Picture on the left: Old Boy James Kelly (1938-42) shares his story and his experiences from World War II
James Kelly Sub-Lieut R.N.Z.N.V,R, 1943-1946. World War II
Honoured by the French with a Legion of Honour. Sounds heroic. Not really unless ‘surviving’ is heroic! My story unfolds.
I joined the NZ Navy in October 1943 as a 19-year-old and was invited to go to the UK and undergo training for a commission. I accepted and so went to England which resulted in a year of preparatory work, learning the rudiments of navigation, seamanship, signalling, and war-oriented essentials. Only the barest of essentials to prepare for becoming a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy. I had no previous experience with the sea and had only left High School 18 months before.
After graduation, I was immediately posted to a large landing ship, which though described as a Landing Ship Dock, “H.M.S. Oceanway was, in fact, a “mother ship” for smaller craft.
A most unique ship of which there were only 4 in the Navy, Capable of being partly submersible, to act as a floating dock, and then, after pumping out of the thousands of tons of water, capable of 15 knots with its load secure to beachheads or other destinations.
Originally built to transport small craft and assault troops to the beachhead. It was also used as a transporter for troops and war equipment. So we spent most of a year ferrying hundreds of American Marines and war supplies to all the beachheads in France and as far north as Ostend in Belgium at a time when the war in Europe was most active. This was a non-stop activity and vital to the success of the war in Europe.
Our ship had no anti-submarine protection and was therefore escorted by a frigate, corvette, of even a destroyer. The principal German attack was by small gunboats called E-boats capable of 40 knots and patrolling generally in groups of four. We avoided the German attack.
Our home port was Portsmouth and occasionally London from which ports we sailed on a regular and systematic basis. The North Sea and the English Channel were the supply routes to the battlefields of Europe and both Channel and the North Sea were under regular attack from the Germans which is not surprising.
On D-Day 6th June 1944 Oceanway transported 22 tanks in tank landing craft, to Arromanches on the Normandy coast and took an active part in the landing. I did not join the ship until after that date but remained with her until some time after the war in Europe concluded. Our crew went ashore at Cherbourg but never on any of the several beaches to which we brought our precious loads.
Oceanway was a busy ship, on-call and constantly moving. So much so that some members of the British crew became frustrated with lack of shore leave in England and sabotaged one of the ship’s engines, reducing it from 15 to 10 knots. We sailed on! I was the only Kiwi aboard and indeed my service after graduation was total with English and other nationalities.
My role was mainly as a watch-keeping officer, looking after the interests of about 35 ratings and radar, which was hugely interesting, but for which I had received no training. Challenges in my care role with the crew, varied a great deal from censoring mail to one well beyond my ability – assisting a man with divorce proceedings.
When the war in Europe finished in May 1945, Oceanway was diverted to the Mediterranean Sea to retrieve many small landing craft from Port of Suez to Messina in Sicily. Thus for more than 2 months we transported hundreds of small craft across the Med and enjoyed the peace that follows from 5 years of war. Small emergencies occurred during this process, such as a floating mine which had come adrift in the middle of the night, providing some challenges. But the war in Europe was completely finished.
To Belfast in Northern Ireland where the ship was refitted in preparation for going to the Pacific to assist in the war against Japan. A 2-3 month refit followed, during which I celebrated my 21st birthday (20th September 1945); however the war in Japan was won before the refit was completed, and so made the decision that my contribution to World War II was finished and that I would return to New Zealand to find my future in civvy street.
Although many small items are omitted from this precis, it basically summarises my World War II experiences.
Awarded a medal by France – “The Legion of Honour” In 2014 France staged a massive celebration to note the freeing of France from 5 years of Nazi occupation and of the landing at Normandy – the 70th Anniversary and invited ALL participants to attend, even the enemy, Germany.
This involved 19 nations, All the world leaders attended. A magnificent event to which I went with 8 other N.Z. veterans. From this event, France appreciated that several nations including N.Z. had lost several thousand sailors and airmen while freeing that nation from Nazi occupation and wanted to acknowledge their contribution. Thus several of our nine veterans who attended the French event were awarded the “Legion of Honour” for their service, as were several others who had contributed to the emancipation of France.
I thus received this signal honour and carry it with pride to represent the thousands who had died or gave their lives during that war. I wear it “on behalf of” all those who made greater sacrifices. LEST WE FORGET.