The For­got­ten Flotilla - Part 2

The Devel­op­ment & De­ploy­ment of the For­got­ten Flotilla

Hills to Hawkesbury Living Magazine - - News -

Although not specif­i­cally men­tioned any­where, it is likely much of Churchill’s mo­ti­va­tion for the devel­op­ment of the Tank Land­ing Craft stemmed from the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion of late May and early June 1940. In that op­er­a­tion, up­wards of 300,000 troops were taken safely from the French coast. How­ever, as there were no suit­able ves­sels to up­lift ma­teriel di­rectly from the beaches, and the docks were too badly dam­aged, equip­ment for al­most ten di­vi­sions was aban­doned and left be­hind. This in­cluded am­mu­ni­tion, light and heavy guns, trucks, mo­tor­cy­cles, tanks as well as other sup­plies. Churchill was not about to let this hap­pen again.

Be­fore the mid­dle of July, Churchill had his ideas for the land­ing craft drawn up by a naval ar­chi­tect, Roland Baker. With fi­nance quickly ap­proved, the first order for twenty Tank Land­ing Craft Mk1 was sub­mit­ted to a se­lec­tion of ship­yards to be­gin con­struc­tion im­me­di­ately. Mean­while, the skip­pers and the crew to man the pro­to­types were se­cretly cho­sen and un­der­went com­mando train­ing in Scot­land in prepa­ra­tion.

The flotilla went down to Egypt, leav­ing Eng­land late De­cem­ber 1940, on cargo ships ac­com­pa­ny­ing troop transports in con­voy WS 5A. The des­ig­na­tion WS ap­par­ently stood for ‘ Win­ston’s Spe­cials’. Strangely, the man­i­fests for the con­voy de­tail ev­ery­thing and every­body ex­cept the new land­ing craft and their crews!

“How was it trav­el­ling in the con­voy?” Michael asked of John Digby Sut­ton dur­ing one of their many meet­ings. “Didn’t want to get off,” laughed John. “Could have cruised the bloody world for a few years,” he added. No won­der. John, along with the other skip­pers and their crews, trav­elled to the Mid­dle East, not with the rank and file troops but aboard a lux­ury Dutch Cruise liner, Costa Rica. In­deed, it seemed Churchill had some spe­cial agenda for this flotilla.

The con­voy was un­able to take the faster route through Gi­bral­tar due to U-boat ac­tiv­ity in the area. In­stead, it went around the Horn of Africa and up to the Suez Canal. The land­ing craft were un­loaded. It took just over a month to re­assem­ble and fit out the first five. These five craft were then im­me­di­ately sent on a mis­sion to sup­ply the be­sieged town of To­bruk.

John’s war started just thirty min­utes out of Alexan­dria har­bour on this his first mis­sion. A wave of dive-bombers swept in. They flayed the wa­ter around his craft with ma­chine­gun fire and let loose sticks of high ex­plo­sive. The flat-bot­tomed ves­sel lifted out of the wa­ter crash­ing back down with so much power that ev­ery­thing of glass on­board smashed. This in­cluded the ship’s two com­passes.

“No com­passes?” Michael queried. “How did you nav­i­gate?” With­out miss­ing a beat John replied ‘ Well, I had a schoolboy knowl­edge of as­tron­omy and knew where the north star was, so I tied a broom han­dle to the rail­ing around the com­mand cen­tre. And I kept a crew­man seated up there to make sure it stayed in line.” Keep in mind John the skip­per was only twen­ty­one at this stage. To the read­ers here I would ask, “Would a twenty-one year old to­day even know what a broom is?” More on John and his craft will fol­low soon.

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