Royal Navy up to 26 Years of Age

leading seaman ken forrester 1945
Leading Seaman Ken Forrester of Coastal Forces pictured in 1945

So along came the date 13th August 1941. I was then, just turned twenty years old. At 9.30 p.m. on the previous evening I bade my parents farewell and armed with a travel warrant — the last bus had long since gone — I got a lift with the local bread man, a Mr Ireland who worked for Eaglesfield’s the Bakers, and travelled the four miles to Lancaster. I caught the London-bound train that left Castle Station at four minutes past ten that night. The passengers on the train were a mixture of young lads being called up like myself and people already in uniform. All went well until we got to Rugby when we came to a halt in open country. An air raid was taking place somewhere in the Midlands and also in London. We eventually arrived at Euston Station around 5.30 the following morning. My destination being in the Portsmouth area, I had to travel on the underground system to Waterloo Station for the next leg of the journey.

Being a country lad, this was an experience of some significance. I was totally unprepared for the shock that was coming to me when I went down the stairs into the subway. I could not believe my eyes. There were thousands of men, women, children and babies all laid there on the platform covered in blankets. The whole platform was covered with them. I had to step over them to get on the train. This was where they spent the nights away from the air raids. Later things got organised, and they slept in tiered bunk beds that were up against the wall, leaving the platform clear.

I eventually arrived at Waterloo Station and was now on the Southern Railway system, where engines and coaches were painted green, and on my way south to Fareham. By this time it was around 1.00 p.m. A petty officer was waiting to herd a group of us, who had by this time got to know each other because of our age and attaché cases, onto the back of a wagon and we made our way through the countryside to arrive at our destination, HMS Collingwood, a large naval training base which had sprung up and rapidly expanded as the war was taking hold. Corned beef, mashed potatoes, cake and a cup of tea was my first meal in the Navy.

The meal complete we were called by name into groups or classes as they were to be known. My new address was to be known as Ordinary Seaman R K Forrester, Foretop, 13E HMS Collingwood, Fareham, Hants. The Foretop was the division or area of the camp, the 13 was the hut we lived in (30 of us) the 'E' was the intake number, in other words we were the fifth group to be trained there. Being somewhat superstitious, things weren’t working out too well, called up on the 13th and being placed in class 13. The brain was working overtime. (Luckily it was all an old wives tale).

The same afternoon we were taken by a Petty Officer who was in charge of our class (Foretop 13E). He was a sailor who had retired and been called upon to serve again; he was around sixty years old and had fought in the Battle of Jutland. P.O. Hobson was his name. He wore khaki gaiters, as we all had to in training to keep our bell bottoms from flopping about. First he took the new class to a building where behind a counter were a number of WRENS who fitted each of us out with the traditional sailor’s hat and a name stamp, a metal hat box, a cap tally HMS, and a brass label with your name stamped on it for securing to the top of the hat box — and so we went from building to building until we had woollen vests, woollen underpants that came to knee level, two sets of trousers, jumpers, sailor collars, black silks, white lanyard, belt, socks, boots and khaki gaiters, a kit bag, hammock, blanket and an identity disc which had to be worn around the neck at all times, together with a seamanship manual and BIBLE and finally a Great Coat.

Then to tea and the rest of the evening was spent trying to get used to this unfamiliar dress especially with trousers without braces that were held up by fastening three buttons that joined the two five inch flaps that went round your stomach to be finally completed with the flap that formed the front of your trousers. This had to be buttoned at each side and unbuttoned and the flap lowered for same use as the normal ‘flies’ on conventional trousers. I mentioned the name stamp: all of our gear had to be marked with either black or white paint depending on the colour of the clothing. From then on it was lights out and bed at 10 p.m. Wakened at 6.00 a.m. with the bugle playing over the tannoy ‘Wakey, Wakey lash up and stow’.

I arrived at the camp midweek. I can’t just recall the exact day — what I can remember is our first half day out of camp was the first Sunday afternoon when a few of us decided to explore Gosport and that is where my first ever pint of bitter was tasted, at the pub on the pier head near the ferry across to Portsmouth. I was then twenty years old. It was to be my let down and saviour, to be revealed later. The weather was beautiful and it remained good all through the ten-weeks training. The first day was on the parade ground in your various classes marching, turning left and right with about turns and wheeling left and right, and so it went on. After about two weeks I was made class leader and became responsible for class timekeeping, cleanliness and smartness. I felt proud marching in front of my class in competition with scores of other classes. The Royal Marines band playing, the camp commander on his dais, and me barking out the order — "Foretop 13E eyes right", a smart salute followed by “Eyes front". At the completion of the parade we learned who had been the smartest class. And we did not let the side down.

Through the next seven weeks we did route marches, workouts in the gymnasium, self defence, rope work, knots and splices, the rule of the road when sailing, such things as "A close hauled ship you’ll never see, give way to one that’s running free", "Green to green, red to red, perfect safety go ahead”, "If upon your port is seen a steamer’s starboard light of green, there’s not so much for you to do as green to port keeps clear of you", and so the verses of safety went on. We were also taken down to Portsmouth harbour for rowing instruction on 28-foot whalers with one man to each oar, followed by 32-foot cutters which needed two men to each oar. When you had done a few hours at that your poor arms didn’t know what had hit them. We were taught naval terms such as fore and aft, and stem and stern (front and back), sheets were ropes and dozens of other terms that we were to use in our daily work. Also taught was the build up of a ship starting at the keel-hog-keelson and thereon up to the gunwales. There had to be guard duties with bayonets fixed to a pole (at that time Dunkirk was less than a year earlier whereby the Armed Forces had lost all their equipment and the country was making do with whatever was available). Another duty we had to perform was fire-watching during the air raids that were continually happening. Our duties consisted of being taken on a truck to Portsmouth harbour (Clarence yard) before nightfall, and we had to climb up iron ladders fixed to the walls and up onto the flat roofs of the buildings and try and put out incendiary bombs with the aid of sand bags, buckets of water and stirrup pumps. It was all really a nightmare.

All in all the establishment known as HMS Collingwood was a culture shock, thousands of trainees milling about everywhere. Whilst there was plenty of washing facilities it was like bees round a honey pot, including the toilets which were in blocks of around twenty. Ten on one side, ten on the other side of a gangway, each one facing each other and no doors, privacy was not on the agenda. I remember one evening I was going to wash some socks and I could not understand why everything was so quiet, I had all the washbasins to myself and loads of hot water, it could not have been better — when suddenly a face appeared at the window, it was a Petty Officer demanding to know what I was playing at (there was a mock air raid exercise and everyone was in the shelters). Somehow I had failed to hear it broadcast over the tannoy. I was immediately put on a charge and had my night leave stopped, and for the next fortnight instead of going out of the camp at evenings I was sweeping up and gardening outside the officers’ quarters!

At the end of seven weeks we were moved onto Gunnery Division where our training was done on four-inch guns. Once again it was antiquated equipment. The guns used were from a period circa 1890s, but the rudiments remained the same: range — deflection — opening and closing of the breech — and the gun crew working as layer or trainer or loader with the Captain of the gun shouting his order, something like "Still — Misfire — Carry on". At the end of another three weeks (ten weeks in all), we really thought we were sailors, but believe me there were real shocks awaiting us, as we found when we joined up with the time serving seamen who were to be our comrades. It was at this point that I had to part company with all my class mates. They all went to the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth known as HMS Victory from there they joined the cruiser HMS Belfast. Incidentally HMS Belfast played an important role in the Mediterranean, in the Far East, and on the Russian convoys. She was the flag ship of Vice Admiral Burnetts, 10th Cruiser Squadron, when they finally sunk the Scharnhorst when she attacked one of our convoys in the Barents Sea on Boxing Day 1943, taking almost 2000 of her company with her. Probably ten degrees below zero on the open deck. In mid winter the sun does not rise over the horizon in those northern latitudes. HMS Belfast is the only warship of that era left. She is to be found on the Thames in London, as a museum.

By a quirk of chance, the fact that I had had some training as an Aircraft Spotter in civilian life had been picked up by the Navy people. I was therefore sent to the Naval Gunnery School known as HMS Excellent at Whale Island, Portsmouth. Known the world over for its strictness, everything there is done at the ‘double’ (running). No marching — the parades are carried out at the double as is every other duty, as soon as you enter the gates. I think I was there a month qualifying as an ‘AA3’ (Anti aircraft gunner 3rd class), shown as a single gun on my right arm. The only other thing that I can remember from my days there was the night sentry duties, always having to be awake and alert even though you were physically tired from the demanding routine.

From there I got a ‘draft chit’ (posting) to HMS St Christopher which was the Highland Hotel in Fort William, Scotland. It had been taken over by the Admiralty and was used as a training base for Coastal Forces. We went down the pier head every morning to be trained aboard Motor Launches (MLs) or Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) and Motor Gun Boats (MGBs). We trained on Loch Linnhe, Loch Eil and Loch Leven. I have one recollection when the ML I was on moored at a landing stage where there was a small shop or store (it would be late December 1941) and they were still selling bars of chocolate. The place was so isolated they still had sweets in stock. Everywhere else they had gone and been on ration for months. It was very interesting learning the ins and outs of the way the boats were to be used. We learned about the type of guns they were fitted out with, the different engines, some diesel, some petrol and some 100 octane aircraft fuel. General seamanship and Morse code, flag signalling, survival etc and not forgetting being sea sick for the first time going through the Narrows.

Back at the base, the Highland Hotel, things weren’t going too well. An epidemic of diphtheria had broken out and all leave and drafts stopped. We were confined to barracks, apart from being marched up Glen Nevis each day (and always raining), and also having cotton wool swabs placed down one’s throat on a regular basis. This went on until mid January 1942 when a group of us were drafted to Manor Naval Barracks, Brightlingsea, Essex, where we remained a few days before being moved onto my first boat, which was a Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML)

This was brand new and being fitted out at the yard of Herbert Brookes of Potter Heigham on the Norfolk Broads. The place I remember little about, only the builder’s yard, a nice looking bridge and a hotel. The boat was known as HDML 1060, and my duty was to be the seaman gunner in charge of an antiquated 2-pdr Hotchkiss single-shot gun from a previous war. Fortunately I was never put in a situation to have to use it in anger. I was also trained on the Lewis gun which we had for use on the bridge.

Once we had commissioned the boat and provisions on board, we sailed down the Broads to Lowestoft. By that time it was late January 1942. It was a cold winter with lots of snow around. I had just been to the naval base for a bath when the air raid sirens sounded on my way back to the boat. The wind was blowing and it was snowing, when out of the swirling snow came a German aircraft at zero height, machine gunning. I lay prostrate in the snow and just hoped for the best. Luckily I was unscathed. A couple of days later and still tied up alongside a sea wall, the sirens sounded again for some reason I can’t remember. I was one of a few that was on board at that time, but no officers. I had just armed myself with the Lewis gun and put the ammunition pan in place, when sure enough a German bomber, a Heinkel 111, came in view at a height that could just about be in range, so I fired the Lewis gun from the shoulder at the hostile plane, but alas nothing came down. Thus were my first shots of anger duly dispatched. I was not aware then of what was to follow in the next three years.

We were soon on our way, leaving Lowestoft for Great Yarmouth on our journey to our destination, which turned out to be Granton on the Firth of Forth, in close proximity to the Forth Bridge where our duties would be boom defence. We stayed at Great Yarmouth for a couple of days. It was here I had my first good fortune. Alongside us was moored a brand new ML, as was our boat. That ML was going down to Cornwall, our boat to Scotland. A seaman from the ML got in conversation with me. He was a Scotsman, and he asked me if I would change boats with him so that he could be near home. It seemed to make no difference to me, so I agreed to his suggestion, but my Captain would not let me go. No one knew that three months later that ML would be one of fifteen MLs, one MGB and one MTB and an ancient destroyer that were to take part in the raid of the French port of St Nazaire, which began on the 28th March 1942. The actual raid lasted about two hours. Sorry to say that of the eighteen ships that sailed down the River Loire, only seven came out. Of the sixty- two officers and two hundred and ninety-one ratings who went, only twenty-eight officers and one hundred and forty ratings returned. Of twenty-one personnel on MGB 314, two Victoria Crosses, three DSCs and four DSMs were awarded. I think you would agree my lucky star was shining that day at Great Yarmouth.

On route we encountered storms and heavy seas and being new to the sea I found it difficult to do any sort of duty because of sickness. I found that my stint on the wheel (steering the ship) gave me most comfort. Eventually we took shelter in Bridlington Bay in the Lee of Flamborough Head for twenty-four hours until conditions improved. The next leg took us to Blyth where once again we took shelter from the storm. In the middle of the night the air raid sirens sounded. By that time we were tied up alongside the quay. German bombers were soon to be heard droning high in the night sky, the wavering pitch of their engine noise immediately identifying them. The anti-aircraft guns were firing and searchlights pierced the darkness in thin long beams. Bombs were falling in the distance, when all of a sudden there came this loud crunch and a flash — a bomb had just missed us and exploded in the water. Luckily that was the only one that came our way. The next morning we were on our way again, but only as far as Berwick on Tweed, the last town in England. Quite why we called there I don’t know, but I have a recollection of a long stone bridge with many arches. Then finally to our destination, Granton, from where we sailed to our station off the Island of Inchkeith, to pick up radio signals and hydrophone watches.

To put it in a nutshell, it was a ‘cushy job’. When back at base there was shore leave, which in my case was spent in nearby Edinburgh, usually dancing at the Palaise. All this was short lived and my honeymoon period was drawing to a close. HDML 1060 was taken to dry-dock at Leith, where the crew were paid off and we were drafted down to HMS Attack at Portland in Dorset, around the end of May. l understand HDML 1060 had a copper bottom fitted and armaments updated and was shipped out to the Far East where she did not survive the war: another let off.

German E boats were becoming an increasing threat to our North Sea convoys. They were fast, low profile in the water and difficult to catch and target and had been a thorn in the side, especially around the time of Dunkirk. They had an added advantage of being metal construction and diesel fuelled, whereas our MTBs and MGBs were of wood construction, and although they used 100 octane fuel they were still no match in terms of speed (knots). Therefore, the Admiralty had no option but to design and make a big surge in a new type of boat to deal with them. They were being built at yards all around England, Scotland and Wales. They were fast, heavily armed and a low profile to be known as Fairmile D Boats, later known as Dog Boats.

The living conditions on an MTB or MGB are far from comfortable. Sometimes upward of thirty crew members living permanently — sleeping — cooking — washing — smoking — everyone of them was often wet through to the skin with nowhere to dry anything, only the hot engines if you were lucky. The boats were only 115 feet long. Also in that confined space there were four 2000-horse power Rolls Royce Packard engines, 5000 gallons of 100-octane petrol, 100 gallons of generator fuel, tons of ammunition (later four torpedoes, nine guns of large calibre and a rocket launcher, together with four depth charges). There was the total blackout which meant when in harbour a device, known as a ‘scuttle’, had to be fitted into the portholes for ventilation and stop light being shown. The deck heads where often dripping with condensation. On the earlier boats, like 606, all cooking had to be done on a large paraffin stove. MTB 632 was, I understand, the first boat to have an electric cooker which was the yardstick for all later boats. Time passed slowly, how did we survive? After being at sea, with salt water continually cascading over you in summer time, inside your ears and eye sockets was a coating of white salt where the sun had dried out the water.

Having said farewell to Scotland and now in HMS Attack at Portland, it seemed to be nothing else but lonely sentry duties awaiting a German invasion, when my name came up on the draft board. I was to have my kit ready and have my breakfast and ready to leave at 7.00 a.m. on the 18th June 1942 and would you believe it — it was my 21st birthday. Along with a group of other sailors, all strangers, we were loaded onto the back of a wagon and taken to the railway station at Weymouth. I had in my possession a ticket to Burnham on Crouch in Essex. First stop, London — across London to Liverpool Street Station and up the south east coast line to Ipswich. A change of train to take me through many little stations until I duly arrived at Burnham on Crouch, where a Petty Officer took me to a new boat that was being fitted out. It was in fact one of the first of those Fairmile Ds to be built, known as MGB 606 and I was to be the Port Twin .5 Turret Gunner.

However, no other crew had arrived and the boat was not complete. Therefore, an officer gave me a railway warrant to go home on leave for a week. So, once again, I retraced my journey back to Liverpool Street Station across to Euston Station and got on a train to Lancaster. By the time I eventually reached Lancaster it was past midnight and I had been travelling all day and still had to walk four miles in the blackout to my home at Conder Green, to knock my parents up unannounced around 1.30 a.m. in the morning. I reckon that was some 21st birthday, only having had cups of tea and NAAFI snacks in over eighteen hours, spent mostly travelling. At least it was one to remember, and I was happy to be home.

The leave over and back to Burnham on Crouch, by this time we had a complete crew and the engines started up and we were haring up and down the River Blackwater. This was a thrill in itself, 8000 horse power thrashing under you, but alas our honeymoon period was slowly drawing to a close. It was then out in the North Sea to Dover where we stayed overnight in range of the German heavy guns across the Channel. It was here on the 20th July 1942 that our sister ship MGB 601 had just completed her trials and, running up to Weymouth, had called into Dover harbour en route to her unknown destination. She was under the command of Lt Gotelee RNVR when she was called out to engage enemy craft in the early hours of the next morning. In this action she received heavy damage — and casualties. Regretfully she blew up in Dover’s Wellington dock on the 24th July 1942, a couple of days after the action, which resulted in further loss of life, both on her and other boats too.

The next day we passed the Channel’s white cliffs to arrive at Weymouth where we would be joined by other MGBs as they were completed. They arrived within days so soon we had a nucleus of a flotilla, the numbers being 603, 605, 606 and 610. For the next month or so the four boats carried out all the sea, gunnery trials and tactical manoeuvres, with 605 being the flotilla leader.

mgb crew members
Crew members of MGB 606, one of the earliest Fairmile D 'Dog Boats' to enter service. Ken can be seen kneeling on the front row third from left. Others in the photograph include, Michael Llyod Hirst, Les Poole, Jimmy Totten (Stoker), Joe Thompson (Chief Mechanic), Leading Seaman Rayould, Lieutenant Truman (C.O.) and P.O. Teague. MGB 606 (then an MTB) was later sunk in action off the Dutch coast in November 1943, with several crew members killed or wounded.

Quite often we would use Portland harbour. I clearly remember our boat getting a mooring rope entwined round one of the four screws (propellers) and to save the duty Officer’s face, a team of us donned swimming trunks and dived under the boat to free the offending rope. The water was very clear and our type of boat did not draw very much water and was pretty flat bottomed at the stern. It was a matter of diving under the boat and working quickly. Between us and after many attempts we managed to get it clear. So much for Portland landing stage.

If my memory serves me right we would finally leave Weymouth Bay where our workup took place, and the four boats sailed via Dover and Felixstowe to bring our war for real, operating from Great Yarmouth. The Dutch coast became our second home or so it seemed, with names like Brown Ridge, The Broad Fourteens, The Texel, Den Helder, Ijmuiden, Scheveningen, The Hook being our areas of visitation and blood letting. Soon after arriving at Great Yarmouth we were soon being deployed across the North Sea. The radar fitted to the early ‘D’ boats was helpful but had its limitations in as much as it was ‘fixed’ which meant the actual boat had to be facing the target, covering an area of probably 30° (out of the 360° available). I have known us to be chased back across because of ‘gremlins’ having to keep turning the boat around to see who was chasing us, which in fact might only have been a bunch of seagulls, such was the unreliability of the early sets. However, these were soon replaced with apparatus that could search 360° without turning the boat. The general run of the mill was the forays over the other side which we knew as ‘bangers’ which is self-explanatory. These often culminated in meeting a group of four enemy vessels who could most certainly liven you up with their fire power and determination. They were known to us as the Four Horsemen, presumably named after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (dictionary meaning ‘End of the World’).

I got off to a bad start on our first mission over the Dutch coast. We were spotted by a prowling Messerschmitt 109 when we were approximately half way over. He never attacked us although we opened fire on him, myself included, but he kept us (MGBs 606, 603, 605, the latter being the leader) under surveillance and plotted our course. As night fell we lost him, but you can guess that the enemy ships were waiting for us. Our captain was Lt Truman (of the brewing family) who I had not a lot of faith in. I soon learned that his voice quivered when under stress. It was not long before tracer shells and bullets began firing at us, and we were lit up as bright as day with star shells. It was my first time in action. I was trembling like a leaf but being a twin Oerlikon gunner (I had been up rated to Oerlikon by then), I had to do my duty and fire back. The shaking made no difference to my aim because the guns were hydraulically operated and not hand held. By this time shells were flying over us, some ricocheting off the water and flying overhead and some hitting us. It was at this time we got badly hit with a shell in the engine room, my gun lost power, the engines stopped and we were a sitting duck. In a broken voice the captain gave the order "Stand by to abandon ship". I thought to myself, unlucky 13, my first action and at the very best I’m going to finish up in the water and be taken P.O.W. However, I think it was 603 who came alongside in the mayhem that was going on around us and got us in tow. The other boat was dropping smoke floats and luckily the enemy fire was directed at the flames that were coming from these floats. We were gradually towed out of danger, and a little later the motor mechanic and his staff got one engine going and we limped back to our base at Great Yarmouth. It was unbelievable, but I can’t remember any casualties being sustained on that mission which would take place in October 1942.

We were soon repaired and ready to go back to sea, but this time with a new captain called Lt Dowling who did inspire confidence. We were soon joined by other ‘D’ class boats, but these later boats had two torpedo tubes added (they were 21") and were MTBs. Their numbers were 617, 621, 624, 628, 629, 630, 632, 650, 652, 671 and 682. All the boats made up the 55th flotilla, and operated out of Great Yarmouth. These were not the only boats operating out of this base. There was a flotilla of ‘C’ class MGBs, a couple of Rescue MLs, and scores of trawlers that had been converted to minesweepers which also carried a barrage balloon to prevent low flying aerial attack. All of these boats were tied up on what had been the fish wharves. The 55th flotilla was the offensive group which did most of its operation over on the Dutch coast. Weather permitting; we seemed to be over there two or three times per week. I will go into the notable events later.

It was about this time tension was growing, as we became more more involved. There had to be some comfort somewhere. I then entered my phase of drinking heavily. People at home and in my home area could not (or should I say did not) understand. I was branded a drunkard by people who were supposed to be friends. When you think of it coolly, there was just no escape — there were mines to sail over — attack by aircraft while at sea — always seemed to be in action — always getting battle damage — at action stations all night — the sight of ambulances waiting as you returned — then straight to the refuelling wharf and all power cut because of the fear of explosion. That completed we could then get our breakfast — not forgetting we were liable at any time to be bombed by planes while at Great Yarmouth or V2s with their double explosion as they broke through the sound barrier and the final landing. Next, it was clean and dry guns and ammunition, and finally fall asleep for a few hours — then it was the same all over again. There was no future as we next sailed down the river, lined up on deck with music playing over the tannoy system. You saw soldiers and airmen with girlfriends happily walking on the embankments. Together with the bomber crews we thought we were getting a rough deal. As we got to the harbour mouth it was fall out and into your station. Mine was the forward Pom-Pom gun (updated again), sat on my seat, put the gun phones on, and as we sailed up the channel we fired our guns with the target the mast of a sunken ship way out on Scroby Sands (the mast was still there when we finally left Yarmouth in March 1944). Morale was at breaking point. The skipper would send me ashore to the Commander’s office to collect the sailing orders, and I wished I could get knocked down and a leg or arm broken, anything to be saved from sailing into the unknown. Drink was our only comfort.

Amongst other sorties we escorted mine-laying operations in enemy waters. Another of our jobs was landing and picking up commando and raiding parties, which did not always go to plan. Some poor souls never made it back. It was on one of these missions that my boat MGB 606 was lost (by a quirk of good fortune I was no longer on that ship). The reason was the Second Cox’n came to blows with the Cox’n while ashore, which resulted in the Second Cox’n being put in the ‘Glass House’ prison — and I was elevated from Able Seaman to Leading Seaman which was something of a record, being a Leading Seaman and not having been in the Service eighteen months. There were seamen on the ship with six years service, which made it hard work to maintain the authority required. However, that would be around May 1943, and I remained on the ship until around early August, when a memo came from the powers that be and I had to go on a course at HMS Ganges, the shore base at Shotly near Harwich in Suffolk. The course lasted about three weeks, during which time I qualified as a professional Leading Seaman.

Whilst at HMS Ganges, we had numerous air raids and warnings and having to go down into the shelters where we passed the time singing. There happened to be a good representation of lads from Liverpool who were very vocal and sang such songs as ‘Maggie May’. In fact they sang quite a few that were some years later picked up and made famous by the ‘Beatles’. It is strange how things turn out at a later date.

Posted back to barracks at HMS Hornet at Gosport, I was there around one week when my name came up for posting back into the 55th flotilla at Great Yarmouth, but this time as Second Cox’n and forward gunner on MTB 632, on which boat all the real battles took place. Charles Ford, the skipper of 632, had been a rugby player, and he was also the captain of the Minor Counties cricket team. He was a big, fit man, and it was his aim to keep his crew fit also. On a regular basis he would have us all on the quayside putting us through our paces, often alter a nasty experience to clear our heads. I have no knowledge of any other crew doing it.

Having now returned to Great Yarmouth, it was back into the lion’s den to continue with the forays across the North Sea. My first trip on MTB 632 was to be with my old boat MGB 606. I can’t just recollect the third boat. However, 606 was the leader, 632 was second in line, and I can clearly remember that we were about half way over and closing up to ‘Action Stations’. Our boat was about twenty yards astern and in the wake of 606 when my friend Joe Thompson the PO Motor Mechanic of 606 waved his hand to me as he disappeared down the engine room hatch (which was at the rear of the boat), I waved back, not knowing I would never see him again. He and my other friend Jimmy Totten were both killed later that week together with a few more of my ex-colleagues and many wounded, when 606 was sunk on a secret service mission. The upshot was, if that fracas between Leading Seamen Raybould and Petty Officer Teague had not happened, I would not have been able to write this story. Someone was looking after me, and many ways it carried on as my yarn continues to unfold. These missions, known to us as ‘Bangers’, continued until April 1944. It was difficult to cope with all the stresses.

Even when in harbour one such catastrophe happened, on the 18th March 1943, when an enemy aircraft made a direct hit on the WREN’s quarters in Queen’s Road with forty dead or injured. It wasn’t a nice sight to see. On another occasion I have recollections of my seamanship being called into action. We had been holed with an enemy shell in the bows of the boat just on the water line which was allowing water to enter the mess deck when we moved forward. The answer was to rig a collision mat over the hole. A collision mat is a rope and canvas patch about 5 foot square with ropes attached at each corner. One of these ropes has to be passed right under the boat from the bow and the other three ropes manoeuvred to get the patch over the offending damage and all ropes then secured tightly, plus the hole has got to be stuffed from the inside with rolled hammocks. It is then possible for the boat to move forward without filling with water. Rigging a collision mat at practice is not easy — but under battle conditions and choppy seas is another ball game and still 120 miles from your home port. If that did not work we would have had to travel astern (backwards) all the way home. I have known that to happen on one of the boats here at Yarmouth.

I have memories of seeing the sky full of American Flying Fortresses, flying overhead in their 1000-bomber daylight raids on the German cities, an unbelievable sight, not forgetting the return journey with stragglers and the Rescue Motor Launches (RMLs) with the sick bay at the stern end. Our boat MTB 632 thankfully never had to pick up survivors from those raids, but many did. Likewise we would be laying off the Dutch coast with our engines cut and could hear the sky full of drones as our bombers, Lancasters and Whitleys etc., flew over on their nightly mass bombing raids. We would witness the anti-aircraft guns’ shells bursting in the sky in the distance. Back home on shore, when you were lucky enough to be going on leave, all the trains were pulled by steam engines, sometimes two coupled together, the carriages always full and standing in the corridors with Forces personnel. Army, Navy, RAF also WAAFs, WRENs, ATS, Land Army girls etc., all packed together like sardines. I’ve just thought, officers were absent, but they would be in first class.

Of course, there were lighter sides, serious at the time but amusing on reflection. Whilst still aboard 606 I had graduated from the port twin .5s (it was the port .5 gunners who seemed to be the ones to get killed: nearly all actions seemed to have the enemy on the left hand side and the .5 turret was exposed there) to the twin Oerlikons on the coach deck abaft the bridge. These guns fired 20mm shells at a very fast rate and were of the graze fuse type. This meant that after two and a half turns in the barrel rifling the shell would be activated to explode even on touching the fabric of the older type of aircraft. Each gun had 60 of these rounds in a spring-operated dispenser that fitted on each gun and they weighed quite heavy when loaded. However, on this particular day I was instructed to reload some of the pans from the ready use locker. The shells were stored in the magazines at the aft end of the boat. They were kept in what I would describe as a big cupboard that was accessed down a square hatch about 3 feet square, then down a vertical iron ladder which was approximately 7 or 8 foot in length. As I said these pans were heavy, so I had the bright idea of filling the pans up on the deck and transporting the ammunition up in a cardboard Heinz beans packing case about twenty at a time. This worked well for a time, until I got bolder and began packing more shells in to save time. If I can explain, the deck of a boat is not level but cambered to allow water to run away and the shells are approximately 9 inches long and 1¼ inches in diameter. On my last load up I had just got I onto the upper deck when the bottom of the box opened up and all the shells fell onto the deck and began rolling to the sides of the boat making sissing noises. I jumped behind a locker and waited for the explosion which, thank goodness never came. The noise that I heard was rice-like powder that was the charge that powered the shell forward, and as they rolled this was the noise I heard.

My next incident also was with the Oerlikon gun. The hierarchy had decided that 606 should have another gun added to her armament and this would be a 6-pounder single shot hand-operated gun with a large armour plate gun shield to protect the gun crew. This gun would be at the aft end of the ship and about 15 feet from my Oerlikon guns that were in a more elevated position. Therefore my gun would have to have some safety device fitted to stop me hitting the crew of the new gun. This device was fitted which would automatically cut out my gun from hitting the new weapon. Eventually both new gun and safety device were fitted. The gunnery officer came aboard to do the tests at sea. He ordered me to load my twin guns with live ammunition (not practice ammunition as one would have thought). He then cleared everybody away to a safe distance and ordered me to my turret and elevate my guns to an angle of thirty degrees My next order was to open fire and keep the trigger pressed while depressing the gun over the newly added gun and the mechanism would cut out and stop me hitting it. This did not happen. The next thing I saw was a number of blinding flashes and around ten high explosive shells hit the new gun shield spinning the gun around before I could stop firing. I had completely wrecked all the new equipment. There was a lot of deliberations and red faces. I just can’t remember the details, but I do know that a new gun and shield had to be fitted and I was lucky not to have been injured.

The third mishap was whilst I was aboard 632 and a little later on. By this time I had been updated to Second Cox’n and I was to be the Forward Pom-Pom Gunner, a gun I soon got used to and could handle quite well. It was frosty and midwinter which meant the guns had to be manually worked in recoil (the same action as being fired) twice daily to stop them freezing up whilst in harbour. Having been out at sea the day before, I instructed my number two to dry the gun and disconnect the ammunition from the breech. I worked the gun in recoil by manually cranking it back and released the firing mechanism spring to take the tension off it. That was very early morning. To release the spring a lanyard had to be pulled. Come 4 o’clock in the afternoon I repeated the process finally pulling the lanyard. ‘Bang—Bang’: two high explosive tracer shells went arching out seawards just missing the barrage balloons that were tethered to the many minesweeping trawlers that were working in the Sound. Heads popped up through hatches wondering what was happening. My number two had forgotten to disconnect the ammunition as instructed. With no damage being done, a good dressing down was the end of the matter.

A fourth serious funny was when I was called upon to try and remove a high explosive shell that had become lodged half way up an Oerlikon gum barrel. As I said before, two a half turns up the barrel activated the graze fuse. The charge had been wet which caused the problem. So, gingerly, I disconnected the offending barrel from the gum. A half turn anti—clockwise and a good pull were needed for this. It also being quite heavy, two of us were needed. Having got this barrel now laid on the deck, the serious part was just about to begin. An Oerlikon shell without the charge is about 4 inches long and as thick as a good male thumb, tapering to a blunt point at the front end. The difficulty we now had was a gun barrel open at either end and the offending shell wedged firmly in the middle and we had not to touch the nose of the shell. We had a device that could push from the rear, but this did not work. Next was an egg-cup-shaped contraption that would fix to a pushing device which was gingerly worked over the nose fuse and gentle pressure exerted, but no result. Our next move was the serious part, we fixed a thin rope at the head of the pushing device and both stood in the middle of the barrel and heaved together, which luckily released the shell which was quickly despatched overboard. Today I still shudder to think what would have happened if we had detonated that fuse.

Life continued at Great Yarmouth, with constant actions, sleep and heavy drinking, which turned your brain into a cuckoo world and would bring brief respite. What was saddening, when a crew member of another boat in the flotilla was sick or injured they called on another rating to take his place. So I had two of these ‘bangers’ to do on other boats, namely 603 and 605. It was most unsettling. Other duties we did were laying mines in enemy waters and landing commandos and secret agents in Holland.

It was early spring of 1944 when the flotilla was ordered to a new venue, the submarine base HMS Dolphin at Gosport. It must have been important when we took over such a significant centre of operations, and we were soon to learn why. Down here we were now under the command of Peter Scott, the naturalist and son of the famous explorer. Other skippers in our flotilla who were from better known backgrounds were Lt Lightoller, C.O. of 603, who was the son of the Lightoller of Titanic fame; and Lt Strang (biscuits) who was a rugged Scot, C.O. of 652 and a member of the Strang biscuit family. The Senior Officer of the flotilla was Lt Cdr D. G. Bradford who had already written his name in Narrow Seas history.

55th mtb flotilla at gosport
(IWM A23969) Boats of 55th MTB Flotilla pictured at Gosport in 1944 during the lead up to D-Day. The boats pictured are MTB 628 in the foreground, MTB 630 in the middle, and MTB 632 at far right. The boats display the distinctive sharks teeth worn by the 55th, and Ken Forrester who painted the bow of 632 is the figure seen standing on deck in front of the forward gun in the background at right of picture

From my point of view, we were mustered to survey that part of the French coast where the imminent invasion would eventually take place. Weather permitting, usually in groups of three boats, we would patrol close to the enemy occupied coast from Le Havre to Cherbourg and around the Channel Islands. I think I would be correct in saying every time we ventured in these waters we were spotted and engaged by surface craft or the Coastal Shore batteries, and they could liven you up with near misses often at many miles range. Evasive action had to be taken as these big crunches and plumes of water repeatedly kept coming in your direction, and that would be in darkness in the middle of the night.

It was on one of these missions that three of the ships had been detailed, the numbers being 617, C.O. Lt Cdr D G Bradford, our own boat 632, C.O. Lt ‘Charlie’ Ford (I could not have asked for a better or more capable skipper), and the T.A.C. — ‘Tag Arse Charlie’, the junior officer of the group, he being Lt Larry Toogood. He had the most modern and newest of the boats, 671. He had a bit of a reputation for being impulsive and had been known to knock a few holes in his boat. Amongst the crews he earned such names as ‘Leaky Larry’ or ‘Tingle Toogood’. This group of MTBs sailed out of Gosport around 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the 24th April 1944. The weather was good and I remember sailing past the Martello Towers and skirting the Isle of Wight and land going out of sight. We were sailing south and eventually we arrived at our patrol area, and we all cut our engines and just wallowed in the calm sea. It was a beautiful night, just the water as it quietly lapped the side of the boat with not another sound. We were talking in whispers, wireless contact cut. I was in my forward Pom-Pom turret, to my left and a few feet away one of the seamen had a hydrophone over the side of the ship and I could see he was wearing his earphones. It was then around 1 a.m. on the 25th, the Captain had just spoken to me over the gun phones, probably to see if I was awake, and I had asked him where we were. He replied we were just off the coast of Alderney, the most northerly of the Channel Isles. He had barely got the words out when there was the sound of rushing water and the churning of screws and the high white bow waves of three German destroyers travelling at speed straight for us. Our hearts missed a few beats. We just could not believe what we were seeing. Both enemy and ourselves were unaware of each other’s presence until this precise moment. We crash started engines. The bow waves died down as they reduced speed. I suppose at first they thought we were E- boats. Then, at thirty yards range, all hell broke loose. No living man could describe what started to come our way. Before we had left harbour, it was the only time that I had been ordered to load nothing else but starshell before we sailed. I was responsible for illuminating the enemy. The order came: "Open fire". It was like looking into a blazing hell with bullets and shells whizzing past. You could hear the thrrr as they just missed you, some were hitting the water and bouncing up, others were flying harmlessly overhead, some were hitting us, there were screams and shouts. Amongst all this I had to make a show with the starshell. I don’t know how I found the courage to keep looking where I was firing with my gun going ‘Bang-Bang’ every second and the incoming projectiles coming many many times faster. We turned hard to starboard (right) to move in the opposite direction to the destroyers who were certainly living up to the name. 617 first, she got ‘pasted’ as she turned; 632, my boat, next took an even bigger hammering; and poor 671 hardly got moving before she was overwhelmed with the ferocity of the gun fire and I presume she was just blown out of the water. Out of a crew of thirty plus, I understand there were just two survivors. When we were moving away at speed, I turned round and could see the heads and shoulders of the Captain and the Coxswain, P.O. Huntley, above the bridge with tracer shells whining past them as others exploded near them. Then the wireless aerials came down over my shoulders. There was a small mast on my turret and a shell had just missed my head and severed the wire. It was all something I would never wish on anybody, we (617 and 632) finally escaped the gun fire. We stayed in the area for quite some time and when the destroyers had gone we searched the area, but there was no sign of wreckage or life: 671 had been blown out of the water. There were casualties on the other boats, but I just can’t remember how many. There was lots of damage, a visit to a cemetery…I think it was at Alverstoke, with military honours, but details and time have been clouded with the passing of time: at the moment I am writing about what happened over sixty years ago.

It was quite some time before we were ready for sea again, having been patched up. During that time my Pom-Pom gun was replaced by a new type of semi-automatic 6-pdr with rocket launcher attached, for illuminating rockets to be fired at the same time as I aimed and fired the gun, all this in a hydraulically powered turret. The gun itself was a naval adaptation of the army’s high velocity flat trajectory anti-tank gun with automatic feed added. Before D-Day, most of the 55th flotilla had been likewise fitted. All the boats also had to have a large white star painted on the foc’sle for identification from the air.

Talking about painting, I forgot to mention the senior officer ordered every boat in the 55th MTB flotilla to have sharks teeth painted under the flare at the bow of the ship. This was done before we left Great Yarmouth. This job was given to me, having been handed a tin of red, a tin of white and a tin of dark grey and told to get on with it (brushes as well). It was Sub Lt Dalziel who gave the instruction. 632’s effort was different to the others but still effective. It had to be done from memory, so as well as being a seaman an artist’s skills had to be in evidence too.

By this time D-Day was fast approaching, and that was clear to everyone to see without being told. It soon came to the 4th June, and we were ordered to our bunks to rest, and a few hastily written lines to home, although censored, the gist that this maybe was to be my farewell letter was not easy to write. However, as we all know now the weather was bad and the whole operation was delayed. The next day came “in your bunks to rest". Then, being the afternoon of the 5th June at about 3 p.m., we all cast off and sailed out of Gosport, the usual way, past the Martello towers and out into the English Channel. We were called down to the Mess Deck, where the Captain delivered his shock speech. We had been given the honour of spearheading the invasion of Europe. We were to escort the minesweepers and were on a one-way mission, no turning back, we were to keep steaming south, any deviation and we would be shot up. We were at the head of minesweepers, destroyers, cruisers and battleships in that order, followed by the whole invasion fleet. They all had the same order. We knew more about what was likely to happen as we had been in that area many times that Spring with disastrous consequences and had always met with varying amounts of opposition. The weather was fairly rough and we were passing miles and miles of landing craft being tossed about. With our speed we were soon alone and in the Invasion Bay at midnight where we escorted minesweepers as they cleared the mines ready for all the other surface craft. We were on the left flank near Le Havre known later as ‘Sword Beach’. It was then the 6th June. By seven o’clock all had been swept, and we had not been attacked. It was unbelievable when daylight came a couple of hours earlier. What we saw was breathtaking, thousands of ships as far as the eye could see. They were all amassed behind us, and a huge bombardment started with all the shells flying over the top of us. Our first duty then was to drop specially made small depth charges in amongst the incoming shells from the German defence guns, as these shells were exploding near our capital ships. We dropped these small depth charges by hand into the sea to make splashes whereby the enemy did not know which was his fall of shot and therefore could not find his range.

It was during this operation that one of our charges disintegrated a glider that had come down and sunk (it would be from an airborne landing in the early hours of the morning). The result was bodies floated to the surface. A few of these our boat picked up. They belonged to the South Staffordshire Regiment. In the odd case such items as cigarettes were still dry in their pockets. I can’t remember just what happened to these poor fellows — I rather think they would be put aboard the cruiser Scylla which turned out to be our mother ship.

The rest of the day we were on call or any eventuality, mainly moving about the Landing Craft. We could clearly see what was going on on the beaches. The pictures of the odd building you see in the photographs of the events are clearly etched on my mental blackboard and will remain there always. I seem to remember it was around twenty minutes past seven (morning) when what looked like a fighter plane flew low along the beach from left to right, at the same time it was leaving a smoke screen. That was the beginning of the seaborne invasion. There was the continual firing of big guns until later in the day.

Another recollection I have was seeing the sky fill with planes, many towing gliders of various sorts. That, as I remember, was around nine o’clock in the evening and they were not flying high — at the same time they weren’t low either. However, what seemed like a quarter of an hour later, the first aeroplanes began returning at a reasonable height, until one with four engines and single tail plane came out flying very low and on fire. It was a ‘Stirling’. It flew right towards our boat passing us very low and tried to make a belly landing, the sea was still choppy and his port side wing just tipped one of` the larger waves and the whole plane cart wheeled over and immediately exploded in a mass of flames, probably one hundred yards away from us. There was absolutely no chance of any survivors. Two or three minutes later yet another ‘Stirling’ came out wave-hopping, but he turned back towards the sandy beach where we actually saw him make a belly landing with the plane intact and no fire: there would be survivors.

We were soon into a routine of tying up to the cruiser Scylla, Admiral Vian’s Flagship in charge of operations. We tied up by day and got provisions and fresh-baked white bread and water from her. We replaced our ammunition at the Mulberry harbour. At night we went out of the invasion area to stop enemy ships from leaving Le Havre which turned out to be ‘Ecky Thump stuff`, or as the saying goes "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. He who fights and stands his ground gets his flipping clock knocked round”. And that is just what happened, if it was your turn of duty. I forgot to mention, for the first week or so, at nightfall every large ship moored in the Invasion anchorage moved its position just in case the enemy had been able to get a fix on them in daylight.

During the next few weeks we fought many night actions I can’t remember them all, but here are a few. I will quote from Peter Scott’s book the Battle of the Narrow Seas as narrated by Don Bradford. In bold type are the shots that I fired.

“Amongst the flotillas working for the blockage of Le Havre were still the original two Bradford’s 55th (D Boats) and Law’s 29th (Canadian manned seventy one foot six Power boats). They were carrying the fight right onto the enemy’s doorstep in the old coastal forces tradition”.

"The first night we tried the close blockade", writes Bradford. ‘I was out with a unit of only two of my boats. My own boat was in England for repair. So I used MTB 632, Charles Ford’s boat as my flagship and 650 (Jimmy Fulton) was the other. I had been given the much coveted position closest to the harbour as my patrol, and approaching it from Cap d’Antifer. Sneaking down close in shore, hoping to meet E boats coming out. About half way down we received a message that a bunch of E boats were coming towards us. We prepared for a scrap. The E-boats were coming inshore of us, so I slowed down and altered in towards them in line abreast. They were moving slowly, about 10 knots, and it suddenly struck me that we were in a perfect position for a torpedo attack, though a risky thing to try. They were small targets, very small for that form of attack and their Lordships view with horror the complete waste of such expensive ammunition as torpedoes. But I had always longed to give E-boats a touch of their own medicine — the torpedo. So I told Charles to stand by. I felt luck was with us. When we were 1,000 yards away I ordered "Illuminate" and up went the rockets from both boats. There they were, nine of them. The first five in line were big R-boats followed by four E-boats. Evidently Jerry had decided that his E boats needed escorting. They were the perfect torpedo target, in very close order, so close that they appeared as one unbroken line of boats. I tapped Charles on the shoulder, and away went the torpedoes, and then we opened fire, closing in on their beam. The Hun was prepared, all his guns opened up as one, and the fight was on. It was fierce and obviously couldn’t last long. We concentrated on the E-boats with our guns and the last one in line got a succession of bad hits. One of them a six pounder shell which seemed to tear off part of the deck amidships. I had almost forgotten about the torpedoes and we were roaring in, all at once the third R boat disappeared in a terrific sheet of flame and smoke and a couple of seconds later the fourth boat exploded in the same manner. We had done it- two R boats with two torpedoes. The idea had paid the maximum dividend. By this time another E boat had been slightly hit and we were beginning to feel the weight of the odds. We disengaged, making smoke and pulled out to the west — roaring to the world on W/T that we had sunk two R boats by torpedo and damaged two E boats by gunfire. The remaining E & R boats returned to Le Havre and we were ordered back to our patrol position. We hadn’t been sitting there long when we picked up two minesweepers leaving harbour. They were either M class or large trawlers. From our plot of them it seemed that they were sweeping the inshore channel up to Cap d’Antifer, so we moved off to attack. The visibility had reduced to about 800 yards. We had a fair chance of sneaking up on them. Jimmy Fulton still had his torpedoes, so I told him to sneak in on the seaward bow while we came in on the quarter. The idea being that we would rush in and open up with guns, thus attracting their full attention, leaving as I hoped, the chance for Jimmy to get in an unobserved attack with torpedoes. In we went and as we moved in we saw and felt a large explosion astern of the sweepers; they had swept a mine. As soon as we got inside visibility range we illuminated and opened up scoring two direct hits with our 6 pounder with the first two shells. Back came the reply thick and fast, they were M class alright. We stuck it out, hoping to see one of them go up in a cloud of smoke and flame from Jimmy’s torpedoes, but it wasn’t to be; they weren’t to be caught napping. As soon as Jimmy poked his nose in sight he caught it just as we were doing. He made a quick short attack and fired his torpedoes, but missed -— then we both settled down to a gun action. The gunners were giving of their best that night. We went in for the last run and found them both stopped and in a pretty bad way, but still plenty of fight. As we went in 632 got hit in the forward petrol compartment from a 40 mm shell, trouble in no small way. We turned round to the west to make a dash out of range of the shore batteries, who were then starting to be fairly accurate. Jimmy was also in a bad way, having been severely damaged and he disengaged with us. It seemed as if 632 was on her last legs, the bridge and engine room were smothered in clouds of black smoke and we could see flames down in the forward petrol compartment and the forward end of the engine room. The motor mechanic was performing miracles of engineering and fire fighting, nursing along the engines, two of which were damaged and at the same time directing the attempts to quell the fire in the engine room. We steamed west at the best speed possible until it seemed that she was on the point of blowing up and then cleared the engine room — having stopped the engines and pulled the petrol compartment fire extinguisher plug — the fire went out and the smoke dispersed. We were safe enough, and after inspection of the damage we got going and struggled slowly back to the anchorage. MTB 632 was a shambles and had to be sailed back to pay off — a severe loss to the flotilla."

This ends Bradford’s story in the book. I clearly remember that at the point of blowing up Don Bradford walked behind my turret and said to me "We have had it", and calmly lit a cigarette. There was so much fire, a match made no difference. At that point I turned my gun around to face the fire, hoping for a miracle like the armour plating on the front of my turret protecting me as myself and turret went sailing skywards in the explosion. Luckily it never happened; the gods were with me once again.

What he did not mention as we crawling back – it was still quite dark and I still sat in my turret – was a red light that shot up in the air very close to where I was sitting. It set the body tingling again. It was a red varey light fired by a German airman; he had been shot down and was in a rubber dinghy. We stopped. I helped him on board. He had been flying in full dress uniform, wearing all his medals including Iron Cross. I took his pistol and holster from his belt and kept the holster as a souvenir. One or two of the crew members got a medal or some other memento, not his personal things like rings or watch. We had saved his life, but on return to base in England we handed him over and he complained about having his medals etc. taken from him and the Captain had to appear before the Senior Officer of the base. However, instead he sent along Sub Lt Owen (with whom I am still in regular contact although we live about three hundred miles apart), the upshot was all had to be returned to him. So much for saving his life. The man himself - I had expected to see a tall blonde craggy-faced individual, instead he was of medium-build, round-faced and had black hair. I have forgotten his name, but his home town was Rostock in Northern Germany. He was treated well on board, bearing in mind there was no smoking and power was restricted as we ourselves were nursing the scars of battle.