Norman Grossman’s Wartime Experiences in the Royal Navy
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In 1942 I turned eighteen. I went for a medical and was invited to join the Royal Navy. Being colour blind and with an engineering background, I was designated to be a Stoker (second class). In the late spring of 1943 I travelled by train to a Midlands beauty spot called the Malvern Hills, where there was a large training camp called HMS Duke.
All the Navy camps were named after famous naval men, and were run like a ship, so for some weeks we had to do square bashing. We also learned how to handle a rifle. But the main item of training was all about the working of a ship. All the current Royal Navy ships had been designed to burn crude oil instead of coal, and were therefore cleaner and easier. So, before being allowed aboard a ship, we had to learn all about how they worked.
The crude oil had to be heated up as cold oil was the consistency of treacle. Controlling the oil temperature was very important. Cold oil meant smoke and a smudge of smoke could be seen miles away, revealing the ship’s whereabouts to the enemy. Once the oil was the right consistency it was then sprayed into the furnace. It was the stoker’s job to operate the sprayers, and knock off the carbon deposits as they formed with a poker. Imagine the frenetic activity when a ship, like a destroyer or a battleship, was taking part in a battle.
My next move was to a transit camp called Stamshore, where we received more training in fire fighting. After a few weeks I was told to collect my kit and, with one or two others, we were taken by van to the dock area and I joined my first ship, named HMS JASON, a J class minesweeper. HMS Jason was my home for more than two years.
Before the war it had been a survey vessel. After being converted into a minesweeper, it took part in arctic convoys to Russia. When we joined the crew, the ship was being refitted and its boiler cleaned. It was to be the leader of our flotilla of four minesweepers and two trawlers. The ship was armed with a four inch gun on the fore deck, twin Oerlikon cannon on either side of the bridge, and the same on either side of the after deck. In addition we carried depth charges to deal with submarines, and all sorts of equipment to deal with mines.
As one can imagine minesweeping could be very dangerous. One evening, as we were returning to our base in Harwich, we came across a few contact mines floating about on the surface of the water. They must have been dislodged by a storm. As they were close to the harbour mouth, we had to sink them in order to move forward. We hove to and were issued rifles with which to shoot at the mines. Fortunately the weather was good. Even so, what with the mines and the ship bobbing up and down, it was a tricky business. We eventually sank them with tracer bullets and were able to enter the harbour.
After refitting we travelled all around the coast, practicing sweeping mines and keeping our coastline clear, working up for the big day, D-DAY. We would stop overnight at various places and sometimes for a day or two. We were just off the Scottish coast, not far from Glasgow, when we hit a force nine gale. We just kept on going. I didn’t think I would survive the night, but I lived to tell the tale. I’m not exaggerating. The waves were fifty foot high. We would go right down to the bottom with a crunch. The ship would quiver from end to end. Then with a heave and a groan, the ship would crest a mountain of water, only to go crashing down again.
We slept in hammocks, with ropes at each end tied to the overhead beams. As the ship crested a huge wave, we would be lifted out of the hammock, and be left floating for a few seconds, before coming down, crunch. We thought we would go right through the hammock onto the deck. What a night!
I never slept a wink all night. It put me off wanting to be a sailor for life. Mind you, I found I was a good sailor; I was not seasick once. Some of the lads went behind the lockers to die. All you could hear were moans and groans and retching. As our mess was in the front of the ship, the forecastle, the pitching and corkscrewing was much worse. Still, we made it. We arrived at Scapa Flow for a rest, then sailed to Edinburgh, down the east coast to Harwich, and from there to the Isle of Wight to await the main event.
The 5th of June 1944, one of the most momentous events in the history of the human race, and I was part of it. We had been at anchor off the coast between the mainland and the Isle of White for a while. I came off watch on the morning of the fifth of June, and went on deck for a look round and some fresh air. I could see ships of all sorts on the move out into the English Channel. We also raised anchor and started to move out.
We were at action stations all night, and arrived at the coast of Normandy at dawn. I went on deck and I could see landing craft heading for the beach. The sea was very choppy and I could see that some of the soldiers were sick. I gave them a salute and a wave, but there was no reaction. They were obviously thinking of the shot and shell they had to face.
Some of the bigger ships were firing their guns at the fortifications inland, and there was a lot of aircraft whizzing about, ours fortunately. There was plenty of banging going on, but the most magnificent sight of all was at night. All along the coast, as far as the eye could see, were tracer bullets and shells. It was like a huge firework display. What a sight. I shall never forget it as long as I live.
The following weeks were spent clearing the minefields along the coast, while the land forces fought to rid Europe of the Nazi tyranny. At night we would return to our anchorage.
Then came the 27th August 1944, a very momentous day in my life. We should have gone out the previous day, but the weather was bad so we stayed at the anchorage. The 27th August was a glorious summer day, cloudless, so off we went to sweep for magnetic mines. We were steaming in the mode called in-line abreast, that is, Jason in front with our sister ship, Britomart, alongside to our right, in our rear, Salamander, and Hussar with the trawlers, Colsay and Lord Ashfield, to their rear, laying marker buoys.
I had just come off the morning watch, had my lunch and tot of rum, and I went onto the focsle to sunbathe and have a sleep, by the four inch gun. I was stripped to the waist and almost asleep, when I was awakened by a rushing and roaring noise. As I looked up I saw a plane passing overhead, and a rocket streaking towards our sister ship, the Britomart. I watched it strike the port side and explode. A huge hole appeared, and as I watched, the ship heeled over and began to sink, and I saw some sailors jump over the side into the water.
After the first few seconds of shock, the klaxon blared and we all dived below and to our action stations, blowing up our Mae West life jackets as we went. My station was outside the officers ward room, at the foot of the ladder leading to the after gun deck. There was a large domestic fridge behind me, and there was a lot of banging going on. We were being raked from end to end with cannon and machine guns. The cable we had been towing had been cut, and we were zigzagging every which way. At the bottom of the fridge there was quite a large space where the motor was, so I got in there, thinking I would have some protection from the metal casing.
I had no sooner taken up residence when there was a terrific bang right by my left ear. Fortunately I seemed to be unhurt, not so my colleagues who had been hit by shrapnel and went tottering off to the sick bay, I decided where I was not safe after all, when I saw that where the shell had exploded, there was only plywood, not metal.
I looked around for a safer spot. As I looked I saw the ideal spot, just above the engine room - all metal, the officer’s bathroom, totally enclosed in steel at least 10 mm thick, and a cast iron bath on both sides. Ought to be safe here, I thought. So I crouched down on the tiles and just got settled, when a fat slob of an engineer officer, but a brave fat slob, comes in and steps over me. He looked down but did not say anything.
There was still plenty of banging going on, and we were still zigzagging about at speed. The boss calmly washed his hands, wiped them on the towel and toddled off. He never said a word, but throughout the expression on his face said, “What on earth are you doing down there, lad?”
The planes had gone, leaving us riddled with holes All the boats and Carley floats were useless, Hussar and Britomart were nearly sunk, and Salamander had its rear end blown off, and was going round in circles. Both we and Colsay had many dead and wounded. In less than ten minutes, we put out scrambling nets to pick up survivors, and started to tow Salamander. Then, to add insult to injury, the German-held shore batteries at the mouth of the river Seine, just off Le Havre, began to shell us, so we departed from the area.
After helping survivors aboard, I went up onto the after gun deck for a look around. I could see blood and gore near one of the platforms, and I realised one of the gunners had been hit. It turned out to be a tall seaman we called Tankey who issued our rations from the stores. He had been killed. There was a very young Midshipman, a baby officer if you like. I knew the Germans didn’t have a rocket-firing plane, and that Britain did. It was called the Typhoon. So I asked him, “Whose were those, sir? They appeared to be British to me.” He replied, “Oh yes, they were ours”, with a big grin on his face. Now, I know why he and I, and most of the other young ones had smiles on our faces. We had gone through our baptism of fire, glad we had not been sunk, maimed or killed. Then he added, “Clean up that mess over there, please.” I was a bit miffed at this, but one does not argue with an officer, even a baby officer, so I got a bucket, tied a rope to it filled it with sea water and washed poor Tankey’s blood and brains away.
So how did it happen? To my amazement I was to read a full account of this in a newspaper called “Weekend”, dated January 10-14th 1962. I was also to read a similar account in a library book, all about the minesweeping activity during World War Two.
A radar station and a makeshift landing strip had been established about two miles inland near Caen. Our ships had been picked up by the radar. A Spitfire came over to have a look and told them we were friendly. But the staff officers said no ships were supposed to be in the area, and tried to phone someone to check but was unable to get through. Now the imbecile who was handling things thought that, just to be on the safe side, he would lay on an air strike there and then. It completely escaped his pea brain that ships are slow movers, and that he should have kept trying to get through.
So ace fighter pilot, wing commander John Baldwin, was told to go with eight rocket firing Typhoons, from 263 and 266 Rhodesia squadrons, and smash us up. Within minutes of looking down at us, he radioed in to say we looked like British ships. But the reply came back from a naval officer, “Go on in, are you frightened?”
Well, that was enough for Johnny Baldwin DSO, DFC, and bar, the pilot who had shot up Rommel’s staff car, wounding Rommel badly, the pilot who had chased two Focke Wulfe 190s around the Eiffel Tower. So tally ho, the Typhoons screamed in to the attack, and inside ten minutes 117 officers and men were dead or dying and 66 wounded, and the rest of us all shook up and greatly traumatised.
There was an enquiry of course. We were told to keep quiet about it and collected shrapnel as evidence. We then sailed into London docks for repairs, after which we returned to work clearing the mines along the coast.
Cherbourg had recently been liberated, the Allies had broken through to the city of Caen, and the Nazis were in retreat. We tied up in Cherbourg harbour, and were allowed shore leave. There was absolute pandemonium. Nearly every resident was out and about, laughing and backslapping, especially us. On behalf of a colleague I sold a Burberry raincoat to a young French lad. He took me home to meet his family. It was a pity I could not communicate with them. The lad was the only one who could speak a little English, and I could not speak French.
By now the Allies had penetrated into Germany itself, and the port of Cuxhaven was in allied hands. We tied up in the harbour, and the German sailors came alongside to do some business. They wanted cigarettes and chocolate, and us Brits wanted binoculars, cameras, swastika buttons etc. and flags.
One of our lads, called Biff because he was a big burly lad who liked boxing, wanted a flag as a souvenir. He asked me to negotiate for him, since I could understand German which was similar to Yiddish. So I went up on deck and started negotiations with about four German sailors. I told them I wanted a swastika flag, and asked them what they wanted for it. They said, “Shtick Brot” which I understood to mean a loaf of bread. So I went down to our mess where I found half a loaf.
I returned to the deck clutching the bread, to find that they had found a flag. I handed over the bread with the apology that it was all we had to spare. With a shrug they handed me the flag. The deal over, on impulse I held out the flag in my right hand, giving the Nazi salute, while with my left hand I stuck a finger under my nose like Adoph’s moustache. Then I placed the flag on the deck, wiped my feet on it, danced a jig on it, and while I did so, I shouted, “Kaput! Kaput! Kaput!”, the German word for “Done for or smashed.” Their faces were like stone. If looks could kill, I would have dropped dead right then. I went below with my trophy and handed it to Biff. The Nazi flag was the last thing I wanted.
Soon after that episode I went ashore into the town. Cuxhaven was a fishing port. As the truck passed through the dock area, there was a terrible smell of rotting fish. Fishhalle No. 9 was the worst.
We arrived in the town. There did not seem to be a great deal of damage. A Naafi canteen had been set up for service personnel, where one could get tea and cake, or a sandwich. On my way in I saw an urchin, about eight years old, lurking about. So I shouted, “Allez, shnell!” This was French/German for “Go quick!” As quick as a flash the kid raced away, but he stopped running when he heard me laughing.
The war was drawing to a close. We had finished minesweeping, and were into fishing protection for a while. I was invited to be part of a skeleton crew to take the ship to a place somewhere along the south coast of England, to be broken up for scrap. It was a bit of a wrench, really, for the Jason had been home for a while.
I joined my last ship, HMS Wave, also a minesweeper but into fishing protection. It was our job to see that no one came to our coast poaching our fish stocks. I had been an acting Leading Stoker for some time. Its equivalent in the Army would be Corporal. The Petty Officers always thought highly of me, and our new Engineer Officer, who had come up through the ranks, gave me some tests and then confirmed my promotion.
One day the First Officer sent for me. He was known as Jimmy the One. He said my name had come up for demobilization, and would I please get my kit all packed and say my goodbyes. The next day I was taken to a camp in Portsmouth to join the rest of those awaiting demobilization. There was a notice board which one scanned every morning. If your name was shown then you went to the clothing area, where your uniform was exchanged for a civilian suit, shoes, hat and coat, and a travel warrant home.
Based on a personal memoir