FORFAR MAN'S LITTLE KNOWN ROLE IN D-DAY LANDINGS

A 91-year-old Forfar man doesn't have much difficulty in recalling the events of June 6, 1944.

For John Macdonald played a role in the D-Day landings that, as important as it was, is rarely ever mentioned in footage of an event that marked the turn of the tide in world war two.

Indeed, he was aboard a cargo ship that sailed all the way to the coast of France only to be blown up as part of an elaborate plan to create the breakwaters that would make it easier for the Allies to pour men and equipment on to the beaches in the days and weeks that followed perhaps the greatest moment in world history.

John popped in to the "Dispatch" office last week, to tell the story of "the block ships" that helped form the artificial harbour off the code-named Sword beach near Arromanches in France.

He explained that the story of "the block ships" is one that gets little mention in coverage of the annual anniversary of the D-Day landings.

"Yet all these block ships were sunk to form the breakwaters for a mulberry harbour - an articificial port created to aid the landings," he adds.

"The ships in question were the oldest merchant navy vessels around at the time, earmarked by the Royal Navy for this specific purpose.

"They were all manned by Merchant Navy personnel, who came under the direct orders of the Royal Navy."

Mr Macdonald joined his ship, tied up at Rosyth Docks, on April 22, 1944.

"It was the SS Winha, said to have been bought from a Greek company. It weighed approximately 1000 tonnes and was 45 years old."

Mr Macdonald joined the SS Winha as second engineer, and found that it had already been loaded with all types of ballast - sand, rocks, bricks, etc.

"We all knew that the plans for the ship were for it to be sunk, for the charges had already even been laid."

Ahead of sailing, there wasn't a lot for the crew to do.

"Apart from watch-keeping, all we did every day was sit in the saloon along with the young deck officers, playing cards and other games.

"I forget the exact day we set sail from Rosyth - sometime in late May I think. We proceeded in convoy up the east coast, heading for the Pentland Firth and then round to continue down the west coast of Scotland.

"Our maximum speed was about five knots, depending on the currents.

"We eventually reached the mouth of the Bristol Channel at around 6 pm on Sunday, June 4.

"It was a beautiful summer's night and, to our amazement, out of the horizon, from Bristol, came the American and British battle fleets, first the battleships, then the destroyers and so on.

"The following morning, all these naval ships passed us again, heading back towards Bristol.

"We didn't know at the time that we were witnessing the lead-up to D-Day, which had to be postponed for 24 hours due to bad weather.

"We remained anchored off the Bristol Channel, and the order came for us to pack up our belongings for shipment home, left with only the clothes we stood in and two days' survival rations.

"Nothing was to be left on board the SS Winha.

"We finally set sail for Christchurch on the south coast of England - and by the time we were nearing our next destination the invasion of France was underway.

"I was on watch, and went on deck to have a look at what was happening around me. It was a sight I'll never forget - with the sky a mass of planes, all heading for France.

"Our orders were to proceed to Arromanches, an artificial port created for the Normandy landings.

"There, our ship was to be one of a number to be sunk to create two breakwaters to assist with the landing operations.

"On Friday, June 9, 1944, at 1.10 pm the SS Winha was manoeuvred into position, secured to the bows of SS Modlin.

"The entire crew was then evacuated from the ship by a naval vessel, ahead of our ship's sinking, to be transferred to a liberty ship. Fully loaded, this vessel headed back to England.

"We arrived at the mouth of the River Thames at 6 am on Sunday, June 11.

"On the Monday morning we were all issued with a railway warrant to return home."

So ended John Macdonald's experience of the invasion that was to lead to the liberation of Europe.

But it was not to end his life on the open sea.

Born in Arbroath and brought up in Forfar from an early age, John, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday, appropriately, on 'the longest day', served his apprenticeship with Don Brothers, Buist, joining the Merchant Navy at the age of 22, six months before the outbreak of war.

He was to continue his career as a merchant seaman, on and off, for four and a half decades, retiring at the age