Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Historical Perspective: Victory in Europe

Sixty-five years ago, the guns in Western Europe fell silent and the curtains closed on one theatre of the Second World War. Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day, marked Germany's unconditional surrender to the Allies. With the United Kingdom overwhelmingly invested in the fight against Adolf Hitler - the war against Japan in the Pacific was disproportionately shouldered by the United States - it was a day of feverish celebration as six years of conflict came to a close.

Yesterday would have been my grandfather, Les Parkinson's, ninety-fourth birthday. I've previously posted extracts from his memoirs dealing with his service in the Manchester police force during the war. In 1943, he stepped out of his police uniform and served as a motor mechanic aboard the motor launch RML 497, where he served for the remainder of the war.


From the news releases it was obvious that the war was going well for the good people - us - and the speculation was about when it would all end. We carried on our patrols and spent a lot of time at sea with the spring of 1945. We had nice sailing conditions, and we were able to enjoy reasonably warm weather. The thought of being able to go on watch without wrapping up in all sorts of clothes to keep warm was uppermost. Around April the rumours started again, and the time of peace, it seemed, was at last in sight.

We finally got the news that an armistice would take place early in May. On the afternoon of May 6th, there was a broadcast from the base PA system that no boats would go out on patrol that night, or any other night, as an armistice had been arrived at and hostilities would cease at 0230, May 7th. What a birthday present that was for me.

During the afternoon of May 7th, Peter Scott, the SO of the SGBs, escorted an E-boat into the harbour. Aboard this boat was a high-ranking German naval officer, whose only purpose was to surrender his fleet of E-boats to the Royal Navy. These boats were beautiful to look at, and once they were cleaned up, we were allowed to look over this one.

The crew's quarters were dirty compared with ours, but the wardroom was scrumptious and nicely fitted out. The E-boat was powered by three Daimler-Benz diesel engines. They were huge, and it was no wonder they could outrun our boats.

They had one snag, though, if you could call it one. Whilst they were moored, they had to have a "Jenny" pump hot water through the main engines to keep them warm and ready for immediate use. Also, they had no gearbox. When the engines were started, the boat moved at three knots and was in direct drive. To go astern, the rotation of the camshafts had to be reversed.

The German crew trained one of our crews to handle the boat. Then our men took the E-boat on a tour of the bases on the east coast that had played host to our own boats during the war.

With the war in Europe over, we had to wait to see what was going to happen. One strange thing did happen, though. On the night of May 7th there was no order broadcast at sunset to darken ship, as had been the case for the last five years. It was a strange sight that night. All the lights in the harbour were on, and lights could be seen on all the boats as the hatches and portholes were not battened down.

It was a wonderful, almost forgotten sight. Most of the crews of the boats went up to London that night, and everybody celebrated. As the coxswain was from London, I stayed aboard on watch and let him go to see his family. I went ashore the next night and had my photo taken with my two stokers, Biff and Monty.

Les Parkinson, Biff, and Monty - May 8, 1945

We were detailed for one more patrol, and that was to take a person from Trinity House to check all the buoys in the area. This took us three days. We returned to base each night, and each night we saw fewer and fewer boats in the harbour. They had all gone to be decommissioned and paid off, and we knew that it wouldn't be long before we were paid off.

One of the nicest orders in the Navy was "Harbour Stations," and it was given when entering or leaving harbour. All the crew lined the deck facing the base and stood at attention as the skipper saluted the duty officer. This was to allow the crew a last look at land as they left, in case they didn't return, and as they entered it was to allow them to be thankful for their return. I did like it, although I never participated, as I was always below in the engine room.

The day we left for Dartmouth I watched the land disappear and had a lump in my throat. Why, I didn't know, but I knew that I was leaving something behind. We were on our way to pay the boat off and go home.

All we had to be careful of was that we didn't hit a mine. There were plenty around, but the minesweepers were already hard at it, clearing the minefields and reopening the channels to shipping. To be sure we didn't hit a mine, a lookout was posted up forward and lay on the deck over the bullring in the bow.

Our first stop was at Newhaven, where we spent the night. There, there was a thirty-two foot rise and fall tide. The boats were rafted, and the inner boat was moored to a pontoon that was fastened to the bollard on shore. As the tide went out the watchkeeper had to release and let out the ropes mooring the pontoon to the shore, and the reverse was done when the tide was on the flood.

The watchkeeping was done by men from the base, allowing the boat crews to get some much-needed rest. To get ashore when the tide was out, one had to cross the pontoon and climb up a series of ladders, like the wall bars of a gymnasium, to get ashore.

That night I went ashore to celebrate, and celebrate I did. It was my one and only real bender. We started off with beer and cherry brandy chasers, and what a night it was. The last thing I remember happening was slapping Jimmy the One on the back in a pub and telling him it was time he bought the crew a drink. Everything else was a blur until I woke up in my cabin aboard _497_. From what I was told, I flaked out and the crew carried me to the base, lowered me down the ladders and onto the boat, where they put me on my bunk.

The next morning we put to sea, and I didn't know which was greener, me or the water. The coxswain had had to remain in Felixstowe, so one of the ratings was made acting swain and I was in charge of the crew. As we put into Torquay, I asked the skipper if there was shore leave for the crew. "Yes," he said, "but not for you. You had enough last night." I didn't intend going ashore anyway.

The next day we left for _497_'s final resting place, Dartmouth. The River Dart was the graveyard for many, many Motor Gun Boats, Motor Torpedo Boats, and Motor Launches. There were dozens of them tied up. We tied up to a jetty, and there a work crew removed our guns, ammo, depth charges and CSA gear, while the crew unloaded their own gear.

We could leave nothing aboard. I shared my stock of cigarettes with the crew. From the bridge I took the ship's badge, which I had made, as a keepsake and reminder of my days aboard _497_. As I left the boat I felt a little sad, as it had been my home for so long.

Past Perspectives:

No comments:

Post a Comment