Memories of a D-Day hero

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Memories of a D-Day Hero
Memories of a D-Day Hero

One of the Costa Blanca’s true heroes is Joe Billet, many of you will know as Joe the Cat Man from his days in caring for cats across Torrevieja and the Orihuela Costa.

But did you know that Joe has rather more strings to his bow than his love of animals.

He hasn’t always led a leisurely life of retirement in the sun, indeed quite the opposite. As a 15 year old in 1942, the teenager joined the Merchant Navy as he sought out his very first taste of ‘grown up’ adventure. Unfortunately though it didn’t end too well as Joe was sunk while aboard the ammunition ship SS Fort-a-la-Corne close to Gibraltar.

Joe went on to serve with distinction. A veteran of the D Day landings and a recipient of France’s highest award, the Legion D´Honneur, when the war was over Joe took the unusual step of seeking out the UBoat commander that so very nearly took his life back in those dark days off the North African coast.

Joe receives the Legion D´Honneur
Joe receives the Legion D´Honneur

And to his amazement Korvettenkapitän Gunter Jahn, the Commander of the U-boat, U-596 that sank his ship, and who went on to become one of the most successful U-boat commanders in the Mediterranean Sea, was truly delighted that Joe got in touch.

Gunter Jahn - U-Boat Commander 30.3.43
Gunter Jahn – U-Boat Commander 30.3.43

Follow the story of the battle his survival and the subsequent friendship of the cabin boy and the U boat commander, told by Joe himself, in The Leader Newspaper or read it online at www.theleader.info

Memories of a D-Day Hero

In edition 770 The Leader carried a story about D-Day Veteran Joe (aka The Cat Man) Billet and his trip on “The Voyage of Remembrance” aboard the SS Boudicca for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.  Nearly two years on we are able to feature his exploits once again as Joe relates the story of one of his many North Africa trips.

The story is told by Joe himself:

I joined the SS Fort-a-la-Corne in Newport; she was loaded with ammunition, weapons, food, Army trucks etc.

We crossed the Bay of Biscay and were past Gibraltar when all hell was let loose with U-boats, Italian and German air craft. All the guns in the convoy opened up, they kept at us until darkness and again the next day.

Ships were sunk, some were hit by bombs but we arrived in Algiers. We tied up on the quay north to south, the SS Empire Standard tied east to west on the quay. She already had a hole in her from a U-boat during one of the attacks but an Italian plane dropped a torpedo on her and she sank where she was.

Six of the crew were killed and about a dozen dock workers.

On March 29th under cover of darkness we slipped out to join a convoy heading home but as soon as the dawn broke we found ourselves under bombardment once again all through the day until night fall.  On the next day, 30th March 1943 at first light the air attacks were back again.

It was still daylight but I finally managed to get some food from the galley. The stewards served the officers in the saloon, I sat in the corner of the pantry and ate. They all finished and left, I cleaned up all the dishes, cleaned the floor, picked up some corned beef, went to my cabin, gave skipper my cat a hug and fed her.

I then went aft to see my friend Tasker, but he was in the focs’l, so I stopped to talk to Paddy when a torpedo struck the ship and knocked us to the deck.

We jumped up when another torpedo struck us, I dived out the door and made my way amidships.

The two lifeboats were smashed so I went to the starboard where one boat was clear of the ship but the other one was hanging from the derrick useless.

An ordinary seaman stood next to me and said we have to jump as far out as we can. He grabbed hold of my hand and we jumped.

I came to the surface and swam to the life boat and they hauled me in.  It was now about 7pm. The convoy had gone, the lads saw a raft with a couple on it so some of them swam over to it and tied it to us so we did not drift apart.

At 3.30 am the crew of the escort ship HMS Albacore came along side us and the captain shouted to get aboard as quickly as we could, there was a scramble net hanging over the side so up we went.

Miraculously, the master, 43 crew members and ten gunners from the Fort a la Corne, Master Reginald A. Grove, were all picked up.

Once aboard we had a cup of cocoa or tea, the P.O grabbed me by the arm took me below and said “that is my bunk and I am on watch so you get your head down”.

We landed in Gibraltar and a couple of days later the Troopship Empire Halladale took us to Liverpool.

Letter from Gunter Hahn
Letter from Gunter Hahn

Many years later I began corresponding with Korvettenkapitän Gunter Jahn, the Commander of the U-boat, U-596 that sank my ship. Gunter went on to become one of the most successful U-boat commanders in the Mediterranean Sea, eventually becoming the commander of the 29th U-boat Flotilla.

The letter is Gunter Jahn’s reply to my first correspondence to him.

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