Secrets of Bill's war; As thousands gather in Liverpool this weekend for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic,CATHERINE JONES speaks to two veterans about their wartime memories.
WILL Webb waged a very secret war against the Nazis.
Within months of the start of the Battle of the Atlantic he was drawn into a world of clandestine operations - later immortalised in the writings of authors like James Bond creator Ian Fleming.
On one occasion Bill actually took the famous spy-turned-author over to France for a special mission.
The 83-year- old from Warrington, who is taking part in this weekend's anniversary commemoration, spent the first 14 months of World War Two patrolling the South Atlantic on the HMS Alcantara, which he says was crewed by ``45% Merseyside boys from HMS Eaglet''.
The Alcantara passed the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which had found the South Atlantic a happy hunting ground, just three days after it was scuttled by its own captain off Montevideo.
He was then co- opted into a different world.
The former coxswain says: ``I was sent to Devonport gunnery school in 1941 and then joined the Coastal Forces'15thMotor Gunboat Flotilla,operating out of Great Yarmouth and most of the time from Dartmouth.
``We did quite a considerable number of clandestine operations off Brittany, taking agents - including Ian Fleming - over to France.
``In six months in 1944,before DDay, when the American air force was short of men, we also brought out 139 US airmen who had been shot down over France and hidden in safe houses.''
The airmen were cared for by the French Resistance and smuggled up to the coast from all over France.
Bill says: ``The escape route through the Pyrenees was closed after too many people were sold out to the Germans.
``A man who called himself Patrick O'Leary,but he was actually a lieutenant commander Czech surgeon, set up what was called the Comet Line, which brought people up from Marseilles to the Brittany coast.
``We put them down below and told them to keep quiet. We crawled in and crawled out. The last thing we wanted to do was engage with the enemy.''
Bill, whose Distinguished Service Medal was reported in the ECHO in 1944,and his comrades on MGB503 often came close to capture themselves.
e recalls: ``We weren't allowed to talk to anyone about what we did. One man who told his father was sent to prison for 18months.
``We never knew who was watching. We would leave harbour in Devon and sail as though we were going towards Totnes or Weymouth.
``Then when it got dark we'd turn towards France. We only used one engine,and that was silent. It only did two to three knots - it was a long and miserable trip and we had a complete blackout.
``It had to be a bad night,dark and stormy, the weather had to be in our favour or we wouldn't risk it. There was a saying we had,`It's not a night for a cat or dog'.And our anchor rope was made of grass and could be cut with an axe for a quick getaway.
``One of the places we used to land was almost on top of a German battery position. We used to watch them come out and have a smoke.''
Bill carried out 16 covert operations, which would start with a coded message heard on the radio either through music or particular words.
When the gunboats arrived off the coast, a few men from the crew of between 25 and 32 who were boat pullers would take a small craft and pull it through the water up to one and a half miles away from the parent ship, to pick up their cargo of men.
They had to be strong to wade through tides and turbulent water. If the escaping airmen were not at the rendezvous point, they wereleft.
Everyone on the operation was handed a plastic pack by Bill, who was in charge of the men,containing newly-printedFrench francs, water purification tablets and special high-energy chocolate in case they were stranded.
Guy Hamilton, who later directed films including The Colditz Story, Battle of Britain and the Bond classics Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, served with the flotilla and once got left behind in Brittany where he spent a month being hidden by the Resistance. Bill says: ``We also landed people on the Dutch coast. We used to take a small boat and put it ashore,and on one operation the Germans were waiting for us. My first lieutenant had both his eyes shot out.''
Bill was later awarded the freedom of Atlanta, Georgia, and of Pleumeur-Bodou in France for his daring work,and went to America to be reunited with airmen he rescued.
He is joining veterans for this weekend's commemoration to pay tribute to all seamen who fought during World War Two.
Brothers in arms
THERE was no hero's welcome for Battle of Atlantic survivor Joe Barrett after the ship he and his brother were on struck a mine.
It was January 11,1940,and the Bowring oil tanker El Oso was one of the first ships of the war to be sunk off the west coast.
Joe's brother Terry was hurt and four men died in the explosion. Many crew members were injured.
When they got back to the Pier Head, the Liverpoolbased sailors who were uninjured were told they would have to make their own way home.
Joe, now 85, recalls: ``I walked to Castle Street and waited in a queue for a tram. I felt terrible and must have looked a mess because I was covered in oil.
``An old man worked out I'd been shipwrecked and he took me to a pub and bought me a rum. It was such a lovely gesture.''
It had been the brothers' third trip across the Atlantic.
Joe remembers: ``We joined the ship in July 1939.
``We were in Caro Blanco, Peru, on our second trip to South America, when the news came through we were at war, and also that the pocket battleship Graf Spee had already sunk three merchant ships on the Atlantic side of the Panama canal.
``Some of the older seamen, who had sailed in the Great War, reckoned we had no chance of making it home.''
The ship sailed through to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join the first convoy to leave the Canadian port and made it home in one piece. But on their next trip their luck ran out in Liverpool Bay.
Joe, from Sefton Park, remembers: ``After leaving the convoy homeward bound in the Irish Sea, we struck a magnet mine.
``We lost four good men. Many more were injured, including my poor brother.
``I was on watch. I'd come up from the warm engine room in just a singlet and overalls. It was really cold when you got in the lifeboat. But I was more worried about Terry - I was lying over him to keep him warm. He didn't have a stitch on him and he had broken arms and legs.''
After several hours they were rescued by HMS Walker. He went back to sea as a crew member of a hospital ship, which struck a mine close to the Middle East. But the ship had a double hull for ice breaking and survived.
Several ships later,he was on the Karamea in Japanese waters when news of VE Day reached the crew.
All five Barett brothers went to war.
Another,Jack,died from thirst after spending 25 days in a lifeboat when the liner SS Designer was sunk in July 1941. Their younger brother Philip stole a bag of Joe's clothes and `jumped'on a ship in the same year,aged 15. A fifth,Edward, served in the army.
missions with the Coastal Forces'15thMotor Gunboat F lotilla
IN UNIFORM: Bill Webb during his wartime service; SURVIVORS: Merchant seamen are rescued following a U-Boat attack during the Battle of the Atlantic; WAR STALWART: Joe Barrett today and during World War II, below; WARTIME SPY: James Bond creator Ian Fleming,left, was one of the agents taken to France by Bill; Webb, right, and his gunboat comrades
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|Publication:||Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||May 3, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Echoes of the ECHO.|