The Big Push



Once back at Immingham I was examined by the M/O (Medical Officer) after a thorough assessment of my knee he pronounced me fit for duties. The only trouble was my Destroyer didn't return here from patrol. Therefore I was ordered to make my way to Sheerness in Kent, as Pytchley would be docking there in a few days.

I had an absolutely miserable time in port until her arrival and it certainly gave me a boost to get out of barracks and back up our gangplank. We spent a few weeks carrying out similar duties to those which we performed from Immingham (E boat patrols). Mind you we knew the invasion couldn't be far away as every single jetty, cove or port in the area was full of landing craft and various other assault vessels, it was obvious this type of stockpiling couldn't carry on indefinitely. However no one knew the exact date of the invasion, this would soon alter.

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The message given to all servicemen on the eve of 'D-Day'; by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower: stirring stuff!

The decision was made to commence operations on June 5, however, because of unfavourable weather conditions this date was altered, the invasion finally being set for June 6. It must have been music to the ears of the thousands of troops stowed away in cramped, uncomfortable conditions onboard vessels awaiting departure. The operation was to be known as 'Overlord' and the first signs of its commencement that I recollect was watching countless minesweepers leave port to sweep the channel for the Armada, which was soon to follow.

From here on in all harbours on the South Coast were a scene of mass activity, as an incessant line of troopships steamed out of port to rendezvous at a prearranged point off the South East Coast of the Isle of Wight. Our ship was part of the 21st Destroyer flotilla and would sail at the head of the convoy along with other warships to search for 'E' Boats and hostile submarines before commencing shore bombardments. I feel to try and capture the mood of the moment properly its necessary to quote some of the official figures, which will give you a better idea of the enormity of this operation. There were over 6,500 surface vessels of which approximately 1000 were warships, these comprised of every class of man-o-war from Battleship down to Corvette, all had an equally important role to play. I've no idea how many planes were involved in the operation. All I can say on this point is that at certain times during the early days of Overlord, the skies would almost be blacked out as countless warplanes flew over the coast line to deal with remnants of the Luftwaffe and on strategic bombing missions.

We set off on the evening of June 5, quickly joining up with our flotilla, I couldn't wait to cross the Channel and commence shelling of German gun emplacements. It was a somewhat eerie feeling as we steamed at a slow steady speed; we had no-idea of the size of the fleet; as no other ships could be seen, the reason for this being a total blackout procedure was in operation. Further into the journey the silence was shattered by the sound of aircraft which were towing gliders, these had our airborne divisions onboard and they had the unenviable job of securing all vital bridges and points of strategic importance before the Germans could gather their forces. With them went the main hopes for the success of Overlord; if they'd failed, the whole operation could have been a disaster.

I think it must have been around 0300 hours when the aerial bombardment began, it was unbelievable in its ferocity, thousands of flares were dropped immediately followed by tons of high explosives. The purpose of this was to weaken German inshore defences, in particular their big gun emplacements, it was vital to silence them before our ships took up station. Time moved on towards dawn and much to my amazement it had been a completely uneventful journey, as I don't think we lost any ships during the crossing. 

Shortly afterwards I had my first view of the invasion force, it stretched as far as the eye could see and across our entire horizon. No sooner had I relaxed for the first time in several hours then we went to action stations; everyone had their anti-flash gear on as all allied guns were brought to bear on the French coastline. We'd been designated to attack gun emplacements situated on 'Gold' beach. 

Along this area were coloured markers, which would assist in the deployment of our amphibious tanks. These had been set a couple of days previously by midget submarines, namely X20 @ X21. I later found out that after completion of this hazardous mission they lay on the seabed to await arrival of the invasion fleet; rather them than me. We gradually moved closer inshore, amazingly there was still no reaction from the pillboxes entrenched on the shoreline. I have to add that I think it's a misconception to refer to these emplacements with such a title as it gives the impression to people of younger generations that they were small inconsequential buildings. In fact they were massive reinforced concrete bunkers, giving a low silhouette on the horizon and capable of inflicting severe damage to all ships in the area with one well aimed salvo. 
The warships were in a sort of stacking system; at the head of affairs were the destroyers, accompanied by rocket ships, the latter would attempt to detonate mines on the beachhead. Next, were the light and heavy cruisers, which had the responsibility of silencing the larger gun emplacements, situated further inland. Finally was the force of battleships, they had the job of attacking inland fortifications and selected bridges; aiding them in this work were scores of spotter planes, which would report their fall of shot. 

The first to cut loose were our rocket ships, the noise of these weapons being launched combined with the exploding mines on the beach was incredible. It was a light show that will never be surpassed. Then we received orders to 'commence bombardment' in a matter of minutes I had a sweat on, as our twin 4-inch turret began to work overtime and the decks were quickly strewn with discarded shell cases. Every so often the deafening whine from one of our battleships salvos came screaming overhead. In a very short time the entire area of the beachhead was a mass of smoke and flames. Soon afterwards we scored our first success and a loud cheer went up as a 4-inch shell silenced one of our designated pillboxes. 

At this point there still hadn't been any noticeable reaction from the Germans, subsequently our forces headed towards the beach under the protective cover of our bombardment. Suddenly one of their guns, over to our right redressed the balance, scoring a direct hit on a troop carrier, it immediately disintegrated in a pall of smoke. A matter of moments later, one of our ships got its range sending a shell straight into the bunker, blowing it to bits.

As the battle wore on it was evident that hardly any shore batteries were returning fire, I think we must have either knocked them out of action or the Jerry's had seen the size of this force and took it on their heels and fled. By this time I was almost worn out as the heat being developed around our turret was becoming oppressive; adding to this discomfort were cordite fumes, which felt as though they were burning the back of my throat away. Thankfully after it was deemed that all shore batteries in our vicinity were out of action, the order was issued for destroyers to cease-fire, although the larger ships had to continue their barrage for quite a substantial period afterwards. However we remained closed up at action stations guarding against air attack, but mercifully one of our lads was detailed off with the express orders of making a cup of tea. I tell you one thing; it never touched the sides on the way down. 
With no real duties to perform I began to have a look at the specialised machinery being unloaded on the beach, (we called them funnies). They certainly may have looked that way, but the foresight of the men who designed them was beyond belief. I think one of the most amazing was the 'Flail Tank' the purpose of which was to detonate coastal mines by means of a series of chains driven by a cylinder on the front of the tank. The use of these machines would clear landing points quickly and effectively for men and machinery. I still wonder how many lives this device saved? 

It must have been somewhere in the region of 0730 hours when the first of our infantry went ashore, quickly followed by small field guns and similar weaponry. The movement of all machinery was made far easier thanks to another 'funny' namely the 'Bobbin' tank. They had a huge spool of canvas carpet suspended from their front end. Once the carpet was laid it allowed mechanised transport to tackle the beach with little fear of being bogged down. 
The operation on our sector had gone off with few problems, however we heard that the invasion forces on the Western end of 'Gold' were having a rough time. The same was true of the American landings further along the coast; both these sectors would suffer heavy losses before substantial gains were made. As for our ship, matters calmed down quite quickly after the hectic action of early morning, although we did remain on station, spending our time cleaning equipment and later on relaxing over a job well done. 

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Some of 'Y' turret gun crew after the shore bombardments and landings of June 6 1944. I am on the extreme right of the picture.

It was now 'D' day + 1, and because the troops in our sector had advanced several miles inland we were allowed some time ashore to survey the damage inflicted on our objectives of the previous day. We couldn't wait, and the 'buzz' going round was that there was a bar in a nearby village which was relatively undamaged, therefore they were still selling beer. It was our intention to get there as quickly as possible.

I went ashore on a 'picket' boat, joining up with a couple of shipmates, as we were walking across the beach, heading for the road that led to the village, I was suddenly confronted with a sight from days gone by. The lone figure of a Royal naval officer standing about 50 yards away caught my eye, I recognised the stance and almost immediately realised it was my old skipper off Repulse, Captain (now Rear Admiral) Tennant. I hesitated for a moment then turned and hurried after my mates. It was an action I have always regretted, especially whenever some of my old shipmates from the battlecruiser have recalled their meetings with him after the fall of Singapore. Whenever their paths crossed he would go out of his way to speak to them, quite often at great length. Perhaps he missed Repulse as much as the rest of us? As for myself I'd missed my opportunity and was never to see him again. 

I feel that Tennant was an unsung hero of the Second World War; before joining Repulse he'd worked miracles at Dunkirk (being one of the main officers in charge of the evacuation). Now here he was 4 years later in a senior position on the allies return to France, this time being responsible for the installation of the gigantic artificial harbour 'Mulberry' and 'Pluto', the crucial oil pipeline that was laid across the channel to feed the mechanised war. The responsibilities must have been a severe headache for him particularly as the weather played havoc with these vitally important contributions to 'Overlord' during the coming weeks (more of which later). Mind you I don't suppose for one minute matters got the better of him; nothing ever could. 

I caught up with my mates and in a short while we came upon the road, we were now very close to one of the pill boxes we'd been bombarding the previous day, so we decided to take a look at our handy-work. It hadn't been completely destroyed but I wouldn't have fancied being inside when our 4-inch armour piercing shell found its mark. The gun barrel had been partially damaged; it didn't seem possible that a shell strike could have dealt such a clinically efficient blow. The projectile had gouged out a clean semi-circle of steel in the upper part of the barrel enroute to striking its intended target; no one inside the bunker could have survived. 

By the time of our arrival the German soldier's bodies had already been removed, however the entire compartment was testament to the carnage wreaked by our shell; every wall was covered in blood. The only thing I can say is that they wouldn't have known what hit them. Continuing on our way we had no-difficulty finding the village, the sounds of a piano accordion could be heard, drifting towards us from a good mile away. The pub had an almost carnival atmosphere to it, as a countless stream of tunes were being played on the accordion and everyone was enjoying a good sing-song. It was hard to believe that only a matter of miles away the allies were encountering ever increasing German resistance, we were in a different world. After a couple of hours we made our way back to the Pytchley, feeling a lot better after a run ashore. 

We remained on station till the following morning; our duties were then to assist the never-ending stream of convoys making the journey across the channel. This remained the general run of things for a week or two and everything appeared to be running very smoothly until June 19; then the weather turned. For three days the channel became an inferno, it went on record as being one of the worst storms ever seen in the area, and the damage caused was horrendous. Although we managed to get a few larger vessels across, many had to turn back and some unfortunately were sunk with heavy loss of life. Possibly the most worrying damage sustained was to the previously mentioned harbour 'Mulberry' and the oil line 'Pluto'; both these were the main lifelines to the allied invasion, and for a short period their futures were in jeopardy. Thankfully once the storm abated, operations were quickly resumed.

A few days later we took part in one of our last duties of the invasion; a small detachment of our 'Algerine' minesweepers were operating off the coast of France, in the same area as a group of 'Typhoon' warplanes. Tragically there'd been a 'cock up' in signals because the pilots had orders that any shipping in the vicinity was to be treated as hostile. On spotting the ships they immediately attacked, cutting them to pieces. Pytchley was sent to assist because she was one of the few vessels in the area that had a surgeon onboard. We steamed at full speed to the location and it was a sickening sight. Many men had been killed; even more had serious injuries. Unfortunately casualties of what is now known as 'Friendly Fire' are deemed to be an inescapable product of war. However in my opinion, this doesn't offer any solace to the relatives of the poor souls who perish in such actions.

For the following months we operated off the coast of France, escorting convoys and checking out reported sightings of enemy shipping. I think we finally curtailed these duties shortly after December 1944. Everyone is aware that from early '45' onwards German resistance rapidly crumbled and from our point of view matters quietened down considerably. During this period many 'U' boats and smaller surface vessels were stranded, being unable to return to friendly ports as one by one these fell into allied hands. The only options being open to them were either surrender, or scuttling of their vessels.

With few duties to perform, time dragged on, and in many ways the war at sea against remnants of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) was effectively over by early '45'. Then on May 8, the announcement we'd all waited for came over the radio. This was met with a huge cheer by all onboard the Pytchley, in an instant the entire mess-deck resembled a dance hall, everyone was understandably overjoyed. At long last after six years of slaughter the European war was finally over. My immediate thoughts went out to Teresa and my young son, if matters could be brought to an end against Japan, we could now live as a family in peace and freedom.

We remained on patrol and life onboard became much more relaxed, although we still had the tedious duties of long hours of watch keeping, however these weren't fraught with the same sense of danger from year's gone-by. About a month later we were granted home leave and what a time that was! I still remember the fantastic party we had; it went on late into the night. We all rejoiced in the knowledge that life would soon be back to normal, the only nagging doubt remaining in my mind was that our ship could be sent to the Far-East to assist in the final defeat of Japan, I didn't relish the thought.

Eventually I had to return, although this time it was with a spring in my step, after a few weeks the rumour went round that we could well be sailing to join in the final phases of the war against Japan. Obviously we weren't happy about this but there would have been no-point in complaining we were servicemen and many of our fellow sailors were still embroiled in the bitter conflict; therefore we had no-rights to preferential treatment.

I'd been watching, with interest how matters had been unfolding in the Southern Hemisphere and it was obvious, sooner or later the Japs were going to be beaten. Although their fanatical devotion to the Emperor was extracting a heavy price against all allied servicemen, I can't imagine what it must have been like being onboard a warship whilst under Kamikaze attack and the nearer our forces edged towards Japan, the greater their resistance. However on August 6 1945 the world changed forever, as you know, this was when the first Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, followed a few days later by a further atomic detonation above the city of Nagasaki. On August 15 they signed the document of unconditional surrender. 

I still have mixed emotions over the dropping of the bombs; many may disagree with my views, but the newsreel film that came back from Japan during the following months were sickening. To see so many women and children suffering in such a way is a thing I have never forgotten. I'm fully aware of the barbaric manner in which Japanese forces dealt with all people captured by them. The liberation of our prisoners of war from Changi Jail, Singapore was another sight that brought tears to my eyes. If their armed forces had been bombed to destruction I couldn't have cared less and would have given my full backing to such an act. It was a conflict which they started and these same men through their own actions were responsible for bringing warfare to an all-time low with acts of sheer deprivation and barbarism. However, to see women and children suffer because of these animals, is something I have never fully agreed with. 
On the other hand my own views may well have been different if Pytchley had been sent to the Far-East, and there can be no question that in one fell swoop the dropping of the bombs saved the lives of thousands of allied servicemen. I don't wish to dwell on this delicate subject; its enough to state that it was with slight reservations I rejoiced over their capitulation, although quite possibly, the ends did justify the means. 

The war was finally over, but at what cost; to this day families still grieve over loved ones lost in the conflict, many that returned, in particular prisoners of war have never recovered. They paid the greatest price of all and I have the utmost respect for their courage in enduring indescribable horrors; without doubt they are a breed apart. 

My last few months of service onboard Pytchley dragged on, I desperately wished to begin a normal married life. Thankfully on February 1 1946 (also my birthday) my 'demob' papers came through and I returned home for good. After all those years of fleeting homecomings, Teresa and I could now begin our lives together.