South France Invasion
After the leave, we boarded Eastway to find dockyard men shoring up two gun ships large enough to fill our dock. And then we sailed out Southwards with two destroyer escorts (one was the HMS Black Prince) back into the Mediterranean again. Our first call was the North African port of Algiers, where the Naval authorities had no knowledge of what we had come in for!
They told us to carry on along the coast to the next port of Oran. There our skipper was told (we hear all this from the Petty Officer Writer) that an error had been made in Glasgow and that 'Oran', typed by a Wren, should have been 'Oban' (in Scotland!) Well that's how wars are won!
Rue d'Isly, Algiers
All that way, 1,000 miles instead of 50 miles up the coast to Oban, because of a typing error. Well, they didn't know what to do with us in Oran and we were told to proceed 50 miles along the coast, anchor, and await further orders. Our Captain was furious, and gave orders to 'paint ship'. It was very hot. We could see a French foreign fort on the cliffs just above us. Everyone, yes, Officers as well, took turn wielding a brush over the ship's side on a plank in the hot African sun.
Officers paint ship
Bay of Naples
But we were soon off again, this time to our old friendly spot in Naples Bay. Not so friendly this time though, it was crowded with ships, mostly American; aircraft carriers, troopers, and lots of other warships, and no shore leave.
We took on board 10 US Marines and put their 'Smoke Boat' in our dock. It was about 40ft long, no bridge, but had a large aeroplane propeller mounted on the stern, which was to be used to disperse thick black smoke to screen the invasion fleet. We found out that the fleet made up of LCT's, LCI's, destroyers, frigates, cruisers, troopers, etc. and ourselves were going to the South coast of France this time, to push the Germans out of there. Other ships from Malta, Gibraltar, etc. rendezvoused off the beautiful coast of the French Riviera, in Mentone Bay off Toulon and Nice. Prior to the massive fleet arriving, hundreds of British and American bombers went overhead in the dark, and pounded this coast in what must have been the heaviest of the war, the noise was ear splitting, and we were still 22 miles away!
Artisan messmates, HMS Eastway
Thank goodness it was soon over. It was then that the 'Smoke Boat' was sailed out of our dock, conditions being ideal for the manoeuvre. But there was a snag. The battery used for starting the big propeller was flat, so I was summoned to replace it, which I did after a dicey climb down a ladder on the ship's side, with this heavy battery. I connected it to the propeller motor, and bingo, it started! We were just about to leave for the shore when Lieutenant Finlay ordered me back. "Your job is on this ship, not on that contraption!" But the sands of Nice, and the views ashore looked very inviting. We were about a mile off and the Yankee boat disappeared in its own smoke.
About midday the Yanks came back in their boat (no smoke) and told us that all the Germans had fled, and that the beaches were lovely, with orange and peach groves too. But sadly we were not allowed to leave Eastway so that ended our second invasion in three months.
A day later, we made some sort of history by being the first Allied warship to sail into the impressive port of Marseilles since the German occupation, and after the surrender of France by the disgraced Marshall Petain. We had a bottle of wine at a harbour bar and an excellent fish meal and off we went.
This time to Naples again which was much quieter, and on again South down the beautiful Italian coast to pick up landing craft left there at Salerno. This was a most beautiful place, but I wondered how our troops ever managed to get in and capture the town set in the wooded hills, against the fire of those German gun batteries. It looked absolutely impregnable to me, but Jock the Baker explained the brave attack, two or three of the big landing ships (including HMS Boxer) were tied up to lampposts on the promenade. A cup of tea in this historic place and a stroll round the beautiful town was all we could manage.
Next day we were back on our way to the UK via Gibraltar as usual, but this time we anchored in the very fine and spacious harbour of Milford Haven on the Welsh coast. We left Milford on stormy Sunday night, and as soon as we left the harbour wall, the Eastway rolled and pitched as never before. We understood that after rolling over to an angle of 45 degrees she would right herself automatically, but Jock said "Will she ever sail straight again?" All our cupboards in the mess flew open. Jam, tins of milk, Brylcream, sugar, treacle, tomato sauce mixed on the steel deck and flowed up and down for over an hour, and we could do little but watch.
In the Tyne again, we loaded troops and landing craft for the Far East, where war was still raging fiercely. Our papers were again marked Colombo, Ceylon, so we were resigned to having a long spell out there. I wasn't too happy, especially as I was hoping to become a Father for the first time in the very near future.
When we reached Malta, strangely enough our troops and craft were loaded on to another ship. The Petty Officer Writer told me again that we would be returning to UK the next day. I could hardly believe him! But sure enough we took on a number of Naval personnel. We rendezvoused with three P&O Castle liners. Lovely ships, but we heard not very good troopers. With our escorts we waited in the harbour in Oran. I was leaning over the ships rail having a chat, and a smoke with Ted Ingleton and I remarked that the night sky was a peculiar colour, a sort of greenish, thinking of home and the expected baby. Was this a sign? A portent? Next day we were off to Gibraltar with a 12-knot convoy, and stopped only to pick up two sailors for passage to England.
You could have knocked me down with a feather, and was I pleased. One of them was a pal of mine from the office, Jack Lacy who also was our cricket team's wicket keeper, pre-war. After exchanging welcomes, he then told me an amazing story. He was on a ship some months previously in convoy in the Atlantic, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German 'U' Boat. The few survivors took to the lifeboats, and about seven of them, including this chap who he was with, who incidentally was very quiet. They had nearly 10 days in blistering heat, very little food, and precious little water. The others died of exposure, and a Spanish fishing trawler rescued just the two of them. They were almost dying, and were taken into a neutral Spanish port.
But after being cared for, and weeks of rest, they were exchanged at Gibraltar for other internees. Jack had many a long chat on the four-day voyage to Portsmouth. He told me that the epic story was told in the centre pages of the 'Daily Mirror'. It was nice to have our brilliant wicket keeper safe and well.