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A D-Day story: Part Two – The landing


Today is the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and this is the second part of an account of the Royal Artillery unit of which my late father was a member during Operation Overlord. He and his comrades were only one tiny piece of the vast and complex Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. But I offer their story as a tribute to all who served in what the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, called ‘this great and noble undertaking’. You can read yesterday’s Part 1 here.

AS THE grey dawn of June 6 broke in the Channel, a sight unfolded that would forever be imprinted on the memories of the men who saw it. Some 7,000 vessels covered the sea from horizon to horizon, the greatest seaborne force ever assembled, carrying the spearhead divisions to the beaches of France.

On LCT 405, George Baker watched awestruck. ‘It was incredible,’ he said. ‘You would never believe how it could have been done.’

At 7.25am, preceded by amphibious Sherman tanks of the 13th / 18th Hussars, the assault infantry of 3rd Division’s 8 Brigade began landing on Sword Beach on a narrow front between the small seaside resorts of Colleville Plage and La Breche d’Hermanville and started fighting their way inland. Around 9am, a Royal Marines Commando force under Lord Lovat – memorably accompanied by the skirl of bagpipes played by Piper Bill Millin – disembarked and headed for the bridges to reinforce Howard’s hard-pressed Airborne troops.

Next to land would be 185 Brigade, followed by 9 Brigade – to whose convoy the 92nd’s two LCTs were attached. However, the first men ashore from the regiment were the Fox Troop CO, Captain Robert Reid, and Sergeant Francis Connor. They accompanied the Commandos to reconnoitre towards Benouville by motorcycle. Their job was to find suitable locations for the guns around the bridges and to be ready to receive the main body of the troop.

By 9.30am, the two Fox Troop landing craft were about three miles off the beaches. But they were not due to start their run-ins until 1pm, touching down at 1.25pm on Queen Red sector of Sword Beach near Colleville Plage.

Jim Holder-Vale, aboard LCT 405, recalled that they were accompanied by a corvette. By an astonishing coincidence, one of the officers on the corvette was his comrade Ken Nash’s father.

‘Eventually on the horizon we could see what looked like a film set, the dark line of the coast with plumes of dark smoke rising to the east,’ said Jim. ‘About the same time, we saw our first body float by – a German airman in his pale blue flying suit.

‘Then, quite close, a horned sea mine wandered by, which Ken and I watched with some fascination. Kiwi, the skipper, came out on to the bridge and called down that a mine had been seen nearby and would we watch out for it. He was none too pleased when we told him it had already gone past – he thought we should have told him.

‘Soon, we were starting our run-in. Then Kiwi told us that Ken’s father had sent across a radio message from the corvette, sending his best wishes to Ken and to all of us.’

Jim recalled that his feeling at this time was one of apprehension, a little fatalism, but also faith in his training. ‘Just go along with what was happening – that seemed to be the way I reacted. We were doing this and, like it or not, this was our fate.’

But instead of continuing its run-in, the landing craft turned and started to circle. ‘Kiwi came on to the bridge again and told us the beach was too crowded for us to land and we had to wait until it had cleared. However, some years after, I found that we were delayed because the beach was under heavy shellfire. I gather that the battleship HMS Rodney was sent to deal with a heavy gun at Le Havre.

‘After a while, we started again. Our craft, as the leader, was now at the east end of the line as we approached the beach. Suddenly, a large spout of water shot up on our port side and it sounded as if the bottom of the LCT had been struck by an enormous hammer.

‘There was another spout on the starboard side and a loud bang, and it occurred to me that we had just been bracketed – that’s the way they got the range, with the first two shots. The next one should be a hit. But I don’t know if there ever was a third shell, because we were suddenly told to mount up into our vehicles and start up our engines.’

LCT 405’s 19-year-old First Lieutenant, Arthur Walters, recalled: ‘The German guns had found our range during the first run-in. It was quite fascinating, not particularly scary, but I remember well the plumes of seawater coming up in between our craft. Fortunately, none of the shells hit and so we just ploughed on through it.’

First Lieutenant Arthur Walters

It was 2.30pm by the time the landing craft approached Queen Red. Arthur Walters, wearing his anti-flash gear of gloves and balaclava, went forward to supervise the lowering of the ramp and the disembarkation of men and vehicles.

He said: ‘I can remember during this time seeing bodies floating past and wrecked landing craft drifting some way off the beach – in particular, an LCT of similar mark to my own, with an empty open tank space but with a vacant, flattened, smoking quarterdeck, where there used to be a wheelhouse, wardroom, and bridge superstructure – and no sign of life. The sight of such a familiar craft in such an unfamiliar, almost unrecognisable, state, I found quite uncanny.’

Jim Holder-Vale recalled: ‘The landing craft came to a smooth stop and the ramp was lowered. The first vehicle off was one with a winch at the rear in case of any mishap and a vehicle needing help. But it drove straight into a large bomb crater in the sand and we had all disembarked by the time it was freed. It didn’t take long for us to disembark. We had been directed by a beachmaster to turn to the left and make our way to the nearest exit.’

As George Baker drove off the LCT in a 15cwt truck, he was painfully aware that the huge fleet of Allied warships off the beaches were constantly firing inland. ‘You could hear the 16-inch shells rifling over your head,’ he recalled. ‘My one thought was, “I hope they don’t fall short.”’

Gunner Tom Mason, another Liverpudlian, recalled: ‘I wasn’t seasick going over and I didn’t feel scared at all – I don’t know why. Once things get going, you just don’t feel scared. Someone on the landing craft was singing and I smoked constantly – I was smoking my brains out! Then as we neared the beach I saw the big warships blasting away with their heavy guns and a few corpses floating by.

‘As we left the landing craft, the first thing I saw were bulldozers digging big temporary graves for the lads who had fallen. They filled them in until the bodies could be taken away later for burial.’

Gunner Tom Mason

Jim Holder-Vale and his comrade Jack Taylor were last off the landing craft in their truck. ‘We stopped and I now had to jump out of the cab and get under the truck to remove the waterproofing sealant from the breather on the differential on the rear axle,’ said Jim.

‘This gave me the chance to look round. The first thing I saw was a corpse rolling in the surf – that was pretty horrible. I came from under the truck and saw that the beach was very narrow and we were fairly close to the sea wall. Lying against the sea wall were dead bodies that had been collected, mostly covered with gas capes. There were quite a lot there. Looking further along the beach, I saw explosions from shell or mortar fire.

‘Back in the cab, Jack couldn’t get the engine to start. This was prone to happen – unfortunately, for the D-Day landing our original 15cwt Bedford wireless truck had been replaced by a four-wheel drive Canadian Ford. The Ford’s engine had the nasty habit of dying when the truck stopped. And that’s what happened on the beach. So Jack set off to get help while I admired the view.

‘We got a tow start from a Bren gun carrier and set off to catch up with everyone else. Just as we turned into the beach exit, a truck in front was hit by a shell. From nowhere, medics arrived with a stretcher.

‘I then looked up to see three Junkers bombers overhead. One pulled away and dropped a stick of bombs – I thought they were intended for the landing craft. Almost immediately, some Spitfires turned up and in no time two of the Junkers had been shot down.’

As Arthur Walters watched the guns and men safely disembark, he clutched thoughtfully at the Colt .45 pistol which had been issued to him before setting out. ‘I had orders to wear it and to use it against any unauthorised person who might attempt to board while we were beached,’ he recalled. ‘And it was made clear to me that this included friend or foe.’

At this hour of the invasion, the military planners had anticipated a counter-attack by the Germans being in progress, with the possibility that some British troops might be keen for a quick return to England. Thus came the uncompromising command to the landing craft officers. ‘I was relieved at not having to put this order into effect,’ said Arthur. ‘And at not causing myself any accidental damage, for which these Colt .45s were notorious!’

At 3pm the LCT, despite triggering a small beach mine, pulled back off the sand to return to England and pick up further troops for Normandy. In all, it would make 27 crossings.

For the other Fox Troop men on LCT 408, there was equal drama and hazard. Approaching the beach, the landing craft was diverted at the last minute by a Tannoy call from a patrolling Navy motor launch, possibly because of some unseen hazard, such as a mine.

‘At first light, we could see the coast being bombarded by 16-inch guns from the Ramilles and Warspite warships,’ said Len Harvey. ‘In between the two heavy craft were two LCTs firing salvo after salvo of rockets. I was certainly glad I was not on the other end of what was going inland. Just then, shells from the shore started landing in the water around our craft. The skipper on his Tannoy ordered all Army personnel to keep down and take cover. I never saw another thing until the ramp went down.’

Because of the diversion, LCT 408 came ashore about a quarter of a mile west of its designated sector, landing at La Breche d’Hermanville. By now, the rapidly rising tide was dramatically narrowing the strip of sand on Sword, which was a melee of men, guns, vehicles and wreckage under constant enemy fire.

As the ramp went down, the self-propelled Bofors guns splashed into 4ft of water. Would they come to a dangerous, perhaps fatal, halt in the shallows, or would their engine waterproofing work?

Seconds later, they had their answer as engines revved healthily and the three guns powered up out of the surf. Aboard Gun F3, a spontaneous cheer went up for driver Ike Parry – who was responsible for the waterproofing – and Leo McCarthy reached forward to pat him gratefully on the back. The first test had been passed.

As they made their way ashore, a bizarre sight greeted the men straight ahead – a house that looked like a church, with a steeple-like tower to the right of the main building. Even at this most dangerous moment, humour came to the fore, with the soldiers asking: ‘Are we on church parade, then?’ Assured by Lieutenant Coombs that it was indeed a house, the gunners drove up the beach through taped-off lanes which had been cleared of mines and went straight through the garden of the property.

Having become separated from their comrades in LCT 405, the three guns from LCT 408 made all speed to catch up with them. Weaving through the chaos, carnage and confusion on the beach, they drove up on to the coastal road, past lines of infantry who were digging in and the tragic figures of soldiers who had fallen.

‘There was no fear at all,’ said Len. ‘When we got out of the water on to that beach, if you had said to any man, “You can get back on the landing craft and return to England”, no one would have gone. They wouldn’t go through that seasickness again.’

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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