CRAFT FLAK ~
A TELEGRAPHIST'S STORY
Landing Craft Flack provided cover for other landing craft against attack by
These personal recollections of the late
Hector Holland provide an interesting glimpse into the life of young
telegraphist serving on a Landing Craft Flak during WW2. His light-hearted and
often humorous style belie the very dangerous situations he found himself in and
the death and destruction he witnessed. "There is no glory in war... only death,
destruction, shattered bodies and disturbed minds."
Generally speaking, the lower deck of His Majesty’s Royal Navy can be split
into two main types of sea-going animal life, viz., ‘Big-ship’ sailors and
‘Big-ship’ sailors are those poor, weak minded facsimiles of seamen who serve
on battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and the like, whilst ‘Small-ship’
sailors are the hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-headed heroes who made the
world safe for democracy and wore out their turbo-feed pumps carrying back
silk-stockings from Yankee-land! They are the men of the destroyers, sloops,
frigates and corvettes etc. As decent a band of rogues, thieves and vagabonds as
ever picked a pocket, or slit a throat…needless to say, I was a ‘Small-ship’
I joined my first ship only three weeks after entering the service, and said
goodbye to her only four weeks after joining her. She was a sloop (which is something between a destroyer, a prefab and a Japanese banana boat)
and had been built on the Clyde in 1917. Naturally she was hardly the latest
thing in naval sea power, and had been unfortunate enough to have a bomb dropped
neatly down her after funnel at Dunkirk…an experience from which she had never
She and I parted company one morning in mid-Atlantic, when part of the German
Underwater Brigade decided she had outlived her usefulness, and save the
admiralty the trouble of scrapping her by introducing her to a tin-fish. She
went down in twelve minutes, taking with her my brand new No.1 suit, purchased
only three days before, and a months ‘nutty’ ration (chocolate) I’d been saving
for the kids at home…so ended episode one. [Photo; the
author in naval uniform.]
Shortly after this, I was ‘persuaded’ to volunteer for Combined Operations,
and, having been drafted to an LCF (Landing Craft Flak), I arrived in Glasgow
one cold, wet morning, to pick her up at Barclay Curle’s yard. Never having seen
or heard of an LCF, I was prepared for almost anything, but when she was pointed
out to me by an obliging docker (after I had passed her three times, at least,
mistaking her for local bomb damage) the shock was so great that it was not
until I’d had my tot and rolled myself a ‘tickler’, that I could sit down and
calmly wonder what, in the name of the wee man, I had let myself in for.
She was long, thin and flat-bottomed, with square bows and a blunt stern. Her
entire upper-deck bristled with gun-turrets, which bulged out on either side
like blisters. She looked like no other ship on earth, and how she’d float, let
alone weather a bit of rough, was a subject, which caused me considerable worry
from that day forward. Every time we left port and set out for the channel was
an adventure, and like going to sea for the first time. I’d gaze longingly at
the slowly receding coast, wondering if I’d ever set foot on dry land again. To
see her heading out to meet the Atlantic rollers was indeed an awe-inspiring
sight; she did not so much sail as ‘waddle’ in an ungainly manner, like a huge,
grotesque duck, and her motion could play havoc with the cold, greasy atrocities
which masqueraded as meals aboard landing craft.
I can remember a destroyer flashing us a signal one day, as we wallowed in a
heavy sea, which read, ‘Please settle an argument, are you a U-boat surfacing,
or a trawler sinking?’…one of the many witticisms we had to endure during our
early days aboard.
Our crew consisted of sixteen men, dressed as seamen, and sixty marines, the
purpose of the latter being to man our four double pom-poms, and ten double
barrelled oerlikons. When you consider that our craft was many times smaller
than a corvette, which carries a crew of eighty or thereabouts, you can imagine
the cramped and overcrowded conditions which existed on board. So marked was
this, that if someone happened to hiccup during the night, the man two hammocks
away would probably say ‘excuse me’, and someone on the other side of the
mess-deck would invariably fall out of bed.
In the summer, our cooling system consisted of one very small porthole, as
big as a fully grown cabbage, and in winter, our heating plant was an electric
fire, hardly bigger than a dog biscuit, with two bars which could not have
toasted a slice of bread, let alone warm our shivering carcasses, or thaw out
our frozen clothes after four hours on the bridge. How I blessed my tot of
‘grog’, and looked forward to what must be the most popular ‘pipe’ in the
navy…’Up Spirits’. Every day, at twelve o’clock, it transformed me from two
yards of frozen pump water to something resembling a human being.
At this point, I think I had better explain that my rating in the navy was
‘telegraphist’ (commonly known to the other branches as ‘sparkers’ or
‘comic-singers’). During my early days aboard this floating sardine tin, I
discovered that no provision whatsoever had been made for a wireless cabin, as
the original intention had been that this type of craft would not require any.
By the time their lordships had found out their mistake, the craft were already
under construction, and it was too late to remedy the oversight. Thus it was
that when we were exercising with other craft, and wireless communication was
being used, I found myself squeezed into a corner of the wheelhouse, between the
compass and the wheel, with a wireless set jammed between my knees, and myself
parked on an upturned bucket. How I got to hate the sight of that bucket and the
mark it used to make on my tender posterior!
Eventually, however, they designed to fit me out with a proper office,
complete with chairs, etc., and they even sent me three more ‘sparkers’, to hang
around and make the place look untidy.
For a long time we did nothing but exercise with the LCT’s, LCI’s, LCA’s,
LCG’s, etc., and life was one long succession of ‘D’ days, ‘H’ hours, and mock
beach assaults. Someone ashore would have the bright idea of giving the
communications ratings a prolonged endurance exercise, which would entail my
sitting for three days and three nights in a stuffy smoke-laden cabin, drinking
innumerable cups of ‘kye’, or tea, to keep me awake, and taking down signal
after signal, till the dot-dash of the Morse became a meaningless jumble of
sound, and I had to rest for a few minutes, or scream.
As all our officers were RNVR, their knowledge of wireless telegraphy, and
the organisation it entails, was almost nil, with the result that the
responsibility for all communications and signals rested with me. Thus it was
that one morning, early in June, I was called to the skipper’s cabin, and
instructed to close the door, the porthole, the ventilation hatch, and my big
mouth, so as no hint of the tremendous developments which were about to be
imparted to me, would reach the ears of anyone else on board. Having done this,
I was informed that at approximately 5am, on the morning of June 4th,
we would ‘up kedge’ and set out from Southampton for the coast of France, where,
at 0600 hours on the 5th, we would cruise up and down the beaches of
Normandy, playing tag with the German pill boxes and gun emplacements on the
shore. In addition to this information, I was given a mountainous pile of
closely typed documents, and told to lock myself in the wireless cabin, and
attempt to glean some glimmer of sense from their contents, without making it
too obvious to the remainder of the ship’s company, that something was afoot.
This was a more difficult feat to accomplish than you would imagine. Up until
then I had allowed the wireless cabin to be used by all and sundry as neutral
territory, where loafers could escape from the eagle eye of the coxswain,
gasping nicotine addicts could indulge in an illicit ‘tickler’ during
non-smoking hours, lonely Romeos could pour out their love on paper to their
Juliet’s away from the din, babble and leg-pulling of the mess deck and gossips
could swap the latest tit-bits in local scandal. Over and above this, of course,
it is a well-known fact on HM ships that all rumours emanate from and originate
in the W/T office, and we were no exception. So, in addition to the foregoing
‘regulars’, there was always someone or other poking his snout round the door
and uttering those well worn words, ‘What’s the latest buzz, Sparks?’
Thus our cabin was something in the nature of a
poolroom-cum-teashop-cum-hairdressing salon-cum-enquiry office, and to suddenly
have it revert to the purpose for which it was originally intended, viz., an
office for ‘comic singers’ and ‘comic singers’ only, would have given rise to
the wildest rumours. I had a problem on my hands, and I knew it!
Eventually, however, I solved it in the only way possible. I had the coxswain
put up a notice on the mess deck to the effect that all ratings with no duties
should draw a paintbrush and pot from the stores, and report to the W/T office
forthwith. Needless to say I spent two days in almost complete quiet and
seclusion, working out the organisation for operation Neptune.
As everyone knows now, it was later postponed for 24 hours and we actually
arrived at Normandy on June 6th, where we made a lot of noise, did
very little damage, and spent a few weeks getting thoroughly bored, waiting for
enemy planes that either kept well out of range, or didn’t show up at all.
When we had run out of fresh water and provisions, we returned to Southampton
to collect some, but there were so many Yanks in town, drinking what little beer
there was, eating what little food there was, and finishing off the war there
and then for us, to leave more time for eating and drinking when they got to
France, that we were not sorry to leave for the beach head again.
But what a different proposition it was on our arrival. Up until then,
opposition from Jerry, by sea, had been pretty well non-existent, but now he
started throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us, in an effort to break
through the defence line of ships we had thrown round the beach head, hoping to
get at the vulnerable supply ships which were discharging thousands of tons of
desperately needed supplies, to the army ashore.
We became part of what was called ‘the Support Squadron, Eastern Flank’, and
one of our many tasks was to leave the beach head at dusk, and anchor off the
enemy held part of the coast, forming a line from there out to sea. The object
being to sit there all night, and nab his Midget Submarines, Human Torpedoes,
and EMBs (Explosive Motor Boats), as they tried to get through to the beach
head. It was not a very pleasant position to be in, as these EMBs could do a
cool forty knots with no bother, and were packed with enough high explosive to
blow us to the Land of Beginning again. They were electrically controlled by a
parent ship, and carried one man, whose purpose was to direct the craft straight
at its target, and then drop off, with very little chance of being picked up. We
were not allowed to move from our position under any circumstances, and many a
time my old ‘ticker’ thumped away for dear life, as our searchlights picked out
a dozen or so of these friendly little devils, making straight for us. Luckily
we always managed to blow them up before they got our length.
The Midget Submarines and Human Torpedoes were a different proposition
entirely. You could not hear them, and all that was visible was a little
Perspex-like bulb above water, by which they were navigated. More than once, one
of our craft would suddenly blow sky-high with no warning whatsoever, and it was
never much use looking for survivors. Our only consolation was that no Midget
ever got away after attacking a craft.
Another little trick of Jerry’s was to send over mine laying aircraft after
we’d anchored, and drop floating mines just ahead of us. On the flow, the tide
would carry them past us during the night, entangling them in our screws and
kedge wires, and, on the ebb, carry them back past us again in the morning with
the most startling results. Many a craft pulled in its kedge, or started its
main engines, and never knew what hit it.
As a final diversion, the long-range shore batteries would take pot shots at
us all day long, and force us to keep on the move, and altogether, a very
interesting time was had by all.
This, of course, was followed in November by the slaughter at Walcheren,
where we lost eight craft out of ten, by sitting back and letting the German gun
emplacements pick us off, one by one, at their leisure, so that the commandoes
could slip ashore unmolested. They told us it was good strategy, but it is very
difficult to appreciate strategy when you are watching your own miserable little
shells bouncing off the ten feet thick concrete around the Jerry guns, while
seeing the craft next to you being systematically blown to pieces (one for'ard,
one aft, one amidships and away she goes to Davy Jones’s locker), knowing that
it’s your turn next, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because you have
been told to sit tight and take it. Still I suppose there must have been a
reason for it. Anyway, the Sunday papers made a big splash about it, and we all
donated something to build a memorial to the blokes who didn’t quite make it…and
everybody was happy.
Shortly after returning to the UK, I had a spell in hospital, and, on being
discharged, I discovered that my ship had left for parts unknown, without me.
The ‘powers that be’ thought she might be in Antwerp, but they were not awfully
sure. ‘Anyway’, they said, ‘get a ship at Tilbury docks, and see if you can find
her anywhere on the other side’. So away I went. I had a very enjoyable trip
through France, Belgium and Holland, taking in most of the principle towns and
cities on the way, and at last traced her to a small Dutch village called
Wemeldinge, in North Beveland. She was lying in the canal when I found her (at 3
o’clock in the morning, with the rain teeming down and the bank of the canal a
sea of mud), and it was strange to see a mast and the white ensign sticking up
in the middle of a village, with the sea, miles away.
I discovered we were now attached to the Marine Commandoes for as long as
they required us, and the officers, besides most of the crew, had grown beards
to alienate themselves from the ‘Land service’ Marines.
It was here we had our first experience of the German ‘frogmen’, who were
attempting to destroy the lock gates of the canals, and seal up the shipping
lanes of the Scheldt Estuary. By doing so, they hoped to paralyse the port of
Antwerp (then under a constant hail of V2’s), which we were utilising to its
fullest extent as the main port of disembarkation for troops and supplies. These
frogmen could swim over to our territory from another little enemy held island
about half a mile away, called Scowen, and were a constant nuisance. Besides
them, we were harassed by raiding parties of SS troops, who would steal ashore
in the middle of the night, grab a couple of sentries, or Dutch civilians, and
take them back for questioning. [Photo; the author at the 50th anniversary
commemorations at Walcheren in November 1994.]
The original reason for our being there was, I think, to take Scowen and get
rid of this thorn in our side, but after a couple of attempts which fell
through, mainly because of ‘bad security’ (the Dutch are very talkative) the war
in Europe finished, and we came home to pass the time knitting, or growing
flowers, till the time for demobilisation came around.
All in all, it was nothing if not interesting, but, don’t think it hasn’t
been fun…because it hasn’t!
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My grandfather gave me the badge/emblem from
his WW2 Landing Craft LCLF21 (Landing Craft
Large Flak) which formed part of the Trout Line.
My grandfather is still alive and his war
memories are amongst the easiest for him to recall !!
This account of life on a WW2 Landing Craft Flak was written by
Holland and published here with the kind permission of the author's son,