An interview with John Porteous

Written by Pete Day
First Published

Introduction

The following comes from an interview with John Porteous, a long time friend, who having joined the Army in 1939 eventually found himself at Burton upon Stather, Lincolnshire in 1944, a Corporal with B Squadron of the Water Assault Wing of the Assault Training and Development Centre. At the time of the interview John was 87 years old and married to Hazel, nee Skelton, and living in Scunthorpe.

I have also included a few of my own memories from the time when I was a young boy, very impressed with all the military activity in our little village.

Bay House at Gosport
Bay House at Gosport

John's regiment was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders but he was transferred to a special unit, a war office company, for secret trails in the duplex drive floating armoured fighting vehicles. He had extensive training as a shallow water diver, after which followed further intensive training at HMS Dolphin, Gosport. He had to sign the Official Secrets Act as to the form the training took but he tells us it was mentally and physically exhausting. John is an unassuming man and rarely talks about his time during the war and so we have to wonder at comments such as: We were in Normandy before D Day, on the beach waving them in with torches.

John Porteous
John Porteous
We were in Normandy before D Day, on the beach waving them in with torches.
John Porteous

After salvaging some tanks (John doesn't say where from), taking them to a debriefing study site, the Water Assault Unit was sent to the Burton upon Stather site, John along with them. The aim, in his words, was forward thinking - all in preparation for crossing the Rhine as the River Trent, at that point, was similar in current, speed, tide etc. The Tank Ramp at Burton upon Stather was constructed by the Royal Engineers, almost all of the materials such as slag, concrete, steel etc… sourced locally and transported to the site by L.G Clugston, a company still in business today.

My own earliest memories include that of the military lorries and tanks stretched nose to tail from the Ferry House Pub at the bottom of Stather Hill to the Sheffield Arms Pub at the top of Stather Hill. Eventually Stather Road had camouflage nets strung across it from top to bottom. Going to school was rather daunting and eerie but also a good excuse for being late, I remember! There are even stories of the famous scientist Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the Bouncing Bomb, used by the RAF 617 Dambuster Squadron.

Barnes Wallis

John's memories of Barnes Wallis being in Burton upon Stather and turning his mind towards the top secret project to sail a tank force across the Rhine are these: he secured himself (in his words) a cushy billet at the Ferry House pub acting as the batman to Colonel Baines. The room, upstairs in the pub, was also a telephone exchange and one day John received instructions to vacate his cushy billet by Basher Baines. John recalls that this nickname was given because if you didn't jump to it he was likely to give you a clout around the ear! Incidentally, John recalls that Basher as a top man was thoroughly respected by all the men and had received a MC during the war.

Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis © IWM (HU 92132)

The reason he had to vacate his cushy billet and go back under canvas was to make room for Barnes Wallis. John and another corporal called George Dean were instructed to keep an eye on him around the clock, being was told that the man was a genius but eccentric and if he jumped in the river then they must do the same! John says this never happened: Well, not on my watch, anyway. During the stay of around ten days, John remembers all the shipping on the River Trent was stopped.

I was told that if Barnes Wallis jumped into the river I must jump in too. But he never did it, not on my watch anyway!
John Porteous

One of the ideas, John remembers, was the firing of a rocket across the river hauling with it three cables, one central heavy cable and two lighter ones either side. This apparatus was called The Pendulum, and it was fired and embedded itself deep into the ground approx 50 metres west of the flood bank, then two almost silent winches hauled the amphibious tanks across the river. John recalls it was a good idea but because of the depth of mud on the western bank they were continually breaking ropes. Incidentally, the enormous explosion caused by the firing of the gun broke a considerable number of windows down the Stather and these were replaced by Army personnel who checked every house for damage.

A Diver's Job

DD Tank with Roller
A Valentine DD with Holy Roller device fitted to the front

Being a diver one of the jobs John was asked to complete was a walk across the Trent. Attached to the lines at low water he had to make his way through the mud with instruments attached to his diving suit, the centre of the river being iron stone made for easier walking. Another idea was the rolling out of canvas covered in coconut matting from an apparatus attached to the front of the tank. There was a reel at the front of the tank which unrolled the matting. This John says was a winner enabling the Tank weighing some 50 tons fully loaded to go over the mud without sinking. Talking about the tanks that were used at the site, John says that the first tanks were British Valentine Tanks but these were just not up to the job and were replaced by the American Sherman Tank which did the job so much better. He remembers all of the equipment being American and its superiority although the Americans had no part in the training or operations there.

John also told us a story of how he was ordered to get into his diving suit in very cold weather as the captain of a Royal Navy launch, based at Hull, had stopped at the Tank Ramp as his propeller was fouled with cable. John had to get into the water and slowly unwind the cable from around the propeller, with hands stiff and painful from the cold. He thought he had completed the job only to realise that the launch had twin propellers! Warming up back at the Ferry house he was bought a packet of fags by the officers.

After Burton upon Stather

After leaving Burton upon Stather John was involved in an operation in the Mediterranean and caught up in a depth charge explosion, taken prisoner aboard a German Q Ship (similar to our own Torpedo Boats). He was then transferred to an Italian freighter. Eventually freedom came along with two submarines when entering the Adriatic, one Canadian and the other New Zealand. He was then taken to Malta.

After being treated for injuries to his person, mainly his ears, he was sent back to the diving school at Gosport and carried on shallow water diving on various missions around the coast of Europe and the waterway systems of Holland. Eventually being demobbed in August 1946 he took up employment at the Appleby Frodingham Steel Works in Scunthorpe, later to become British Steel, and now Corus. Sadly John's first wife Mary nee Marshall passed away but in later years John found happiness again and married Hazel nee Skelton, another local lass. He will admit he is showing slight signs of wear and tear these days but that can hardly be surprising with the full and interesting life he has led.

Some Reminiscences of My Own

As I grew up from the lad in short pants, as John first remembers me, we became firm friends and are still so today. I also recall one or two of his colleagues from the Unit who stayed after the war also marrying local girls. George Dean, who married a Walker girl from Winterton and Gordon Darkie Stone who married a Winteringham girl called Millie. Darkie was my next door neighbour in Hewde Lane, Winteringham when I was first married and demobbed from the Army in 1960. I also remember Johnny Lawns who married Edna Render, another Burton girl and went to live in Canada and know of Eric Cowling who lives in Rawcliffe Bridge, Goole.

I have always been a bit of a Jack the Lad stemming, I believe, from being a child in the war years when money was tight and food on ration. We had to live off the fat of the land and although catching pheasants and rabbits was rather frowned upon then, I had a good teacher in my granddad Edwin Freear. The butcher never called at our house and I also used to get a lot of the villagers game and rabbits too. I still do, although now it's all legal and above board! During wartime we young kids used to swap fresh eggs or a chicken or two with the Canadian troops for chewing gum or cigarettes, Passing Cloud, Camel or Sweet Caporal. In those days all the chickens were kept in coops that local farmers put up in fields and I recall one particular incident when we were acquiring some eggs to trade with the Canadians. The coops were locked, of course, but that didn't stop us kids, we were small enough get access where the chickens did, my cousin, also named Pete Day, had his head and shoulders in the coop and felt someone pulling his legs to get him out so he called, hold on a minute Baz, I've just got hold of a chicken, only to find out that it was PC Peck (no pun intended) dragging him out and all of his mates had run off and left him to it. His punishment was a size 10 up the backside and a clip round the ear!

Conclusion

In conclusion, I hope that the interview and my own memories are of help and interest. John Porteous would also like the heritage Group to know that he is over the moon that the group has undertaken the restoration of the ramp and access. I quote: the work I have seen, via photographs and the website, is absolutely marvellous. He wishes us every success and gives his thanks to Sir Reginald Sheffield for enabling the group to undertake the task.

As you can imagine due to his age, to access our paths would be impossible and so I have promised John that come good weather and a high tide that myself and other members of the group will take him by boat to visit the Tank Ramp. He is thoroughly looking forward to this and he and Hazel feel sure it will spark more memories for him, by that time the project should be looking very good indeed.

Video of Pete's interview with John Porteous

14th November 2013

Sadly John passed away on the 11th of this month and we shall miss his presence at our events. He did get his wish to revisit the Tank Ramp though and it was wonderful to see him and his wife Hazel during our annual party. By that time we had made a wider pathway able to take work vehicles, although steep and not too comfortable John was unfazed saying he'd had far worse transport in his lifetime.

A great time was had catching up with old friends, especially David Gibb, and chatting with the MP for Brigg and Goole, Andrew Percy.

Dave Gibb, Pete Day and John Porteous
Left to Right: Dave Gibb, Pete Day and John Porteous at Tank Day August 2011.
John was a fine man, I always liked and respected him immensely as a person and had a great friendship with him from being a boy in short troosers as John would say, right up until the last. John's passing on Armistice Day in 2013 is poignant in many ways, we shall never forget him.
Pete Day
In Remembrance
John Porteous
9th September 1923 - 11th November 2013

Last updated

© 2017 Burton upon Stather Heritage Group

© Background Photograph by Sam Ablott.