Tales from the for­got­ten he­roes of the Sec­ond World War

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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.



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


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


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.’


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...

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