FAINT FOOTSTEPS: Dark and lonely nights

By Gord Harrison, Special to the Norwich Gazette

Editor’s note: The following is a feature special to the Gazette by Gord Harrison, a London writer who was born in Burgessville. Harrison chronicles the life of his father, Doug Harrison, a Norwich resident and former Gazette columnist, and his life during the Second World War.

Early in 1942, Doug Harrison of Norwich, and about 100 other members of RCNVR and Combined Operations (C.O.) arrived safely by ship at Gourock, Scotland. Before they had time to unbutton longcoats, they were sent by bus to a Canadian manning depot and barracks (HMCS Niobe) a few miles away in Greenock. And shortly after sitting down they were sent somewhere else.

Doug says, “We spent little time at Niobe but entrained for Havant in southern England, to H.M.S.Northney I (on Hayling Island), a barracks with a large building for eating and cabins with four bedrooms. This was January, 1942 and there was no heat at all in the brick cabins. The toilets all froze and split. But we made out. (At least) our eating quarters were heated.”

In memoirs, veterans recall that at Niobe and Northney they were finally told what some of their specific responsibilities were while under the command of the C.O. organization. My father recalls the day they were filled in about ‘special duties’: “It was revealed to us that we were to serve on landing craft. The strange new world of landing craft, tides, currents, cold wind, rain and darkness” lay ahead for these raw recruits. Lloyd Evans of Markham says, “We discovered we had volunteered to operate Landing Craft for future raids and landings.”

If recruits asked what ‘future raids and landings’ were planned they would not learn a thing. Only on the morning of a raid - or just hours before an invasion - would they learn their purpose and destination. Their duties, however, for the Dieppe Raid (seven months later), and invasions of North Africa (Nov. 1942), Sicily and Italy (both in 1943) would be well practiced.

Only while performing initial duties at Northney camps were new recruits given a time and location.

Both Doug and Lloyd Evans tell about dark and lonely nights ‘on guard.’

Lloyd says: “Some nights I stood guard duty at the end of a long pier as lookout for German raiding parties. In the lonely darkness this inexperienced 18-year-old discovered the power of the imagination! It seemed the end of the watch would never come.... I was gaining a sense of the terrible nature of modern warfare as I realized in my imaginings how easily they could be turned into brutal and bloody reality.” (Pg. 9, My Navy Chronicles)

My father, three years older than Lloyd, had a less worrisome outlook: “We were issued brooms for guard duty in some cases at Northney, sometimes a rifle with no ammunition, and they were expecting a German invasion! Rounds were made every night outside by officers to see if we were alert and we would holler like Hell, “Who goes there? Advance and be recognized.” When you hollered loud enough you woke everyone in camp, so sentry duty was not so lonesome for a few minutes.” (Pg. 11, “Dad, Well Done)

Perhaps Dad was as worried as Lloyd, but he certainly found a practical way to overcome it.

During the day at Northney, the Canadians gained early experience driving landing crafts in varying tides and currents, with three dozen soldiers aboard Assault Landing Crafts (ALCs) and heavy machinery and materials of war (e.g., Bofor guns, lorries and tank mesh) on Landing Crafts Mechanized (LCMs).

At night some used navy mattresses as bed covers “in a vain attempt to keep warm” while listening to heavy bombing raids - “courtesy of the Luftwaffe” - a few miles west at Portsmouth and Southampton.

“What an unforgettable sight it was with ack-ack fire arcing upwards and bombs dropping,” says one veteran.

Soon they were on another train to another camp, this time near Inveraray, Scotland “where the real work began.”