Charles Coles served with the 10th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla in the Mediterranean until captured in February 1943.
I got muddled up with French intelligence, this isn’t really part of your story, just as well, because the French man I spoke to was our leading secret agent out there. He was a ? or whatever they call them, owned vineyards and farms and been there for about 3 generations. In his private life, his hobby was racing. He was a friend of a chap called Nouvallarie.
What was the name of the French agent?
He was the name on a packet of sugar in France, he was the equivalent of Tate & Lyall. I think this is relevantI had 2 days off and I borrowed a jeep or something and we’d come up all the way from Alamein, along the coast, a lot of army things we did and RAF then Malta briefly.
You’d been coast hugging in your MTB?
Yes. We lived off the land almost, up and down the desert and every now and again, we’d go and do something. Sometimes, we were ahead of the British army, the 8th army. Only sometimes by a day or something and we’d had a course on booby traps because they were very good at that. We never operated alone. Engine failures were common. In one place, we thought we were level pegging with the armywe got into a little village down on the coast and it had been an Italian military post and the food was still warm on the plates. That shocked us. We saw a whole lot of strange red things. We looted a bitI got an Italian motor cycle which I carried on the MTB for a bit, I think it was a Guzzi 500 or something. We saw a whole lot of strange tubes, not in an obvious place like a cafÃ©. I forbade anyone to touch them because of this course we’d had on booby traps. One chap disobeyed my orders and something went off and it was a sort ofit was a frightener, didn’t kill anyone, but it knocked you flat. Eventually we cut open this strange tube which I thought might be poisonous and it turned out to be one of the wonderful Italian cheeses. Then Malta when we were due to start. It was the one convoy.oh yesa little story of how we all went to the Club dressed up to the 9’s.
It’s still a bit like that. Even now, they still have their Union Club.
Malta was a very special place. Anyway, we started a base in Beaune (??) – no navy there at all. That end was the 1st army HQ. The fighting was still going on, on the Algerian, Tunisian borders I suppose. I went wild boar shooting with this French land owner, well I think it is relevant possibly to the story, and as part of the intelligence thing, we could hear the firing about 6 or 7 miles away.
Were you up in a forest in the north?
Right on the coast, very wooded, full of briar from which you made pipes, scrub country, scrub 7 or 8 feet high. Most of the beaters were Arabs or people from the French Army Coloniale, wearing bright blue tattered infantry great coats. The noise came nearer and nearer and they were driving wild boar and I’d never done it before. I came off the Suet (??) and they said we’ve got a nice, we think it’s an easy job. It’s not dicey and it’s only 80 miles away. Be there in 2 hours and back for breakfast. It was mine laying for the first time. Never laid mines before and we all hated the torpedo tubes being taken off so we had no chance of winning the Victoria Cross and these bloody mines being put in. You never knew what happened then. You tumbled them off. They had 3 labels on for rather stupid Americans. They were American mines. We had a lecture lasting 10 minutes – could have been done in 5. It said â€œFirst – pull off the red label – you are now in a state of semi-readiness. Then when you get top your drop area, pull off the blue label. Finally are you ready to drop with your stop watch in your hand? You pull off the yellow label So we take these 6 mines to lay them in mouth of an enemy harbour. We were getting towards their Dunkirk and we thought that for the thousands of fleeing Rommelites it would be their Dunkirk. So the fast mine laying cruisers like Abdeal (??) they did 40 knots, wonderful ships. They were large cruisers. They laid mine fields where we thought their Dunkirk was going to take place, really off that bit of Algeria. Then the subs crept in, our mine laying subs. They could go in up to about I think it was 2 miles or something. They started where the cruisers left off and laid another band of mines and then we had to a certain amount of mine laying right near the coast, preferably all round the exits of these harbours. My little job was to lay mines – there was an island, originally a French lobster fishermen’s island. L’Egalidon (?) and it was left to me to decide what to do, float in on the wind – as you know – there’s no tide in the Med, or if it was a moon and cloud night you went in. We were small and grey and thought we’d get away with it. It had a lighthouse on the corner and quite a large Italian garrison, who’d told the French that if they didn’t do exactly what they were told, they’d be shot. The French were very much island types – left behind by 200 years – very catholic and religious and I met my goon ? there. I won’t bore you with all that but anyway I ended up a chunk (??) and I told you about the service and the Italian stretcher party. When I went to an interrogation camp, a charming Italian Admiral was interrogating me. He was very pro British and together we criticised the Germans. The regiment there so mis-behaved to me and a few others when they were interrogating that I took the name of the regiment and told it to the Italian admiral and it was forever disgraced in my eyes. He didn’t write it down but he did remember it and I wouldn’t have liked to have been the CO of that regiment. He was so upset that one of his regiments had put me against a wall. He did me a good turnhe shook me by the hand and said I’m so sorry that this has happened and I found a spy in that camp, a British spy. Anyway, we can come to that story later. I was due back for breakfast. 2 MTB’s set off with me and about half way along from Beaune, flashing from my MTB astern and they came alongside and we shouted across. Radio silence is all important. He said I’m terribly sorry but one of my engines had blown up and I’ve only got 2 instead of 3 and can only do 12 knots instead of 40. So I disobeyed orders I confess. We were nearly there and I couldn’t bear the thought of chugging along at 12 knots, then something happening and trying to get away at 12 knots. And I might not even get there in time before dawn and if we were caught in the daylight, well, we really had to operate at night, we were night birds. Otherwise we didn’t stand a chance. So I said return back to base, and I didn’t reappear that morning at 6am and as he chugged in probably early they said â€œOnly one of you? Where’s Charles? â€œOh he went on, isn’t he back yet? They said â€œNo, he’s very much overdue, and my great mate there, in the flotilla, now dead, said â€œSomething must have happened to him. There’s nothing much you can do 18 miles away. So he rang up Osgood Hanbury, commander of the base and in code, because it was a public telephone and said â€œYou know you were coming to breakfast this morning with Charles? and he replied â€œNo, I’ve no recollection of that at all and this chap said â€œWell, you were. We have some very important things to discuss and we’ve got some eggs and you were coming to breakfast with Charles and Osgood began to think there was something going on – â€œWell, he said â€œI don’t know quite what’s happened to him, some sort of illness. He’s disappeared. Probably been taken off to hospital. Thought I’d better warn you. Somehow Osgood got the message and he scrambled the whole squadron to look for me. After the war I met ? again who’d got a DSC and done very well and he said â€œDid you know Osgood had taken up about 6 Spitfires to Galeta and back?
Did they see anything?
No. I was under the water by that time. He said â€œI searched about 80 miles back and forth, back and forth. He’d only seen one German plane which had also come down to look for me to shoot me up in case I was still on the surface. I only knew this, because he was dead, after the war. The intelligence thing – I’m a bit biased. A lot of our things like the raid on Tobruk, the Germans knew about a month before we left harbour. Our security was hopeless and the people in those days, and I served for 2 years in MI9 which is all wrapped up with SOE and MI6, intelligence birds.
Yes. At the end of the war they asked me to stay on and serve in MI9 and I had languages. I was bi-ligual in French and I’d been a prisoner of war in Italy, so I had quite a bit of Italian. Been a prisoner of war in Germany and at least understood the German way of thinking and had a smattering of German. They thought I’d be pretty good at interviewing people who’d got out of Belsen, the few that were alive, Ravensbruck, Auswitz. I had been in MO9 which was the escape organisation across Europe. We were then based in Brussels and anyone who was shot down or our agents, when it got too hot for them, they joined an evasion line and got provided with civilian clothes and a false pass for bread twice a week and we had a little lady in our camp who got the George Cross, she was a school mistress in private life. She’d swum the Meuse 3 times in winter. She was a ? One of the people who’d take youand the final one was ?? take you down the Pyrenees, a wonderful woman, a Belgian woman. She got you a guide over the Pyrenees, some of whom were untrustworthy and you always had to bribe the Pyrenees people and you’d get over into Spain and whether you got to see Madrid was a little bit of luck. Then you’d go down to the coast and come back on a fishing trawler or something. This was the Ligne d’evasion, all over Europe and it was run by MI9, fairly well run and I think all of them should have had the George Cross. They were all either forgers, making false passports or convoyeur people or secret houses. If you got shot down and ended up in a wood or something, you’d had all the briefing, you probably drifted into a barn and laid low for a bit and when the girl came to milk the cows or something and you were in RAF uniform..
I guess that was fascinating work wasn’t it?
It was fascinating but it was also depressing because you met all these people, little nobodies. For us, in uniform it was a straightforward war. We’d been trained, we had mates all around, the enemy was in the open near enough, and these people were every class, every age.if a line and there was a famous one called Lucvery very secret and they all had their little staging posts and convoyeurs, took people to Paris usually and then on to the coast. Sometimes a line would just disappear and everybody practically would end up in Belsen because somewhere the line had been broken. When they captured one person, they would torture him or her and I suppose 90% gave nothing away. They ended up just tortured or gassed or one of the skeletons you’d see. Occasionally someone would be so tortured they’d give a little bit away, this was all in the hands of the Gestapo, and they would finally crack the line. Sometimes they inserted their own people in the line. There was one man on the border of Holland and Belgium I think it was and he was known in the village as being â€œPour Allemande – he was just longing for the Germans to win, and he spoke fluent German and when we marched past as prisoners to a Napoleonic fort in Alsace, we were a day and a half or 2 days on the march. We were sorted out in this transit camp and then sent to various prison camps. You’d go through one village and all the girls would see that we were allied prisoners, all in fairly good uniforms which disappeared as the years went on, you’d end up with a Polish hat and Russian trousers and British jacket, that sort of thing. They would blow us kisses and come out and what we wanted was a cup of water, and they’d give us mugs of water and throw rose petals over us and whisper, â€œIt won’t be long. One village, the Alsations did this and the Germans tried to stop it all the time but they couldn’t really because they wanted to be popularity Jack, but then the next village would spit at us. This is the awful problem that no-one has ever written up. What do you do if you live on the borders? Granny was German, you’ve been to French school .To be a border chap is terrible. So if we go back to the chap on the Belgian border, his brother is a hero and he’d been running a resistance group. The other brother was ? . A lot of them got £500 which Churchill had promised to go to help towards their problems, perhaps if the Germans had wrecked a house or something. A little gesture he made which isn’t worth talking about. They also got a certificate signed by Eisenhower and Monty at the little ceremony where we thanked these heroes for what they’d done. Some of them cried, some crossed themselves. We had to run these little ceremonies. There was a little bun fight and coffee which they hadn’t had for 2 years. If a chap had been killed the widows came in black and they got the award which they framed immediately. We were very ordinary, regular sort of people wearing our pip squeak Wilfred ribbons that we’d got by that time and one old man came up and kissed me and said â€œAh, my hero! to me! The pip squeak Wilfred. I nearly burst into tears. I had done nothing but obey rather dreary orders, like anyone in the army. You had been in this secret world and couldn’t sleep at night. They always used to come for you at about 3 in the morning and one of my greatest friends, one of my very early interrogations, a very easy one, I went to a wealthy house where there was a gorgeous house where there was a gorgeous daughter who opened the door to me. You tell them a bit beforehand that you were going because some people were terrified of any official enquiry, particularly any one in uniform You had to be very, very tactful and speak Brussels slang, which you’d picked up. One chap I went to, he was a professional musician and had his own band and I was musically inclined and I remember to this day nearly tripping up over the front door, up a cobbled street near the old station in Brussels in a tiny little room, a mini piano. An old man came to the door with gnarled fingers and shook me by the hand and said â€œWe were expecting you, mon vieux I said â€œIs your father at home? He said â€œMy father? I said â€œYes, we’ve been in correspondence. He said â€œThat was with me. He was a 25 year old with a little band, making a nice living and the Germans, and I don’t want to seem too anti-German, but this was all as it happened at the time. Every day they cracked one joint on one finger, so he would never earn his living by playing the piano again. That was the Gestapo. In a German internment camp, because I spoke French, my mates got me to go along and say the latrine wasn’t working or could we have some more water, could a chap with a grumbling appendix see a doctor, that sort of thing. I was the spokesman. After going to the French sergeant a few times, he probably said where did you learn your French and I explained. He started to think should he trust me or should he not. I could see this going through his mind, and he said â€œWould you like to escape? I said â€œYes, of course. He said â€œI can arrange it. You get into a uniform of a French matelot and you’ll be on a working party going out to the rail yards as 300 prisoners do every day. You’ll be met there. You’ll give a recognition sign and get into a truck with a tarpaulin over you. That’ll be marked. The next train that goes, that truck’ll be on it and you’ll be recognised by our Munich team. There’ll be a truck there and you’ll be given pepper because of the sniffer dogs and you’ll put that down in the right place at the right time. You’ll then be put into another truck and God willing you’ll get over the Swiss border by this special little arrangement. I said â€œI am happy to do it, but one question. Why haven’t you done it? â€œThe Germans know where my wife and daughter live in northern France, the Gestapo know all that. They check on them from time to time. My daughter’s 16 and when I was asked to do this job, a simple administrative job til the end of the war, but they said â€œOne thing – you escape and your daughter and maybe your wife will end up in a brothel in Poland. So why would he escape? They had every trick up their sleeves. We were moved before I decided whether to do it or not. You were examining the people as sympathetically as you could. You made them feel that they were much appreciated and so the worst one was going to see this chap with his broken fingers. He was captured at Ligne Zero or Luc or Marc and he never told the Germans who had ratted on him. Maybe no-one ratted on him. Maybe they just somehow worked it out. The brother was living on the borders and was pro-German and the other brother who was captured and killed would have been given the award because he was in one of these lines. He was a hero of the resistance. The all got these medailles d’evasion. Our boss of our unit was a ghastly man, RAF, ex prisoner, and a flyer, proper chap. He was bang happy and didn’t want the job and he didn’t like anyone around him. He just wanted to get out of uniform as soon as possible. He was bitter as many prisoners were because while their mates had risen up and got gongs or become wing commanders or whatever, here he was stuck as a lowly thing who’d done nothing in the war. There was a lot of it, wives sleeping with Americans and loosing your ? He was a hopeless ? Whoever picked him knew nothing about.He said â€œRight Coles I don’t think we were on first name terms. I was the only naval officer in that unit, otherwise they were army – navy – men – women – Belgians – British – a few Americans, so quite fun. â€œYou’ve got to go to Luxembourg no maybe it wasn’t Luxembourg. It was on the borders and he said â€œGive the chat to so and so because she’s the next of kin. That’s the rule. So the next of kin was pro-German and when I went there, the line which had got all sorts of people in it and when I got there they said to me â€œWe know why you’ve come and we’re going to take you out to dinner tonight to have a little reunion. It’s wonderful to see you. The only thing is that you are supposed to give a medal to so and so who is openly pro-German and longing for them to win. Don’t let us down. If there is any red tape which means he’s got to have the certificate on behalf of his brother – well, he’d tear it up anyway – the whole of this town will be really upset and think how stupid the British are. I said â€œI’m glad you’ve told me so I never met this chap and when I got back I said to the CO â€œWe’ve been let off giving it to this chap because he’s pro-German. He said to me â€œColes, it’s not your business to decide. This is the routine. He’s invited to the award and gets the medal. I was only a lieutenant and he was a squadron leader and I said â€œI’m sorry Sir, but I don’t accept that. Get someone else to do it if you like. I will report what I’ve found. He said â€œAre you refusing to obey orders? I said â€œIf that’s what it amounts to that’s what I’m doing. So he said â€œRight, I’ll report you. He wrote to the Admiralty and there was an ex brigadier or something, someone who’d been in the army about 30 years, a wonderful old chap. He took me to one side and said â€œCharles, that letter will never reach the Admiralty. It’ll be lost in the post. After a month when he hadn’t received a reply, the CO wrote a second one and this Major or whatever he was said â€œI can’t do it twice. I suppose it was a court martial offence but when I got back there, when that job finished, I was sent for by the NID chief. He said â€œThere’s not going to be a court of enquiry but it can’t go unnoticed and so I lost 6 months seniority. I was due to become a lieutenant commander at the time. That stopped for 6 months and 6 months lot of pay. And it’s on my official chit – disobeying orders. So that’s how tricky it all was and the wealthy house that I went to, I was in uniform and the head of the house came along. It was a lovely house and the daughter was about 19. Champagne appeared immediately and the daughter said â€œWe were so lucky when the tanks came. They were British, not American and we rushed out with a bottle of champagne. They’d been in the resistance you see. The father had been kicked out of bed twice at 4 in the morning by the Gestapo and imprisoned for about 4 days but couldn’t actually pin anything on him. He was a structural engineer, wealthy, like McAlpine, that sort of thing and when the Germans captured Belgium, they already knew where everyone was. They said to this chap â€œYou’ve got 2 options. One, stay on and repair every airfield as it is bombed. You’ll have your team at the ready and it will be a reasonable life. Or two, if you don’t do as we say, well, we’ll probably shoot you. He thought about this and I am sure most people would have chosen the first option. He did but he filled the holes with stuff which only lasted for about 10 landings and you could never be quite sure if Brussels airfield would sink. All his friends thought he was working for the Germans. He was kicked out of the club, they called him Pour Allemande. He suffered the whole war like that, people avoiding him. When we were out in Alexandria, we lived in fear of the twin engined 110. They could shoot up MTB’s. We had a very unsteady gun platform as you can imagine. Never hit anything. We were alright on the ground and E boats and shooting up at a tank in the half darkness on the coast but never hit any aircraft until I eventually devised a system which nearly saved us all, because I was flotilla gunnery officer. These 110’s came over. They didn’t come in until to I think more than 800 feet and they were frightened of us. Some of us had 40mm, all of us 20mm and .5 Brownings and the little old Lewis gun up forward. We were very well armed, mostly for surface to surface. The equivalent of the 110 was the Bow fighter (?) a lovely plane to fly. They did everything. So I think I said could I go up in a Bow Fighter and see what their tactics would be. We couldn’t turn easily. They said alright.
Can you remember which squadron you went up with?
The one just outside Alexandria. It must have happened in late 41/42. We got our new MTB’s from America, our Packard one. It was all official anyway. The pilot said to me â€œIt’s money for old rope. We could blow you up.we’re going in a bit closer. You see, it was the Bow Fighter pilot standing beside one of the officers on the MTB who said â€œDo you ever hit anything? He replied â€œI can’t say I have yet Sir! I hadn’t devised my funny little plot where each MTB and each gun would not do their own thing and when you’re frightened and the dive bombers came at you with the screamers, your hands were sweaty. We had a new gunner, not really trained, so nice, broad Norfolk – he’d been driving a milk float in Norwich 14 weeks earlier. He’d never seen any action, how could he have? We were alongside in Tobruk and the Stukas came over yet again. He had a quiet shit and fired his gun a 100 yards off and hoped nobody would notice and I said to the coxswain â€œNo-one saw that right? and he went off and got changed afterwards. He was a wonderful character. After we’d had a lot more attacks, I told them all to follow me. Then you had about 16 guns all converging on one point. Whether I was accurate or nor didn’t matter that much. I’d be fairly accurate or my gunner would and they’d be flying into 24 bullet things. This worked. We got a lot damaged anyway. Don’t mention that. Fear necessitated me to think about.
So you were up in this Bow Fighter.?
Yes and I could see.because the chap down below had said to him, â€œWhat are you trying to do, firing at 1,500 feet? Come in to 500 you idiot! I was beside him you see..
Just to get this right. You had one of the guys for the Bow fighter was in the MTB and you’d sort of swapped?
Yes. The chap up there said â€œWe never dare go in closer to the E boats. We spray them all off from about 1,500 feet but they are very heavily armed these E boats. He came into 500 feet and then there’s a lovely MTB struggling to turn and make smoke and he said â€œThis is a perfect target. I said â€œMy gunners down there are worried and I think they’d be less worried if they knew a bit more about what we can do about it. So the whole of our flotilla went on a course at this airport where the Bow Fighter squadron was.
It must have horrified you to see how easy it was.
Oh yes. When you see one coming at you and stuff coming out of 8 or 6 canon and BrowningI said to my senior officer, â€œI think it would be a very good thing if we swapped, learn about each others tactics. What was the best thing we could do even in the night? Stop suddenly so there was no phosphorescence? They said â€œOK and we went in turns and the once unhappy Bow Fighter pilots, gunners, bounced about, got wet, salt in their eyes and went back absolutely thrilled.
Why do you think it was so hard to hit a 110?
Because we hadn’t got a stable platform.
So you’re just spraying all over the place?
Yes. I kept asking people if we could have some more drone targets and go out and cross each others wake. You were strapped in to both the Browning and the.it was very uncomfortable, water was coming over all the time, your eyes were filled with salt and you were bouncing about.
You were going as fast as you could to avoid being hit yourself which presumably makes the platform even worse?
Yes, it was going all over the place. Anyway, there on the tarmac was one Bow Fighter with Spirit Of Brugges or Spirit of Brussels on it and a tiny Belgian flag. I said to the SO â€œYou have some foreigners? â€œYes, one Canadian and 2 Belgiques. The other 7, 8, 9 are all British crews. Why? I said â€œI’m interested. Could I meet the Belgian? I thought I could cheer him up, chat to him in French. He said â€œHe’d a very nice fellow. He’s a gent but he’s only a sergeant. So I went and met him and shook hands and he was thrilled as they all were to find out how easy it was to shoot up a ? I think there was a bit of a problemI don’t think he was allowed into the officers mess and we had drinks..I think the crew of a bomber all feed togetherI’m not sure..I had this when we landed, we were up half an hour and we had a great rapport. He was so pleased that someone bothered to speak French to him..where he came from in Brussels, what his father was doing.I think he had some training in England..I think I flew with him twice. I don’t know why..perhaps I invited him to have a drink on the boat. Yves was his Christian name.when I was drinking champagne in his father’s house 3 years later, there on the grand piano was a photograph of a Belgian airforce officer who looked remarkably like Yves and behind him it was clearly desert. I asked the father who it was and he said it was his son. I said â€œWas he in the desert – 8th army? and they said â€œYes, but he was shot down in action and we haven’t seen him since he left to start retraining in England. We were once or twice out with the fleet very, very rarely. You can imagine what use have battleships and cruisers got with MTB’s. We did our own thing at night up and down the coasts and we landed agents and all sorts of silly things. What we were designed for was torpedoing ships although it very rarely happened as they gave us all these other jobs to do. So we were once out with the fleet. I don’t know what we were doing – we weren’t exercising and ..I can’t remember, maybe we were landed on a ship, leaving our MTB behind, so that we could tell the chap on the bridge â€œThat looks like an E boat, not an MTB. Aircraft broke through cloud, all the guns opened up and they though they were Stukas or Messerschmidts and shot one down and afterwards I asked and it was unfortunately friendly fire. It was a Bow Fighter. I said â€œWhat squadron? They saidI don’t remember which one it was. It was 3 or 4 months after I’d been flying with the Belgian. They found out his name for me and it was this chap Yves. They said he gave the recognition signal, red, red, red and all the things you’re supposed to do but he came out of cloud and everyone’s trigger happy..he gave the correct signal of the day, and I think there was a visual signal as well. He was killed. There I was in his father’s house drinking champagne – it’s typical of the funny, not funny.
Yes, very distressing.imagine itchampagne, father had a rotten war, pretty daughter and I said â€œThe wonderful news is that I met him and flew with him and I’ve seen him alive and smiling and doing his job since you have. They were delighted by this and more champagne was opened and the end of that story is that they asked me to stay for dinner. The daughter took me to the cinema one evening. Anyway, there was a knock at the door and in came this young French air force officer. He was very smart and very formal and the girl blushed, Aniq was her name. He was clearly interested in the daughter although they weren’t engaged or anything, and that was a year after the war. Well, we got to know each other, this family very well and the air force officer slightly and one day about 3 years after the war, I saw a large car with a bit B on the back for Belgium floating past our front drive and it stopped for some traffic reason and I looked inside and there was this girl. She’d married this chap and she said to me â€œWe’re on our honeymoon – we’re going to Bournemouth! So they came to see us in our little cottage, we’d not long been married, over Rockbourne way. Then he did a 6 months staff course with the RAF at Andover I think it was. Yves came over to see us from time to time. His English was improving but not wonderful and one day he said â€œI know I’m not allowed to do this but would you look through my final exam papers in case I’ve made a terrible mistake? I said â€œNo problem. Anyway, he then went to the Air Ministry in Paris and we stayed with them in Paris and he rose to be attachÃ© in Romehe had all the top jobs. Part of it was charm and he was very bright and then he went to Bordeaux. Their son had been over to stay with us and I took him out sailing.I mean we only saw them about every 5 years but we were close and we had a good time together when we did see them. I used to stay with them quite a lot in France when I worked for the equivalent of the Game Conservancy over there. He died 6 or 7 years ago of cancer. Aniq is still alive and must be about 82 but I think she has cancer too, we exchange Christmas cards.but I think that makes a very odd story, don’t you? The other odd story before I finish complaining about Intelligence. I found a photograph of ?. He was the first officer out of the first plane in Crete. We must have moved away into the olive woods to hide and I saw this big Junkers, and I thought Christ we hit one! And we never hit anything with our anti aircraft at that time. But it was well organised one minute past 8 May 21 drop of 20 parachutists. I told this ? he was a friend of mine, we weren’t close but I knew him quite well
was told they’d been given a job to do of taxi-ing the boss out who was a magnificent man, I think his name was Smith. Heckstall-Smith is now dead. So I couldn’t get him to withdraw it. I was the last MTB out of the harbour and I know exactly what our orders were and what went on. He wrote a second book in which he did say that it was an ML leaving harbour. But when you get to the bit about the MTB not doing what it was told to do, forget it!
.looking at photographs..that was the Vosper MTB 6, Norwegian. I was with the Norwegians. That one was a very fast one, did 51 knots – that was the one shot up in Crete
Did you move to Hampshire when your father retired?
Yes. They moved to Church Cookham, near Fleet. A lot of people who retired from India went there. They were there until he died. My mother lived to be 96 in an old people’s home. I went to war with my gun and my fishing rod, took it in my MTB. It’s now at the bottom of Souda (?) Bay. It was a lovely gun by one of the well known Birmingham makers. I said to my uncle after the war, a Colonel, a wonderful chap, very English, no children – he loved dogs better than anything. He’d spent quite a long time on the north west frontier.
Did you ever get to use them during the war?
Not the rod. We’d occasionally chuck hand grenades over the side and stun fish in the shallows. The Aussies did this to upset us. They’d see us bathing and toss a few hand grenades in. They were all very friendlybut my God that made you jump! Once I was in Malta, biding my time before going back to the MTB, getting ready for war. I was leant to some Maltese mine sweepers. They used to go out and catch the local mackerelI think it was there we got this huge fish in and the Maltese crew said My God you’ve caught a so and so. I think we were in Kalafrana. The RAF chaps looked at me strangley. I sent it to the chef who said he was going to stuff it. I didn’t want him to, he said â€œYou’ve never seen the ? stuffing yet. I thought yes I have in the headlights of the car every night.! Not quite sure about this last sentence!!
Charles Coles Part 2
They would allow us a curfew on Christmas Eve when we had our hymn service so you could go back to your barracks and ? but we promised and we never broke our word, that we wouldn’t try to escape between 10 at night (I think the normal curfew was 9pm) and midnight, when everything shuts up, you know we won’t and if we ever did break our word, you’d never allow us another dispensation again. They never bothered to do any checks. We had our Red Cross parcels. We were supposed to have one a week but they never got through, so you were rationed out to about a third of a parcel per week and there were certain things which were great favourites, porridge was one because it was filling and a bar of chocolate which I think was called Nutty, this was purchasing power, this was money, and you’d open it and look at it and say, â€œWell, I’ll have my 2 now because it was like a drug, so you’d snap up 2 bars and then wrap it up and put it under your pillow or something, then you’d think, I hardly tasted that, so you’d have another 2, and then you’d say, â€œWell, that’s nearly half the bloody bar. It’s easier to keep half the bar than 6 squares so you had a bit more, and so you’d end up eating it all. We had one old merchant man, a skipper, a trawler man with very false teeth, had the top bunk near me and an iron will and when he got his Nutty, he’d wait til we were all in bed and the lights were out and then he used to make this awful noise against his bad false teeth, crunching up his 2 bars of Nutty and everyone could hear and they’d all be shouting â€œShut up for God’s sake! and you could almost smell the chocolate emanating from him, as he made it last for half an hour and he’d say (Yorkshire accent) â€œWell, if you people can’t bloody well have enough self control to conserve your Nutty, that’s your bloody fault. I put on a cabaret act, copying an act I’d seen in London when I was about 19 or so, whereby a very good male dancer dances with a model, a pretend, very light weight lady and her toes are stitched to his toes and so they could do the most beautiful acrobatic moves and that was his act, like a doll. Long blonde hair and a very good face. There was every sort of skill in the camp and I said to someone I thought might be able to help â€œDo you think you could build a model as I’d like to do this cabaret act, and I had to find a dancer; we had very good musicians. It was Bob Stainder (?) who I think eventually committed suicide after leaving the prison camp. He was a very talented, lonely person. He thought it would be fun to do and we had a war artist, John Worsley, who was very famous, and he said Well, what I’d like to doall we had to do was the head and shoulders on a wire frame, army great coat, 2 long bits of rope, boots filled with weights and all you could really seeand he was always paraded about, Albert, between 2 helpers, so he was always held upright and you didn’t have to see his body and we only ever used him in the snow or north wind, when we were all wearing great coats of sorts and we bribed Germans on 2 occasions to get people in form the Merchant Service camp, who could do acts. We paid them 500 cigarettes. This was when conditions were good. Often during the war, conditions were very bad; you went on strike, you upset the Germans, they upset you and it went on for a long time and then suddenly there’d be a warming for a little while, and no tunnels would be dug so we hired, we paid the Germans 500 cigarettes, to get people over from the Merchant Service Camp, which no one would know about, because at the German level it was corporal, sergeant.of course the German Commandant would have known about itthey smuggled across the 2 people we wanted, one dressed up as a girl and he made the most fantastic girl, and sang jazz songs in a sort of girl’s voice, one rehearsal and then she was hidden and people in this pretend restaurant which we made just for one night, we made some hooch and drank it and tried to forget our worries. Some of them forgot where they were and really thought they were in a London night club and said to each other â€œThey’ve got a live girl, and they weren’t in the know, and there was this young merchant seaman and I don’t think he was queer at all, he was just rather surprised he could sing, and when they dressed him up, he sang these nice jazz songs, and the other thing was that he did this dance and they did make a very good face out of papier mache and I think we had to volunteer to give hair from our moustaches to make, I don’t know, hair or eye brows or something, and when you looked in the half light, as we had sort of dim, stage lights, he looked very convincing, but we had to get the right dancer. I remember going up to a little chap who was in landing craft and he was only an amateur sailor and I said â€œHave you ever done any dancing? He looked very trim, but he said â€œNo, never, don’t like dancing, but he did rather like the idea of the theatre lights and so on, Jack Nicholls (?) was his name. I said â€œIt’s not going to be complicated dancing, more acrobatic. He said he’d have a go and we found some jazz tunes he liked and someone gave him some dancing lessons and we did this in the half light, and with this beautiful girl with hair made of dyed Red Cross string, John Worsley painting the face made out of papier mache, in the stage lights, it looked magnificent and someone said â€œI think they’ve smuggled another girl in. The next morning, a very serious chap called David James who became a Conservative MP later on, came up to me and said â€œI don’t want anyone listening but that doll thing you had last night, there’ll obviously be a waiting listI know how we can use a model like that to get out of the camp. I said â€œWhat are you talking about? It’s a cabaret act – she’s been taken apart now. He said â€œAre you on the list of escapees. Have you drawn places? I said â€œI don’t know what you’re talking about. He asked me who made the model and I said that 4 different people had each made parts. He said â€œI want a model made of a man who is called Albert. Keep it quiet. So the same team made Albert, pretty good, but daylight you see, and we had the business of the great coat, but it was snowy weather and when he was made someone said â€œLet’s test him out on parade. He’s got to be looked at in daylight in front of the guards. But someone else said â€œNo, let’s not do that. Lets wait until the moment comes and we’ll walk him up and down to the bath house, which was where we were going to escape from and either we would win or we wouldn’t. But the ones who voted for trying him out on parade won the day. So the 2 helpers marched him out. It was a slightly snowy day and they put him in the second rank and the sergeant major, a very experienced German soldier, been in for x years, paused as he went by Albert and stared him in the face and then went on and didn’t say anything. We were all cock a hoop, thinking if he’d passed the Sergeant Major, we’d be alright. So Albert was then dismantled and wrapped in a towel and taken up to the bath house for our weekly shower and one chap hid in the system and reassembled Albert, so that if they went up 92 people they’d come back 92 people, with one hiding in the system and Albert. They got David Jones away. He was recaptured but he was a start turn. Then someone else who got to a Swedish ship in the Lubec direction. He was captured, but one chap got home, and they made a film called Albert RM, which was a great success
Have you seen the film?
I must have done I suppose. But so often they make these films and then put an American hero in.
Can I ask you about how you came to join the RNVR and how you came to be on MTB’s?
I had had a long interest in the Navy as a career and the sea. My old father aged about 14 or 15 thought he’d like to be a sort of Dartmouth boy, but I don’t think it existed then, but I think it would have suited him very well. He was a marvellous character as a father and an all rounder but he wasn’t highly intelligent. He was totally honest as they all were in those days, totally beloved by his Indians. He liked them and he fitted into then Indian life very well indeed. Often young graduates went off to places like Rhodesia and managed thousands of square miles, married people, judged people, it was typical of that era. My father was a good all rounder, good sportsman, said he’d like to try for the navy, but fell off the parallel bars when he was about 14 and injured his back and was told no, that’s out. So he finished his time at Tonbridge. I often wondered why he didn’t get married til he was 45 but then suddenly realised that he hadn’t had a chance; he was soldiering all over the place. He was in West Africa for 2 terms, North West Frontier for God knows how long. In the 14/18 war he came back to his regiment, the Southwark’s (?) and they said â€œNo, you can speak Howza (?), back you go. And there was a war in West Africa. The French and us joined hands and there were German colonies there and he was there for about 6 years in the West African frontier force. Then he came back and it wasn’t until; he was shot off to Gibraltar with the garrison that he had time to unpack after 20 years and get married. There were lots of people like that in my family; I had that sort of background. None were professional academics. I think it was the idea of the sea, not the Navy that Father found fascinating. Anyway he went up to Manchester and into the cotton business, knowing he was going to go abroad. He went out to one of the famous old companies that dealt with cotton and jute and everything that came from India; Jardine Mathieson, a huge firm which sprang from the East India Company. You only got leave once every four years and anyway he met my mother at a garden party near Maidenhead and then when back to India, although I think he’d half proposed. He had his sister out there looking after the house and so on. She went down with some disease and had to return to England and was bedridden for 50 years. On the next leave, my father took the bull by the horns and asked my mother if she’d marry him and she said she’d love to. Then in 1916, he had this chest problem so went to Australia where I was born. Went back to India where he stayed for 6 years, then back to the UK to his pre-prep school in Crowborough. In the 30’s the slump hit and he was out of a job. I left Radley a year early, no university. My guardian had connections in Paris and a villa..
Did you enjoy Radley?
I did because there were lots of things about it that suited me, a wonderful Natural History Club
You were always interested in that and wild life and such?
Yes, one of my 3 interests.when I was deciding what to do, I wanted either to be a professional musician, because I played the flute though I say it myself, very well for a 17 year old but I’d never learnt music. I still loved everything to do with the ships and the Navy and the sea. My guardian who was a very distinguished Harley Street doctor with his Rolls Royce and servants, and the Irish cook who never left the Aga and gave all her wages to the catholic church, a wonderful cockney butler who’d been in the 14/18 war – it was my university really. The chauffeur Smith who’d also been in WW1, they were marvellous characters. I learnt a lot from them and admired them greatly.
Did they talk about the war to you?
No, never. An uncle of mine told me Smith had been over the top 5 times. At a young age I met a lot of people. I told you I stayed with a friend in his parents castle when I was 12. I learnt such a lot. We didn’t have supper with the grown ups; we came down and said goodnight to the Brigadier and Lady Little and went up to the West Wing where there was old nanny who brought them all up. Had honey sandwiched and went to bed. Lived a rather separate life. We were sent down with our 410’s to catch the evening flight of starlings..what people don’t realise is the master servant relationship. When we went down to study shooting under the head keeper, we’d go down to the pheasant rearing field, and watch what he was doing, the relationship changed immediately. It wasn’t master and servant, it was the other way round. He would say â€œMaster Charles, never let me see you pickup a pheasant like that. And the grooms were the same, it would be â€œHasn’t anyone ever told you, you should never mount a horse with your foot in the stirrup like that? I am very surprised. He hunted a lot the old boy and one day they said â€œI know you can ride because I’d been taught out in India and also to shoot, and he was very strict and my God, I had my gun confiscated by the other uncle one Christmas holiday for doing something slightly unsporting. He said â€œIf I told your father what you’d done, he’d be furious. But I am not going to do that but I am going to confiscate it until you’ve thought about it.
What did you do?
I was out alone, it was safe, and I hadn’t shot anything and I saw a rabbit through a hedge, sitting there cleaning its whiskers, looking very pretty, and I crept closer and closer, but it’s unsporting with a shot gun to shoot a sitting rabbit. With a rifle it’s quite different because you’re stalking and you’ve only got the one .22. You shoot rabbits running. My uncle had seen me shoot at 10 yards range or something, this sitting rabbit. It was totally unfair. Yes, alright one wanted to keep the rabbits down, but this uncle was very strict, an uncle by marriage, he’d been in the Benin Rising, where practically cannibalism took place. There were 2 survivors and he was one of them. Came back and farmed in Kent, marvellous character. I didn’t get the gun back until the day he left. Anyway, wondering what to do, my father was in India still and my guardian said â€œWe must sort you out. I’ll put you through university with the greatest of pleasure, but you must study medicine. I wasn’t clever enough to realise that I could have done that and then joined the Navy as a doctor. So my guardian said â€œIf you want to think about music, I can get you to see the principal of the London School of Music and I can also get you to see the top admiral in the Navy. So I went to see the principal and took my flute and he was charming and he asked me if I knew how many orchestras there were in the country. He told me there were about 10, each had one principal flute and they weren’t very well paid, and they’d be on tour all over the place, not good if you had a pretty wife at home. I think he allowed me to play for about 2 minutes and I could get a very good tone, I’d played a snake charmer’s pipe when I was about 6, and he said I should see the principal flute professor. He told me I had a lovely tone but that I needed the academic side of music, so they gave me up. So I went to see the admiral and he was charming, especially considering I was this grotty 17 year old. He said â€œI have got to the top of the tree because when I was your age I volunteered for submarines and they were new. If you join something that’s developing, you’ve got a good chance of getting to the top. I’d love to send you off to the Navy. We need people like you at 17, but I would advise you to join the Fleet Air Arm. It’s pretty new and it will develop and you could get to the top. If you just serve your time as a sea dog on destroyers, you’ll enjoy your time but I don’t see that you’ll necessarily get to the top. So I said, and I hope not too rudely, â€œSir, I am interested in the Navy because of the ships. If I had wanted to fly, I would have joined the RAF because they have much better aircraft. I think I said that. He said â€œMake your mind up. I wanted to be on the bridge of a destroyer.
You weren’t interested in flying?
Not really. I had done a bit of flying. I did a bit of gliding too but that was very expensive. It did fascinate me, the silence of it. The other thing was entomology and wild life.I was sent to the Regent Street Polytechnic which was like going from Harrow, Eton, Winchester into the prison system. There I was studyingthey taught very well. I took up German there. I could already speak Spanish from Radley and went on with that and we started a little drama group and I did type writing and short hand along side girls, pretty girls of 17, 18, 19. Economics and so on. I did a year there and it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was taken down hundreds of pegs. There were 2 German students who I now know were Hitler Youth students, spies, but very charming, spoke good English. But half of them weren’t English, there was a Finnish girl, a Swedish girl, and it was only when I left that someone said, â€œThe Finnish girl sleeps with everyone. Did you get her? â€œNo, I didn’t! I went out with the daughter of a Harley Street doctor for a time and she was very pretty. There was a little cockney who stammered and for some reason he fastened on to me, I don’t know why because we had nothing in common. I remember him one day in front of 20 students trying to get out Isch (?). He’d forever ask me if we could go and have bacon, eggs and beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. To him that was the greatest treat in the world. I was running a little jazz band at the time, there was a wonderful cockney pianist, and a theatre manager’s son, so we had a little theatre group. Evening classes I signed up for journalism. I was very glad I did the typing and shorthand. Meeting all these people, I realise there was another world that I knew nothing about. At Radley we had a very good mission that was in the East End and twice a year we’d go and give them a really good concert and we had a bloody good orchestra at Radley, and also a boxing match. You may think that a docker in Wapping would knock out any public school boy but they didn’t. You had PT at 7.30 in the morning, we rowed. I think we were as fit as the docker’s sons. We had them down at Radley for a fortnight’s camp, and they couldn’t take it. The OTC was in tents, the ? they couldn’t understand at all, and the restrictions, and they just weren’t physically fit. My son Julian went to Radley and he hated it. It was 30 years ago. He was small so he went in with all the inhibitions of a small person. He made up his mind to dislike it from the age of about 14. Anyway, that was a valuable experience for me. Then someone got me a job in ICI and I was writing little articles and selling them aged 18 and I had my amateur jazz group and we did gigs all over the place; quite a good jazz group actually, started by all public school boys and I shudder when I think of the ad I put in the personal column of the Times â€œWanted. Public School boys keen on playing jazz. One of them turned up in the prison camp where I was! Anyway, people were joining the London Scottish and the auxiliary air force, spare time soldiers and so on and having fun and a cousin of mine was very senior in the London division of the RNVR and he said â€œI think you’ll enjoy it. It’s quite tough but you get sailing weekends down the river and learn a bit about the Navy and you have to go to sea every so often. I waited a year and a half on the waiting list to go in as a midshipman. I could have joined as a sailor on the spot, but I wanted to go the officer route. I know it’s a bad thing to say, but off duty, I don’t think I would have had a lot in common with the dock yard chaps when we were in the pub. So I went in as a midshipman.
Something like that and we trained to eventually become anti aircraft gun crews. We went to sea in anti aircraft cruisers twice and I had a lot spell in the battleship Revenge, where I was treated like shit by the RM who looked down on the RNVR. It wasn’t the same as the TA, where the whole London Scottish moved to summer camp, or the HAC, or the RAFVR, they all did things as one, but as an RNVR I was one midshipman with 39 RN people who thought I was useless. We were all one year older than the RN midshipmen. It was a valuable experience. When you sat down at the gun room with an officer at breakfast, you had to wait for him to take his cornflakes, you couldn’t just take your cornflakes. It was ridiculous. One of the action stations on Revenge was inside a 15 inch gun turret, and you sit in this encased in steel with various very young sailors all around the controls. I remember one time when we had to do a shoot, when the breach opened and all the gleaming steel and the oil and everything and about 8 sailors inside the turret and me terrified and then you saw the shell going in with hisses of steam, then the breach closing with a clang and there you were already to fire. We were allowed to fire 6 shells or something and you didn’t get the big bang; that came when you were outside on the bridge.
But it was enjoyable was it?
In its limited way it was fascinating. I didn’t enjoy being a midshipman at mealtimes and you had a man called a Snotty’s Nurse, in charge of all the midshipmen, sort of head school master. In theory, if you had any problems, you went to him. We slept in hammocks and I said something like â€œWhere’s my hammock billet? and the senior midshipman said â€œI’ll show you just where it is. And he took me over to the revolver cabinet which was locked and said â€œThat’s it, from that peg to that peg. The light never goes off, it stays on night and day and over my head was one of the exhausts of the air system, so you had this awful din all day in one ear and this lit cabinet, and you’ve got to get used to sleeping in a hammock. You got up at 6am to do PT or fencing or whatever, and if you didn’t have the time to stow your hammock, you had a hammock boy. He’d be a very young sailor and he’d come along, half asleep and stow your hammock, with all the correct knots and that was put away. You had a tin box to keep your things in and you grew up very quickly. After a few days the senior midshipman said â€œAre you getting any sleep? and said â€œNone at all really. He said â€œI’ll find you a better place. We always do this to the amateurs. It’s what the real Navy is all about. Midshipmen and sub lieutenants also have responsibility for the boats. There was the skipper which was the speed taxi the captain used, a picket boat which was steam and could carry 60 people. Proper engineers and stokers and a coxswain and so on. But you are responsible for not hitting anything and getting to places on time, being completely in charge of that crew. The coxswain’s always about 40 and you are 18 with no experience at all. Unlike the army, you are given command very young. I was told to run boats 3 weeks after getting on this battleship; quite an honour in a way. You might have had to run the last picket boat at 10pm. Luckily mine was daytime boats. You have quartermasters on board and he calls away the boat’s crew and you go down the ladder and there you are in charge of a picket boat, a steam job with a funnel. You use an authoritative voice to say â€œCast off! One day I went off with the picket boat and when I came back the Snotty Nurse said to me â€œYou’ve been running the picket boat for the morning watch haven’t you? I said â€œYes Sir! He said â€œDid you consult the charts before leaving? I fancy you did not. And there was a chart of Weymouth harbour or whatever it was, in the quartermaster’s ? I said â€œNo Sir. It was broad daylight. â€œBroad daylight. Do you know what a shoal is or a sand bar? There’s one right there. You’re very lucky not to get stuck on one. That’s a Snotty’s beating. He used to beat you, just like at school. 6 of the best, or was it 4.
Not in front of the others?
No. You wouldn’t do that again. You were given responsibilities that you never would have been given in the army. You were always the under watch keeper when on watch. There’d be a lieutenant in charge on watch. When you were in harbour, there was harbour duty. Think of the security, checking people. One day, I had the middle watch which is the midnight one. In charge of the watch was a fully fledged RNR, they were merchant service you see. They had to do 6 months in the Navy and then they had an RNR rank as well. In their way, they could be called up to do any job because they had a watch keeping ticket, probably been 5 or 6 years at sea with Cunard or P and O. Much better sailors than we would ever be. But we probably had a better sense of command and dealing with people. Anyway, on this night, there was an awful gale blowing and they decided to do an exercise with boat crews lowered. They had to go and do something and these 30 odd sailors were soaking wet, and I said to someone, â€œDo they get a hot meal after this? â€œNo, came the reply, â€œThey just climb into their hammocks, wet or dry and go to sleep. I couldn’t quite believe it and I asked one or two if they’d like some hot soup and they said yes. My RNR chap above me said â€œWell, if you want to organise some fucking soup, carry on. So I went off and piped the duty cook to fall in. He was supposed to stay awake all night in case the captain wanted scrambled eggs at 1am, but he arrived looking rather grumpy and said â€œWhat is it Sir? I said â€œ30 dripping sailors have just arrived on board, cold and wet. Can you rustle up 30 soups? I think I may have asked for eggs and bacon as well, I can’t remember, but he said â€œIf you say so Sir! He’d never been asked something like that in all his life. A little later, I went through the mess decks where these people would be having the soup and I think out of the 30, 3 were having the soup, the others had gone to bed and theirs was thrown overboard! You have to learn the hard way! So I joined because I didn’t get in the regular Navy; thought it would suit me well. It did suit me well and then because we’d done 2 to 3 years aboard the President, where I think you had to go down twice a week. I was enjoying learning seamanship and knots and things. We had wonderful sailing weekends in cutters and whalers, which were great fun to sail, very old fashioned. We used to sail down to beyond Canvey Island, pitch a bell tent and go into a pub and get pissed; pretend we were real sailors, and then the next day, tack back to President. We had some adventures. We had to call on the Thames Police asking if they’d tow us back..all that meant I grew up fast. Then the Munich crisis came along and quite a few of us on President were called up to our war stations. We never knew until we were called up what they’d be. We got on a train and went down to Portsmouth, to Burnham which was the torpedo school but now doesn’t exist, and attached to Burnham was one experimental MTB, which still exists in another form, MTB 102 and I think there may have been one other. We were 10 young sub lieutenants or senior midshipmen and we saw this MTB there with tubes and machine guns. She was a beautiful shape, Scoot Payne (?) engines. So we did torpedo lessons in the morning and then went to sea in the afternoon, or do seamanship lessons. I didn’t want to go back to something like Revenge having seen this. I saw myself driving an MTB, winning the Victoria Cross and things! Then that lasted a fortnight and we went back to our civilian jobs and I went back to President.
Do you think as a youngster you do think in terms of – if there’s a war, I hope I win a big medal, or I hope I do something brave?
I don’t think courage necessarily came into it, I think interesting, having an interesting job.
I was thinking more of when you were a young man did you read Hornblower and stuff like that?
Yes, and I also liked the practicality of doing something with your hands. I liked sailing under difficult conditions. I don’t know if you know about the 33 happy moments, a Lin Yu Tang thing, Chinese philosopher. I wrote them out before the war and I wrote them out in prison camp the 33 things that made me most happy. One of them was I was having a doze and there was a bluebottle against the window, just keeping me awake, and finally I get up and open the window and the blue bottle goes away. One of them was to do with sailing. I was beating in a very stiff wind, it’s nearly dangerous, and if you try and go any faster or go into the wind a bit more, it will be dangerous. You’re fearful all the time, but you’re loving it. Those were the sorts of things I wrote down, and of course sex at that age played a pretty important part! Prison camp was all about food. Someone had just cooked up a bowl of porridge and I walked past with the smell wafting in my nostrils, or I got a letter from home. After the war I found these and wrote up my early peace time ones. I asked some very close friends, can you truthfully say if.one was I am in a chair and I have a spot of eczema and finally I go behind a screen and have a good scratch, very Chinese! When war came, I very much wanted to fire a torpedo at an enemy ship and sink it. I thought about fear a lot. I was always frightened at the briefing, like the Zeebrugge raid, when they said you write your dear mum a letter, but do not leave the thing. The second time, I forgot to tell you, was the raid on Tobruk when another admiral gave us this message and said â€œWell, that’s it gentlemen, good luck. By the way, you are going to do what Drake saidsinge the king of Spain’s beard. I thought if ever become an admiral.. 2 admirals about 3 years apart saying the same thing!
One of the things I am interested in is the conditions in which you were living and operating.
We had a little flat ashore which was officially allowed by the duty commander.
You shared it?
Yes, with friends. We always had a flat for 4, but if someone had a flat in a difficult part of town suddenly got some leave, you’d say, you can have my bed because I am on ops for a week. Normally you went off for 8 weeks and you didn’t have a shower, you cooked your own food.
But when you say going off on ops, you are talking about being in Alex and going off up the coast?
Yes. Then you’d say to a mate, you have my bed, chip in I don’t know a pound a week or something for the servants. Old John Brown, he looks after the finance, you pay him. Otherwise, we were alongside the submarine depot quite often, operational but not doing anything; ready to go off or the destroyer depot ship
Presumably, that was the first flotilla submarines at Alex was it?
What flotilla were you? You were with 262 at this stage?
After we were demobbed, I said â€œPresumably we needn’t do anti aircraft anymore, which would have been good because it was deadly dull. But they said â€œWell, you’re half trained, you have been working the guns..you’ve been on the MTB’s, big mistake. No, you’ll go back to cruisers, Coventry, anti aircraft cruisers. Then the reserve fleet was called up in June or July. There was a telegram and I phoned my father and he read it out to me. It was from the Admiralty and the way he read it was â€œYou are appointed in one week’s time to go across France in a train to Stangelo. I’d never heard of that ship, but it was St Angelo. So I went across the channel, steam train down to Marseilles, sat on the deck of one of the cruisers, got off at Malta and there were these MTB’s painted white, that was the first flotilla and they looked marvellous. And all the MTB officers were hand picked. We were very lucky. There were a few earls and that sort of thing! They didn’t treat us like dirt, not at all. We were very much needed because now we were on a war footing. We did lots of training and night training from Malta. You fired astern which was dicey. Put down meccano racks and the stoke (?) was carried on a piece of rope to the firing mechanism of the torpedo which led up to the bridge and when you wanted to fire, you said â€œStand by! and that went down to the engine room who made sure the ? was on and then you fired and I think there was a little charge. If not it was done because you suddenly advanced the throttles so you jerked forward, the other thing pulled the latch down, the fire thing, that slid down the meccano into the water and it bobbed up underneath you and if you got anything wrong, if you couldn’t turn out of the way in time, if it porpoised, you’d blow yourself up, so a lot of practice was needed. You also had to learn about aim off. The speed of the enemy ship, just like a sub mariner.
I had no idea how difficult it was to hit something in a sub and I suppose it was much the same in the MTB. Did you ever get to fire a torpedo at the enemy?
No, sadly not in anger.
It sounds like the role of the MTB changed as the war progressed. It was used almost like an armed, very fast launch that could multi task.
How did an MTB and an E boat compare?
The main difference was we were petrol and they were diesel.
Most E boats were bigger. Our average MTB would be about 75 feet, average speed cruised at 40 knots. 40 knots on a moonlit night – heaven. Who’d be in the infantry? Usually 4 MTB’s in an operation.
Mine laying was an unusual operation, even more unusual with just 2 of you.
Yes, but the thing was, I disobeyed orders. Never go out one MTB, always go out 2 because they were always breaking down. Not the Packards but the ? and Thorneycroft gearbox was dreadful, always going wrong. That’s why it broke down on the way to Crete near that little island. No one in their right minds would have gone out in it. Anyone who’s been to sea can tell you fishing stories and you only believe half of what they say, but I’ll tell you the truth, if you got into a full gale, you went right up on top of a wave and looked down the other side in the moonlight and your stomach goes like this, and you’ve got to be on the throttle all the time so you can go back and forth according to your speed and when you get on the crest of this wave to wave and see you’re going down into this black boiling pit, it is frightening. You come up the other side and your stomach does all this. We 2 officers could not leave the bridge for I think it was 2 days or something. I’d never been through anything like this before. I was 22 and old Monty, the senior officer, unmarried, unworldly gunnery officer type was a very sound person to have with you in many ways, but he was all bottled up..
When was this happening?
On the way back from Malta, in the North Sea. In wooden boats. They said you won’t be blown up by magnetic mines. But we were blown up by acoustic mines. We had some wonderful characters in the crew and about twice a day they’d struggle up with corned beef sandwiches which got soaked and they also try to get drinks to us. On the bridge I suppose you’d have another watch keeper and the coxswain and the 2 of us. You were getting salt water in your eyes all the time. Lying on the deck the champion boxers and footballers, all young men of 22 or so, they were out, finished. The old sailors who smoke too much and drank too much, they didn’t bat an eyelid. We eat a bit of sea soaked corned beef sandwich and sicked it up immediately. First time I’d ever been sea sick. Then ? had hallucinations. It was coming up early morning and we’d had no sleep and he’d shout at me â€œColes, rocks ahead, what are you doing about it? and there weren’t any of course, he was hallucinating. We were off Sardinia. It was terrible because he was the SO of the whole flotilla and he was having hallucinations. We got through it.
What flotilla were you in when you were back in Alex?
The tank (?) flotilla.
The tank MTB flotilla? (It actually sounds more like he’s saying the KENT flotilla??)
Yes, these little fast CMB’s. (?) I built mine at Hampton on the Thames. We had a very nice CO who was the right sort of MTB man, destroyer man, drank a bit, about 36 or 37. We all, got on very well together but I wouldn’t say he was a thinking chappie..
Sorry, this was in the North Sea?
This was when we were building our different boats for the Kent flotilla and the theory was that we were building these very fast boats which were going to be kept on blocks at Dover, and the moment the 2 very fast battle cruisers, the Sharnhorst and the ? oh there was a great balls up with communications, none of the messages got through, we were supposed to be notified as soon as they left port. The MTB’s didn’t get within a quarter of a mile of the ships, weather conditions and so on, but they had casualties, it was all unbelievable. We were told we were going to live at Dover with dry hulls because they were the hulls which were stepped. You didn’t sleep on board, although there were 2 bunks and you carried rations for 3 or 4 days. We didn’t wait for the battle ships to come, we were sent off on a secret mission to Barstow (?), ships were loaded. I think 10 MTB’s and 20 officers were loaded onto this old boat the Salvine (?) round the Cape of Good Hope, stopped at Durban, on up the Red Sea to Suez, straight up the canal to Alexandria. They told us there was no time for working up and that we were going out on ops within 48 hours. We went along to Meersa Matruh or not as far as Tobruk I don’t think, with minimal training. We hadn’t even got sand filters; it was tricky. We’d all got to know one another on this long voyage over, which was good. This was the 10th MTB flotilla, little tiny, very fast, not built for ocean.and you can get these awful seas in the Med. They all got round to Crete, round to Souda Bay where they patched themselves up and had about 4 days of anti E boat, anti Germanthey used ? full of German troops, and the destroyers operating along there. Not one German soldier got into Crete by sea. We had this sort of disaster which I have written up where we were creeping into to Galtapoulo (?) Island, I fastened my boat up to a rock I think it was, and the other MTB fastened up to me and we were flooding, broken frames, no radio, in a terrible state. I think we were there for about 48 hours and that’s where we ran out of food. I went ashore and I saw droppings on the ground and I took my rifle and found a goat and thought there might be a kid around and I stalked around and found one and shot it and took it down to the rocks and cut it up, said â€œI’m having the liver tonight, I don’t care what anyone else has! covered it with seaweed and signalled for them to come and collect me and my servant was a townie of some sort and said â€œWhat have you got there Sir? I said â€œWild goat, it’ll be delicious. It’s been feeding off wild Thyme and all these herbs. I am having the liver! We got back to the MTB and I heard him go forward and say to the coxswain, â€œYou know what the skipper’s done? He’s shot a fucking goat! The average sailor is very conservative. We were all very hungry but I heard them saying â€œDon’t fancy goat!. The first night I had liver, next day cutlets and my servant brought me my tray in and said â€œIt does look good Sir and I said â€œOf course it is, it’s better than lamb, look what it’s been eating. And I heard him go back and say â€œSkipper says it’s fucking good! and so they eat the goat! So we got to Souda (?) Bay and the rest is history. We had the parachute story. At school I got the OTC thing and the boats were set on fire but luckily I was 100m yards away but fortunately I got the guns out. We dug little pits all over the docks and we were using little Vickers K machine guns, 300’s, very nice little guns, and we were being bombed all the time and I put various sailors into these pits with the Vickers K and I suddenly saw myself as a soldier! I was in charge of this deserted docks! I didn’t know where the others had got to but I assumed up in the olive groves. I posted armed guards in tall buildings so that if any Germans came down, they could shoot them. I thought this was good. My OTC training standing me in good stead. Then a very old man came up to me with a naval commander’s uniform on; he’d been in the chart office or somewhere and he saluted me, he said â€œI see you have got a defensive plan for the docks and I said â€œI am doing my best Sir, but there’s no-one else here. He said â€œMay I place myself under your command? Marvellous! We were sitting in the olive groves and the invasion started and Kandahar I think it was came. I asked for leave and was denied it because I’d been 3 or 4 days in ? on the south coast and the admiral who’d debriefed me, and only me, said â€œI understand that you were the MTB stuck in battle for 3 or 4 days? I said â€œYes Sir. He said â€œOur last chart of Scaati (?) and southern Crete was done in 1914 or something. I looked at the chart and said â€œThere’s no mole there Sir; that reef is not there, but there. He said â€œYou’re going to pilot HMS Napier (?) the Australian destroyer and 3 others.
So you were just deposited there for a bit?
I was aboard the destroyer for 5 or 6 days as a pilot and beach master. The beach master was a frightening experience; these drunken Australian deserters, drawing my pistol, all very dramatic. I would have fired between people’s feet you know. We went back on the second day and it was the New Zealanders we were evacuating and an officer, a colonel, crunched across the gravel and I am a 23 year old and only a 2 pipper, saluted in the darkness and said â€œ4th New Zealand Brigade, remnants of, ready for embarkation Sir! It was too much for a 23 year old so I just said â€œThat’s wonderful! The captain had said £Back on board by 0200, or we leave you behind and we’d embarked them all by midnight. There were odd people trickling down onto the beach from the mountains, some with a bandaged foot or whatever and I had a very jammy job for a time. I’d say â€œRight, into the boat and waited til the boat was say half full and back they’d go to one of the destroyers. Some of the trips were ghastly, especially with the drunken Aussies; they were sick and they got in the way, they were rebellious and it was very uncomfortable, especially as we were being bombed all the time. A doctor came down to the beach at about 1.40, limping, he said â€œWhat’s going on? I said â€œWe’re ready to take you home. He said â€œI’ve got a badly wounded man in a cave. He needs a blood transfusion and if I can’t get him to a hospital within 24 hours, he’s dead. He’s a New Zealand captain. Lovely chap. I said â€œCan you get him down here by 1.55? We have to leave at 2am. He said he thought he could. The coxswain of my boat and the ? were edgy; they thought at 1.40 let’s go and be sure of it. But I thought one last chap might suddenly turn up, see us disappearing into the distance and never forgive us. The time went by; it got to about 1.55 and we heard the engines start up on the 4 destroyers. The coxswain said â€œRight Sir. I thought, we’d better hang on for this dying man, like we said we would. He got in the water and pushed it off and he didn’t like me at that moment. Then at 2 minutes to, we heard them shortening the cable and the Coxswain said â€œThey’re slipping anchor Sir. The doctor then appeared ambling through the starlight without any wounded man and I think I shouted at him. â€œCome on doc, get on board. He called back simply â€œCan’t, and off he went. He deserved a gong. So we went, back to Alex. I was at ? for 6 months or something, very easy job. Then I had this lovely American ? boat and we went up and down the Med into Tobruk, all sorts of raids we did; Malta briefly, then the Algerian front, which was quite fun until I got sunk, then prison camp and here I am, lucky to be alive.
END OF PART 2
Charles Coles Part 3
That would be Oerlikon, ordinary Lewis guns. I was a gunnery officer with the flotilla.
That’s a Browning, lovely gun.
I don’t think I made a note of what flotilla you were in.
The first flotilla Malta at the beginning of the war was all? Then up through the rivers and canals of France, we had this Gulf of Lyons (?) (Lions?) thing which is on there but I skipped that. I haven’t played that for 6 or 7 years and as I think I said the Gulf of Lyons sea can be a rough as any sea in the world. It was my first experience of this moonlight and clouds and rain, and going right up to the top of the wave, which might have been 60 foot or something and you find yourself looking down and you’ve got to be on the throttles all the time. My CO was a very straight-laced unmarried RN, little sense of humour and he kept having delusions. We were off Sardinia and he shouted out â€œ??my happy boat, number 17, because I was the oldest of the RNVR’s I think, put in to his boat and his Number One who was the senior of all the Number One’s, was put in the depot ship to go home. So suddenly I am in this boat with this very.no sense of humour at all, very good under many circumstances I am sure but he said to me â€œColes, you’re coming with me as first lieutenant, Number One. You can navigate. Well, I am very bad at sums but you have to say â€œYes Sir! Or â€œI don’t know Sir, but I’ll find out! Those were the two things you could say. I did have to navigate through France and so on but my great friend was a chartered accountant about 3 MTB’s away and he said â€œDon’t worry, I’ll work out everything, because figures to him meant nothing. It was all done by dead reckoning; stop watch; how many minutes at 35 knots; every time you altered speed you altered the course. It was very technical. Even for a professional and for a bad navigator who couldn’t make 2 plus 2 = 4, and everything went wrong, but he never knew because I was flashing away at my chartered accountant friend with a blue box and he’d say â€œWhat does he say Coles? and I say â€œS’alright Sir, he’s just asking if we’ve checked our fuel recently!
But you did get back of course.
Oh yes. We spent a week in Paris. I was leant a Rolls Royce there with a driver. Did all my shopping! Got back to England and Churchill said â€œWhere are the wooden boats? because the magnetic mines were blowing the metal ones up, destroyers were sinking right, left and centre. We said â€œWell Sir, we’ve got wooden 12 MTB’s in Hong Kong and 12 in Malta, and he said â€œGet them back! When we got them back, they had the acoustic mine, so then we were passing ships having been blown up by acoustic mines, which were lethal. I saw one MTB almost blown out of the water when an acoustic mine went off, luckily about 60 yards away, and the helmsman had 2 broken ankles, but nothing else. So that was the first MTB flotilla and they lasted in England about 18 months.
When you were first out in Alexandria?
We went out to go to Cretewe arrived in May 41. Then we had Crete.
You were on a destroyer then weren’t you?
I went back to be a pilot. I had to pilot them into this little fishing village on the south coast where I spent 3 or 4 days because en route for Crete we broke down again in another sort of sea like the Gulf of Lions and I found a little island, had to shoot a goat (all this covered in previous tape). Years later I was back in Greece at a banquet and I was sitting next to a Greek judge and I told him my story about the goat on ? Pulo and he said â€œMr Coles, you shot my goat; it is my island! So he pulled my leg about that! Then two years up and down the desert coast..
What I really want to talk to you about is what you were really doing. You seemed to be doing a lot of camping and weren’t at sea muchwhat flotilla were you in then?
The 10th MTB flotilla?
Yes, and it grew to double its size as new boats came from America.
When you first out there in the desert, you weren’t on 262 were you?
When Crete was.Crete was the little fast one and when that was set on fire I went to the Unisand (??) one which was leant to the 10th flotilla and then the lovely American boats came, lovely boats, then we had the proper 10th flotilla.
So that’s when you joined 262?
Yes. In 262 we did ops from Cyprus, all up the Palestine coast to Syria, and you never quite knew what Turkey was going to do. We were kept on the eastern end of the Med, away from Alex, in case anything should happen quickly. Once we went from the west end of Cyprus carrying cans of petrol which we dumped in a cove on the Turkish coast, quite illegal. I think one Turk must have known about it. We covered it in camouflage netting; it was a completely deserted place. If Turkey came into the war on the German side, there wouldn’t be enough petrol to get there and back unless there was a cache. We were based in, I think, Famagusta, I know it’s got 365 churches and 365 brothels anyway, and Brandy and lime was a penny a glass, course the matelots were never sober. It was a very good flotilla; we were properly worked up, we’d done desert time and eastern Med time. We were ashore on leave and we had the naval pickets who used to around very smart in their white gators to pick up the drunks. If you had something happen suddenly, they used to go round all the bars and cafÃ©s where the matelots went and tell them there was a re-call and to go back to the ship immediately. I was sitting, not at all drunk, but I’d had a few and was watching a cabaret or something. The pickets came in and said there was a re-call, and I probably said â€œI’m off duty or something of the sort but they said â€œAll MTB’s, re-call so we rushed down to the base, and on the way someone came up and said â€œYou’re on ops NOW! You and another boat are going off and you’ll be briefed going down to the ship, and after that by signal. You’re going to Turkey. They thought something had sailed out of Turkish waters; they thought Turkey had joined the war. Then I found that a 3 striper was walking with me; I was a 2 striper. He was a senior chap from the base and he said â€œI understand you’re the captain of 262? I am coming with you to command the operation. Just what I didn’t want! I said â€œI see Sir. He said â€œI’ll be in command of 2 MTB’s and I’ll explain more when I get on board. When I got on board, there were my 3 watch keepers, all sober because they weren’t allowed to leave the boat. Luckily, one engine room, one torpedo and one something else. I thought to myself â€˜I mustn’t let this starchy 3 ringer see that most of the crew arriving back from brothels and pubs are drunk.’ They had every reason to be really, not really drunk, but having had a few. As they came back I said to my Number one â€œGet one of the gunners and put him the turret.. it was dark of course, and the other one.and I said to both of them â€œYou’re not going to be run in if you’re drunk and I don’t care, but you’ve got to tell me now, are you capable or are you too drunk? Well, anyway I thought going along at 40 knots with the wind in his face would sober him up before we saw any action. I think the coxswain was .not drunk, but not able to guide the ship. I told him to fill himself with black coffee and sleep in the crew’s quarters. You’re secured to the jetty and with the right turning screw, the stern kicks out, so if there’s a whole line of MTB’s one behind the other, you can’t get out unless you go ahead on the spring which is a rope which you pick up and then go astern. The bow man had tied the bow rope to the wrong thing so when we went ahead, we hit the jetty with a thumping crashnot very good. The commander chap didn’t seem to notice, didn’t seem to know anything about MTB’s and it was dark. I said to him â€œYou stay here Sir. I’ll get some coffee then we’ll get underway and you can describe the operation. So we left this harbour in Cyprus and off we went towards Turkey. I was extremely worried and suddenly I saw smoke coming out of the voice pipe and you’re not allowed to smoke in most places on an MTB because of the petrol, certainly not on an op below decks. This chap said â€œI smell burning! Not just cigarette smoke, but burning. On the QT, I told my Number One to get down below and find out what was happening. He came back and said â€œI discovered your friend Hextall-Smith (he was in the Navy, but he was a writer), he’s smuggled himself aboard and he’s lying in your bunk fast asleep slightly drunk and he’s burnt a hole in the bunk. I went down below furious. He was a friend of mine. He was an intelligence officer. I said â€œWhat the fucking hell are you doing here? He said â€œWhen I saw you coming down to the MTB’s, I wanted my VC as much as anyone and I wanted in. I said â€œYou’ve set my bunk on fire! Lie low, do nothing, say nothing, keep out of sight. We’re going to fight the Turkish Navy I think. We went on for about another 2 hours and then the op was cancelled. We hadn’t got enough fuel to get back and we got a signal saying â€˜proceed to Haifa, Palestine’ – I think that was it – so we went off to Haifa. Hextall-Smith then appeared and said â€œWhere are we? â€œEntering Haifa harbour. â€œChrist Almighty he said â€œI’m duty officer in Nicosia (or something). I said â€œWell, you’re not going to make it!
So the base for the 10th flotilla moved about a bit?
When you were in Alex, did you have a building where you were based?
First of all we were attached to the destroyer depot ship, huge depot ship, and RAD Rear Admiral Destroyer, he was like our fairy god father, and although we operated from an operational base, which was the naval office at ? with the commander and various admirals and so on, intelligence officer, SOC officers, we could sleep in comfort in the destroyer depot ship. That’s where we’d sleep in Alex. There’d be destroyers alongside. We’d ride outboard, stepping across destroyers, and we’d set (?) the cabins with servants and that sort of thing.
On the depot ship?
Yes. For some reason, perhaps it went for a refit or something, we went alongside the submarine depot ship, but RAS, Read Admiral Submarines was never our boss. Ashore we had our engineering base with the workshops.
Did you have one at Haifa and another at Alex?
Just occasionally, when Rommel got to the gates of Alexandria..oh here’s an operation I didn’t tell you about..we saw the whole of Alexandria clearing of the Navy. The hospital ship went out, somewhere up the coast, the destroyers all left and we woke up one morning to find that all that was left were I think 6 MTB’s – suicide squad. Dotted around the harbour were Vichy French battle ships. There might have been a carrier; there was certainly a battle ship and cruisers, maybe not all Vichy, some neutral French. Under some awful agreement they were allowed to keep enough fuel on board to escape if they decided to join the Turks, or the Germans. We used to see the French cutters every day going ashore and coming back with tomatoes and courgettes and such. We nodded politely to them. Earlier in the war they had been given the option of either staying with the British Navy, and this is why we shelled Oran, there were war ships there, and were they going to come out on our side? We didn’t know. Rommel was only a short distance away, at Alamein I think. We had our own little depot ship called the Vulcan. An Icelandic trawler and she followed us about where she could and there were bunks on her and Maltese servants who would cook a good meal. We were also allowed to have little flats ashore if we wanted to for when we were off duty. If the MTB was coming out of the water, you might be given a week off. So I did have a flat ashore with some mates in Alex, right on the front and it had 4 beds in it and you paid for it yourself. Providing they had our telephone number, you could go ashore when you were off duty.
Who was the CO of the 10th?
Our nice chap in Crete was slightly disgraced because he had MTB’s dotted about all over the place where they could be shot up and so he was sent back to the UK. They held a court of enquiry, â€˜why did you leave your MTB’s where they could be shot up?’ It wasn’t that easy to camouflage them, but we learnt very quickly from that, not to have even 2 side by side. He was eventually given command of a destroyer. Was badly injured. His name was Peter Peak, but he hardly comes into the story because after Crete we had a chap we used to call Daddy because he was about 35, had grey hair. Nokes he was called. He didn’t have his own MTB. He acted as admiral and went in the leading MTB, whatever the operation was. He was the senior officer of the 10th flotilla without his own MTB.
So you didn’t have a captain S10 like with submarines?
Yes, that was him. He lived ashore and came on all the important operations. Then after a time he disappeared and we went back to the old thing whereby the senior MTB CO who was on that operation would direct the operation; you wouldn’t have an extra chap given to you. Before long we had a very famous chap called Bobby Allen who came out to the 10th with his own MTB. Got quite a few decorations and became a politician. A Scot I think – Oxford. He really ran the MTB’s in the Med for about 2 years after Daddy went home. He was extremely good and he would do all the parleying with the admiral and so on .I’m sorry Sir, we only have a range of 400 miles; we cannot do this operation without carrying upper deck tanks, and as you know Sir, they always leak, and if we got shot, they’d blow up in one. Which was true. On longer ops we’d carry tins on the upper deck and we’d stop after 3 hours cruising and tip it in through funnels; ghastly business. So we had Daddy Nokes, then Bobby Allen, then the other leading character was Dennis Germain. He was in the original Malta flotilla.
The sort of raids you were doing up the coast, what were you doing?
Rommel was being supplied by sea.
Yes, the supply war was the key to the whole thing.
He nearly ran out of petrol a few times and it stretched his lines of communication. Basically we had this rather dull job. You never saw any war ships in the bay, the Italians had given up, so when we were based at Tobruk, we would be going perhaps a hundred miles up the coast looking for F lighters, the Fly barges (?).
Instead of going by road, they would disembark at Tobruk or wherever, Benghazi, then these lighters would come all down the coast and drop off..?
Then you’d shoot them up?
That was the theory, that we make life very unpleasant for them, probably fire surface torpedoes at them. But I think we only tangled with F lighters once and it wasn’t me, it was someone else. We were either unlucky or their aircraft would give them warning of where we were. But yes, we were there to attack the supply lines by sea. I think we had a positive and negative influence because nothing moved by daylight, neither us nor the F lighters.
Typically, how long would one trip last?
One night. You’d leave an hour before dusk; sometimes we’d play around with the SBS, Special Boat Service. Occasionally we landed agents. We were ready to do anything required of us. Every now and then we had to sleep in the desert and that’s where I learnt to love the smell of the desert flowers and then in Algeria where we were only there for 6 weeks before I was captured. Marvellous flora. The smell of the desert.
What was the smell of the desert? Herby? Dusty?
After the rain it was like a Greek island. In 3 days, the brown desert turned greenish. It was just waiting for the rain.
Yes, I shot a Gazelle to eat.
Did you used to take a rifle with you?
I took my shot gun which at the bottom of Souda Bay harbour and my fishing rod
I remember you telling me.
I always used a rifle. Then I had this spell operating from Bone with French Intelligence.Boar shooting story as per previous interview.
I am interested in your description of Wagstaff. Who else did you have in the crew? How many in the crew?
About 12 crew and 2 officers, about 14 in all, although later when they got bigger you could have up to 20.
In the Tobruk raid though, 12 crew, 2 officers and this extra chap?
Yes, he was supposed to lead the raiding party.
Who was the chap on the Oerlikon?
The one I told the story about the Coxswain came up to me one day and said â€œThe new Oerlikon gunner has joined the crew Sir. Every now and then you had a replacement for someone who had died or whatever. Very often, they were straight from England with white knees and a white face; no experience at all. This one had been driving a United Dairies pony and trap 12 weeks earlier in Norwich. He’d had a very quick gunnery course. I told the Coxswain I’d go and see him in a bit and there he was standing straight, gave me a very smart salute and said (in heavy Norfolk accent!) â€œAble Seaman ? reporting for duty Sir. I said â€œWhat part of Norfolk do you come from? He said â€œHow did you know I come from Norfolk Sir? I think he met his first Stuka about a month later. He cleaned every spring, every part of this gun.very keen.
And you never got used to the Stukas?
Never, they were absolutely terrifying. I first met them in Crete along with the 109’s. They’d just started to put screamers on the bombs, so if they dropped from 800 feet, there was this awful noise and you could see it happening. The Stuka pilots were very brave. They went into this dive and the wheels didn’t retract so you saw this insect coming at you and you saw the bombs leave the plane, saw them flying down, there was the screaming, whistling and the noise of the engine, and then they’d pull up suddenly and off they’d go. I got used to the bombers.
Did you come across many Stukas in the Western Desert?
When Tobruk fell, we were Stuka’d for 3 days non stop and shelled by the German army but the Stukas were all over the place. No I never got used to it. The fighters you saw come over at low level and they fired, normally one round in 3 was tracer, one in 3 was armour piercing and one in 3 was incendiary, so you got the tracer coming, sometimes quite prettily. I often thought it was quite pretty.
So you had your Oerlikon gunner and Wagstaff; who else did you have?
There were turrets beside the bridge and mostly they had Brownings in them. 2 Browning gunners, .5 heavy machine gun bullet; you had stanchions ready to put the Lewis guns on for’ard, 303, old fashioned 303, very good for some things. So you’ve got 2 gunners up for’ard, 2 gunners in the turrets, that’s 4, torpedo man – 5, 3 in the engine room, 6,7,8, the wireless operator, the Coxswain and an assistant coxswain. I had a very good coxswain who’d been through a lot and In Tobruk as it was falling, a destroyer rushed in to unload, take away some wounded and drop off some ammunition. We were alongside getting some water. I said to the coxswain â€œGo on board and ask if we can fill our water tanks, and some extra in canisters. The destroyer people, knowing they were going out in half an hour and that we were staying in Tobruk, felt very sorry for us. They gave this coxswain 2 tots of rum, or maybe 3 or 4. I didn’t realise he was drunk until we decided to leave. The destroyer left and we decided to cross the harbour and report all we’d seen. I called out â€œStand by engines and he came up and he smelt of rum and he mumbled something and I said â€œCoxswain, you’re drunk! He mumbled something else. When we got to the other side and the battle started, I find a cave not far away where there was some ammunition and I left 2 of the crew with him in this cave. When things got really nasty, I asked for 3 volunteers, then sent the rest of the crew to the cave, told them to stay there til they were needed. The engine room volunteer, leading stoker Lloyd, was the one really bolshy, anti officer rating. If he could say something against the officers, he would, if he could be awkward he would. But when I asked for volunteers, he was wonderful. When we left eventually and were shot at by the tanks.
This was along the coast somewhere?
In Tobruk harbour.
There was a cave there?
Somewhere behind.there were quite a lot of wrecked buildings. Someone probably stumbled on it looking for a latrine or something.
Was Wagstaff with you?
Was he good in a crisis?
He was in his funny way! He used to call me â€˜old lad.’
What was his gramophone? A red.
It was covered in red Rexene, a pretend leather. An HMV, the most expensive you could buy.
Had he bought it in Alex or somewhere?
No, I think somehow his family had sent it out to him
All the way from Strawberry Hill!
They were my records I think, I may have borrowed one or two of his, but he didn’t want anyone touching it.
So as navigator, he was first lieutenant was he?
Yes, it went with the job. He was my Number One.
You must have thought â€˜How did I get saddled with him?’ when he first appeared on the scene, with his louche, suburban ways.
I did! He wasn’t the original Number One, I’d had another before him.
Did he suddenly say â€œI’ve been sent this gramophone. What do you think about putting it on the boat Old Lad?
It just appeared one day I think.
You’d play it at quiet moment would you?
Never underway but at night. Re-fuelling or in Mersa Matruh or somewhere. I had my records. When we were in Tobruk harbour waiting for the signal to get out and the German tanks were opposite us and I could see them clearly. I never expected to be within hailing distance of 4 mark 3 Tiger Tanks. All the MTB’s.I mean by now, Tobruk was in a terrible state. I was told to stay by my little wreck because there was a telephone there still connected to operational HQ. The flotilla commander, by that time, Dennis Germain, he gathered with him, the other MTB’s which had been dotted round Tobruk harbour, had re-fuelled, re-ammunitioned and had all got behind the San Georgio, a sunken Italian cruiser. So the tanks couldn’t actually see them. When I finished on the side where the tanks were, and the coxswain was getting drunk, and all the other operations were going on, I chugged across the harbour, landed my 3 people I’d rescued from the battle, put them in a truck – I wanted them to get to HQ to tell their story as they’d been right in the battle. I found an army officer distilling water. I said â€œCan you take these 3 down to Naval HQ? It’s extremely urgent. He said â€œMy dear old chap, I am distilling water. I said â€œIn half an hour you won’t need any distilled water! So he put them in his truck and disappeared. Then my job was done so I sailed up to the San Georgio, to the 8 or 9 MTB’s sheltering in the lee of it and Germain waved me away saying â€œDon’t come here, don’t come here! Well, I thought why not, and then realised that I would have been the one who stuck out telling the Germans that there might be more MTB’s hiding behind the sunken cruiser. He said â€œGo back to where you came from; there is a telephone there and we will have communication with Navy House. So I went back and that’s when everything started to go pear shaped. I had to change my propeller and learn how to dive in 5 minutes and in the middle of all this shelling and fighting and Stukas, I saw an MTB I hadn’t noticed, very clean, I don’t think camouflaged, sitting in the middle of Tobruk harbour at anchor. I watched and looked at the number which was one I didn’t recognise and thought 234 (???) have come out to Alexandria in the last year, must be one of those, what are they doing here when we’re all leaving and I looked through my glasses and I saw this chap in immaculate whites, not khaki. He unpacked a deck chair – this is quite true – on the foc’sle just behind the bridge, shells going all over the place and started to read a paper back or the Cairo Mail or something. I couldn’t believe it. Then the tanks must have suddenly noticed him, thought there’s a fruit cake and they out a shell across his bows, they could have just sunk him immediately, the deck chair collapsed, hat fell off, he rushed to the wheel, peep peep, the engine started, they ripped the anchor out, he made off to the boom at 40 knots and got out of the boom..
What on earth was he thinking?
He didn’t know Tobruk was falling. That was what life was like. He thought this was quite normal.
He was an academic was he?
Yes, afterwards he became Sir Timothy Bligh in the cabinet office I think.
So you wore khaki’s did you?
Oh yes, because white stands out so, and the laundry bill.
Must have upset Wagstaff!!