World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Victor Mercer 

The War Years 1939-1945 My Story

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Victor Malcolm Mercer
Location of story: Sheffield, Belgium (Antwerp, Ghent) Portsmouth
Background to story: Royal Navy


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Katherine Wood of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Victor Malcolm Mercer.

When the War began in September 1939 I had just reached 14, left school and started work as a junior cashier at Hope Brothers, a city centre Gents Outfitters. By then I had been issued with a gas mask, we had erected a Morrison air raid shelter in the house and father had been appointed Head A.R.P. warden for Sheffield’s Manor Estate where we lived. For a short period I went to work in my boy scout’s uniform as suggested by Baden Powell but I was ribbed unmercifully.

All street lights were turned off and every home had to prevent light escaping by fitting dark curtains. All activities in church halls and community centres were cancelled until they could be blacked out. Evening church services were moved to the afternoon. Schools were closed but children were placed in small groups in homes offered by parents for Home Service teaching until schools had their own air raid shelters. For a brief period all cinemas were closed and there were no professional football matches until the F.A. rearranged the leagues into regional divisions and the crowd sizes were limited. We did see large barrage balloons in the sky and anti aircraft searchlights sweeping the night sky but nothing seemed to happen for weeks and months. For us it was a ‘phoney war’. The only light relief for the first twelve months was a variety of programmes on the wireless such as Workers’ Playtime, Tommy Handly in I.T.M.A., Arthur Askey and Richard Murdock in Much Binding in the Marsh, and Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels in Hi Gang.

For a short period in the summer of 1940 the reality of war dawned on us when a battalion of battle weary soldiers were billeted in our locality. Our war really erupted on Thursday evening 12th December 1940. Thursday afternoon was half day closing for most shops in Sheffield and I had been to the cinema. As I neared home the sirens sounded. It was a cold and frosty moonlit night at around 7pm when the first wave of enemy aircraft passed over and dropped two clusters of high explosive bombs on the estate. The casualties were few but one chap who lived close by was killed as he stood on his porch watching the searchlights. Not until 4.17am was the ‘all clear’ sounded but it was not until the morning did I fully realise the extent of the carnage the blitz had created. All forms of transport had been dislocated and everyone was walking to work. Halfway the to city centre I discovered a house partly demolished by a land mine and the family asked for my help in carrying a case and a bird cage they had salvaged to a farm house close to Norfolk Park. As I neared the city centre I could smell the smoke as I passed burnt out tramcars. The tram rails were tangled, a hotel a heap of rubble, two huge department stores partly demolished and the fire brigade unable to reduce the fire risk because the water mains were destroyed. Just why Sheffield city centre was the objective of the attack has never been adequately explained. When I eventually picked my way through the devastation the manager had arrived and we entered the shop but only two of the staff had managed to ‘make it’. Shafts of daylight were the only form of lighting. The burnt out shell of the shop next door was still smouldering and we quickly sensed that the walls were getting hotter. The bronze display fittings suspended from the ceiling began to crash to the floor smashing the glass showcases and counters where we normally served customers. We escaped from the building before we were choked, as the blackest smoke I have ever seen puttered out. We never expected to see the shop again as we knew it. The shop next door had to be completely rebuilt but our premises were only able to be refurbished after about six weeks.

Three nights later on Sunday the 15th December a second wave of enemy aircraft appeared. When the air raid sirens sounded I went to see if I could help my father who was at a nearby A.R.P. wardens’ post. He immediately sent me back home to look after my mother. As I walked back up Prince of Wales Road –a double carriageway- the leading planes created a flare path down the road by showering sticks of incendiary bombs. Fortunately, most of them fell on the grassy reservation where the trams normally ran. The illumination was brilliant but not really frightening though I could see the Community Centre was ablaze two hundred yards away. It was clear his time the raid was targeting the East end but little real damage was done to Sheffield’s war effort.
Gradually the City recovered from the awesome effect of those December nights although rebuilding had to wait until after the War. 1941 saw the introduction of more stringent food rationing and clothes coupons, which as a young shop assistant I had to cope with - not easy until customers realised they were limited in what they could purchase. In August my father received his ‘calling up’ papers for the R.A.F. He entered as an A.C.2. Flight Mechanic but was later elevated to Flight Lieutenant in Coastal Command. When I reached sixteen I became a messenger at a First Aid Post which doubled as a warden’s post at a nearby school. Our scouts were also asked to do a weekly stint fire watching on the roof of the Royal Hospital in West Street but there were no more serious alerts.

In 1943 some boys were being conscripted to work in the mines – Bevin Boys. I decided to volunteer for the Navy and having passed my medical I was called up in April 1943, three weeks before my 18th birthday. Directed to H.M.S. Royal Arthur –the Butlins camp at Skegness – we spend most of our time filling and carrying sandbags to sea shore defences inundated by recent high tides and heavy seas. Ten days later I was transferred to the signal school at H.M.S. Scotia, another Butlins Camp at Ayr. Following five months of square bashing and training for signalmen I opted for small ships and was drafted to H.M.S. Europa at Lowestoft, the Royal Naval Base for the Patrol Service. Shortly afterwards I joined my first ship, H.M.S. Prowess in Cardiff. The Prowess was described as a Portuguese trawler – a wooden vessel with a very high stern and fitted out with minesweeping gear. Sweeping the Bristol Channel searching for mines in the approaches for Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea was our major duty after sea trials. Six months later I was transferred to a motor minesweeper (nicknamed a Mickey Mouse) fitted with a Double L Sweep for magnetic mines and a hammer box in the bow for acoustic mines and a shallow draught for inshore sweeping. Swansea became our home base. Manoeuvring the Double L Sweep streaming astern – its electric pulse governed by the wireman – was no easy task for the seamen especially in a heavy swell when winding in. In order to put my mother’s mind at rest over the change of address I phoned her to say I was now on a Mickey Mouse and there was nothing to worry about. Unfortunately for me the phone line was tapped and the conversation was regarded as (careless talk) and I was put ashore for a fortnight before being drafted aboard M.M.S.247 where I spent the next 18 months (May 1944 to September 1945). As the sole signalman I was responsible for all messages set by flag, semaphore and the winking signal lamp when the signal was in morse. The skipper was Lt. Hall R.N.R. previously a Lowestoft fisherman. The Irish second skipper had a long experience in the Merchant Navy.
We continued to sweep the Bristol Channel westward from Swansea to Lundy Island and across the North Devon coast. Occasionally a First World War mine would surface and present our gunners with a little practice. Midway through May we were ordered to Dover. As we navigated through the Solent we realised the invasion of Europe was imminent. However, our destination was Dover to join up with the rest of the flotilla. On entering the harbour we saw an array of landing craft assembled and not until we approached them could we see they were but canvas models built for deception.

Our first mission was to sweep from Ramsgate to Beachy Head as part of the Dover Patrol. When D.Day arrived on the 6th of June our flotilla had been called away and our skipper read a letter from Dwight Eisenhower informing us that the assault on Europe had begun. We continued our daily sweep along the southeastern corner of Britain with only occasional respite in Ramsgate. Dover was now under almost continuous shelling from across the Channel and I had to take it in turns with our telegraphist to ‘man’ the harbour telephones each night in case of harbour emergencies. It was while sweeping along the Sussex coast the first V.1. unmanned rocket passed overhead on its way to London. Our gunner attempted to bring it down or divert it, to no avail. At that time we had no idea what it was. Five days later we were directed to Portsmouth and on the evening of June 18th we received our orders to join our flotilla on the Normandy beachhead. We rendezvoused with a convoy at midnight but a wild northerly gale prevented us from keeping contact, although we managed to reach the shelter of the monitors bombarding the coast. All sweeping operations were halted for five days and our provisions were so low that we had to rely on foodstuffs floating in the sea from the sunken vessels in the vicinity. Dead seamen and soldiers floated by and we were unable to help. Once we were able to commence sweeping we would cover the same stretch of water close to the Sword beach, backwards and forwards up to eighteen times a day and still see coasters dropping anchor on a mine and explode before sinking. Unaware that the Germans had recaptured the east side of the River Orme we found ourselves under artillery fire until we were beyond reach. Early in July we were mesmerised as wave after wave of R.A.F. bombers flew overhead to devastate the city of Caen. A most fearful sight.

As we continued to play our part in what has been described as ‘the greatest minesweeping operation in history’ the beachhead was eventually cleared and we moved up to the area around Boulogne. Periodically we re-provisioned in Portsmouth. While we were there we experienced the new V.2. rockets. Unlike the V.1. pilotless airplane which could be heard in flight, these new rockets could be neither heard nor intercepted. They just exploded on impact. Boulogne harbour had been sadly neglected during the occupation. When we entered, the German watchtower was still flying the white flag. Our task was to make it possible for the oil pipeline PLUTO to enter to bolster supplies to the advancing armies. One night the S.S. Earl arrived and in complete darkness ran aground. The only light that could be shed was from our signal lamp. As the vessel was carrying ammunition everyone was fearful the ship would blow up together with the harbour wall and the shallower vessels nearby. Try as we might we were unable to pull it into deeper water as our engines had insufficient power. Fortunately a Dutch tug was able to rescue the stricken boat before the disaster struck.

Sweeping ever westward towards Ostende, Zeebrugge and Knokke, Sheerness in Kent became our home base for mail, provisions and supplies. Our final operation involved clearing the River Scheldt and approaches to the great port of Antwerp to facilitate the entry of shipping with essential supplies for the advancing armies. The port was captured in September but the estuary was heavily mined and the German defences on the Walcheren Island guarding the northern bank of the river completely dominated the waterways leading to the city. Not until November was the German resistance on the island crushed and sweeping operations could begin. As we approached the mouth of the river we had to weave our way through a graveyard of shipping. Funnels and masts littered the sea lanes – clearly the sunken vessels were the object of limpet mines laid by midget submarines and attack by E-boats.

When the order came to enter the river we were afforded the doubtful privilege of leading the flotilla as our skipper was the most experienced of the officers in coping with the tidal surges and the inshore waterways of the river. In addition to our search for mines we were constantly under attack from the new V.2. rockets fired indiscriminately on the Antwerp region. The flotilla used the small harbour of Terneuzen in a rural stretch of western Holland and the mouth of the Ghent Canal. The inhabitants were glad to see us but they were still dependent on scavenging food from the sea. They had been starved for months. In the winter of 1945 we occasionally found the waters frozen over and we had to break the ice before we could leave harbour. Our only respite was, when allowed, brief trips along the canal to the Belgian city of Ghent. On occasion I was sent up to St Niklass and Brussels for mail and stores. Whereas the Belgian city appeared to have survived the German occupation quite well the Dutch we had met had been treated very badly. Although the allied armies were well into Germany by this time it was not until the war was over did the Belgians smash the windows and loots from the stores that had been collaborated. At the same time the terrified men and women returned home with shaven heads and scarred bodies having fraternised with the enemy over the past six years.
The joy in Terneuzen on V.E. Day was so irrepressible the elderly and the young grabbed hold of us to dance with them in the market square. However, our task was not completed but eventually we were recalled to Swansea and the Bristol Channel. My last few months in the Navy were spent in the Demob centre at Lowestoft because of my background in the clothing trade although I was given the job of Lt. Commander’s secretary – because I could type. I was finally released in June 1946.