The story below was first published in the News Updates at http://www.horrabridge.org.uk
It is there because it is a good local story. It is here because it is a good story anywhere.
This year’s Remembrance Day, Friday November 11 2016, will be a special one for Horrabridge’s services and veterans community and for all who count themselves Horrabridgers.
Frank Greep, born in the village and known to generations of it, will be presented with the medal of a knight of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest roll of honour, for his part in the liberation of their country towards the end of World War 2.
The award is part of a review of history which belatedly recognises the courage of all those British working men who left their homes and won the war by staying calm and reliable through attack, accident and monotony, day after day, month after month, in the crucial battle for control of the English Channel in 1944.
Frank was one of them and his quiet story of rising to the occasion and then coming home and getting on with the rest of his life is a reminder that not all heroes have their names carved in stone somewhere.
Frank will be formally presented with his medal at the Festival of Remembrance at Plymouth Pavilions on Nov. 11.
Frank Greep today. Pictures by Michael Leek.
Meanwhile, this is his story …
It was just about 75 years ago when a Devon village mechanic called Frank Greep volunteered to join the Royal Marines but heard back from the Navy, which had a need for men with a way with engines.
By the beginning of 1942, Frank was square bashing at Gosport, while the Navy worked out what it had got. But he was quickly put into active service as a ship’s engineer and did not get out of it until the end of the war, when he had a few months of work servicing ambulances and trucks before demob in 1946.
As far as he is concerned, he just did his job, as well as he could, along with thousands of others like him, including many less lucky. But his calm dependability was noted twice in despatches from naval officers to Admiralty.
After demob, Frank put his commendations in an envelope, forgot where he put the envelope and went back to work at the Manor Garage, Horrabridge, as a mechanic.
Now, at 94, he has been awarded one of the grandest medals of all, making him a knight of the Legion d’Honneur of France, in recognition of the importance of his wartime work, running the engine room in a small ship known only as ML (Motor Launch) 293, minesweeping in the English Channel in the early months of 1944.
The work was preparation – although Frank and his mates did not know it until it happened – for the D-Day invasion in June 44 which was the beginning of the end of the war.
He was born in 1922, one of four sons of William and Ethel Greep. Dad worked for Southcott’s timber business in Horrabridge, on the edge of Dartmoor, when it was a hard old country village. He lost two toes in one accident and broke both legs in another while the boys were growing up. At 14 Frank started an five-year apprenticeship at Manor Garage, Horrabridge, still where it was then, on two shillings and sixpence a week.
By the time he was 19, he was a pretty good troubleshooter with a motor. Later, he would build a few cars himself. Meanwhile, the young men of Horrabridge were off to war and he wanted to go with them.
After the square-bashing, he was assigned to minesweepers as a motor mechanic and sent on a crash course of accustomisation, including an intensive course, at Cobham, on the ways of 12-cylinder Alscot engines, known as Yankees. Aboard ship, he would be running two banks of two of these: meaning 48 cylinders to watch over, running on 100-octane aviation fuel; 48 spark plugs to change when required.
He got into action in the Channel late in 1942 and sailed into the thick of it daily, from Newhaven and Dover, “week after week, month after month”, often working from 5 am til midnight, either in action or preparing for it.
Most of the sweepers would work together in a flotilla, sometimes assisted by observers in an American blimp, dragging cable-cutting trawls through enemy minefields, so the mines bobbed up and could be sunk or exploded by the gunners on a ship following up at the rear.
Sometimes the explosions were awfully close. Sometimes one took a minesweeper with it. But if you were lucky, you lived through a bit of a shake up and got as many buckets of fresh fish as you wanted afterwards.
The engine room’s first job was never to panic. Whatever was happening, they manned the lower deck, ready to climb around the hot engines, controlling revs and hauling on a big gear lever to change between forrard and astern, to orders from the bridge.
By the time Frank got to sea he was a Killick, Navy slang for a Leading Seaman with trade skills. Within his first year in the service he was made Petty Officer and the NCO in charge of two stokers – named for the days when most of their job was shovelling coal.
Mr Greep recalls: “I thought I was lined up for MTBs (submarine hunting boats) but they said they were short of engine staff for minesweeping and I said okay. At that age, everything is okay.”
Minesweeping was an endless round of gambling with the mines and with air attacks and Frank saw and heard enough to thank God for his own survival. But he does not want to start talking about it now.
As well as running and maintaining the main engines, he had to look after the steering mechanisms; the donkey engine used for pumping out the bilges; the fuelling at sea and the shipping of water; the hydraulics for the guns; the ship electricals, including a sofa-sized box of batteries which powered the Asdic sonar; and the rig of gas bottles, chemicals and pumps, at the stern, which would create a thick cloud of smoke, for camouflage, when required.
“You were told roughly how to work it but there was no allowance for trials,” he recalls. “One day, we were so close to the French coast we could see the traffic on the roads and the skipper called for smoke. I opened all five bottles, when it turned out probably two would have done. You have never seen anything like it. The smoke was like a wall, a mile long. I shut it all down but we were still producing smoke all the way back to Dover and then there were complaints from Dover. I got a bollocking over that but that was the only one. I did point out that none of our ships got attacked because nobody could see us.”
In the end, he was demobbed with a character summary of Superior Throughout, which came in handy later.
In March 1944, he married Margaret, known to all as Margie, who he had been seeing since 1938, when she was still 14 and new over from Cornwall to cook at one of the big houses on Roborough Down. By the time they married, she was serving as a WAAF and after four days leave for the wedding, they didn’t see each other again for two years.
He was due in Portsmouth and she had to go to Andover. They shared a train to a heartbreaking farewell at Eastleigh and the next day Frank was on a train to Liverpool for a troop ship to Egypt, to pick up a new ship, ML 867, in Alexandria. He was working around Greece when news of the D Day landings in Normandy came through and was celebrated with an extra ration of rum, “and then another one or two”, Frank recalls.
Then it was back to work, on a diet which in those waters consisted mainly of dehydrated potato and cabbage, biscuit which would put a dent in a wall , egg powder, tinned hotdogs made of soy and not much else and tomato soup made by mixing tinned tomatoes with water. The odd bucket of fish as compensation for a near miss was particularly welcome then, he remembers.
He came out of the Navy in 1946 and went back to the garage in Horrabridge, as foreman mechanic, until it was sold, in the early 70s. He moved to another garage, in Tavistock, but it went into liquidation. And for the first time in his life, he was out of work. There was a chance of work in Devonport dockyards but it meant joining a long queue. When he got to the end of it, he met three officers who told him they liked to employ navy veterans and could get him into the yard if he could find his discharge papers, with that all-important character reference. He was sure they were lost and he got home disconsolate. But Margie was the sort of housewife who could lay her hands on the papers in five minutes.
Frank went back to the Navy panel and was told he could have a pass but it was up to him to find a job and get approved for it by the unions. He had been sweeping floors for two months when a supervisor came over to ask him a few questions.
At 54, he became an apprentice again and spent four years learning to use a couple of dozen and more different machines for shaping steel. Although theoretically he was on an apprentice’s wage, the men on piece work quickly started cutting him in for a bit of production in their names, and he earned enough to support his family until he was formally qualified.
He became central to another war effort in 1982, when civilian ships commandeered for the Falklands had to be made war-ready and the fabricators of Plymouth were working around the clock in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
He worked on until he was 64 and his eyesight was failing. After that, he continued to run his locally famous garden at 20 Fillace Park and fill a cabinet full of trophies from local shows. After his wife fell ill, they moved to a sheltered bungalow at Yelverton, where she died at Christmas 2009.
He has two children, Tony, born 1947, and Carol, born 1950, who have given him five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
His youngest brother, Dennis, formerly a well-known local blacksmith and farrier, is still around and they keep in touch.
France announced in 2014 that it wanted to award its highest honour to all surviving servicemen who were involved in the preparations for the big push, even if they were not part of the landing. They would all be 90 or more but thousands applied and the makers of the medals, which are all individually minted, have been working overtime ever since to meet the promise.
Frank, probably the last of his generation in his home village, was one of the last batch of 1,400 applicants to be approved, after his case was presented by his local Combined Services Organisation, representing Horrabridge’s many younger service veterans.
“I didn’t want to make out I was any better than any other blighter,” he says. “But I appreciate all they have done for me. I really do.”
One of Frank’s two commendation certificates for “courage, keen-ness and skill in a dangerous and valuable minesweeping operation” . The first was for the Channel operation leading up to D Day and the second for his work around Crete, Piraeus, Salonika, Malta, Sicily and Italy, while the war played out afterwards.
The inscription says: “By The King’s Order, the name of Petty Officer Motor Mechanic Frances William Greep was published in the London Gazette as mentioned in despatches for distinguished service. I am charged to record His Majesty’s high appreciation.”
The signature is A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, who rose through the ranks himself from humble beginnings and later became a Co-op-sponsored MP and a Labour Minister of Defence.
Throughout his time at war, Frank Greep carried a Bible presented to him by the Horrabridge Methodist chapel youth club when he joined up. Some of the signatures in it, reproduced here, were written by friends who followed him into the war but never came back.
Margaret Greep. She and Frank were married for almost 66 years and sweethearts for almost 70. She was, he wants to put on the record, “a loving, caring wife, Mum and Grandma”.