"Everything above ground was frozen solid for months, so they moved us underground working in tunnels. I suppose in one sense it was good to have employment, yet it was a farming area and I was used to being in the fresh air so I didn’t take to it. My mate and I joined the local Home Guard and they gave us each a pair of boots and a rifle so we had a bit of fun being soldiers in our spare time. Even though I could have claimed ‘reserved occupation’ that winter gave us the idea of joining up. We wanted to be part of what was going on in the big world and it seemed exciting"
"My mum was strongly against the plan and refused to give me my birth certificate. She just said “You can’t go” and that was that. My Dad was happy with the idea; he said it would do me good. So I went off to Bristol and joined the Navy. Because I didn’t have my birth certificate I added 6 months to my age to get me over 18. It was funny that nobody asked for my birth certificate and, looking back, the irony is that if my mum had given that to me they would have turned me away on account of being underage."
Having joined the Royal Navy at the age of 17 in March 1942, John was sent to Devonport for twelve weeks of basic training, then onto Gunnery School to be trained as an anti-aircraft gunner. John’s first active service came in November with a rail ticket to Scotland where he boarded RMS Queen Elizabeth in Loch Ewe. This was an Anti-Submarine Boom Defence Depot in the far North West where the deep water sea loch was ideal for the assembly of convoys, with access through the Minches directly into the North Atlantic. Loch Ewe was situated close to the Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, so well suited for convoys gathering for the unenviable trip to Murmansk. Happily for John, he was destined for the United States, making the trans-Atlantic voyage aboard one of the fastest ships afloat.
Even before going into passenger service, the Cunard Liner had been refitted in Singapore for service as a troop ship. Like its sister ship, the Queen Mary, both liners could operate without military escort and relied upon their ability to maintain a constant speed of around 30 knots. Designed and well suited to the trans-Atlantic route, the Queen Elizabeth ferried American troops mainly from New York into Gourock on the River Clyde. The return crossing was useful to take Royal Navy crews over to the US dockyards to collect the ever increasing quantity of ships being built under Lend-Lease.
John and his fellow crew members landed in Halifax Nova Scotia then travelled by rail across eastern Canada through Quebec & Montreal down to the British establishment of HMS Astbury in New York. This facility was essentially two hotels in use for Royal Navy personnel.
“It had already been quite an adventure coming over from Scotland, and then of course we realised that we would be in New York for Christmas. The Americans treated us so very well and after the shortages and black-out at home it was a really great Christmas. Each one of us was matched with a local family for the holiday season: we were all at the Newark Railway Station and as each name was called out we were then introduced to our ‘family’ for the duration. We absolutely couldn’t fault the welcome we were given.”
In January LST 322 was put into the water ready for commissioning. John and the crew moved into the US Naval Base to begin training. “Even now I remember how fantastic the food was.”
Initials standing for “Landing Ship Tank”, these vessels had been designed to carry heavy military equipment, vehicles and tanks. With side opening doors at the bow and a flat bottomed hull, despite its size and fully loaded displacement of 3,880 tons the LST could offload directly onto the beaches. LST 322 (shown above) had been built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
After working up and sea trials, LST 322 set off within a much larger convoy destined for Gibraltar in support of the landings in North Africa, codenamed Operation Torch. The crossing took about three weeks and consisted of a mix of tankers, freighters and troop carriers.
“Of course the flat bottom was not suited to the deep sea so it certainly wasn’t a comfortable crossing. The convoy routed into Gibraltar but we went straight into Algiers and Oran. Along with other equipment, our LST was loaded with smaller landing craft which were needed. Once we had offloaded, they gave us a bit of shore leave.
“We generally operated in support of Monty’s 8th Army and worked our way along to Tripoli. By this time we were getting the best of the battle against Rommel’s Afrika Corps but we were certainly kept busy. Malta was a key part of the supply line and we were ferrying petrol, provisions and equipment there quite a lot. We were often under air attack and took a few hits but nothing serious. It was LST 429 which ran out of luck, sunk just off the coast of Libya in July.”
John took part in the Sicily landings codenamed Operation Husky. Weather conditions were not at all good so the landings kept an element of surprise. LST 322 was by this time part of the 3rd Flotilla landing on the south east coast of the island roughly between Licata Torre di Gaffe and Mollarella beach. This was the largest amphibious operation of the war to date in terms of the number of divisions landed on the first day, 10th July.
The landings were supported by four battleships and four aircraft carriers, along with a variety of other smaller ships. The British 8th Army including the 1st Canadian Division under Montgomery struck out from the east whilst the US 7th Army under Lieutenant General George Patton moved from their landings in the west, both striving to reach Catania and the Messina Straights. The taking of Sicily coincided with the coup which removed Generalissimo Mussolini, urging the Allies into a quick continuation onto the Italian mainland. Planning for the next assault was rushed, combining an 8th Army crossing of the straights into Calabria followed swiftly by the seaborne landings at Salerno which took place from 9th September, codenamed Operation Avalanche. The drive north from Messina was largely unopposed but occupying forces took advantage of the geography in their favour and the Salerno landings were fiercely opposed, calling on massive naval support.
“The landings at Salerno were made under heavy fire from shore-based guns and the usual air attacks, but we managed to beach and unload, then departed for another load, this time from Palermo in Sicily. The first mail since America was waiting for us to pick up also. We continued to load at Tripoli, to move stores to Italian ports; this time it was Taranto. The Italians fleet had just surrendered and it was interesting to see these warships up close and out of action.”
LST 322 was in the thick of the action, taking part in the transport and landing of the British X Corps, VI Corps of the 5th US Army. Salerno Bay had a wide beach of approximately 20 miles but this time the enemy was expecting the landings and was fully prepared.
On 8th September Marshal Badoglio announced on the radio “The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the uneven struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, with the intent of saving further and more serious calamities to the Nation, has asked Gen. Eisenhower, CinC of the Allies forces, for an armistice. The request has been accepted. Consequently every action of hostility against the allied armed forces must stop from the Italian armed forces in every place. They (the Italian forces), however, will react to possible attacks of any other origin”. This action led to the surrender of the Italian Fleet the following day, coinciding with the Salerno Landings. The fleet sailed from La Spezia running west of Corsica and Sardinia although one of the battleships was sunk by German air attack. The Italian Fleet was then escorted to Valetta Grand Harbour by HMS Warspite & HMS Valiant, leading to the signal sent by Admiral Cunningham on the 11th: “Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta."
The two battleships were despatched back to Blighty but were urgently re-directed to Salerno as the situation there had deteriorated. During the period 12th to 14th September the Germans had unleashed a concerted counter attack deploying six divisions against the Salerno beachhead with the objective of driving the Allies back into the sea before there could be a link up with the British 8th Army advancing from Calabria. The defending forces drove a salient between the two American divisions where the Sele and Calore rivers merged. Allied troops were too thinly spread to resist these concentrated attacks so the heavy battleships were desperately needed to redress the situation.
These descriptions of the Salerno Landings give some flavour of the situation faced by John and the LSTs running back and forth in support of the landings. As well as the ground action, there were continuing heavy air attacks by Focke Wulf 190 fighter bombers and Dornier 217 heavy bombers. During the afternoon of 14th it was a DO-217 K2 bomber which released a cluster of three glider bombs aimed at HMS Warspite, with two of these on target. Given the intensity of aerial bombardment it was inevitable that some success would be achieved by the enemy.
HMS Warspite suffered casualties and limped back to Malta, then on to Gibraltar and finally to Rosyth. The foothold eventually gained from Operation Avalanche was inconclusive so another landing was planned further north in order to outflank ahead of the Winter Line deadlock at Monte Cassino and allow a faster advance on Rome. This was codenamed Operation Shingle under command of American General John Lucas. The landings started in the early hours of 22nd January 1944 on a fifteen miles wide stretch of beach near the holiday towns of Anzio & Nettuno.
Landings in January and/or February were entirely unexpected so unopposed, with all British and American objectives successfully taken by noon on the first day.
“Although the enemy didn’t have ground troops, beaching was carried out under heavy shelling and air raids by bombers. Luckily we survived to carry on back to Naples for another load, this continued for the next few weeks and each time running the gauntlet of “Anzio Annie” a 12 inch gun on a railway track, which attacked all the convoys of LST’s, and also being harassed by air attacks. Some LST’s were lost and also the hospital ship “St David” was sunk.”
For the assault troops the second day saw an easy penetration up to four miles inland. Some reports suggest it was sunny and quite warm for the time of year, and hard to believe there was a war at all. Anzio was just 30 miles south of Rome and 55 miles north of the main line of resistance. It seemed there was a clear run to Rome, but historians generally agree that General Lucas was overly cautious and spent too long securing his bridgehead. This gave the defending forces time to recover and build new defences. Resulting from this lack of offensive vigour, the following four months saw some of the most savage fighting of the War.
Allied forces engaged in the Anzio attack consisted of five cruisers, 24 destroyers, 238 landing craft, 60+ other ships, 40,000 troops and 5,000 vehicles. Although the main worry for these landings was shortage of supplies, this never reached a point of serious concern. With the main Force was ashore, six LSTs left Naples every day each carrying 1,500 tons of cargo loaded on 50 lorries. Once ashore, these vehicles moved directly inland and returned to the same LSTs empty for return to Naples.
Supported by other smaller craft as well as four Liberty ships, during the period of February to May over 530,000 tons of supplies were delivered to the Anzio beachhead, a daily average of 3,920 tons.
As Allied resources were stretched, as soon as the situation in Anzio could manage, ten LSTs were released and sent back to England to be available for the Second Front invasion of France. LST 322 was part of this flotilla and John was pleased to be on his way home, arriving in Liverpool on 4th April. John remembers that two LSTs separated to Tilbury, two to Swansea, two to Liverpool and thinks the remaining four went on to Glasgow. It was necessary to have these vessels in dry dock for repair and maintenance after so long in the water and such consistent action.
“It was great to be back, even if Liverpool was not my home town. Of course everywhere was a hive of activity. We had an extended shore leave whilst the work was being carried out. This gave me the opportunity to be out and about around the city – in fact this is when I met Joyce, my wife to be. It is also how I came to remain in the Merseyside area.”
As soon as it was ready, LST 322 departed Liverpool for Portsmouth. By late May the vessel was loaded ready, waiting for the final decision to make the crossing.
Upon returning to Thury Harcourt at the 60th Anniversary of the liberation in August 2004, Ralph was awarded what we would call ‘Freedom of the Town'. The Mayor of Thury Harcourt awarded the 20 survivors present this distinguished honour which Ralph treasures...
“We didn’t know too much about what was going on. I suppose we knew more than the troops but it was just a question of waiting for that final decision so we could make a start. To clear dockside space we were moved out into the Solent but it was late on 5th June that we set off properly so we could get into position off the French coast.
I remember passing fairly close to HMS Warspite as she opened up with her heavy armour. We hadn’t seen her since Salerno and knew her affectionately as the “Old Lady”. Even with one turret still out of action the first broadside made it seem like the she had taken a hit. The whole ship rocked backwards in recoil, with a great belch of flame before being covered in smoke. It was such a fantastic sight. We went into Sword Beach to offload troops and heavy equipment, returning promptly to Portsmouth.”
“I think we made a dozen or so crossings in all. On the return journeys we would be loaded up with injured troops and prisoners.”
In fact John and his crew mates on LST 322 made a further 15 crossings, picking up troops, tanks and vehicles at Portsmouth, Southampton and Tilbury. This went on into August.
“I had a chance for promotion, to go on a higher gunnery course, so I took some leave. Then they transferred me to the aircraft carrier, HMS Patroller. This was originally an American ship but it had been transferred to the Royal Navy towards the end of 1943 and was used for the duration on convoy protection duties on the Atlantic crossing.”
“By August 1945 we were in Glasgow being made ready for use in Burma. I was transferred South Shields to join a minesweeper and we were tasked to take part in the efforts to clear the Irish Sea and Western Approaches. I was on this until May 1946 and took a release; there was a degree of priority for those who could return to a reserved occupation although that meant I had to lose three weeks pay. It occurred to me then that I could have claimed ‘reserved occupation’ all the way through and avoided all those beach landings. On reflection, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! We all felt like it was a great adventure; we were young and fit and a bit daft and happy to serve. I am sure the youngsters would do the same today.”
This personal history of John Dennett’s war service is in itself a history of the Royal Navy’s supported seaborne landings throughout the war. All main landings are included – Torch in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio... then the big one in Normandy. He didn’t miss much!
So what does John think of it all now, looking back over so many years?