Taken from the track 'A Birds Eye View'
By the late S/M Harry Staff.
By the late S/M Harry Staff.
In 1940 H.M.S. Ramillies was in Wellington, New Zealand and on leaving with a number of Maori troops for Singapore (*to escort the First Echelon of New Zealand troops to the Middle East, along with a large contingent of Australian troops subsequently picked up from that country), the Captain was presented with a "Pui Pui", a Maori (male) skirt. This was a very rare gift said to protect the ship if worn in times of danger. As the ship cast off, a choir sang the Maori farewell "Now is the Hour" in Maori and English. Captain Middleton wore the skirt on the morning of 6th June, 1944.
As previously stated, the ship's company had been reduced. The seaman of "A" maned "A" and B" turrets, as required, and the Royal Marines "X" and "Y".
When Colours were sounded on the morning of the 6th, we raised two enormous battle flags, the White Ensign and the Union Jack.
With bated breath we watched the clock creeping nearer to zero hour and at the same time praying that we had not been spotted by the German shore batteries. Suddenly the order was given, "With AP and HE shells and a full charge, load! load! load!" Instantly the turret was consumed with the noises of Breach, Cage and Rammers, followed by the training engine. Nobody spoke, the Interceptor lights glimmered, the only noise now was the Gun Layers applying the required range. The order of firing was to be the HE fractionally before the AP, as the HE fuse was delicate.
Approximately at 05.30 hours the standby two bells sounded. Almost immediately our guns erupted and from then on we were loading and firing as fast as possible. The smell of burning residue crept into the Gunhouse and it became very warm. The lads tied the top half of their overalls around their waists. Due to the constant concussion some of them developed nose bleeding.
Being the least occupide, I went round with a bucket of water, flannel and towel. As the day went on we all developed nausea and headaches. After forty-eight round, a Walking Pipe (hydraulic) valve burst. The gun crew immediately transferred to "B" Turret. During the action, we were kept informed of some of the events to date, the progress of the landing craft, the landing and later the positioning and sinking of the "Block-Ships" in preparation for the Mulberry Harbours.
Initially the noise of the guns was deafening, we also felt the shudder of our after Turret firing, as time went by we became used to the din, the apprehension at first, very apparent, soon diminished! The guns crew worked like clockwork, their hours of training paid off, there was no shouting other than to make their report. Upon the guns recoil, one heard the hiss of the hydraulick opening the Breach, the Air Blast, the Cage arriving and the next consignment, the Rammer, the Cage returning, the Breach closing, Interceptor made, the Training Engine and the report "Gun Ready" this was ton shells on their way!
At about 1100 hours the Gunners Mate suggested that I go looking for food and drink also anything else that I could purloin. Down the trunking I went, at the galley corn beef sandwiches were available. With two potato boxed full and a Dixie of tea, I returned to the Shell-room where they were hauled up into the Gunhouse.
I then went exploring, first having a look from the Boat-deck, the sight was quite unbelievable. The shoreline was a mass of smoke and flame, the noise from the guns all around was horrendous, everything seemed to be vibrating, everywhere I looked smoke and flames wes coming from guns. The sea was amass of ships of all shapes and sizes, landing craft with troops, tanks, guns and all manner of equipment were heading for the beaches. On our Port-side a landing craft full up with wounded requested our assistance but they were directed to the hospital ship.
From the signal deck, with the aid of binoculars, I recall seeing what looked like Bren gun carriers making their way across a field, with troops crouched down behind. I thought to myself, thank God I am in the "Andrew"! My return to the Turret was even more welcome than the food. Passing the Requlating Officer I observed that Rum was being issued. On being asked which mess I came from, I explained that the "A" Turret gun crew were incarcerated and could not get to their messes. Much to my amazement, I was given a liberal supply.
It was whilst below, again restoring lamps, that I came acros our Q/O Tiffy having problems with the sliding tray that transfers the shells to the gun loading cage. I spent some time with a tin of thick grease and a brush, greasing the runners, whilst he attended another problem. The lads were chalking on the shells all manner of advice to Hitler.
The armoured door under the Turret was now released, enabling the gun crew to have a breath of fresh air and a cigarette. At about 1600 hours, whilst we were on the Upper-deck, the air became black with Gliders and their Tugs. We watched them released to our right and the Tugs returning to our left.
Just watching them slowly descending into the unknown was awe inspiring. I wonder what were the thoughts of these men, I at least knew where, if not when, I would be sleeping that night. The 16" and all but three of the 6" train guns, had been put out of action by the RAF, the ramining 6" and mobile guns were causing problems.
The story is now taken up by Bob Cliff and a radar rating now domiciled in Australia. It appeared we had come under fire from the 6" guns, at that point in time Bob, with his party, were in the Mess-deck area. They were ordered to lay flat on the deck. Bob has since stated that the old girl, at full astern, was vibrating like hell as she withdrew from the area.
The guns in question remained a problem for some time, even our spotter aircraft had difficulty in pinning them down. Eventually we destroyed their escape routes and subsequently the guns. During the afternoon I received an urgent call from the Shell-room, they were nearly in darkness. With my tool bag hanging from by belt, I went below, finding that most of the lamps had broken as a result of the concussion. It was whilst perched up on the side of a Shell-bay, unscrewing a shade to replace a lamp, that the S.R.E. came to life. "E Boat attack, E Boat attack! Hard to Starboard!" The Millie could almost turn round on a sixpence, it was whilst hoding on to a Stantion for grim death, I heard Torpedo's race by on either side, followed by a loud thump. It was the Hunt calss Destroyer H.M.S. Svenner with a Norwegian crew. Fifty years later I learnt that one hundred survivors were picked up by H.M.S. Swift against orders. She too was sunk some days later.
From the shell-room I made a quick trip to the Upper-deck, seeing H.M.S. Svenner in two halves, a Carley Raft floated by a body was underneath, with an arm trapped in the netting, a watch was on the wrist! We continued firing throughout the day, eventually running out of 15" ammunition. That evening we sailed for Portsmouth, arriving in the early forenoon. Only the Postman was allowed ashore, he returned with the mail and first addition of the local paters.
We had moored near to designated ammunition lighters, one for every ship except us. A member of the ammunition party, having received some verbal abuse, suggested we were expendable. It did not go down very well (fifty years later the newspaper NavyNews confirms this in many D-Day features). Eventually our requirements arrived, we ammunitioned at full speed, then proceeded back to the "Sword" area.
For the next week we were kept pretty busy giving assistance to the fighting ashore. We would get calls from our troops to dislodge areas of resistance. Daily we saw amazing sights, Railway engines and cranes on barges also sections of the "Mulberry Harbours" being towed by Tugs, I also saw "P.L.U.T.O." (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) being laid. From time to time the air was filled with the roar of the multi Rocket Launchers.
Another amazing sight was four Destroyers near the mouth of the river Seine running on to a target in line ahead, firing until their guns would not bare, then going round again. About D-Day+3 H.M.S. Nelson joined us, I watched her firing a 6" broadside, her 16" guns were out of action due to cracked Barbettes, the result of previous Torpedo and Mine damage.
Allied aircraft had strict instructions not to fly over the fleed during the operation. One afternoon an R.A.F. Typhoon came flying over at great speed. It met with extensive A/A fire from the fleet, our Orlikons and Chicago Pianos let loose. I am not sure if he survived.
Another occasion when we were called upon to give assistance, was when our troops were bogged down by snipers. The American observer in the spotter plane gave us a very fruity commentary describing a large chimney crashing down.
The time came for a direct assault on the town of Caen. A barrage said to be bigger than the one at Alamein was due to commence at 2300 hours. The Millie, with Warspite and Robert's, was anchored line ahead. We had been firing for less than an hour, when things became comfortable. Bombs began to fall around us and a cease fire was ordered. Fortunately the bomb aimers were aiming between the flashes of either ship. After a while we recommenced firing, the barrage was considerable. Eye-witnesses said that the sky glowed and that the huge tongues of flame from the fleet's guns was enormous and the noise horrendous, the assault was a failure.
As result of the constant gun fire from the fleet and batteries ashore, at times we were actually vibrating, huge shoals of jelly fish were all around us. As the action died down, long spells of inactivity prevailed, we were even allowed to play deck hockey on the Quarter-deck.
Service personnel and all types of stores and equipment going ashore was non ending, the scene was out of this world. At the time I never gave thought as to the planning required for the operation. It was not until later years when the stroy unfolded, that the sheer magnitude of the operation sunk in! Our only casualty was the Bush Baby, which the King had been so fascinated with at Scapa Flow. It had been put in a supposedly safe place but unfortunately had suffocated!
After about D-Day+12 (18th June), we were withdrawn. At the time we were not aware that it was to prepare for the landing in Southern France "Operation Dragoon". That evening we sailed for Portsmouth looking a sad and sorry sight. The paint work had been burnt off all the 15" guns and most of the Turrets. Some of the deck planking had sprung and sections of the guard-rail was missing.
Below deck, carnage was everywhere. Overhead channel plating carrying electric cables had come down and mess traps had come away from their bulkhead fittings. The Master at Arms(Jaunty) R/CPO., had his cabin next to the Sickbay, it was completely flattened. On the Foc'sle Mess-deck some broadside mess tables attached to the Bulkhead were smashed in half, they measured 15'x3'x1.5'. Broken glass littered the deck from Deck-head and Bulkheads lights, such was the concussion!
There is an interesting point to ponder, it is possible that the "Millie" during the "Neptune" action became the only ship in the history of the Royal Navy, to have fired the most 15" shells in one action! H.M.S. Warspite developed problems and was withdrawn, H.M.S. Robert's was a Monitor, having only one 15" Turret.
Our arrival in Portsmouth was royally received, cheering crowds lined the Hard, Blockhouse and H.M.S. Dolphin, on entering the dock area, all the craft there were sounding their sirens! We docked in the inner harbour.