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LST 368 - A Sailors Tale
2013 © This story is the sole property of Alan Weeks and cannot be reproduced in whole or in part without his express permission. It is the story of his fathers wartime experiences. © Alan Weeks
This is an extensive recollection of the
War of Frank Weeks, a sailor in WW2. Celebrating his 91st Birthday in 2013.
Happy birthday Frank, grateful to you for what you did.
Update: 20 March 2013
Chapter 1 – And So We Joined
And so Den and I, along with a group of about another dozen young men reported to the Croydon Recruiting Office on 14th October 1941: I recall the Recruiting Petty Officer on duty telling us in mock seriousness when one of our group in his nervousness omitted to pick up one of the numerous pieces of paper with which we were presented 'Now come on lads or I won't let you join! Not long afterwards, our little group found ourselves entrained on the way to Portsmouth where we were met by an RN lorry and conveyed the short distance to HMS Collingwood at Fareham where temporarily our civilian life was to cease and we were to be indoctrinated into the routines of Naval life. We were accommodated in Nissen huts, sleeping on two tier metal bunks probably about 30 lads to a hut and allocated a 'Class' number - this was to be our class number for the duration of our training.
The days started with our being woken by a bugler at 0600 hours in the morning (Sundays a lay in until 0630 - big deal!): the first day comprised a further medical examination, followed by inoculations and vaccinations as required and then the issue of uniforms: by the time we reached the kitting up Store, arms and heads were aching from the effects of the inoculations etc, but nevertheless, one had to struggle back to ones hut carrying all ones gear aches and pains notwithstanding. Then came the routine of packing up ones civilian clothes worn for the journey to the base and posting them back home - no longer required for the duration of hostilities!
The Wireless Telegraphy course was scheduled to take approximately 6 months: whilst the main emphasis was obviously on teaching the receiving and transmitting of morse code, we were also taught to march and salute, elementary seamanship, to row and to understand the various procedures required when operating in a ship as a single unit or as part of a fleet at sea. There was also an element of radio maintenance (in the pre-war Navy the Telegraphist also broadly maintained his own equipment but this involved a much longer course: to speed the acquisition of manpower, the wartime Telegraphist was only taught the rudiments of maintenance and a separate grade of Radio Mechanic was introduced). HMS Collingwood was also equipped with an excellent gymnasium and physical training was very much to the fore during the course: each lads physical performance and progress was also carefully monitored.
I think it was after about 2 months training that we were allowed a long weekend's leave - from approximately 4pm Friday until 8am Monday: although HMS Collingwood was simply a land based group of huts and offices, stepping out of the establishment was always referred to as “Going Ashore” and when one did “go ashore” one had to muster at specific times for the so called “Liberty Boat” - which meant mustering on the parade ground at the stated time and lining up for inspection by the Duty Officer before one was allowed to proceed. How we all dashed away that Friday evening - taxi to Gosport, over on the ferry to Portsmouth Harbour Station (standing on the bow of the ferry trying to look like experienced sailors!), then for me the train to Waterloo Main, across to Waterloo junction for the train to Croydon - resplendent (or so we thought) in our new uniforms and trying to look every inch a sailor.
During my training at Collingwood, being in the Portsmouth area I was more fortunate than some in that my brother's in laws lived in Portsmouth and I could occasionally call on them and spend an evening away from the Service environment. Life was not all beer and skittles, however, as Portsmouth as one of our main naval bases was frequently the target for German bombing raids.
Before actually joining the Navy, in the knowledge that I had opted finally to train as a Telegraphist, I had taken the opportunity to teach myself the morse code, which stood me in good stead when I did join up. I got on quite well with my training and after about 3 months, those in my and other training classes who had made good progress were merged into what was termed an “Advance Class”: this simply meant that training was pushed ahead a little faster and the overall length of the course reduced by about one month. This suited me down to the ground as, like most of my compatriots, I'd joined because I wanted to go to sea. This advancement meant that I was no longer in the same training class as Den although we still shared the same hut and were able to 'go ashore' together.
And so my training in HMS Collingwood continued: we marched, we rowed, we ran, we physically trained - but most of all we had morse dinned into us until we were able to receive if at approximately 20 - 22 words a minute, and to transmit it as required. I spent my 20th birthday under training at Collingwood and completed my course shortly afterwards. I was then drafted to the Signal School HMS Mercury sited at East Meon, a little village just outside Petersfield, in Hampshire: this was a sort of holding base for all communication ratings completing training, discharged from ships or for some other reason awaiting draft to another vessel - and would, as I thought, lead to the commencement of my seagoing career. This would have been approximately March 1942.
There had been one particularly significant happening during my training period - and I can still recall our Petty Officer Instructor breaking the news to us that December morning in 1941. That significant happening was, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th Dec 1941 leading to America's entry into the war. Up until that time America had just been a friendly neutral (with obvious leanings towards the Allied cause): she had given Britain 50 ancient destroyers in exchange for the use of bases in Bermuda, and her shipbuilding industry was going great guns building the so called “Liberty Ships”- generally freighters of all welded construction, the first of their kind I believe, most ships at that time in history being riveted. America, of course, had no man power problems and was thus able to turn out these Liberty ships in very quick time which was a great help in replacing the huge Merchant Navy losses being sustained in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbour and America's entry into the war, the American's also declared war on Germany: although this was not to provide any immediate relief to the Allies in Europe - initially the Japanese armies were proving to be seemingly as invincible as the German armies had been - but now the Americans could come out openly on the Allied side and the American Navy was legitimately able to provide escorts for the supply ships part way across the Atlantic before handing over to Allied Naval vessels for the remainder of the voyage thus easing the strain on our overstretched resources.
And so I found myself at HMS Mercury amongst literally hundreds of other communication ratings, knowing almost nobody other than the one or two who had been drafted with me from Collingwood and trying to settle down to a routine of more signal exercises, drilling, cleaning (and work dodging if possible) whilst listening out with eager ears for one's name to be called over the Tannoy system to report to the Drafting Office, which generally meant one had received a drafting to a particular post. This might be to a ship, to another shore establishment, or to one or other of the numerous appointments for which communicators were required in aid of the war effort.
In my case it was not long before my name was called - in fact I think I only spent about a week at Mercury: my draft was not to a ship, however, but to a Combined Operations Base in Scotland where I, and a number of others, were to undergo a month's training in Combined Operations procedures. Although my ambition was still to go to sea - and I hoped in a destroyer (I think most young naval servicemen wanted to serve in destroyers, the destroyer having a somewhat glamorous image) - I quite happily accepted this draft as I saw it as part of my wartime adventure. I don't wish to make out that I was a brave and gallant young man - if anything the opposite - but at that stage of my life I was single with no real responsibilities, service life was an adventure which had taken me away from a routine and perhaps humdrum Post Office existence and I seriously wanted to be part of the war effort. I know to this day that I would have been a very disappointed man if I had felt, when the war was over, that I had not at least played my part. I doubt if, had I ever had the physical and mental attributes required to be chosen for specialist or dangerous duties, that I would gladly have accepted the role, but I wished to compete and (hopefully) to return and be able to say to all and sundry “Well, I did my bit”.
So, shortly after the announcement of the draft, off I went with a group of other young hopefuls by train to “Somewhere in Scotland” (destinations were not disclosed until one got there). At this time, trains like everything else were blacked out at night and basically one got in the train at a local station and carried on until one arrived at one's destination - hoping perhaps that one might be able to glimpse the name of a station as the train sped through and thus get some idea of one's location. Sometimes, in the early light of dawn, the train might stop at a small halt where seemingly tireless WVS ladies would be waiting to serve up steaming hot cups of tea to somewhat tired, dirty and hungry servicemen en route to somewhere.
And eventually, of course, one would arrive at one's destination: then it was a question of locating one's kitbag and hammock from the guards van and humping it up into an RN lorry before continuing the journey to the nearby (one hoped!) Naval base wherein the Combined Operations Course was to be conducted: on arrival, to be allocated to the standard Nissen type hut which was to be one's home for the duration of the course. Then having sorted and stowed one's gear, to be mustered somewhere within the camp and informed of the “pleasures” that the Instructors had in store for you over the next few weeks!
Well the course was not too bad really: this was my first ever visit to Scotland and although all our travelling was done in the back of a tarpaulin covered RN lorry which did not provide quite the same panoramic views of the scenery as would today’s luxury coaches, at least one was able to see some of the fantastic scenery for which Scotland is renowned. Some of the training took place beside a loch at Inverary and I also recall the lorry taking us down the western side of Loch Lomond: other training was carried out on the beaches outside Troon in Ayrshire: we had small radio receivers/transmitters strapped to our backs and had to dash from dummy beached landing craft up the beach, dive into cover, unstrap the radios from our backs and set them up to a given frequency in order to receive and pass messages between the training group: all good fun! We did get a little time to ourselves of an evening, giving an opportunity to look around the district and it was during one of my evening strolls with another trainee colleague that I first experienced the general friendliness of the Scots: many were the cheery greetings from folk as we passed and one group, standing chatting at their front door as we walked by, called us over and insisted on giving us a bottle of beer each whilst we stopped and joined in the general conversation.
But soon the training ended and the course were called together to be told that one of its objectives was to obtain men to be formed in to “FOO” parties - forward observation officers - whose job it would be to land on enemy shores with other advance landing parties and act as observers to report by radio to Gunnery Officers onboard bombarding Naval vessels the accuracy or otherwise of their shooting. Volunteers were called for from the trainees and, to the best of my recollection (just like one sees in the best American war films!) the whole group stepped forward as one man. Fortunately, it appeared they needed only a few from each course and I was not one of those selected: on reflection I am so glad: I do not know what the life expectancy of a “FOO” was, but I am perfectly certain there were far less dangerous billets.
And so it was departure from Scotland and back once more to HMS Mercury at Petersfield to wait again to see what fate (in the form of the Drafting Officer) might next have in store for me. Once again I did not have long to wait before the message “Telegraphist Weeks report to the Drafting Office” was broadcast over the Tannoy system: I duly reported and found that I was drafted to HMS Burwell. Initially this meant nothing to me, but on making a few discreet enquiries, I learnt the Burwell was one of the old fashioned four funnelled destroyers (1st World War vintage) that the Americans had presented us with in exchange for the bases in Bermuda. Where HMS Burwell was located was not disclosed - the general procedure was for draftees to be allocated a “Draft No” and told to listen out for the draft number to be announced: one would then be mustered and all those allocated to that draft number would be directed to transport or given train tickets as required for their appropriate destination. Sometimes a senior rating would be placed in charge of a draft and made responsible for ensuring they duly arrived: it was not too long before my draft number was called and I with another few draftees found ourselves under the control of a leading seaman, boarding a train which, as we later found out, was once more bound for Scotland.
I can still picture the face of that leading seaman in my mind's eye: he was obviously an old hand who knew all the ropes and it was not long after we boarded the train that he casually remarked “Now you young hostilities only ratings - I know your mothers/girl friends usually send you a cake every now and again to supplement your naval rations and a nice piece of home made cake would be very welcome: can anybody oblige?” It so happened that Mum had sent me a cake which I had received a few days before - and suffice to say it didn't last long between the half dozen or so hungry sailors in that particular draft.
So after best part of one day's rail travel, I was to find myself once more disembarking in Scotland, but this time at Stranraer in the south west and then boarding the routine passenger ferry journeying between Stranraer and Larne in Northern Ireland. The sea crossing was uneventful and on arrival at Larne another train was boarded to take us to Londonderry where our Leading Seaman escort left us to return south and I and the remainder of the draft dispersed to our various ships. Although I was thrilled to find myself drafted to a destroyer (as I mentioned earlier the glamour ships of the war) the 1st World War vintage ex American four funnellers were not exactly the sleek and speedy escort ships of one's imagination: but then it was a destroyer and I was quite looking forward to joining her and taking part in North Atlantic convoy duties which I was to learn had been the task on which she had been employed.
However, on boarding HMS Burwell, I was informed that we would be sailing the next morning for Liverpool where she was to undergo refit: well, I'd never been to Liverpool before so.....! Unfortunately, it meant I had no opportunity to visit anywhere in Northern Ireland and simply had to content myself with that seen on the train journey between Larne and Londonderry. I think my main and almost first recollection of HMS Burwell as I crawled into my bunk that night (American ships were generally fitted out with retractable bunks unlike their British counterparts where one slept in hammocks) was of the seemingly flimsy construction. I assume the metal sides were of armoured steel, but when one touched the side it seemed to “spring” like the side of a tin can and I could not help but let my thoughts ponder “Is this all there is between me and the sea outside?”
The following morning, off we sailed across the Irish Sea en route to Liverpool: the sea was quite calm and I was delighted to find I was unperturbed by the motion - observing that this was the first real sea trip I had made in a naval vessel. It was not a long trip and soon we arrived off Liverpool Docks within sight of the Liver Building and viewing quite a lot of the destruction to the city itself caused by heavy German air attacks. The first few days in Liverpool were relatively peaceful whilst dockyard workmen made preparations for the refit and I was able to get ashore of an evening to explore something of the city, although at that point I had not chummed up with any fellow shipmates and was finding life a little lonely.
However, after two or three days, it was decided to divide the ship's company into two watches (port and starboard) and to send one watch on leave whilst the other stayed on board to deal with any odd jobs that might arise and for emergency cover etc. I was lucky enough to be put in the watch for first leave, so off on leave I went and on arriving home, received the usual welcome from my folks who by some means or other managed to produce substantial and reasonable meals despite rationing which by that time was quite severe. As a general rule numerous cups of tea were drunk whilst describing (with a certain amount of discretion) what one had been up to since the last leave or occasionally making a visit to a local hostelry where a slightly stronger liquid was partaken of. However, I had taken only about ten days of my scheduled three weeks leave when a telegram was received recalling me (and as I was to discover, the remainder of the on leave watch) and it was with quite an excited feeling of expectancy that I was at last about to take an active part in the war - visions of North Atlantic convoy duties - that I made my way to London to catch the train back to Liverpool.
But my expectations were soon dashed: it seems that closer inspection of the state of HMS Burwell revealed much more work was required than anticipated and thus all the ship's company were to be “paid off” and returned to their home bases. A new crew would eventually be drafted to the ship when the refit was completed: and so went west my ambition of destroyer service: one sea trip from Londonderry to Liverpool and now a return once again to barracks at HMS Mercury and another wait to see what the drafting authorities had in store. The date was July 1942.
Chapter 2: At last, a Sea Going Draft
At this period of the war, the German armies occupied almost the whole of Europe: they had captured Yugoslavia and had attacked and occupied Greece despite a large contingent of British, Australian and New Zealand troops being sent to the country to support the Greek army. The Allied troops had had to be evacuated from Greece to Crete which in turn was invaded and conquered by German parachute and airborne troops leading to the eventual withdrawal of Allied survivors to North Africa. On the Eastern front, despite fierce resistance from the Russian armies it seemed nothing was able to stop the German military machine.
Meanwhile, German troops had been drafted to North Africa to bolster the mainly Italian armies in the area, and the German General Rommel had been appointed Commander of the German 'Afrika Corps': up to that time British and Commonwealth troops had had some successes against the weak Italian resistance but the strengthening of the Axis forces by German troops had subsequently led to a number of defeats and the North African campaign had become something of a stalemate with advances and retreats on both sides. The Allied position had also not been helped by the Japanese entry into the war as their (the Japanese) initial successes in the Far East and the Philippines had brought them into close proximity to Australia, leading to most of the Australian and New Zealand forces being withdrawn to counter the threat of any attacks on their home countries.
However, although we did not know it at the time, the tide was set to turn: America had now been in the war for some 6 or 7 months and with its immense resources geared for war (uninterrupted by air attack as was so often British industry) much more of the material of war was now becoming available to the Allied cause: and the battle of El Alemain was shortly to commence.
But back to my personal position at HMS Mercury: once again I did not have long to wait before my name was called to report for draft: in this instance, a number of drafts was being handled at the same time and all draftees were instructed to muster on the parade square where the Drafting Officer stood with a long list and called each man out individually, to be informed of his draft location or number as was applicable. When I went forward on my name being called, he mumbled something like “I see you've been on destroyers” (obviously having seen the reference to HMS Burwell on my service record but apparently not noticing that the draft had lasted only a few weeks) and to my disgust I found myself drafted to Flowerdown W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) Station just outside Winchester in Hampshire.
Now it was not done for ratings to query with Drafting Officers the whys and wherefores of drafts - so it was to Flowerdown W/T I went. To be perfectly honest, Flowerdown was situated in a very pleasant location and the task was to listen to, record and report to Admiralty Headquarters (to which one was connected by land line) signals being transmitted by naval overseas radio stations. This meant working watches day or night as required which at times could be very monotonous as when atmospheric conditions were bad sometimes one could sit through an 8 hour night watch just listening out and not being able to pick up any signals from the overseas station to which one was allocated. The night would then be spent simply reporting to Admiralty every hour or so “There is no -------” (whatever was the call sign of the overseas station to which one was tuned). In many respects, Flowerdown could be rated a good draft: there was a keen Social Club in existence through which various activities were organised – Housey-Housey, dances, dancing classes etc. (there were a number of WRNS on station and some Officers also lived on site with their families). In fact the station was often loosely described as “Flowerdown Social Club” with a little official wireless telegraphy thrown in for good measure!
It was, in my opinion, the sort of draft to which a sailor who had spent long periods at sea in convoy work or similar hazardous duties - possibly a survivor from a sunken ship in need of rest and recuperation - should have been appointed but it was not the sort of situation that I sought or wanted. I'd joined the Navy because I fancied going to sea: I'd now been enlisted for about 10 months, spent approximately 6 months of that time on initial and Combined Operations training, about 2 months on HMS Burwell of which most had been spent ashore and the rest of my time in barracks or travelling to and fro on drafts. My sea time so far consisted of several crossings on the Gosport ferry, one on the Stranraer to Larne ferry and a voyage from Londonderry to Liverpool on HMS Burwell. Hardly a situation meriting a shore billet!
I stuck life at Flowerdown for about 4 months: I won't say I didn't enjoy it: the atmosphere was very friendly, the social life was good and I'd chummed up with another telegraphist who hailed from the London area. There was an excellent pub in a small village not far from the base which we used to visit and where we used to join in the merriment with a group of locally based soldiers and Winchester was not too far away with available cinemas and servicemen's clubs. One facet of Flowerdown which was not so good was the food: generally speaking I had found the food produced by Navy cooks considering the numbers for whom they had to cater as quite reasonable, but I think they must have drafted all the culinary failures to Flowerdown! The meals seemed to consist of corned beef, day after day: we had corned beef cold, fried, encased in pies or pasties and seemingly used in numerous other ways probably unknown to anybody other than Flowerdown cooks! Now I like corned beef (I still do) but in moderation: when it is served up day after day it gets a little much. In one respect, however, I was quite happy with the apparent loose system of messing used at Flowerdown: I can't recall the circumstances now, but friend Den happened to be in the area and called in to see me (in uniform, of course): I was able to take him into the Mess and obtain meals for him without anybody querying the fact that he was not borne on the base numbers. Very handy! I think that was the only occasion since our training days together in Collingwood that Den and I managed to meet up during the whole of the war.
But I still felt that I wished to play a more active part in the war and get to sea: so eventually I took the bull by the horns: having made some tentative soundings I knew it would not be easy to get away from Flowerdown - it took a while for one to get used to the procedures and the powers that be obviously did not like spending time getting people trained up just for them then to leave - but I thought I knew a way in which it could be done! So I put in a request to be transferred to the submarine service (the submarine service was always looking for volunteers): in retrospect, it was a very foolhardy thing to do as the life expectancy of submariners was not very long, but I was young (perhaps slightly mad) and it was a way of getting me away from Flowerdown and a chance to get to sea.
Shortly afterwards my request for transfer was granted and once more it was back to HMS Mercury: probably fortunately for me, the actual request for submarine service was not accepted, possibly due to the fact that telegraphists on submarines also doubled as signalmen and my eyesight was not good enough for signal duties: perhaps there is something to be said for slightly defective vision after all! It was early December 1942 when I rejoined HMS Mercury, where again it was not too long before I was called for draft: on this occasion there was a very large draft of men all scheduled to leave together, although apparently to a number of different individual appointments but obviously initially in the same general direction. My personal draft was listed as to 'LSTP8' - which meant very little - and from casual conversation with others who had similarly coded drafts, it meant little to them either: naturally there was much speculation and guess work as to the eventual destination(s) and craft involved.
Within a matter of days - about 18th Dec. 1942 - the whole draft was called forward, we boarded a large array of RN lorries and were driven to the main RN Barracks at Portsmouth: there a train awaited us (there was a siding which led right into the barracks in those days) kitbags and hammocks were humped from the lorries and stowed in the luggage wagons, and the train started to fill with ratings from all specialities as well as we communication ratings ex Mercury. Soon we were off and in the words of then popular wartime song “We don't know where we're going until we're there”!
From recollection I think we must have spent some 12 hours or so on the train before ending up, yet again, in Scotland - this time in the docks at Gourock where berthed alongside was a very large ocean liner painted overall in battleship grey. Kit was identified and unloaded from the train and one by one we boarded the liner to be allocated a Mess number for dining purposes and guided to a small area in which we would be slinging our hammocks. As soon as all were onboard and darkness fell the ship unberthed and off we went to our then unknown destination. The liner turned out to be RMS Andes, a large peace time cruise liner normally operating on the UK - South America run: she was indeed a luxury liner which for war time use had been stripped of most of her fineries to accommodate as many servicemen as could be crammed on-board and catered for.
I have no idea how many she carried, but what I do recall is that a large number appeared to be 'rookies' (such as myself) with little sea experience: apart from the Naval draft, there was a large contingent of RAF personnel travelling to Canada for training - yes, as you will probably have guessed by now - we were on our way to America. RMS Andes was a fast cruise liner and she sailed unescorted, relying on her speed and luck to avoid enemy surface, air, or underwater attacks: she took a northerly route, this being considered the route less liable to attack. We must have sailed from Gourock on or about the night of 20th Dec. 1942. Now the north Atlantic Ocean is not renowned for its placidity at the best of times and towards the end of a European December would hardly be described by the most exuberant of travel agents as the ideal for cruising: suffice to say that within about 24 hours of leaving land, Andes was performing some interesting gyroscopic movements causing a large proportion of the intrepid travellers to wish they hadn't eaten whatever it was they had eaten!
I recall boasting to another rating in my Mess who had previously served at sea, on how I'd had some destroyer service on HMS Burwell (omitting to mention that it consisted simply of one trip across a calm Irish Sea): it was not long before I felt like eating my words - I probably would have done except that if I had, I would almost certainly have brought them up again! I must admit to being severely sea sick for about 3 of the 5 day voyage - existing on a few nibbles of dry biscuits just to keep something in my stomach: I was by far not the only one: all the toilets and ablution areas stunk where people had been ill, basins were clogged and the floors awash: one tried so far as possible to get up on deck for fresh air - but again the North Atlantic in mid-winter is hardly the place to sunbathe!
However, beyond the inclement weather the voyage was uneventful, the seas calmed as we neared the American coast and on the morning of 25th December 1942, RMS Andes berthed alongside in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was still bitterly cold - but at least the land stood still! There was, of course, intense activity as kit was gathered together and the various contingents mustered on the dockside in preparation for onward routing to where-so-ever they were destined. The particular section of the draft in which I was included was scheduled to leave the ship that morning but for some reason there was delay and we were told we had to stay on-board for Xmas lunch: and what was served up for Xmas lunch?: sausages and mash - probably the worst Xmas lunch of my entire life!
But sometime after lunch we escaped from Andes and were herded on to a Canadian National Railways train to travel south to “Somewhere in America”: by now, most of us were feeling tired and weary from travel and on first sight the seating and sleeping accommodation on the train did not look particularly inviting: but that evening, the meal served up by the Canadian Railway catering staff was really out of this world: whether it was just that we had become so used to rationing in the UK which made that meal seem so out of the ordinary or whether it was really as good as I recollect, I know not - but it certainly made up for our sausage and mash Xmas lunch.
The train journey was also remarkable in itself: the carriages were heated to perfection (all windows were double glazed) and as we travelled along through Canada towards the American border it was wonderful to see the houses all brightly lit (after the black-out in the UK), decorated and illuminated Xmas trees standing in many of the porches and the ground generally covered in crisp, white snow. A fairy land scene in itself: and when daylight came and the train made an occasional stop, it was met by ladies from the Canadian equivalent of our WVS with steaming hot cups of tea and unlimited bars of chocolate - chocolate being one food item very much rationed at home. I think a lot of us were in many ways sorry to leave that train when we eventually arrived at Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, where we were to stay until joining our respective ships.
We were billeted in two small hotels in Asbury Park which had been commandeered for service use and designated 'HMS Asbury': these acted as “holding” barracks for Royal Navy units awaiting draft to ships being built in eastern America for the British Navy now that America was well and truly in the war. There was continual comings and goings as new drafts arrived and others left to join their ships and it must have been a nightmare for those in authority to not only keep a check on those who were there but also to find jobs at which to keep them occupied day after day.
There was little requirement for actual security at the base apart from the odd fire patrols and shore patrols to ensure any unruly elements were kept out of trouble. Shore leave was granted most evenings and most of us made good use of the local hamburger bars, ice cream parlours etc. (no rationing here) and it was nice to enjoy the bright lights of the streets. Eggs were severely rationed in the UK and one of the favourite snacks bought ashore was 'eggs and chips': I recall going into one bar and ordering an egg meal to hear the bar-tender remark “Don't you Limeys ever eat anything but eggs?” I also recall after being in The States for a few days and thinking myself quite knowledgeable in the local jargon asking in a bar for “Hamburger with” - to have the attendant smartly reply “With what?” – which left me stammering out “I don’t know, but whatever you have with it”!
By this time I had come into contact with one or two lads on draft to the same 'LSTP8' as I and had provisionally chummed up with one, another Telegraphist, Maurice Wilfred Beard: he seemed a reasonable fellow although to my first impression, a bit of a “softy” and somewhat superior in education and upbringing to me. However, he was a chap with whom I was going to be in close contact and with whom I would be working, so we started going around together. It was not far from Asbury Park to New York and there was a good rail service and one of my early recollections is of spending New Year's Eve 1942 in the centre of Broadway. You can possibly visualize the noise and raz-ma-taz of Broadway at midnight on New Year's Eve: but I survived.
One thing we did find about the Americans - they really seemed to appreciate their servicemen - or for that matter all servicemen. There were various welfare clubs and contacts and it was not long before we were introduced to local American families and invited into their homes for meals and chats: their service organisations - e.g.- “The Stage Door Canteen” in New York and “Buddies Clubs” (broadly the equivalent of our Salvation Army or NAAFI Clubs) were excellent and we soon learnt the routine - get ashore as early as possible in the evening and head for one or other of the clubs where there would be a number of free tickets available for the cinemas and theatres on Broadway - usually allocated on a 'first come, first served' basis A couple of trips were made to New York from Asbury Park, during which I managed to get to the top of the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in the world) visit Radio City and the Grand Central Station and see the world premiere of the film “The Star Spangled Rhythm”: I also visited, in company with Maurice, one or two local Asbury Park families for eats and from whom we were given a very friendly family welcome. But this idyllic existence in Asbury Park was not to last for on 7th Jan. 1943, at 8.30 in the morning, 'LSTP8' draft left by train to an undisclosed destination somewhere in America, to join and see for the first time the craft which, as it turned out, was to be my home for the next 3 plus years.
I still did not know precisely what “LSTP8” stood for, but there had been much speculation that it was some kind of landing ship - and this speculation turned out to be true: at approximately 7pm on the evening of 7th Jan.1943 we arrived in Boston, Massachusetts and were driven to the dockside to embark on a strange looking craft just about build complete. It was a longish shallow draft Tank Landing Ship – or Landing Ship, Tank in military parlance - berthed at “Pier 8” - hence the code name “LSTP8”. Altogether, we were a complement of about 70 men, comprising 6 or 7 Officers with the rest Petty Officers and ratings: all the Officers were RNR or RNVR (that is to say ex Merchant Navy or seagoing civilians - no “pukka” Royal Naval officers): the Petty Officers generally were long serving “regular” navy men and, apart from a smattering of senior ratings, most of the rest were youngish “Hostilities Only” (the name given to those who had joined up purely for the duration of the war) ratings with, like myself, little if any, sea experience.
Chapter 3 – The Ship – Preparing for War
Although a couple of Petty Officers had been drafted to the ship in advance of the main party to make preliminary assessment of facilities etc., as might be expected when almost a complete crew joins a new ship at one time there was considerable confusion whilst Messes and bunk numbers were allocated (being American built the ship was equipped with bunks rather than hammock slinging billets as one would get on a British vessel) and kit carried on board and stowed: there was a small metal locker for each man. All rating accommodation was at the rear of the ship: a small area on the starboard side of the rear section was curtained off as the Petty Officer's Mess - in which they both ate and slept - and at the very rear was the stoker's Mess consisting of a small table with seating room for about twelve men. Just in front of the P.O.'s Mess was the seamen's Mess, with seating room for perhaps twenty men. The rest of the rear end contained the “Heads” (in naval parlance wash room, showers and toilets), the bunks and the clothing lockers.
Tank Landing Ships in shape are like a long, hollow box (the tank deck) with a ramp and bow doors at the front end, the crew’s quarters at the rear end as described, and with long passage ways on both port and starboard sides, stretching from forward of the crew's quarters almost to the bow doors in the front. These passage ways were divided into three or four small compartments with water tight doors between each and fitted out alternately with bunks or mess tables: these areas were designed to accommodate troops being carried when on operations, but when simply in transit or on non-operational duties, they gave some very useful spare space, and the first compartment on the starboard side was allocated as a Mess for “Miscellaneous” ratings - which included all communication, Ordnance, Electrician, Supply and Steward ratings. There was also another set of “Heads” in the first compartment on the port side - which was commandeered by the P.O.'s for their use.
Along the passage ways, both sides, were entrances to the engine and boiler rooms one deck down: directly above the rear end of the tank deck was the officers’ accommodation with alley ways port and starboard off from each of which were about four cabins: I believe these were each fitted with two bunks - the second being for the use of Army officers embarked when we were carrying troops. At the forward end of the officers’ accommodation was the wardroom, with the Captain's cabin adjacent thereto, and the stewards’ pantry in one corner. Above the officers’ accommodation was the gun and boat deck with the radio room (starboard side) and the chart room (port side) and across the width of the ship, in front of the two, the wheelhouse. Above the wheelhouse was the bridge.
The main deck stretched from the front of the wheelhouse forward to the bow; about one third of the way back in the main deck was a large hatch and vehicular elevator which could be lowered to the tank deck. When loading took place, vehicles would be driven up the ramp and through the bow doors into the tank deck and on to the lowered elevator, which would then take them up to the main deck where they would be parked and lashed down. When the main deck was full, tanks would then drive on to be stowed in the tank deck. I suppose the ship could best be described as a very unsophisticated version of a modern “roll on, roll off” ferry but with only two decks (main and tank), a very reinforced bow and a very shallow draught - about 2ft forward and 4ft aft fully loaded - providing the facility to ram the bows up on to a beach to off-load as opposed to an ordinary ferry which requires a deep water berth and harbour facilities to do so.
But enough of the ship: the working days were spent in loading stores, general tidying, testing radios, degaussing trials, familiarising oneself with equipment, and settling down while dockyard workmen finished off their tasks. Evenings, when not in the duty watch (in harbour, ship's crews are normally divided into two watches, port and starboard, one watch being allowed ashore whilst the other remained on-board to cover routine tasks etc.) were spent exploring Boston. As in New York, Boston had a “Buddies Club” and various free tickets were available: I saw my first ever ice hockey match in Boston, Woody Herman (a famous war time bandleader) on stage and various other shows including some wrestling in Boston Arena.
The Bostonians were like most other Americans very generous to servicemen and Maurice and I had a number of invitations to homes, and an evening meal one night in a very smart Boston Hotel (Hotel Vendome): this hotel had one table set aside in the restaurant which bore four small flags - American, British, French and one other (which I can't recall) - and each evening four servicemen were invited to partake of a meal at the hotel's expense: after the meal, Maurice and I were invited up into the proprietor's accommodation where we chatted and drank whilst his son played piano and entertained us.
But in between these leisure activities, we continued with exercises, sea trials, radar calibrations, gunnery trials, degaussing etc. as the ship was prepared for the more serious tasks for which it was ultimately designed: and on 21st January 1943 we sailed from Boston. Forty eight hours later we berthed in New York harbour: an uneventful voyage except that we found the fresh water tank on the ship had somehow become contaminated with fuel oil. There were fresh water drinking fountains just outside the mess-decks on both port and starboard sides, but to our dismay these were also contaminated so all food and drink tasted of oil: naturally the first job on entering harbour was to scrub out the fresh water tanks!
Altogether we stayed in New York for ten days: my diary records that I was able to go ashore almost every other night, saw either a cinema or theatre show each of those evenings and on most of them enjoyed free eats by courtesy of one or other of the American service organisations. On 2nd February 1943 once more we sailed, heading south, until we eventually anchored off Portsmouth near Norfolk, Virginia: we did not get ashore here but were at sea on various exercises daily to get the ship and crew worked up and ready for whatever might lay ahead. On 12th February we left Norfolk, sailing north, again heading for New York: this voyage also was quite uneventful except that it was quite a rough trip, during which we found how well a virtually flat-bottomed ship could roll on the open sea! I was pleased to note in my diary, however, that although some were sea-sick, I was not!
On this occasion we stayed in New York for just over one month: again it was a period of exercising and loading up of stores during the day and spending more or less every other evening ashore: full use was made of the various servicemen’s clubs and it was later to be my proud boast that I saw nearly every show on Broadway during that month - most of them using free tickets! By this time I had forsaken Maurice as my regular shore-going companion and palled up with George (“Lofty”) Broomfield, one of the signalmen on board who was a grand guy with similar (bad?) habits and hobbies as myself. Lofty was one of the few “Regular” ratings on board - he'd joined the RN as a Boy Signalman and subsequently signed on for 12 years - much to his eternal regret.
However, we were both in it for the duration of the war and one had to live for the day. Two things had also happened during this period which affected me: the ship had started a football team, of which I became a member for the rest of my time on board: and our radio room was equipped with a typewriter (American telegraphists - or Radiomen as they called them - were taught to type and typed out signals as received unlike we Brits who had to write them out in longhand). With this typewriter I became quite a proficient two finger typist and it was not long before I started a weekly ship's newspaper - christened the “LST Rag”: so a lot of my time when not actually on watch or required for other official duties was spent composing, editing or typing out articles for inclusion in the newspaper. It was also during this stay in New York that we had an LCT (Landing Craft, Tanks) hoisted on to large wooden beams placed athwartships on our main deck and lashed down: landing craft, unlike LST’s were not ocean going and LST's were one means used to convey the LCT's from their building yards to their future operating areas. It was a reasonably simple matter to hoist them on to the ship using any one of the large cranes normally available in most ports, but the method of unloading at some future stage possibly in a small port with few facilities remained to be seen - and is described in a later chapter.
One other matter occurred during this period, which under more normal circumstances one would possibly have considered a significant event, and that was my 21st birthday. I doubt if anybody else in my family has, or is ever likely to, celebrate their 21st birthday in New York: there was obviously no opportunity for the sort of party one normally associates with the coming of age but Lofty and I started the evening with a couple of drinks in a bar somewhere on Broadway. Later we went our separate ways - I will not go into details but suffice to say that some time in the early hours of 28th Feb. I travelled on my own almost the length of the New York subway service making my way back to the ship - something one would unlikely contemplate in this modern day and age for fear of mugging or worse.
Then at last exercises were concluded and loading of stores completed - stores which, incidentally, included filling the starboard passageway with cases of baked beans from deck almost to deck-head level meaning the only method of getting along that passageway was by crawling over the cases: we sailed on the morning of 15th March 1943 in a south-easterly direction and we literally “rolled” our way along until finally anchoring off Bermuda some nine days later.
My first impressions of Bermuda were of a tropical paradise: beautiful clear blue sea, cloudless blue sky and warm sunshine overhead: fine, large colonial style white buildings lined the sea shore and many grandiose and elegant looking yachts lay at anchor in the harbour: a truly idealistic looking island. Unfortunately no shore leave was granted and three days later, one of a small convoy, we sailed: we were a little late leaving harbour due to minor troubles and had to increase speed in an attempt to catch up with the rest, but at about 1900 that evening having encountered further engine defects, we had to turn back. Return to harbour, the repair of defects and the wait for sufficient ships to gather to form another convoy at least gave us the opportunity to go ashore in Bermuda: as I said, a tropical paradise - if one could afford it - but not such a paradise when trying to exist on a UK sailors pay and there was little activity in which we could indulge other than that provided in the Dockyard area. Engine repairs took five days and we whiled the time away with inter-ship football matches or games against other LST's and visits to the Dockyard cinema: on 3rd April 1943, we moved out to anchor, awaiting formation of the next convoy.
In case you are wondering why a Naval ship needed to sail in convoy, the reasons were that we had a maximum speed of ten knots and our armament consisted of six Oerlikon guns and one 12 pounder - the latter's main merit being that when fired it cleared the soot from the galley chimney as it was sited almost directly above. Our armament was little more than provision against possible air attack when on operations and would have been of little use against underwater or surface raiders. But eventually sufficient ships were gathered and the convoy made ready to sail on 13th April - obviously an unlucky day for us as on attempting to weigh anchor we found we'd somehow got some wire entangled around the anchor cable, which could not be shifted. It took 7 hours to cut the wire away and in once more hurrying to catch the convoy we again experienced engine trouble, so back again to Bermuda!
These extra few days in Bermuda were whiled away with yet more football matches and visits to the Dockyard cinema and enjoyment of the beautiful sunshine: the inherent dangers of war at sea were, however, truly brought home to us when the cruiser HMS Argonaut limped into harbour with huge holes in her bows and stern where German torpedoes had found their mark some time previously. This time, our engine repairs were fairly quickly concluded and there was less of a wait for a convoy: we sailed from Bermuda - for the last time - on 20th April 1943.
Chapter 4: From Atlantic to Mediterranean
I had now been in the Navy for approximately 18 months: through no fault of my own during that period I had managed little more than a couple of months at sea and I had seen no action: however, I was now serving on a ship obviously destined to play an active part in the war effort - and now having (hopefully) got over the initial teething troubles and sailed eastwards from Bermuda towards the war theatres it would not be long before we were positively involved.
So far as the progress of the war generally was concerned, possibly the turning point from the British point of view occurred at the second battle of El Alamein in October 1942: a new British General, General Bernard Montgomery had taken over as commander of the 8th Army in North Africa in early August and at long last, British air supremacy had halted Rommel's Afrika Corps west of Alamein. On Oct. 23rd the main battle started and despite stiff and heroic resistance from the Germans, they were gradually pushed west: it was to take three months of heavy fighting before British and Commonwealth troops reached Tripoli in Libya having advanced some 1400 miles from El Alamein. Meantime, in early Nov 1942, American and British troops had landed on the beaches of Morocco and Algeria to fight eastwards and link up with the 8th Army in their advance westwards: again fierce battles and stubborn resistance was encountered and it was only on 7th April 1943 that the two armies linked up, ending in final surrender of the German Afrika corps on 12th May 1943. So there we were, the good ship LST 368, sailing eastward in convoy to once more an unspecified destination.
I had now been away from home for nearly 4 months - not long compared to some servicemen serving overseas - and although I had been writing regularly to Mum, brother Arthur, Den, George and various other friends and relatives, (as no doubt had other members of the ship's company been doing to their relatives), no mail had reached the ship during that time. Now we were on the move again and hoping that someone somewhere in the General Post Office, Ships Division, in London would have some idea of our whereabouts and destination and would despatch mail there for our collection on arrival.
The first few days out of Bermuda were uneventful with reasonably calm seas: apart from some minor breakdowns in our steering gear, soon repaired, we had suffered no other mechanical troubles and were still in our set place in the convoy. On the 7th day out, however, the weather deteriorated, the wind strengthened causing a goodly swell on the ocean and we found once more the capabilities of a flat-bottomed LST to roll in an open sea: I was very bucked to find that I had no problems with seasickness and my stomach seemed to have adjusted itself to a happy life on the ocean waves. On 30th April, ten days out, the first aeroplane seen since we left America was sighted and “Action Stations” sounded for the first time in deadly earnest: fortunately the plane turned out to be “one of ours” and we were soon back to normal routine. Then five days later on 5th May we arrived off Gibraltar - our first land sighting - but somewhat to our consternation, we just carried on sailing east: much was the speculation as to our eventual destination and Oran was hotly tipped, only to fade away as we arrived off the port in the early hours of 6th May and still continued eastward.
Where now? Algiers, perhaps, the next major port east: some twenty hours later we were off Algiers and dropped anchor - only to weigh and move on once more at midday still proceeding east: but then at about 4 pm, we turned about and eventually berthed alongside in Algiers on the morning of 8th May 1943. We assumed somebody, somewhere, knew for where we were heading and what we were supposed to be doing! Naturally, having been at sea for the best part of three weeks, opportunity was taken to step ashore for the first time in North Africa: first impressions of Algiers were not high - some imposing buildings, but generally speaking the town seemed hot, dusty and dirty. One consolation perhaps was that the local Algerian wine could be bought for 5 francs a glass (my diary tells me at that time there were 200 francs to the £1: it also tells me I was paid the princely sum of 300 francs - £1.50 in today's money - representing approximately two weeks’ pay). Once more we were disappointed, however, in that visits to the local Fleet Mail Office revealed no mail had been received for LST 368. We stayed in Algiers for just over three days, departing on the morning of 11th May and – surprise, surprise - sailing westward: some 30 hours later we were opposite Oran once more and this time drew into the harbour and berthed alongside at 2100 hours.
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, whilst in New York an LCT had been hoisted on to our main deck and tightly secured to ring bolts in the deck by stout steel hawsers(these ring bolts were actually intended for securing vehicles being carried on operations) and it now seemed that Oran was to be the point at which our LCT was to be off-loaded. Facilities in the Oran Docks were limited - they had, of course suffered some damage during the fighting in the area - and whether they ever had a crane large and powerful enough to lift the craft off I know not but the powers that be had thought of that: the procedure was to anchor the LST in a reasonably smooth and clear stretch of water, unshackle all restraining wires holding the LCT in place bar one, and remove the guard rails from one side of the deck of the LST. The ballast tanks on the side from which the guard rails had been removed were then flooded causing the LST to heel over to that side and when sufficient angle had been obtained, the last retaining wire was cut with an axe and the LCT slid sideways over the side to land in the sea with an almighty “plop.” Quite an experience to watch - and it worked! Our LCT was successfully launched to become no doubt in due course part of an invasion fleet somewhere or other.
One or two runs ashore were possible in Oran: very similar to Algiers in being hot and dusty, but my feeling was that it was a little cleaner than Algiers. No other memories - and we left Oran at 0600 on Tuesday 18th May 1943 sailing once more eastwards as part of a convoy including a number of merchant navy ships. All was peaceful until about 1900 that evening when suddenly the “Action Station” bells sounded: I was down on the mess deck at the time and pausing only to grab my lifebelt, began my ascent to the radio room (my action station) at the double. As I reached the upper deck it was to see two merchant vessels, one immediately in front and one to our starboard side, beginning their plunge below the waves: both had been torpedoed and the convoy escort vessels were tearing around trying to locate the enemy submarine.
This was my first real experience of action at sea and I can still recall the nervous excitement with the adrenalin pumping through my veins as I rushed to the radio room. Next the ship came to a halt, ropes and ladders were dropped over the side and we began to pick up survivors from one of the sunken ships: I can tell you it is a very eerie and nerve racking experience to stop still in the water knowing that lurking somewhere beneath the waves is an enemy vessel which had already disposed of two victims and for all we knew, could be waiting there to take a pot shot at us. Despite our maximum speed being only ten knots one always felt safer when on the move.
However, soon the convoy was again underway and our SBA (Sick Berth Attendant - we didn't carry a Doctor) was busy doing what he could for the survivors: there was another panic about 2100 when once more “Action Stations” was sounded but fortunately a false alarm this time and early the following morning we again pulled into Algiers where the survivors were off-loaded to hospital. Whether this was a scheduled stop or one just brought about by the need to land the survivors I know not but having entered port, instead of attempting to rejoin the original convoy, opportunity was taken to affect some engine repairs. This time we stayed in Algiers for seven days giving a better opportunity to explore and during which we found a nice beach from which one could swim: my diary records it as “super duper”: temperatures were around the 100F mark in the day so the opportunity to cool off in the water was very welcome. Algiers had risen a little in our estimation!
But then on the evening of 25th May we pulled out to anchor and the following morning set off sailing eastwards once more. There then followed a succession of small “hops” and anchorages at various points along the North African coast: we anchored off Bone for a couple of hours, during which there was a heavy air raid on the harbour: we passed safely through that stretch of the Mediterranean which had become infamously known as “Bomb Alley” to ships on Malta convoy runs - the (relatively) narrow channel between North Africa and Malta which had become the graveyard of so many ships during the siege of Malta. We anchored again off Tripoli, Libya, noting from the sea it looked badly damaged having been the scene of some very heavy fighting between Rommel's troops and the 8th Army: still we sailed eastwards, in calm waters and beautiful Mediterranean sunshine with daytime spells between watches spent lying out on the forecastle sunbathing. The only event to spoil our cruise was the sight of an escorting Allied plane crash into the sea - not through enemy action but (presumably) from engine failure or some similar malfunction: we never learnt the fate of the pilot.
The then latest “buzz” (rumour) claimed our eventual destination as Port Said at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and so we sailed on until we reached Alexandria where again we dropped anchor - and watched with horror a tanker ablaze in the harbour as a result of enemy action: then once more it was up anchor and on to Port Said - but did we stop? No, we carried on straight into the Suez Canal and on to Port Suez at the southern end where once again we anchored. Whilst admitting that the Suez Canal is a marvellous feat of engineering it is not very spectacular, with little more than wide stretches of sand on either side: at least it was then!
There is, however, a large lake (Great Bitter Lake) at Ismalia, approximately half way through the canal: the Suez is not very wide over most of its length and this is the only place where large ships can pass so those travelling say, northwards, have to wait in the lake until those travelling in the opposite direction reach the lake, and vice versa. And so we anchored off Suez on Sunday 6th June 1943: little did we know then what was to be the significance of that date one year later. Our thoughts were more on the fact that signals sent ashore had established there was still no mail for LST 368: most of us had left the UK in December of the previous year, 6 months had now gone by and we had no idea of how our folks at home were faring.
The following day we berthed alongside in Suez and stepped ashore on Egyptian soil for the first time. Pay day had arrived once more and I had received £E1.50 (approx. £1.60p English money) and while there was plenty to buy in Suez that princely sum did not go far: I did, however, manage to buy myself a new pair of swimming trunks and a fez (a la Tommy Cooper), but my strongest memory is of the hordes of flies everywhere ashore.
We stayed in Suez a couple of days before pulling over to Port Tewfik not far away, where we had to demonstrate to various naval and army authorities the capabilities of an LST in landing on a beach: they had some previous knowledge of smaller landing craft but the larger Landing Ships were a totally new experience. At the same time we were all issued with khaki uniforms - quite why we never discovered - but it did cause a little wonderment as to what lay in store for the future.
We stayed in the Tewfik/Suez area, attempting to amuse ourselves as best we could when off watch and participating in various exercises otherwise, for twelve days. Two significant happenings took place within that period however: on Monday 14th June a signal was received to say that mail for LST 368 had been forwarded by air to Alexandria, and on Wednesday 16th June 1943, we beached, opened up the bow doors, lowered the ramp and proceeded to load up with desert camouflaged lorries and tanks.
Having driven the lorries and tanks on board and seen them safely secured on the main and tank decks, the army crews then disembarked; they were to rejoin us once we had gone through the canal. Two days later, I must admit without a great deal of regret, we sailed from Suez northwards through the canal and into the Mediterranean. Would I ever see Suez again I wondered? Only time would tell. We then anchored off Port Said for a few hours before carrying on to Alexandria where we berthed alongside on Monday 21st June 1943. Arrival in Alexandria presented two main objectives - one, to collect the promised mail from the local Fleet Mail Office and two, to arrange a run ashore: in the first, we were frustrated once again on learning that the FMO (Fleet Mail Office) had in their wisdom forwarded our mail to Suez from whence we had just left: however, the second objective was satisfactorily concluded as Alexandria in those days was a main base of the British Mediterranean Fleet and as such had an excellent Fleet Club to which we soon found our way for a most enjoyable evening.
Fortunately, the FMO was quickly able to make amends and two days later on 23rd June 1943 several bags of mail were delivered to the joy of most on board; personally, I received thirty two letters and one telegram and it was nice to hear how parents, friends and relatives at home were faring. On that same day, the army crews who would be manning the lorries and tanks we carried re-embarked. It seemed likely, therefore, that it would not be long before we took part in our first operation.
Chapter 5: Into Action
We left Alexandria the day following embarkation of the troops: this was the first occasion on which we had embarked fighting soldiers and it was most interesting to talk them. Many of them were 8th Army veterans who had fought their way up and down the North African desert in many campaigns leading eventually to the battle of El Alamein and the final surrender of the German Afrika Corps. Although they obviously knew their job was not yet over they were glad of the opportunity to take a little relaxation as we steamed gently westward in the Mediterranean sunshine.
I omitted to mention earlier that at some stage during our travels we had managed to “win” a piano - which was firmly lashed to the rails on the quarterdeck and covered with a large canvas cover when inclement weather so necessitated. The mess-deck “buzz” suggested that we were heading for Tripoli (Libya) and the calm sea gave the troops a genuine opportunity to relax and savour the delights of our piano which really came into its own as we proceeded westward. Some of the soldiers were quite accomplished pianists and several were the (generally) bawdy singsongs enjoyed on the quarterdeck each evening as sailors and soldiers mixed in unison.
The calm weather continued as we proceeded along the North African coast. Soon we passed Benghazi on our port side - a town which had seen much bitter fighting - and all was well except we managed somehow to lose our barrage balloon with which we had been issued before leaving Egypt: (barrage balloons had been issued to some ships with the objective of flying them in the event of attack from dive bombers); but what's the loss of a barrage balloon amongst friends? On 29th June we reached Tripoli, berthed alongside and disembarked our troops - but not their vehicles: during our stay in Tripoli, no shore leave was permitted although I personally did get ashore briefly as one of my duties was to act as ship's postman and take mail ashore for despatch and (hopefully) collect any that might have found its way there.
My brief recollection is of quite a pleasant town with some imposing buildings - that is those which were still standing: Tripoli was largely Italian run (or had been) and was a clean looking town compared to many of those along the North African coast, and the marble type construction of the buildings made them quite cool, as they needed to be with temperatures often in the 100s F. With no shore leave permitted and little else other than routine maintenance to be performed, something had to be devised to keep us occupied: so what better than swimming with the temperatures in the 100s and the blue Mediterranean Sea at one's disposal? So the routine became work in the mornings and after lunch the pipe “Hands to bathe” - in other words do what you like as long as it's swimming! Full advantage was taken of this opportunity - and making the swim even more interesting was the fact that a large hospital ship which had been sunk in the harbour in Tripoli, was only partly submerged so we were able to swim to her and clamber aboard. If my memory is correct, we were able to “extract” some porthole fixtures from the hospital ship (spoils of war!) which our artificers were later able to install in our LST.
During the dog watches, apart from other sing-a-long sessions at the piano we whiled the time away playing “housey – housey” (bingo) the one gambling game that was officially permitted on HM Ships. And so we amused ourselves until Wednesday 7th July 1943 when once more the troops were embarked. The following morning we sailed from Tripoli and this time we were part of a huge convoy of ships of all shapes and sizes.
Shortly after leaving harbour our Skipper addressed all hands - crew and soldiers alike - to tell them that our destination was to be the island of Sicily on which a sea-borne invasion was to take place and “D Day” was to be the early morning of Saturday 10th July. This, for most of the crew of LST 368, was to be our first taste of active operations: to say there was a little trepidation as to what might lie in store was perhaps to put it mildly. I must also admit to a feeling of excitement (I speak from a personal point of view although I am sure many of my colleagues felt much the same way). We knew the German Army was still strong in Sicily and their fighting qualities were in no doubt, but we had superior air power, we knew the capital ships accompanying and ahead of the convoy would be pounding the German defence lines in advance of the physical landing, so one could do no more than keep one's fingers crossed, sleep with one's life-belt close at hand - and hope!
Friday 9th July passed uneventfully: our convoy moved steadily forward at no more than ten knots (more or less the maximum speed of LST's), escort ships fussing around as necessary, but there were no alarms and normal routines applied. Lookouts scanned the sea and air and no doubt radar scanners were working overtime on those ships so fitted - LST's carried no such equipment. Shortly after dawn on Saturday 10th July we arrived off the port of Syracuse in the island of Sicily. To our surprise all was remarkably quiet; the assault troops had gone in earlier from the smaller landing craft and it seemed the landing had been successful with, generally speaking, all planned objectives taken.
The larger warships were still pounding away at enemy positions inland but the immediate beach areas were quiet apart from British engineers, signallers etc. consolidating positions. Suffice to say that the initial assault had gone so well that the follow up troops, tanks and vehicles we were carrying were not required for immediate disembarkation and we anchored outside the harbour all day. The enemy was not entirely pre-occupied, however, and we were all subjected to practically continuous air strikes during which we ourselves suffered several near misses. It was a case of “Action Stations”, “All Clear”, “Action Stations”, “All Clear” etc. with but a few minutes between alarms for the whole of the day - but at least the concentrated gun fire of the ships meant the German Luftwaffe did not have things all their own way. During one such raid, the hospital ship “Dorchester” was bombed but fortunately suffered little damage. Sunday morning early we beached and unloaded our troops and vehicles without incident, although one of our fellow LSTs to our knowledge was quite badly damaged. We were still under almost continuous air attack and during one such raid one of our seaman gunners was injured by shrapnel - but again fortune shone upon us and noone was seriously hurt. Having disembarked our cargo we pulled out to anchor awaiting formation of a convoy before sailing for wherever was to be our next destination.
At about 1600 on Monday 12th July we set sail - destination Malta - and this time towing astern a damaged LCI (Landing craft, Infantry). Malta was safely reached early the following morning and the LCI cast off but we had no opportunity for shore leave as that same evening we sailed once more for North Africa and Tripoli where we immediately commenced reloading with military vehicles and troops. The evening of Thursday 15th July saw us heading once again for Sicily and Syracuse. The sea crossing to Syracuse was uneventful and we arrived off the port in the early hours of Saturday and unloaded our troops and vehicles. We were remarkably surprised to note that despite all the previous activity of the Allied landings and enemy air attacks, from the sea Syracuse itself appeared to show little signs of damage.
No opportunity arose to get ashore, however, and 20:00 hours that evening found us heading once more for Malta whence we arrived early Sunday morning, berthed alongside during the afternoon and proceeded once more to load up - this time not only with troops and vehicles but also with bombs and crates of ammunition which were stowed in our tank deck. At 23:00 that evening, off we sailed once more bound for Sicily.
I doubt very much if you have ever given it much thought (and I think it probably fortunate also that sailors seldom think about it) but a ship in wartime can be a somewhat hazardous domicile: with fuel tanks obviously best part full of fuel oil and ammunition for the guns stowed in lockers all round the ship, a bomb or gun fire striking the wrong point could result in the vessel disintegrating very smartly - and loading with additional bombs and ammunition to carry to an active war theatre was not exactly conducive to easy sleep! However, fortune continued to smile upon us, we reached Sicily safely and discharged our cargo - with obvious sighs of relief all round.
For approximately the next three weeks we operated an almost continuous shuttle service conveying troops, tanks, military vehicles etc. to Sicily, whilst the 8th Army strove to drive the Germans and Italians from the island. Some loads came from Malta, but mainly at this stage we were running between Souse in Tunisia and Syracuse. The fighting now having moved further inland, Syracuse itself was getting back to normal and the Sicilians were only too happy to sell us grapes, tomatoes, lemons etc. which were, of course, plentiful on the island at that time of year and which we were only too happy to purchase to supplement our diets.
It was now 9th August 1943, and having returned to Souse from our latest Sicily “top-up” we then found ourselves despatched westward to Ferryville, a little further along the North African coast. All our voyages had been reasonably uneventful up to that time - and the only thing to disturb our routine was when a large floating mine was suddenly spotted by one of the lookouts a few yards off our starboard side. A mine is a very evil looking weapon of war - particularly when sighted on a moonlight night - but again one must accept the good fortune of having spotted it at a safe distance. Needless to say, gunfire soon disposed of it - and we proceeded on our way rejoicing!
We reached Ferryville on 11th August and anchored out: no shore leave was permitted so our only occupation when not on watch or otherwise working was “swimming over the side”. Generally speaking, the ship's boat was lowered early afternoon (a precaution in case anyone swimming should get into difficulties) and one swam and generally played around in the water for a couple of hours. Life could have been worse - swimming in the Mediterranean in August is something holidaymakers pay good money to enjoy in peacetime; a few bikini clad bathing belles would have enhanced our enjoyment - but at least we could dream!
A few days later we moved on to Bizerta for water and oil and it was here that we learned that the enemy had finally been driven out of Sicily - those not killed or captured having escaped across the Messina Strait into southern Italy. The conquest of Sicily had taken approximately five weeks and there was to be a slight respite whilst positions were consolidated and troops regrouped before follow up action took place. The Germans, however, although driven from Sicily were not by a long way beaten and the nights of 17th and 18th August saw Bizerta and the ships around subjected to some heavy air attacks - but Dame Fortune still smiled upon us and we sustained no damage or casualties.
But consolidation of positions was still the target and 19th August found us loading up once more in Souse and sailing for Sicily - but this time to the port of Augusta: then back to Souse; not this time to reload but to anchor off the port for three days before being despatched to Sfax, another Tunisian port. Here at least we were able to get ashore and stretch our legs in Sfax, and the Tunisian “vino” (rot gut that it undoubtedly was) tasted superb.
Tuesday 31st August we sailed once more bound for Tunis. Tunis is a much larger town and did not appear to be too badly damaged and we found a superb beach with swimming facilities available of which full advantage was taken. We also found the opportunity to challenge another ship to a football match, which although lost, was thoroughly enjoyed.
Our stay in Tunis was not to last long, however. It had been evident for some time that some further sea-borne activity was brewing and rumour became certainty when on Sunday 5th Sept. 1943 we started loading troops, tanks and vehicles. We sailed on Tuesday 7th Sept. just after midday and once again found ourselves part of a huge convoy of ships of all descriptions heading north this time towards Italy. Just after noon on that day all crew and troops on board were mustered on the upper deck to be addressed by our Skipper. He informed us that our destination was Salerno, where another sea-borne landing was to be attempted and there was good and bad news. The good news was that the Italians had formally surrendered and would take no further part in the war; the bad news was that there were a few thousand Panzer Grenadiers (an elite German Regiment broadly equivalent to our Guards Brigades) waiting for us at Salerno. I was only too glad to be Navy rather than Army on receipt of that news!
Wednesday 8th Sept. saw the convoy ploughing steadily ahead; that part of the convoy in which we sailed was fortunate in encountering no enemy activity although some ships away on our port bow were attacked. Then on the morning of Thursday 9th we arrived off Salerno and anchored off the port. As anticipated the Panzer Grenadiers were putting up stiff resistance and although the initial landing had been successfully accomplished battle was continuing but a mile or so inland and there was still sporadic enemy artillery fire hitting the port; a number of enemy air attacks took place on the ships in the harbour area and we remained at anchor all day.
On Friday 10th Sept the powers that be decided that the harbour itself was too heavily mined for ships to enter, so we were instructed to beach in order to unload - only to find the designated landing area was completely unsuitable for offloading tanks and the sort of vehicles we were carrying: so once more we had to anchor out for the night. However, we were the lucky ones as despite the two days of fierce fighting the troops ashore had made little progress and the German front line was still only two miles inland; shells from bombarding enemy artillery were still occasionally flying across our bows.
At last, on the morning of Saturday 11th Sept. a suitable position just away from the harbour wall was located, we were instructed to beach and unload. Our troubles were not entirely over, however, as apart from the enemy shells which were now landing just astern of the ship, we found ourselves stuck hard on the beach and unable to re-float. I should perhaps at this point explain the theoretical method of beaching an LST and subsequent withdrawal. In a sense, commanding officers of LST's (most of whom were ex Merchant Navy officers) had to forget many of the things they had previously been taught on the handling of conventional ships where putting a vessel on a beach is considered a heinous crime.
With an LST, one had a flat-bottomed vessel with a bulbous reinforced bow drawing only about 2ft of water forward and 4ft aft when fully loaded. The procedure was to point the bows straight at the beach and “ram” them on to the shore whilst, when within a few yards of the shore, dropping the stern (kedge) anchor which would secure itself in the mud below. The bow doors would then be opened and the ramp lowered enabling tanks and vehicles to be driven off into little more than 1ft or so of water and dispersed to their positions as directed by shore controllers. The LST would then, hopefully, by reversing engines and operating the windlass which controlled the stern anchor, pull itself off the beach into a depth of water in which it would once more float; but on this occasion the anchor didn't hold and we were unable to pull ourselves off!
It was just at this time that we learned that the fighting ashore was not going too well and I was given the task of disposing of pages of classified signals and papers concerning operations etc., passed to us by the Naval Officer in charge ashore in case he (or we) couldn't get off the beach and the Germans did manage to push our troops back into the sea. So there was I, sitting on the main deck an open brazier in front of me solemnly burning piles of classified signals and documents so that they, at least, would not fall into enemy hands even if we ourselves did. However, fortune remained with us, the beachhead held and the following morning with a little help from our friends and favourable water (remember tides in the Mediterranean are very slight compared to other oceans) we re-floated and proceeded to anchor out off Salerno harbour.
Fighting was still very fierce on shore and the Germans were still managing quite heavy and persistent air attacks on the ships at anchor and it was during one of these that our luck with Dame Fortune still held good: we were at a state of “Red Alert” - that is to say an air attack was in progress - and there were a number of dog fights going on overhead between the German attackers and British Spitfires. We were all mustered at our action stations, but I had temporarily wandered from my post in the radio room into the wheelhouse, which was housed directly under the conning bridge. Unlike in modern warships, the conning bridge was open to the air and one of our younger officers, a New Zealander, Sub. Lt. Harwood. was Officer of the Watch on duty on the bridge; he was a very pleasant chap, but inclined to be a little excitable and I had just reached the wheelhouse and was peering out to see what was to be seen when Subby Harwood let out a shriek “Watch out, there's a bomb!”
For want of anything better in my panic, I immediately crouched beneath a steel shelf in the wheelhouse and held my breath - and there was a deathly silence from all around whilst we waited for the “bang”. After what was probably but a few seconds - but which seemed like hours - as nothing happened slowly but surely we all came back to life. We learned afterwards that as our fighter planes (the Spitfires) were still operating from North African airfields they had to be equipped with additional fuel tanks fitted beneath the wings, which they jettisoned when they went into action. What Subby had seen falling was, in fact, a jettisoned fuel tank: not surprisingly he had mistaken this for a bomb and let out his warning shriek: the tank landed in the sea only a few yards from where we lay at anchor - and if it had been a bomb, would this narrative have been written?
Whilst this little episode was taking place we could plainly hear the heavy artillery bombardment going on ashore obviously indicating fierce resistance was still being encountered. So far as we were concerned, however, with nightfall things quietened somewhat, but at 04:30 on the morning of 13th Sept. enemy air attacks on the beaches and ships recommenced and during one of these attacks, the British cruiser HMS Uganda was damaged. Before we eventually sailed at 19:00 that evening we had experienced twenty eight “red warnings” so we had been closed up at action stations for most of the day.
Our destination this time was once again Tripoli, Libya and after an uneventful voyage we berthed alongside on 16th Sept., immediately reloaded with troops and vehicles and pulled out to anchor. We sailed again for Salerno first thing the following morning and this then became the routine -Salerno-Tripoli-Salerno until Monday 4th Oct - a round trip of five to six days (depending on how quickly one could get in to load or unload). By this time the German troops, completely outnumbered although far from beaten, had retreated north and on the following day, Allied tanks entered Naples; the Salerno landing, so nearly a disaster, had survived.
Chapter 6: The Battle for Italy
Despite the Italian surrender and the success of the Salerno landing, fighting in Italy still continued and there were still tasks for LSTs. Having discharged our final load of Sherman tanks and vehicles at Salerno on 3rd Oct., Monday 4th saw us sailing for a small port in southern Italy called Millaga where we pulled alongside early the following morning. The objective of that voyage we never learnt, for at 1930 the same evening we were ordered further south to the port of Praia whence we arrived at 06:30 on Wed. 6th Oct., beached at 10:00 and loaded up once more with Sherman tanks. By 12 noon we were at sea again, this time heading for Taranto on the southern coast of the foot of Italy where we arrived just before midnight on 7th in company with some Italian destroyers and submarines - fortunately no longer our enemies! I managed a short run ashore in Taranto which I see recorded in my diary as ‘Something like Portsmouth’ - and noted also that the Italians seemed quite friendly.
A little over 24 hours later we were on the move again heading for Bari on the east coast of Italy, where we anchored off for a few hours before sailing a little further north to Manfradonia. Here we berthed alongside for the night and the following morning unloaded our tanks before returning to Bari. A few hours leave was granted in Bari, but this time I was duty watch and unable to get ashore. We sailed the following day bound for the island of Malta, which we reached on the morning of Friday 15th Oct. 1943. For the moment it seemed no further amphibious operations were in prospect and we were to remain in Malta for a few days. Naturally, opportunity was taken to go ashore and visit that badly battered island; main impressions were of tremendous destruction everywhere and prices sky high, but Maltese morale seemed good despite their privations.
Food for the civilians of Malta was still very scarce and Maltese youngsters were only too happy to come aboard and do all our mess-deck clearing up after meals in exchange for one of our meals - and the facility to take any of our “left-overs” home for the family. Bum boats also abounded in the harbour, cruising around the anchored ships and offering all sorts of souvenirs for sale, for which we bargained like mad to get prices reduced; and occasionally, if the boatmen rejected our offers, turning a hosepipe on them and their boats to drive them away!
Around this time also, ‘buzzes’ started circulating that we would shortly be sailing for home. I, and most of our crew, had left England in December 1942 so had been away from the folks at home for at least 11 months - not all that long compared with many of the 8th Army ‘Desert Rats’ but long enough to make most of us ache for a sight of dear old England. It’s strange, really, how so many of the British spend their time when in the UK moaning about the country, the weather and various other matters, but when they have been away for any length of time they begin to pine to get back home.
After 7 days in Malta we sailed once again, bound for Ferryville on the North African coast, which we reached in the late evening of the following day and anchored out. The only momentous event of the time occurred the following morning when a huge consignment of mail arrived - including 30 letters for yours truly; it was good to hear that all at home were still alive and kicking.
On Monday 25th Oct. we moved to a small port a few miles away called Karouba where we pulled alongside and proceeded to load with tanks and vehicles: later that day, our Skipper “cleared lower deck” to inform us all, to great excitement, that we were definitely going home - although no set date could be quoted: but we sailed the next day bound for Augusta in Sicily, where we stayed overnight, before proceeding on again to Taranto where we unloaded our cargo. An overnight stay in Taranto, then away again bound for Catania, a small town on the east coast of Sicily a little further north of Augusta. This time it was straight alongside, load up and away again - southward bound for Bizerta in Tunisia: we assumed that someone, somewhere, knew the overall plan but sometimes one wondered why it was necessary to load up in North Africa and unload in Italy to be followed almost immediately with a loading in Sicily and unloading in North Africa: but then “ours was not to reason why”!
Anyway, we unloaded in Bizerta on 4th Nov. and then sailed straight away for Ferryville and anchor; at least in Ferryville we received some more mail, but the enjoyment of hearing again from home was somewhat marred by being informed that our return home date was deferred by at least one month. So our initial thoughts of possibly spending Xmas 1943 at home were dashed. However, there was a little consolation in the mail for me in that amongst the official mail for the ship, my service certificates had come through from somewhere or other and my pay book had been brought up to date. I had taken an examination a while before (I think it was during one of our short stays in Bizerta) and had been regraded as a ‘Trained Operator Telegraphist’ and I was to receive the princely sum of 28/6d (142.5p in modern money) per week. Not a lot to risk one’s life for - but that was the rate of pay in those days. Once more we loaded up, and Tues. 9th Nov saw us on the way to Cagliari in the island of Sardinia - at least a different venue - where we arrived the following morning and unloaded our trucks etc..
Cagliari itself we found to be very badly damaged although we had no chance to go ashore to explore the town as no sooner had we unloaded than we took on board a large number of very demoralized and scruffy Italian soldiers for transport and repatriation. We left Cagliari on Thurs. 11th Nov. and this trip turned out to be one of the worst for weather conditions that we had experienced during our time in the Mediterranean. Our LST rolled like nobody’s business and the Italian soldiers were understandably not used to the sea; combine this with the fact that they were not exactly elite troops - many of whom it seems had never seen a flush toilet in their lives - and the trip proved most uncomfortable for all concerned. Some of our seamen ratings who had the task of guarding the soldiers (at this stage they were still regarded as prisoners of war) were appalled with their conduct as they used the showers for toilets etc: I think a few rifle butts were brought into use on occasions to keep order and we were extremely pleased to reach Palermo approximately 24 hours later and disembark them.
We sailed the next day for Bizerta and again it was a very rough voyage (my diary records how “we rolled and bounced” so much that I was unable to sleep - most unusual as it is surprising what one can get used to when one has to! The next few days saw us operating between Bizerta, Karouba and Ferryville where we finally beached. Ferryville has a large sheltered harbour and there were a good number of landing ships and craft around: it seemed we were to enjoy a couple of weeks at rest whilst the powers that be surveyed the progress of the war in Italy and decided whether any further combined operations to assist would be mounted. For want of anything better, we were reasonably happy with this arrangement: remaining in one port for a period ensured the regular receipt of mail and there being a number of other LST’s at hand we were able to expend much of our surplus energy in challenging all and sundry to football matches. I think we managed a match more or less every other day: the weather in the Mediterranean at this time of the year is still very pleasant - and who were we to complain at a Mediterranean holiday, all found, at Government expense?
In between football matches, swimming and wanders ashore as and when duties permitted, around this time I applied to take an examination for ‘Leading Telegraphist’ - the next step up the promotion ladder in the Royal Navy, and quite a lot of my onboard time when not actually watch keeping was spent swotting up for that exam. Our Skipper too, who was something of an amateur artist decided, probably in an attempt to boost morale, we ought to produce a Xmas magazine - and that I should be the Editor thereof, with all hands being encouraged to contribute. I must admit to being quite chuffed with the idea and approached the task admittedly with more enthusiasm than knowledge of what an Editors job entailed. So we stayed in and around Ferryville until 29th Nov. 1943 when once again we loaded up tanks, vehicles and accompanying troops - this time comprising elite American regiments and our own Grenadier Guards. We sailed the next day and articles for our Xmas magazine began to flow in: as my diary records “There is more to this editing lark than meets the eye”!
Friday 3rd Dec. found us once more anchored off Taranto, and the following day alongside and unloading: Friday 3rd, however, appeared to be my lucky day as during that evening a small group of us sat playing cards on the messdeck for money (strictly against Naval regulations I should add). I think we were playing pontoon and it was one of those evenings when I could do no wrong and one of our stokers (a Scouse) had managed to lose most of his ready cash. The game had reached the stage where only he and I were participating, all others having earlier given up having had enough or lost sufficient of their pay. I was quite prepared to give up as I did not wish to skin him for all he had but he, presumably in the belief that his luck must change sometime, insisted on carrying on and I think we ended up tossing a coin in an “all or nothing” bid. Needless to say, he lost and I ended up about £15 to the good - not a lot by modern standards but when one considers that £6 was the average sailors pay for one month, £15 seemed almost a small fortune.
We left Taranto after unloading, heading south; the weather was still on the rough side and we suffered heavy rolling for most of the voyage, but the trip was uneventful otherwise except for spotting another floating mine about 3ft off our starboard bow during the night - Lady Luck again on our side - and we proceeded on to berth alongside in Ferryville on 8th Dec. Two days later we loaded once more - this time with a combination of American and French troops; there were all sorts of “buzzes” circulating the mess decks at this stage - was another operation planned or being planned? If so, were we to be involved? Only time would tell! Later that night we sailed heading north this time, and with another uneventful voyage under our keel (if we had one!) arrived off the island of Maddelina between Sardinia and Corsica on 13th Dec where we anchored for a few hours before going on to Ajaccio in Corsica itself where we unloaded our troops. The harbour at Ajaccio had been badly battered and to unload we had to beach bows on - where we stayed all night. The following morning we found out why when we began to load up with bombs, ammunition and cans of petrol. I don’t think any of us considered this very healthy - but again ours was not to reason why. However, we did get an opportunity to stretch our legs ashore in Ajaccio and sample the delights of the local vino.
Corsica was then - and I believe to a large extent also is today - controlled by Maffia gangs, and is an island with a very volatile population as one of our crew members was to find out to his cost: ‘Stripey’ Edwards, as he was known, was one of those types who could seldom control his mouth, and if anybody could cause trouble, Stripey was the one to do it. Although I can only report by hearsay, it appears he and one or two of his shore-going colleagues got into an argument with some locals in a bar to the extent that they literally had to run for their lives: Stripey was the last one out of the door and one of the Corsicans actually drew a gun and took a pot shot at him as he fled. Fortunately, the aim was not too good but Stripey received a hit in the buttocks and returned to the ship in a somewhat distressed condition, needing the attention of our Sick Berth Attendant to remove the offending bullet; needless to say this little episode made a wonderful contribution to our Xmas magazine - the story being much exaggerated and illustrated by our artist Skipper to suggest that somehow or other a young lady and a vengeful husband were involved! All of which added a little variety to an otherwise mundane existence.
Come 18th Dec. and we sailed from Ajaccio heading for Maddalena where we arrived later that day and anchored out overnight before leaving again the following morning - guess to where - back to Ajaccio where we eventually arrived after suffering two engine breakdowns en route, beached and discharged our cargo of petrol and armaments. What was the original objective of placing the petrol etc. on board we never learnt - but one can only hope it enjoyed the ride and certainly we all slept a little happier in our bunks that night. We were to stay in Ajaccio until Boxing Day 26th Dec. A couple of trips ashore were managed during this period, and apart from a brief comment in my diary to the effect that “the mam’selles ashore looked most attractive” - the highlight of the period was a football match played against the crew of a British minesweeper on Xmas Day in quite an impressive stadium in the town, followed by returning on board to a quite splendid Xmas lunch.
One other little story to supplement this Ajaccio saga. One evening whilst ashore some of our lads having no doubt consumed a goodly quantity of local liquor had “won” a small car they had spotted parked somewhere in the town and driven it back to the ship, up the ramp and into the tank deck and retired to their bunks. Now it so happened that the following morning we were to be visited by one of the local dignitaries - an LST never before having been seen in Corsica. The gentleman and his entourage were met at the top of the ramp by our Skipper and accompanying officers and escorted into the tank deck, where his eye immediately fell upon the car parked therein; with a gasp of amazement he exploded “Mon Dieu, mon voiture!”. How that little episode was explained away remains a mystery! We sailed on Boxing Day morning heading south for Ferryville where we arrived on the afternoon of 28th Dec: we were to stay there until the morning of the 31st before moving to Karouba once more to load up - for what we knew not. The highlight of the short stay here was that mail was arriving regularly - over the 3 days I personally received 14 letters and 2 bundles of motor magazines (brother Stan used to send me copies of “The Motor Cycle” and “Motorcycling” every now and again). I also produced the first copy of our Xmas Magazine, “The LST Rag” as I dubbed it. Production was quite hard work as the only facilities available were a typewriter and carbon paper. My typewriting standard was (and still is) only of the two finger variety and I could only produce about 4 legible copies at a time using carbon paper, and all illustrations had to be laboriously traced using the same method. I was to get quite proficient in my two finger typing by the time the 70-odd copies (one for each member of the complement) were finished.
So ended 1943; as I said, the last day of that year saw us once again loading with troops and vehicles for what we imagined would be another operation somewhere in the Mediterranean: it was a well known fact that a landing in Northern Europe was not far ahead, so it was plain even at that stage that 1944 was going to be a momentous year. But the 1st day of 1944 turned out to be a little less momentous than anticipated as at the last moment the scheduled departure for who knows where was cancelled and we were to stay in Karouba until the evening of 3rd Jan. before setting off once more for virtually a routine trip to the island of Madellena. Here we arrived, after quite a rough crossing, on 5th Jan. to learn the sad news that one of our flotilla, LST 411, had been sunk off Bastia - news at least softened by learning there had been little, if any, loss of life.
The continuing bad weather prevented a beach landing, so off we went once more to Ajaccio where we discharged our troops and vehicles: but this time it was no more than an overnight stay before we were heading back towards Ferryville, with the mess decks rife with the rumour that all LSTs (of which there were a good number in the Mediterranean at that stage and which like ourselves had been expecting early transfer to home waters) had been recalled. Some operation or other was obviously in the offing!
So, 12th Jan. 1944 saw us once more alongside in Karouba loading up with vehicles, tanks and American and British troops, and the following day on our way heading north in what my diary records as “a bigger convoy than that!” - bound for? But even this turned out not to be the anticipated operation - despite the continued mess deck buzzes - as we eventually came to anchor off Naples, which had been liberated by the Allies some 3 months earlier: the only “hostilities” encountered on this occasion was the sight of Mount Vesuvius erupting as we steamed by. Then from Naples we moved a few miles south to Castellamare where we unloaded our vehicles and troops and pulled out to anchor remaining there for 36 hours before returning alongside and reloading this time with lorries, tanks and troops of the British 8th Army. On 20th Jan. 1944 whilst still at anchor off Castellamare our Skipper “cleared lower deck” to inform us we were about to sail for a landing “north of Rome” - a place called Anzio - and to cheer us up with the news that Anzio, like Salerno, was defended by German Panzer Grenadiers who no doubt would not be greeting us with too friendly a reception. Once again it was comforting to think one was in the Navy and not the Army. We reached Anzio about 07:00 on Saturday 20th Jan. to find the bridgehead seemingly well established, the actual assault forces having gone in around first light: initially all was quiet but as the day progressed some bombing and shelling of vessels off the beaches took place, whilst one or two German ‘E’ boats (small, fast, torpedo boats) managed to get amongst the assembled craft and caused some havoc but fortunately our superior naval forces soon disposed of them.
We sailed that evening back to Naples, berthed immediately and commenced reloading and on completion set off once more with reinforcements for Anzio. This proved to be a very rough trip, much to the discomfort of the embarked troops, but we reached our destination safely although to the accompaniment of some heavy air attacks and retaliatory heavy ack-ack fire from the assembled ships. For approximately the next 14 days we operated an almost continuous shuttle service between Naples and Anzio. It was little more than a 12 hour run and it was simply a case of load, sail, unload, sail, load etc. Because of this relatively short distance, the powers that be became somewhat over confident and decided there was no need for normal convoy systems to operate but that a few warships would continuously patrol the sea route in the hope their presence would deter any enemy craft from approaching the area.
At the beach-head itself, there was still considerable air and ground activity: the German’s still held territory to the south of Anzio (troops forming the Anzio assault had not yet linked up with those fighting their way up from the south where, amongst others, Mount Cassino was proving a particularly formidable obstacle to their advance changing hands a number of times before the Germans were finally driven out) and they had a long range gun located somewhere within their zone with which they were almost continually lobbing shells across the bay, of which a number were falling amongst the assembled ships. This was our first experience of shell fire: unlike with bombs, where one hears the whine as they fall, with shells one gets little (if any) advance warning - just a “plop” if they land in the sea or an explosion if they land on anything more solid.
No doubt soldiers get more used to them but we found the experience uncanny and not very much to our liking! I note that my diary records on 7th Feb. 1944 off Anzio at approximately 11:30 am we had “our nearest miss yet” - but whether that was from shell or bomb I failed to note: suffice to say Lady Luck continued to smile.
Chapter 7: Last Days in the Mediterranean
It was during this period of activity running between Naples and Anzio - or should I say in spare moments between these periods of activity - I managed to complete our Xmas Magazine, providing a copy for each of the complement. I don't know whether it was through involvement in production of the mag. that got me into the mood for writing, but around this time I also produced a small booklet in which the villain was a person known as Mr Cooprickle, a name derived from our navigating officer's surname - Lt. Cawthorne: Willie Cawthorne was not a bad guy really but one who tended to become a figure of derision (probably unjustified).
He was a peacetime yachtsman (or so he claimed) who joined the then RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and thus, when war broke out, obtained a hostilities only commission and was subsequently appointed to LST 368 as navigating officer. It was generally reckoned he navigated by getting the ship pointed in the direction of the nearest land and then on first sight, taking a bearing on the local church or other prominent landmark and working from there. However, we usually arrived somewhere near our intended destination so perhaps the stories were a little scurrilous! Unfortunately, my copy of this little booklet was lost in the course of my travels, but I know a copy or copies found their way into the wardroom and I believe caused a certain amount of amusement to other officers, if not perhaps to Lt. Cawthorne himself.
On the 12th Feb. 1944, whilst alongside in Naples, the British radio (which was listened to avidly whenever facilities and reception allowed) reported that a large theatre (the Davis) and a departmental store (Allders), both in Croydon just about 3 miles from my home, had received direct hits in a German bombing raid. This news did not exactly bolster my morale, but as it happened mail was still reaching us regularly and it was a case of keeping one's fingers crossed, hoping that all at home were okay and awaiting subsequent mail deliveries in confirmation.
Meanwhile the Anzio beach-head was still being maintained against fierce German opposition; we were still running to and fro between Naples (or small ports nearby) and the beach-head delivering tanks, vehicles and reinforcing troops, and on several occasions returning with wounded soldiers requiring hospital treatment ashore. On one trip we also carried a young Italian girl who had been injured in the fighting. She, poor lass, spoke no English and I believe she was nearly as scared at being the only female amongst so many men as she was of her injuries. She was placed on a stretcher in a gangway adjacent to the wardroom, close to the ladder leading up to the radio room, so we “Sparkers” usually tried to give her a few comforting words as and when we passed by. We also learned the sad news that another of our fellow LST's had been sunk, but with what casualties we knew not.
Although as I said, our main activity at this time was reinforcement of the beach-head, the routine was now getting a little less frequent and one or two trips ashore were possible between loads. Naples, I noted, had not been too badly damaged in the fighting and there seemed plenty to buy, and on one occasion I and my fellow shore-going companions managed a ride on a train from our loading port (Pozzuoli) into Naples itself; a special note in my diary recorded that “some of the Italian senoritas are fair indeed” - well, at least we could look and dream! Round about this time, too, one of the current hit songs on the radio was the Andrews Sisters singing “Lay that pistol Down Babe” to the chorus of which I made up a little parody as follows:
“Drinking beer in Napoli
and were we having fun,
But we'd rather be
On an LST
Doing the Anzio run!”
and which was often sung on the mess deck with much gusto.
I referred earlier to the fact that the powers that be had decided because of the short distance between Naples and Anzio and the belief that enemy sea power in the area was largely non-existent, the convoy system for ships carrying reinforcements etc. would not be operated, protection being given by one or two escort ships constantly patrolling up and down the sea lane. This over confidence turned a little sour, however, when one of the patrolling escorts - HMS Penelope which had seen meritorious service throughout the war - was sunk by a U-Boat on 18th Feb. whilst carrying out one of these patrols. We ourselves were travelling south from Anzio loaded with wounded troops when our duty “Sparker” picked up the signal from Penelope saying she was sinking and as we proceeded we found the sea littered with debris obviously from the stricken ship. The German Navy may have been on the decline but it was by no means to be written off; apparently Penelope took 2 torpedoes.
Three days later we were again en route between Anzio and Naples, this time carrying German POW's under guard in our port passageway. The trip was “enlivened” when in the evening twilight we suddenly came upon an enemy sea-plane low in the water laying mines: I don't know who were the most surprised, they or us! We immediately went to action stations, but the plane was so close and low on the water that one of our gunners manning the port oerliken gun shot away the canvas awning around the wing of the bridge in attempting to get a low enough trajectory on his gun. Needless to say the plane beat a hasty retreat and whether we damaged him or not we never knew.
On one of our previous Anzio visits we had experienced difficulty in opening our bow doors to unload - normally opened electrically but which had had to be opened manually before we could discharge our vehicles. So we were then sent a little north of Naples to a small port called Baia for repairs on 23rd Feb. 1944, but these took a little longer than anticipated and it was here that I spent my 22nd birthday - although I don't remember a lot about this as it was spent in the (then) true Naval tradition with “sippers” from each of one's colleagues rum tots! I imagine I probably spent the remainder of the day “sleeping it off”.
Having had the repairs completed, we then had the unenviable task of temporarily taking on board and holding under close guard some British troops who had deserted or gone “AWOL” from the front. I suppose one could loosely call them “cowards” but on reflection one wonders how one might have reacted oneself under similar circumstances. On a ship, one's bravery or otherwise to a large degree hinges on that of the Skipper - if he decides the ship will fight in the face of enemy attack, then those on board have little option. One cannot run far on a ship but the poor old soldier on land, who may have been in battle after battle may finally find his courage crack under the strain. One hopes that one's courage won’t fail - that one would not let down the colleagues fighting beside one - but who can tell unless one experiences it? At first sight the chaps looked very poor soldiers but who knows?
We stayed at Baia a few more days and made the most of the respite managing to cram in four football matches in six days - a fine way to use up surplus energy. A consolation too, was that mail was continuing to arrive regularly. It is possibly difficult for any readers of these memoirs who have not experienced it themselves to appreciate that life in the services during war time overseas, in between actual operations, can become somewhat monotonous - more so perhaps for Naval types in that they seldom stay in any one place long enough to get to know local people or places - even assuming that local people are sufficiently friendly to wish to get to know one. So to a large degree entertainment outside working hours had to be self-generated: football and swimming were two obvious favourites when the opportunity to get ashore or the weather permitted but when confined to the ship amusement, generally speaking, consisted of playing tombola (housey-housey) on the mess deck, or quiet games of cards, dominoes, reading or listening to the Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton or other forces sweethearts over the ships broadcasting system.
However, in an endeavour to make a change from this routine I composed a short pantomime and managed to persuade a few of my shipmates to make fools of themselves in it. I cannot now even recall the title of the panto although I do remember performing a “sand dance” - an attempted copy of a routine performed by a comedy trio called Wilson, Kepple and Betty that I had seen a year or so earlier at the Croydon Empire. The panto was performed in our tank deck - with the elevator used to raise vehicles up to the upper deck in normal circumstances, lowered as a stage - on 7th March 1944, whilst still in Baia. Most of the ship's company plus one or two visiting officers from other ships watched the performance and whilst freely admitting the amateurishness of the show it went off very well and certainly broke a little of the monotony. My first efforts as a playwright!
Repairs were finally completed on 9th March, we moved from Baia and returned to the routine of regular runs between Naples and Anzio. One consolation was that by this time the Anzio bridge-head had been firmly established and air attacks and shelling of unloading ships had largely diminished; that is not to suggest that the troops on shore were having an easy time as German resistance was still strong. We arrived back in Naples from what proved to be our final Anzio run at about 2 am on 15th March - to be greeted by a German air attack on the port as we arrived - and to learn that we were to sail for Ferryville later that day.
Ferryville was reached 3 days later after a rather rough but otherwise uneventful voyage where we were to undergo a scheduled 18 day refit - and then? Rumours were rife - were we, or were we not, to sail for the UK? We all knew (guessed) that a second front and assault on the mainland of Europe was in the offing and it was pretty clear that when and wherever it took place we would be involved. I don't think this worried us unduly - we'd come through three invasions unscathed and in a war situation one tends not to look too far ahead, only as far as one's thoughts and the thoughts of getting back home after something like 16 months absence overshadowed all else. That perhaps shortly after getting home we might be involved in the biggest combined operation of all time worried us not a bit.
There was not a lot to do in Ferryville: spare time was spent challenging other ships or Army/RAF units to football, occasional wanders ashore to stretch ones legs and sample the delights of the local vino, and contemplating on our future destination. I was perhaps fortunate in some ways in that I was scheduled to take a Wireless Telegraphy examination whilst there, so I passed a fair amount of my spare time swotting up. I took the exam on 22nd March and my diary records that in my own opinion I had made a “JANFU” of it (in printable English that means something like a “dogs dinner” of it) and I doubted very much if I would pass. However, to my surprise on 5th April I learned that I had passed and would be re-rated as a Leading Telegraphist (equivalent to a corporal in the army); what grandeur!
In the meantime, our refit having completed, we moved once more across to Karouba where we loaded up with British soldiers and Italian prisoners of war before rendezvousing with a convoy proceeding westward; were we on the way home? And what about the troops and POW's? Much to my annoyance, my diary gives no indication of what happened to our embarked personnel but I am fairly sure from memory that they were all disembarked around the Oran/Algiers area, following which we continued sailing west past Gibraltar (noting the bright lights of the neutral territory of Tangier) as we passed out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and made a slight turn to the north; it looks good!
We certainly found a change in the sea conditions once in the Atlantic however, and it started blowing up rough on 13th April - to deteriorate further on the 14th where I record us as “rolling and pitching all over the “oggin” to the extent that it was impossible to sleep. Fortunately, by this time I had well and truly got my sea legs and seasickness was a thing of the past. At this stage we were steering almost due north and the weather moderated a little so we were experiencing heavy rolling only without the pitching, which made life a little more comfortable. One really felt pitching on an LST - the ship being basically a long hollow rectangle (we were not carrying anything in the tank deck) and she would smash into a head sea and then really shudder as it dipped into the trough of a wave; rumour had it that some LST's had broken their backs in head seas, but whether that was true or not I know not. Strange to relate, much of our spare time on this passage was spent playing football of a kind on our upper deck - not with a real football I hasten to add - but with a ball made of rags or paper so it could be easily replaced if kicked over the side as frequently happened. Can you imagine trying to play football with the pitch listing heavily to one side or the other as the ship rolled in the waves? It helped to pass the time!
It was not until Wed. 19th April that we learned our UK destination - we were heading for Swansea in south Wales where we eventually arrived and docked on Sat. 22nd. After lunch that day I and my shore going colleagues, setting foot on British soil for the first time in 16 months did – guess what? We went to watch a professional football match, Swansea versus Cardiff in which Cardiff emerged the winners by 3 goals to 2. Not unnaturally, our main thoughts at this time were on what leave we were to be granted. It was blatantly obvious that a second front operation was not far off and we appreciated that as the crew of a Landing Ship we would be involved - but first things first - let’s get some home leave in, we hoped, before anything started. Two days later leave was granted and off went Port Watch (broadly half the ship's company) for a six day stint whilst the rest of us sailed the ship just down the coast to Barry where we were to have a minor refit.
On Sunday 30th April Port Watch returned and Starboard Watch - including yours truly - departed on their six days leave. I had managed to contact my family through a friend of ours who possessed a telephone so they were forewarned of my impending arrival - probably fortuitously as I left Barry at about 3 pm and did not arrive home until around midnight, such were the train services in those days.
Chapter 8: Back Home & D Day Beckons
The first three days of my leave seems to have been spent nattering about places visited and finding out how the folks at home had fared during my absence, on visits to Croydon cinemas and travelling up to London with my Mum and cousin Doreen (who was living with us at the time) to visit my Aunt Mab and Uncle Dick who lived just off Oxford Street: Uncle Dick was my Dad's brother. On Thursday 4th May 1944, Mum, Dad, brother Stan, Doreen and I went to the Princes Theatre in the West End and saw Arthur Askey, a very popular comedian during the war years and afterwards, but probably the most important thing to occur on that day was receipt of a telegram notifying extension of my leave by 3 days.
The next matter of import to occur was on the following day when who should suddenly turn up at home - none other than my old pal George Reid also on leave. As earlier recorded, we had joined up within a week of each other in October 1941 and had not met since - our respective service careers keeping us far apart (perhaps to the country's benefit!). So the rest of that day and the following were perhaps a little more hectic, with visits to our old haunt of the Croydon Empire, to Den's mother (Den being the 3rd member of our little pre-war group) to George's mother in Carshalton, no doubt to a few public houses and finishing with a bit of a party at my house (how Mum managed these things in heavily rationed England of those days I know not) but somehow she always seemed to manage to produce something special when I came home on leave. The next day, Saturday 6th May, I saw George off back to his ship. Sunday and Monday 7th and 8th were perhaps something of an anti-climax but nevertheless enjoyable - it was always good to get away from Naval routines for a while - to sleep in a proper bed and - I've no doubt - be pampered by Mum with cups of tea in bed in the morning and to please oneself what one did. But all good leaves come to an end and the 21:50 train from East Croydon station on 8th May and 00:55 from Paddington on the 9th saw me on my way back to Barry. On arrival back on board, Port watch went off again for their extra few days.
The next 11 or 12 days were quiet; minor refitting work continued, my colleagues and I went ashore of an evening whenever possible, visited cinemas, consumed beer in public houses, wrote letters home and generally passed the time away. Mail was beginning to catch up with us - on 22nd May I received an “Airgraph” (similar to today's Airletters) from Mum written on 30th March - almost up to the standard of the present day’s 2nd class post! It was on 22nd May also that, our refitting completed, we satisfactorily undertook our sea trials and moved out to anchor off Barry.
On 24th May we sailed - bound for who knew where. Southwards we went, rounded Land’s End and then eastwards until we reached the Isle of Wight where we dropped anchor. Apart from a couple of “red” alerts during the night - which fortunately did not develop into attacks - the trip was uneventful. Shore leave was granted - but during this period, much of which was spent on exercises to ensure our readiness for what we knew was coming sooner rather than later - we were divided into 3 watches (red, blue and green) and only one watch was allowed ashore at any one time. My diary records that the Isle of Wight was, at that stage of the war and unlike the present day, very quiet with little to do other than cinema going. I note I did see a film featuring Betty Grable - the star with the million dollar legs (so publicity pronounced) – and which I've no doubt helped to boost our morale in those tension filled days.
Then at last, on 3rd June 1944 we moved across to Southampton and loaded up with British troops, some RAF and some additional Navy personnel and their vehicles and equipment. Then it was back to anchor to await the next development! History records how “D” Day was deferred for 24 hours due to bad weather in the English Channel. Well, we were loaded on 3rd June and ready to go on the 4th but owing to the deferment we did not sail until 21:40 on the night of 5th June: there is no need for me to mention the size of the convoy of ships and craft of all shapes and sizes in which we sailed as this has been described by countless authors in enough books to fill a library. Suffice to say our trip across the Channel was roughish but otherwise quiet and we arrived off the Normandy beaches around midday on the 6th June 1944.
Surprisingly, all was quiet in this area. We lay at anchor for the rest of the day, listening to the heavy bombardment of the enemy defences by Allied warships and the drone of the heavy bombers as they passed overhead with their cargoes of bombs or paratroopers. There were a number of air raid warnings during the night so we got little sleep but our air supremacy was so dominant I don't recall actually sighting any enemy planes. We unloaded our troops etc. and vehicles early on the morning of 7th June and anchored off before sailing once more for the Isle of Wight at about 22:00 hours.
The next 10 to 11 days was spent in loading up with troops and vehicles in the IOW/Portsmouth/ Southampton areas, transporting them to the beachheads and returning to reload. Generally speaking the trips were quiet but maybe we were lucky. My diary records many air raid warnings at night, passing ships still burning from enemy attack, heavy air activity over the front line (but no direct attacks on us) and a minor moan at having to operate a 2 watch system (under normal activity we operated in 3 watches - that is to say generally speaking 4 hours on and 8 hours off), but since June 6th we'd worked a 2 watch system - 4 hours on and 4 hours off - and taken together with the numerous interruptions of sleep when the air raids occurred and “'Action Stations” sounded, it was no surprise we were a little tired. Compared to the troops ashore, however, ours was a life of luxury. Three other items of note - on the 10th of June I record that having unloaded our troops, we then managed a short game of football on the beach, secondly, on returning to Portsmouth early one morning, I was on the morning watch in the radio room (04:00 – 08:00) when an Aldis lamp signal was received for me from a cruiser at anchor in the bay. This was from my pal George Reid who at that time was serving on HMS Eurylus and had seen my LST entering harbour, thirdly, I see I noted with some degree of proudness that one night, while off the beaches, there had been a heavy air raid through which I had slept unawakened: how I got away with that I shall never know!
On 18th June, having unloaded our troops etc., we were instructed to sail for Tilbury in Essex, from where we were to pick up our next load. It was during this trip, sailing East through the English Channel, that we first experienced one of Hitler's flying bombs (the V1 “Doodlebug”) passing overhead en route to London. At that stage we knew nothing about them - only that they were obviously a different means of destruction and were devilishly noisy! Well we reached Tilbury the following evening, and managed a couple of hours leave ashore before loading up and pulling out to anchor off Southend awaiting further orders. All day we waited until, in the late afternoon, advice was received that sailing was deferred for 24 hours and to our delight, overnight leave was granted to “bona-fide” Londoners until 17:00 hours the following day. I was living near Croydon, Surrey, at the time and so, with a little stretch of the imagination, qualified as a “Londoner” - and so, at about 20:00 hours a dozen or so of us were boated ashore from our anchorage to make our respective ways home.
Our first port of call was, of course, the nearest rail station - only there to be told we had just missed the London train. However, the helpful booking clerk informed us that a London train was about to leave the other Southend station within a few minutes and if we hurried we should make it. So we dozen or so sailors, having obtained the necessary directions, started running full pelt towards the “other” station. Now it so happened that an air raid warning was in progress at that time, and word had just come through that Southend was in the direct line of flight of the latest attack from Hitler's flying bombs. As we sailors ran towards the station, we chanced to pass a cinema, the audience from which, in view of the air raid notification, had been advised to seek shelter. You can perhaps imagine their consternation on emerging from the darkness of a cinema into broad daylight, to be greeted with the sight of a dozen or so members of the armed forces seemingly running for their lives! We had no time to stop and fully explain the situation and to convince those worthy Southend citizens that all was not lost and we were simply running for a train!
Well, the train was caught and eventually we reached London where the group split up to go their respective ways - I and one other colleague who also lived south of London heading for Victoria Station where we hoped to catch trains to complete our journeys. We arrived at Victoria to find the station shut for the night (it was by then about 23:00). Most public transport had already stopped for the night so the decision was taken to start walking in the hope of perhaps picking up a lift somewhere. Off we headed down Vauxhall Bridge Road and had only proceeded a few hundred yards when a group of two soldiers and two ATS girls staggered out of a public house just closing for the night. They were all in a somewhat merry mood and the girls, on spotting my colleague and me, decided they preferred the Navy to the Army so opted to join us and forsake the soldiers. So our twosome became a foursome as we continued our way south.
We had barely reached Vauxhall Bridge when a taxi was spotted going south which we managed to stop and the driver agreed to take us part way. The girls got into the taxi and we were about to join them when the driver pulled my colleague and me aside and in hushed tones said “Gather round me - some silly b----- has dropped a lighted fag end on my car mat and I'm peeing on it to put it out!” So there we stood huddled round the driver at the foot of Vauxhall Bridge while he doused his mat and replaced it in the cab, we clambered aboard and went off on our way. It turned out that the two ATS girls were stationed on an Ack Ack site at Tulse Hill, a suburb of south London near Brixton and they were able to give us an insight into the operating of Hitler's “Doodlebugs” having had some experience in trying to shoot them down as they passed over London. Not that this information cheered us a great deal!
Tulse Hill was not far off the beaten track on which my colleague and I were heading so we agreed the driver would drop the girls off at their station before continuing on his way with us. Being that this is a family journal, I will give no description of the activities which took place on the journey between Vauxhall Bridge and Tulse Hill, but the two girls were safely delivered and the driver took us back to Brixton whereupon he calmly informed us he would go no further as at that time south London was being targeted by the “Doodlebugs” and “he was going home!” No sooner had we left the taxi to start walking once again when we heard the ominous sound of one of the flying bombs droning overhead and almost immediately, the sound of its engine cutting out. One thing we had learnt from the ATS girls was that when the engine stopped the bomb fell - so with one accord my colleague and I flung ourselves to the ground. it was but a few seconds before we heard the sound of an explosion, fortunately for us (if not for others) it had landed some way away.
So once again it was “Shanks's Pony” - but again luck was on our side as out of the night appeared a tramcar making its way back to the depot for the night and we were able to get a ride as far as Streatham - another couple of miles on our way. At this point, my colleague and I parted company, he to make his way towards Upper Norwood and I towards Croydon. But my adventures were not yet over. As I reached the southern end of Croydon (still on foot) I chose to cross the road at the foot of a slight hill and suddenly found myself ankle deep in water and broken glass. I was to learn later that earlier that evening a flying bomb had dropped a hundred or so yards away at the top of the hill where, besides other damage, it had broken the windows of a number of shops and wrecked a water main causing water to flow down the hill and form a neat little pool in the middle of the road just at the point at which I had chanced to cross and which I had not noticed in the blacked out street.
Eventually I arrived home about 2 am in the morning having walked best part of eight miles since alighting from the late night tram at Streatham and I had to leave home again at 12 noon to get back on board by the scheduled time. Was it worth it? I think it was for at least I was able to show my family and friends that I was still alive and well at that very critical stage of the war.
As anticipated the following morning saw LST368 heading once more for the invasion beaches and subsequently unloading our troops and vehicles. we remained off the beach all night - and quite a hectic night it was - my diary recording there being “much bangery”. But this was to be our last trip to Normandy for a while. We sailed at 11:00 hours on Sunday 25th June and anchored off Cowes, Isle of Wight the following morning. and at anchor we stayed for four days before suddenly being informed we were granted four days leave from 30th June. Now I happened to know that my old pal George Reid was home on leave at that time, so I headed straight to George's mother's house and spent the night there before going to my own home the following day. The remainder of that leave (including a 24 hour extension notified) was spent quite hectically - visiting friends, escorting a variety of young ladies to cinema shows and no doubt imbibing a large amount of alcoholic liquid at various hostelries of our acquaintance! But leave passed quickly and back to the ship it was - although during my leave the ship had been sailed to Plymouth, so it was to Plymouth I returned instead of Southampton.
The ship stayed in Plymouth for nearly five weeks during which time it went into dry dock for some repair work. the other watch went off on leave and I must say that I found Plymouth a rather dreary town at that time, although it must be stated in fairness that it had been severely damaged in air raids over the earlier war years and, of course, little building repair work had taken place. However, I made the most of what there was - cinemas etc. - until again, quite out of the blue - we were granted a further 10 days leave. Having fairly recently spent my leave at home, I decided this time to spend part of this leave period with my brother Arthur and his wife Kit. Arthur was in the RAF and serving at Towyn, near Barmouth (the nearest rail station) in Wales and it was some time since we had met. I left Plymouth at 08:45 on Thursday 20th July1944 and eventually arrived at Towyn (having been fortunate in hitch-hiking my way from Barmouth) at approximately 23:00 hours the same night. (I doubt if one could do it a lot quicker these days even assuming there is still a rail link between the two towns.)
I found my few days in and around Towyn very enjoyable. Gwen and Hugh - with whom Arthur and Kit were billeted - were a very pleasant couple and made me most welcome and I was able to visit some of the more scenic parts of the area. I left Towyn on 24th July at 18:10 and arrived home, tired but happy, around 07:30 the following day. That day and the following few were again spent visiting friends and relatives, cinema going etc. and one rather hectic evening when friend George turned up unexpectedly on a twenty four hour pass and we called in at a number of alcoholic refreshment houses. My diary recalls that on the morning of the day on which I travelled back to the ship “my stomach appeared to be somewhere other than where it ought.”
Chapter 9: Beyond D Day – more UK Adventures
So back to the ship it was, with a few more days respite in Plymouth before we set sail once more on 13th August bound for Portsmouth. (You may care to note that during this period Paris was liberated by the Allied armies - although I accept no blame for that!) And once more it was back to routine - load up and sail for the invasion beaches - but this time we carried RAF personnel and their vehicles rather than soldiers. and again it was quick off-loading and back to the south coast, this time to be diverted to Southampton and alongside where we commenced to load up for what we were told amounted to “a special job”.
A special job it turned out to be - for we loaded up with 460 tins of high octane aviation petrol which were stowed in our tank deck. To say the least we were not amused. as I believe I have mentioned before, a ship with its domestic requirements of fuel and ammunition is, in wartime if one stops to think, not the safest form of accommodation and when one finds oneself acting as a part-time tanker heading for an unknown destination a certain lack of confidence emerges! However, “ours was not to reason why” and we sailed at 17:00 on Saturday 19th August bound - as we had now learned - for San Michele a small town in N.W. France.
There were three LSTs taking part in this operation and, as usual, we were to sail in convoy. Now it is standard naval practice that when a flotilla (or part thereof) of naval vessels sails in convoy, the flotilla leader (normally the senior skipper in the flotilla) heads the convoy with the junior skipper acting as “tail end Charlie” - a position which LST368 seemed to occupy more often than not. But on this occasion, as luck (?) would have it, our skipper was the senior of the three and we were the “lucky” ship detailed to lead the way through what was described as “unswept waters”. But our luck held and the trip to the entrance to San Michele was uneventful other than that a fog came down making it unsafe for us to enter the bay and we anchored off at 10:30 on the 20th August. The fog cleared shortly after midday and during the late afternoon we entered the bay, still leading the other units and with our confidence very much shaken on being instructed that all hands other than those actually required on watch below decks were to stay on the upper deck wearing life jackets as it seems nobody knew whether or not Jerry had mined the bay and the waters had not been swept.
Once again, however, our luck held, we beached at about 21:00 (there was no harbour at San Michele hence the use of LST's) and to the relief of all concerned, our cargo of aviation spirit was unloaded. The story told was that an RAF contingent ashore needed the high octane fuel and at that stage they were still cut off from the main Allied armies and the simplest way to get requirements to them was through San Michele. With no harbour, landing craft delivery was the ideal answer (that is from the point of view of those planners sitting tight on shore!).
The following day a few hours shore leave was granted - and here again hangs a tale. Being a tidal bay, we were able to walk ashore (we were still bows on to the beach) but it was clear the tide would be in during the afternoon when our leave expired so a point on the bay was selected to which we were told to head and to where a boat would be despatched to pick us up for return to the ship. So ashore I went with various colleagues armed with such things as soap and chocolate with which we hoped to barter for drinks or such other commodities as might be available - no French money having been issued and none being held. I must say the French folk we met were most friendly claiming we were the first English sailors they had seen since 1940, and they made us welcome so far as their limited resources permitted. So having stretched our legs around the town and bartered our belongings for a few drinks etc., in due course we made our way back, cutting across the fields to the nominated pick up point where the boat duly arrived to convey us back onboard.
The point of this story is that the following morning we looked across the bay to see (or more correctly hear) land mines left by the retreating Germans being detonated very close to the area through which we had tramped the previous evening to pick up our boat. And so back to the UK we sailed to resume once more our routine trips to and from the invasion beaches carrying back-up troops and vehicles - and on one occasion bringing back a batch of German prisoners of war for discharge to British POW camps. A quick night's leave at home was managed - leaving Portsmouth at 13:00 hours on Friday 1st Sept 1944 and having to be back on board by 10:00 hours the following day, which necessitated leaving home at 05:45 that morning.
Then again Normandy - Portsmouth - Normandy etc. to an extent where even our navigating officer knew his way! But at last on 9th September we sailed in convoy eastwards to Southend where we anchored overnight before heading northwards and sailing on until we eventually reached North Shields where we berthed alongside. Here we learned we were to undergo a major refit and, of far more interest, each watch was to be granted 3 weeks leave. On this occasion, I was in “Starboard” watch and it was “Port” watch to take first leave, so I had 3 weeks to while away in North Shields. I must say this was where I first gained knowledge of “Geordies”. Apart from the difficulties of understanding their accents, once one got to know them we found them very friendly and helpful. I recall standing in a bar one evening chatting with one of the dockyard workers with whom I had become acquainted and listening to his tales spoken in a very thick Geordie accent and hoping that I responded with “Yes-es” and “No-es” in the right places! Anyway, the three weeks passed relatively quickly with visits to Newcastle and Whitley Bay for cinemas and theatres and five football matches in ten days, plus various evenings with shipmates in a number of local hostelries. Public Houses were very much a focus of life in “Geordieland” with singsongs and family entertainment a fairly regular evening occurrence.
At last it was “Starboard” watch for leave, and Thurs. 6th Oct. 1944 saw me on my way home for my 3 weeks leave. During this period it turned out that brother Arthur and his wife Kit were also on leave from the RAF and we managed a couple of days together. As usual, I spent much of my leave visiting friends and relations, went to cinemas and theatres in Croydon and London with Mum and Dad, brother Stan and Peg from next door and finishing up on Saturday 21st October with quite a party in our next door neighbour's house. (The inherent dangers of war the hardships of food rationing and often the shared anxiety of relatives away on war service had led to a greater camaraderie between neighbours; for example, tea being a rationed item it had become a custom for my Mum to make a pot of tea one lunchtime which would be shared with our next door neighbour, who would return the compliment the following lunchtime. In similar fashion whenever I came home on leave, if a party of any sort was organised, then our next door neighbour was always invited.)
Although as I said this greater degree of neighbourliness applied generally throughout the war, when one's neighbour also has three daughters - one of whom being of much the same age as oneself - there was, perhaps, an even greater reason for neighbourliness! Perhaps the most significant event of this leave, however, was the acquisition of my first real motor-cycle. I have stated earlier of my interest in motor cycles and brother Stan had purchased on my behalf a second hand Triumph “Tiger” 250 cc (I am not certain after this length of time whether Stan bought it for me as a gift or whether I contributed towards the cost). Needless to say I was thrilled to bits. Petrol was, of course, severely rationed but service personnel on leave could obtain a small allocation of petrol coupons which I was able to claim and I was really in my glory!. My diary records how, on Wednesday 25th October “I stowed the “Tiger” away - boo hoo” on leaving home to return to the ship.
On arrival back on board it was to learn that Port watch had been granted a further seven days leave and, of course, off they went rejoicing. The ship at this time, following about six weeks of fairly intensive dockyard activity, was in one heck of a mess and the duty watch was kept pretty busy cleaning up and generally trying to make things once more shipshape. Amongst other “Alterations and Additions” that had been sanctioned during this refit was the fitting of “SRE” (Sound Reproduction Equipment) which was much welcomed. Officially, this equipment was fitted to enable the broadcasting of orders throughout the ship as and when required (as opposed to the Bosun's mate having to visit each mess-deck and repeat an order over and over again) but we welcomed it more as it gave the facility to broadcast radio programmes – e.g. “Forces Favourites” and in particular, the Saturday football results - to the whole ship's company. One job which fell to me to perform was to scale the mast to the yard arm and rig an aerial for the SRE.
At this stage of events while possibly the officers knew, we ratings did not know what operations or deployments lay in store for us. It was obvious that the extensive refit we had undergone was not done for nothing and interest grew when large canvas awnings were erected on the quarterdeck. What lay ahead we wondered? But first things first - Starboard watches turn for another 7 days leave, and we left the ship on our way to North Shields Station at approximately 11:00 hours. Now I was (and still am and always will be) a non-smoker; I did, however, like my naval rum ration which I had taken ever since I reached the permitted age. My Dad and Mum both smoked and I knew our next door neighbour liked a drink, so I (like a number of my ship-mates) had “Bottled” a little of our daily rum ration and bought some naval tobacco (duty free) which we were taking home - in my case the tobacco for my Dad and a sample of rum for my neighbour to taste. Whilst one was permitted to take a limited quantity of tobacco or cigarettes ashore when going on leave, rum was in no way allowed. It was rather unfortunate, therefore, that shortly after stepping ashore en route to the station I, and one or two of my colleagues, were stopped by Customs Officers. (Some of the lads were lucky, made a run for it and dodged authority. I was not so lucky and was caught red-handed). Those of us caught were taken back to the ship, formally hauled before the Skipper and our leave cancelled - albeit temporarily. Fortunately, our Skipper was (unofficially) sympathetic and reinstated our leave a couple of days later - following admonition and promise of punishment on return - so I (and my other unfortunate colleagues) scurried off home for a slightly curtailed leave period.
Once again leave was spent visiting the parents of my friends who were serving somewhere in the Forces, or other relatives. On this occasion opportunity was taken to call on the mother of friend Den (one of the colleagues with whom I had joined up) who, as I believe I have mentioned before, had a very attractive sister only a couple of years younger than I. Although officially engaged at this time to an RAF man, he was away (and I wasn't) and she was free the following day - so I took Sheila up to London where we saw a couple of shows and had a splendiferous day out. Oddly enough, Sheila's brother Den came home on leave the same day that I was due to return, but we were able to snatch a few hours together for only the second time we'd met since leaving our training establishment in early 1942.
Returning to the ship in North Shields it was now clear that our refit was almost complete and it would not be long before we sailed for destinations unknown (at least to those of us on the lower deck!). But we had been on the Tyne for best part of two months during which time we had built up quite a rapport with many of the locals - a number of our crew finding opportunities to console female members of the local community whose boyfriends/husbands were away in other war theatres - and, after first obtaining the Skipper's permission, it was decided we should stage a farewell “do” - loosely described as a “dance” although more correctly defined as a “booze-up” with music.
Everybody thought this to be a good idea - as I did myself until I found I was delegated to organise the event. However, after considerable effort and with the assistance of some of our local contacts - including one GPO telephonist named Rene with whom I had long and detailed conversations and who promised to talk some of her girlfriends into attending - I managed to obtain hire of a hall and band at a very nominal cost. If I remember correctly the band, about 4 piece plus a girl crooner, agreed to perform without charge subject to provision of free drinks, and the event took place on Tuesday evening 14th Nov. 1944. All reports afterwards were that it was a great success. I do not recall the actual drinks cost although I do recall it was pretty phenomenal for the day and age! I also recall quite vividly the state of the hall afterwards (the agreement was that we should clear it up the following morning); not damaged - there was little vandalism in those days - but tables, chairs, floor etc. reeking of stale alcohol.
Thursday 16th November saw us beginning our sea and gunnery trials in preparation for .......? It appeared we were to sail on Wed. 22nd - but to our surprise sailing was suddenly cancelled and even more surprisingly, a further few days' leave granted. I caught the 00:40 train from Newcastle on Tyne on Thursday 23rd and was home about 09:30 - somewhat tired but otherwise in good spirits. My old friend Den was still home on leave and we were able to get together on several days, visiting a cinema in London and even sinking so low as to go to watch Chelsea play Arsenal at soccer on the Saturday. But on Sunday 26th it was the 23:15 from Kings Cross and back to the Tyne.
We sailed on Wednesday 29th Nov. proceeding in a northerly direction. The weather worsened as we got further north and turned west into the Pentland Firth. The ship rolled and pitched and literally did everything but stand on its head, flat-bottomed LST's not being the most comfortable of ships in stormy conditions. But this was not surprising as the Pentland Firth is generally reckoned as being one of the roughest sea areas in the world. At the end of the Firth, we turned south and finally docked in Greenock on the evening of Sat. 2nd December. We sailed the following afternoon bound for Liverpool. The weather was still very stormy and during the voyage we developed such a heavy roll that the chart table in the chart room broke away from the bulkhead causing quite a panic (especially as it occurred during the middle watch) until it could be shored up.
We docked in Liverpool on the evening of 4th Dec. and almost immediately started storing ship for obviously distant locations. Despite this activity, leave was again granted and Port watch hustled off for 6 days. Although we were kept pretty busy storing during the day, evenings remained generally free and we were fortunate enough to have a “Scouse” (Liverpudlian) stoker on board who had a teenage sister and I and a few other colleagues were invited to a party at the house of one of his sister's girlfriends. A very good evening was enjoyed with party games etc. - the girls were a really nice bunch - and it was a pleasure to be amongst friendly, homely, English lassies for a spell when one has been cooped up in a ship for some time with only male company. (Not that I would care overmuch to serve afloat with a partly female crew as can be the trend today some 50 years on).
So a few days later on 13th December I left Lime Street Station with other members of Starboard watch for my six days leave. For a change, a group of us spent a day down in Peacehaven, near Brighton in Sussex where one of our shipmates lived for a somewhat rowdy evening - but otherwise it was “routine” - visiting friends, the cinema, playing football with a team brother Stan played for and who were short of players - plus, on this occasion, attempting with little success to do a little Xmas shopping (a chore no more a pleasure then than it is today except that one's purchases cost considerably less; but then wages were, I suppose, relative!).
Back to Scouseland it was on 20th Dec. Hectic store ship activity continued but a number of football matches were managed - during one of which my diary records we lost 10-0 - and another party with girlfriends of our Scouse stoker's sister was enjoyed on Xmas Day. But all good things come to an end and we sailed from Liverpool on 29th Dec. again going north until we anchored off Lamlash on the Isle of Arran on 31st Dec.1944. So ended the year - what was to be our fate in 1945? Soon, we hoped, we would learn at least of the general direction in which we would be heading.
It was to be a while yet before we knew. We sailed from Lamlash on New Year's Day - and anchored off Greenock. We sailed from Greenock on 2nd Jan. - and anchored off Lamlash. We managed a brief run ashore in Lamlash - but this did little more than stretch our legs! And then on the 6th Jan. we sailed, heading south this time. we started in calm weather but this quickly deteriorated as we sailed and we “rolled” our way to Milford Haven off which we anchored overnight before carrying on, still in a southerly direction, then easterly past the Eddystone lighthouse and on to Southampton where once more we anchored off. So between September 1944 and early Jan. 1945 we had circumnavigated the United Kingdom - something perhaps to boast about! And on January 11th once more I was on my way home for a spot more leave.
Writing this narrative has brought to mind the amount of leave I (and my shipmates) had been lucky enough to receive since the invasion of Normandy. This made up somewhat for the 16 months or so we spent overseas from Dec. 1942 to April 1944 - and on reflection I think this was largely due to the success of the Normandy landings where, after the initial requirements to transport troops and vehicles to the beaches - subsequently taken over by ordinary merchant vessels once the Mulberry Harbours were in place - Landing Ships were temporarily superfluous. So opportunity was being taken to get them refitted and worked up to readiness for whatever activities the planners next decided upon; not, of course, that any of us objected to being granted leave!.
Leave on this occasion was restricted to 6 days, but as usual as much as possible was crammed into it. Cinemas, theatres - local and in the West End - were visited and the most made of the available time until once more it was back to the ship. We moved from Southampton to Portsmouth whilst port watch was on leave - but no sooner did they return when starboard watch - including myself - were off home again for another 3 days. During the period that port watch were on leave, however, the crew of an LCT (Landing Craft, Tanks) joined the ship (ominous!) and on Friday 26th January 1945 an LCT was hoisted on to, and firmly lashed down on, our upper deck (even more ominous!), and a couple of days later we moved out to anchor off Ryde where we commenced engine trials. These were not to be successful owing to some contamination in our fuel oil - subsequently suspected of being sabotage - and for which one of our stokers (who had evidently had enough of Landing Ship life) was “run in” by the Naval authorities. Fortunately (?) repairs did not take long and Tuesday 6th Feb. finally saw us sailing from the Solent in a westerly direction as my diary succinctly put it, for….?
Chapter 10: Eastward Bound
It was not long before we turned in a southerly direction and started heading towards the Bay of Biscay. Seas had been pretty rough from the start - to the extent that during the night of the 7th February we lost touch with the remainder of our convoy and it was late afternoon of the 8th before we caught up and rejoined. The mess deck “buzz” at this stage was that our first port of call was to be Gibraltar - but before that we had to negotiate the Bay, which truly lived up to its reputation and had us really rocking and rolling to the best of its ability! However, once through the Bay, seas began to moderate and life aboard began to resume normality - one could once more walk around the decks without having to cling to handholds before taking the next step, and the evening watches (for those not actually on duty) were taken up with “Tombola” and such like.
Personally, I was quite busy in my off-duty hours preparing what was to be the 2nd edition of our ship's magazine (for which I had been appointed editor) and also trying to inveigle some of my colleagues into writing articles for a ship's newspaper. Well, we duly arrived off Gibraltar on 16th Feb. at about 14:00 where we anchored off - only to sail again at 16:30 heading east through the Mediterranean. We were off Oran at 16:00 the next day, off Algiers the following afternoon - then on past Pantelleria, Malta, Tobruk and Alexandria and eventually pulled alongside in Port Said on Sunday 25th Feb. During this part of the trip, the Mediterranean had also demonstrated that it could get quite rough as my diary records the ship rolling 45 degrees at one stage somewhere in the region of Malta. The first edition of our ship's newspaper, the “LST Times” was also produced en-voyage.
Opportunity was taken to stretch our legs in Port Said and also to buy some “eastern souvenirs” and play a football match against one of our fellow LSTs. A special note was also made of the “Eastern smells” - I later reckoned that the only so called “mystery of the east” was how they managed to pack so many horrible smells into one small area! Two days later we left Port Said, now heading south through the Suez until we reached Port Tewfik at the southern end of the canal and where some twenty one months earlier we had demonstrated to various Naval and Military authorities the capabilities of an LST. At that time we were virtually unblooded in amphibious operations, but now we were back with four (Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Normandy) landings under our belts and feeling ourselves veterans of the “sport”.
Port Tewfik we now found to be a reasonable run ashore - the area had been free of fighting since the battle of Alamein in late 1942 - and NAAFI clubs and facilities had had time to get established to provide entertainment etc. for locally based and transitory servicemen. We stayed in Tewfik eight days in all, managing to arrange a number of football matches against other LSTs and accompanying ships and even indulging in my first ever game of hockey, which I found most enjoyable even if my (and most of my compatriots) knowledge of the proper rules were a little sketchy!. One other item of note concerning Port Tewfik - the smell from the local gasworks! One smell that was perhaps not a “mystery” as one knew at least from whence it came although its pungency was not improved by that knowledge.
We sailed from Tewfik on 9th March 1945. Shortly after sailing, still proceeding south down the Red Sea, we were paid in Indian rupees. At that point in time, a rupee was worth 7p in today's money - and I received the equivalent of £4.50 representing 2 weeks’ pay. Apart from the intense heat as we continued on our way south (no air conditioning on LSTs and only an occasional porthole for ventilation on the lower deck) the most significant thing to strike us was the lack of necessity to darken ship at night. We had for so long whilst in the European and Mediterranean theatres of war needed to ensure that no lights were visible from the ship during the hours of darkness that it was a real treat to be able to sail at night with lights blazing and the ability to leave doors and hatches open to gather such breezes as there were. We passed Aden six days later and shortly turned eastward into the Arabian Sea heading for India.
India was new territory for most of us (remember the vast majority of our crew were, like myself, “Hostilities Only” ratings and probably had not travelled outside the UK in pre-war days). I think most of us were quite keen to sample the sights of the Far East and this was enhanced by the knowledge that having now gone “East of Aden” we qualified for what was termed “Japanese Campaign Pay”. The extra pay was obviously welcomed despite the somewhat off-putting thoughts of possibly engaging Japanese opposition with their well-known reputation for inhumanity and cruelty.
However, seas were now relatively calm, it was hot, there was virtually no enemy activity in this western area of the Far East and we were enjoying a cruise at government expense in glorious weather; not perhaps in the lap of luxury and with no entertainment other than that which we provided for ourselves - and talking of which a small group of us planned a concert to be held on board. I had written a short play - I can't recall what it was now other than that it was some sort of old fashioned melodrama with a forlorn maiden and wicked squire, interspersed with some crazy leaping around in a devilish Dervish type of dance (performed dressed in a duffel coat and sea boots if my memory doesn't fail me!) and which it seems from my diary notes went down quite well. The “stage” as ever, was the elevator normally used to transfer vehicles from the tank deck to the upper deck, lowered into the tank deck and thus providing a raised platform around which onlookers could sit.
Another event staged around this time to help keep us amused was a game of “Uckers” played on the upper deck and which basically is a form of Ludo with members of the ship's company serving as “counters” to be moved around the board, a large dice thrown from a bucket to determine the moves and other crew members dressed as witchdoctors and the like muttering incantations etc. to enliven the play.
On Friday 23rd March 1945 we anchored off Cochin, a Royal Indian Navy base in north west India, to find the Fleet Mail organisation had done us proud as we received a host of mail, of which I personally received fourteen letters. The following day a run ashore was granted and first impressions of at least this part of India was that the people were generally much cleaner and healthier looking than those inhabiting the North African coast, Egypt and the like. As usual, some souvenirs were purchased ashore - Indian cotton tablecloths and towels - and I enjoyed my first ever rickshaw ride. The ship stayed in Cochin for eleven days altogether. during this period I managed to play in three football matches, one hockey match and some inter-ship cricket - so all in all we kept ourselves pretty well occupied.
Our next port of call was Bombay where we arrived on 7th April and where one of my first tasks was to go ashore and order myself a “No.6” suit. This is a white naval uniform for wear in the tropics and which in peace time is part of the standard issue to all sailors; it being routine for them to serve a spell in the tropics during their careers. In war time as an economy measure “6” suits were not issued - one simply got “No.5s” - a whitish suit made of duck canvas, stiff as a board and primarily intended for use when working in the tropics. They were most uncomfortable to wear and certainly completely unsuitable for walking ashore. As a matter of interest, the suit numbering system in use in the Navy was roughly as follows. No.1s - one's best (walking out) blue uniform. No.2s - the ordinary blue working uniform. No.3s - blue boiler suits. No.4s - can't remember. No.5s - white canvas working uniform. No.6s - white walking out suit).
Bombay generally we found not ideal for Naval ratings on low rates of pay, but a few souvenirs were purchased. I collected my suit (made up in 3 days) and had my photo taken in it. One football match was played before we sailed after four days, now proceeding south. Six days later we anchored off Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). A couple of hours leave was granted which enabled us to see a little of what Trinco was like, but we sailed the following morning now heading north east away from the east coast of India. On 23rd April 1945 we anchored off Kyaukpya on Ramree Island a short distance off the Burmese coast. My diary records this as being a very quiet place with “now't but jungle around”. However, it seems an ENSA company had managed to find its way there and obviously we managed to get ashore to see their show as according to my notes it was “Good oh”!
I am fairly sure that it was during our stay off Ramree Island that I picked up a signal, probably from the BBC World Service, that the American President Franklin Roosevelt had died and Harry Truman, the Vice President, had taken his place. It was Truman who, a few weeks later, was to make that vital decision which brought the war to an eventual end with the unconditional surrender of the Japanese.
We stayed anchored off Ramree for nearly 2 weeks with little activity. During this period a landing took place at Rangoon, the capital of Burma, but we were not involved in the “D” day actions on this occasion (although we were to go there later). Whilst lying off Ramree, news came through on 8th May 1945 that “VE” day in Europe had been officially announced with the unconditional surrender of Germany.
To celebrate this occasion, the powers that be authorised “splice the mainbrace” (the official authorisation of a double rum issue). By the time the news reached us those members of the crew who took rum had already partaken of the normal daily tot and so a second issue during the early afternoon at least gave us something with which to celebrate the welcoming news - there being no other way one could celebrate (officially) as no other alcohol was allowed on the lower deck and even had we been permitted to go ashore, there was nowhere to go anyway!
As I recounted in the previous paragraph, officially there was no other means by which we could celebrate once our second rum ration had been disposed of. However, amongst my little group of shore-going colleagues was one by the name of Moss, who by trade was an officer's steward. Now naval officers were allowed alcohol on board and “The Moose” (by which nickname my colleague Moss was known) was a most resourceful fellow and for some time he had ensured that before any bottle of drink was emptied by our officers a small quantity of the liquor was removed and cached in a little hidey-hole known only to “The Moose” himself - to be brought out when a suitable occasion occurred. Not surprisingly, the announcement of the cessation of the war in Europe was considered to be such a suitable occasion! So at around midnight “The Moose”, yours truly, and another two or three shore-going colleagues gathered in a small corner of the upper deck and carried the celebrations, such as they could be, a little further.
I omitted to mention that on that morning of “VE” day we had loaded up with troops and vehicles once more and early on the following morning sailed for Rangoon where we arrived two days later and proceeded some way up the Irrawaddy River before dropping anchor. This was a very desolate looking area, with thick jungle on both banks largely obscuring daylight. It was hot, humid and sticky and the size of some of the flying insects which infested the place was nobody’s business; something of the nature of a three or four inch sized cockroach would suddenly land with a “clonk” on the deck (almost like a small flying tank!) and one had to be grateful when they didn't crash land on one.
A little later, we pulled alongside in Rangoon and offloaded our troops etc. I did manage a stroll ashore in the town and first impressions were of a badly war damaged city, dusty, smelly and swarming with flies. At that point there was little to do ashore but at least it gave an opportunity to stretch our legs after being cooped up on board for so long - and one could readily sympathise with the soldiers of the 14th Army (the Forgotten Army as they became known - the European theatre of war being much more in the public eye) who had had to fight the Japanese in the humid, stinking jungles of the area. During this little run shore I note, apparently with some glee, that I purchased a parasol!
I recall also that whilst strolling along one of the main streets in the city my colleagues and I spotted an army motor-cycle parked outside a seemingly unoccupied building. We gazed at this for a while and came to the conclusion that it had been abandoned - so I promptly started it up and drove off up the street - only immediately to hear some very raucous shouting and English expletives from a window high above where it appeared the army authorities had established an office! So the motorcycle was returned to its resting place very smartly - and we continued on our stroll around Rangoon. The next few days turned out to be some of the most boring days of my service life; no mail was coming through (in retrospect not really surprising), there was virtually nothing to go ashore for even if the opportunity arose - and it remained hot, humid and dank.
At this stage, with the European War over, I suppose it could be said we were waiting to hear what next lay in store for us, so off duty hours seemed to be spent mainly in writing to various folk back home in the hope that, in the course of time, incoming mail would arrive. Opportunity was taken during this slack period to repaint our mess-deck with quite pleasing results and which I suppose went a way towards improving morale. But at last some mail did arrive - on 4th June 1945 - and it was then on receipt of a letter from brother Arthur that I learned I had become an Uncle for the first time.
And at last, on 6th June we sailed once more back to Kyaukypa on Ramree Island where we went straight on to the beach, loaded up and sailed away again, this time heading for Akyab a little further north in Burma. Although we only beached in Akyab at 17:00 hours on 9th June and sailed away again at 22:00 hours, in between whiles we managed to play an inter-ship football match in which the side for which I was playing won 9-0 and I proudly record that I scored a goal! (As my normal playing position was that of a defender - in those days the right back position - this was something of an achievement, although it is possible I could have been playing in an attacking position in this friendly (?) match)
On leaving Akyab we sailed westward and on 12th June 1945 we beached bows on in Vizagapatam, a port lying roughly midway up the east coast of India. “Vizag” we found to be quite a pleasant little port and we enjoyed some swimming in the surf off the coast and also a short run ashore to buy a few souvenirs. We did not stay here long, however, before proceeding to Coconada a little further south. We stayed in Coconada ten days, amusing ourselves with a number of football matches (four to be exact) and also a hockey match against an Indian Navy team where we lost by only 7 goals to 1 and where I scored our “1” (I was playing on the wing on this occasion but my goal was scored more by luck than judgement if my memory serves me right). Then off we sailed again back to Vizagapatam where we once more loaded up to take part in an “invasion exercise”. I assume this must have been a successful exercise because we did no more!
We stayed in “Vizag” this time (apart from our exercise) for fourteen days in all, managing a number of runs ashore, purchasing a number of souvenirs for the folks back home and playing ever more football. During this period I (and many of my shipmates) went down with dengue fever - not to be recommended; very feverish and a much upset tummy - but we all survived! And from “Vizag” where did we go? Back to Coconada! And when we sailed from Coconada? Back to “Vizag”! And again back to Coconada, and this time more exercising. there must be something in the offing! But at long last we left Coconada for the last time on 17th July, proceeding northwards until we docked in Calcutta on Saturday 21st July 1945.
It was on arrival in Calcutta that we learned we were to undergo a refit which was to take several weeks. We were also to learn that we were to be granted “R & R” (Rest and Recreational) leave up in the hills - to give us a break from the heat and humidity we had been experiencing in and around the Indian and Burmese war theatres. Initially, few of us were thrilled at the prospect - we had stepped ashore in Calcutta and although a lot of the facilities available there were well outside our pay range, at least there were facilities available - cinemas, Fleet Club, football pitches etc. - and we tended to prefer the known to the unknown particularly as we thought the “R & R”, being officially arranged, would be somewhat stereotyped and restrictive. However, “R & R” it was to be, and five days after arrival in Calcutta the watch of which I was a member was despatched on leave. We went to Calcutta rail station where we boarded the 18:00 train (and where we were surprised to find the carriage seats were wooden slatted - even less comfortable than travelling 3rd class on Southern Rail!) and off we went northwards across India to a village called Shiliguri at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. Here we changed trains and boarded the mountain railway which was to take us up the mountain to Darjeeling just outside of which our rest camp was sited.
The ride up on the mountain railway was an event in itself; construction must have been a tremendous engineering feat. The train would climb so far - then come to a dead end. just before the end there would be a set of points which, once the whole train had cleared them, would be changed and the train would reverse and climb a further few hundred feet up the mountain in the opposite direction - a sort of zigzag effect - before the whole process was repeated time and again. At a number of these positions, little Nepalese youngsters would greet the train and seek orders for cups of tea. They would then scuttle off up the mountain side to the next “station” where they would have the tea prepared and waiting for us when the train arrived having performed its zigzag procedure. We arrived in our rest camp at about 16:00 the following day, having enjoyed some of the most spectacular mountain scenery many of us would ever see. I and my shore-going colleagues spent the evening in Darjeeling in an ideal temperature away from high heat and humidity and enjoying “big-eats” in one of the numerous cafes available there.
As I stated earlier, many of our crew (myself included) were not over enthusiastic at the thought of this “enforced” rest and recreation period; never were we so wrong. The accommodation was of good standard and one could come and go more or less as one pleased with very few, if any, restrictions. There was a British serviceman's club in Darjeeling of which we were permitted to become temporary members, films were shown within the camp, there were football pitches (two matches were played during our stay). We made good use of the Darjeeling club and we managed to purchase a few souvenirs to send home. There was, perhaps, one snag about the rest camp; it was sited about two miles above the town of Darjeeling itself, with the only access via a fairly narrow mountain road. There were two means of getting from the camp to the town - on foot or by horse! Local natives waited, with horses, at the camp gate and for a modest sum one could clamber on to the back of a horse and the native would lead it (and you) down the track to the town.
On one of our early visits to town, I and my colleagues decided to risk the horses. I doubt if any of us had ever sat on a horse before - I know I hadn't - and I must say I felt very high in the air (I was more used to riding motor-cycles from the saddle of which one could touch the ground). To start off the horses proceeded very steadily down the track in a group but it wasn't long before the horse I was riding decided it wanted to get in an inside position within the group and pushed its way into that position, right up against the small fence that lined the edge of the track. I suddenly found myself peering from the horse's back over a sheer drop of several hundred feet, with nothing but that little guard rail between me and oblivion! Never was I so glad to reach my destination in one piece. That was my first (and last) horse riding experience. At least I didn't suffer the indignity of one of my colleagues who ended up in Darjeeling with his arms clasped around the neck of the horse clinging on for dear life as his horse trotted to its “stop” point. It often happened that as the horses neared the end of their journey they would spot other horses waiting at the “stop” point and would break into a trot for the last few hundred yards; fine - if one was used to horse riding - but we were not!
So we made the most of our time at our rest camp. Evenings at the club where on one occasion they had a good band playing and on another when they had a “Bingo” evening and where I managed to win one of the top prizes. Film shows within the camp itself and also in town of which we took full advantage - and even the walk back to the camp itself at night didn't seem too bad after a day of relaxation, jovial company and plenty to eat and drink. One just had to ignore the native pimps who stopped one every few hundred yards of the walk back trying to persuade one to be “entertained” by one of their “cud-side enthusiasts” as they were locally known.
But soon our period of rest and recreation came to an end and we had to make our way back to the ship to allow the other watch to have their spell. Back we went down the mountain railway in all its scenic splendour, caught the midnight train to Calcutta from Siliguri and arrived back on board at about 14:00 on Monday 6th Aug. 1945. At least our return was cheered by finding mail had reached the ship during our absence and I personally received another nine letters. I don't think I have directly mentioned this before, but I need hardly state how much the receipt of mail from home boosted one's morale when far from old England's shores.
Chapter 11: HOSTILITIES END AND DEMOBILISATION
The next few days turned out to be somewhat monotonous with little happening other than the daily routines of cleaning the radio room, correcting communication books etc., evening runs ashore and perhaps writing letters home whilst wondering what the future had in store. But big events were in the offing! Firstly, however, on Sunday 12th August 1945 news came through on official channels of the medals awarded by a grateful Government to those of us who had served on board the ship from its commissioning in Jan. 1943 in Boston, Massachusetts to current date and I think most of us were astonished to find we had all been awarded the 1939/45 Star, (which all personnel who were in the forces during the war received) plus the Africa, Italy, France & Germany and Burma Stars; five Star “Generals” each! It was a generally accepted joke that the Americans awarded their servicemen a medal of some sort if they crossed a road in uniform and one got the impression that the British were trying to follow suit. We subsequently learned that to qualify for an award one had to be serving in a particular theatre of war for a given period of time so there is little doubt that we qualified although the award of the Burma Star seemed a little incongruous in that we had not really played any active role during our period in the theatre; but again ours was not to reason why!
The big news that was to break three days later on August 15th 1945 was that the Japanese had unconditionally surrendered as from the previous day. I do not think we were aware at that time of the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan and which without doubt was the ultimate reason for surrender, but I do not suppose for one moment we cared what had brought it about - only that it marked the end of a long drawn out war which had lasted almost six years. Thursday 16th August 1945 was officially declared “VJ” day, once again the Lords of the Admiralty authorised the “splicing of the mainbrace” and for the first time since joining the ship I note in my diary that I was officially given a drink by our officers. I can't recall whether that applied to all the crew, or whether I was just a lucky recipient who happened to be at the right place at the right time (we “Sparkers” had to pass close to the Wardroom in order to reach the Radio Room so I may just have been lucky).
And so, with the war now officially over, most servicemen’s thoughts turned immediately to the subject of “What happens next? When will I get demobbed”? And for those serving overseas –“How long will it be before I get home?” We all appreciated that it couldn't all happen at once, that we couldn't all be demobbed together and that there was an awful lot of tidying up to be done but only naturally most folks thoughts hinged around their own particular problems. But for the time being, life had to be lived as normal - ship's routines had to be followed and customary duties carried out, but at least with the full knowledge that no hostile pilot or ship's gunnery or torpedo officer would be lining his sights up on us. Then on Saturday 18th Aug 1945 the other half our ship's company returned from their break “up in the hills”. I don't think we ever learned how they reacted to the news of the Japanese surrender up in the rest camp but I can well imagine the excitement and rejoicing.
The next few days were something of an anti-climax, although I note that (for a change!) much of the off duty time was spent playing football against other ships and shore organisations and receiving and responding to letters from home - the mail at this time arriving fairly regularly. Then on Tuesday 28th Aug. we sailed from Calcutta, heading south in a reasonably calm Indian Ocean before beaching, bows on, in Madras three days later where we immediately started loading up once more, received another consignment of mail and sailed again at noon the following day.
Two days later, we caught up with, and joined a convoy, heading unfortunately I know not where as my diary does not record anything more about this trip other than that it was a fairly rough ride during which we managed some quite heavy rolling and we eventually came to anchor amongst quite a large assembly of ships on Sunday 9th September off some port or other. I think the possible reason for non-recording of our whereabouts may well have been something to do with the subsequent diary entries which show that I was virtually confined to my bunk for two or three days with a temperature of 103° and terrific back and stomach pains.
However, it appears that on Thursday 13th Sept. 1945 we sailed from wherever for Madras at which port we eventually docked one week later; again after a fairly rough trip which I record as “not improving my condition at all” although I do note that on the Sunday “I started crawling about again” - so perhaps the sea air and the shaking about did me good. We were pleased to receive another consignment of mail on arrival in Madras and evidently I must have felt better as the following day I and my shore-going colleagues went ashore for “big eats and beer etc.” (what comprised the “etc.” I cannot recollect)! We were not to remain in Madras long, as on 23rd Sept. we once again loaded up, moved out to anchor the following morning and sailed the same evening. One small recollection - on 23rd Sept. (my brother Arthur's birthday) I received a letter from him enclosing a photograph of his recently born son and heir - my first nephew!
The trip on this occasion was quite smooth and relatively uneventful and we eventually arrived and anchored in the Rangoon River on the Burmese coast. Two days later a run ashore became possible of which I and my erstwhile shore-going colleagues took advantage and had a somewhat merry evening - to the extent that we managed to miss the lorry scheduled to return us to the ship. However, military vehicles being scattered around all over the place between us we managed to “borrow” another one which one of our party was able to drive and we found our way back to the ship albeit some 40 minutes after the hour at which permitted leave expired. so the following morning our little group was hauled up before the Skipper as “Defaulters” and I suddenly found myself, because I happened to be the senior rating of the group, nominated to plead our case on behalf of them all! I must say I found this rather nerve racking - possibly because it was unexpected and I had little time in which to gather my thoughts - but my explanation was obviously satisfactory as we were all let off with a caution.
A further week then passed with, according to my diary, nothing of any event happening other than one football match and a note that the weather was “bloody hot”. Then on 2nd October once again we were on the move and this time to a new venue - the port of Bangkok in, as it was then called, Siam. On this occasion the trip was very calm with the sea like a veritable mill pond as we sailed past the Andaman Islands which had been the scene of some very heavy fighting between the Americans and Japanese earlier on. After Singapore the sea turned a little choppy once again and we began our inevitable roll, and subsequently we managed to break down for about three hours before finally dropping anchor off Bangkok on 18th Oct.
Two days later we moved up river to a little port called Paknam; here a few hours shore leave was granted but unfortunately I was duty watch and unable to go ashore although I managed to persuade some of my colleagues to collect one or two souvenirs for me. I see from my diary that I obtained a table cloth, some silk material and some handkerchiefs for the princely sum of five shillings (25p). We sailed a couple of days later and eventually dropped anchor off Singapore on 28th October 1945
We stayed in the Singapore area then until Wednesday 12th December, passing the time away with as many football matches as possible (my diary records at least five) trips to the pictures (there was an “accommodation ship” berthed in Singapore which had a cinema facility on board) and various runs ashore. Singapore by this time was beginning to get back to normal and I can recall going to “Happy World” to see some boxing matches which were quite enjoyable. (“Happy World” I think one could describe as being something akin to a modern day Leisure Centre). One or two other significant happenings occurred during our stay in Singapore. Firstly, my old pal “Lofty” Broomfield who had joined the ship with me in Boston in 1943 and been drafted elsewhere when we returned to England in early 1944, also chanced to be serving in Singapore at this time and we managed to get together for a few hours. Secondly, the first few draft chits resulting from the cessation of hostilities began to arrive - my own being one of the first reaching the ship on Saturday 10th December but, as my diary records, “To where I know not”. This was followed a few days later by a draft for “Taffy” Evans one of our Signalmen.
Seven days after receipt of my draft chit, my relief turned up but our Skipper decided I should be kept on board until we left Singapore. Needless to say, this news was quite well received and gave several opportunities for our little shore-going gang to celebrate - whether the celebrations were intended to cheer me on my way or simply that they were glad to see the back of me I know not - and generally speaking I didn't care a lot anyway! Several other draft chits were also to be received before we were to leave Singapore.
So on 12th Dec. at approximately 11:00 hours we sailed westwards bound for Trincomalee in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This turned out to be a quiet trip and the only event of any significance was when we staged a concert on board during our last evening at sea before reaching Trincomalee. I do not record any details of this concert although I am fairly sure that I must have been involved to some extent and my diary records it as “Pretty good, ha, ha”'. Then at 22:00 hours on the night of Weds. 19th Dec. 1945 I left LST 368 for the last time on my way to the Naval Barracks in Trincomalee to await my fate.
I was to remain in the barracks for eight days only - but this included Xmas week and I reckon this period to have been probably the most miserable period of my Naval life. I was in a shore base away from colleagues with whom I had spent the past two or three years and knowing nobody. Xmas Day itself I found to be a great bore and if I recollect correctly I turned in quite early there seeming to be little else to do. Then fortunately, only two days later on the 27th Dec. I was drafted to HMS Cumberland, a “County” class cruiser on which I was to take passage back to the UK. This was the first and only time that I had sailed on a capital ship of the Royal Navy and I found it a little different from the “small ship” Navy in which I had spent the past three or so years. Apart from seeming somewhat crowded I found it quite interesting and seeing that I was on my way home and (hopefully) shortly to be demobilised, I was quite happy to accept any discomfort or anything else that might arise. So ended 1945 with me en route to Merry England and eventual return to Civvy Street.
During this period of the run down from war to peace and the repatriation of service personnel from overseas stations to the UK, there was some unofficial competition between ships to see which could make the swiftest voyage. I was pleased to discover that HMS Cumberland was competing in this “race”. We actually sailed from Trincomalee at 12:00 hours on 28th Dec 1945 and although anchoring for short spells at Aden, Port Said, Malta and Plymouth finally came to rest in Portsmouth at 08:00 on Sunday 13th January 1946 - sixteen days in all which was not bad going. I note that I was ashore and in the RN Barracks, Portsmouth by 13:30 and shortly afterwards was on my way to brother Arthur's in-law’s house in Fratton.
I can still recall the journey from the Portsmouth barracks to their house. There was a bus which ran from almost outside the barracks to a point within about five minutes’ walk from the house, but on this occasion there being no bus in sight I decided to walk the whole way (no more than thirty minutes all told). I suppose I had walked the first half mile or so and reached Arundel Street in the centre of Portsmouth, striding along manfully, when suddenly I heard a shout (or perhaps more exactly a gasp) from behind me - and I turned to see my Dad rushing up the road towards me very out of breath from running. It appeared that as censorship of ship's movements had been removed following the cessation of hostilities (and I had no doubt informed them I was coming home in HMS Cumberland), Mum and Dad had heard on the radio the ship was due in Portsmouth on Sunday 13th and they had journeyed to the town in order to greet me. Dad apparently had been making his way by bus to the harbour to find out if the ship had arrived and chanced to see me as I walked along the road. By the time he had managed to stop the bus and alight I had proceeded some distance and he had had to chase after me - and it was almost with a final gasp that he managed to shout and attract my attention.
It was, of course, wonderful to be back in the UK and to meet up with family and friends again. brother Arthur and his wife Kit were also there (I'm not sure whether Arthur had himself been demobbed at that time) and a very pleasant two or three hours were spent together before Mum and Dad had to make their way back and I my way back to barracks. The following day I left RN Barracks for HMS Collingwood in Fareham - the shore establishment at which I had done my initial training when I joined the Navy in 1941. At this stage, Collingwood was being used as a “holding” establishment for communication ratings (as we were generically called) pending redeployment, demobilisation or what have you. I arrived at the base around 11:00 hours, feeling not too happy with myself wondering what lay ahead, but then at 16:30 I was off home on thirteen days leave so, living solely for the day, I was happy again! I arrived back home at approximately 20:30 hours.
My first day of leave was spent indoors - primarily because as my diary succinctly records “It was too bloody cold” (the previous twelve months or so having been spent in tropical climes). However, the following day I did venture to one of the Croydon cinemas and I was also introduced to brother Stan's then fiancée Jessie, shortly to become my sister-in-law. A couple of days later, my good friend George came home on a weekend leave and the usual round of visits to mutual friends to cadge “tea and cakes” followed by visits to various hostelries for merry evenings became the order of the day until it was time for George to go back to barracks.
At this point in time, my cousin Doreen was living with us and she had obtained a job with the then Southern Railway at Selsdon Station. One morning during this period of my leave I ran Doreen to work on the back of my motorcycle - and it was then that I was introduced to another of the railway employees, a girl named Pat. Pat had at one time during the war served in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service as it was then - now the Woman's Auxiliary Army Service) on an Ack Ack site but had been invalided out and taken a job with the railway. Little did I know it at that time, but Pat was later to become the wife of my best pal, George. At that time of my life I was still completely unattached just happy to consort with any young ladies who were prepared and willing to be consorted with - and it was only two days later that Pat and I had our first “date” involving a trip to a cinema followed by a couple of drinks at a local hostelry.
I was still “playing the field” at this stage and as I note my diary records regret that the following day I made a call on Sheila (my other messenger pal's sister) only to find she was ill with the flu. So the next day it was out with Pat again (after all, one had to make the most of one's leave!).
So then it was back to HMS Collingwood once more where, for the sake of something to occupy us, we were given some instructional classes. In retrospect one really had to sympathise with the powers that be who found themselves with literally hundreds of war-time only servicemen just waiting to be demobilised but who obviously could not all be demobbed at the same time and who just as obviously had no further interest in the activities of whatever service they chanced to be in. They had to be kept occupied in some way until such time as their demobilisation group materialised. So, having returned to Collingwood on Monday 28th January, Saturday 2nd Feb. found me once more home on a short weekend leave. Apart from the fact that at least I was at home, this weekend was somewhat disappointing as my diary records it rained all day and there was “No George and no Pat” and all was quiet.
The next week passed reasonably quietly with runs to local cinemas, various meet-ups with chaps that had been under training with me in 1941 and who like me had survived the war and had been drafted to Collingwood awaiting their demobilisation. Then a trip to Fratton Park on the Saturday with brother Arthur and his father-in-law to watch Portsmouth play Wolverhampton Wanderers at football. Also during this week, I gave my name in to the powers that be for demobilisation (I don't recall why we had to do that but I suppose it was a necessary formality in case any of us wished to stay in the Service). One week later, on Friday 15th Jan 1946 to be exact I was back home again on a long weekend leave and I note with a great deal of satisfaction that on the Saturday I went to “Godfreys”, a motor-cycle dealer in Croydon at that time, to collect my new bike - a 350 cc Triumph twin - which I was buying from my war gratuity and for which brother Stan had placed the order some while previously. In my recorded words of the day “It was bloody lovely”.
On the Sunday, I took the bike for a ride during the day before it was time for me to make my way back to Portsmouth later that evening. The following day being the birthday of Kit, my brother Arthur's wife, the evening was spent with them - this being enlivened by the fact that my pal George was also stationed in Portsmouth at the time and was able to join in the celebrations. The next day called for even further celebrations as a “Demobilisation List” was pinned up on the notice board and I was delighted to find my name imprinted thereon with a “leave Collingwood date” of March 1st and an eventual demobilisation date of March 4th 1946. Only two more weeks of Naval discipline to suffer and then I'd be a free man! You can no doubt guess that that two weeks passed exceedingly slowly, but at least I was fortunate in having relatives close by and I could get away from Naval routines by spending evenings with Arthur and Kit. It was during the second of my two final weeks at Collingwood that I notched up my 24th birthday celebrated in true Naval fashion in some local hostelry or other and on the 28th I went through the Collingwood drafting routine for the final time before leaving there for the demobilisation centre at Stamshaw (a small suburb of Portsmouth) on Friday 1st March.
Here I went through a final medical check (presumably to satisfy the authorities that I was fit on discharge) before once again proceeding home on a weekend leave - spent mainly with friend George who by this time had himself been demobbed. Sunday evening, March 3rd 1946 I returned to Stamshaw for the night and the following morning went through the routine of being issued with a demob kit – i.e. - suit, hat, raincoat etc. - signed for my outfit and then walked out of the establishment once more a civilian, still in Naval uniform but with a parcel under my arm containing the issued civilian clothes. I arrived back home at about 15:30 that same day. It was patently clear that it was going to take some time to settle down to civilian life again after some four and a half years in the services - but then I was one of the lucky ones in that I knew I had a job waiting for me in the Post Office when my demobilisation leave was over - but for the moment I had something like a month's leave to enjoy before I needed to think about work and the moment was to be enjoyed.
© Frank Weeks
On Mar 30th 2016 I got an email from Jason Haynes. He offered to send me some photo's of crew members of LST 368, I was delighted. Here they are:
My Grandfather like so many others, never spoke about his time served during and after the war. Sadly he passed away in 1986, being the eldest Grandchild and being very interested in our country’s fight for survival, I took it on myself to get his service record from the MOD and that is the reason for the E-mail. It turns out my Grandfather served on LST 368 from 29th November 1944, so having found this diary of Frank’s I began to look through all of the family’s old war time pictures and to my surprise A lot of the pictures link to this diary, with one of the pictures being a fantastic picture of Frank.
Alan, like me, is a member of the ww2 forum at the following url: http://ww2talk.com/forum