As more than 175,000 Allied troops sailed toward the shores of Normandy, France, on D-Day, Frank Patterson was aboard a motor torpedo boat, defending the invasion force as it approached the beaches of gold-coloured sand.
Nearly 80 years after that historic battle on June 6, 1944, Patterson has been awarded the Chevalier Medal of the French Legion of Honour, the country’s highest decoration, for his personal involvement in the liberation of France in the Second World War.
The Royal Navy veteran now resides in West Vancouver, and will celebrate his 101st birthday on April 15.
As a stoker aboard a motor torpedo boat – a class of smaller but deadly vessels, often called “Spitfires of the Sea” – Patterson was responsible for keeping its powerful petrol engines running below deck.
“I was scared,” he admits, describing the feeling of rubbing up against 5,000 gallons of high-octane fuel amid the hull-ringing sounds of combat.
Apart from engine duties, Patterson had jobs on deck too, loading the heavy guns and torpedoes the MTBs were named for. This was dangerous work. Not only did he face the threat of his enemies, his own crew was a hazard as well.
“I was loading up a gun, and I said to the guy, ‘Don’t swing the gun around,’” Patterson said. “So he swung the gun.”
That accident put him in hospital for two weeks, and left his hands permanently damaged. Still, Patterson recalls the event with a characteristic wisecrack: “He was a gunner, supposedly. Probably knew better than I did, but only just.”
Royal Navy veteran defended ground troops bound for Gold Beach
After the war broke out, Patterson volunteered to join the Royal Navy but was rejected as he was only 17 years old at the time. He was told he could join the army, which he refused due to his particular distaste for marching.
Patterson joined the navy a year later. “I was proud,” he said. He relished the feeling of being in uniform.
Following basic training, he was assigned to serve on an MTB. These nimble gunboats were typically around 22 metres long and six metres wide, and could hit speeds of up to 40 knots (74 kilometres per hour). MTBs were used primarily to protect Allied shipping routes and attack Axis ones, and had a German counterpart called the E-boat.
Patterson served in the Coastal Forces, a division of the Royal Navy. He was first deployed to defend the eastern coasts of England and Scotland, and to carry out raids on Norwegian ports occupied by the Germans. Based in Scapa Flow, he faced bitter cold in the middle of winter.
On D-Day, Patterson’s crew and other MTBs provided crucial protection for the thousands of ships carrying the ground invasion force to the beaches of Normandy. The naval component of the offensive was dubbed Operation Neptune.
Canada’s significant role in the June 6 ground offensive is well known, and Canadians were heavily involved in the naval operation as well. Fighting alongside Patterson were flotillas of MTBs from the Royal Canadian Navy. The main targets of their torpedoes and machine gun fire were German boats trying to stop soldiers and war machines from reaching the shore.
Patterson’s vessel protected Allied boats bound for Amaranche, code named Gold Beach, right at the heart of the Normandy invasion.
Torpedo boats had a huge impact in this type of assault from the sea. According to historical records, one key aspect of the Normandy invasion’s continued success were risky air raids of German-held ports that crippled the enemy’s own force of E-boats.
Following D-Day, Patterson saw action in Malta, Italy, Egypt and North Africa, as the Allies aimed to cut off German supply routes through the Mediterranean.
Survival at sea involved subterfuge, and sometimes singing
To ensure their continued success and survival at sea, Patterson’s crew would pull from a diverse quiver of tactics, which often involved subterfuge.
“We’d go in at night, blow the hell out of ‘em, and in the morning went back out with the German flag flying – ‘Bye, sorry Germans!’” he exclaimed, followed by a raspy chuckle.
Sometimes, under the cover of night, Patterson and his crew would sneak plastic explosives into enemy positions, he said.
On other nights, he would play soccer with the Germans.
“They were friendly kinds of guys,” Patterson said. He remembers experiencing some conflicted feelings, having a laugh one minute with the people you were trying to kill the next.
On his own ship, there was a fair amount of merrymaking, aided in part by the Royal Navy’s rum ration, which stayed in force until 1970. When sailing through the waters near Egypt, for instance, you might have caught him singing a raucous refrain in mockery of King Farouk, the country’s ruler at the time.
As the war drew to a close, Patterson thought he’d be on his way home. But following an assessment, he was chosen to command a German prisoner of war camp in Tobruk, Libya in 1945.
Patterson and wife known as exceptional ballroom dancers in West Vancouver
When he returned to England, Patterson took up his former job as a truck driver delivering beer for a company called Haigh and Howard.
Living in Lancashire, he rejoined his wife, Doris, whom he married in 1943. Patterson described civilian life as “quiet,” and required some adjustment after years of serving in the navy.
Seeking new opportunities, the couple immigrated to Canada in 1957 with their son Myron, an only child. They settled in North Vancouver before moving to West Vancouver, where Patterson has lived for the past 30 years.
In the community, Patterson and his wife were well-known as exceptional ballroom dancers, regularly lighting up the floor at the Harmony Arts Festival, as well as the Grand Ballroom in Richmond. For a time, Patterson returned to life at sea, as the couple was employed to lead ballroom dancing on a cruise ship.
France honours veteran for his service 80 years ago
Over the past several years, the French consulate in Canada has put out renewed calls in its search to honour surviving veterans of the Second World War. Upon learning this, Patterson’s good friend David Petitpierre suggested that he would be eligible to receive the Legion of Honour. Patterson’s son Myron then filled out the necessary documentation, which included the record of his father serving on one of the ships that supported the liberation of France at Normandy.
In a letter dated Sept. 20, 2023, French Ambassador Michel Miraillet expressed his country’s respect for Patterson’s contribution to the combat that ended the German occupation.
“Through you, France remembers the sacrifice of all your compatriots who came to liberate French soil,” reads the letter.
With a glint in his eye, perhaps casting back to memories of his service eight decades ago, Patterson reflected on receiving the high honour.
“It felt nice,” he said.