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Surviving the sinking of the ‘Berkeley’

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Douglas Gilling at Old Parliament House during his visit to Canberra for the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Douglas Gilling served during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Second World War veteran Douglas Gilling will never forget the moment he left the sinking HMS Berkeley off the coast of Dieppe, France, on 19 August 1942.

The Allied assault on the German-occupied port of Dieppe that day had been a disaster. Of the more than 6000 predominantly Canadian men who made it ashore, almost 60 per cent were either killed, wounded or captured.

Mr Gilling, now 97, was supporting the raid as part of the guns crew of the Berkeley, a Royal Navy Hunt class destroyer, at around 12.50pm when it took a direct hit from a heavy bomb.

The surviving crewmen knew the situation was serious, but it was not immediately clear that the ship would go down.

‘The captain came to the side of the bridge,’ Mr Gilling said.

‘He indicated looking aft towards us, ‘Get off’.

‘We took that as ‘Abandon ship’, so we went over the side.’

After months of frustration at being the only Australian on board and struggling to understand various British accents, here at last was an occasion when Mr Gilling’s nationality was more of a help than a hindrance.

‘Very few of the English sailors could swim,’ he said.

‘We had blue blow up life jackets, but nothing else.’

The survivors waited in the water, which was fortunately warm, for some hours before being picked up by another vessel. Mr Gilling was delivered to a sister destroyer and immediately put back to work.

A few dozen Canadian soldiers who had survived the carnage on the beach to be tended to by the surgeon on board HMS Berkeley were wiped out by the bomb that sank it.

‘Sadly, I think, the vast majority, many more of them were killed than were killed of our ship’s company,’ Mr Gilling said.

Now based in the Blue Mountains, Mr Gilling visited Canberra on 1 May 2018 for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic National Service of Commemoration.

He shared stories with DVA staff, including that of his 21st birthday, celebrated ‘quite handsomely by the sailors’ aboard the Berkeley prior to its sinking.

After drinking his own tot of rum and ‘sippers’ from his messmates, Mr Gilling had come to in a deck locker, where he’d been stowed out of sight of superiors.

He’d had ‘quite a long comfortable sleep’ before waking to a fair bit of teasing from his mess and crew.

Mr Gilling joined the Royal Navy on loan, as one of 500 Australian volunteer Navy Reservists recruited under a program called the Yachtsman Scheme.

After the sinking of the Berkeley, he undertook an officer training course in Brighton, then spent the remainder of the war in the submarine service and coastal forces before being demobilised in 1946.

On the eve of Victory in Europe Day in 1945, he was in command of ML195, a B class Fairmile ML, carrying out an anti-submarine patrol off the French coast.

‘We saw the lights come up in France,’ he said.

‘It was the first time they’d been shown since 1939, virtually, so that was quite an experience.

‘We missed all the festivities, though, because we were still at sea. Probably just as well.’

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