Sunday, November 12, 2017

Presentation: Dad's Navy Days, Part 2 (2)

Reflecting on Another 75th Anniversary - A More Positive Note.

The Invasion of North Africa: D-Day, November 8, 1942

U.S. troops disembark from Reina Del Pacifico; D-Day Nov. 8, 1942. Photo - IWM
They board British ALC 428, manned by Canadians in Combined Ops

Before I tell you how I came across the earlier photo of my father unloading U.S. troops on D-Day N. Africa, I’d like to say a couple of quick things about the invasion.

For example: What was the purpose of Operation Torch? An online source says:

Map of N. Africa, 1942, with 3 Allied forces shown

The purpose of the landings at Oran (centre), Casablanca (west), and Algiers (east) was to secure bases on the coast of North Africa. After the bases were secured, there would be rapid exploitation to acquire complete control of French Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia and extend offensive operations against the rear of Axis forces to the east.

Also, I’ve learned that once the north coast of Africa was firmly under the control of the Allies, there would be sufficient bases to enable the invasion of Europe, i.e., through Italy, but starting with Sicily, less than one year later.

How were Canadians in Combined Ops involved? They numbered about 200 strong now, and set out from Greenock, Scotland in Oct. 1942. My father was attached to the 80th Flotilla of LCMs, and these crafts, aka workhorses, were carried upon the Derwentdale and Ennerdale, former oil tankers. Along with American troops, they were part of the Centre Task Force.

Canadian Chuck Rose, at Greenock, “central station Glasgow” 1942
[From the collection of Joe Spencer, RCNVR, Combined Ops]

Online source says:

The Center Task Force would go ashore at three beaches in the vicinity of Oran on 8 November at 1 AM, the exact hour when the Western Task Force coming from the United States was to land at Casablanca and the Eastern Assault Force, mostly British, was to touch down at Algiers.

The most important landing was in the Gulf of Arzew, twenty-five miles east of the city of Oran, where there were two coastal batteries and a French garrison. A company of American Rangers was to spearhead the assault, followed by the 16th and 18th Regimental Combat Teams (RCT's).

Map of Arzew

My father writes: 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 myself), a stoker and Coxswain, L/S Jack Dean of Toronto.

In St. Nazaire to Singapore, Vol. 1 Dean says:

"We worked steadily for 11 days. It was a 24 hour a day job and we would catch a couple of hours sleep at night if the sea was calm... Our landing craft carried American troops ashore and then ferried in supplies: bulldozers, ammunition and tons of light equipment until the merchant ships were empty.”

U.S. troops climbing onto landing crafts. Jack Dean on bow of ALC 428

The above stories and photos answer some questions re sailors duties. I.E., transport troops ashore, and everything they would need in battle. But the photos raise questions as well. The above crafts are ALCs, not the larger LCMs.

Did Canadians work aboard ALCs filled with troops first, then switch over to the LCMs? Apparently, yes. The next year, however, in Sicily, more Comb. Ops. volunteers had signed on. Larger flotillas were formed. And the two jobs of moving troops, and transporting their supplies, were separated among the flotillas.

And finally... How did I get my mitts on such lovely photos of my father?

Long story short. I travelled to Scotland in 2014 for research purposes. In Edinburgh I met Geoff Slee, creator of “Ever been to Inveraray?” he asked. “Oh, it’s too far,” I said. He kindly told me that Scotland is not Canada. Okaaaay, so, we went. We meet Jim Jepson, former curator of Combined Ops Museum in Inveraray. Thumbs up. We tour the former site of Combined Ops Number 1 Training grounds. Two thumbs up. It’s now a trailer park, no wooden cabins remain from WW2, but the drill hall, the loch and its beaches where landing craft training took place are the same. We retire to Jim’s house for tea. He hands me a book. “You should get this.” Front cover reveals photo of training in Loch Fyne, Inveraray. Lovely. We were just there.

Beaches at Inveraray, WW2. Photo from front cover
of the book "Assault Landing Craft" by B. Lavery

I thumb through the book. Looks interesting. I turn to pages 102-103. I say, under my breath, “That’s my Dad.” I flew back home, got the book. 99.99% sure - it’s Dad.

I turn to pages 102-103. U.S. troops on D-Day, Dad out front.
Photo as found in the book by B. Lavery

I Googled it. Found same photo at IWM. Catalogue number A 12671. RN photographer Lt. F. A. Hudson. I entered catalogue system and manipulated the catalogue numbers, up and down, and found 8 by F.A. Hudson. Dad’s in several. That’s a great find!!! 3 exclamation marks!!!

 U.S. troops unload while Dad handles anti-broaching lines, left of ALC

 Above photos by  RN photographer Lt. F. A. Hudson. Found at IWM

Time for intermission. Ad from The Winnipeg Tribune.

And how did I find Dad’s metal helmet? In my oldest sister's garden shed - on PEI, south of Souris, not far from where Joe McKenna grew up. So, more research will follow in PEI.

After N. Africa, Dad and mates returned to the UK. At some point he went to Hammersmith, East London, and spent Christmas with his Uncle Wally and Aunt Nellie. A related story appears in “Dad, Well Done”. After Christmas he travelled to a Comb. Ops. camp for more training, unaware he and his mates would be put to great use during the invasion of Sicily.

Ocean Voyage linked to the Invasion of Sicily, July 1943

Clayton Marks records the following about the lead up to this significant invasion:

The armies for the invasion were gathering in England. Many of their divisions were already hardened, trained and ready. Weapons, stores and supplies were accumulating in enormous volume, in incredible variety.

England’s small towns and villages along the southern coast were jam packed with military equipment of all kinds, ready to be loaded when required.

Great fleets of Allied bombers were now battering at German industries, cities and strategic centres; at the country's brain, nerve centres and heart. The war seemed to be moving toward its climax, as indeed it was.

Yet the grand diversion, the round-about closing in from the south of Europe - which had begun with the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 - was still in progress. Sicily lay between North Africa and Italy, and it was chosen by Allied planners as the next step toward Rome (and the dismantlement of Italian and German forces there.)

About the middle of March, 1943, several large convoys left British ports for Suez. The end of the North African campaign was coming in sight, and the next step would be the forcing of a passage to Italy. The convoys, which were to round Africa and come up through the Red Sea to Suez and Port Said at the eastern entrance to the Mediterranean, carried the Combined Operations Flotillas and a portion of the troops for the landings on Sicily.

And Doug Harrison was there. (Oh, I added that last bit).

In Dad’s memoirs I’ve read the following:

As a member of the 80th Flotilla of landing craft he was transported around Africa to the Red Sea and Port Said in the Silver Walnut, a ship he at first described as a real dud. He writes extensively about the 3-month trip, and he stopped in many strange and beautiful cities.

Due to many engine failures, stoppages and breakdowns during the trip around Africa, all aboard were regularly exposed to the fear of German submarines.

On a more positive note, my father writes: 

One of the merchant officers, James Robertson, had borrowed a hammock during the trip. It reappeared 43 years later during Navy Week in Melbourne, Australia. Robertson had painted the Combined Operations Insignia (inside a large green Maple Leaf) and the names of the Canadian sailors who had served aboard the Walnut many years ago.

Hammock, at Navy museum, Esquimalt BC]

And again, Doug Harrison was there! That is, his name was on the hammock. It was returned to Canada, to the Navy Museum in Esquimalt, BC, but my dad never saw it, only photos.

I saw it, “on his behalf” in 2013, ten years after his death. I unrolled the hammock and held it up.... i.e., up to my nose. I detected - after 70-odd years - the smell of oil and fuel. That was no surprise. It had once belonged to a Russian stoker, or mechanical engineer, named Katanna. In addition to Dad’s memoirs, I certainly felt more closely connected to Dad’s voyage around Africa after that experience.

Hammock, and Editor at Navy Museum, Esquimalt, BC

All of the Canadian Flotillas eventually arrived at well-established training camps in Egypt. My father and others on Silver Walnut had gained the reputation of being “submarine bait”, but my father recalls a positive side to the ship’s late arrival:

The other boys who arrived in the desert long before us, because of our slow ship, were the unfortunate ones, and were found sleeping in tents - hot in the day and cold at night - and most had severe dysentery, some were just shells. I spent one night only in the desert so I was lucky. Thanks, old slow ship.

About the continued Combined Ops. training in Egypt Mr. Marks writes:

Far from Sicily, the men of the Landing Craft Flotillas trained under the broiling sun of Suez. Large-scale amphibious exercises, as tough and realistic as possible, ironed out difficulties remembered from the Torch landings, tested the men and the craft to their limits, and gave rise to excited speculation as to what actual coast resembled the "dummy" beaches against which the exercises were directed.

A rare article from The Winnipeg Tribune, dated July 27, 1943, mentions the role of Canadians on board a ship carrying troops and landing craft:

Headline: Practice Made Perfect for RCN at Sicily.

The Navy today told something of the careful preparation behind its share of the invasion of Sicily - the first “Combined Operation” in which Canadian naval personnel retained their identity as a Canadian unit, manning their own flotillas of landing craft. In command of the new units as group officer was Lieut. Jack E. Koyl, of Saskatoon, a veteran of Dieppe and North African landings.

Lt. Jack Koyl (back row first left), with Canadian sailors,
including Al Kirby, front row, first right)

The article mentions the trip around Africa and a full dress rehearsal, likely at Bitter Lakes, involving the navy, merchant navy, army and air force (in a “combined operation”). The scene described aboard the troop ship would have been like the action seen aboard ships on D-Day:

Jack Koyl, who would lead the landing craft afloat, checked his watch.

"If you're ready...." He suggested to an army officer. The word was passed down the lines and the troops commenced embarking. I.E., climbing aboard landing craft that were on the ship.

Comb. Ops. Seamen stood by to help. There was no hitch.

Then it was the turn of the Merchant Navy. The carrier ship was manned by her own merchant crew. They were on duty at the davits, waiting the order to lower. After the order, the landing craft started to descend to the sea. Greased falls, silent winches, dropped them. The splashing of keel against water was the only sound. And then, with engines turning quietly, falls were cast off and the craft, one by one, slipped away into the darkness to form into a flotilla ready to land their troops.

Large and small craft could be lowered from davits

An army officer, commenting on the fact the landing craft seemed to be running on unbreakable schedule, said, "These Canadian fellows know their job." The R.C.N.'s new unit was ready for Sicily, its first big show.

The last sentence is not fully correct. Many in the “Canadian Flotillas” had experienced Dieppe and N. Africa.

In Combined Operations we read:

On July 4th all Combined Operations Officers were called together for final instructions (“for the big show”), and on July 5th (5 days before D-Day) the assault convoys sailed from Port Said for a rendezvous position south of Malta.

My father recalls the following:

The convoy formed for Sicily at Alexandria and ran into heavy submarine attacks and mines. I actually saw one torpedo miss us. I was now on the American Liberty ship Pio Pico, because the Silver Walnut was abandoned. One ship was hit and had to be beached and I believe Theo McReady of Burgessville was aboard and was killed. (Burgessville is 5 miles from Doug's hometown of Norwich).

From the rendezvous position south of Malta the “Biggest Armada of All Time” set a course for the south eastern tip of Sicily. Ships carrying four Canadian Flotillas of landing craft, the 55th, 61st, 80th and 81st Flotillas, landed troops and all the materials of war near the towns of Avola and Noto, i.e., south of Syracuse, on July 10, 1943.

Map of SE Sicily with a rare mention of Canadian flotillas.
As found in Combined Operations.

More to follow.

Photos GH

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