Veteran Stories:
Anthony Francis Balch

Navy

  • Anthony Balch, in first issue naval uniform, November 1942.

    Anthony Balch
  • "Picture of HMS Warspite when I joined her as a boy telegraphist in March of 1944. 3 months later the ship opened bombardment of German targets on D-Day, june 6th 1944."

    Anthony Balch
  • Anthony Balch's medals, from left to right: The 1939-1945 star, the Atlantric star, the Pacific Star, the France and Germany Star, the War Medal, , the naval general service, with minesweeping clasp.

    Anthony Balch
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"I had never seen anything like it in my life and never have since. As far as the eye could see, there was virtually nothing standing upright, other than the occasional tree and perhaps part of a wall of a building."

Transcript

I was destined for the merchant navy but, as luck would have it, when the time came, the war diverted me towards the Royal Navy and that’s where I finished up. I joined when I was 15 years and 10 months old, by which time, we had entered the English Channel and had taken up our place about 15 miles off the French coast. We were in charge of H Force, a bombardment force, and it consisted of another battleship, [HMS] Ramillies and several other vessels in company with us. And our function was simply to bombard the coast of France in support of landing troops.

We had specific targets to shoot at, at the beginning, and these were very heavy gun emplacements, 12 inch [anti-aircraft] guns which were established in France, various places, and our function was to take them out of action, which we did. And then after that, they had what was known as targets of choice where spotting aircraft would highlight say a group of Panzer [Panzerkampfwagen IV] tanks or something like that, would indicate the position and the ship would fire and, hopefully, put shells into that position.

We were ‘on four off,’ that was four as duty, four as off, throughout the period of time we were at action stations [prepared for battle], which doesn’t give you much time for sleeping. In fact, when you go off of your four hours, you go to sleep almost straightaway. You’ve only just gone to sleep when they wake you again.

I went up on the upper deck and I was astonished to see the number of vessels around us, as far as the eye could see, to every horizon, there were vessels of every shape and size. I had no idea what they were all used for until afterwards, of course, when I learned how the forces were taken over in various kinds of LST [landing supply transport] and landing tank craft, and so on.

But my own personal feelings during the action were more of excitement than anything else. I was young. I was really not aware of the dangers of action at that time. And the [HMS] Warspite was a very big and very well protected vessel, so I suppose I drew comfort from that. The young always think that nothing’s going to happen to them.

There are depot ships like the one which I served on, which was more or less a floating factory. Its function was to be able to repair, modify, manufacture anything that was required by any of the fighting vessels like the destroyers and so on. We were largely concerned with repairing destroyers and keeping them operational. So I served onboard HMS Tyne, through the Pacific and across the Atlantic, across the line, that’s the equator, the second time and many more times thereafter.

Life in the Pacific in those days on ships that were not air conditioned, we didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning, was pretty hard. Most of the sailor suffered a condition known as dhobie itch. It also had another name, except I’ve forgotten what the other names were. But it involved a rash that formed on the skin because the skin was permanently covered in perspiration and this caused an irritating rash to form on the skin and, in some cases, was quite disfiguring. People who had been out there on several tours, it was very noticeable; they had blue scars on their body, on their skin.

We visited first to Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. By this time, of course, I had a much better idea of what war was about. I was a little bit older; and I had heard reports of the atomic bomb and the damage that it had inflicted, but in no way was I prepared for what I saw. We were taken in a bus, as I say, under controlled conditions. We were not allowed to enter the zone because there were still some residual radiation activity around there, so it was dangerous to go too close.

And what we did see from the bus was a scene of utter devastation. I had never seen anything like it in my life and never have since. As far as the eye could see, there was virtually nothing standing upright, other than the occasional tree and perhaps part of a wall of a building. For the rest of it, it was just flat, it was like a desert, but it wasn’t a desert because it was covered with debris. It was, it was difficult to explain really. I have not seen anything like it, other than in the movies, which of course, had been used to portray what I saw. And Nagasaki was the same. They were scenes of total devastation, which when I looked at them and I thought, how on earth did anybody survived this? I have always, ever since those times, since I saw that, thought to myself: I hear politicians and diplomats talking about nuclear war and nuclear proliferation and all these glib phrases, and I think to myself, if these people, many of them years and years younger than me, had ever had the opportunity to go and see for themselves with their own eyes the total, utter, complete devastation an atomic bomb (a miniscule bomb by modern standards), can wreak, they would be very, very much more cautious in their use of the nuclear word.

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