Gorleston & Great Yarmouth History

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George Clarke

On the 1st of January, 1940, at the age of 16 years and 8 months, I joined the Merchant Navy as an Ordinary Seaman on the coaster ship `Sagacity`. My uncle was the captain of the Sagacity which was owned by Everards of Greenhithe, Kent. The coaster ships were used to carry all different types of cargoes. They could enter small ports where larger vessels could not go. We traded from the south west coast up to as far north as Scapa Flow.

During my time on the Sagacity we had several narrow escapes from bombing raids. On one trip, prior to Dunkirk, we were sailing down the Channel. It was a bright, moonlit night and we could see all the tracer bullets and the guns firing. It was about 2 a.m. I was on deck when I noticed a German Bi-plane heading from the English coast towards the French coast. When it got over the ship it dropped a bomb but its aim was poor as it missed our ship by quite a bit. On another occasion we were in a convoy going south and it was a very heavy, overcast afternoon. We were approximately off the Norfolk coast and visibility was very poor. I was standing at the stern of the ship when, out of the mist, appeared a German bomber which was flying very low.It was heading back towards the Dutch coast. It released a stick of five bombs on the ship immediately behind us but luckily they just missed it.Our worst time was when we were in convoy going through the area known as `E-boat Alley`. This was where German E-boats waited to fire their torpedoes into the passing convoys. A lot of vessels and lives were lost there.

Our first protection on the Sagacity happened in Sunderland when my uncle returned from getting his sailing orders. He carried a .303 rifle and a bandolier of bullets and explained how it was to be used. If we saw a mine we were to try to blow it up (rather laughable when none of us had ever used a gun before). My time on the Sagacity was terminated on one lovely October afternoon in 1940. We had loaded wheat on board at King`s Lynn. Our orders were to proceed north to the Humber.It was at about 1300 hours and we were nearing the Humber barrage when we hit a magnetic mine. My uncle, who was on the bridge at the time, had both legs broken by the impact.He was the only casualty, the rest of the crew were taken off the ship before it sank. That was the last time I sailed with him. My uncle, Captain Charles Woods, returned to sea and was decorated for bringing a burning oil tanker into port. After the war he was made `Commodore of the Everards Fleet of Ships.

After my survival leave of 6 weeks I returned to sea via Everards Shipping Company and carried on in various ships trading along the same route. I then joined the `Aridity` in February 1943. I had been on this ship for about 15 months when we were sent to Dagenham in the Thames to be loaded with 10 gallon jerrycans. We were then sent across the water to moor at Erith. The Captain had a daily routine of going ashore for orders. Nothing seemed to happen for about 5-6 weeks.

It was now JUNE 5th 1944. That day the captain returned with orders to sail. We got as far as Southend and then a boat came to take the captain ashore. When he returned he called the crew together and explained that we would be sailing to France as our troops were invading there.We were due to arrive at a beach head in the late morning and were told that we would have air cover on the way over. What we did not know at the time was that our cargo was fuel for the fighter planes.We duly arrived and were told to anchor off shore. We found out later that our beach head was GOLD BEACH at a place called Arromanches. Our cargo was then unloaded by DUKS onto the beach head.

There were three of us that wanted to see what had been going on and we asked to go ashore. We were told to be very careful and we got a lift ashore. We crossed the sand and went onto the cliffs just off the beach head. Then we went into the German trenches. They had been abandoned and you could tell that they had left in a hurry. I picked up a wallet, it contained family photographs with a name like Mueller. I later disposed of it. The trenches were made for the German soldiers to stay in and had primitive living quarters. They must have had a shift roster with so long in the trenches, and so long in Bayeux. We walked on towards Bayeux. The fields on each side of the road had open ditches running through them. We saw a (dead) German soldier who had been placed in a sitting position on the edge of a trench. We did not get to close in case he had been booby-trapped as we could see that he had been shot through the head. I did manage to get a helmet which was lying close by. We decided that we had seen enough and returned to the ship.

We had to stay overnight at the beach head and found that we had the company of a German E-boat. We lost one of our vessels that night. On another night we had a German plane firing at us but luckily one of the other Merchant ships was able to shoot it down. We carried on running back and forth from Southampton to the beach head with supplies and equipment for the troops.Then the storms came and we had to suspend the trips for a while.

After the gales and bad weather had gone we returned to our routine of carrying beach head supplies from Southampton. On one trip we were ordered to go to The Mulberry Harbour.We had earlier seen concrete barges being built on the Thames and not known what they were for. Mulberry Harbour was a wonderful engineering project.On another run we were sent to Caen. Up the canal the lock gates had been destroyed and we had to unload our cargo at the lockside. We then had an evening ashore to look around and it was very depressing to see the damage done to Caen.

Afterwards I was awarded a certificate from The British Steamships Company Limited (Watts, Watts and Co. Ltd)which expressed g was the youngest man on the ship at that time and wonder if any of my shipmates are still alive who might remember this tale.

After D Day we just did the normal coastal runs back and forth to different places on the French coast - no more hairy, scary stuff!! After a spell of leave I decided to go deepwater and see something of the world.

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© George Clarke: WW2 People's War: gathered by the BBC 10th September 2005
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