- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Tony Lowndes
- Location of story:
- D Day between Hayling Island and Juno Beach
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 April 2004
A Tale Of Six Scaffolding Poles
The date was the 3rd June 1944 . The place H.M.S Northney III, a ‘stone frigate’ which was a requisitioned holiday camp situated at the end of Fishery Lane on the eastern end of Hayling Island Hampshire. This comprised of wooden chalets, a dining hall a NAAFI a wardroom and a single GPO coin box public telephone.
The unit was 802 LCV(P) Landing Craft Flotilla Royal Marines. I was a 19 year old Lieutenant.
The LCV(P) (Landing Craft Vehicle / Personnel is a small craft invented by the Americans to carry assault troops from Landing Ships to the beach in an invasion. They were designed to be carried on the davits of Landing Ships and lowered into the sea about 4 miles from the shore and then carried the troops to the beach. They were definitely NOT designed for long distance.
The craft was about the size of a small single decker bus and capable of carrying about 22 men and their weapons or a Jeep and trailer. It had a ramp at the bow which could be lowered on reaching the beach to allow men and vehicles to disembark. The draught at the bow was nil and at the stern about 24 inches. This made handling difficult as they were easily blown off course by a cross -wind. The power came from a 250 hp petrol engine driving a single screw. It ad a superb gearbox which could go from full ahead to reverse without slowing down. Being a short distance craft it was not equipped with either a radio or a compass.
The crew consisted of a coxwain and two deckhands who were interchangeable. The coxwain who drove the craft stood upright on the port side near the stern completely unprotected from the sea, weather and enemy action. The deckhands handled the bow and stern ropes when coming alongside and let down and raised the ramp when beaching.
There was a special drill for beaching, to assist in getting off once laned and preventing the craft from broaching to (turning side on to the beach) and being tipped over by the following tide. This consisted of the coxwain lining up straight on to the beach, taking the power off and at the same time ordering one of the deckhands to throw a kedge anchor over the stern. This anchor is designed to dig into the sea bed and by attaching the anchor rope to a bollard on the stern of the craft it was possible to keep the craft bow on to the beach and assist when reversing off.
We had been on Hayling Island for several weeks practicing beaching an pulling off until we hoped we were perfect. Unfortunately all training except on one occasion we ere unladen. The occasion when we did have a load was when we took a platoon of Canadian troops from Hayling Island to Rye in Sussex to acclimatise them to a sea journey. Unfortunately the sea was dead calm and we didn’t land them onto a beach, they just stepped off at Rye Harbour and marched away.!
The 3rd June was a lovely calm,warm, sunny day. After breakfast my C.O told me to take my craft and crew to Bucklers Hard on the Beaulieu River to pick up some stores for the flotilla. It is easy to find the Beaulieu River from Hayling Island , you just go into the Solent turn right and go past the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour and Southampton Water and then look out for some poles sticking out of the water on the starboard side which indicate the mouth of the river. Keep close to the poles particularly at low tide and you should avoid going aground.
Our trip to Bucklers Hard was idyllic, the sun was shining,the sea calm and it was like being on a summer holiday cruise. We found the Beaulieu River without any trouble and made our way up to Bucklers Hard which in peacetime had been a boatbuilders yard but was now requisitioned by the Navy. The Yard was covered with every sort of naval store imaginable. In charge was an old bearded Chief Petty Officer wearing First World campaign medals. He looked as though he had arrived with the Romans and got left behind. I told him who I was and that I had come for some stores for 802 Flotilla. He said ‘Right Sir follow me’. He took me over to six very long scaffolding poles which were laying on the deck. ‘There you are Sir’ he said.
I replied ‘What are they for ?’ He relied ‘Don’t ask me Sir but we shall be glad to get rid of them, we keep tripping over them.’
The problem with the poles was that they were too long to lay flat in the hold so we had the option of placing one end at the base of the ramp and letting the other end hang over the cockpit thus getting into veryones way of laying one end at the stern end of the hold and letting the other end hang over the top of the ramp. We decided to do the latter because we needed to move about the cockpit. Having lashed the poles to the ramp we made our way back to Hayling Island. We moored the craft to the buoys in the creek at the back of the camp and made our way to the camp.
While we had been away the camp had been closed and sentries doubled. No-one was allowed in or out of the camp and there was an electric air of excitement. The funny thing was that the G.P.O telephone box was still connected and there was a queue of men waiting to ring their wives and girlfriends telling them that they would not be able to meet them that night.
During the evening the weather started to turn nasty, it started to rain and the wind got up. The C.O called a briefing of all officers for 8am thew following morning .
At 8am on 4th June we all gathered in a classromm. The C.O. started by saying ‘Well Gentlemen it’s on for tomorrow the 5th June.’ He didn’t say what was on but we guessed it might be the invasion ! He then described our task which was to assist in the build up after the initial assault by ferrying troops and stores to the beaches from Landing Ships. We were to expect to be away for several weeks if all went well.
A beachhead was to be constructed by sinking old merchant ships in a ring off the beaches to create a breakwater and artificial harbour. We were not told of the Mulberry Harbours.
Our accommodation was to be on an old troopship the S.S.Ascania which would be anchored inside the ring of blockships opposite Juno Beach. Our craft were to be moored on buoys which would be laid before we arrived. Recently I came across a remarkable coincidence . I had been researching my wife’s family and found that her father Duncan McLeod a New Zealander who served with the ANZAC in The First World War had travelled on S.S.Ascania in 1916 from Alexandria in Egypt to Marseilles.
To return to the briefing, we were to man our craft at midnight and at 3 am move as a Flotilla (12 Craft) in line ahead to RV an the Nab Tower which is just off Hayling Island and marks the beginning of the deep water channel down the Solent. When we reached the Nab we were to look for a naval trawler bearing a particular number and follow it to our destination. We had no idea where we were going and this was the first indication that we were going under our own steam and not on the davits of a Landing Ship. We also realised that the nearest bit of the French coast was at least 100 miles from Haying Island./ We were given an Admiralty chart showing the south coast of England from Swanage to Brighton and the equivalent section of the French coast which was no use to anyone.
My own task was to deliver the scaffolding poles to the Beachmaster on ‘Nan’ /‘Red’ sector of Juno beach and then return to S.S.Ascania. I could identify the place by looking for a large letter ‘J’ above a red board bearing the letter ‘N’.
During the briefing the weather deteriorated and the wind got stronger. We were all very relieved when later in the day we heard that the invasion had been delayed 24 hours to 6th June. We spent the rest of the day on 5th June briefing our own crews and making sure the craft would at least get us to the Nab !
D Day 6th June we were all settled on our craft from midnight having stored our kit and some compo rations and six 4 ½ gallon jerry cans of petrol with the scaffolding poles in the hold covered with a tarpaulin from the ramp to the cockpit.
At 3am engines were started and we left the creek in line astern with the C.O in the lead like a mother duck followed by her chicks. The journey to the Nab was short and we ere accompanied by dozens of landing craft of all shapes and sizes which had come from all along the south coast. In spite of the blackout the Nab had a huge illuminated ‘V’ on the top.
Somehow we found our trawler and shouted our number to the crew. The reply came by way of a loudhailer ‘Follow me !!’ Off we went behind our leader in two lines side by side. The sea was calm and the wind had moderated a bit.
Everything was fine until we left the lee of the Isle of Wight when we were hit by a strong gale blowing up the Channel from the west. This was accompanied by a deep swell from starboard to port. This meant that when we were in the trough of a wave the craft beside us on the crest of the next wave was between 30 to 40 feet above us. Fortunately none of the crew was seasick and it was just a case of holding on for dear life. We took it in turns to do an hour about as coxswain,. which was the worst job of all.
After about 6 hours after leaving the Nab I noticed the craft was not coming up from a trough of a wave as quickly as it had at the beginning of the journey and was wallowing in the sea somewhat.
I told one of the crew to go under the tarpaulin to see if everything was O.K. He disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back looking green and was immediately seasick over the side. He reported that the hold was half full of water caused by the ramp leaking due to the weight of the scaffolding poles which made the craft bow heavy.
We were now faced with two alternatives, either we slowed down to prevent the water from coming over the ramp top when we were in danger of either sinking or being left behind by the other craft who were leading us to our destination, or we stopped and tried to pump out the hold using the bilge pump withy the engine in neutral and at the same time lightening the load or at least shifting the load to the stern thus raising the bow. I decided on the latter option.
One solution was to transfer the petrol in the jerry cans to the main tanks in the stern thus raising the bows. This task was easier said than done because it it was necessary to remove the filler cap- which was just within reaching distance from the cockpit and then placing a funnel in the top of the tank and pouring the petrol from the jerrycan into the tank through the funnel. This would not have been easy on a flat calm sea let alone in a gale. I decided to do the job myself and with the rest of the crew holding me by the legs with me laying flat of my stomach on the rear decking I managed to pour the contents of two of the cans into the tank. This took so long that we were in danger of being left behind so I decided to jettison all the spare fuel overboard and move slowly on. Fortunately the bilge pump had got rid of some of the water and the bow was higher in the water. By this time the top of the flag mast of the last craft was just visible of the horizon and disappearing very quickly. We all watched this mast avidly because if we lost sight of it we would not know which way to go or even which way ‘north’ was. So we progressed very gingerly as fast as we dared.
At about 3.30pm , over 12 hours since leaving Hayling Island the French coast appeared on the horizon. There was no sign of the beachhead and everything was very quiet. No shooting , smoke or heavy shellfire in fact we began to wonder whether the assault had been beaten off and everyone had gone back home. To find the beachhead we turned towards the west and eventually found the where the assault had taken place. Even then there was no noticeable noise. The odd bang but that was all . There were a lot of wrecked LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) on the beach but no sign of movement. We eventually found Juno beach and Nan Red sector. We turned towards the beach marker between two LCTs. The beach at this point is very flat and the tide which was flooding ,was moving at a tremendous rate and we went in like a surfboard. We followed the drill and threw the kedge anchor over the stern, the anchor took hold and because of our speed the rope parted and whipped back knocking me overboard. The craft then broached to in the surf and overturned on to its side throwing the rest of the crew overboard.
Fortunately none of us were injured and in true Royal Marines tradition we secured the craft to one of the LCTs to stop it being washed away during the night and unloaded our kit and the scaffolding poles on to the beach. Fortunately the beachmaster was located in a sandbagged shelter right opposite where we had foundered. He was a Royal Naval Commander who looked rather like the beachmaster in the film ‘The Longest Day’except that he did not have a bulldog with him.
Still soaking wet, I reported to him and asked him what he wanted us to do with the scaffolding poles. His reply was unprintable indicating that not only did he had not expected to receive any poles but that he had quite enough already.
Instructions stated that if wrecked on the beach landing craft crew were to place themselves under the command of the beachmaster and carry out whatever task he wished. I did this and his reply was ‘If I were you I’d f---- off and get dry.
My crew decided they would prefer to sleep on the beach in the sand. Displaying most un-officer like qualities I decided to sleep on one of the wrecked LCTs and did so on a bunk under an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun mounting which fired a barrage all night. I didn’t hear a thing !
The following day was bright and sunny and we soon discovered a naval signal unit near us on the beach . They assured us that they were in contact with Ascania and obligingly sent a message to my C.O explaining what had happened and asking to be picked up by one of our crews. We then settled down on the LCT which didn’t seem to be going anywhere and dried our clothing by hanging items on the rigging. We also managed to to get most of the water out of our craft so that when the tide came in she floated and could be lashed to the side of the LCT. The electrics had been damaged by the water, so we were unable to start the engine.
During the day very little seemed to be happening and there was absolutely no activity on the beach except for burial parties removing the bodies of Canadian soldiers who had fallen in the initial assault. Every now and again one or other of the naval support ships would fire a salvo in support of the army. These ships consisted of HMS Ramillies, HMS Nelson, HMS Rodney, HMS Warspite, HMS Belfast and HMS Glasgow which if they all fired together made a pretty impressive noise.
The next day as nobody had come to rescue us , I sent another message to Ascania which incidentally we could see not far from us anchored off the beach. There was still no activity on the beach and no sign of any of our flotilla craft moving about the anchorage . At the end of the second day the captain of the LCT told us that he was being towed off the following day and unless we wanted to go back to Portsmouth we would have to vacate our accommodation ! At this point I decided to write to my mother giving the names and addresses of all the members of the crew who were with me asking her to write saying we were O.K. I gave the letter to the captain of the LCT to post when he got back to Portsmouth.
The following day my C.O arrived having walked the whole length of the beach looking for us before he reported us missing as the last anyone had seen of us was when we stopped in mid Channel to stabilise the craft. He told me what he thought of me but calmed down when he realised that none of my messages had found him on Ascania. We were then taken off the LCT before she went home and made ourselves comfortable on Ascania which became our operating base.
Our main task was to provide a sort of taxi service all round the beachhead including taking German prisoners off the beach to naval ships to be taken to England. One day a group of very disconsolate German soldiers were sitting on the beach started to talk to us ,one was particularly fluent in English and I asked him where he had learned to speak the language. He replied that he had a degree in English from Oxford University and asked if I thought his prison camp would be anywhere Oxford. I’ve often wondered what happened to him.
Another task we had was to try to discourage German one -man submarines from entering the anchorage. We did this by patrolling the area and throwing slabs of explosives attached to underwater fuses indiscriminately about the sea. We did not find any submarines and I don’t know if we put any off. All we did was kill a lot of fish and make ourselves very unpopular with sailors trying to sleep in their hammocks because the explosions sounded like someone hitting the hull with a large sledgehammer.
After I few weeks we moved into a tented camp behind the beach and Ascania sailed away. The day to day routine remained the same except our craft were kept in a small harbour at Courseulles which was the nearest small town. One night we were woken be a large bang and a lorry in the next camp to ours burst into flames followed be several other bangs. It took some time for us to realise that we were being shelled by a gun to the west of us. The following day we furiously dug out the inside of our bell tents leaving the tent pole balanced on an oil drum so that we were below ground. The shelling only last about three days before the R.A.F identified the gun which was in a railway tunnel near Le Havre and bombed it blocking the tunnel entrance.
Apart from the trip across the Channel on 6th June two things stick in my mind from the time we stayed in Normandy. One was the nightly anti- aircraft barrage put up every night just to deter enemy aircraft (We never saw a single one) and second was watching a 1000 bomber daylight raid on Caen when Lancasters followed one after the other towards Caen. Every now and again one the aircraft would fall out of the sky for no apparent reason apparently hit be anti-aircraft fire.
We left for home in August, this time on the davits of an Infantry Landing Ship. As we passed the Nab the Captain dropped us off and we sailed back to the creek at the back of HMS Northney III.
The scaffolding poles were still laying where we had put them on D Day. If any of you are on holiday at Courseulles and you trip over a scaffolding pole IT’S MINE.
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