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The Exploits and Service of Rescue Motor Launch Number 550

Written by: Stanley Sheppard M.B.E., V.R.D.

I have enjoyed reading of the exploits of such as Gould Bradford — his was a name much to be admired in World War II. His crew too. Such men were brave clear thinking and forceful and as long as their contemporaries are around will not be forgotten. Those of us lucky enough to have survived must consider ourselves fortunate indeed. Whilst admiring the exploits of these men in shorts I should like to enter a plea for those of us who as Milton said “only stood and waited”. MLs in general and perhaps RMLs in particular come mainly into this category. I was C.O. of RML 550 a ‘lucky’ boat in that we were working solo quite often and got such kudos as were allied to the job in hand. As you know we were used on Deep Air Sea Rescue and as such were positioned in the North Sea to cover strikes by R.A.F and U.S.A.A.F.

In September 1944, 550 was ordered to steer from waiting position eastwards some 45 miles to a ‘ditching’ by a Mustang pilot who had been wounded whilst strafing the Walcherens in a softening up strike.

Whilst making our way there to search a Walrus passed overhead obviously, to me, to make a quicker pick-up. No visual or VHF contact could be made with the Walrus Amphibian. So we pressed on into a roughish sea. As we got closer we took turns to shin up the mast with binoculars to search ahead and alter course as soon as a sighting was made (if any). Eventually a lump was seen on the horizon which I decided was the Walrus or some such. Open throttles and all paddles out! Dinghy got ready etc.

Getting closer we could see something yellow to the south and the Walrus ahead. Eventually I was able to discern the yellow thing was an airman and presumed he would be O.K. for a while — the Walrus was floundering and had a broken wing. However we were near enough to the airman to see the man was ‘out’ and therefore there was some urgency in the sea running to get him aboard or at least well above the broken tops of waves.

So soppy Jack (me) handed over command to No.1 and went over the side to swim to the airman. I must add it was my custom anyway to swim in the North Sea when lying cut on station (don’t tell a soul!) so I was somewhat prepared for such personal action.

Meanwhile No.1 had put the rubber dinghy over and collected the R.A.F. pilot and navigator neither of whom could swim (as they were loudly proclaiming). Also the Walrus looked a shambles and was obviously doomed for a watery grave.

I got the airman and made my way very slowly perforce, back to the boat which itself was coming to astern — as I had instructed No l. to do, BUT WITH CAUTION and certainly not too close up. There was some pertinent shouting from me on this point interspersed with some appropriate Naval language. Eventually I was alongside the net and with help got the American up and on to. Gasp! gasp! He was really out cold having been inadvertantly hit on the head by the manoeuvring but disabled Walrus.

He soon recovered after judicious applications of pussers rum and my S.B.A’s attentions. Much was made of the episode by the American ASR headquarters and subsequently a S.O.D. was issued by Jack Tovey C-in-C Nore.

However some four days later there was an almost exact repeat of the incident except that the Walrus was in good nick but just could not get off in 8-10 ft waves. Again 550 was the boat concerned. Having got the crew and pilot off. The Coxswain (‘shiner’ Wright L/Seaman RNVR pre-war) and myself battened down the aircraft and made a towing bridle. I was not going to leave this tidy piece of gash loafing and decided I would try to get it back to Felixstowe where flying boats etc., were gist to the mill. By adjusting speed over the ground so as to put and keep the Walrus on the 4th wave astern thus riding nose up as much as possible we eventually arrived at Cork L.V. off Felixstowe to much cheering — most acceptable. The RAF had pinnaces waiting off the herds and, having brought the Walrus up against wind and tides I handed her over. The RAF only just got her ashore in time. She was pretty full.

All this of course was logged and reported but such reports went through many hands before reaching ASR headquarters at Saffron Walden. Such reports did however go through Commander Beehive who in any case had not much interest in such goings on by RMLs. I tell you this because it has come to my notice that the events have been incorporated into other memoirs. But I have the proof and memories. To your knowledge has the trick been done more than once in the North Sea? Not to my knowledge.

After this we were on 120 degrees South for Arnhem and were again able to make a successful pick-up.

In October I was asked to go out in appalling ENE storm to try to get some Germans from a Heinkel Buzz bomber. That’s a long hard story but we were successful and even had a special visit from Admiral Burgess Watson (Harwich) and an American General to inspect the crew and boat. He, the Admiral, actually waited up for us to arrive back and had laid on refreshments etc.. The crew were extremely good and proved to be excellent seamen in 40ft waves.

Such a long time ago but memories! memories!

Keep well.

CFVA News: Edition: March 1992 Volume: 69 Page: 13