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Life in the Royal Navy

by Tom Brown

An account of life in the Royal Navy in Combined Operations Branch 1940-1946

I served in LCMs ( Landing Craft Mechanised) for 4 years, and from the start I was issued with Battledress as well as Blues. I was issued with khaki drill-longs, shorts, shirts, puttees, webbing belt and water bottle and topee which was soon left to it's own resources over the side. There must be a beach somewhere where they all drifted too. I would like to think that the enemy thought they were a secret weapon. We also carried foul weather gear such as Duffel coats, leather sea boots etc. On operations only the necessary gear was taken – on the North African landings we took what was commonly known as "steaming gear" only essentials. From leaving the Clyde we sailed in SS Empire Mordred, arriving back in the "Reno Del Pacifico" took 6 weeks.

We didn't get any extra issue of soap, no salt water soap, and all washing on board was all salt water. The outward journey took over 3 weeks, we nigh hit Newfoundland with the detour we took to hood wink the Germans of our real destination, how that worked with us carrying Landing Craft I don't know. The operation took 8 days then the Americans took over. Another 8 days and we home. Unfortunately the Troopship had emptied the canteen to the Americans on the way over, cigs, soap, the lot so so we had no ‘rabbits' and we were pretty grotty and dirty unshaven for the best part. Lost and torn clothing. One mate had only shirt, trousers, canvass shoes and an oil skin coat. It was late November when we got back, so he was feeling the chill. We mustered in the sheds at Greenock, given ration cards, pay, travel warrants, (not out of our normal allowance) 14 days leave, and survivors chits, in case of harassment by shore patrols at the stations.

We soon cheered up! All our kit after we had sailed, and the operation was in progress, had been sent to our individual homes, so we were able to get up to scratch again as soon as we got home. Our next ops was Sicily and Italy, this time we left our gear in Alex at the place we were billeted, a place taken over by the RN for our use - previously it was King Farouk's stables and it stunk that way too. So did the Egyptians, it was the last we saw of our kit.

We always went on operations abroad merchant ships and kipped in the hatches with the soldiers we were landing. But once were on the job and off the ship we were on our own. The ship had no more responsibility towards us, we were even refused fresh water, and there was a padlock on the handpump outside the galley. As there were no taps on the beaches, things could be a bit sticky, but once bitten etc. We were well prepared for Sicily. We chose a quiet part, near the beach and set up headquarters and then were directed from there.

The LCM (American) had no protection from the elements or whatever, no cooking facilities or ‘heads' (we were mooning long before it got a name) we tied a rope to the cockpit, and hung over the stern on with grim determination. Same with washing - many times we've ‘deloused' by soaking our gear in 100 octanes, tying a rope to them. Throwing them over the stern and letting the wash from the props do the rinsing. This of course didn't do the material any good; it turned grey and the flexibility of the material was rough. Food - we got issued with Compo Rations - in the case there was one days ration for seven men, as there were three in a crew it was to last us two days, so we were one to the good. We had to eat it cold or wait for an opportunity to warm it. There was a limit to how many tins of vegetable soup you could eat cold. So we got round this by using a biscuit tin that had held the hard tack biscuits (no bread) filled the tin mixed with sugar and dried milk, the whole of the contents was thrown to balance, NECTAR!!

On the invasion of Italy there were scores of small craft crossing the straits all with their little fires flickering in the dark. It was a good job that Monty's barrage had driven the enemy inland or we would have been sitting targets.

Once the men, ammo, and the vehicles were landed, then the stores were landed then we had a chance to balance the scales and get ourselves rigged out again, it didn't matter if it didn't fit, it was clean, it didn't matter who's army or whatever I've eaten and wore some strange concoctions but if it served a purpose, so be it. But the Americans were the prime target, good gear and plenty of it - South France and North Africa. On North Africa we were given ‘stars and stripes' flashes to put on our battledress blouse, which we covered with our own badges. We were requested to wear them, it was not an order, and so we didn't. This happened quietly on the upper deck and we all followed the example of the chief and skimmed them overboard, and that was the end of the matter. We did the landings at Arzew (Arrezzo?) and the first time I saw any of their crack troops was on the Wednesday 3 days later - Foreign Legion being a bit naughty, the Texas Rangers came in late. Anyway as I said previously we considered the Americans fair game although I must say they helped by looking the other way at times.

The photocopies I have enclosed will show what I mean, on the large twosome, one with white webbing belt and puttees and the other without. Les in the photo was awarded the DSM. Johnny who is also in the group photo had rather big feet and they stuck out a mile when he wore gaiters, so unless it was essential, he wouldn't. The group photo will show the variety of dress – none exactly the same. Johnny is wearing an American shirt, the smaller one is Tommy Evans and me, he is wearing an American shirt and trousers, and the belt keeping them up is the Blue Pussers one with the pouch. Bearing in mind we are ashore in Naples on day leave, it proves the authorities turned a blind eye to us.

In the Daily Mirror a couple of years ago, I think it was an anniversary of D Day, it showed a picture of the beaches, a number of Combined Ops men having a brew and makeshift meal. One RN officer wrote to the paper deploring the state of the men and called them a disgrace and not representing the Royal Navy. We met that attitude many time from the ‘Pusser Navy' ratings as well as officers, especially the timeservers. Maybe we asked for some of it, we loved to get their backs up, but it still rankled deep down.

Here's an instance on the lighter side. In Blackpool in a boarding house on the South Shore – on our honeymoon – a lovely day, so my wife and I decided to have a walk on the sands. Wearing bell-bottoms and a white top, I slipped my battledress blouse on for comfort and the handiness of the pockets. We strolled along until we realised we were well passed the Tower, so turning back we decided to have a drink in the Tower Bar, when we got there, we walked to the foyer and was faced with a group of sailors all dressed immaculately wearing lanyards and caps in the regulation manner. What we hadn't seen was a huge banner outside declaring ‘Royal Navy Week'. They were there showing the flag and goodwill by attending the different function. They were also accompanied by a CPO and a Lieutenant RN, who on spotting me exploded. What was I, who was I, etc etc, the more he ranted I realised that only through my Royal Navy Flashes was he aware I was navy. The combined Ops badges and medal ribbon of the Africa Star with Rosette in the middle had thrown him, he had no idea what they were! He must have led a sheltered life. Never the less he took everything down from my pay book and what I told him-Honeymoon etc and threatened it would be taken very seriously, and reported back to base and the appropriate authority. PHEW! Was I glad to get away, I couldn't salute I had no cap, I was off like a shot.

I don't know whether he had a change or not, if he did report it and I think he, did, my commanding officer must have ignored it.

I did get a rush of blood a couple of days after I got back off leave, I was sent for by the CO and I thought ‘this is it', but it turned out I was being promoted Leading Stoker, so there lies a happy ending.

PS It was many a long year before I had that drink in the Tower Bar, and by that time that part of it had been refurbished and it was hard to picture what it was like.