Combined Operations in the Canadian Navy, 1943

[Note: I recently found this narrative about the Combined Operations that my dad had written, and I’m posting it as background on his early days in the service. — sandy]

The group that I traveled to Halifax with in the early fall of 1942 were completing our ABQ’s in the class room in HMCS Cornwallis when someone came in looking for volunteers for an overseas assignment, the requirement stated that a person had to volunteer, had to be physically fit, had to be young and willing to go overseas and the only name they had for the group was Naval Commandos but after we went over we were labeled Combined Operations. We were soon sent home on 14 days leave and came back and prepared to embark on the Queen Elizabeth for the roughest crossing they had made in the past 18 months. On board this ship the navy got 3 meals a day while the army only had 2 and we could use the drinking fountains at any time while the army had certain times each day when they could fill their canteens but the navy was also expected to stand gun watches and patrol decks wherever required. The food was very good but very few were eating it as the sea was so rough and many were seasick of the approx. 17000 aboard.

We arrived in the Clyde and were transferred ashore and taken by small lorries to the Canadian Naval barracks in Greenock, Scotland named HMCS Niobe and nearly all Canadian naval personnel that were serving in the British Isles were routed through here at least once and some of us many times for placement. We arrived here in Dec. of 1942 and were treated as well as could be expected under the circumstances and were treated to a turkey dinner and a couple of quarts of Canadian beer on Christmas day. It was an odd Christmas for a group of 18year olds who had no idea what we were going to be required to do or when or where. After Christmas we were moved to Southern England and started training in earnest at many bases that had been established for this purpose around the southern and southeastern coasts of England. We only remained at each base for 2 or 3 weeks as each one was equipped with different types of landing craft and we were expected to become quite proficient in the operation of all types available. We were gradually divided in to flotillas, the 55th and 61st were LCA (assault) crews and the 80th and 81st were LCM (mechanized) crews and we eventually found ourselves in Roseneath ready to ship out for somewhere.

The group I was with were put on board HMS Keren at Gouroch, this was a Royal Navy trooper and was crowded but had passable food and the officers attempted to keep us busy with Phys. Ed, Boxing and Deck Hockey. We had been issued some tropical gear so assumed that we would be heading in that direction and our group had been assigned to the 81st LCM flotilla which were outfitted with Mark 1, British Built craft with twin engines. The crew consisted of a leading seaman as coxswain, a leading stoker (m) and 4 seamen. Our next touch with land was made at Freetown, West Africa, a very pretty place from what we were able to see as the ratings were not allowed ashore. We crossed the equator going down this continent and were all properly initiated. We proceeded south with our next stop in Durban, South Africa where nearly all the city closed up when the fleet arrived, it was a picturesque place with very white buildings and most of the personal transportation up town was by rickshaws drawn by very muscular and decorated black natives. We left Durban and headed east for some hours and then swung north and west and passed Madagascar on our way to the Red Sea. We traveled the length of the Red Sea and tied up in Suez where we disembarked and picked up our Landing Craft from the Empire Charmian, which was outfitted with large booms as it had been designed to hoist and carry railway locomotives, we then proceeded up the Suez Canal as far as the great Bitter Lakes which is midway between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea where we put in at HMS Saunders, a British camp, for further training. We were issued a 2 man tent, 2 folding cots and a mosquito net and for the next few weeks , worked and slept in sand. Scorpions were very prevalent and a person always made sure to dump their boots in the morning before putting them on to avoid painful stings. The food was quite good in this camp and the canteen always served ice cold Montreal, Black Horse beer. We trained on the lakes but started early in the morning as the heat was almost unbearable by midday and dysentery was rampant throughout all the camps. A short walk across the desert there was an American Airforce base where a movie was available most evenings and you could often get chocolate bars, if you were fortunate you might be able to hitch a ride into Cairo on one of their DC3’s for the day. We stood some guard duty in this camp but the British Marines were in the next camp to us and were much better guards so we gave them lots of leeway.

Before we left HMS Saunders we were required to repack our kitbags and leave any gear that we weren’t going to need and only take the essentials, the gear we left was supposed to be shipped to the UK but about 99% of it never made it but when I arrived back in HMCS Niobe my gear was there but I have no idea how or when it got there. We left HMS Saunders with our LCM’s and proceeded up the Suez Canal to Port Said where we were hoisted aboard the SS EMPIRE Charmian for the remainder of our journey. We proceeded to Alexandria to make our arrangements and look after all the final details leading to the invasion. We arrived in Alex on June 30th 1943.

There were many ships in Alex , all taking on supplies and troops prior to the action that was to come. We left Alex in a large convoy about the 3rd of July and were told the next day that we would be making a landing on Sicily on the 10th of July and were shown pictures of the beaches taken from submarines and small surface craft to give the crews an idea of what we were to look for. On the night of July 9th the planes passed over the convoys carrying paratroopers to the beaches and inland about 10.30 pm. We lowered our boats over the side before daylight into very rough water and hit Noto Beach about 8am carrying a load of British troops who were really pleased to get in there just to get off the rough water as they were nearly all sick, one soldier said that he wouldn’t trade places with me if we were going back out on the water but I told him we knew what was back there but they didn’t know what was ahead of them on the beach. The beaches were small and very shallow so we had difficulty getting up far enough on them to make a dry landing. The anti-aircraft guns on the beaches and on the ships at anchor kept the aircraft up high but there was constant bombing and straffing of the beaches for many days. We were harassed by German and Italian planes and the second night we were there they bombed and sunk a hospital ship that was anchored and brightly lighted some distance from our beach. A few of the freighters were sunk by Stuka bombers which traveled much slower but were also more accurate when they broke over the hills. The raids came fast and furious for about 5 or 6 days and then slackened off but we continued to unload ships for long hours each day and attempted to find a quiet place to anchor after dark to grab some much needed sleep. We drew vehicles of all sorts, fuel in cans, supplies including ammunition and load after load of ratios which were the mainstay of the troops that were doing the fighting. The Italian prisoners were used to unload our boats wherever possible on the beaches and this sure reduced our manual labor. We had Battle Lines posted on the beaches so we could watch the progress of the Army and were always pleased to see that the Canadian front was usually well ahead of the others. By the 16th or 17th they had captured Syracusa but had many repairs to do to the docks before they could unload there so we continued to unload on the beaches. We worked all kind of ships from many countries and were sometimes able to bum some fresh bread which by this time was like cake to us as we were living on M&V boxed rations the same as the army. We continued to have air raids but they became less frequent every day and after while they were confined mostly to the dark hours but this didn’t help any with our sleep. We lost one craft that wasn’t loaded properly and upset and sank off the beach but the crew all managed to get off safely and we were having problems with a few of the boats that had pounded on the beaches and had plates leaking so had to be pumped out every few hours. Once or twice we had all the ships unloaded and had a day of rest waiting for another convoy to come in and then back to the long hours. Some days we would have a wind and rather heavy seas so this made the beaches all that more treacherous and was hard on the boats as well as the crews.

On the 5th or 6th of Aug. our flotilla sailed for Malta but our boat and one other was left behind because of leaking plates so we were told that we were on our own in Syracusa until we could find a means of getting our plates repaired to get back into service again. We were never short of rations as the army had barge loads of them anchored in the harbour at Syracusa and we were at liberty to use what we needed, there was also loads of gasoline in cans so we could always get fuel for the boats. Our two crews were very fortunate because some of the others were suffering from malaria (which was very prevalent) as well as dysentery and infections of different kinds because of lack of sanitary facilities. While we were in Syracusa harbour we found out that there was a temporary naval postal station there and they allowed us to sort through our flotilla mail and to take our own out, this was very welcome because we hadn’t had mail for many weeks and there was also cartons of cigarettes sent from Canada. There was also a Navy dentist there and some of us had fillings put in our teeth that he had to drill out with a foot power drill as there was no electricity available as yet.

Sometime during Aug. we met up with an English flotilla that had a Canadian Flotilla Officer who told us that they had the facilities to weld our plates and to put the boats back into working shape. They proceeded to do this and then informed us that since our flotilla wasn’t there that we would join their flotilla and that they were preparing to do the invasion of Italy very shortly as the fighting was nearing an end in Sicily. On the 2nd of Sept. we went north along the coast and loaded with British troops again and crossed the Strait of Messina and laid off the coast until it was very heavily shelled by all types of ships and we then ran into the beach against very little opposition because of the bombardment. We continued with this flotilla for approx. 2 weeks and were on a fairly long run across to draw supplies and ammunition but it eventually started to take its toll on our boats so we cannibalized one boat to keep the other in service but it soon gave up so we presented them to the British flotilla and took off up the road in an army lorry.

We knew that the 80th Canadian Flotilla was in Messina so we found them and helped supplement their crews drawing supplies etc. across to Italy. Things were a bit better here as they had commandeered a couple of empty houses on the coast and we were able to sleep under cover and prepare our food with a bit more regularity. Once in a while we could cross over to Italy and hitch a ride up the coast with the army to see what was going on there. When the 80th went into Italy they were carrying Canadian troops which was the first time that the Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army worked together on any beach, unfortunately I never had the privilege of working with them even on a later invasion. We continued with the ferry service until sometime in Oct. and were then taken on board an LCA carrier and were ferried ourselves back to Bone in North Africa, we remained in a makeshift camp there for a few days and then went to Gibraltar where we boarded the Queen Emma that had been damaged in Sicily and Italy but was on it’s way to the UK and on the 27th of Oct. we arrived back in Scotland and were sent back to the 81st flotilla in Loewstoft, England and our adventure in the Mediterranean came to an end.

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