Independent statement written in May 2003 by Second Coxswain John Cullen, HMRML 532.
On the 28th April 1944, I was serving in the Royal Navy as a Second Coxswain on board His Majesty’s Rescue Motor Launch 532, based at Portland Dockyard, Dorset, UK.
532 was a Fairmile built Rescue Motor Launch commissioned in 1942. She had several additions to make her capable of rescuing and treating survivors. These included a sick bay on the Quarter Deck, complete with bunks, oxygen, medical equipment and scores of woolen blankets. Her armaments comprised a single Pom Pom on the Focsle. Twin Vickers 303 on each side of the Bridge, Twin Oerlikins aft, six depth charges and Anti Submarine Asdics.
She was an excellent sea boat. I found her to be very manoeuverable , which she proved when we went to the aid of a stricken destroyer in a force-ten gale in the heart of the Bay of Biscay. However, in my estimation, she was handicapped in a battle against surface craft as she had a diagonally built hull of mahogany and a teak deck, but more importantly, the biggest danger was that she carried two thousand gallons of high octane petrol to fuel her two Hall Scott Defender engines, something that I found to my cost at a later stage of the war whilst serving on a Motor Torpedo Boat.
During rescue operations, the First Lieutenant and Coxswain remained on the Bridge, whilst the Captain directed the Medical Artificer, two seamen and myself in the rescue work. However, in the event of a dinghy being launched, it was manned by the First Lieutenant and myself.
In the early hours of 28th April 1944, we were tied up at the Torpedo Boat pens in Portland Harbour. 532 was part of a flotilla of six Rescue Motor Launches all of similar age and each crewed by the same number of personnel. The Skipper received a signal to take all six boats into Lyme Bay, where an American convoy was in danger of attack by German E-Boats (all known as Schnellboot). Very quickly, all six MLs went into line ahead through Portland Harbour into Weymouth Bay, up to and around Portland Bill and into Lyme Bay. This took approximately twenty minutes. The intention was to try to engage the E-Boats and protect the convoy of Tank Landing Ships that was proceeding at very low speed towards the Devon coast.
It was ideal E-Boat weather, calm sea and very low cloud, which could protect them from attack by aircraft. Being April it was fairly cold but I was comfortable wearing plenty of woolens under a boiler suit insulated with kapok. The Skipper issued orders for the Battle Ensign to be raised, (a flag approximately ten to twelve times larger than an ordinary ensign). Also the port and starboard lights on the yard arm to be turned on in order that friendly ships would recognise us.
When we rounded Portland Bill we could not see the convoy but we picked it up on radar as being eighteen to twenty miles away. We also spotted some shapes moving fast towards the convoy from the shore side. All during their time we were being conned by HMS Attack, a shore based establishment situated on top of Portland Bill with a panoramic view of the English Channel that extended for approximately thirty miles in all directions. This establishment was rated so highly by the Admiralty that they appointed a Rear Admiral as Flag Officer in Charge.
The Bridge was very busy, with the Skipper continually calling for radio reports from our radio operator and also from our radar operator. The First Lieutenant appeared to be permanently engaged with the Aldis Lamp signalling HMS Attack and the other five MLs of the flotilla.
We were approximately fifteen miles from the convoy, when the attack on the LSTs began. I first saw gun flashes reflected by the low cloud then some flares, followed later by some large explosions. We were blind to what was going on as our radio operator reported that he could not raise any signals from the American ships. It was HMS Attack that informed us that two American LSTs had been sunk and another was in difficulty because her stern had been blown away. This information reached us approximately 45 minutes after I had first sighted the gun flashes. As a result of receiving this information the Skipper issued orders to prepare for survivors. Scrambling nets were rolled out, covered were removed from the two searchlights, the dinghy was slung outboard and our Medical Artificer proceeded to lay out a dozen Heath Robinson stretchers on the Quarter Deck. By this time we were within five minutes of the convoy. The gunfire and tracer appeared to be increasing. The Skipper was using his binoculars continuously and I realised that he had to make a decision to take his ships within range of the LST gunfire. The Americans were hopping mad and appeared to be firing at shadows. Our radar operator also reported that some of the LSTs had turned and were heading in our direction.
The situation was resolved by the Rear Admiral at HMS Attack issuing orders for us to return to Portland as it was judged that we may have been mistaken for E-Boats and would have come under fire from the American ships. To this day I am convinced that this was the right decision for I feel that we would have come under friendly fire and that would have turned us from being saviours into victims. Still, it was a bitter disappointment for we all felt that, given the opportunity, each boat could have saved perhaps fifty men resulting in something like three hundred lives being saved.
The E-Boats had departed before we followed orders and turned back to Portland. Their quick departure has always puzzled me. It raises the question: Why? Each E-Boat carried four torpedoes. The number of E-Boats involved has been reported as nine, and by some as fifteen, therefore placing a minimum of thirty six and a maximum of sixty torpedoes at their disposal. With only one torpedo required to sink an LST,why did they not use all of their torpedoes and attack all of the ships in the convoy? In my opinion there are three possible reasons:-
- Incompetence on the part of the German E-Boat commanders. This I very much doubt.
- Perhaps they may have picked up our six boats on radar and mistakenly thought that we were Destroyers (E-Boats worst enemy).
- The resilience and accuracy of the American and British gunners. I believe that this was the reason for the swift departure of the E-Boats.
As a result, I believe that the exercise wasn’t the abject failure that is often claimed.
We arrived back at base at approximately 4.30am. A meeting of all the officers took place and apparently orders were issued to instigate a search of various areas of the channel at first light for evidence of the attack. Each boat being allocated its own search area.
We had breakfast at 5.00am and shortly afterwards we proceeded to our search area. It was just breaking daylight when we arrived at our area. It was soon evident that we were at the site of the attack as their was debris spread over a very large area. In the centre of this was a Rhino, a prefabricated pontoon approximately 250ft long by 100ft wide. It was constructed of a series of rectangular steel tanks resembling the modern ship’s containers each approximately 20ft x 8ft x 8ft all bolted together with four sets of railway lines running fore and aft.
The Skipper decided that we would tow the Rhino back to Portland as apart from anything else it was a navigational hazard. So it was that the First Lieutenant and I launched the dinghy. We made our way tot he Rhino and managed to attach a tow line to the stern bollards. Slowly 532 took the strain and then started to rev up but nothing moved. We had not realised that the Rhino was firmly secured to the sunken LST. At that moment there were a lot of shouts and gestures from the Quarter Deck. We looked over the side and realised the reason. The wash from the twin propellers had brought into view a considerable amount of flotsam and more importantly, quite a number of bodies.
We let go the tow line and rowed back to 532. The Skipper was concerned that if he took the boat among debris there was a chance of something fouling the propellers. He, therefore, instructed me to go into the water and bring each body to the ship’s side where it would be winched inboard.
Being late April the water in the channel was in the low forties. I very quickly realised that I would have to work vigorously for the first few minutes in order to become acclimatised. To say that the water was cold would be an understatement. I spent between one and a half to two hours in the water until I had recovered all the sighted bodies from the area. Some were in a dreadful state. Some were trapped beneath Carly Rafts with arms and legs entwined in the netting. I had to swim under and cut them free.
When the Skipper was satisfied that all of the bodies had been recovered he came down to the side of the ship and helped me onboard. I was absolutely shattered and very close to exhaustion. I quickly donned three of four woolen blankets. I could not stop shivering. After all this time I still remember the atmosphere so very well. There was absolutely silence, the engines were stopped, there was no barking of orders, the crew spoke in hushed tones and even the seabirds were quiet. It was as if the world was paying reverence to the brave dead men that were laying on the deck.
We got under way and headed back to Portland. I was issued with a couple of tots of neat rum by the Skipper. I then went below and changed into No. 1 uniform ready to pipe each poor soul ashore.
We arrived back at Portland at approximately 11.00am. The dockyard appeared deserted except for a line of American lorries at the end of the quay, waiting to accept the bodies. One of the first people to come onboard was the Rear Admiral from HMS Attack. He stood and reverently watched each body being gently lowered to the quay as I piped each one ashore and handed over to the American military.
Following the departure of the convoy of lorries we went back to our normal routine. Lunch was cooked and served and at approximately 2.00pm the Skipper came up forward and issued instructions to the full crew that no one was to speak about what had happened in the early hours of that morning. He explained that German Command would dearly like to know of how many casualties they had caused, but even more important, the incident and resulting loss of life would have a huge effect on the morale of Allied Invasion Forces if it became widely known.
The following day we were ordered to leave Portland and made for the quay at Kingswear, Dartmouth. This was to be our berth ready for D-Day. As we passed through Lyme Bay on our way to Kingswear we passed a line of ships stretching from and well beyond the horizon. Each ship was approximately 50 yards apart and proceeding at a very slow speed. They appeared to be doing a sweep search. I was on the wheel and overheard the Skipper make comment. He said ”A day and a half too late.” I wasn’t feeling too well, in fact I felt quite sick, not physically but really depressed as the memory of what had happened kept crossing my mind. However, after a number of days I felt quite normal again and we resumed our patrols from St Mary’s Head to Start Point. During one of the trips, for some reason, we went to Portland Harbour and just inside the Breakwater, perched high on a Rhino was LST 289. Engineers and welders were working feverishly to replace the stern and get her ready for D-Day.
The war continued with us escorting LST’s, mainly those based in Dartmouth, across to both Omaha and Utah beaches.
Three weeks after D-Day, Cherbourg fell and we quickly moved in. Perhaps a little too quickly as the German forces were firing at us with small arms fire but we still managed to tie up safely. It was from here that I had my last site of a Rhino when we were ordered to escort a large sea-going tug from New Orleans. She was towing the Rhino back to the US. Built on the deck of the Rhino was a large timber structure approximately 150ft long by 10ft high. It wasn’t until we were well out into the Atlantic that the Skipper of the tug explained the Structure. It apparently contained the bodies of 2,500 American servicemen killed in action and they were being returned to America.
A number of months later I left HMRML 532. I was promoted to the position of Second Coxswain of a D Type Motor Torpedo boat HMMTB 5001, on which I took part in the last naval action of the European war. Six MTBs against six E-Boats in the North Sea, resulting in the loss of two MTBs, but we managed to sink four E-Boats. However, unfortunately, one of the sunken MTBs was mine and I had to spend six months in various hospitals recovering from gunshot wounds.
I was officially discharged from the Royal Navy in January 1946.