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I was Navigational Leader on D Day (Part 2 of 3)

by Graham Rouse

Contributed by 
Graham Rouse
People in story: 
Graham Rouse
Location of story: 
Normandy
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A3504953
Contributed on: 
10 January 2005

Lt Graham Rouse RNVR, pictured in Hyde Park.

Around September 1943, my small Motor Launch (ML197) was appointed a Navigational Leader for the Normandy landings and we worked up with Force 'S' (short for "SWORD" beach) off the Cromarty Firth. I was in charge of the latest high-tech navigational equipment on board - which was so extensive that our funnel had to be removed to make way for it all.

Then we then moved down to HMS Hornet, the Coastal Forces base near Gosport. Some time prior to the invasion, I remember a pep talk, by I think, Admiral Vian, who stressed to us that it was "your job to keep the men under your command alive and afloat". We were warned to expect exhaustion such as we had not known before - and were advised to try sleep in short snatches if the circumstances permitted. However, we were alerted to the dangers of drifting off into a really deep sleep (which he called "80 fathoms down"). To prevent this, we were told to order a rating to shake us periodically every 15 minutes to prevent the sleep from becoming too deep. As it turned out however we were also given drugs (Benzedrine?) to keep us awake.

When it came to provisioning for D-Day, we were unhappy at the meagre number of ammunition pans issued to us for our four Oerlikons. We managed to get some more by virtue of a "gift" of some cigarettes to the CPO in charge of the stores.

On 1st June we received our formal briefing. I was issued with my own personal numbered copy of the 'Top Secret' invasion chart (which I still have) and for security reasons all officers were "sealed to ship" after this date. Like many others all over the south coast, we were told that "some of you will not return". At this point we all looked round the room thinking "poor buggers" - not wanting to believe that this could refer to us. However the serious nature of the situation sank in as I walked back to the ship.

The invasion fleet had previously been inspected by King George VI (we scrutinised him through binoculars and were inclined to believe the rumour that he wore rouge, to mask his sickly pallor) S-Force started to rendezvous mid morning on 5 June. It was slow progress, as the smaller landing craft could only manage 7-8 knots.

The crossing to Normandy on June 5th was without incident. I had a nasty moment when our navigational equipment became subject to jamming, but I remembered the advice on how to overcome this by changing the RF unit. The whole way over I was subject to what I have later learned is something known to all navigators as "DMS" (= Dry Mouth Syndrome). This is caused by the fear of making a navigational mistake resulting in the ship - or, in this case, the whole of S Force - ending up somewhere different from where they are supposed to be.

We arrived off SWORD Beach at daybreak on June 6th. The miniature submarine X23, which had lain submerged, surfaced as a marker as we approached, giving us a cheery wave as they headed for the UK, their job completed. Since ML197 was one of the two navigational leaders for Sword Beach - and since I was doing the navigation - I was pleased to see it recorded in one of the books about D-Day that S-Force arrived in the right position at the right time. This was of course in sad contrast to what happened to the Americans at Omaha.
The noise of the shells coming over our heads from the bigger ships firing from further offshore was incredible - it was like a series of express trains roaring overhead. We kept our heads down as best we could; most of us were wearing traditional round British tin helmets, although some boats had the larger American helmets which seemed to offer better protection. At one point we were hit by (presumably British) shrapnel, which ricocheted all around the wheel house, wounding me slightly in the knee.

At around this time the Norwegian destroyer SVENNER was torpedoed by an E Boat a few cables off our port beam. Our job was too vital to be able to divert to help survivors, although others astern of us did so.

On board we had an army captain and his sergeant. They were passing our radar ranges to S.P.A. (self-propelled artillery), which were firing from the holds of LCTs (Landing Crafts - Tank) on the way in. I asked this captain what we could shoot at. "Have a go at that Church tower," he said. "It might be an observation post." We let rip with all the awesome power of our solitary three-pounder. How effective this was I will never know - the church is still there. A few years ago I was yarning with an ex-'Lord Lovatt Commando' captain, who confirmed that the church had indeed been an observation post. My son later made a visit to the area and we concluded that the church was probably the one at Le Lion (now known as Lion-sur-Mer). Interestingly, the history of that church reveals that the tower was originally adapted for use as a lookout platform during the Hundred Years War.

I still remember the face of that army captain and wonder how he fared. He was very keen to get ashore and, when we put him off on an LCT, he had to leave his radio equipment behind. This later evidently became one of the 'spoils of war' for our crew.

For the rest of D-Day, we were guiding all sorts of craft and ships into the beach area. Late afternoon, a Shorts Sterling aircraft came in very low from the South and crash-landed close by. It sank like a stone, with nothing coming to the surface. The pilot must have been killed somewhere over the land. Some time later we went to assist a troopship which had been mined, but people were being taken off from the other side.

At one point during the evening of D-Day, we were ordered to go and make a small coastal tanker move further inshore. The grumpy Scottish skipper declined to do so, and eventually I repeated the order forcefully, adding, "This is a direct order from Captain Bush on the Largs". I still remember with amusement his reply: "F*** Captain Bush - I'm going to get a cup of tea"!

Also on D-Day, a defence line called the TROUT line was established just East of the assault area. It comprised a North/South line of anchored landing craft. Our job on this (and subsequent) nights was to patrol just to the West of the line to stop explosive motorboats, E boats and 'human torpedoes'. A few days after D-Day, an LCG was torpedoed and we took off the crew as it was sinking. It was a chaotic situation in the dark - we went alongside and took off some who were still on board and pulled out others who were in the water. I thought I could hear some one in the water shouting to get our attention ("ML! ML!) and I called back into the darkness to "Hang On". I do not know what happened to the owner of this voice.

We looked after the survivors until daybreak, when we put them off onto a hospital ship which was in the area. According to the records, the sinking vessel would have been either LCG(L) 764, 831 or 1062.

One night we had an LCT flotilla leader (Lt Cdr RNVR) come on patrol with us. He was waiting for some of his craft to return from the UK. I was in the wheelhouse looking at the radar plot when I heard a prolonged burst from one of the twin Vickers 303's. This "passenger" reckoned he had seen one of the German 'human torpedoes'. We heard later that the body of a German midshipman had indeed been recovered in the area.

On 24th June, the destroyer HMS SWIFT was mined by one of the new German pressure mines. We were the only vessel in close proximity. I heard the explosion and we immediately went over to assist. The Swift was sinking but we were able to get close enough for many of crew to jump onto our deck. Others were pulled from the water. The Swift's C.O., Lt. Cdr. Gower (as he then was) came onto our bridge. where I commiserated with him over the loss of his ship. Despite his predicament, he was displaying great sang-froid at the time (I am reminded now of Noel Coward playing Louis Mountbatten in the film "In Which We Serve") .

The Swift's Australian doctor had skin hanging from his badly scalded hands, injured while attempting to assist men below decks. I applied burns dressings and he then gave me directions as I used our medical kit to give morphine to some of the injured survivors. I remember warning one of the casualties what I was about to do - he seemed a very young lad to me, although I was only 22 myself. "That's all right Sir" he assured me. "I've had plenty of injections". I remembered it was important that we should write up the time the morphine was administered to avoid the risk of a dangerous overdose later on. I did this on the special tags which were supplied with the ampoules.

At one point, the one of the rescued officers told me, "There's a lot of money still in the ship's safe". Since at the time the Swift was sinking, her back broken, I replied "And it's staying there."(It was an odd thing for him to say - maybe he was still in shock.)

It was quite chaotic to have some 100 men on the deck of our small ML. I thought we took the survivors to a hospital ship but one of them, a Midshipman then, who was the last to leave the quarter-deck, recently told it was was HMS Belfast.

The whole episode seemed to happen incredibly quickly from start to end, as if in a dream. [Note: I was delighted to make contact with Captain Gower of the Swift, then aged 92, on 17.11.05. He is also in touch with the Australian doctor and the former Midshipman. Captain Gower's brother had been killed on D-Day, inland from Sword Beach.]

Shortly afterwards we were sent to investigate the sinking of three Fleet Minesweepers off Cap de la Heve. We found no survivors, and very little wreckage. They had been sunk by RAF Typhoons. A officer on the Largs was aquitted of responsibilty for their having been in the wrong position.

I took over command of ML197 when our CO Alistair Ward had to leave to replace the CO of another ML who had been killed. Our American Fleet Air Arm observer, Charlie, took over my previous job. This was quite a challenge for me - I was only 22 and had been an officer for less than two years. However, it was not usual for those of my age to assume such responsibilities during wartime.

There was a severe storm some time after the landing which destroyed one of the two mulberry harbours (the American one) and damaged the other. The storm caused considerable difficulty for all of us vessels off the coast, with no port to seek refuge in. In order to protect ourselves from the ferocity of the elements, we made fast to the stern of an anchored armed trawler. Apart from being well anchored, the trawler's engine needed to be kept going slow ahead in order to maintain his position. We had to use every warp we had in order to lie well astern of him and so not get dashed against his hull.

We survived this storm intact, but other gales followed, and during one of these I damaged about sixteen feet of the starboard rubbing strake while going alongside the H.Q. ship. The crew were delighted, as they could sense a return to the UK for repairs. Not a bit of it - the chippies from our HQ ship Largs promptly built a cement box around the hole.

In one of the later gales, we developed engine trouble which required replacement of a cylinder head. This was done by our superb P.O. Motor Mechanic and colleagues while we were rolling violently at anchor. A brilliant effort.

When things got quieter, on the way to the patrol line every evening, one of our C.F. boats would lark about playing music and chatter over the extra radio sets provided for 'D' Day. One tune was "What a lovely way to spend an evening" by the Inkspots. The H.Q. ship Largs soon put a stop to this!

Since the damage we had sustained meant that going alongside 'starboard side to' was impossible, we were eventually ordered to return to Poole for repairs. While the repairs were being carried out, we were put up in the upmarket Norfolk House Hotel near the Bournemouth seafront. However, cruelly, the drugs which we had been given to keep us awake in Normandy (and which incidentally gave us all rosy pink complexions) were still working- so we were not really able to take advantage of a good night's sleep (in a proper bed - with clean sheets) before returning to Normandy. After a month on board a small ship, we naturally needed to let off some steam. However the staff at the hotel failed to understand this and were rather disapproving. It was good to rejoin the flotilla in Normandy - we were welcomed back with a cheery greeting from Cdr Sellar.

We and others used to obtain bread from the Coastal Forces maintenance ship, ALBATROSS, a seaplane tender ship. As the area East of the river Orne was not taken for some time, the Germans used to shell our area ineffectively from time to time. When the shelling started, it was our job to make smoke to screen the ALBATROSS (which was at anchor) and the other ships in the area. At one point, since the four-ringed Captain of ALBATROSS found us a nuisance calling for supplies, he stopped the bread issue. However, after he discovered that we were sometimes just a bit slow to make smoke, the bread supply was soon resumed! Later, when things were quieter, we were invited aboard a large armed trawler for drinks by its RNR "skipper lieutenant". Things were pretty rough-and-ready on board compared with proper naval vessels - gin was served in extremely grotty glasses. These guys were nonetheless recognised as true seamen - even by the 'regulars' of the Royal Navy.

I only got ashore a couple of times in Normandy in this whole period. Once we went into a farm near the small coastal village of La Grugne and were offered a bowl of milk to drink. The occupants did not seem particularly delighted to see us - or maybe they were simply still traumatised after the fighting. I offered a cigarette to the son of the family - I could not tell if he was hostile to us or maybe just a bit 'simple'. Another time I found my motor mechanic walking down the road arm in arm with a happy old couple who had previously lived in London and who spoke good English.

I later received a Mention in Dispatches for my work during this period - an oak-leaf emblem which one placed on the campaign medal. Those of us who received them used to joke that we were "not quite brave enough" to receive a DSC!

After leaving Normandy we did some navigational work for the PLUTO oil pipeline, from Dungeness to Boulogne. Our job was to help detect leaks. They would pump large amounts of dye into the line and the resulting stain would be spotted by a patrolling RAF Walrus seaplane. The aircraft would then radio us and stay in position until we arrived to lay a marker. On one occasion we jokingly invited the RAF crew to join us for a drink. However they took us seriously - the seaplane landed and we passed a gin bottle on the end of a boathook to the pilot and his navigator ('elderly' guys in their 30's). Doubtless ess this was appreciated in their mess after returning.

In November 1944 we acted as a navigation marker for the bloody landings at Walcheren in Holland. This was an important objective because, although we by now held the port of Antwerp, we could not use it, because the Germans were in a position to attack shipping from the East.

Although we were on station about a mile-and-a-half offshore and therefore not in the thick of the action during these opposed landings (described elsewhere on the BBC 'Peoples War' website) we felt very exposed and vulnerable while the battle was going on. Once again our much-respected Commander K A Sellar DSO, DSC, RN was in charge of this operation - and I have seen on the website the following signal which he sent when it was over:

'I cannot express to the officers and men of the remnants of our squadron my pride and admiration in you and your lost comrades. You held the key to the speedy end of the war against Germany, and you turned it with the utmost determination and courage.
Those we have left behind remain a memorial to Support Squadron Eastern Flank.'

I am now retired and live in Poole — coincidentally very close to the boatyard to which I brought ML197 for emergency repairs during the Normandy campaign.

NOTE: This is Part 2 of Graham Rouse's story. The other two parts are to be found under A3536462 and A3536651.

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Message 1 - A3504953 - I was Navigational Leader on D Day

Posted on: 26 January 2005 by Graham Rouse

At the temporary D Day Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum one can listen to a tape of former Lt. Honour RNVR, commander of the midget submarine X23 which had lain submerged off Ouistreham for many uncomfortable hours waiting to act as navigational marker. He describes setting up the collapsible radio mast and the special light to link up with the "navigational MLs" for Sword Beach - one of which was my vessel ML23. It was probably Mr Honour who gave the "cheery wave" referred to in my story.

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