A history of D-Day and SSAFA's work

Donald MacKay - his D-Day story

Royal Naval Wireless Operator, part of the D-Day armada

Donald MacKay - D-Day Story

Sheila Parmee has been a caseworker with SSAFA’s Cambridgeshire Branch for seven years. Her father Donald William Mackay served in the Royal Navy throughout World War 2 and kept a detailed diary of his experiences. On D Day he was a Leading Telegrapher on board the minesweeper HMS Gozo and found himself right at the heart of the operation.

HMS Gozo

“I know dad was always grateful for being alive and the fact that he came through the war more or less unscathed,” said Sheila, a former MoD welfare clerk. “He only had a bent finger from when he was thrown out of his hammock by a torpedo attack. He always talked about the day he was demobbed, walking out of the dockyard and just throwing his hat in the air.

“He was a wireless operator in the war and he worked for the Post Office for the rest of his career. He had started with them before the war and they kept his job open, so he worked in London and then transferred to Peterborough where I grew up.

“Just after he retired dad was asked to join the Normandy Veterans Association and it was only really after that – when he was no longer at work – that he perhaps had a bit more time to reflect. I think being with the other veterans they all began to realise just what they had done.

“‘One day’ he said, ‘I’ve got a little job I’d like you to do’ and he asked me to type the diary up for him. He had never really talked about the war a lot though he did like to talk about the good times; how much money he lost playing cards, how they had to look presentable on shore leave, and he would still use Navy expressions.

“The one thing he did say that made a very big impact was one Remembrance Day. He wasn’t well enough to attend the parade and said, ‘I’m afraid some of my memories are not very nice’. He talked then of the bodies floating past in the water but he never ever spoke like that again. I think there were things that he kept locked away.

“We lost dad in November 2000 so sadly he never saw the interest that his diary generated but it is wonderful for us as a family to have the diary to remember him by.”

Donald had joined the London Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves in 1939 anticipating a war which seemed increasingly likely. In May 1939 he was asked to report to HMS President, moored on the Thames near Waterloo Bridge, where he was enrolled as a signalman and began his initial training. When war was declared in September 1939, Donald reported to HMS President again and was asked to transfer to the Wireless Telegraphy Branch which he willingly did. He was posted to Butlins in Skegness – which had lately become HMS Royal Arthur – for training and ultimately allocated to the Royal Naval Patrol Service for minesweeping duties. Over the next few years he would travel to Norway, Scotland, Bermuda and Canada, this last trip in some illustrious company.

‘Out in the River Clyde the RMS Queen Mary was riding at anchor. Much to my surprise I soon found myself on board together with several thousand others. A message came out over the tannoy system ordering everyone to go below decks and also to keep away from the portholes. We were eventually freed from our restricted movement and allowed access to most parts again……..during the time we had been kept away from the Upper Decks, some VIPs had come aboard. Lord Louis Mountbatten, The First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, and the great man himself, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. They were, it transpired, on their way to meet up with President Roosevelt in Quebec.’

It was while he was in Canada that Donald was sent to join the minesweeper HMS Gozo, a new Algerine Class minesweeper that was being built on Lake Ontario. Gozo arrived back in Scotland on December 31, 1943, and spent the following months carrying out exercises around the English Channel in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of Europe. So it was, that on the morning of June 5, 1944, HMS Gozo lay at anchor off the Isle of Wight and at 11am the captain gathered the ship’s company on the upper deck. Donald recorded part of the Captain’s speech in his diary.

HMS Gozo

“Well men as you can see the day we have been waiting for has come, and you know as well as I do we have a part to play in getting the army ashore in France.  We sweep right in ahead of the ships and carry on sweeping until we are sunk. I wish you all good luck.”
Zero hour for HMS Gozo was 12.30 and the ship joined the hundreds already heading to France.

‘I woke up about two thirty, and went up on to the bridge, to get some of my daily fresh air. The sight that met my eyes was one I shall never forget. Everywhere I turned my eyes there were ships. They were formed in a perfect formation in two giant columns, how many abreast I do not know, but they stretched out to the horizon on one side and right away inshore on the other. As you looked ahead it was the same, and looking aft, there were still ships as far as the eye could see……..

‘The weather had not been at all ideal for such an operation during the past few days, and now it seemed to be worse. There was a fairly stiff south westerly breeze blowing, which was making the Channel quite choppy, and the “white horses” were very prominent. It was not so bad for us, having spent the best part of the few months previous, continually at sea. The troops on the barges must have been having a rough time, as they were pitching rather badly. Well I could imagine how they were feeling. We were creeping ahead slowly through the centre of this armada, to take up our position at the head of one of the columns…….It was now getting very near to the time for us, to do the job that we had come out to do. At 18.00 the Flotilla leader hoisted the signal for “out Sweeps”.’

By the time Donald went on watch at midnight Gozo was well ahead of the main force sweeping right into the French coast, turning north then south again, creating a safe channel for the invading troops.

‘At 04.00 my watch ended and I went straight up onto the bridge. Le Havre was a mass of flames. The RAF were over in great strength and blasting the whole of that strip of coastline out of existence.’  

As dawn broke on June 6 the seaborne landings began and as Gozo headed back out to sea the barges carrying the Allied troops were heading for the beaches. 

‘I will admit quite frankly I would not have liked to have changed places with any one of those men about to be landed on the shores of France. They also presented a very fine sight, try to picture in your mind, about three thousand landing barges facing the beaches on a fifty-mile front, as that was what I saw at 06.30 that morning.’

Observing a pattern of four hours on and four hours off, Donald was on watch again at 8am on D Day.

‘Wireless silence had been in force until just before then, and that meant things were very quiet, with hardly any signals to read or decode. Now that was all swept aside. It was like an asylum in that office for about a quarter of an hour, we soon mastered the situation though. The speed at which signals were received, decoded and passed to the bridge was amazing. I could hardly believe it myself. The signals ranged from ships in need of assistance to positions of minefields, but the ones we were waiting for, and I might add, everyone was expecting, did not come, enemy reports. At least we expected an attack from the air, but although we waited they never came, and we were left in peace from enemy planes and ships, to carry on with our job of making the channel wider.’
HMS Gozo spent the night at anchor some five or six miles off the coast and as dawn broke on June 7 returned to sweeping a channel and clearing mines to enable the delivery of supplies to the beaches.

‘At about 10.00 we found how busy the E boats had been, I was asleep in our mess at the time, and I must have been sound asleep as I never heard the first one we got, the second brought me to a semi-conscious state of mind, by the time the next one went up I was on my feet ready to go up on top to see just what was happening.  We got about a dozen more, and they made a lovely sight as they went up one after the other.’

Very quickly this way of life became routine with the men surviving on no more than two or three hours sleep at a time. 

‘Explosions became a common sound, nobody worried what it was that had caused them, mines, bombs, or guns. All we were worried about was trying to snatch a few minutes precious sleep…….The big ships such as Nelson, Warspite, Ramilles, Belfast Orion and Frobisher and quite a large number of modern and old destroyers were still bombarding enemy positions inland, and such coastal batteries as were still in operation. I saw one coastal battery open fire on some of our ships, and as she did so the 16 inch guns of HMS Nelson swung round, there was a huge flash, followed by an explosion that had to be heard to be believed, and about twelve tons of steel went flying through the air. I don’t know whether those shells found their mark, but that battery never opened fire again.’

For weeks, Gozo continued to sweep the channel, clearing the mines laid overnight and ensuring supplies reached France. Early in July, the ship made a brief return to England for repairs.

‘Tomorrow we return again. What we find this time, no one knows, as methods of attack, and new weapons change from day-to-day…… In any case, they must not be allowed to halt that vital supply line. “We sweep, and carry on sweeping until we are sunk”.’