For Kenneth (Ken) Joyce, there was no hesitation in his decision to enlist. Inspired at the age of twelve by his two uncles who were called up in 1939, both of whom were wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans the subsequent year, Ken remained unwavering in his intent to volunteer. When he and his schoolmates were pushed back from the Army who, Ken believes, at that stage were seeking only to recruit during large-scale call-ups, Ken instead enlisted with the Royal Navy in 1943. He was just seventeen years old.
For several months, Ken trained at the HMS Ganges in England, before being briefly stationed at a large naval base in Chatham. He recalls the moment when he discovered he was being deployed abroad, “I got weekend leave, when I got back on the Monday or Sunday night on the noticeboard my name was amongst the others who were called up…within two days I’d been over to France.”
Ken joined the Coastal Forces of the Royal Navy, enticed by the “flash motor, speedier boats and gunboats”. The Coastal Forces sailed for Normandy and, in the days following D-Day, commenced patrols along the expanse of the coastline. For four weeks they were responsible for safely escorting supplies and troops.
“For us, we see a ship coming in, find out what it is, and we send one or two of our boats to escort it in and get it into position where you could unload it or get the men off.’
However, at night especially, the crew regularly pursued German E-boats, barring their reinforcements from reaching the shore. Despite the ever-present danger for naval personnel, the now 94-year-old veteran laughs with the memory.
“It was great fun. I mean you have to remember I was a kid there; I was a seventeen-year-old. When you’re young and stupid like that, we loved it. We knew it was important, it was absolutely important to getting this Army right in and when they get off, most of them are landing in the sand, they’re soaking wet, they’re carrying their arms, they’re not in the best of things and you’ve got to make things as easy as you can for them.”
The crew remained in Normandy until mid-July when landings began to taper as the Allied forces pressed inward. Ken and his crew returned to Plymouth where they were granted three weeks leave while their ship was repaired and refitted with additional petrol tanks. Their next assignment: the Far East.
The first stop they reached on their journey was Gibraltar and Ken recalls the crowds coming to welcome the troops, “We were quite a thing there”.
Ken still laughs as he remembers the confusion amongst his shipmates when they were given bananas. At a time in which few bananas reached England, often only picked up by warships passing through the canary islands and sent predominantly to hospitals, many troops had never encountered such a fruit before, unaware that the skin had to be peeled off first. The troops carried on from Gibraltar to Algiers, Malta, through the canals of Alexandria, before reaching India where the men were given brief leave.
When the crew reached the northern part of Burma, they patrolled the river system, Ken aboard the ML 269. Despite the retreat of the Japanese forces further inland due to the earlier advance of the Fourteenth Army, the 14th Motor Launch Flotilla still encountered several Japanese vessels that remained, including sinking three armed landing craft at Kokowa Village on 18 May 1945. As the crew liberated the city of Rangoon, masses of inhabitants came to greet them. The city left devastated by the war with no water or electricity and where crime and disease proliferated. It was also during this period that the troops were able to recover a number of prisoners of war who were left to perish in the camps as hundreds of fellow internees were marched inland. Ken encountered one prisoner, who was a rubber plantation owner, by the name of Tom Joyce. Despite bearing no relation, the men bonded over their shared surname, an affinity that would last for decades after the war.
Ken was in Rangoon when news of Japan’s surrender was announced. For the men, the news was unexpected. The Royal Navy had been preparing to land in Malaya, with great confidence amongst the men that they would be able to successfully repel the remaining Japanese. While the news of the surrender was welcomed by most of the elder chaps, the 94-year-old veteran laughs as he recalls the dismay amongst the younger sailors such as himself thinking, “bugger the bloody Americans and their stupid bombs.”
However, the news was not initially accepted by some members of the opposing force. Ken recalls how their crew escorted Japanese officials through Burma to declare via loudspeaker the Emperor’s message. When the crew was fired upon, their captain determined that he was not willing to lose any more men and the troops withdrew once more to Rangoon.
Before his twentieth birthday, Ken Joyce had survived a World War, taken part in one of the most internationally renowned military campaigns in history at Normandy and been involved in the liberation of scores of civilians and prisoners of war in Burma. He continued to serve for over a year after the cessation of hostilities quelling the Indonesian uprising in Java as well as supervising Japanese prisoners at Blakang Mati, on an island off the coast of Singapore, as they loaded ammunition dumps onto barges. Following the complaint raised by his family as to why he was still abroad, however, Ken alongside eight others were transported home to England in 1947.
“By the time I came back, the war seemed almost forgotten.”
After a brief stay with extended relatives in London, he returned to Scotland to be reunited with his family once more. Ken would later marry the daughter of former prisoner Tom Joyce in January 1954, the couple making several trips back to Burma and aiding local charities in the country. In 2015, he was one of five veterans to be honoured with the Légion d'honneur, France’s highest decoration, aboard the French frigate FNS Vendémiaire at Garden Island in Sydney for his services during the Normandy Invasion.
Ken passed away on 26 June 2023.