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AND SO ...

6. BATTLE FOR CRETE IN A MOTOR LAUNCH ..... after passing through the Suez Canal and eventually sailing from Alexandria

on to Chapter 7. "Captured"


Eventually the Glenearn arrived at the southern end of the Suez Canal and we disembarked, fully expecting to find 1030 waiting for us. There must have been a cock-up due to wartime measures and in the meantime Glenearn carried on into the Canal and steamed northwards to Port Suez. So here we were, stranded in Port Teufic and seemingly nobody knew anything about us and cared even less. In the late afternoon somebody in authority decided to put the crew of 1030 on the night train to Port Suez. Before the war there must not have been a night train in Egypt because this one had strips of wood for seats and no windows. Here we were in white tropical rig - white shirts and shorts - stowing our kit in the flat-topped open wagon and about to ride in an Egyptian train. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, as you become engrossed in this stirring episode, but as the train slowly began its journey, night was falling and, as is usual in desert countries, the land began to give up its heat. From a high temperature, the thermometer reading fell and in no time at all it was almost freezing. All we had to keep ourselves warm were our respirators; everything else was packed in the kitbags on the rear wagon! Boy, it was cold and those batten seats did nothing to alleviate the discomfort. The train travelled so slowly we could have jumped out of the coach and run alongside, except the night was so dark we would have fallen over the railway sleepers. The train frequently halted and out of the darkness would come the plaintive cries of: "Eggs and bread!" Young Egyptian boys riding on the train took advantage of every stop to sell very small hard-boiled eggs and pieces of bread. We had no Egyptian money so they were satisfied with a handful of our change for what could only have been boiled pigeons eggs and bread. Initially, because of the cold, we were glad to buy, but after a few stops the need wore off. I can say that, up to then, I had never been so cold. The train travelled so slowly that it seemed the driver was not sure of which way to go. When dawn eventually broke, he seemed to be satisfied and the train picked up speed.

With great relief we arrived at Port Suez, detrained and entered H.M.S. Canopus, a type of barracks for personnel awaiting onward orders. Remember those few lines previously about ‘buzzes’? Once we had completed the joining routine and had our billets allocated the buzz was that the transport bringing our Motor Launches had been sunk and so we would be dispersed amongst an ever-hungry fleet. This buzz persevered very strongly for days and I was beginning to believe it. The boredom, the heat and the flies began to tell; our only relaxation was to go swimming at a place called Ras-el-Tin, which was a beach below the King of Egypt’s summer palace.

One evening I decided to go for a walk alone and found myself walking into a bar, which was empty except for an Australian soldier. I sat alongside him at the bar and ordered a bottle of Egyptian beer, called ‘onion beer’ - and that handle wasn’t far from wrong. We began chatting and after the usual questions: "Where are you from?" and : "How long have you been out here?" the Aussie asked me if I was waiting for the fortune-teller bloke. After the New Year’s Day haircut my fortune had already been told so I answered in the negative. He seemed relieved at this and went on to tell me how the fortune-teller wallah by all accounts had dished out some ‘pukka gen’ to the Aussie’s mates. He had been to the bar on several occasions but had not seen the old Egyptian. A couple of bottles of onion beer later and in walked a small, elderly, poorly-dressed Egyptian gentleman. The Aussie sat up in expectation, but to his dismay the old man came to the bar alongside me. He took from his apparel the lid of a biscuit tin and proceded to pour very fine sand into it, and shook it until the surface was even. He took my right hand, opened it to resemble a claw and told me to trace lines in the sand in a sort of shaking movement. With this movement completed, he took my hand from the sand and gazed at the squiggles for some time. Apparently no pictures appeared there for him to decipher, so he shook the lid again until the surface of the sand was once more even and gestured for me to make some more patterns by just drawing my finger tips through it. I obliged and again he studied the squiggles and began to talk. "For you," he said, "plenty boom, boom and then no more boom, boom for a long time. You have a Father and a girl; you will go home to them before the war is over. That will be five piastres." In those days five piastres were worth about one shilling, so I paid up, offered him a beer, which he refused as he stowed his equipment away and, without looking at the soldier, just walked out of the pub. For a while after that the Aussie was silent and then went on about wogs in general and that particular wog, who came in for some verbal abuse. I was included next, when he went on the tell the world how he had waited for evening after evening and then was ignored for a ‘Pommie bastard’. I just laughed at him because by then, in the war, that title was almost a term of affection between us and the Aussies.

It was strange that the Westernised Oriental Gentleman could tell me that I had a Father and a girl, but gave no mention of a Mother; if it was a shot in the dark, he hadn’t missed by very much. About the boom, boom there was no doubt. After all, that was the reason for my being there. Of the remainder, … well?

Someone in authority laid on a delapidated bus to go to Alexandria and return at set times each day, which certainly served to lift the monotony. Ratings in Canopus were coming and going, according to the demands on the respective branches, but we, like the three-badgemen in Drake, seemed to be becoming barracks’ stanchions. A run into Alex became a tonic. Of course I shouldn’t moan; every day at Port Suez was a safe day and it did seem as though the buzzes were coming true. I even found my name down on a list for emergency draft if a requirement for an Auxiliary Watchkeeper turned up. Alexandria was a panacea for boredom. A visit to the Royal Fleet Club took one back to civilisation. The place was spotless and good meals were obtainable. The favourite meal of steak, egg and chips was always available - it could have been well-prepared camel, I suppose, but no grumbles. More about camel in a further episode. There was a humourous side when paying a waiter in settlement of the bill. Each of the recognised waiters - they all looked alike - had to wear a large brass numbered disk, suspended by a chain around his neck. When a bill was settled and change was required, the waiter had to hand over his disk, to be returned when he brought back the change. Waiters had been known to abscond with the cash; hence the introduction of the brass tally. No brass disk, no work. There were continuous shouts of: "Hey, Abdul, hand over your tally." They were all Abduls and, as I have written, they all looked alike.

After a satisfying meal and a couple of beers in the large bar, where one often met old shipmates and learned about others, the next stop was the Barber’s Shop. Even a short back and sides was a work of art. I was pampered like an earl, escorted to a chair, towel carefully wrapped round the neck. A boy unlaced my black shoes and took them off to clean them. Knowing what the cut was going to be, one was still asked: "How would you like it, Sir?" "The usual": was the standing reply. I went to sleep in the chair and awoke to find one of them carefully trimming the hair from my nostrils. Back went the chair to facilitate a hair-wash and shampoo. Towel dried and a splash of Brylcreem - the whole treatment costing about five piastres. A one piastre tip and another piastre to the boy who had returned with the shoes and fitted them on my feet and I walked out feeling like an earl.

There was a red light district in Alexandria, the main area was called Rue des Soeurs, which in English became Sisters’ Street - out of bounds to all service personnel. It was worth a walk to the street to see the British Army Redcaps patrolling at each end, forbidding entry to servicemen, and to see the ‘ladies’ parading, displaying and inviting, and cursing the Redcaps, who were cursing in return, having to keep a watchful eye under the never-ending hot sun. When leaving the bus at Alexandria, the warning was always read out about Sisters’ Street, with the familiar lines of: "You can look but you must not touch!"

Then, one day at the end of March, the Motor Launches did arrive and were taken from the transport to be put into the water. Tommy Andrews and I set to, putting the engines in working order; first job to work on the donkey engine, that good old maid of all work. With that working efficiently we fuelled and filled the fresh water tanks, then brought the main engines into a working state of readiness.

Before continuing my story I will list the names of those I remember finally forming the crew of 1030. The skipper, Lieutenant Cooksey R.N.V.R.; a new Sub-Lieutenant whose name I cannot remember; Tommy Andrews, the P.O. Motor Mechanic (MM), the MM also stood for ‘Mickey Mouse’; the Coxswain, who was a leading seaman, but whose name is forgotten; myself; Tommy Shiels, an Irishman seaman gunner; Bill Sams, the telegraphist; Lofty Newman, the senior Asdic rating, together with his assistant, who was also the cook, and whose name I cannot remember; and last of all, because he was the junior among us, was Syd Pownall, an ordinary seaman and understudy to the Coxswain and Tommy Shiels. All in all we were a fairly happy bunch and got on well together. My P.O. and I were usually left alone to get on with coping with the mysteries of the Engine Room.

The 1030 formed up with the two other Motor Launches, 1011 and 1032, and because much of the fleet was in Alexandria Harbour the launches patrolled the entrance to the harbour to prevent attacks by Italian boats. One of these partly-submerged craft, armed with an explosive device in its bow, bravely piloted by an Italian naval officer, struck one of the battleships - I believe it was the H.M.S. Warspite - and put her out of action for some time. For such reasons we formed a boom defence group. When the end of the day drew near, the Motor Launch carrying out the night patrol was fitted with a barrage balloon on its stern. The balloon, something like a small airship, was controlled by a wire hawser and set off to a pre-determined height. Our nights, when on patrol with this contraption, sometimes turned out to be rather hair-raising. A sudden strong gust of wind would cause the barrage balloon to veer off on a course of its own, taking the launch with it as the stern followed the pull of the hawser. As we patrolled near the boom there was always the danger that we could finish up on the boom. In those early days of Asdic, the craft using it could only proceed slowly for the set to be effective. So travelling at a slow speed and towing a rather willful barrage balloon meant that those on the bridge had to keep their wits about them.

The war in Greece wasn’t progressing favourably. As long as only the Italian forces were in opposition the Greek Army could deal with them, but when Mussolini shouted for help and Adolph Hitler sent in crack German troops, the Greeks had to fall back on the defensive. Churchill had always held that Greece was the cradle of democracy and detached British and Commonwealth troops from the North African Force to assist the Greeks. By the time those lads arrived the campaign was in a state of collapse and the powers that be decided to evacuate the Army from Greece. Seaborne conveyances were at a premium, so warships were used to bring off the soldiers and many thousands of them were landed at Suda Bay, on the island of Crete. As in Alexandria Harbour, where a battleship was holed by a bomb conveyed by a partly-submerged craft, so in Suda Bay was the heavy cruiser, H.M.S. York (above - Navy Photos), similarly treated. She sank and rested on the bottom of the bay with a large part of her hull still above the surface, so theoretically she could be repaired in situ. The York was emptied of stores, which were placed in a building in Suda Bay, which became named York’s Stores. This information may seem unnecessary, but it does have a bearing on my story, as you will read later on. With the German Luftwaffe able to operate from captured air bases in Greece, the Fleet assisting the evacuation suffered some heavy losses; that is why repairs to the York were so imperative. So once again we, the flotilla, were required to carry out the duty of guarding the entrance to a harbour, this time the harbour of Suda Bay in Crete. The three launches, 1011, 1030 and 1032 made for Suda Bay, carrying out exercises on the way and eventually we arrived to begin boom defence duties, protecting H.M.S. York from any attack by seaborne antagonists.

Here we were at the end of April, the weather very hot and dry and drinking water in short supply due to the influx of evacuees from Greece. To conserve water I agreed to grow a beard, in Naval jargon ‘to discontinue shaving’. A serviceman in the Royal Navy is required to shave every day and to grow a beard had to request permission to discontinue shaving. If granted, that person’s leave was stopped until he could present a suitable face fungus. If, after a certain period of time, a presentable beard did not appear, the order would be given to start shaving again; the standing remark accompanying the order would be: "You look like a rat peering through a bale of cotton waste!" On the mess-deck would come the shout of "Shave off!". This expression was often used in conversation when a note of amazement crept into the discussion. And so I grew a beard. In the early days the face fungus itched like the devil, but one day I had a presentable ‘set’, even enough hair on my upper lip to wax the ends of the moustache!

The harbour of Suda Bay soon became a very busy place with ships of all sizes unloading men and materials, while the Luftwaffe carried out bombing raids. By the third week in May the bombing continued non-stop. In Suda Bay was a merchant ship called the Dalsman; she was soon on the receiving end of the bombing and was hit and sank, resting on the bottom. Our skipper was ordered to go alongside her to take off the crew and we swarmed aboard to give assistance. There were some horrendous sights. We were able to take off the survivors and at the same time we collected a number of machine-guns; enough for me to have my personal 0.303 Savage machine-gun. Together with the armaments we collected a supply of tinned food and, to top it all, huge pieces of frozen beef from the ship’s freezer. The people from the Dallsman were landed at the tiny stone jetty and after hacking away at the frozen beef, taking what we could deal with, the remainder was shared among the other small ships in the bay.

German map of Crete in 1941, showing "Suda-Bucht" (Suda Bay) on the North coast. The parachutes show where the German paratroopers landed (click for Battle of Crete Summary)

With the guns we were able to have a go at German parachutists being dropped at Canea, on the north coast, a few miles from Suda Bay. Many of them were dropped short of their target, coming over the sea. They didn’t have a chance when they landed in the water, loaded as they were. One of the first German words I learned was "Hilfe!", as they cried for help before drowning. After the German bombers had completed their tasks around the bay, the pilots flew low over the harbour to prevent the ack-ack guns from having a go at them, so it became our turn to have a go with our machine-guns, to strafe the planes as they flew out to sea. We concentrated on the tail gunners and must have had some effect because soon we were strafed in turn by fighter planes. In answering back we were credited with half of a fighter plane which was shot down near where we were operating.

The proverbial ‘buzzes’ were flying thick and fast and it soon transpired that a number of our warships had been sunk or badly damaged while attempting to bring supplies to our beleaguered forces or tackling the German seaborne attempts to land more troops. Using captured airfields, Jerry was able to bring in the airborne troops; we had no fighters to oppose the Luftwaffe. The end of April had seen the evacuation of Greece and now towards the end of May crept in talk of the evacuation of Crete. Just as the re-floating of the cruiser York was starting, along came a large number of Stuka bomber planes, each with a whistle device in its tail and carrying one large bomb. The pilot dived the plane vertically, pointing it at the target - in this case the York. The screaming whistle was frightening enough; the released bomb couldn’t miss and that large number of Stukas flying in single file soon sent the York back to the sea-bed.


on to Chapter 7. "Captured"
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revised 27/9/11