- Contributed by
- Marine117570 Arthur Hill
- People in story:
- Arthur Hill
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 November 2003
As far as I can remember, it was three weeks before Christmas 1943 when we moved to Newhaven.
Until now we had been a holding group, part of ‘COPRA’, the Combined Operations Unit. Training together, not belonging anywhere, and on the move all the time. It seemed to be policy to keep splitting any group, so that each individual could work alone, and yet, at the drop of a hat, could form a team.
Suddenly we were two Flotillas, 800 and 801, and we took over directly from the matelots.
The boats were LCVPs, (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel), and apart from the specialist boom jumpers, were the fastest minor craft afloat. We, the sub group, and the stoker/drivers were specialists too. Now with 32 boats, (one each), we had to get to know the crews, but this time on a much more stable basis.
Each boat had a coxwain, stoker/driver and two deckhands. Then there were a couple of signallers, the mechanics (navy men, with their own killick), colour-sergeant Brown, corporal Moore, lance-corporal Goddard, midshipman Sims, a sub-lieutenant, and Captain Bird. All the latter were spread throughout 801 flotilla, and 800 repeated this format with their own men.
Overlooking the harbour at Newhaven there is (was?) a fort, and the road leading up to it was naturally enough, Fort Road. Along here were our billets, the terraced houses hanging over the harbour. Hanging is right, given the width of the road and then almost sheer drop to the ‘Hard’, a tiled foreshore that finishes just above the high water mark. At the upstream end was a wooden jetty, to which the craft were moored, side by side, four rows of eight.
We were all on a learning curve, and during the next few weeks, in showed. Like the night a storm suddenly blew up in the small hours. Vic Crow was on watch, and because the boats were smashing to and fro against each other, so violently that they were in danger of doing real damage, Vic took up the slack in the painters to restrict the movement.
However, because the tide was going out so fast, by the time he had got to the last in line, the first were beginning hang by their moorings, and the lopsided tension was springing the bulkheads, letting the canopies drop. He ran down to control and raised the alarm, and who should answer, but Captain ‘Dicky’ Bird, R.M.
"Right Crow" he shouted, making himself heard over the howling of the wind, "Slacken all the lines, and we will lower the Hazel fenders".
These were made up of bundles of twigs, about 15" in diameter and 8 feet long, to be lashed to the boats as a buffers. As soon as enough space appeared between boat and jetty, Dicky called
"Lower away", and they paid out the lines - to find that they only reached half way!
"Let them drop, and we'll lash them from below" - and as they disappeared in the dim light, there was a splash, and then nothing. Dicky was aghast.
"The bastards have sunk" he shouted, and so they had. Floating fenders that were waterlogged? As luck would have it, the turn of the tide saved the day.
A couple of days later, Dicky thought it would be a good exercise to do a practice beaching on the 'Hard', to check the boats below the waterline. The time chosen was two hours after high tide, giving us about seven hours to refloat, a third of the flotilla at a time , on successive days.
It fell to the s/drivers to do the beaching, and so, each with a deckhand aboard, we were circling in the pool ready to make a run at it. Two were already on, and Vic and I were holding, waiting for Ronnie Hull to make his fifth attempt. Bloody clown, just can't make out how he ever qualified. After a repeat of his earlier failures, he was hanging over the wheel grinning with embarrassment, meanwhile going round and around in tight circles. He had only just nosed out of the water, and because the 'Hard' is steep and slippery, the boat doesn't hold.
Meanwhile Vic had come alongside me, and said
"Go and sort that silly bugger out!", so we tied our two craft together, so that Vic had control of both. I then transferred to take over Ronnie’s boat, which he was quite happy about.
"Move over Ron and I will demonstrate". I did a smart turn about, and at full throttle, beached. Truly, I beached, way up to the high water mark! There wouldn't be any backing off on the next tide, not without a lot of extra help. You should have heard the cheers that went up then, but now I had another problem. To get back, it was a long walk round to the jetty, where Vic picked me up for a repeat performance on my own boat. After this, nobody had any bother beaching, or being able to see the construction removed the fear of breaking anything.
Soon after this, Captain Bird decided it was time for a practice at a real beaching, with empty craft. He didn’t want too many witnesses if we made a cock-up. The day he chose looked promising enough, so he decided to have a run at Seaford beach. We had all done many beachings in training around Hayling Island, so there was no fear of the unknown, but most of those beaches were very gentle. Seaford, on the other hand, was mainly shingle and fairly steep, and the conditions were a little rough.
It was also a chance to make use of the spare hands that had been wished upon us, to see how they shaped up. We got Yorky, he looked, and sounded, thick, but he couldn't help that.
Anyway, Dicky contacted the coastguards to get clearance through the harbour, and received a caution that storm warnings were in place for later on, but we had a window of about 4 hours.
The exercise would be for eight craft this time, and the other eight would be out as soon as conditions allowed. The water in the outer harbour was a bit choppy, but once clear it was a nice rolling swell, on a rising tide, perfect for the purpose. Two at a time, beach, down ramp, crew member to run up the beach, grab a souvenir, (rock or driftwood), up ramp and out again. Two pairs had already been , now it was our turn. We had a good run at the beach, timed it right, on a roller, with Yorky at the ramp, but then it went sour.
The silly sod, that dim witted bloody clot, tried to let the ramp down with the handle.
Never ever let it down with the handle, that’s what the brake is for. As soon as the weight of the door went over centre, there was no way to hold it, and the handle flew off. God knows where, and we were left with the ramp fully down and no way to wind it back. Sliding backwards off the beach, the only way to stay afloat was go backwards flat out. The biggest snag of that is, that with a single engine, here's no steering. We were going round and round in tight circles, backwards in rolling swell, screaming for a handle, quick anybody got a handle.
It's a good job that Vic Crow was out that day, for as mates, we always looked out for each other. Having already done his run, he was standing by. He got as near as he dared, and threw his handle over to Rohmy, our deckhand, who got straight to work. Slipping and sliding in ankle-deep water, meanwhile tongue-lashing Yorky into action. We had shipped a considerable amount of water, but were still afloat. The bilge pump earned its keep that day!
But not everybody was as lucky, one of the other craft had its bilge pump fail about the same time that the storm broke. The pumps always have to work hard, but when you start shipping water in excess, it becomes crucial. He started to wallow, two of the others came alongside and lashed to him, endeavouring to keep him afloat. They got him into the outer harbour, but as they tried to turn in line for the inner entrance, he was swamped and his engine died, and now there was a real danger of him taking the others down with him. The crew were already safe aboard the rescue boats, so they cast off, and down she went.
As far as I know, it is there still.
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