- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Frank Pearce, David Elvy
- Location of story:
- English Channel
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 May 2004
Crew of the MFV 79 (Frank is in front row, 4th from left, wearing spectacles)
D — Day
For two days we had ridden out the force ten gales that were lashing the south coast. We had been aware for weeks, that the invasion was close and my 28th birthday on 4th June, had passed without us seeing action. There had been no cards or gifts from family because we had been at sea for days and our whereabouts were supposed to be top secret. Two days later, the MFV (Motor Fire Vessel) 79 received instructions to sail from Yarmouth, Isle of Wight under cover of darkness and proceed to Z dispersal area off the coast of Plymouth. Wind speed had moderated to strong to gale force and we were making good headway against the 8ft.waves.
Dave Elvy, our engineer had copped a dose of flu and, as designated Fire Pump operator, I was instructed to take over his duties in the engine room. What a sight met our eyes as we approached Z zone. It was like a gigantic traffic island in the middle of the ocean. Craft of every shape and size loomed out of the darkness as they struggled to maintain a rotating course until they reached a Navy patrol vessel where a rating issued bawled instructions through a loud-hailer. As each vessel’s number was called it was allocated a station on one of the lines of ships that were headed in the direction of France. I have never seen so many vessels. They stretched at one hundred-yard intervals as far as the eye could see; four never ending columns of every shape and size of ship imaginable: each one packed to the gunwales with Allied troops and equipment
Many years later my daughter was to ask me of my emotions at the time. Was I scared? Excited? Pleased to be on the move at last? Fired with a desire to trounce the enemy? I truly can’t remember experiencing any of these. I was just so busy down in that dark, smelly engine room that I didn’t have time to think about what lay ahead. Because the various vessels were unable to maintain a constant speed it was like being stuck in an interminable traffic jam. As soon as one ship got too close to the one in front, a signal was flashed from the leading vessel for the following craft to slow engines. The distance between him and the next ship would then decrease and he in turn would issue a signal.
About half-way across the Channel I happened to glance into the galley as I made my way up on deck. Despite the heaving seas our cook had been making a gallant attempt to produce a treacle tart. Not only was the deck awash with a large sample of the North Sea, but a generous helping of flour and and treacle were also swishing about underfoot.
Thus it was that we made slow and for some painful (sea sickness chooses its victims without discrimination) progress to the beaches of Normandy. A similar dispersal system was in operation on that side of the Channel and about half a mile off-shore we were hailed by a Navy boat who asked the skipper if he knew where he should be headed. When the skipper confirmed that he had received orders to travel in convoy and anchor ¼ mile offshore at le Hamel near Arromanches the navy rating’s reply brought a smile to our lips. “Thank God for that” he sighed. “You’re the first bugger today who knows where he’s going!”
Sticking my head out of the hatchway, I was surprised to find that we were not near a harbour or any conventional type of mooring. The Mulberry harbour had not yet been constructed and all that lay before us was an empty beach. Beyond the sand dunes I could see tanks and flame throwers gushing out great arcs of roaring flames almost 200 yards long. They were firing the hedgerows and even as I watched, the burning figures of German soldiers staggered out of their cover which was now a blazing inferno. Tanks equipped with flails were systematically clearing a pathway through the minefields and the air was filled with the sound of gunfire. Every breath I took was filled with the fumes of diesel oil and cordite. Battle ships were sending out huge barrages of rockets, 200 at a time, filling the air with a noise resembling thundering steam-trains. Overhead, German planes weaved, twisting and turning to evade the anti-aircraft fire from Allied guns. Lorries packed with men and equipment simply drove off the ships at low tide, straight onto the beaches.
Was I afraid? No, there was a job to be done and I and my fellow shipmates were there to fulfill our duties. We were protecting our families and the right to freedom.
I later discovered what had happened to the birthday cake my wife had struggled to make. She had tried to post it, but as they were unable to promise delivery, the Post Office had refused to accept it. She had taken it to the Fire Station where she worked and shared it among the girls of Blue Watch. They didn’t even save a piece for me!
Frank L Pearce (Pte)
Royal Pioneer Corps Firefighting Wing
129 Fireboat Company
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