Wednesday, 3 September 2014

1944 - HMS Cricket


The 75th anniversary of the break out of the Second World War seems as good a time as any to share this history of HMS Cricket, a little bit of history that would have faded from the national conciousness had someone not had the foresight a decade or more ago to ask if anyone remembered it.  Here goes:

HMS Cricket

During the build up to the Normandy Landings in 1944 the site now occupied by the QE2 Activity Centre was the home of a Combined Operations camp.  In 1939 the woodland had been chosen by the Admiralty as a naval training base.  The name given was HMS Cricket - the name of a gunboat used to patrol the River Nile during the British occupation of Egypt.

 110 living quarter huts, each holding up to 24 men, were cut into the local woodland; bluebells and celandine making way for the camp site.  If you look carefully today in the woodland that leads to the old Roman road you can see all that is left of this camp - brick and concrete bases with the steps leading up,  where these men slept the nights leading up to embarkation to France in June 1944.  Including the “canvas villages” at Hoe Moor there were up to 4000 men attached to Cricket in the weeks leading up to D-Day. 

The information below has been obtained from letters and conversations with people stationed here at that period, in particular RM Stan Blacker of 606 Flotilla, a veteran of HMS Cricket.  Bob Nimmo of Botley was instrumental in investigating the history of the area and making sure the contribution of the men and women of HMS Cricket is remembered.  This history was put together by QE2 Activity Centre in 2004 to commemorate 60 years since D-Day.

June 1943
  Before WWII the land that became HMS Cricket was owned by the Garton family who lived at Brixedone House.  In 1939 the Admiralty chose the woodland area for a naval training camp.  In June 1943 it became a Combined Operations base and played a vital role in the  run up to D-day. 

The public were excluded from the area and three public footpaths were closed.  Roads were laid through the woodland, Nissan huts erected, drains, watermains, electricity and telephone cables, cookhouse, administration buildings, officers mess, parade ground and Naafi canteen were all installed.  The NAAFI included a cinema, which had regular ENSA shows, George Formby even appeared here.  So did The Two Leslies (one of whom, Leslie Saronay, wrote Jollity Farm, later covered by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) and Barbara and Ted Wells, music hall stars who were often accompanied by their daughter Julie Andrews.

HMS Cricket was a Combined Operations base.  Its purpose was a transit and marshalling base for the hundreds of crew members of every conceivable landing craft moored in the Hamble River.  Most of these craft were without parent ships and so Cricket afforded good accommodation, messing, canteen and stores facilities.  Special Beach and Signals parties swelled the ranks.
Alcombe Steer

There were large troop movements into the area in January of 1944, including 606 Flotilla which had been formed in December 1943 and had carried out initial training at Brightlingsea.  The first weeks were spent working long hours cleaning the camp to bring it up to the high standard required by the Royal Marines.

 At first there were no landing craft at the Camp and there were concerns that no training at sea was taking place.   The next arrivals at the camp were a detachment of Wrens from Portsmouth and a Camp Maintenance Party consisting of a dozen RN and RM ranks, all “getting on in years”, including at least one who had served in the Great War, “all convinced they were going on the invasion with us”.

 Training was hard, including 15 mile route marches in full kit without a stop.  “On one occasion we came back by the Crow’s Nest public house, along the road to the farm, where we turned up the lane up to the camp and were given the order to double march all the way back”.

The track down to the river was widened by Royal Engineers so that three-ton lorries could get down to Hoe Moor Creek and the Hamble River.   Hoe Moor Creek was dredged to create anchorage for the landing craft.  

During the last week of April sixteen landing craft arrived from Sicily, in poor condition, and the Royal Marines started to practice their landing training.  “Would you believe it, each time we tried our craft out on the Hamble to get them fit for sea our CO was inundated with complaints from people living on boats on the Hamble that the wash from our craft was upsetting them.  This caused great bitterness in the Camp, as we were prepared to risk our lives to win the war and their only concern was the wash from our boats.”  As a result training was restricted.

I, as Corporal Les Dyer CH/X 100130, was guard commander when the Saturday Dance was held in the Camp cinema/hall.  To increase the supply of female partners the Navy sent trucks into Botley AA and Searchlight Camp and transported ATS girls into ‘Cricket’.  One of them and myself became friends and subsequently, one year and four months later, in May 1945, we were married.
note - and still were 41 years later when this letter was written!


May 1944
By May the river was jammed with landing craft, Bofors anti-aircraft guns were spaced all along the river.  Indeed, the whole of Hampshire was becoming a vast arsenal, every roadside jammed with vehicles, every grass verge loaded with ammunition.  Canvas villages sprang up in the adjacent fields and woodlands.   The field opposite the Swan (now flats) was a mass of tents.
in the aerial photo, left, the landing craft can be seen moored from just above the railway bridge, all the way past Catland Copse (where the qe2 activity centre jetty now is)

We had one evening off in three.  The men would walk into Woolston or Bitterne for a pint or two and try our luck with the local beauties.  If you tried to go into Southampton for a drink there were so many troops waiting for the invasion you had to take a milk bottle of a doorstep for there were  not enough glasses to go round.
Stan Blacker

June 1944
Stan Blacker                 “The Thursday before D-day on a road to HMS Cricket we had to parade, for the RAF to fly captured German aircraft over us, to enable us to recognise their aircraft.  All we could see was fleeting glimpses of these aircraft between the gaps in the trees.  Why we were not marched out to a field I do not know.

D-Day-1
“A few days later the local rector arrived in the camp and there was a parade.  We all attended and knelt in  the main road coming into the camp, the rector stood on a box and gave a short speech “God teach us not to show cowardice, God give us the strength to face the enemy” and the Lords Prayer.

“The whole unit was called to attention and formed columns, the CO took his place and we marched through the camp down to the river and to the Landing Craft and set sail for the Normandy beaches and D-day had begun.”

As they left the River Hamble that day the boys of the training ship TS Mercury were watching.  When the landing craft started to move down the river on their epic voyage the boys rushed to the port side of their dormitory ship and cheered the laden craft and the men on board cheered back.

RB Mudway, Mercury Old Boy    “Those men that left the River Hamble that night carried with them our hopes and expectations and they did not let us down.  I believe that there was not one of the 130 cadets aboard Mercury who did not wish himself a little older and able to sail with that brave armada of small ships.”

LC Butt:                       At approximately 8pm (Monday 5th June 1944) our flotilla was sailing in line fairly close to the Isle of Wight shoreline.  As we passed Osborne House with its manicured lawns and its buildings glistening in the evening sunshine so the sounds of bagpipes echoed across the water, played, I believe, by Piper Mullen.  Cheers rolled across the Solent.  It was a moment I would never forget.

 Stan Blacker:               When we left the Solent we were wet through with the rain before we even started.  It was overcast and misty and raining very heavily and the seas were rough , running 5 to 6 feet high.  We were scared, thinking this was the end of the world, and the soldiers on board who were not used to sea life were seasick.  We carried one 3 tonne lorry and a dozen soldiers belonging to 50th Division, Tyne & Wear Service Support Regiment. 

Before our eyes the Solent was filling with ships and landing craft.  From the enormous dock complex of Southampton, from Portsmouth Harbour, the Hamble and every conceivable inlet, endless streams of vessels were converging and forming into convoys.


D-Day
In 1944 the preparations for the D-day landings in France were all around us.  D-day to me was waking up at about five in the morning to the constant noise of hundreds of low flying aircraft heading out across the beach heads in France.  It went on for hours and at first light we could see the distinctive black and white striping on the aircraft wings and the DC-3s towing gliders full of troops.
 (from “A Boy at War” by Peter J Armitage, who lived at Hamble)

 LCB:                            Our craft was buffeted by waves 5’ to 6’ high and we were all very soon reduced to a state of inertia.  The only relief from the monotony was at about 1:00 am when the air Armada carrying the 6th Airborne passed over.  We could hear their passing even above the pounding of the waves.  By morning nothing would deter us from waiting to leave our storm tossed craft and landing on Terra Firma.

SB                               The flotilla consisted of 16 landing craft to make up E squadron.  We lost the first craft in the Solent in a collision with a digger landing craft.  On the evening of the 5th June another craft’s engine broke down (two engines 91/2 hp each producing 6 knots). The LC drifted into Le Havre and was taken prisoner by the Germans.  The third craft was sunk passing Sword Beach after hitting an underwater beach obstruction.  Thirteen craft arrived on Gold Beach out of the 16 that set off.

LCB                             From about 10 miles out we stared our run into the beach.  What an astonishing sight to behold.  First we passed fairly close to HM ships Warspite, Ramilles and the Lord Roberts, all engaging shore targets with their main armament.  Next we passed very close to HMS Scylla, flagship of the Eastern task force; then HMS Belfast and Diadem and finally through the destroyer and gunboat screen.  Everyone seemed to be shooting.  The noise was deafening.  With about a mile to go we received the warning for beaching and hitching up our kit we awaited events.  With a hard jolt we beached and I found myself instinctively following Sgt Brown down the gangplank; plunging into chest high water we waded ashore.     Capt LC Butt  184 Field Company RE

 SB                               I will never forget on the way to the beaches we saw green flags floating in the water.  A merchant ship signalled to us they were a German mine field.  Lucky escape!

E Squadron Commander Major Martin Pound, son of Sir Dudley Pound, was killed the day after D-day.  There was more sad news after our departure - a V1 bomb landed at the Cricket Camp and killed three service personnel - named Rae, Aubin and Goodier.  This was recorded by stores petty officer Alcombe Steer, who had to pack the belongings of the dead men and return them to their families.

The contribution of Combined Operations troops was vital to the success of the Normandy landings.  On June 12th 1944 Churchill wrote to Mountbatten:
Today we visited the British and American Armies on the soil of France. We sailed through vast fleets of ships with landing-craft of many types pouring more men, vehicles and stores ashore.  We saw clearly the manoeuvre in progress of rapid development.  We have shared our secrets in common and helped each other all we could.  We wish to tell you at this moment in your arduous campaign that we realise how much of this remarkable technique and therefore the success of the venture has its origin in developments effected by you and your staff of Combined Operations.
signed, Arnold, Brooke, Churchill, King, Marshall, Smuts

Six weeks to the day we sailed back up the Hamble River. 
Six weeks to the day a handful of us sat down to tea in the huge empty mess hall. 
Tearful WRNS held back.


 After D-Day
After the tremendous activity connected with the D-day invasion, HMS Cricket was used as a regrouping base for Combined Operations personnel who had lost their craft and those reforming for further action including the raid at Walcheren and the Rhine crossings.

from A/B Denis Mears, stationed at HMS Cricket between August 1944 and July 1945:
“In October we were dispatched to do the Walcheren Raid, went by ship with landing craft to Ostend, from Ostend to Ghent on railway trucks with landing craft, from Ghent to River Scheldt ... to the raid on Walcheron, came back after a mauling with only five landing craft out of twenty four to Cricket.  In Spring 1945 returned across Channel, clearing pockets of resistance along the River Maas.  Returned to Cricket at end of May.”

March 1946:  at this time Cricket was commanded by Colonel Hayward RM, the only Royal Marine officer to command a naval establihment in peace time.
The Drafting Office at Cricket was used extensively for the intake of Royal Marines returning from overseas service for onward drafting.  Regular service Marines were drafted to divisions at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth and training schools such as Lympstone and Deal.  “Hostilities only” Marines (that is for the duration of the war only) were drafted to demobilisation centres for their return to civilian life.

Royal Marines who had been prisoners of war, in Europe, the Middle East and most particularly the Far East, also returned to HMS Cricket.  Their movements to and from Cricket always took place at night so that civilians would not see their “pitiful state”.  Ex POWs when drafted went straight to the Royal Navy Hospital HMS Hasler or nearby civilian hospitals.

Everything from HMS Cricket was removed to HMS Rosneath, a shore establishment at Garelock, on the Clyde.

Demobbed

After this the camp was “de-nauticalised” by the Admiralty.  Winchester DC housing authority made as many of the huts as possible tenable (so far as labour and material shortages would allow).   The Nissan huts that slept 24 Royal Marines now became the home of demobilised soldiers with their families and those who became homeless in Southampton during the war.   At its peak there were more than 200 people living here.  Each hut comprised a large lounge, kitchen, two or three bedrooms; with
“an open fireplace in the lounge, and in the kitchen a range for cooking and for warmth, and a large old-type copper in which we heated water for bathing.  Living in the centre of a copse there was an endless supply of wood”.

“When we first went there there was no main drainage.  It was a case of a bucket under the sink and if you forgot to look you had wet feet when the bucket overflowed”

By 1953 most people had been housed and the site became a chicken farm owned by Mr Thistlewhite "but the foxes soon dealt with it  . . .” as one local put it.

Cricket Camp 
In the 1960s the Nissan huts were removed and the site became neglected.  One large Nissan hut remained and was used by the Boy Scouts and became known as Cricket Camp.  Over the years the Scout site has developed, and over the years thousands of young people have camped there and taken part in activities including canoeing archery and air rifle shooting.   The Scouts’ facilities were improved in the 1980s with the opening of a dormitory block named “Pauline’s Lodge”.  The opening was performed by HRH Princess Margaret on her second visit to the site.

QE2 Activity Centre
The first had been in March 1978 when she visited to open the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Activities Centre.   In 1977, thirty three years after D-day, in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee it was proposed to build an activities centre for people with disabilities.  The idea had come from Chris Gardiner who in 1984 was awarded the MBE for his work.   The Centre provides a range of activities including canoeing, climbing, horse-riding archery, ropes course and motorboat trips on the Hamble River.  
 

One veteran who visited the site wrote of the “great satisfaction” that seeing the site being used for community outdoor activities gave him.

2 comments:

  1. I love this. I've read it several times over the last two or three years. Please don't delete it. There was another site / page - I think of Bob Nimmo's work and research - which I discovered in late 2012 and had gone back to a few times up until maybe 2015. I can't find it now, think it's been deleted - is Bob Nimmo alive and well? Has he just chosen to not continue with the website domain? It's a shame. Both his site and this blog post is immensely valuable to me - a young gent in his early twenties! No connection to the base or any of its occupants... just in love with the history of the AREA! Thanks! x

    ReplyDelete