Chapter 3 – Divine Preservation – Pastor Lawrie Cottam: Farmer, Sailor, Preacher
When I finished my 12 weeks training at HMS Collingwood, I was sent to HMS Victory at Portsmouth, there to wait in a personnel pool. I had to be ready to go at any time to any ship that needed a seaman. This could be anything from a mine sweeper to a battle ship.
At 16.30 that very sae day, I was making my way to the dining room when I spotted a large poster advertising that volunteers were wanted for Special service. I went into the office and made inquiries of the duty officer.
“What do you want volunteers for, Sir?” I asked.
“We want men to crew landing craft, to go on raids and invasions of enemy occupied territories,” he replied. He went on to explain that I would be living under hard layers (which means none of the facilities you would normally have on a big ship). The living conditions would be Spartan, with Skipper and mate all living in one room. I was promised neat rum to drink at dinner time and as much tobacco as I could pay for.
“When you’re at sea, you’ll think you’re on the back of a drunken crab and you’ll wish you had never volunteered. Your badge will be an anchor with a Tommy gun in the centre and air force wings at the top. Do you still want to join?” I told him that I did and he said, “You’re just in time. The draft goes out at nine in the morning, oh, by the way, it’s a one way ticket brigade. We guarantee you to go in, but not to come out!”
The next morning I joined about 200 volunteers of mixed ranks and we made our way to Troon, in Ayrshire, Scotland to HMS Don Donald. When we arrived, there was an air of urgency.
They lost no time in getting us on the landing craft to train for raids and invasions.
My new routine began with 5 O’clock reveille. After breakfast we made our way to Troon harbour in a wagon. Two of the men were detailed to carry a large cardboard box containing very large good quality Cornish pasties called Tiddly Oggies – one for each of the crew. This constituted our dinner, along with a mug of drinking chocolate.
We had to learn how to use the capstan, the winch and how to let down the ramp. The main objective was to set out in darkness and reach a certain stretch of beach just as the dawn was breaking. The timing was very important. It was bitter cold and very hard work, but we soon got the hang of it.
During my time at Don Donald, I had an experience that was to influence my life significantly. One day the camp officer came to us and requested of our officer the loan of a seaman to act as a temporary mp for that day. I was chosen. They gave me an mp’s badge, a .45 revolver and a set of chain handcuffs.
My job was to take three prisoners, who were suffering with venereal disease like syphilis and gonorrhoea, down to the medical centre. As I stood inside the centre with my back to the door, I watched them strip off, exposing their many tattoos. I heard their cries of pain and I made two very serious vow; firstly, that I would never go with any woman during my time in the Navy. I was of course a virgin sailor. Secondly, I would never have any tattoo. I kept both these vows, although I never discussed them with anyone.
My shipmates just could not understand why I kept rigidly to these two things. Even the Skipper on one occasion mentioned this to me. We were actually in Malta and he invited me into his cabin to question why I
had not gone into Valletta, like the rest of the crew. He also wanted to know why I had not had even one tattoo. I just smiled at him and told him that was not the way I wanted to go and that was the end of it.
Years later, when I met Nancy my wife, I certainly appreciated and was truly thankful for those two strange vows that I made that day. It makes me think that the Lord had His hand on my life even at that early stage.
After we finished our training at Don Donald, the whole group, consisting of approximately 200 volunteers were transported to Greenock. We were of mixed ratings, Sub lieutenants, Midshipmen, Engineers, Stokers, Seamen, Radio operators, Signalmen and Cooks.
Late one cold, winter afternoon we arrived on a dockside in pitch darkness. We were told to form ranks of three and there on the open dock side, with no shelter whatsoever, we spent the coldest three hours of our lives. Even the officers were subject to this exposure. We were actually freezing. I promised earlier on not to exaggerate. I actually pulled skin off the lobes of my ears.
Finally an old passenger liner, that had seen better days, pulled alongside. It was called the Marapoza. Things were so bad that the officer in charge told us not to bother trying to find our own hammocks, but just to get the first we came to, sling it and get to sleep. I was one of the first to get hold of a hammock. I followed a member of the crew down a dimly lit tween deck.
Finally we came to a strange barrier stretched right across the deck. It was made from light chicken wire. I thought it strange, but was so fed up I just slung the hammock and because the old ship was a steamer, the tween deck was really warm, so we soon fell to sleep.
Because of our ordeal the night before, the officer let us have a long sleep in. I was wakened about ten in the morning by a voice with an American accent saying loudly, “Hey Limey. Wake up!”
I peeped over the side of the hammock and all I could see was a row of faces – some white, some black, peering through the chicken wire.
“Come over here, Limey we’ve got a deal for you.” I soon got dressed and went over to the wire, where I asked what on earth they were doing there. They just grinned and then the one who had called to me told me that they were all Court Marshal cases, bound for the good old USA. He explained that many of them were charged with selling Government property, grievous bodily harm or rape. Silently I was concerned that all that separated me from them was some flimsy chicken wire.
The man saw the look on my face and said, “Don’t worry guy. You’re safe if you ‘plait ball’ with us.” After mimicking the way I spoke and trying to sound like an English gentleman he explained that they would give me dollars if I went to the ship’s candy store to buy them a carton of Lucky Strike (matches) and some chocolate bars. I hesitated for a moment then thought I’d better keep on the right side of them, so I said, “Ok. It’s a deal.” They kept me in cigarettes and chocolate bars for the next ten days, but as I had turned away from them it dawned on me that we must be going to America.
I heard a Bosun’s pipe and a loud speaker blared out, “Attention all ratings! You are on an American ship. Make your way to the mess deck. Be sure to have good manners before, during and after meals, in fact all the time you are on this ship – or else! We all made our way to the dining room which was a large converted ballroom. The choice of food was amazing. We had just left England, with its severe rationing and now we were confronted with sausages, bacon and eggs, mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, loads of bread and butter with a choice of jam or marmalade. There was a box full of sugar on each table and beautiful coffee with cream. We thought we had landed in Shangri-La. A day or two later, one of the big American cooks commented to me that we were the most polite and appreciative men he had ever served. You see, we didn’t waste food. We only took what we could comfortably eat.
I was so impressed with the food on the ship and in America that I broke the rules and kept a diary, just describing what we had to eat each meal time. Later on, my mother was amazed when she read that diary.
Well, the old Marapoza plodded across the Atlantic, never altering her speed. It took her ten days to get from Scotland to New York and what a pantomime we had when we docked. It was the middle of the night. In the morning our officer informed us that we were going to have breakfast then disembark and make our way to Virginia.
One very important point, which he stressed to us, was that we were not to offend the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. If they offered us anything to eat or drink we were just to smile, take it and thank them.
We all ate a full breakfast. The American dock workers attended to our luggage, kit bags and hammocks. We walked down the gang plank and were accompanied by what we nicknamed the “Piccolo Band”. You see it was all light wind instruments and no base brass. They struck up with catchy tunes such as 76 Trombones and Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The Women’s Voluntary workers were immaculate in their uniforms and they started handing out jam doughnuts and cartons of beautiful coffee with lots of sugar and cream. We did as we had been instructed and simply smiled and thanked them, before eating and drinking what they gave to us.
Then the Piccolo Band struck up and we all marched off in mixed ranks to the train station. I do not mention this to criticise the Americans, but to really show how generous they were. They just could not do enough for us all the time during our short stay in their country.
The train we boarded was a boat train. When we got to a certain estuary, the engine pushed us on to a ferry and we crossed over the water. Finally we pulled into Norfolk, Virginia where another piccolo band met us at the station. We marched through part of the town, finally arriving at two hotels side by side – The Astbury and the Marlborough.
It was about 13.30 when we went into the dining hall and the cooks apologised and said that we had landed between meal times. They then took cleavers and cut medium sized roast chickens into halves, telling us that one between two should put us on until tea time. Again we were overwhelmed by the amount of food that was available. It wasn’t just a show, because during the five weeks we were in America it continued just the same. We all put on weight, but that was soon to change.
After spending the night in the hotel Astbury, all the volunteers were assembled the next morning on the car park. Much to our amusement the ban came and we all marched down to the dock area. There we were ushered into a great, empty warehouse.
Our senior officer stood on a podium alongside the petty officer with a powerful voice. He made the following announcement.“Each captain will be called out. Listen for your name, rank and number. Each captain will be joined by the various members of his crew. This will consist of 1 mate, 1 engineer, 2 stokers, 1 leading seamen, 4 deck hands, 1 radio operator, 1 signalman and 1 cook, making a total of 13 hands.” This made up the crew of each landing craft – a total of 14 craft to make up the flotilla.
The captains were then allocated a landing craft number and were instructed to march their crews down to the dockside and find their particular craft. Ours was number 180. We were all total strangers and after locating our craft our captain assembled us on deck to tell us that we would be living and working together on the craft and that he expected us to work as a team. He expected the seamen and the engine room staff to help each other in any kind of task.
On that beautiful, sunny morning the leading seaman suggested that we each give a brief description of ourselves, giving our name and where we came from and what our occupation in Civvy Street was (bearing in mind that we were all volunteers).
The Leading Seaman began, “My name is Lofty. I’m a farm boy from Lincolnshire. My hobby is poaching.” Next came the Engineer, who said, “I’m a bread delivery man from the Reading area. They call me Blondie and my hobby is anything to do with engines.” And so it went on. One Stoker, Jack said, “I’m a builder’s labourer from Glasgow.” The other Stoker, John Harris, was a brick layer from the south of England. The radio operator said his name was Jack Wiggins, a butcher from Leeds.
Another man, who became my friend told us he worked on a sheep farm. One seaman said, “I’m J Hamilton. I’m a porter. I used to work in Billingsgate Market.” I told them I was a plough boy from Lancashire. Forgive me for repeating this, but we were all volunteers and this made a tremendous difference to the camaraderie. There is of course a great difference between a volunteer and someone who is press-ganged into service. I can honestly say, the Seamen willingly helped the engine room staff and vice versa. We just did it automatically.
After his preliminary introduction, the leading seaman took charge of the deck hands and ‘Blondie’, the Engineer took charge of the two Stokers. The Radio Operator and the Signalman worked together in their small cabin. The leading seaman wanted to know what our capabilities were and began by asking how many of us could splice a rope. Only two of us could; Coulson a trawler man and me.
Then he said we had to familiarise ourselves with the ship; the ramps and the emergency steering gear down in the tiller flat. You see, if the main steering gear gets knocked out you can go down in the tiller flat, which is immediately above the rudder, sit facing backwards and steer the ship by hand, reversing every instruction given, because you are sitting backwards. This is not as easy as you may think. The leading seaman said the guns and ammunition were out until we got them fitted in Bermuda. We got conversant with the ship assisted by the American dock workers, as did the engine room staff.
The next big question arose. Where were we heading? Our Skipper informed us we would have to prepare the craft for a long voyage, roughly 4000 miles. This entailed making some extra provisions which consisted of fixing extra fuel tanks on the deck, secured by deck bolts with reinforced piping down to the engine room. To counteract this extra deck weight, we stowed heavy cases of tinned fruit, meat and fish of all descriptions down the centre of each hatch, three layers deep, then on each side of these we stowed ‘k-rations’. Each box contained all a soldier required on the battlefield.
After our sea trials we finally made sail for Bermuda. We arrived at this beautiful island and we took on a supply of bread and Mc.Ewan’s Export ale, which we lashed down on the deck in a great stack covered with canvass. The gun fitters also came on board and fitted each craft with 4 Swiss-made long-barrelled anti-aircraft guns, plus a great amount of mixed ammunition; high explosives, incendiaries and tracers.
Blondie topped up the water and fuel tanks and we set sail for Gibraltar.
Apparently the supplies that we picked up in Bermuda had been delivered by the battleship, King George a few weeks earlier.
We had only been out of Bermuda for about six hours, when the sky went black. Everything went dead quiet. Then a storm broke-the likes of which none of us had ever before experienced. It was lightning and thundering all night long and I thought the landing craft was going to turn turtle on us. What a battering we took that night. It was nothing at all like you hear on the films with the swishing of water and violins playing. It was just as if a giant was standing outside with a great sledge hammer, bashing the ship every few minutes. I found out that millions of tons of water are not soft. No one dare go out on deck.
Fortunately we could actually get to the wheel house and the galley by a covered passage. This was a real blessing. The following day, at dinner time, after the storm had subsided, one of the seamen discussed with the Skipper that he thought the craft was down at the head. The Skipper said that the helmsman had been complaining that the craft was sluggish and slow to respond. On investigating, the seaman reported several feet of water in the forepeak. A welding seam had split on the port side of the bow. I thought this was not a very good start, considering we had 3000 miles to go across the Atlantic. So this is what we did.
Fortunately the tiller flat was completely empty, so we carried all the gear out of the forepeak and put it in the tiller flat. The engine room staff rigged up a mobile diesel pump on the bow. After they had pumped the water out, I went down with specially shaped wedges, a hammer and some canvass and plugged the split. On closer inspection the split was found to be actually just about the water line, so we suffered no more intake of water and we got it welded in Gibraltar. One very interesting thing was the poor radio contact. Today, with cell phones, you can phone long distances.
After we had sailed 1000 miles, we actually lost contact with America and we didn’t get contact with Gibraltar until we were within 1000 miles. Each day consisted of plodding along, hoping we didn’t run into a German submarine and each night we followed the purple light that was fitted in the stern of the lead craft. You see, we only had one professional navigator on the lead craft and we all followed like Mother Carey’s ducklings!
The very first thing that we did when we reached Gibraltar was to send for a welder and get the seam on the bow welded up. Then the extra empty fuel tanks were taken off. We filled up with water, fuel and fresh supplies during our long journey from Virginia to Gibraltar. Apart from the leak in the bow and the storm, we had no more major incidents. One problem we faced was the bread turning green. When this happened we just removed the affected parts of bread and ate the white parts. Then we started to eat good quality ship’s biscuits. We supplemented our meagre water supply by drinking one bottle of ale each dinner time. As far as the tinned food and the K rations in the holds, we only used these sparingly.
We did find it rather trying with all eleven men living, eating and sleeping in one small room, so whenever the weather was warm enough, some of us used to spend a lot of time on deck. One good thing was that the Skipper got the leading seaman to pipe pirate rig. This meant that we could wear a warm duffle coat, woollen hat and sea boots, so keeping warm wasn’t too much of a problem.
After we had sorted things out at Gibraltar, we made our way up the North African coast, calling at many little ports. Each time two of the craft would discharge their cargo of goodies, much appreciated by the eighth army lads who had been fighting Rommel in the desert for a long time. Following El Alamein, Rommel retreated in a great hurry
We called at Benghazi, Cape Bon, Tarsa Bay, Bone, Sousse, Bougie, Didgelie and Tripoli. We came in very useful at Tripoli.
You see the axis had tried to block Tripoli harbour by tying two cargo vessels together, stern to stern with wire ropes. Then, as they scuttled them, the wires snapped and they drifted 20 feet apart. This meant that because of us only being 18 feet in the beam we could unload big ships and sneak through the gap into the harbour; thus unloading all kinds of supplies. We could also take personnel and light equipment out to the waiting cargo ships. For about a month we were kept very busy, but of course there was always plenty of labour, both civilian and army, to do the heavy loading and unloading.
Then one day we were ordered to go to Digelie, where we took on board a full contingent of assault troops and set out on the invasion of German occupied Sicily. It was called Operation Husky. We had plenty of time to examine those men and we found they consisted of complete teams such as: a machine gun team, a mortar team, a flame thrower with his assistants, a medical unit and two field radio operators. All the rest were Commandos.
Those men were all lying on the deck in the sunshine, when suddenly a cranky old gramophone started to play the singing of Joseph Lock, the Irish tenor. He sang, “In country and cottage there’s no place like home sweet home.” We thought it hilarious. The Skipper went bananas and wanted to know who had put it on the gramophone and told us to, “Throw it in the drink.” None of us dare sing or hum that tune again, but those soldiers who had been in the desert for such a long time just didn’t bother. Like us they were actually thinking of dawn the next day.
During the night, we slowed right down. You see the leader was trying to judge the time and distance, just as we had practiced in Scotland, so we could land at the right time and take the Germans by surprise.
When we got near Sicily, opposite a place called Avolah, all the craft lined up abreast then a certain distance from the beach we all dropped anchors together. Play wire out, the engines roared and we all went line abreast and landed on the short beach. The Germans opened up. Lofty and I were line men. We ran down the ramps carrying a rope, tied it round out waists and hung on, while the soldiers holding the lines made their way on to the beach.
One good thing about the Mediterranean Sea is that there is very little tide movement. We managed to get in and out without getting a direct hit although we had bullet holes in the superstructure. Our skipper soon got us off and out of it. By the time we had gone out to the waiting troop carrier, reloaded and returned, the beach was quiet, so we made our way back to Digelie.
As we marked time in the harbour, waiting for our next assignment, it was a bit boring. The skipper tried to keep us busy painting ship and generally cleaning and polishing. So he started splitting the crew into two watches and giving us a day ashore in turn.
One day, the cook came back drunk. He went onto the top of his galley, for some unknown reason and broke one of his knee caps when he fell off. The medics came with two stretchers; one for the cook and the other for his gear. We never saw that man again. Now out there, in the Med, you could not get a replacement cook. There simply wasn’t any around, so at tea time the skipper sent a messenger. “Tell Cottam I want to see him immediately, in my cabin.”
I wondered what on earth I had done and why he wanted me. When I knocked on the cabin door, the skipper opened it and invited me in. He asked if I wanted a drink and I smiled, thinking he wanted me to commit a crime; Lofty and I had already pinched a card table for him on a previous occasion!
As I sat sipping the glass of rum he gave me, he smiled again and I felt like a mouse that was being played with by a big Tom cat. After checking that I knew cook wouldn’t be coming back, he appointed me as the new cook. I told him I couldn’t boil a kettle of water, being hopeless at cooking, but he just grinned again.
“Haven’t you forgotten something? The mate and I never discuss you personal affairs, but we have the onerous job of spot checking all the mail that leaves this ship.” (He never called it a craft; it was always ‘My ship’ with him.) “Have you forgotten, Cottam, when your mother was so ill you rallied round and soon became an expert in cooking plain substantial meals and baking bread and sultana cakes?” He paused then said, “I’m quoting what you wrote in a letter that it was my duty to read. You can bake bread and sultana cakes. I love sultana cakes. You start first thing in the morning.” He assured me that if I had any difficulties with the protein, carbohydrates or vitamins, then he would give me a helping hand.
I was so determined to get out of the job that I reminded him of my duty as a bow gunner. Smiling again, he replied that that situation was all sorted out. He had switched me with the galley gunner, so that all I had to do when the alarm went was to switch off the stove and run up the ladder outside the galley door. I would be the first to man a gun. At that I was dismissed.
When I told Jack, the radio ham, what had transpired, he roared with laughter at the cunning old skipper. However, I got my own back on Jack. After a month being the cook and manning the gun, I lost my appetite through the heat of the galley and the diesel fumes from the primitive drip-feed stove. I requested that I could really do with a relief and suggested that Jack (who had been a butcher in Civvy Street), was also a good cook, so we ended up doing a fortnight each cooking in turn.
One day the entire flotilla moved down the coast to a small harbour called Bougie. There we went through the same routine, on assignment loading a self-contained assault troop. We set off and made our way to a place called Salerno, on the Italian main land. There we carried out a dawn landing which was a bit rough. Only one of our craft came to grief. Again we had several near misses.
It’s a strange feeling to be on a beach and not know if you were going to receive a bullet or some shrapnel or even be blown to bits by a Stuka’s bomb. I often thought about those 3,000 English and French soldiers pinned down on the beaches at Dunkirk being strafed and bombed continually. Yet we came away from Salerno practically unscathed. We only lost one landing craft. We all wondered how long our good fortune would last. After Salerno we returned to Malta.
Again they pushed us up out of the road into Sliema Creek. You see the landing craft were a bit of a nuisance to the dock authorities. Sliema Creek had what is called a hard shoulder. That’s a sloping bank of gravel. Each landing craft rammed its bow onto this bank. They were lined up side by side with a fibre between each craft.
One morning at about 6 O’clock, I was sitting on a ramp, when up came a young girl. She would be about 7 years of age. I was just coming to the end of morning watch. She spoke in perfect English, telling me that her name was Marlene Virgason and that her father was and English sailor. She lived near the Busy Bee and could say the Lord’s Prayer. She also told me that she was hungry, so I went to see what I could get hold of.
I can remember exactly what it was that day, breaded liver with onions. I cadged a plate full and a slice of bread. Marlene ate the lot. She was very poorly dressed and I could tell she had had a hard time. Bear in mind that Malta was in a desperate situation. Jerry was determined to starve them out. I gave Marlene some sweets and a small tin of corned beef and off she went.
I did not think I would see her again, but every morning there she was, at the end of the ramp. She got to know Lofty and I well. I scrounged a t-shirt from one of the smallest men on the ship, thinking Marlene’s mother might be able to alter it for her. She rolled up the next morning wearing this white shirt. Her hair was long and so beautiful. When our first daughter was born, Nancy and I called her Marlene after that little girl in Malta. I wonder just how she went on.
How true is the title of this chapter- Divine Preservation? I don’t know just how many died in the four landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Normandy, but one thing I am conscious of is I was divinely preserved. But, I am jumping the gun a little.
We spent some time in Sliema creek, during which time we learned of the defence line set up by Kesselring right across the mountain range, starting at Mount Casino. Try as they may, the allies just could not break through. So we received instructions to load assault troops and go behind Kesselring’s Gustav defence line and land at a little place called Anzio. We were all apprehensive. Surely the Germans would give us a warm reception, so we again loaded assault troops. We were getting used to the routine by now. We set out from Malta.
The flotilla regulated their speed so as to land just at day break, but this time they got it wrong and we arrived late, in full daylight. This caused our apprehension to increase. Surely we would get a pasting this time, but to our surprise the Anzio beach was as quiet as Southport beach on a Sunday morning. Not a German in sight. No machine guns. No eighty eights. There was complete silence.
It was rather a longer stretch of beach than usual, but the soldiers just walked in single file across that long stretch of sand and not a single shot was fired. We just could not believe it. We had actually unloaded our troops when we heard the drone of a couple of aircraft.
They came up the coast, dropped their bombs long before they reached the landing zone, then turned round and quickly disappeared into the distance. Anzio was the quietest landing we ever made – not one single casualty.
Let me mention this strange truth. After I had been demobbed out of the navy, a film called Anzio, was being shown at the old Globe Cinema in Cadishead. I told Nancy that although I didn’t usually go to the cinema, I was going to watch that film, because I had been to the place. Well, you never saw anything like it in your life. There was smoke and bombs, explosions and bullets and men dying all over the place. The main actor was Robert Mitchum. I came out of that cinema and was amazed at Hollywood’s version of the landings at Anzio. Having said that, Hitler ordered Kesselring to wipe the landing out and several divisions of tanks and infantrymen were actually sent to try and kill off the landings. After four days of heavy fighting they failed completely and the troops were able to go and finally reach Rome. After Anzio, we again returned to Malta. There we rested for a while before loading assault troops.
Our orders were to sail up the river Tiber and land the troops on the North bank. As soon as we got underway, our Skipper ordered us to take the emergency axes and cut down the wooden mast. You see we all had a large sail, which we could use if our engines ever failed. We never used it, of course. The idea of cutting the mast down was to enable us to go under any low bridges as we sailed up the river, but we never got there. A strange thing happened.
As we proceeded up the coast we ran into a group of Italian ships. We were alarmed at first, but then our look-outs reported their guns were still under canvas. The crews were all on the bows waving and cheering, so as the two flotillas came together, one of the Italian ships lowered a boat and the officer came aboard our craft.
In perfect English he told us that they were our prisoners.
Their country had capitulated. Our Skipper gave a sigh of relief and welcomed them aboard as guests. He ordered our steward to bring out a bottle and they all had a drink, then the Italian’s ships steamed away in the direction of Malta. Then, to our surprise, our senior officer flashed a signal to all our flotilla that the mission was aborted and we were all to return to Malta. That heralded the end of our service in the Mediterranean. As we entered Malta harbour and made our way to Sliema creek, we past several Italian submarines. All the crews were on deck smoking and smiling. I think they were all glad to be out of the war. We hung around for a few weeks, then we all received orders to return to Blighty (Britain), via Gibraltar.
Whilst in Gibraltar, thinking we would be home in a few days, w all bought oranges and very green bananas. We set sail from Gibraltar and headed west, miles and miles out to see. I thought we were going back to America. What we were really doing was making a great detour of the Bay of Biscay, to avoid the U-boats and torpedo boats that were based on the French coast. Finally we turned and headed for the English Channel.
But a terrific storm broke out. We were low on fuel and water. We had no ballast whatsoever as we were a flat-bottomed vessel. We were all struggling to even keep on course. After a while, the leading craft flashed a signal for us to alter course and head for Milfordhaven, for shelter. As soon as we got in the lee of the Welsh mainland, things quietened down and we limped into Milfordhaven. We were all glad to tie up and get a nights sleep.
The next day we discussed what we could do with all the oranges and bananas as they had started to ripen in the heat of our mess deck. So we decided to go ashore and give them to the children on the streets.
Some of the children had never seen a banana or an orange, but they were highly delighted to have them. After sheltering in Milfordhaven until the weather improved, we set sail. Our next port of call was up the River Humber, into King George’s dock in Hull. Two ladies came aboard; a mother and her daughter called Alice. They were gun fitters. We, as gunners, were instructed to help them with the heavier parts of the guns. Alice asked me when I had last washed my dirty overalls and I explained that they had never been washed. We did not have the facilities on board the ‘sardine tin’. Her mother then invited me to their home, so that I could have a bath and they could wash my clothes. There was no ‘funny business’, they were very kind, friendly, decent people.
The people in Hull were as kind as any we ever met in our travels. We repaid them by obtaining some rations; things that they just could not get hold of. We were sad when we had to leave Hull. Our next port of call was a small fishing jetty at a place called Invergordon, on the Murray Firth, up in the highlands of Scotland. To be honest, we all thought it was a dump. It did nothing but drizzle that kind of small rain that soaks you through in no time, but we were soon to get more water than we bargained for.
After we had been in Invergordon about two weeks, the engineer went ashore one night and didn’t come back. At least that’s what we all thought, but he did come back about midnight. He was blind drunk. He went down to the engine room and opened the sea cocks before getting into his bunk fully dressed. All of a sudden there was such a hullabaloo. One of the lads shouted that we were sinking. Soon there was several feet of water in our quarters.
We all scrambled to salvage the clothing that was in the top half of our lockers –clothing that was still dry. Then we all made our way to the wheel house and the galley.
These two areas, along with the Skipper’s cabin were all dry, being above decks. The craft filled with water and soon settled on the bottom, alongside the fish jetty. Fortunately, it was not very deep. The military police came and took the engineer away. We all made our way to the recreation back room of the shore canteen, which had a pot-bellied stove. We were in a real mess. It was a freezing cold night.
The Skipper sent for the Inverness fire brigade, then he ordered Lofty and I to go down to the engine room and dive down and keep taking turns at the two wheels, in order to close the skittle valves. The firemen from Inverness thought it a huge joke that the English had scuttled their own ship.
The Skipper assembled us all in the back room of the canteen and told us there was only one thing we could do. He intended to split the crew into two halves. Half the men were to go home on 14 days leave, then when they returned the other half would go on leave. The six men left on the ship would have to manage in the heel house, the Captain’s cabin and the galley. You see all the electrics had to be stripped out and sent down to England to be cleaned and reconditioned. This is the only thing they could do. The steering gear, tiller flat equipment and engine room all had American fittings. We were the joke of the flotilla and constantly ribbed. “What men will do to get out of the next invasion!” We didn’t think it funny at all, but that’s exactly what took place.
While we were in Invergordon, our officer told us to let it slip that we were going to invade through Norway. This was a ploy and it actually worked. Hitler did send divisions to Norway, expecting us to invade there. Fortunately for us, after our ship was repaired and tested, we suddenly on the 1st June, 1944 were told to head post haste right down the coast to Brighton. We reversed into the canal, between Brighton and Hove gas works and were packed in side by side.
On 3rd June, the wagons started to roll up on the dockside bringing loads of assault troops. The soldiers simply walked across to the outside craft and filled each craft to the limit. It wasn’t a bit like summer. The weather was dull and grey and cold. We set sail and sailed all night. Early the next morning we landed on the beach in Normandy. D-Day had started. There were five beaches.
The British landed at Sword, Gold and Juno. The Americans landed on Urah and Omaha. It was rough on the three British beaches with an average of about 400 dead on each, but the Americans suffered severely; especially at Omaha, where three thousand young men were all dead, either on the beach or floating in the water. It was terrible. Even the German machine gunners confessed, at a later date, that they were sick of killing young men – many of them only 19 and 20 years of age.
D-day was the last action I went through. Later on, the Government sent me about five medals for war service. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I just could not bring myself to wear them, not once. In fact I gave them to my son, Mark. You see, there are so many people who spend their lives saving people and caring for them.
I admire the old man who has been caring for his wife and pushing her around in her wheelchair for years. I admire the doctors, nurses and welfare workers who spend their lives caring for the sick and wounded and children that are in such desperate need. So forgive me, but I just cannot wear war medals. This is the first time, in sixty years, that I have declared this in print – not trying to set a precedent, but just stating how I feel.