Training Centre Middle East - HMS Saunders
The Middle East's No 1 Combined Training
The Combined Training
Centre (CTC) Middle East at Kabret, on the Egypt's Little Bitter Lake, was the first Combined Operations
Training Establishment located outside the United Kingdom. Its purpose was
to train RN personnel in the operation of landing craft and together, with
the troops of many Allied nations, to practice amphibious landings prior
to operations against the enemy in the Mediterranean. Its associated naval
base, HMS Saunders, was commissioned in March 1941 (under the
name of HMS Stag, Division K) with Commander RKC Pope DSO, RN in command.
[Courtesy of Cpt More's grandson Henry More. Google Earth coordinates 18.104.22.168 N, 22.214.171.124 E.]
Opposite; A sketch of
HMS Saunders by Herbert
Hastings McWilliams from the vantage point of the base's water-tower. It
was presented to Capt. G I S (George Irwin Sanctuary) More, OBE, RN, who
commanded HMS Saunders from June 1942 to December 1944. McWilliams
annotated the sketch "Capt G I S More with admiration” and under this
“H.M.S. Saunders, Kabrit”
The Formative Years
in the early part of 1941 was completely tented but, within a few months, odd
pieces of wood and packing cases scrounged from the RAF became the raw material
for the construction of buildings, which rejoiced in the name of offices. A
similar approach was adopted by everyone to furnish offices and accommodation
with beds, chairs and tables, all created in their spare time from discarded
wooden detritus! The comfort in which individuals lived depended entirely upon
their skill as a carpenter and their success in 'procuring' wood.
[Photo; the author Commander
Philip Noel, VRD RNR]
By May 1941, the 'nucleus' personnel of the CTC
arrived and established itself in a camp between the Navy and the Point. Its
office accommodation was a Canal Company houseboat moored alongside the sea wall at a point
where Hornblower Hard(1)once stood. A slipway was constructed capable of receiving LCM (Landing Craft
Mechanised) and in the absence of repair facilities on shore, all engine repairs
and replacements were undertaken aboard the ex-Danube tug ‘Princess Elizabeth’
which, fortunately, had a well-equipped engineering repair shop.
By June 1941,
we had 1 LCT, 9 LCAs, 5 LCMs and 3 LCP(L)s(2)but very
few were in running order. The numbers and condition originally allocated to us had been severely depleted by actions in Greece, Crete and the Western Desert - 7 LCTs, 19 LCAs and 10 LCMs
were sunk, abandoned or otherwise lost.
Perhaps, fortuitously, the
Army was too preoccupied in North Africa to spare many troops or their
supporting landing craft for combined amphibious training exercises, so the
training effort was restricted by the numbers coming forward and our limited
supply of suitable landing craft. In practice, it was mid 1942 before intensive
training programmes were established to meet the high demand, which coincided
with the change of fortune in favour of the Allies in North Africa. Rommel's
pivotal defeat at El-Alamein was in Nov, 1942.
LCTs, LCMs and LCPs had been our work horses
but, as craft released from the desert campaign trickled back to HMS Saunders, the smaller LCAs came
into their own. Two flotillas were sent to Cairo to patrol the Nile against
the ever-present threat of parachutists and a Naval Battalion was formed to guard the water-works and other vital points in Alexandria.
In June 1942, Captain GIS More, OBE, RN, replaced Cdr Pope in command and, by the
end of the year, training courses had been started in earnest at the CTC. A
security screen was established around the base to restrict access to what was
now an important, secret amphibious
In October, a flotilla of
our LCAs was sent to Colombo but,
with the procurement of various other craft, HMS Saunders got into top
gear for a continuous programme of intensive training. In November, courses on
Combined Operations were held for senior and junior staff
from the Staff College at Haifa and, around
this time, work was started on the dredging for the hards (concrete
The period from June 1942 to July 1943 was one of intense activity at
Saunders. Combined amphibious training was provided almost continuously with the Greek SAS
Brigade, the 9th Armoured Brigade, the 9th Australian Division, the Greek Infantry
Brigades, 15th, 108th, 151st and 234th Infantry Brigades, the 25th and 31st
Indian Infantry Brigades, Folbotists(3)and various other units, including
During May, 1943, 170 officers and 2,800 ratings
from Force G were accommodated in the base.
Relatively little construction was carried out to cope with this influx, so
existing buildings outside HMS Saunders were used as offices with the personnel
accommodated, as usual, in tents.
After the departure of Force G to take part in
Husky, a calmer period followed during September and October 1943,
when much-needed repairs and maintenance
were carried out on our overworked landing craft. In December 1943 and January 1944, the 10th and 12th Infantry Brigades passed through the CTC
followed by an Armoured Brigade a little later. From then training commitments
gradually decreased as the main focus of the war shifted to the the opening of
the second front in Normandy..
At about this time two specialised craft were
required to be developed for use in future landings. Both had to be capable of
operating safely in shallow coastal waters. The first was to lay a thick smoke
screen and the second was to sweep
mines in shallow coastal waters inaccessible to larger ships. HMS Saunders met both these needs by developing the
prototype LCM fitted with a CSA smoke generator and an aero engine to disperse
the smoke. A flotilla so equipped was used very successfully in support of the
landings in the south of France. The second need was met by the formation of a
flotilla of LCVs fitted with small
Oropesa.(5)These were later deployed in the northern Adriatic
where, it is understood, they were very successful.
In May, 1944, political unrest spread
throughout the Greek
Naval Base HHMS Helle. HMS Saunders personnel spent several days
in a futile attempt to resolve the various political factions but evacuated the camp when open mutiny broke out. For this work a signal of
congratulations was received from the Senior Naval Officer, Red Sea and Canal
Passage - The Personal Recollection of Lt Cdr Clarke RN
During the various advances and withdrawals of the British forces in the
Western Desert, craft attached to HMS Saunders were always in the front
line. The Western Desert Lighter Force did excellent work supplying our troops
by sea, while inshore patrols were carried out by smaller craft such as LCPs, LCMs
and LCSs, which sailed from Alexandria westwards under their own power and
in all weather conditions. In those crucial days, the loss of even a small craft was a serious
matter and hidden in Saunders' records are many reports of epic struggles to save
minor craft, which would, by normal standards, have been written off.
Lieut Cdr Clarke, RN, recalls the passage of a DD(6)flotilla of 11 LCMs from
Benghazi to Tobruk from 25th to 27th January 1942, shortly
after the start of the German offensive. To appreciate the nature of this
passage we should be aware that these craft were the old LCM Mk1s, which
were completely open to
the elements. Such journeys were by no means exceptional.
At 1400hrs on 25th January, NOIC (Naval Officer in Charge) Benghazi, gave orders for the LCMs to be ready to sail by 2000hrs. All afternoon we took on stores and took off personnel and gear to the various ships in the harbour. I
had been unable to obtain sufficient petrol for the voyage to Tobruk, so arranged
to re-fuel at Derna. In the course of the afternoon, however, we had the good
fortune to find a lighter with about 2,000 gallons of petrol in it. This was at
once distributed amongst the 11 craft. By 1800hrs all were ready and everyone
had a meal. I then gave the boats final instructions. At 1950hrs the boats were
manned and engines started. Just as we were starting off, Lt Cdr Gibbs arrived on
the mole with a party of seamen to be carried to HMS Bagshot. I put them aboard
Sub-Lieut Robinson’s lighter and told him to come after us as soon as possible.
The remainder of the flotilla then proceeded out of the harbour and along the
coast at slow speed waiting for Sub-Lieut Robinson to catch up.
I showed a combined lantern astern for the other lighters to follow and as
a guide for Sub-Lieut Robinson, who rejoined the flotilla at about 2330hrs. We
then proceeded at 1500 revs until the moon set. As it was impossible to see the
low-lying coast, and the weather was suitable, we dropped anchor until daylight.
By 0700hrs, the flotilla was under way again but DD13 developed a defect in the
port engine. The services of a motor mechanic from a neighbouring craft were
By mid-morning the wind began to freshen from the SE and continued to do
so until we rounded the point about 10 miles ENE from Telemaide, when it shifted
to the west blowing force 5-6 with a heavy swell. It then looked as though we
would be caught on a lee shore with a beam wind if we followed the coast, so I
decided to stand off from the land with the sea on the port quarter to get
sufficient offing to round Cape Mamer. We made the offing with nothing to spare
and continued more easily with the sea astern. I again burned a combined lantern
showing astern to keep the flotilla together. We passed Derna just after
moonset, very thankful for having enough petrol, as it would have been
impossible to round up into the wind to make Derna with the fresh breeze and
At daybreak I found Ras-el-Tin abeam and the craft completely disappearing
in the trough of the swell. I felt confident that the others could make Tobruk
before dark and let them go on following the coast, while I stood out in DD13,
which still had a defective engine, to try to cut down the distance, picking up
the coast east of the island of Geziret-el-Maracheb at noon. During the forenoon
a southerly wind got up against the swell making conditions very unpleasant. By
this time the other craft were 8 or 10 miles ahead and DD10 began to drop back.
I kept him in sight until 1600hrs but was unable to catch up with him.
At 1800hrs I reckoned I was about 10 miles west of Tobruk. As the
sandstorm, which had been blowing all afternoon, began to get worse, I decided to
anchor in one of the small bays on that part of the coast, having been sitting
on the cab since 0700hrs the previous day and not feeling up to competing with a
I got under way at 0700hrs the following morning and made Tobruk at about
0900hrs to find that the rest of the flotilla had arrived the night before,
except DD10, which had continued on in the sandstorm and run aground 3 or 4 miles
west of Tobruk.
By June, 1944, under the codename Operation Appian, plans were made to move large numbers of Major Landing
Craft from the UK to the Eastern theatre. After the Normandy landings, hundreds
of these craft were surplus to requirements.
HMS Saunders was to provide whatever support was required to effect their passage to India and beyond,
such as accommodation, supplies, maintenance, adaptations and repairs.
[Photo; Senior signals staff HMS Saunders 1943-44. Left to right – Yeoman of signals,
Warrant Tel (Dixon), PO Radio Mech., Signals Officer (Noel), PO Tel, Asst.
Signals Officer (Storey).
In this photo the author is 3rd from the right.]
was, by this time, a large base, there was little spare capacity to accommodate
large numbers of Major Landing Craft in transit to the east. To free up space, all landing craft held in the base were,
by the end of July, transferred to locations around the Mediterranean.
Trials had been carried out which
demonstrated that merchant ships could successfully tow LCTs from
Suez to India.(7)The
first Appian flotilla arrived in Port Said on December 31st, 1944.
It was unfortunate that Capt More did not see his well-laid plans
come to fruition since, after two and a half years in command, he
was succeeded by Capt L H Bayley, RN, on the 19th of December. At
this time, the outcome of the war in Europe was decisively in favour
of the Allies and the importance of HMS Saunders was on the wane.
Capt More’s services were now urgently needed in support of the war
against Japan. [See Capt More's
grandson's email in Correspondence" below which suggest he did
see the fruits of his labour from a very different perspective!.]
The recently constructed large theatre, main office block and other buildings
provided accommodation for the new arrivals. The craft
were secured and their crews settled in until towing ships with
accommodation for the crews could be arranged. Each merchantman was able to tow one or two
unmanned LCTs at a time and all craft were expected to reach their destination
before the onset of the SW monsoon. In the event only a small number were
lost. Small assault craft were carried out either by their parent assault ship
or as deck cargo. More seaworthy craft, such as Infantry Landing Craft, went
under their own steam. Considering limited time to complete Appian, I endowed great
credit to everyone concerned since only five craft remained at Suez by the
deadline of April 26th, 1945.
With the completion of Appian I, preparations began for Appian II
but this operation was more problematical for Saunders. Craft began to
pile up at the base, when the onset of the monsoon period prevented them from
making the passage to India and beyond. As a temporary measure the
recently vacated Greek Base, HHMS Helle, was taken over as Saunders II and
additional LCT mooring buoys were laid in the bay.
[Card; Sketch of Kabret Point in 1946. The imposing building
to the left was the squash court.]
were once more stretched to the limit by the unfortunate coincidence of the
landing craft hiatus and the arrival of a Royal Indian
Navy LCT Squadron for Combined amphibious training. The site adjoining Saunders was taken over to accommodate the RIN
personnel and commissioned as Saunders III. Their training was completed by
mid-October and the men and their craft steamed to India under their
own power, quite an achievement considering they had no previous experience of
major landing craft. It reflects very well on the quality of the 6 weeks of
In all, about 80 craft arrived at
Saunders in the course of Appian II
plus 18 older LCTs sent from Messina for training the Indian
flotillas. The collapse of Japan rendered their presence in the Eastern theatre
unnecessary and, with the exception of a few LCTs transferred to the Army or used
for other purposes, they were all placed in a state of preservation under
Austrian POW caretakers and put up for sale locally.
With the end of all hostilities and an end to Operation ‘Appian’,
no longer had a purpose. It was kept open for a time while thoughts of a new CTC in the Middle East
were considered. However, nothing came of this and early in 1946 the decision to
close was made. Reductions ensued rapidly. Captain Bayley left on June 8th and
on July 1st the White Ensign was lowered for the last time, leaving a small party of three officers and 14 ratings to
oversee the disposal of the remaining landing craft. Thus ended a base, which had
been involved in every Combined Operation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which
had met every demand made upon it and which at one time had personnel scattered
from Benghazi to Colombo. The officers and men who served at HMS Saunders had a proud record of achievement.
Recollections of Combined Operations
Until the end of June 1940, I
never thought for a moment that Combined Operations would occupy such an
important part of my life for the next five years. After a year
at sea as a Telegraphist in an Armed Merchant Cruiser, I was
selected as a CW candidate(8)and emerged from
HMS King Alfred as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant
RNVR on the 15th November 1940. My first appointment was as No.1 of
a French ocean tug, which was one of several handed over by its Breton crew
after the fall of their Country. Pingouin was fitted with a barrage
balloon and formed part of the forces escorting convoys between Southampton and
Sheerness. In June 1941 her career ended when salt water was fed into the boiler.
made Sheerness by the skin of our teeth.
I was then selected to join a small group of commissioned members of the
pre-war RNV (Wireless) Reserve set up by the Admiralty to train personnel in the
operation of the special radio directional equipment being fitted in Landing
Craft and to assess the capabilities of other navigational aids being developed
at this time, designed to lead landing craft to their precise beach destinations.
Thus it was in early July 1940, I found myself in Combined Operations at HMS
Northney on Hayling Island for a short introductory course.
A Landing Craft Assault (LCA) had been fitted out with the special
directional radio equipment but sea trials
were limited by the tidal nature of the creek. I was not involved in
the training of the ratings (designated later as Signal Trained Northney (STN))
but caught up with some of them much later on as mentioned above. I was
then ordered to report to
HMS Quebec, which I discovered was the RN base of the
No 1 Combined
Training Centre at Inveraray, Loch Fyne, Scotland. I travelled north on the
night train to Glasgow, followed by a longish passage in one of McBraynes Clyde
steamers... a boring journey made interesting by the company of a couple of WRNS
My time at Inveraray was a doddle compared with the onerous duties many other
RNVR officers were going through at the time. There was no wardroom as such and
I was given a room in the Temperance Hotel, which was run by a formidable Scottish lady. As its name
implies, there was no alcohol available on the premises but happily there was a
door in the hotel's back yard, which led to the back yard of the pub next door (the
George?). In this way it was possible to have a pint or a dram without appearing to enter
or leave either establishment ! However, on the Sabbath the town was completely
dry but there was a small pub on the opposite side of the Loch prepared to meet
the alcoholic beverage needs of ‘bona fide travellers’, a status we could achieve after a short
trip in an LCA !
At Inveraray I joined the other members of the Special Signals group. We
spent the next few weeks learning more about the navigational aids and
direction-finding equipment being developed for Combined Operations, including a
ground-breaking infra-red beacon system. We also did some operational trials in
the LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) Queen Emma. On my return to Inveraray my room at the Temperance Hotel was no longer
available but I had
been allocated a cabin aboard the accommodation ship SS
Ettrick, which was anchored off the town. However, after a few days the whole group was sent on leave to await their next
[Photo; SS Ettrick off Inveraray.]
Before leaving Inveraray we were told where we were going and I thought I'd
drawn the short straw as I was the only one being sent overseas.
At that time I had no idea where this posting would take me but, as things turned out, mine was
probably the most varied and interesting experience of them all. After a short leave I visited a little-known
establishment in Haslemere, Surrey and the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge for
final updates on the equipment.
I was appointed to
HMS Nile as 'additional for special duties’ and
received my allowance for tropical uniform. This went straight to Messrs Gieves
in exchange for a No.10 uniform and a magnificent white pith helmet, which in
the event I never wore. I also acquired a pair of white
shirts with thick padding down the back as protection against sunstroke, two
pairs of white shorts, white stockings and white shoes. I boarded SS Strathaird
for the long voyage out to Suez via Capetown and Durban. Although the convoy was
fast and well-protected this was an anxious time, even though the accommodation and service were near
After disembarkation at Suez and a comfortable train ride to Alexandria, I
reported to HMS Nile, where they had no record of my appointment. I checked
in to the Cecil Hotel, a top-notch hostelry, and reported
back to Nile a couple of days later, by which time things would be sorted out
- or so I thought. When this did
not happen I spent the next few weeks enjoying the flesh-pots of Alexandria
with regular visits to HMS Nile to seek information, while living on my
lodging allowance and casual payments. It transpired that Nile were expecting a
Sub-Lieut N Philips rather than Sub-Lieut Philip Noel who, as far as they were
concerned, had not yet reported for duty.
Matters then became a little clearer and I was ordered to report to
(Division K) to take up my appointment. No one was sure where it was but vaguely
thought it was on or near the Suez Canal. Anyway I was assured that there was a
Naval HQ in Ismailia and no doubt they would be able to help. I left Alexandria
with the distinct impression that they were glad to be rid of me! On arrival at Ismailia
after a hot and dusty journey I reported to Navy House where, thankfully, things
began to slot into place. Yes they certainly knew of Stag (K), it was at Kabret
on the Bitter Lakes but the daily provision lorry, apparently the only means of
transport, had already left, so I would have to spend the night there.
[Photo; the author's British Forces ID.]
The Wardroom at Navy House was small but very friendly. As the only
officer travelling next morning, I joined the driver in the front of his sand-encrusted lorry bound for Kabret.
The date was the 3rd December, 1941 and I already had some idea of the world I was entering, which,
in the event, I was to inhabit close on five
years, eventually wearing three hats, Signals Officer, Staff Officer (Operations)
and Naval Liaison Officer with the Suez Canal Company. What happened in that
time is described in the earlier chapters above.
[Editor's note; It's no coincidence that the
names Quebec, Saunders and Cook are inextricably linked together in the story of Combined Operations.
was the RN base within the
Combined Training Centre at Inveraray on Loch Fyne in Scotland,
Saunders was the RN base within the Combined Training Centre on the
Great Bitter Lake at Kabret on the Suez Canal and HMS James Cook
was the Beach Pilotage School in the Kyles of Bute. What links them was the close friendship between Captain Wolfe of
Quebec fame and Admiral Saunders, his Navy counterpart, in what many have
described as the
Operation and Cook's skills as he helped Saunders navigate the
uncharted waters of the St Lawrence.]
The photos below were taken by the late Trevor G Williams who served at
HMS Saunders during the war. They have reposed in the family album for 65
years (2010) and were seldom, if ever, talked about. On
the death of his mother, the family album came into the possession of their son
Guy, who has generously made the photos available for publication. The brief
notes on each photo were taken from the
individual photos. Guy would be delighted to hear from anyone who can add to his
understanding of what his father did in the Middle East.
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On this website by the same author
Combined Operations Signals
Training at HMS Saunders part of the CTC Middle East.
left received from David Erwell - Christmas Day Menu 1944 and a theatre ticket.
Donald MacKay Maclean (far right front row in
photo opposite). I remember him
telling me there were a good few cockneys in this team, but sadly I have no
I know he worked on landing craft earlier in his naval
career because he transported drinking water in landing craft along the
Egyptian coast to Tubruk which was under a 6 month siege at the time.
My father was from Ness on the Isle of Lewis. He spoke Gaelic. He was one of
37 young men who left from Ness to join the services and I know a few of them
were sent to HMS Saunders. During his naval service he visited Norway, North
Africa, Egypt and
Reykjavik in Iceland where
he cleared the snow at the airport driving a snow plough. A great job for a
young man! He also served on HMS Kelly.
I'm sorry he didn't write down the names of the others in the photo but
maybe someone will recognise a face and get in touch. Best Wishes, Cathy
Special thanks to Commander Philip Noel,VRD RNR, for allowing us to publish
this page which is based on reports he made to the Admiralty and Senior Naval
Officer Port Said after leaving HMS Saunders in 1946. The content of the page was
approved by the author before publication.
(1) A concreted landing area on an otherwise
unimproved beach. (2) Landing craft of various sizes and purposes but all of
shallow draft for close inshore work and beach landings such as Landing Craft
Tank, Landing Craft Assault, Landing Craft Mechanised and Landing Craft
Personnel (Large). (3) Canoeist normally engaged in clandestine work on or near
enemy shores (4) Units normally working in the Beach Maintenance Area.
(5) A streamlined container towed behind a vessel. The device
was designed to keep the towed underwater radar sweep at a pre-determined
depth and position from the sweeping ship. The innovation allowed a
single ship to do the work previously done by two. (6)
In the early days of landing craft development LCMs were known as D Lighters. As
a single D denoted a destroyer at that time the LCMs were given DD numbers.
(7) The LCT's in Operation Appian were towed to India to speed
up the process of getting them to the Far East as quickly as possible and the
fact that their destination was Colombo. The Indian LCT Squadron mentioned in
the text sailed under their own steam because there was less urgency and their
destination was Bombay, now Mumbai. (8) Commissioned & Warrant.
A CW candidate was a rating selected for the course for potential officers at
HMS King Alfred in Hove.]