzio where the beaches had come under some intense fire and bombing. He showed the lads how to live off the land and with some foraging we manage a fair old stew using a couple of tins of Bully Beef.. About this time we had an occasion to go to the little seaport of Musselburgh where I was delighted to meet some of my old Landing Barge Flotilla, Jimmy Jewiss and Stan Everard in particular. I asked them how they had found their way up to Scotland, and it seemed they had been transported by an LSD, a Landing Ship Dock, Very similar to the present day Assault ships used by the Royal Marine Commando’s very soon after this we took part in an exercise at Gullane Beach near North Berwick, this is where we encountered the DUKW’s, for the first time. What a marvelous vehicle they were, this was to be proved when during the Storms of “D”+19 in Normandy, when a number of the LBV were swamped. They were the only craft moving in and out of the beaches collecting vital ammunition and stores from the ships within and outside the Mulberry Harbour. But, more of that later. We were impressed with their versatility, eight knots on water, sixty mph plus on shore. Three tons load on water, and I believe ten on land. The tyre’s could be inflated or deflated according to nature of the surface on which the vehicle was traveling, the propellor and pump were operated with a separate set of gear levers, I was envious when all we had was an amphibious Jeep that could only manage four knots on water so long as it wasn’t choppy, if that was case, the air intake vent had to be closed and the engine overheated, though it did have a dinky little winch on the bonnet and it held the road well on dry land.
We were well equipped with some Lanchesters, these were modified sten guns with furniture and bayonet fittings, these were used by the bodyguards who’s job it was to look after the ABM’s whilst they were busy carrying out a reconnaissance. A stripped Lewis for ack-ack use or fired
from the hip when necessary, Short Lee Enfield rifles 303, for half the party, whilst those whose job it was to tote the signaling equipment had Smith and Wesson 4;55 Revolvers, this included the Officers. They were a heavy old WW1 weapon with a six inch barrel, fairly accurate at thirty yards, and packed a punch if they struck home.
We had plenty of instruction in the use of hand grenades including the safe priming of these
weapons, all too many accidents have occurred by holding the detonators in a warm hand or crimping them by using the teeth. Our lads were too valuable to the Commando than to be lost through carelessness. Other weapons at hand was the bakelite bomb used mainly for stun
purposes, though again if used carelessly could cause severe injury. We also were trained in the use of the beehive bomb, so named I believe because of its shape; when placed on the outside wall of a pillbox or gun emplacement, it could blast a hole in the wall of sufficient size that would allow a grenade to be introduced if the initial blast had failed to incapacitate the occupiers.
We were in a state of readiness for anything we were ask to do by the beginning of February 1944,
we were then granted a seven day home leave for the whole Commando. I think this was to relax us a wee bit before the coming task. On our return to Scotland, a number of briefings were given to the Officers re target areas that had been selected with up to date information supplied by our COPP’S People., the name given to the Combined Operations Pilotage Personel., and from our friends in the French Resistance.
Such information would be photographs taken of the shoreline from submarines operating off shore, and samples of sand or gravel collected from the beaches by the use of a rubber dinghy,
Information re under water obstacles, defensive works and mined areas. Lives had been risked in obtaining this information that was of immense value to the people whose job it was to secure the beach-head.
Life went on much the same for a while, Intensive training and exercise with the occasional visit into Edinburgh for an evening out, though I was most content to venture as far as the Hawes Inn for a couple of pints and a stroll back to our quarters on the right side of midnight for a good nights rest.. Plans were made for a dance to be held in the nearby base with “J” Commando as hosts, Tickets were printed for sometime in June, it was something that everyone was eager to attend and no doubt word was spread far and wide. As we approached the end of April, I was called in to see the PBM, who said “I know that you will be disappointed, but I want you to take charge of the Second wave of the Commando to land. As you are the Senior Sub/Lieutenant I will leave you with two Midshipmen and twenty hands. You will be our back-up and fill in any gaps left by casualties”. I was a bit gutted to say the least, but I suppose it was a responsibility that had to be filled by someone. I had Phil Lord and Bob Campbell as my Assistants, so in a way I was classed as a deputy Beachmaster.
In May we all took part in Photographic session, both of the three parties “J1”, “J2” and “J3”. then of the whole Commando. Then with little warning we were entrained south to a sealed camp on the outskirts of Southampton, where, once inside; we were not allowed out without an escort. The whole camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed sentry’s who had orders to shoot any one attempting to break out. We had all been briefed as to our roles so there was a need for rigid security, so much so that I had to accompany a Petty Officer from “J1” Party to a Dentists whilst he had treatment for Trench Mouth, and stay in the Treatment room with him to ensure that he did not divulge any information that could have been of any use to the enemy.
We spent nearly four weeks in the camp shared by many army units including some Canadian lads from Princess Pats Highland light infantry. They all appeared to be six footers, full of life and eager to go. I came across a group of them one day preparing their grenades for use, they were using their teeth to crimp the detonators, I hurried on, not wishing to spoil their fun or deal with any casualties that might occur. Towards the end of May, sections of the Commando left the Camp, there were there one minute, then away, so there was no goodbyes, or see you over there, just a vacant tent or tents and a sense of when do we follow? At the beginning of June, my turn came, by this time the original plan to leave me with the party of twenty plus the Midshipmen had been cancelled, we were now split up between the three parties again, but put aboard different landing craft so that at least a proportion of the Beach Parties would survive the initial landings to take over control of the landing areas. I was to find myself with the APBM and about a dozen men from “J2” on an LST. We seemed to take forever in large queues of Vehicles making for the hard at Hythe where we marshaled onto these craft that seemed hungry and eager to fill their vast interiors with as much of the trucks, bren-gun carriers, and halftracks as they could cope with.
Once laden, we moved out into the Solent where we found ourselves surrounded by a vast armada of grey ships and landing craft. Once there we lay at anchor for what seemed a long time though it may only have been twenty four hours or so. I got my head down when I was not required to do rounds of the troops accommodation that lined the ships flanks below decks.
Everyone seemed in good spirits, maybe a little false bravado here and there. Then we felt the ship begin to move, we were on our way.
Some of these men we were sharing this trip with had seen it all before, I on the other hand was going to my baptism of fire, how was I going to react?, I said a little silent prayer, “ Dear God, if I do collect one, make it quick and clean, I would like to reach my Twenty first birthday in August, and Lord, I haven’t dipped my “wick” yet”. Silly thing to say, but I guess it mattered
What an amazing sight met our eyes when we eventually came on deck.on that morning of the 6th.of June. The initial landings had already gone in. we could hear the bombardment long before we arrived in the holding area. I watched as the heavy guns of the Monitor “Roberts” fired its shells weighing some ton apiece over the landing area, it was possible to watch their flight over the beaches. We could see the wreckage of damaged landing craft where they had hit beach obstructions that mines attached to them as we approached the landing site. It then struck me that we were coming in on the wrong beach as far as “J” Commando was concerned. This was “KING” beach in the Courselles area, and already manned by “R” Commando. As soon as we cleared the LST, I Arranged with the Beachmaster for a lift with an LCM Mk 1, the British version, to ferry us along to Item Green Beach at LeHamel.
I was upset to see quite a few bodies of those young Canadian Soldiers in the shallow waters off King beach, they had never made it ashore to be able to use those grenades that they were priming and tossing to one another like toys just a few days before.
As we approached Le Hamel we could see some of the block ships being sunk in position to protect the beach head. This was the beginnings of the Mulberry Harbour. Our Coxswain laid off shore a bit as we passed the Sanatorium by Le Hamel as there was still quite a bit of activity and firing in that corner, but brought us round dodging between obstacles onto the beach near the western end where a chalk cliff separated us from Arromanche, We quickly scrambled ashore where we were met by our colleagues fro “J” who had landed with the assault wave. They halready established a sheltered position for the Beachmasters HQ. It was sited on a sand ridge running along the top of the beach beyond which lay a flooded area surrounded by barbed wire and with signs proclaiming “Achtung Minen”. Looking along the base of the wire, we could see strands of fine wire disappearing into the sand along its length, these were attached to Teller mines, as we did not wish to cross the wire at that point we left them very much alone.
Members of the LCOCU Units Landing Craft Obstacle clearing units were busy doing their dangerous work making the beaches safe for the landing craft who were coming in in an endless stream to disgorge the military hardwear onto the beaches. In the mean time The Royal Engineers Beach recovery tanks and Bulldozers were clearing the hedgehog obstacles away from the beaching areas. Whilst other tanks fitted with flails were busy clearing a path through the field that lay to the right of the beach and continued up hill to a point where it joined a road a road through to Arromanche. Closely followed by another tank with a roll of Sommerfelt Tracking that unrolled as it made its way uphill making a steel mesh roadway as it progressed. Meanwhile as the sounds of battle receded away from the beach area we took stock of our position. A bivouac area close to a dry stone wall that had been checked for mines by members of the Royal Engineers was chose for a tented site, Our Senior Petty Officer Bill Fedder soon had this organized for us with half a dozen ridge tents to house “J1” and “J2” party’s. “J3” were on the other side if the chalk cliff in Arromanche itself. Watches were arranged to cover the duties on the Beach itself, in a four on four off routine. Bob Campbell and I shared watches. The middle and afternoon, twelve to four, the afternoon watches were always busy though we were governed by the tides once the LBV’s and PBR’s started to come in. The PBR’s were the army version of the LBV’s, they were called Power Barge Ramp. These craft were off loading the ships that were now beginning to arrive off the beach head, each carried up to fifty tons or more in there holds and required to come in on the high tide to swing so that their ramp was facing inshore then settle on the beach as the ebb set in. They were then unloaded onto lorries that were using the metal road created by the Engineers. Whilst they occupied the Eastern side of the beach, we had the DUKWS coming and going throughout the whole tide cycle. I am beginning to realize now, that because of my experience as an LBV Coxswain and my river work on the Thames. I was placed in the best position to help and assist my old colleagues. Come to think about it, It was like a giant game of Draughts. I am glad that I was on the winning side. One very sad occurrence whilst I was on duty one afternoon, a RAF Corporal approached me to ask where he and two airmen could bivouac in safety, they had been taking charge of balloons brought over by the landing craft to set up a defense against enemy aircraft in the Mulberry Harbour area. I advised them to see the Royal Engineer Captain in charge of the Beach area as he would know of the cleared areas, Shortly afterward I spotted them along the other side of the beach exit, they seemed to be coping well and I turned to look at a DUKW that was coming toward me from the road way, I sensed rather than heard an explosion. Turning my head in their direction I saw almost in slow motion their bodies being lifted and thrown in a ghastly pirouette. Two were killed outright, the other survived for an hour.
I was shaken by this incident, and the question always remained with me, could I have done more for these lads?, In the meantime, the Mulberry Harbour was beginning to take shape. The concrete sections were being delivered and sunk into place forming a sheltered area from LeHamel in the East to the West side of Arromanche, closing the gaps left by the sunken ships(Gooseberry’s) that formed the original breakwater early on D-day. Sections of the Phoenix Piers were being moved into place and held in position by the dropping of the “spuds”, the suspended Steel piles at each corner of the floating sections that held the piers in position at all states of tide. Then the floating roadway sections were maneuvered into position by the TID tugs of the IWT Section of the Royal Engineers, to form the link between the Piers and the shore. Petty Officer Fedder did sterling work supplying small explosive charges with which he was able to blast holes in the beach sufficient enough in which to push clump and mushroom anchors of sufficient size to secure the Piers to the shore in the shortest possible time. Once this was done, vessels could off load their cargo’s direct onto lorries on the pier itself and drive directly to their forward supply depots.
Another Pier was positioned on the Western section of our beach, from which mostly military vehicles were off loaded from LST’s to drive away from the beach area using the Sommerfelt Tracking laid across the field to the rear of the beach area. Once when I had left the beach making for our bivouac area, having been relieved from my watch as Beachmaster, I was walking away from the beach along the original gravel road when a DUKW was making its way down to the beach, I stepped up onto the grass verge that was a little higher than the road surface to give him more room to pass, A Bren Gun Carrier that had already left the beach and was following some ten yards behind me, moved over to my side of the road and put his track up onto the verge to allow the DUKW to pass. In that instant there was an explosion that blew his track right off. I was lucky not to have been hit by flying metal when that happened. But what if I had triggered that blast when I walked along that same spot. A few days after this incident, a Flail tank started to clear the field that lay on the other side of the dry stone wall behind our tented bivouac area. Immediately several “S” mines were detonated these were a rather nasty anti-personel device that when triggered by someone kicking against one of the three small prongs situated on the top of the mine, it would be fired from a metal cup that was buried in the soil causing the it to be lifted to a height of about four feet from the ground before
exploding with a killing range of about fifty feet from the resultant explosion. Our immediate concern was the damage done to our tents, those alongside the wall were damaged by the flying shrapnel contained within the body of the mine. Petty Officer Fedder brought several of these into the bivouac area and proceeded to take them apart, needless to say there was a general exodus from the vicinity of area where he was working. I suppose I should have had my head examined, I was so fascinated that I stayed to watch as he unscrewed the detonator with the three little prongs that would take a very sharp eye to spot in a grass covered area, then lift the mine proper from its metal case some five inches in diameter and six inches in depth, this the part that remained in the ground and acted as mortar. He then dismantled the mine casing and poured out the contents, there were over two hundred pieces of rod iron that had been cut at forty-five degrees, measuring about half an inch long from one sharp end to the other, there was no wonder that they were so deadly.
The flail tank carried on his task of clearing the field, gradually moving further away, but the damage had been done two tents including that shared by myself and Bill Stephens. There had been a couple of sneak raids by “Jerry” so I thought it prudent to make a small sheltered dugout on similar lines to the Anderson shelters that I had reason to know and be thankful for. I collected some sandbags and oddments of timber from the beach and set about making my new Quarters near to the galley that was an old wooden caravan and a tarpaulin tent that our two “able seamen cooks” had fashioned around their cooking area. I was able to make use of some empty compo ration boxes to line the interior of the dug out, these made good cupboards. I will admit that I was extra vigilant when digging the earth away from the inside of the shelter, and used my fingers to suss-out any suspicious object. I was pleased with my handy-work, the interior measured some eight feet in length when finished, by six feet in width. The roof consisted of two old wooden doors supported at each end by four logs and cross pieces of driftwood. I found some more short lengths of logs that I split to line the end wall giving it a log cabin effect. The Entrance was effected by empty compo ration boxes filled with soil and placed one on top of the other on either side to form the doorway with sand bags on the outside, and finally a blast wall of sandbags across the entrance. It must have been adequate as Bill Stephens decided to become my lodger.
Most of the lads from “J2” had fashioned themselves protective living quarters, some in the footings of a bungalow that had been demolished long before we arrived. Others got a friendly Bulldozer driver to dig a fairly wide trench for them then roofed it over with old sleepers a tarpaulin and sandbags.
Tom Hewitt and Lieut./Commander Bell had set up their headquarters in a Pill-box that dominated the other end of the beach where there was a narrow exit on to a road that went into LeHamel near a large Sanatorium, where they could keep in touch with the Commando. Communications were a little primitive with field telephones that sometimes had wires damaged by vehicles, the radio packs needed two men to operate, taking it in turn to carry the rather bulky sets on their back. Tom Hewitt called on me one day soon after Bayeux had been liberated to accompany him on a trip there. The Beach was then being covered by my opposite number, so I readily agreed, We got a lift in with one of the large army trucks that regularly plied to and from the beach. It was pitiful to see the large amount of dead animals with their swollen carcasses in the fields as we made our way into the town, Where on arrival we were greeted in a very friendly manner, though we were always on our guard in case any unfriendly elements were about. I purchased some cheese and was encouraged to have my photograph taken and told that it would be ready in the hour. On returning to collect it, I vowed never to attempt growing a beard again. I had not shave for three weeks, and had my head shorn before I left the sealed camp in Southampton. I looked a sight. The razor came out as soon as I got back to my dugout. Whilst we were on our way back to the beach, we passed a Bulldozer who left the sommerfelt track for some reason, possibly to give room for the large truck on which we were traveling. Unfortunately the driver was killed when his track triggered a mine, which penetrated his cabin with shrapnel.
Soon after returning to the beach, the weather began to deteriorate with strong to gale force winds, the harbour had not been completed on the western side where the wind was strongest so that heavy swells began to run through the gaps and onto the beach. A number of LBV’s and PBR’s that were beached were being smothered by the breaking seas that penetrated the gaps. Those that were under way within the Harbour, sought the shelter of the block ships and Phoenix units and moored secure against them. As the tide rose that evening the craft on the beach were swamped before they could kedge themselves off into deep water, the crews having to be taken off or jumping into lorries that backed up close as possible to them. On one that lay a little further out, I got a DUKW to take me out to it as close he could to take off the crew. It was tricky as one moment we were lifted high with the danger of being dashed against the barge the next almost level. The DUKW’s only had a very thin hull that would have torn open if in contact with the heavily built barges.
Forty barges were swamped and sunk on the beaches during those four days that the gale raged and we must be thankful that the DUKW’s kept going the whole time with the loss of only one that tore its side out against an obstruction. They were worth their weight in gold for keeping the ammunition supply coming ashore from the ships off shore. It was from one of these DUKW’s that Bobby Campbell made what I think was a very brave attempt to divert a mine from being swept onto one of these ammunition ships outside the Harbour.
On one of these ships some one reported what they thought was a mine being swept by the tide onto their vessel. It was certainly a metal object lying deep in the water. Bob got one of the DUKW’ Drivers to put him as close as possible, then dived over side to push it clear of the ship. It turned out to be a smoke float, but Bob did not know that before he got to it. If I had been the PBM, I would have recommended Bob for a medal or a mention in dispatches, but from what I heard it was looked at as a joke.
A whole lot of damage was done to the craft around the beaches and I was called to go with a party of ten men from “J2” to assist in getting some timbers placed under the keel of the Destroyer “FURY” that had been driven ashore against a cliff face near Port En Besin, It reminded me of our salvage work in Poole Harbour, we dug away gravel in a number of places and slid huge bulks of timber on which were placed rollers to assist with her re-launching. There was a lot of fuel oil that had escaped from her bilges, and we were somewhat smothered in a sticky tarry mess by the time we had finished. I got our driver to divert to a large Army Quartermasters store on the way back to our beach, there we managed to get some new Battle dress jackets and trousers to replace our soiled ones. The PBM was a little bit worried as to whose slop chit they would appear. I signed for them and I have not had a bill to date.
Once the storm had subsided, plans were drawn up to ensure that craft for discharge on the beach should be provided with secure moorings to prevent a repetition of the damage caused by their anchors failing to hold them head to sea. It was decided that we would lay three trots of buoys so that we could secure them head and astern both on the Spring tides or the Neap tides. I was delegated with Tom Hewitt and Petty Officer Fedder with the Assistance of one of the LBE’s crews to do the work.
I should say that during the Gale a drifting LBV was washed up onto my beach whilst I was on duty one night. I was able with the help of my lads to re-float it and moor it inside one of the Phoenix units, The fact that its stars and stripes flag became dislodged whilst we were busy salvaging it, and some paint around its official No’s were chafed beyond recognition. I had to claim salvage rights and repaint it with the RNBC “J” on its transom, after all a sailor without a ship is not the done thing, we were in business to get a few things like salvaged cases of tinned food that were drifting around the harbour, We had been living on Compo rations for too long. So now we were able to bring in the necessary cable and mushroom anchors from a boom defence vessel lying out side the harbour, the splicing of the wire was done on board the LBE. We made three lengths of five inch cable in lengths of 100 fathoms, each with two clump anchors at each end set at forty five degrees from the end, and clump anchors at twenty fathom intervals on either side. These were where the mooring buoys were attached, so that the craft could lay moored fore and aft according to whether it was a Spring or Neap tide Trying to dig holes in which to bury the anchors was nigh impossible as the sea water would seep into the hole bringing in the sand before anchor the could be placed. This is where P,O. Fedder came into his own, he produced ten pound charges that he had made up from captured ammunition all we had to do was dig a hole small enough for his charge then walk a safe distance away whilst he had a Bulldozer driver on hand to pull the anchors in position. In no time at all we were in business. Whist this was going on , the Royal Engineers Captain IWT who was responsible for the LBV’s on our beach, arranged to have a repair base on the spot where, or close to the Pill-box where the PBM was in residence. This he needed to be out of the way as he wanted vehicle access to that end of the beach. Agreement was reached so preparations were made to demolish the Pillbox using a 100lb. charge.
With a 10lb. charge timed to blow the debris out to sea. It was decided that a quarter mile safety zone would be sufficient for general safety. Came the day when this was going to happen and the beach was cleared of personel, The countdown started then came an explosion far in excess of that envisaged, a column of dust and debris spread around, some pieces falling half a mile away. Apparently under the floor of the Pillbox that appeared to be a clay floor, lay a vast magazine that had been touch off by the blast. Maybe it was a good thing that both Tom and Lt/Cmdr. Bell were non smokers. A few day after completing the beach moorings for the barges, I noticed a Royal Engineers mine clearance team working in a section to the right of the beach exit road just clear of the beach. It had been marked off with the normal white tapes denoting it as un-cleared and with the usual achtung minen sign on the wire around the area. Apparently these were known as “shoe” mines, and were undetectable using the ordinary detectors because they were constructed of wood and the detonator was brass with just a small nail that activated the pull action of the detonator when it was pressed down. It was shaped like a small shoe box (hence the name) that was hinged at one end with the lid raised about one inch above the other end where a narrow opening about a half an inch across was cut so that it fitted over the end of the fuse where the nail was passed through an eye in the pull section of the fuse. The end of the lid was shaped like a wedge, this, when forced down acted as the trigger.
The only way that the R.E.’s had to locate them was by using long steel rods pushed through the soil at an angle until they found something solid, and then very carefully scrape away the soil around them. They were highly sensitive having been buried a long time by someone said the British during the evacuation. This was not verified at all. Within a few minutes they claimed their first victim, a young Sapper who was badly injured around the face and eyes, then the Sergeant who was trying to rally his now shaken unit. A Field Ambulance Unit removed the injured men and the young Subaltern who remained with the unit decided that he would have a go, again with disastrous results. By this time the IWT Captain responsible for the beach area called a halt telling them to pack up, saying “I don’t know whose idea it was to clear that part. We are not using it, and I shall use a flail tank to clear it later.
Just a few nights later, round about eleven o’clock, Bill Stephens and I were relaxing in our shelter
In just shirt and trousers ready for some “shut eye” when I heard a low flying plane fairly close. “One of ours” I said, “No!, that’s a Jerry” said Bill, and hardly had the words left his mouth than we heard the “Weeeee” of the falling bomb, and felt the thud of it hitting the ground. “Its alright” I ventured, “it’s a delay”, again I was mistaken. There was an almighty bang and we felt clods of earth striking the shelter with some pieces finding the doorway. Then we could hear a series of smaller explosions that seemed to last several minutes. Soon after this ceased, I heard some-one groaning and gasping to breathe, getting out of the dugout, I found one of my AB’s doubled over and holding his stomach. It was a chap named Menheniot who was one of the lads who were dug into the footings of where the bungalow had been demolished. I got him into our dugout and after a while realized that he had no visible injuries but had all the breath knocked out of himself when thinking as I did that the bomb was a delay, he had pit his head out of his shelter when it exploded causing his shelter to collapse on him when he was half way out.
Eventually he recovered his breath then said, ”Tuck Sir”, I said “what’s wrong with Tuck?” “He’s buried in the shelter” he managed to say. I ran over to where their shelter was located, still in my socks, shirt. and trousers, and started pulling sandbags and pieces of timber from the collapsed roof of the shelter. I then spotted a couple more lads emerge from a hole at the other end of the footings, I called out to them to give me a hand, it was quite dark and I had no idea who they were. They just set to and we moved a fair amount of debris when one of the lads said, “who’s in here Sir?”, “ Tuck” I replied, “No I aint” he said. I was in the other hole.
Fortunately, No one was seriously hurt; Menheniott was taken to a field hospital before being shipped home to make a full recovery. I learned later that he achieved a Commission. The many small explosions that we heard after the initial bomb blast, were caused by the clods of earth falling on the “Shoe” mines causing most of them explode harmlessly. Some little while after this incident, we managed to get hold of some salt-water soap for general usage. Bob Campbell and I were sharing a watch on the beach, it was high water and craft movements had been completed, so I suggested to Bob that he take his lads into the water for general bathing for half an hour, then I would follow with the remainder when they had completed their bathing session. It was my luck to be in the water when the PBM happened along, and to receive a Rollocking for treating this as a seaside holiday.
I bit my tongue until my period of duty finished, and then went along to see him. “ I suppose you have come along to apologize,” He said. “No Sir” I replied “ I have come to complain re your conduct toward me in front of the ratings, you did not as why we were in the water”. Then explained that we had been on the beach for two months without the facilities for bathing, and that I had managed to get hold of some salt-water soap so that we could freshen up. Also that we had not left the beach unattended at any time as Midshipman Campbell had bathed with his section first whilst I covered, and that I had only just entered the water with my lads when he arrived on the scene. I got my apology, also his approval for further bathing when circumstances allowed.
We seemed to get along quite well after that little spat, and a couple of days later he asked me to take over “J1” party, as Lieutenant Bill Lindsay had been transferred to the NOIC’s staff. It was to be a temporary posting. Further more, I was to go onto ITEM Red Beach to ensure the safe beaching of the MARK V LCT’s. These craft were longer than the general run of LCT’s as they had been constructed to carry the “QUEEN-MARY” Long Loader Air-Craft Transporters of the RAF recovery Units. Their extra length made them vulnerable of breaking their backs should they lay on any beach that was other than flat. Item Red Beach at LeHamel had a number of areas that could accommodate them.
I was sorry to leave my little dug-out and also the lads of “J2”, also our two cooks in their nearby galley. But then life is full of changes and I was quite happy to see the Leading Seaman who came to drive me to the other beach in a Jeep, was my old Corporal from my days in the Home guard back in South Benfleet. We arrived outside the front of a house somewhat damaged by shelling, the upper floors were still habitable, and this is where I found my new team especially one, Able Seaman Brown. A large friendly giant, who, had found some furnishings, beds carpets and chairs to make it a very comfortable billet. I had a small room overlooking the Sea and the beaches that we were going to work. The house had probably been used as a guesthouse prior to the war. The other lads were happily settled in the remainder of the building.
I was quite happy to remain in those quarters, as the Control Office shared by the Army and myself was situated in the house next door but one. It was too good to last, just two weeks later, the army declared the buildings unsafe and put in the Bulldozers. It was soon after arriving on ITEM Red Beach that I had a visit from my old shipmate Jimmy Jewiss. He came into the control office one afternoon much to my surprise, so we had a lot of catching up to do. I learned from him that the rest of my old flotilla were on ITEM Green Beach, so I took time off when I had a quiet spell to go and see them.
I met my old C.O. Lieut. Russell Smith, who said that he had been following my progress and wished me well, a few more of my old Flotilla Comrades and was pleased to learn that they all were in good spirits and very helpful with supplies of fuel from the LBO for my LCP, that I had won. In fact when we returned to the UK. I left it in their charge, it being of great use to them whilst in Arromanches.
On moving from the now demolished houses in LeHamel we took over some space on the upper floor of the Sanatorium where we had a superb view of the beaches and the many LCT’s laying of ready to discharge their loads. It was easy to keep in touch with them with the Aldis lamp, especially on one occasion when I had the report of a Hospital ship being torpedoed by a midget submarine off the beachhead. All bar one was under way within minutes; the odd one had problems with his engines.
I had found a comfortable place to sleep in a large Air Raid shelter that was stocked with hundreds of bottles of Vichy water, though I did not like the taste so it was still there when I left. I had located a camp-bed and folding chair, these together with a couple of empty compo ration boxes for stowage purposes, I was quite comfortable. For lighting purposes, we used an empty flat sweet tin, about an inch deep, by three inches wide and five inches in length. A small hole was punched through the center of the lid and a wick of canvas or other suitable material inserted through it leaving about a quarter of an inch exposed. The tin was then half filled with sand, when topped up with petrol, this would burn for hours with a clear candle bright light. Something I believe the Desert Rats invented in the Western Desert. It certainly worked well for me until a certain day in August.
This was the day when I celebrated my Twenty First Birthday, or, nearly didn’t. On the fifteenth of August the first spirit ration was distributed to the Naval Lads on the Beach. The Officers had the choice of a bottle of Whisky or Gin, I chose the Whisky and put it aside for later consumption. On that particular day I was joined by Ronnie Wheeler, the Lieutenant in charge of “J3” who was now surplus due to the Phoenix Piers running so well in Arromanche so he came along to give me a spell on ITEM red Beach. We were still covering the look out on the upper floor at eleven pm. When Ron mentioned that it was my birthday coming up and that, we should celebrate it with a toast suggesting that I get my bottle out. At half past twelve having passed the bottle round to a number of people who were in the control room, and who’s only drinking vessels were enamel mugs; my bottle looked decidedly empty. “I think it is your turn now Ron” I said, to which he agreed.
I don’t remember getting to bed, but that’s where I was when my Leading Seaman awoke me the next morning to take me along to ITEM Green Beach to collect the rum rations for my lads. Lieut.Cmdr.Bell and Tom Hewitt were there to supervise this issue but not before insisting that I have a wee dram before I could get away, quite a lot of the lads offered me sippers of their rum. I had reached my limit, and frankly I was feeling a little bit under the weather. I cannot remember if I had any food that day, and when I arrived back on my beach Ronnie Wheeler said,”its my watch, you turn in for a while”. I did not argue and went down to my camp-bed and crashed out. It must have been about six o-clock when I woke up, my little spirit lamp was out, so I decided to top it up with petrol from a half empty Jerry can that I had nearby, I must have spilled a little or, I had not put the lid on securely, for when I lit the wick the whole lot flared up engulfing the sleeves of my battle dress. I was fortunate that my blanket was on my bed and close to me I swiftly wrapped this round my arms and doused the flames at the same time. I must have been born under a lucky star. Not only had I survived, I did not even suffer any burns or singeing to hair or eyebrows. It was
the most efficient sobering remedy I have ever experienced. I am not sure now whether it was in that week or the week before when we watched the first thousand Bomber Raid take place over Caen. This town had held out since D-Day with very heavy resistance by the Germans. The day previous to the raid we had witnessed a Flying Fortress shot down over the Beach Head, we could see a wing fall away, and then saw seven parachutes leave the plane before it crashed and exploded some distance away. The parachutes began to drift inland toward Caen, then we noticed anti-
aircraft shells exploding around the unfortunate and defenseless airmen. We were hopping mad, so the next day when we saw the bombs rain down on Caen, we cheered our heads off. As the aircraft flew over our heads, they were flashing the “V” sign to us below. A few days later I witnessed thousands of German Prisoners of War being marched down to the beach by British Tommies. It was a wonderful sight.
The following week, in fact seven days after my twenty-first day; we were on a ship homeward bound, It was one of the LSI, Landing ship Ulster Monarch, formally a Ferry between Belfast and the UK, now fitted out as Troop Ship with LCA’s slung from her davits instead of Life-boats. I had at least one of my prayers answered, I went to France as a twenty year old and reached my maturity in more ways than one,
I guess I could say that I had grown up and left boyhood far behind. It was a comfortable trip back to Portsmouth, my only grumble was the fact that the only drink that was served on board was Guinness oh what I wouldn’t have given for a Mann’s Brown Ale. We were allowed six pints each, I gave up after the first two, which considering the effect they had on me later, was a wise decision. We disembarked in Portsmouth the following morning and were entrained up to Waterloo Station arriving somewhere around noon, here food was laid on for the lads at the Union Jack Club. We were there for a couple of hours before being taken across London by troop carriers to Euston Station, here we boarded a train for the North, but not before the sirens heralded another night of bombing, something we had forgotten about whilst in Normandy.
The journey north was a long and tiring one, the compartment reserved for the Officers was in the middle section of a carriage, about midway between the toilets that always appeared to be engaged after battling through crowded corridors when those couple of pints of Guinness started to have their effect on me. Perhaps it was due to the change of diet, after all, we had been living on Compo rations for nearly four months, and perhaps there was some truth in that rumour about putting something in our food to stop us following our natural instincts? I wasn’t very regular in Normandy, but I certainly made up for it on that journey north. We arrived at Waverly Station Edinburgh in time for breakfast, the lads had the is laid on for them at nearby Canteen whilst the Officers were invited to take theirs in the Great Northern Hotel.
We had a quick wash and brush up in the cloak room before making our way into the dining room where we were met by the Matre.“D” who earnestly requested us to leave our weapons outside the door in case they offended the other guests. We had been so used to wearing them that they had become part of our every day life, Having humoured him by placing them in a corner where we could keep a watchful eye on them, we enjoyed a breakfast of sausage, powdered egg, beans and toast with a nice pot of tea. It was all served with nice clean linen tablecloths and napkins. Which was decidedly better than the way we felt, the bathtubs at Hopetoun were beckoning where we would enjoy a good long soak, then change into our blue uniforms.
We were given a great welcome when we arrived back, arrangements were made for payment to the lads and leave was granted for fourteen days on the next morning. I did have one upset when a Customs and Excise man turned up demanding that the lads could only take 100 cigarettes home with them as we had been missed when we landed in Portsmouth. I could not get over this, and went to see him, to asked how he would have liked to have spent nearly four months on the beaches with just six cigarettes a day rationed then to have someone like him come along and say you are only entitled to a paltry fifty cigarettes that were purchased from the NAAFI Canteen and were not even duty free. I think he took my point and left.
I unfortunately was in no position to travel for another four days until my stomach settled down,
I eventually arrived home to find the house empty, both my parents were working, Dad in the Woolwich Arsenal and my Mother in a nearby factory where she was engaged as an oxi-acetylene welder on tank parts, she had done welding in the first World War. I had been unable to tell either of them that I was coming home as we had no telephone at home, and I did not wish to send a telegram as normally they only conveyed news of casualties, and I did not wish to shock them.
I went into my local the “Papermakers Arms”, this was just across the road from the factory where Mum worked, I knew that some of her workmates would be in there at lunch-time. They soon let her know I was there, she did not even stop to take off her leather apron and goggles from her forehead, but came running over to give me one of the biggest hugs I have ever experienced. It was good to be home, and though my local did not sell Mann’s Brown. the beer that Charrington’s brewed was a very good substitute.
It was good to be home though the nights often had to be spent in the air raid shelter in the park. I did try sleeping in my room but it worried my Mother so much that I had to give in a few times.
There were quite a number of empty spaces amongst the rows of houses where bombs had taken their toll, rather like missing teeth in a set of dentures. I contacted Waterman’s Hall whilst I was home to see about obtaining my Freedom having nearly finished my seven years apprenticeship. I was delighted to learn that the sittings for the granting of Licenses and freedoms would be held in September on the second Tuesday in the month, a date four days after my leave was up. I sent a telegram off to my Commanding Officer explaining the reason why I wanted an extension of leave and was pleased to receive conformation by telegram the following day. I attended the Hall in uniform where I met many more apprentices who were finishing their time to find that most in uniforms covering nearly every branch of the armed forces. I had to explain that I had not seen my Master since the early days of the blitz. That appeared to be no problem as my uniform showed that I had become worthy to become a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. On leaving the Hall after the traditional jug of ale had been passed around, I made my way over to Rotherhithe to see my old Bosses, they were delighted to see me and Dave Hawkins who was the first Tug skipper that I worked with and now the Manager of the Company, took me round to see the little tug “Hawk” now sporting a new and more powerful engine. My leave was all too soon over, and on returning to Hopetoun, I had to produce my licenses and Freedom Certificate to my CO. where upon I was congratulated and treated to a few drinks by members of the Commando.
It was not long after this that we were on the move again back to Armadillo, where we had a good reception and enjoyed watching some new lads put through their paces not that we were allowed to sit back and take it easy. We still had to keep our lads fit and were back into the old routine of route marches, cross-country runs, though in that location it was more climbing than running, though it is funny that most of our runs ended in the “Whistlefield Inn” on the road to Inveraray a distance of some twelve miles or so. It was not unusual for us after an evening in Dunoon where the little MFV Liberty boat that we had at Armadillo, would convey us to for our run ashore and an Evenings Dancing at the Pavilion, for us to miss the return run, and walk the fifteen to sixteen miles back to Ardentinny. We were always made welcome in that community, it was like coming home whenever we were there.
On leaving there at the beginning of October, we were shipped down the loch to Gourock but not before the lads had decorated the flag post on the little pier with a signal halyard full of assorted ladies under wear, mostly they were navy blue, with just a few, of khaki. On arrival at our destination, this proved to be Coalhouse Fort, at East Tilbury, on the River Thames. (Scene of my entanglement with that under water cable just two and a half years before) was it just that short time ago?. An urgent signal reached us to ask if the “S” mine that was left on the Armory table by some person who shall remain nameless, had been made safe? as no one would go near it. As the Commando detrained at East Tilbury Station, I was called on to march them to the Fort. A distance of one mile. As we approached the Fort I called on them to march to attention to pass through the gate where a Royal Marine Sentry presented arms, as I returned his salute I was surprised to see it was my cousin.
It was like stepping back a couple century’s inside the Fort, built to stop the fleets of Napoleon and of the Dutch from raiding our Ports and this country. The old gun emplacements were there, but without the cannons of eighteenth and nineteenth century. Instead mounted on the on the top of the deep walled enclosure were two eight inch guns manned by the Royal Maritime Artillery covering the Lower Hope and Sea Reaches of the Thames to prevent any incursions from enemy vessels into the upper reaches.
As soon as my Cousin Frank Gaster was relieved of his sentry duty on the gate we had a good long chat It would appear that he had spent a long time out in the middle east and the Red Sea area where he had met my Uncle Henry who was a CSM with a Royal Engineers Port Operating Group, in charge of a “Z” Craft, something I believe about the size of a Tank Landing Craft. Frank was doubly related, his Mother and my Mother were sisters, his Father was my Fathers first cousin, his younger brother Leonard had lost a leg whilst mine sweeping off Singapore prior to the Japanese invasions in that area, their youngest brother Leslie was engaged in mine sweepers in the North Sea so you can see that with a few exceptions, we were a family of sailors, including our “marine” or
“Bootneck” as Naval terminology has it.
Frank lived in Pitsea, so this was almost a home posting for him, whilst I was only a matter of five
stations away from Barking and a short bus ride from my home. Needless to say I took every opportunity to take native leave and usually invited one of my fellow Officers home with me for a stopover. Bobby Campbell on a couple of occasions, I think he was a little taken with my younger sister Irene, who, being a Cockney like me, had a job to understand Bob’s broad Yorkshire accent.
Phil Cockshoot who was a Sub/Lieutenant. RNVR. Who was the replacement for Bill Stephens in “J3” when he was promoted to Lieutenant in charge of “J2”, accompanied me one evening and whilst we were having a quiet drink in the “Papermakers”, our friendly barmaid said that if we fancied going to a Dance, there was one being held in the Guild Hall of the Catholic Church in the Ilford High Road. As we had nothing better to do, we made our way along to the Hall where we made very welcome. It was a friendly place and we soon found dancing partners. I had just seen the young lady who I had danced with back to her seat, when my eyes caught those of a rather beautiful blonde curly headed young lady who had just arrived with another girl. Do not ask me what her friend looked like as I only had eyes for my vision of loveliness. I was smitten, and had to reach her before any one else could rob me of the chance to speak to her. I asked her if she would like this dance that had just been announced, and to my utter delight, my offer was accepted. Phil Cockshoot danced with her friend. I suppose that you could say that I monopolized the rest of the evening with her. When the interval was announced, we asked our lovely partners if they would like to have a drink with us. As drinks were not permitted on the premises, it meant a short walk across the High Street to the nearest public house the “Earl Hainalt”, the girls only had Ciders whilst we had a
couple of half’s of brown ale, I should have mentioned Phill’s parents owned a Pub, “The Blue Cap Inn” up in Chester.
We returned to Hall a happy and cheerful party, and were sorry to hear the announcement for the last Waltz, I did not want to lose contact with this young lady who’s name I learned was Phyllis Francis.
A beautiful name for a beautiful girl. As we left the Hall the Sirens sounded their mournful dirge, we could expect the worst. This was when the V1’s or Doodle-bugs had become a menace in the South-east of England. I saw Phyllis to her trolley-bus, she lived some four miles out at Barkingside, I would have loved to have accompanied her except that I had the responsibility of getting Phil Cockshoot back home to my place as he had no idea where he was. Also we were on parade for Divisions in the morning.
I did get the promise of a date later on, so I went home happy. I was even happier when I found that we had a supper of bread and cheese with fresh pickled shallots that my Father had just bottled.
We soon had a change of Leadership, Lieut/Commander Bell left the Commando to be replaced by a Lieut/Commander Peter Eggerton, a very interesting man who had once had Command of a MTB Flotilla In the English Channel. Bill Stephens left on Medical grounds and two Lieutenants RNVR. arrived to take over the vacant Beachmasters positions for “J1” and “J2” parties, apparently some of the Commando’s were being disbanded now that the Normandy landings had been accomplished. “J” Commando was to be held in reserve. I suppose that I was a little disappointed not to have been rated up to Lieutenant and confirmed as Beachmaster with “J1” or “J2”, but I suppose I was only just turned twenty-one, and had less than eighteen months seniority in my rank.
We still kept our regular training exercises and route march training going, getting to know the area very well, The Home Guard Battalion at Stanford Le-hope were running down their collection of explosives that had been held in the anticipation of any attempted invasion by Germany. They had seen our lads out training on a few occasions and thought we could find use for such items.
Tom Hewitt, Ronnie Wheeler, Myself and Petty Officer Fedder went along to their Armory to see what they had to offer, and to see what condition it was in. We were met by a regular army Staff Sergeant who conducted us to a nearby chalk quarry where it was situated. It was decided that we should test some of the explosives so we all took a few samples to try out in the quarry. I had a coil of cortex instantaneous fuse draped over my arm, some dry guncotton and a box of fuses carried in the other, the others were all similarly laden. This was when the Staff Sergeant decided to show us his prize possessions, some bakelite hand grenades, something we had used many times, however we thought we could afford to humour him as he was our host. “You unscrew this cap like this, then as you throw it, the tape with this lead pellet on the end, unwinds and pulls the pin just like this” As he said these words, he put back his arm and threw the grenade, unfortunately for all of us he was standing on some loose chalk which crumbled under his foot just as he was about to let fly. The grenade went upward instead of away from us and landed just a couple of feet away. For one frozen second we watched in horror, then, we dispersed in all directions in the hope that we could be far enough away when it exploded. Nothing happened, was it a dud? is it a delayed action?. Leaving our motley collection at a safe distance we approached the unexploded grenade, then we could see that the pin had only been pulled half out because of the shortened flight. It was too
tricky to touch, so we put a detonator with a slow fuse as close to it as we dared thus giving ourselves ample time to walk far enough away to a safe distance. Thankfully when it did explode we were still in one piece. They were not particularly deadly, but when you are laden with sensitive explosives at that short distance any thing could have happened. It was not long after this incident that the Commando was invited to take part in an Armistice Day Parade at East Tilbury. This where the Bata Shoe Factory was situated, and where a little community had sprung up with houses and a parade of shops with a large parking area to the front. It was decided that I would be the Officer in charge of the Guard of Honour. So all the riflemen from “J” Commando with belts, gaiters, and rifle slings whitened, fell in to be marched from the Fort after being inspected by the CO, to the position where the parade was to be held. We were joined by a Sea Cadet Band who led the way from the Fort who played reasonably well, but who lacked a full marching pace so that we had to shorten step a few times to avoid treading on their heels.
I had the lads marching to attention in column of route so that very few orders were necessary, we right wheeled onto the parade area following the band who were supposed to turn left along the parade area, then left again at the far end where we would come to a halt. They turned left as agreed then almost immediately counter marched across the approaching guard I just had time to call “mark time” then forward as they once again counter marched from our path. All went well after that and the lads put up a good show. We then had to march back to a little Church near to the Fort where we were received by the local Priest with a choking for being late in the House of God. I think that we should have lead the Parade with the band running after us. I managed to get home a few times to renew my acquaintance with my hearts desire, a walk in the local park on a Sunday, the odd visits to the dance hall, I really enjoyed this, then one evening she told me her father had managed to get home on a twenty four hour leave. He was a Flight Sergeant Engineer in Lancaster’s, I was very pleased to meet him and Phyllis’s Mother, They were of Welsh stock but had lived In the London area for a number of Years. In fact her father had been the Chief Air Raid Warden in Barkingside, for a number of years before, feeling that he needed to hit back by joining the Air Force.
We decided to have a drink in the local pub where I failed to ingratiate myself with her Father by on asking him to have a drink, he decided on a bitter and I had my usual brown and mild. The barman produced a half of bitter, and of course the brown and mild was a half of each making a pint. I tried to remedy the situation feeling a little embarrassed but I need not have worried, He saw the funny side of the situation. I did make up for it however when I agreed to collect a bike that he borrowed to get to Ilford Station in order to catch a early train and return it to the owner. He showed me some of the aerial photos of places they had targeted along the Rhine, he was with a Path Finder Squadron, a job that required a lot of courage and nerves of steel. Sadly we were never to meet again he was posted missing the following February. Whilst I was at Tilbury an old school friend of mine called on my Mother to say that he was on leave having just got home from France, and that he was celebrating his twenty-first birthday at home with a party and that he would like me to be there. This was back in my old hometown, in Burdett Road. I asked Phyllis if she would care to go with me to which she readily agreed. I know that I should not have done, but after seeing squadies parading about wearing their green berets and the red berets of the Para’s, I thought it was about time we showed them that the Navy had its own Special Forces. I wore my Khaki uniform with white belt and gaiters, I think Phyllis did not like it as much as my blue uniform. The party was a bit of a disappointment as after a very short stay at his house we adjourned to the local where my friend and I used to play darts, immediately we were asked to have a game. Normally I was not a very good player, but that night, every time I through a dart, it was a winner.
We just could not lose, and every time we one a game so a pint was put on the counter for us. Remember this was where I grew up and I was known to all the people there that night, poor Phyllis was amongst strangers, though I am sure they made her welcome. When my friend Con Emmerman Finished playing the bar was filled with pints of beer from one end to the other, and we were made to finish them before leaving. I could remember leaving the pub, ”The EARL of ZETLAND” and boarding a number 25 bus from Mile End Station to go to Ilford, but memory lapsed after that. I must have got home safely but could not remember how, or when I was supposed to see Phyllis again. I know I thought, I’ll go to Ilford Station where we usually met when she finished work at the usual time and take a chance. This time I was wearing my blue uniform, sure enough, she came into the Station, a little startled to see me there, and immediately grabbed my arm and walked me out of the station and along the road, “I did not expect to see you there” she said, “ in fact I wasn’t going to see you again” Apparently she had decided to meet some one else and rather than cause a scene, led me away as soon as she could before her date turned up.
“I don’t think I have ever been so embarrassed “ she said, then went on to explain that when we got on the bus at Mile End, there was only one seat on the side seat by the stairs and no room on top, I made her take the seat, then I stood under the stairway so that I was leaning over her, After paying the fare, I began by asking her to Marry me, not once but many times. “When are you going to marry me”? Will you marry me, and so on until by the time the bus reached Manor Park some ten or more miles on. The Conductor said “For Gawd’s sake say Yes, and give us all a bit of Peace”. I could understand her coolness, but it did not change my mind. So I said “ I am stone cold sober now and I still want to marry you.” It was my turn to leave the Commando now, I had heard that Bill Tewsley had joined the Tug service and I was feeling ready for a change so I asked Peter Eggerton if he would mind if I put in for a transfer, Not at all he said, you will get a good reference from me, so I put in a request for Sea Rescue and Salvage work giving my previous experience in tugs etc. hoping that I might be considered. Almost by return I received a signal to report to Fanum House, an annexe of the Admiralty where I was to report to Captain Thompson RNR, the Officer Commanding the Rescue Tug Service of the Royal Navy.
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