Dad and D-Day

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Preamble:

 

As a result of a DNA test conducted in Australia, I have recently been contacted by cousins that I had no previous knowledge of and from whom I have acquired copies of two photographs of my young father, one of which I remember being on display during my childhood. Coincidentally, these arrived at about the time that would have been his birthday and also in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I was therefore bound to be thinking of my father and in particular his involvement in WW2.

 

Early Life:

 

My father, Eric lloyd Conway was born in 1925 and in the wake of the First World War. In that conflict his father, Hubert Conway, had served in the trenches on the Western Front until being honourably discharged as a result of a serious shrapnel wound to the leg. He had spent a long period of convalescence at a hospital in Scotland from where he sent postcards to his parents who were then living in Islington (London). Eric’s mother, Hilda, had moved with her family from Hackney (London) to Southend-on-Sea (Essex) in the late 1890s when she was an infant. During the First World War, Hilda was a nurse and was assigned to the Palace Hotel, a very large building that still dominates the landscape at the top of Southend’s Pier Hill and which had been converted to the Queen Mary’s Royal Naval Hospital for the duration of the war. Hilda’s then (first) husband was called Mackrell and tragically was one of the injured sailors brought to the hospital. His injuries were severe and Hilda arranged matters so that she could nurse him until he died of his injuries.

 

Thus, the first war had left Hilda widowed and Hubert with a stiff gait from his injury and a quiet reservedness from his traumatic experiences. How Hubert came to be living in Southend and met Hilda after the war is not known but Hubert’s father (Frank Lloyd Conway) had been a draughtsman working for a London firm and Hilda’s father (Edgar Taylor) was an architect. Between them, they had contributed many buildings to the developing landscape of Southend and it is possible that their fathers knew each other. Hubert and Hilda were married in Southend in 1924 and my father was born in the following year at their home, 77 Southchurch Road. The property was demolished in a 1960s, ring road development and the site is now the Queensway underpass. Other than time spent away during WW2, Eric would live in Southend his entire life.

 
Young Eric

Eric playing with cousin in 1931

 

The above photo was taken 1931 and shows my father (aged 5 or 6) pushing his younger cousin on the trolley. The location was one of the pair’s houses and so was either the Southchurch Road property or else at Richmond Avenue in Shoeburyness where Dad’s uncle, Arthur Treveil was living at the time and employed as a civilian on the firing ranges having served in the Royal Artillery in the 1920s.  Eric received a basic education at Hamstel School and Southchurch Hall boys school and had embarked upon an apprenticeship in book binding until this was interrupted by the war.  

 

World War 2 and D-Day:

 

During WW2, Eric had enlisted in the Royal Navy at 17 because (as he told me in later life) it looked better for morale to volunteer than to wait and be conscripted on his 18th birthday. With his characteristic grin and sparkle in his eye, he went on to say that he had also thought this would impress ‘the ladies’ who might otherwise scorn those who appeared to shirk such duty. On his first night in Portsmouth Barracks, they were issued basic kit and allocated barracks but Eric spent the night in the sick bay with a bout of gastro-enteritis. During the night, the barracks were bombed and an adjacent hut took a direct hit in which all the occupants, also 17/18 year old new arrivals, lost their lives. Eric was one of those whose first naval duties was to assist with the removal of bodies and clearing up the site. He described the funeral of his fellow recruits with their parents present as harrowing, but returned many years later to take photographs of the cemetery. This, more than any other wartime event, impacted my father throughout his life.

 

After his training, Eric served on frigates protecting convoys in the Atlantic and North Sea as a pom-pom gunner. He told me that his main worry was that, being strapped into the gun which was mounted on a swivel on the side of the ship, he would be dragged overboard to sink with the gun if the ship was hit. During this period Eric had another lucky escape, being on leave to visit his parents in Southend when his frigate was involved in a collision whilst docking at Portsmouth with the loss of several comrades.

 

This second photo was taken in 1944 and I believe shortly before Eric’s 19th birthday –

 
Dad 1944

Eric in uniform, 1944

 

Not long after this photo was taken and two weeks after his birthday, Eric took part in Operation Neptune, the D-Day landings that began the invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord). His ship, HMS Southern Prince, was a requisitioned liner that had been involved in minelaying operations in Scotland before being torpedoed and repaired at Belfast. On D-Day, HMS Southern Prince accompanied the invasion fleet and was tasked with towing a section of the Mulberry Harbour to the beachhead. For this operation the ship also served as the flagship of Rear Admiral Rivett-Carnac although neither my father nor other ratings were aware of this at the time other than wondering why the ship had sprouted a number of ‘mystery antennae’ in the lead up to the invasion. Positioned off Juno beach, the ship also provided anti-aircraft fire to protect the fleet and the landings (by Canadian troops) from air attack.

 
HMS Southern Prince

HMS Southern Prince (Imperial War Museum collection, photo A 9986)

 

The following day, after the beaches were taken, Eric had some off-duty time and was on deck taking (against regulations) some pictures with his box brownie. A number of DUKW amphibious vehicles were transporting men and supplies between the fleet and the shore and one of these drew alongside. The Canadian crew asked Eric what he was doing and offered to take him ashore. Thinking this was a social invitation rather than a query from a Canadian tasked with ferrying essential personel ashore Eric agreed and was given time to fetch two of his comrades to accompany him. In one account the commanding officer, bearing in mind that Eric had missed his birthday shore leave and was one of the youngest crew members, thought that he deserved an opportunity to take in such a momentous occasion and had turned a blind eye to the excursion given that Eric was not going ashore unaccompanied.

 

Thus Eric and his two shipmates were aboard the DUKW heading towards the beach that had been in German hands the day before. They had thought that they would be dropped off on the beach, for a brief stroll along the sand, before being returned to their ship. But the DUKW did not stop and they became increasingly concerned as it drove on and on, into Courseulles-sur-Mer and past scenes where the town and its railway station had taken, an obvious battering from the naval bombardment and subsequent ground fighting, without any signs of dropping them off, or returning them to their ship.

 

Eventually they were dropped off at the outskirts of the town, where after a brief stroll, they found themselves looking at open countryside. Here Eric described a scene of absolute and eerie silence, with no bird song, and not a soul in sight. They were taking this scene in when suddenly, as they were passing a farm building, they were grabbed by some Canadian commandos and pulled forcibly within the shelter. The commandos were not impressed to find three sailors in full naval uniform traipsing about the front line with a camera and in an area crawling with German snipers. The three were handed over to some Canadian MPs and after some questioning to ascertain whether they were German spies or saboteurs, they were returned to their ship to be put on a charge. As they boarded just in time for an inspection by the admiral, the commanding officer leant over and told them not to breathe another word about the incident. On this basis and in light of the official naval communique complimenting all involved on the success of the operation, it was felt that to pursue the charges would detract from the overall success . So the charges were quietly dropped. HMS Southern Prince anchored off Juno Beach on 8 June 1944 and was used as an accommodation ship from October 1944 until returning to the Prince Line in 1946.

 

Until I began writing this account of my father’s D-Day experience, I was unaware that my brother had found some of the photographs taken by our father on D-Day and during the subsequent excursion to Courseulles-sur-Mer amongst his possessions. Copies of the photos (all credited to Eric Lloyd Conway, 1944) are below –

 
Fleet

Part of the invasion fleet immediately after the landings

 
 
DUKW

Various personnel including Canadians on a DUKW

 
 
Juno Beach

Juno beach with beached landing support ships,
parked DUKWs and distant barrage balloons

 
 
Station

Shell damaged railway station at Courseulles-sur-Mer
with damaged clock and Canadian military vehicles

 
 
Shell Damage

Shell damaged residence on the coast road

 
 
Building

Damaged, unidentified coastal building – hotel or casino?
Photo possibly taken from moving DUKW

 
 

Courseulles-sur-Mer station, then and now

 
 

Amongst my father’s possessions there were also some saucy, French postcards purchased in Courseulles-sur-Mer, one of which he had sent to his mother to let her know he was in France. My brother had sent copies of the photos to the Juno Beach Museum (for the 70th anniversary of D-Day) where they were very gratefully received as the museum thought they had every picture from that time and did not know these existed.

 

Aftermath:

 
Being a late entrant into the war, Eric remained in the navy for a further couple of years sailing around the world and serving mainly in the Pacific. This ‘Issue Card’ (a booklet listing supplies and medical treatment received) shows that he spent the last weeks of January 1945 in Portsmouth Barracks whilst his ship, the frigate HMS Odzani was in dock –
 

Issue Card, Portsmouth Barracks 1945

 
My father sometimes talked about “Crossing the Line”, a potentially unpleasant ritual to initiate those who were crossing the equator for the first time. This certificate shows that he did so on board the Odzani in May 1945 –
 

Crossing the Line certificate

 
 

HMS Odzani in 1943 (photo: Imperial War Museum FL 16954)

 
After the war, Eric worked as a printer for the Southend Standard and then at a Co-op Bakery before being employed by the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham and then Basildon until retirement.
 

My parents and I, c.1955

 
I was very moved when, 50+ years after his involvement in D-Day, Eric’s commanding officer attended his funeral accompanied by a group of uniformed Royal Navy cadets to lower flags and pipe him aboard for his journey into the next world.
 
Lest we forget.
 

Links:

1. For re-use of images, see terms and conditions
2. Normandy Landings at Wikipedia
3. Juno Beach at Wikipedia
4. Juno Beach Museum
5. HMS Southern Prince at Wikipedia
6. HMS Odzani at Wikipedia

 
Credit:

Many thanks to my brother Cheyne Conway for providing copies of our father’s D-Day photographs and additional details of his experience in Courseulles-sur-Mer.

 

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