THE RCNVR IN WW2: CANADIAN COMBINED OPS (CO)
By Doug Harrison, first published in the Norwich Gazette, circa 1992
Naval ratings off duty enjoying a bathe on the North African coast at Oran
or Mers-El-Kebir, Nov. 1942. Photo Credit - Imperial War Museum (IWM)
The first group of volunteers for special duty left Halifax January 30th, 1942, aboard the Dutch Liner Volendam. Actually a first try had aborted when the AMC (Armoured Merchant Cruiser), HMS Queen of Bermuda, ran aground a few miles out into the Atlantic. Our second try was in a small convoy consisting of the Dutch Volendam, the Largs Bay and two destroyers, HMS Belmont and HMS Firedrake, and we were designated Convoy NA-2. [A third trooper, the SS George Washington, unable to keep up well with the others, started with us but detached to a port in Newfoundland before action began.]
Early in February, 1942 we arrived in Greenock, Scotland having been safely shepherded there by the Firedrake after the Belmont was torpedoed late on the night of January 31st, with a total loss of life. The Largs Bay was a sister ship to the Jervis Bay, which went to certain destruction against the Scharnhorst on November 5th, 1940 in order to buy time so all but four of its convoy could get safely to England.
Upon arriving at HMCS Niobe, the Canadian barracks at Greenock, we were filled in on our Special Duty, and it was revealed to us that we were to serve on landing craft. We weren’t allowed to lay around Niobe for long. The strange new world of landing craft, tides, currents, cold wind, rain and darkness beckoned those of us who were raw recruits, still getting used to the grub, currency and customs of a new land. This early training was at HMS Northney, Havant, near Portsmouth in the south of England.
Then we were entrained from Southern England to Inveraray, Scotland where the heather looked lovely through the early morning mist and sun. We acquainted ourselves with further landing craft and their side effects: wetness, oil, hunger and tiredness. A strong bond was forged which still exists today among this CO group of Canadian officers and ratings while training night and day. At Irvine in Ayrshire we were treated royally by the townsfolk along Harbour Street where we tied up our landing craft, the ladies bestowing tea and cookies on us after training exercises off the Ayrshire coast (south of Irvine).
Officers cried orders in the pitch dark as we trained. “Keep closed up,” or “Out kedge,” (anchor) and just before hitting the beach, “Down door. Up door.” Seamen strained at the cranks on the windlass as the coxswains worked the helm and motors against unfamiliar tides and currents. We were green but learning fast. Little did we know that we didn’t have much time, nor did we know what lay ahead.
The seamen good-naturedly accused the stokers of being seamen with their brains bashed in, but those same stokers never let us down, and it was sure good to have someone you could count on. No one wanted to be left stranded on the beach, nor were they. This was an unwritten law. MLCs changed in name to LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized). ALCs changed to LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault) and were the first victims of our inexperience. The crewmen shouted and cursed amongst ourselves, each caring for his own craft. But we got along well together, existing some days on only Cadbury chocolate and hard tack washed down with “Compost “ tea.
For about fifty-five officers and ratings the moment of truth drew near when they would be put to the test, untried, but with a high esprit de corps and ready to live or die by Canadian Navy traditions, and die some did. Seventy-one men of CO, RCNVR took part in the Dieppe raid, 19 August, 1942. One officer died at 0347 hours, August 19th in the Channel, killed in a fiery exchange with a small German convoy. During the long, suffering day two Canadian seamen were killed and one severely wounded. He later died and was buried in Berlin in October 1942. The commanding officer of the flotilla and a wounded stoker were captured. The stoker was repatriated in an exchange of prisoners but the officer remained captive for the duration. At least two Canadian officers and the wounded stoker were awarded medals. A Canadian seaman and officers were mentioned in Dispatches for the Dieppe raid.
1989 Reunion of two shipmates at Dieppe
Stoker R.W. Brown (“severely wounded”, left) and Lt. McRae
(“remained captive”, back right), with D. Harrison (middle, with cap)
and Art Bailey (right). Photo - St. Nazaire to Singapore, Vol. 1
The remainder regrouped with comrades in England and were joined by other officers and ratings from Canada. They set sail for North Africa in late October or early November, 1942. The Canadian men, with a sprinkling of Royal Navy personnel were lowered with their LCMs over the side of tankers at midnight, November 8, 1942 to ferry goods and supplies to the undefended shores of North Africa - and against resistance at Arzew, just south of Oran.
After about a week of this and the loss of one coxswain who was killed, the LCMs were left behind and the Canadians boarded three ships for the return to England. The Reina del Pacifico arrived safely but a slow old blister named the Clan MacTaggart and the P & O liner Ettrick were torpedoed off Gibraltar. One sailor died in the sinking of the Clan MacTaggart. Eight died when a torpedo scored a direct hit on the mess deck of the Ettrick. So these fine Canadian sailors were buried at sea.
In late spring of 1943 about two hundred officers and ratings of Combined Operations (CO) left Britain from various ports to man LCMs in the invasion of Sicily on July 10th. Some of these men suffered terribly from dysentery while camped in the desert waiting for slower ships to arrive with their boats and many were still in a weakened condition when they hit the beaches south of Syracuse near a town named Avola and in the Pachino-Marzamemi Beaches further south. These Canadian sailors, with no change of clothing, subsisted on what they could scrounge for themselves for over a month at Sicily. Some slept on the beaches and on landing craft and one group found safety from bombs in an abandoned limestone cave near the beach. Very damp and lizardly, it was a welcome haven at night.
The men under a new commanding officer did yeoman work, although working long hours, under fed and pestered severely by Stukas and JU88s. The stokers kept the landing craft running, if not on two engines, then on one (no down time) and the Canadian Flotillas were highly praised by the British Admiralty and General Montgomery himself. Their monkey mascot went bomb crazy and was buried at sea in a sandbag. It was a sad occasion when it was chucked overboard for our safety.
Late in the Sicilian campaign, because of poor conditions, some of these now-seasoned veterans came down with dysentery and were shipped off to Malta to recuperate. The favourite Navy cure for dysentery seemed to some to be a six or seven day starvation period; some of the boys certainly had nice looking rib cages while convalescing in Malta. All the flotillas soon appeared at Valetta, Malta with only a few days to make things shipshape for the Italian landing early in September. After a few weeks of ferrying supplies from near Messina to Reggio, they returned to Africa and again to England in October; some were well-laden with side arms picked up at AMGOT stores (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory). This group returned to Canada, landing at Halifax on December 6, 1943 after two years of overseas service.
"This group returned to Canada, landing at Halifax" aboard Aquitania,
including Chuck Rose (Rosie), Don Westbrook (Westy), Al Kirby (laughing)
and Joe Watson (turning his collar): Photo - G. D. (Doug) Harrison
Some of this group joined new officers and ratings and took a very active part aboard the LSIs Prince Henry and Prince David on D-Day. In many war photos of that time, Canadian manned LSIs are shown in the forefront of their landings in both the D-Days in France and in the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. A few Canadian CO ratings accepted drafts back into General Service and served admirably there as well for the duration of hostilities. Other CO ratings and officers with recruits from Canada manned 30 LCI(L)s for Normandy D-Day and did ferry service for two months. They were carrying soldiers to the landing beaches and artificial harbour - or Mulberry(s) as they were called. They appear on a recent commemorative stamp of the Normandy Landing. The letters and digits stand out clearly showing LCI(L) 299 as our representative. (Even the glue on the stamps has a nice taste).
In all, twenty or more awards were made to the men of Canadian Combined Operations for outstanding devotion duty to Dieppe, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and D-Day Normandy.
Unattributed Photos by GH