George was 14 going on 15 and living in London with his family when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland on 1st September 1939. He presents these 1939-1945 memoires in his own words:
“Britain had made a pact to go to Poland’s aid with military force if necessary and so World War II began on Sunday 3rd September 1939. I can still remember listening to the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announcing to the nation that Britain was at war.
Shortly afterwards we heard the air raid warnings being tested; this caused mothers to run around shouting for children to come inside fearing bombs would start dropping any minute. For a few months we had a period when nothing appeared to happen. This came to be called the ‘Phoney War’. For those of us at home the war didn’t really seem to get going until the evacuation from Dunkirk when around 320,000 British & French troops were rescued from the beaches and brought back to England.
Mr. Chamberlain resigned to be replaced by Winston Churchill. Some wanted Lord Halifax to become Prime Minister, but thank God the position went to Mr Churchill; he was just what we all needed – a defiant boost of confidence.
A teenager at home: The Blitz and Battle of Britain
The raids on London began in September 1940. I remember one Saturday walking home along Cold Harbour Lane in Brixton when suddenly at about 5pm faint bangs could be heard coming from central London. As the evening wore on, the sky was lit up by flames over along the dockland area. No doubt these fires became perfect beacons to navigate the bombers in when the blitz got going properly. For the time being the enemy bombing concentrated on the south coast airfields to clear the way for invasion. We could see vapour trails of our Spitfires and Hurricanes as they fought high in the sky. When they flew low enough we could hear the rattle of their guns; what a stirring show it was to an eager youngster like me. I learned later these raids culminated on 15th September when it was reported that 185 enemy planes had been shot down. This success made the Germans think again about an invasion and that day has been celebrated each year since as ‘Battle of Britain’ day.
One day they brought a light anti-aircraft gun into the street where I lived. The first time the crew fired it broke the plate glass windows of two local shops, to great annoyance of the shopkeepers! But the morning after each raid we kids would search about for shell cases – you were king of the castle if you found the nose cone of an anti-aircraft shell
Volunteering for the Royal Navy – training & commissioning:
Having survived the Blitz and witnessed many incidents which I shall never forget, I volunteered for the Royal Navy in January 1943 just before my 18th birthday. At the time I wasn’t much more than 5 feet tall and weighed about 8 stone.
When I reported to the recruiting office in Lewisham, the very large Chief Petty Officer said: “Hello lad, what do you want?” “I’ve come to join the Navy”, I replied. “Oh have you now …. how old are you?” “I’m 18“, I said. “You’re not 18; go home and come back when you really are 18.” When I insisted, he gave me the recruitment forms to fill in. “Right“, he said “what are your first names?” So I replied: “George Apprentice.” So he replied: “No lad, I don’t want to know what you do… just your Christian names.” I explained that’s truly my middle name and he had a good laugh about it.
After my medical checks I found myself with 25 other new recruits outside the gates of HMS Collingwod, the Naval Base in Fareham. We were given a choice at that last point, that we could go home now but once we walked through those gates there’s no turning back. With that, all 26 of us walked right in. That training period lasted 3 months after which I was sent to Whale Island on a gunnery course. At that time, Whale Island was the premier gunnery school in the world to which most countries sent their gunnery crews and future officers for training. I qualified as a gun layer – the chap in charge and the one who pulls the trigger.
I was then sent to HMS Hornet in Gosport which was the HQ of Light Coastal Forces, made up of Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) Motor Anti-Submarine Boats (MASBs) Motor Gun Boats (MGBs) Motor Launches (MLs) Harbour Defence Launches (HDMLs) and a small flotilla of five Steam Gun Boats (SGBs). All Coastal Forces boats were made of wood which allowed them to be built in mass production by established ‘small’ boat builders such as Thorneycroft, Fairmile and the British Power Boat Company. Typically they were driven by powerful petrol engines which made them vulnerable to fire and explosion, considering our tanks would carry up to 5,000 gallons.
A week or so later I was detailed off as part of a skeleton crew to William Osborne’s yard in Littlehampton where we picked up the newly completed D Class MTB 710. The D Class was the biggest and most heavily armed of all Coastal Forces craft, designed to combat the enemy’s E Boats and R Boats. Meant affectionately, we all called these ‘Dog Boats’. Our first skipper was Lt. Joe Harrison, a mad Australian, who promptly told the crew that medals were out there to be won and that we would be the ones to win them. Inevitably there were mutterings amongst the crew questioning his sanity, along with additional questions about the legitimacy of his birth. We were then sent for working-up training at HMS Bee in Weymouth where we successfully tested guns, engines and the general seaworthiness of our new boat. We were duly commissioned and despatched to Dover to join the 59th MTB flotilla as an operational unit. After about 3 months Joe Harrison left us; we never did find out why. He was replaced in command by Lt Tony Bone who was later to win the Distinguished Service Cross, although sadly not destined to survive the war.
War in the English Channel – Battle of the Narrow Seas:
All our operations were carried out at night so we fought our enemy by the light of the moon or starshell. Over the next eight months we were involved in a number of actions in the English Channel during one of which two members of the crew were killed. We buried them at sea. We went through many actions in which we suffered casualties and damage to the gunboat, but no further deaths amongst our crew. I’ve often been asked if I was scared during any of these actions: you can bet your bottom dollar that we were scared. In truth this feeling only lasted until the skipper ordered ‘Open Fire’ then it was a matter of concentrating our fire on the enemy, with no time to be afraid.
Very little of Coastal Forces escapades appeared in the press, but there were two distinctive operations which became celebrated. The first of these was Dieppe which many thought was a trial run for D-Day, but it cost the lives of around 2,000 Canadian troops. For the second, in 1942 Churchill had ordered the dry dock at St Nazaire should be out out of action to prevent its use by the German Battleship, Tirpitz. The attack was made by HMS Campbeltown, an old destroyer, supported by 17 Motor Launches and MGB-314. The raid was a success in that the dock was wrecked, but it was costly. Although five Victoria Crosses were awarded, one to AB William Savage, gunner on MGB-314, of the 17 MLs used only 3 made it back to the UK. 169 commandos were killed and 245 taken prisoner. When the Campbeltown finally blew up, it’s estimated that 1,500 German and French were killed in the blast.
There was one amusing incident while we were operating out of Dover although this was embarrassing to me personally. Vice Admiral Dover brought Prince Ibn Saud aboard; he was later to become King. We had the reputation of being a first class gunnery boat and had been chosen to demonstrate our prowess at sea. A towed target was brought on and all the gunners had a go at it. The target was hit many times but it remained intact, so then it was my turn. I lined the gun up so the shell would hit the middle of the target and blow it to bits. I pulled the trigger but instead of a loud bang, the gun just went POP. The shell, which must have been massively undercharged, just managed to fall over the side. I cannot repeat the skipper’s verbal reaction!
War in the English Channel – D-Day:
In April ’44 the 59th flotilla was ordered around to Newhaven harbour which was packed with US landing craft. As we practised manoeuvres such as taking troops on board and transporting them to another part of the coast or recovering men from the sea using our dinghy, we had an inkling that D-Day was coming near.
At about 3.30 in the afternoon of 5th June the order to make ready for sea was piped. The skipper went around the boat handing each member of the crew a paper which contained a message from the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower, telling us we were about to engage in the greatest invasion in the history of warfare. The 59th flotilla had been given the task of joining a defensive escort for the American Rangers directed to attack Omaha and Utah beaches. Our rendezvous point was in the Channel off Portsmouth, but the sea was so busy (in excess of 5,000 ships) it took some hours for the naval force to assemble. At about 04:00 the next morning, with dawn just breaking, planes of all types were passing overhead for the French coast and the sea around us was covered from horizon to horizon with ships of all types and sizes. Suddenly the cruiser, HMS Belfast, opened fire, then battleships HMS Warspite and Nelson joined with their main armament bombarding enemy positions along the French coast. It was like all hell had broken loose; this was the starting gun.
In the event, although there was some E-Boat activity, the German Navy did not make a strong appearance to oppose the landings at Omaha and Utah. Unfortunately the Rangers had been landed 1½ miles too far to the west, leaving them to scale high cliffs instead of facing the level beaches expected. This made them easy targets for defending German troops on the clifftops. Many Rangers were killed before they could get ashore. We had to lay quite a distance offshore as our prime purpose was a seaward defence unit so of course our guns were too small to lay down a barrage or offer covering fire. I will never forget the sight of seeing those brave young men fighting and dying as they struggled to get off the beach. Eventually, with great courage and persistence, the Rangers were able to secure a foothold and move inland. We were then recalled to our base in Newhaven. Having cleaned ship and had breakfast we got our heads down, or in naval jargon we crashed our swedes. After about five hours we were up and out again on patrol of the invasion landing area; this was a routine which went on for four months.
Shortly after D-Day, it was reported that Lady Astor stood up in the House of Commons and said that in her view anyone who didn’t take part was a ‘D-Day Dodger’ thereby insulting many thousands of allied troops serving in other theatres of war. Later an officer in the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) wrote new words to the tune of Lilli Marlene which had become their favourite, an opinion shared with the Afrika Corps.
Despatched to the Mediterranean:
Following our further actions in the Channel which were consequent of D-Day and the ensuing campaign, our flotilla was despatched to the Mediterranean. This was in November ’44; we were told this was to replace boats which had been sunk in action so via Gibraltar, Malta and Sicily we finished up in the Adriatic based at the port of Zara in Yugoslavia, now named Zadar. There are many small islands along the Dalmatian coast and each boat was assigned an island in which to lay up under camouflage during the day. Our island was Molat. Our HQ was on an island called Vis where there is a small RN cemetery which includes a plaque on the wall which reads: ‘Here we dead lie because we did not choose to live and shame the country whose borne we were sprung. Life to be sure is nothing much to lose but young men think it is, and we were young.’ The average age of our crew, including officers, was 19.
One day we thought it would be a good idea to throw a tea party for the island’s children. We scrounged some stores from our base ship, the 6” cruiser HMS Colombo, and laid on a party. You have never seen the kind of wonder which appeared on those kids faces. As a thank you the commissar of the island, who was a carpenter by trade, made each member of the crew of 31 a beautiful cigarette box; on the lid he burnt the words ‘MTB 710 Molat 1945’. Only one of these survives today in the safe keeping of our skipper’s daughter, Julia, who was only two years old when her father was killed. The rest of these skilfully carved tribute gifts went down with the boat a few months later.
When we went out on operations we were in contact with a unit of the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group). The LRDG was based on land and guided us to enemy targets. The LRDG also worked with Special Forces of SAS/SBS which included landing agents and raiding parties. In one instance they used 710 to land a small raiding party on enemy territory although we didn’t know what that was all about. We generally operated in a group of three boats.
One night the LRDG reported there were flak lighters in our area; the enemy used these for coastal operations, with guns ranging 20mm to 88mm. We saw them quite clearly as they came around a headland, but they couldn’t see us. Like shooting fish in a barrel we sank all three lighters, but we were hit with an 88mm shell. This knocked me and my gun crew to the deck and killed the twin oerlikon gunner and a leading stoker, leaving others injured by the blast. All our engines were put out of action which stopped hydraulic power to our guns… we were the sitting duck now, especially for the German Destroyers at Pola which was just 20 miles away. Luckily it seems that our location had not been reported and our chief mechanic managed to get one engine running so we could limp back to base. This action was reported in the ‘Times of Malta’ by the historian Taffrail who had been on board at the time and our lead mechanic was awarded a DSM.
A later action involved a midget submarine. We were out on patrol one night when our radar plot showed a contact. We fired a starshell which illuminated a submarine just 200 yards astern, with two torpedoes coming straight at us. We quickly increased speed to 30 knots and managed to avoid the torpedoes. The submarine began to dive so we made two depth charge runs over its last position. The next morning locals reported seeing the sub lying upside down in the bay. It was shortly afterwards that we were leaving harbour to go on patrol when we activated an acoustic mine which exploded about 30 yards astern. Although this shook us up, there wasn’t any real damage done. The same thing happened a week later, but this time much closer damaging our shafts and propellers which caused us to go to dry dock for repairs.
War off the Dalmation coast – MTB 710 sinks:
Following repairs we were on our way back to base on 10th April in convoy with MTBs 660 & 697. Most of the crew were at stand-easy, having a cup of tea and a fag in the forward mess deck when at about 15.30 a mine exploded under the skipper’s cabin and wardroom. This separated the bow section from the rest of the boat. Luckily our fuel tanks had not been damaged, so there wasn’t any hazardous spillage. I must have been about 20 feet from the blast but can’t say I even heard a sound, probably because I was knocked out. One moment I was drinking a cup of tea, next I was picking myself up out of the bilges. The bow section began to fill with water and I was swept up into the forepeak. So there I was supported by one of the bunks, water up to my chin, couldn’t see or hear a thing, wondering what to do now. Looking back I wasn’t frightened by the situation, confident I was a good swimmer I knew that I could escape from the sunken bow.
As this forward section sank lower in the water, I was completely underwater and swimming about the mess deck looking for a way of escape. In those days I was a good underwater swimmer which no doubt saved my life. My guardian angel must have been with me that day as a shaft of sunlight through the water showed me the way. I swam down about 20 feet, got out of the bow section and came up alongside the First Lieutenant. The engines were still powering so the rest of the boat was running around in circles; we signalled a stoker who launched a dinghy for us. We scrambled aboard and paddled around to pick up other survivors who were clinging to a part of the bow section still floating. We noticed the dinghy was settling lower in the water and realised that in his hurry the stoker had neglected to firmly fix the bung. The dinghy overturned and threw us back into the water. It was a serious and deadly predicament yet I can look back and smile; I had survived.
MTBs 660 & 697 each launched their dinghies and we were soon picked up. Once aboard 697 I was stripped off and taken aft, then after a tot of rum I was put into a stoker’s bunk. Meanwhile, some knocking was heard from the part submerged bow section so it was decided to tow it into shallow water. I had just about fallen asleep when the tow rope parted with a bang… I thought it was another of those damn mines. Very embarrassing when I look back but there I was, suddenly awakened and stung to action, standing naked on the bridge next to the skipper, Ginger Booth. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” he demanded “go and put some clothes on!” We eventually arrived back at our base when I was told that only 12 out of our crew of 31 had survived. The skipper, Tony Bone, and the navigator were among the casualties. Survivors were given a medical then sent back to Ischia in the bay of Naples. With my shipmate, George Bleasedale, I was billeted with a lovely Italian family. In fact I visited them after the war in 1955 when we enjoyed a great reunion.
Following leave, all the survivors were split up and I was sent with George to the Italian port of Brindisi where we were billeted aboard a large Italian seaplane tender, the Miraglia.
1945 – VE-Day:
On VE Day we were detailed as duty guard to check on any booze being brought through the main gate and taken aboard. As, obviously, we had to have a sample sip, by the time our spell of duty was over we were almost on our knees and shortly after found ourselves in front of the captain. Happily, our previous experience was taken into account along with the festival circumstances he let us off with an admonishment.
I was then sent to Malta, drafted to a minesweeping ML which did not fill me with joy and resulted me spending 14 days in the Corodina Naval Prison. In my low mood, with a few tipples, I had threatened to thump the Duty Officer. One of the punishment tasks was the picking of Oakham which entails breaking down short lengths of rope into individual strands. This was the tar-like material used to seal wooden deck planking. Each prisoner had to pick out 4½ pounds of Oakham each day. Prisoners were awaked at 06:00 and taken down to ablutions for a wash and shave. Breakfast was 10oz of boiled cabbage and a cup of cocoa. I expect this experience has kept me on the straight and narrow for the rest of my life!
On release the leader of my armed escort was a leading seaman named Hooky Briggs who had been with me on 710. We had hardly cleared the prison gate when Hooky said to the Maltese driver: “Pull up at the first pub we come to.” It’s not difficult to imagine the outcome of this impromptu reunion – when we arrived back at base it was a good thing I was wearing my hammock on my shoulder and my kit bag by my side: all doing the job of holding me upright. My next draft was to the naval base in Alexandri, and then on to Haifa where I joined the destroyer HMS Jervis, a unit of the 1st Destroyer Squadron. This was in preparation for me coming home.
1945/46 – Haifa and Home:
Shortly after arriving in Haifa, I learned that a friend who had joined the Palestine police force was the Deputy Area Commander. We duly made contact and arranged to meet. Once I made it ashore and out of sight of the ship he told me to remove my cap and collar so that I could look more like a merchant seaman and not attract attention from the patrols. I then learned this was because he wanted to take me to the local brothel. When we arrived it became obvious that my friend had good relations with the Madam as he was greeted: “Hello Stuart, come up and bring your friend with you.” He then turned to me and explained this would be a ‘freebie’. We were taken upstairs to a big landing area around which were set a number of chairs for the clients. Three chairs were already occupied, so I was number four in the queue. I was a virgin and although I knew where everything was and what it was used for I had never had the luck to try it out. Indeed I had always been unlucky when it came to sex. Even as a kid when we played doctors and nurses, the others always made me play the ambulance driver!
Anyway, there I was in number four positional keyed up and raring to go. Then it was suddenly my turn and this lovely young 18 to 19 year old took my hand and led me into a bedroom. I was just about to sample the delights of love when there came a loud hammering on the front door and a voice shouted: “Open up – military police!” You can imagine what happened to the state of my excitement. At that time it was a serious disciplinary offence for service personnel to use brothels, so I could have been in deep trouble. However, my friend used his authority and had a word in the shell-like of the MP who then let me go.
The current migration problems are not new. In the early months of 1946, just after I had joined Jervis, thousands of Russian Jews were trying to migrate to Palestine to escape the oppressive regime in Russia. It was the job of our Destroyers to turn them back. Most of the immigrants were routing through Italy and, like in modern times, their boats were not fit for such a sea journey. Many capsized with resultant loss of life. During this period Israeli frogmen attempted to enter the harbour and attach limpet mines to the hulls of our Destroyers. To combat these attempts, hand grenades were thrown over the side at regular intervals resulting in five of the frogmen being killed. They soon gave up after this and not long afterwards, in June 1946, the flotilla returned to the UK and I was demobbed.
Official records show that during the war of the 750 Coastal Forces boats which took part worldwide, 150 were sunk and over 3,000 decorations were awarded to serving personnel. All in all I had some pretty hairy times and some sad times, but I also have many happy memories of the good times I enjoyed with my shipmates.
A prayer: May perpetual light shine upon all those men and women of the armed forces and the civilian populations, including those of our allies and my 21 shipmates, who made the supreme sacrifice, and on those who were maimed and those who have since died from the effects of war.
Never regret growing old. It was, and is, a privilege denied to many due to acts of war.
To end on a proud note, about a year ago (2016) I received a letter from His Excellency the French Ambassador telling me that the President of France had appointed me, along with many thousands of others who took part in D-Day, a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. This is the highest order of chivalry in France. Shortly afterwards, the honour which the President had bestowed on behalf of the French people was doubled when the French Consul visited me at my son’s house and presented me with the medal insignia of the Legion.”