One of the most important questions in the world, I think, is this: "what do you want?" It's a question for which every person has a different answer. Today, what I want is simple - I want the Second World War to always be known as "the war." Conflicts come and go, and while in the future we may wring our hands about the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan or the war in Venezuela or the war on Mars, the blood of 1939-1945 is such that it should never need any further explanation than "the war."
My grandfather, Les Parkinson, served in the war. After having the extraordinarily good timing to leave the British Army in June 1939, he endured the Blitz as a Manchester policeman and joined the Royal Navy in 1943, where he served as motor mechanic of RML 497, a Fairmile Marine Motor Boat tasked with coastal patrols. That boat still sails today as The Fairmile, on passenger ferry service in southwest England.
Before his death in 1999 my grandfather set down his memoirs, and as I read them they hinge upon his service in the war - the ultimate of extraordinary backdrops for ordinary men. Today, I think it appropriate to present two scenes of that conflict, from a man who went through it all without once firing a gun.
The first story involves 497's participation in a commando raid against the German-occupied Channel Islands at some point in 1944 - from context, it appears to be prior to D-Day. I have been unable to locate any information about this raid in any online source.
One afternoon a troop of Royal Marine Commandos came aboard 497. They were led by a Lieutenant who had been a Metropolitan Policeman before the war, and he wore a pair of carpet slippers with sponge soles. He said that he always put them on before going ashore on a raid.
There were eight commandos in all and they had four kayaks to get them ashore, wherever "ashore" was. We slipped our moorings and sailed out. The skipper was glad to go on this patrol, as he was after a chest full of medals and here was a chance to get one, so he hoped.
Once we cleared land we were briefed, and we learned that we were going to take the commandos over to the Channel Islands, occupied by the Germans, to try to take some prisoners. The Officer-in-Charge of the Marines told us that they had information that a top brass conference had been arranged on one of the islands by the Germans, and that his crew was going to spoil it.
The plan was that we would take them in to about a mile or so off shore. If we got in undetected, they would then go ashore in the kayaks. One of the kayaks would return to us with, they hoped, a captured sentry, who would be left with us. Then we could leave the area, only to return at five thirty in the morning for rendezvous, that being just before dawn.
As we neared our objective, the OIC said, "Just look at that." We saw what looked like a car travelling on a road then stop, and then a door open and close. All the lights were visible, none were screened like they were in England. That building, the OIC said, was the object of our attention.
The raiders had, by this time, blackened their faces and were ready to go. The kayaks were launched and away they went and thus started our vigil. After what seemed to be a long time we heard someone hailing us, and after recognition signals had been exchanged a kayak came alongside. Bound and gagged and tied across the kayak was an unconscious figure in an army uniform. He was only about seventeen years old, and had been the sentry on the quayside. We took him aboard and the men left to return to their mates.
The prisoner was carried below and was fastened to one of the bunks, where he finished out his sleep. Our sick berth attendant was his guard. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were on deck as lookouts. We started our engines and sailed away to a safe distance to await the rendezvous time.
We saw what we thought was a door open and then close, and then an explosion. We surmised that the commandos had succeeded in blowing up the building, thus interrupting the conference in the manner the Marines wanted it done. After a while, small arms fire could be heard.
At two o'clock we started back to meet the commandos. They were all there except two. The Lieutenant told the skipper to head back to port, but to my surprise he refused. He said that it was his understanding that we would wait until two thirty, and it was not that time yet. The engines were cut and everybody was ordered to be quiet.
After what seemed an eternity, we heard a muffled "ahoy." A return "ahoy" was made and then the last kayak came into view. A body was tied across the bow. We took them aboard and found that one of the men was dead. He had ripped his leg off at the knee on the underwater defences and had lost so much blood that he had died. His mate said that he was determined not to leave his mate behind for "Jerry," and if we hadn't waited he would have tried to reach England himself. He was eventually awarded the Military Medal for this action.
We started the engines and left in a hurry. Radar must have picked us up, for the big guns started shooting and we saw the muzzle flashes. We soon got out of their range, so we thought. Suddenly the top of our mast "fell off." We didn't know if it was a direct hit or a bit of shrapnel, but something had hit us and that was scary. Once again my guardian angel was with me. That was the only time we faced enemy gunfire during the whole of the war. We were lucky.
We returned to base safely. On the trip back there was a big row in the wardroom between the Royal Marines Lieutenant and the skipper over his failure to leave at the set hour. As we neared port he came to me and said, "I don't envy you with that skipper, he's a bloody idiot." That was the only real commando raid we ever did.
I often thought of that poor prisoner who we had aboard for a few hours. I wondered what he thought when he came to and realized where he was and what had happened. I should think it was a night that he would never forget and would have never thought that it would happen to him - such is war!
The second story takes place in late 1944 or early 1945. "E-boat" was the wartime Allied term for the German Schnellboot, a type of motor torpedo boat.
One day when we were off on standby, we got a call to put to sea at about five in the morning. During the night there had been an action of the Dutch coasts when the MTBs had attacked a German convoy. There had been a shootout between the defending E-boats, R-boats and flak ships and our MTBs, MGBs and the mother ship, the frigate HMS Dakins. During the battle, the Dakins had been had been hit with a torpedo below the waterline. We had to go out to help, if necessary, and to bring in any wounded and survivors.
A frigate normally had fourteen feet of freeboard amidships, but when we saw the Dakins limping home, she only had about two feet of freeboard. She had taken in so much water that had it not been for damage control she would have sunk, of that there was no doubt. Damage control was a system whereby parts of the ship could be isolated by closing watertight doors.
The Dakins refused our help, as she said that she could make it back to Harwich under her own steam, so we were sent for survivors in the water. We searched around for hours until we finally found one body in the water. When we got him aboard, he was dead, and it turned out that he was a German sailor.
He was Obermachinist Pigorsch, and he had been a mechanic on a sunken E-boat. He must have been due to go on leave when he returned to his base, as he had a small suitcase fastened to his body. That's how we learned who he was. It contained some bars of ersatz soap, the metal parts of a scooter and a photo of him, his wife and a five or six year old boy. So we took him back to base with us.
When we got back to base, we fuelled up and prepared for the next day's regular patrol. As we were about to leave harbour the next day, we were ordered to tie up at the main jetty. There we saw a padre in his clerical rig and a body draped in the German flag. We were told that it was the body of the dead sailor we had brought in, and that we were going to bury him at sea in sight of his homeland. The padre was to spend the day with us.
We knew roughly where the E-boats were, a place called IJmuiden in Belgium. It was the nearest German base to our patrol, so that was where the skipper headed. The sea was calm and we had a very quiet crossing. We must have been within the three-mile limit of the port when an E-boat was seen racing toward us at high speed, as we must have appeared on their radar.
The padre was on the bridge, the flag-draped body was on the quarterdeck and our ensign was at half-mast, so it was obvious what we were doing. The E-boat came within a hundred yards of us. The crew, we could see, were at their action stations. The skipper no doubt had his glasses on us, for we saw the crew leave their action stations and line the deck. Then the German skipper hailed us on his PA system. His voice, I am sure, was that of the chap we saw and heard at the buoy off Weymouth whilst I was in training.
He asked who we were burying, so he was told, and he came nearer and threw a heaving line over to us, on which we fastened a bag containing Pigorsch's possessions. We were then ordered to follow them and I thought, "here goes, time in a POW camp," but I was wrong, thank goodness.
About a mile offshore we stopped, placed the boat in such a position as to allow the dead sailor to face the coastline, and were ordered to proceed with the funeral service. We had no bugles. They fired a volley as the body sunk to the shrill whistle of the bosun's pipe. After it was all over, the German skipper told us to follow him out to sea. He escorted us part of the way back.
Before leaving us, he thanked us for what we had done. He spoke in a very cultured voice, like that of a BBC person. His final words to us were "I hope we don't have to meet again under different circumstances." Then the E-boat sped away. After he had gone we all said a little prayer with the padre and breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was plain to see that the E-boat captain was not a Nazi fanatic. Had he been, we may have ended up being guests of Adolf Hitler.