Francis Currie of Port Charlotte, Fla.was 15 years old when he joined “The Ladies From Hell,” the Canadian Blackwatch Regiment, in 1938 a year before England declared war on Germany beginning World War II.
The Blackwatch is the fabled fighting unit that marched into battle in their blue and green tartan kilts with pipers sounding the advance at the head of their kilted infantrymen. That part of their mystique ended after the First World War.
“I told a little fib about my age. You had to be 18 to become a member of the Blackwatch legally,” Currie said with a smile recalling his ploy while sitting at his dining room table. “I was still in the Blackwatch when King George VI and Queen Mary reviewed our regiment.
“The royals were standing in front of me when the queen said to the king, ‘My what young looking troops in this battalion.’ I got a little worried the queen would ask how old I was. I was only 16 and two years from being old enough to serve.”
The ruse was up for Currie a few months later when the Second World War officially began in September 1939.
“Our battalion was being activated to go overseas. Our battalion major had been my school teacher. When I went down to the armory to ship out he told me, ‘You’re too young to be going overseas.’ He sent me home.”
Four months later, at 17, Currie joined the Canadian Navy. He lied about his age again.
The young sailor was assigned to Drake Barracks, London, the largest naval barracks in the world in its day. From there he was dispatched to HMCS Saguena, a Canadian destroyer assigned to convoy duty in the Atlantic.
Sink the Bismarck
“We were on one of those convoys when the German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic,” Currie recalled. “The Saguenay was assigned to chase the Bismarck.”
For three or four days a flotilla of English and Canadian ships combed the North Atlantic looking for the marauding German battleship. A few days earlier the Bismarck had sent the battle-cruiser HMS Hood, pride of the British Navy, to the bottom with only three survivors.
Currie and the men of the Saguenay never caught the German dreadnought. It was Stanley Goode of Burnt Store Isles, south of Punta Gorda, and the crew of two battleships: HMS King George V and HMS Rodney that sunk the Bismarck 300 miles off the coast of France on May 24, 1941.
Able Seaman Goode was the radar operator aboard George V that located the elusive enemy ship. When Twentieth Century Fox made the movie “Sink the Bismarck” in 1960 Goode and his wife were the guests of honor at the premiere of the film at Times Square in New York.
Back aboard the Saguenay, Currie and the ship’s crew got caught in a four-day Atlantic storm off the coast of Newfoundland. It damaged the destroyer so badly the entire crew was transformed. He ended up on HMCS Bayfield, a Canadian minesweeper.
Disaster at Devon
The Bayfield became part of the 31st Canadian Minesweeping Flotilla comprised of nine minesweepers who were eventually attached to American forces. While practicing for the D-Day invasion Currie and his crew were involved in one of the most bizarre disasters in WW II.
Sometime in the spring of 1944 his minesweeper and the rest of his flotilla were leading a bunch of American troop transports into shore near Devon off the southern coast of England in a mock exercise simulating the Normandy invasion. A squadron of German E-Boats slipped across the English Channel and launched a surprise night attack on the war game participants.
Within minutes these fast enemy torpedo boats sank a number of the transports killing hundreds of Americans in the confusion. The whole sorry episode was hushed up so as it wasn’t a distraction to the actual D-Day invasion that was only weeks away. It wasn’t until years after the war that the sordid details of the German attack on the pretend invasion fleet started leaking out.
“For the D-Day invasion the nine minesweepers in our flotilla were attached to the American 1st and 29th Divisions that went into Normandy on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944,” Currie explained. “We left England on June 4 and the channel got pretty choppy so we were called back. We went back out the next day and rendezvoused off the Isle of Wight.
“About 5 p.m. our flotilla began mine sweeping from the Isle of Wight into the French coast. Until 10:30 p.m. we swept mines all by ourselves moving closer and closer to shore. At one point we were only a couple of hundred yards off shore but somehow the Germans didn’t spot us.
“When we would hit a mine with our sweep cables you could feel the cable vibrate as it forced the mines into a big ‘V’ notch were the cutters cut the line that anchored the mine.
“When they popped to the surface they were awful eerie looking things. They were covered with moss and had pieces of seaweed hanging off the detonating horns that protruded from them.”
They couldn’t detonate the mines once they surfaced because they didn’t want to alert the Germans that they were sweeping the shallow waters just offshore of mines. They let them float off with the tide.
Before sun up next morning the Allied fleet began moving into position. German shore batteries with their 15-inch guns concealed behind 30-feet thick concrete casements began firing at the fleet.
“All of a sudden there was a big flash and a puff of smoke,” Currie said. “I was amazed you could see a big shell fly over from one of the German shore guns. A few minutes later one of our battleships must have gotten a direct hit on the shore batteries because I could see the whole thing blow up.
“Our flotilla escorted the troops ships that formed the first and second waves at Omaha Beach into shore on D-Day,” he said. “As they went in we could see the American landing craft being hit by enemy shore batteries and machine guns and blowing up.
“I watched as the American soldiers from the 1st and 29th Divisions ran off their landing crafts and the Germans opened up on them with machine guns. I thought to myself, ‘This is more than any man should have to go through'” Currie recalled a lifetime later.
It was just the first day of the invasion that launched the ground war in Europe that concluded with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany almost 11 months to the day later on VE-Day, May 8, 1945.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that the HMCS Bayfield, during her time at sea in the war, rescued more than 500 survivors from the sea at different times. They weren’t all when I was on board, but we did rescue two RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots who were floating around in the channel in little rubber life rafts and lots of other Americans on D-Day,” the old salt said.
This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 6, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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