Veteran Stories:
Sean J Walsh

Merchant Navy

  • Sailors chipping through ice formed on the deck of a ship in a blizzard north of Murmansk, 1944.

    Derek John Kidd
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"Some didn't get away because the Germans were flying over at big altitudes. Every day they came over in the morning, took pictures of everything that was moving. So the ships that got in there, a lot of them were destroyed. The bombs were at the dock side when they were trying to discharge."

Transcript

There were ships going and coming all the time. Some didn't get away because the Germans were flying over at big altitudes. Every day they came over in the morning, took pictures of everything that was moving. So the ships that got in there, a lot of them were destroyed. The bombs were at the dock side when they were trying to discharge.

We were in camouflage in dry dock of course, which was a bit of a help in and out. But the reason for all this in-and-out business was for us to get going again. When we were in dry dock, when we were out we were in the middle of the stream, when we were in dry dock, we were on dry land of course and we could walk down the gangway and there was a big building there, all these other buildings were log cabins of course.

But there was one or two big buildings and one of them was sort of a barn and it was used for something or other with the Russians. I'm not sure what. But anyway, there was a band in there and the band was playing almost every night. This was about, oh, maybe a 10-minute walk ashore. And of course we were dancing with our big boots on but there were about half a dozen Russian women there dressed to the height of fashion.

I remember it was—what did they call it? […] fully-fashioned, silk stockings I think. They were a big item during the war anyway. Wherever anybody went, there'd be stops for the stockings for their family at home.

These girls, there were six of them, they were especially trained and coached by the Russian army to tell us how bad our education system was back in England and the United States and why we didn't just stay in Russia and enjoy ourselves, type of thing. But they were well educated and they were just talking about how great Stalin was.

One of our fellows got into trouble because he had a few drinks of vodka. He was this captain in charge of the Oerlikon gun anyway which was off of the bow of the ship. Ryan was his name and he was from the United States. He said too much about putting Stalin down, so they came down next day and brought half a dozen soldiers to the gangplank and they wanted—I forget his first name—and wanted him, anyway, to take him ashore and make a nice example of him for putting Stalin down.

But we wouldn't let them up the gangplank because we had an idea that making an example of him associated with the Russian prison was not to be desired. They left anyway and they came down next day and they asked, demanding that we hand over Sgt. Ryan to them. So we knew they were getting serious. But that day, the second day, we had all the guns pointed down at the gangplank anyway so they didn't attempt to come up the gangplank to find him.

So we were in dry dock at the time, we were on Russian soil. We put up the white ensign but we were still on Russian soil. We normally flew the red ensign, the Merchant Navy flag. During the night, the captain arranged with a corvette that was actually out in the stream to gently come in and put its nose up against the gate of the dry dock.

We got a plank and we got Sgt. Ryan and his duffel bag—this was in the middle of the night—didn't make too much noise. We took him to the bow of the ship. Fortunately it was facing astern and the corvette nudged up against the outside of the gate to hold the plank and had a good run at it. Sgt. Ryan jumped the gap and landed on the bow of the corvette. And of course we threw his duffel bag after him, it was like a ball really. No problem, just get rid of that. His basic clothing was in there. And he was gone.

Operations During the Normandy Invasion

We got word through our banker from this bay we were anchored in in the south coast of England and single file on this small little white light on the stern of the ship in front of us, single file to Arromanches [France]. That was the beach in Normandy where we stopped, where we did our thing. And when we reached about, oh, 200 yards I guess off of the beach at Normandy, we waited briefly, the order was to anchor in a line tied to the other ship already [intensionally] sunk.

We were sinking these ships, our ships, by pressing a button. You'd get in line and press the button and it'd sink tied to the one in front of us. We did this with about 12 to 14 ships and one of these was an old, big battleship. You saw them I guess. My memory isn't that good. We sunk our one and we were the last one to be sunk that day.

As the tide front came in, it never came above the main deck. So the accommodation on there was quite okay. My accommodation was right above, behind the wheelhouse and my radio room, next to my radio room was my own cabin behind the wheelhouse.

There was a lot of noise and everything going on. But we had—we were pretty well stretched out and turned in right away. It was getting up to nighttime anyway. In spite of the noise we managed to sleep, I guess. I mentioned about my cabin behind the bridge.

When I woke up the morning, I was all alone on the ship. The rest were taken off sometime during the night and they probably forgot to call me, or called me and I didn't hear them. But I don't know what happened, I never saw any one of them for the rest of the war. But anyway, I was all alone on the ship so I signaled with the Aldis lamp—there was a cruiser at anchor not that far away—and told them my situation.

They said, “Do you have water?” I said, “I have water and I have more food than I can eat in a year.” We didn't know when D-Day was going to be so there was going to be boxes of butter, crates of eggs and there's a coal burner so when the tide was down I could go down to the, just below the main deck and get a bucket of coal and light a fire in the flue and then boil the eggs and things like that. So all was comfort when the war was going on.

I signaled the cruiser and after I told them I had lots of—but I said I need a boat to get off of here. They said they'll send one when they had one. Of course I was a really small cog in a mighty big wheel. So I didn't expect they'd send a boat over right away.

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