Alan Johnson Royal Navy
Alan Johnson was born in Gorton, Manchester, on 14th July 1925. He attended Ardwick Central School until the age of 14, at which point he took up employment at the Weighing Office at Bradford colliery. Prior to the war he would also work in the Droylsden office of the Co-op drugs industry, while also volunteering for the Home Guard.
It was in March 1943, aged 17, that Alan volunteered to join the Royal Navy. Yet on the very same evening, he was taken ill with diphtheria, and this delayed Alan’s entrance to the Navy until September 1943. Along with eighty other recruits from Manchester and Stockport, Alan was sent to Portsmouth for training. Here the training was undertaken to the beat of a drum, with no spoken instructions. Ten weeks of the training focused on parade, drills and seamanship, with two further weeks of gunnery practice. Although the training was not a comprehensive introduction to serving in the Royal Navy, it proved very effective in developing fitness. Therefore, although Alan had only recently recovered from diphtheria, by the end of his training he was able to complete a ten mile assault course.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1943, Alan joined the ship at Scapa Flow. The months prior to D-Day largely involved escort duty, both in the Atlantic and also safeguarding the passage of two Russian convoys past Iceland. It was during this time that the crew also had their initial minesweeping training.
The Normandy Campaign
A fortnight before D-Day, the shop anchored in the Solent in between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth. Security across the south of England was tight, so that not even naval personnel were allowed on board. Sailors were instead ordered to supply the ship with food and ammunition. On Sunday 4th June, at 7a.m., they lifted anchor and lay there on the water for an hour until the anchor was dropped again. The crew were unaware at the time that this was the result of the postponement of D-Day due to poor weather across the Channel.
On Monday 5th June, with Alan three weeks short of his 19th birthday, anchors again went up at 7a.m., and this time the eight mine-sweepers left the English coast. Four danlayers followed behind in order to mark the areas that had been cleared of mines. As the eight ships sailed out of Portsmouth in the direction of the Needles, Alan recalls that they knew they were going in to something serious. As they passed their dock ship (a cruiser brought down from Scapa Flow that looked after the minesweeper when it was in the harbour), flashes started going as signals were exchanged between the ships. Alan recollects the signal that came down from the lead ship: ‘From Bay Ship, good luck mine sweeping flotilla. Hope to see you all return’.
Having started out at 7.30am, finally the minesweepers got ahead of all the ships coming out of Southampton, and only at 4pm would they lose sight of the ships behind them. At 8.30pm on 5th June, the order came that all the ships’ company must come on quarter deck. The skipper then came down to address the company:
‘Right lads, I suppose you’ve all guessed where we’re going. It’s the Big One’. (At this point, leaflets were handed out with a message from Eisenhower on the importance of the invasion in freeing Europe). I don’t have to say it to you lads. Good luck and God Bless Us All. I know you’ll do your duty. So we’re going to Action Stations shortly’.
At 9.00 p.m. the flotilla finally started minesweeping towards the French coast. The misty conditions made it impossible to see the French coast. Their ship was actually in close proximity to a gun battery at Fleury, so the cover of the mist was crucial. The flotilla had sent a signal down:
‘Good luck to everyone. We’re now starting sweeping towards the French coast. If the ship in front of you hits a mine, you are not to stop to pick survivors up. Just swing over and take his position up because this mine field has got to be cleared. The trawlers at the back will pick up survivors.’
From 4.30a.m. with the mine-sweeping complete, all the mine sweeping gear was in. Just after 5.a.m, the mist suddenly began to clear, and Alan recalls looking astern to see ‘from that horizon to that horizon there’s nothing but ships and landing craft coming straight towards us. We all looked at one another and said, ‘‘Thank God we don’t have to do it on our own!’’.’
Alan was a cox’n by the time he was discharged from the Navy in August 1947. He returned to the Co-op drugs works in Droylsden, until he was offered a job at an engineering firm in early 1948. He stayed with this firm for 31 years, before moving to work for his son-in-law at a small engineering company, where he continued to work until his early 80s.