Posts Tagged ‘Generation’

‘The young generation should know’: Britain’s forgotten Merchant Navy heroes

November 6th, 2015

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that seamen who flew the ‘Red Duster’ – the MN ensign – were granted the right to march as an official body in the Cenotaph commemorations. The veterans marching on Sunday 8 November 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 fighting services) and a small number in the Falklands war.

“I thought of the men who have been forgotten, wiped off the map”

Donald Hunter

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 fighting 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.

Ronald Quested, Radio officer, Second World War

Ronald Quested, now (left) and as a young radio officer during the Second World War (right)

Birkenhead, October 1944. Ron Quested, a newly qualified radio officer, is watching stevedores loading cargo into the hold of the SS Samnebra, a Baltimore-built Liberty ship. ‘When I looked, they’d got sacking round their hobnailed boots. The bosun was standing next to me.

I said, “Why have they got the sacking there?”, and he said, “They’re loading up TNT. It’s to stop sparks flying.’’’ Quested was 17 years old. He had a twin brother, Len, who was about to serve on the Arctic convoys, and a 16-year-old sweetheart back in Essex. ‘We loaded up and I thought, “Oh my.”

But I never took any notice of it after that. I’m one of these blokes that doesn’t get upset very quickly.’

“After three months you’re thinking, where is my home?”

Ronald Quested

From this moment till the end of the war, he and the Samnebra were inseparable and, on his own admission, lucky. They travelled, in a series of convoys, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to Baltimore, back through the Suez Canal to Bombay and Colombo and on to South Africa without once facing direct attack (though a tanker in one of his Atlantic convoys was blown up).

‘But every second of every minute of every day, you could have had a torpedo in you. Nobody could tell you how many U-boats were around.’

Fear apart, for a teenager who had never been abroad before it was an interminable, disorientating experience. ‘For the first three months, it’s an adventure; everything is new to you. After three months you’re thinking, where is my home? You’re going from one port to another port, one country to another country. And from six months to 12 months you’re beginning to say to yourself, I don’t think I’ve got a ruddy home!’

He is a cheery yet phlegmatic character (88, ‘fighting fit’, and the standard bearer for his local Merchant Navy Association), but some, he says, didn’t cope so well with the experience. People drank heavily.

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 confident 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 great-grandchildren later, they are still together.

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs: Assistant purser/stretcher bearer/ward orderly, Falklands war

Martyn 'Zak' Coombs, now (left) and during the Falklands war (right)

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 flame in front of him, and I said, “I’m going to make a flame, 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.’

“It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know”

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs

The Uganda was docked in Alexandria in Egypt when war was declared. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and after a three-day refit 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 filth from his face. ‘He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish in those days. It was quite difficult. 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 fighting was going on and the casualties were coming in.

Argentine tanks move down a street on the Falkland Islands

‘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 floodgates 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 officer, Second World War

Donald Hunter, now (left) and as a teenage radio officer (right)

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 officer (‘and gunnery officer and fire control officer’) 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 fluorescence on the water. It missed our stern and hit the [nearby] tanker, which went up in flames.

“You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags”

Donald Hunter

‘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, horrified 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 inflicted 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.’

The 2nd Battalion U.S. Army Rangers march to their landing craft in Weymouth, England, on June 5, 1944

Hanging in the hallway of Hunter’s house in Kent is the certificate confirming 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 ‘coffin 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 identified 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

Leonard Dibb-Western, now (left) and as a mess boy, aged 15 (right)

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 first 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.’

“They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors”

Leonard Dibb-Western

After contracting malaria in west Africa, he joined his first 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 five 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.’

British men, women and children celebrating 'Victory in Europe Day' in the street

His war finished 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 fireman 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.’

A history of the British Merchant Navy

17th century

The British Merchant Navy can be dated back as far as this century, when the Royal Navy attempted to register all seafarers as a source of labour in wartime. The fleet grew considerably over the following decades, benefiting from trade opportunities in India and the Far East.

First World War

Following the British merchant shipping fleets’ services in the First World War, King George V officially names the service the Merchant Navy. Approximately 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed during the war.

1928

George V names Edward, Prince of Wales, ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’, a title he relinquished on abdicating the throne in December 1936. The title has since been held by George VI and Elizabeth II.

Second World War

In 1939, the British Merchant Navy was the largest in the world. During the war the Merchant Navy lost 54% of their fleet and 32,000 seafarers.

Falklands War

A total of 52 merchant ships from 33 different companies are taken from trade; 72 men served during the war.

2000

Following years of lobbying, Merchant Navy Day becomes an official day of remembrance on 3 September.

2012

The fleet consists of 1,504 ships and is still one of the largest in the world.


World War Two

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Generation War, episode 1, BBC Two, review: ‘never less than compelling’

April 29th, 2014

I’m possibly not alone in having groaned a little at the prospect of Generation War (BBC Two). Acclaimed as this German drama was in its homeland – described in Der Spiegel as “a turning point in German television” – I was pretty much all warred out already by the BBC’s commemorative First World War season. Did I really want to sit in with something just as bloody and depressing about the Nazis and the Second World War?

Well, yes, in many ways. Generation War was certainly well made and never less than compelling. Its theme lay in the title: an examination, by their heirs, of the morals and motives of the previous generation of Germans who followed Hitler and did his bidding. We started out simply enough meeting the main players – five young Berliners full of life and enthusiasm in July, 1941.

That they were quite so brimming with optimism seemed a mite unlikely given that two of them, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and his brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), were soldiers heading off to serve in a war Germany had been fighting for two years already. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) was preparing to serve as a behind-the-lines nurse, while Greta (Katharina Schüttler) had hopes of being the next Marlene Dietrich. Even less likely was that their pal Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) was a Jew, and openly so, long after associating with Jews became unacceptable under Hitler.

Sure enough, over the next six months their worlds were brutally shattered. On the Russian Front Wilhelm committed acts that betrayed his ideals of German superiority. Charlotte gave up a Jewish doctor to the SS. Friedhelm sacrificed the lives of civilians to save his own. Greta betrayed her great love Viktor not only to save his life but to progress her career; while he was forced to accept her help knowing the nature of her betrayal.

That it was not just war but the Nazi regime as a whole that debased everyone involved is a fair, if obvious, point. But there was much missing from Generation War. Chiefly any sense of responsibility on the part of its characters for the existence of that regime in the first place. This is a question always argued about the Holocaust: how much did ordinary Germans know? Here the sense of general ignorance seemed to cover every aspect of life under the Nazis. Not excuse-making as such, but certainly there were times in this opening episode at least – for all the excellence of the drama being enacted – when it felt as if the central, most difficult question was still being dodged.


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