b. 1924 | Royal Navy
Ralph Anthony (Tony) Bird was an evacuee sent to Lampeter in Ceredigion. He went onto join the Royal Navy in 1942 serving as a midshipman on a destroyer in the Mediterranean and English Channel. He was then reassigned to Fleet Air Arm cadet training in the US before his training was cut short and he was sent to take part in D Day. After the defeat of Germany he was sent to the Far East where he aided the repatriation of civilian prisoners of war from Sumatra as well as British and Indian troops from Burma.
Tony Bird was born on 2nd April 1924 in Cowbridge, Glamorgan. Tony’s family had an agricultural engineering business in Gloucestershire, and after attending a local school in Cowbridge he was educated at Wycliffe College in Stonehouse. Following the outbreak of WW2, the whole school was evacuated from Gloucestershire to Lampeter. Tony was an already a good shoot and took part in game shooting parties with friends during a period when food was under strict wartime rationing.
People’s Voices in a People’s War: Aberystwyth at WW2 Project
As an evacuee to Ceredigion Tony has been interviewed by Aberystwyth University as part of an oral history project to capture stories from Aberystwyth and the surrounding area during WW2. You can find his interview here
Realising a boyhood dream, in March 1942 Tony joined the Royal Navy. After training in HMS Raleigh, Devonport, Tony joined the Fleet Destroyer HMS ESCAPADE, newly refitted after months of arduous Artic convoys. He served on many Atlantic convoys, culminating in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. In his audio recording Tony recalls a strange if poignant wartime incident when HMS Escapade was just leaving the neutral post of the Azores (Portuguese territory) when a German U-Boat arrived in the port, passing close to them. Tony reports that the crews of both vessels stood on deck cheering and waving at each other. Yet he remarks that despite this apparent respect for each other, outside of this neutral territory ‘they would have tried to blow us out of the water’.
Back in the UK, Tony volunteered for re-training as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm and was posted to the USA to train as a cadet pilot under the Admiral Towers scheme at Grosse Ille, Michigan. Tony recall being ‘adopted’ by a local family and treated very well. After around 50 flying hours on the Boeing PT17A ‘Stearman’, Tony was pulled out of training to return to the UK. There he joined HMS CLEMATIS, a Flower-class corvette as a Mid-Shipman. This small, but very seaworthy vessel, was engaged on the east coast and channel convoy duties, and often came under fire from German batteries on the French coast, plus receiving numerous attacks from German E boats.
Operation Torch was an Allied invasion of French North Africa during the Second World War. While the French colonies formally aligned with Germany via Vichy France, the loyalties of the population were mixed. Reports indicated that they might support the Allies. Wikipedia
Tony Bird. Carmarthen & Rural District Warship week, 1942. Wycliffe College XV, & Queen Elizabeth Grammar School XY. Photo dated Saturday 7th March 1942.
Tony Bird. Grosse Ille, Michigan, USA. Known as the Towers Scheme, group photo of 54th Pilots’ Course. Tony is in the front row, 3rd from the left
In June 1944 HMS Clematis took part in the D-Day landings, escorting landing craft to the beaches off the coast of Normandy. Clematis even shepherded the Pluto fuel pipe vessels to the Mulberry caissons. In his audio recording Tony recalls firing the Oerlikon guns on the deck of Clematis, shooting down a V1 buzz bomb which crashed into the sea, narrowly missing the Dungeness Lighthouse.
The Far East
Now commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R, Tony next joined HMLST 3037, a Landing Ship Tank, in the course of construction at Fairfields Yard, Goven, and he travelled up with the ship’s Captain to organise the fitting-out of the shop. Aboard this new ship, Tony sailed for the Far East following the surrender of Germany.
Based at Calcutta, the ship joined the fleet assembling for Operation Zipper, the long awaited, invasion of Malaya and sailed for Port Swettenham in September 1945. However, during the voyage, the first Atomic bombs were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and although the ship beached and unloaded the tanks near Port Swettenham, the Japanese troops had entirely conceded. Tony describes this as a great relief as the crew had been worried of imminent kamikaze attacks during their approach to the beaches.
The following months were spent repatriating civilian prisoners of war from Sumatra and Java and also British and Indian troops from Burma, but the highlight proved to be that HMLST 3037 was the first allied warship to reach Bangkok after the Japanese surrender.
In October 1945 the ship was directed to Saigon to unload the French aircraft carrier FS. BEARN which was unable to traverse the heavily mined river and, after many trips, succeeded in landing over 200 military vehicles – 800 French troops at Saigon Harbour.
HMLST 3037 then proceeded to Nha Trang in French Indochina to evacuate over 1000 women and children in company with ‘FS TRIOMPHANTE’. It then returned to Singapore and Rangoon for repatriation duty, involving Indian and British troops for conveyance to Calcutta. For Tony this proved a very interesting period and introduced him to the delights of very good Sikh cooking!
In March 1946, the ship was ordered to Ceylon to load troops and equipment for passage to the UK and left TRINCOMALEE Harbour on 25th March, berthing at Spithead on 30th April 1946 where she finally paid off. Tony was released from the Navy in August of that year.
Tony joined the family agricultural engineering business in Gloucester, Cowbridge and Stafford dealing in Ferguson and Massey-Harris equipment of all types. He and wife Florence had three children. Florence was herself an officer in Royal Navy Wrens during the war and was in the first party of female troops to land on the Normandy beaches following the D-Day invasion. Florence’ extraordinary story has also been collected for the West Wales Veterans’ Archive.
Postscript: In 2016 Tony returned from a trip abroad to find a letter from the French Embassy in London honoring him with the medal and insignia of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur which he describes as really fine gesture on the part of the French.