- Morton, Ray
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As the holder of the AA Gunner’s ticket my Action Station was on a machine gun on the boat deck. The severity and continuity of the air attacks that followed was ferocious with a capital F. You just stayed at action stations, you didn’t have time for anything and you didn’t sleep. Wherever you pointed the gun there was an enemy plane and you just kept pulling the trigger except when you were reloading. The sky was like a huge lace curtain with the shell bursts from close to a hundred ships and it just stayed that way. Bombs were raining down, planes were falling out of the sky and ships disappearing in a flash of blue light. Many of the ships were carrying aviation fuel in drums in the ‘tween decks and how that reacted to a torpedo or a bomb I will leave to the reader’s imagination. And near misses were two a penny.
At one stage both HM Ships Nelson and Rodney were being attacked by torpedo bombers flying in low quarters. Each battleship turned to steam right at the planes, each elevated A turret of three 16” guns and let loose a salvo. When the smoke cleared not one torpedo bomber was left. Some time later a RN Gunnery Officer told me ‘. . . with a time fuse the blast from each shell would clear a square mile of sky.’ The pilots would never know what hit them.
Hit by torpedo
On 12th August we copped it. Around 6.00 pm while I was trying to shoot down aircraft a torpedo struck Ohio in the summer tanks, loaded with kerosene. With a 24 foot by 27 foot gash in her side, tank lids flying off, flames shooting mast high, a fountain of kerosene soaked me at my gun on the boat deck.
What happened next I don’t know but when reality hit I was in the oggin, bobbing up and down in my life jacket complete with red light and whistle. I can’t swim, and watching ships steam past without even a wave didn’t do anything for my morale. I soon felt a bit better – but not much – when I realised there were three others in the water in close proximity, one of them Mario, the galley boy. By this time the convoy was disappearing in the distance. But we weren’t alone for long, enemy planes flew over and used us for target practice. Fortunately their bullets missed.
After about three hours of bobbing aimlessly about in the drink a destroyer came in sight and headed for us. After picking up my three comrades in distress she headed for me. It was L34, HMS Bicester, one of His Majesty’s Hunt Class destroyers. Heaving lines were hurled at me, all dropping short, and finally my dull brain registered the fact that I was supposed to strike out and grab one. I yelled ‘It’s no good dropping the bloody things there – I can’t swim!’ A three badge (good conduct) AB standing on deck pushed his cap to the back of his head and in a West Country accent said ‘Well I’ll be f*****, I’ve ‘eard everything now!’ The destroyer was swinging her stern closer to me and a Petty Officer on the quarter deck ripped off his uniform and dived in after me just as the screws were beginning to pull me under. He dragged me to the side of the ship and up a scramble net, and on reaching the deck a big burly AB got on each side of me, arms round my shoulders saying ‘Come on son, you’re OK now.’ I pushed them aside saying ‘I know I’m OK,’ and hit the deck like a sack of spuds. Somebody carried me below deck and put me in a hammock. The ship’s doctor came round, checked me to make sure I was all in one piece and gave me a mug full of Pusser’s Rum to drink. I slept like a log and when the doc came round the next morning to see how I was, I brashly demanded to know why I had been ‘knocked out.’
While we were being picked up Bicester had had to fight off some enemy planes. Some pom-pom shells had deflected downwards into X and Y turrets and put their own gun crews out of action. I remembered hearing calls for stretcher parties as I was taken aboard and the Doc said ‘You were in no condition to know what went on around here last night, lad.’
A couple of days later we landed back at Gibraltar (but that is another story). After a month we sailed back to the UK as Distressed British Seamen on a Union Castle boat, the Llanstephan Castle. On arrival back in the UK I learned two facts of life. One: your pay stopped the day you hit the drink, and two: if you spent four weeks getting home or in a life raft or in a lifeboat that was your month’s survivor’s leave.
Operation Pedestal and Ohio – I will never forget them.