David Buckle: My time in the Royal Marines

By the end of 1942 when he was 18, David started to think about joining up to serve in World War Two despite being in a reserved occupation as he was working on a farm in Radley at the time. When he went to the recruiting office in George Street in Oxford, he was told he could either work down the mines as a ‘Bevan Boy’ or go in the Royal Marines. Not liking the idea of working down a coal mine he volunteered for the Marines, for which he had to pass a sight and hearing test.

In January 1943 he received a letter to report to the Royal Marines barracks at Eastney in Portsmouth on 12 February 1943. This turned out to be a turning point in his life. David had been brought up in a children’s home and hadn’t had an easy time, but it had made him independent and he felt this new occupation was a new adventure. Going down to Portsmouth was a real eye opener of what war was about. The peace and quiet of Radley had well and truly been left behind.

On his first night in Portsmouth the Germans bombed the city and David was in the thick of it. These were violent air raids and, with bombs going off everywhere, the place was shaking. He sat in an air raid shelter and felt terrified. As well as having his eyes opened to the realities of war, he was amazed at the reaction of some of the men in the barracks. There were men crying at night because they were missing their mothers who had done everything for them and they couldn’t cope with looking after themselves. David’s upbringing in the children’s home meant he knew the hard way how to survive, with activities such as washing his own socks. Some of the men resented the fact that David was so independent and was enjoying himself. The sergeant in charge of them was a nice man but a tough guy. He said that they were going to be properly trained so they would not disgrace the Marines. Part of the discipline was that if anyone in the squad misbehaved they had to run round the barracks. One day the sergeant said to David that he couldn’t understand why he was never bothered about any of the discipline and David informed the sergeant that his former guardian could teach him a thing or two about discipline. The Marines trained him and stretched him. Life was changing for him.

After 14 weeks’ initial training in Portsmouth, David was posted to combined operations and was sent to a camp in Barmouth in north-west Wales for training in navigation, seamanship, Morse code and semaphore and gunnery. In the course of gunnery training hundreds of men assembled in a huge cinema. The instructor said that they had to fire the gun a little in front of the aircraft so that by the time the bullet got there the plane would be there too. In his posh voice he said it was rather like throwing a stone at a cat running across a lawn. At that a Cockney lad piped up and said: ‘What’s a bloody lawn sir?’.

After six weeks’ training David knew a bit about navigation and seamanship, but not much about the other two subjects. He returned to Portsmouth and was then sent to various places including Brightlingsea, near Southend, ending up at the naval base at Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland. Here there were two flotillas of small landing craft made out of seven-ply wood. When the men went across from Invergordon to Cromarty at the mouth of the Firth, they saw big Sunderland aircraft landing on the water having been on Atlantic patrols.

David had a good time in Scotland but not all was pleasant there. One day very senior army and naval personnel arrived for a special exercise with tanks designed to be amphibious. They were to be despatched from landing craft, first going underwater and then coming to the surface before landing on the beach. The idea was that, once on land, the driver would press a button and a small explosion would get rid of all the water and rubbish, and then the tank would be fit for use on the land. A senior naval officer who had a lot to say for himself was on David’s boat. The first tank went off the landing craft and immediately went down and never came up to surface. There was a long pause. All sorts of messages were going back and forth, and the officer ordered the exercise to carry on. Altogether nine tanks went off the landing craft and nine went to the bottom. They were fully loaded tanks with a full crew. It was unimaginatively awful and there was sorrow in the camp for days afterwards.

Eventually David completed his training, which included a rehearsal for D-Day with warships firing shells over the men as they went onto the beach. The firing did not stop until they reached the beach. It was very noisy.

The men were then told they were going to Portsmouth. All their landing craft were hoisted up onto cargo boats that had been converted to have 24 landing craft on either side. They travelled round the top of the Scottish coast and down the Irish Sea and back along the south coast. There was one U-boat scare but that is all. David found himself on HMS Vernon, a submarine base opposite Gosport, which was the Royal Navy’s main submarine base. There were motor torpedo boats (MTBs) there as well. While there David met and had a chat with a Radley resident called Wilson who lived in a bungalow opposite the Bowyer Arms and who was in the MTB fleet.

David’s work until D-Day was to deliver sailing orders to all the warships in the harbour and the Solent. He found he could go anywhere in Portsmouth harbour purely by compass night or day as he had learnt enough navigation skills to do it. He thought it was great fun. This work carried on for a while and during that time there was no leave and any talk in pubs about anything they had seen was banned. The men were aware that all this was leading up to something. There were troops arriving and landing craft were assembling on the Solent. There were hundreds of barrage balloons above them.

David’s job on D-Day was not to land in France but to deliver sailing orders to every landing craft detailing when they had to set off. His group also took troops out to the landing craft. Many of these troops were American, and he and others were surprised to see that black and white soldiers were segregated onto different boats.

The Royal Marines’ boats were again loaded onto cargo boats and they set forth, stopping halfway in the English Channel. The men wondered why they were waiting, but then realised they were in the assembly area and that, if there had to be a mass evacuation, they were there to bring the men out. As they weren’t needed they went back to Portsmouth and David was spared going all the way to France.

As a corporal David was entitled to be the coxswain of a boat. Now he was made a sergeant and, with this promotion, was moved to a special brigade within his flotilla and waited be told what his next destination would be. At that time he was the youngest sergeant in the Royal Marines.

From Portsmouth, David’s group was sent by train to a specially built hutted camp, Windrush Camp, between Burford and Northleach on the Oxfordshire–Gloucestershire border. On the table in one of the huts were huge maps of Lübeck, Kiel and Flensburg. David discovered that they were being trained for a special brigade to be sent to Germany. The war was coming to an end by the time they finally sailed from Tilbury to Ostend, and then on to an old cavalry camp in Belgium where their beds were palliasses which they filled with the straw they found in a heap. The brigade stayed here for a few days before being put on lorries and taken to Brussels airport to fly to the Lüneberg Heath military airfield near Hamburg. The brigade got on Dakota aircraft that had come in from Germany bringing in prisoners of war (POWs) who had been released. At the airfield were thousands and thousands of British ex POWs just wandering around. Nothing seemed to be organised but the ex POWs didn’t mind as they were on their way home.

On their way the Marines’ lorries passed through Hamburg. The city was an unforgettable and awful sight following the allied bombing. There were vast heaps of rubble four or five storeys high with dead animals lying around, but fortunately no dead humans. People came out of the rubble waving white flags made of sheets or handkerchiefs.

David was in charge of one of the squads. Its first stop was Lübeck. Here, in an additional task, their job was to take command of a building that had been the SS headquarters for northern Germany and Schleswig-Holstein and clear it out. The men managed to get inside the first doors, but then found big steel shutters and it was impossible to go any further. There were huge steel doors everywhere. They were then told to retreat to a mile away and, after they’d heard a loud explosion, they could go back and get on with their job. Two hours later there was a huge explosion. The whole place had been blown up and was destroyed. Unfortunately, this included records and documents that might have been useful later as evidence in war crime trials.

With now nothing more they could do in Lübeck, the squad headed off to Kiel. They were very tired when they arrived after an awful night-time journey. They came to a large block of flats and an officer went inside. Soon afterwards old people and children were brought out, and the squad went in the building and into the warm beds. Unfortunately, it is the kind of the thing victorious soldiers did as well as looting the premises. The men had a rest and then moved on to their next job, which was to capture the U-boat pens in Kiel harbour and any German warships that had come in to surrender. On these ships, they had to take charge of the ships’ flags and the papers and revolvers belonging to their captains. David and two other men did this after commandeering some small boats. On one occasion they were going down below deck when they encountered a German carrying a couple of trays of eggs. He had also been drinking schnapps. The officer told him to go on deck but he didn’t do it. The officer repeated the order in German and still the man didn’t obey, so the officer said he was not messing with these people and shot him. David brought one of the revolvers home with him but Beryl, his wife, handed it over to the police. He kept the ship’s flag.

The squad’s next activity was to go down to the U-boat pens. They stood on top to begin with and found that the concrete roofs had a depth of between 16 and 20 feet. There were marks almost like pinpricks on top where bombs had landed but had made no difference. There were no big U-boats in the pens, only a production line of men making two-men boats; they were taken into captivity.

While looking out to sea the squad spotted a German liner at anchor in the harbour so they went to investigate. It turned out to be a brothel ship for German officers. The German officers were taken into captivity and the women who were filthy dirty were thrown overboard. Boats picked them up and took them ashore.

A lot of German soldiers were arriving ashore from Denmark where they had been part of the occupation army. They were ordered to throw their weapons into a pile and were taken off into captivity elsewhere. Many of the German soldiers began betraying the members of the SS and Gestapo by pointing them out. The SS men had pulled their insignia off their collars but that was futile because the outline could still be still beneath. All the SS men were put into what was a diesel pumping station and locked up there – very unpleasant for them as it was mid-May and very hot. One sergeant got a sack which he filled it up with chains and made one SS man run up and down a railway line because he was being awkward. Some of the SS men were beaten up. David and his mates protested but they had come quite recently to war and were told that they hadn’t seen Belsen and witnessed what these Germans are capable of. Those who had seen the atrocities took a very different view. One SS officer was very arrogant and tried to boss the British soldiers around; he was put against the wall and a Bren gun of 90 bullets emptied into him.

The squad stayed in Kiel for a few more days tidying up before going on to Flensburg. Their task was to take into captivity some members of the German high command, though David was not involved with this.

David’s unit spent VE Day in Kiel. The next question was what would happen now the European war was over. David and his mates sailed through the Kiel Canal back to England on a captured German cargo boat. Before they left, their company commander decided that he was going to have his bit of booty as well. he took home a Mercedes car loaded at the front of ship and a sailing boat at the back. He told the lads to take what they wanted as they wouldn’t have any problems with customs. On arrival in England, the group went straight onto a train to Chatham and had no problem with the customs officers. Lined up at Chatham a Customs and Excise man checked them by walking up and down the ranks, but didn’t ask any questions. That is how David was able to bring back the ship’s flag, the revolver and a trinket for Beryl.

David was demobbed at the barracks in Portsmouth in July 1945. That was the end of his war. He had an early demob as his detachment was now surplus to requirements; they were all ‘hostilities only’ conscripts and so were not meant to stay in the army after the war. The Royal Marines no longer wanted them. David left the next day and went back to Radley.

David felt that, after being badly treated as a young boy, the Marines gave him a sense of direction and purpose and took away the anger he had before. He felt he could do some useful things in the future. He went in as a boy and came out as a man.

Coming back from Germany across the North Sea the company commander had said that he didn’t want the men sitting on deck doing nothing, so they must be prepared for civilian life. One lecturer said the important thing to do when they were back in civvies was to join a union and get themselves organised. He told them that they must not let the management do to them what they’d done to the workers in the 20s and 30s. This advice shaped David’s future.

After the war David as a shop steward with the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) at the car body plant in Cowley, Oxford, campaigned to replace the disliked piecework with a guaranteed wage. He was appointed TGWU Oxford district secretary in 1964 and fought many battles to improve the working conditions of the men at Cowley. He had to contend, he said, with the bad senior management as well as the Trotskyist element that had infiltrated the union.

During his long life, David served on many committees, including local councils, and was always in favour of anything that would improve people’s lives.

Interviewed by Eric Blanks on 4 July 2005

David Buckle and his wife Beryl pictured in July 2003
David Buckle and his wife Beryl pictured in July 2003

Read a short obituary of David Buckle MBE