Men in Their Element

The lighting was just those dim blue lights in the passageway to the port boat deck. The claxon was sounding and then the voice on the tannoy*, “Hands to action stations, all hands to action stations”, and this was repeated and repeated. The three matelots** Headed aft to the boat deck and seemingly unhurried prepared the boat and helped some twenty two paratroops aboard. The bowman loaded on an addition. That was a bucket, a mop and several cleaning cloths.

Earlier the ships crew had been cheered by the order to “splice the mainbrace”*** . As usual the boat crews were not as jovial as most because of what that might mean to them, another landing.

All boats were launched and the assault ship steamed off back out of the bay leaving the craft to gather at their muster point and await a signal. For fourteen hours they rode a gentle swell only manoeuvring to counter the slow currents and stay on station.

Within an hour the first paratrooper gave out a muffled “Oh God” bent forward and sprayed vomit down his legs and over his feet and the duck board decking. The bowman of the boat casually passed the green faced man a bucket and mop and the coxswain barked “Clean that up”. The ritual had begun.

Men in their element can be callous to men who are not.

One by one twenty of the twenty two paratroops went into an outer reach of hell that goes by the mild sounding name of seasickness.

Throughout this ordeal by entrails the three matelots casually got on with what they were trained to do in this their element. When things were quiet they would openly eat some of their ration packs. This would be followed by choruses of “Oh God” and more vomit fountains.

The best effect was when the bowman sat up front in full view, slowly opened a can of baked beans and scooped them out cold using the blade of his knife a ate then savouring each mouthful as if dining at the Ritz.

There were more “OH GOD”s and the score went from twenty to twenty one. Their best score to date.

Men in their element can be callous to men who are not.

The radio crackled a single word came out of it and diesel engines in all the craft roared into top revs.

The landing had begun…

A Landing

The craft all lay out from the bay
Filled with men prepared for a fight
They’d stayed there all yesterday
And rode the waves most of the night

Their crews were well used to the swell
And waited for orders to come
Soldiers were feeling unwell
Seasickness had left them all dumb

The craft slewed and reared in the swell
White faces were wet with the spray
Of their thoughts no one could tell
As the craft lay off of the bay

When crewmen ate up their ration
Some soldiers had puked on the deck
Faces so grey and ashen
Each had his equipment to check

The diesels had thrummed through the night
As craft lay off the far shore
Throttles were opened with might
And thrums had turned to a roar

The craft slewed and reared in the swell
White faces were wet with the spray
Each in his own secret hell
And tensed for the work of the day

The craft all as one made a turn
Bow waves churned up to white crests
Their wakes made great plumes at the stern
And their hearts beat hard in their chests

The tracers lit up the east sky
And star shells burst over the shore
Yet none of them there asked “why?”
The diesels continued to roar

The craft slewed and reared on the swell
White faces were wet with the spray
Each seemed to be in a spell
As the craft sped in to the bay

The craft careered on at full speed
Adrenaline started its flow
The fear then seemed to recede
We were there to “give a good show”

Crafts full of young men in their prime
Each checking equipment once more
This eased the passage of time
As diesels continued to roar

The craft slewed and reared on the swell
White faces were wet with the spray
Our fate no one could foretell
As we raced on in to the bay

In the great scheme of things of course
There’s nothing of worth on those shores
Radios crackled some Morse
And bow men stood by the bow doors

As mangrove trees loomed into sight
And young hearts beat fast out of fear
Astern dawn’s eerie first light
The sounds of some gunfire seemed near

The craft slowed and rode a slight swell
White faces still wet with the spray
There seemed a flatulent smell
As we neared the shore of the bay

Propellers churned up a grey froth
Through mud of the marshy foreshore
The mud like flames to a moth
Stuck us fast and we moved no more

The bow doors slapped down on the mud
The first men sank in far too deep
Terror then froze in their blood
Stuck there for the reaper to reap

The small craft brought us to this hell
Such places can trap men as prey
Their plan was to charge pell-mell
But this mud here had blocked the way

They strained as they fought with the ooze
A battle with men they could win
This fight with some mud they’d lose
The diesel roars made a loud din

Then tracers etched through the dawn sky
As shells burst beyond the shore line
Minutes then slowly dragged by
In the mud, the muck and the slime

Our craft too were stuck in this hell
And the crews were trapped in the bay
Shellfire still clattered its knell
And quagmires of mud blocked the way

As diesels churned up a grey froth
Men slithered in mud to the shore
They raged an undignified wrath
They wallowed and sweated and swore

The engines then eased to a hum
The boat crew had failed though they’d tried
Though mud we could not overcome
We could well float free with the tide

The craft was then stuck in that hell
And we had to get to the shore
Shellfire still clattered a knell –
Mud beckoned beyond the bow door…


Once ashore the three matelots were not in their element, they were on land; muddy rain soaked land.  This was the soldiers’ element.  In three days three young men would learn that men in their element can be callous to men who are not.

Some 15 years after the incident described, I was in the dining hall of Ruskin College, Oxford when a loud Glaswegian voice shouted “Cold baked beans – you bastard”.  I had crossed paths with MacKay, an ex paratrooper.  Ah, how nice it was to reminisce!

*All loudspeakers on Navy ships have the manufacturers name clear on the front. The manufacturer was Tannoy.
**Matelot, Royal Navy seaman are known in navy jargon by a French word for sailor that of “matelot” (pronounced as: mat low)
***“Splice the mainbrace” was the order to issue an extra rum ration and was frequently given before impending battle.


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