Albert E. Drinkwater, Lance-Corporal, Royal Corps of Signals, 1908-1996

Father of resident Alan Drinkwater, Albert Drinkwater was a quiet person who played a modest part as a cypher clerk in World War II. He entered France via Juno beach shortly after the D-Day landings in June 1944, as part of the Head Quarters of a Canadian Infantry Division. Unlike most other NCO’s he was conscripted relatively late in the War, having previously been exempted because of working in a reserved occupation in the machine-tool industry. He would have been conscripted about 1943, aged 35, already married with two infant children.

Known in the family as ‘Son’, he was a retiring person and subsequently spoke very little about his experiences of the War. After his death in 1995, he left three papers that he had typed (along with carbon copies). The first paper described his experience in the landing craft that took him over to France, and a second paper was about the protracted journey across northern France via Belgium, ending in Berlin. The papers were typed on an old German portable typewriter that he had acquired in Berlin. Both papers have been donated to the Royal Corps of Signal Museum near Blandford.

My voyage on the ‘TLS Fort McPherson’

On 11th of June at 0330 hours of this year (1944) whilst proceeding at eight knots, the British ‘ TLS Fort McPherson’, 7,132 tons which had troops and stores for Normandy on board, was attacked by enemy aircraft with four glider-bombs. The first hit the ship. The second exploded about a hundred yards away on the port bow, and a splinter from it made a small hole in the stern just above the waterline. The third and fourth fell in the wake where they exploded harmlessly. Blue lights were seen in the tails of the first two.

The bomb which had hit the ship had entered the hull at an angle of 45 degrees from the quarter. It had pierced the boat deck, passed through the Assistant steward’s cabin, through a bulkhead into the carpenter’s shop, then penetrated the main deck and passed two bulkheads into the stokehold, smashing the ash hoist and telemeter pipes, and finally coming to rest partly buried in coal in the cross bunker. It had not exploded, though the pointed end was buried, and the visible part looked like a big oil drum.

Mr S. H. Mallett, the Chief Officer, ordered the trimmers not to disturb the coal, and reported the position to the Master, who informed the corvette that an unexploded bomb was still aboard.

According to the Chief Officer’s narrative: “We reduced speed to avoid vibration: all troops and crew except those absolutely necessary were cleared from midships. Several pieces of metal from the fins, carriage and tail were found among the debris on the deck, and a small magneto, all of which we eventually handed to the D.E.M.S. authorities. Kapok from the air tanks of the starboard lifeboat was strewn about the boat deck, smouldering and burning, which Bosun Markie quickly extinguished. He also dealt very efficiently with the fire which broke out amongst the debris of the wrecked accommodation.

Among the military staff on board was a Captain Burdett, RE, who told me that he knew about bomb disposal, and asked if he might see the bomb.” Permission was granted, so Captain Burdett, with his sergeant, went into the bunker and removed the coal from around the bomb and dealt with it. “At 0750 hrs Captain Burdett said the bomb was ready to be lifted. It was from four to five feet in length, three feet in diameter, and weighed roughly a ton. The bomb was slung with a rope which Captain Burdett successfully rove through a hole where the tail fin had been attached. Bosun Markie took charge of the bunker derrick while I worked the winch and we hove the bomb up and swung it out over the side. After lowering it to the water’s edge we tried to slip the rope, but it jammed. I hove it up again, hung out over the bulwark as far as I could, and cut the rope with a sharp knife. The bomb sank like a stone at approximately 0745 hrs. We reported to the escort that the bomb had been disposed of, then proceeded at full speed to our assigned berth off the beaches.”

By thus summarily disposing of this intrusive object, the Chief Officer and Captain Burdett removed a source of imminent danger to the ship and her complement of 750, without any consideration for the feelings of those experts on shore who had hoped to examine the bomb themselves and perhaps preserve it with the enthusiasm of true collectors, as an exhibit for instructional purpose!”

North West European Campaign

Biography of Cipher Section 147 Infantry Brigade

There is no doubt that the realisation of an event seldom corresponds to the expectation and our part in the campaign proved no exception to this rule. Having read of previous amphibious operations and taken note of the intense waterproofing activity that prevailed prior to “D” Day we had visions of us cipher ops., swimming strongly, pushing our boxes in front of us, while the German Army en bloc tried to down them. With this in mind we obtained some waterproofing material from the M.T. Section and spent much time in floating our boxes in a bath of water, eventually attaining a fair degree of seaworthiness. Fortunately for us these efforts were never put to the test as we eventually made a dry landing.

Apart from the excitement caused by anticipation the first stages of our adventure passed without incident, embarkation on the “Fort Macpherson” in the Thames, a period of inactivity off the Thames Estuary and our move in convoy through the “Straits”. At 3 o’clock in the morning on the day that we were to reach the Normandy beaches, however, we awoke in the morning suddenly to find the ship quivering like a jelly. The “Lucky Mac” had been hit by a glider bomb which tore away one of the boats, passed through a cabin injuring one of the crew, and finally lodged deep in the coal bunkers without exploding. This bomb which weighed a ton, was very efficiently dealt with by some Royal Engineers personnel aboard the ship. We were all relieved when it was safely consigned to the deep.

During the next day we lay at anchor off the beaches and had further excitement in the form of a sneak raider who narrowly missed the landing ferry tied up to the side of our ship with a fair-sized bomb. I think that he would have done better but for the long burst of machine gun fire from one of our fighters at the crucial moment, which probably upset the Jerry pilot’s aim.

After a short period in the assembly area we moved up to take position in our sector of the front. It is strange how queer comparisons stay with one when more important occurrences grow dim. We remember one beautiful day at St Croix Grande Tonne, shelling was very lively, but above the shot and shell we could hear Vera Lynn crooning “We’ll Meet Again” in her own inimitable style. At that time, we thought nothing could give us greater pleasure, but there were moments when we had our doubts.

Owing to the wooded and undulating nature of the country it was possible at this time to work in our tent tele although we found it necessary to dig inside the tent for protection from shelling. At Bronay we were working on the night that the barrage from seven hundred guns opened- up supported by units of the Royal Navy. It was just as well that cipher is done by sight and not by sound, otherwise on this occasion we would have “had it”. At this time too we were receiving nightly quite lengthy Sitreps from 3 Canadian Division who were on our flank, and these kept us busy.

Our next move of importance was the switch to the Caen sector under the First Canadian Army. Here at Columbelles we had the unpleasant experience of being shelled on a flat plain without natural cover of any sort, and our tent had to be discarded for a nice big hole in the ground. At Cagny, our next location on the same plain, we stayed for quite a period, and our Corporals motto “bags of depth” resulted in an office cum bedroom seven feet deep. True the area we were able to excavate made it a trifle cramped for three but when inside we did feel that it was possible to “cock a snook” at all but the most ambitious shells. Here public enemy number one were the mosquitoes who came down in their millions and fed off us during the hours of darkness. We smoked them (and ourselves) out religiously with burnt rag every night, then jumped in quickly and covered the opening with sacking but somehow, somewhere, they affected a tactical surprise and always managed to infiltrate during the night.

Our next location, Cancagny, on the same plain, found the same conditions prevailing, shelling if anything more unpleasant but still the mosquitoes. Here, the Section had to split up as the ground was too hard to dig an office for three, and it was difficult working in the depth that we could take out, sitting room only in fact. During our stay on the plain enemy air activity also increased and quite a few exciting nights were experienced on this account also. However, all good and bad things come to an end, the enemy front was in the melting pot with the Falaise pocket in the making, and we started the chase across beautiful hilly country that extends from the Caen plain to the Seine. After the sun scorched plain with its clouds of white dust, this part of our journey was indeed a pleasant change, using a tent again and camping in the large cider orchards for which France is famous, we were able to make full use of the lovely weather prevailing at that time.

With Le Havre taken in record time another potential supply line was opened for the furtherance of our campaign, and we had a short stay at a site in the neighbourhood of Dieppe, then on again through Belgium. Brussels, only recently liberated, gave us a terrific reception. Then on to Turnhout. After this came the operation to free Antwerp for supplies, and our part in the operation to clear the enemy up to the line of the Maas. On this operation one of our ops had a narrow escape; the enemy were shelling the crossroads at Eschen as we were moving through in convoy. A shell burst on the road a few yards behind the three-ton truck in which he was travelling. In the same truck, it wounded a Brigade orderly in the head and foot, while the tailboard was well perforated with shrapnel holes.

This operation having been accomplished successfully, we moved after a brief stay in Roosondaal to the Venlo sector, then switched again on what was to be our longest mission, control of a sector of the “Island” covering Nijmegen Bridge. With winter now in full swing and house accommodation mostly damaged by the early fighting in this area, conditions were not too comfortable, but after months of toughening up it was quite bearable, and anyway the campaign was obviously drawing to a successful conclusion.

During all these changes and under a variety of different conditions, a steady flow of cipher traffic was passing through our hands mainly, it is true, “in” messages. But then from the point of view of the cipher operator, “in” messages with the corruptions that can be caused by bad reception, are often a far more difficult test than “out” messages.

Finally came the operation for which we had all been waiting for so long as we saw Americans and our compatriots pushing further and further into Germany, our push through Arnhem and the drive into enemy occupied Holland just prior to VE Day. As one watched the milling crowds on this drive, all obviously overjoyed at our arrival, and thought back to the same welcome through each country through which we had passed, came the thought, how little the enemy in five years of occupation had succeeded in establishing a desire for life under German domination.

Although at times we have worked right through the night, it is an accepted fact that cipher traffic is at its busiest during the dark hours. Of course, during active service, conditions are not always as comfortable as might be due to the necessity of working in as safe a place as possible. Nevertheless, we have done whatever has been asked of us and we feel that from this view point we have not failed in the job that we came out to do.

In concluding, we would like to pay tribute to our friends who failed to finish the journey. Perhaps they know that their efforts have been attended with success and their sacrifices not in vain.”

(Experiences of L/Cpl. Albert Drinkwater, Royal Signals. As typed on his portable typewriter).

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