Britain’s retreat from France in June, 1940, was brought sharply back into focus this summer by Christopher Nolan and his summer blockbuster ‘Dunkirk.’
After the evacuation under ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the Allies wouldn’t tread in large numbers on Northern European soil west of Italy until June 6, 1944, D-Day, when hundreds of thousands of troops poured onto the beaches of Normandy, in one of the pivotal operations of the Second World War.
And an adopted Creggan man, Arthur Beales, helped make it happen.
The ‘Journal’ caught up with the sprightly 92-years-old ahead of his 93rd birthday this Monday.
Originally from London’s docklands, Arthur’s lived in Derry for over 70 years, having met his late wife, Betty - who sadly passed away three years ago - while on service here with the Royal Navy during the war.
The Eastender-turned-Derry man has healthily retained the cockney accent he acquired growing up on the streets around the Newham docks. It was there also that a series of fateful events were set in train that would lead the young Londoner to the Battle of the Atlantic, D-Day, deadly combat with torpedo-laden Kriegsmarine E-boats, the Arctic convoys and, eventually, to a happy home in Rathlin Drive and honorary Derry citizenship.
It was, he said, the London Blitz, during which the Luftwaffe bombed the working-class streets of his childhood to bits that first provoked him to sign up with the ‘senior service.’
“I saw more casualties in those two years, getting up in the morning to go to work, bomb craters, houses bombed and people lying in the street dead, even parts of them, and me going to work,” recalled Arthur.
He was only 16 or 17 years old at the time.
“It made me want to get into the navy, as something to fight back with. Those people couldn’t fight back with nothing. We’d see the planes come over and they used to blacken the sky.”
Arthur enlisted and over the next several years saw service on HMS Illustrious and HMS Torrington. He was originally attached to the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), a naval division that provided logistical support to the RAF, or as Arthur more directly puts it, did the “dog work for the air force.”
It was during his service with 881 Naval Air Squadron of the FAA, that Arthur first visited Derry. He remembers it well.
“I had to bring in a three tonne truck. I got as far as Tillie’s Factory and asked a copper where the naval stores were. That was the first time I was ever in Derry. I knew nothing about the wife then!”
For most of the war Arthur was assigned to the Arctic convoys. He’s the only Derry man he knows of, who has been decorated by the Russians for his bravery in protecting shipping travelling to and from Arkhangelsk and Murmansk during the Great Patriotic War.
His Russian medal sits proudly on display in his front room, alongside his Battle of the Atlantic, defence forces, and long service medals.
It was also while serving on the Arctic convoys that he remembers making the ‘News of the World’ one Christmas, after a hairy engagement with several Kriegsmarine E-boats - high-powered speed boats equipped with torpedoes - in the North Sea. He looks back with amusement at making the headlines now, but it was no laughing matter at the time, as he recalls.
“It was Christmas Eve. I remember we fired a star shell [an artillery flare] and it lit up six E-boats. German. Far superior to our speed boats. They carry six torpedoes and we saw them when the star shell lit them up. We started firing our ammunition and sunk two of them,” he said.
They were ordered to circle and to pick up the surviving Kriegsmariners.
“I was surprised the young fellahs were the same age as myself and they were shaking.
“When we put them ashore we had to put tape over their eyes and the officers were taken away for interrogation. It was Christmas Day. It was in the News of the World! HMS Torrington.”
Another time Arthur remembers a plane ditching in the North Sea but whether Messerschmitt or Hurricane, God only knew.
“We were patrolling. We saw it coming down. We didn’t know if it was English or German and it hit the water.” When the pilot was identified as a Luftwaffe fighter, however, it proved too much for an old Hebridean shellback, whose nerves had probably been shredded too many times by all the sinking ships and German bombers and fighter planes.
“When they got him up he had German flashes on his tunic. One of the elderly sailors on our boat, he was from the Isle of Skye, ran forward with a knife and cut the rope and pushed him back. He got 14 days punishment.”
Perhaps Arthur’s first Derry visit coincided with that of US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who was also in Derry in the early 1940s and stayed in Ardmore on his way as an envoy to meet the Soviet leadership. After Hitler launched ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in 1941 Stalin had continually implored the Allies to open a second front in the west. By June 1944, Allied troops finally were fighting on the beaches in large numbers, as Churchill had promised in a different context, and as Arthur soon found out at close hand.
“One time we were down in Portsmouth and we didn’t know where we were going. We were told ‘no more shore leave.’ We thought we were going to sea to support another convoy but we joined up with other ships escorting cargo boats and tank-landing craft and troops, Yanks and Canadian and British, and we were told we were going to two beaches. Sword beach and Omaha beach [key landing points on D-Day]. We passed all our big ships. They stayed about 15 miles back to fire their shells. We were told to put in our ear plugs when we were passing. We brought back wounded and dead people on board to Portsmouth.
“When we got back to Portsmouth we heard all about it then.”
Arthur survived D-Day and was soon back on the Arctic convoys. It was by a strange dint of fate near the end of the war that he found himself back in his future home of Derry.
“Our last trip was to a place called Narvik, Norway. We ran aground and knocked a hole in the bottom of our ship. It wasn’t a big hole and we started the pumps but we’d lost speed.”
They were told to sail for Belfast for repairs but with no dry docks free they had to make their way around to Derry.
“We pulled in down where Sainsbury’s is now. The Yanks had a dry dock, but it was full. We were told to wait and that’s how I met the wife then.”
The rest, of course, is history. He and Betty wed in 1946. The down-to-earth cockney soon set down roots here. They raised a family, and he never looked back.
Surprisingly, as a D-Day survivor and ex-serviceman who called Creggan home during the full-blown insurrection against English rule from the late 1960s, it was the destruction of his hometown by the Luftwaffe when he was still a teenager that was the worst of all horrors.
“I seen more dead people before the war than I did in the navy. The blitz was terrible.”
He also got his share of anti-English stick during the conflict but remembers putting one abuser in his place on a painting job in Limavady.
“This joiner was giving me a sore touch. I said to him: ‘Why are you always at the English?’ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I’m only joking.’ ‘How old are you?’ I asked, ‘I’m more a Derry man than you. I was here before you were born.’ I could call myself a London-Derry man,” he jokes.
Turning 93 on Monday he’s now one of the elder statesfolk of Rathlin Drive.
“I’m the oldest in this street here and I get on great with all the neighbours. I can call upon them at anytime,” said Arthur.
“People say, anytime you’re stuck for a meal just call round.”