Filed under: D-Day, Navy | Tags: Christmas, D-Day, Far East, H.M.S Pique, H.M.S Scylla, Heroes Return, History, Ian Gordon, Juno Beach, Manchester, Norway, Royal Navy, Second World War, Singapore, Tunsberg Castle, VJ Day, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Royal Navy coder Ian Gordon struggled desperately to escape as the Tunsberg Castle began to sink beneath the icy December waters of the Norwegian fjord. The exploding mine had ripped through the quarterdeck killing five men and jamming shut a solid steel door entombing Ian and his shipmate in a tiny cabin below. As the black water rose, Ian, just 19, did not expect to see 20.
The approach of Christmas for WW2 veteran Ian Gordon, now 88, will bring back very special memories of 69 years ago when he was given survivors leave for a surprise visit home, and an emotional reunion with his family on Christmas morning 1944.
As the festive season brings 2013 to a close, the Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded over £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK under its Heroes Return 2 programme.
Ian from the Isle of Wight is just one of many veterans receiving a Christmas award today. Born in Manchester, Ian was conscripted into the Royal Navy in July 1943 aged 18. After a series of tests he discovered he was colour blind so was assigned duties as a coder in naval communications, responsible for deciphering Morse code transmissions.
First Christmas in hospital
After training at combined operations base HMS Vectis, Ian caught jaundice and spent his first Christmas in the Navy laid up in hospital. Once recovered he underwent further training in Warrington before being posted to Devonport, Plymouth to prepare for the D-Day assault on Juno Beach aboard HMS Lawford, headquarters ship for Assault Group 1, Force 1.
He recalls: “At the beginning of June 1944 we left the Beaulieu River to join the frigate
H.M S. Lawford lying in Cowes Roads amid a big concentration of ships and landing craft of all descriptions. We weighed anchor at about 2100 on June 5th and slipped out through the Spithead Channel to lead our flotilla of assault landing craft south for Normandy, battle ensign streaming.
“Later that evening we gathered in the wireless office where our group signals officer unrolled a chart of the Normandy coast. He described the general plan for the invasion – our first official intimation that this was the real thing. Our group was to land the Canadians on Juno Beach.
“After the initial assault on Juno on D-Day I was off watch and fast asleep in the after mess deck when two 500lb bombs struck us amidships. Up on deck I could see that some men were already in the water, no doubt having been blown there by the explosion.”
“The ship was listing severely to starboard. A group of us on the quarterdeck were ordered to make our way to the forecastle, which we did, but there was clearly nothing we could do to save the ship.”
He continued: “Another lurch to starboard and I heard a voice on the bridge immediately above us: ‘She’s going Sir’, then came the order to abandon ship. I don’t know how long our small group were in the water clinging to a rolled-up scrambling net; probably about an hour before we were picked up by the minesweeper H.M.S. Pique. Some of the survivors had broken bones and there was one guy wrapped up in cotton wool. He had been in the boiler room and was scalded very badly.
“Wrapped in blankets and warmed by a tot of neat rum we were transferred to the cruiser H.M.S. Scylla, and our Captain was promptly ordered to find himself another ship and get back to the Normandy coast a.s.a.p.
Farewell to old shipmates
Ian said: “Lawford never came back. She’s still there, lying some 30 metres deep off Arromanches with 26 of my shipmates who didn’t make it when she was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the early hours of June 8th when coming to anchor off Gold Beach.
He recalls “I was transferred to HMS Frobisher and returned to England. We got four days leave. I was sent to HMS Waveney and then back to Exbury. It was there that I heard that the Captain (D) Liverpool base was looking for a coder. I volunteered as I thought I would be near home.”
But Ian soon discovered that far from being closer to home he had in fact volunteered to serve on a Norwegian corvette as part of an Arctic Convoy Escort, and duly sailed on the Tunsberg Castle on convoy JW 62 to Murmansk in Russia, arriving Polyarny at the Kola Inlet early December 1944. After a few days in Murmansk the Tunsberg along with another corvette and two minesweepers, were ordered to proceed to Båtsfjord, a small community at the end of a narrow fjord on the north side of the Varanger peninsula, in Finnmark, Norway, where a radio station was to be established.
Ian recalls: “The fjord was a sort of no man’s land between the Germans and the Russians. The people there were starving and we were taking food and supplies. We were the leading ship. We got into the entrance of the fjord where we sighted a merchant ship.
“My action station was the auxiliary wireless transmitter housed in the ship’s carpenter’s tiny cabin/workshop. It was accessed by one steel door in the after superstructure leading off the quarterdeck. My post was shared with a Norwegian telegraphist, Thorvald (Tony) Andersen.
“We hadn’t been closed up at action stations long before we felt the vibration as the ship increased speed, then almost immediately afterwards, there was a loud explosion. We had hit a mine. The steel deck came up beneath us and we were both sent sprawling. The steel door that provided our only means of escape was jammed tight shut.
Ian continued: “We knew the ship was sinking and we were really struggling for a while but thanks to Tony Andersen, who was much stronger than I was, we eventually forced the door open just enough for us to get through. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”
Ian was rescued by escort corvette Eglantine which came alongside and took off the survivors before Tunsberg slipped beneath the icy waters. With the Tunsberg lost, the operation was abandoned and Ian went back to Polyarny. He was then given two weeks survivors leave and took passage back to the UK in a British frigate.
Surprise homecoming for Christmas
He said: “While I was out in Russia I met this guy from Urmston who said he would let my parents know that I was ok, though he wasn’t allowed to tell them anything about where I was. I arrived back in Manchester on Christmas Eve and stayed at the YMCA overnight before catching the first tram home to Chorlton-cum-hardy on Christmas morning.
It was quite a surprise for everyone when I suddenly turned up on the doorstep. It was great. I spent the time with my family and friends. As I was doing my rounds one guy even said to me ‘third time unlucky’, referring to my previous escapes from sinking ships. I could have done without that.”
Battle ready for the New Year
Christmas over, Ian once again said his farewells before being transferred to Devonport and in spring 1945 was posted out to the Far East with Combined operations as part of a landing party on the Malay Peninsula.
He remembers: “We were sailing into Bombay docks. We were all set with our rations and jungle green uniforms when an Indian newspaper broke the news that the bomb had been dropped. We didn’t know anything about a bomb. Suddenly all the ships started making ‘V’ for Victory. It was wonderful.”
Ian was transferred to Escort carrier HMS Pursuer and sailed up to Port Swettenham in Penang where the captain went ashore with 200 marines.
He recalls: “The Japanese soldiers were piling their weapons and all seemed ok till their officers were asked to hand over their swords. They were very reluctant to do this so the marines held rifles to the heads of Japanese officers telling them they had five minutes to comply. The officers held out for about four minutes then capitulated.”
After three months Ian was transferred to Singapore for Christmas 1945. He said: “It was decided we would have a Christmas dance. So we invited the girls from the Post Office who we were told were very respectable. At the time there was a shortage of ice cream in Singapore so we advertised the dance offering ‘ice cream for ladies only’. It was a good dance and we had a really good laugh.”
Ian finally returned home on HMS Manxman in August 1946. He will travel with his wife on a Heroes Return trip back to Norway in summer 2014.
Looking back, he said: “I was extremely lucky; there were times when I really thought I’d had it.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Italy, Navy | Tags: Anzio, Cagliari, Derek Vickers, France, Heroes Return, Merchant Navy, Monte Cassino, Salerno, Sardinia, SS Cape Wrath, Yorkshire
A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Derek Vickers, 85 from Leeds, went on a Heroes Return visit to Italy last September, to revisit the country he first saw during his time with the Merchant Navy. He joined up in 1943 when he was aged just 16.
He said: “I was in the sea cadets and the Merchant Navy had lost a lot of men and were asking for volunteers. My first ship was a cargo ship, SS Cape Wrath – a commandeered Tate and Lyle ship.
“We sailed north to Scotland and joined a convoy off Oban and from there sailed out into the north Atlantic and down towards Italy. We had a large aircraft carrier with us and carrier escorts. It was huge – I don’t remember the number but it was around 40 ships.
“We had vehicles on the deck which made the ship top heavy. It was January 1944 and the weather was really rough and she rolled around a lot – it was a tough journey.
“As we got near to France we were attacked by air and had a couple of submarine warnings. I remember hearing explosions during the night and I think we lost a couple of ships. We were called to action stations and it was my job to back the gunners up as an ammunition carrier.
“They opened fire all over the place – it was very noisy with all ships firing. The planes took off from the carrier and helped to drive the enemy aircraft away.
“At Gibraltar the convoy split – we went to Tunis. On the way out of Tunis the ship in front of us hit a mine and had to turn back. We went on to Cagliari, Sardinia where there had been heavy bombing.
“We dropped off the cargo and I can remember the smell – there were a lot of bodies under the rubble. It was really traumatic and that memory lingered with me for years.
“Then we went to Naples to deliver armoured vehicles for the troop at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Vesuvius erupted after the Allied troops arrived and we could see larva flowing down and we were all covered in dust. We could hear guns and bombs dropping at the battlefield at Monte Cassino and see the flashes at night.”
Derek visited Monte Cassino, Salerno and Anzio on a Heroes Return visit last September.
He said: “I wanted to go and see what it was like now. Also, during the war I was offshore and so my perspective was different. Although the war was so long ago it all came back to me. On my visit there were two other veterans in my group. It was really wonderful and very emotional.”
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 | Tags: Australia, Changi Jail, Chichester, Dennis Tracey, HMS Fencer, HMS Victorious, Landing Craft Tank, Malta, PoWs, Prisoners of War, Royal Navy, Singapore, Sri Lanka, windmill
85-year-old Dennis Tracey has welcomed news of Heroes Return funding for World War Two veterans making second trips back to where they served.
Aged 17, Dennis volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1944 as a boy sailor. Dennis joined aircraft carrier HMS Fencer bound for Australia but the ship developed serious rudder problems whilst crossing the Mediterranean and had to put in to Malta for major repairs.
Once underway again the Fencer re routed to what was then Ceylon where Dennis was assigned to salvage duties in Colombo.
He recalls: “When we boarded HMS Fencer we didn’t even know where we were going.
“I originally joined up as a ships’ accountant in supplies but never did that job. When we got to Colombo I got shipped out to Fleet Salvage. We did all sorts of crazy things.
“We travelled everywhere, raising ships that had sunk, blowing up oil tanks. We were a mixed bunch. We had explosive experts, divers and electrical experts. I was the youngest of the lot.”
It was during this time that Dennis met the love of his life, Noreen.
He recalls: “We were based in a house in Colombo. Noreen, then Trixie Vandersay, lived in a house nearby with her family. There were four sisters and we use to watch them go by. They were all very beautiful. We used to connive to knock at their gate and offer them bottles of whisky and butter which our divers had brought up from a sunken NAAFI ship.
“One day we got invited in and sat on the verandah. The family were Dutch Burghers, and very strict, so the mother and father kept a close eye on us. I didn’t realise that Noreen and her sisters worked in the Royal Navy Cypher office. After that I would take cables over to be sent to our ships and she would take them from me. I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to marry that girl’.
However, when Dennis and Noreen got secretly engaged Noreen’s father wrote to the Admiral of the East Indies Fleet in an effort to get Dennis shipped off to Hong Kong. Fortunately that didn’t happen and true love was allowed to run its course with Noreen later able to join Dennis in England after the war.
After the Japanese surrender Dennis was transferred to a Landing Craft Tank crew and sent to Singapore to support clearing out operations and evacuation of PoWs from the notorious Changi Jail.
He said: “Some were only five stone. They had to be careful not to feed them too much or it would have killed them. It took many up to six months to get well again, and they couldn’t come home for some time. There was one guy I was trying to pick up to carry him to a bus that was waiting.
“He was clutching a great big paper package and I couldn’t get him to put it down. He was swearing at me, calling me all the names under the sun, so in the end I managed to get him and the package on the bus.
“It was 43 years later when I was selling my house in South Wales when a chap came to buy it. We got talking about the war and I was telling him about my experience with the man at Changi when he started to cry. He said, ‘that was me’ and came back a few days later with the package still wrapped in the same old paper, Straits Times newspaper, falling to pieces.
“He unwrapped it and inside was a windmill made out of bamboo sticks stuck together with crushed insects. He told me that it was the only thing that had kept him alive in Changi. I said, ‘you should hang on to that’ He said ‘I’m giving it to you.’ I still have it, although sadly, he has since died.”
Dennis finally returned home on HMS Victorious in January 1946. Looking forward to their trip to Sri Lanka in May, Dennis and Noreen will visit Colombo to re unite with family and friends from the past, Dennis said: “We have kept in touch with them all these years and would like a chance to see them one final time. I think Heroes Return is a great idea, and I am delighted to hear that veterans will now get a second opportunity to travel.”
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 | Tags: Corsica, Genoa, Gunner, Italy, La Spezia, Minesweeper, minesweeping, Royal Navy Coastal Services, Santa Margarita, Sardinia, US Liberator
George Harris, 87, from Sidmouth, Devon, is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for Heroes Return funding to make a first or second visit to where they served.
He visited the Bay of Genoa area in Italy in October 2012, returning to one of the many places in the west Mediterranean he stopped at while on board a minesweeper.
George joined the Royal Navy Coastal Services aged 17 in April 1943. Following training on lochs in Scotland, he joined a troop ship in a convoy to Malta.
He then joined ML134 – a motor launch adapted to be a minesweeper. The Able Seaman was a gunner on board the craft which swept mines from the sea to make way for larger Allied shipping.
He said: “We would tow metal cables behind us that would sweep just under the surface. The cables would slice through a mine’s mooring cables and it would float to the surface.
“I was a gunner on the bow and when it came to the surface I would shoot at it from a safe distance. If you hit one of the horns that stuck out it would explode. If I didn’t hit a horn then eventually the mine would get so pumped full of shells and water that it would sink to the bottom.
“One time we were sweeping somewhere off La Spezia and Genoa in Italy and a German Tiger tank began from the shore at our flotilla. Luckily we were too far away for him to hit us. Sometimes US bombers dropped bombs into the bay – perhaps they thought we were Germans.
“One day we heard that a US Liberator had gone down and we were asked to look for it. We spotted a huge inflatable life-raft and thought we’d found them – but it was empty.
“I wasn’t in any real danger during the war and it was actually a wonderful part of my life. There were 18 of us on board the motor launch – that was it. We went all around the West Mediterranean – Corsica, Sardinia, Santa Margarita and off the south of France. We were together for a whole year. They were such lovely blokes. I was the youngest on board – most of the others were in the late 20 or maybe early 30s. I expect they will have passed away by now.
“The most vivid war memories that I have are those of the chaps on board. Their faces came back to me while I was on my Heroes Return visit. I’ve often thought of them over the years.”
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.”
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.”
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.