This is a light-hearted anecdote from part of John Dibblee's wartime experience.
This happened in 1941, when Germany occupied all of mainland Western Europe. Britain was madly busy training everybody in anything it could think of and hoping that eventually enough help could be obtained from America to turn the war round. One of these ideas that involved me and some other RA (Royal Artillery) Captains was Bombardment. This meant using ships guns to back up a raid or invasion on enemy held coast, as land artillery couldn't be landed in early stages of an invasion and it would be impossible, if guns had been landed, to get them back again.
Bombardment involved cooperation between the Royal Navy, represented by the Gunnery Officer of the ship that was to do the firing and an FOO, later called an FOB (Forward Officer Observation/Bombardment), an RA officer on shore with the leading infantry, who identified targets and transmitted fire orders, via telegraphy or visual signalling supplied by RN ratings with him to another RA officer, a BLO (Bombardment Liaison Officer) who was with the Gunnery Officer of the bombarding ship.
The practical effect of this planning was that about 20 RA officers, who all happened to have been on courses on bombardment – there were courses on everything you could think of going on all the time - suddenly found themselves at one day's notice, dumped on a field in Inveraray, one of the least accessible tiny villages in western Scotland. I didn't say 'inaccessible'; that wouldn't have been quite true; it was at the head of a narrow but deep 'sea loch' which bulged at its end and the Navy had filled that with a variety of ships up to the size of a South African liner. These ships were full of booze and food as they had been stocked up before the war. So the Navy were all right. Access by road to the village in one direction was over a mountain to a railway station with no village, about 10 miles away. There was a 15cwt truck, not under our control, which made one trip a day there, but only to pick people up, so it "came back before it went" and was no good for anyone imprisoned in the village. In the other direction there was a road to Glasgow, 70 miles away, over a 1000ft+ mountain and along the banks of Loch Lomond, which had full hairpin bends every 50 yards or so. Talk about 'Those Bonny Banks'! Our accommodation was one (old) bell tent each – 'unfurnished' but I did have my own camp bed, and a "Mess" which served only the bare military ration, one Nissen Hut with (I think) one table and a few chairs. The existing members of the Mess were two or three unidentified temporary officers, who seemed just to be there to man the phone and run the 15cwt truck. They hadn't known we were coming and, of course nobody in the Army or Navy knew why we were there or what to do with us. The tiny village had no shop, just one pub (for 'Other Ranks only' so out of bounds to officers) a hotel that would supply very bad and expensive meals but no booze without a meal. And a Duke, who remained shut up in his castle and wouldn't talk to anyone. (There was a rumour that a Commando had machine gunned his prize bull, so he disapproved of all the Services.) This was Inveraray.
The first thing that happened was that, after about a month, two of us, Jimmy James and me, suddenly got a message from the Navy. We were to go to Scapa Flow. Immediately. That day. How, for God's sake? Well, it happened that an Admiral, with attendant Flag Lieutenant (which all Admirals have) was just finishing a visit to Inveraray and was going to be collected by a Walrus, a Flying Boat (the only type of aircraft that could land within 50 miles) in about half an hour. We were to go to the landing stage immediately, where the Flag Lieut. probably already was. So Jimmy and I, who hardly knew each other, grabbed a few things and our hats and went to the landing stage (one embarrassment was that I had a dog, which wouldn't go down well with the Navy, I thought, and I just had time to dump him with a friend who also had a dog. This took a few extra minutes).
The Flag Lieut. (a Navy Lieut. Is considered equal to an Army Captain) obviously thought himself, very far above anything from the Army and considered that we needed a lecture on how to behave to an Admiral and in a boat, and in a ship and the difference between them. An Admiral must be the first person in a party onto a ship, but the last person onto a boat, and vice versa. I don't know why. Perhaps an Admiral wants to be on a boat for as short a time as possible. How, when and who to salute. And about hats. The Navy don't seem to bother about hats much. They sometimes wear them and sometimes don't and people salute other people all the time, whether they have hats on or not. In the Army a hat is part of one's uniform and one does not salute when one isn't in uniform or hasn't a hat on. I hate wearing a hat and find any sort uncomfortable, so I took it off whenever I can. I found later that Jimmy wore his hat whenever he had it with him. He rather liked it. Anyway we listened to the Flag Lieut. And tried to remember his advice. Then the Admiral turned up and we saluted him.
By that time we were in the boat, because the Walrus had arrived and made a spectacular landing in the loch. We solemnly preceded the Admiral into the boat but let him get out first, because the Walrus was a ship, not a boat, as it had its own 'captain' (a Petty Officer pilot). The Walrus was very comfortable, it had room for two more people beside the pilot in the cockpit, which the Admiral and his Flag Lieut. got into. Down in the bowels of the plane, with water sloshing the window, was a nice little cabin with room for six, so Jimmy and I spread ourselves in there. The Walrus was a slow old thing but by far the best way to get out of bloody Inverary. We had an easy flight with one stop to take in fuel and soon we found ourselves over the sea. This was the Pentland Firth, between Caithness and Orkney. There was lovely sunshine, everything was calm, we are nearly there, we thought. All was quiet, the engine had stopped; he is gliding down to land, we thought. Then the pilot suddenly appeared in our cabin and started rootling in a large cupboard. He said. "Is there a boat somewhere around?" There wasn't anything, it was a brand new plane. Suddenly the weather seemed to forget how lovely it was up in the sky and the plane went splosh into a very nasty bit of sea. We were in the middle of the Pentland Firth. It has a nasty reputation, it's always rough and, being the southernmost junction between the Atlantic and the North Sea, it has the second fastest tidal race in the world.
The pilot took charge. The wind and tide were causing the plane to tip sideways and forcing the starboard lower wing further and further under water. The Walrus was a peculiar plane. The fuselage was in the shape of a boat with the lower of the two wings laid across it just behind the large 3 seater cockpit. Above the lower wing was the engine with the propeller facing backwards, a "Pusher". Above all this was the other wing, joined by struts. The pilot reckoned that all that could be done to help was to put three people out as far as possible on the lower port wing, holding on to the struts, hoping that the weight would prevent the other wing getting further under water. The Admiral and the pilot remained in their cockpit, and Jimmie and I plus the Flag Lieut. got out on the wing, with me the furthest out. This seemed to do the trick, at least temporarily but how long it would last before the plane broke up was anyone's guess. We had no radio or other means of communication with the land and it was doubtful if any traffic would be about. We'd heard that the usual passenger ferries were not working in wartime for security reasons (the whole Atlantic Fleet was in Scapa Flow).
Luckily this wasn't quite accurate. After what seemed an awfully long time, a small ship appeared on the port bow (my side) and we started shouting and waving though doubting whether we would be noticed. But we were. We saw them getting a boat out and quite soon it reached us and we were hauled on board, but leaving all the luggage, including my hat, on the aircraft. I noticed that Jimmie's hat was firmly on his head as it had been all the time. I wondered how the Naval precedence in ships and boats would work when we moved: (1) from a crashed aircraft to a life boat; (2) from the boat to rescuing steamer, the party consisting (a) an Admiral (b) a Flag Lieut. (c) the Aircraft's Pilot who would move from Most Senior while in his aircraft, to the bottom directly he left it, due to his low rank; (d) and (e) two Army Captains of equal rank but one with a hat and one without. In the event we were picked up as we came, me first and the Admiral last.
Getting from the boat into the ship was a problem and we didn't bother with precedence. The ship was rolling very heavily and the only way to get on board seemed to be through a small opening whose position relative to us varied from sea level to miles up in the air. And it moved quickly. It was so small that the only way to get in was to dive headfirst through it as it passed and be prepared to perform a forward roll on the deck inside. I was the first to try it and it went very well. I then sat up with great anticipation of (1) seeing Jimmie perform a forward roll with his hat on and (2) seeing how the Admiral fared. Both did very well. I don't really remember what happened after that, the ship turned round and took us into Scapa Flow.
We were there transferred to a Naval boat, which went direct to the Admiral's ship. He turned out to be the RAD (Rear Admiral Destroyers) which meant that he commanded all the destroyers in Scapa Flow, which was quite a number. He had invited Jimmy and me to dinner, so we followed in due rank. And there was a considerable reception committee. The Captains of all the ships in the Admiral's command were lined up to receive us, all in their best uniforms with gold bands halfway up their arms, in full Naval salute. But I could not return their salute as I hadn't got my hat on (and didn't even know where it was.) Should I stand with a silly grin or bolt straight through and give them a wave? I hope I did the former.
During the splendid dinner, when the Admiral turned out to be a most charming and interesting host, a message came through for us. The Navy had rescued the plane and towed it to Scapa Flow. Our luggage, including my hat, was waiting for us.
What was wrong with the plane? It was brand new and had just been unpacked. But there was a little bit of sticking plaster left over the hole in the lid of the petrol tank. So as the fuel level went down a vacuum was created in the tank and no more petrol could reach the engine.
As part of the ensuing exercise, I got transferred to a battleship, which is a very large ship. While leaving the harbour, it had to go through 2 large gates, part of the harbour defences. It broke down between the gates. It couldn't go forward as it would be defenceless in the open ocean, and there nearly wasn't room to turn. But there was, just.
On the trip back to Inveraray, by plane, I noticed a dial stuck firmly in the red and a notice saying "Do NOT allow this dial to enter red!" I was worried that I was about to re-enter the waters of Scapa Flow. I was told later that the dial had been like that for ages.
I don't think transport liked me!
© Jo Edkins 2013 - Return to Early Dibblee History index