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D-Day on the minesweeper HMS Chamois

by Norman_Hasker

Contributed by 
Norman_Hasker
People in story: 
Leslie Hasker
Location of story: 
Normandy coast
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4250521
Contributed on: 
23 June 2005

The following account of D-Day was written by my father Leslie Hasker, who served as a sub-lieutenant on the minesweeper HMS Chamois during the Normandy landings and the period leading up to and following them.

D-Day draws near

These are the memories of one man who was involved in the naval operations in 1944 concerning the invasion of Normandy. I was serving earlier that year in a minesweeper flotilla — twelve ships built in the United States and delivered only in January. They were powerful vessels, biggest and best in the Navy.

We were operating off the north-eastern coast, particularly the approaches to Edinburgh, when we were ordered round to the other side of Scotland, to the River Clyde. After a few days in the Clyde we went up to the north-western part of Scotland to a very remote area and carried out an exercise which turned out to be a rehearsal for the invasion, although of course we didn’t know that at the time.

The invasion manual

We came back to the Clyde, then on the Thursday (1 June) before the invasion a man came on board bringing a printed looseleaf manual giving full details of the entire invasion operation. It showed exactly where the landings were to be made, the names of the various beaches, points where the United Kingdom, Canadian and American troops were to go ashore. Two artificial harbours were to be built, and the rate at which the Army said they had to be able to land supplies and men to get the necessary build-up was indicated. Their first main objective would be the town of Caen.

This manual was taken first by the captain. He read it in his cabin and then directed that the deck officers — there were four of us — were to pair up and lock ourselves in our cabins for one hour and study this manual. First of all we had to get the general impression of what was being attempted, and of course in particular what our job was to be.

We would in fact have to go across the Channel the night before D-Day, ahead of the invasion fleet, and lay special buoys with lights at the extremes of the swept channel so that when the invasion fleet came over all they would have to do was to steam down through the middle of the channel.

When we’d finished reading the manual it was collected again by the man who’d brought it on board. On the Thursday (1 June) before the invasion the order came to land all code books and cyphers. I was responsible for cyphers and I took ours ashore to be checked in at the base.

The 24-hour postponement (4 June)

We sailed from the River Clyde on Friday evening (2 June) at 6 o’clock, down the Clyde and out into the Irish Sea. The cruiser Belfast, which was also lying in the Clyde, joined us during the night. We went down through the Irish Sea, round Lands End, and along the south coast. About noon on Sunday (4 June) we were off Falmouth when the signal came from the Admiralty: “Regatta postponed 24 hours”.

We then made a complete turn round and went back over our course, back round Lands End and up into the Irish Sea. At the end of 12 hours we turned round again and came back on the original course. This was to lose the 24 hours occasioned by the one-day delay in launching the invasion.

D-Day minus 1 (5 June)

We then came right along the south coast. I remember as we came past Torbay, where the coast goes sharply in, we kept close to the coast rather than cutting right across. The whole object was to reduce the risk of being sighted by German aircraft. We kept close to the coast and as we passed Torbay we could see the holiday crowds on the beach — quite a lot of them. The south coast resorts further to the east were of course all closed at that time because they were wired with loads of barbed wire to stop any possible invasion. It was quite interesting looking at the beach through the binoculars to notice that the majority of the men were older men, often grey-haired men, the younger men all being away in the Services.

We went right along the south coast till we got to the Solent. The cruiser Belfast left us there and went up into the Solent, and our flotilla turned and went down to the south-western corner of the Isle of Wight, where we anchored and waited.

Early in the evening the order came to “Clear lower deck”. This meant that all members of the crew were to assemble on the upper deck to be addressed by the captain. Up till that time they didn’t know what was on foot at all. They may have guessed, but only the officers knew what was impending.

D-Day - minesweeping

After the captain had addressed the crew we got ready to go. First of all we hoisted battle ensigns - it was the traditional practice in the Navy always to hoist a special large ensign if any ship was going into action. Once battle ensigns were hoisted, away we went across the Channel.

Some time in the early hours we spread out and began our minesweeping operation. Two of our ships, including ours, were specially equipped to lay buoys. We had the job of being on the left hand side — the port side — and dropping buoys as we got near the coast of Normandy. The plan was that buoys would be dropped on the outside of the swept channel. Each of these buoys would have a small light on it so that when the invasion fleet came over all they would have to do was to steam down the middle of the channel, straight through to the Normandy coast. It was important that the buoys should be dropped exactly opposite one another and we shouldn’t get out of gear in any way. Our ship, which was on the port side dropping buoys, had the job of giving a sharp blast on the siren each time a buoy was dropped, so that the buoy layer on the right hand side would drop its buoy at the same moment. The awful noise of the siren made us wonder if the Germans wouldn’t hear us coming, but nothing happened. Our own light coastal forces were out in strength cruising around, waiting to give us cover if we were attacked.

As we approached the Normandy coast we concluded the sweep and the buoy laying. Our ship, HMS Chamois, had the special job of closing in to a point just 3 miles off Arromanches and putting down a special radar buoy. This was to be used by incoming vessels if mist developed or if the enemy managed to put down a smokescreen.

As we moved in towards Arromanches it was a nice clear morning. We could see the town quite clearly, and the low hills of Normandy in the background with little church spires showing here and there. As we got to the 3 mile point we slowed down and our navigating officer was carefully checking his bearings on the beach to make sure we got to the right place. Once we reached the right spot, over went the radar buoy and we turned to come away. We could see the whole front at Arromanches quite clearly. There was no movement at all — everything was absolutely still.

As we began to draw away, we got some little way away from the point where the buoy was, and the first salvo of three shells came over, quite near us. I should imagine that up till that time the Germans just couldn’t believe this was an enemy ship coming quietly in. Once we turned to move back they saw our white ensign blow out and realised it was an English ship.

D-Day — the invasion

The original plan was for the invasion fleet to line up 5 miles off the coast, but not long before the invasion an urgent message came saying it was believed the enemy had some guns capable of ranging 5 miles. So we moved back — the line for the approach was to be 7 miles off, not 5 miles. When the invasion fleet came pouring through the channel they spread out along the Normandy coast at that 7 mile point — quite an impressive sight of course.

A number of Allied war vessels were taking part in the operation. I remember particularly two Norwegian destroyers that came near us, and a Polish cruiser flying her battle ensign, which was a big white flag with a red eagle on it — quite a striking sight.

Near us too there came a troop carrying ship. The actual landings were to be at high water and half an hour before high water the landing ship began lowering her troops in small boats. Each of the landing craft was quite small, carrying I suppose about ten men, each man clutching his rifle and all looking very tense. They kept glancing towards the shore. At the actual invasion time they moved smoothly forward, followed by a small number of destroyers.

There was to be no general bombardment. The intelligence people had reported exactly where the Germans had made strong points — where they had gun emplacements, where they had rocket batteries. Once the destroyers got within range they opened up and just pinpointed these strong points. One of the soldiers I was speaking to later on told me that the Navy had done half their work before they got on the beaches, because so many strong points had been eradicated.

The days following D-Day

For the next few nights after the landings we were anchored at the eastern end of the beachhead near the cruiser Belfast (the ship now lying on the Thames opposite the Tower of London). We were simply waiting in case of trouble. One night I had the middle watch and the radio operator reported that the Army ashore at Pegasus Bridge was calling the Belfast to report that two enemy tanks were approaching. The Belfast replied asking for the exact map readings of the tanks’ positions. As soon as they’d been given the Belfast opened fire. Almost immediately the Army reported: “OK, the tanks have turned back”.

Any big enemy attack by sea was expected to come from Le Havre, to the east, where the Germans had been ever since the French surrender in 1940. We positioned a line of destroyers ready to fight off any such attack. When these destroyers had taken up their positions, our minesweeper flotilla left and moved along to Arromanches. Enemy aircraft were dropping mines by parachute at night in the approaches to the port and we had to go out all day searching for them. At night we anchored to form an outer defence line at the approach to Arromanches.

One night while we were at anchor, a strong German force from Le Havre launched a heavy attack against our destroyers along at the eastern end. There was heavy firing both from the Germans attacking and from our destroyers holding them off. Both sides were using large amounts of tracer bullets and the result was that the whole thing looked
like some lavish firework display. The attack went on for about an hour and at the end of that time the Germans gave up and withdrew. I suspect their casualties had become unacceptable by then.

From time to time, usually at dusk or at dawn, an enemy aircraft would race in and drop a bomb on the Arromanches anchorage, sometimes hitting a ship. Throughout the hours of daylight there was a steady stream of ships arriving from England, bringing in more men and supplies, so the anchorage was always crowded.

Midget submarines (July 1944)

At the end of June we had a few days break back at the Isle of Wight, and returned to Arromanches early in July. Soon after our return we were stationed as usual on the outer defence line at night, and I’d just gone off watch at midnight when there was an explosion nearby. “Action stations” sounded immediately and I hurried up on deck. The ship anchored next in line to us was sinking, obviously badly damaged, but we couldn’t make out how it had happened. Soon the crew were abandoning ship and before long there were quite a lot of men in the water swimming towards us. We lowered our scrambling net over the side for the men to climb up. These scrambling nets, made of rope, were supplied to our ships generally and were excellent for their purpose.

Then there came another explosion further along the line and a second ship was sinking. Still we didn’t know how it was happening. It turned out that we were being attacked by midget submarines firing torpedoes. We knew the Germans had them but this was the first time they had been used. Presumably the Germans had held them back for use when the invasion came. Our light forces further out at sea were on the lookout for the midgets and could be heard on the radio reporting contacts and sometimes successes as they attacked.

Later a third one of our ships was torpedoed. This one sank slowly - the loss of life must have been small. After that last sinking everything became quiet. We had lost three ships but the midget submarines had been thwarted in their obvious objective to get into shipping waiting off Arromanches.

HMS Chamois hit (21 July)

A few days later we had another short break back at the Isle of Wight and then returned to Arromanches for regular duties. On July 21 we were heading back towards the regular night anchorage and I was officer of the watch on the bridge. Suddenly it felt as though the ship had been struck underneath by an enormous rubber mallet — an extraordinary experience. The ship lifted right clear of the water, then dropped back on the sea with a shudder. A mine lying on the sea bed had exploded right underneath us.

The captain came hurrying up from his cabin and stood there looking around, obviously waiting to see what would happen next. I could hear the order being shouted on the next ship: “Away lifeboats crew”. Their captain obviously thought we were likely to sink. Our crew came hurrying up from below as fast as they could. There were only, I think, two ways up so it took some time for some 80 men to get up to the upper deck.

My leg seemed numb and I was holding on to the binnacle for support. The engineer came up from the engine room to report that he could still supply power. There was some leaking from the damage and in fact we found later that the steering was jammed. Meanwhile the captain ordered two men to help me down to his cabin and on to his bunk.

Several of us had been injured, either with leg injuries or spinal injuries. A doctor came on the next day to see us, and later about ten of us were transferred to a hospital ship and taken back to the UK and on to a Canadian hospital at Haslemere. The next move was to hospital in Scotland, far away from the flying bombs. Eventually after some weeks I was discharged but was no longer considered fit for sea duties.

The captain wrote to me to say that our ship was beyond repair and was going to the breakers yard. So of the original twelve ships in the flotilla, three had been sunk and a fourth so badly damaged that it was a write-off. Some 50 to 60 men had been lost but we had been able to carry out the duties assigned to us. The commander of the flotilla was awarded the DSC in recognition of the flotilla’s work.

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