- Contributed by
- John de Mansfield AbsolonResearcher 238443
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 November 2003
Commanding a section
I was in the 25th Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment, Royal Artillery, 50th (Northumbrian) Division, and we had just boarded our tank landing ship (LST). I was commanding a section of three self-propelled Bofors 40mm LAA guns, mounted on a 4x4 Morris chassis and two three-ton lorries.
The battery was split into six sub-sections, each on a separate LST. During the Sicily landings, the whole battery had been on one ship. When it was sunk by bombers, all the guns and a number of men had been lost.
Laying out in the Solent
We pulled off the Hard and lay out in the Solent waiting to form up. There we stayed until 4 June. Fortunately, having been in the Sicily landings, most of my gunners were experienced in landing operations. They knew their way around LSTs, probably better than the sailors who hadn't been in action before. I was fortunate in having three, experienced gun sergeants to keep me out of trouble.
Adjusting to circumstances
Meeting with the gunnery officer on the ship, I offered my help as he had seven 40mm Bofors AA guns as well as several 20-mm Oerlikon guns. He asked me to join him on the bridge in the event of the ship going to Action Stations to advise him on AA – anti-aircraft – defence.
The troops had now settled down happily. Or, should we say, they were making the best of the circumstances, except for one or two cases of seasickness.
Preparing for Action Stations
The gun sergeants approached me to see if our section could man the three forward Bofors. I knew from previous experience that they didn't like to go below when the ship went to Action Stations. I managed to make a tactical arrangement with the gunnery officer that our gun crews could muster close to the forward armament if the ship went to Action Stations.
The unit gun crews were very experienced, having been AA gunners since before El Alamein and on the assault landings in Sicily. We practised the rapid manning of the forward guns and procedures for engagement of hostile aircraft.
Curiosity got the better of me
I had received a package of orders that were ‘Not to be opened until on board’. As you might have guessed, I rapidly opened the package to get the story.
There were detailed maps of our landing area and the route to our first deployment. Also included were instructions on ‘de-water proofing’, which showed the position and route to the de-water proofing park. All vehicles were waterproofed to drive in over three foot of water but had to have some parts removed immediately on landing.
There were very detailed instructions of the route to the deployment – the defence of the bridge at Creully, about six miles inland. The route passed through Ryles [sic] then turned left down to Creully.
We had a very careful briefing, so everybody knew exactly what was happening. One of the orders required any broken-down vehicles to be pushed off the road and left. Having seen what happened to any kit left unattended, we fitted tow chains to the front of each vehicle. That way we could hook up quickly to any breakdowns and take the offending vehicle with us.
Spare my blushes
Even though the weather had deteriorated, we set sail. After a few hours, however, we were back in the Solent. It was then that I found that a Canadian war correspondent had interviewed a number of my gunners. The conducting officer showed me a copy of the interview for my approval.
While not objecting to the remarks of bronzed, experienced 8th Army soldiers, I coughed a bit at the ‘led by a tall handsome’…. Anyway, he probably found better things to say.
The pros and cons of flat-bottomed ships
The sea lessened a bit, and we were on our way again along with hundreds of others. We had a reasonably easy journey over, apart from the fact that LSTs are flat bottomed and not very kind to non-sailors.
I shall explain a little about this type of ship. They were made with bow doors that opened to allow a ramp to be lowered for loading and unloading tanks and vehicles. Designed with two vehicle decks, lighter vehicles were carried to the top deck by a lift, and tanks and heavier vehicles were situated in the lower deck, to be unloaded first.
The flat-bottomed design was specifically to enable it to run up beaches. Vehicles disembarked in about three feet of water. On an outgoing tide, the ship could dry out, and the vehicles did not have to wade. The ships were fitted with a Kedge anchor, which enabled them to winch off the beach if they didn't dry out.
Unloading on to Rhino ferries
To speed disembarkation, some LSTs disgorged their vehicles on to Rhino ferries. These were big floating platforms, driven by two or more large outboard motors at the rear.
The Rhinos could carry between 20 and 30 vehicles, facilitating a quick turnaround for the LST. After unloading, they were pushed back into the sea by bulldozers.
We approached the beachhead in the afternoon of D-Day and lay off, waiting to be called in. Then, of course, the fun started – we were at Action Stations. The vehicles were untied, engines tested, guns loaded and ready for the off. We watched the battle with interest from a grandstand view.
Our LST had dropped its Kedge anchor to help hold position. Then a tank landing craft (LCT) fouled our anchor rope, swung round and holed us aft, doing itself quite a bit of damage at the same time.
Almost a mutiny
The officer in charge of the LCT ordered the troops to abandon ship. But he had a bit of a mutiny on his hands, as they didn’t feel like losing all their kit.
When the anchor rope broke, everybody was relieved. The LCT staggered towards the beach and successfully landed its load.
Losing our anchor
But, in the process, we had lost our anchor. This was no real problem, as there was a spare. So, in came the rope, and with it the engineer officer, who began directing the lowering of the spare anchor to the deck and its subsequent re-splicing.
This caused quite some confusion – until, that is, the cook came out of the galley – well, he had a cook’s hat on. He took over the job to a successful conclusion.
Congested beaches and cliff-top fire
It was then back to the forepart to watch the action. There appeared to be some congestion when it came to getting off the beaches, which were still under shellfire. We could see occasional vehicles running over mines etc.
To our right, a destroyer was engaging beach defences on top of a cliff. After several shots, he got a direct hit, and the gun crew evacuated rapidly. Unfortunately, they ran in a bunch along the cliff. After three or four more shots the destroyer hit them.
While standing off the beaches with numerous other ships, we were aware of mine sweepers operating in the area. As we watched, a sweep came past quite close (visible because of a post sticking out of the water to indicate their position).
A crew member saw this, immediately shouted, ‘Submarine’ and jumped on to a 20mm Oerlikon. Fortunately, my gun sergeants managed to drag him off before he could fire. The consequences of numerous ships shooting across the water I shall leave to your imagination.
Spooked by scant air activity
There was very little aircraft activity and certainly no reaction from the German air force. This was a relief. We had expected heavy attacks from low-flying enemy aircraft.
We began to get rather nervous, though, that it wasn’t happening. In Sicily, Anzio and Salerno, the German air force had reacted very strongly – where were they now?
As the day grew on, all eyes were looking skywards. But, there were still no attacks. What had they got up their sleeves? Having suffered from air attacks since 1940, it was difficult to comprehend their absence.
We began to feel vulnerable among all those ships – something of a sitting target. Surely they must come. We grew progressively more nervous as the day wore on.
Squadron in tight formation
There was some activity. A Typhoon (which looks a bit like a Folke-Wolfe 190), fired at by German AA, turned back across the beachhead but received a bigger dose from friendly fire. It retreated back to the German side.
A squadron of medium bombers could be seen attacking a target in the German area and flying in very tight formation. As I watched, German AA brought down three of them.
I wondered about this from time to time over the years, about the purpose of flying in such a tight formation. Many years later, I happened to be talking to an ex-air force squadron leader and took the opportunity to mention it. In an extraordinary coincidence, it turned out that the squadron I’d seen flying in that formation had been his own.
In response to my enquiry about why they had been flying so close together, he explained that his aircraft was the only one with an efficient bombsight. All the other planes dropped their bombs when he did, so they had to stay close to get a good bomb pattern.
Wading ashore in the buff
Back on the LST, a decision was made to stop unloading for the night and go ashore at dawn. And so, after a fairly quiet night – well, no bombs hit our ship – the captain decided to dry out and come off on the rising tide.
When the bow doors opened, and the ramp went down, two bright sparks, stripped to the buff, emerged and began to wade ashore. It struck me that it would be most embarrassing to step on a mine with nothing on. Fortunately, they didn’t.
The crane with the long jib headed up the beach. It was then our turn. And there was still no air attack. It had to come that day.
Off the beach PDQ
Having watched events for several hours the previous day, I gave some fairly firm orders to my gun crews. The guns were loaded and manned, ready to fire.
I was to lead. The column, indeed every vehicle, was to follow in my wheel tracks, regardless of any orders to the contrary. We would commence de-waterproofing whenever the vehicles came to a halt. And we would do everything to get off the beach PDQ.
Surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war
With instructions to move into a de-waterproofing park just inland from Le Hamel, with a great roar of engines, my little convoy was off down the ramp. I headed for the nearest clear set of tank tracks in the sand, with the terrible flotsam and jetsam of war around me on all sides. There were still no air attacks as we searched the sky for what we all felt must come.
We moved bit by bit off the beach, carefully following other vehicle tracks. The beach itself was a hive of activity, with stores being unloaded and clearance parties removing the debris of war. Military police urged everybody on. We had no desire to stand and watch, and were anxious to get clear of this massive target.
Watching my step
By the time we got off the beach, all vehicles had done the first stage of de-waterproofing. I sensed there was no need to go into the de-water proofing area. As we approached the area, I saw one unfortunate soul tread on a mine as he walked towards his vehicle. I made a rapid decision to bypass that place.
I carefully parked up my little convoy and went looking for our guide who was supposed to meet us and take us inland. As I did so, I was very careful about where I put my feet.
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