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15 October 2014
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by Ian Billingsley

Contributed by 
Ian Billingsley
People in story: 
Bob Burns. D.S.M.
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 May 2005

HMS Laforey at the bombarding of the Anzio beachead Italy 1944

We are returning to Naples for a boiler clean and a well earned break.The date was
March 28th 1944: The scene: Anzio beach-head: The ship. H.M.S. Laforey, flotilla leader ‘extraordinair’. The speaker: Lt. Boyer R.N.R., Laforey’s Gunnery Officer.
“Thank God.” I murmured. At last there was the prospect of a break from demands which had kept us in action at sea for so long. We certainly needed it. The preceding three months had been exceedingly demanding, a period in which the Royal Navy had experienced heavy losses. Penelope, Royalist, Janus - to mention but a few ‘chummy ships’ - all lay on the bottom after constant attacks from the air. The Jerries’ 11 inch gun on the railway from Rome and their radio controlled bomb.
My heart sang as we headed south to Naples. And in Naples harbour on the morning of March 30th, Lt Boyer and I were talking idly about our hopes for the days of peace to come, when Jock Abernathy, a big raw-boned Scot, appeared to tell us that, Captain ‘Beaky’ Armstrong - our new skipper - wanted us in his cabin.
What would be his news? A recall to the U.K? Or perhaps a few days in Sorrento or Capri, just as Captain ‘Tubby’ Hutton had ordered the previous November, when Naples had suffered a terrible Typhus epidemic. No such luck. Our skipper’s orders were that we were to proceed with full speed, to and area west of Stromboli, where a U-boat had been reported.
After all our tremendous range of actions in the Mediterranean, U-boat hunting was recognised by most as a ‘piece of cake’. Had we not sunk the Italian submarine Asihangi off Sicily? And anyway, to operate in an area free from the Luftwaffe’s attentions, would be a relief in itself.
At noon, just before we arrived in the area where the U-boat had been sighted, we were joined by Tumult, Blencathra. Quantock and Lammerton. And soon the metallic clang of the Asdic indicated we had located our quarry.
Attack after attack failed to bring the U-boat to the surface but as darkness fell, our Asdic team was confident that during the night, lack of air would bring her to the surface and my gun-teams have the chance of delivering the coup-de-grace.
Shortly before 0100 hrs the next day, the message was passed to the transmitting station from the bridge, that the U-boat was blowing her tanks and we were to prepare for ‘starshell’ firing to illuminate her.
Captain Armstrong, for reasons best known to himself decided not to sound off full action stations. The crew were therefore at defence stations, only half the armament manned and many men were asleep in the mess-decks. With hindsight, one can say that many of the 179 men who lost their lives, would have been saved, had they been closed up at action stations. The order came suddenly to open fire and within moments, night became day, as the starshell illuminated the area where the U-boat would break surface.
“ Gunner’s mate to the bridge.” Sub/Lt Ticehurst, the youngest officer in the ship - for reasons that I was never to discover - made the call that was to save my life. When I got there, I found the U-boat was clearly visible on the port bow. Our 4.7 armament was soon straddling the target and when the Gunnery Officer arrived on the bridge. I jumped down over the bridge screen to the Oerlikon, determined to ensure that the U-boat’s deck was raked with fire in case resistance was offered.
Then came the order to switch on the searchlight. It proved to be the opportunity the U-boat skipper needed. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion and I found myself hurtling upwards and then landing with a thud on the Oerlikon’s safety rails.
The U-boat had torpedoed us and I was conscious between bouts of blackness and pain, that Laforey was breaking up in her death throws. I tried to stand but had no movement in my legs. Using my elbows, I managed to propel my body to the ship’s side. Laforey was sinking and I clung to the rigging as she started her final plunge. Frantically, I tore myself free and with arms working like pistons, propelled myself as far from the inevitable whirlpool of suction as possible.
Suddenly, like a cork, I was whirled round and round and drawn towards the vortex where our beloved ship had finally disappeared beneath the waves. Fortunately, my half inflated life belt kept me on the surface.
Gradually, the black silence was broken with the cries of shipmates, dotted around the ocean. With the whistle always carried by a gunner’s mate for turret drill, I began to signal in the hope of collecting the survivors in a more compact group. Unconsciousness intervened and when I came round again, it was to hear the groans of a young London AB clinging to driftwood and obviously in a bad way.
At odd intervals, shipmates would swim to us to offer words of comfort and encouragement and them swim off to assist others. Two such gallant friends, Dave Barton the PO. Cook and Knocker White, the Yeoman of Signals both uninjured but sadly not to survive, continued to help their more unfortunate shipmates.
After what appeared to be an eternity, I spotted the darker shape of an approaching vessel. Suddenly there were cries of, “ Swim you German bastards, swim!” Our would be rescuers, were convinced that we were German survivors from the U-boat, which Tumult and Blencathra had eventually sunk. They were unaware of the fact that Laforey had gone too.
Within moments, I was carefully and gently lifted from the sea and into the boat. Oil fuel fouled my mouth and eyes and hid the tears of relief and gratitude for my rescuers.
I was hoisted aboard Tumult, encased in a Neil Robertson stretcher, injected with a liberal dose of morphia and despatched to the gunners mate’s holy of holy’s, the Transmitting Station. From the usual illegal matelot’s hidden resources, a full tumbler full of Nelson’s Blood was added to the pain relieving morphia and I sank into peaceful oblivion.
Vaguely, I remember being shipped from Tumult to a waiting ambulance in Naples harbour and arriving at the 65th General Hospital. There, the doctors found I had three spinal fractures. To begin with, I was paralysed from the waist down but my self pity soon disappeared when I looked around the overcrowded wards at our terribly wounded soldiers, being shipped in from their personal hell holes of Anzio or Cassino.
Eventually, after spells in other military hospitals, I was shipped home in the hospital ship Somersetshire. At a hospital on Merseyside there came the never to be forgotten reunion with my dear wife and baby daughters.
After long spells in hospitals and at a rehabilitation centre, I eventually returned to light duty at my depot, HMS Excellent. I finally completed my naval service after serving in Vanguard during the 1947 Royal Tour to South Africa.
After nearly thirty years, I still have deep and abiding memories of Laforey and her crew. Overriding them all is the deep respect and affection for Captain Hutton, who made Laforey and her men, into one of the greatest destroyer teams of the war.
The people of Northampton paid from their pockets, around £750.000 for Laforey and events proved their investment was repaid a hundred fold. The generosity of Northampton to the crew, exceeded anything I had previously experienced in the Royal Navy. I shared Captain Hutton’s only regret, that the crew never marched through the town when final victory became reality.
I hope that one day, the Admiralty will name another Laforey, or Northampton and so maintain the links formed in the days of war.
A further ambition yet to be realised, is to make contact with any of the 17 German survivors from the U223 picked up by either Tumult or Blencathra after they destroyed her. I would like to record the missing chapter of life in U223 as her end approached.
Any feelings of bitterness or animosity towards our enemy of 60 years ago, has disappeared. Anyway, U223 proved a worthy and courageous foe. I only hope her survivors have enjoyed the years of peace with the same happiness and contentment with which I have been blessed.

Bob Burns. D.S.M.
Thornton. Liverpool.

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