The training was over at last. The newly commissioned officers had a farewell get-together in the fishermen’s inn before being scattered to Rosyth, Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham . . . Graham was to be ‘Number One’ (1st Lieutenant, i.e. second of the two officers) on a tank landing craft (LCT) in the Orkneys, north of Scotland. . . .
He thought it odd to be sent so far north when the invasion was to take place across the English Channel. His LCT was currently being used for boom defence at Scapa Flow. This involved being anchored at one of the entrances to the great stretch of water, with anti-submarine nets suspended over the side. For the forthcoming invasion of France all such craft were needed on the south coast, so the skeleton crew of one officer and four ratings had to be put up to strength for the long coastal voyage to Pompey and the subsequent Channel crossing. Graham celebrated the posting with his first serious bout of seasickness, on the Pentland ferry from Thurso to Stromness. Looking pale and greenish about the gills, he boarded the small naval supply launch to reach the LCT. As he sat with head in hands, still light-headed from sickness, he wondered how best to present himself when he arrived at his new command. He had tried to smarten himself before leaving the ferry. Should he salute the quarterdeck, as he had been told was customary on joining a new ship? Would he be ‘piped aboard’ in traditional Navy fashion, the ratings lined up smartly for his inspection? The launch ‘put-putted’ its way nearer to his destination.
“That’s yourn, 504, ain’t it?” The scruffy Leading Seaman steering the launch pointed to a long hull, for all the world like an abandoned barge, its camouflaged sides streaked with rust, a dirty white ensign hanging limply from the stubby mast at the stern above the kedge anchor. As they came alongside Graham was aware of a rope-ladder hanging down the side and a large heap of coal in the tank deck. There was no sign of life. At a shout of ‘504 ahoy there!’ a head appeared out of the hatch above the crew space. A rating emerged, capless, his uniform agape at the throat, his hair unkempt. The crew of the launch threw Graham’s kit up onto the deck and he followed it, scrambling up the swaying ladder and trying to avoid losing his smart officer’s cap with its gold badge - of which he had been inordinately proud when he first wore it - from falling into the water. So much for saluting the quarterdeck! The rating picked up the kit, muttering “I’ll put this in the ward-room. The skipper’s ashore, back later.”
The hut-like space behind the wheelhouse of the LCT that gloried in the name of ward-room was little more than a cramped cabin - a bunk either side of a table fixed to the deck, a folding wash-basin, cupboards for storage and for drinks. There were two scuttles or portholes on either side, screwed firmly shut. The air smelt stale, of gin and tobacco overlaying urine from the concealed privy. One of the bunks had rough grey army blankets and a not too clean pillow in an untidy heap. So this was to be his home for . . . how long? He wrinkled his nose with distaste, then set about stowing and sorting his few belongings. The reality of his arrival and unceremonious reception had left him disenchanted, but also disoriented.
In the following weeks he began to get the measure of his responsibilities. The new crew members, at least as green and ignorant as he was, gave him the opportunity to exercise his authority, and he gradually smartened both the appearance and the bearing of the ratings, as well as the flat-bottomed ‘ship’ they all inhabited. One blunder Graham made almost caused a mutiny. Having been instructed in ‘King’s Regulations’ that the daily tot of rum, which was considerably higher proof than anything found ashore, was to be served as ‘grog’, i.e. diluted with twice its volume of water, he decided that the best way to do this was to mix the fiery spirits and water in the wardroom before issuing it, since the stone rum jar was kept there for safety. The crew duly lined up at noon for their tot, with mugs or glasses. On seeing the mixture there were mutterings and expressions of disgust. All looked to the coxswain for a lead. He was the only NCO in the crew, a ‘two-badge’ Leading Seaman RN. He ceremoniously walked to the gunwale and tipped his tot into the sea, followed by all the others. He then requested to see the CO and carried the complaint to him while the crew dispersed, with evil looks at the fresh-faced officer who had offended. The CO explained to him later that this particular KR was ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ on all small ships, and that the men came to expect their daily tot of neat spirits.
“Some of the old hands, three-badge ABs, are so pickled in alcohol after years of the daily tot it’d finish them off to go without it.”
The CO, Lieutenant N. Shaw RNVR - it was weeks before Graham discovered that the -N- stood for ‘Nigel’ - was a bank clerk in civvy life and very conscious of the enhanced status deriving from the two ‘wavy navy’ lines of braid on his sleeve. Graham’s arrival prompted his superior to demonstrate that he too had some pretensions to culture. He even had a new poetry anthology amongst his half-dozen books, Field-Marshall Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers, from which he would quote lines to his new Number One when they were on the bridge together at sea. The boom defence derricks had been removed, the sides given a new coat of paint and the stores brought up to establishment, now the ship’s company was up to size.
The wheelhouse, just forward of the ward-room and under the bridge, also served as chart-room, where Graham fulfilled his duties as navigator. After suffering the cramped discomfort of a few nights in the shared cabin space he managed to rig up a makeshift bunk in the wheelhouse, giving both men a modicum of welcome privacy. The voyage from Scapa to Pompey seemed endless, but it acted as a useful apprenticeship. Graham soon found his sea-legs after the Pentland experience, in spite of the peculiar rolling, slapping motion of the barge-like craft. A disconcerting feature was how in a heavier swell she would ride out two successive waves then slam down on the third with the bottom of the long, empty tank-deck, causing a metallic judder throughout the hull and shaking unsecured utensils and crockery off the shelves. It was generally known that one of the commonest accidents at sea with these craft was a ‘broken back’, the hull snapping in half in the tank deck, just forward of the engine-room and crew space. The buoyancy tanks kept both halves afloat; one enterprising skipper had even managed to take his front end in tow and struggle into port with the engines full astern. It was customary to put into port whenever seas threatened to become unmanageable.
As he went about his duties after the LCT’s arrival in Portsmouth harbour he thought with pride of those [1st World War] pictures [of his father’s] on the battle-cruiser HMS Repulse, the young padré with his fellow-officers in cheerful group photographs, posed in front of the long twin barrels of the great guns. The recollection prompted him to an act of some temerity one day, shortly before the invasion of France. The CO had been summoned ashore, leaving his ‘Number One’ in charge, with orders to sail across the harbour and re-fuel. The harbour was crammed with naval shipping and it was customary for small craft like the LCTs to move about as inconspicuously as possible, ignoring the traditional saluting of more ‘senior’ ships. To his surprised delight Graham found it necessary to sail past the biggest ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard, which had just arrived and was about to take up its moorings. The landing-craft, looking like a toy in spite of its 170-foot length beside the great steel wall of the battleship, would take several minutes to pass her, so Graham ordered the coxswain to get as many men on deck as possible and prepare to take the salute.
“We’ll pipe them.” The rating laughed. “ “They will never hear us, sir. Look at her!” “Well, it’s worth a try. How many men can you spare?” “Four at most, sir.”“Get them lined up there on the port side.” The man hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders, as much as to say ‘Better humour the kid.’ “Ay ay sir.” “And tell them to look smart - with caps!” The last two words were a timely reminder, such refinements often being ignored during the hum-drum harbour routine.
The puny sound of the bo’sun’s pipe bounced against the vast hull as four not very clean Ordinary Seamen ran along the side of the tank deck and stood to attention near the bow, while the signalman dipped the ensign and Graham stood on the bridge gazing almost vertically upwards, his hand at the salute. Would they take any notice? They had almost given up hope and the four men were preparing to shamble off, when, to Graham’s surprise and gratification the PA system on the great ship burst into life. Men could be seen running to take up position along the starboard side on the main deck; a line of twenty or more stood smartly to attention, a Chief Petty Officer in charge. And there, high above, on the battleship’s bridge, a Royal Navy commander with three straight stripes on his sleeve acknowledged a midshipman’s salute, bringing his own arm rigidly to his gold-encrusted cap as the ship’s flag dipped. The event greatly enhanced Graham’s standing with the crew, as well as filling him with unjustified pride.
The re-fuelling was their last before D-day, in preparation for which the CO had been called ashore. He was given the TOP SECRET final briefing papers. It was D-day minus one and the flotilla of twelve tank landing-craft would follow with their cargoes of Churchill tanks straight after the faster assault craft with their loads of combat Marines. As Graham and Lieutenant Shaw were poring over the plans there was a knock on the ward-room door. It opened to reveal the engineer, looking worried.
“What is it? Can’t you see we are busy?”
“Sorry, sir. It’s the steering gear, sir. It’s not responding proper, the rudder’s jammed I think.”
“What do you mean, man?” He turned to Graham. “Did you have any trouble?” Graham thought for a moment.
“The coxswain did say the wheel felt heavy. But, no, she came alongside all right at the fuelling jetty.”
Shaw turned to the engineer. “Have you tried everything? The flotilla has to be under way by 5 a.m. and we have to load up before that.”
Sorry, sir. Can you come down?” The CO stood up, pushing the documents and charts together on the table.
“Keep an eye on these, Number One.” He followed the engineer below into the hot, diesel-smelling engine-room with its two massive Perkins engines, while Graham struggled to assimilate the invasion details, the disposition of the flotilla, the lay-out of the broad mine-swept channels radiating like spokes of a wheel from a big circle of clear water called Z-area to the east of the Isle of Wight, their particular channel marked by coded buoys right across to the beach at Arromanches where they were to land their cargo of tanks. He faced the prospect of the day’s action with a mixture of fear and excitement. Would they come under fire? Or be bombed? Would they see their two Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, their sole armament, in action at last, after the weeks of practice aiming with tracer bullets at drage targets trailed by aircraft? Might they even bring down an enemy plane? Would the unwieldy, massive tank door lower smoothly with its twin hand-powered winches when they beached at Arromanches? What sort of a scene would meet their gaze once it was down?
“It’s no go. Pack all this stuff up.” The CO spoke brusquely as he shouldered his way back into the room.
“What do you mean, sir? What’s wrong?” Graham’s head was still buzzing with details.
Shaw flung himself down and reached for the gin bottle. Shaking a few drops of Angostura bitters into a glass, he poured himself a stiff ‘pink gin’ and gulped it back.
“The bloody steering has packed up, that’s all. We’ll have to beach to put it right. That means we stay here. Thank god we found out before we loaded up. I shall need to return all this bumf.”
There was gloom throughout the little ship the following morning, a cloudy, chill one, as they watched the harbour empty. Looking round at the deserted, oil-streaked waters, Graham found himself repeating lines learnt in his matriculation English course at the tech.: ‘Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath, nor motion, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’ The craft had to be towed to a beach where, once the tide had gone down leaving them high and dry, the rudder gear could be repaired.
It was six days after D-day before they finally set out across the Channel to re-join their flotilla, an aim that, in the event, they were unable to fulfil, having missed the final briefing. Instead they found themselves used for odd jobs in connection with the invasion, carrying miscellaneous loads to and fro, spare parts for aircraft, loading up with damaged bits and pieces to return to England. This was done in the “Mulberry Harbour”, an artificial bay miraculously conjured into existence on a bare line of coast with great concrete caissons, each of which had been hauled across the Channel at a painful 2 knots maximum speed by tugs from ports up and down the English coast.
On one occasion the LCT was loaded, in Southampton, with American army trucks bound for Le Havre, which had become the US base for the invasion. The four young US Army officers with them were naively amused at what seemed to them the primitive equipment of the English landing-craft.
“Gee! You mean you take four out of a crew of ten just to raise and lower that ramp?”
Graham felt he had to apologise for his ship’s inadequacies. He explained that they sometimes rigged a steel hawser right down the side of the tank-deck to make use of the kedge anchor capstan at the stern for the purpose.
“The trouble is that the bulkhead door, the ramp as you call it, is really too heavy for the cable, and if the cable snaps it’s a bit dangerous. It could cut a man in half.” He didn’t mention the other problem, which was that this was a forbidden practice both for that reason and because the strain on the capstan’s electric motor led to frequent malfunction and burning out the coils. This left them with only man-power for the kedge anchor, their only means of hauling the craft off the beach and back into deeper water.
Before setting out on this cross-channel run the CO was ordered to take extra stores from the lighter that serviced the US forces. The Britishers were astonished at the quantities and the quality of food thought necessary for some twenty service-men for 24 hours, roughly the equivalent of their own supplies for three months. The LCT crew were able to supplement their rations with American exotica for weeks afterwards, and Graham surprised his mother on his next home leave by presenting her with three 2-lb. packets of butter - equivalent to almost a year’s ration for one person. While the LCT made its deliberate 5-knot way across to Le Havre with this unusual cargo, the US army captain in charge asked if they could take a photo of the British officers and men “to show the folks back home.” The day was warm and sunny, the sea, for once, calm and the buoyed mineswept channel empty of shipping, so Lieutenant Shaw agreed. For fifteen minutes, while he, Graham and all ten ratings posed for the photograph, a ship of the British Royal Navy at sea was entirely manned, from engine-room to bridge, by the American army. The parting from the Yanks was marked by great cordiality and the exchange of addresses.
Soon after completing another crossing LCT 504 received a signal to ‘proceed to X beach and await further orders.’ They dropped anchor as the evening drew in, the weather on the French coast cooler, with a fine drizzle. At 2100 the signal came. The wireless operator brought it to the ward-room, where Graham and his CO were engaged in a desultory game of poker, the whisky bottle between them.
“Good God, look at this!” Shaw handed the chit across. They were to beach immediately and to take on board ‘approx.280 German officers and men, prisoners of war,’ and carry them to England for internment. Graham was excited at the prospect, his first real contact with ‘the enemy’. What would they be like, these foreign soldiers? He thought of Franz Goldschmidt, his guttural accent. Would they be hostile, perhaps dangerous?
“How can we handle numbers like these, if they get stroppy, sir?”
Shaw laughed. “Good question, lad. What have we got in the way of small arms? Let’s think.” They concluded that the only weapons on board apart from the two Oerlikon guns, which could not be trained on anything lower than 50 feet, were a service revolver and the rifle and bayonet used for mounting a guard when they berthed. They had them both loaded and stowed on the bridge as they approached the beach. The kedge anchor dropped noisily and the craft nosed forward, guided by distant torches on the beach. It was darker now, with a persistent cold rain. Soon Graham felt the familiar bumping and scraping of the hull as they touched ground. The tank door dropped into a foot or two of water. The tide was rising, so the soldiers in charge of the prisoners hustled them roughly onto the open landing-craft. The CO had sent Graham to supervise the boarding. The procession of tired, dirty German soldiers seemed endless, some with rough bandages, one or two hardly able to walk. There was no talk, just the splash of their passage through the water and onto the tank deck and the occasional clink of a metal-tipped boot. At last all were on board. The two winches slowly raised the heavy bow door as the kedge anchor pulled the craft clear. As Graham made his way through the mass of exhausted, shivering men a German officer plucked at his sleeve.
“Sir! I wish to speak with your Kapitan.” He spoke rapidly; the only other words Graham recognised were “Geneva Convention” He told the officer to accompany him. He was a swarthy, thick-set man, with the high-peaked German officer’s cap and a long cape. Lieutenant Shaw had a smattering of German, so the enemy officer was able to communicate. His message was to the effect that the terms of the Geneva Convention stated that commissioned officers were entitled to separate accommodation from other ranks. It had not apparently crossed his mind that there might be men in those ‘other ranks’ in greater need. Shaw shrugged. He was dog tired, resentful and out of temper.
“Put them in the tank-crew shelter then. That’ll have to satisfy their bloody Geneva Convention rules. And Number One, see that the rest are as comfortable as you can make them. We’ll anchor off Mulberry until daylight. I’m not sailing in this.” The rain had eased, but it was a black, starless night with a heavy swell. On returning to the tank deck Graham was shocked at the condition of the prisoners. All seemed exhausted, many just lying on the steel deck. There was scarcely room for them all. Some were obviously ill. Three could not stand. All had several days’ growth of beard except one or two who looked younger than Graham, pale-faced, scared-looking. He was aware of a persistent stench of unwashed humanity. Two chemical closets, just seated buckets with a screen round them, had to serve for all. Many pissed inaccurately over the side, adding to the smell. As he looked over the arrangements he caught the words ‘essen’ and ‘hunger’.
“What can we give them, Cox? They look starving, some of them.”“There’s the boxes of iron rations, sir. We could bring up some of them. But there’s not much in them, all tinned stuff, baked beans, Tickler, that sort of thing. Some of it’s for cooking, but we can’t cook for this many.”
“We must do what we can for the poor sods. Look at them. Get the cook to brew up some cocoa in the galley, and get out that emergency stuff.”
“Ay ay, sir.”
Graham looked in on the officers. There were six of them in the narrow tank crew-space, who had made themselves noticeably more comfortable than the ‘other ranks’ outside. They eyed this youth with barely concealed contempt. Their spokesman, the one who had asserted their rights, made further demands: hot water, blankets and bedding, provisions. Graham promised to do his best and left them. As he wearily mounted the steel steps from the tank deck he reflected, ‘All those men, yet no human contact with any of them.’ He had exchanged an occasional glance and even tried a smile once or twice, to no avail. No doubt he was assumed to be ‘officer class’.There seemed a great gulf between the officers and their men. No indication that the six under shelter were even aware of, never mind concerned for the plight of those hundreds crammed in the open tank space. He smiled to himself as he thought of the CO’s precautions against possible violence. No chance of that from such a demoralised lot.
At midnight came another signal. Their orders were countermanded. They were instructed to land the prisoners again, where there would be army trucks to transport them. Cursing, the CO ordered the cox to weigh anchor and get the ship under way. Once again they followed the faint shore signals and ran the craft aground.
“Tank door down!” Graham’s job was to supervise the disembarkation. This time the heavy door sloshed down into black water. There were shouts and dim lights from on shore, but the tide flowed strongly across the bows. The prisoners nearest were urged to move. They saw the water and refused to budge. Were they being dumped in the sea to drown? Graham reported to the CO.
“What can we do, sir? They won’t leave. I think some think they are being left to drown at sea, it is so dark out there.” He felt helpless and inadequate.
Shaw said, “We’ve got to get rid of them. You will have to show them they can get ashore.”
“How? They can’t understand what I’m saying.”
“Say ‘Alle aus!’ That means ‘everybody out’. They should get the message. And show them it’s not too deep. Get a wiggle on, Number One, the sea’s rising. We can’t stay here much longer.”
Graham reluctantly made his way to the open bow door. The water swirled by uninvitingly. Bracing himself, he waded in, feeling with his feet for the firm ground beyond the steel of the door.
“Alle aus! Alle aus!” His voice sounded thin and ineffectual even to himself. He waved his torch, the cold water up to his knees. Urged by two or three of the crew, the prisoners began to stumble past him to the shore. He had had to provide stretchers for two of the wounded; they stayed on board. About half the great mob of tired, hungry, dirty men had made it to the shore when the CO ordered the tank door to be raised. It was no longer safe to stay there with the weather worsening. Meanwhile the German officers had remained in their shelter, ignoring Graham’s request for help with the disembarkation of the others.
“What a bloody shambles!” It was 0200 and they were riding at anchor again. Shaw and Graham were on the bridge, sipping cocoa. “You had better get some kip, Sanderson, while you can.”
In the morning they landed the remaining prisoners in the Mulberry harbour, a relatively painless task after the chaotic scene those few hours earlier. So this was war, muddle, incompetence, stupidity! This event, while it did not alter Graham’s conviction that he had done the right thing by volunteering, put the seal on any vestigial notions he might have had about the romance of serving in His Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Once, when he was on watch on the bridge in mid-Channel, the scared face of one of the German prisoners he had forced ashore came unbidden into his mind, a youth who could have been his own age. He too must have had a mother waiting anxiously at home for news. With a shock Graham realised that he had been party to the inhuman forced anonymity of that mob of prisoners. No list of names or even of service numbers. ‘They were herded like cattle and I accepted it.’ All his life he had been accounted for; answering to his name as the teacher called it out, seeing it on countless lists and official papers, in the Tech., on his ration book . . . He thought how, in spite of his pride in the title, he often resented even the relative anonymity of being called Number One. Those dirty, unshaven, exhausted men were not even numbers. No wonder they thought they were being dumped at sea like so much refuse.
The above passages are from: "Dangers I had passed", a novel by Stephen Tunnicliffe. In these accounts he adopts the name of Graham Sanderson.
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