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HomeFeaturesA D-Day story: Part One – The crossing

A D-Day story: Part One – The crossing


With the 80th anniversary of D-Day tomorrow, this is an account of the part played in Operation Overlord by the Royal Artillery regiment of which my late father was a member. I started researching the unit’s history in 1992, and was fortunate enough to trace almost a dozen veterans, whom I got to know well. They were the finest of their generation, kind and gentlemanly in their conduct, modest without fail in telling their stories, and careful to avoid exaggeration – ‘shooting a line’ as they put it. And the last thing any of them would have called himself was a hero. Sadly, all are now gone and today I believe there are only between 50 and 100 D-Day veterans left in Britain. The men of my father’s regiment were only one tiny piece of the vast and complex Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. But, having generously shared their story with me, I offer it as a tribute to all who served in what the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, called ‘this great and noble undertaking’.

SINCE early April, the men of the 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, had been stationed in a wooded area near the village of Horndean, north of Portsmouth. They were among 2.8million Allied troops assembled across southern England in scores of heavily-guarded tented encampments in preparation for the invasion.

My 33-year-old father, Gunner Leo McCarthy, was a gunlayer with the 92nd’s Fox Troop, which consisted of six self-propelled 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. These mobile artillery pieces were based on a lorry chassis, with the gun towards the rear and the crew aboard, constantly ready for action. The Bofors was akin to a giant machine gun, able to fire 120 rounds per minute as the gunners fed it with high explosive or armour-piercing shells. In the right hands, it was a flexible, formidable weapon, which could be used against ground targets as well as aircraft. (You can see the self-propelled guns of the 92nd in action against ground targets in this Imperial War Museum footage filmed in early 1945.)

Gunner Leo McCarthy

The initial D-Day assault on five beaches – codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – would be made by 160,000 British, Canadian and American soldiers along a 60-mile stretch of the Normandy coast between the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula near St Mere Eglise and the mouth of the Orne River at Ouistreham.

Fox Troop, accompanied by its ammunition trucks and radio vehicles, would land on the easternmost beach, Sword, as part of 3rd British Infantry Division. Once ashore, it had a special mission – defending two vital bridges that were key to the success of Overlord. However, to maintain secrecy, the gunners would not be told of these objectives until they were en route to France.

With D-Day scheduled for June 5, the journey of Fox Troop began on the evening of June 2.

Gunner Len Harvey, a 20-year Cockney who served with my father on Gun F3, recalled how the men of the 92nd could hardly believe that their long wait was finally over. ‘The order came to prepare the guns and vehicles for action and put personal items in the 15cwt truck,’ he recalled. ‘Was this IT? It certainly sounded like it. But so many times before, we had thought it was the real thing only to find ourselves going out on landing craft and coming back ashore in England. This time, somehow, it felt different.’

Gunner Len Harvey

Fox Troop was scheduled to embark from Stokes Bay, near Gosport, just west of Portsmouth. ‘We took our positions on the gun, drove out of the camp and parked along the verge of the road to Gosport, along with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery of all sorts and sizes,’ said Len. ‘We slept that night by the side of our gun, as did hundreds of men in other units. Come the morning, food was brought out to us and we prepared to move on to Gosport.’

At 9am on June 3, the troop set out along roads crowded with soldiers and vehicles to make the painfully slow 20-mile journey through the Hampshire countryside to the southern end of Stokes Bay near Gilkicker Point. There, they found the curving shoreline filled with scores of landing craft berthed against ‘hards’ – specially-laid carpets of concrete blocks which formed firm loading ramps across the shingle.

Awaiting the gunners were two tank landing craft, known as LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank), the workhorses of the invasion armada. These flat-bottomed, shallow-draught vessels – 187ft long and weighing 586 tons – could carry men and materials directly on to an enemy beach. They had no names, just numbers. The fleet numbers of the two carrying Fox Troop were LCT 405 and LCT 408.

By 9.30pm that evening, all the 92nd’s soldiers – a total of 64 men – had boarded both LCTs along with their Bofors guns, lorries and motor cycles. Guns F4, F5 and F6 went aboard LCT 405, while guns F1, F2 and F3 went aboard LCT 408. Men and vehicles from various other units, such as the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Service Corps, were also being transported on the two landing craft.

Clutching their myriad personal equipment – including rifle and pack, and a supply of vomit bags – the soldiers saw their vehicles safely chained to the decks, then slipped into the spaces between the mobile guns, trying to get some rest and to clear their minds of growing apprehension. Once all was secure, the two LCTs moved out of harbour as part of naval Task Force S – indicating that their destination was Sword Beach – to link up with the rest of the gigantic invasion fleet.

But, agonisingly, the waiting continued. With summer storms lashing the Channel, Dwight Eisenhower – the American general who was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force – was forced to postpone the invasion for 24 hours. Confined in their swaying, bobbing ships, the troops could only try to quell their growing seasickness and hope that the misery would soon end.

During the night of June 4, the two Fox Troop LCTs lay off Ryde, in the shelter of the Isle of Wight. But even that was not much help as the weather became rougher. ‘A lot of the lads started to feel seasick and were a variety of colours – some were blue, some green, some ashen white and all looked ghastly,’ said Len.

Time dragged by with painful slowness, testing nerves to the limit. By now, many a man was fervently praying to get to the far shore despite all its dangers. The prospect of facing the shot and shell of the enemy seemed nothing compared with the terrible nausea brought on by the heaving seas.

‘Luckily, I was not affected with seasickness and I think I was the only one to have breakfast the next morning,’ said Len. ‘All the lads wanted to do was go and get the job done and get off that bloody ship.’

Aboard LCT 405, Driver-Radio Operator Jim Holder-Vale, 20, from Walthamstow, north-east London, settled down in the back of his truck with his pal Ken Nash, another driver-op. ‘As usual, I slept like a log, a habit learned during the Blitz,’ he recalled. ‘The next morning, it was obvious there had been a storm in the night. An adjacent LCT had managed to get its anchor cable under our boat and there was much shouting and manoeuvring. There were hundreds of LCTs all around us.

‘The only area set aside for the troops on our landing craft was a recess at the back of the loading deck beneath the bridge. It looked like a bus shelter with a seat all round the sides. So we slept in our trucks and our hot food was prepared by our cooks in a bulkhead near the ramp at the bow.

‘We were wearing battle dresses that stank of chlorine and the new large “assault” helmets, which were heavy and not well balanced. They had been painted with gas detector paint.

‘We had two 24-hour ration packs, which included boiled sweets and lavatory paper, and as many extra self-heating cans of soup and cocoa as we could lay our hands on, and finally an inflatable lifebelt. Because I was carrying a Sten gun with eight filled magazines in my pouches, I would have sunk like a stone if I had gone overboard.’

Driver-Radio Operator Jim Holder-Vale

Despite their discomfort, the thousands of fed-up, fearful and frustrated soldiers being buffeted by the wild waters of the Channel could do nothing but wait until a decision was made about the invasion. Theirs not to reason why.

Then, almost miraculously, Eisenhower’s meteorological experts told him there would be a temporary improvement in the weather around June 6. Conditions would be far from perfect, but it was the only chance on offer. Any further delay could mean Overlord being aborted, with unimaginable consequences.

After a conference with his senior officers near Portsmouth on the evening of June 4, after studying all the maps, hearing all the reports, canvassing all the opinions, after considering all the facts and all the eventualities, the grim-faced Supreme Commander finally made his decision – one of the most momentous in history.

Eisenhower’s decision was: ‘We go.’

As the order went out to the invasion forces, the bearded skipper of the 92nd’s lead LCT, number 405, Lieutenant John Francis ‘Jack’ Pointon – a New Zealander known as Kiwi – assembled the gunners for a briefing. He grimly assured them that when they reached the coast of France, he would get them as far up the beach as possible, particularly if the Germans set the sea on fire.

He ended his address by reciting to the men the prayer that Nelson had written before the Battle of Trafalgar: ‘May the Great God whom I worship grant to my country and to the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory! And may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it! And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me – and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.’

Lieutenant John ‘Kiwi’ Pointon

With such stirring sentiments, the men of Fox Troop set sail at 6pm on the evening of June 5 for the 140-mile crossing to France. And this time, there would be no turning back. From the coves of Cornwall to the Thames estuary, the great grey armada of the invasion fleet got under way. Off the coasts of Hampshire and Dorset, the vessels of Task Force S slipped their moorings and steamed slowly towards their assembly areas below the Isle of Wight. Then, in the gathering darkness, they turned south for the Normandy beaches.

Aboard LCT 405, there was immediate drama. ‘A submarine had been detected and destroyers began racing up and down the convoy dropping depth-charges,’ Gunner George Baker, a 21-year-old Liverpudlian, recalled. ‘As they exploded, the landing craft almost jumped out of the water with the blast.’

In choppy seas, the massive convoy steamed through the short summer night. On board, apprehension was growing. ‘But the main feeling was that we wanted to get on with it,’ said George. ‘We still didn’t realise what we were going into, but there was no turning back.’

Gunner George Baker

As LCT 408 ploughed through the swell, the crew of Gun F3 made a pledge among themselves. When the traditional rum issue was handed out during the crossing, none of them drank it, most being too seasick to stomach it. Instead, Sergeant Bill Fletcher suggested that they should pour each individual portion into one single jug and put the whole lot to one side aboard the gun for safe keeping. The rum would not be drunk, they vowed, until they could use it to toast the end of the war.

Sergeant Bill Fletcher

As the light faded, the landing craft were shepherded across the Channel amid a seemingly endless line of frigates, destroyers, cruisers and heavy warships, with motor torpedo boats swerving in and out of the fleet. ‘There were dozens of aircraft overhead – Spitfires, Hurricanes and Typhoons circling the fleet for protection, but soon it was dark and we could hear the noise of heavy bombers on their way to the Continent,’ said Len Harvey.

At dusk, the men finally learned what they would be facing when they landed in Normandy. ‘Our officer, Lieutenant Nigel Coombs, called all the boys together and told us where we were going and what our task was to be.’

Fox Troop’s mission was to get off the beach and drive six miles eastwards to two bridges – one over the Caen Canal near the village of Benouville, and one a few hundred yards further on, which spanned the River Orne near the village of Ranville.

Both crossings, which formed a vital pivot point on the eastern extremity of the invasion area, would initially be seized by British Airborne troops. But keeping control of the bridges, and protecting them from enemy aircraft, was vital to the success of the invasion. If the Germans recaptured them, the assault troops heading inland off the beaches would be open to a flank attack. If the bridges were destroyed, it would hamper British troops who were forming a defensive shield east of the Orne.

High above the darkened ships, men of the British 6th Airborne Division were already over France. At 16 minutes after midnight, a specially-trained reinforced company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major John Howard, landed by glider almost on the two bridges. In a swift and dramatic coup de main assault – easily the most successful operation of D-Day – they captured both crossings intact from defending German soldiers.

The Caen Canal bridge was later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the winged horse symbol of the Airborne forces, while the Orne river crossing was dubbed Horsa Bridge, after the gliders which carried the men to war.

Len recalled: ‘Lieutenant Coombs said we had to get through as quickly as possible to the two bridges to give support to the Airborne in holding them, even if it meant leaving the other half of the troop behind. We were told that if the enemy were to recapture those bridges, the whole invasion would be put in jeopardy. We were to defend to the last.’

To be continued tomorrow

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Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy is a writer with an interest in military history

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