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RM People - Sgt John Joseph 'Ian' Coombes

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Sgt Coombes survived the sinking of the Royal Oak on 14 October 1939, the first major blow to the Royal Navy. After training the UK he was then posted to Crete and was lost when on board HMS Hereward during the evacuation of Crete, probably killed by a Stuka Dive bomber hit alongside Sgt Maj Newstead and Col Sgt Hunt on 29th May 1941.

Most of the following is kindly reproduced with permission of Ian's son Mike Coombes.

Although christened 'John Joseph’ he was known in the family and to friends as ‘Ian'” Ian Coombes joined the Royal Marines in February 1931, and before the outbreak of World War 2 he had served in Plymouth, Portsmouth, London, Deal, HMS Dolphin and for two and a half years in HMS Despatch on the Mediterranean station. He married Dorothy Pointer in January 1937 and joined the Battleship HMS Royal Oak on 7th June 1939, by which time they had two children: Diana and Michael.

Ian before the war (closest to tent)

The family experience on the sinking of HMS Royal Oak is best described in Dorothy’s own words, written when in her nineties shortly before she died: Ian joined Royal Oak in 1939 - a few months before the outbreak of war. At that time we were married with a daughter and son. Ian felt that war was imminent. He was anxious that we should not remain in Portsmouth which city would be in danger zone for war if it should arise, so he accepted his aunt’s offer to have us at her home near Petersfield while he was at sea. We came to Sheet (a village near Petersfield) a few days before war was declared.

On Saturday 14th October 1939 Auntie May went shopping in the town, nearly 2 miles away, and while there heard the news that one of our ships had been sunk, and the name of the ship. She arrived home breathless and exhausted because she didn’t want me to be alone with the children when the news came on the radio at lunch time.

Upon seeing her in such a state after her long walk - I suspected bad news, and when I said ‘Not the Royal Oak?’ she nodded Yes.

So early in the war the shock was terrible and I hoped it wasn’t true. But it was on the radio.

I can remember how stunned I was and picked up my 9 month old son, and just wandered round the garden for hours. Later that evening 2 visitors arrived - they were from a greengrocer shop in Petersfield.

My mother-in-law as Ian’s next of kin had been informed that Ian was safe, so they had received the news from her and came to Sheet to let me know. They had a telephone which was a rare luxury in those days.

The shock brought me to floods of tears of joy, but next morning in the Sunday newspaper the name Coombes was there, but the initials wrong - so again I was in doubt until later I received a telegram just to say ‘All’s well’, so I knew he had survived, and looked forward to his coming home.

The telegram from Ian to his family ''alls' well'

At the time of the sinking Ian was 26 years of age, I 25 and the children daughter 2 years and son 9 months.

Eventually he arrived home to Sheet - but was a changed man for a while, and wouldn’t talk about it to the family. He had received a shock. At the time of the ship being hit while in harbour he was on night watch and when the order came to abandon ship he jumped into the sea, and being a good swimmer was able to assist a sailor who was a non-swimmer. They used a piece of debris for support and then when he realised the sailor had died he continued to swim. That was another shock. It so happened that his duty period had saved his life for the Royal Marines’ mess deck had received a direct hit.’ ….. Ian’s experience had been traumatic and he had not wanted to talk about it for some time, but it was not until 2014, exactly on the 75th anniversary of the fateful day, that the family of one of the Royal Marines lost in the Royal Oak tragedy, published on the Royal Oak internet website a letter which their family had received soon after the tragedy, and from which they had drawn comfort for three quarters of a century. To the Coombes family’s amazement, the letter had been written by Ian himself, and it was gratifying for them to know that even in his darkest time he had been able to write a comforting letter which they had kept in the family archives for so long.

On 3 November 1939 he had written: ‘Royal Marine Barracks, Eastney, Portsmouth 3 November 1939 Dear Mr and Mrs Woods,

Since I saw your address in a Scottish newspaper I have spent some time wondering if I should write or not. On the one hand I might add, I thought, to your sadness in your loss, without doing any material good at all, but on the other I may be able to give you a little more information than you have been able to obtain so far, and it may be comforting to hear from somebody who was with your son almost up to the last. I have made enquiries, and think that I was probably the last man with him.

We were very good friends, and in Portsmouth he voluntarily stood “sub” for me when I was duty on the last night before we left, although at that time I barely knew him. He was always willing and ready to do a good turn for anybody at any time. I also remember how pleased and excited he was when he was able to get a weekend leave from Invergordon. On the night on which the ‘Royal Oak’ went down I was on duty, and went up to the quarter deck after the first explosion in case I was required.

‘Timber’ (we all knew him by that nickname and I hope that you will not mind me using it now) came up, and we were talking together about it and wondering what it might be. I was standing near to him when the second explosion came, and we had hardly moved before there was a third. Fumes and smoke swept over us and it was not possible to see clearly but even though my impressions of that time are hazy, I think that I saw him just ahead of me running to the gangway as the ship listed over; by the time that I got there myself and had removed my overcoat, he had jumped into the water. I jumped in myself, but in the darkness, with all the shouting, and a fourth explosion from the quarterdeck which we had just left, I couldn't see him among the many around me, heads were just black blobs in the water. I was lucky enough to get hold of a piece of wood, and then had a last look around, there was a seaman near by who had jumped over at about the time that we did so, but he and the Midshipman who should have been there had disappeared. The two of us held on to the wood and presently were picked up.

I hope that I have done rightly in writing. I shall always remember him, with the greatest of respect as a brave man, he was calm all the time, and did not show any sign at all of panic or fear; it seems that all the best men went down with the ship. At least he was spared the horrors of those who were trapped inside, for which I am very thankful indeed, and I know just how thankful you will be.

He told me he had a brother in the Corps, and I believe that I knew him slightly when I was in the gymnasium office at Deal. I hope and believe that he will be spared through this wretched business.

Very Sincerely yours J J Coombes

PS If there is any further information which you would like to have, and that I might be able to give or obtain, please ask me, and I will do my very best to supply it’. As one might expect Ian’s own experience had been traumatic, and he had not wanted to talk about it for some months. Ian spent the next four months in the Royal Marines’ Barracks, Eastney, and in February 1940 was posted to join the MNBDO (Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation) giving small arms and anti-aircraft fire training to new recruits at Derby and Arborfield near Reading.

Ian Coombes with his fellow instructors at Arborfield Berkshire

It was not until April 1940 that in a letter to a close friend Ian felt able to recount his experiences in HMS Royal Oak and to write: ‘Royal Marines 205 Training Regiment Arborfield 12/4/40 ‘ ……. I can talk about the ‘Royal Oak’ affair (now very much out of the limelight) without getting all upset. At first I used to feel very miserable when I thought of the splendid men who I had lost, and it unsettled me a little. I make very few good friends, two of them went with her.

I was on watch, 12-4, and had just gone down to see the Keyboard Sentry. A sailor came along for the magazine keys and as he was signing the book we heard a very muffled explosion forward. All of the plates in the ship rang against each other and the whole ship shuddered. I told the sentry, who was scared, to stay on his post, and ran forward to the marines’ mess deck myself. One or two men were turning out of their hammocks, most stayed where they were. They thought, I guess, that it was a small collision or something, and did not want to have to get up in the middle of the night as they were not ‘duty watch’. I can understand it. I went from there onto the quarter-deck, and for about a quarter of an hour people were coming and going, and an investigation was going on forward. I was sent to tell the drifter to get up steam. We just stood and wondered and talked. There was a faint smell of cordite, or something similar.

We were so keyed up that the second explosion, which was terrific, was not, in my experience at least, half so bad a shock as it might very easily have been. There was a flash, the whole ship was blown up, and debris shot up into the air. It was followed almost immediately by another and the ship straight away started to heel over. Dense flames swept right over the quarter deck, they almost choked one.

I could not keep my footing on the deck. She was heeling to starboard, so I ran to the port rail and hung on. Several men were either jumping into the drifter or over the boom into the picket boat. Part of the superstructure had crashed over and smashed the launch on the starboard side.

When the ship was nearly on her side I decided that she really was going to sink, and made up my mind when the starboard side of the quarterdeck went up (The marines’ mess deck below was just over the magazine) I climbed the rail and ran down the ship’s side. Men were trying to scramble through the ports from inside. We could see the flames inside as we helped a few out.

We had hardly rescued any before she turned right over. I scrambled onto the keel, and jumped as far to port as I could. Thought ‘I shall be dragged down’. I was drawn under, but not far, I kicked and struggled through arms and legs and got to the top again. (The depth was not great, and therefore the suction was not too bad. Some men say that the keel re-appeared, but I did not see it).

The sea was thick with heads. I swam to get away from them, and struck out on my own. I must have gone about 200 yards when I found a piece of wood, and held on to it. There were cries for help all around, the sound of engines, but I could see nothing. A sailor swam up from somewhere. I remember saying something about making our way to shore holding onto the wood. About ¾ miles away were cliffs, the other way, low beach, about 4 miles away. We kicked out for low beach. We started out but gave up because of the cold! Whilst we were still kicking the drifter came near to us, we shouted but were not heard. A little later she passed again, going very slowly. We took a chance, left the wood, struck out for her and came up as she stopped to pick some men from off of a Carly raft.

It was devilish cold and we stayed for another two hours in the drifter until she was nearly full. By the time that they had taken us on board the Pegasus I had nearly given up the ghost. Three or four men died of exposure.

I heard all about the worst part, which I personally had not witnessed, from other men. The sheets of flame below which burned them in their hammocks, mess decks blowing up under their feet etc … Thats all At the end of 1940 Ian was posted to go to sea again - destination unknown - and he left home in December 1940. He had arranged with Dorothy a code by which she would know where he was in aerogrammes, and Dorothy therefore knew that he was in Crete, where he was with the MNBDO in defence of the Heraklion Garrison.

© IWM E 3138E A pall of smoke hanging over the habour in Suda Bay where two ships, hit by German bombers, are burning, 25 June 1941.

The successful German invasion of Crete forced the withdrawal of British forces from the Island and records of the action indicate that on the night of 28th May 1941 destroyers from Alexandria entered Heraklion Harbour, embarked troops from the jetties, and ferried them to Cruisers outside the harbour. By 0245 on 29th May ferrying was complete and the group proceeded at 29 knots at 0320 with 4,000 troops, including Ian, embarked.

German paratroopers dropping from Junkers Ju 52s over Crete, 20 May 1941. © IWM (A 4154)

All was going well until at 0345 HMS Imperial’s steering gear failed and she narrowly avoided colliding with one of the cruisers. It was essential to be as far as possible from enemy air bases by daylight and the difficult decision had to be made whether to delay and try to effect repairs, or to sink the ship and carry on. Learning that her rudder was jammed, Rear Admiral Rawlings ordered that Imperial be sunk, and that HMS Hotspur should take off the Imperial’s troops and crew, and he reduced the speed of the group to 15 knots.

This was accomplished by 0445 and the Hotspur, which now had 900 men aboard rejoined the squadron just after daybreak. However the delay had caused the group to be an hour and a half late in passing through the narrows between Crete and Kassos, planned to be complete before daybreak, and the group was discovered by four Junker 88s.

HMS Hereward

Enemy Air attacks on the force began at 0600 and continued at intervals until 1500 by which time the Group was within 100 miles of Alexandria. In view of the changed timings, planned Allied air defence failed to appear and at 0625 HMS Hereward had been hit by a bomb which had caused her to fall away from her position in the group, and Rear Admiral Rawlings had again to decide whether to risk the whole group or leave one ship to certain destruction. He decided not to risk further casualties and HMS Hereward was last seen making slowly towards Crete, only 5 miles distant, with her guns engaging enemy aircraft.

In the confusion of mass speedy evacuation, there was no record of which ship troops had been allocated to, and initially it was not known which ship Ian had been travelling in. He was posted only as ‘Missing’ until the end of the war when Dorothy received a letter from King George VI acknowledging that he had died, nominally on 1st June 1941.

The family kept alive the hope that he may somehow have survived, but it was not until after the war that an advertisement for information on Ian was placed in the Royal Marines’ magazine, Globe and Laurel, and information from other Royal Marines was received to indicate that he had been in HMS Hereward when she was hit.

Ian Coombes RM People []

One of the letters was from Major R W Hoole who wrote: HQ RMTG Devon, Exmouth 10 February 1946 Dear Mrs Coombes

I have just seen in the Globe and Laurel for January that you would be glad of any information as to when your husband was last seen.

I only trust that I am not repeating what you know already, but your husband (he was our section Sergeant Major) came down to the harbour with us all and boarded HMS Hereward. The ship was very crowded and he accompanied with Sgt Major Newstead and C/Sgt Hunt remained on deck and prepared to do the trip to Alexandria.

As the ship was so crowded some of us had to move off onto another and just before we left we saw Sgt Maj Newstead who said that he was alright and was with Col Sgt Hunt and your husband. This would be about midnight.

As you probably know, early next morning the Hereward was sunk and as far as we were able to gather your husband, Sgt Maj Newstead and Col Sgt Hunt must have been very near one of the hits and I understand were never seen again.

Some of those who were in the water and were later picked up say that they never saw anything of your husband or the other two.

I do hope this may be a little help but feel you may have heard all this before. Please accept my deepest sympathy in your loss.

Yours sincerely R W Hoole Dorothy died 16th February 2009 at the age of 95. The family now includes daughter Jane who Ian never had the chance to meet. Diana, Michael, Jane and their spouses travelled to Orkney on the 70th anniversary of the sinking. How we all wish that our father could have see his 7 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren, but the family take pride in the memory of a considerate and brave man.

Ian, Eric and Joseph listed in the Royal Marines Roll of Honour Database []

HMS Hereward participated in the evacuation of Greece in April 1941. She sank a number of fishing boats transporting German troops to Crete on 21 May and helped evacuate the Allied garrison of Heraklion on 29 May carrying 450 troops on board. Later that day she was attacked by GermanJunkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bombers and hit by one bomb just in front of her forward funnel. She turned towards the nearby coast of Crete, but was sunk by further airstrikes off Cape Sideros.

The bomb that sank the ship was dropped by a Ju 87 belonging to III./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2–Dive Bomber Wing 2). Four officers and 72 crewmen were killed, but the 89 survivors, along with the majority of the evacuees were rescued and taken prisoner by Italian MAS torpedo boats and the destroyer Francesco Crispi. [1]

[1] Wikipedia - HMS Hereward (H93)

More related 'Dits':

  1. Sinking of the Royal Oak

  2. Anti-Aircraft Regiments, Royal Marines (Coming soon)

  3. RM MBDO (Coming soon)

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