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Landing Craft Gun 13 - LCG 13.

Lucky for Some - A Sick Bay Attendant's Story


In 1941, aged 20, my number came up for military service. I had a medical examination in Manchester where my light weight of about eight stone was commented on. I stated a preference for the Navy as a sick berth attendant and I passed the medical A1. I was then interviewed by three Naval Officers who fired general knowledge questions including how to spell corporation. When I asked, “Did you say co-operation or corporation?” I sensed I'd passed the test!

My dad, aged 41, was serving as a sick berth attendant in the Naval Hospital at Haslar near Gosport, Hants. He worried constantly about the bombing back home, not knowing what was happening to his family. He eventually had a mental breakdown and was medically discharged with anxiety neurosis. I don’t think he should have been called for service in the first place.

[Photo; HMS Collingwood with the author, Sick Bay Attendant, John Francis Percival top right.]

In August 1941, I received orders to report to HMS Collingwood at Fareham, Hampshire. These were my “calling up papers” with vague travel instructions, a travel warrant to Euston station, underground tickets to Waterloo and a warrant to Portsmouth. I think I was secretly relieved when the time came, since most of my friends and work mates were already in uniform. It was a lovely sunny day when I arrived at HMS Collingwood  to be greeted at the gate by a naval guard, who had become an old sweat after his few months training.

There we stood, a band of civilians with our suitcases, average age about 20. “Right you lot, get fell in over there”, barked a petty officer. We were split up into sections of thirty. My group of thirty was introduced to PO Woods, a stocky, red-faced man; with a smile that made him look human. “Right lads, you’re in the navy now. The first thing you have to learn is to do as you’re told, pay attention, obey all orders and we should get on well. You’re in the Fo’c’sle (Forecastle) Division, hut number 4. The floor is now the deck, the walls the bulkhead, the ceiling the deckhead, the bathrooms the ablutions and the toilets the heads. You’ll soon get used to it.”

The wooden hut, which was to be my home for the next three months, was quite clean and comfortable and was linked to a corridor. The ablutions and heads were across the corridor. There were double bunk beds and we each had a locker to be kept tidy at all times. I was in the top bunk of the end bed next to the corridor. The lad in the bottom bunk came from Bolton, which wasn't far from my home town of Warrington. He spoke with a soft Lancashire accent and we became good mates from day one.

On the first night, I wore pyjamas bought for me by my mum. I think it was the first time in my life I had ever worn pyjamas and, as events unfolded, I didn’t wear them for long. After lights out at ten o’clock, our hut was raided by a gang of old sailors from a few huts away, who had probably been in the Navy all of four weeks. My pyjamas were ripped off me and a stirrup pump was used to squirt water under the bed clothes. We had just experienced the initiation ceremony.

They were a mixed bag of lads in the hut from various parts of the country and soon bonded to form quite a good team. We were issued with our uniforms and kit. Standing naked in front of a Wren, (yes, a girl), while being issued with underwear was a challenge as was finding a cap big enough for my head!. Anyway I completed the basic training and sick berth attendant training and was assigned to Landing Craft Gun 13.

LCG 13

I found LCG13 moored alongside a jetty amongst a flotilla of LCGs. They were strange looking craft, numbered in the sequence 1 to 20, more like a canal barge I'd seen back home. They were small vessels by Royal Navy standards,  shaped like a coffin, with a square nose instead of the conventional pointed bow. They had two 4.7 inch (120mm) calibre guns and two anti-aircraft guns.

[Thumbnail opposite, click to enlarge; This is an extract from the Admiralty's 'Green List' of Landing Craft dispositions just prior to D Day. By then the original allocation of 20 pennant numbers had been used up, the remainder probably taking on the pennant numbers of the LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks) from which they were converted to LCGs.]

After negotiating a vertical ladder from the quayside, I was on board my first ship. The quartermaster greeted me with, “Hello, Doc. Are you joining us? Report to the skipper in the ward room, down that hatchway in front of the bridge.”

The skipper was Lieutenant Willoughby (George to his friends). He was a big chap with a round cheerful face, twinkling eyes and quite a full beard not unlike a picture I'd seen of Henry VIII. He was very friendly and rather informal. “Welcome on board. I don’t know what we're going to do with you. We’ve not had a Sick Berth Attendant before. I suppose you’ll be known as the Doc.” He offered me a cigarette, told me to sit down and said, “I don’t know where we’re going to put you, there's not a lot of space.”

On board were thirty Royal Marines who manned the guns, a Corporal and a Sergeant. There were also about twenty assorted sailors - Able Seamen, Signalmen, Telegraphists, Stokers and Leading Seamen known as the Coxswain, to man the craft. The Signalmen ran up the signal flags known as bunting and were known as “bunting tossers” or “bunts” for short, while the telegraphists were known as “sparks”.

The skipper introduced me to the 1st Lieutenant, known as “Jimmy the One” and to the Marine Officer, a tall gangling sort of man with a posh accent. There was no room for me in the Sergeant’s Mess since the Coxswain, Sergeant and Corporal fully occupied a space measuring only about 10 feet by 6 feet (3 x 2m) with headroom from the deck to the deck head of about 7 feet. I opted to sleep in the seaman’s mess deck with the rest of the lads. At the age of 22, I was one of the oldest onboard and began to feel a bit important.

I slung my hammock on two spare hooks and settled down to a good night’s sleep. At about 7 am, the Corporal of Marines struck the bottom of each hammock with a cane to the refrain “Wakey wakey, rise and shine. Hands off cocks and on socks.” The commotion woke me up too when I heard one of the lads say, “Hey, Corp, that’s the Doc.” The corporal apologised and covered me up to sleep on. I knew I was going to be okay with these lads.

I dressed in time for breakfast, which comprised a couple of slices of bacon and some fried powdered egg. The coke burning galley stove was amidships and provided hot water from a rectangular boiler... sometimes... maybe. Cold water was drawn by hand pump on the bulkhead beside the stove. The galley was partitioned from the Marines Mess Deck on the starboard side, while on the portside were the food stores and a secure area behind a metal grating where the rum was stored in demijohns. Forward of the Marines Mess Deck was the ammunition room. There was a passage way alongside this on the port side with watertight doors fore and aft.

In the fo’c’sle area, immediately behind the bow, were two toilets or heads with metal loops secured to the bulkheads each side of the “thrones”. These were to hold on to, to avoid becoming dethroned when the weather was rough! There was a passage-way aft of the Marines Mess Deck ('Gun Crew Accommodations' in diagram opposite) running down the portside, off which was the Seamen's Mess Deck and further aft was a door off to the ward room.

There was a watertight hatch on the deck into the Marines Mess Deck alongside the ammunition room. This allowed “ammo” to be passed onto the deck where it was needed. There was a watertight hatch for’d of the bridge with a companionway leading to the wardroom on the portside and two smaller rooms on the starboard side, one for the 1st Lieutenant and the other for the Marine Officer.

The Seamen's Mess Deck was quite cramped too with a circular steel pillar, supporting one of the guns above, in the middle of the space. On the starboard side, forward of the pillar and partitioned off, was the Sergeants' Mess. Between the bulkhead of the Sergeants' Mess and Jimmy the One’s cabin was about an eight-foot space for the seamen, with a fixed table in the middle. There was also a fixed table on the portside to the Seamen’s Mess.

There was only about a seven or eight foot clearance between the deck and the deckhead throughout the craft. Aft, was the bridge, containing the wheelhouse, which was also my sick bay with my box containing basic medical supplies. Aft of the wheelhouse on the portside was the skipper's cabin, and on the starboard side was a small galley with a coke stove for the officers' meals. On the rear quarterdeck was the capstan for the anchor and a watertight hatch leading to the engine room.

My duties were to tend to any sick or injured crew members and marines and to escort them to a doctor, if required, usually on a nearby large ship. Because I was on call 24/7, further duties would be arranged on a voluntary basis. I usually undertook look out duties on the bridge to help with the seamen’s watches.

I had only been on board a couple of days when I learned a valuable lesson. The corporal was dishing out the sweet ration known as nutty. He shouted, “Doc, come and get your nutty.” Without thinking, I put one foot through the doorway and hit my head on the bulkhead, knocking myself out. I woke up on the wardroom table with the skipper grinning down on me saying, “You’re supposed to be looking after us. Don’t make a habit of it.” I had a 2-inch gash on my head.

Leading Seaman Hopkins, known as Hoppy, took over my care. He and skipper George were on first name terms, as he was also the Skipper’s steward.  One day, I accompanied Hoppy ashore to do a bit of shopping for George, who cautioned Hoppy, “I think you’ve been doing a bit of a fiddle with my change. I don’t mind a tanner or a bob (small change), as long as you keep it to the minimum.”

While we were ashore, I spotted a Marine popping his head out of the top floor window of an hotel. His name was Maxy Bacon, who had been confined to a small room on the top floor as punishment for going AWOL (absent without leave). When he returned to the ship, I discovered that Maxy was a bit of a character. He had a pair of hand operated hair clippers from his civvy days but wouldn’t let anyone borrow them, since he charged sixpence a time for a haircut, which left only a fringe at the front.

Operations in the Mediterranean

We spent a couple of weeks tied up to the jetty before we were issued tropical kit - white shorts and trousers, white jacket and white cap covers. No one knew where we were going but the buzz was somewhere cold, the tropical kit being to fool any German spies.

Eventually, we cast off from the quayside and I looked forward to my first trip to sea. I could feel the vibration of the engines as we took our place in a convoy in calm seas. I survived the first day without feeling sick and managed to eat and drink normally. On the second morning, I lowered myself from my hammock and put my feet on the deck, which was tilting from side to side and rising and falling. I tried to ignore the onset of nausea and ate breakfast as usual with the ever present smell of diesel fumes from the engines hanging in the air. I went on deck for fresh air and completed an 8am to noon watch as lookout on the bridge.

[Photo; Future Sick Bay Attendant, John Francis Percival on the left with his siblings in the 1930s.]

In the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean the waves were ten to twelve feet high (3 to 4m). Typically, a mountain of water would approach our craft, disappear beneath us to pick us up on the crest of the wave. Then a crashing fall into a trough, only for the cycle to be repeated over and over. I fought the feeling of nausea but, when I came off watch, I was violently sick. I just lay on the deck wearing a duffle coat with an oilskin on top. Most of the other lads were in the same condition but carried on as best they could, many clutching a bucket into which they were sick. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, as yellow, grey and pale green faces testified. I stayed on the open deck and struggled not to die!

As we cruised along at around 4 to 6 knots, we received a signal alerting us to German E boat activity in our vicinity. This took our minds off our seasickness as plans were made in the event of an attack. Four craft in our flotilla, including LCG 13, were to engage the enemy, while the rest dispersed at full speed. Our top speed was ten knots and our craft not very manoeuvrable, while the E boats were very fast and agile. We imagined our worst fears and the sea sickness eased off, but a lot of us had diarrhoea with the shock of it all. Just when our situation looked most desperate a British cruiser and a few destroyers appeared over the horizon. The panic was over and we could, once again concentrate on our nausea! Perhaps we should have had more faith, since each of the craft had an experienced seaman on board, typically a 3 badge Able Seamen, who had been in service since Nelson was a lad.

One morning around 4am, as I lay on deck feeling like death, our 'three badger', known as Stripey because of the three stripes on his arm, gave me  a cup of steaming cocoa laced with rum. I managed to force it down but, whilst it didn’t make me feel better, it gave me something to throw up. The sea conditions worsened with mountainous waves which allowed the propellers to race as they came out of the water, followed by shuddering as the craft crashed down into the next trough. Eventually, I felt well enough to return to the mess deck, where I had a good wash and shave. Up in the fo’c’sle things were grim, with condensation dripping off the deck head forming pools of rusty water and the heads smelly despite the disinfectant. In all, I must have been sick for about 7 days.

Due to poor storage conditions our supply of bread soon became mouldy, so we nibbled on ship’s biscuits, known as hard tack. Soya sausage links, which tasted like vulcanised rubber and herrings in tomato sauce had been thrown overboard.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

After about nine days, we reached our first port of call, Gibraltar. This was a more vibrant world than the one we had left behind in the UK, with brightly lit cafes and bars and street lights. At the first opportunity, Hoppy set off to purchase bread with the help of a reluctant Spanish lorry driver he had persuaded to help at the point of an unloaded German Luger pistol... or so the story goes.

Every so often, we could hear a loud ping resonating through the craft, which was caused by small depth charges, dropped at regular intervals, to deter German divers from attaching magnetic limpet mines to the sides of our ships.

We were in Gibraltar for about a week, by which time everyone had fully recovered from seasickness. When we sailed from Gibraltar one morning in thick mist,  skipper George lost visual contact with the flotilla and speeded up to catch them. When the mist cleared he dropped anchor to consider his options. We were in the calm waters of the Med and could see a small island on our port side. From our stern, our flotilla came into view with a terse Aldiss lamp message from our flag ship, "Where the hell have you been? We all slowed down thinking you were behind us." Our skipper replied, “I thought you were ahead of us, so I speeded up to catch you but I was pulling away from you.” The Flag ship replied, “Keep closer formation in future and keep in contact with the nearest craft.”

We had no idea of our destination until we all arrived safely in the French Algerian port  of Djidjelli. There was a rocky causeway jutting out to sea, forming a natural harbour. All the buildings were white and the temperature was about 90° Fahrenheit (32c) in the shade. We dressed in the white tropical rig we had been issued with at Falmouth - shorts by day and, as this was malaria country, long trousers in the evening.

There was a local market, where we could buy supplies. The bread, shaped like a French loaf, had a vinegary taste, but fresh bread was a luxury. The Arabs sat on the pavement with dormant chickens for sale. On agreeing a price after a bit of haggling, the Arab lifted the chicken's head from under its wing to wake it up. With the chicken on board, we had to kill it. A couple of dozen big, strong Marine Commandos had no heart to perform the execution. A tall AB called Lofty, a Devonshire man with farming experience, came to the rescue, grabbed the chicken by the head and threw the body to break its neck. His over exuberant action left him with the chicken's head in his hand, while the headless chicken went over the side flapping about in the water. The next challenge was to fire up the galley stove to provide enough heat to cook it.

We were constantly pestered by young Arab lads selling goods and services. “You want shoe shine Johnny? Me got Cherry Blossom, very good” or “You want eggs?” or “You want jig jig Johnny? Me got big sister, plenty jig jig very good”. We soon learned the Arabian word for “bugger off” was “imshee”, which usually ended the conversation. Watermelons were the most popular product in the market, because the ship's water was lukewarm and chlorinated. The melon was cold, very refreshing and relatively cheap, until the Yanks arrived, when the price trebled.

There was a hospital up on a hill where Sick Berth Attendants from our flotilla helped out in shifts. As we passed through the Arab quarters to get there, resplendent in our white uniforms with the red cross on our arms, locals would make way for us deferentially bowing as they muttered “Le croix rouge.” The free clinic we provided twice a week was no doubt the cause of their reverence. While in the hospital I slept on the first floor, a large room with a tiled floor and a window space without windows. I put the mattress from my hammock on the deck and rigged a mosquito net over it. I treated a lot of mosquito bites, some of which became infected in hot climate and were slow to heal, while others suffered from malaria, dysentery, sand fly fever and the consequences of succumbing to the favours of the Arab lads’ big sisters!

Back on board I was issued with mepachrine tablets for malaria, anti-mosquito paste and lime juice. However, a lot of the lads weren’t swallowing their tablets or drinking their lime juice so, forming in line, the Sergeant opened their mouths, the Corporal popped in the pill and closed their mouths making sure they’d swallowed them. The Coxswain followed behind me with the lime juice, which was not sweetened. This had the effect of sucking in the cheeks making the mouth like a beak and if they’d been on perches they’d have looked like a row of budgies. It was, nonetheless, important for them to take these preventatives.

Fresh water had to be used sparingly, so we were issued with sea water soap, which, when mixed with the sweat on your body, produced sticky black streaks. It was quite effective when buckets of sea water were used to wash you down. The deck was too hot to walk on unprotected during the day.

While still in Djidjelli, one night at about two o’clock, I was wakened up by an engineer officer who had just joined the ship. “Sorry to wake you Doc”, he said, with a drunken slur in his voice. “Old George has fallen and hurt his leg.” The ship was in darkness, as the generator was switched off. With the aid of a battery powered lamp, he led me down the passageway on the port side through the wardroom. “Bugger George for a minute", he said, "let’s find his whisky bottle and have a drink.” That done, we found George in his cabin aft, next to the wheelhouse where I kept my medicine chest. George had quite a gash on his shin, which I cleaned up and bandaged. He thanked me and suggested the engineer officer and I should have a drink. “Thanks George, where do you keep your whisky?” asked the engineer officer, knowing full well it was where they had let it. We sat chatting until we’d finished the bottle! The engineer officer was an interesting chap. He was a dirt track rider in Civvy Street from Birmingham and was known as “Brummy”.

We did quite a bit of swimming from a silvery sandy beach with clear blue water near Djidjelli but not altogether safe. Many of the men picked up little black thorns in the soles of their feet, which were very hard to remove. I found it best to leave them in place, since they would come up rather like blackheads in a few days. A hot soak and they could easily be squeezed out with a spurt of pus. They were caused by some marine life that buried itself in the sand, so gym shoes had to be worn when bathing.

After a couple of weeks, we left Djidjelli for Valetta harbour in Malta in calm blue seas and very hot sunshine. Most of the buildings in Malta were white to reflect the heat of the sun and there was a lot of evidence of the severe bombings the locals had endured. Convoys with supplies and fuel were now arriving safely and bars and cafes were open. We heard the Naval Club, possibly called Union Jack Club, had taken a delivery of beer. This proved to be correct but they had no glasses. Ever inventive, the soldiers found a unique way of making their own glasses by filling bottles with oil to just over half full and sticking a red hot poker through the neck which caused a clean break at the level of the oil. I thoroughly cleaned an empty tin under a cold water tap, dried it off on my handkerchief and then, sheer bliss, quaffing my thirst with my first decent drink since Falmouth.

The harbour was full of landing craft of many types and, after about a week, we all set sail for Cape Bonn in North Africa, where we took on stores, water and fuel. We then mustered off Sfax and laid at anchor, still not knowing what our next objective was. We swam quite often in the knowledge that there was a dangerous, fast current. When we dived off the fo’c’sle, we curled our hands to steer straight back to the ship. It was now nearing the end of May 1943.

Sicily and Italy

Our invasion flotilla comprised at least one hundred craft as we set sail for Sicily. As we approached the island on the night of the 9th of July, a storm blew up causing rough sea conditions. I was relieved not to be sick. We were towing a small LCP (Landing Craft Personnel) carrying an Army wireless crew, who were all very sick. We hauled them in to welcome them on board the comparative comfort of our larger craft.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

We landed on the south eastern corner of Sicily and the marines fired our guns in anger for the first time, aiming at buildings along the beach and shore line to clear the way for the troops to land. We received a sarcastic message saying, “Congratulations, you have killed two fish and probably wounded a few more.” The marines adjusted their sights and, soon after, white flags of surrender appeared from the buildings ashore. Our next targets, not visible to us, were provided by a Forward Observation Officer (FOO), who was close to the front line. A few retaliatory shells exploded harmlessly in the water nearby. The Germans, anticipating a landing on Greece, were not waiting for us, hence a comparatively easy first strike on Sicily.

We moved northwards up the east coast of the island, supporting the advancing army with our close inshore fire power, first past Syracuse and then Augusta where we encountered a few air raids. An ammunition lighter was hit, exploded and immediately sank, leaving a few bodies floating in the water. Augusta harbour was a former Italian air arm base, now in our hands. We dropped anchor, went ashore and deprived an Italian naval store of all kinds of kit. Unbeknown to us, we were being watched by a newly appointed harbour master who signalled, “You have one hour to return what you have taken” and reminded us that the penalty for looting was death. We had it all back in the store in half an hour!

Mount Etna was a few miles inland and since there were plenty of vineyards around we were soon bartering corned beef or soap in exchange for vino - Muscatel. We ran out of bread but a cruiser, anchored in the harbour, offered to help, so we tied up alongside. Four of us were in the wheelhouse as we looked forward to a great feast of soya links and bread. We took off the craft's wheel and made a table of it when an air raid warning sounded. The cruiser cast us off, upped anchor and began to move to avoid becoming a sitting target.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Our skipper, who was on our bridge, bellowed down the voice pipe, “Start engines”. The reply was “Engines started, sir”. The skipper then ordered “Full ahead both”. The reply was “Both engines full ahead, sir”. The skipper ordered, “Wheel hard to starboard” There was a pause and then the immortal words “Just a minute, sir, we have to screw the wheel back on.” The language that followed cannot be repeated here!

Around this time they began to swap the sick bay staff about. I joined LCG10, LCG12 and finally LCG9. We were still based in Augusta harbour, taking turns up the coast firing at targets given by the Forward Observation Officer. On one of these operations we were spotted by a German plane while quite close to shore. I doubt the Germans realised such a small barge could carry such big guns. We had a near miss, which lifted our stern out of the water, smashing most of the few dishes on board. Thankfully, we received a signal form a destroyer near the horizon, “Get the hell out of there”. So we did.

On board, back in the harbour, further drama occurred. The marines had picked up quite a few Italian rifles and ammunition. One of them inexplicably put a couple of bullets in the galley stove and when they didn't explode straight away, he lifted the circular lid on top of the stove at the very moment they did explode. He got a small piece of shrapnel in his eye, and on the instruction of a doctor on shore, I accompanied the marine to a field hospital in Syracuse. We went in an ambulance and when I came out of the hospital having delivered the patient, the ambulance driver said he was not going back to Augusta, I would have to thumb a lift.

An army lorry pulled up and I joined some unguarded Italian prisoners in the back of it. I decided to half sit on the cab so I could face them all. When I pulled out my pipe and tobacco pouch, immediately about twenty fag papers were thrust in my direction. When they all had their fags, they started chattering in broken English and that's when I learned that Catania had surrendered. They were all quite cheerful, except when the lorry suddenly braked due to a sneak air attack. The Italians were in the ditch before we came to a full stop. We got back to Augusta and unloaded the prisoners. The Italians were giving themselves up in droves at this point.

After a week or two, we moved up the coast and finally arrived at Messina, where we anchored in the straits between Sicily and the Italian mainland. The capture of Sicily was now complete. The armies mustered around Messina and along the straits in preparation for landing on the mainland. One night all hell let loose with a terrific barrage of gunfire from the army and all the 4.7 guns of the LCGs. By dawn there were white flags everywhere along the toe of the Italian mainland. We dropped anchor and relaxed for a while, but in the middle of the afternoon without any warning, there were a few explosions and spurts of water too close for comfort, indicating that German mortars and 88 guns had found our range. We opened fire in the hope of hitting something. Whether or not we were successful, I don’t know. We upped anchor and moved away.

While ashore in Messina, a Sicilian civilian wondered what the hell our strange looking craft was and how we managed to live on such a thing. He spoke good English and did not like the Americans much. He said, ”The British, they build a de ship, they put on a de guns and armament and then try to find a place for de men. Americano build a de ship, make a de good place for de crew, good kitchens, plenty food, fridges, canteens, etc., then wonder where to put a de guns.”  He continued, “British planes drop a de bombs, German he duck, German drop a de bomb, British he duck. Americano drop a de bomb, everybody duck!” A good navy yarn.

The next landing was at Vibo Valentia (Vibo Marina?), a small Italian harbour behind enemy lines on the west coast of the toe of Italy. The LCIs, LSTs, LCAs (Landing craft Infantry, Tank and Assault) and other small craft were taking a pounding from German 88 mm guns, when a LCG and LCF (Flak) engaged the enemy. LCG12 opened up with her two 4.7 guns firing at the German 88 mm guns and the LCF4 sprayed the German machine gun positions with rapid fire. The German gunners then concentrated their fire on LCG12, but she stood fast, carried on firing for over half an hour, allowing most of our landing craft to escape from the harbour; but then she was hit, probably by an anti-personnel shell which hit the yardarm above the bridge, killing all of the officers and a lot of the crew. Ordinary seaman T H Hill took the craft out to safety. His action saved the craft and the remaining crew and their guns. The 15" guns of HMS Erebus finally silenced the Germans.

It was quite a shock to me to hear of the LCG12 casualties. I had been on board her for a short period when they swapped us about in Augusta and had got to know most of the crew. I heard one lad I only knew as Ginger had died as he had lived, sat over a bucketful of dobheying when he had the top of his head taken off.

Return to Blighty

Our LCTs and LCGs returned to Messina where orders were received for 9 LCGs to proceed to Malta and then back to the UK. I was then on board LCG 9 at the time which was included in these arrangements. On a recount of the numbers, no one knew where LCGs 15 and 16 were, or even if they still existed.

We enjoyed a few days of rest and recuperation in Malta and, as usual, were pestered by locals in small boats. They were rather like gondolas, called ‘disaus’ and were propelled by skulling with one oar. They were interested in "gash", which was anything we were throwing away. It was rumoured that buckets of waste food were sorted, cleaned up, re-cooked and served to an unsuspecting public!

There was a street in Valetta, notorious for its sexual bars and joints, known to the sailors as the Gut. Four of us explored it but found no unusual activity. We sat in rather a nice bar, drinking some kind of coloured water, when I was approached by a raven haired beauty. She seemed quite friendly and spoke good English. Everything was fine until she put her hand on my knee and slid it up the leg of my shorts. I stood up, shouted for my mam and beat a hasty retreat.

We set off for Gibraltar in calm waters but found our LCG was veering slightly to the right. The problem was corrected by adjusting the speed of the port and starboard engines to compensate. It was possible that the near miss with a bomb in Sicily had affected the steering mechanism in some way. On arrival in Gibraltar we had the luxury of eating bread again and cooking fresh food when the galley stove performed well enough but never hot enough to cook chips. We bought beer and fresh fruit and, just before we departed, I bought a couple of bunches of bananas, something the folks back home hadn’t seen since the beginning of the war. The shopkeeper advised hanging up the green bananas in a straw shopping bag to allow them to ripen in time for our arrival in the UK.

We set off across the Bay of Biscay and one morning I was on the lookout on the dawn watch, which started at 4 am. As was typical of Biscay, the sea blew up rough making it difficult to hold our course. Then calamity struck as the engines broke down and we were fighting desperately to keep square bow into the weather. If we were to be hit broadside on by the large waves, we would have turned over. We took up position on the starboard side in the lee of the bridge ready to abandon ship if necessary. Our life belts were inflated and our shoes untied, ready to kick them off if we had to swim for it. After what seemed like an age, the engines started up and a cheer went up as the danger passed. The motor mechanic had found a broken fuel pipe and fixed it with a piece of hose and jubilee clips. Nobody thought to give the mechanic a medal for saving us all, which is what he certainly did. We struggled on to Cardiff for much needed repairs.

We were allowed ashore and, unsurprisingly, our first stop was a pub and the second was a chip shop. We hadn’t had fish and chips since we left Falmouth to go out to the Med and enjoyed them greatly. The next morning, I posted the bananas and the presents I had bought for the family. I believe the kids back home couldn’t remember seeing a banana. The receipt of the parcel let them know we were back home but, since we could not say anything about the operations we had been on, they could only guess where the bananas had come from. Repairs completed, we sailed north to Glasgow but, still having difficulty steering a straight course, we ran aground.

The square shaped bow and flat bottom of our LCG enabled us to beach where other vessels couldn't reach. A tug came to our rescue, whose skipper was a Glaswegian, about five feet tall, with a wrinkled, weather-beaten face and a short-stemmed clay pipe, the bowl of which just clearing his nose. Having towed us off, he came on board and was curious to know how we managed to run aground. We fixed him up with a cupful of rum, by which time he better understood the unusual design and sailing characteristics of our craft. He couldn’t believe that we'd been through the Atlantic and wondered how the hell we kept afloat!

Eventually, we arrived in Glasgow where it was cold and wet. A complete refit of our craft was required, which meant we were there for some time. Our flotilla office ashore was in Buchanan Street, up a couple of flights of stairs, over the top of a tailor’s shop.  Our LCG was placed in a Govan dry dock and with Christmas approaching we were granted leave. Half the ship’s company was to get Christmas at home, the other half was to get New Year’s Day at home. I was unlucky enough to stay in Govan for Christmas and home for New Year’s Day. Christmas would have been better at home and New Year better in Glasgow but that was the luck of the draw. The mess caterer procured a turkey and the usual Christmas trimmings.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

A few days before Christmas, a gang of women cleaners came on board to clear up after the refit, each carrying a clean and empty bucket and mop. When they had finished, the buckets were clean and full... and we were minus our turkey and Christmas dinner! We made do with corned meat and dehydrated potatoes. Nevertheless, my home leave at New Year was more enjoyable.

During that leave, Marie and I discussed marriage plans. I also learnt that the presents I had sent home were very poor quality and not as described in the Gibraltar shop. The gold began to come off the cross and chain, leaving a green ring around my mother’s neck. Also, when the leather handbag got wet, the cardboard started to separate and the lovely pattern began to peel off. I couldn’t take them back, of course, but it taught me never to accept anything at face value again.

Back in Govan rumours abounded about razor gangs and bike chain gangs roaming about mugging people. Taking no chances, we went ashore in gangs of our own and would meet in a Navy club near Central Station to go back to the ship. The club had all sorts of amenities including a blackboard in the foyer with notices for dances, parties or shows. If you put your name down, you would be picked up by girls or families and taken out for the evening. It was there that our “bunting tosser” signalman, Johnny, came into his own and met the love of his life. There was even talk of an engagement. It was only talk, since he was already married but, nonetheless, the family car of his conquest regularly picked him up and brought him back.

One evening, a gang of us investigated an intriguing building, the entrance to which was up some steps to a huge front door. It turned out to be a kind of cheap hotel where a bed for the night cost only sixpence. We booked on the spot and after a night out in Glasgow returned to the hostel in Govan by train. We were shown into a canteen with scrubbed wooden top tables, where a supper of two thick slices of bread, sausage and a cup of cocoa was served. Heaven!

“What room are we in?”, we asked, “Oh, you don’t have a room. All the beds are in one big room.” It was the size of a big dance hall. Some beds were occupied by old men, sitting up and wearing flat caps. My bed was near a pillar bearing a huge poster with a large magnified image entitled “The Common Head Louse.” I had seen plenty when I worked in the lab at Pompey Barracks. Nevertheless, I had a good night's sleep and the bed was spotlessly clean. In the morning, I awoke to a procession of these old men in long night shirts, still wearing their flat caps and carrying a chamber pot each. “Do you want some breakfast lads?”, one of the chaps in charge asked. We sat at the wooden topped tables, where bacon, powdered egg and a huge mug of tea were served. When we left in the morning daylight, we could see it was a Salvation Army Hostel!

Our LCG was moved from Govan to another area much nearer the city centre, where we stayed for about a month. We had now been modernised and had a couple of stainless steel wash basins in the fo’c’sle, although we still had to hand pump water from amidships and carry jugs of hot water from the stove. During this time, I was granted home leave over a couple of weekends, when Marie and I decided to get married. It was difficult to arrange a wedding with all the war time restrictions but, with the granting of compassionate leave, we married on the 8th February 1944.

[Photo; Marie & I engaged.]

At the end of my leave, I was expected to rejoin my ship before midnight but, since it was already midnight when I left Warrington, I arrived in Glasgow Central train station at about five or six in the morning. The Salvation Army gave me breakfast, then, a tram ride to Govan docks to rejoin my ship, but it was nowhere to be seen. I made haste for the Flotilla Office in Buchanan Street, where I was greeted by an agitated Petty Officer, who recognised me from the Red Cross badge on my arm. Intriguingly, he instructed me to hide in a small office and promised he would be back to me. I was fearing the worst, but when he returned he apologised for not sending me a telegram a few days earlier to recall me early from my leave. There was no mention of being adrift for several hours so, with a sigh of relief, I told him not to worry.

After a search around the Clyde's sea lochs, I spotted my LCG in Holy Loch. Back on board, I reported to the Skipper, who greeted me with “Where the hell have you been?”. I elected not to mention my late return, only that I had reported to the Flotilla office to learn that they had forgotten to recall me. I gave each of the three officers a piece of wedding cake and shared a glass of whisky with them. They gave me their best wishes for a long and happy marriage. Then down to the mess deck for some serious rum drinking with the lads.

Preparation for D Day

In retrospect, this was the beginning of our preparations for D Day, but of course we didn't know any detail then. We sailed up the west coast of Scotland in two lines of ten craft. The galley stove would not light up, so obtained permission to alter course to create a favourable wind direction to light the stove. We were soon enveloped in a smoke cloud, which also filled the mess deck. As the cloud lifted, we received a signal, “Are you on fire?”. We sailed round the north coast of mainland Scotland past remote God-forsaken villages and south down the east coast, where we practiced mock landings using live ammunition. We celebrated Palm Sunday, 1944, in Invergordon and afterwards, since all pubs were closed on Sundays, we made do with the ship's rum.

Johnny, our Romeo, lived near Grimsby, so he decided to spend a few hours at home without permission. We sailed and he joined us a week later. He was charged with 7 days AWOL but it could so easily have been the much more serious charge of desertion. He was sentenced to 2 weeks detention in cells on a supply ship. He returned somewhat subdued but he had not done too badly. His three guards were one short for a game of solo. Johnny obliged in return for an evening meal and help with his daily job of 'picking' a measured weight of oakum. This involved tearing apart a piece of rope and plucking it to form a fluffy bunch of waste. In the old days, it was used for caulking the deck.

We docked at Southampton where large numbers of landing craft of many types were swaying round the buoys and the place was teaming with American GI’s. We were sorry to lose our skipper there him being a great bloke who was very popular with everyone. His replacement was a large, rather severe looking black bearded Lieutenant. He had a nervous twitch in his face, which could be mistaken as a wink by the unwary which included a Padre who was seen to wink back. His name was Lt Commander Ring.

Sailing from Southampton to Portsmouth, we struggled in gale force winds to maintain our heading and, as the Needles off the Isle of Wight came ever closer, he knelt down near the voice pipe in what seemed to be an act of pray. The craft slowly swung away from danger until we were back on course. In Portsmouth, the situation was much the same as Southampton - lots of landing craft, activity and Yanks. We loaded up with stores, water, fuel and ammunition. The food was in boxes with rations for four men in each box. These were known as compo rations - typically tins of soya links (sausages), tins of herrings in tomatoes, a tinned pudding, a block of chocolate, chewing gum and toilet paper. You didn’t know what you’d got until you opened the box. Usually, quite a lot of boiled sweets and, of course, hard tack biscuits. It was Sunday, June 4th. The coxswain went ashore and come back with the Sunday papers.

I asked the Skipper for permission to take the RC party ashore. It was only a short distance up Queen Street to the Catholic Cathedral. The Skipper’s reply, “Permission not granted”. I replied with a question, “Why can’t the church party go ashore? The coxswain has already been.” His face turned from red to purple. “We are now under sealed orders and if I say you’re not going, you bloody well stay.”

All hands fell in for the Sunday religious service and no one was excused. The Skipper took command of the occasion, which included an inspection and prayers. The service was Church of England and in those days Roman Catholics, like myself, were not allowed to attend. I waited for the order, “Fall out RCs.” but none came, so RCs were obliged to stay. After Divisions, I complained to the Skipper, who apologised profusely, assuring me he had simply forgotten to give the order for us to fall out. It was an understandable mistake, since we were about to set sail for the beaches of Normandy and he had a lot on his mind.

We dropped anchor off the Isle of Wight in our designated place as part of the largest amphibious invasion force in human history. The Skipper had read his sealed orders and informed us we were sailing that night to take part in a major landing. We were to give support to a landing, code name Sword. We would be on the extreme left flank, our destination was Ouistreham in Normandy. If we sank, any survivors were to swim to the right, as the left would be enemy occupied. In the event, the invasion was postponed by 24 hours due to bad weather. On board, there were mixed feelings of excitement, apprehension and sheer terror. We sailed the following night and were to strike at dawn on the 6th June 1944 – D-day.

D Day

The weather wasn’t too bad as we set off across the Channel at the head of the armada of ships and landing craft of every description heading for Sword beach - a situation repeated on the other four landing beaches. There were few ships to our portside, because we were on the extreme left flank and all the while, overhead, there was a constant drone of aircraft engines.

As dawn broke, I could see the beach in the distance. There was a line of gunboats (LCGs), rocket ships (LCRs) and flack craft (LCFs) and, at the appointed time, all hell broke loose. We were shelling open targets and the rocket ships were firing salvos of 24 rockets at a time in quick succession. Nearby, converted landing craft carrying machine guns, mortars and smoke generators unleashed their awesome, destructive power. Job done, we circled back to make way for the tank landing craft to unload their tanks and the landing craft personnel to discharge their troops onto the defended beaches.

We then stood by, waiting for the Forward Observation Officer to select targets for us. Meanwhile, I could see tanks and men making their way up the beaches, while flail tanks thrashed the beach ahead of them with revolving chains to explode concealed land mines. Behind them, other specialised tanks laid out mesh carpets for the cars, trucks and lorries to drive safely across the sandy beach with their supplies.

Gradually, as the beach heads were forming, troops and vehicles gathered in a secure area ready for the push inland but there were many casualties. After the initial shock of the landing, the defending Germans opened fire with renewed vigour. Overhead, we heard the whine of shells from our destroyers, battleships and cruisers. They were hitting targets inland, to ‘soften’ things up before the assault troops pushed through the beaches to form secure bridge heads inland. The hard pressed beach masters were preparing the tanks and lorries to move off the beach in an orderly fashion to finally secure the beachhead. With the visible beach area now filled with our own troops, our next targets were inland, which were identified by a Forward Observation Officer, who was close to the front line.

There were dead bodies floating in the water, which made me feel sad but lucky to have survived the day. We had been hit seven times, with no casualties, by non-explosive, armour piercing shells. One was found in an empty cordite locker on the deck and another in a box of soap in the storeroom. One penetrated the hull just aft of the engine room, where a row of emergency lamps, being charged up from the generator in the engine room, had been put out of action. We were lucky to avoid casualties. If the cordite charges had been in the locker when the shell pierced through, it would have been a very different story.

We remained at action stations and I busied myself acting as chief cook and bottle washer, since there was no medical related work for me to do. I also provided the gun crews with improvised cotton wool ear protectors and invented the world’s first tea bag when, to prevent tea leaves floating around my brew, I made tea bags from my medical kit gauze. It worked a treat and I could reuse the bags to make a fresh brew a little stronger if required.

By midnight, we were no longer on full alert, allowing the gun crews to remove empty shell cases and to prepare ammunition ready to fire whenever required. None of us slept with the sounds and sights of total war all around us - explosions, white flashes, lines of tracer bullets and shrapnel falling all around us. A couple of tots of rum helped calm our nerves. What a shock it must have been for the German soldiers on duty in their concrete bunkers, overlooking the beaches, to see the largest amphibious invasion force in history coming towards them, when such duty had been previously so uneventful. I imagined their frantic calls to disbelieving senior officers. We didn’t realise we were making history after our disastrous retreat at Dunkirk four years before.

On the morning of the 7th June, we resumed firing, taking orders from the FOOs at the front. The nervous excitement was palpable but we soon settled down to a routine - one gun crew closed down another on standby duties.

The Germans deployed small speedboats carrying high explosives. Their two man crews set the boats on auto-pilot as they approached their target before launching their rubber dinghy to save their lives and to give themselves up. The speedboats were difficult to see in the dark but they had a red pilot light on their stern. Orders were to fire at any red light moving in the water, which was concerning since our inflatable life belts were also fitted with red lights.

After the third night, I accompanied an AB to a nearby destroyer for a medical examination after he fell asleep while on duty, even while standing up. On board the destroyer, I outlined the case to the Medical Officer, explaining that the AB hadn't slept for three days, was not normally quick witted and that we should be lenient towards him. The doctor was a Scot, I was a Lancastrian and the patient was a Cockney. I could just about understand both of them so I acted as interpreter between the Scot and the Cockney. I'm sure the doctor was glad to see the back of us as he gave me a note and prescription that meant the AB would not be charged. The pills were caffeine, a mild stimulant, which became known as his keep-awake pills. He reported to me regularly over some days to receive his medication.

We came under accurate fire from a heavy gun positioned on a hill some distance to the east, which gave cause for concern. The buzz was that the enemy were laying mines at night and their gunfire was designed to drive us into them. The LCGs took turns to shell the gun emplacement and when it was our turn, we sailed east, fired off our shells and apparently silenced it... until we turned about towards our makeshift harbour when shells fell all around us. We survived without taking a hit but these were anxious moments.

Some beached merchant ships on our port side formed a breakwater or makeshift harbour. Two of our lads spoke to the Polish skipper of one of these ships who threw them a line and invited them on board. He spoke good English and invited them to salvage anything from the cargo which was under water. They recovered three wooden crates and rowed back to our craft with their booty. Each crate contained demijohns of rum, which was soon bottled by us and sampled just before the Skipper found out and promptly confiscated it. However, he agreed to splice the mainbrace,  effectively doubling our rum rations while stocks lasted. The bulk of the bottles were locked in the rum store, while a few were dangled over the side for emergencies!

A gale blew up causing our anchor to drag so we sought refuge from a nearby cruiser, HMS Dane. As we drew closer, they fired a line for us to tie up alongside. It was a difficult manoeuvre as our craft steered into a heavy sea, floundering about and being pushed away. We turned about and attempted to close in but the lines were still falling short. Even in the calmer waters of Scottish lochs a good number of jetties bore the physical scars of our manoeuvring difficulties. We edged closer and closer then, inevitably, too close and we rammed the side of the cruiser, causing a six-foot, three-cornered tear in her side. As we tied up, lots of gold braided officers peered down on us. They were amazed that a fiddling little craft (I think the word was fiddling - anyway it began with the letter F) could cause so much damage. While their damage control crew patched up the side with timber, we took the opportunity to cadge some bread from them. As the weather calmed, we went back to our makeshift harbour and I believe HMS Dane returned to Portsmouth for repairs.

Next morning, we gazed upon a silver sea of herring, stunned by some underwater explosion. We tied lines to buckets and reaped the rich harvest. The fish wriggled as we gutted them and we all enjoyed hearty meals of fish with our newly acquired bread.

Our Luck Ran Out

Sword beach was secured and the army was pushing towards Caen. Supplies and reinforcements were arriving unhindered, apart from occasional air raids, which were dealt with by the RAF. Our job was exclusively to support our advancing army by firing on targets as they were identified. About two weeks after D-day, on a quiet, sunny afternoon, we lay at anchor with very little to do.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Able Seaman Lodwidge was on Quartermaster duty on the bridge near the Oerlikon gun. He spotted a hit and run raider flying towards us. He only had time to put one shoulder under the holster before firing in the general direction of the plane, hitting it in the tail and bringing it down into the sea. The regular ack ack gunner was off duty at the time and on his return he painted a swastika on the gun shield and wrote JU88, thereby claiming a Junkers 88 for his gun.

A couple of days later, we sailed along the coast to fire on targets identified by the Forward Observation Officer. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and the German heavy gun on the hill was strangely silent. With little activity, one gun crew went below for tea, while the other stayed on station by their gun. The Marine Officer wanted to see his batman, a nineteen-year-old I knew as Slinger Woods, but he was having none of it; “Bugger him, I’m going for my tea”. As our craft turned about for our anchorage, the ship shook and a hot blast of air from an explosion below deck hit me, followed by a pall of smoke from the hatch near the ammunition room. We had been hit by a six inch shell from the gun on the hill.

It had exploded in the Marine Mess Deck where fourteen lads had just gone for tea, including Slinger Woods. There was a considerable amount of panic as the Marine Mess Deck filled with smoke and the first casualty climbed out on his own and made his way aft to the wheelhouse, which served as my sick bay. The standby gun crew helped other wounded to the wheelhouse, the first of whom had a hole in the side of his neck, which I filled with sulphanilamide powder before applying a field dressing. I left one of my helpers to dress various shrapnel wounds when a good friend of mine, Marine Peter Rabbit, was laid down on the deck of the skipper's cabin. He had a large sucking wound in his chest and a lot of shrapnel wounds about his upper body and arms. I did what I could for him including a shot of morphine from a syringe containing a standard dose.

Another marine was laid on the deck in the small galley, across from the Skipper’s cabin. He had a hole in one of his arms and a piece of shrapnel had broken both bones in his forearm. I dressed the wound, splintered his arm and left Jimmy the One to dress any other wounds, while I attended a  corporal Marine, who was lying on the quarterdeck with a large hole through both his ankles. I dressed them both but he was still bleeding badly so I applied a tourniquet to both legs. The 1st Lt was trying to administer a shot of morphine to another casualty but could not penetrate his skin in the cramped conditions. In this emergency situation, I took the syringe and pushed him out of my way, causing him to overbalanced backwards into a roasting tin of soused herring, which had been left on the galley floor.

When the remaining wounded were attend to, making a total of seven, I checked the Marines mess deck for the remaining seven known to have been in the room. It was a terrible scene of total carnage with 6 to 9 inches of water and blood on the deck and body parts strewn everywhere. There was no doubt that the missing seven were all dead, including Slinger Woods. One marine was still holding a bread knife in his hand. Mercifully, they all died instantly.

I strapped up the wounded in Neil Robinson stretchers and lined them up on deck as we came alongside a merchant ship with an emergency hospital. I accompanied them on board. I looked nothing like a Sick Berth Attendant, since my singlet and arms were smeared with blood and my hair was a tousled mess.

I led a RC chaplain to Peter Rabbit, who was lying on an examination couch. He was barely conscious, while the chaplain performed the Last Rites over him. We were ferried back to our craft, together with a Church of England chaplain, the RC chaplain and a volunteer party of men, who came to prepare our dead for burial at sea. They did their best to sort out various body parts, tied them in hessian sacks and laid them inside a hammock, one for each body, using shells to weigh them down. They were then laid on boards for the burial ceremony, which was attended by the whole ship’s company and then committed to the deep as the boards were tilted and they slipped off to their final resting places. When the chaplains and visitors had gone, we were left alone in a rather sombre atmosphere. I felt empty and sad. The Skipper gave me a full cup of rum and I dozed off into a rather uneasy sleep. The next morning, I cleaned myself up as best I could, as my kit was incomplete and severely damaged. By this time, my right knee was aching and had become swollen.

One of the lads rowed me across to a destroyer to see a doctor, who padded the back of my knee with cotton wool and put a splint on. This gave me a bent right leg and the ability to walk on my toes. He also treated our mascot dog, Butch, by removing a piece of shrapnel from a paw and bandaging it up. The mood on board was sombre, everyone doing his best to remain composed. The tall lad, who had pulled the chicken’s head off in North Africa, was curled up in a ball with a silly grin on his face. I was quite shaken and found myself often unable to complete a sentence, an affliction I was quite conscious of but managed to overcome in time.

The day after the funeral, we headed for Southampton and eventually tied up to a tree on a river in Lord Beaulieu’s estate. Most of us were dressed in odd items of uniform and must have looked a sorry sight. Our ship was due to have repairs in Southampton, so the Skipper granted us a spell of home leave. Before I left the Skipper, who was busy notifying the next of kin, agreed that I should visit Peter Rabbit's family to tell them of his injuries. They lived at Leigh, quite near my home town.

On the Underground between Waterloo and Euston, the carriages were full, so I stood on one leg. A woman nudged her husband and said, “Get up and let that wounded sailor sit down.” I didn’t realise how bad I looked! I arrived safely in Warrington, where Marie and I lived with her mother. There was no bathroom, so I enjoyed a good soak in the Corporation Baths in Legh Street and a change of clothes comprising a clean white shirt and my best uniform (Number Ones), the uniform I was married in and considered too good to keep on board the landing craft. Marie and I caught a bus to Leigh the next day to visit Peter's family. They were very surprised to see us and made us very welcome. There was Peter’s mum and dad and I think a couple of brothers and a sister. I waited a while before I told them the purpose of our visit. Peter’s elder sister was a nursing sister in the Warrington Infirmary, quite near to Froghall Lane, where we were living. Being a nurse, I described the extent of Peter’s injuries and left her to explain to her folks what they wanted to know. They were comforted to know that I had seen him receive the last sacraments. It was a difficult visit to make but I felt much better afterwards but just two days later, Peter’s sister told us that he had died and had been buried at sea.

My knee was improving by the day, although the noise of trains passing by on the main Liverpool to Manchester railway line, which was quite close to Froghall Lane, often caused me to wake in a cold sweat, thinking we were being attacked. Eventually, I got over it. My leave was extended, because dockyard workers refused to enter the Marine’s mess deck, where the shell had exploded killing the 7 men. I believe an increase in pay and a deadline for the repairs resolved the impasse.

The craft had been refitted and the crew given new kit. My pride and joy was a large green suitcase that I kept for many years. We, the naval ratings, were also issued with khaki battle dress and army type boots and looked like Commandos with the Combined Operations badge and a Royal Navy flash on the top of each arm. Back on board, the fresh water was found to be tainted and shrapnel holes in the Marine’s mess deck, which had allowed contaminated liquid to seep into the fresh water tank, were repaired, the tanks flushed out and refilled with fresh water.

In all, we were in Southampton for a month and after a few trials on the refitted craft, we sailed to Portsmouth, where we spent the next few months beached with our nose on a prepared area known as a hard. In September, the Germans launched their second secret V2 rockets from somewhere in Holland. Because of their high velocity, there was no warning of these attacks. Most of the rockets landed in the London area, literally out of the blue. We never did return to Holland and by the end of October rumours started to circulate of another operation.

Operation Infatuate - Walcheren.

There was a strong buzz on the mess deck that we were moving to Southend and a couple of the lads who lived in the area were excited at the prospect of seeing their families. However, their hopes were dashed when we arrived in Ostend.

It soon became an open secret that our final destination was the heavily defended island of Walcheren in the mouth of the River Scheldt at a place called Westkapelle. The port of Antwerp was in Allied hands but could not be used by Allied supply ships because of the enemy's big guns denying access.

Ostend was badly damaged, including the dockyard and the locals were just getting used to the idea of living again after the German occupation.

Operation “Infatuate” got underway on November 1st, the aim of which was to capture Walcheren Island and thereby open up Antwerp to the sea. As we moved out of Ostend, about six minesweepers led the convoy but at least two of them were blown up by mines.

The dawn was very grey and damp. We could see a lighthouse still standing after earlier bombing raids had breached the sea wall causing flooding inland. Bad weather prevented the planned RAF's softening up attack and, as all planes were grounded, the bombarding battleships had no spotting planes and there was no air support for the landing craft. 

At about 8am, a motor launch put down marker buoys. It was fast and manoeuvrable and avoided heavy fire from the Germans. The three big warships opened fire without reply from the German battery and soon a heavy smoke screen laid by the Germans blotted everything out; we could no longer see the lighthouse.

[Photo; RAF Bomber Command Walcheren showing a major breach in the dyke with flooding in the hinterland. © IWM (C 4673).]

The LCGs and the rocket ships engaged the shore batteries and all hell let loose. It seemed as though the water had been marked out in squares by the enemy gunners and once a vessel entered a square it became a sitting target. It seemed our skipper was steering along the lines, since we were not hit.

The rocket ship opened fire but a lot of rockets dropped short and hit our own craft. We pulled out. I was on the quarterdeck and could see the beach getting further away when, just as I was thinking thank God for that, we turned about and went back in again. Once more the skipper found the lines and avoided the squares. There were craft blowing up all around us but we emerged unscathed. We fired our 4.7 inch guns at anything we could.

There was a new type of gunboat being used, more like a ship than our coffin shaped barges - I think they were petrol-driven, being much faster and manouverable. They had ballast tanks that could be flooded, largely removing the effect of waves and giving them the characteristics of a beach fort. I saw one of them get hit. One second it was there, then a huge white flash lit the sky and the next second it was gone. I saw another of the new gunboats beached with Germans on deck with flame throwers toasting everything in their way.

On the return to Ostend, we learned losses of around 75% of men and ships had been incurred. When the weather cleared, rocket firing Typhoon planes went into action and the guns of Walcheren were finally silenced. A fleet of minesweepers cleared the estuary and supply ships were soon docking in Antwerp. I had a copy of a signal sent to the craft. It read something like, “You were the men who turned the key to open the lock to Antwerp”, signed Mountbatten. [For the part played by the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division and other land forces in this operation, please click here.]

Soon after, we returned to Portsmouth in the teeth of gale force conditions. I saw a tower just past Dover but with both engines going full ahead we weren’t making much headway. When the weather calmed one of the LCTs had broken in half, the after part being taken in tow with the crew still on board. We later tied up in Portsmouth dockyard.

The whole Ship's Company was placed on parade in the dockyard, because King George VI was to pay us a visit. We stood there for a couple of hours in our summer uniform awaiting his arrival. It was a bitterly cold mid November day but overcoats were not to be worn. We were brought to attention, as he walked right past us. One of the officers was heard to tell him, “These are some of the men who took part in the Walcheren landing.” His reply, “Are they back already?”, seemed to lack any real understanding of what we had been through and what we had achieved. We decided that an extra tot of rum would warm us up when we got back on board. We toasted the Kings health, albeit reluctantly.

From War to Peace

We were given leave when I learned that Marie was 2 months pregnant. Back in Portsmouth there was little useful work to keep us occupied. All-night leave was commonplace. While standing at a bar, I was joined by a tall corporal marine, a Preston lad. He warmly greeted me, “Hello doc’, thank you for saving my life.” It was the marine who had a hole in each ankle and I had applied a tourniquet. He was now fit for duty. As a matter of fact, two or three of my wounded rejoined the ship.

The mess caterer on board had procured a large turkey for Christmas dinner. Our roasting tin wasn't big enough to cook it in but we eventually borrowed one from a cookhouse near Nelson’s Victory but it was too big for our oven. Not to be defeated by this setback, the motor mechanic built an extension for the oven but generating enough heat to cook it was challenging. The 'cook' sat up with it all night keeping the fire going, while basting the bird. In the morning, he emerged from the galley with his face quite black apart from two white circles around his eyes and one around his lips.

Traditionally the officers wait on the ratings at Christmas dinner. The youngest marine went into Jimmy the One’s cabin and came out wearing a sub-lieutenants uniform. After dinner, he handed round a large box of cigars, which we later discovered belonged to the 1st-lieutenant - a present from his wife. No one would own up to taking or smoking the cigars, so we were all confined to ship for seven days. This was no hardship since we sailed a few days later.

We finished up back in Holland at a village called Hansweert, which was at the mouth of a canal that opened up into the sea. We tied up seaward of the lock gates where there was a fifteen to twenty foot difference between high and low tide. The lock gates were opened and we moved into the canal, which was not tidal, allowing us to easily step from ship to shore. Hansweert was not more than a village. We befriended a Dutch family, the Van Bovens. Their sheer enjoyment of eating white bread and marmalade sandwiches and receiving blocks of soap and tobacco from us was a delight to behold. We spent many pleasant evenings with the family, sometimes singing carols, including Silent Night. It was a special treat for us to hear the kids singing in Dutch.

The weather became extremely cold and, when the canal turned to ice, we were frozen in. Snow began to fall and keeping warm on board was impossible, while condensation on the deckhead added to our woes. It was so cold that, if you touched the guard rail or gun combing on deck without gloves, your hand would stick to it. We moved into the village hall, which was heated by about half a dozen wood burning stoves and slept on our hammock mattresses on the floor. Unlike our galley stoves, the Dutch ones brought water to the boil in minutes rather than the hour we were used to.

When the weather improved, we returned to our ship. One day, I was summoned by an anxious call, “Doc! Come quickly, Johnny has shot himself”. His face and neck were covered in blood, but when I cleaned him up, there was a only a small cut on his upper lip. He explained what had happened. A Dutch policeman had left his rifle leaning on the combing, while he went down the hatch to the wardroom. Johnny examined the gun out of curiosity and when it accidentally discharged, the bullet ricocheted off the combing and a slither of shrapnel hit Johnny. A visit to a doctor in a town called Goes, pronounced hoose, confirmed the wound was clean and, after a couple of stitches, we returned to the ship.

A few of us caught the flu and became quite ill; my temperature was 102. The doctor gave Dovers tablets to reduce my temperature. After a week or so, it returned to normal. We had a Scottish cartoonist on board, who soon made my temperature chart look like a range of snow capped mountains with alpine climbers hauling each other up the slopes. Even the doctor was amused at the pretty picture. Around this time, we saw smoke trails in the distance going vertically into the sky. These were the German V2 rockets, said to be from the island of Schouwen. We speculated that our presence in Holland might be to attack the island but not so.

We stayed quite awhile in Hansweert and integrated well with the locals. About half a dozen women seldom ventured outside during daylight hours and always covered their heads with a shawl or scarf. Mrs Van Boven explained that they had fraternised with the Germans when they occupied the area. They had been living quite comfortably, the Germans treating them well for services rendered. When the Germans withdrew from the area, the women were rounded up and publicly had their heads shaved. To me, they were harmless women who were caught up in impossible circumstances and had made the most of the conditions they had found themselves in. However, they had obviously offended the villagers and were publicly humiliated.

In war, nothing stays the same for long and after 6 or 8 weeks, we set sail for home, still wondering why we had been sent there. Our departure was quite emotional as the villagers waved us off and a lone piper played “Will ye no’ come back again”. The skipper was lying in his bunk and looked very much under the weather with a sore throat and a high temperature. I advised him to stay in bed and gave him some Dovers tablets. I also crushed some aspirin tablets, mixed them in water and labelled the bottle 'Mist Acetisalysilicum' for a gargle. The impressive title bestowed upon the simple mixture greatly enhanced its healing powers. My medicine chest only held basic materials but they could be very effective if given Latin names and a little verbal embellishment.

On our return journey through the English Channel, a thick fog descended and the Skipper appeared on the bridge looking like a sickly ghost. Even he had no idea where we were, so the safest course of action was to drop anchor. When the engines stopped, the tidal flow swung the craft around on the anchor chain. The eerie silence was broken only by the sound of a clanging bell, which we assumed was on a buoy. About mid morning, as the fog lifted, the beach at Southsea came into view about 100 yards away. We received an urgent flashing signal, “Where the hell do you think you are? Don’t move, stay there, you have crossed the mine defence in the night. We will send a pilot to board you and guide you to a safe channel to the harbour”.

While in Portsmouth the news got better by the day. On April 30th, Hitler committed suicide as the war in Europe was coming to a close. By May 8th, VE Day (Victory in Europe) we were in Poole harbour where there was great rejoicing. The blackout was lifted when the song, “When the lights go on again all around the world”, became very popular. Our dreams of peace over five years were finally becoming a reality. Concealed bottles of rum were consumed and two LCGs had a mock battle firing Very pistols at each other.

The euphoria sometimes had unforeseen consequences. On board our craft was one of the first ship-to-air missiles. It was not heat-seeking or radio-controlled - just electrically fired by a button on the bridge. It was three or four inches in diameter with a net of piano wire housed in a locker just beneath it, which was designed to wrap around the propeller of an attacking plane. No situation had arisen to try it out until 'Jimmy the One' gave his girl friend the honour of pressing the button; the first one ever to do so. There was a terrific blast and whoosh. The rocket took off and so did Jimmy’s trousers! He was standing too close and the blast removed them, leaving him standing in short pants with his legs badly powder burned. He was in hospital for quite a long time and was lucky to keep his legs.

In May, I was given leave and returned home to Warrington where Marie was now eight months pregnant, positively blooming and excited about the forthcoming happy event. She hadn’t much idea of what really happened at the birth but she did know that the baby wasn’t going to arrive in a Gladstone bag, which most midwives carried on the back of their bikes!

Everyone was so happy that the European war over but the war in the Far East, against the Japanese, was still raging. I always dreaded the thought of being sent out there. We called at Brixham, Plymouth, Milford Haven and the Isle of Man, where we tied up to the jetty but were soon ordered out to a buoy half a mile from shore when our marines started a local war all by themselves. We then sailed north to the River Clyde and tied up to a buoy on Loch Fyne adjacent to Inveraray. Still no news from home.

There was only one street with a main post office, Gillespie’s cafe half way down and a pub, along side of which was a path to the main jetty and other shops. It was a remote, quiet place, where it often rained or became shrouded in Scotch mist. There was a saying there that if you could see across the loch it was a sign of rain and if you couldn’t see across, it was raining.

If no one needed to see the doctor in Inveraray, I would row to the main jetty near the pub, deal with the mail at the post office, buy daily newspapers and fresh fish from a shop hidden down a little alley at the side of the shoe shop.

When I rowed back to the ship on June 29th, the quartermaster congratulated me on the birth of a baby daughter on the 24th. I drank a lot of rum, gin and whisky that day as I received congratulations from the skipper, 1st lieutenant and the marine officer. There was a party atmosphere on the mess deck and the booze flowed freely. I was soon oblivious to what was going on and the skipper gave orders to let me sleep it off unless there was an emergency.

Next day I applied for leave from an officer on shore. “Why do you want compassionate leave?”, “My wife has had a baby sir.”  “Good God man, you’re better off miles away! Leave denied.”

A couple of days later we were “paid off”. As we sailed away from LCG 9 it looked a sorry sight shrouded in Scotch mist. I had been on board the floating coffins for over two years and had mixed feelings. We boarded a ferry at Stranraer to Larne in Northern Ireland, then a train to Belfast Dock. The full ship’s company, complete with bags and hammocks, joined a new LCG. It had the same square front and flat bottom but was purpose-built, not a converted tank landing craft. It had electric lights, running water, an oil fired galley stove that could boil water and do some serious cooking, a fridge, facilities to make bread and air conditioning shafts running right through the mess decks. My sick bay was no longer a box in the wheelhouse but a room just in front of the wardroom. It had double bunk beds, one above the other, mounted on swivels to keep them level in rough seas and I had an electric kettle, a steriliser and a white sink with hot and cold running water.

The End of the War                           

The buzz was that the Far East was our next destination but events were moving fast. On July 27th, still in Belfast dock, we voted by proxy in a general election and Winston Churchill was defeated by Clem Atlee, who became Prime Minister. On August 6th, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima with devastating destruction and loss of life and a second three days later on Nagasaki. On the 14th August, the Japanese surrendered and the official end of WW2 was set for the 5th September 1945.

I was home on leave for VJ Day and the country went wild with celebrations. I finally got to see my new daughter and was over the moon. There were street parties everywhere and everyone you met was your friend. I never sailed on my new luxury gunboat, since my next posting was to a Combined Operations base in Poole, where all the sick berth attendants from LCGs were sent. There was little for us to do, since the sick bay was already fully resourced.

I applied for leave and when asked the reason replied, “I want to get my new family down here”. “Do you intend making your home in Poole?”, asked the officer, to which I replied, “I couldn’t say for certain sir, I will have to see if my wife likes it down here”. “How long leave do you think you need?” was his final question to which I replied, “Oh, I think I can settle my affairs at home in about a week.” Leave was granted and I was soon back in Warrington enjoying a relaxing week's leave with my family before setting off for Poole.

Marie and I with baby Maureen, who was only a few weeks old, caught a train to Euston. Maureen was in a carrycot and Marie, an inexperienced mother, was to say the least a little apprehensive. We were to stay with a family I had befriended in Poole and were so looking forward to a quiet evening by the fire and a good night's sleep but, when they met us from the train, we were informed that the family had arranged a party for us in the church hall! In the end we stayed only a matter of weeks. I think Marie was relieved to be going home to her family and friends, she only had me at Poole.

I found myself back in Portsmouth Barracks, where I was given a desk job. I was also on standby ambulance duties, often picking up victims of drunken brawls. As demobilisation took hold, sick bay attendants were helpful to the authorities in conducting pre-demob medical checks. As a consequence, our demobs had to wait. I forgot my dad’s advice not to volunteer for anything when I bared my arm to an extremely blunt needle. I was soon on my way again, once again, to Stamshaw, where the huts had been converted to house a large number of flu victims, all the result of the anti-flu jab!

I heard word of Maxy Bacon, the man I’d seen earlier in custody for being AWOL. Apparently he had jumped ship in Sicily to live with a local girl. Later he somehow obtained an eighth army identity disc and pay book and fought all through the Italian campaign before his true identity was discovered. He was charged with desertion from the day that he left the craft in Sicily.

On the 3rd of May 1946, a form headed Order of Release from Naval Service (Class A) informed me that, “The date of your release will be 1st July 1946". I reported to Stamshaw on the due date for the demobilisation process. I chose a grey herringbone single-breasted suit, a blue shirt, a dark grey Burberry top coat and a pair of brown brogue shoes. A trilby hat appeared to be compulsory, however the largest I could find had to be stretched to fit! The suit looked like a 'hand me down' and the trilby was, by then, widely accepted as a sign of recent demobilisation.

Back home I was like a hen on hot bricks. It took a while to fully appreciate I was now a civilian. The matron of the local hospital informed me that my naval experience did not count. I would have to start as a probationer at £2, 5 shillings per week. I opted for my old job as a shoe repairer, which paid £4, 5s a week.

Years after the war, my wife bought me a paperback book titled “The War of the Landing Craft” by Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam. It was of special interest to me, because it explained the development of LCGs, which were converted from tank carrying LCTs. In April 1943, the planning and design specifications were hurriedly agreed and many conversions were undertaken in the Belfast dockyards. The bow ramp was welded shut and a deck fitted in front of the wheelhouse to three-quarters of the length of the craft, which left an open space between the sealed off tank ramp and the drop door. Two circular supports were fitted fore and aft for the 4.7 guns from old American destroyers. An Oerlikon gun was fitted in a circular stepped well on either side of the bridge for anti-aircraft fire. It all looked top heavy for a small craft to carry such big guns and the open space between the gun deck and the square bow would surely fill up with water in rough seas.

The loss of LCG 15 & LCG 16 was hushed up at the time. Only a censored announcement was made that two naval barges had sunk in fierce seas and seventy mile an hour gales. Several vessels were involved in a rescue attempt, including HMS Rosemary and the St David's lifeboat. The LCGs were referred to as barges to hide the true identity and purpose of the remainder of the secret gunboats in Belfast. There were no survivors from LCG 15 and only three from LCG 16. When I joined LCG 13 at Falmouth, the fate of 15 and 16 was completely unknown to me. However, following the total loss of 15 & 16, the forward part of the craft was enclosed. We made it safely through the Atlantic and back, thanks to the lessons learned from sacrifices of the crews of LCGs 15 and 16.

Considering the many dangerous operations LCG 13 was involved in, she survived the war and was certainly lucky for some.

Now down on our ship we have chiefs and POs,

Where they get their rank from, well nobody knows,

              But they stand on the deck and they bawl and they shout,

             They shout about things they know sod all about,

             ( Chorus )

            Roll on the Nelson, the Rodney, Renown,

                 These flat-bottomed barges (bastards) are getting me down!

Further Reading

On this website there are around 50 accounts of landing craft training and operations and landing craft training establishments.

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

Visit this link for LCG specification. http://www.6juin1944.com/assaut/amphib.php?id=15


This account was written by David Percival from the hand written recollections of his father, veteran Sick Bay Attendant, John Francis Percival. It was further edited by Geoff Slee for website presentation, including the addition of photographs and maps and approved by David Percival before publication.

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