Battle of El Alamein remembered by Leeds army veteran

John Friend.

John Friend.

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John Friend can tell you a story or two about the war – in fact, at 89-years-old, the west Leeds pensioner is one of the few who still can.

He was drafted into the Royal Air Force when war broke out and aged 19 found himself aboard the Llangibby Castle, bound for Singapore.

In fact, the ship never reached its destination, because it was hit by a German U-boat U-402 at 8am on January 16, 1942.

The attack left the ship rudderless and without its six-inch machine gun – things got even worse when its Royal Navy escort was forced to leave it alone because they were short of fuel and when a German Focke Wulf Condor, a long-range bomber, passed by, it attacked, although its bombs missed the ship by about 30 yards.

The Llangibby managed to limp to sanctuary, albeit brief, in the Azores.

That was part of the Battle of the Atlantic but it wasn’t the only major battle Mr Friend took part in – he was also at the historic Battle of El Alamein in 1942, which marked a turning point for the Allies; additionally, he served in Egypt, Jordan and Palestine and even watched Doodlebugs as they flew over to England.

The retired woodwork teacher, who was born in Hull, said: “I remember being on the Llangibby Castle when it was hit, I was an aircraftsman 2nd class, the lowest rank possible, I’d had just four months training. I am glad we never made it to Singapore in a way because others that did ended up in prisoner of war camps.

“The whole of the back of the ship was blown off, killing about 30 men, but we were still afloat and the Navy left us to fend for ourselves. We went to the Azores but because Portugal was neutral, we weren’t allowed to stay more than two weeks and by that time the Germans knew we were there and had sent two subs down. Our boys sent a destroyer, which sank the subs, I remember the German commander complained to the captain that he was technically inside the three-mile limit of the island when he was hit.

Wreckage

“I remember when we arrived in the Azores, lots of little boats came out to see us and that’s when they found some bodies still in the wreckage of our ship.”

Mr Friend also witnessed one of the major battles of the Second World War – the Battle of El Alamein, a turning point for the Allies as it was the first time Rommel’s troops were beaten back.

He said: “I remember when the 800 Allied guns started firing and they lit the horizon up in lights. That battle actually started in 1940 when the Italians were defeated and it forced the Germans to come and rescue them, which they did, beating us back but then we beat them back.

“When the firing began we’d been expecting it but by that time we were all used to bombs going off and people being killed. I came from Hull, so I remember the Blitz. We were blase about it, if someone got killed, you were just glad it wasn’t you.

“When an army is in retreat, they leave everything, we came across airfields with planes, trucks, guns, ammunition, I brought a whole German uniform home.”

But perhaps the thing which has stuck with Mr Friend the most was the time he was forced to watch German V1 Doodlebugs flying across the English Channel towards civilian targets.

He recalled the incident: “During my time abroad, I was part of a six-man crew and we were charged with defending the airfield against aircraft and all we had was a clapped-out First World War Lewis gun but when we were posted to Thorney Island, Portsmouth we had a brand new 40mm Bofor gun.

“We watched the Doodlebugs coming over and at that time everything was firing up at them, all the ships in the harbour and all our guns, they were well within range. However, we had a telephone call saying that under no circumstances must we fire at the V1 rockets.

“We couldn’t believe it, we just had to sit there and watch them come over, knowing they were going to land in London and kill innocent people. All that training and for nothing.

“When the CO came round the next morning, nobody saluted him and eventually, he asked what was wrong, so we told him and he said if we had shot one down it might have hit the airfield and taken out a plane.

“That has rankled me all these years, it still bothers me now.”

Mr Friend also served in Jordan, Palestine, Libya and Egypt in 1942, where he recalled arriving at a camp in Giza in the middle of the night.

He said: “In the morning, I remember pulling back the tent flap and seeing the pyramids.”

Before he was discharged as a leading aircraftsman, he served in Norway helping to stamp out the black market trade in petrol and cigarettes and mop up any remaining German soldiers.

He added: “I remember we used to say the Yanks were overpaid, over-sexed and over here and they used to say back we were underpaid, under-sexed and under Eisenhower.”

As a trained carpenter, he was given an early release to work on the house rebuilding programme but after going to night school moved to Leeds to take a job in teaching woodwork at Brudenell Road, Stainbeck and John Jameson schools. He has been married to wife Doreen for 57 years.

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