Interview with George Francis - Royal Marine
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This is the full interview with Marine George Francis, who served aboard the H.M.S Eagle duing the Second World War. You can read about George's experience by clicking here.
The transcript of the interview is below. It was kindly transcribed by Kim Megson.
File ID: George Francis – Marine – born 1919
Interviewer: Harley Couper (HC)
Interviewee: George Francis (GF)
Others: Dot (D)
Date Recorded: 19 July 2012
Duration: 46min 49sec
Date Typed: 07 September 2012
HC: So today is July the 19th.
GF: The 19th, yes.
HC: 2012. We’re sitting here in your house with Dot on my right.
HC: Who’s known you for about a year.
GF: Uh huh.
HC: And how long have you lived in this house, George?
GF: Since 1980.
HC: What year were you born?
GF: 1919. I’m 92.
HC: Makes you 92.
GF: Yes, I’m one of 13. And I’m the last one. They’ve all passed away, yes.
HC: What can you recall of your childhood?
GF About when I was about seven years old, my mother died. I was taken on ... taken by my mother’s sister, and she looked after me for about three years, and I didn’t go to school ‘til I was about eight years old. I don’t know why.
HC: So your aunt took you?
HC: And did she take your other ... any other siblings or just yourself?
GF: Just myself.
HC: You were the youngest?
GF: I wasn’t the youngest, no, I was the eleventh.
HC: Oh, ok.
GF: But the others all remained at home or wherever, I don’t know, but ... and that was it.
HC: And where were you living at this stage?
GF: Where was I living? During that period of time, in Norwich,Norfolk, in England.
D: You brothers and sisters weren’t with you?
GF: No, they all stayed at home, no. What it was then, when they ... when my mother died and I got back home, my grandfather had a pub, quite a large pub. Had seven ... eight bedrooms up the top and all the necessaries all around and the stables and the horse and carts and everything else. And they were all living there. I must have been there before my mother died, so ... I joined the Marines in late April, joined the Marines in 1938.
HC: Why the Marines?
GF: Because I thought then ... because I’d ... when I was a youngster, they’d bought me a lot of books on this, that and the other, you know, war machines and everything else, and I thought if I joined the Marines, I’ll ... and not ... don’t ... and I wait ‘til they call me up, I’ll be in the army and I won’t have any training. That was the reason why, that’s right.
HC: And how old were you when you joined the Marines?
HC: 18. What kind of things were you trained in?
GF: I ... well, mainly just normal soldiering and what have you, guns and ... yeah, well, just the rifle, that’s all I had.
GF: No, I didn’t go in for anything until later on.
D: What about your soccer, George.
D: Tell him how they got you to play soccer.
GF: Oh, when I played soccer?
GF: Oh, when I joined up ... well, when I joined up, after it almost ... after about three months’ training, we had the first game of soccer.
HC: Was that ...
GF: It was a local team.
HC: Oh, ok.
HC: A civilian team, was it?
GF: Yes, and what happened after the game ... I’d scored a goal and we won the game, and then what happened, because I’d scored that ... that goal, after I showered and everything, the Colonel came to me and said, “Francis! On Saturday you will play for the depot. Report to the drill shed at half past 12.” And that was about it.
HC: So who were the depot?
GF: The depot was in Deal ... Deal ... we were in Deal then. The Royal Marine Barracks at Deal. But I played numerous games then, right on ... from then on, when I was on Eagle and all round the world.
HC: So they had the habit of keeping sports ...
HC: They had the practice of playing sport whenever you had the opportunity?
GF: Oh, definitely.
HC: All throughout the war?
GF: All throughout the war, yes.
HC: Just with civilian teams?
HC: And other forces?
GF: Civilians and everything, oh, right, yes. Oh, we played about everybody, I think, apart from ...
HC: Apart from the Germans.
GF: America. Apart from the Americans.
HC: So you completed your training?
GF: Completed my training, and then following that we are told that ... with about a hundred other marines, we’d go to Hong Kong to pick up the Eagle, HMS Eagle, a carrier, aircraft carrier, and re-commission it. And then in that time ... we got there about the following year, in ’38 when we went toHong Kong with about a hundred other marines and several others on a troop ship.
HC: And you said re-commission, did you?
GF: Re-commissioned it.
HC: So that was a ... that had already seen ...
GF: That was already inHong Kong.
HC: The HMS Eagle was an older ship, was it?
GF: Yes, that was built in 1921. Then when we arrived in Hong Kong, that was it, and then after leaving Hong Kong I ... in the Eagle, we went round, all around India and ... well, more or less in the similar area all round there, to Singapore. Then, of course, in September 1938, the war broke out, that’s right, yeah. After three months after the war started, we were inDurban at the time, inSouth Africa, we were told to leave because the Graf Spee, the German battleship, had come round there and was causing trouble all round, and we went out to locate it. Went up to the ... an island above South Africa, and it had disappeared, but we stayed at this place for about a couple of ... three days, and then eventually they had contacted it. The Australian HMSSydney had made contact with that. We followed it around and it went back into theSouth Atlantic. And from there further attacks on that ... on that ... on that battleship by other parts of the British Fleet were stationed around the south of the ... in the South Atlantic, and that just about fired everything and was short of petr- ... oh, short of fuel and ammunition, and it put in to South America. I forgot the name of the place, and there stayed for a while. And then ... what happened then, the Captain of that ship knew it couldn’t go out because it had nothing much to fire with, and apparently he moved out about a few miles out and blew the ship up, sank it, and that was the end of that one.
HC: That was fairly early on in the war, wasn’t it?
GF: Yes, it was, yes.
HC: What was the mood on the ship when you heard that news?
GF: We were ... well, we were just out to sea not far away, only about 20 miles, waiting for that to come out, and that’s what happened and that’s what we got. Seen the ??? (Graf Spee) had sunk.
HC: And how did you feel about that?
HC: How did you feel about that?
GF: Oh, I don’t know, not really. I just ... oh, now we can go away [laughter]. Now we can get on our way and go somewhere else and see what’s going on.
HC: And that was your first contact with the Germans, was it?
GF: Yeah, my contact with the Germans was then not until 19- ... about 1942, ‘cos I’d done some training in relation to the signalling and all that, radio and what have you. I was stationed inEngland in 19- ... yeah, mainly, more or less, doing ... well, all we were doing were training. And then I went up toScapa Flow, with about a dozen of us, and there we stayed because the Germans ... a sub ... a German submarine had gone into Scapa and sunk the battleship ... oh, I’ve forgotten the name, the La Sangria.
HC: That was up inScotland, was it?
GF: Yes, and a German battle- ... ah, submarine had crept in and sunk this battleship that was stationed there. And then was there for about a couple of months and nothing further happened. So we went back toEngland and carried on, and then I did more training and what have you. But our time finished when I ... we went intoGibraltar. After that apparently, yeah, that’s right, that was 1941. From there we went out, and then from Gibraltar went toMalta and then to the Egyptian coast. But during that time we contacted a lot of the Italian fleet, and atTaranto, that was another place –Taranto – where we met most of the Italian fleet and sank about three battleships. They were all done by the Eagle and the plane torpedo bombers, which were the Swordfish – was called a Swordfish. And on several occasions I put ashore and then in ... while we were there and we went into ... went ashore with the fleet air arm and got into the port offEgypt in theMediterranean – what’s that? Anyway, we were there on the coast and we all ... and the fleet, the air fleet, which I was attached to, ‘cos I looked after their officers, three officers, they went into Libya, flew around there to attack the Italians, and then Rommel, that was the German fleet, ah, the German army, they eventually went ... came down from Italy and Greece where they had captured, and come in down and landed at Libya, and then quite a few troops from there came in, and then Swordfish and several of the others ... carriers, there were other carriers there that went ashore in Libya inland, and just did whatever they could in relation to trying to brush off Rommel and his troops and what have you. And then after he reached the Egyptian borders is when he came to a standstill, ‘cos he’d met the British Army and a few others and the ... all the aircraft and everything else which attacked him and stopped his advance.
HC: So during that time you were stationed on the HMS Eagle?
GF: Eagle, yes.
HC: And your rank there was?
GF: Ah just ... still a Marine.
HC: A Marine?
HC: What kind of duties did you have while you worked on the HMS Eagle?
GF: Well, it was mainly look after prisoners.
HC: Oh! So the ship was hosting prisoners, was it?
GF: Yeah, prisoners. And I was quarterdeck sentry. Then I looked after the officers, ‘cos they used to ... we used to ... in their mess, ‘cos the Marines were there, and then the officers’ quarters were on the stern behind the back of the ship.
HC: Oh yeah.
GF: And from there I ... ‘cos I’d looked after three officers and men ... you served in the ... served them their meals every day.
D: Tell him about the time that the bomb blew up on the ship.
GF: Yeah, that’s what I was coming to.
D: Oh, yes.
GF: Well, there was an occasion ... actually, ‘cos round on the flight deck of the Eagle you could walk around half of the ship in the centre and you would be ... your head would be just above the flight deck, and what happened was ... ‘cos when the planes landed, they hadn’t dropped their bombs, they’d come with their bombs, and when one landed one of them dropped off and rolled along the deck, a live bomb. And it rolled until it touched the side of the ... of the starboard side of the middle of the ship. And then it was put away and sent down below, and then we had to defuse all the bombs, and by doing that, apparently this one bomb, must have been the last one to be taken up to the flight deck and defused. And then something happened, it got half way up the lift and the lift ... something happened, and the lift went down and shook, and all of a sudden the bomb went off and killed 13 in the bomb room. Not only that, it set fire to the planes in the hangar, ‘cos it was close to the ... ‘cos it had all the doors open in the hangar in case of anything like that happening, and then they put the sprays on above and that, and that caused problems with the aircraft, what was sitting in there, with the electrical systems. So they couldn’t use anything for a while. Following that, one of the pilots who had been there and saw ... another time ... I was quarterdeck sentry. And the chap who had ... was defusing the bombs, he caught the trouble of this bomb going off, and that must have damaged him in some form or way, ‘cos he walked away, apparently, so what I heard, and walked off the flight deck to the front, to the bows, and then he fell in.
HC: He just walked off the ...
GF: About 40, 30 feet down ... 30/40 feet down, and he fell into the sea. But, luckily, he had a lifejacket, and I was called and I was told, “Look out! Look out! There’s a man in the sea. He’s coming down the port side.” Of course then I’m ... I was responsible for taking off the life ... life belt, and then as they ... he ... the ship was slowing down, of course, and we were nearly down to about ten knots, but then I saw him and I had to ... I can’t throw it where he’s actually ??? from, ‘cos otherwise I’d hit the side of the ship. So went on back on the quarterdeck where there’s just the rail, just the chains, that’s it, and threw it over the top and it hit him and, luckily, they’d put the lifebuoy down ... buoy, boat down and saved him.
D: Oh, good.
GF: I don’t know what ... how he got on, whether he survived or not.
GF: But from then on the pilot, the following ... come the following day, I was on duty again on the quarterdeck following the bomb, ‘cos we were going then ... actually, it wasn’t in theMediterranean that that occurred. That was in ... we were going toSingapore and we were about two days out fromSingapore. ‘Cos we were going into dry dock and had things ... and the bombs and ... had all of it to repair. But what happened was that I was on the quarterdeck the day after that happened and one of the officers came to me and just said, “Francis! Pack your bags and report to me in the hangar.” So I went and packed my bags and went ... got in the hangar, and he said, “Right, go on the flight deck. We’re taking off in about ten minutes.” And that was it, took off for ten minutes and flew toSingapore. Got taken and down ... one of the brand new aerodromes they’d just practically placed in there just before the war broke out. There was all ... it had everything – beds, nice barracks, everything you needed. Oh, it was perfect. And we were there for nearly four months. In that time, this pilot had kept taking me up and taking me round.
HC: What kind of aircraft was it?
GF: The Swordfish, same, the Swordfish. Single engine. To any boat, hundred mile an hour, hundred and ten mile an hour.
C: Wow! So he flew all aroundSingapore, did he?
GF: Yeah. Yes, yes, he would. Yeah, that was later on, yeah.
HC: Was that afterSingapore had been re-taken or was that before?
GF: No, that was after ... that was before.
GF: Before the Japanese came in. No, that was long ago. That was after that. That was before all that. Yes, and we went back there and eventually made our way home after that.
HC: So that was so that the HMS Eagle could be serviced into dry dock?
GF: Yeah, yes. And, of course, went back and up the ... toEngland up theClyde and there we handed over, and that was the end of the two and a half years abroad.
GF: Was all I can remember. A lot more happened but I ... and from there I did several courses in physical training, passed that.
HC: Do you have any memories of VE Day?
HC: Victory inEurope Day.
GF: Oh, yes.
HC: Where were you when that was announced?
GF: No, when VE started ... probably about a year before, 1943, I was then signalling and everything else I had. By that time I was carrying a wireless on the back and what have you, but then I transferred then, more or less, and went down to Ramsgate in England, and there they had the training for the purpose of these landing craft, and in that I was made a Corporal, and after that, with that, we did about six months’ training with the landing craft and different things.
HC: This is preparation for the invasion ofFrance?
GF: Invasion ... for the invasion, yes. And then when it did eventuate, I was ... we were ... then had 12 landing craft which held about 30/40 people or just one tank. Then we moved over from Ramsgate to ... back to nearPortsmouth, ‘cos I was then a few ... about a month away. Then inPortsmouth we did a lot of training all around there with the troops, and the American troops were all coming in, thousands of them with all various different types of weapons and what have you. And everybody was, you know, were more or less getting ready for this period of time. And then when it did eventuate, I was then promoted to Sergeant. And from then, by that ... we also ... we had three officers. ??? young – one Lieutenant, two Sub-Lieutenants, and all the training we had done together and everything else, they said two of us will go with you ... go with Francis, and one in the ... on the tail end of the landing craft, which was only there when we left England, 10.30 at night. Went all the way with these boats. But what we had aboard, we didn’t have troops, we had petrol in two-gallon cans. We had about 500 of those aboard on each ship, on each landing craft. And I thought goodness, didn’t expect that, you know. But then again we had to put them all on the boat, on the landing craft – that took some time ‘cos we had to go down a long pier to get to the boat and, crikey, by the time you’d done that, oooh, you could have done anything. Well, we got there eventually. We went toSwordfishBeach.
HC: Swordfish Beach?
GF: Beach. That’s where we unloaded. I didn’t unload, but we had a special ship that took care of us while we were there, about 5,000 tons, but it had all the equipment for ... photo ... all the data and the signalling and everything else. And we accompanied that and ... but we did go ashore with the rifles and everything, toCannes, close by on the French shore. We come across ... and the Germans were only about the other side of the river that flowed into ... nearCannes. I had the rifle and everything and there was about ... well, just about a couple of dozen of us, that’s all. We went round and down the different areas of the district, which was all more or less narrow roads and everything else, but luckily we didn’t meet any Germans. But what we did do when we came back ... a lot of Germans had been captured and they were waiting to be taken aboard the ships. We would take them back toEngland, and that went on for about a month, and then we went back home. It would have been about October when we got back toEngland, in October.
HC: So how many times had you transported prisoners across?
GF: Oh, many times, quite a few, quite a few, yes.
HC: What do you recall of the prisoners-of-war?
GF: What did?
HC: What do you recall of the German prisoners?
GF: What do I recall of them? Well, they were well trained and ... crikey, and some really were very young. Some were very old. And I think that’s what, you know, with the going through what they had in that period of time with the second front and the ... and what have you, they’d really hit and killed quite a few. The Air Force was constantly over the top of us practically, Royal Air Force, and dropping bombs all over the place. Luckily we weren’t hit, the way they came down. ‘Cos we were being shelled at times from the German side of ... inFrance, but luckily they whistled over us, and that was it.
D: Tell him what you used to read to the German prisoners.
GF: Well, the only thing what that would have been ... ‘cos some could talk English, but weren’t so much of reading, it’s just a case of directing them more than anything here and there and doing what I could. They more or less had to do what they were told.
HC: They were pretty complaint by then, were they?
GF: They were, yes. There was ... ‘cos I was surprised at the age of them. They were young and old. What happened ... most of the others, I guess, were still fighting on the ... fighting in France, all around. But, you never know just when the bombs and everything else was coming down, whether you were a-gonner or what.
HC: You had some close calls, did you?
HC: You had some close calls?
GF: Ooh, yes, yes, many close calls, yes. No, but you just had to take it and think, well ... just take whatever you had to cover or do whatever was necessary, and that was about it. But luckily with our squad, we only lost one man. We all got home.
HC: So you weren’t on the ships taking them home?
GF: No, no. I stayed there until the end ... ‘til a time that ... what had happened was all our craft had gone down. Our 12 ships ??? And I was the last one. And they said, “Come on, George, sink the damn thing! Sink the damn thing! We’ll all get home.” What has happened ... ‘cos he dropped ... the front of it had a, you know, big ... what you lower.
HC: Big ramp.
GF: You put them ashore, and what had happened to half of them ... I think had done it purposely.
HC: Too soon?
HC: Filled up with water?
GF: Yes, and they said, “Come on, George, drop that jolly thing, sink it, sink it, and we’ll all get away.”
HC: I guess once the ramp goes down they’re not very ...
GF: That’s it.
HC: ... very good above water.
GF: Gone. So I did that and had to swim away and swim back to shore, and I said, “Ok, now we’re away, back toEngland.” But from then on everything was ... well, it was just a waiting game. Course I went all aroundEngland several places on the last years of the war. I thought - I’d had enough. I’ll see if I can get a job as a cleric ... clerk inLondon, at the Royal Marine office inLondon, but they had no vacancies. But they said, “Oh, we have vacancies up inDevon.” Apparently on the coast in Devon not far fromWales. That was a seaside place. In the old days they had plenty of hotels and what have you. I just can’t think of the name at the moment, but I said, “Yes, I wouldn’t mind, I’ll go there.” So I was sent there all alone more or less, and I went by myself. When I got there, my word, there was about a thousand WRENS, numerous ... all women, and the army were all stationed all around in hotels and what have you, and we all had one big hotel there where we did all what was necessary in the correspondence. We were there for about a year and a half ‘til the war ended.
D: And that’s where you met your wife, isn’t it?
GF: That’s where I met my wife, yeah.
HC: You had a thousand to choose from by the sounds of it.
GF: She was one of the WRENS, yes.
HC: So when the war did end, where were you?
GF: Still inDevon.
HC: Do you recall the announcement that hostilities had finished?
GF: Not at that particular time, no, no. But it was all ... more or less everything we’d known ... what was going on, by doing ... were working in there, working there, and all the correspondence and everything more or less sent there. We knew exactly where everybody was, and that was it.
HC: So how did you come to be inNew Zealand, in Tauranga?
GF: Well, when the war ended, the family ... most of the family, all the five of us, six of us were in the services ... of the family. One was in the war office, he was a clerk in the war office during the time, and one of my sisters was on the coast, and she was doing the system they had tracking the planes.
HC: Oh, ok, the radar then?
GF: Radar, yes. She was attached to the radar. I had one brother ... another brother, he was in the Tank Corp. And another one was in the Air Force.
GF: He did about 160 flights overGermany and all around. And we all got away with it, yes. We all got home.
HC: That’s a lucky family, isn’t it?
HC: Did they all immigrate toNew Zealand as well?
GF: No. No, one ... me elder brother, my next eldest brother, he went to Australia just because we thought the Russians were threatening to invade on the end of the war and, of course, that made us all think and think, well crikey, we’ll have to get the ... let’s get the hell out of here. But what happened was my brother went toAustralia with his wife and ... but, luckily, those Russians didn’t attack, they stayed away and things settled down a bit. But I got a letter from my brother saying, “George, come out, come out, we’re selling motorbikes like hotcakes.” So I said to my wife, Edna, “Would you like to go?” and she said, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind.” But, you know, in a way I wish I hadn’t done it, because she was the only daughter of a family living in London, but she said, “Oh, yes” eventually, but that was after about two months. We got prepared and signed up everything in relation to becoming a citizen of Australia. We got away on the same ship that took us toHong Kong when I was in the Marines.
HC: Oh, the HMS Eagle?
GF: Yeah, not Eagle, the troop ship.
HC: Oh, the troop ship.
GF: Been transferred and made into a more or less a nice ship, back to normal ... crikey, I’ve forgotten the name of it.
HC: It was the same ship though, just no longer ...
GF: Yes, same ship.
HC: No longer a battleship.
GF: Yes, but it had done ... all nice and ... all the proper rooms and everything else, yeah. Arrived inAustralia in 1949 ... ’49, yeah, 1949 we arrived inAustralia. And we went ... and, luckily, my elder brother, Ed, prepared everybody and got a home for us in an eastern part of Victoria, not far off the coast – Traralgon – Traralgon, yeah, in Victoria. And we stayed there for about three or four years, but we went everywhere aroundAustralia and everything else, did everything, yes. And then eventually, in the papers, ??? and came about that they wanted workers ‘cos, eventually while I was inAustralia, after he had ... my brother had said, “George, you’ll have to leave. I can’t pay you anymore. There’s nobody buying anything or doing that.” He said, “You’ll have to find another job.” Well, luckily, there was a pulp and paper mill about five miles out of Traralgon and I applied there and got the job. Worked there for about a year or more, about 18 months, and after that saw in the papers there was a ??? fromNew Zealand who require workers to ... for the new pulp mill going in in Tokoroa, pulp and paper mill in Tokoroa. We’d like to ... and I said, oh, well I had the experience then of working in that place in Traralgon so, again, the wife said, “Oh, yes, oh well ...” ‘Cos by then we had two boys. Then we eventually leftAustralia, arrived inNew Zealand in ’53, and we came in by plane. What happened actually, the firm, Forest Products, didn’t cost me a penny. There were 17 families of us who had applied for the job when we were in Traralgon, and we all went there by plane, four-engine aircraft, and landed on the water inAuckland. But before we went we were all put in the ... arrived inSydney, went by train from Traralgon right round in ???, right round toSydney. We were there for about two weeks in the various hotels and what have you, and then eventually we caught the plane, landed inAuckland and, again, the houses weren’t ready in Tokoroa, we had to wait another three or four weeks before we made our way there. We stayed in all the hotels along the main road there in the centre ofAuckland, and eventually the boss took us for the train. No, it was a train, I think. Yeah, took us to Tokoroa, yeah. We arrived there, and what had happened actually, we ... I’d brought quite a bit of stuff inAustralia, all the necessary what I’ve got here, bedroom ... and beds and everything else. It all went from where we lived to where we were, and they took it across – didn’t cost me a penny. And when we got to Tokoroa, there at the house that was given, one of the new houses they had just built, brick. And when we got in the house, everything was there, all laid out, the beds were made, pantry was full of food. We couldn’t wish for better.
D: Mmm, amazing.
HC: So did you raise your family then in Tokoroa?
GF: Then I raised the family with my ... we had a ... my wife had another boy, born in 1955. Now they’re all alive, all doing well, yes. One’s inHong Kong. One’s inEngland and one is in Papatoetoe inAuckland, a school teacher.
HC: When did you come over to Tauranga?
GF: When I came over to Tauranga, that would be when? That would be 1979. I was looking for a house in Mt Maunganui. Looked at all the houses but all they were were all cottages, all based along the shoreline, just close to the Mount, and that was all there was.
HC: Yeah, just a little beach place then, wasn’t it?
GF: Yes, but luckily where I am now, the chap ... one of the builders who lived in Te Puke, he was apparently building this place next door. He said, “It won’t take long.” He was just about on the final completing of everything, and I paid $38,000 for the use of it, for the house.
HC: This house here?
GF: Yeah, $38,000.
HC: Wouldn’t get a car ... wouldn’t get a new car for that.
D: Yeah, that’s right, incredible.
GF: Yes. Well, I had a car then, Proton. But I had it ‘til I had to virtually give it away when the old legs wouldn’t go on the right pedal.
HC: When you were raising your children, did you talk to your children about the war years at all?
GF: Only on occasions. Not very much. They were all good swimmers and everything else. Well, we more or less mainly took them from Tokoroa mainly down to here, and they loved it here. ‘Cos when I eventually moved, they were all down here and ... oh, we went out fishing ‘cos I had a caravan, bought a caravan, I bought a boat, and stayed with friends from ... who came down from the mill, and everything else, yes. Went all roundNew Zealand top to bottom, yes. But, unfortunately, the doctors mucked about with my legs.
HC: Well, thank you very much.
D: That’s very good, George.
D: That’s very good, George, thank you.
GF: Oh, thanks. Yes, when I look back I couldn’t think of everything, but ... to get the dates right and all.