My first outfit was the Gordon Highlanders: I joined in 1938, aged 16. But a year later, looking for adventure, I transferred to the Maritime Royal Artillery.
My mate John Morgan and I were posted together a few times as Private Gunners on various merchant vessels, operating Lewis guns; at the end of July 1942, we were posted to the Clyde, to SS Ohio, an ex-American tanker and the biggest ship I was ever to serve on during the war.
“I spoke to the captain regarding the gun set-up but… I don’t think he could understand my broad Aberdonian accent.”
We were told we were to be part of a relief convoy to Malta, with a large Navy escort. I had sailed to Malta before, in through the Strait of Gibraltar, out through the Suez Canal. It had gone well and the Maltese people were excellent; this trip was to turn out very different.
George Robson Miller.
We were one of four teams stationed on deck, using Bren guns now, two fore, two aft, and very much left to our own devices. I spoke to the captain regarding the gun set-up but he said we were the experts, not him – I don’t think he could understand my broad Aberdonian accent.
We sailed out of the Clyde a week later, about fourteen merchantmen with a naval escort that grew bigger as we sailed south, including destroyers and an aircraft carrier: serious stuff!
With the other gunners we lived on deck, eating and sleeping there and only going below to the ablutions. It was pretty quiet down to Gibraltar and we entered the strait in a pea-souper, but next day when the fog cleared all hell broke loose: German and Italian planes just kept coming at us in waves.
“Some of the merchant crew would run on deck and fire rifles at the planes.”
The sirens would wail; helmets on and man the guns, time and time again. I know we hit at least one German plane and maybe another.
On deck it was chaos at times. The Ohio kept getting hit, with shrapnel flying everywhere. Some of the merchant crew would run on deck and fire rifles at the planes; hard words were exchanged between us.
The shell-damaged deck of the SS Ohio.
The planes didn’t go away at night, especially as we approached the Italian island of Pantelleria: the only good thing was that they had night lights to shoot at.
We knew there were submarines around too; they had haunted us for the last two years in the Marine. You never saw them, just heard the explosion.
“Some guys said we were sinking; I was not sure but we had been badly hit in the middle.”
We also knew the Navy boys were taking a hell of a hammering, and the aircraft carrier had gone down with the loss of a lot of brave boys, but nobody told us any detail. As time went on we took more hits and slowed right down, although we never left the decks and just kept on firing.
Eventually two Navy destroyers came alongside and started to throw ropes and chains on board. We didn’t really know what was going on, but they started to tow us to Malta. Some guys said we were sinking; I was not sure but we had been badly hit in the middle.
The damaged SS Ohio is supported by two destroyers.
As we neared Malta the attacks kept coming, but we got some support from the island’s Spitfires. In some ways it just added to the confusion, in terms of what you were shooting at.
When we eventually got to Malta they kept us outside the harbour for about two hours, before towing us in with tugs. The Ohio had taken a terrible beating and a lot of the fleet just hadn’t made it.
The SS Ohio is towed into Malta after sustaining heavy damage.
Somehow John and I were okay. We left our guns onboard and they took us off to billet in the town. The people couldn’t have been friendlier; they gave us anything they had, although we knew they were really struggling, with no food or fuel.
I don’t really know what happened to the rest of the lads, but we were there for only a few days before they took us on a merchant ship back to England, and eventually to barracks in North Shields.
It wasn’t long before we were back on deck as gunners, mainly around UK waters. It was still dangerous, but nothing compared to the Ohio – I think God was on my side on that trip!
It was around a year later that I joined The Royal British Legion, though I didn’t take an active role till 1949, when I moved to Durham and joined the Ferryhill Station Committee. Eventually I became Chairman and Branch Secretary, roles I still hold to this day, and as always I’ll be helping organise this year’s Poppy Appeal.
With thanks to Gerald Slack, Vice-Chairman of the Ferryhill Station Branch, for interviewing George on our behalf and writing his story.