Filed under: Navy | Tags: Alsterufer, Cherbourg, D-Day, HMS Glasgow, Malta, Omaha Beach, Petty Officer, Royal Navy, Spitfire
Veteran Ron Veitch, 88, from Billingham in Teesside is about to make his first visit under the Heroes Return programme and is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for funding for a first or second journey back to where they served.
Ron is visiting Malta, where his ship HMS Glasgow was repaired after being bombed by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ron was a Petty Officer on board the cruiser.
His most vivid memory of the war is the early morning bombardment and landings at Omaha beach on D-Day.
He said: “We hadn’t been told anything, but when we first set off and saw the amount of shipping, we realised this was it. This was the invasion.
“It was my job to check two boiler rooms to make sure the engines were running well. I had to alternate between the two rooms.
“At 6.30am our ship opened fire and bombarded German forces at Normandy. While going between the boiler rooms I popped up to sneak a look. What an incredible sight it was.
“The sea was black with ships. To the left and right of us were warships and landing craft full of US servicemen heading for the shore. They were bobbing up and down and being tossed around like corks. They must have been so seasick. We were firing broadsides and the noise of the bombardment was horrendous.
“We were six miles out so I couldn’t see the shore but we heard from the captain that the US troops were getting annihilated and casualties were mounting up.”
With the assistance of air spotters, HMS Glasgow continued to pound targets ashore and more than 500 six inch shells were fired from the cruiser that day.
Ron’s first close brush with death during the war came a few days later when HMS Glasgow and an Allied task force was sent to the coast off Cherbourg to provide support to US Army units engaged in the battle at the French city.
The naval force bombarded the German fortifications near and in the city and became engaged in repeated duels with coastal batteries. When German salvos from the outskirts of Cherbourg began falling among Allied minesweeper flotillas, HMS Glasgow with Spitfire spotters began returning fire on the German batteries before coming under fire herself.
Ron said: “US army units were facing resistance from the Germans at Cherbourg and we were sent there. I was in the engine room. We could hear our guns were firing and could tell from the orders coming into the engine room that we were engaging with the enemy.
“My hair was standing on end – I thought ‘we are in trouble here’. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. We had been hit twice. Most of the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. There was a strong acrid smell of cordite and dust everywhere.
“The explosions had wiped out our anti aircraft guns. We knew it would take a lot to sink a ship of our size so everyone stayed focused on the job at hand – our engines. The captain ordered us to increase speed so we could get out of danger.”
The cruiser briefly broke off the engagement to assess the damage, before returning to the battle, firing on German batteries. After the battle, Glasgow underwent a complete refit at Palmer’s Yard at Hebburn on the river Tyne.
Ron experienced other battles during the war, including Operation Stonewall – a blockade against the import by Germany of seaborne goods. In late December 1943, Glasgow and the cruiser Enterprise fought a three-hour battle with several German destroyers and torpedo boats protecting the cargo ship Alsterufer. Three enemy ships were destroyed but two of Glasgow’s ships company were lost.
He remembered: “After the battle the captain gave us a run-down of what happened. We learnt that several torpedoes had been fired at us – some even went right underneath us. I remember the gasp that went around the crew when we heard that.”
Now, Ron is looking forward to making a Heroes Return commemorative trip to Malta, where Glasgow was repaired for damage caused by Italian glider bombs. He plans to visit the dockyard and the Rotunda of Mosta church, where a German bomb pierced the dome and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. Miraculously, it did not explode.
He said: “I’ll be going with my son to show him the places I remember. It will bring back memories of how wonderful the people were and the kindness they showed to us. They were very grateful to the Allies for risking and losing their lives at sea for them.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: Arromanches, D-Day, France, Landings, Merseyside, Morse Code, Normandy, Ray Wilton, Royal Navy, Telegraphist
All around the sea was turning red with blood as Ray Wilton’s Motor Torpedo Boat guided the first wave of Normandy landing crafts through the deadly German sea mines. Many struggled desperately in the high tide as their crafts foundered under heavy shell fire or were wrecked by enemy defences lurking under the water. Those that did not die of their wounds sank like stones under the weight of heavy kitbags. Twenty-year-old Ray looked on helplessly as his boat ploughed on towards Gold Beach.
Now aged 88, Ray from the Wirral on Merseyside will be making a poignant trip 68 years on back to the Normandy beach at Arromanches.
Ray will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country.
A Prescot lad, 18 year old Ray was originally in a reserved occupation as a technical engineer but in 1942 decided to register as a reserve in the Royal Navy.
He recalls: “I was raring to go. Two of my mates had already joined, so in 1943 when I hadn’t received my call up I just went down and volunteered. I was eager to get on and do my bit.”
Ray was sent to Skegness to do his basic training. After eight weeks he trained as a telegraphist, learning Morse code and passing out with 22 words a minute. Promoted to the rank of Ordinary Telegraphist, Ray was transferred to Southampton-based stone frigate HMS Squid as part of Combined Operations.
He said: “We were the central communication base for everyone involved in the invasion. I was manning a radio set when one day the phone rang and I was told that I was to be a replacement out at sea for a telegraphist with appendicitis serving on Motor Torpedo Boat patrols in the Channel. Our job was to look for German convoys and submarines hugging the French coast.
“We were more like a pirate ship really. It was a little boat and we all lived together, very informal. We used to wear boiler suits and plimsolls and put on oilskins if it got too wet.
He continued: “We were all ready for D-day which was originally planned for the 5th of June, but the weather turned awful so we were sent out to make sure that everyone knew that the operation would be delayed. We caught an American ship quite near the French coast and called out to them ‘Get back. We’ve been delayed!’ then after that we saw another boat full of tanks and we sent them back too.
“We also found the body of an American airman floating in a life jacket. He was very badly decomposed so we took his dog tag and then slipped off his jacket to let him sink. I later took the tag to the American depot so at least someone would know what had happened and could tell his family.”
Sailing overnight on the 5th June, Ray and crew were deployed to assist the landings scheduled for 7.30 am on Gold Beach.
He recalls: “The troops were put onto landing crafts about six miles out. Our job was to escort the landing crafts through the German mines. It was an exceptionally high tide and it covered all the beach obstacles, iron fences with explosives.
We were under heavy shell and mortar fire. Quite a number of the crafts came to grief and there were lots of men struggling in the sea. You couldn’t help them. We were constantly being pushed from behind and we just had to go on. I can still see those lads in the water. It was very sad, very sad.
“But we got the first wave through and then we pulled back and marshalled the crafts behind. You could hardly see the sea for ships. There were 138 warships spread along all the beaches. The Germans were positioned behind French holiday homes along the front. They put up a very strong resistance with mortars and machine guns. We were unscathed, not a bullet. But the poor bloody infantry couldn’t pull back.”
With 25,000 troops landed on Gold Beach and the invasion well underway, Ray continued patrol duties on the Normandy coast, before being sent back to Plymouth Naval Hospital after a foot injury caused his leg to turn septic. He recalls, “At this time the Germans were targeting Plymouth with doodlebugs so I was sent up north to Rainhill Hospital near home and managed to get seven days leave.”
Once recovered, Ray sailed in the Jamaica up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle on a mission to rescue Norwegian meteorologists stranded at a Royal Navy weather station bombed by the German Battleship, Tirpitz. He then transferred to frigate HMS Dart at Londonderry carrying out offshore sweeps looking for German U boats and then as convoy escort out to Gibraltar.
He recalls: “We attacked a number of ‘U’ boats and sunk two. We had hedgehog anti sub bombs we fired in front of us and which formed a huge circle of bombs exploding all around the sub. We knew we had destroyed them when we saw oil and wreckage come up to the surface.”
“When VE-day came we were sent to marshal the surrendering ‘U’ Boats directing them to various places. It was quite a strange feeling. We had spent so much time trying to blow each other out of the water.”
With the European conflict at an end, Dart was deployed as part of the far eastern fleet and sailed out to join allied forces massing at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka as part of Operation Zipper, the main invasion of Malaya.
Ray recalls, “Now we had a chance to deploy a huge number of ships, aircraft and troops. We got halfway across the Indian Ocean when we got the message that the Atomic Bomb had been dropped. We all said ‘what’s an atomic bomb?’ nobody had ever heard of it.
“We slowed up and waited for a while. We were given further orders to proceed then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and we were told to proceed to Singapore to take the Japanese surrender.”
Ray stayed on in Singapore helping with the release of PoWs and the many foreign nationals incarcerated by the Japanese before transferring to duties at the Ceylon West Receiving Station, a huge underground global communications centre built under a coconut grove.
He confesses: “I didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place now the war was over.” However, Ray was duly demobbed and arrived back in England just in time for Christmas 1945.
“My dad had died in 1943 but it was wonderful to see my mother and my two sisters. We had a lovely reunion. Sadly I lost my best pal in the air force. He was in Bomber Command and was killed over Berlin. But there were still a few good mates around.”
Ray plans to travel out to Normandy with his daughter Deborah in the New Year. He said; “Over the years I thought I’d like to go back to pay my respects. I was lucky, a lot of young lads didn’t come back.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Navy, Sri Lanka | Tags: Carmarthen, Hiroshima, HMS Glengyle, Royal Navy, Sri Lanka, Wales
He was a crew member onboard a former fishing boat which was commandeered by the Royal Navy to sweep the seas around Britain for a new deadly catch of mines during WWII. He also guided ships safely to harbour in waters threatened by constant attack from German submarines and served in theatres of war around the world stretching from the North Sea to Sri Lanka.
Now, thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, 87-year-old George Davies from Monmouth will return to Sri Lanka in January 2012 to recall the role he played during the Second World War and retrace his steps for the last time.
George Davies was working in a bank in Carmarthen when he was called up for war duty in September 1943. He enlisted in the RAF and was initially trained as a wireless operator.
However, due to a shortage of telegraphists to man all the landing craft for the second front, George was transferred to the Navy as a telegraphist. Using Morse code to communicate, telegraphists were indispensable at sea and were used for relaying secret coded messages.
In 1944, he joined HMT Cranefly at Grimsby, a First World War fishing trawler converted for mine sweeping duties. Many of the crew, including the captain, were ex-fishermen. Mine sweepers were designed to counter the threat posed by the deadly naval mines and are often seen as the unsung heroes of WWII for their role in keeping the waters around Britain safe from the deadly explosives and submarine attacks.
“The ships worked in groups of four,” explains George. “My group consisted of the ships Cranefly, Gadfly, Firefly and the Equerry. The Equerry had her stern blown off and had been towed ashore. She was repaired with a new and larger stern and was much faster than the rest of our group.”
“We swept for mines in a single line, one ship astern of the other, enabling quite a large area to be swept. Our sweeping area was from Flamborough Head of the coast of Yorkshire to Sheringham off the coast of Norfolk.
“We swept by day and patrolled by night, watching out for any e-boats or enemy aircraft dropping mines. The shipping lanes had to be swept clean before the convoys came through. Sometimes we would be out in the shipping lane picking up convoys and escorting them safely past the Boom Defense vessels at the mouth of the Humber and then sending them up river.”
And life certainly wasn’t always plain sailing on the ship: “It was a rough, uncomfortable life and the ship never stood still,” says George. “The trawlers were wonderful sea going vessels and can weather any gale, and boy did we get some! ‘The sea is full of holes today’, was the saying.”
The comradeship onboard is something George will never forget: “The fishermen were a hardy lot and didn’t take very kindly to naval discipline,” he recalls.
“They were very superstitious too. You didn’t shave at sea and you would never have an open safety pin on the mess deck. The daily tot of rum was served neat whereas on the big ships it was two parts water to one part rum.
“There was a wonderful comradeship onboard. We were a really close family and we had some wonderful characters on the ship. The ship was coal burning and we would be at sea for four or five days before returning to dock for two or three days for re-coaling.”
Following VE Day in May 1945, George was discharged from HMT Cranefly and sent on a Foreign Draft to HMS Mayina, a transit camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where all personnel in the East Indies Fleet passed through. George and the crew would now be focused on the War in the Pacific and combating the threat from the Japanese Imperial Navy.
“We sailed out from Greenock in Scotland on HMS Glengyle, a former cargo ship,” says George. “The accommodation was terrible as we had to sleep on the mess deck in hammocks with only a blanket. The ship had no air-conditioning which meant that when we reached warmer climes, we slept on the open deck to keep cool.
“I had terrible sunburn and blisters everywhere as there was no such thing as sun cream in those days. It was a relief when we reached Bombay which was as far as the ship was taking us.”
As they were waiting to disembark from the ship off the coast of India, George heard on the radio that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
He was in a small village just outside Bombay by the time the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. It was only later that George discovered that they were to form part of the plans for an invasion of Singapore to take it back from the Japanese. However, the atomic bombings of Japan had brought an end to the War.
George remained in Sri Lanka until he was sent to Bombay to catch a liner called the Llanstephan Castle back to Britain.
However, naval mines remained a threat even after the war ended and before he was demobbed, George was drafted for duty onboard another mine sweeper with responsibility for clearing the inshore minefields between Boulogne and Dieppe off the coast of France.
According to George, this will be his last chance to retrace his steps: “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Big Lottery Fund,” he says. “This will probably be my last chance to do this trip.”
To date more than £25 million has been awarded to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
George is one of numerous veterans from Wales who have made a poignant return to the places where they served during the war.The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over £1 million to more than 830 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers from Wales for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Caradog Jones, Heroes Return, Royal Navy
A veteran from Anglesey has recalled the role he played in the Battle of the Pacific, known as the ‘Typhoon of Steel’, and how he survived desperate Kamikaze suicide attacks and cheated death in major naval battles stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
Thanks to a grant from BIG’s Heroes Return programme, 88 year old Caradog Jones from Holyhead, Anglesey, will be returning to Australia this year to recall where his War ended 67 years ago and to pay his respects to those who lost their lives in the bitter and bloody conflict between 1939 and 1945.
In November 1942 and only 18 years of age, Caradog Jones was called up by the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman. He joined the Torpedo Branch and was responsible for firing torpedoes from Destroyers on enemy ships and dropping depth charges to sink incoming enemy submarines. His War ended with the eventual surrender of the Japanese when the Americans dropped Atom Bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I went to war completely innocent, not knowing what to expect,” explains Caradog. “The funny thing is that I joined the Royal Navy and I couldn’t even swim a stroke, despite being surrounded by the sea growing up on Anglesey. I still can’t swim to this day.”
After successfully completing his training in Plymouth, in 1943 Caradog was acquainted for the first time with his ship, HMS Queenborough in Gourock, Scotland.
The Queenborough was dubbed ‘The Lucky Ship’ after the War in reference to all the near deadly scrapes she and the crew emerged out of unscathed despite fighting in some of the deadliest theatres of war around the world.
“I can’t really describe what I felt when I was on my way to join the ship,” says Caradog. “I knew nothing about her or what I had to do, didn’t know any of the crew, everything was strange and I was quite worried. The only thing I knew is that I had to go.”
Visit our newsroom to read more of Caradog’s story.
More information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant are available by calling 0845 00 00 121 or visiting www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return, Japan, Navy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Flight Commander, Heroes Return, Japan, Kamikaze, plane, Royal Navy
Flight commander Keith Quilter hurtled along in his fighter bomber towards the Japanese aerodrome. Flying right beside him was his best friend Walter Stradwick and two other fighters.
At just 50 feet from the ground they closed in on Japanese aircraft. As they prepared to let loose a burst of gunfire, Keith saw Walter’s fighter at his side suddenly plunge into the ground and explode into a ball of flames.
Keith was aged 23 at the time. Today (Tuesday, 6 March) is his 90th birthday and he is also celebrating being awarded funding to make an emotional visit to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate from aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, killed on 18 July 1945 aged 22.
Keith, from Tenterden, Kent, recently learnt he will receive £3,700 from BIG’s Heroes Return programme to make a commemorative visit in May 2012. His is the 50th successful application for funding for a veteran to visit Japan.
Keith served as a pilot in the navy from 1942 to 1946 and rejoined in 1947, leaving in 1952. During the war he flew many death-defying missions in his F4U Corsair fighter bomber, at first in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, in Norway in August 1944.
HMS Formidable then joined the British Pacific Fleet. They attacked Japanese aerodromes in islands between Okinawa and Taiwan to prevent Kamikaze suicide missions against Allied ships and to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Keith said: “I want to go and pay my respects to my cabin mate Walter Stradwick. I found out where his grave is and I’m going to leave a wreath there. I’m also hoping to somehow trace his family. I’m going to take a photograph of his grave and would like them to be able to see it.
“He went into the ground and I saw a horrible great mass of flames alongside me. Then my wing man said his oil pressure was dropping and so the fourth pilot had to escort him back to the carrier. This meant I was on my own so I joined the tail end of my CO’s group to attack a different aerodrome.
“I got hit as I went into a 45 degree dive to strafe the aerodrome. I heard this huge bang. A 20mm shell hit the side. When I eventually got back to the carrier all the chaps on deck were pointing up at my aircraft. When I got out I saw a hole in the fuselage so big you could put your head inside.
“That mission was the one that caused me the most personal loss. When your close friend and cabin mate is shot down and you get back to the ship and walk back into an empty cabin room, that is….quite something.”
Keith survived two Kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable. The first strike killed several men on the flight deck who didn’t hear the alarm because of the sound of the engines of aircraft taxiing towards one end. As a result of that attack, it was decided that someone would also wave a red flag to warn pilots of a Kamikaze approaching. This new procedure saved Keith’s life.
Keith said: “I was strapped into my aircraft with the engine running. Suddenly I saw someone frantically waving a red flag in front of me. I switched the engine off, unstrapped myself as quick as I could and me and three other pilots leapt out of our fighters and jumped down two of three decks before it hit the ship. The ship lurched as the kamikaze hit us. My aircraft was completely destroyed.”
Less than a week after Walter died, Keith was shot down attacking a Japanese destroyer inside a harbour at Owaze.
Keith recalled: “Twelve of us were flying towards a target on the mainland when we spotted a destroyer. I was told to attack it so me and three others peeled away from the main group. Because it was on the inside of the harbour wall we had to approach from the land which had high hills. We attacked by coming in really low over the water and released the bombs just before we passed over the ship so that they hit its side.
“One of our chaps got hit and had to ditch in the water. I wanted to come around again to see if he was okay in his dingy and saw a side creek with hills that would have hidden me from view of the town as I came around for a look. But there was a gun position there and I got hit. My engine suddenly stopped so I had no choice but to ditch.
“I had to open the hood quickly before the plane sank, got into my dingy and paddled away to the open sea. The other pilot was doing the same while Japanese were taking pot shots at him from the shore.
“Then I saw this sinister looking black submarine sail towards us. At first I feared it was a Japanese submarine but men got out and I recognised the US Navy uniform. They were on standby to save Allied pilots like myself. I couldn’t believe a US sub would come in that close.
“I was aboard for three weeks, by which time the atom bombs had been dropped. As we sailed into Saipan we heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.”
As well as visiting Walter’s grave at Yokohama War Cemetery, Keith also wanted to visit the memorial dedicated to Robert Hampton Gray, a Corsair fighter pilot also on board HMS Formidable. “Hammy” Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in the war and was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on a destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite coming under heavy fire and his plane ablaze, he remained on course to bomb and sink the ship before crashing into the water. The memorial is the only one dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.
Keith said: “We were all such young and cocky fighter pilots. But by the time VJ day came I think half the squadron had been lost. Walter was a lovely guy and Hammy was also full of fun in the mess.”
The Heroes Return 2 programme is still open for applications. For more information, please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121
Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, North Africa, Royal Navy
At 8pm at 17 December 1943, 19-year-old Quartermaster Robert Lang finished his shift at the wheel of merchant ship SS Kingswood. He headed down below for a meal, sat down in the mess room with his mates and picked up his cutlery.
“As I put my knife and fork to the plate, the torpedo struck the ship,” he said.
Robert is one of a number of Second World War veterans who will be returning to the place where they served as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. The 88-year-old from Preston will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco on the west coast of Africa this year – near where his merchant ship was torpedoed 68 years ago. To date more than £25 million has been awarded to over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “A huge debt of gratitude and recognition is owed by today’s society to the men and women who fought across the world during the Second World War. They built the peace and protected the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Robert recalled how he fought for his life escaping a sinking ship, clinging to a piece of wood in shark-infested waters, his rescue by local African fishermen, and treatment by a witch doctor on the Ivory Coast before friendly African forces helped his shipmates to a hospital. Decades later he managed to contact and even become friends with two members of the same U-boat crew that sunk his ship.
Weeks before the U-boat struck, Robert’s ship had previously called at Gibraltar. The ship loaded with cargo in Lagos in Nigeria and on 17th December set sail for UK. It was passing the Ivory Coast when the torpedo slammed into its side.
“All the lights went out – and the steel door to get out was jammed,” said Robert. “The ship was turning and the portholes were below the water line. It was like a sealed coffin. Someone shouted ‘we’re going’ and I thought we were headed to the bottom of the ocean. Then there was another explosion from the ammunition locker. That saved us – it blew the steel door open by 18 inches – just enough for us to squeeze out.
“When we got on deck the ship was leaning about 45 to 50 degrees. The engines should have been turned off when the captain called abandon ship but hadn’t been. We were trying to get a lifeboat down but the ship was dragging it along. Because the ship didn’t stop a second torpedo was fired which hit.
“I was blown clean out of the lifeboat and into the sea. I went straight down and thought that was it. When you hear of people saying you see your life and family before you it’s all true – and it wasn’t a fearful feeling. Eventually I popped up near the rotating blades. The ship kept going for a bit further and then turned over and sank.
“I was clinging to a piece of wood four feet long in the dark. I was terrified about the sharks – we’d seen them earlier in the day and I was living in fear of being eaten. One lifeboat got away and eventually it discovered me. It was made for 14 men but there were about 50 inside and I was the last to be pulled out of the sea.”
But the ordeal on the seas was not over. Suddenly, they heard and engine and a searchlight suddenly swept onto them – the deadly German U-boat had surfaced.
“I thought we were going to be blown out of the water,” said Robert. “The Germans demanded that our captain came aboard but we said he wasn’t in the lifeboat and must still be in the water. They wanted someone to go over and speak to their captain but none of us wanted to. Then a chap offered and they questioned him about our route and cargo. He was let go and came back to us. The search light came on us again and we feared the worst but the U-boat disappeared into the darkness.”
Robert, with broken fingers, injured arm and a gash in his groin, drifted in the lifeboat for two days while sharks circled the boat. After two days adrift they spotted local fishermen from Grand Popo in long canoes who helped them find the shore.
He recalled, “We slept on the beach. They looked after us in their village of clay huts with straw roofs and fed us yams. At one point the chief of the tribe called for me and another mate to follow him. We came to a witch doctor covered in feathers. He chanted all sorts of incantations and abracadabra stuff, throwing his hands to the heavens. He also threw little stones at my broken fingers. Eventually the chief tapped me on the shoulder and my treatment was over!”
Robert and his shipmates then walked for days through the bush, coming across another tribe who killed a wild boar and fed them. Days later they met soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was taken to a hospital in Takoradi in Ghana suffering from malaria where he spent Christmas day and eventually made it home, five months after the torpedoing.
Decades after the war, sometime in the early 1980s, Robert discovered the name of the U-boat – U515 – and wrote to the German Embassy for see if there was an association. They replied with contact details of two members of the crew from the submarine. He became pen pals with Carl Moller and Herman Kaspers. One day a couple of years later Robert’s phone rang.
He said: “My wife said someone wanted to speak to me and it was Carl. He asked if he could visit – I said yes anytime – he then said ‘I’ll see you in four hours!’ He was on holiday in Scotland! It was a strange feeling seeing the Mercedes pulling up my drive. Carl got out the car and then Herman stepped out too! Carl walked up to me, put his arm around me and the first thing he said was ’We are sorry for sinking the ship under your feet’.”
Robert, Carl and Herman stayed in touch for many years and Robert paid four visits to Germany, one time talking a tour of a U-boat on the Elbe with Carl and another occasion visiting Herman and his brother Helmut who also served on the U-515.
“I’m not at all resentful”, said Robert. “They were just doing their job like we were. When you get older you start to reflect differently on life.”
Robert served on nine merchant ships during the war. He has received a £800 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco in June next year.