Stories about Wartime
My War 1944
The following extract is from a letter written to Home on the Normandy Beach Heads, by myself M A Sabatini, Royal Navy Leading Ship’s Mechanic, which was never sent. It lay in my rucksack until I was demobbed in 1946, and was only looked at occasionally, until the 50th anniversary of the landings. There is also a letter from my Commanding Officer with some photographs sent to my mother’s address.
I was called up on 24th August 1943, trained as a ship’s mechanic, and endured many exercise landings around the South Coast, before the events in the letter occurred.
My War 1944
We were told on Sunday morning, May 26th, that we were moving, so we packed our kit and equipment in readiness. We guessed that this was it. But later on in the day a message was received to the effect that we were to delay for 24 hours.
Thus it was on Saturday after an early dinner that we started our train journey to (at least to us), an unknown destination. We went through London, stopping at Waterloo, where we had a hot meal at the Union Jack club, although it was tea-time.
All the while we were on the move we had to wear our webbing, (small pack, ammunition pouches, revolver holster, water bottle, gas mask and steel helmet – or “battle-bowler”). So we were glad for the rest, as we travelled up standing in the corridor as the train was full. From there we went somewhere, goodness knows where, in a train from Fenchurch Street.
When we got to a certain small station, we all piled out, and marched about two miles in the hot sun to a camp surrounded by barbed wire. After some waiting we were allowed in. We had a cold meal, it was about seven-o’clock by then, and spent the night there in a wooden hut.
Next morning our D8 arrived and a little later we were told we were in the wrong camp. So we bundled all our webbing into the armoured D8, which was on a tank transporter, and set off for somewhere else. We went through several towns with the people all staring. They must have thought it was a secret weapon or something.
Eventually we arrived at the other camp, where after the usual palaver we were allowed in. “But,” we were told “you will not get out again until you embark.” We didn’t think much to that I can tell you!
It was a big camp, mostly the army, and we were fed from the Army cookhouse. The food was extremely good, plenty of it. And lashings of pure white bread, and jam galore!
We had no work to do; the sun was very hot as we lay out bathing all day long. At night we slept in tents. There was a large NAAFI where we could get almost everything. There were also several concerts and films in the evenings. Also there was a good library and reading tent.
This lasted until June 2nd so I spent my 19th birthday there, which was June 1st. Then we went to the docks where we boarded a Liberty ship (the ones which are welded together.)
We drew Compo rations and from then on until a month after landing we lived on compo. It’s a case of rations, mostly tinned, to last one day for the men. It contains tinned steak, kidney and vegetables, sweet puddings, tea, milk and sugar in a mixed powder tin. Also tinned margarine and jam and bacon and a large tin of biscuit hard (very).
In addition there’s a ration of one bar of plain chocolate, sweets, matches and seven fags per man. These cases are varied. Some contain sausages or peaches or beans, milk pudding, corned beef, stew etc. all tinned.Whilst we were on board we drew, in addition, bread and Heinz soup in self-heating tins.
We spent the night in docks, and the next day steamed slowly down the Thames and anchored at the mouth, just inside the boom. We spent the night there. We slept in one of the hatches in hammocks, and on the decks.
Next morning we weighed anchor and steamed down through the channel in convoy. As we were steaming along the coast with Dover just astern of us, we heard a terrific explosion. I looked around and saw a dense cloud of smoke arising from the bows of a Liberty boat astern.
Flames leapt from her, but they were soon under control, although I never saw the finish as we lost sight of her. I think she slowed down, or shifted her position in the convoy.
At first we did not know what it was, but an officer said that it was a shell from the French coast. After that the rest of the day was uneventful, although expectant. The sun was warm, and I read to pass the time away.
That night we slept while we were still underway. In the morning we passed several landing barges, and were steaming cautiously through a swept channel marked by buoys.
Towards night we hove-to and we could hear the guns of the destroyers and Battle wagons around, the flashes appearing of a reddish hue, followed directly by a puff of dark smoke, which slowly dispersed in a long curling trail.
It continued all night and grew in intensity as we weighed anchor, and approached the beach. We then layed-off and LC 30(landing craft tank) came alongside, and unloading commenced.
D-Day 6 June 1944
It was D-Day, 6th June 1944. We spent that night in the now open holds. In the morning, four of us, with the Chief Petty Officer, and the D8 tractor and cranes, boarded an LCT and were landed on the beach safely.
We were fortunate enough to be on the D8, so we came ashore dry, an unusual occurrence. No serious incident befell us, however, although snipers were making it unpleasant for those coming from the beach.
And as we trundled along the beach to join the rest of our lads we passed many covered bodies upon the sand, and much personal equipment. Arriving at our own beach we found a suitable place and quickly commenced to dig in.
Evening in the trenches
That night we spent crouching apprehensively in our trenches while snipers cracked away, and our anti-aircraft barked, while off-shore the naval guns pounded sending their shells overhead into the German defences behind us.
In the morning we arose early and after a hurried breakfast commenced work on the beach. From then on, for a good time to come, we were so busy we forgot to be greatly concerned, except at night. But even then I was too tired to bother much.
Of course, we still had to keep watch at night, which wasn’t so nice. We only had our .38 Smith and Weston’s but fortunately we never had the necessity to try their worth.
Every low tide during daylight we worked hard on the beach repairing craft that was damaged in the original assault with upper tingles etc. Those we could not repair we dragged off the beach with the tractor and crane. The pump was kept busy emptying the sea-water from the damaged craft.
Later on, when the LCT’s came ashore and unloaded tanks, and all conceivable stores and equipment ashore, there was a lot of electric welding to do. Also concrete boxes (called coffer dams) were put in some of the ballast tanks when we were unable to weld them.
For these purposes the craft were beached at high tide and we could only work so long as the tide was out, leaving them high and dry. American LS3s were also beached in the same way, to be unloaded, also coasters. DUKWS took a large part in unloading other vessels.
After two weeks or so the work slackened, and we were allowed ashore when the tide was up. We had French money with which we were paid while in the transit camp in England. I bought many postcards in the villages around, also some scent. I had a haircut and shampoo at the “Coiffure” for 20 francs (about two shillings.) The postcards cost one franc each.
I began to pick up a bit of French, after being several times on these excursions. I wish I had paid more attention to the French lessons when we were at school. Also a boy about 14 years old used to come to our camp with “chove”, “cabbages” etc. in exchange for “cigarettes pour Papa”, as he used to say.
In this way we relieved our, by now, rather monotonous meals. Sometimes we obtained Spam from the Americans in exchange for steak and kidney puddings. There were one or two patches of bad weather which gave us extra work for a time.
Working on the beaches
So it came that on the 12th July we struck camp and moved along the beach some two or three miles, to work on a beach which had been opened. And here we still are. There is not quite so much work here as at first, when we landed, but plenty to keep us occupied.
Here we sleep in several houses just on the promenade of a small village. These are the best of the houses we shelled in the original bombardment. Demolition of the unsafe houses is still going on.
We have had several scares on the beach through reason of mines, but fortunately none of the lads from our unit have been injured. Also we are occasionally subject to shelling by the enemy. Once we saw a “buzz bomb” pass overhead, coming in from the sea.
Our job now is mostly welding, and carrying out anchors with the crane for LCT’s etc.
We still get shore leave once in four nights: once I went with one of the lads to a town nearby, where we found a good many shops open, also a small restaurant where we had supper, steak and chips. It was a very good meal, well cooked, and cost 36 francs.
We also had some peppermint wine. Occasionally one can get brandy for 12 francs a tot. I suppose you have seen about the butter and cheese for sale in the papers. We had several lots of cheese, also some butter. The fromage (cheese) that we liked best was “double creme” and costs “onze” francs (11 francs) for a small wooden box. It was very good but does not keep. The “beurre” (butter) we got weighed 250 grammes (about a pound), cost 20 francs.
Recently I had some rum. That was on July 12th, Bastille Day, otherwise I shouldn’t have had it as I’m underage. It was a day of great celebration and we had a make and mend, (day off).
There was a procession of allied troops led by a military band, and followed by many French people through the village. A good many of the French have come back now to live, and fishermen are often on the beach in search of shrimps etc.
The children are around all the time, chatting and asking for “bon-bons”. They soon pick up the English words, also OK, and other such words.
We have been on normal rations for the last fortnight or so now. That is to say we get dehydrated potatoes, cabbage and carrots, although sometimes fresh stuff, also white bread, which is doughy and very good. (I like it like that).
To improve matters a mobile canteen comes round pretty regular now. We can get chocolate, sweets, chewing gum, soup, biscuits and envelopes etc. But we do not get the bar of chocolate a day as we did when on Compo.
There has been great advance in the entertainments line too. Firstly the PBM (Principle Beach Master) has had a number of speakers put up so that we can hear the wireless. Last Sunday we heard Palace of Varieties which I enjoyed very much. It’s surprising how one misses the radio.
Secondly, the Army Field Film service has rigged up a projector in a cinema house which they repaired, so we can go when we are “watch ashore”. The first one I saw was Dorothy Lamour in “The Angels Sing”, a very good film I thought.
Thirdly, a number of ENSA concerts have, and are being given around about. One day last week a concert was given in the open air on our beach. And who do you think it was done by? None other than George Formby in person. It was a very excellent show.
George is exactly as he appears on the films, sang many of his famous songs. Together with an accordionist-cum-dancer, a very good singer and a pianist. They made a very enjoyable entertainment. The weather was hot and suited admirably.
But what I am looking forward to most of all is a spot of leave. I haven’t had any for 6 months, so I am entitled to fourteen days, although whether I get it or not is an entirely different thing. If I do get any I’ll come up and see you.