Interview with Lawrence Henry di Placito. Two


Interview with Lawrence Henry di Placito. Two


Lawrence di Placito served as a second-class coxswain on the RAF Air Sea Rescue launches during the Second World War. Henry gives further details of his experiences in rescues, both successful and those with a tragic ending. He also tells of Ealing Studios arriving at the base to record the film ‘For Those in Peril. He also recalls witnessing RAF aircraft chasing V-1s and using their wings to tip the flying bombs off course.




Temporal Coverage





00:43:56 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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AdiPlacitoLH170309, PdiPlacitoLH1701


DM: Today is the 9th of March 2017, this is a second interview with Laurie Placito in his home in Surrey and the interviewer is David Meanwell. Over to you Laurie.
LP: [Whisper, paper shuffling] That’s ‘44. It was July ‘43 while are on patrol in the channel, we were roughly four and a half to five miles off the coast, we sighted six airmen in a dinghy. There were no injuries, the airman were taken aboard and taken back to Newhaven harbour. Also in ’43, Ealing Studios arrived to make a film for the air sea rescue. It was called ‘For Those in Peril’. The leading actor was a David Farrar. It was quite interesting really because, they were filming out at sea, different scenes and then back in the harbour they would have airmen performing diving, off Newhaven Bridge and some off the boats. We had a number of these actors obviously dressed as RAF officers and men and it was a job to tell who was the real officer from one of our own, from all the film stars! Now, we go back to ‘44, 1944 is the next one I can remember. We were on patrol off Beachy Head, we picked up floating nets and life jackets but no personnel, we then received a message from a Walrus that could not take off due to bad weather, so we rescued the pilot and took the Walrus in tow to Newhaven harbour. [papers shuffling] This was just a few weeks after D-Day. [Whispers] Now D-Day itself, June the 6th, was actually a quiet day for us, we had no incidents to report on our sector apart from retrieving a quantity of flotsam. But it was constant patrolling, hour after hour, coming into harbour only to refuel. Of course the harbour was absolutely crammed with various landing craft. There was a flotilla of American vessels next to us. Now the American ships were dry with no alcohol allowed on board. This enabled us to do some serious bartering as we were able to buy beer when available from local pubs and of also from our own rum ration.
DM: Can you remember what you used to barter for? What did you get in exchange for the beer?
LP: The Americans had quite better rations and things we never had. Tinned butter, cream and such luxuries which weren’t available to the RAF. So we had a bartering which enabled us to feed a lot better.
[Other]|: [Cough]
LP: Now I’ll see about D-Day. In September ‘44 the airborne landings at Arnhem took place. We had orders to sail to Felixstowe on the east coast to cover these landings. But despite extensive patrols we found no survivors, only a great deal of debris. After a week or so we returned to Newhaven. It was on the outward journey, to Felixstowe, when we stopped off at Dover, only to be caught in a terrific shelling from German cross channel guns. Needless to say our skipper curtailed our visit and quickly flipped our, slipped our moorings and hastily set sail. June ‘44 was also the month that the V1 rockets or doodlebugs as they were known, began to rain on England. They were a fearsome weapon with a buzzing sound and flames coming from, from them. When they first appeared we tried to shoot them down, but flying at 350 miles an hour and we tossing about on the ocean we had no success. After a time we were told not to try and shoot them down, but to leave, to leave this to the inland defences such as AA batteries, anti-aircraft guns, balloons and fighter planes. I think one of the reasons for this was that they did not want the bombs to crash on the coastal towns. On more than one occasion I saw brave fighter pilots try to fly alongside the bomb and tilt the wing underneath it causing it to crash. ’45. These [papers shuffling] [not audible]. One of the last pickups that I can remember was rather a sad incident. This was in January ’45. We were on patrol 10 miles off of Beachy Head. We were contacted by spotter aircraft and followed them which took us to a dinghy which contained two American airmen, apparently dead. Artificial respiration was carried out until the bodies were handed over to the Naval authorities. When Germany surrendered in May 1945 things quietened down, quite considerably. Patrols were still kept up, but with no sense of urgency. And no longer could you see the fleets of bombers with their brave pilots and crew filling the skies on their way to Germany. And then just after when Japan surrendered in August ‘45, things really altered in the base with demobbing beginning to start and posting to other units and remustering to other trades, officers were also coming and going but nothing seemed to be settled. That was a bad time that was. Unlike the army where all the regiments were posted en block the marine craft section were individually posted thus having to leave out shipmates, old shipmates behind and starting afresh under completely different conditions. Before the Japanese surrender it was being planned to send boats and crews [emphasis] to the Far east. Thankfully this never happened. Our crew on HSL190 was an efficient and happy crew. With the skipper Flying Officer Craig, a most friendly person, who called all the personnel by their christian names; saluting was down to a minimum, once when he came aboard in the morning and when he left after we had tied up. Regards saluting, when we sailed past the Naval Headquarters every time we came in and out of harbour, one half of our crew would stand to attention at the bow, the other half at the stern. This was called saluting the quarterdeck. One happy incident I can [emphasis] recall was when in harbour we were tied up alongside two other HSLs. To get out it meant untying the bow lines and with the aid of a boat hooks and manpower, pushed our boat, our boat, through the opening, for some reason the skipper decided to help with this operation, when there was an almighty splash and he, being a rather large man, he fell overboard. At first his cap was visible to be seen. This caused howls of laughter. The crash net had to be lowered down before he was pulled aboard. One wag asked him if this was counted as a rescue, but being a thorough sportsman he laughed as loud as anybody. In quiet moments at sea he would allow the crew to put out fishing lines. He was a lovely man. One easy way to catch fish was when the Naval minesweepers detonated a mine. Dozens of stunned fish would be floating on the surface, but it was not a sporting way to catch fish. Now Newhaven was an easy-going station with no hard discipline. Airmen could come and go in and out of the base with no checks or guardroom. The shore-based airmen such as carpenters, armourers, electricians etc, had a very easy time. By mid-morning they could be found in the local church canteen while the NAAFI canteen van was a regular visitor. As long as the boat crews were operating efficiently the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Don G Syme, was quite happy. In contrast the boat crews had long hours aboard with no set duty times. Their time at sea depended on any incidents according, occurring, I’m sorry, any incidents occurring and only then after receiving permission from the Naval authorities could they return to harbour. Boat crews were given a rum ration after four or five hours at sea, or at any time with the CO’s permission. For those who did not drink it provided a means of bartering for chocolates or cigarettes. Hot cocoa was provided ad lib, and main meals also cooked on board if unable to return to base. Bunks and sleeping bags were provided for long hours spent at sea. Boat crews were issued with extra clothing, such as woollen jerseys, duffle coat, sea boots, plimsolls which had to be worn on board in good weather, and waterproof macs. [Shuffle of paper] Newhaven harbour was also home to a naval squadron of steam gunboats which were heavily armed and with torpedo tubes. They occupied the port quay with the RAF on the starboard side. The naval squadron was commanded by Sir Peter Scott, he was the son of Scott of the Antarctic. Sir Peter was a fearless commander and he would search fearlessly for German e-boats or any, any enemy craft. In contrast to his naval career, post-war he became kfamous for his studies of nature and wildlife paintings. There were no WAAFs, which is Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, women at Newhaven. I can only remember one WAAF officer coming there as an adjutant. I think she only lasted a few weeks, she could not put up with the strong language of the CO, who was a good and fair CO. I believe after the war he became harbour master at Grimsby. One incident I remember plainly, was when an ammunition barge full of high explosives, broke its tow lines and crashed against the cliffs outside the harbour, causing a terrific explosion, blowing out all the windows and the roof off the ablution block. Luckily no one was injured. One the, another pickup which I forgot to mention occurred in September ’44. While on patrol we received a message that a Walrus had picked up six survivors and was picking up a seventh in a position about one mile off the French coast. We sighted the Walrus in position where we could see the church one mile distant. We closed to the Walrus and transferred all the survivors who were uninjured but suffering from shock and immersion. We then soon got on our way, arriving back at Newhaven safely. All airmen were housed in nissen huts alongside the quay. In earlier days a few were billeted with local families but as D-Day drew near every airman had to sleep in the base. This meant taking out all the single beds and replacing them with double bunks, one above the other. This was unfortunate for the person on the lower bunk as sometimes you would have a foot placed somewhere on your anatomy from the airman climbing on the bunk above. The officers had their own nissen huts further along the quay which also housed our mess deck. I myself was billeted with a local family for a time. Was a very kindly landlady whose husband was away doing war work, a Mrs Cook. She had twin daughters, Betty and Gwen, son Michael all school age, and a grandma. The family spent most nights in an air raid shelter in the garden while I on my off duty nights had my own comfortable bedroom. It came as a bit of a shock when I had to return to base to sleep in a twin bunk. To the end of my narrative, and thanking the lord for my good fortune and bringing me safely through the war. We were never attacked by enemy aircraft, our biggest danger, or I’m sorry, we were never attacked by enemy aircraft or e-boats. Our biggest danger was enemy minefields or floating mines with which we had several close brushes. As I’ve said before we were a happy and efficient crew, enjoying sing-songs on board with our fitter marine, Vic Fiddler playing his accordion or board games in the foc’stle. The only time we were fired on was by our own gun battery on the Newhaven Cliffs, when two warning shells landed in the sea nearby. It was because we were flying the wrong recognition flag of the day. Needless to say it was soon changed. Remembering my old crew, we had Bert Underwood, our first class coxswain and a first class man, also we had Norman Rogerson who was our first class wireless operator; he was never seen without his headset. A lot depended on Norman who was solely responsible for all the morse code messages. Not once did Norman miss or delay a crash call. This was no mean feat when you realise he had to separate our own callsign, which was seagull 7 6, from all the other traffic which was being transmitted. Boat crews usually consisted of eight or nine men, depending on somebody being off sick with no replacement. We had one officer, usually he was a flying officer, we had a first class coxswain, a second class coxswain, we had a wireless operator, a medical orderly, the first engineer and a second engineer and a couple of gunners. Let me -
DM: Did you keep in touch with any of your crew mates after the war?
LP: Yes, after the war we had several reunions held at Newhaven where all crews and shore-based men met for a dinner in a local pub. And also I kept in touch with a great friend of mine who was the station cook, Corporal Sid Sole, he was a good friend, and we used to meet up together and, also with Harry Worts who was the local funeral director. And then occasionally I would motor down to Newhaven, to meet up with Bert Underwood, our former coxswain, who was a local, who lived locally, and also to meet Mrs Cook and her family who were so good to me during the war years.
DM: Was that the lady you stayed with?
LP: Yeah.
DM: Yeah.
LP: Another good friend I met up with was a former wireless operator on the Newhaven base, the name of Pete Sisson. Pete Sisson married a local girl and I kept in touch with him, he lives somewhere on the east coast, I can’t quite recall where, but Pete and I used to meet up at Newhaven because on Armistice Day at Newhaven, a launch would take ex-members of the, of the base out to sea to lay a wreath. As I said before we didn’t have any casualties when I was at Newhaven, but sadly two or three HSLs were sunk at the Dieppe raid with several casualties and prisoners. This was before my time there. I am now passed ninety-five years so forgive me if I have bored you with my war memories. I may have missed one or two incidents but not the thrill of speeding across the channel at thirty five plus knots with the bow planing above the waves, the roar of three five hundred horse power Napier Sea Lion engines and the RAF ensign flapping against the mast.
DM: Would it be fair to say, Laurie, you enjoyed your war?
LP: Yes, yeah, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the men and that, yeah. You got bored sometimes you know, with the long patrols and that, as I say you wouldn’t go out say at nine in the morning and come home five at night: it didn’t work like that. If you hadn’t been called out, I think we used to be on seven, six o’clock in the morning we’d be on base. One base was fourteen miles due south of Beachy Head, and then a couple accordingly back up towards the channel. Not eastward because that was the Dover area. But we used to, the Point of Beachy Head was our sort of main point, and up back up to Littlehampton. Yes, it was, when you had bad weather you know, you huddled up trying to get out of the wind and that, but you had to be, had to be on board you couldn’t just all hide down in the wheelhouse out of the rain, or the weather, you had to, well you had to be sighted you see to see everything was going on.
DM: Did you ever suffer from seasickness?
LP: No, no I didn’t, which was lucky, I was very lucky, I never suffered from sea sickness. We had an assistant engineer: Jack, Hayes, Jack Hayes. He was older than, I was only twenty one, something like that, twenty one, twenty two. Now Jack, he, every time he went to sea, he was seasick, and when I, not just sea sick, absolutely laid out. And he’d go pale as anything, and he was retching and retching and this went on for weeks, I said Jack, you can’t put up with this, I said you’ve got to ask for a transfer I said, you’re going to kill yourself, and he, I’ll keep trying, and eventually [emphasis] he got quite a lot better, but he did suffer for his first times. Oh, terribly. It’s a terrible thing sea sickness, you don’t, you don’t think much of it, but when you keep retching and retching, you’ve got nothing left inside of you, but that was the only one on our boat, was well, you couldn’t afford to be seasick see[laugh]. Yeah, if you were sick you’d have to report the um, we didn’t have a doctor on board, on our base, wasn’t big enough, we had to go to the naval doctors across the other harbour. And then, they’d treat you, but it was usually medicine and duties like, take this and back to work, I was lucky really, I used to suffer quite a lot of nose bleeds. I don’t know, I don’t know ’cause I was boxing at the time, but I suffered with nose bleeds, and several times I had go to the MO, and he’d would stuff cotton wool up your nose, all he could do. After the war I still suffered with that, but I used to have to, had it cauterised, they put electric needles up your nose, in those days they didn’t though. No, all in all the camaraderie was good, and there was no discipline you know didn’t salute every five minutes like you would be on an RAF station. I mean you’d walk up the quay and you might see a strange officer and salute, but normally they just nod like, ‘cause, you, everybody knew everybody, the crews, the boat crews. Yes. It got crowded as I say, on D-Day you never got to sleep in, you had one above the other like, you know, you can imagine coming in a bit worse for weather sometimes, was a lot of shouting going on like, you know. The shore based airmen had a good time there though, I mean they’d have a so called morning parade, that was a bit of a shambles because half the fellas would be on the boats or off duty or whatever sort of thing. You know. It was such a handy place to be, Newhaven, because when you got a 48 hour pass, you could, I could slip up to here with no bother at all, the stations was on the side of the harbour, you just get on there, change at East Grinstead, I, not East Grinstead, yeah, was it East Grinstead, no not East Grinstead, you had to change just outside London to get down here. Many a time, and also we’d go into Brighton on the bus, get the bus if you were off duty at night, you’d get the bus go to Brighton and if you overstayed your time there, you’d miss the last bus, so that meant you had to sleep either if you could find a NAAFI or one of these put-you-up places, or sleep in the bus shelter which I did on more than one occasions. You’d get the first bus out, I think it used to leave, it used to get back into Newhaven before six o’clock and once or twice I’d come bouncing off the bus stop which was only at the top of the quay, and they’d already started the engines, you could hear the engines banging, just in time, but I had my best blue on then you had to change like, you know, you couldn’t cut it too fine because you mustn’t, it was a cardinal sin to have er, miss the boat, if it the boat went out without you, you’d be in trouble. Yeah, it was, but as I say it was an easy going base. The old CO he was a gruff, you know, hard-spoken man like, he’d swear at anybody, but he was fair, and he was, he was a good CO like, you know, as I say he made sure we had sheets to sleep in which was unheard of, in RAF stations you’d just had your bare blankets. The food was pretty good considering, wasn’t a great variety, but basically it was fair. The only thing I couldn’t eat breakfast it, bubble and squeak they’d gives you for breakfast, and that was about half past five in the morning, you go to sea on that [laugh] no, I couldn’t put up with that. [Tapping] When I was billeted with Mrs Cook she would make me up a tin, whatever she could find, she’d get an allowance obviously, she was being paid for it, and she’d make up a big round biscuit tin with sandwiches, sausage rolls she’d make and things like that. She was a lovely lady, quite, she, she was quite good. But as I say they used to sleep in the bloomin’ air raid shelter at night, the bombing raids and that, terrible that, two, three kids, three school, school kids, yeah.
DM: Did you have to, when you were waiting for your demob did you have to do any other jobs?
LP: When?
DM: When you were waiting to be demobbed, did you have to do anything else, any other jobs?
LP: No, I become the station driver, I think I told you.
DM: Oh yeah, I remember.
LP: Yes.
DM: Yeah, you did.
LP: Yes, goes to show a good job the station driver was.
DM: Yes.
LP: I used to take, that’s a thing I should have said, it was to keep the men occupied, as I said it was all comings and goings, groups of them used to go and work on local farms, help the farmers like, you know, which kept them busy and it was doing a good job, it got them out the way but you didn’t know who was who, as I say, officers as well were going, you know and of course everybody there was all waiting to be demobbed, all anxious to get demobbed. Yeah, no all in all it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed it, you know, I wouldn’t have missed it.
DM: You never thought of staying in?
LP: No I didn’t, no I didn’t, I wanted to get out, I wanted to get out actually, I did. I missed me fam, missed me old mother like, you know, and the family. But then there again I was lucky because as I said before the pay was well, pathetic compared today, like, you couldn’t compare it. But my sister, she used to send me regular ten shillings at a time, which was more than I earned in a week like, she used to send me ten shillings, and me brother used to send me, and if I got home, I would get some more money like, you know. I didn’t go short of money. You couldn’t go mad and spend you, ad lib like, you know. But I wasn’t a drinker, I used to go in the pubs because there was nowhere else to go, but I’d just buy my own round or, if you was with your mates like, you would pay your round and that was it. And I didn’t smoke which was another save. We had a mess deck: it was, course it was right alongside the walls, the harbour wall, it was mess, it was nissen huts, but the mess deck was an old rope, course it was, being a fishing village, it was an old rope store, you had to go up a big flight of stairs and up there was the cookhouse. And occasionally you would get these, they were nice people, different groups, singers or musicians, come and give you a concert, which was a nice break like, you know. But you met all sorts of men, all different, you know [laugh] yeah, you met all sorts of, all sorts. I didn’t, I suppose looking back at it I don’t suppose there was two fellers that I didn’t like really, the rest I got on with. Our crew were, well we were close on the crew like, but there was only two particular I never did get on with. Yeah, I often think of, think of them old days. [Chuckle] When you’re young it’s different isn’t it, you don’t look, if you, as I say it was a bit dicey going out minefielding, you didn’t know where, and the fact when you, when you were ploughing there along whichever speed you was going, the bow, if that’s the sea, the, the bow of the boat would be like that, the water coming underneath. If you were in the wheelhouse you couldn’t see anything, and you were going, you’d see a mine in the water but it had to be close before you could spot it. As I say once or twice we got very close to ‘em, yeah. We set one off one day, it could have been one them acoustic mines, it’d go off with heavy movement, without hitting it. And we were, we were, good job we were going a fair speed and suddenly there was this almighty explosion at the back of us like, but of course we’d gone. But we had to go in to, where did we used to go, down the, down near Portsmouth somewhere, Mount, was it Mountbatten? To have the, I think we’d damaged the props, change the props like, you know. Another time I [emphasis] was, I was at the wheel then, I hit a, oh great big log I suppose, or a timber, come off one of the ships, a big timber, and that caused the boat to jump like and we had to take that back, as I say back down to Portsmouth wherever it was, to have a repair done down there. You couldn’t help it, ‘cause you just couldn’t see it like. One, only one occasion did, I thought we were going to be attacked by air, we were just patrolling like, you know, and this aircraft, German he come diving out the sky and he swoops right low over us, and I suppose he thought it’s not worth stopping, ‘cause he was, not far off the coast like, you know, he went on, but he scared us for a minute, ‘cause we had orders not to shoot unless you were shot at. As I say, when the doodlebugs started to come over, specially at night, all you could see was the flames burning, flames coming out, but you had no chance of hitting them like, you know, I mean you’d see your tracer bullets go, but he’s doing, they used to do three fifty to four hundred mile an hour them things and you never hit one of them. But that’s true what I see about that pilot: he’d fly along and he’d tip his wing just underneath the wing of the, course any movement on the, they were set, set to go straight, it was only when the engine cut out they were timed, that they would dive, you know, crash. Oh yeah. I came home, I didn’t, it could only have been only a forty eight hour pass and I’m coming over, got out the train at London, and going over Waterloo bridge was a terrific air raid, bombs were coming, the anti-aircraft fire going all that, and I’m running across, you had to carry your tin hat with you with a bit of luck, but it wouldn’t have made, save you, would it? Anyway, I got as far as Waterloo and I got the train, it stopped somewhere, Walton I think, five or six mile out of Chertsey. No more, no more trains, bombs and that on the line, so I had to thumb a lift, and of course that time of night, it was pitch black and that, you know, but a bit of luck a milk lorry came by and he stopped. And he said where you going? I said I’m going to Ch, he said I’m going to Atherstone, which is walkable distance between Chertsey and Atherstone, you know, ten minute walk, so anyway he dropped me off at Atherstone. Then, the nearer I got to my home, you had to turn a corner, turn a corner and come straight up, I lived there, there was piles of glass, and the nearer I got to my home got bigger, the piles of glass, and it dropped this doodlebug, right opposite our house. It blew all the windows out and cracked all the plasters and that and of course I was terrified for me old mum like, you know, but me eldest brother was a foreman in a, what do they call the vessel goes under water and on the road?
DM: Oh, amphibian.
LP: Yeah,
DM: Yeah.
LP: And he was a foreman in the works there ‘cause he was, although he, he wouldn’t have been, I don’t know he’d have been about thirty five, thirty six I think, thirty six was the limit wasn’t it, for call up, something like that. Anyway he, he made my mother a great big steel table, oblong table, thick steel on steel legs with a wire mesh front and he put a bed in there for her, so she’d sleep there, which was, safe. As I say I come down, all the glass was cracked and all that, frightening that was. But there, people worse off than that though weren’t they, come home and nothing left, just, hard living, people don’t realise today Dave, what war time people.
DM: It’s true.
LP: Then you had to queue up for your food, coupons and that.


David Meanwell, “Interview with Lawrence Henry di Placito. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 18, 2021,

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