Big Lottery helps Monmouth ex-Navy man return to wartime base

Free Press Series: SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: George Davies SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: George Davies

HE WAS a crew member onboard a former fishing boat which was commandeered by the Royal Navy to sweep the seas around Britain for a new deadly catch of mines during WWII.

He also guided ships safely to harbour in waters threatened by constant attack from German submarines and served in theatres of war around the world stretching from the North Sea to Sri Lanka.

Now, thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund's Heroes Return 2 programme, 87-year-old George Davies from Monmouth will return to Sri Lanka in January to recall the role he played during the Second World War and retrace his steps for the last time.

Mrs Davies will be one of numerous veterans who have made a poignant return to the places where they served during the war.

The Big Lottery Fund's Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over £1 million to more than 830 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers from Wales for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.

Mr Davies was called up for war duty in September 1943. The bank worker enlisted in the RAF and was initially trained as a wireless operator.

However, due to a shortage of telegraphists to man all the landing craft for the second front, he was transferred to the Navy as a telegraphist. Using Morse code to communicate, telegraphists were indispensable at sea and were used for relaying secret coded messages.

In 1944, he joined HMT Cranefly at Grimsby, a First World War fishing trawler converted for mine sweeping duties. Many of the crew, including the captain, were ex-fishermen. Mine sweepers were designed to counter the threat posed by the deadly naval mines and are often seen as the unsung heroes of WWII for their role in keeping the waters around Britain safe from the deadly explosives and submarine attacks.

"The ships worked in groups of four," Mr Davies said.

"My group consisted of the ships Cranefly, Gadfly, Firefly and the Equerry. The Equerry had her stern blown off and had been towed ashore. She was repaired with a new and larger stern and was much faster than the rest of our group.

"We swept for mines in a single line, one ship astern of the other, enabling quite a large area to be swept. Our sweeping area was from Flamborough Head of the coast of Yorkshire to Sheringham off the coast of Norfolk. We swept by day and patrolled by night, watching out for any e-boats or enemy aircraft dropping mines.

The shipping lanes had to be swept clean before the convoys came through. Sometimes we would be out in the shipping lane picking up convoys and escorting them safely past the Boom Defense vessels at the mouth of the Humber and then sending them up river.

"The fishermen were a hardy lot and didn't take very kindly to naval discipline.

"They were very superstitious too. You didn't shave at sea and you would never have an open safety pin on the mess deck. There was a wonderful comradeship onboard. We were a really close family and we had some wonderful characters on the ship."

Following VE Day in May 1945, Mr Davies was discharged from HMT Cranefly and sent overseas to HMS Mayina, a transit camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where all personnel in the East Indies Fleet passed through. Mr Davies and the crew would now be focused on the War in the Pacific and combating the threat from the Japanese Imperial Navy.

"We sailed out from Greenock in Scotland on HMS Glengyle, a former cargo ship," he said.

"The accommodation was terrible as we had to sleep on the mess deck in hammocks with only a blanket. The ship had no air-conditioning which meant that when we reached warmer climes, we slept on the open deck to keep cool. I had terrible sunburn and blisters everywhere as there was no such thing as sun cream in those days. It was a relief when we reached Bombay which was as far as the ship was taking us."

As they were waiting to disembark from the ship off the coast of India, Mr Davies heard on the radio that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

He was in a small village just outside Bombay by the time the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Japan surrendered.

It was only later that Mr Davies discovered that they were to form part of the plans for an invasion of Singapore to take it back from the Japanese. However, the atomic bombings of Japan had brought an end to the War.

Mr Davies remained in Sri Lanka until he was sent to Bombay to catch a liner called the Llanstephan Castle back to Britain. However, naval mines remained a threat even after the war ended and before he was demobbed, Mr Davies was drafted for duty onboard another mine sweeper with responsibility for clearing the inshore minefields between Boulogne and Dieppe off the coast of France.

Returning to Sri Lanka would not be possible without the Big Lottery Fund, he said.

"This will probably be my last chance to do this trip," he added.

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