A MEMORABLE VISIT TO THE UK DURING WORLD WAR II



Fall, l942, I was a young officer aboard the new US Submarine GUNNEL.

Allied forces were engaged in Operation Torch a major invasion of North Africa that would lead to the defeat of Axis forces in Italy and the Mediterranean. We were leaving the coastal waters of French Morocco where we had clandestinely gathered intelligence and played a key role in guiding amphibious forces in the darkness to their landing beaches near Casablanca. Our next destination was Roseneath Scotland to join a squadron of American submarines assembling there to augment the British war effort against Germany/


En route we experienced severe casualties with our four main diesel engines  which were of a new untested and faulty design  Consequently we were ordered to proceed to the seaport Falmouth  on the Southern coast of England for emergency repairs.

Approaching Falmouth ,we received orders via radio from the British Admiralty to rendezvous early one morning before daylight with a British ship which would escort us the final 20 miles into port, American submarines were a rare commodity on that side of the Atlantic in those days and would be mistaken for a German U -Boat.

"Rendezvous"
At the designated time and rendezvous the USS GUNNEL emerged from the depths while it was still dark and we immediately detected via radar an approaching ship just two miles away. We flashed via a small blinker light the secret three letter recognition signal provided earlier by the British Admiralty. After repeating it several times with no response our Commanding Officer Jack McCain ordered "torpedo tubes be ready for firing" assuming the approaching vessel was enemy. (Jack McCain, later a four star Admiral was known personally by several Arcadians when he was based here as CINCPAC 1968-72).

Suddenly a huge searchlight from the ship flashed a message, IS THAT YOU OLD CHAP, typical British humor. The jolly British sea captain then  offered to send a boat and invited our skipper over for a HEARTY BREAKFAST AND SPOT OF GIN. This attractive offer was of course declined, so he immediately sent over a huge baked salmon which was enjoyed by everyone.
 
Continuing on to Falmouth we followed our escort through the nets and booms at the harbor entrance. It immediately was obvious that this was indeed a war zone. Several ships in the harbor with masts and superstructure sticking out of the water gave grim evidence of the periodic German air raids on the port. A circle of barrage balloons surrounded the entire port, industrial areas and parts of the town. Each sausage shaped balloon, 200 feet long and  tethered to the ground floated hundreds of feet in the air forcing German planes to fly higher rather than the luxury of making low strafing and bombing attacks.
 
GUNNEL moored to a pier used by the Royal British Navy to berth its famous motor torpedo boats which operated against enemy forces in the English Channel and Bay of Biscay.

"God bless the Yanks"
It was with enormous relief and thankfulness from all of us aboard that GUNNEL arrived at Falmouth safely on Thanksgiving Day. It had been a nerve -wracking voyage from the waters off Casablanca, plagued by severe engine breakdowns along the way. The final 1100 miles were on the surface limited to 4 knots through U-boat infested waters, and we were unable to submerge except for very brief periods.

Many townspeople as well British naval personnel were on hand to greet us. One of our sailors on the bridge of the submarine later recalled the scene. "Captain McCain turned to me and remarked, 'Look at all those skinny children on the dock. Isn't that awful? What can we do about it? ' I suggested we make cookies and hot chocolate and have the children aboard to tour the submarine and feed them. He thought this was a tremendous idea and called the Ships Cook to the bridge and directed this be done immediately. This brought great happiness to the kids as well as smiling faces and 'God bless the Yanks' from people on the dock"

Townspeople graciously welcomed our crew to Falmouth with invitations to a dance that evening. They showed their appreciation of the American sacrifices in the war in every conceivable way. As our sailors walked along the narrow sidewalks, the English would step aside into the street, doff their caps and chant, "God Bless the Yanks". Severe food shortages existed throughout the UK, but this didn't prevent them from inviting our sailors into their homes to share their meager daily food rations, a typical dinner being a small boiled potato, a morsel of mutton, and occasionally a vegetable.    

Several days later GUNNEL was ordered to proceed Roseneath under escort of the British warship Cape of Portland. Allied submarines were  required to be under escort in transiting the Irish Sea. This was a very busy waterway and nervous skippers of merchant ships did not look kindly on submarines.

En route we were warned to be on the lookout for drifting mines dropped in shipping channels by German planes almost every night. For sure we spotted several of the beasts, round spheres three feet in diameter floating in the currents, each with several horns protruding, any of which when broken would explode the mine. Our expert sailor riflemen exploded several, no doubt saving more than one merchant ship from an unpleasant encounter.

"Don't you want your olive?"
GUNNEL entered the Firth of Clyde River and moored to a facility at Roseneath used by the British Navy for ship repairs. The naval contingent there immediately welcomed us with a cocktail reception. Being a bachelor then I couldn't help but notice the attractive young WREN(female officer) I was chatting with had overlooked fastening the top button of her loose blouse. Moving closer with a martini in hand I accidentally spilled it down her bosom. Terribly embarrassed I started to turn away when she tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Lieutenant, don’t' you want your olive?"

New pinion gear assemblies for the four main engines had been flown from the States, and for the next few weeks, the engineering gang of GUNNEL worked unstintingly around the clock to expedite the repairs. Normally a job performed in a shipyard, in this case there wasn't much choice, and with the typical pride and can do spirit of the Submarine Force, our crew were determined to do it and we did.

 Meanwhile an occasional visit to nearby Glasgow was a favorite pastime for those not working on the engines, although with all of the UK on a total wartime footing there were no R&R activities for our sailors. The entire UK was totally blacked out at night, as was all of Europe. I was in a pub one evening sipping ale by candle light and listening to the favorite song in those days, When the Lights Come On Again, All Over the World and suddenly the air raid warning sirens began wailing --- similar to monthly tidal wave tests in Hawaii -- but continuous until the air raids were over. Everyone scrambled out and ran down the street to an underground subway terminal joining hundreds of others jammed in the dimly lit cavern.      

Simultaneously an air raid was occurring over London. When finished  Prime Minister Winston Churchill dressed in his usual coveralls and smoking his traditional cigar emerged from his bunker, and as he always did, personally inspected the damaged areas of the city. Then he made his traditional radio talk with his booming and sonorous voice which went something like this:   "The HUNS have done it again, bombing our cities to kill innocent civilians and children. They will pay dearly for their dastardly deeds. As I speak our courageous airmen are already en route and the HUN will receive an unforgettable thrashing. We will prevail, We will prevail", waving his famous two finger "V for Victory" sign to the surrounding crowd. "Winnie" as he was fondly called, was a tremendous wartime leader and an irreplaceable morale factor in the UK.       

Meanwhile US submarine headquarters in New London secretly ordered our skipper Jack McCain to set course for Portsmouth, NH shipyard so that the underlying engineering problems could be diagnosed. There was great concern that six other new submarines were equipped with the same type of faulty diesel engines.

"German Attack"
After transiting the Irish Sea, and still on the surface, GUNNEL was suddenly attacked shortly after midnight by German low lying aircraft firing machine guns. A "crash dive" was ordered and in the excitement as the men on the bridge scrambled down the upper hatch leading below, with bullets whistling uncomfortably close by, the hatch cover became jammed in a partially open position.

Awakened by the submarine diving alarm and sensing an emergency from the shouting in the adjoining compartment, I literally flew into the Control Room to be of help. It was a scene I will never forget. Two men were struggling to climb the vertical ladder to close the lid of the lower hatch above leading into the conning tower, but ocean water pouring through the hatch washed them aside. Our skipper Jack McCain, drenched to the skin was shouting orders to "blow all ballast tanks (with high pressure air) for emergency surfacing". Fortuitously, I spotted the wooden handle of the hatch lanyard dangling on the edge of the incoming waterfall and grabbed it. Immediately I felt two set of arms around my waist and together we were able to slightly tilt the hatch lid away from the vertical position, Incoming sea water then slammed it shut.

 The Conning Tower above was flooded but fortunately the six men there survived by breathing from overhead air pockets. The Pump Room below the Control Room had four feet of water and the sailor on duty there later told us he was literally swimming to stay afloat.
 
With the rush of high pressure air blowing sea water from the ballast tanks, the submarine shuddered and shook as if undecided whether to sink or rise. Breaking surface and heeled over 30 degrees from the flooded conning tower, we were lucky the German aircraft had departed.
 
"Joe"  Vasey