~ HM LANDING CRAFT FLAK 7 - HM LCF 7 ~
Anti Aircraft Cover for Landing Craft
and vehicle carrying landing craft were ill equipped to defend themselves
against enemy air attacks, so a number of Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) were
converted into LCFs to provide the cover they needed,
and being flat bottomed, they could operate close inshore. They were
armed with 8 Oerlikons and 4 pom-pom rapid fire
anti-aircraft guns .
These are the
recollections of a Royal Marine K
White, whose LCF took part in landings in North Africa, Pantellaria,
Sicily and Italy.
sister ship LCF 2.]
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 Landing Craft Flak
7, LCF 7. It was bristling with guns with which we
were already familiar.
Royal Navy crew 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.
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 outset,
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
were 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 and 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 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 and we soon slipped the buoy and proceeded down
the River Tamar. It was the 2nd of April, 1943.
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.
[Map courtesy of Google data. 2017.]
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 still 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.
further eastward, was a picturesque French colonial town. Our approach through
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
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
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.
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
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 kilometer
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
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
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
While ashore that day,
I drank un-boiled 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.
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.
[Map courtesy of Google data. 2017.]
'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.
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
[Photo; Bombs by the ton bursting on the docks and harbour
before the landing craft went in. (© IWM (A 17667).]
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.
Midsummer in Tunisia was hot and sleep
did not come easily. In our dormitory there were 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.”
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.
[Map courtesy of Google data. 2017.]
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.
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
[Map courtesy of Google data. 2017.]
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, the Americans were
doing the same in the west as 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 measures 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.
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.
A British Universal Carrier Mark I comes ashore. © IWM
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.
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 un-practiced
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, who 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 for
their longer range and greater
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 which 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.
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.
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
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'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
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.