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Reg Gill and Malta Convoy "Operation Substance"icon for Recommended story

by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

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paul gill - WW2 Site Helper
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Reg Gill
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05 December 2003

This document is part of Reg Gill's 1992 tape recorded notes. I will gradually post them all onto the site to make a complete history. Note, the spelling may be erratic due to tape quality!

In May 1940, Reg, an RAMC radiographer formerly from Leeds General Hospital had escaped from Dunkirk and was posted to Peterborough prior to deployment to receive London casualties and thereafter to Malta. I can only admire the commander of the Manxman for the skillful way he dealt with the incident described. A marked contrast to WW1. I'll let Reg continue in his own words.

In Peterborough it was lovely weather. Being a radiographer and not having an X-ray set or anything to do I was one of several sergeants who was given a squad of men to take out to march along the countryside to keep them fit. I had a corporal and possibly 100 to 150 men and we would march out of the barracks, up the road turn off a country lane march for about an hour and then stop at a hostelry. As soon as the men fell out of course, we piled into the pub, pints of beer all round. It was an absolute bonanza for the pub keepers who'd had a thin time whilst the men were away. This lasted for several months.

I went home for a couple of days and whilst I was at home a telegram arrived to say that I was to report back to Ashby St Legers in Northants. We were all put up in a large estate there but it wasn't for long because the next day we were put on a train again for Crowthorn in Berkshire near Wokingham and an Emergency Medical Hospital, an EMS it was called beautifully equipped, build by the Canadians I think. The purpose of this was to take the London casualties.
Edgecomb Manor in Crowthorn was a private manor house, absolutely delightful with oak panels and oak floor in beautiful condition and able to accommodate the whole unit though we had to take our boots off when we entered the house and as we did this often it was a chore. We were told that in addition to military casualties, we were responsible for air raid wardens, fire service and the auxiliary services which would be very busy indeed during the anticipated bombing of London.
The number of casualties that we did receive was quite low, even though we could hear the bombing and the sky was lit over London with constant flashes and glows. I think we were only there if the London hospitals were saturated with casualties and this didn't happen. I think more people were killed and less injured than anticipated. This was early 1941 and the Battle Of Britain had been fought and won, daylight raids were unprofitable but there were night raids on London and the German bombers which perhaps missed their target would unload their bombs on countryside roundabout, including Wokingham which was near us. As we were 20 miles away we received some, but compared to Dunkirk it was absolutely nothing.

We weren't very far from Broadmoor. In Edgecomb manor there was a table tennis table. One or two of us who were quite keen patched it up and I bought a net. We used to play in the evening. Our padre had met the padre from Broadmoor and he came to me and said would I like arrange a team to play a match against the inmates of Broadmoor. They had quite a good team but they weren't allowed to play away games so we went over there to play.

This was now April-May 1941and my next leave was embarkation leave. The war wasn't going very well. We weren't sure where we were going but we knew it would be abroad.

Back we went to Crowthorn where I was told I was in charge of the Units equipment which would be put on a train and taken to Edinburgh. I had a clark and with my help he took an inventory of the equipment we were to take. Personal effect mostly, some of the officers had cabin trunks, the rest of us had kit bags. Not a lot, but there were 200 of us so it was a fair amount in bulk. Off I went with a corporal, lance corporal and half a dozen men to Waverley Station Edinburgh and the rest of the unit was to follow. When we got to Waverley station, no-one knew anything about our movements or what we were there for. I went to see the Transport Officer (every big station had one) and he said he had had a phone call to say that we were to go to Glasgow and then onto Greenock, the usual place where convoys went from.

We arrived there and installed ourselves in Nissan huts waiting for the main body to arrive. All the equipment in the meantime had stayed in the guards van and had gone on to Greenock where it was left in a warehouse by the dockside. The main body arrived and at the same time, arriving just off Greenock, were many merchant ships. Out to sea were lots of warships.. Medical personal were distributed onto the various ships. I was put onto a little ship called the Leinster and one of the holds had been fitted out with hospital beds. With me was a dental Lance sergeant and 8 male SRNs.

When I first met them on the Leinster, they were the most petrified bunch of army privates I'd ever met. They'd been to Aldershot and had been thoroughly brow beaten by army Sergeant Majors and Sergeants. Nice bunch of chaps though.
I was told there would be a medical Captain coming aboard. The rest of my unit, the 18th General Hospital were aboard other ships but they didn't tell you that of course! Anyway about 2 a.m., the ship got underway and we could here the engines thudding away and in the morning we were just passing the Isle of Arran going into the Irish sea. We didn't go down the Irish Channel. we went round the north of Ireland way out into the Atlantic for a couple of days.
In the meantime it was quite impressive to see the rest of the ships of the convoy. There were two battleships Nelson and Renown, aircraft carrier Arkroyal, three cruisers 14 - 15 destroyers, mine sweepers and about 20 merchant ships.
Aboard the Leinster, there were 200 RA and the MO told me to inoculate them. I said, "I'm a radiographer, Sir. Its not my job." He said "You do as you're told. You inoculate these people". So I lined them up, plunged a needle into them. Several fainted. I hope I didn't hit any nerves, I don't think I hit any arteries.
So we sailed way out into the Atlantic to avoid the long range bombers and fighters particularly the Focke Wolfes. Obviously we had a pretty good anti-submarine escort, the destroyers were rushing round and we headed south. It was very cold for the first 2 days and then it suddenly got quite warm. The rumour had it that we were off the coast of Portugal and heading towards Gibraltar. It was quite comfortable on the Leinster, she was a steam packet boat on the Liverpool to Dublin run and was 4300 tons. Our only problem was that our station in the convoy was about 50 metres from the battleship, Nelson, the flagship and she sent a series of signals to the captain of the Leinster to get out of the way, keep his station because quite close to us were the steel bows of a 33000 ton battleship.
In the Bay of Biscay where the waves were probably 4-5 metres high, a little ship like ours was being tossed about, whilst the Nelson ploughed straight through. I thought she could plough through us anytime.

We expected anything to happen and sure enough it did. There had been one or two submarine scares. The destroyers perhaps several miles away from us were blasting away dropping depth charges and things and sure enough at 2 a.m. there was an enormous crunch, the alarm bells rang on the ship and there was pandemonium. We weren't sure what had happened but we were firmly wedged on rocks on the coast of Spain. We had several patients in the hospital sick bay and the SRN's were getting them ready to evacuate. When it was getting light, you could see several Spanish motor torpedo boats around our ship which seemed to imply that we would be interned. Of the rest of the convoy there was no sight at all. We were told that a submarine had launched a salvo of torpedoes at the Nelson, which she had avoided and our skipper had put his helm hard over. We must have been very close in to the coast of Spain and we just headed straight onto the rocks. I've never heard the full story but there was no doubt we were on the rocks. The medical Captain had disappeared, leaving us with the people in hospital. We just didn't know what would happen. We were told by the Captain to get the people ready for internment to be taken ashore but after several hours, a destroyer came alongside. I thought this was very odd because she was obviously in Spanish territorial waters and Spain was not particularly friendly. Eventually the destroyer took the fit RA men off and gradually we were able to lower the sick down the rope ladders onto it. A few hours later it landed us in Gibraltar. This of course was an extraordinary adventure.

I don't know what happened to the Royal Artillery men. The medical corps were posted up to the military hospital in Gibraltar where I met a monocled Colonel who seemed somewhat eccentric. He showed me his flytrap. He had a system whereby by creating a continuous draft from one section of the hospital to another the flies of which there were plenty, were all driven along into an enormous trap that he'd got. He'd been awarded an Iron Cross before the war for accepting wounded from a German submarine which had been damaged by a Spanish destroyer and had put into Gibraltar.

Next day the Sergeant radiographer took me down to one of the bays and we had a swim. We had a few drinks in a bar, went back and he showed me the x-ray equipment. I was perfectly happy to be stationed there. We had heard that the convoy -which hadn't gone round the Cape but had in fact gone through the Mediterranean -had met some pretty serious opposition and that the Germans and Italians had flung everything they had against it. That the Nelson had been torpedoed in the bows, that the cruiser Manchester had been hit amidships and they had about 200 killed. I found out later that one or two of the destroyers had been hit, including Firedrake which my friend Joe from the Leeds General Hospital path lab was on. Anyway about two days later the Manchester and the Firedrake arrived in a pretty shocking state.

The wounded were unloaded and taken up to the hospital in Gibraltar. I happened to be walking down to the harbour when I saw this vaguely familiar figure covered in dust and cordite. He looked as if he'd been lying in a sack of flour. Wide staring eyes. It was Joe. The M.I. room, as they called it, was on the bows of the ship looking forward, which was exactly where the German bomb had landed. It had blown in the starboard side of the Firedrake and almost taken Joe as well. He'd had a very narrow escape and they'd had quite a few casualties. "Good God" he said "What are you doing here?". I explained what had happened and found he too been posted to the military hospital.

Shortly after we arrived we were sent for by some Major who told us we had to report down to the Louis Pasteur, later to become the liner La France. She had escaped from Le Havre when the Germans had occupied France, had sailed out into the Atlantic down to one of the French North African ports and eventually came into Gibraltar harbour.

The war was hotting up. Without a doubt Gibraltar was going to be more heavily involved than it was now and it couldn't always rely on not being bombed by the Germans. The regular garrison's families were being evacuated back to England and it seemed appropriate, as we were survivors so we thought, we should go back to England with her. We were told to report aboard and were given cabin numbers. Extremely comfortable single cabins beautifully equipped. We were told that there would be a meal in the dining room later on about half past six but if we'd like to report to the lounge beforehand there would be drinks. We duly went down to the lounge where the French staff were. You could order anything you liked, champagne, whisky you name it they had it. Very nice indeed Had an excellent meal., superb served by the French staff. We just fell into bed. It was about 11 o'clock at night I suppose.

We should have known better. We thought the ship was going to sail at dawn back to Britain and we were going back in absolute luxury. Then at 2 a.m. "EVERYBODY ON DECK!" We couldn't believe it. BANG BANG BANG on the cabin doors. "EVERYBODY ON DECK!" Pitch black. Lights were on in Gibraltar of course but there were no lights on the ship. We arrived on deck. "Army this way". "RAF that way." Joe said "To hell with going with the army. Lets go with the RAF, they'll never know, they can sort it out in the morning."
We were taken down to number 3 deck across from which was a gang plank obviously to a warship and another which the army were going onto. We were with the RAF thanks to Joe and we went into a wardroom in which there were hammocks. It was very dimly lit and I couldn't see very much other than that we were obviously with the RAF so we climbed in and went to sleep.

Morning. The usual navy things. "HEAVE HO, HEAVE HO, LASH UP AND STOW." The sort of thing I suppose you got used to if you travelled on a naval ship. The Manxman was obviously underway. It was light by this time so we descended from our hammocks. Very comfortable things. Once you manage to get into them they're no problem at all and that's probably why we hadn't noticed that the ship was moving. We were going through the Mediterranean which was fairly calm at the time. We sat down at the mess table where a rather nice breakfast had arrived, bacon and egg. Perhaps this wasn't too bad after all . We had a feeling that, if we were going through the Mediterranean, it wasn't going to be very pleasant. Joe had already been halfway through the Med. and was clearly still traumatised by the experience.

We had our breakfast and then a Flight Lieutenant came and said "What are you people doing here." "We're here and we were told to come here" said Joe. "No you weren't. This is RAF only" was the sharp response. There then followed a terse exchange during which Joe twice told the outraged Flight Lieutenant to "b****r" off. A naval picket came. White gaiters, swinging truncheons and the Commander, all gold stripes and gold braid came up.
"Look" said the commander. "I've had enough of messing about with you. This is a warship. This is time of war. We're on active service, now clear off. You'll go and join the army right away, or I'll put you in irons". The picket drew themselves up with their truncheons and I said "Joe I think we'd better go."

So we were marched off with a naval escort to the other side of the ship which turned out to be, not a wardroom as you'd imagined, but the mine laying track of the cruiser. This was about four feet wide and had two rails running down through the middle along which I think the mines travelled. A most uncomfortable place. Solid steel everywhere. Steel rails, steel sides to the ship and the most significantly, at each end of each corridor of perhaps 30-40 yards were steel doors. If the ship had been hit those doors would close and it was bad luck if you happened to be on the wrong side. We had however just arrived in time. We'd had our RAF breakfast. When breakfast for the army arrived it was lowered down through a hole in the ceiling from the deck above through a hatch. There was about 5 gallons of greasy stew in a dixie on the end of a hook and some loaves of dry bread were thrown down. There were several centimetres of grease on top into which you had to plunge your mess tin. It was sickening. You can't blame the Navy. They had several hundred unexpected guests and the Manxman was only 2600 tons. She was the smallest but fastest cruiser in the Navy.
After his ordeal on Firedrake, Joe found the confinement unbearable. "I'm not having this. Next time that hatch opens we'll climb up the ladder and go on deck." "Joe you'll have us shot" I replied. "Oh, the commander will be far too busy to bother with us. If this cruiser gets a tin fish we're finished. I'm not being battened down there. I don't care what they do to me I'd rather be shot than trapped like a rat."

Anyway we went up on deck and he was right, I think they were all too busy to see us. We walked to the bows of the ship and the deck was loaded with dispatch rider types of motorcycle under the four inch forward gun turret. Joe said "I feel a lot happier here". I did agree with him but I was expecting any minute to be put in irons, and if that had happened we would have been battened down somewhere else where, if sunk, we'd be the last to be rescued. Incredibly nothing happened. We were one of 3 cruisers going through the Med. The others were Edinburgh. and Arethusa.

The only incident was a ship who was several miles ahead of us depth charged, and we were told sank, an Italian submarine. We opened fire, simply to clear the 4inch guns so we were told but we were sat underneath them. The ship seemed to leap out of the water and we leapt about 2 metres into the air. We didn't have any ear plugs and we didn't know they were going to fire. It took a long time for my ears to settle down after that.

We spent the day and the following night on board. We didn't see anything very much at all. Saw one or two islands in the distance one of which was Pantelleria which became a heavily fortified Italian and German air force base. Just after dawn on the third day we arrived in Malta.
I hadn't seen anything of my SRN friends who had obviously gone on another ship.
So here we were in Malta. We landed by the Lower Barracker. We were separated again into units. We were a mixed bunch of airforce and Army and we were sorted out and put onto trucks to be taken, we knew not where. Malta at that time had been fairly heavily bombed since Italy came into the war in June 1940. The signs of damage were all there but the German airforce had played very little part, except for the bombing of the aircraft carrier Illustrious which inflicted enormous damage on the surrounding towns, the 3 'cities' as they were called Conspicua, Victoriosa and Cenglia. All around the area of the grand harbour was a tremendous mess with lots of people being killed and the Naval hospital at Birgu had been put out of action. This was probably the reason why it was considered necessary to reinforce the medical personnel on the island. My ship arrived after the rest of the convoy, some of which had got through, though some had gone back to Gibraltar after heavy bombing.

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