Royal Marines Association North Devon

ONCE A MARINE ALWAYS A MARINE

DENNIS SMALL

 

Extract from my War Service Story

Written for my Family, 1985

By S/M Dennis Small

 

Part One

 

 

 

We had not been in the Camp long, when we were sent back to Harlech in North Wales for two weeks training on Anti-Aircraft Gunnery. We were taught to fire Aulicons, Pom-Pons and Lewis Guns, then finally, getting back to our Craft, where we spent most of our time getting uses to the Craft.

About the 25th of May we were confined to Camp so we knew that we were getting close to the Big Day.

That day came on the 3rd of June when we were called to be briefed. We were told that we were to form part of the Invasion Force that will land somewhere in France, our exact destination will be revealed to us when we reach mid-channel as there are not enough Carrier Ships to take us across the Channel. We will make our own way across and rendezvous with a larger force when we are close to France.

Furthermore we have been told that it had been found that the Fighting Efficiency of Troops is greatly improved when they are put ashore dry and that our Craft are ideally suited to do this. So our first task will be to take Troops from the deep water LCI Landing Craft. It is estimated that 40 troops can be taken on our craft. You will hit the beach as hard as you can and as the troops clear the craft you should be light enough to get back off the beach.

You will not stop to help any other craft that may be in difficulty and you will take on an extra fifty gallons of fuel. We shall be leaving our Base at 7am on the 4th of June and our first rendezvous will be in the Solent off the Isle of Wight.

At 7am on the 4th June we left the River Hamble and sailed into Southampton Waters and then out into the Solent. At this point I must admit to a feeling of apprehension and foreboding. As we got further into the Solent the sea began to get very rough and by the time we reached our rendezvous the sea was really tossing us around, some of the crew were now beginning to feel sick.

It was at this time that the Coxswain said to me that he was feeling ill and would I take over the craft. We moored the craft up to a larger ship and to our surprise we were told that due to extreme weather in the Channel the Operation had been called off until further notice so we had to stay in the Solent for the rest of the day and night. Although we were tied up to the lee side of the ship we were still being bounced about by the stormy sea.

The Coxswain was looking quite ill so thinking that it was normal sea sickness I suggested that he should rest under the canopy which formed part of the wheelhouse so that is what he did. We had a terrible night being tossed around and we now began to realise that our craft were not designed for anything other than ship to shore operation.

So after a sleepless night we were pleased to see the dawn arrive. At about 10 or 11 am a message came over the ship’s loudspeaker that a message from the Supreme Commander has said that they expected the weather to have a break at the time of the landing so we were to get under way immediately.

The Coxswain was still not well and with afterthought we probably should have tried to get him aboard the ship but as we could not get him to tell us what the problem was we assumed he was sea sick or in a very nervous state.

The Flotilla lined up behind a Corvette escort ship and we set off to enter the Channel via the Needles. But as we approached the Needles we met with very heavy seas and two of our craft turned over. A Signal came back telling us to turn around and try to get into the Channel using the Portsmouth end of the Solent. This we did but the Major got concerned that we were loosing time so he signalled us to tie up to larger ships.  I tied up to a ship but when it got under way we were nearly sunk by its wash. I shouted to the crew to cut the line. We lost another craft as a result of this action. The crew scrambled on to a steel platform called a ‘Rhino’ that was being towed by the ship. The Rhino was to be used for Ship to Beach Supply Platforms. I was told that the crew went across the Channel on this Rhino.

We wrapped the Coxswain up in a blanket and strapped him into a corner of the canopy. We finally reached the Channel and once again rain into very heavy seas. I find it difficult to find words that best explain the sea and how we were all feeling at this time, the words that spring to mind are Horrendous, Terrifying and Frightening.

Nothing had prepared us for being in a craft with a flat bottom and a flat front and being in such a sea as this. At this point we really felt that we would be lucky to make it as we met such swell. The craft would be lifted up like a cork and as it got to the top of the swell the stern would come out of the water and the

Propellers would scream as they left the water. The flat bottom would crash down on the water making the bottom plates shudder and boom. Next as the craft went down the swell there would a mountainous sea all around us.

I did my best to keep the craft heading into the swells for fear of being caught broadside and turned over. We were still in sight of the Isle of Wight. When the craft in front broke down, and against standing orders, I did try to help by tying his craft along side ours using chains around the bollards. It was soon evident that with the sea as it was this was a bad idea. The side of our craft started to rip apart so we had to let them go and hope that they would get picked up.

We kept going but because of the propellers coming out of the water one of the drive shaft couplings broke and one rudder dropped off so now we had only the one rudder and one engine. But I still managed to keep up with the Flotilla.

It was now late afternoon and the sea, as was predicted, started to flatten out a bit which we were all very pleased about. It was about this time that one of the crew spotted a Mine about 500 yards away. Some of the crews started taking ‘pot shots’ at it. The Corvette sent a message, in very rude words, to the ‘so and so’ thing alone. The Corvette then turned back to deal with it. Some time later we heard a loud Bang!

It was now beginning to get dark and as there were no lights the only way I could see was to follow the wake of the craft in front. The sea was getting calmer and the night blacker. We kept going through the night with only the wake of the craft in front.

It was about this time that the crew suggested that I should take a break and try to get some sleep. I handed the wheel over to Marine Watkins and I sat behind the engine man and feeling very tired I fell off to sleep. I was awakened by the crew in what seemed to me to be quite a panic shouting that we were lost. I went to the wheel and sure enough we were in total darkness. Watkins had found it very hard to keep the craft straight having only one engine and only one rudder even though the sea had calmed considerably.

The crew were in a high state of concern and making all sorts of suggestions such as ‘lets turn back’, ‘we could be heading for the wrong part of France’ ‘if we land in the wrong place we would be taken prisoners’ and ‘well at least we would be out of this ruddy sea’.

I felt that the crew were expecting me to decide so I said ‘I think we should stay on this course until we see something that will tell us where we are like the dawn or a ship’. The all agreed and this was my first feeling that I had some leadership qualities, but the thought did cross my mind that somewhere in this Channel there was an Armada of Ships.

I kept going for maybe an hour when suddenly the horizon was lit up by bright flashes. All the crew shouted at once ‘its there’ and I pointed the craft towards what was obviously the opening bombardment on the Landing Area.

As dawn broke I at last began to see the black silhouettes of the Armada of Ships, there was no way I would find the Flotilla, and I felt the craft was in no fit state to risk taking on troops so I reluctantly decided to go for the beach.

As we approached the beach, I sailed right under the broadsides from HMS Warspite as she sent salvo after salvo into the French countryside. The noise was horrendous and it was hard to tell what was enemy fire and what was our own at this point. I remember feeling pretty tense so I pulled the steel door over my head and tried to steer the craft by looking through the slits in the wheelhouse. This was my first reaction to the sound of war. This reaction did not last for long for suddenly my nerve settled down and I slid the door back and put my head through the hatch.

This was an amazing sight, I could see the beach and a small village which I later learned was Arromanches. There was a plane flying low over the beach and amidst the rattle of machine gun fire and a sky full of tracer bullets I took the craft onto the beach.

The tide was ebbing very fast so we were beached back from the line of debris. We lowered the ramp and ran to the base of the sand dunes. At this point we did not know where we were in France until a bearded Beach Master approached us saying ‘are you the craft that came in from there?’ and he pointed in the direction that we had come from. ‘Yes’ I replied and he said ‘you must have had one hell of a trip but you were lucky because I reckon you could have come through unswept minefields!! Welcome to Gold Beach Normandy.

 

WE ALL PLAYED OUR PART

 

Extract from my War Service Story

Written for my Family, 1985

By S/M Dennis Small

 

Part Two

 

 

I explained our situation and he proved to be most helpful. He said he would take the Coxswain off and get him on board the Hospital Ship. ‘As for you’ he said ‘the beach is now secure so make yourselves useful by checking out some of the German bunkers and machine gun emplacements. The Commandos are well inland now there will still be a danger from shells from the flanks and from booby traps mines and snipers I want your craft off the beach on the next tide, a repair barge will be in later so you can get the craft repaired’.

He continued ‘when you are shipshape again you had better find your flotilla, they will probably be off Arromanches where the harbour is being formed’.

We spent the rest of the day checking bunkers and went as far as a line of German 8mm field guns. They had all had their breeches blown. The ground was littered with Cordite and smashed shell cases. I suspected that the German gunners had destroyed them before they retreated. There were snipers in Arromanches and I saw one running from a house. He was shot before he reached the garden gate. Another sight was a German lying dead and still holding a grenade in his hand.

We also came across three machine gunners still sat at their gun, also dead. Another big concrete blockhouse we checked had a huge gun which had also been disabled. None of these findings were any danger to us, thanks to the Commandos who had done a very good job.

The evening tide came in and I must admit I was glad to be back on our craft. We found the repair barge and moored up alongside it. They said that they would have us back in service the next day. While we were on the beach we picked up lots of guns including 4 Lewis Guns which we loaded and left out to use. Darkness fell over the beach and the German Luftwaffe had a try at bombing the Beach Head. They came in for the most devastating anti-aircraft fire I had ever seen, the sky was lit up by shell fire and a curtain of tracer bullets. There was no way any aircraft could possibly fly through this curtain of fire.

For me, being in an open craft with very little protection the greatest danger was from the shrapnel from our own guns, you could hear it splashing in to the sea. We suspected that this was going to be a nightly occurrence so we shifted our kit from the engine room and stowed it under the canopy. We slept as well as we could under the deck. We were all very tired and hungry so we did get some sleep.

Dawn came and we were wakened by heavy gunfire and as we scrambled on deck we saw a German plane flying low and strafing the beach. We picked up our Lewis Guns and joined in the shoot as he made another run, right over our heads and very low, so low in fact that we could hardly miss him. But all we saw was our tracer bullets ricocheting off his fuselage.

The last we saw of him was being chased by a Spitfire. After all this excitement our craft was repaired and we set off to find the Flotilla. In order to form a breakwater for what was to be the Mulberry Harbour they had sunk old Merchant Ships stern to bow and it was here that we found the Flotilla moored up. To our surprise there were only six craft there, we made it seven, so we had lost five craft, not by enemy action but by the raging sea.

It was to be our headquarters and it did not take us long to realise that we could live in the cabins that were above the water line. So this is what we did, and it made a lot of difference to us to have a bunk bed and have some shelter from the flack at night.

It was three days now that we had not eaten; we were very hungry, so the Major arranged for us to go on board one of the American ships for a meal. The news coming back from ashore was not very good. It appeared that the Americans were pinned down and the Canadians were being held at Caenand. The Germans were going to throw everything they could at the supply line and the beachhead.

 

The pressure was now on to work the Ship to Shore Supply Service. Our craft were ideally suited for this job. We worked all the hours of daylight taking in troops, guns, food, ammunition and light transport. Sometimes we carried troops on our shoulders in order to get them ashore dry.

This vital build up went on despite the air attacks at night. The weather very often getting rough and the enemy were constantly trying to attack us from the sea using E-Boats, Midget Submarines and Human Torpedoes. To my knowledge only one ever got through to the beachhead. This was due to the many craft manned by Royal Marines who engaged them as they tried to attack the harbour.

During this time we were called upon to do many things. On one occasion I remember being called with three other craft to a ship that was loading a Rhino in very heavy seas. The Rhino had broken away from the ship so we had to try and get in onto the beach. I reached the Rhino first, two of my crew jumped on to it and took the lines tied three craft to three corners of the Rhino, the fourth craft was having difficulty trying to get alongside. As he got close to the Rhino a big wave caught him and pitched him right on top of the platform.

We still managed to get it to the beach and as we guided it through ships we were given big handclaps. I was told to pick up a Canadian Officer and take him to Sword Beach. As I was approaching the beach I felt a jolt and the engine man shouted that we were holed. We had hit a submerged pontoon which was not marked.

The craft began to sink so we had to swim to shore. We were taken to a survivor’s camp which was under canvas. We were given a pair of Navy overalls and a tent. It was not a very pleasant time and we were in this camp for three days. The night times were the worst, as we tried to sleep in our tent there were shells whistling overhead. Each time we hoped they were from our Naval Ships.

Our kit was salvaged and dried our and the craft went for repair. While we were ashore we thought we would go inland to have a look around, mainly out of curiosity. We started to walk and an American stopped to give us a lift in his jeep. We went as far as Bayeux and were surprised to find it undamaged. We were told that the Germans had pulled out rather than have this ancient city destroyed.

Our craft now repaired and with us back on board working as hard as ever, we were witness to a one thousand Bomber air attack on the Germans at Caen. There were planes as far as we could see in every direction. This seemed to be the turning point in the invasion and from then on the news started to get better. The Americans broke through and the Canadians and British Army were pushing the Germans back.

As the armies advanced into France things began to get settled and in to a routine and with catering barges now there life was getting easier. German prisoners were now being brought back and we had to take them off the beach and put them on a ship. As the Mulberry Harbour came into more use and larger ships started to off load their cargo straight on to the dock we were getting less work to do.

One incident I think was rather funny was a German High Ranking Officer, a typical Monocle Prussian Officer complete with Bateman, very tall and smart, walking down the Mulberry Dock to a waiting craft and as he passed a Marine Commando he stopped and losing all his dignity he spat at the Marine. The Marine just laughed back at him.

Two of my crew picked up a sten gun which was a bit of a novelty and while they were fighting over the ownership of this gun it went off. The bullet passed so close to my ear I felt the hot wind from it. My reaction was to take the gun and throw if over the side. Another time I was walking up the beach with another Marine when I felt something hit my boot and looking down I saw a piece taken out of the front sole of my boot. Once again it turned out to be two Americans messing about with a German gun.

There are more stories I could tell but I am just sticking to the main activities. After working the beach for six weeks and more Ports having been taken it was time for us to go. Everyone was hoping for good weather for the return trip across the Channel but it turned out that we were going back on a Floating Dock Ship.

We sailed into the ship and when we were all loaded the water was pumped out. All the crews were so happy that we were being taken by the ship they sat on the craft and sang all the way back to Southampton waters.

Once again we moored our craft in the River Hamble and went back to base. A lot of the crews had not made the Channel crossing were there to greet us and to tell us that they had been treated as ‘Survivors’ and had had a really good time. For myself I felt quite proud of what we had done. Our Coxswain was not there and we never found out what had happened to him.

The Flotilla was decorated and the Major awarded the D.S.M and a name was pulled out of a hat for the member of the Flotilla that would wear the Oak Leaf on his Normandy Campaign Medal. However we were told that although it was thought we would be heading for the Far East the war in Europe was not over yet so we would be regrouping and formed into the 117th Brigade and we would be getting back into Europe as soon as possible.

The Flotilla was disbanded and we were sent to have two weeks Square Bashing at Portsmouth Marine Barracks. From Portsmouth I was sent to Southend on Sea, promoted to Corporal and then sent to an N.C.O. M.T Training Unit at Keswick in the Lake District. While I was there I was changed from training on lorries and jeeps to track vehicles.

After one months training I went back to camp in Lancaster. I was given a Universal Bren Gun Carrier and told that I would be the Scout Carriers for an Anti-Tank Platoon in the 32nd Battalion of the 117th Brigade Royal Marines.

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