Veteran Stories:
Ralph Burbridge

Merchant Navy

  • A pair of photographs showing HMS Swift sinking after striking a mine off the shore of Normandy, France shortly after D-Day.

    Forbes Brown
Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"He said, “Looking back there, there’s all kinds of flashes and everything.” Well, it wasn’t a bombing he was looking at. This British destroyer patrol had come back and tangled with a German bunch off Falmouth."


We were sent around from Liverpool [England].  The convoy breaks up there.  We were sent down to Milford Haven—I don’t know if you know of it.  It’s another one of these assembly places.  When we got there, they said, “You’re to take your cargo around to Plymouth. And we have nobody to escort you.  So, you’re on your own.”  So, we’re coming down, towards Lands End, and the radio room is right behind the chart room, and every fifteen minutes, I’d give the sparks [signalman] a new position so as if we were attacked, he could tap it out immediately.  And we heard this frightful business of some unfortunate buoy boat—tender, you know, for the buoys and that--that look after them--being attacked by a couple of German planes, right off Land’s End.  And this guy is screaming for help, “Somebody come and get us.”  And eventually, somebody did show up and chase them.  But we couldn’t see any of this.  We were too far off.  But we thought, “By God, we’ll be next.”  Well, we weren’t.  We were lucky, as usual.

And that night, we’re steaming up the channel for Plymouth, and it's dark as pitch, and the captain came up and said to me, “All this talk - actually, he used a worse word than ‘talk’ but we’ll use that - about these destroyer patrols going up and down the channel keeping it clear for ships and that.”  He said, “I think it’s all a lot of B.S.”  Well, you don’t argue with the captain.  I would say, something like, “Yes, sir.  I believe you’re right.”  You know, thinking half the time, “You’re all wrong, you old so and so.”  But, anyhow, he no sooner finished getting the words out of his mouth when I could see something white, way back on the port quarter--with our night glasses on.  It was a bow wave of a destroyer and behind it were a bunch of other bow waves.  Here was a destroyer, the fellow he just said didn’t exist.  Well, they came roaring up beside us and you know you have to give out an identification signal, and on merchant ships, you don’t have a special signal.   That was the job of the mate on watch, which was me.  So, these three symbols--3 R 2 or something--whatever it happened to be.  But for nighttime use, it’s cut down quite a bit, so there’s only a little pencil of light going out.  So, away they went.  We gave the right signal, so, we didn’t get blown out of the water, and away we went.  And they must have come back later in the night, but further out, you know, another stretch of water, because I turned my watch over the second mate and in the morning, he said at breakfast, “I think they bombed the hell out of Falmouth last night.  He said, “Looking back there, there’s all kinds of flashes and everything.”  Well, it wasn’t a bombing he was looking at.  This British destroyer patrol had come back and tangled with a German bunch off Falmouth.

Interview with Ralph Burbridge - FCWM Oral History Project

Accession Number CWM 20020121-104

George Metcalf Archival Collection

© Canadian War Museum


Entrevue avec Ralph Burbridge - Projet d'histoire orale du AMCG

No d’accession MCG 20020121-104

Collection d’archives George Metcalf

© Musée canadien de la guerre

Follow us