~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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~ LANDING CRAFT FLAK ~

A TELEGRAPHIST'S  STORY

Landing Craft Flack provided cover for other landing craft against attack by enemy aircraft. 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."

Background

1st Posting

LCF

Prep for D-Day

D-Day

Walcheren

Last Posting

Further Reading

Correspondence

Acknowledgments

Background

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 ‘Small-ship’ sailors.

‘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’ matelot.

First Posting

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 quite recovered.

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.]

Landing Craft Flak

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.

Preparations for D-Day

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.

D-Day

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.

Walcheren

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.

Last Posting

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!

Navy Dutch

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.

Correspondence

Hi Geoff

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 !!

Cheers

Jamie Cook

Acknowledgments

This account of life on a WW2 Landing Craft Flak was written by Hector Holland and published here with the kind permission of the author's son, Ian Holland.

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