‘THE YOUNG GENERATION SHOULD KNOW’
Tales from the forgotten heroes of the Second World War
On June 6, 2002, Donald Hunter stood on the beach at Arromanches for that year’s D-Day commemorations and resolved to right a wrong. ‘It was a lovely evening. We’d just been laying wreaths – it was quite moving – and I thought of the men who have been forgotten, wiped of the map.’ Hunter is a Merchant Navy veteran who served at D-Day in 1944. Along with members of the armed services who gave their lives in Operation Neptune, some 2,450 merchant seafarers died. Yet there was no memorial to them. Twelve months later, thanks to Hunter’s fundraising and chivvying, a plaque was unveiled on a wall of the D-Day Museum at Arromanches that is now a focal point for the honouring of previously unsung men.
His grievance about the lack of recognition for the role of the Merchant Navy in wartime is widespread among veterans. ‘I was proud to do the job,’ says Ron Quested. ‘We all were. But when you weren’t allowed to join the British Legion afterwards because you weren’t a “fghting force” – what a load of tosh that was!’
Captain Richard Woodman, a maritime historian who was in the service himself, says, ‘It’s a national disgrace that our contribution hasn’t been better recognised,’ and attributes the neglect to that good old British bugbear, class. ‘The Merchant Navy’s great virtue,’ he says, ‘was that it was probably one of the only meritocracies this country has produced in peacetime’, which the hierarchical armed services have always found difcult to come to terms with. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that seamen who few the ‘Red Duster’ – the MN ensign – were granted the right to march as an ofcial body in the Cenotaph commemorations. The veterans marching tomorrow will be representing those civilian seafarers who have perished in defence of the country: 16,000 in the First World War, at least 35,000 between 1939 and 1945 (the proportion of dead being greater than in any of the fghting services) and a small number in the Falklands war.
More than 140,000 merchant seamen are reckoned to have been at sea at any one time in the Second World War. They transported food, raw materials and fuel to Britain, and carried troops, equipment and explosives to fghting fronts. These ships – not those of the Royal Navy – were generally the targets of enemy mines, torpedoes and shells. As Hunter says of the Normandy landings, ‘If you sink the transports and drown the troops you don’t have a problem, do you?’
One aspect of Merchant Navy history that is still neglected is the contribution of foreign seamen. Many thousands from India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean, west Africa and elsewhere served on Second World War ships.
These are a few of the facts. What follows is something of the reality. It was gloriously sunny autumn weather the week I met the men who appear in these pages. Britain looked like a country you would put your life on the line for a thousand times over, and that is what each of them did.
‘I WAS PROUD TO DO THE JOB. BUT WHEN YOU WEREN’T ALLOWED TO JOIN THE BRITISH
LEGION AFTERWARDS BECAUSE YOU WEREN’T A “FGHTING FORCE” – WHAT TOSH!’
Relationships broke up. The captain of a ship Quested was on after the war, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, blew his brains out in his cabin. ‘This is the effect war can have on a merchant seaman,’ he says.
But Quested was made stronger by wartime service. ‘I really felt as if I’d been educated in geography and meeting people from all over the world,’ he says. ‘I felt confdent in going anywhere and doing anything. You went away a boy and you came back a man.’ He left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and had a successful career as an electronics engineer. And he made his own ruddy home, marrying that childhood sweetheart, Betty, in 1953 and settling in an Essex village. Five children, 10 grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren later, they are still together.
Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs Assistant purser/ stretcher bearer/ward orderly Falklands war
By the surreal disposition of war, the music room of the ship on which Zak Coombs served during the Falklands campaign was converted into an intensive-care unit. He remembers a badly burnt soldier being stretchered in, a victim of the bombing of the supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad. The man’s hands were in plastic bags. When he asked for a cigarette, Coombs put one in his mouth. ‘Then I realised I was going to strike a fame in front of him, and I said, “I’m going to make a fame, is that OK?” And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re not going to light a cigarette otherwise are you?’’’
This is just one of many moments that Coombs recalls (with a sort of ferocious tenderness) from the 113 days in 1982 in which his civilised civilian world was turned on its head. In April of that year he was 32 and working as the assistant purser on the SS Uganda, a P&O passenger ship that specialised in educational cruises for children. ‘I sat on the desk selling stamps and arranging phone calls and sorting problems. I was a receptionist. In a hotel.’
The Uganda was docked in Alexandria in Egypt when war was declared. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and after a three-day reft in Gibraltar took about 100 medical staff and Royal Marines bandsmen (who worked as stretcher bearers) aboard and sailed for the South Atlantic. In addition to his duties as assistant purser, Coombs volunteered to be a stretcher bearer and ward orderly. The Uganda took on 730 casualties. These included 150 Argentinians, one of whom, a teenage conscript, sticks in Coombs’s mind because he washed the blood and flth from his face. ‘He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish in those days. It was quite diffcult. They were very grateful for what you did for them.’
He saw some terrible lower-limb injuries and witnessed great suffering and bravery but does not recall breaking down at any point while the fghting was going on and the casualties were coming in. ‘It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know. Because it wasn’t happening to you. You were outside looking in.’ But the foodgates
‘I DIDN’T KNOW HOW SERIOUS IT ALL WAS. DO YOU SHUT IT AWAY? I DON’T KNOW. BECAUSE IT WASN’T HAPPENING TO YOU. YOU WERE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN’
opened afterwards when he was reunited with his girlfriend, Tracey (who became, and remains, his wife).
Coombs continued to work for P&O, retiring two years ago after 37 years’ service. He and his wife live in a village near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. For some time after the war he was reluctant to wear his South Atlantic Medal (awarded to military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands), believing that what he went through could not compare with the suffering of the young men who passed through his ship (though now, he says, ‘I’m very proud of wearing it’).
His mind constantly returns to those injured men. As they left the Uganda he would ask each of them, when they reached their military hospitals back in Britain, to call Tracey and tell her he was OK. And, invariably, they did. ‘That’s the abiding memory I carry with me of those times, that so many men who had so much else on their minds would take the time to do that for me.’
Donald Hunter Radio offcer Second World War
During the D-Day landings, from June 6 through to early August 1944, Don Hunter (now 89) made nearly 40 runs between London Docks, Tilbury, and Juno Beach, braving the German guns through the Strait of Dover, which pounded the convoys to ‘smithereens’. Hunter was an 18-year-old radio offcer (‘and gunnery offcer and fre control offcer’) on the Empire Pickwick, an LSI (landing ship, infantry) that ferried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches.
Those big guns aside, his hairiest moment came when the convoy he was on was attacked by German E-boats (fast torpedo boats). ‘This torpedo missed us; you could see the track of it in the fuorescence on the water. It missed our stern and hit the [nearby] tanker, which went up in fames. We weren’t allowed to pick up survivors, the theory being that if you stop you also become a target, and the cargo is more important than lives, I’m afraid. It’s a sorry truth of war. I was looking down from the bridge, horrifed to see these men struggling in the water and we weren’t picking them up.’
The beach itself was another hell. ‘They had big guns along the clifftops. They were aiming at us, not the Royal Navy.’ But it was his own side that inficted lasting damage. HMS Belfast was lying alongside the Pickwick at one point, bombarding the German positions. ‘It blew my hearing away [he indicates the hearing aid in his right ear]. My ears bled. We didn’t have earplugs. We didn’t even have steel helmets. Badly equipped.’
Hunter chuckles a fair bit when he talks about his war. There are silences too. D-Day wasn’t the half of it. ‘I spent more time in the Battle of the Atlantic than I did in Normandy. I was attacked by mines, U-boats, bombers. We had the bloody lot.’
Hanging in the hallway of Hunter’s house in Kent is the certifcate confrming him as a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur, awarded in 2004 for his participation in the Normandy landings. He married his wife, Jean, in 1947 (when she brings tea and
‘YOU’D SEE SOME OF OUR TROOPS WHO HAD LANDED THAT MORNING COME BACK AT MIDDAY IN BLACK BAGS. THE YOUNGER GENERATION SHOULD KNOW REALLY’
biscuits, he hugs her and says, as if he still can’t believe his luck, ‘We’ve been married 68 years!’), left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and worked for British Aerospace as an electronics engineer.
But Juno Beach is never far from his mind. He has one memory in particular: a ‘coffn ship’ would anchor alongside his boat during the landings.‘You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags. They’d lay them on the deck while they identifed them. That was a reminder of the reality of war. It’s hard to talk about.’ He falls silent, then adds, ‘The younger generation should know really.’ Leonard Dibb-Western Deckhand Second World War Len Dibb-Western says the neighbours in his Somerset village haven’t a clue about his past. ‘I never tell them; they never ask me.’ So here’s telling them. The old chap (just turned 90) with what can only be described as a twinkle in his eye had lived a hundred lives before many lads’ voices break.
His frst ship, which he joined as a mess boy in June 1941, at the age of 15, was a Norwegian tanker on the Atlantic convoys between Britain and north America. He chose a Norwegian ship because the money was so good – ‘£30 a month. I gave my mother £10. She cried. She’d never had £10 before in her life.’ In 1942 he was on the bridge of another Norwegian ship in the Gulf of Mexico when she was hit, but not sunk, by a torpedo. ‘I was thrown across the bridge and knocked my head,’ he recalls. ‘No damage though. Too thick, I think.’
After contracting malaria in west Africa, he joined his frst British ship in 1944 – a shock to the system. ‘There were no sheets or pillowcases, just blankets. A donkey’s breakfast to lie on. Know what that is? Straw mattress. But they gave us an extra blanket to go up to Russia.’ This ship, the SS Fort McMurray, was part of Convoy JW 57, which sailed from Loch Ewe to Murmansk, fending off U-boats attacks, and on to Bakaritsa. The Russians, he says, were very suspicious of the British. ‘They put a notice up in our mess room. If you associate with any women you get fve years in the salt mines. I wish I’d kept that.’ The ‘poor devils’ who unloaded the cargo were female political prisoners. The ‘water’ on the dining table at Bakaritsa was vodka. ‘It nearly killed us! The Russians laughed. It was great times really.’
His war fnished on a picaresque note when he found himself in the clink in Singapore (for some light pilfering of cargo) and was set to work splicing hangman’s nooses for Japanese war criminals being held in cages there. Since then he has worked in a jam factory and as a cabinetmaker, and was a retained freman for 17 years. But the four teenage years he spent in mortal danger remain ‘the best times of my life’.
He has stayed in touch with shipmates but the pool of memories is drying up. Poring over his photos of veterans’ gatherings, each man shipshape in his white beret, he points out the ones who have died since the pictures were taken. ‘They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors. That’s what I always say.’
‘THERE WERE NO SHEETS OR PILLOWCASES. A DONKEY’S BREAKFAST TO LIE ON. KNOW WHAT THAT IS? STRAW MATTRESS. BUT THEY GAVE US AN EXTRA BLANKET TO GO TO RUSSIA’
Ronald Quested Radio offcer Second World War Birkenhead, October 1944. Ron Quested, a newly qualifed radio offcer, is watching stevedores loading cargo into the hold of the SS Samnebra, a Baltimorebuilt Liberty ship. ‘When I looked, they’d got sacking...