Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips

John Cumming’s story…

Royal Navy veteran John Cumming, 87, from Ards, Northern Ireland, visited Normandy in June 2009.

“It made me feel proud to have served my country”

The trip was made particularly poignant when on a visit to the D-Day museum in Arromanches, Normandy, he saw the picture of the HMNS Sumatra – a Dutch cruiser that supported the boats of British soldiers as they landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach.

“When I saw that photo of the Sumatra, it made me think about the sacrifices of all the mates I served with on that old ship and all those young men who gave their lives – it made me feel proud to have served my country,” says John.

It was an emotional return for John, who joined the Royal Navy in 1940 at the age of 18. After serving on the HMS Volunteer for four years, he was drafted on to the Sumatra as the build up to D-Day began.

“Our ship was manned by both Dutch and British sailors and there was a great camaraderie on board,” says John. “I joined the crew in April 1944 and we lay off the coast of Scotland for over a month. It was clear we were waiting for something, but we didn’t know what.

“Then on 4 June, we got our orders to set sail for France – the D-Day operations were underway. We arrived off the coast of Ouistreham, code named Sword Beach, on the evening of D-Day.

“I can still remember my feelings of fear and excitement. We were bombarded by heavy German artillery from the shore and our ship was a sitting target for their attacks. Sumatra was one of 30 old warships and merchant vessels whose job it was to scuttle our ships so they were all resting firmly on the bottom of the sea in a line. The ships created a temporary breakwater, so that the inshore waters would be smoother for the soldiers as they jumped from their boats.

“We could see the army boys as they struggled onto the beach up to their waists in water, and we watched in horror as many collapsed on the beaches and died there.

“It was sheer luck that our ship wasn’t hit and all my pals survived, but it makes me so sad to think of all those men who gave their lives on that day – so I came back to Normandy to remember the sacrifices they made.”

Visiting the cemeteries again was one of the hardest parts of John’s trip. “There was a very quiet, sombre atmosphere that moved you to tears, especially when I saw the graves of people from towns in Northern Ireland, lads as young as 16 whose lives had barely started but who were willing to sacrifice them for the cause.

“When I think about the terrible loss of lives and the slaughter that happened on that day I feel so much sorrow. I pray that it never happens again.”

Robert Shaw’s story…

In 1943, aged just 17½, Robert Shaw from Royston in Hertfordshire joined the Royal Navy and served as an able seaman for the duration of the Second World War. During the Normandy D-Day invasion in 1944, he was part of a 13-man crew on board a landing craft tank responsible for offloading tanks onto the beaches.

On 6 June 1944, Bob’s landing craft tank navigated its way through the small, overcrowded and chaotic waters to land at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach to offload the six tanks on board.

Because the tide was out, they had to wait until nightfall for it to come back in again, so they were stuck on the beach watching out for booby traps.

One of the worst things Bob remembers was seeing British infantrymen clambering down rope ladders on the sides of troopships, plunging into the sea – and drowning.

“The weight of their kit was so much that they couldn’t keep afloat,” he says. “It was a terrible sight.”

Just as they were ready to leave a message came through to Bob. “We were just setting off at high tide and were about 150 yards from the shore. The skipper understood the message at once – we were to return to shore to collect 250 German prisoners that had been captured during the fighting that day. On the journey back to Portsmouth, German planes were dropping bombs all around us and we were lucky not to be hit.”

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My father inlaw Kenneth George Harding sadly now with the onset of dementia has been recounting the day he as a 19 year old seaman was on the HMS Sumatra when it had the bottom blown out to become a block ship for D day. He has been recolecting not knowing what was going to happen , the war ships firing over their heads and not knowing how he was going to be returned to England after the ship was sunk.

Comment by Les Cooper

In May 1944, my Dad and his fellow sailors were put on a ship called the Sumatra. This was a Dutch ship, a Dutch cruiser. It had been used, at the beginning of the war, to take the Dutch Royal Family to safety to Canada. However, before Dad and his shipmates could set sail on Sumatra, anything of any value was taken off it. Any metal not needed was taken off too, including guns, and the only person who knew where the Sumatra was headed was the Captain! The destination had to be kept top secret so the enemy didn’t find out what was about to take place.

The ship sailed southwards down the west coast of Scotland, past Wales, around Cornwall and ended up at the Isle of Wight, where there were lots of other ships. No one knew why or what was going on.

Dad and the other sailors knew something very big was about to take place! Later, the sailors were told they were going to be part of D.Day! This mission had a secret code name – Operation Overlord – named by Winston Churchill. It would take place on June 6th 1944.

Thousands and thousands of Allied Troops would cross the channel and land on the French beaches. Each beach had a code name. The two British beaches were named Gold and Sword, the Canadian beach was named Juno and the American beaches were named Omaha and Utah.



Once the troops had landed, a supply chain had to be set up. To do this they needed harbours. Sumatra and some other ships were to form part of a Mulberry Harbour. This was an artificial harbour, man- made in England and dragged across the Channel. (After Dunkirk, the germans had destroyed all the harbours)

Now, parts of these harbours would be pulled across the English Channel. Harbours were needed to provide safe, calm waters for the supply ships to unload in. Supplies such as; Food, Water, Ammunition, Guns, Medical supplies, Doctors, Nurses, Wireless Operators and experts in comms, and radios etc.

Dad’s ship and some others were to be Block Ships and were to be anchored parallel to the beach, about half a mile from the beach. Their beach would be Sword beach. (In reality this French beach was called Arramanches Beach.) Down the sides, between the ships and the beach large, concrete Caissons (these were hollow, concrete blocks) were placed. These were dragged across the Channel. Bigger than a large room, they were to act as breakwaters so the ships could dock in calm water.

Sumatra sailed on 7th June, a day after D-Day, and sailed across the Channel into position, along with the other

ships to be used as part of the Mulberry Harbour.

Sumatra and the others were scuttled and had a small hole blasted in their hulls. They gently touched the sea-bed, but didn’t sink. Most of the ship remained above water. Wide ‘road ways’ would be built across the deck and onto the beach so the supply lorries could get down onto the beach and continue inland to support the thousands of troops already pushing the German army back through France.

Dad and his shipmates were waiting to be rescued and taken off Sumatra and they waited on deck for an absolute age! Although part of Sumatra was under water, luckily the Galley was not. So, Dad went down into the Galley and made a mug of tea in a big urn for everyone! After more waiting (shells were being fired from the land constantly) a ship called ‘Duck W’ came and rescued them and took them to the beach. The Beach Master, who was a naval officer and in charge of the beach, was very annoyed with them, even though it wasn’t their fault they were left on board their ship and hadn’t been rescued before! He didn’t know what to do with them, but, finally he put them on board a Canadian ship back to England, to Sheerness in Kent. This was a Liberty ship, which had lots of large cranes on board. Here they were looked after by the WRVS, Womens’ Royal Voluntary Service. From England they got orders to go back to Gairloch in Scotland, where they were put on an LST ship, (Landing Ships Tanks) which had lots of lifeboats on board. It had no name, just a number, which was 157. Their orders sent them to Bairy Docks, where another ship was built on top of their ship: this was a landing craft, which would slide off when required.

Pretty much immediately after that, they were sent to the Pacific and Far East to be involved in the war against the Japanese.

LST 157 sailed to the Far East, sailing through the Mediterranean Sea, past Port Said, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and onto Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

From there it sailed to Madras, Calcutta and Assam, all in India. At these places the ship picked up supplies to take on to Rangoon, Burma and Singapore, for the people there.

LST 157’s mission was to liberate and supply, and to continue with minesweeping. This was a vitally important job. Dad’s ship was the very first to liberate Dutch men, women and children who had been imprisoned by the Japanese. The people rescued were taken back to Singapore. The ship, also, took rice and other foodstuffs to people on some of the other islands of Indonesia.

Dad said he had seen some awful sights which he didn’t talk about.

They took rice to Bangkok, in Thailand (which was then called Siam), travelling up the Bangkok river. They hit a sandbank and one of the big bow doors bowed! Water got in and rice started to swell and had to be taken off! The ship needed major repairs in Bangkok!!

Although, by now the war was over, (A Peace Treaty was signed in Singapore, at noon on 2nd September 1945

. Dad has a photo of this), Dad and the rest of the crew still could not go home as there was so much more vital work to be done. Just because the war was over did not mean that things would automatically go back to normal.

The ship travelled to a Singapore naval base, where Dad and the crew were based in Changi Jail, which was an infamous prison used by the Japanese. The Allies nicknamed it, ‘The Holiday Camp’. Then on to Manilla in the Phillipines, where LST157 was given back to the US, as it had been on loan.

From here Dad’s crew were put on a ship called the Corbrae. This was as ex-Welsh Colliery ship. For the next fifteen months they did mine sweeping, partly off the coast of Borneo. The ship had a contraption behind it which would cut a wire holding the mines under the water, which then made the mines bob up, so they could be seen and exploded. The Corbrae had an experimental bow. A demagnetising metal was used so as not to attract the mines!

They, also, continued with liberating duties and taking food supplies to people who had nothing after the war. They also repatriated people.

Comment by Lesley Underhill

My father lt cmdr t a ashdown was Captain of LST157 whilst in attached to the Royal Navy

I would welcome any further details

Comment by hris ashdown

Hi Chris,

Thanks for contacting us, and telling us about your father’s role on the LST157!

If you can let us know what further details you need and about what, we’ll be able to help provide them.


Comment by Big Lottery Fund

I understood from a message I recieved from a man who was the Captains steward that the war ended whilst the LST157 was sailing through the Med and dads first order to hi was to open the portholes in his cabin and start polishing the brass on them which had been sealed up all the time

Unfortunatly I lojst the stewards letter and itcontained a full list of dates and places

Comment by hris ashdown

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