3 – World War Two
were expected top train from June 1939 to June1940 but when war was
declared in September 1939 our training programme was changed. We
were told that our training was to be stepped up. When someone
spoke out asked as to why this was he was told that our training
would only last for six months and be completed for Christmas. We
thought that was unfair and were told that all is fair in war.
squad passed out as the King’s Squad at Chatham on the 2 December
1939. That meant we were the top squad of that year and were all
declared fit for operational duty. A squad more senior to us failed
to pass out because they made a few silly mistakes on the last set
of tests. They were back-classed for a couple of weeks remedial
training before they passed out.
two Ballymoney friends passed out six weeks before my squad and
left Chatham on postings. Malachy Taggart was posted to HMS
Vanguard and William Alexander was posted to HMS King George
V for sea service. When HMS King George V was sunk
William spent ten hours in the water before he was rescued.
soon as we passed out we were trained in naval gunnery at the
Chatham shore base. The two main guns we trained on were the
3.7inch and the 12inch.
part of the final tests we used a gun mounted on a steel deck that
moved about to simulate the moving deck of a ship at sea. There was
an air pellet gun fitted to the barrel. The pellet hit a target and
showed how accurate your aim was from a moving deck.
3.7inch gun was used as a general-purpose weapon but mostly as an
anti-aircraft weapon. The 12inch gun was not popular because we had
to practice loading, firing and unloading it for hours at a time.
then waited at Chatham to be drafted to Royal Navy ships. While we
waited some of us attended a series of Small Arms courses. That
included a Vickers Machine Gun course followed by a Lewis Gun
Course, a Bren Gun Course and Bayonet fighting and defence.
White and Blue Watches
the basic training we were formed into three watches, Red, White
and Blue. Duties included Guard Duties, Costal Defence and
Parachute Watch where we had to look out for an airborne invasion.
Because I would later spend most of the war in a German POW camp I
failed to qualify for the Defence Medal. Most of those early duties
only lasted for one or two weeks, which was, too short a period to
qualify for the medal.
Out' a Gun Pit
was decided to set up a gun post near the war memorial in Chatham
and a squad of us were picked to go and dig out the foundations.
The civilian in charge of us pointed out the location for the gun
and said that the ground would have to be 'scrawed' for the gun.
Only a farmer’s son from England in the squad and myself
understood what the civilian meant. A scraw is a spade length of
green turf cut from the ground and laid out with the grass side
civilian marked out the ground laid out some planks and said that
would be the width of the scraw. He then reached me a spade and
asked me to dig the first three scraws. It did not take the squad
long to learn how to dig scraws and they were just as good as us by
the time they finished.
squad came along and laid stones and concrete in the ground we had
opened and then covered it all up. That formed the foundation for
the gun. We all enjoyed that task because it was a break from
running up and down the Chatham hills with a Vickers machine gun.
were introduced to the war very quickly after the Chatham training.
I spent twelve hours at Boulogne from 8.30 am and the following
weekend I was in action at Calais for over seventy-two hours until
all the Allied units trapped there surrendered to the Germans.
Approach to Boulogne
was a baptism of fire for the young marines in my squad; many of us
were only seventeen. The first heavy fire we came under was during
the approach to Boulogne. The Stukas were dive-bombing the
destroyer and the Messerschmitts were machine-gunning us. They were
even sinking the small fishing vessels that were accompanying us.
The attacks went on for the last two hours it took us to reach
were sent to Boulogne as part of the harbour defence and to back up
the Demolitions team. The Royal Marines demolitions team travelled
to Boulogne with us. They were tasked to sabotage the harbour
we got there we found that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, had
already done that. The demolitions team restricted themselves to
checking the area for unexploded bombs and extinguishing any fires.
found that the Luftwaffe had done all the damage that they were
expected to do. It took the demolition squad nearly the full day to
go through the whole area clearing the unexploded bombs and
extinguishing the fires.
was (No 1 on the gun) in charge of one of the Vickers Machine guns.
We were supposed to go to the perimeter but the Officer Commanding
the defence troops told us that he had the defence line further out
and we were not required.
were a bit afraid the first time we went into action with bombs
dropping around the destroyer and Germans firing at us. But we soon
got over that. It was amazing how quickly we got over that but if
any man ever told me he was never scared while going into action I
would tell him he was a liar. You were scared but you got over it.
There was no man who did not go into action a bit scared, you had
seen men die but you got hardened to it.
was the same when you were taken prisoner. You would say into
yourself, ‘Is it worth it. Is it worth going on?’ But then you
thought about your mother and father back home, got your head down
and kept going. That’s how you did it.
Evacuation of Boulogne
harbour was just a mass of soldiers on the retreat hoping to get
back home. All I can remember was a sea of faces; all ages, some
old and some young and some very tired. They were all trying to
board the destroyer even before she docked.
Royal Marine teams were tasked to get the soldiers organized and
boarded onto the three RN destroyers. Of course the soldiers were
making a mad rush for the destroyers and calling for the gangways
to be lowered. But it was impractical to lower the gangway in the
face of that crowd.
ship’s captain warned the soldiers to move back and let them know
that if they did not allow his Marines to do their job he would
order the Marines to open fire on them. At that the two gunners
cocked their guns. The rouse worked and the soldiers settled down
and worked with us.
of the constant attacks from the Germans we were unable to tie the
destroyer to the jetty with the berthing ropes. Instead we had to
use a couple of strong men on each rope to hold the destroyer in to
the jetty. That made it easier to break away if something went
formed the soldiers into rows and the destroyer was soon loaded to
full capacity. The captain thanked us for our help and left for
England. As soon as the destroyer left there were more to take its
place and that continued until dawn at about 6am when we were
supposed to leave.
was a Guards Sergeant present at the Boulogne evacuation who was
seriously wounded and became a POW. While he was in the German POW
camp he was paraded and presented with his citation for the VC but
not the medal.
Pregnant French Girl
of leaving Boulogne we were ordered to patrol the harbour area to
see what was happening in the immediate area.
our patrol a woman came out of a drapers shop screaming and in
hysterics. A girl had gone into labour and she had come out to look
for a doctor. There were none available but a Colour Sergeant came
to the rescue and delivered a baby girl.
transpired that the girl had a German boyfriend who had deserted
her when he found out she was expecting and joined the German army.
All the women in the area had shunned the girl and refused to
assist her when she went into labour.
the successful delivery, the woman went into the shop and presented
my mate and myself with half a German silk parachute each and a
pair of ladies shoes each. We joked with her and said that we could
not wear the shoes but she said the gifts were for our girl
of these items made it home. Back in Chatham we stowed the presents
in our suitcases, went to Calais the following weekend and were
taken as Prisoners of War by the Germans. I was eventually reunited
with my suitcase after the war had ended. The only thing left in my
case was a New Testament my grandmother had given me when I first
return journey was worse than the approach because the sea was full
of people. A destroyer in front of us had been badly hit. We were
lucky as only two seamen died when German aircraft attacked us.
During these attacks the sailors were constantly firing the multi-barrelled
guns called Pom-Poms. We also had Vickers Machine guns on the deck
to engage the German aircraft but their value was limited because
the Messerschmitts were too fast for us.
two captains were in contact with each other and our captain was
unable to help the stricken destroyer because we were packed to
capacity and more.
were also a fleet of small fishing vessels in our vicinity and a
small boat stopped to pick up the survivors. This was much the same
idea as was used to evacuate Dunkirk. These fishing boats had
probably finished a days fishing and instead of returning home to
port they came to Boulogne to help in the evacuation. The German
aircraft was hitting them hard but there were enough of them to
support each other and pick up survivors. The attacks went on for
over forty-five minutes after we left Boulogne before it went very
quiet. The little fleets of ships made their way back to Dover or
Portsmouth depending on their homeport.
principle of the small vessels helping to evacuate the troops from
the French ports did not start with the Dunkirk evacuation. After
we were taken prisoner at Calais we learned about the Dunkirk
evacuation and the part played by the small boats. The Dunkirk
evacuations appears to have been more organised with groups of
vessels having to be a specific areas at specific times. Here at
Boulogne it was a more spontaneous event.
– Friday 24 to Sunday 26 May 1940
the Boulogne operation Blue Watch were coming off leave, White
Watch were on Costal Defence and Red Watch were supposed to go on
leave. Because we were available, we ended up going to Calais.
we left for Calais we knew we were on a lost cause. A young Geordie
in our squad had been talking to a Brigadiers daughter and she
said, ‘You will be going to Calais and you will not be coming
main reason we were sent there was to destroy the Calais harbour
installations and reinforce the troops already in position. That
was designed to allow the retreat of the Allied forces to continue.
Friday ninety-six Royal Marines and four officers headed for Calais
on a Royal Naval destroyer. The officers were Captain Curtis,
Lieutenant Bruce, Lieutenant Hunter and the Machine Gun officer,
Lieutenant Scott. The Senior NCOs were Colour Sergeant Reid and
Sergeant Mitchell. The Junior NCOs were Corporal Harper and Lance
were supposed to be some troops from the Royal Ulster Rifles with
us but their trip was cancelled.
we were crossing the Channel to Calais, Lieutenant Scott moved
around the ship talking to everyone. He came and sat down beside me
and started to talk. He said, ’You’re Irish, aren’t you?’ I
said I was. He then asked me if I was superstitious and I replied
that I wasn’t really. He told me that he was superstitious about
some things. When I asked him what superstitions he had he related
how a single magpie had flew across the road on the way to the
destroyer and then bit his lip. I told him the Irish also believed
that superstition. He finished off by saying, ‘Just keeping you
going.’ Before the weekend was up I would mistakenly pronounce
first action took place on the way into the harbour. Two mortar
shells exploded harmlessly above the destroyer on the jetty.
Because the jetty was well above us there were no casualties. It
did not take us long to disembark from the destroyer after that hot
reception. As we were disembarking other troops were boarding.
the next three days there was a constant run of small ships
evacuating the Allied troops. The ships never brought in fresh
troops after we landed.
Royal Marines were supposed to meet up with French Marines but we
never met them. When we eventually found them on Sunday morning
before we were captured. They were all at the railway station, all
drunk with their weapons piled up.
that setback a British officer was able to direct us, No 1 Gun
team, to the building allocated to us. That building was called The
Citadel. It had been severely damaged in the fighting which made it
ideal for fighting from. It was full of rubbish and the Colour
Sergeant Reid accompanying us thought this was ideal, just as long
as we didn’t look up or move when the German aircraft flew over
our position. The German spotter planes were constantly passing
overhead and we used the rubbish to camouflage our position. Colour
Sergeant Reid made sure we kept our heads and feet covered at all
times and we were warned never to look up at the spotter planes as
the white of our faces would have given our positions away.
other Machine gun team was behind our position to our left. We
could hear the machine gun firing but such was the confusion no one
told us it was our other team. At one stage No2 Gun team went
forward of our position and were killed.
myself had a very busy seventy-two hours at Calais before we
surrendered to the Germans.
No sleep, hardly anything to eat or drink.
The pair of us worked a four-hour shift behind the gun but
there was little respite for the three days. As soon as I saw any
movement I would kick my partner awake and fire the gun. It was his
job to reload the gun when necessary. We were sleeping rough
because sleeping bags had yet to be issued to fighting troops in
those early days.
saw many horrible sights at Calais. Men were blown to bits by Stuka
bombs, artillery fire and mortar fire. The worst scene I saw was
No.2 gun team and a rifle section; twelve young men or should I say
boys, blown to bits by a Stuka bomb.
main task in the Citadel was to cover the railway line crossroads
and stop German foot soldiers and vehicles from approaching the
harbour. We knew where the Germans were waiting to break through
and we were successful in stopping them for the three days.
If the Germans managed to cross the railway lines they would have overwhelmed our troops in the harbour. As soon as we saw any movement on the other side of the railway lines we used five or six round bursts of fire to keep them back.
Sunday morning at about 8am, Colour Sergeant Reid said to me,
‘I’ve made a cup of tea. And there’s a cup sitting there for
you. I will take over the gun’. I stood up and walked over to get
the cup of tea. As I stood up I heard a ‘ping’ and thought
little of it. The Colour Sergeant said to me later, ‘You were
lucky. After you stood up and walked away a bullet hit the gun’.
Sure enough the bullet had hit one of the tripod legs. If I
had been lying behind the gun the bullet would have caught me
between the shoulders.
never felt anything until we were on the second day of the POW
march on Monday evening. A friend asked me, ‘What’s wrong with
your putty?’ I looked down and my putty was covered in blood.
There was a sliver of shrapnel stuck in the putty and it had worked
itself into my leg. I worked out that it must have happened when I
stood up from behind the gun to go for a cup of tea on Sunday
Germans classed that as a wound and without me knowing it word was
sent to my mother in Ballymoney that I was wounded in action and
on that morning the Machine Gun Officer came to the Citadel and
told us that we needed to stretch our legs after being in position
for nearly three days.
were stories circulating that German snipers had infiltrated close
to our positions. Because of that we were tasked to go to the
railway station and locate Sergeant Mitchell. He was in charge of a
rifle section there.
railway station was full of drunken French soldiers. At one time on
the railway platform we watched two soldiers coming along the track
towards us. Then we heard mortar shell being fired in our direction
so we flattened ourselves to the platform. When we looked up the
two soldiers were gone, just bits of uniform lying where they had
message we relayed to Sergeant Mitchell was he had to take his
rifle section and search the ground to his front before the machine
gun teams moved forward. When we delivered the message Sergeant
Mitchell said, ‘I want the organ grinder not the two monkeys’.
We had a few choice words with him and returned to the officer with
Mitchell shifted his position after that meeting and we never met
up with him again to re-task him. He was later observed helping to
re-float a stranded destroyer. Bombs had exploded in the water
close to the destroyer and grounded it on the banking. He was also
observed helping people to get on board a hospital ship. He escaped
and we were captured.
on two stretcher-bearers came to us and asked us to identify a dead
Royal Marine officer. We went with them and identified the officer
as Lieutenant Scott, our Machine Gun Officer. We took his dog tags
and pay book and then returned to Colour Sergeant Reid, our section
Lieutenant Scott was not dead. The German stretcher-bearers came
across him later on and got him into hospital where he recovered.
In 1943 he came into our POW camp as part of a travelling show that
visited the POW camps. We did not get a chance to talk to him.
last stand by the Royal Marines was on a sand hill overlooking the
town. We had moved from our gun positions up close to the beach on
the Dunkirk side of the town. Across the channel lay the town of
Dover; freedom so near and yet so far.
We had nothing but a very uncertain future, not really
comprehending what lay ahead. We believed that our defence of
Calais had engaged the Germans troops and helped to prolong the
Dunkirk evacuation. Later when we were on the march the German
guards talked about the good fight we put up.
An officer from the German Grenadier Division who had
attacked Calais stated that the resistance they faced was so strong
they thought that many extra troops had moved in to reinforce the