Below: some remarkable stories of Murch heroism and courage:
 
1.  Norman Robins Murch - HMS Beagle
2.  Edward Charles Murch - HMS Exeter Seaman
3.  Leonard Charles Murch - Hurricane Pilot
4.  Frank Murch - Lt Cmdr RNVR
5. Richard Melville Murch - Medic in Merrills Marauders
6. Theodore Edward Murch and son Edward William Lionel Murch HMS Prince of Wales and the Bismarck

Norman Robins Murch  ‘What a party!’

 

Lt. Commander - HMS Beagle – A Unique Kind of Hero

Norman was gazing out from the windows of the bridge, across towards beaches where

Operation Overlord was in full swing.   His ship, Beagle, taking part in the naval contribution to

the D Day landings, Operation Neptune, was surrounded by hundreds of ships as far as the eye

could see from one edge of the horizon to the other and dotted amongst them thousands of

landing craft, packed with troops, tanks and equipment bobbed in the water on their way to land

for the invasion of Normandy.  Turning to his second in command he commented “what a party. 

I wouldn’t have missed this for all the tea in China”.

 

An officer of singular character and purpose Norman was an experienced commander and had recently returned from escorting convoys to and from Russia to take part Operation Overlord.   

 

It is no surprise that he was a swashbuckling type of commander as he was the son of Navy hero, Arthur Murch, who had fought in the Boer Wars and was mentioned in dispatches during the Great War.  Born in 1907 in Devon, Norman was from a family of granite hard, firm jawed, Devon countrymen who were brought up on farms or with the sea in their blood.  Norman was as tough as any west-countryman who ever entered a battle, but ‘Rocky’ as he was known to Admiral Mountbatten was also charming and principled, with a deep sense of humanity and duty.  He loved to play Polo and his sociable, urbane character not only gained him friends in the Admiralty but made him a success with the ladies.  During his service in the far east, he met and married Valentina, a beautiful Russian film actress in Shanghai. However his choice of bride was frowned upon by the top brass who considered a Russian an inappropriate choice.

 

He was a career seaman at heart and sailed with the Blue Funnel line around China before taking a commission in the Royal Navy.  He delivered home all manner of strange gifts from the Far East when he visited his parents in Dawlish, one time bringing home huge Samurai swords. Despite his extensive experience in the merchant marine, Norman did his 9 months initial officer training on HMS London.  His stellar rise to the bridge of Beagle came through commanding ships around the world.  Stationed in Malta (HMS St. Angelo 1935 and HMS Despatch1936-7) and China (HMS Mantis 1937) prior to the war, his postings grew in size from smaller gunships to destroyers, and most significantly as 1st Lieutenant on the battleship HMS Ramillies (1938).

 

As World War two began, he was the commander of gunboat HMS Mantis but posted to gunboat, HMS Seamew and further on to HMS Gnat (1940-1). Then in February 1943 he got his first command of a destroyer, the HMS Charlestown, joining her at Tobermory.  The Charlestown joined the 17th Destroyer Division and took part in minelaying operations from the west coast of Scotland. She also assisted on convoy escort duty and, during his year as Commander, the ship trawled the northern Atlantic and Barents Sea escorting merchant marine ships carrying essential goods such as oil, munitions and gun cotton. Putting into practice years of experience, he played cat and mouse with U boats and E boats, dodging their attentions and avoiding serious attack.

 

But it was on HMS Beagle, his favourite ship, that Norman sealed his reputation as a hero.

 

Norman took command of Beagle on 4th May 1943.  She was undergoing repairs and a refit

in Scotland when Norman arrived after a trip home to Devon.  The ship was used as support

and protection to huge convoys that sailed to and from Russia and in and out of North

Atlantic and Arctic ports, protecting shipping from U Boat and E Boat attacks in what

Winston Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’.  During Normans command, there

were six arctic convoys over seven months, and one Special Escort duty to Kola Inlet to

collect the crew of USS Milwaukee. His experience on convoys gave him a level of

expertise that earned utter respect from his crew.  Time and again he demonstrated his

exceptional sixth sense at sensing danger and avoiding the lurking enemy.

 

Plans for Operation Overlord were well under way during 1944 with American troops practicing for the D Day landings in the South Hams, the home of Norman’s family, and coordinated by his cousin Frank from Salcombe.  As the practice landings came to an end the ministry waited for the weather to turn in its favour before finally ordering the beginning of the Normandy landings.  Combined U.S, Canadian and British troops were to be involved in the landings, backed up by thousands of ships in naval support (Operation Neptune) and air support by both US and RAF fighters and bombers. 

 

On June 6th the operation began.  On board the Beagle were top brass, scheduled to watch the

invasion from the destroyer.  There were two Brigadiar generals and two captains, also, Lt General

Bucknall of the U.S Army supreme command, who was on board to observe the Gold beach

landings and later that evening transferred to HMS Bulolo to go ashore on Gold Beach.

The story of Beagle is taken up in the following accounts in the words of the men involved. 

Starting with Beagles last run on the Russian convoys, the stories take us to D Day and an incident

the following night in the channel that threatened to end Normans’ career.

 

Full credit for these accounts are due to Ian Hawkins and his book Destroyer, An Anthology of

First-Hand Accounts of The War at Sea 1939-1945 – these are abridged versions of the reports in

his book which give much fuller, extensive accounts.  Credit is also due to the late Peter Ward and

his book ‘From Africa to the Arctic’ published by Brewin Books, which sets the scene for the Arctic

convoys.

 

 

Doctor at Sea – Surgeon Captain R. S. McDonald, RN HMS Beagle

 

I was called to the Commodore’s office to find I’d been appointed to HMS Beagle, a destroyer.   I was given an identity card, naval pay book and a travel voucher by a Wren.  Charming as she was, she would only tell me that Beagle would be somewhere on the east coast of Scotland and I was to enquire at the Rail Transport Office, Glasgow.  I travelled overnight to Glasgow, via Crewe.  On arrival in the very early hours, it was cold, dark and miserable.  My fellow passengers vanished into the gloom.  On enquiring at the RTO they’d never heard of HMS Beagle and suggested I come back later that morning after breakfast.  I thought Beagle would be at Scapa Flow or Loch Ewe.  I was lucky.  A nearby taxi driver had overheard our conversation.  He offered to take me to Beagle and off we went to Govan Dock.

There she was – in dry dock, clad in electrical leads, wires, cables, ropes and hoses, hissing compressed air.  Here and there a light glowed, struggling to illuminate running repairs.  A solitary sailor appeared at the prow and welcomed me aboard.  He informed me that the captain, Lieutenant Commander N. R Murch, was on leave.  I was shown to the wardroom, dropped my bags and went to the First Lieutenant’s cabin.  He was asleep at the time and seemed upset by my reporting my presence: ‘See you after breakfast.’

 

When I arrived back at Beagle I found the Captain on board.  The refit was finishing and the urgent haste was noticeable.  After breakfast I had a short interview with the Captain: “Ciphers, Doc; no scrimshankers; stop VD; keep the wine books in order, I see them on Mondays. Welcome aboard a good ship.”

It was then that I met my Sick Berth Attendant, Hamer, and my valet, MacDonald.  I was shown the medical stores, first aid posts and secondary medical stores.  Then I was taken round all the different departments and exhibited to them. The tour took the remainder of the forenoon.

 

The ship now hummed with activity.  The next day the dry dock filled and all hell was let loose as a few errors and omissions became apparent – everything and everyone in sight moved like lightning.  However, the hectic activity quickly subsided to quiet and efficient order.

 

I explored Beagle thoroughly, identified peoples tasks with the relevant equipment, machinery or armament.  There appeared to be no spare space on deck or within the hull.  I was told that the ship was about 500 tons heavier in 1943 than in 1939.  I also discovered that, as more medical or cipher stores arrived, so did my bunk rise toward the deck-head. I could touch the deck-head when lying on my bunk.  Then one day, all managers, supervisors and ‘dockyard mateys’ disappeared. We cast off fore and aft and spend the day at Tail O’Bank swinging the compass.  Then back alongside Gourock.  We set off for Russia.  Sitting in my cabin I noticed that, with the rolling and pitching I could see daylight between the deck and the bulkhead – and when the roll was to port water came in. ‘Oh yes, Sir,’ said Hamer ‘and it will become ice very soon.’ and it did…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Len Perry, Stoker HMS Beagle

 

 

It was, to the best of my recollections, in early April 1944 and Beagles last run to Russia prior to D Day. We were assembling off Iceland, expecting to join up with the merchant ships, but we met up with five small boats, American submarine chasers, similar to our wooden five-ply Motor Torpedo Boats, but all metal.  We were to escort the Russian-crewed sub-chasers, with two other destroyers – I believe they were Bulldog and Westcott – to Kola Inlet.

 

The first day at sea there was a heavy swell running and the sub-chasers were pitching their bows in deep, so they had to slow down.  The next day the weather moderated and good progress was made, but by the third evening it was blowing and gusting, heralding a typical Arctic storm as we neared the North Cape.  By the following morning visibility was limited, the sub-chasers had been scattered, and re-assembling them was proving difficult. Then one of the destroyers reported that one had foundered but its Russian crew had been picked up in time.  Beagle then came across another sub-chaser that was hove to, its engine swamped by sea water.  We secured a tow line, took the crew off, but after a short time it became very low in the water. The tow line was cut, and it was scuttled by gunfire and we eventually made port with our somewhat battered charges.  We were very surprised at the excellent winter clothing of the rescued Russian seamen.  Ours was very poor in comparison, apart from the thick woollen knitwear sent up to us by the dear ladies of Newton Abbot, in distant Devon.

I’m not sure if it was that particular occasion, but Beagle had returned to Scotland from a Russian port from a similarly rough escort duty, with its inevitable losses, and tied up to a buoy near the battleship Duke of York which, incidentally, hadn’t participated in that extremely harrowing convoy. 

An urgent signal was blinked across the anchorage to Beagle by Aldis Lamp from the mighty battleship’s bridge. ‘WILL YOU KINDLY WEAR THE RIG OF THE DAY – STOP – YOU LOOK LIKE A CROWD OF PIRATES – END.’ Before responding, our Chief Yeoman of Signals, nearing exhaustion with little sleep was overheard to murmur to Number One: Sir, how do you spell ‘BOLLOCKS?’

 

I was a stoker aboard Beagle from 1943 to 1945 so I have no recollections of the early, eventful and most interesting years of 1940,1941 and 1942 at sea.  That’s not to say that the war was over, far from it.

 

 

‘The Navies Do It Again’ by Desmond Tighe – Reuters Special Correspondent on HMS Beagle – D Day

 

Guns are belching flame from more than 600 Allied Warships.  Thousands of bombers are roaring overhead, fighters are weaving in and out of the clouds as the invasion of Western Europe begins.

We are standing 8000 yards off the beaches of Bernier-sur-Mer and from the bridge of this little destroyer I can see vast numbers of naval craft of all types. The air is filled with the continuous thunder of broadsides and the crash of bombs.  Great spurts of flame come up from the beaches in long snake-like ripples as shells ranging from 16-inch down to 4-inch find their mark.  In the last ten minutes alone more than 2,000 tons of high-explosive shells have gone down on the beachhead.

 

It is now exactly 7.25 a.m. and through my binoculars I can see the first wave of troops touch down on the water’s edge and fan up the beach.  Battleships and cruisers are steaming up and down, drenching the beaches ahead of the troops with withering broadsides.  Great assault vessels are standing out to sea in their hundreds, the invasion craft are being lowered like beetles from the davits and head towards the shore in long lines.  They are crammed with troops, tanks, guns and armoured vehicles of all types.  The tin hatted British and Canadian forces in this sector are cheerful and smiling as they go in.  A tank Landing Craft has just passed, with the crew of one tank sitting on tip of the turret.  The tank is named ‘Warspite’.  The crew give the ‘thumbs-up’ sign and grin at us cheerfully.

Allied bombers are passing over us in their thousands.

Fighters keep up a constant patrol, protecting the great invasion fleet. Just ahead of us lies the town of Berniere-sur-Mer. We can see the spire of Berniere belfry rising out of the swirling smoke.

Some German shore batteries are opening up on us, but their fire is ineffective and ragged.

Gallant little fleet destroyers are steaming up and down, close inshore, protecting the landing troops and plugging shore batteries with 4-icnh shells.  The whole planning of this great amphibious operation – the greatest in world history – has been done in the utmost secrecy and has taken nearly twelve months.

Hundreds of factors had to be taken into account before the assault could be launched, the most important being the question of weather.  It is giving away no secret now to say that weather conditions for the landing were not perfect, but despite high-running seas and a strong north-westerly wind, a bold decision was taken to go ahead.  From the bridge of this destroyer, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Norman R. Murch, of Dawlish, South Devon, I have had a grandstand view of every phase of the operation.  Just after four o’clock we reached a position some 18 miles off the coast of France.  The night bombing was in full swing.

 

Events then moved rapidly.  Here is the diary kept on the bridge as wrapped in duffle coats and

thick mufflers, we watched the dawn and saw the invasion start.

 

05.07 Lying eight miles from the lowering position for invasion craft

05.18 Spitfire with clipped wing-tips skims low over our deck.

05.20 Grey light of dawn. The great shapes of innumerable assault ships appear smudgily on

our starboard beam.  A little MTB follows in our wake – obviously off his course.  A young signalman

stands on the bridge flashes: ‘we are lost’ Please direct us to ---- beach.’  We put him on his way.

05.27 Night bombing has ceased and the great naval bombardment begins.

05.33 We move in slowly.  Coastline becomes thin smudge of grey.

05.36 Cruisers open fire off our starboard bow.  We can recognise Belfast and Maritius. They are

firing tracers.

05.45 The big assault ships start lowering their boats crowded with tin-hatted Tommies.

05.46 There are at least one thousand ships of all sizes in our sector alone.  Big battleships join.  On our port bow we see Warspite, the ‘old lady’ of Salerno fame, belching fire from her eight 15-inch guns.  Orion, Mauritius and another cruiser, Black Prince, are belting away with all they’ve got.  Fleet destroyers are darting round us.  Everybody seems to be there.  ‘What a party!’ I hear the captain say, ‘I wouldn’t miss this for all the tea in China.’

05.50 I see the first flash from a German short battery.  Above us we hear the sweet drone of our fighter cover.  Sky cloudy, but fairly high ceiling. So far, not one enemy plane has shown up.  It appears we have taken the enemy by surprise. 

05.55 On our port beam I can see a thin line of stout tank landing craft heading towards the shore.

06.00 The coast is now clearly visible.  Enemy batteries are opening fire spasmodically. Cruisers continue to belt away. 

06.50 The fleet destroyers now close to shore.  Weather is worsening. Sky is turning grey and big clouds are coming up.

 

Len Perry –Stoker HMS Beagle

 

Those nights in the crowded English Channel were, to put it mildly, hell.

  Not much has been written about the first few weeks of the build-up

following the Allied landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, but ‘Jerry’

knew what he was doing, and doing it very effectively and quite

ruthlessly.

 

During the night of 8/9 June 1944, Beagle was escorting American

LST’s (Landing Ship Tanks). The voyage towards the French coast was

proceeding as scheduled when suddenly, off Cherbourg, two LSTs

were hit simultaneously and immediately began burning furiously,

rapidly turning night into day.  Evidently, an unseen German E-boat

had opened fire.  I’ve always felt that there was more than one enemy

E-boat lying in wait, stationary, as Beagle was leading the convoy, and

allowed the destroyer to pass by in order to ensure their ‘kill’.

It was already like daylight as Beagle turned to go in for the rescue

attempts.  The first of the American GIs were in the sea.  A lot of them

were not going to see dawn, as the whole terrible scene worsened with each passing minute.

The scrambling nets were lowered over Beagles sides and we began to haul the first of the GIs aboard.  They were surprisingly young, as most of us were, their fixed, glazed expressions seemed to prevent them from talking or crying. They were very cold, covered in oil and shivering uncontrollably. They clung on to us so tightly with a vice-like grip which visibly bruised whatever part of our hands, arms or shoulders they were clinging to.  Consequently, it was almost impossible to pull out two or three water-sodden human beings.  They, in turn would not release their grip which resulted in several of Beagles crew themselves being pulled into the oil-covered sea. The problem was partly overcome by launching the whaler and hauling them aboard into it, thereby enabling the survivors to be handed up one at a time from the whaler.  Then some of us decided to move forward away from the nets.  We hastily made up ropes with a float on the end and threw them out to the struggling GIs in their life jackets and hauled them in.  By that time of course, we were literally covered in oil, vomit, blood and excrement.  Lieutenant McDonald, Beagles doctor, and his Sick Berth Attendant, were moving quickly around the decks, checking the rescued and exhausted GIs and showing us how to stop them choking.  One young soldier, who we pulled out quite easily, was helping himself and was talking to us. Suddenly he went limp, and slumped to the deck, apparently unconscious.

I then said “Come on, wake up!”… He looked so peaceful.  He was dead.

That was my first experience of witnessing a death.  His body was taken down to the Seaman’s Mess Deck where some of the bodies of other American soldiers were laid out, as dignified as possible in the circumstances.  However, even the grimmest situations have their moments of farcical humour.  We saw a US Army Sergeant almost cruising across Beagle’s bows.  He appeared to us to be waist-high, out of the water.  He held a five-gallon petrol can under each arm, the type you see on the back of a jeep.  We didn’t know if he was drunk or not, but when we threw him a line with a float, he refused our offer, yelling “get all those other bums in first…Get ‘em in first!”

Then the order came down from the bridge to clear all personal lockers for dry clothes as the soaked, cold and shivering survivors had already used all our blankets.  One or two hours had passed since the initial attacks and some of the GI survivors had recovered sufficiently to play an active role in the rescue attempts, in fact some were in better shape than us, as we were nearing exhaustion ourselves.

By that time the LST had gone down to the bottom of the channel together with its precious cargo of Sherman tanks, trucks and jeeps.  The other LST had somehow stopped burning, and together with Beagle, had drifted into a known minefield.

 

Our skipper, Lieutenant Commander Murch, in a calculated risk, then ordered our searchlights to be switched on, thereby again turning night into day, which we all thought was a bit ‘hairy’.  We suddenly became lit up like an illuminated Christmas tree and became an easy target for the E-boats, either still lurking in the surrounding darkness, or speeding back to their bases on the Dutch coast.

In retrospect, our Skipper was well aware of what he was doing.  His actions was three-fold: sweep the searchlight to locate more survivors: keep a lookout from all quarters of the ship for mines on the surface; and the E boats were not likely to venture anywhere near the minefield.

 

Eventually, the eastern sky gradually lightened, heralding the grey dawn after a truly horrific

night.  There seemed to be no more survivors; the surviving LST was barely afloat, just a

smoking, drifting hulk.  It was decided, reluctantly, to sink her by gunfire, a decision which

evidently didn’t please some of the GIs.  However, it was done and we gently moved off and

set course for Portsmouth.

 

About halfway back, we were met by a US navy ship which we would have liked to have gone

alongside, but they lowered a boat with a medical team and took off the dead and some of the

injured.  We would have preferred to transfer all survivors, but too much time would have

elapsed and Beagle was only two hours from Portsmouth.  So we steamed direct for

Portsmouth and disembarked all survivors for the superior, well-equipped facilities at Haslar

Royal Naval Hospital. 

HMS Beagle was in an awful state.  Most of the problems were caused by the black, slippery

and foul-smelling oil, but we were given 24 hours to clean up and get some much needed

sleep, to be ready for sea and another convoy escort duty the next morning.

 

Surgeon Captain R. S. McDonald, RN

 

I was called to the bridge by the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Murch, who said, “Doc, get over there to that burning LST and make sure no one is trapped under the anchor chains or cables – you can amputate as necessary…”

 

I quickly collected my gear and was in one of Beagle’s two whalers, with the Sub Lieutenant and his crew, within two or three minutes.  We rowed towards the burning LST, only to see it sink when we were about halfway across. So we rowed on until we were in the midst of a group of struggling survivors.  They were in a very poor state – badly burnt, covered in oil, already much weakened, coughing and vomiting.  We managed to get them inboard the whaler until we were dangerously overloaded.  We then rowed back to where we thought Beagle might be, but no sign of her.

 

Suddenly a searchlight pierced the surrounding blackness and almost blinded us.  It was a very gallant act by Beagle’s Captain and extremely dangerous as we were then in a known minefield and only a few miles off Cherbourg. The searchlight turned the blackness of the night into day and enabled us to come smoothly alongside and transfer our load of survivors, with much help from the ships’ crew, several of whom jumped down into the sea to help the wounded on board.  Some of the survivors were so weakened and exhausted they could do no more than hang onto the lines and the scrambling netting hastily draped over the ship’s side.  When we had transferred all our survivors safely on board Beagle we immediately returned to collect more, passing our other whaler loaded with survivors on its way back to Beagle.

 

After two more rescue missions, I came back on board, feeling that I could be more useful in the ship, and started work on the wounded, to the obvious relief of my SBA.  Every available space on Beagle was occupied by injured American military personnel. Some were badly wounded, but all were in some degree of shock, burned, grazed or cut.  All survivors had a coating of oil from the oil fuel on the surface of the sea, and a lot of them had respiratory distress.

 

It was during this time I injected one US sailor with morphine who, despite what must have been several painful fractures, appeared to be unduly happy.  The reason for this apparent jollity became clear when I met a US Army Medical Officer in another area of Beagle who had also given the sailor an injection of morphine.

 

In the meantime, more Allied naval units had arrived to take over the escort of the remaining LSTs and to beat off the E-boats.  We had rescued about 300 military personnel.  We went swiftly to Portsmouth, stopping only to give a short but moving ‘Burial at Sea’ service for those few who regrettably had died from their injuries after rescue while on board Beagle.

 

What a night it had been…By the time we had issued warm blankets to those survivors able to walk, their soaking wet, oil covered uniforms, clothes and life jackets made a huge pile on Beagle’s upper deck, reaching almost to the top of the torpedo tubes.

 

A large silent crowd of medical personnel and ambulances awaited our survivors at South Railway Jetty, Portsmouth Harbour, where they were landed.  Before disembarking, each of our patients expressed their gratitude for the crew.

 

While having a wash-up in the wardroom before lunch, the Captain came in and announced that he had been warned that he might be court martialled for ‘hazarding his ship’ in a minefield.  However, the US authorities sent a most pleasant and complimentary signal, accompanied by a Commendation for Lieutenant Commander Murch.  My SBA and I were also graciously thanked for our services.  There was no subsequent court martial for our Captain.  Beagle left Portsmouth to resume our patrols off the Normandy beaches, supporting the build-up following the invasion of Occupied Europe.

 

Desmond Tighe – Reuters Special Correspondent on HMS Beagle wrote in his dispatch for Reuters

 

Steaming inside an enemy minefield off the peninsular of Cherbourg, a British destroyer, HMS Beagle, Lieutenant Commander Norman Murch RN saved the lives of some American soldiers from a blazing tank landing craft. It was the most courageous and cold-blooded rescue venture I have seen at sea.

 

It was a dark, overcast night in the summer of 1944, with a slight drizzle, reasonably clear visibility and a relatively calm sea, as HMS Beagle nosed its way out of Portland harbour, an American wartime base, escorting five large landing craft, destination Omaha Beach. Everything was proceeding normally when suddenly there was an enormous explosion and it became obvious that one of the landing craft had been torpedoed. A prepared plan came into operation and whilst 'Beagle' stood by to rescue survivors, the other LST's proceeded on their way to the French Coast.

 
Can you imagine a worse nightmare scenario than being a crew member aboard a destroyer drifting into a minefield, with a blazing landing craft and searchlights silhouetting it against the night sky, with German submarines and 'E' boats lurking to make a kill, the crew of the destroyer in the process of rescuing some 150 American sailors from a torpedoed LST (landing craft) including some corpses, thus doubling the personnel aboard the destroyer, with the resulting chaos?

It was 2am.with rain falling, when the craft was struck, and as we began rescue work the destroyer's searchlights were deliberately switched on, illuminating the grey waters and the struggling figures. The blazing hulk of the landing craft made us stand out an easy target. The bravery of the 'Beagle's' officers and ship's company was something I shall never forget.

After the LST was torpedoed we had to chase off some German 'E' boats, causing us to nearly ram a convoy travelling in the opposite direction!! The decision to enter the minefield was an instant but conscious one on the part of the Captain and, either because of programmed behaviour established over many months serving on the 'Beagle', or because of the crew's confidence in the 'Skipper' (built on the memory of his skill and seamanship in avoiding torpedoes and mines etc.) we entered into this highly dangerous exercise with a certain amount of trepidation but, more importantly with an overwhelming desire to save as many American personnel as possible. Sadly we had to bury the non-survivors (at sea} on the way back to Portsmouth where there was a welcoming party of doctors, nurses and friends, ready to attend to our American friends; some were stretcher cases, some walking wounded and some were able to disembark unaided.


 

William V. McDermott USN. LST314
 

 

LST 314 was assigned to ‘Omaha’ Beach, one of the two US beaches from the five beaches to be

attacked.  We had loaded 15 amphibian DUKWs and sailed with a huge armada of ships for

Normandy.  The pre-invasion bombardment was awesome, with battleships, cruisers, destroyers,

etc. all hurling high explosive shells of every calibre at the German fortifications. The skies above

us were filled with Allied bombers and fighter aircraft going to and fro.  We had many USAAF P-38

Lightning fighter bombers constantly flying over us, ensuring no German aircraft had the chance

to threaten us.  The sights and sounds were incredible to behold.

We had no need to go ashore as our cargo was launched offshore.  We began to discharge the

DUKWs so they could make their run up to the beach.  We got them all launched, but as they circled,

nine from the fifteen were swamped and sank to the bottom of the English Channel due to the

choppy seas.  We had our small boats out and managed to rescue some of the survivors.  In retrospect, an additional factor was that the DUKWs were possibly overloaded with extra 105mm ammunition. But the main thing was that the troops of the 1st infantry division, although suffering heavy casualties, had managed to get ashore and were holding on, supported by Allied naval gunnery and overwhelming air power.

 

On our return to England for more supplies, our tank deck had many American casualties, with their ID tags, killed in the first assaults on Omaha Beach. We had very little sleep before leaving on the return trip to Normandy.

 

Our destination was the Cherbourg Peninsula and we left England close to Midnight on Thursday 8th June. There were five LSTs in the convoy, with the destroyer HMS Beagle as escort, three on one side and two on the other.  LSTs 314 and 376 were last in the line.  We were nearing the French coast when out of the blackness of the night, at about 0200 hours, a German E-boat approached us from the rear.  A torpedo stuck LST 314 on our port side, blew away much of the hull in a tremendous explosion and our ship went down barely 20 minutes later.

 

I was sleeping at the time of impact.  I slept near mid-deck, alongside a short downward sloping passageway that led into the screw drive compartment.  The force of the explosion blew me out of my bunk, landing at the bottom of the passageway.  I was dazed for a few moments and by the time I’d eventually managed to clamber my way up to the top deck there were very few people around.

 

On the way up, I’d tried to open the starboard side passageway hatch, but couldn’t. I then ran to the port side passageway.  This hatch was hanging sideways, partially in and out, but I was just able to squeeze through.  I ran up the passageway, but couldn’t open the port side top deck hatch.  I then crossed over to the starboard side, along the galley way passage and thankfully up to the top deck.  All I had on was my underwear shorts, and I was barefooted I became increasingly aware of the unbearable heat transferred to the iron deck from the uncontrollable fires raging below.  It was obviously the end of the line for LST314.

I then joined two other sailors and three soldiers hurriedly trying to release a life raft.  Eventually, we succeeded, but the raft was still attached to the ship by its safety rope.  One of the soldiers hastily hacked away at the rope with his small pocket knife, freeing the raft, which we immediately launched over the side and clambered in.

 

A short time later, we saw a German E boat approach our rapidly sinking LST.  I can only assume the Germans were looking for our LSTs identification number.  Strange to relate, we found a drifting broom nearby and used it as a paddle, and desperately tried to propel our raft away from the blazing ship. But I was convinced we were gradually and relentlessly being sucked into the large gaping hole in the port side where the torpedo had exploded minutes earlier. My fears must have been shared because one of the three soldiers who wasn’t wearing a lifebelt, suddenly got up and jumped off the raft into the sea.  I was later told the temperature of the water was around 13 degrees Centigrade and I thought the air temperature was not much better.

It was shortly after that when I was convinced the Good Lord worked one of his miracles.  When we reached the gaping hole in the port side, our raft was suddenly propelled rapidly and powerfully away from the sinking ship as if by an unseen hand.

We were about 100 yards behind the stern of the LCT314 when she went down, stern first, twenty minutes after being torpedoed.  We also saw LCT 376 burning fiercely, but there was no sign of the other three LCTs, presumably they’d continued heading for Normandy.  We then floated around the English Channel in the darkness, neither seeing nor hearing any other survivors, entirely at the mercy of the prevailing currents and wind, with no idea where we were heading or the direction of the nearest land.  As we drifted aimlessly, we came across the soldier who’d earlier decided to jump off our raft, floating face up.  Unfortunately, he was dead.

The raft’s netting had broken away and this enables us five survivors to stand chest deep I the water while holding

onto the raft.  We moved about, sometimes almost submerged and sometimes sitting on the sides of the raft. 

Eventually, the eastern sky gradually brightened as the grey dawn arrived, heralding Friday, 9 June 1944. The

westerly wind was noticeably stronger which in turn made the seas distinctly choppier.  I was very cold.  We still

couldn’t see anyone and I could feel the first insidious stages of exhaustion and exposure.

 

At about 0800 hours a whaler manned by British sailors suddenly appeared on the crest of a large wave.  The

whaler was from HMS Beagle. The sailors quickly hauled all five of us aboard and took us back to their destroyer. 

The Beagle must have known where we were and kept us in sight while they were busily rescuing other

shipwrecked soldiers and sailors, mostly covered in fuel oil from the sea.  We later learned that the destroyer

had sailed into German laid minefield and had switched its searchlights on, looking for struggling survivors. 

The ship was also within range of German batteries on the French coast.

 

The Beagle’s crew wrapped us up in warm blankets and gave us generous shots of rum from their own rum ration

I honestly thought I could never be warm again, but the combination of shelter, blankets steaming hot drink and

one or two generous swigs of strong rum changed my mind.

 

Tragically the number of rescued Americans on board Beagle from both LSTs died from a combination of exposure and serious injuries, mostly extensive burns.  During Beagles return to southern England, we met a US Navy ship. The more seriously wounded and those who had died after rescue were transferred to the American ship in mid-channel.

 

The fact that Beagle’s Captain and crew had deliberately sailed into a known minefield within range of enemy shore batteries, at great risk to everyone on board, on its mission of mercy to pick up about 250 struggling, mostly oil covered survivors of our two LSTs, confirmed that no greater heroism was ever displayed than that of 9 June 1944.

 

Albert E. Duncan.  USN LST376

 

After we had unloaded our cargo, we returned to the south coast of England and reloaded with about twelve Sherman tanks on our tank deck and about twenty 6x6 trucks on the main deck, along with the military personnel to operate and support them in Normandy.

 

We sailed on the return trip across to France during the late evening of June 8 in an unescorted convoy of five LSTs when the British destroyer HMS Beagle overtook us and asked for permission to join us.  Of course we were glad to oblige and the destroyer led us toward the coast of Normandy.  We were under what we called ‘Condition 2’ at that time, which meant that all compartment hatches were closed and watertight, with half of the ship’s crew on duty and half off, in four-hour periods of duty.

I happened to be on duty in the radio shack early on June 9 when, at about 02.20 hours, I heard

a very loud explosion, the ship lurched violently and all lights were immediately extinguished.  I didn’t know what had happened, was partially stunned by the explosion and just sat in complete darkness, dazed for a few minutes.

 

Then the familiar voice of our Communications Officer called out from the ladder

which led up to the radio shack, saying we had been ordered to abandon ship.  I

quickly began to recover and felt fully conscious again.  I searched and felt around

until I found a battery- powered lantern.  Turning it on, I found my pneumatic life belt,

put it on and squeezed the mechanism that punctured the inflating cartridges. 

Then, to this day I don’t know why, I turned the lantern off and hung it back up on

its hook.

 

I then went down the ladder and quickly walked out onto the main deck.  I was

shocked to see the military trucks were all well ablaze, with their gasoline tanks and

their loads of ammunition exploding in what was literally a horrifying inferno.

 

The ship appeared to be listing to port and the main deck was only a few feet above

the sea.  I then heard and saw a life raft full of men from the ship, about a hundred

feet away.  They were calling for me to swim to them.  Without a moments’ hesitation,

I plunged into the sea and found the water extremely cold.  Swimming with an inflated

life belt was rather difficult, but I managed to make it out to the raft eventually.  However, I found there was no room for me to get on the raft, so I just grabbed a rope that was attached to its side and hung on for dear life. 

 

Soon after I’d reached the raft, a beam of light stabbed through the darkness.  It was Beagles searchlight.  Her crew quickly got a lifeboat, called a whaler, lowered it into the water and began pulling our men into it.  At that point I was feeling relieved, convinced that we’d soon be picked up. Some of our survivors were able to make it across to Beagle and grab onto a cargo net that had been draped over the destroyers’ side enabling them to clamber aboard the destroyer assisted by her crew. 

 

It was a shock to us all to see Beagle suddenly turn off her searchlight and speed away.  It was later learned that some men in the water near Beagle were pulled into her twin screws as she sped away to repel the German E-boats that were about to attack again.

 

By that time I was beginning to feel quite numb with cold and tried to get a better grip on the rope.  I noticed that there were not as many men on and around the raft as there had been.  It seemed like an eternity when the blackness of the night gradually gave way to dawn and Beagle returned.  Her whaler had remained throughout and picked up all the men it could carry without itself being swamped by endless waves whipped up by a bitterly cold wind.

 

After the survivors in the whaler had been assisted aboard Beagle, the whaler then made its way over to our raft.  Along with the other survivors, I thankfully felt my numb body being pulled from the water.  We were then taken across to the Beagle, handed up to the strong and willing hands reaching down.  Once safely aboard we had our soaking clothes ripped off, quickly covered with blankets, lined up on deck, taken below, given hot tea, shots of rum, cleaned up and given dry clothing.

 

One of the officers from the Beagle, who had been in her whaler during the rescue efforts, said they’d counted 270 dead soldiers floating in the sea.

 

It was a horrible experience, but that is war.

 

In order to save our lives Beagle’s Captain, Lieutenant Commander Murch, had disobeyed orders and put his ship and his crew at risk by deliberately entering mined waters.  All the American servicemen he saved in doing so owe him our lives.  He was subsequently reprimanded by his superiors, but our country awarded him a medal.

Norman's Career Takes Him East

 

The top brass were unimpressed.  On Beagle’s return to Portsmouth, Norman was a targeted man as the Admiralty was determined to express their discontent with his actions.  However, the U.S Navy top brass commendation saved him from the looming threat of disciplinary action. 

 

Norman was soon posted to another ship, appointed as commander to HMS Whimbrel, stationed in the far-east.  It seemed that Norman had been side-lined for his act of humanity and courage.  However, the Whimbrell was in the right place when the Japanese agreed to surrender.   The Whimbrel sailed to Tokyo Bay and Norman was present to witness as the treaty of surrender was signed. 

 

Norman was, later, awarded the Legion of Merit on 20th March 1945 for ‘distinguished service during the invasion of Normandy’.

 

He was back in Britain in 1946, where his daughter was born in 1948 following his wife’s brief appearance films in particular Anna Karenina, filmed in 1947 with Vivienne Leigh.  Normans career concluded in 1950 with his last posting to the Tyne Division on the Kaile of Loch Alsh, a small salvage tug.   An uninspiring posting for a man of such stature and humanity. His days of polo and mingling with top brass or minor royals a dim memory as he pursued a simpler life.

 

His glamorous wife, Valentina, who appeared in the film Quiet Weekend

in 1946 and Anna Karenina in 1948 had removed herself from her dull

wartime existence in a small house in Dawlish, with his mother and

relatives, to a comfortable life in Kensington, more suited to such an

elegant and ambitious lady. The birth of Anna Valentina put paid to her

acting ambitions in December 1948 and she rarely appeared after that date. 

Norman became virtually a single parent to their daughter and brought her

up while Valentina lived a more glamorous existence.

 

Valentina died in 1992 and was buried with her mother in Chiswick by

Vicar Robin Murch (Norman’s nephew) and lies with Russian compatriots

nearby including an Imperial naval lieutenant called Nikolai Fedorov and

several exiled Russian Princesses, like Irina Galitzine, author of a bilingual

memoir.

 

Norman also had a son, Geoffrey, (only later a part of Normans life) born in

Shanhai who is an artist and ceramicist in Canada. Anna became an

accomplished artist and a professor of art in California.

 

In later life, Norman applied his urbane charms to fund raising, gaining great pleasure from that period of his life.  He remarried and settled in Croydon.  He suffered from Alzheimers in later life and died in October 1986. 

Lt. General Bucknall US Supreme Command aboard HMS Beagle - D Day
Men are hauled aboard the Beagle from the whaler. Bodies of dead servicemen lie in the bottom of the whaler.
150 Men were pulled alive from the water. The dead, counted by the crew, numbered nearly 300.

Able Seaman Edward Charles Murch - Died1943

 

HMS Exeter to Prisoner of War Japan

 

 

 

HMS Exeter was a York Class cruiser built in Devonport

Dockyard, Plymouth. Pennant Number 68.

Launched July 18th 1929. Commissioned July 27th

1931.

On December 13th 1939 the Exeter engaged the

German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the

River Plate. Hits from the Graf Spee killed a total of 58

crewmen and 8 others died of wounds later. 

Edward Murch, luckily, was not on board the ship when she engaged the Graf Spee joining later just before the battle of the Java Sea.

Edward was born in Indonesia in 1911. His Service number: d/jx129683 Rank Able Seaman. I know nothing of his early life however, I know the suffering he endured just prior to his death.

 

After a short period escorting troop ships between Java and Singapore, Exeter joined, on 27th February, the USS Houston, HMAS Perth and two Dutch ships, the Hr Ms Java and Hr Ms de Ruyter to find and engage the Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java. Later on the same day the Japanese fleet was spotted and Exeter opened fire - the engagement was fierce and a return shot whistled in and hit the boiler room killing 14 men and knocking out six boilers, leaving the ship functioning with only two working boilers. The action continued and the two Dutch ships were sunk before the force disengaged from what would become known as the Battle of the Java Sea, the largest sea battle since the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The USS Houston and HMAS Perth were sunk on the 1st March in the Sunda Straight, attempting to break into the Indian Ocean.

The next day the Exeter limped at 15 knots into Surabuya for repairs and to bury her dead, where she was joined by the destroyers HMS Encounter and the USS Pope. On the evening of the 28th February 1942 the Exeter, steaming on one boiler and with the two destroyers as escort, was ordered to the Sunda Straight to escape into the Indian Ocean. At 09.30 on the 1st March, Exeter's guns opened fire against some marauding Japanese ships and at 11.00 a torpedo hit and an enormous explosion took out the remaining boiler, completely disabling her, including the guns. Orders were given to "Sink the ship" and designated members of the crew opened the seacocks and valves, and charges exploded below the water line. There were several more hits and then at 11.35 Captain Gordon gave the command "Abandon ship".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The crew, including Edward, who escaped onto rafts and into the cold water saw the great ship list to starboard and sink sixty metres to the sea bed. The two escorting destroyers were also sunk. The men drifted on their liferafts for some time until unusually the 714 officers and men from the Exeter were picked up by Japanese destroyers. They were taken as prisoners of war. They were taken by the Japanese ships to a POW camp in Macassar, Celibes. This was a terrible place where they then suffered starvation, forced labour, disease and brutality. It must have seemed at times that drowning would have been preferable.

The huge camp was surrounded by a 12 foot high wooden fence fixed with heavy gauge wire. There were 33 barracks, all one story buildings with ten rooms to a barracks. Constructed of wood with tight tar paper roofs, and windows with panes, the barracks were dimly lit with only basic cots to sleep on. Officers were billeted three or four per room measuring 9' x 10', with four to six enlisted men accommodated in rooms of same size. There was no heating whatsoever, which was a serious problem in the winter months as the men were living on starvation diets, they were also clothed only in summer weight uniforms. Each room had one 15-watt light bulb, so they must have lived in near darkness when inside the huts.

There were two meals served each day, usually one cup of rice and some radish soup. Protein was rarely provided. Their lives were miserable with constant cruel punishments and beatings. Their guards were brutal, currupt and greedy and meted out inhuman treatment on a daily basis.

The camp doctor, an unidentified Japanese surgeon, forced men to work even when critically ill. They were put to work in local factories and mines, no matter if ill or weak from hunger.

Baron Mitsui's company leased the POWs from the Japanese Army, who received payment from the Company of about 20 yen per day. The American, Australian and Dutch POWs all worked in the Mitsui coal mine whilst all the British worked in the nearby Mitsui zinc foundry. Pay for privates and NCOs was 10 yen per day and all POWs received about 5 cigarettes each day. 152 men of the Exeter perished in the camp before it was liberated. Edward only survived for just over a year in the camp, succumbing to Malaria on the 25th April 1943 in Macassar.

The camp was liberated on 2 September 1945, by which time most of the POWs were in a desperate state of health. Many POWs were suffering from severe beri-beri and on average had lost about 60 lb (27 kg). Camp survivors were evacuated via the destroyed Nagasaki about ten days after liberation. The camp commandant Asao Fukuhara was executed after the war for war crimes.

 

 

 

Edward Charles Murch is remembered on Memorial 30. A. 2. In AMBON WAR CEMETERY.

Men being liberated from the camp in 1945 were walking skeletons. They were initially taken to the recently bombed Nagasaki and then later repatriated home via Singapore.
Leonard C. Murch - 'Elsie' Flight Commander 253 Squadron

'Elsie' Murch was like a cat with nine lives!

Leonard Charles Murch of Plymstock, Devon was born on 19th February 1921 in Plymouth.  He was the son of a veterinary surgeon and educated at Plymouth College.  Leonard – or ‘Elsie’to his flying friends in the RAF,  joined the RAF on a short service commission in February 1939 aged 18.

After completing his basic flying at 11 E&RFTS Perth, Leonard went on to 2 FTS Brize Norton on the 29th. When he completed his course, 'Elsie' joined the newly-reformed 253 Squadron at Manston on 6th November 1939 as a convoy unit flying Bleinhams.  However, before taking delivery of any Blenheims the whole flight were allocated to day fighters in Hawker Hurricanes at Kenley.  ‘Elsie’ was a gung-ho flyer, perhaps even careless in his first months of service, often returning to base with a banged up craft. He crashed three times, which was considered rather rude by his flight commander  who would often say 'next time, Elsie, try and bring the bloody plane back, we do need them, you know!'

Elsie wasn't yet done with rapid drops back onto land and his nine lives were due to take another hit in a tense and rapid dogfight over Tunbridge Wells, watched by thousands of people working in the fields and farms beneath. 

 

Elsie spotted a German Messerschmitt Bf 109, 1000ft below and, with the sun behind him, immediately went on the attack, diving down on it's tail. The dogfight, with its twists and turns and smoke trails, was watched in awe by those below, as the two planes crisscrossed the blue skies above Kent. Momentarily, Elsie lost his concentration and in error, turned left to dive away, a predictable turn which the German ace was ready for.  The 109 caught him turning side-on and Elsie's plane was riddled by the enemy canons and, within seconds, his cockpit was filled with smoke and oil.  The stricken Hurricane indignantly put its nose down to began a screaming descent towards the ground.  Elsie, ever the survivor, managed flip the plane upside down and haul his sliding cockpit open.  He then let gravity pull him out of the plane and deployed his parachute. 

As Hurricane V6570, plummeted to the ground and crashed behind a viaduct, Elsie floated gently down only to land awkwardly in a churchyard up a tree, watched by dozens of people. 

Not only did 'Elsie' break his arm but after landing in St Lukes, he was immediately surrounded by locals of the area, armed with various farm and garden implements, believing he was an enemy pilot: This was probably due to his pronounced Devon accent, which he loved to ham up among his colleagues who called him a country bumpkin. 

 

The dangling airman, now hanging with a limp arm by his side and having lost one boot, was dragged down from the tree and ‘captured'.  It was only when the local Vicar and policeman arrived on the scene that it became apparent that Elsie was indeed a British airman.  He was admitted to hospital with a broken arm and was grounded for a couple of months until he could rejoin the squadron.

Local reports state:

10.10.40
Nr Tun Wells.
Hurricane 1 V6570, shot down for the 3rd time.
P/O LC Murch bailed out with broken arm. Based Kenley. Cat 3.
Thurs 10.10.40 date given in a/c Casualties of Kent & Fri 11th in BoB T&N.

'in the early part of October (1940) ......In the course of other exciting duels a few days later a British pilot bailed out at 30,000ft and landed in a tree in the grounds of St Lukes vicarage. At first he was taken for a Polish pilot.' (Courier newspaper 13.10.44).

'In the dinner time alert on the 11th (11.15am-1pm) we suddenly heard a high pitched shriek of a fighter hurtling down out of control and watched it dive straight over the town to crash behind the railway viaduct at High Brooms. There was a small figure on a parachute became visible: It drifted lower and eventually landed in a tree in the garden of St Lukes. We always cheered the fall of a plane on the assumption it must be German, we heard how quite a crowd had advanced on the pilot with various weapons. However he was found to be English and had an injury to his arm so was taken to the Kent & Sussex hospital, the plane being a Hurricane'.(DA Barmby, resident T.Wells 1940).

‘On the 11th October some excitement was caused when a parachutist was seen floating in the sky at 11 O’clock in the morning. This visitor landed in a Fir tree at the rear of St Lukes vicarage, had bailed out after an arial battle. His arm was broken.’ The plane landed in the Tonbridge area.’ (Civil Defence, A History of the Borough).

I think his boot dropped off too. Perhaps his Westcountry accent gave rise to being taken for a Pole?

 

His crashes did not deter his dogged spirit and he always turned up back at base with a huge smile on his face, happy to accept the ribbing of his fellow flyers. 
 

Elsie was sent to France as a member of 'A' Flight when it was relocated to Poix on 16th May 1940. The 253 Squadron had been split in to two, half the flight in France, the other members of the flight remaining at Manston, from where they flew to France each day. On their first day they were immediately scrambled airward and spent several hours patrolling the skies above. Thousands of enemy bombers were making their way to deliver hell on London.  Almost exclusively, the flight was used as escort to British bombers and didn't really engage with many enemy fighters at first.  At this time, the squadron was flown in flight formation, a close V shape of aircraft, as dictated by Dowding himself. This formation flying was deadly when engaging in air battles as the flight had little ability to break away and engage the enemy and were easy pickings for the enemy fighter planes. However, that had to change as Hitler unleashed ever increasing numbers of bombers, which each day headed towards England to bomb London and strafe British bases.

 

On 23rd May 1940, just seven days after their arrival, ‘Elsie’ now an old hand flyer, was attacked from behind by two Me109's of 1./JG51 Luftwaffe over Bethune while escorting Blenheims. Despite his Hurricane being badly damaged, 'Elsie' was able to make it back to Hawkinge airfield, where he carried out a rather hairy forced-landing. Fortunately, he was unhurt and the aircraft was actually repairable. Within days the ground crew had patched up the plane and he was back in the air on escort duties.

As June arrived, the British Forces were being evacuated down below A Flight in the failing battle for France, as the flight took to the air to try to down as many enemy bombers as possible, with wingmen watching the back of their comrades.  It was an almost impossible task.

 

Throughout May and June, they had been overcome by the sheer number of enemy aircraft passing through the sector and with little ability to stop them. Eventually, the battle for France lost, the flight was relocated back to Kenley.  Having suffered heavy losses, the Flight left Poix and withdrew fully on the 21st June. From there, A Flight was disbanded and dispersed to other units temporarily.  

Despite the hazardous nature of his flying career, ‘Elsie’ seemed to have the nine lives of a cat and his skirmishes and crashes were becoming notorious among the flyers in the squadron.  

 

This is an illustration and not Leonards actual plane/may not even be the correct model of Hurricane.

The remnants of 253 squadron was relocated to Kirton-in-Lindsey, a small town in North Lincolnshire to reform.  The squadron received new pilots and took delivery of new aircraft to replace losses, once up and running they were relocated back at  Kenley, near Croydon in Surrey on 29th August.

 

The Kenley airfield was at the heart of the Battle of Britain and ‘Elsie’ was guaranteed some action as soon as he arrived.  He was soon in the thick of it.  Scrambled every day, the flight began a daily routine of hours of boredom interspersed with minutes of terror as they engaged the Luftwaffe.  The 7th September, known as Black Saturday, saw many dogfights over the whole of the South East of the country and Elsie was sent up as usual only to find himself out of ammunition within minutes of reaching 8000ft.   Two days later, during a squadron sortie on 9th September 1940, Leonard crashed landed in  woodland after his engine cut out at Nonnington.  He was in his new Hurricane, P3610, and luckily escaped unhurt.

He was back in the air quickly again with a new aircraft and claimed a share of a German Do17 on the 6th October.  The next day he was in action again and shot down an enemy He111 on the 7th October.  By this time the thrill of engaging enemy aircraft must have been ebbing away slowly and he was close to holding a flight record for crashing and escaping with his life.

In early July 1941, the Battle for Britain won in the air, Elsie was posted to 185 Squadron based in Malta. He was then posted to the Middle East in 1942.  In 1943, after four years flying, Elsie was serving in the slightly quieter 680 Squadron, a photographic-reconnaissance unit. By the time of his final posting he was one of the longer serving fighter pilots and had survived some epic dogfights.  He had finally been promoted to Flight Commander, no doubt being one of the most experienced flyers still alive, and he now had to train and get to know a large number of young, inexperienced flyers, some with only a few hours experience in the air. Sadly his time was running out. On arrival at his new posting to 680 Squadron, amongst a group of new men who he barely knew, Elsie began to feel unwell.  Along with many others of the flight he was quarantined and the aircraft grounded temporarily. Elsie quickly became critically ill and was finally admitted to hospital where his condition sank rapidly. Far from home, with none of his old chums from A Flight by his side, Elsie succumbed to something he couldn't fight; bacteria.  He had gone, not in the fiery blaze of glory he had imagined would finish him off, but alone, in an isolation bed, far from home, where he silently slipped away in a fever.  Its possible he had no fight left in him by then. 

 

He had given the best years of his youth to fighting in the air and had been a truly dogged, slightly mad, hero; one of the great Murch's of his generation.  His commanding officer reports:

 

‘On 16th September the squadron received with considerable regret the news of a sudden tragedy. F/C L.C Murch, who had been attached to B flight, died of infantile paralysis after a short illness. F/C Murch who had been with the squadron for two months had filled most capably the position of Flight Commander of A flight before proceeding to Toksa for operational duties. B flight were then placed in quarantine for the next two months, but continued to operate, and, in spite of a shortage of pilots, and difficulties with aircraft, succeeded in carrying out their commitments. At the same time C flight were carrying out extreme cover in their area, twice daily for the most part. On the 23rd and 24th September visual reports were sent in after sorties reported that an enemy destroyer had been sighted with escorting aircraft off Cape Prassonisi.’


Leonard (Elsie) Murch died on 16th September 1943 in the RAF Hospital, Benghazi, after contracting poliomyelitis. He is buried in Benghazi War Cemetery, Libya.

Lt Cmdr Francis Murch, RNVR   

When America entered the war in 1943, American personnel flooded into the south of England as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D Eisenhower made plans  for a proposed Allied landing in France to counter German military advances in Europe.

 

As the build up to D Day began and American troops arrived to establish an Amphibious Base  for Operation Overlord in Salcombe,  Devon  in September 1943,  Lt. Cmdr Francis Murch was invited to become Resident Naval Officer of his home  town.  Since he was also Head of the Town Council, this meant in effect that he became the leading figure in the town, responsible for the safety of its inhabitants and for liaison with the American  troop Commander, William Henszey, US NAAB..

As Councillor Frank Murch had already had to find accommodation for over a thousand children evacuated from London, now he had to make billeting arrangements for 137 American officers and 1,793 men, a total which in itself outnumbered the town’s original inhabitants 2 to 1.  To provide a park for US vehicles and tanks and an area where landing craft and boats could be worked on under arc lights day and night, he ordered streets of buildings to be bulldozed. When the sites of the D Day landings had been decided it fell to  Lt Cmdr Mutch RNVR to share responsibility for the evacuation of  3,000 local inhabitants and all their belongings,  to safeguard the farms, churches, villages and shops they left behind, and to secure the area around Slapton Beach that had become the designated practise area for the invasion.

 

C Virginia Murch.  Extract from “Song of Salcombe” available on Amazon and link from products page.

From his headquarters at the mouth of Salcombe Harbour, Frank worked closely with Commander Henszey, under the command of  General Montgomery.  His naval squadron (nicknamed Mr Murch’s Navy by locals) kept a 24 hour watch for E Boat activity, ran boat patrols in the harbour, and was in constant contact with the air force squadron based at Bolt Head and the naval command centre in Plymouth. He co-ordinated the Home Guard, Police and Red Cross agencies, and set up a builders repair emergency team in the wake of bombing raids in the town and surrounding areas.  He was also responsible for  enforcing  the cloak of secrecy that had been thrown over the whole area to keep secret the landings that would, if successful, mark the closing stages of World War II.

 

When it was over, as the Americans were packing up ready to go Stateside again, Lt Cmdr. Frank Murch  RNVR was praised for his exceptional efforts at a ceremony packed with American servicemen  and Salcombe townspeople.  He was to receive a Meritorious award from Present Eisenhower . As a token of their respect the American servicemen  presented him with a desk with an engraved brass plaque which they had made for him.  In typical modest manner, he made light of all the praise, but I know my Uncle Frank cherished his desk and the medal until the day he died.  He had done what he had always wanted to do:  been of service to his community.    

American soldiers prepare for D-Day on Slapton Sands. During the tragic exercise a total of 749 were killed when three ships were torpedoed by German U-boats
 
Warmest thanks to Virginia for contributing her uncle Franks story.  
More than 100,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Devon in the months running up to the D-Day landings on June 6.
 

Richard Melville Murch - Medic in Merrills Marauders WWII

One of Merrills Marauders – Bronze Star Hero WWII

 

It is impossible to do justice to the life that Richard led in such a short piece, but I hope I can convey something of the hero he was.  Richard wrote his memoirs and I have quoted from his biography.  My grateful thanks to Barbara and his family for permission to tell the following story and to Robert Passanisi of the Merrills Marauders Association.

 

Richard Melville Murch was born in Brooklyn, N.Y to Elmer and Florence Tassey Murch.  He was an only child.

When Richard was twenty years old he was working at Continental Bank & Trust.  He had just been promoted to the rack room, where cheques were separated ready to be sent to the clearing house.  He was also studying banking at college in the mornings prior to work. He thought he had his career all mapped out and a life of banking beckoned.  On November 7th 1941 Rich woke up, weary after a night on the sauce, and went to a diner for coffee. While he sat eating, the music stopped and the radio announcer interrupted the broadcast to relay the news that U.S ships at Pearl Harbour were under attack by the Japanese.  The U.S was on the brink of war.

 

In patriotic fervour Rich and two of his friends tried to join the army.  Bob Bennington and

Gus Hamilton were accepted immediately but Rich was turned down due to a minor health

issue. He was disappointed, however, this did not deter him from repeated attempts to join

up.  His dogged determination would stand him in good stead later on in the war.  After

repeated and determined visits to the recruitment office, eventually, some months later, he

was finally successfully.  The U.S. by this time was fully engaged in war.  Richard was

enlisted into the Medical Company of 417 Regiment, which was part of the 76th Division. 

He became a medic and it was this role that led to his involvement in one of the most difficult

missions on the Asia/Pacific battle front. On June 4th 1942 he reported for duty at Fort Jay

and following his medical reported to Fort Dix.

 

He trained as a medic rather than his preference to join the signals. During training he managed to get plenty of experience in the operating rooms and trained as an anesthetist. Richard became a Medical Technician Fourth Grade, army number12086253. While at Billings camp he also did rangers training and while there he met and became engaged to a young girl called Mary.  However, within only days of giving her a ring, in September 1943, his commanding officer read a letter to the troops from the President of the United States. The letter requested volunteers for a “dangerous and hazardous mission.” He and a friend, Charlie Hawkins, going against the rule ‘never volunteer’, put themselves forward.  However, Charlie was not accepted for the unit.  Rich later discovered that he had volunteered for a special operations jungle warfare unit in the Asia-Pacific theatre of war.

 

The volunteers arrived in India as units 1688 A, B, and C and assigned to the British. They expected to come under the command of Major General Orde Wingate.  The split into six autonomous combat teams, two from each Battalion, was in accordance with Wingates experience with the Chindits. It wasn’t until General Joseph Stilwell General, the first deputy supreme Allied commander, wangled the unit from Wingate through Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, in late December 1943 that they became Provisional. Wingate had some colourful words as to what Stilwell could do with his American Army.  By 5th January 1944 they were assigned to General Frank Merrill and became the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, for it was improper for a General to command a unit the size of a Regiment. The unit was code named ‘Galahad’.

 

But the unit was ultimately to become known as Merrill’s Marauders. 

 

Three thousand men volunteered for Galahad. The men were formed into six combat teams of 400, color-coded Red, White, Blue, Green, Orange and Khaki, two teams to a Battalion, the rest of the men formed H.Q. and Air Transport Commands. Initially they stayed at the British camp in India. On arrival they were billeted in tents around the brick barracks that the British used.  There were twelve bunks in each tent.  Richards first terrifying encounter happened after a few nights.  As Rich writes:

 

“One night I had one of the biggest scares of my life. The side flaps of the tent were folded up to let some air into the tent as it was very hot and humid. The beds of the tent were arranged so the head of the bed was next to the flap. One night around one or two am, I was sound asleep when it happened. Something pushed my mosquito net and gave me a hard solid nudge on the head. At the same time it gave the most unearthly loud, loud noise I have ever heard in my life. I thought my time had come, that I never made it to heaven but I sure made it into hell! I jumped up and just about all the other occupants of the tent were on their feet at the same time.   I looked outside and there stood a DONKEY!  If you have ever heard a donkey bray, it is unearthly, especially in the early hours of the morning, and very, very loud. The next day I found out from a British sergeant that they use them as guards as they bray when things move at night. The sergeant never heard of one sticking his head inside a tent as this one did.” 

 

The real terror was yet to come, however, Richard was suddenly taken ill with tick typhus and recovered back in the British hospital while his battalion received orders and moved out.  After some weeks he started the trip back to his unit again and just before Christmas arrived in the new camp to the surprise of his comrades and senior officer, who didn’t expect to see him alive. The next day he began a fifteen mile hike despite still being weak from his illness.

 

Operations began under great secrecy in the jungles of Central India. From there the Marauders started the 100 mile long march up the Ledo Road and over the Himalayan Mountains into Burma. Following that they walked through extremely dense and almost impenetrable jungle with little in the way of support except air drops of supplies and mule transport for their 60 and 81mm mortars, one bazooka for each battalion, ammunition, communications gear, and supplies. Lack of artillery support meant the force had a combat power less than that of a single regular American infantry battalion.  The unit would have to rely on flexibility and surprise to outfight the much larger Japanese forces. A total of 2,750 Marauders entered Burma. There were eleven medical officers and five veterinary officers.

They now began operations in thick jungle and engaged a ruthless enemy with stealth and determination.  Sickness felled many of the men with malaria and dysentery rife among the soldiers. The third battalion, who had served in the south pacific were particularly plagued with this as a carry-over from their engagements there.  The second battalion also brought with them a few cases from panama.  This would have been easier to deal with had they been given malaria treatment, however, the Atabrine they clearly needed had been withheld from them until things were so difficult that the drug was finally prescribed for daily use.  However, this could turn a man a shade of yellow if used daily.  Rich was assigned a mule called Bozo and he formed a close companionship with Bozo. Bozo was not for Rich to ride on but to carry essential medical supplies. All the men were expected to walk.

 

Rich wrote about the problems of treating and removing the injured in detail in his memoirs. He writes: “The life of a medical corp man is a hard one. You are up early, wash and eat a K ration breakfast, feed the mule and then hustle over to the aid station to hold ‘sick call’. Dismantle the aid station and pack it on the back of the mule. During the days march the column halts every hour for a ten minute break. During the break the aid man is working, patching blisters, cuts and treating whatever. The longer the campaign the more varied and longer the whatevers. When the column halts for evening unload the mule, set up the aid station, feed and brush the mule, and then ‘sick call’, then a great meal, a K ration dinner.  As we continued to walk long distances day after day, the lines at the aid station increased in size, the starting time for morning sick call was pushed forward several times to be ready to move with the main column.’

 

This was the day to day routine treatment of ailments and small injuries, however, with each battle came the inevitable casualties and deaths and as the column moved, the number of casualties and ease of evacuation became increasingly more complex.  Each wounded Marauder had to be carried on a makeshift stretcher (usually made from bamboo and field jackets or shirts) by his comrades until an evacuation point was reached. It is not possible to include the wealth of stories that Rich narrates in his memoir but in order to demonstrate how difficult each day was for the medic here is an excerpt:

 

A short time later I was asked to report to Captain Closuit one of the medical officers. One of the officers from Battalion HQ was also there. Closuit informed me there was no way to evacuate the wounded by air as the area we were in was too mountainous and overgrown and asked if I would volunteer to lead a party to evacuate the wounded. I asked why me? His answer was that a senior medical aid man was needed and my broken arm was not a clean fracture and should be X-rayed. The plan was that we should return via the same trail until we ran into a Chinese regiment who were American trained and had American liaison officers. The problem was that the Japanese patrols were between us and the Chinese and if we met them face to face we would not be able to put up much of a fight carrying litters.

The next morning at dawn we started out with twelve litter bearers (infantry men), two scouts, five walking wounded, three litter cases and me. I no longer was a tag along to the infantry now they were tagging along with me. Most people do not realise how difficult it is to carry someone on a litter. For a two man carry you stop every five minutes as your arms feel like they are pulling out of your sockets. If you carry with four men you can change positions but have no one to relieve you. The trail wandered from one side of the river to the other so we were always wet. Try carrying a litter in chest deep water fording the river many times.  I made camp mid-afternoon clearing a bivouac area 300 - 400 yards off the trail.  The scouts using branches tried to hide our exit off the trail. It was raining and all I had was the fatigues on my back. I left my half blanket and poncho in order to carry extra medical supplies. One of the litter cases was near deaths door and I spent most of the night with him changing dressings, intravenous fluids, plasma etc. All of us were cold wet and miserable. Early in the evening one of the scouts reported that a Jap patrol was coming. They passed as we held our breath.  During the night we were witness to a strange incident. Evidently the clearing was an elephants home base. We heard this loud noise, brush trampled, small trees thrown around and trumpeting of an elephant. This continued for over an hour until he or she left. One of the walking wounded during the elephants stay decided he was going to shoot the elephant and started to leave our group, I and another litter bearer had to run after him and brought him back. He was running a high temperature and his only weapon was a 45 automatic pistol. We never saw the elephant but we heard him when he pooped. Just before dawn the Japanese patrol returned from the opposite direction.  We were able to evade the many Japanese patrols knowing we would be dead if they found us. Several days later we  saw some Chinese. They were from Colonel Rothwell Brown’s American trained Chinese tank battalion and we had reached the Kamaing Road. Colonel Brown was a great host and fed us well. The last day and a half on the trail we had had no food and so it seemed like thanksgiving.’

 

Captain Closuit informed him when he finally rejoined the Marauders that he would be recommending him for The Legion of Merit and would receive a field commission of Second Lieutenant.

 

The Marauders engaged in five major engagements and thirty skirmishes with the Japanese. Their tactics saw them defeat the veteran soldiers of the Japanese 18th Division (Conquerors of Singapore and Malaya) who vastly outnumbered the Marauders. Their method of moving to the rear of the opposing army completely disrupted the enemy supply and communication lines. They had now endured months of marching and combat in the Burma jungles. The conditions had been grueling and they had often run short of supplies of horse fodder, food and water.  They had covered over 800 miles carrying all their supplies on their backs or on pack mules. When being re-supplied by air drops the Marauders often had to find a smooth riverbank or flat clearing near a village in the thick jungle to receive the supplies.

In the most difficult of environments and most dangerous conditions, Richard and the other medics had evacuated all injured or sick Marauders, an extraordinary feat requiring long walks to cleared areas for any evacuation, which was fraught with danger as Rich described. The brave pilots of the air-rescue unit would land and take off in extremely hazardous conditions, evacuating every seriously wounded Marauder one at a time. The small planes, stripped of all equipment except a compass, had room for only the pilot and one stretcher.

 

The Marauders engaged in a series of battles on the walk to Myitkyina. The culmination of their efforts was to be the capture of Myitkyina Airfield, the only all-weather airfield in Northern Burma. The airfield was captured on 17th March 1944 but in April, they were ordered by General Stilwell to take up a blocking position at Nypum Ga and hold it against the Japanese. The unit was ill equipped for such a conventional defensive action. The Marauders were down to just over 2,200 officers and men by this time. At times surrounded, the Marauders coordinated their units in mutual support to break the siege after a series of fierce assaults by Japanese forces.

At Nhpum Ga, the Marauders killed 400 Japanese soldiers, while suffering 57 killed in action, 302 wounded, and 379 incapacitated due to illness and exhaustion.   An outbreak of amoebic dysentery (contracted after linking up with Chinese forces) further reduced their effective strength. Although the Marauders had previously avoided losses from amoebic dysentery by use of Halazone tablets and strict field sanitation procedures, their camp now included Chinese infantry, who used the rivers as latrines. This was a disaster for the Marauders who were quickly brought down by it. Chinese troops always boiled their drinking water so were unaffected.

General Stilwell intended to launch an assault to finally take full control of the airfield and consolidate their position. However, this was no simple battle.  

The remaining 1300 men began the attack on Myitkyina.  However, Stilwell and his staff didn’t believe the Marauders could hold the airfield against a counter attack by the Japanese and shanghaied whatever troops they could gather and sent them into the airfield. Later in June more, better organized, troops arrived. It was at about this point that most of the Marauders were evacuated. Only a few remained to assist in the attempt to take the village nearby.

 

The village of Myitkyina lies about 5 miles from the airstrip and remained in Japanese control even though the airfield was by that time held by Stillwells collective troops. The battle for the town then began with the remaining Marauders and the Chinese. About 200 of the Marauders remained to secure the airstrip until replaced by raw recruits – some of whom barely knew how to load their rifles. After reinforcement by an air landed Chinese army division, the town finally fell to the Allies on 3 August 1944.  The Japanese commander escaped with about 600 of his men; 187 Japanese soldiers were captured, and the rest, some 3,800 men, were killed in combat. By the time the town of Myitkyina was taken, only about 200 surviving members of the original Marauders were present.

In their final mission, the Marauders suffered 272 killed, 955 wounded, and 980 evacuated for illness and disease; some men later died from cerebral malaria, amoebic dysentery, and/or scrub typhus. Somewhat ironically, Marauders evacuated from the front lines were given jungle hammocks with protective sandfly netting and rain covers in which to sleep.  This equipment might have prevented various diseases and illnesses had they been issued earlier in the campaign. 

The Marauders’ jungle battles finally came to an end. No other American force anywhere had marched as far, fought as continuously or had to display such tenacity, as the fast-moving, hard-hitting soldiers, of Merrill's Marauders.

The casualties included General Merrill himself, who suffered two heart attacks before going down with malaria in 1955.

A week after Myitkyina fell, on 10 August 1944, the 5307th was disbanded with a final total of 130 combat-effective officers and men (out of the original 2,997). Of the 2,750 to enter Burma, only two were left who had never been hospitalized with wounds or major illness. 

 

Only 41 mules survived.

 

At the end of their campaign all remaining Marauders still in action were evacuated to hospitals suffering from tropical diseases, exhaustion, and malnutrition or as the tags on their battered uniforms said "A.O.E." - accumulation of everything.

Rich Murch was finally on his way home after a terrific and at times grueling two year adventure that he would never forget.  He had seen the worst of jungle fighting, seen men die and horribly injured or brought down by sickness, but he took with him a deep sense of pride and camaraderie shared with an elite group of men. The camaraderie continued well after the war ended and to this day the remaining survivors still gather once a year. Next year Rich will be missing.

 

Richard Murch later said of his return home:

 

"I got home late Christmas Day in '45, and it was a wonderful feeling. My family were

all gathered and didn't expect me. I called from a phone booth about two blocks away.

They said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'I'll be there in five minutes.'

 

He was discharged in January 1946 but continued serving in the National Guard for 10 years.

 

He met and married his wife Evelyn and they had three children. 

 

After the war he continued to live a fantastic, adventurous life with his wife, learning to fly, sailing and travelling extensively. 

 

In recognition of their accomplishments in Burma, Merrill's Marauders were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation in 1944. Each member of Merrill's Marauders received the Bronze Star.

 

Richard Melville Murch sadly died aged 94 on Oct. 31, 2015. A true hero.

 

 

Richard M Murch
Pearl Harbour Attacked
Pearl Harbour Attacked
Marauders in the Jungle
Heading into the Burma Jungle
Medics of the Marauders
Medics tend injured
Tending the injured
Medics evacuate injured
Carrying a litter with injured man to pick up point
Senor Medic Dr. Stellman
Dr. Stellman prepares medical aid packs
Injured Marauder evactuated
The mens faces reflect their exhaustion
General Merrill
Dr Stelling and pack
Dr. Stellman carried huge pack of medic aid
Richard Melville Murch
Richard Melville Murch and Bozo, his mule

Tracking the Bismarck – The Battle of Denmark Strait & The Sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales

Theodore Edward Murch DSC & his son Edward William Lionel Murch

The Bismarck
HMS Hood

Theodore Edward Murch, a commissioned Shipwright, was stationed aboard the Prince of Wales, sister ship to HMS Hood, alongside his son Lt. Edward William Murch.  Another Murch, Able Seaman William J, was also on board the Prince of Wales. 

On 24th May 1941, the Hood launched an attack on the superior German ship the Bismarck which resulted in the Hood being sunk with the loss of 1400 men and left the Prince of Wales severely damaged and limping for home.

The Royal Navy had been tracking the Bismarck and sister ship, the Prinz Eugen, as soon as they left Norway.  Hood, an old battlecruiser, was at one time the pride of the Navy, but was outdated and no match for the powerful, well-armed Bismarck.  As Hood tracked the two German ships, she was accompanied by the new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, a partly commissioned ship still undergoing trials on her newly installed guns. The two British ships intercepted the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen as they emerged from the Denmark Straight between Greenland and Iceland.

The first sighting of them was at 05.35am.  In command on Hood was Admiral Holland, who, determined to intercept the two ships, informed the Prince of Wales to prepare for action.  The men of the Prince of Wales were ordered to action stations by Captain Leach.  Leach, addressed the men briefly, followed by the Chaplain, who prayed:  ‘O Lord thou knowest how busy we must be today. If we forget thee, do not forget us.’   

                  HMS Hood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just twenty minutes later, the Hood, in a daring but doomed attack, opened fire.  Shortly afterwards, the men of the Prince of Wales witnessed one of the greatest calamities of British naval history, the appalling explosion - likened to a ‘pulsating sun’ - that tore apart Hood with a loss of over 1400 lives and with only 3 survivors: in fact so close was Prince of Wales at the time that Captain Leach had to order the helm over to avoid colliding with the wreckage as the Hood exploded.  As the men watched in shock from the Prince of Wales, as Bismarck scored the direct hit amidships and the Hood exploded in a blaze of fire and split into two, they could barely believe the loss as the bow rose up into the air and she sank into the depths in a pool of fire and oil.  In one last retort the guns of the Hood fired a final salvo as she sank.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet an equally big shock was to follow, for immediately after the loss of the Hood, Prince of Wales attracted the full attention of both Bismarck’s and Prinz Eugen’s guns.  Prinz Eugen had been ordered to engage the Prince of Wales as Bismarck targeted the Hood.  As Hood sank the Bismarck made a small adjustment to its range and turned its guns towards the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales turning hard to avoid the wreckage of the sinking ship, was left fully exposed to the guns of the enemy.  Captain Leach kept his cool and maintained that his ship was still capable of inflicting damage on the two German ships and believed there was still a chance for victory.

As black smoke and a burst of orange flare erupted from her guns the Bismarck fired a 15inch shell directly into the bridge which exploded on its exit the other side, killing all but the Captain and Chief Yeoman of Signals.  Theodore Murch, a commissioned Shipwright of Exeter, was below in the engine room.   His son, Lt. Edward Murch was on one of the upper decks.

The Prince of Wales was firing the working guns repeatedly at the Bismarck, the un-commissioned guns being in-operative. The sixth salvo found its mark.  The Bismarck was hit and its rear compartments were flooded with thousands of gallons of seawater.

However, the Prince of Wales sustained several direct hits from the guns of both enemy ships.  The Prinz Eugen fired every ten seconds, the Bismarck every 20 and the sea around the Prince of Wales erupted into a boiling cauldron of surging towers of water.  After being hit, the ship began to flood.  Below, five shipwrights, under the direction of Theodore Murch, took counter measures against flooding in the after part of the ship.  They were desperately closing hatches and locking bulkhead doors. They brought out ascetylin torches and made emergency welds to torn metal and pumped bilges of water.  The five men worked with untiring energy in the compartments below, which were filled with fumes, partially flooded and lit only by torches.  The men struggled to save the ship and repair immediate damage that threatened to cripple her.  With good fortune the bulkheads held, the engines kept running and the ship remained afloat.

All around the ship men were injured and dying. Stretchers bearers were sorting through piles of bodies to try to ascertain who was alive and who was beyond help.

The plotting officer was unaware that they had been hit.  Totally unable to distinguish between the shells from the enemy landing and the booming of Prince of Wales’s own guns, he was gazing at his charts when blood trickled down the bridge voice pipe and onto his chart. 

One of the men below, Esmond Knight, described what happened later. He recalled hearing the salvo, ‘like a great crushing cyclone’ then everything went hazy.  There was a high, ringing noise in his head and he came to, thinking he was dying, feeling sad about it, nothing more. He heard the crash of another salvo and cries of “Stretcher-bearer!” and “Make way there!” He could hear screaming but was suddenly aware of a crushing weight on him. Bodies of dead men were sprawled on top of him and he could smell their blood.   Then came the dreadful, thin noise some men make when dying. He was struggling to call out and feebly managed to yell “Get me out of here.”  Powerful hands pulled him up on his feet and a voice said. “What the hell’s happened to you?” Esmond turned and looked at the man but could see nothing.  He had been blinded.

The two German ships were still firing while slipping around and between the salvoes fired by the Prince of Wales.  The gunners remained firing throughout the battle despite the chaos and screams they could hear from all around them.   The men below, under Murch’s direction, continued to fight the flooding and damage that was being inflicted and unaware of the hell that Prinz Eugen was about to unleash.

The Prinz Eugen was preparing her torpedoes under the direction of Lieutenant Reimann, who  was ready to finish her off and about to give the order to fire.  Just as he was about to give the order, the Prinz Eugen turned away and the opportunity to sink the Prince of Wales was lost.

In just 12 minutes since the Hood had sunk, the Prince of Wales had suffered four direct hits, 3 from Prince Eugen and 1 from Bismarck.  One 15-inch and two 8-inch shells hit the ship below the waterline, letting in 400 tons of sea water. Another 8-inch shell found its way into a shell handling room, whizzed about several times without going off or hitting anyone.  Two men threw it over the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With no hope of victory, Captain Leach made smoke and turned the ship away to head south east.  The ship was damaged but repairable and luckily the Bismarck was too damaged to give chase.

The compass platform, echo-sounding gear, radar office, aircraft recovery crane, fore secondary armament director, all the boats and several cabins had been wrecked. A Walrus aircraft, about to be launched to spot the shell falls was peppered with splinters and ditched over the side to avoid the risk of fire. The same splinters also pierced a fresh-water tank, releasing a torrent of water on to survivors of the bridge and men on the signal deck below. 

The Prince of Wales had fired 18 salvoes but the gun turret had jammed leaving her guns useless.  There was no more fight in her.  Two officers had died along with 11 men, 1 officer and 8 men were wounded.  At 6.13, 21 minutes after Admiral Holland on HMS Hood had begun the engagement, the Prince of Wales made for home with only 3 survivors from the Hood on board.

Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons on the 27 May 1941 saying:

“Great as is our loss in the Hood, the Bismarck must be regarded as the most powerful as she is the newest battleship in the world, and the striking of her from the German Navy is a very definitive simplification of the task of maintaining the effective mastery of the Northern Sea and the maintenance of the Northern Blockade.”

The three Murch’s on board had all survived.  Theodore had been a stoic hero and had led the men below decks to successfully protect the ship from sinking and keep the engines running.  On their long journey home they worked relentlessly day and night with little rest, still making repairs, still battling to ensure that the ship would make it home safe.

After major repairs in the dockyard, the ship then rejoined the war and went on to Operation Halberd. This crucial Malta convoy carried Winston Churchill to Newfoundland for meetings with Roosevelt during which they discussed the Atlantic Charter, which was signed on 12th August, just months later. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ship was then diverted from the convoy to undertake protection duties in the Malaysian Sea.  It was here that the Prince of Wales was to meet her destiny.  Edward, leaving the ship at Singapore to return to Britain in order to receive a promotion, was not on board when the ship was suddenly attacked by the Japanese.

On Wednesday 10 December 1941, on only the third day of the war with Japan, the Prince of Wales, along with HMS Repulse, were both sunk off Malaya by air torpedo attack. Without air support, that could possibly have saved them, they were left vulnerable and as a result 840 men died in the two  battleships as they sank to the bottom.  Over 80 Japanese aircraft attacked the two ships.  

On board the Repulse was Able Seaman Tom Murch, D/J 45553 MPK.

On board the Prince of Wales were Able Seaman William Murch and Theodore Murch, who had been such a hero during the battle of Denmark Strait.  The two ships stood no chance and in only minutes both had been completely destroyed and sunk. 

Able Seaman Tom Murch, aged 41, who was serving on the Repulse, drowned along with many other Devon men who served on her. He is remembered on a Naval Memorial in Plymouth.  He was the son of Thomas and Mary and he left a wife, Nellie, in Barnstable.

Able Seaman William J. Murch survived the sinking of the Prince of Wales and was rescued from the water by a lifeboat.  Theodore Murch was also rescued from the water and survived.

 

As news reached home of the sinking of the Prince of Wales, the family mourned their two men, believing that both must have perished.  It was a naval disaster of such magnitude that they had little hope of ever seeing Theodore or Edward again. When Edward, known as Teddy, finally arrived home there was enormous relief as the family had no idea he had been ashore when the attack happened. There was even more joy when they discovered that Theodore had been rescued. 

 

Theodore, known as Ted, was honoured by being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and was promoted after the war, as he continued to serve.  His last ship was the Cairo, which he left with a truly distinguished record in 1923 after being promoted to Lieutenant.

 

His nephew wrote in a tribute to his uncle Ted:

 

My late Uncle, Theodore Edward Murch, was a Shipwright Lieutenant on board the ship at the time of its demise and I am pleased to say survived to live a long and happy life at Yelverton in Devon. Unfortunately, throughout the remainder of his life he would talk very little about his experience.

I have a copy of his Naval Record before he became an Officer. That appears to have taken place in 1923. I do remember that he used to speak affectionately about Admiral Sir Tom Phillips but I did not appreciate at that time that the Admiral had perished with the ship. He spoke of him as though he were still alive.

 

5946 SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 14 OCTOBER, 1941

ADMIRALTY.

Whitehall. I4th October, 1941.

 

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following Reward for mastery, determination and skill in action against the German Battleship Bismarck:

 

To be Companions of the Distinguished Service

Order:

 

Captain John Catterall Leach, M.V.O., Royal

Navy, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Commander (E) Lawrence J. Goudy, Royal

Navy, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

The Distinguished Service Cross.

 

Lieutenant-Commander George William Rowell,

Royal Navy, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Mr. Theodore Edward Murch, Commissioned

Shipwright, Royal Navy, H.M.S. Prince of

Wales.

 

Chief Petty Officer Frederick Albert French,

D/J-94677, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

The Distinguished Service Medal.

 

Lieutenant-Commander George William Rowell,

Royal Navy, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Able Seaman James McNelis, D/MD/X.230I,

R.N.V.R., H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Leading Sick Berth Attendant Sam Wood,

D/MX.55626, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Chief Ordnance Artificer Fred Haughton,

D/M.35905, H.M.S. Prince of Wales.

 

Shipwright First Class Thomas James Rewartha

Richards, D/M.33i8, H.M.S. Prince of

Wales. (died during the sinking of Prince of Wales)

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