Second World War Navy veteran recalls wartime service

OS Hedley Lake while he was in HMS Ganges for recruit training.
OS Hedley Lake while he was posted with HMS Ganges for recruit training. Photo: Submitted to The Trident

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By PO1 Wayne Rose – Trident

Hedley Whitfield Lake grew up in Fortune, Newfoundland. After the war broke out, he was recruited as part of the 10th contingent of Newfoundlanders destined for service in the Royal Navy (RN). He signed up on July 28, 1940. Lake sailed for 21 days in a convoy to England where he landed in South Hampton, and was assigned to HMS Ganges for training.

After completing his 10 weeks of seamanship, gunnery and drill, he was sent to Devonport and drafted to Bristol for about a month. He was issued with tropical gear and boarded SS Salween. After transiting the Red Sea, Suez Canel, Port Said, the ship arrived in Canopus where Lake was trucked to his new homeport of Alexandria on February 4, 1941 to join the crew of HMS Hyacinth (K84), a flower class corvette.

HMS Hyacinth served in the Eastern Mediterranean, where she protected the Palestine coastline and escorted numerous convoys along it. It was a part of the 10th Corvette Group of the Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria together with her sister ships Peony and Salvia.

Image gallery

  • HMS Hyacinth
  • OS Hedley Lake while he was in HMS Ganges for recruit training.
  • PO1 Wayne Rose presents an HMCS Sackville coin to Hedley Lake

Trips to Cyprus and Lebanon, and assisting in the defence of Tobruk kept OS Lake closed up most of the time. He remembers the ammunition ship Clan Fraser getting bombed in Piraeus, and one of the officers getting killed from the massive explosion that devastated the port. He and the crew spent a night on a beach when Hyacinth was grounded near Famagusta, Cyprus. Hyacinth was damaged by four aerial torpedoes, and the next morning, the crew towed her back to Alexandria for repairs.

OS Lake was promoted to Able Seaman on October 28, 1941. He was part of the three-inch main gun crew on the fo’c’sle when they were attacked by Italian and German aircraft.

AB Lake had three attacks of appendicitis that got him admitted to hospital for surgery. After his recovery, he was assigned on June 20, 1942 to the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, which had been damaged in a sneak attack by Italian torpedoes on December 19, 1941. She was being escorted to Norfolk, USA for repairs.

Arriving in Norfolk on September 6, 1942, he remained part of HMS Queen Elizabeth until September 30. Posted to a new type of amphibious landing vessel, the LST 303, he traveled to New York to join her in October. Granted 28 days of leave, he met up with another Newfoundlander, Mack Piercey at the Brooklyn naval yard. Although AB Lake wasn’t due for his leave, Mack was able to talk their way into traveling to Fortune together. Arriving in Sydney, NS, Mack met up with his brother Harvey, who was in HMCS Medicine Hat. Like any sailor reunion, they indulged in a few libations before Mack and Hedley boarded SS Caribou on October 13.

At 0351 NST, a U-69 torpedoed the Caribou. Of the 237 total number of crew and passengers, 127 perished. Luckily Mack and Hedley survived after spending more hours in the cold water. After spending a week in Sydney, the men were transported to Port aux Basques on the SS Burgeo. They arrived in Fortune to enjoy their 28 days of leave. AB Lake noted he lost all his souvenirs including photographs of Hyacinth, the pyramids, as well as a German Luger.

Mack wired the RN to inform them of the Caribou incident and to request an extension of leave. The return telegram stated, “Extension not granted. Unless unfit to travel.” AB Lake told Mack, “We’re still in the Navy, we gotta go back”. They never met again until after the war.

AB Lake arrived in New York and met LST-303 to further his training. He was assigned the role of Quartermaster and told he was on watch right away. The 1st Flotilla departed New York for the Mediterranean. They stopped in Gibraltar to fuel and headed off for training with the British 8th Army in preparation for Operation HUSKY.

LST-303 left Tunisia with a load of tanks and lorries on July 8, 1943, headed for the invasion of Sicily. They were part of the Eastern Task Force landing at Bank South. They ferried supplies back and forth to North Africa, assisting the 8th Army.

LST-303 took part in the invasion of the Italian mainland at Salerno on September 9. The Italians had reached an armistice with the Allies. The Germans now manned the defensive positions, and the Allies were tested.

Aboard were Royal Engineers, who marked mines to establish a path for the tanks and lorries to land on the beach. They transited back to North Africa bringing more troops and supplies, and encountered many bombing runs by the German air force.

With the Gustav line holding up advancement, the Allies prepared to land at Anzio on January 22, 1944. LST-303 carried boats loaded with dismantled 25-pounders and troops. After unloading, they began to ferry lorries loaded with empty jerry cans to Naples, and returned with lorries loaded with full jerry cans full of petrol, all whilst getting bombed by the Germans.

LST-303 was next headed for South Hampton, England to begin training with Canadian troops for the eventual landing at Juno/Sword beach on D-Day as part of the Assault Force S 1st LST (2) Flotilla. After unloading on Juno/Sword beach, they were immediately loaded with wounded, and transited back to South Hampton. They continued to ferry back and forth from England, but were damaged in a fierce three-day storm around June 19.

After beaching, LST-303 was towed back to London as bombs were dropping on the city. AB Lake narrowly missed such a fate when the bar where he had been with friends was destroyed shortly after they had left.

After repairs, LST-303 continued to transit back and forth to Normandy, and as the beachhead broadened, LST-303 ferried troops and supplies as far as the Scheldt and into Antwerp.

Eventually AB Lake and four other Newfoundlanders began the process of returning home to Newfoundland. He was fitted with a new suit and sailed to Halifax on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth. He took another ship to St. John’s where he made his way back to Fortune, NL, completing his war service.

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