Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 6 (1)

Dad's Navy Days, 1941 - 1945

By G. A. Harrison

American troops on board a landing craft going in to land at Oran during
Operation TORCH. November 1942. Photo - Imperial War Museum

US troops exiting landing craft assault on the beach at Arzeu, Oran
N. Africa. Ships of that convoy are seen in the distance. 1942 (IWM)

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 6 - Operation TORCH - The Invasion of North Africa, November 8, 1942

From my father's Navy memoirs:

After Dieppe we regrouped and went back to H.M.S. Quebec for further training, this time on LCMs or Landing Craft Mobile or Mechanized. H.M.S. Quebec was in Scotland on Loch Fyne.

During the odd times we had leave I visited London and saw my mother’s sister and brother and nephews and had many gay times with them. One Christmas time I took a whole kit bag full of food and clothes to London, and what a time we had because they were on short rations. Our mail caught up with us from time to time and when it did it was tremendous both in amount and content.

One memory sticks in my mind and it was a happy time. They call raisins ‘sultanas’ in England and Mum’s sister, Aunt Nellie, had written Mum about some. Mum sent some over and also sent a Christmas pudding. It arrived on Saturday and Christmas was on the following Monday, so Aunt Nellie cried. One tradition was to pour rum on the pudding, close the blinds, and then light it afire. I had never seen it before and it was a sight to behold and remember.

My group went through much more training at H.M.S. Quebec and then we entrained for Liverpool. Prominent pub was The Crown in Wallasey. We left Greenock in October, 1942 with our LCMs aboard a ship called Derwentdale, sister ship to Ennerdale. She was an oil tanker and the food was short and the mess decks where we ate were full of eighteen inch oil pipes. The 80th and 81st flotillas, as we are now called, were split between the Derwentdale and Ennerdale in convoy, and little did we know we were bound for North Africa.

I became an A/B Seaman (Able-bodied) on this trip and passed my exams classed very good. The food aboard was porridge and kippers for breakfast, portioned out with a scale. We would plead for just one more kipper from the English Chief Petty Officer, and when he gave it to us we chucked it all over the side because the kippers were unfit to eat.

We had American soldiers aboard and an Italian in our mess who had been a cook before the war. He drew our daily rations and prepared the meal (dinner) and had it cooked in the ship’s galley. He had the ability to make a little food go a long way and saved us from starvation. Supper I can’t remember, but I know the bread was moldy and if the ship’s crew hadn’t handed us out bread we would have been worse off. We used to semaphore with flags to the Ennerdale to see how they were eating; they were eating steak. One of the crew cheered us up and said, “Never mind, boys. There will be more food going back. There won’t be as many of us left after the invasion.” Cheerful fellow. However, we returned aboard another ship to England, the Reina Del Pacifico, a passenger liner, and we nicknamed the Derwentdale the H.M.S. Starvation.

In the convoy close to us was a converted merchant ship which was now an air craft carrier. They had a relatively short deck for taking off, and one day when they were practicing taking off and landing a Swordfish aircraft failed to get up enough speed and rolled off the stern and, along with the pilot, disappeared immediately. No effort was made to search, we just kept on.

One November morning the huge convoy, perhaps 500 ships, entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a nice sun-shiny day... what a sight to behold.

Troops climb into landing craft, manned by Canadians, from Reina Del
Pacifico during landings in North Africa, Nov. 1942. Photo credit - IWM

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 seaman 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.

Doug Harrison (centre) watches as troops and ammunition come ashore on LCAs
at Arzeu in Algeria during Operation 'Torch', November 1942. Photo credit - IWM

Our Coxswain was L/S Jack Dean of Toronto and our officer was Lt. McDonald RNR. After the 92 hours my officer said, “Well done. An excellent job, Harrison. Go to Reina Del Pacifico and rest.” But first the Americans brought in a half track (they found out snipers were in a train station) and shelled the building to the ground level. No more snipers. I then had to climb hand over hand up a large hawser (braided rope) to reach the hand rail of Reina Del Pacifico and here my weakness showed itself.

I got to the hand rail completely exhausted and couldn’t let one hand go to grab the rail or I would have fallen forty feet into an LCM bobbing below. I managed to nod my head at a cook in a Petty Officer’s uniform and he hauled me in. My throat was so dry I only managed to say, “Thanks, you saved my life.”

The Reina was a ship purposely for fellows like me who were tired out, and I was fed everything good, given a big tot of rum and placed in a ham-mock. I slept the clock around twice - 24 hours - then went back to work. In seven days I went back aboard the Reina Del and headed for Gibraltar to regroup for the trip back to England. During the trip I noticed the ship carried an unexploded three inch shell in her side all the way back to England.

Just outside Gibraltar, Ettrick was torpedoed in her side and sank, and one rating from Ingersoll, Ontario was among those killed. She took four hours to sink and many were saved. We arrived in England without trouble. Our ship was fast, could do about 22 knots per hour, a knot being one mile and a fifth per hour. (I am going to leave my memories about hilarious occasions during leaves I enjoyed until last.)

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 (anchor) possibly about 100 or so feet from shore depending 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 breach. 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. If the tide is on the make (flowing in) you use the kedge to keep you from swinging sideways on breach. In this case your kedge would be out only a short ways. After much practice, however, the kedge can be forgotten and everything done by engines and helm. Each barge has two engines.

A convoy is only as fast as the slowest ship and fast ships that make over 20 knots usually travel alone on a zig zag course so a sub cannot get lined up on them. That wouldn’t work today as subs are much faster.  From "DAD, WELL DONE" PAGES 23 - 26

Excerpt from one of D. Harrison's submissions to St. Nazaire to Singapore, Volume 1

The RCNVR in WW2: Canadian Combined Ops (CO)

The remainder regrouped with comrades in England and were joined by other officers and ratings from Canada. They set sail for North Africa in late October or early November, 1942. The Canadian men, with a sprinkling of Royal Navy personnel were lowered with their LCMs over the side of tankers at midnight, November 8, 1942 to ferry goods and supplies to the undefended shores of North Africa - and against resistance at Arzew, just south of Oran.

After about a week of this and the loss of one coxswain who was killed, the LCMs were left behind and the Canadians boarded three ships for the return to England. The Reina del Pacifico arrived safely but a slow old blister named the Clan MacTaggart and the P & O liner Ettrick were torpedoed off Gibraltar. One sailor died in the sinking of the Clan MacTaggart. Eight died when a torpedo scored a direct hit on the mess deck of the Ettrick. So these fine Canadian sailors were buried at sea. (From "DAD, WELL DONE, pages 73 - 74)

One of D. Harrison's news article published in the Norwich Gazette, early 1990s:


This is the story of a large passenger liner converted to a troop ship called the Reina Del Pacifico which carried 200 Canadian sailors and other personnel back to Liverpool, England after the invasion of North Africa, which started November 8th, 1942.

Buryl McIntyre and I were among the 200 sailors who had worked on our landing craft ferrying army supplies ashore night and day for about a week at a little town south of Oran named Arzew.

During the invasion, the Reina Del had acted as a hospital ship which we Canadian sailors could go aboard when tired. We were given excellent food, excellent rum, help to tumble into a hammock where we remained horizontal for many hours. The Reina Del served as a passenger liner again for many years after the war but unfortunately burned about 1970.

Canadians in Combined Ops (dark uniforms) man landing crafts as U.S. troops
unload supplies. Arzeu, N. Africa. Nov. 8, 1942. Photo - Imperial War Museum 

Approximately Nov. 14th, 1942 the dark green, two funnel Reina Del lay at anchor at Arzew, and those two funnels were active enough to indicate steam was being brewed in the engine rooms, and she was as anxious as the sailors to head for home. Our landing craft, one by one, manoeuvered to the gang-plank on the port side of the Reina Del and Canadian sailors waiting for the proper swell of the wave jumped to the gang-plank and hurried up the steps and went aboard through the large cargo door. Each one was checked off by name by a Canadian officer standing inside the cargo door, complete with clip-board. The landing craft were now manned by English sailors returning at a later date.

As my turn came to jump aboard the gang-plank, my eye spotted a large unexploded shell imbedded in the side of the ship not far from the officer’s head. I was very tired but not that tired, and inquired of the officer about the unexploded shell and he replied that the Captain had the shell examined and it was a dud. “I sure hope he is right because my mother will miss me, Mr. Wedd,” I said.

Mr. Wedd was dog-tired too and in no mood for an argument. “Your mother will miss you a lot more if you’re not aboard on the next swell, Harrison, because we are leaving. Do you hear me?” He added a bit more which couldn’t be printed and his ultimatum enabled me to time the swell of the next wave perfectly and I jumped to the gang-planks, and though tired, I found new energy at the cargo door and was soon amidships. The shell never exploded but it was sand-bagged and roped off.

It wasn’t long before the clank of the anchor cable could be heard in the hawse pipe. The anchors stowed, the gang-plank came on board and we were underway and in a few hours steaming at 27 knots (about 33 mph) we were safely inside the submarine nets at Gibraltar. In those few hours we organized bridge and crib tournaments.

The scene at Gibraltar was one of carnage, war at its worst. Nearby were destroyers which had been mauled by bomb and torpedoes, with gaping holes in their sides and deck plating, and some of the large guns were bent and pointed at bizarre angles. Miraculously they floated with pride and here and there steam came from the odd funnel. We thought of what the crews had been through and the fire and heat that had buckled the plates, how anyone could have survived. But Malta had to be fed.

Aboard the Reina Del at Gibraltar the Captain advised us to sleep up top under cover at night and those Canadian sailors who were not taking part in the tournaments became look-outs as we sailed west into the Atlantic alone.

Naval tradition prevailed aboard the ship and at 11 o’clock each morn-ing we were given a tot of navy rum which we didn’t have to drink under the watchful eye of some Chief Petty Officer. Buryl McIntyre and I were partners at bridge; we received good cards and placed second in the tournament; there being no main prize it was agreed that whichever team won the rubber of bridge also won their opponents’ tot of rum. Buryl and I slept quite well most nights, but with one eye open and one arm through our Mae West life jackets. Each ship has its own peculiar quirks and sounds; it is the unusual sound that brings sailors awake.

The Captain wished to miss the Bay of Biscay and as we skirted the western edge heading north we ran into a severe electrical storm. Standing well inboard under cover we witnessed the worst electrical display of our lives. Also, it seemed to rain so hard it pounded the sea flat. The ship retained good speed throughout and reached Liverpool safely in about four days.

Liverpool, such a friendly city, has welcomed sailors for centuries and we went ashore soon after our arrival to a seaman’s home, a large, warm, clean barrack-like building with good food, showers, and cots with white sheets and pillow cases. Heaven! Soon mail arrived and I can still see myself and my friends discarding our boots and stretching out on the cots to read the latest from home. Everything went quiet until someone shouted, “Hey guys, get a load of this!”

“Pipe down!” The old familiar phrase. “Read it to us later!”

We shared our parcels with anyone who may have missed out and showed new photos all around. Although we had shore leave, many chose to stay where we were, get some rest, and write some letters home. We did not see the Reina Del Pacifico again. One evening she slipped quietly away, but I for one have never forgotten her, our home for a few short days. (From "DAD, WELL DONE, pages 89 - 91)

Excerpt from a lengthy and informative newspaper article that appeared on February 5, 1944 in The Free Press, London:



After Dieppe, his seven day leave cut down to two, Buryl was almost immediately training for the next phase of the war. Late in October he and this time Douglas Harrison were in a great convoy bound for an unknown destination. Composed of all kinds of ships the convoy was loaded with machinery, bull-dozers, wire for landing sleds, jeeps, guns and the thousand other things which make up an invasion. They passed Gibraltar and proceeded along the North African shore. They saw and heard the silencing of shore batteries and presently were ready to land. Buryl handled a landing craft for the British First Army and Douglas worked with the Americans. 

American troops landing stores on Arzeu beach from a landing craft.
Various sized ships can be seen in the distance. Photo - IWM

For three days they worked back and forth with their cargos until the port was taken and the ships moved in. Then they enjoyed the sunshine, the fruit and the French managing to avoid the Arab snipers. They bought German films, trinkets, souvenirs and marveled at oranges selling at less than thirty dollars a ton. Barges reloaded on their carriers, they returned to Scotland for more intensive training. When not in action men of combined operations spend their time perfecting styles of landing and setting up beachheads. (From "DAD, WELL DONE, pages 118 - 121)

Lloyd Evans, another Canadian member of RCNVR and Combined Operations, travelled with my father on the Derwentdale to the shores of North Africa in November, 1942. His lengthy and informative memoirs are found at Combined Operations Command, a fine website developed and studiously maintained by Scotsman Geoff Slee.

An excerpt follows:

Around November 1942 we went aboard the RFA Derwentdale, an oil tanker anchored off Gourock on the Clyde. With purpose built gantries she could carry a dozen or more MLCs loaded with heavy equipment and launch them at a speed of about ten knots. My craft carried a large American Army truck and two American soldiers.

We spent a day or more loading thousands of 5-gallon cans of high-octane aviation fuel into one of the ship's holds. This was hard, gruelling, smelly and monotonous work. We secured a rope around the cans, lowered them into the hold, removed the rope and stored the cans away. We could only spend a short time in the hold because of the fumes, Surprisingly, feelings of nausea struck only when we climbed back onto the deck. The fresh air often made us throw up. When we reached our destination the aviation fuel was to be transferred into the landing craft and taken ashore. It was to last until a port was captured with proper unloading facilities.

After inspection by several high-ranking officers we set sail with a large convoy. The accommodation on board was totally inadequate as the ship was not designed to handle all the landing craft crews and the American soldiers. All services were hard pressed to handle the extra people and, near the end of the trip, only half of the bread was useable after the blue mould was cut off! We always ate better during an invasion as we took all the food ashore and made up for earlier deprivations. The two American truck drivers and I slept in their truck. At night the cold north Atlantic wind nearly froze us to death even with all our clothes on and blankets on top. To confuse the enemy we often sailed south at night and north during the day to waste time.

A few times we helped the merchant crew refuel some of our destroyer escorts at sea. The procedure was both dangerous and complex especially in heavy seas. The crew of the destroyer shot a fine rope line over to our ship by means of a special rifle. We secured it to a much heaver line and this was pulled on board the destroyer by their crew. Finally the fuelling line itself was attached to the heavy duty rope which, once again, the destroyer's crew pulled to their ship. The whole operation was much more impressive in the doing than in the telling.

One evening the merchant crew held a little party for us in their mess. There was plenty of black humour around. One Scottish wit said, optimistically, that it wouldn’t be so crowded on the return trip and an old hand almost had us convinced that his duties included the watering of wreaths that were to be thrown over the side in memory of the dead!

One bright sunny day, around noon, we left the Atlantic Ocean and passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Another large fast convey of troopships, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and motor launches split up around us and passed by at full speed. What a glorious sight it was. Our convoy then picked up to full speed and that night we anchored off the beach of the little town of Arzew in Algeria. This was on the eastern flank for the attack on Oran.

We lowered the landing craft over the side, lined up in formation and headed for the beach. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the two American truck drivers when it was our turn to leave the ship. I had never driven a car, let alone a big army truck, but it looked as though I'd have to learn real quick since there was nobody else! I sure as hell hoped there wasn’t going to be too much enemy fire. Fortunately we landed with no trouble and one of the beach party was able to drive the truck ashore after I managed to get it started. I wasn’t keen on hanging around a moment longer than was absolutely necessary so made a quick turnaround!

US soldiers landing on the beach, Algeria, November 1942.
Photo credit - NewsletterYadvashem

It was reasonably quiet during the couple of weeks we were there - we were only strafed once by a Spitfire the French had captured. To the west of us, in Oran, there was more activity where a large French battleship sunk a small American ship that had approached to invite its surrender. The battleship could have sunk almost the whole landing fleet but a RN battle cruiser was standing by for just such a possibility - a few broadsides could have put the French battleship guns out of action in seconds. No one had wanted this to happen but there was no alternative.

We spent the next week or so unloading troop ships, cargo ships and ammunition ships that had just come from the USA. Other than the RN and RCN naval personnel this was strictly an American operation. It was strange for us to see the jeeps and trucks we took ashore loaded with cigarettes, gum and chocolate bars. One night we had to make an emergency trip ashore with a load of Tommy gun ammo for an American group who were almost surrounded by the French Foreign Legion and fast running out of ammo.

US landings aided by Canadian seamen in North Africa, 1942
Photo credit - History Stuff

On our last night there we pulled our craft alongside an R.N. Tank Landing Craft and went aboard for a visit. They had liberated wine casks from the thousands on the beach waiting to be shipped to France. The Americans had got into this stuff pretty heavy so they put it under guard to stop any more drinking; but a couple of the RN sailors had other ideas! They threw a hand grenade nearby and, when the American army guards went to see what was up, they rolled one of the casks on to the TLC and pulled away. In the dark they fumbled around in a vain attempt to open the cask so they just blew a hole in it with a .45. With the wine flowing freely we used our tin helmets and drank our farewell to North Africa.

We sailed next morning for the return to Scotland aboard the troopship Reno del Pacifico, an ex P&O liner. Not having fully recovered from the previous night's festivities I was grateful to find it was calm. We stopped at Gibraltar to set up a convoy and to pick up a few R.N. men. Some of us chose to sleep on deck because of the risk of being torpedoed in the Atlantic approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar. I was bitching the next morning because the RN boys paced the deck all night but calmed down when told that they had recently been torpedoed twice in the same night. Our convoy made it back without any trouble. On our return to the river Clyde we were given leave which I spent in Glasgow and in Edinburgh. The next few months were spent in training in the following ships and camps in England and Scotland - HMS Westcliff, Drake, Foliot, Glengyle, Keren, Ulster Monarch and Rosneath.

Please link to Presentation: Dad's Navy Days Part 5 (4)

Unattributed photos - GH

No comments:

Post a Comment