FAINT FOOTSTEPS, World War II.
[Photo: A12654. General view of the convoy en route for Gibraltar bathed
in sunlight and stretching into the distance. Photo Credit - RN photographer
Lt. F.A. Hudson, Imperial War Museum (IWM)]
The following article is as published in the Norwich Gazette, my father's hometown newspaper. During the early 1990s, Doug Harrison wrote many weekly columns related to his Second World War experiences. I refer to his columns often as I write my own series (24 columns) about him and his mates, Canadians who volunteered for RCNVR and the Combined Operations organization and who were eventually involved in handling landing crafts at the Dieppe raid and invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France, from 1942 - 45.
Below is the first of a few columns about preparations for and activities related to Operation Torch, which began on D-Day November 8, 1942:
North Africa PT 1: Trip to ‘The Med’ for Operation Torch
Most Canadians who manned and operated landing crafts during the Dieppe raid survived. They reunited with their anxious mates (including my father) in southern England ports, and were soon aboard waiting trains and troop ships.
My father says, “We regrouped and went back to H.M.S. Quebec (Combined Operations establishment in Scotland) for further training... this time on Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCMs: larger than assault landing crafts and called ‘D-Day workhorses’ ).” For more practice, he worked with LCM flotillas at Southend-on-Sea, east of London, before the next call to action - Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa.
A29897. Part of the training pool reserve at QUEBEC.
Photo - Lt. E.A. Zimmerman, Imperial War Museum.
[Link to more photographs of landing crafts at H.M.S. Quebec - Photographs: Training on Landing Crafts (12).]
“We left Greenock (Scotland) in October, 1942 with our LCMs aboard a ship called Derwentdale... an oil tanker. The food was short and the mess decks were full of 18-inch oil pipes. Little did we know we were bound for Africa,” he says.
The destination and purpose of Torch were unknown to my father as he travelled toward the Mediterranean Sea in early November. He likely learned ‘the where’ quickly on November 8, the first morning he disembarked troops onto beaches in Africa. He likely discovered ‘the why’ gradually (i.e., to secure bases in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia from which British forces in the Western Desert, commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery, could receive assistance in ongoing battles with Axis forces), in the weeks, months, even years after the invasion.
Whatever the case, I find no words of disagreement concerning the invasion’s overall purpose that compare in any way with his angry opinions about Dieppe. My guess is, because of Dad’s British ancestry (he often visited with a few close relatives in London, England while on leave), he supported the war effort, in general, with some sense of pride and patriotism.
His most vocal complaint about his trip to ‘The Med’ seems to be about the food! Though he took tests during the voyage (“I became an A/B or Able-Bodied Seaman on this trip and passed my exams classed very good”), he writes more about bad and ‘short’ food.
“The food aboard was porridge and kippers for breakfast, portioned out with a scale,” he says. “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.”
He writes that meals aboard ship - amongst high numbers of hungry American troops - did improve somewhat, with help from an Italian cook who “had the ability to make a little food go a long way.” Still, the Canadian sailors soon “nicknamed the Derwentdale H.M.S. Starvation.”
In memoirs he recalls only one mishap during the approach to Gibraltar: 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. (Page 24, “Dad, Well Done”)
HMS ARGUS operating off the N. African coast during combined operations
for the 'Torch' landings. Credit A12882. - RN Photogr. R.G.G. Coote, IWM.
Fortunately, the tragic scene did not serve as an ill omen for what lay ahead. Soon The Rock appeared. And surely, the Canadians in Combined Ops hugged the rails to see Gibraltar and catch their first glimpse of the Mediterranean.
A12795. HMS ARGONAUT approaching Gibraltar; "The Rock", during
the transport of men to the North African coast. Lt. C.H. Parnall, IWM.
Not long on description, Dad recalls the moment: One November morning the huge convoy... entered the sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. What a sight to behold. I can still see the turquoise colours.
Four days later Torch unfolded.
Please link to Editor's Column: As Published in Norwich Gazette (11).
Unattributed Photos GH