Veteran Stories:
Reg Miller

Navy

  • Rev. Reg Miller in Fredericton, New Brunswick, July 27th, 2010.

    Historica Canada
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"One fellow said alongside of me, he said, they’ve all got families like we have, what the hell are we doing? And it really upset us."

Transcript

We sailed sometime in November it was, as I proposed to my wife one Saturday evening and she accepted foolishly. And I didn’t come home for two and a half years; it was two and a half years later that we’d come back to Britain. We [HMS Valiant] were the first ship to enter Malta after Italy declared war [between 1940 and 1942 Britain and Italy fought for control of Malta, for its strategic location]. And we had several battles, Battle of [Cape] Matapan [March, 1941] where we’d been chasing Italian ships all day and we were the fastest ship in the fleet at the time. The [battleships] Warspite and the Malaya were there and we were just detached to chase them. I remember the gunnery officer met me going along the deck, he said, Isn’t it great, Miller, we’ll be in action and shortly! And you would be praying we wouldn’t meet them, because there were three battleships, Italian and a couple of Italian; they’d have blown us out of the water. We might have hit them but we’d have been … But we never caught them.

But that night, I remember it well, it was about ten o’clock at night, we were steaming all - lights out of course - in the darkness, and our radar picked up these Italian ships sailing in the opposite direction on our port side. So the admiral, Admiral Cunningham, ordered the destroyers out of the way and we trained our 15-inch guns, we had four, two-barrel, 15-inch guns. Which was eight guns each, on each battleship. We trained our guns over the port side and three Italian cruisers came up where they got up to us, we could throw something aboard them, it was quite close. And they switched on their searchlights. Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, was a midshipman aboard at the time, Midshipman Mountbatten. We knew he was a Greek prince but to us, he was Midshipman Mountbatten, heck of a nice fellow.

And he was a searchlight officer. I happened to be on the upper deck then at the time and just, they switched on the searchlights and one of, the Italian leading cruiser was right opposite us and in a few seconds after the searchlight went on, another chief petty officer sat alongside of me, he said - in naval English which might not be allowed to be used -but in fact, he said, Would you look at that, Chappy? And just as he said it, the guns went off and blasted her. And the other two ships got the other two ships. We sunk them, all three. And our admiral signalled to the Italians, if they’d send out the hospital ship - we couldn’t stop to pick them up because of submarines were out, or U-boats - and [he] signalled the Italians, if they sent out a hospital ship, we wouldn’t interfere with it. But obviously, they didn’t believe us or didn’t trust us or something but we were steaming over that same area of sea about three or four days later and the sea was littered with bodies, upright in their lifejackets; seamen, Italian men who’d survived. And there wasn’t a smile aboard anywhere. We didn’t sort of feel, oh boy. We all felt sick to our stomach. One fellow said alongside of me, he said, they’ve all got families like we have, what the hell are we doing? And it really upset us.

But then of course came the Battle of Crete [May, 1941] not too long afterwards where we sent up to stop the seaborne invasion of Crete and it never happened. Our skipper said something that we never thought we’d ever heard a skipper say in the Navy, he said, we’re going on a suicide mission. It was two battleships, us - the Valiant - and the Warspite and we got up there early in the morning and as soon as daybreak came, they started bombing us, the dive bombers, German dive bombers. And they invaded Crete overhead. I’ve got a picture at home of them landing in Crete, parachute troops landing there. And they bombed us all day long. There wasn’t a ship that wasn’t hit. We watched as there weren’t a lot of [bombs] come out of the sun and hit the starboard side of the Warspite and the whole side, men, guns, everything, went overboard. And we fortunately, the fellow alongside of me, I was on the upper deck guns at the time, the fellow alongside of me came to me and said, just before I did, he yelled up to the bridge about the plane coming in, our skippers turned to support and they passed us by. So we got a part of our quarterdeck blown off and that was all we had.

But there were ships sinking everywhere. Not a ship wasn’t hit and the German fighters were bombing, were machine-gunning the men in the water. Well, there was survivors in the water. It was a pretty bad time.

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