One of our voyages in June 1944, didn't follow the usual route (we were glad not to have to go through the treacherous Pentlands again). We returned from the Clyde the way we had come in. So down the West coast, South through the Irish Sea to Avonmouth. We then guessed that the invasion in Europe was imminent and that we were to be part of it. First we were told that shore leave would be curtailed. Anyway, Frank, Ted, and I caught a local train to Bath, a few miles away - the city, not the tub! And watched Aston Villa just about beat the City in the League Cup. When we returned to HMS Eastway we found that the accommodation decks were full of soldiers, could have been about 200, and the dock was full of LCI's (Landing Craft Carrying Infantry), we knew for certain that this was it!
The soldiers had no doubt about their destination, France. Some of them even wrote letters (yes, and wills!) for us to post afterwards. On the Monday we sailed round to the South coast to Portland by Weymouth, where I had a holiday once, only this was going to be no picnic. There we were, amongst lots more invasion landing craft, soldiers, tanks, guns, and other warships. The weather was quite rough for June, and very early next morning we watched hundreds of our planes overhead, heading south for Northern France. Allied fighters and bombers, strangely painted with large white stripes across their fuselage. The noise was deafening, but it made us feel proud to see such a powerful force, and that we were going to free Europe from the German tyrant. We wished them all good luck on their dangerous mission. Of course we were wondering what sort of cauldron was awaiting us on those not so far off French beaches.
We weighed anchor, and with a mass of ships of all types in windy rough weather, sailed southwards in which was the largest invasion fleet and greatest landing force in World history. Carefully planned by our wartime leader, Winston Churchill, his military chiefs, General Montgomery, and the US leader, General Eisenhower. Apparently it had been a tough decision whether to proceed or not due to the very rough weather and the seas at the landing beaches in Northern France (we only learned this of course afterwards). But all was prepared and June 6th, 'D' Day, became a famous date in history.
Not long after setting off, I was sent for by the Captain, who informed me that radar was not to be used during the forthcoming action. He told me I had to report to the bridge to supervise the lookout watches, 4 hours on and 4 hours off, at Action Stations.
We sailed on Southwards with this great armada of Allied ships and invading army, pitching in the rough sea, with aircraft overhead. Then as we approached the French coast, we could see battleships, monitors (armoured shell firing ships), a small harbour, a barrage of balloons, and the flashed of gunfire from the German shore batteries and our own ships, dog fights in the sky above between Allied and German fighter aircraft.
We had been directed to 'Gold Beach' opposite Arromanches, the British sector of this whole invasion operation code named 'Overlord'. Eastway anchored in choppy seas about 100 yards offshore in front of the town of Arromanches. Close by to us were those two 'oldie' battleships, HMS Rodney and Nelson which were firing 16 inch shells into the town of Caen, well inland, guided by spotter planes over the town.
Troops were being discharged, our complement wet, but unbowed in full kit, with their rifles held high above their heads in the rough water. Tanks were being unloaded with other amphibious raft amidst the gunfire, despite the mines and tank traps laid by the Germans previously in case the invasion was to be in this area of Northern France. You can understand why the whole operation was nearly postponed. The high waves made it very difficult for landing troops in full kit, their progress slowed down wading through the white water.
The Mulberry Harbour, made up of sunken block ships forming a jetty, was very effective, the warships firing shells while pitching and rolling. We saw dead bodies floating in the water, wreckage of every sort all round us, and we were very thankful that we did not have to wade ashore with those British and US troops, so brave in this operation.
We were issued with earplugs but they failed to deaden the noise of shells bursting or German battery heavy gunfire. All this went on for hours, and the beaches were crowded with soldiers, tanks and equipment. It was impossible to tell what progress had been made.
Petty Officer Artisans Messmates, HMS Eastway
However grim and dark the situation is there is always something that will lighten the gloom, and on board HMS Eastway there was little more we could do than look after our own ships and carry on at our posts, keep our watch, and await orders. Through all this drama there was a terrific explosion at the stern of the ship, the first damage we had suffered caused by a German incendiary bomb, (not really much structural damage) but we had to laugh at the sight of Jock, the Petty Officer Baker, coming into our mess (below the water line) from the lavatories (heads) with his striped trousers at his ankles, having been disturbed in an important manoeuvre, shouting "What the bloody hell was that?" He did look a pitiful, but amusing sight.
After the first two days of noise and bombardment (you learn to live with it), and rolling on the rough sea, (and Eastway was a champion roller!), the action quietened a little, which indicated that some progress was being made by the advancing troops from the beaches. Abandoned landing craft was our object, and we searched partly submerged for craft, but it was virtually impossible to get them into our dock in the continuing rough seas.
Frank Jelley, the Radar Operator, who was an excellent artist, sketched his impression of the memorable action as it took place around us, and afterwards he gave it to me. I proudly kept it, and it has since been published in Birmingham and Welsh newspapers. It has now been framed and is prominent on the wall of our lounge.
Frank Rumney was now our Shipwright after Chippie's accident, and brought in a battered ship's wheel off a partly submerged LCT which he had boarded close by. I had all the sections off him and later on at home my Father put it all back together, polished it, and I fitted a barometer. That too is on the wall of our home. What a story it could tell!
Eastway rode out the rough weather, and after a few days we were ordered to leave the invasion beaches. This was done by the ships forming up single file and about 50 yards apart, preceded by 3 minesweepers because of the danger of German mines laid off the French coast. All ships were ordered to have as many of their men as possible above decks, to prevent a great loss of life in the event of an explosion (poor Stokers and engine room men). To our horror, the ship in front of us was blown to smithereens. All that was left was pieces of wreckage in the sea.
It was Portsmouth that we returned to, more troops and material were loaded, and we left with escort for another trip to Normandy. We did about 5 of these troop carrying voyages successfully in much calmer weather, and our dock was filled to the brim every time with every type of war material and soldiers to back up the advancing armies in France.
Sketch of Normandy Invasion by Frank Jelley
Also, we could now tie up to the jetty in the Mulberry harbour. For a complete change we were sent up North to the Manchester Ship Canal, to Ellesmere Port. It was right inland where we tied up, and the whole town turned out to see our strange looking warship, half with guns and half with a huge dock. As an 11,000 ton landing ship that had weathered the invasion, we were a big attraction, and beer flowed freely in that town that night. Here the 300ft dock was quickly loaded with 4ft square steel tanks, hundreds of 'em. We were chock bang full. We couldn't possibly sink with so much air! We learned that the tanks were to be used to make Bailey Bridges over rivers in France (and Germany!) for troops and tanks to cross.
Artisan messmates, HMS Eastway
We did some more crossings from Portsmouth and Southampton with soldiers and Army tanks, of course it was much easier going across the English Channel, no escort and perfect weather. Eventually we returned to our former base in the River Clyde, with a lovely week's leave at home with Doris, who was expecting our first baby, and I was delighted.