Al Kirby, RCNVR/Combined Operations from Woodstock, Ont.
Al Kirby, a Canadian at Roseneath Camp, Scotland, 1942
Al Kirby has been highlighted a few times on the 1,000 Men, 1,000 Stories
site, e.g., in an audio file at The Memory Project
, in a presentation re his story about the Dieppe Raid
(in eight parts!), in group photos from 1943 (prior to Operation Husky) and 1994 (approx.; veterans talking about past experiences), and more.
Recently, while collecting information for another entry, I came across Kirby's audio file and as part of that presentation was an excellent-quality newspaper article (excellent details about his experiences in RCNVR and Combined Ops; excellent resolution photo of the old news report). I knew immediately that it would fit right into this series about "sailors in the news". Regular readers will recall the several changes to the title of this series, starting with "Four Canadian Sailors," then sporting "Five Canadian Sailors," and now "Six...". And you know how research works... one thing leads to another. Don't be surprised if the title undergoes future changes.
Though I have a few authentic photos of Al Kirby, I do not have his Navy records, or any leads to surviving members of his family. However, what is provided already, i.e., links to The Memory Project and his 25-page account of his involvement in the Dieppe Raid, offers readers a significant piece of Canadian World War II history, and what I share below will further add to that information.
I am going to suggest that the newspaper article was published in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, in December, 1943, after Kirby returned to Canada aboard the Aquitania with my father and other mates in RCNVR and Combined Operations, post two years overseas duties (Jan. 1942 - Dec. 1943)
Seven Canadians returning to Canada in early December, 1943, on
RMS Aquitania. Don "Westy" Westbrook is above the W in Westy.
Al Kirby is behind him. Joe Watson, Simcoe, fixes his collar.
Doug Harrison, Norwich, Ont., is to the right of Joe.
The name of the Woodstock reporter is not given but when he says, "Not yet 20, (Leading Seaman Kirby) has three years' service," he is including Al's several months of training in Esquimalt, B.C., and Halifax, N.S., where he met many of the mates he appears with on board the Aquitania (above) and subsequent photographs.
It was in Halifax he took a torpedo course, which he refers to in a very significant story found in a small newsletter I have in my possession.
Al Kirby writes:
QUEEN OF BERMUDA VERSUS CHEBUCTO HEAD
In December of 1941, I was finishing my Seaman Torpedo Course at the Torpedo School in Halifax Dockyard, when I saw on the bulletin board, a notice asking for volunteers to go to England to train with the Royal navy for hazardous duties on small craft. I immediately thought MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats). Now that sounded very exciting to a 17-year-old RCN Boy Seaman, so I reported to the R.P.O. (Petty Officer) and applied. The only qualification was that you be single and warm.
About December 20th, a hundred of us were loaded on to trucks and delivered to the ocean jetty behind the Nova Scotian Hotel and were marched aboard the Queen of Bermuda. She was a rather large liner, converted to an A.M.C.* with six-inch guns and she looked very impressive, sort of a big brother to Prince Robert.
[*merchant cruiser (AMC). An AMC is simply a fast liner that is requisitioned and armed by the government in wartime for naval service, manned by a naval crew. Its usual duties are to patrol trade routes, convoy merchant ships, and intercept warships that may be engaged in commerce-raiding against friendly shipping. Definition found online, linked to a lengthy, scholarly story about HMCS Prince Robert]
That evening, just before supper, a tug pulled us out into the fairway and turned us around and we began to steam out of the harbour, all excited about our new adventure, but still not having been told what these small craft were. The buzzes (rumours) ran rampant, but I still clung to my belief that we were headed for MTB training...
...I went up to the upper deck to watch Halifax go over the horizon. I found the decks crowded with all kinds of sailors and what appeared to be utter confusion. Asking one of the juicier crew what all the excitement was, I was told that we had run aground. There was quite a blizzard coming down at the time and with the coming darkness I couldn't see a thing from the stern, so I went right forward on the focsie (forecastle, aka fo'c'sle) to take a look. To my astonishment, there was a big cliff no more than a hundred feet ahead of us and the ship was stopped... we were up against Chebucto Head...
Next morning, the rising tide lifted us off and we were towed back into harbour and disembarked. Since (HMCS) Stadacona had no place to put us, we were all sent home for Christmas and new years on - of all things - survivors' leave. It was late in January that we re-embarked to arrive in Scotland and learn that we were destined to join combined operations, driving landing craft.
The Yardarm, Volume 5, Number 1, RCN Assoc., 1993
Oxford County Navy Veterans Association
I referred to this story as "very significant" earlier, and I think for good reasons. People wanting to know more about the 1,000 (approx.) members of RCNVR who volunteered for Combined Operations (C.O.) may find aspects of an origin story here. These 100 sailors training at Halifax were the first drafts to go overseas to train aboard landing crafts to answer the call from the C.O. organization and the Royal Navy. We also learn the men did not exactly know what they volunteered to do until they arrived in the U.K. And though the aforementioned 100 sailors did not have difficulty volunteering for C.O. (e.g., they were single and warm), they certainly had trouble 'getting out of Dodge'. Two other accounts of the ship running aground can be found on this site and the report that the ship that eventually got them safely to Greenock, Scotland was the Dutch liner Volendam.
As well, according to my father's memoirs, the buzz that may have sparked the sailors' initial interest in volunteering for Combined Operations may have come from Al Kirby.
Canada's first link to Combined Operations may have started with a buzz
at Wellington Barracks, HMCS Stadacona, in Halifax, late 1941.
Photo Credit - Nova Scotia Museum
Doug Harrison writes:
One day we heard a mess deck buzz or rumour that the navy* was looking for volunteers for special duties overseas, with nine days leave thrown in. Many from the Effingham Division, including myself, once again volunteered. (Will I ever quit volunteering?) The buzz turned out to be true and we came home on leave, which involved three days coming home on a train, three days at home and three days on the train going back.
[*If my father is referring to the Royal Navy then we may have a direct connection to Kirby spotting the 'notice on the Dockyard bulletin board'.]
After returning from leave we were put aboard a large passenger liner, Queen of Bermuda, which went aground going astern as we left harbour and couldn’t be moved. We bailed water all night with pails - on a huge ship like that - like emptying a pail of sand one grain at a time. However, we were transferred to a Dutch ship called the Volendam, with a large number of Air Force men. This was to be an eventful trip.
Page 8, "Dad, Well Done"
The detailed article from Kirby's Woodstock newspaper continues:
In Part 7 of Kirby's account re the Dieppe Raid
, one can read specific details re his responsibilities associated with manning a landing craft just offshore the beaches at Dieppe - a more complete timeline is given in Parts 6 and 7 - and how he responded to orders given him as an 18-year-old seaman.
When back in England the Canadians took part in more training activities and Kirby is highlighted in one part of my father's memoirs. He writes:
Nearby was the H.M.S. Chamois camp*. We moved there for a time and still used the same wet canteen. O/D Kirby* of Woodstock, a very young man (possibly 17 or 18 years old), got quite drunk and on his way back to camp was challenged to show his ID card. After he did so he went on to his barracks but then started to brood.
“No 5 ft. 2 in. English guard is going to challenge me for my ID card,” he said.
So, back he goes to pick a quarrel. Quite soon came an order: “You, you, and you. Take a stretcher down to the gate.” Who should come back but young Kirby, quite unconscious. The guard just slammed him over the head with the butt of his rifle.
Page 15, "Dad, Well Done"
Hmmm. It pays not to get too cocky with a 5 ft. 2 in. guard!
Two Canadians in Combined Ops stand guard in Scotland.
Doug Harrison (left), Al Kirby. Exact date, location NA
[*HMS Chamois was just south of HMS Quebec, the No. 1 Combined Operations Training
Centre; both are about 2 miles south of Inveraray, Scotland, on Loch Fyne. Dad refers to
Kirby's rank as O/D, i.e., Ordinary Seaman. So the story may have occurred in the spring
of 1942, before Kirby passed tests to become Able Bodied Seaman (A/B) or Leading
In November, 1942, Al Kirby accompanied 100 or more other Canadians in Combined
Operations to the shores of North Africa to take part in Operation Torch. My father
landed American troops (possibly Rangers), part of the Centre Task Force, near Arzew.
I assume Kirby was in a flotilla nearby.
A Canadian sailor that is a dead ringer for my father leads US troops to
shore, November 8 - 10, 1942. It looks like two RN officers are also on
the Landing craft, Assault (LCA).
Arzew is just east of Oran, northern Algeria
The news article continues, with details about Kirby's role during Operation Husky
(invasion of Sicily) beginning in July, 1943.
Al Kirby, second from right, relaxes (inside a landing craft?) on board
a troop ship, while travelling around Africa, summer 1943, prior to the
The members of the 55th and 61st Canadian Flotillas of landing craft had the role of transporting troops to shore during the very early stages of Operation Husky, likely using British LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault). The 80th and 81st Flotillas followed closely behind, transporting ammunition, fuel, machinery and all other materials of war in Landing Craft, Mechanised (LCMs).
Lloyd Evans, Joe Watson and Doug Harrison (all featured in this series of posts) mention the role of the Luftwaffe and how persistent were the bombings and strafings during the first three days of landings at George, Jig and How beaches on the SE coast of Sicily, between Avola and Syracuse.
My father (80th Flotilla) writes:
We started unloading supplies with our LCMs about a half mile off the beach and then the worst began - German bombers. We were bombed 36 times in the first 72 hours - at dusk, at night, at dawn and all day long, and they said we had complete command of the air.
We fired at everything. I saw P38s, German and Italian fighters and my first dogfights. Stukas blew up working parties on the beach once when I was only about one hundred feet out. Utter death and carnage. Our American gun crews had nothing but coffee for three or four days and stayed close to their guns all the time. I give them credit.
Dad, Well Done, page 32
Map of Sicily landings from Combined Operations, by Clayton Marks
After the troops were on shore the 55th and 61st Flotillas returned to North Africa. The 80th and 81st stayed in Sicily for about 4 weeks. Soon thereafter, preparations were made for the invasion of Italy, Operation Baytown (at Reggio di Calabria, on the toe of the boot).
The remainder of the news article featuring L/S Al Kirby follows:
Editor's Note - I have found a few stories by the above-mentioned war correspondent Lt. Cmdr. Bartlett, and I may collect them in one place in the future, under the 'click on Heading' war correspondents in the right margin. If Kirby's name is mentioned I will link the article to this post.
Before we leave Kirby's adventures in The Med behind, I will display a very good photo in which he is found, taken prior to the invasion of Sicily:
As found in another book of stories by Canadians in Combined Operations,
St. Nazaire to Singapore, The Canadian Amphibious War, Volume 1
Where Kirby served after Christmas, 1943, I do not know, but I will keep my eyes peeled for more information related to the young sailor, along with A/B Jack Thompson of Moosejaw and Bruce Hawkins of Tillsonburg.
Al Kirby was a young recruit who saw a good chunk of the world in a short period of time, survived "chaos and carnage", and like many members of the armed forces, returned to Canada with a bride. I believe he settled down in Woodstock, Ontario, and he was active in his local Navy Association.
He was also active in collecting, writing and promoting stories related to Combined Operations. His 25-page account re the Dieppe Raid appears in Combined Operations by Londoner Clayton Marks (see next photo). And that book went on to inspire other C.O. veterans (see David lewis, below) to write, collect and self-publish two more volumes of rare stories. I tip my hat to them all. Without their help this archive would be very thin, indeed.
Sharing memories in London, on Clayton's back porch.
As found in Combined Operations by Mr. Marks
More information about Doug Harrison (already featured in this series of posts) and Buryl McIntyre, both of Norwich, will soon follow. Stay tuned.
Unattributed Photos GH