Ernest Leah ex: Leading Seaman. Royal Navy.

Ernest Leah

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My service days as recounted by Ldg / Seaman Ernest Leah

I thought it was time for me to make a special effort to overcome my later years of wear and tear and remember a few experiences about “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”   A question now remote, as my eldest son is now 6l.  However, here are a few experiences I remember well.  Some perhaps funny, some more poignant, but nevertheless indelibly printed in my memory.


Early days!  I left HMS Raleigh, Torpoint, in September l940 after nine weeks intensive training, able to tie knots, fire a rifle and man a 4” gun which I never did again, and left, a raw OS DJX 202862.   

My first posting was to Fowey, Cornwall, to join MGB 650, a Scott Payne 70 footer tied up alongside the depot ship HMS Belfort, moored just above Bodinnick.  The Bridge was surmounted by a plaque inscribed with the skipper’s motto “By Guess or by God”.  I thought a few prayers may be in order before I boarded, if that was to be taken literally. 

A Scotsman (name escapes me) took me in hand and promptly made me chef (I who had never even boiled an egg).  That I suppose was “guess” number 1.  He also introduced me to my action station and presented me with a stripped Lewis and taught me in five minutes how to use it and keep it clean.  No 2 guess.  My bunk was so close to the deck head, I had to squeeze in and out my locker just above the bilges, which were also my responsibility, in between handling the grub, cooking being done on a primus stove, ignited by meths...   

Going out on trials one day, we fell foul of a German acoustic mine and overturned.  No lives were lost but the boat was towed back and placed on the slips at Polruan for a re-fit.  I and some of the crew and skipper were sent to Milford Haven to pick up a yacht “The Sister Anne” back from the Med.  Our assignment was to take this back to Fowey to serve as an Officers’ depot ship.  All very posh to look at but used to "Harry Flatters”, not to Lands End weather conditions.  Having rounded Eddystone, we made 2 knots in a force 8 up the channel, rolling and pitching in a horrendous manner and my first introduction to sea-sickness ensued.  A Sunderland aircraft was sent out to look for us as we were long overdue in Fowey but we travelled East until on reaching Fowey we were informed to carry on to Plymouth as the harbour had been mined.  We returned to Fowey two days later when the harbour mouth had been swept. 

After a few weeks of comparative luxury, I was considered wasted on the yacht and drafted back to Portland for subsequent draft to MGB 88 in Glasgow, a boat made at considerable expense in USA, though of Scott Payne design.  After being temporarily billeted in a Govan doss house, we commissioned, and accompanied by MGB 692 set sail for Portland.   Now, the North Channel can blow up in minutes and we had a force 6 in no time.  We pitched our way South with a new boat and 5,000 rounds of .5 ammo in the “C” space which eventually smashed the thwarts and came to rest on the tanks, giving no small cause for alarm.  Then we hit some wreckage and stove in part of the bow and had to close the water-tight door to the heads to keep the forward mess deck from flooding. 

With Milford Haven to port, the skipper decided to seek refuge and we put in there, being unseaworthy, for temporary repairs, until we could later get round to Poole for repairs at British  Powerboats.  The ratings then went to No. 10 High Street, (still there and now a protected building) where we stayed for about a week, living in digs and on a diet of sheep’s head before being drafted to Liverpool to pick up another Scott Payne, MGB 89.  With this boat we became attached to the 3rd Flotilla, based in Lowestoft, doing “Z” patrols and one or two offensive patrols to the other side. 

On one occasion we encountered E Boats and in the ensuing skirmish my Gunner (to whom I was loading number) lost an arm and I was lucky to escape as my shield was penetrated by an armour-piercing bullet which left a hole like a “two bob piece”.  I reloaded and then unclipped his gun harness, and laid him safely on the deck.  Nick Carter was his name, from Ireland, and when I saw him later in Lowestoft Hospital he was cheerful and optimistic about his possible future as a lift attendant in some departmental store.  He was very much a fatalist and seemed happy to accept his lot.


There was sufficient other damage to warrant a return to the “slips” for repairs so a further draft was arranged for me  to MGB 75, a 71’6” craft built at British Powerboats, Poole, and seconded to the 7th Flotilla at Felixstowe, prior to commissioning at Southampton, after a week with crew members at Dibden Lodge, Hythe.  The skipper was Lt. Ladner, a Canadian who achieved quite a measure of fame in Coastal Forces.


In Summer we operated from Dartmouth around the Channel Islands, Alderney in particular which the Germans had in firm control. I was loading number on the twin Oerlikon and one night in action, one barrel jammed and I had to climb up on the turret to push the ramrod down the barrel to eject the dud round.  I could hear the small fire from Jerry twittering overhead, praying it would stay that way.  However, the barrel was cleared and having wiped away the spilled cordite from the breach, I was able to re-load ready to resume.  At that moment, the turret swung round and trapped my head momentarily against the bulkhead, damaging both ears and rendering me temporarily unconscious.  On recovery, I was laid in the portside passageway where I stayed until back in harbour at Dartmouth.  I was stretchered off to the college on the hill which was a war-time hospital. 

After two weeks I returned to my flotilla prior to having a seven day leave to recuperate.  On return to duty, I found that 75 had left and I was sent back to “Attack” for re-drafting.  That was when I found I had passed for Ldg. Seaman in Felixstowe and was duly despatched to Lowestoft to serve on the newly commissioned 695, my first D Class.  The flotilla we joined was fraught with engine troubles and we never seemed to have sufficient boats seaworthy for more than patrols on our side of the North Sea, until one afternoon it was rumoured we were in for something big. 

Whilst on 75, I had picked up the habit from a colleague, named Hardman, of always having a bath and a clean shift prior to going out on ops in case we got hurt and had a clean body and shift to present to the nurses in hospital. 

On my way back, I met Commander McGowan our S.O., who said we had five boats operational at last and we were going to sea shortly and his words were “We are going to blood the Flotilla”.  We left just before dusk in arrow-head formation, two torpedo boats and three gunboats, off to the other side. 

The Crew of MTB695 (above)

From about 7 miles, we approached with great stealth, until close to Ymuiden harbour we were challenged from ashore with signals and responded with a load of indecipherable rubbish as we moved ever closer to the harbour.  Our star-shell then lit up the scene like daylight and from my turret (twin Oerlikon) on the order to open fire, I concentrated on an armed trawler and after a brief reply in a spray of small arms which swept our bridge, the guns and personnel were out of action and the ship paralysed.  E-Boats were by this time emerging and were further engaged with successful results from our .5 and 3” guns and the remainder of my twin 20 mm shells.  However, their return fire had some devastating effects on the skipper (Lt. McFarlane) and Joe Mears the Coxswain and Lt. Wickham, who was killed, along with the navigator, Lt. Morrish, a popular officer and gentleman, much respected. 

By this time, Lt. (Johnny) Harwood our No.1, although wounded in the legs, took command and sent for me on the bridge.  My No.2 Able-Seaman Holdsworth, a competent Yorkshire lad, took my place whilst I went to the wheel and we headed for home with our smoke hiding our passage.  Lt, .Harwood plotted a course for me to follow and after what seemed like an age, we spotted No.4 Buoy off Lowestoft.  In the meantime, when reasonably safe, I and others lifted the starboard .5 gunner (also wounded) from his turret and sat him down with instructions that he must stay in a sitting position until the official medics could treat his wounds.  Able-Seaman Curtis is alive and well today in Norwich and we exchange an occasional card or letter. 

We came back alongside in Waveney Dock, Lowestoft, where ambulances were waiting to take off the crew members killed or injured.  I remember as we docked, Commander Barnard shouting “Where is your cap boy?”  and saying to myself “I wish I knew”.  Such was the damage to the boat, the remaining crew were put ashore whilst it was taken to a repair yard.  After a few days, when most crew members contemplated leave, we were ordered to pack our gear ready for draft to Falmouth to join MGB 675, back from Norway, and requiring sprucing up and preparing for sea again.  This being effected in a few weeks, we sailed for Portsmouth and prepared for D-Day in absolute secrecy with shore leave banned for the few weeks beforehand. 

We went to Arromanches on D+1, and into the Mulberry Harbour as a base while at night we went on ops and patrols keeping the E-boats from moving up the channel until they were no longer an entity, after which we moved out and came back to Newhaven as our operational base and quickly cleared up around Le Havre as the second front advanced..   Soon the channel was under British control and our job was virtually finished and we were sent back to Lowestoft, all except me, who went for a month’s course as a coxswain at Fort William, returning successfully to Hornet to be coxswain on MTB 221 and be involved in experimental work which I quite enjoyed as a winding-down exercise at the end of a hectic five years. 

(T3 similar to T6. MTB 221 became T6.)

The boat was finally paid-off at Gillingham and I went back to Gus. For de-mob in an ill-fitting suit and a oneway ticket home. 

It is all a bit sketchy now after 60 years on, but I’m sure this is a true reflection of my service days.


Ernest Leah.             (Ernest Leah was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal).


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This page was last updated Tuesday February 09, 2016