Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Passages: Canadians Train with Commandos

Approaching a Hostile Shore

'We all know we are doing something that has never been done before' is a line from The Green Beret: The Story of the Commandos by Hilary St. George Saunders.

Though the speaker of the above line is unknown it could very well have been my father, Doug Harrison. I say this for several reasons.

In The Green Beret: The Story of the Commandos I learn that 'in the early stages of development through which the Commandos passed, each troop trained as far as possible with the naval officers and ratings who manned the craft which were to take both into action.' My father was a naval rating, not only being trained in the same area of northern Scotland and southern England and at the same time as the Commandos, but being trained to man Assault Landing Craft (ALCs, transport for troops) and Landing Craft Mechanized (LCMs, transport for much of the materiel of war, e.g., fuel, ammunition, tank mesh, rations, rum, etc.).

D. Harrison (r), guarding Quonset huts in,
possibly, Rosneath or Irvine, Scotland 1942

As well, as a child, and while sitting at my parents' kitchen table, I was privy to a conversation between my father, an uncle and cousins about father's World War 2 experience. The Commandos were mentioned, but I wasn't old enough to take in the significance of the animated conversation's details.

In The Green Beret I also read the aforementioned officers and ratings who handled the barges filled with Commandos 'belonged for the most part to that great company of H.O.'s, as those who enlisted for the duration of hostilities only were known throughout the Navy' (pg. 46). In his naval memoirs my father described his first two years of volunteer service with RCNVR and Combined Operations as 'H.O., hostilities only'.  

What follows are excerpts from The Green Beret that relate to Canadian Combined Ops ratings like my father.

The Enthusiastic Amateur

In peacetime many of them had served in
the Merchant Navy, or had been yachtsmen.
There was something to be said in wartime
for the enthusiastic amateur, able to carry out
his duties under the guidance and command of
the regular officers of the Royal Navy. When not
on patrol or engaged on operations they lived on
shore establishments run strictly on Navy lines.

   The training was designed to deal with
   the problems of approaching a hostile shore,
   landing upon it, remaining off it at close call,
   and then re-embarking troops from it. 
   How to beach, when to beach, how long to
   remain aground, how best to use a kedge for
   getting off, how to avoid stripping a propeller:
   these were among the problems which
   they learned to master.

'The business of keeping a ship beached
but not stranded, of shuffling it on its belly
up and down the shore, while it is being
loaded or unloaded, possibly under fire,
is no game for any but the trained,'
was the comment of one of the instructors.
One of the ratings was heard to say,
'The good thing about this job is that
we all know we are doing something
that has never been done before.'

The Green Beret, pages 46 and 47

How to beach... how best to use a kedge

What follows are related excerpts from my father's naval memoirs. The first relates to training exercises; the second to D - Day North Africa, November, 1942.

D. Harrison, front, watches Americans unload LCM, November 1942
Photo credit - F.A. Hudson, RN photographer (Imperial War Museum)

You Stay With the Barge

After much practice

The job of the seaman on an ALC or LCM is to
let the bow door down and wind it up by means
of a winch situated in the stern of the barge.
This winch is divided so you can drop a kedge*
possibly about 100 or so feet from shore depend-
ing on the tide. If it is going out you can unload
and then put motors full astern, wind in the kedge
and pull yourself off of the beach. The tide is very
important and constantly watched. If it is going out
(on the ebb) and you are slow, you can be left high
and dry, and if so, you stay with the barge. 


Working like Bees

On November 11, 1942 the Derwentdale dropped
anchor off Arzew in North Africa and different ships
were distributed at different intervals along the vast coast.
My LCM had the leading officer aboard, another sea-
man besides me, along with a stoker and Coxswain.
At around midnight over the sides went the LCMs,
ours with a bulldozer and heavy mesh wire, and about
500 feet from shore we ran aground. When morning
came we were still there, as big as life and all alone,
while everyone else was working like bees. 

There was little or no resistance, only snipers, and I kept
behind the bulldozer blade when they opened up at us.
We were towed off eventually and landed in another spot,
and once the bulldozer was unloaded the shuttle service began.
For ‘ship to shore’ service we were loaded with five gallon
jerry cans of gasoline. I worked 92 hours straight and
I ate nothing except for some grapefruit juice I stole. 

"Dad, Well Done", pages 25 and 26

Canadian men of the barges, circa 1942 - 45"
lower left, D. Harrison, Norwich Ontario

Back of above photo: Canadians used the term Commando"

Unattributed Photos by GH

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