Saturday, October 15, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 11

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

More Combined Ops service in Canada, 1944 - 45

Introduction: The following post will be part of a Nov. 2016 presentation regarding my father's WW2 service with the RCNVR and Combined Operations organization.

Part 11 - Late 1943. Return to UK, Then Home to Canada
Next Service with Combined Operations - Comox, B.C.

Once the Canadians in Combined Ops were finished their duties re Operation BAYTOWN in Italy, they made their way back to England. More opportunities for service with Comb. Ops followed, and - to my surprise - my father ended up on the West Coast of canada within a month or two.

He writes these few words at the conclusion of a news article about in the invasions of Sicily and Italy:

Our flotilla went back to Malta for a few days and from there we took fast Motor Torpedo boats to Bougie in North Africa and boarded a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma, whose propellor shaft was bent from a near miss with a bomb. In convoy we made about eight knots up the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, anchored inside the submarine nets for a couple of days, and slowly moved out one night for England.

In true navy fashion, after landing at Gourock, near our Canadian barracks H.M.C.S. Niobe in Greenock, we entrained for a barracks at Lowestoffe, where on a clear day the church spires of Norwich could be seen. We spent a month there, then went by train to Niobe, received two new uniforms and a ticket aboard the Aquitania, arriving safely at Halifax on December 6th, 1943.

Joe Watson (far left)  and Doug Harrison (behind Joe) aboard Aquitania

I had a wonderful Christmas at home with Mother and family. It was sure nice to walk down Main Street and meet the people.

"DAD, WELL DONE", page 117


My father mentions more about that time, late 1943, in his memoirs:

After our work from Sicily to Italy was done and our armies were advancing we returned to Malta. We stayed but a few days, then took MT boats to Bougie in Algiers, and were soon after loaded onto a Dutch ship, the Queen Emma. The ship had been bombed and strafed, her propellor shaft was bent and we could only make eight knots an hour under very rough conditions. Her super structure was easily half inch steel, and in various places where shrapnel had struck I could see holes that looked like a hole punched in butter with a hot poker, like it had just melted.

We arrived at Niobe barracks in Scotland and in true navy style were put on a train and sent to Lowestoft in England, not too far from Norwich, England (my hometown’s namesake or visa versa) on or near the east coast.

Backing up a bit. While on the Queen Emma we had an attack of boils break out and we were taking exams to become Acting Leading Seamen. It was my fortune to not get boils at first, and I teased everyone aboard. But my turn came. I got three beauts close together on my neck. I went to sick bay, and what did they put me on? You guessed it - mercurochrome. I said, I won’t be back, same as when I broke my toe, and I didn’t. I passed my exam, got my book and carried the boils clear to Lowestoft.

I heard mess deck buzz. We were getting a lot of money and going on leave. The stipulated time for ratings is twenty-four months overseas and we were closing in. No more raids. Thanks God, for pulling me through. The mess deck buzz proved to be correct, they gave us all a pile of money (pound notes), and I thought it was too many for me because I made a big allotment to my mother. How they ever kept track of our pay I’ll never know, and to my dying day I will believe they gypped me right up to here.

Before going on leave I went to Stoker Katanna and I said, pinch out these boils. “I’ll lean on the top bunk and no matter how it hurts, pinch them out.” I never felt a thing because they were as ripe as cherries. I slopped on a big bandaid and away I went on leave, never bothering to answer a ton of mail. I also received eight hundred cigarettes.

We were due for a do and we did it up brown. You couldn’t possibly lose me in London, England even when I was three sheets to the wind. No way.

About leave. When I was in southern England I put in for Glasgow and received two extra days for travelling time. But I never really saw Glasgow. I went, paid off a grudge, and immediately put in for the return trip to London.

Do I have a reason for such odd behaviour? Yes. One day at Roseneath camp in Scotland, we ratings were all fallen in ranks, when out comes black garters and he says, “Any one of you guys a fast runner?” I stepped one pace forward. “Okay, run over there,” says black garters, “get a wheel barrow, shovel, fork, hoe, and go with this man and clean up that big estate garden.” What a hell of a shock and what a hell of a job. It had been left for years. I made up my mind then that I would get back at black garters, and I connived to do it while on a leave, and I damn well did.

About Roseneath camp. It was where many chaps came down with impetigo and they were put on Gentian violet, the colour of an elderberry stain. O/S Art Bradfield, of Bradfield Monuments in Simcoe, went to Dieppe in pajamas - under his uniform - the only man to go to Dieppe in pajamas, and he got out of bed in Roseneath to do it.

After my leave I went back to Lowestoft, then to Greenock, then was loaded on a ship back to Canada and 52 days leave. Mum waited at Brantford Station for every train for days and I never came. And when I did arrive she wasn’t there. But she sure made a big fuss when she saw me and we cried an ocean full of tears. It was nice to be home again, Mum. It was coming up to Christmas and quite a few times I thought we would never see another one. I thank God for his protection.

Back to Lowestoft*. Before leaving Lowestoft, oppo Frank Herring and I visited the Top Hat Pub. When we entered two WAAF girls were there, one blonde and one brunette. After three or four drinks we moved to their table and asked if we could join and they said, “Yes, of course.”

So we had a few more drinks - the girls paid a fair share - and all the while I had my eye on the blonde. It was getting close to “Gentlemen Please” time and the girls suggested we go down to a games room where there were pinball machines, so we all agreed and I grabbed the blonde and Frank the brunette. There was a terrible closing rush in the ‘black-out doors’ area, and when we arrived at the pinball machine area I had the brunette and Frank the blonde. Such is life.

But all is well that ends well. We saw them other times and being cooks they brought us wonderful cookies and goodies from a bakery. I maintained a correspondence with Grace Purvis, the brunette, and spent a wonderful weekend with her at a Blackpool resort, enjoying circus rides and long walks on the pier. I respected her very much as her boyfriend was in the Eighth Army and she remained very true to him. Where are you today, Gracie? I sure hope you and he are happily married.

What can I say about fifty-two days leave at home? Draw it out... or say it was mostly wine, women and song?

I guess that covers it without revealing too much. 

"It was mostly wine, women and song?" Wedding day, Spring 1944 

*Editor’s note - Doug’s meeting with WAAF Gracie Purvis likely occurred in Southend-on-Sea one year earlier. A more detailed story appears in a contribution to St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1.

Doug and a woman in uniform (likely a CWAC) enjoy soda pops 

From "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 37 - 39

My father wrote a bit about his duties and adventures in Comox, BC in his memoirs:


Then I went to Givenchy III, known as Cowards Cove, at Comox on Vancouver Island. It was absolute heaven there. Just normal routine; I trained a few zombies on cutters, and played ball five or six times a week under a good coach.

I also looked after Captain Windyer’s sailboat and prepared it when he wished to go for a sail. One day quite a wind was blowing and I was called by the captain to prepare the boat for sailing. First thing I did was drop the drop keel and it sheered its bolt stoppers and plummeted into twenty feet of ocean. Diving would not raise it because we could not dive low enough, but by means of a wire we hooked a hole and retrieved it and soon the sailboat was ready to sail.

“Isn’t it a bit windy today, sir, for sailing such a small craft?” I said. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he remarked. He hadn’t gone a hundred fathoms when the sailboat tipped over and he was bottoms up. We rescued him with an LCM barge, and when he came ashore - hair flattened and really soaked - he never even glanced my way. I wouldn’t have either.

At Givenchy III I passed professionally for my Leading Seaman rating and Acting Coxswain, classed very good.

We used to go to the Riverside Hotel in Courtenay and rent room number 14 because it had a window that opened into an alley just about hip high. Then we proceeded to drink Riverside dry, go to a dance and return to the room and find another dozen sailors who had come in the alley window. The room was crammed, and when we left on Sunday morning the manager’s head turned to and fro, like someone watching a ping pong game. He was utterly astounded but never called a halt because we were such nice guys.

Unfortunately, the Riverside Hotel was destroyed by fire, 1960s

I had a fight with a Police Constable named Carson. I was drunk and he asked me for my I.D. card. I took a punch at him, missed him by a pole length and he assisted me to the cruiser, he was very kind. He had a hammer lock on me so didn’t open the door, he just put me through the open back window. You know, that shoulder is still sore. He took me to jail, but the cell was already packed with sailors and cleaning equipment, i.e., mops, brooms, etc. They lit the equipment on fire and smoke forced us all out. He didn’t like me because our team used to beat his team at ball. Big sissy. Poor loser.

At Givenchy L/Sea Rose and I took a job washing dishes, but we gave everyone to understand that we had to be at the beach at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m.). There were 150 ratings to start but many were shipped out. If we were going to be late we grabbed dishes half full and said, “you’re done”, because we couldn’t keep the girls waiting.

Wm. Fischer, a stoker (not of Combined Ops but of R.C.N.V.R.), was stationed there. He had, I believe, an unequalled experience. He was on an Atlantic convoy run, on H.M.C.S. St. Croix, and one night in rough seas the St. Croix was sunk and he was the lone survivor. His life jacket had lights on and later he was picked up by the English ship H.M.S. Itchen. It in turn was torpedoed and Fischer was one of three survivors. They took him and his wife on saving bond tours, etc., but when he was asked to go to sea again, he said he would go to cells first. With an experience like that I would have too. He was lucky to be alive.

Doug trained “Zombies on cutters” while on Vancouver Island, 1944 - 45 
Photo by G. Bell, as found in Land of Plenty: History of Comox District 

Gordon Bell, a YMCA director, came to ‘the spit’ as it was called nearly everyday and provided piano music, sewed on crests and buttons, repaired uniforms and showed movies. One night my oppo, Frank Herring, slightly drunk, was laughing his booming laugh at a hilarious movie when he took a sudden urge and jumped right out the window, frame and all, and he didn’t even get out.

There was a government oyster breeding ground at Givenchy and at low tide we would get bags full of the largest ones and put them in the water near the barracks, so, when the tide came in no one saw them and when tide went out we had a feast. We cooked a lot, but some of the large ones we ate raw. They were hard to swallow, i.e., the large ones, and we often needed a slap on the back to be able to move it down our throat. 

It was beautiful to see the snow-capped mountains and the contours - which had various names.

Then one day, the day we had been waiting for came -- V.E. day -- and what a celebration. They poured beer in my hair, there was no routine, but nothing untoward happened. The fellows were just so glad, that it gave us time to think back and count our blessings. No, I cannot recall anything unusual happening to write about. It had a sobering effect on most of us who had been in Combined Operations under the White Ensign.

Of course, I said we were very very happy, but we were also very very lucky and knew it. Soon we went to H.M.C.S. Naden, with none of us volunteering for the Japanese theatre of war, although we were all asked by a recruiting officer.

Back row: Donald Westbrook, Charlie Rose, Joe Spencer 
Front row: Joe Watson, Doug Harrison, Arthur Warrick 

A naval photographer took a picture of six of us: L/S Watson, L/S Warrick, L/S Rose, L/S Westbrook, L/S Spencer and myself, L/S Harrison, because we all joined the same day, went through twenty-three months overseas together and were going to be discharged all on the same day too.

"DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 40 - 43


My father finished his Navy memoirs with the following lines:

After being shipped from Givenchy III (Combined Ops training base, Comox, Vancouver Island) to H.M.C.S. Naden in Esquimalt, B.C., I entrained for the new H.M.C.S. Star built in my absence in Hamilton, Ontario.

I wasn’t home a day before they were after me to go to the Co-op and work again, they were short of men.

I said, “No sir. I have leave coming to me and I’m taking it.”

In fact, my records weren’t in after the first thirty days so I got another thirty days of leave. But the third time I went back I got my discharge having signed up for Hostilities Only. I was discharged one day before my twenty-fifth birthday, September 5, 1945.

I resumed work at the Norwich Co-op, worked my way up from truck driver to production manager and was pensioned off in October, 1975 after being there nearly forty years counting my time in the Royal Canadian Volunteer Reserve Navy. I had fulfilled my ambition to be a sailor like my Dad and Lord Admiral Nelson and I am very proud.

It would cost a small fortune today to retrace the places I had been to and seen under the White Ensign. At D-Day I was at H.M.S. Givenchy III but many of our boys took part in that too.

Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along
Roll along, Wavy Navy, roll along
If they ask you who you are
We’re the R.C.N.V.R.
Royal along, Canadian Navy, roll along

From "DAD, WELL DONE" Page 47


The following article by Doug Harrison appears as found in The Norwich Gazette. I recall reading it in 2010 as if for the first time - after a busy summer; I'd buried my father at sea a few months earlier and had just returned from a second visit to Ottawa and The War Museum. The article propelled me onward, to learn more about Dad's Navy Days:


In 1944 I was stationed in barracks on a piece of land called “The Spit” at Comox on Vancouver Island, B.C. About a half mile of water separated the spit from Comox and to get ashore we had to be inspected and travel to Comox on a real Liberty boat.

Fishing for salmon was great there. I myself never fished; I ended up on the business end of a pair of oars in the Captain’s dinghy while someone else sat in the stern and trawled, using filleted herring as bait which acted as a shiny spinner. Some Fridays we were able to supply the noon meal with freshly caught salmon. We didn’t have meat because of the R.C.s.

In order to catch herring for bait we used an old Indian custom. We acquired a thin piece of wood, similar to house trim, about six feet long. At one end we pounded in about 18 inches of finishing nails about an inch apart. The heads were snipped off the nails and it looked like a long comb. When we saw the sea gulls diving for fish near the jetty we rushed down with our long comb and when a school of herring swam past we just poled them up onto the jetty. What we didn’t require we threw back in. The natives had a rule; if the gulls are in, the herring are in, and if the herring are in, the salmon are too, and away we went fishing. A few miles west of Comox was the small town of Courtenay, and I stood amazed on the bridge over the river in spawning season and watched the salmon. Bank to bank salmon - it didn’t seem possible.

At Comox, right close to our barracks was a government breeding ground for oysters. I never knew of such a thing and didn’t care particularly as all I had eyes for were those monstrous oysters which showed up when the tide went out. I wasn’t alone, believe me.

As the tide ebbed at night we once again borrowed the Captain’s dinghy and a few burlap bags and rowed out to the oyster bed. We climbed out of the dinghy into the horrible muck, filled our burlap bags and paddled away before the tide left us aground. These choice oysters were dumped into the sea out of sight behind the barracks, thereby assuring us of our own private oyster supply. We ate most of them raw; salt water and a bit of sand didn’t matter too much and a good slap on the back was required most times to help swallow them. Wonderful!

I acted as Coxswain on large navy cutters as soldiers worked the oars. The cutters were 27 feet long and wide enough (except at the bows) to seat four men, two men to an oar. This was fun, getting the proper stroke amongst 18 green oarsmen. If the rhythm was wrong and an oar caught a crab (got stuck in the water), the effect was that nearly every thwart was cleared of oarsmen and bedlam prevailed. “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” I hollered, bursting from laughter. The oars are about 12 feet long and are they ever heavy. To give the soldiers a well-earned rest I would give the order “Rest oars.” Then the oars would be pulled in, rested on each side of the cutter, and the soldiers could rest their weary arms on the looms for awhile.

“I enjoyed giving the order to toss oars” at The Spit, Comox BC
Photo credit - Sailor Remember by W. H. Pugsley

I enjoyed giving the order to ‘toss oars’. With this the huge oars were brought from the water and as quickly as possible tossed up in the air, and of course the water came pouring down from the blades in a regular storm for a minute and everyone got soaked to the hide, including me, but on a hot day it was refreshing. I was longing for a swim anyway. There were several cutters with soldiers and with experience we began to have races. The competition was a good thing and a real esprit de corp developed within the teams. The races were close, the blisters were soon forgotten and the training became enjoyable as some fun was injected into it.

I was on the navy softball and hardball teams* and we played as many as six games a week. For a diversion when we had liberty on weekends a bunch of us sailors would go into Courtenay for a show, beer or dancing at the Sons of Freedom Hall. One man went in advance if possible and booked Room 14 at the Riverside Hotel. There was a good reason for doing so. Room 14 had a low window which faced onto an alley and late Saturday night and early Sunday morning after a long night on the town, many sailors retreated through the window to sleep wherever space was available, piled like cordwood, as many as 12 in a room for two. In the morning, when we had to sign out of the room, it would have made some sense if a few had again retreated out the window, but oh no! Everyone had to file out past the desk clerk whose head moved back and forth like someone watching a tennis match. The management of the Riverside remained nice to us however, and in due time we quit taking advantage of their good nature - that was enough of a good thing.

One thing clings to my memory most about the dance band as well - the drummer’s heavy foot. The beat of the drum could be heard for blocks. It reminded me a bit of Jake Searles, drummer for the Salvation Army band down at McWhirter’s corner on Main and Stover streets (in Norwich) years ago. It didn’t matter to Jake, the tempo of the music, he marched to his own drum - thump, thump, thump - meanwhile saying hello to most everyone who passed by. Every Saturday night Jake was a part of Norwich which many will long remember. Got away from the subject of the navy, didn’t I?

*Navy #1 Team: Front: (L-R) V. Mauro, C. Rose, D. Harrison, B. Kidd, J. Spencer
Back: J. Ivison, J. Malone, W. Grycan, G. Hobson, D. Arney, D. Zink

From "DAD, WELL DONE", Pages 125 - 127

From the photo gallery in above book:

Canadians in Combined Operations, January 1944, stop in Hornepayne,
Northern Ontario, on their way to Comox, on Vancouver Island

(L - R) Don Linder, Chuck Rose, Buryl McIntyre (back),
Joe Watson, Don Westbrook. Photo - Doug Harrison

The Spit (narrow piece of land), offshore from Comox, Vancouver Is.,
was home to Combined Operations training during WW II 
Photo, 1930s - Comox Library and Archives

Courtenay is 2 - 3 miles from Comox and is beyond the bottom of the picture.

“For a diversion when we had liberty on weekends a bunch of us sailors would
go into Courtenay for a show, beer or dancing at the Sons of Freedom Hall.”
Photo of Native Sons Hall, Courtenay by G. Harrison


I follow faint footsteps when looking for more information about my father and other Canadians who served in the RCNVR and Combined Operations. Most WW2 veterans with important stories are dead. Significant places no longer exist as they did in the 1940s. Artifacts lay in dust.

That being said, we are fortunate to have good stories, photographs and more - already in hand - to inform us now and provide clues to find more historic treasures in the future. So, the search is on and more stories will be shared when possible.

Unattributed Photos GH

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