Goodbye to the Combined Operations

[Recently found in some files of my Dad’s, he wrote this about the club formed by former members of the Combined Operations. They enjoyed many happy reunions over the years, but with membership declining as the old veterans “crossed the bar“, they disbanded in 2007. — sandy]

In 1941 the Royal Navy requested the loan of 60 officers and 200 ratings from Canada to volunteer and form a Combined Operation Unit. The first contingent of these men arrived in the United Kingdom in late 1941 and trained ready for action prior to the Dieppe raid. From this group, 15 officers and 56 men were selected to serve with Royal Navy flot0illas and were very much into the thick of action,2 were killed and 4 were taken prisoners.

In subsequent operations the entire complement of 260 officers and men took part in the North African campaign, landing at Arzeu and Oran in Oct. 1942. Two LCM (landing craft mechanized) and two LCA (landing craft assault) put units of the British army on the beaches of Sicily at H Hour ie the first ones in. The LCM flotillas remained in Sicily moving troops and their mechanized around Sicily, as required. They eventually took the armies across the Straits of Messina for the assault on Italy. One of the LCA flotillas returned to the UK while the other took American troops into Salerno.

The unit that returned to the UK went back to Canada to form the nucleus of 2 additional LCA flotillas to be trained for the assault on Europe. They became the LCA crews of  HMCS Henry and David.

The remaining 3 flotillas were formed into 3 LCI(L)-landing craft infantry (large) flotillas each consisting of 12 ships each with a crew of 2 officers and 22 to 25 ratings. All but one of these 5 flotillas carried units of the Canadian Army to Juno beach while the fifth flotilla carried units of the British Army to Gold Beach.

The Canadian Navy Combined Operations disbanded in late 1944 and the personnel were returned to general service with the RCN.

A few combined operations members attended a reunion held by the RCNA in London Ont. and four of them , including Bill Lee, suggested that they try to get more CO out to these reunions so Bill inserted an ad in the Legion magazine telling of a reunion to be held in Peterborough Ont. In 1979 and 9 members attended this gathering.

The following year, 1980, the RCNA reunion was to be held in Halifax NS. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the forming of the Canadian Navy so Bill put a further ad in the Legion magazine and ads in a few major newspapers and one on CFRB radio from Toronto. At this reunion, nearly 30 members of CO attended and enjoyed a real get together. Bill Tiner was Bill Lee’s right hand man and assisted him in many ways like obtaining accommodations for the group at future reunions. For a number of years the 2 Bills drove to the location of the next reunion well ahead of the time and arranged rooms, including a hospitality room , for the convenience of all the members attending.

An ad was placed again in 1981 in the Legion magazine and quite a large number of CO showed up in Sarnia Ont. where plans were laid for the “Club”, as it had become known, to attempt to get a charter with the RCNA as a member club. These plans took most of a year but came together in May of 1982 in Kitchener -Waterloo where an executive was elected at a meeting of the members present and an application was made for a charter of membership in the RCNA as the Combined Operations Section of the RCNA. The charter was granted in the fall of 1982. The original executive consisted of Pres. Don Kemsley, Sec. Clayton (Red) Marks, Treas. Laurence (Gravel) Brown and 3 Directors, Sam Agnew, William Lee and Elmer (Emmie) Wright. The charter was presented to the president in May of 1983 at the RCNA reunion in Kingston, Ont.

The club would never have been except for the untiring efforts Bill Lee and Bill Tiner before, and for many years after, the granting of the charter. Once the charter was obtained, word spread more rapidly and many more members were signed up each year. The secretary, Clayton Marks, and his wife, Jewell, never seemed to tire of doing things for the club, he kept track of everyone and managed to put out a newsletter 3 or 4 times a year to keep all the members informed of what was going on. The finances were always closely watched by tight fisted Laurence (Gravel) Brown who looked after the CO money as though it was his own and always made sure the bills were paid. The executive of the club changed very little until the untimely death of  Laurence and the resignation of Clayton Marks in 1998 after the death of his wife. Clayton was replaced by Ernie Mount but agreed to continue as newsletter editor for a while, Laurence was very ably replaced by Jack Rimmer as treasurer. Bill Lee and Sam Agnew both crossed the bar in the 90’s and Don Kemsley continued on as president and representative to the RCNA. The annual meeting  has always been held at the RCNA reunion as that is the only time the membership tried to come together. The officers were elected on a yearly basis until the early 1990’s and the term was then changed to 2 years to conform with the election of officers in the RCNA. The dues was kept at a minimum so that all members could pay it with little hardship.

In 1983 Clayton Marks put together, and had printed, a book on the history of the Canadian Combined Operations during the 2nd World  War that was well received and very informative and the first 2 printings sold out in a very few years. David Lewis had a 2 volume edition printed in 1997 that was an extension of the works of Clayton containing more pictures and stories. The mailing list was always kept up to date by Sandy Kemsley (Don’s daughter) who printed all the mailing labels as her donation to the club. Her efforts were greatly appreciated.

In 1986 a flag was designed with a light blue background, a white ensign in the top corner and a large Combined Operation emblem on the fly, it was carried on parade at the reunion in Vancouver for the first time in 1986. The other two colors carried on parade were donated from other sources. One of the members designed and had made name badges for all members containing the CO crest.

The club attended reunions in cities across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver but because of the membership concentration of the RCNA  most reunions were held in southern Ontario. A combined operations reunion was held in Newcastle NB in 1991where there were 60 in attendance and another was organized by Luke Williams and his crew in Victoria BC in 1998 which also hosted 60 members and treated them to a short trip to sea on HMCS Winnipeg.

Over the last few years the membership decreased rather rapidly since all of our members were veterans of WW2 and it became increasingly more difficult for members to travel to the reunions so it was decided at the meeting held in Digby NS in May 2007 to surrender our charter at the Annual Meeting of the RCNA in Kitchener- Waterloo in Sept. 2007 and to disband our club. The membership of CO had dropped from well over 200 to 41 by this time so we called it quits. Don Kemsley remained as the only president and RCNA representative that the club ever had in it’s 25 year history.

Jack Rimmer crossed the bar shortly before the charter was surrendered.

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One Response to Goodbye to the Combined Operations

  1. Hi Sandy,
    I enjoyed reading this latest entry re your father’s experiences w Combined Ops. My father Doug Harrison was also a member of RCNVR and Combined Operations during WW2 and travelled to some of the same places as Don, e.g., to North Africa in 1942, w the 80th Flotilla to Sicily in ’43 and Italy two months later. I have also started a website (http://wavynavy.blogspot.ca/) and hope to add to it over the next few years. I hope you won’t mind if I share a link to your father’s information in the future. In one entry Don mention’s Clayton Marks, a Londoner who printed a book (entitled Combined Operations) in the 1980s. Three members of his family and I are reprinting his book – we just met again last evening – and it will be ready in the spring 2016, so our combined interest in genuine. Perhaps you have visited Geoff Slee’s website (from Scotland) entitled Combined Operations Command @ http://www.combinedops.com/
    Cheers, Gord Harrison

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