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~ HM LCF 7 ~

MEMOIRS OF A MARINE

Landing Craft Flak (LCF) provided cover against enemy air attack during landings. They were armed with many rapid fire anti-aircraft guns of different types. These are the recollections of a marine as his craft saw service in North Africa, Pantellaria, Sicily and Italy.

The Early Days We Put to Sea The Mediterranean Pantellaria Sicily
Italy Return Home

Further Reading

Acknowledgments  

The Early Days

It was early January 1943 when trucks dropped us off at Victoria Dock in the East End of London. We were forty odd Royal Marines fresh out of finishing school; the Marshal Sault (seamanship) and the Dome, Eastney (anti-aircraft gunnery). Our first ship awaited us, a grey steel shoe box known as His Majesty's flak ship, LCF 7. It was bristling with guns comprising 8 Oerlikons and 4 pom-poms, weapons with which we were already familiar.

Royal Navy personnel were aboard two or three days before us including the Captain, Jimmy the One (2nd in Command), Petty Officer, Coxswain, ERA (Engine Room Artificer), bunting tosser (Signalman), Ordnance Artificer, sick bay tiffy and several able seamen. Two RM officers had also joined, one the OC (Officer Commanding). The coxswain, our sergeant major, a time server and another sergeant had a separate mess adjoining the quarters of the other ranks and ratings. We enjoyed neither natural light nor heating. (Photo; sister ship LCF 2.)

We were organised into port and starboard watches, four hours on duty and four off. The constant drip of condensation from a badly corked deck in our sleeping area was akin to Chinese torture! On the credit side the traditional tot of rum at 11.00 hrs every morning boosted our spirits. The greatest novelty came when the SBA (sick bay attendant) announced the issue of free 'French letters' to all libertymen (those granted shore leave). The first recipients went ashore like a band of gigolos into the killing fields of East Ham. They all dribbled back up the gangplank sadly frustrated and still virgins.

Alas, it was not long before real trouble visited us in the shape of the Senior RM officer, who was proving to be a martinet in the Captain Bligh mould. From the start he was hell-bent on running a harsh regime and really upset the applecart by imposing the silliest of orders including banning whistling on the upper deck. Several charges were served and life on board, even before we sailed, became unbearable to all ranks, including the senior NCOs. The sergeant major was aware of the simmering situation and openly empathized. He suggested that each man submit a request for a transfer and the resultant wad of chitties did the trick. A replacement CO, a gentleman this time, joined us a day or two later.

We now settled down as a chummy ship, fully familiar with naval routine and allotted our action stations. We cast off and went down river, ready for war; well not quite since there was no ammunition in the magazine! How long would it be I wondered before we chanted the ditty
'Roll on the Nelson, Rodney, Renown, This flat bottomed bastard is getting me down.'

Our first port of call was Gravesend where we took on supplies. Then on to Queenboro' Dock, Sheerness to pick up the 'fireworks.' All day was spent humping cases of 20mm and 40mm shells inboard where each individual round had to be greased by hand. It was back breaking - the hardest day's work of my life. Now fully 'battle worthy' we formed up in convoy in the estuary and braced ourselves for a choppy waters in the open sea. As the weather worsened most of us were seasick and became incapable of manning the guns. It was a dire situation which drove our veteran sergeant major berserk and almost tongue-tied with invective.

Full of shame we entered Portsmouth harbour to recover but the only harm was to our injured pride! For a day or two we acted as duty guard ship in the Solent. We then sailed along the coast at Saltash where we took on board an extra naval officer and a navigator. We knew then that a long trip was ahead. We soon slipped the buoy and proceeded down the River Tamar. It was the 2nd of April 1943.

We Put to Sea

We tested all the guns with a burst of fire as we proceeded west into the Atlantic. We anticipated house-high waves but this 'guinea pig' voyage of ten days was relatively benign. Gone was the earlier unease we felt about the slap and shudder of head on waves impacting on the flat bow. However, the seaworthiness of the vessel still gave rise to some concern as the deck visibly flexed in the high seas.

We were in the company of about ten landing craft shepherded by a sloop boasting something like a 3-inch gun as its main armament. Still in ignorance of our final destination the group made seemingly casual progress due west for the first three days. With the watery sun on our port beam for so long some speculated that we were making for Norfolk, Virginia!

It was difficult for the officer on the bridge to keep station during the dark nights without the benefit of guiding lights and at dawn the group was invariably scattered far and wide. We turned onto a southerly course and shortly afterwards had our first alert... 'aircraft on the starboard beam' followed by the 'action stations' alarm bell. Far away, out of range, was a giant Fokker-Wulf Condor reconnaissance plane. It stalked us for two days but to our amazement and relief there was no follow up attack.

The Captain decided that there would be two wardroom attendants (WRAs) so accordingly one from each watch was pressed into volunteering. The job was not too menial and considered by some to be a 'square number' in the warmth of the pantry while the others were totally exposed up top to all weathers for four hours at a time. The cooks in their pokey galley aft, did a good job with the resources provided - no fridge/freezers then! The menus were restricted to what was readily available in wartime. Bread supplies ran out soon after leaving Cornwall and were replaced by hard tack (like big dog biscuits). For the rest it was dried potato, powdered egg, soya links (sausages), tinned tomato (red lead), seedless jam, prunes, ground rice, margarine and tea with carnation milk. All meals, hot and otherwise, had to be carried along the upper deck and down the hatchway to the mess deck.

Once we had reached warmer waters we shed our heavy clothing in favour of khaki drill gear. The Strait of Gibraltar was a welcome sight. Tarifa, where the word tariff originated, was on the left bank and in the far distant right was Tangiers.

The Mediterranean

The Rock of Gibraltar loomed large, overlooking an anchorage sheltering myriad ships, many no doubt having participated in the recent Operation Torch landings. Shore leave was restricted while supplies, fuel and drinking water were taken on board. We were due back pay of about twelve bob (60p) a week which was enough to purchase fags (cigarettes) going by the exotic names of Passing Cloud, Three Castles or Lucky Strike. A bag of letters to parents, sweethearts and wives was consigned to the Fleet Post Office and we cast off. Gibralter was ablaze with bright lights all night and it was a poignant reminder of happier times back home before the blackout was imposed 4 years earlier.

Our craft proceeded independently through the Strait and along the Moroccan coastline until we sighted Mers el Kabir, a naval anchorage near Oran. This was where the Vichy French fleet was neutralised by the Royal Navy on July 3 1940. Our mission at this time was not clear to us, but the arrival of a white ensign did not, on this occasion, signal hostility. The event that did cause considerable chagrin, however, was the order to 'get fell in' on the mole (jetty) for squad drill. Our performance fell far short of King's Squad standard and would have brought tears to the eyes of our Eastney training instructor.

Shore leave was granted to off duty men who were trucked off to Oran along a road shared with hooded figures astride little donkeys. The question was where to go for entertainment? The main (and only) local attraction was the brothel. Caution prevailed over curiosity with most of us remembering the film on things prophylactic at the Lympstone Depot cinema in our days as recruits. I opted for a relaxed haircut, albeit in a fly infested 'salon.' Flies were a constant source of great irritation wherever we served in North Africa.

Onward to Algiers, a grisly town off limits since the discovery in a Casbah alley of two American soldiers separated from their testicles. During the dark, silent hours two armed quartermasters were posted on the upper deck as a precaution against marauding locals. A quartermaster's lot in the Mediterranean was otherwise a doddle because the tides of just a few inches required no adjustment to the craft's mooring ropes.

Bougie, further eastward, was a picturesque French colonial town. Our approach though a forest of mastheads in the harbour had to be negotiated carefully before we tied up. My dominant recollection of the place was the bemused expression of a young dolly peering from her balustrade at the suggestive gestures of the marines.

Apart from firing a few rounds at a bobbing mine en route from Algiers, nothing had so far been fired in anger. But tension was in the air as U boats were known to be active in the area. Lookouts were told to be particularly vigilant on the next stage to Djidjelli, a quaint harbour town fronted by mastheads of all shapes and sizes. We were joined by other flak ships and sundry naval vessels providing the Luftwaffe with a prime target.

Reconnaissance planes and other intelligence gatherers had provided the enemy with accurate information on our location and that night they attacked with a vengeance! They were no doubt aware that we were the advance nucleus of a seaborne invasion force and their intent was to remove the threat. Combined Operations vessels from the UK had now been joined by their American built counterparts such as LCIs (infantry) and LSTs (tanks and heavy vehicles). They had crossed the Atlantic for the Torch landings on Moroccan and Algerian shores and were now to be manned by British crews (no marines) under the White Ensign.

Alerted by a warning siren on shore we ran to our action stations - the Oerliken gunners, the No 2s attending the ammunition lockers and the pom-pom crews. Tension was high while we waited for the bombers to arrive under cover of darkness. They dropped flares which hung like bright inverted pyramids above the prey - us. On a signal from the bridge all guns opened up with bursts of a few seconds duration, the rest of the ships did likewise. A colourful umbrella of contact-fused shells illuminated the sky; a frightening sight to confront the Axis pilots. Meanwhile they released their bombs from a height most likely above the limit of our trajectories. Sickening crumps could be heard all over the place as the bombs hit the earth.

Strangely a feeling of exhilaration and excitement gripped us. The ear shattering din generated a growing feeling of immunity and confidence. After firing several hundred rounds the smell of cordite and a haze pervaded the upper deck, which had been vibrating alarmingly under the detonations of our own guns and the bombs.

The raid lasted about twenty minutes but we of the lower deck never learned of the extent of the destruction and number of lives lost. We stood-by palpably thankful for our survival but without sleep. The officers later expressed satisfaction with the cool conduct displayed while under fire. LCF 7 had prevailed although many such hostile encounters were to be endured in the weeks to come.

On our way to our, as yet unknown, operational base, we reached the town of Bone. We eagerly anticipated some relaxation and a spot of swimming in the warm sea. We dropped the kedge anchor a kilometre or so off shore whereupon we were taken on a 5 mile march up a dusty road and back again, much to the amusement of our naval brethren.

On to Cape Bon where the remnants of German forces had, just days before, fled Africa in haste. Then down the Tunisian coast to Sousse, a holiday resort. It was the antithesis of a holiday romp. Shortly after arrival our 'bunting tosser' sighted the 'carrying mail' flag on a halyard of the assault ship 'Queen Emma' which was about to enter harbour. We were overjoyed to receive letters and parcels from home even though the news items were stale. Later in the war the much faster 'air-graph' service was introduced for overseas forces. One marine, from Bristol, received a parcel from his local WVS branch containing a woollen balaclava helmet, matching scarf and gloves. The mercury at the time was topping 90f.

Sousse accommodated us for a week or two, during which time we suffered air raids nightly varying in severity from nuisance attacks to intense. One bomb blast flung those of us not secured to an Oerliken on to our backs. Lack of sleep was causing frayed nerves and many resorted to chain-smoking. The morning ritual of 'up spirits' was observed with greater gusto than normal. Unspoken odds of our chances of survival were shortening - but around this time the expression 'Lucky 7' was beginning to circulate. However, as though to counter this growing  feeling of optimism, a mined LCT came alongside containing bodies in the murky water of their flooded well-deck and a marine on a neighbouring LCF was decapitated by his own loaded Oerliken gun.

On the lighter side we were attracted to an impromptu Sods' Opera featuring a cast from the victorious Desert Rats. Every squaddy wanted to participate on the cinema stage. There were jugglers, tin horn blowers, corny, filthy gag tellers and a chorus of Lili Marlene. The show was a glorious mixture of spontaneity and exuberance performed by happy veterans many of whom had fought all the way from El Alamein. It was a never to be forgotten experience and a privilege to be there among them. Many were part of the 51st Highland Division who were soon to be transported to a hostile shore in southern Europe by ships of Combined Operations.

On another liberty trip an oppo and myself wandered into the deserted town, making our way to an abandoned fort. Notwithstanding the possible presence of booby traps we grubbed about in the detritus for souvenirs but found only shoddy insignia. Returning to the ship along the once impressive waterfront we looked into the vacant, windowless villas, still determined to find a memento of the place. Defying my conscience and a roving Red Cap patrol (military police), I plucked a natty blue crystal chandelier from a ceiling imagining how it would beautify a certain ceiling in Blighty. The spoil of war was secreted aboard and stowed deep in my locker and that was that... for the time being.

While ashore that day I drank unboiled water to slake a thirst ignoring a rumour that the Boche had contaminated the local wells. Within hours I contracted a virulent fever which led to isolation in a hot, fetid, rope-cum-paint store. There I writhed, sweating profusely for two days until a Service doctor diagnosed enteritis and ordered my dispatch to the military hospital at Monastir. Once under the tender ministrations of Queen Alexandra's nursing sisters and a captive Italian bigwig orderly, I quickly recovered. Delighted to be back on board for light duties I reflected on my earlier misdeed and, sensing a bad omen, offloaded the chandelier on to a grateful matelot, earnestly hoping that no harm would befall him.

Pantellaria

The first indication we had that an offensive action was in the offing was when the sick berth attendant, himself a denizen of the mess deck, was told to set out his stall in readiness for possible casualties arising from an imminent battle. When later that same day all hands were piped to assemble below to be addressed by the Captain, we knew then that the balloon had gone up.

'Stand at ease, lads,' he commanded, then disclosed that we would be sailing in a few hours to the island of Pantellaria, a fortified island naval base of Mussolini's. It was about 100 miles distant and H hour was to be in broad daylight at 12 noon! The Captain explained our role in a combined operation involving landing craft, heavy naval units and supporting aircraft. Being of shallow draught it was planned that we would sail close inshore and shoot up unspecified land targets as well as keeping a watchful eye on the sky. He admitted it was a potentially hazardous mission then added, 'Let's have no heroes, keep your heads - I want to see you all returning safely home. Good Luck!' A short prayer followed then 'Carry on' from the coxswain.

Apart from his duties on the bridge and appearance on evening rounds we did not see a lot of the Captain. An occasional aside perhaps but no real rapport with his ship's company up to that stage. However, as time went by we recognised the qualities of a kindly, modest and good humoured man - albeit no swashbuckling Hornblower! He was an RNVR lieutenant, 40 something, a one time Brooklands racing driver who was afflicted with bouts of recurrent malaria. Considering our vessel was a 'small ship' the Royal Marine officers were a bit remote from their detachment, but, nevertheless, an aura of agreeableness prevailed overall. It was a happy ship without a doubt.

We steamed through a sleepless and apprehensive night. After breakfast there was much smoking and feverish nail biting as the high ground of Pantellaria came into view. We saw Bostons and the new twin fuselage Lightnings undertaking low-level bombing through puffs of desultory ack-ack fire. Our senses were on high alert as we approached the shore at a distance of about half a mile. To the south a gleaming mass of aircraft approached, dead on time. They were Flying Fortresses of the US Air Force in formation and about to demonstrate the destructive power of saturation bombing. Directly above our heads at two or three thousand feet it was like a giant matchbox tippling its contents. It was a fearsome and terrifying sight that caused the sprawling island target to be completely enveloped in smoke and dust.

The haze slowly cleared to reveal a flattened landscape, devoid of cranes, barracks, warehouses and dwellings. The odd fire burned and there was an eerie stillness. We were geared up to do our stuff on LCF 7 but there was nothing left standing to hit except a couple of sturdy pill-boxes whose occupants had disappeared. To compound the plight of Italian soldiers emerging from mountainside foxholes waving white flags, the cruiser Orion started slamming the area with salvos of 6 inch shells - quite unnecessarily in my reckoning. The British troops disembarked unopposed.

The order went out that LCF13 should act as a guard ship in the island's harbour overnight. She took up position while we set sail for Sousse, speculating on the next step of the campaign. During the ensuing hours enemy bombers plastered LCF 13 mercilessly and many casualties resulted. The craft ended up on the rocks, a total wreck. We were all profoundly shaken and disturbed by the intensity of this vengeful attack.

Rest & Recuperation

Midsummer in Tunisia was hot and sleep did not come easily. In our dormitory there where 40 odd hammocks slung closely fore and aft resembling a tin of bent sardines. During middle watch a cacophony of grunts, farts and snorts could be heard! Fortunately, since the threat of air raids had subsided we had the option of rigging our hammocks on the upper deck, or just laying a blanket down. In my case a spot close to the port forward pom-pom gun. The down side was that it became quite chilly during the night and dewy towards dawn. Even to this day I regard a hammock as an abomination - not to be recommended.

In early July the planners decided that LCF 7 and company should move to Malta. Two hundred miles of dangerous waters lay before us and as always vigilance was vital as we had no Radar, RDF or Asdics. In the event the journey was uneventful and we reached the George Cross island and berthed at Sliema Creek. The prospect of an evening in the main street of Valetta, the capital, was something to relish. What an eye opener it turned out to be for us callow youths from the UK provinces. The many bars along this loosely blacked-out thoroughfare churned out popular songs for the delectation of boozing sailors from half a dozen navies. There was a rich mixture of spivs, gays and transvestites which could best be described as extra curricula in the university of Life.

While we were in Malta a good story did the rounds. The US fleet on entering the Grand harbour of Valetta signalled to the RN flagship "Greetings to the world's second biggest navy." In no time the RN Flagship replied, “Thank you... and welcome to the world's second best.”

Sicily

A feeling that further offensive action was imminent turned to reality when all hands were piped for another homily from the Captain, followed by a short service. This time the destination was Sicily, a hundred miles away to the north. All warlike preparations completed and mail taken ashore, we departed and took up station along with many others on a sea that was the roughest we had yet encountered. We spent a wet, wind tossed night exposed and soaked on the gun platforms, quietly praying that the minesweepers had cleared the approach channels.

The soldiers on the smaller LCIs and LCTs, must have been greatly relieved when the storm blew itself out and the Sicilian shore loomed up in the early morning. It seemed to us that all ships had reached the target area unscathed, thanks in large measure to an earlier bombardment by battleships, cruisers and a monitor. It was some time before the enemy returned fire from a battery about 2 miles away. We could see advancing plumes in the sea as the gunners found our range. Thankfully a destroyer in our sector swiftly pin-pointed the on-shore muzzle flashes and snuffed out the "offender" with some brilliant gunnery.

The assault troops and their vehicles were well established ashore before the first flight of high level enemy bombers appeared. They were outside the effective range of our guns and they hit a liberty ship carrying ammunition blowing it to smithereens. Later in the day the camouflaged, grey Mauretania arrived on the scene. She discharged boatloads of troops, then quickly vanished over the horizon out of harm's way. Fighter-bombers came swooping in out of the sun to be met by a curtain of varied flak. Their persistence kept us lively throughout the day and near-misses caused us some palpitations. The same pattern of activity continued for a few days until the now empty ships dispersed.

One beneficial by-product of the under-sea explosions was the appearance of hundreds of concussed fish on the surface. Volunteer swimmers were summoned to gather enough to provide suppers of fried hake for all, a real delicacy in the circumstances. However, there was more gruesome flotsam in the form of bloated uniformed corpses drifting by, victims of an abortive air-drop off Licata, on the eve of D Day.

An incredible, almost comical incident occurred while we were swanning around Avola. A FW fighter plane hopped over a nearby hill and cruised in a tight circle at masthead height. The pilot was clearly visible and we were surprised he neither strafed nor bombed the targets below. He must have been a pacifist or had run out of ammo. Before we collected our wits and depressed the Oerlikens ready for action, he was gone.

As our army advanced up the eastern flank of the island, with the Americans were in the west, the  enemy were driven  north. First Syracuse port was opened up and then farther on Augusta which was capable of accommodating an entire fleet. We entered its harbour through a defended boom and anchored in the midst of a host of ships from MLs to a battleship. Security and defensive measure were tight since the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant had been sunk in Alexandria harbour by Italian charioteers. All capital ships in the Mediterranean were now strictly protected at anchor from enemy surface and under-sea predators.

The Luftwaffe were of course unaffected by these measures. From the first night at Augusta flares were dropped at dusk and bombers assailed us relentlessly. The menacing drone followed by whistling bombs were countered by a hail of projectiles ranging from calibres of .5 to 4.7 inches. Our LCF 7 crew were by now reasonably case-hardened... or so we thought, but these sustained aerial assaults spread over several hours were a new experience. The simultaneous clatter of our guns in actions over consecutive days had a deleterious effect on our nerves and eardrums alike. Sleep was a luxury and by now we were all chain smoking. The ordnance artificer earned his corn during this period as he serviced guns which were firing up to 900 rounds a night.

On the balance sheet of nocturnal destruction, I cannot comment, except that every morning brought a deceptive serenity and no perceived damage. Whatever, it was all a monstrous waste of lives and material on both sides. Our own rounds shot into the sky no doubt also contributed to the carnage as they fell to earth. One of our own men suffered a wound to his chest from a piece of shrapnel from one of our guns.

Neighbouring ships at anchor were many and varied, the most incongruous of which was a Chinese river gun boat sitting sedately on the surface like a flat iron. Another was the Lascar (a sailor from the East Indies) crewed Alletta, a tanker carrying precious drinking water from Bournemouth! The tanker Brown Ranger, a blue ensign job, with a big basket-like spark catcher atop the funnel, gave rise to some concern. It was loaded with low flash fuel and seemed to court our protection from a mere cable length distance.

The monotony of the daily diet continued and then worsened when the Purser's store ashore provided us with captured Italian hard tack and tinned meat. The former resembled mini slabs of Cotswold stone and the 'horse' was 50% bright yellow chunks of fat. Then out of the blue the battleship's bakery came to the rescue with a sack full of freshly baked white bread! At tea, on the dogwatch, jam butties never tasted so good!

Our depleted stocks of ammunition were replenished when a lighter came alongside. Once transshipped the lot had to be greased in situ. A detail of grease monkeys, myself included, was sent below. In the course of this messy duty an enormous explosion rocked the ship. We scampered up the hatch ladder on to a drenched upper deck to see an expanding circle of disturbed sedimentary water close by. A fighter-bomber had sneaked in from the sun and caught us unawares. It was the closest shave to date and we returned below to the magazine with some misgivings.

However, in the following days the threat of daylight attacks subsided and 'shore leave' was in prospect. We cleaned up our best kit in readiness for a trip to Catania to see the girls of the town at the foot of Mount Etna. Enjoying the feel of freedom and a return to a mixed society we wandered the streets of the town centre and then down to the narrow harbour where, it was alleged, the retreating Germans had ditched their whores on departure. This day all we saw was a wrinkled old man pulling a squid out of the water and then killing it with a savage bite of its 'neck.'

I used my meagre BMA pay on a posh haircut, a bottle of muscatel (wine) and a box of lemons for my mother. We were granted a concession by the postal authorities to send a parcel of lemons, a long since vanished commodity back in the UK. The fruit was delivered intact to a delighted parent a week or so later. I repeated the gesture with a box of pressed figs but this time the whole consignment was full of ants and went into the dustbin on arrival. It was a memorable day out albeit without fraternisation, the local talent having had their fill of occupying troops.

When it came to entertainment we did our own thing. In our case there was no wireless, newspapers, books, dartboard or diary to record tittle-tattle. At one stage a moral boosting outdoor concert staged by Nat Gonella and his American band was muted but didn't come off. We were left with tombola sessions and bless him, Stripey, a two badge leading hand who could be persuaded with the promise of sippers (donated rum) to perform his mess deck strip tease spectacular, accompanied by the strains of mouth organ and paper comb! For the finale, like a jubilant bride casting her bouquet, he would remove his briefs, throw back his greasy head and toss away the grotty garment to reveal all, amid a roar of applause. It was innocent fun with no implied sexual tones as may be construed these days.

When we did play tombola, the caller was something of a banking wizard, calculating as he did equitable stakes from 5 different currencies circulating - Sterling, BMA, Gibraltarian, Maltese and Italian lire. Come to think of it, the jackpot was an almost worthless pot-pourri. We never did get around to uckers, the naval version of Ludo.

Towards the end of August the army reached the Straits of Messina bringing the action in Sicily to an end. The Germans, however, had achieved an orderly withdrawal across the water to the toe of Italy which was to be our next destination in the bid to liberate Europe. Accordingly naval forces, LCF 7 included, were ordered to move up the coast from Augusta. The boom was opened up and gradually the vast armada filtered through, until it was our turn to hoist the hook and leave the shallow backwater. The Ricardo engines revved up as the ship's company took up positions to leave harbour - but we were firmly stuck on the bottom! The Captain tried every manouevre in the manual, thrashing the surrounding water into a frenzied froth but to no effect. The harbour was about the size of Portland and emptied leaving only the boom defence vessel, a few civilian motor boats and one floundering flak-ship. Well, that was it, we thought, particularly when the engines stopped and we all stood down.

We liberated a bottle of 'emergency' grog intended as a fortifier on the eve of battle, a truly British quirk. An hour or so later when we were all in the grip of euphoria, a big tug headed at speed in our direction creating a bow wave that spelt urgency. In no time we were afloat and skulked away to catch up with the others. We reached our destination and anchored in the deep and extremely cold water off Riposta, below a smoking volcano.

Italy

We passed by Taormina which pre-war was the mecca of more affluent Italian honeymooners. Our mission however, was much more serious. We entered the Strait of Messina and took up a position in darkness opposite the town of Reggio. They said it was El Alamein all over again as hundreds of Allied field guns in the commanding heights above Messina opened fire across the Strait. Thousands of shells whizzed overhead and thumped the Calabrian mainland for an hour or so. Much to our relief there was no counter fire from Axis batteries.

The bombardment ceased abruptly allowing the assaulting troops and their vehicles to land unchallenged. As daylight broke we had our first view of the undamaged terra cotta roofs of Reggio, a place that had escaped the attention of Allied artillery. It was not until mid-morning that a deceptive peace was shattered by a succession of heavy calibre shells plopping ever closer to us. We were powerless to reply but fortunately the offending gun was spotted and silenced by one of the bigger navy ships.

LCF 7 settled in mid Strait for two or three days during which time enemy fighter bombers attacked supply ships in our vicinity, respectful of our intense barrage as they did so. The Luftwaffe must have been troubled by our prickly presence and picked the flak-ship out as a target on one sortie. They swooped down through flak to release a large bomb. Every one of us thought it was 'curtains' as it tumbled towards the ship, but mercifully it overshot and exploded some thirty yards astern. Our hair and adrenalin shot sky-high and silent prayers were offered all around. I recall we had more fish to fry that same evening.

During a subsequent daytime duel an LCM hurriedly approached. Its white faced coxswain requested permission to secure alongside and to come aboard. Clearly shaken with fright, we ushered him to the mess deck for a drop of precious 'neaters.' Jack's composure was soon restored. As he and I chatted I sensed a familiar tongue and soon discovered that he hailed from my Wirral village. His name was Cadwallader. On the final handshake we arranged a tryst at the Travellers' Rest when the war over. Well, I never did see him again. He was last observed scudding along the waters of Scylia and Charybodis a little worse for wear!

A humorous distraction from the deadly encounters occurred when some of our men were bathing in close proximity to the ship. An alert lookout noticed shiny black triangles gliding through the surface waters. At the cry 'sharks' an undignified scramble aboard ensued. We were later informed that the sharks were harmless 'baskers' but no one was convinced and swimming was dropped as a leisurely pursuit.

A lull in the conflict locally allowed our ship to enter the Messina harbour for stores and an opportunity for the detachment to enjoy a spot of shore leave. The shops and cafes were, as expected, run down establishments and offered only an austere selection of goods. However, the not so shabby signorinas behind the counters appeared beautiful to our wholly unpractised eves.

We were close to the heartland of the infamous Mafia and we too had a crooked practitioner of that ilk aboard. The reprobate possessed, for reasons known only to himself, a wad of outdated Irish Sweepstake tickets which, to unwary foreigners (Sicilians for instance!), passed as negotiable currency, bearing as they did a motif of some obscure luminary and the inscription, 10 shillings (50p). He would purchase say, a cheap bag of nuts with his 'English money' and receive a handful of lira in change to be spent elsewhere. No wonder they call us perfidious Albion.

One day an urgent signal arrived which was to condemn everybody to indefinite shipboard confinement. An unexpected set back had arisen during an attempted landing by Commandos at Vibo Valencia, some seventy miles up the Calabrian coast. LCF 7 was to go with all haste to give support at the troubled bridgehead, explained the Captain vaguely. The pre-operational routine was put into full swing by the marines, while the sick-bay tiff checked his box emblazoned with a red cross. It contained bandages, tourniquets, morphia etc. The coxswain took the wheel and we cast off.

We pressed northwards for several hours passing the volcano Stromboli in the Lipari Islands. Late in the afternoon we saw the monitor Erebus firing its great guns at the shore, causing booming echoes in the hills. We rounded the southern headland of a crescent bay and saw an LCF lying motionless on the calm water. It was LCF 4, a participant in the earlier landing, which had had fatal consequences for her. As we drew nearer we saw her ensign being dipped at intervals - a morbid indication that bodies were being committed to the deep. All of us watching thought 'but for the grace of God....' and we all felt foreboding.

An ML presently approached carrying a senior naval officer hailed our Captain. We were to turn about and sail parallel to a heavily wooded and seemingly benign shore line about half a mile distant. The Erebus had, by now, ceased bombarding and the sound of small arms fire from the battle area could be heard beyond the northern headland, where we imagined Vibo Valentia lay.

A muzzle flash was seen from an enemy tank or mobile gun concealed in the woods. Two ranging shells exploded in our wake, then a third shot hit us a shuddering blow and erupted in a shower of sparks below a midship Oerliken. Our pom-poms were clearly no match with their shorter range and questionable penetration power. Even our armour piercing shells made little impact on the cleverly hidden assailant, a situation observed by the ML officer who promptly ordered us out. The gunner of the stricken Oerliken, 'Duke' sustained a bad injury to his arm and he was taken by a fast launch to the hospital ship Vita. Miraculously there were no other casualties and only superficial damage to the ship.

Fortunately for us the advancing Allied Army broke through to the beleaguered bridge-head during the night. As an eyewitness from my lowly cockpit, the whole business appeared to be a bit of a fiasco. We were designed to fight aircraft but there were none. Instead we were shot up by enemy land based guns against whom we had no defence or serious ability to attack. Maybe the surviving lads of LCF 4, some of whom received deserved gallantry awards, harboured the same thought... that an LCG or LCR would have been a more appropriate craft for the task.

The Return Home

Feeling somewhat dispirited we began the return journey home on the 8th of September the day that Mussolini capitulated and the 'Eyeties' gave up the ghost. For my part the good news was dampened by the accidental loss over the side of a silver cigarette case... a treasured gift from my parents. The Germans fought on resulting in the horrendous landings at Solerno and Anzio.

At Malta our vessel took on supplies for the long haul to the UK and we completed a general clean up and perfunctory painting. We took the opportunity to send final air letters to sweethearts and  families back home and bought cheap bric-a-brac and small items of exquisite lace as presents. On one of the Captain's rounds I was rather embarrassed when he publicly thanked me for writing a letter to the 'Duke’s' mother in Devon expressing the sincere wishes of us all that her son would soon recover and rejoin her.

The next leg of our journey was 1000 miles to Gibraltar - just four or five sunsets away. Apart from the occasional scare we reached the outpost of Empire safely. It was a brief fuelling and supplies call and we soon entered the cooler waters of the Atlantic. On the outward journey I had enjoyed the warmth and comforts of the ship's pantry but this time I was keeping watch for 8 or 9 days. Our landfall was the Fastnet Rock Light, a beacon on the Irish coast. It was a welcome sight indeed.

As we approached the coast of Pembrokeshire a whopping mine impeded our progress for a while. A few shots were aimed at the horned monster but in the end it was left to HM Coastguard to deal with it. On arriving at our destination of Barry in south Wales we soon regained our land legs and revelled in bragging about our exploits to Blodwen and Myvanwy. It was a great treat to walk out of the local chippy with a newspaper bundle of steaming fish and chips. It would have been nice to have telephoned home but we couldn't afford to and, in any event, none of our families had a phone in the house.

The very last thrash of LCF 7's commission was up the Irish Sea and the River Clyde to Glasgow. The saga of Lucky 7 - some would say happy-go-lucky - could now be told. Despite seven month's privation, Elizabethan style accommodation, frugal food stuff and a knock or two at the door of eternity, we had happily survived. Of the original ship's company that left England in April, only two were now absent, 'Duke' and an NCO taken off at Augusta, suffering from stress.

Before picking up our sea bags to disembark the Captain and fellow officers thanked us all for a job well done and wished us good luck Then, with a deferential wink at the man from HM Customs, it was up the gangplank for the last time with, it must be said, a heavy heart.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

Peter Bull - To Sea in a Sieve. One of the great books about Combined Operations in WW2. Actor Peter Bull's To Sea in a Sieve,  covers his complete wartime service but concentrates on his command of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and HM LCF 16 (Landing Craft Flak). Many humorous anecdotes. ISBN: 0552103802 / 0-552-10380-2

Acknowledgments

This article by K White about HM LCF 7 (Landing Craft Flak) was originally published in the newsletter of the Landing Craft, Gun and Flak Association.

News & Information

 

Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

Remember a Veteran

You can pay a personal tribute to veterans who served in, or alongside, the Combined Operations Command in WW2 by adding their details and optional photo to our Roll of Honour and They Also Served pages on this website.

Read the Combined Operations prayer.

Events and Places to Visit

To organisers: Reach the people who will be interested to know about your Combined Operations or war related event by adding it to our  webpage free of charge.

To everyone else: Visit our webpage for information on events and places to visit. If you know of an event or place of interest, that is not listed, please let us know.

To notify an event or place of interest, click here.

To visit the webpage click here.

Facebook

Why not join the thousands who visit our Facebook page about the Combined Operations Command in appreciation of our WW2 veterans.

See the 'slide shows' of the dedication ceremony and the construction of the memorial plus the 'On this day in 194?' feature where major Combined Ops events are highlighted on their anniversary dates with links to additional information.

You are welcome to add information, photos and comment or reply to messages posted by others.

Find Books of Interest 

Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). 5% commission goes into the memorial fund.

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Restoration of Geoffrey Appleyard's  Memorial 

Click on the image if you'd like to contribute to the improvement of the memorial to Geoffrey Appleyard, DSO, MC and Bar, through the purchase of a limited edition print of a book about him. Geoffrey achieved so much in service with No 7 Commando, No 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the Second SAS Regiment. He was posted Missing in Action in July 1943, aged 26.

www.bramleywarmemorial.com/major-geoffrey-appleyard-book-now-available-for-purchase/

The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team

The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.

Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee is looking for veterans from any conflict who would like to have their stories filmed for posterity. Films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

New to Combined Ops?

Visit Combined Operations Explained for an easy introduction to the subject.

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Background to the website and memorial project, and a look to the future; plus other small print stuff and website accounts etc. Click here for information.

 

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