In the fall of 1942 Bill Hopkins, age 17, was turned down by a recruiting officer when he tried to enlist. Undeterred, he went for lunch and a pint, returned that afternoon, and was passed through by the same harried recruiting officer.
Seventy-three years later, just shy of his 90th birthday, Hopkins cheerfully sat down in the Ladysmith Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion to share his experiences from before, during and after the Second World War with the Chronicle.
What emerges is the biographical sketch of a man who never accepted ‘no’ as the final word, and whose stint in the Royal Navy as an able bodied seaman aboard the troop carrier HMS Eastway was a formative chapter in his life’s story.
“It was such a good ship,” he said toward the end of our conversation. “I wouldn’t have had no complaints about going on it for another year.”
The Eastway – originally dubbed The Battleaxe when she was launched May 21, 1943 in Newport News, Virginia – was a Light Service Dock or Dock Landing Ship. Her job was to carry soldiers to invasion points, deploy them in landing craft, then pick up the landing craft after a battle was over.
“We would sit about a mile offshore, or wherever it was calm enough, and then flood-down and open the gate and they would just take off,” Hopkins recalled.
‘Flooding-down’ was a process where the stern of the Eastway was lowered, admitting sea water into a bay so landing craft carrying troops and equipment, could be launched or docked at sea.
She joined in the D-Day Juno Beach invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, a pivotal battle, named Operation Overlord, that established the Allies in Western Europe with a force of six infantry divisions – 156,000 soldiers plus armored units.
Hitler found himself fighting on three fronts after D-Day, with the Russians attacking from the east; Allied forces coming up from the south, through Italy; and now a new Allied front opened up in the west through France.
D-Day didn’t come off without a major hitch, Hopkins recalled. The HMS Eastway was assigned to ferry sappers to Juno Beach to secure it and prepare it as a conduit for Allied forces pouring into Europe. But the forces of nature did not cooperate.
“Because of the bad weather they postponed invasion day. It was supposed to be on the first of June, but they postponed it until the sixth,” Hopkins recounted.
Concerned that loose-lips might alert the Germans to the invasion plan, Allied command ordered troop ships like the Eastway to stay at sea. ”They sent us up around Scotland because they couldn’t allow the sappers to go ashore in case they said something. We had to kill time.”
On the rescheduled D-Day the Eastway found itself too far up the east coast of England to reach Juno at its appointed 6 a.m. time, but a couple of hours later she played her role in the epic battle. “When the Canadians went in, they only opened up a little small beach to get the troops in that were there,” Hopkins recalled. “Then sappers went in, and they cleaned off the rest of Juno and opened up the whole front.”
A fellow vet at the Chemainus sawmill where Hopkins worked for 25 years after emigrating to Canada, used to rib Hopkins about the delayed landing. “You were the guys who kept the sappers out, so we had to do all the bloody work,” Hopkins’ co-worker groused. “He gave me a bad time,” Hopkins chuckled.
Important as that crowning episode was for Canadian and Allied forces in Europe, it’s the camaraderie of life aboard the HMS Eastway that stands out in Hopkins’ memory.
Skipper Wallace Fletcher set the tone. “The skipper was a merchant navy guy, and a real nice guy. He’d walk around the deck and come along and say, ‘Hi Hopkins,’ and I’d say, ‘How you doing sir,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, just fine’… You couldn’t say that to a blooming RN officer. They’d shoot you.”
Like just about all of his crew, Fletcher was not a career navy man. “He owned a butcher shop in Liverpool,” Hopkins recalled.
Hopkins remembers a confrontation in Fletcher’s hometown that showed where the skipper’s loyalties lay. Because American military personnel had more money, and would pay a better price for drinks, bar owners often favored them at the expense of the Brits.
On shore-leave in Liverpool, that led to a near riot. “The Americans got kind of pushy, and we got a big fight going,” Hopkins recounted. “The skipper had us all up on deck in the morning, and he says, ‘You had a fight in my home town,’ he says. ‘Who was involved,’ and a whole bunch of us stepped forward. ‘Before I go any farther,’ he says, ‘who won this fight?’ and we said, ‘We did, sir,’ and he said, ‘Case dismissed’.”
For Hopkins and most of his shipmates military service was a chapter, not the book. When he was ‘demobbed’ he went into business as an auto mechanic; he emigrated to Canada in the late ‘50s, where he worked for a while as a plumber, and eventually – when business took a turn for the worse – in the Chemainus sawmill, where he put up with occasional ribbing from his fellow vet.
He is now retired in Ladysmith, and has plenty of good stories to tell.