Just 50 commandos forced the surrender of 2,000 troops

George Gower at home in Cosham.
George Gower at home in Cosham.
Tom Glover's mid-1970s' photograph of the remains of the old Gosport ferry Viva.

NOSTALGIA: A year in the life of an old Portsmouth wreck

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If you have a son still at school aged about 14 you would expect him to remain at home for a few years and then perhaps go to college.

In the 1930s Portsmouth such things were not an option and for one young lad from Old Portsmouth, entering the Royal Marines at Eastney Barracks at the age of 14 years and 10 months led to a life of excitement and, at times, the horror of warfare.

George Gower was born at 50, Highbury Street, Old Portsmouth, on October 23, 1923, on the stroke of midnight. His mother and the midwife tossed a coin to decide whether it was the 22nd or 23rd. The latter won.

He went to Old Portsmouth Town School between Highbury Street and Gunwharf Road.

In 1936 his father walked out on his mother and as the household was penniless George bunked off school and helped in the local blacksmith’s owned by Tom Barnes in Warblington Street, Old Portsmouth.

He worked as a striker for the blacksmith Fred Hutchins, a former naval blacksmith.

When he was 14 Fred gave George the tram fare and told him to go to Eastney and tell the marine on the gate he wanted to join the Royal Marines as a drummer boy.

George didn’t hesitate and when he got to the main gate the guard asked what he was after. ‘I want to be a drummer boy,’ George replied. He was given a medical and an interview with recruiting officer Captain Park-Smith, who died in the Dieppe raid where he was a beach master.

He asked George to return with a school report and a form signed by his mother. He did and the next day he was a Royal Marine.

George was sent to a mess with many other boys and started his new life learning to play the bugle, drum, the fife and flute.

After passing out he was drafted to HMS Argus, an early aircraft carrier. She was nicknamed Diddybox and he sailed with her to Alexandria, Port Said and Haifa.

On return to Eastney barracks he was told Britain was at war. He was still 15.

The whole unit that served in Argus was drafted to HMS Penelope and they marched with full RM band along Highland Road, Albert Road, Elm Grove, King’s Road what is now Museum Road, St George’s Road, The Hard and into the dockyard main gate. ‘All as proud as punch,’ George told me.

Penelope took part in the first Battle of Narvik where four German merchant ship captains were taken prisoner. George had to guard the men. ‘You will not get any trouble form us,’ said one of the captains. ‘We go to England yes? We don’t want to be at war.’ These men were not Nazis but ordinary seamen forced into the war by the Nazis.

George then trained as a commando and one day was told by his commanding officer that 50 Royal Marines were to take part in an operation which no-one was expected to survive. Where was this? Madagascar in the Indian Ocean which was held by the Vichy French.

The marines boarded the battleship HMS Ramillies and sailed from Durban. On arrival at Madagascar, a surrender ultimatum was sent but no reply came and so on May 5, 1942, an attack was made.

Two days later George went ashore with his 49 colleagues. They reached a barracks with a 12ft-high wall and scrambled over.

They reached a house being used as Vichy headquarters and where French, German and Japanese officers were billeted and crashed through the doors.

To the marines’ surprise most gave up without a fight and ordered the 2,000 troops to surrender.

In several rooms they found British army officers who had been captured in Burma and were in a dreadful state.

One officer asked who the troops were and on being told asked where all the others were. He was overcome when told there were only 50 of them.

After a few hours the Yorks & Lancs regiment and Scots Guards marched into the camp thinking there would be a fight, but George told them it was all over.

‘Where are all your troops?’ George was asked. ‘This is it. There are only 50 of us,’ he replied. The commander looked at him incredulously.

Later in the war George was taken ill and was sent to Plymouth and on to hospital for six months and then re-trained as a welder.

For the rest of the war George was used in construction and helped build the Mulberry Harbour which was sent across the Channel after D-Day.

He came out of the Royal Marines in 1947 and settled in Cosham in a house he has lived in since 1952.