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‘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.


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.


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


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

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A flypast worthy of ‘The Few’ – even if the Prince stayed grounded

September 16th, 2015

Yet even for those watching from the ground, the flypast made quite some spectacle. Around 40 Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Bristol Blenheim bomber soared up from the aerodrome before dispersing and flying in formation across wartime airfields dotted all over the south of the country.

The fighter planes flew in groups of four, the unmistakeable snub-nosed Spitfires and sleek Hurricanes banking over Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and the waters of the Solent.

For the few dozen surviving pilots of the 3,000 heroes of the Battle of Britain, the battle for national survival which raged above England in the summer and autumn of 1940, there was an acceptance that yesterday’s scenes will be the last major anniversary they will be able to take part in.

Even the most stoic among them are getting on, and Wing Commander Neil, who during the dogfights 75 years ago brought down 14 enemy planes, admitted that when he approached the Spitfire cockpit he did have some reservations about actually getting in.

“I’m not a young man anymore and not very good at bending in the middle, so I didn’t think I was going to do it,” he said. “But after a couple of minutes or so inside it felt absolutely normal, if a bit lumpy.

“I kept a careful eye on the instruments and made sure they didn’t get out of control. I also kept looking among the clouds for any Germans.”

Tom Neil - the man Prince Harry gave his seat up for in the Battle of Britain tribute

Wing Commander Neil, who flew a Hurricane during the Battle of Britain but has also flown 22 different marks of Spitfire, claims during wartime the pilots rarely experienced any issues with their planes. “Of course back then we were dealing with brand new engines,” he said.

As for the Prince’s willingness to offer up his seat, he says he deserves a medal.

“He is a lovely boy. I don’t think he ever expected me to come back alive but when we landed he gave me my stick back and congratulated me. I said, ‘there is nothing to congratulate me about’.”

Security officials tell Prince to stand back and not cross runway at Goodwood Aerodrome as he inspects planes taking part in 75th anniversary flypast

At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, just 640 RAF Fighter Command planes were pitched into battle against 2,600 of their Luftwaffe counterparts. September 15 is seen as the pivotal day of the war within a war, when the Germans launched their largest and most concentrated assault on London, and British Spitfires and Hurricanes repelled waves of attacks.

In total between July and October, 544 personnel from Fighter Command were killed. Their heroic efforts were enough to prompt Hitler to abandon Operation Sealion, his plan to invade Britain.

On the day itself 75 years ago, the planes zipped through blue skies, but yesterday’s looming cloud banks led to the flypast being delayed for two hours.

The poor weather, and the grounded Spitfire, were not the only hitches. Prior to the display, Prince Harry was also stopped by a security vehicle as he attempted to cross the runway because of an incoming small aircraft. Security staff at the airfield raced up to the Prince and asked him and his group to stop. He duly moved aside and waited for the plane, which landed a couple of minutes later.

The Prince, however, grinned his way through such minor tribulations, meeting numerous veterans who had attended. A Royal spokesman yesterday described him as being “incredibly honoured” to be part of the event, not least because it coincided with his birthday.

The other two veterans invited to take part in the flypast had both won places on a Spitfire scholarship programme which trains wounded servicemen to fly vintage aircraft.

The scholarship was established by the Boultbee Flight Academy and is supported by the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry’s Endeavour Fund – which donates money and offers practical help to sporting and adventure challenges for wounded ex-service personnel.

Nathan Forster, a former private in the Parachute Regiment, from South Shields, Tyne and Wear, who suffered severe damage to his left leg in an IED blast while on patrol in Helmand Province in 2011, won a place on the scheme alongside Corporal Alan Robinson, an RAF aircraft technician from Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, who lost a leg in a motorbike accident that same year.

The training programme the pair followed was similar to that of their WWII predecessors, undertaking their first flights in a Tiger Moth and Harvard, before finally getting into the cockpit of a Spitfire itself

The Spitfire PV202 that Forster took Prince Harry’s place in was piloted by John Romain, managing director of the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford, Cambridgeshire. It has carried out 20 operational sorties with 10 pilots during the Second World War.

Back in April, Forster said that flying a Spitfire through the programme would be the culmination of a dream come true.

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Russell Crowe: ‘The Water Diviner’ has lessons for today

April 6th, 2015

The Australian actor Russell Crowe directs as well as stars in ‘The Water Diviner’, the story of a father searching for his three sons in the aftermath of the Allies’ ill-fated Second World War campaign at Gallipoli.

More than 100,000 soldiers died in the eight-month-long campaign, among them 10,000 Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (Anzac) troops. Their Turkish antagonists lost some 56,000 men.

In conversation with The Telegraph’s film critic Tim Robey, Crowe says that making the film gave him a new perspective on conflicts in the region today.

“It kind of makes me stop in my tracks sometimes when I think, 100 years later, we are still engaged in armed conflict in what was the Ottoman Empire,” he says.

“If you could somehow bring one of these young men to life who went away to war, the Great War, the war to end all wars, and gave their life on that principle, and you said to them, ‘actually, we’re still fighting wars in the same place,’ I don’t think they’d be very happy. I don’t think they’d be pleased with what their sacrifice had amounted to.”

Russell Crowe directing on the set of ‘The Water Diviner’

Making the film was also an education for Crowe in seeing the campaign from another perspective: the Turkish one. He says that he found it “fundamentally embarrassing” to realise that he’d never considered the situation from the Turkish point of view, and to learn that the place he knew as Gallipoli was known in the country by a completely different name, Chanakkale.

The Water Diviner is out now

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Prince Charles and Camilla join ‘The Few’ remembering the Battle of Britain

September 21st, 2014

The annual service remembered the bravery shown by the pilots who overcame almost insurmountable odds to claim victory against the German Luftwaffe and 544 RAF pilots and aircrew who died.

British pilots were joined by others from the world, with men from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France and more taking part in the battle which raged from July to October 1940.

Having thwarted the German invasion, the fighters inspired Winston Churchill’s famous claim that “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Those who fought in the battle became known as “The Few”.

Jonathan Chaffey, RAF chaplain-in-chief, told the congregation the battle was a daily routine of “adrenaline and fear,” and “camaraderie and loss” but said it highlighted the strength of the human spirit.

He said: “(There was) the sacrifice of ‘The Few’ but also the industry and determination of the many, a whole force in a great cause.

“The Battle of Britain deserves a special place in our corporate minds.”

After the service Spitfire pilot Ken Wilkinson, 96, who served with inspirational Second World War flying ace Sir Douglas Bader, said of the Battle of Britain: “It was a damn close thing.

“We were lucky that Hitler decided to invade Russia. He knew that he would get beaten here so he sloped off.”

Mr Wilkinson, of Solihull, stood near Prince Charles during the flypast and said later: “My eyesight is not too good but I heard them, and that brings back memories.”

Those who served in the battle did not feel like heroes, he said, adding: “We knew that the war was coming, only someone with half a mind could not have thought that the war was coming.

“I joined the RAF volunteer reserve to get some flying in because I knew it was needed.

“The lady in my life at the time who I thought I was going to marry objected because she thought she would not see me but I thought it was my duty to get the flying hours in.”

As the number of remaining veterans gets ever smaller, Mr Wilkinson hopes there will be a renewed emphasis on teaching youngsters about the Battle of Britain and Second World War.

“There needs to be some method so that the memories are not lost,” he said.

Other RAF veterans watched in wonder yesterday as the last two airworthy Lancaster bombers in the world flew over the reservoir where they trained for the famous Dambusters raid.

The Lancasters passed Derwent Dam in Derbyshire three times in tribute to the Dambusters crews and those killed in World War Two.

They have been united for a series of events in the UK this year with one, Thumper, is based in Lincolnshire, while the other, Vera, has been shipped over from Canada.

Crew members who flew on the Dambusters raid included 29 Canadians, adding to the significance of the flypast.

Retired Sqn Ldr Stuart Reid, who has flown the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Lancaster, said: “It was very much a British and Foreign and Commonwealth attack against the dams, as was much of the bombing campaign fought against Germany during the Second World War.”

Meanwhile across the English Channel another major milestone of the Second World War was being remembered.

In Holland, veterans were joined by schoolchildren who lay wreaths in Oosterbeek War Cemetery to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, in which allied forces were dropped behind German lines near Arnhem and defeated after days of fighting.

The battle, in which thousands of lives were lost, was the inspiration for the film A Bridge Too Far.

Private Steve Morgan who fought in the Battle of Arnhem with 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, and was said to be the last man off the bridge, attended the service alongside other veterans including Colonel John Waddy.

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