I joined The Royal Navy in February I942, where I did my training as a seaman down at H.M.S. Raleigh, Torpoint, Devon.
It was ten weeks basic training, they taught us everything a seaman should know, how to handle a sailing boat, the points of the compass, how to splice ropes, how to tie knots, oh yes and barrack square drill, every morning for an hour in the freezing cold, being shouted at, running around the half-mile barrack square with a rifle above your head, most times because the instructor could not find the person in the back row who had made a certain joke and you were the nearest.
Anyhow after ten weeks, they thought we were trained enough so we all attended a "Passing Out" parade, the medals, the brass and the swords worn by the top brass looked quite splendid and of course The Royal Marine Band, in every way perfect.
After one weeks leave, I reported to Portsmouth barracks, two days later everyone "fell in" on the square, more shouting, all of a sudden someone shouted, from here to the left, right turn, quick march, my pals and I were naturally together, so off we went to the gymnasium where we were documented, stripped to the waist and medically examined, (if you could stand you were passed fit). The next morning we found ourselves on a train to Liverpool, where we joined a destroyer flotilla.
I spent the next four months on H.M.S. Brecon, a Hunt class destroyer, in the Atlantic hunting U Boats and escorting convoys under the overall command of Captain Walker, “The U boat Killer”. I did not see a lot of future in this, day in day out looking through binoculars at nothing but water. So I asked to see my skipper Lt. Com. Herrick. I asked him for a transfer to The Royal Marines, to my surprise a week later I was on a train back to Pompey where I ended up in Eastney Barracks, I had arrived.
It all started again, on the barrack square in the freezing cold, being shouted at, but the training I did at Torpoint stood me in good stead, so it was agreed that I had finished with basic training. I was interviewed and given two choices, a sea Marine or a Marine Commando. I chose the latter. I had forty-eight hours leave, I went home in an ill-fitting battle dress and a blue beret, hobnailed boots and gaiters, the writing on top of my arm told everyone that I was a Royal Marine. (mother was confused). My leave over, it was back to Eastney barracks. The next morning I was joined by thirty-five others and we were sent by train to the north-west of Scotland to a place called Fort William. As we got off the train there was more shouting, only this time the shouts
seemed more menacing. The squad formed up and we were told that we were going for a little walk, it was eight miles to Achnacarry. Now when our Lord created the earth he got as far as Achnacarry and ran out of ideas, have you ever heard the phrase "the ass-end of nowhere" well need I say more.
This camp was situated in the most desolate place on earth, all I could see was huts, tents and miles and miles of nothing. Oh dear Harry, you fool. But from my early life, I was something of a tearaway who was always getting into scrapes, picking fights and sometimes getting the worst of it. I thought, oh
well, here we go again. This camp, by the way, housed mostly army commandos; my squad was the last Marine commandos to be trained there, as Lympstone was opening up. We were being trained by army instructors, but when you've met one you've met them all. The first days training started and that evening when we got back to our hut we dragged our feet to our beds and sat down. I didn't know whether to cry, whether I wanted to mess my
pants or have a haircut. I looked at all the other lads, they all looked the same as I did and I swear to this day those instructors tried to kill us.
After a few days, everything seemed a bit easier and in the end, we were all fit lads. Our leisure time consisted of rest mostly because if you wanted to go for a night out it was eight miles down the road. The only vehicle on the camp belonged to the camp Commandant, Lt. Col. Vaughan, known as "Laird of Achnacarry".
Our training over we all attended an interview by a Royal Marine Colonel, apparently, I did very well in my training and I was told that I could volunteer for a new outfit called the Special Boat Section, I was told no more than that, I thought, oh well, and being me, I volunteered. The next day two of us were on our way to Pompey dockyard, Roy Pilgrim and myself. We were met by two men in blue boiler suits who like ourselves were wearing green berets. "You Pilgrim and Francis", "Jump in". It was an old pick up truck, we ended up at Hayling Island Yacht Club, a wooden hut, but inside was quite comfortable. No beds we all slept on the floor, Officers, N.C.O.'s and us, altogether. This included everything, eating, washing and bathing out of a bucket, quite a feat. There were no "yes sirs" or "no sirs" it was "skipper" or "boss". We were known as II8 Group S.B.S. attached to 40 Commando Royal Marine. Our immediate C.O. was a Royal Marine, Captain Fitzroy Mclean, a quietly spoken Scottish Laird. Though quiet I wouldn't trust him behind me as an enemy, a really tough man, only five foot in height but all muscle. We had a Sergeant Major Vickery, known as Granny, A Sergeant Mcleod, everyone called him Jock. I did many sorties with him in charge); four Corporals, I palled up with one of them; Alfie Newton a schoolmaster. There were men from all walks of life. Gallie from Glasgow another five foot seven bloke look sideways at him and you were dead. He was brought up in the Gorballs. Our training was very rigorous; we had to be proficient in parachute jumping, underwater activities, unarmed combat, knife fighting and all sorts of skulduggery including explosives.
Within three weeks we were on our way to the Middle East. On landing at Malta no one wanted to know us, never heard of you was the reply, so we were put under canvas on the Island of Gozo. More training. One day we were called back from training and the boss told us we were on a job, our first as a unit; it was the Invasion of Sicily. Six men were picked for the van (as it was called) Jock was in charge, Alfie Newton was his number two, yours truly was included. We parachuted in just west of Syracuse at night, my partner was a chap called Fenton, his nickname was Slim. I never did know his Christian name, Slim and I were partners on that sortie and we remained partners for the rest of our service. Our main job on Sicily was to try to put out the ferry boat that ran from Messina to Reggio as the Germans were moving tanks on them. The R.A.F. had already put three of them out of action but it was the last one that seemed elusive so it was our job to see to it. We were given our orders before we left, so on landing, we split into pairs. Slim and I moved off, our course was to the North of the island but German troop movements in that area were so dense that we couldn't make it, so as per instructions we returned to the rendezvous point.
After twenty-four hours we were joined by Alfie Newton, whose partner had been killed. Jock and his partner Piggy Leonard had disabled the ferry, Piggy never made it back, Jock got back to Malta in a fishing boat, having relieved the owner of. Alfie, Slim and I waited in hiding till the Canadians came in on the Invasion. We were up on the cliffs watching them come in. Four got back to Malta, Mission accomplished.
After that, we were finally recognised and given our own section in Verdalla Barracks in Malta. My group also did landings at Salerno three days before the main body of troops landed. After Salerno our next sortie was Naples harbour we landed at night with explosives and caused absolute mayhem. After Naples we were rested, as they put it, guarding the sea wall. My next job was a special one, one I shall always cherish, Slim and I and two other pals were special bodyguards to General Alexander when he visited Anzio. A few weeks rest and we were on the move again. We arrived at the Commando School at Haifa, that remained our main base. From there we did raids up the Greek and Dodecanese Islands and all along the Greek coast. By that time we were getting quite good at our job, it was during that time the Boss left us, he went on to higher things. He was a Major when he left, he ended up a Major General, "God bless him". He was a very good man. His place was taken by a Canadian, Capt. Johnston, he blended in very well after a while, we made sure he did, if you know what I mean.
Kicking our heels in Beirut the powers to be thought that II8 Group were getting surplus to requirement so to cut a long story short we ended up in Trincomalee, Ceylon, under canvas again. From there we operated along the coast of Burma, a different war altogether. We helped free the Andaman
Islands, Ramree and Akyab Islands. We did all we could at night to upset the Japs. Crouching half the night up to our waists in water with leeches stuck all over us! Give me Achnacarry! The last job I did with the group was paddling on a surfboard, of sorts, over the Irrawady River trying to find suitable places for our troops to cross. The Japs got wise to us in the end and I'm afraid we lost quite a few good mates. I was wounded and flown back to Netley Hospital and then on to Haslar Hospital. I tried to get back to the group again, but to cut a long story short I ended up as a Royal Marine on the Battleship Vanguard, where I ended my service in February I946.
Hair-raising! Frightening! you name it! But I grew up quick. How does a Trained Murderer get back to civilian life? But I suppose we all managed it.
MN/X 649I36 MNE. FRANCIS. H. C.