Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Story: A Mediterranean Lighter Man

A Mediterranean Lighter Man, D/JX 227023

By Bill Prout, Royal Navy and Combined Operations

Excerpt from Combined Operations, C. Marks. London, Canada

The following story is found in Combined Operations by Londoner Clayton Marks. I include it on this site about Canadians in Combined Operations because Mr. Prout's recollections would mirror Canadians in a similar situation during WW2 and adds to our understanding of duties, frustrations, dangers and memories WW2 veterans of Combined Ops would express in detail if able.


It was at Tripoli, North Africa, that I finally got drafted from LCT 17. I had been aboard her a long time. First the siege of Tobruk (this lasted about ten months) then still more trips to Tobruk running supplies of gas, ammo, food, etc. for the Eighth Army that was hanging in there. Finally we had to evacuate the place and run the gauntlet of tiger tanks firing at us as we ran out of the harbour. Fortunately we made it back to Alexandria alright.

Shortly after we had to evacuate Alexandria, after a nightmare trip with the fleet, during which the "Medway" with a large contingent of Wrens, and the "Maidstone" (sub depot ship) were tin fished among several others. Our small craft could not keep up with the convoy and we had to break off. We finished up in Haifa. After a day or so we left for Cyprus and during our stay we ran convoys to Beirut. After that we sailed through the canal to the Bay of Suez, where we helped with the offloading of tanks, etc. for Montgomery's push up the desert from El Alamein.

HMS Maidstone. Photo and more details at Wikipedia

When the big push came, our first trip was to Solium where we floated barrels of water ashore to the Army. We continued with the Eighth Army, Derna-Tobruk-Mersah, and finally into Tripoli Harbour. So it was into Tripoli Castle for me. Officers stayed in Navy House just across the street. I thought that at last I may get a cushy number. I was a little bomb happy anyway. Soon I was piped to report to the regulating office, and I was a dispatch rider. There were two of us working shifts. We had an Italian "Guzzi" motor bike but unfortunately it did not last long because after a couple of days, the other guy totalled the bike. A few days after this I had to report to a Commander Boord at Navy House. He had been the gunnery Commander on the "Rodney" and little did I know the exciting times I was to go through with him

Just going back a bit, I mentioned that when we were finally able to get into Tripoli Harbour, I was shocked to see an Italian hospital ship that had been sunk. A couple of us rowed out and went aboard it. It was still full of ammunition and all kinds of war materials. So much for the big red crosses painted on it. I went aboard the "Tevere" many times after this but nobody would come with me. I had a hobby of dismantling live shells and grenades and used to make explosive charges that we dropped in the water whenever we needed fresh fish. I used to give the disarmed grenades away for souvenirs.

Now, back to my driving job. The vehicle was a large American station wagon. There was another guy that used to come with us on our many trips. He was the Commander's steward (servant). We travelled up and down the North African coast, staying overnight at whatever unit we were visiting, airfields, Army Headquarters, etc. I didn't know at that time that Comm. Boord was briefing these units about their parts in the Salerno (Italy) landing and that he was in charge of this. We had just returned from one of these trips when he told me that his job was finished and he would not be needing me anymore.

I had enjoyed working with him and the prospect of maybe being sent back to our base in the desert didn't appeal to me. I told him this and he asked me if I would like to go with him. Still not knowing what I was in for, I said I would. The next morning I was ordered to drive a Navy Commander to an ammunition dump (all captured enemy arms) that was about 150 miles north of Tripoli at a place called Sfax, not far from Algiers. This Navy Commander was the Duke of Argyle. He was a commando and seemed to me to be in his late sixties. He told me to ignore all speed limits as we had to board an Infantry landing ship at 4:30 that afternoon. This I was happy to do and poured it on. Arriving there, we picked up Luger pistols and Schmeiser sub machine guns, one of which he gave to me. Also magazines of ammunition and I knew then it wasn't a picnic we were going on.

We made it back to Tripoli on time and after picking up my gear from Navy House, I reported on board. As there was already a full crew on board, I was a spare hand but not for long. I was appointed as steward to a B.B.C. correspondent, his name was Frank Gillard, and soon we were steaming out of the harbour and as we came into the open sea it began to get quite rough. I guess Gillard didn't like this as I never saw him again during the whole trip. We sailed along very peacefully and finally we were off the toe of Italy and the Island of Sicily. After passing through the Straits of Messina, we headed to the Port of Taormina. This, I think, was on the northeast side of Sicily. The sea was calm and in the background we could see Mount Etna. Very impressive!

Arriving there, we found a large invasion fleet anchored off the harbour entrance. We joined them and took on a few supplies and food and water, then the troops we were to land came aboard. At this stage we didn't know the destination but when we finally got under way it wasn't long before we were assembled and briefed on the operation. It was to be Italy, just south of Naples. Only thing was, that we were to be a decoy force. The plan was that we were to give the impression that the landing was to take place north of Naples, so we steamed on northward. The plan was that we would keep on this course until we were spotted by the enemy reconnaissance planes. As soon as this happened we were to turn around and head for the beaches south of Naples. We got past the Island of Capri and on the mainland of Italy we could see Vesuvius just behind the town. About that time we were spotted and we immediately changed course.

It was September 9th, about 7 p.m. and still light. Suddenly we had an announcement that Italy had surrendered. This had been broadcast from radio Algiers and everyone cheered as we thought the landing would be easier. As darkness came on we sailed on our way and up to now we had seen no action.

Meanwhile the B.B.C. correspondent I was supposed to look after had recovered and was doing his job. I was put on an Oerliken ack-ack gun in the bows. My helper was a very young Scots boy who was just out from England and it was his first time in action. I left him for a few minutes and went aft. Knowing the ropes and being a leading hand, I was able to wheedle a jar of ship's rum and soon we were both very happy and didn't give a damn. As darkness fell the enemy bombers started on us and we were bombed all the way into the beaches. We had four big anti-aircraft cruisers with us and our combined barrage was frightening. We had many near misses but as far as I knew, there were no ships sunk. The ship I was on was an Infantry landing ship and troops we were taking in were part of the 56th London Black Cat Division. Our landing beaches were named Roger Amber and Roger Green and the operation overall was commanded by General Mark Clark. We were attached to the Fifth American Army.

So there we were approaching the landing beaches. The mine sweepers had swept us in to within about a mile from shore and by this time we had left the escorts behind. All seemed peaceful as we came closer and beyond the beach we could see a field of wheat or somesuch crop. Suddenly it was no longer quiet. There were quite a lot of German 88mm guns set up in the field. No doubt they had been waiting for us to get in closer. The noise was shattering as they all opened up and a few craft were hit and ran out of control. We kept on, luckily without getting hit. I must explain that we were landing infantry and when we hit the beach a ramp was run out from the bows, actually there were two ramps, one on the port side, the other on the starboard. I was stationed on the starboard one and my job was to run down the ramp first, jump in the water with a long rope, one end of which was attached to the end of the ramp. As I waded ashore, I laid out the rope and when I got to the end of the rope I would tie it around my waist and lay back on it, the idea being to guide the troops ashore.

Troops coming ashore from Landing ships, during Operation Fabius, an invasion
exercise in Britain, 5 May 1944. Photo Credit - The Observation Post

We hit the beach, my ramp went down and I ran down it and jumped into the water and went under. I had to swim just a few feet, paying out the rope. I made for the beach, turned around as I tied the end around my waist and looking back at the ship, I saw that the port ramp had jammed. As I stood hanging on to the rope, I realized that coloured balls of light were zipping past each side of me. I was still waist deep in water and the zipping lights were, of course, tracer bullets from the Spandau machine guns in the field that had now been brought into action. Still the port ramp had not come down, the troops couldn't come ashore as they were now pinned down by the machine gun fire. I was still in the water, expecting to be hit at any moment and I remember thinking that if I only get wounded, I'll still fall over and drown.

Well, I couldn't drop the rope and run so I stood there yelling "get off there you b-----ds" and such but it didn't do any good. They would have been chopped down had they tried. Suddenly a destroyer came close in to the beach, turned broadside on and let go with everything into the German gun positions. Then it quietened down, the other ramp came down and the infantry came off. No sooner had they when again the 88s started up. By this time they were hitting our ship. The landing had been really rough, the losses were high and many boats were on fire and drifting with what was left of their crews. The Americans landed further up the beach, were repulsed, and had to pull off and come in again when it got a bit less hectic.

Still standing in the water, I began to wade back to the ship which was still being hit and it was then that I felt the rope being pulled out of my hand and realized that they were going astern leaving me on the beach. I watched as the ship backed off into deeper water and saw the two ramps drop off into the sea. My mate from the port ramp joined me and together we trudged up the sandy beach.

When I had jumped into the water I was wearing khaki shorts and shirt, my trusty desert boots with the thick Indian rubber soles, a steel helmet, my Schmeisser sub-machine gun and loads of clips of ammo. My Combined Ops and Royal Navy insignia were sewn on my epaulets. I was young and fit, believe me, but I was very tired, having been manning a gun on the way in for nearly 12 hours, then the landing. Just the thought of it now, how nice to be young. Oh well!

Arriving on the beach among the carnage, bodies, bits of bodies, the wounded, the disabled vehicles (some still burning), it came home to us just how bad it had been. But now the tanks and guns were coming ashore and already the Infantry was beginning to go inland. When we had been briefed for the operation, after leaving Sicily, we were told that the two places they hoped to take the first day were a small place named "Battipaglia" where the enemy was in force, and also a small airfield at "Montecorvino". They both took quite a time to finally capture.

We hadn't been looking around the beach for more than five minutes when I was grabbed by an Army Officer, who despite my trying to explain to him that I wanted to get back to my ship, was despatched with an Army Signaller to set up a forward post. The two of us set off into the corn field and so there I was now, attached to the Army, the 56th London Black Cat Division. We had crept about 200 yards through the corn field when we were spotted. The Signaller wanted to go on but I dragged him down as the bullets zipped through the corn above us. Then the silly b-----d started to put his antenna up. They would have zeroed in on us as soon as they saw that so I convinced him that we stay put until the rest of them came up, which they did. Then I left him to it and went ahead with the others.

By this time, we were almost on the outskirts of Battipaglia, about a quarter of a mile away from a tobacco factory. This was their next objective. It was occupied in force by the Germans. I say "their objective". Mine was to get back to the beach and to somehow get back to my ship. By this time quite a few prisoners had been taken and I finally managed to get back by escorting about a dozen of them to the beach, where they were put into barbed wire compounds that had already been erected. It was then that I got my Luger pistol off of a German Officer. Funny thing, before I went ashore, Commander Boord (the one I was driving in North Africa) had jokingly asked me to bring him back a Luger and now I had one if I should ever see him again.

So I was back on the beach again. I had been with the Army over 12 hours. Now there were quite a lot of ships unloading and troops coming off. Trying not to look too conspicuous (in case I got nabbed again) I walked along trying to figure out how to get away and get back to my ship. Suddenly one of the numbers on a ship hit me. I realized that was the last ship I used to send McGravie's letters to. Hoping he was still on board her, I decided to find out and so on I went. I found the Duty Officer and was taken to the Captain. After explaining what had happened he sent for McGravie. The last I had heard from him was that he was in the United States picking up a ship.

Naturally, McGravie was taken aback to see me. I must have looked a mess, dirty, red-eyed from all the sleepless hours, then the trauma of the landing, being with the Army and all the noise and excitement that was crammed into those hours. We were talking on the quarter deck when suddenly the dive bombers came at us. Those J.U.87s used to dive almost vertically and at the bottom of the dive they let their bombs go. On top of that, as they dived, they would emit a noise like a siren, really frightening. Fortunately they missed us. By this time the ships' company were sitting down to dinner, and I mean dinner! This ship had come directly from the States so it had been loaded with all the good food, etc.

Meals were served in cafeteria style and holding my tray, I was just amazed to see two pork chops dumped on it. The server asked if I would like another one, which I turned down. I didn't know if my stomach could take such rich food as I had been living on canned herrings in tomato sauce, corned beef or sometimes spam. For bread we ate ships' biscuits, like a hard dog biscuit. Usually we had to soak them to be able to bite them, so you can imagine what a feast this was to me. Real potatoes, real vegetables, and for dessert, ice cream. Just unbelievable! After eating it was time for me to sleep. After having a shower, which was another unheard of thing for me, I had a few slugs of ships' rum and went to sleep in McGravie's hammock.

When I awoke, we were at sea. It was still daylight. After a while, I got a message that the Captain wanted to see me so I went up to the bridge. He was a nice fellow and during the conversation, he took a fancy to my Luger pistol and wanted to give me five pounds for it. This I refused, telling him that it belonged to my Commander. He accepted this and told me that he had contacted my ship and as soon as we were close enough, he would return me to it by boat, which he did. I thanked him and asked him where we were bound for. When he told me Tripoli, I was happy. I said goodbye to McGravie and we arranged to see each other in Tripoli.

Arriving there, I was back in the Castle but this time in the ratings quarters. Quite different, I must say. McGravie and I got together a few times and after a couple of days I had orders to board a small South African ship to go back to Alexandria en route to my base in the desert.

The Jan De Waal was only about 150 feet long and she had been a duty ship on the boom (a big steel net across the harbour entrance) to keep "U" boats out. Her job was to drag it open to let ships in or out. There was just a small crew and the Skipper, who was a fishing skipper in civilian life, and just an ordinary guy. He swore like the devil.

Being a senior hand I was soon working with the crew but the only watches I used to stand were on the wheel. This I always enjoyed.

So we sailed peacefully back to Alex...and to base.. ..Bill McGravie and I joined the Royal together at Devonport, and our friendship has lasted over fifty years. He was a member of R.C.N.A, London Branch, and now lives in Shreweport, Louisiana.

Please link to Story: HMC Landing Craft Infantry, Large

The book Combined Operations by Clayton Marks has now been reprinted and is available for distribution and sale. If interested in learning more about the book please follow the links:

New Publication For Sale
Original Publication and Content Details

Unattributed Photos GH

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