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Chapter 3 – World War Two



End of Training

 We 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.

 My 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.

My 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.


Naval Gunnery Training

As 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.

As 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.

The 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.


Waiting For Ships

We 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.


Red, White and Blue Watches

After 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.


'Scrawing Out' a Gun Pit

It 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 down.

The 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.

Another 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.


After Chatham - Boulogne

We 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.


The Approach to Boulogne

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 Boulogne.

We 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 installations.

When 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.

They 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.

I 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.



We 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.

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.


The Evacuation of Boulogne

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. 

The 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.

The 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.

Because 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 wrong.

We 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.

There 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.


The Pregnant French Girl

Instead of leaving Boulogne we were ordered to patrol the harbour area to see what was happening in the immediate area.

During 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.

It 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.

After 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 friends.

None 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 left home.


The Return Journey

The 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.

The 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.

There 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.

This 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.


Calais – Friday 24 to Sunday 26 May 1940

After 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.

Before 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 back’.

The 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.

That 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 Corporal O’Farran.

There were supposed to be some troops from the Royal Ulster Rifles with us but their trip was cancelled. 

While 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 him dead.

Our 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.

For 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.

The 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.


The Citadel

Despite 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.

The 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Our 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.


On 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. 

I 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 morning.

The 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 captured. 


Stretching Our Legs

Later 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.

There 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.

The 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 been.

The 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 the message.

Sergeant 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.


Lieutenant Scott

Later 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 commander.

But 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.


The Last Stand

The 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 defence.