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- 29 October 2003
My father-in-law Jimmy Green wrote this article about his wartime experiences and how he came to remember events more recently:
I was born on the 4 July 1921 in the city of Bristol, England. It had a long association with the sea for the Cabots sailed from Bristol in 1497 and discovered Newfoundland. Bristol was also involved in the triangular trade — providing workers for the plantations in Virginia in return for the tobacco that the local manufacturers W D and H O Wills turned into the Woodbine cigarette so popular with British servicemen in the two world wars.
Seeing ships from all over the world in the centre of Bristol gave me a longing to go to sea. My family spent their holidays in the 1930s at Weymouth and it was there I saw the British fleet and went on board HMS Hood on a Navy Day.
As soon as war broke out in September 1939 I volunteered for the Royal Navy, but there were no vacancies. It was not until after the Fall of France in 1940 that I was able to join the Fleet Air Arm as a trainee pilot. I was fortunate (though I did not think so at the time) in not passing the course, as most of those cadets who became pilots did not survive the war.
I was given the option of staying in the Fleet Air Arm as observer or joining the executive branch as a potential officer. I spent most of 1941 in HMS Bulldog, an old destroyer on North Atlantic convoys. In May 1941 we captured U-110 with its Enigma machine and code books intact. I was on deck behind the 3.5-inch guns when U-110 was captured. A British sailor who could speak German took my place in the boarding party. The German prisoners were told of the invasion of Russia, which we heard over the ship’s radio, but they would not believe us, saying it was British propaganda. I spoke with one of Goebbels' propaganda officers, who was at sea for the first time. We spoke in French. He would not believe me.
Life aboard HMS Bulldog was dreadfully uncomfortable. Above deck, waves as high as houses would crash down. I was often very cold, spending endless hours staring out to sea. Below deck, there were too few hammocks, so I had to sleep on a locker, tossed and turned by every movement of the ship, with seawater sloshing around everywhere. It was the worst year of my life!
After being commissioned as a sub lieutenant in February 1942 I opted to serve in Combined Operations and joined 24th R Boat Flotilla. I was a keen sportsman, playing rugby, cricket and football. Being part of an assault flotilla allowed me to indulge my interest in sport more frequently. We were assigned to Lord Lovat’s 4th Commando and took part in the Dieppe Raid and lost our Flotilla Officer when we ran into a German convoy.
Early in 1944 I joined 551 Landing Craft Assault (LCA) Flotilla at Plymouth as its Divisional Officer (otherwise known as Executive Officer, 1st Lieutenant or second in command, and generally known as 'Jimmy the One'.) I joined the navy as George and came out as Jimmy.
551 Flotilla was based in HMS Ceres, an old cruiser permanently anchored in Plymouth Sound to protect the dockyard and city from German raids. The Luftwaffe flattened the centre of Plymouth in 1940 and 1941, but the dockyard was virtually untouched. The German air raids ceased in 1941 so life on board HMS Ceres was peaceful. Our 18 LCAs were moored close to Ceres and we were able to carry out exercises and use dockyard facilities to bring our craft up to operational standards. We also managed to play an occasional game of football against local opposition.
We were really awaiting the arrival of SS Empire Javelin (our mother ship) recently built in the USA and converted to a Landing Ship Infantry (Large). It was manned by a Merchant Navy crew and had davits equipped to hoist our LCAs on board. The Javelin spent a few days in Plymouth where we worked out operational procedures for hoisting and lowering the LCAs with mixed RN and MN crews.
After a short stay in Plymouth, SS Empire Javelin sailed to Scotland and anchored in the Holy Loch north of Dunoon. Here we came under the orders of a Commodore of the US Navy. The Javelin carried a Royal Navy Lieutenant as Liaison Officer between the US Navy, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. He was the Senior Naval Officer Transport and known to all of us, unfortunately, as SNOT. He had received from the US Navy two manuals entitled 'From Ship to Shore. Volumes 1 and 2'. He passed them to the Flotilla Officer, Lt Freddy Grant, who passed them on to me to read, learn and inwardly digest. The books detailed the procedures for taking troops on the landing craft, which circled off the troop ships until such time as they were called in to load their passengers from scrambling nets. We took part in a couple of exercises using these procedures with limited success.
The LCA had a crew of four — a coxswain, two seamen and a stoker in the engine room responding to a telegraph and voice pipe operated by the coxswain. The LCA had two petrol engines fuelled by 100 percent octane, which it gobbled up rapidly giving a comparatively short range. It was also not designed to go round for a long time in circles and I was made aware of the discontent of the crews, particularly the stokers who had bells constantly ringing in their ears as coxswains tried to maintain station. I wasn’t particularly happy circling around the rear of a transport waiting for my number to be called. I conveyed my criticisms to the Flotilla Officer and SNOT, having doubts about the system working in the English Channel in the night and in a possible gale. My arguments were accepted and it was decided to invite the Commodore to lunch aboard the Javelin to discuss our problems. I assembled a colour detail complete with Bosun’s whistle to pipe the Commodore aboard. He duly arrived on time, acknowledged the presentation of arms by the colour party and greeted us with a 'Hiya Boys! Where’s the bar?' He later agreed to our method of having troops loaded on board the Javelin, loading them into LCAs at the davits and lowering them into the water. We found that troops normally preferred this method rather than using scrambling nets.
We continued our training in Scotland, exercising with troops both by day and night. The Javelin did sail south to take part in Exercise Fabius on Slapton Sands. Live ammunition was used in this exercise and my first wave had little time after the ceasefire to make for the shore. At the given time the bombardment ceased and we made full speed for the beach. As we neared the shore about ten minutes after cease fire we were straddled by a salvo of 14-inch shells from USS Texas, which missed our craft but soaked most of the occupants. Observers reported that we were all sunk, which gave rise to rumours over casualties. There was of course another action off the Isle of Wight during the earlier Exercise Tiger with the landing craft for Utah Beach, when E-Boats got amongst the convoy of troop ships making for Slapton.
Early in June the Javelin arrived at Portland and we took on board from Weymouth harbour the 1st Battalion of 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division along with other support units. They were a friendly but shy bunch of fresh-faced country lads who must have felt at home in Ivybridge — a small town in Devonshire, where they had trained for the invasion.
There were a series of briefings at the Pavilion in Weymouth and I had a separate briefing for my particular assignment. I was the leader of the first wave and it was my task to land A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment at Vierville sur Mer at 05:30 on 5 June. We were referred to in the flotilla as 'The Suicide Wave', something that we felt with pride represented the danger we faced rather than the prospect of casualties. We had trained day and night, including fog. Many of the men in 551 Flotilla had taken part in earlier landings in the Mediterranean. Like so many men on D-Day, we felt we simply had a job to do and that we were ready for it — ready for the war to end and ready to get on with it. When troops were aboard the Javelin, it was very cramped and the bar was closed, so we were ready to get the troops off the ship too.
I had six craft of 551 Flotilla under my command plus two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles carrying two platoons of C Company 2nd US Rangers. They were to come to the Javelin and tag on to my right column then come into line abreast on my signal so that we all landed at the same time 05:30 on 5 June.
The officer commanding A Company 116th Infantry Regiment was Captain Taylor Fellers who I believe served in the National Guard at Bedford Virginia. He was a very serious, thoughtful officer who seemed a lot older than our sailors who were in their late teens or early twenties. It was his objective to secure the pass at Vierville sur Mer, which led off the beach between the cliffs. It was my task to put him and his Company plus the Rangers on the beach at the right place and at the right time. For as far as I could see on D-Day in both directions, Captain Fellers was the first American soldier to set foot on Omaha Beach in front of the Vierville sur Mer draw. The beach was empty, apart from the beach obstacles laid by the Germans.
Taylor Fellers spoke to me of his concern that this would be the first time that he and his Company would see action and asked me to give them every support. He sought me out on the Empire Javelin. I assured him that if we saw any Germans we would certainly open fire with our Lewis guns. In the event, we were unable to do so. We landed about 100 yards below the beach obstacles soon after low tide and hundreds of yards from the edge of the beach. It was dull, grey and overcast. Like so many, we could not make out a single German. We knew they were there, but we could not see them. With the LCAs rocking up and down on the surf, we were in more danger of shooting down the American troops in front of us.
The Javelin sailed from Portland harbour on the evening of the 4 June 1944 in the teeth of a gale. A few hours later we were recalled to Portland harbour as the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours. H Hour was amended to 06:30.
I turned in at about 22:00 hours on the night of the 5 June with instructions for a call at 04:00 as we were due to launch at 04:30. I was shaken at about 03:30 by Able Seaman Kemp who combined his duties as Captain of the Heads (toilets) with looking after the officers — I don’t think there was any reason why he combined both tasks. He asked me if I would be good enough to report to the Flotilla Officer as the launching time had been changed. At first, I was annoyed at being woken early. The ship was bouncing around in the heavy seas — little different from the previous day. Freddy told me to get the first wave launched as soon as possible as I could not make my planned rate of knots in these conditions. My craft LCA910 was on the starboard side of the lower deck with LCA911 behind me followed by the LCA coxed by Leading Seaman Massingham.
Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 of his men were waiting at the davits opposite LCA910 and were soon taken on board to be launched in the pitch dark into unfriendly sea. The lowering into the water was a bit of a nightmare as the heavy block and tackle was moving around and had to be secured against ones body before the hook could be released from the ring of the LCA. The after hook had to be released first while the LCA maintained position until the forward hook (my responsibility) could be released. My coxswain was Leading Seaman Martin of Newfoundland (How I blessed those Cabots from Bristol for discovering a land which produced such an excellent seaman). Instead of my normal sternsheetsman (the sailor at the back) I had been given at the last minute Signalman Webb to work a brand new signal set — also given to me at the last minute. Webb was delighted to be given the opportunity to see action instead of manning the signal station in the Javelin. As LCA910 was being unhooked we were hit in the stern by LCA911 and the stoker told the coxswain through his voice pipe that we were taking in water in the engine room. I had to clamber through the troops to the engine room only entered through the stoke hole on the after deck. After a discussion with the stoker and Webb we thought we could keep afloat if Webb, sitting at the open stoke hold, used a hand pump at its maximum.
After this minor diversion we found the American patrol craft, which was to escort us part of the way to Vierville. We set off in two columns of three, like Nelson at Trafalger, with LCA910 at the head of the starboard column and my second in command Sub Lieutenant Tony Drew at the head of the port column. There was no sign of the two LCAs from HMS Prince Charles, so we set off without them. In fact, they were close behind us on my right flank, but I could not see them in the dark. I had been aboard the US patrol craft after Exercise Fabius and had seen its radar, which was far more accurate than my magnetic compass.
It was heavy going in the rough seas and we were shipping water over the bows. However we were on course and on time. About five miles from the coast we parted company from the US patrol craft with mutual signals of respect.
A few minutes later we came upon a group of Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) wallowing in the heavy seas and making about half our speed. I muttered something like 'What the hell are they doing here!' Taylor Fellers, who had been sitting on a bench with his men, joined me and told me the LCTs were carrying tanks scheduled to land before us and lead A Company up the beach. This was a complete surprise to me but it didn’t make much difference, as they had no hope of getting there on time. We left them in our wake and never saw them again.
It was beginning to get light and the bombardment by the battleships and cruisers had ceased. I could vaguely make out the French coast through the gloom and noticed puffs of smoke moving along the top of the cliffs. Dismissing the thought that it was the USS Texas emptying its gun barrels, I believed that it was a steam train puffing its way along the coast to Cherbourg.
It was approaching the time to form line abreast and make our dash for the shore. I turned round to see how the other craft were coping. I was just in time to see the bow of LCA911 dipping into the sea and disappearing below the waves. I believe 911 had been damaged during the collision with 910, whilst lowering the boats from the Javelin. All the crew and soldiers had life jackets and I could only hope they would keep everyone afloat until I returned. It goes against the grain for a sailor to leave his comrades in the sea, but LCA910 had no room and our orders were explicit that we were to leave survivors in the sea to be picked up later. It was essential to land on time.
A few minutes later as we neared the shore I picked out some nasty looking pill boxes and hoped they were not manned. A group of LCT(R)s — tank landing craft carrying rockets on their decks — came up behind me and launched all their rockets woefully short. Not one came anywhere near the shoreline. The heavy swell must have played havoc with their range finding. I remember shaking my fist in anger.
I then gave the signal to form line abreast and told signalman Webb to stop pumping and take cover. Martin pulled down the cover over his head and was guided by me through slits in his armour-plated cockpit. I was watching a particularly menacing looking pillbox at the mouth of the Vierville sur Mer draw in my binoculars and thinking that if it was manned we were going to be in trouble. There was a loud bang in my right ear and I turned to see a LCG (Landing Craft Gun) blazing away with its 4.7s and scoring direct hits on the pillbox. I wished it could have stayed longer but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. I had no idea we were getting support from other landing craft. One of the LCAs in the left flank was hit by an anti-tank bullet, passing through the armour plating on both sides of the boat and catching one of the American troops, who was vary badly injured.
Now we were alone, at the right beach at the right time. Taylor Fellers wanted to be landed to the right of the pass and the other 3 boats in the port column just to the left of the pass. We went flat out and crunched to a halt some 20 or 30 yards from the shore line. The beach was so flat that we couldn’t go any further so the troops had to go in single file up to their waists in water and wade to the shore through tidal runnels. Taylor Fellers was gone as soon as the ramp was lowered before I could wish him luck, followed by the middle file, then the port file and the starboard file as practised and in good order. They all made the beach safely and formed a firing line at a slight rise. At this time there was a lull in the German firing. They had been plopping mortar shells around us and firing an anti-tank gun but suddenly they ceased fire. A German veteran told me recently that they had been ordered to preserve ammunition. They had been ordered to wait until they had a clear target within range.
The beach was very wide. About 100 yards from the shore line were some obstacles. We knew the beach was mined and this was why we landed at low tide. About another 200 yards further on from the obstacles were the dark cliffs where the Germans were in their prepared positions. In my briefing I was told that the beach would be bombed the night before and there would be craters where the advancing troops could shelter. The beach was flat as a pancake with not a crater in sight.
The landing took quite a time and I was itching to return to the survivors of LCA911 hopefully still afloat about a mile offshore. I looked to my left and saw Tony Drew up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA and obviously in some sort of trouble. He told me much later that he had reversed off the beach into a tank, most probably from the US Navy LCT(A)2227, which landed immediately to our left.
I was intending to see if I could help Tony Drew, when my coxswain told me that there were some of our lads on the beach. I thought it unlikely but he was right. The two craft with the Rangers on board had landed just behind us and to our right. The crew of one of these craft were waving frantically at us and wanted us to take them off. I thought twice about it, with Tony Drew and the survivors from LCA911 in mind, but I couldn’t leave them on the beach so 910 went into the beach again, grounded and picked up the crew. One of them was wounded and had to be supported by his shipmates. They told me that they had been hit by 4 mortars on landing which destroyed their LCA and killed a number of the Rangers. There was no one else nearby so I assumed the Rangers had looked after their own casualties.
Tony Drew was still up to his neck in water around the stern of his LCA. He told me that his rudder had jammed, but he could fix it. This LCA made its way ten miles back to the Javelin without steering, using the twin engines to steer the boat.
It was about this time that I remembered to send a signal reporting our landing. I looked round for Signalman Webb who was on the after deck sweeping off the remains of our smoke float which had probably been destroyed by a near miss from a mortar or anti-tank shell. He obviously enjoyed his role as a seaman — much more exciting than relaying signals in the Empire Javelin. We sent a signal to the effect of, ‘Landed against light opposition.’
We formed up again and set off to find the survivors of LCA911. They were still bobbing around in the heavy swell. I was told that the crew of 911 had been picked up by a patrol craft, which then made off at speed with Petty Officer Stewart hanging on to a rope. (His arm was later amputated and he was invalided out of the Navy). We managed to get everyone on board with some difficulty as an exhausted sodden soldier carrying a vast amount of kit is very heavy to lift. I had to use my sailor knife to cut the straps releasing the kit before being able to lift survivors aboard, leaning over the side of the boat and being held by my legs. In some cases I had to lower the ramp and lift exhausted soldiers in over the bow. No one was left in the water. Years later, I was informed by survivors from A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, which the signalman had downed, weighed under by his signal equipment.
The survivors asked about their comrades and I told them that they had landed as planned. Many wanted to be taken to the beach, but they were in no fit state to take any further action. I handed round my ships Woodbines (made by W D and H O Wills of Bristol from Virginian tobacco) and apologised for not having any American cigarettes.
We returned to the Empire Javelin and took several shots at hooking on. The Javelin had to up anchor and make a lee, the conditions were still so rough. We had never set sail in such seas. Martin was hit by a swinging block which threw him from one end of the boat to the other, splitting his forehead open to the bone but we eventually made it and handed our survivors over to the waiting medical staff.
I have absolutely no idea what I did when I returned to the Javelin. There is a gap in my memory and my next recollection is of entering Plymouth harbour the following day to an amazing reception. Plymouth sound was full of ships waiting to depart to Normandy and they recognised that we had come from there as our six empty davits revealed our losses. The surviving landing craft were badly shot up. As we came to anchor we were greeted by all the ships sounding their sirens as a signal of their respect. It was a very moving and rare experience. We were the first vessel to enter Plymouth harbour from the invasion. 551 Flotilla formed up on deck. We had been told to expect one-third losses and in respect of the landing craft, the planners were right. We returned with 12 out of 18 LCAs, with many of the remainder badly shot up.
The second and third waves of LCAs from our flotilla had landed between 0700 and 0800, by which time the tide and reached the beach obstacles and the Germans had them within machine gun range and subject to more accurate mortar fire.
One sailor from our flotilla, Bill Wheeldon, was killed on Omaha Beach. One of our crews had called to him from the water’s edge, but Bill continued to cross the beach with the American troops and was shot down. Many of our flotilla were injured and invalided out after D-Day.
All of the American troops on LCA911, including the CO Captain Taylor Fellers, were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other troops transported on the Javelin and landed by 551 Flotilla were killed. It was a long time before we discovered the extent of the casualties. The last time I saw the troops of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment, they had been in conference at the water’s edge and were forming an assault line parallel to the water line, like a scene from The Somme. I expected them to run off in various directions, like the commandos we had trained with.
Having completed our task, our attention turned to getting back to the Javelin and away from the beach. Captain Fellers had discharged himself from hospital to lead his men on D-Day.
It is not widely known, but there was a substantial Royal Navy presence on Omaha and Utah Beaches on D-Day. On Omaha Beach, four battalions of American troops were landed from seven British transport ships and LCA Flotillas. Both of the 2nd and 5th the US Ranger Infantry Battalions were with the Royal Navy, as were the 1st Battalions of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division and the 1st Battalion of 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.
Some of our sister flotillas, including 550 Flotilla on the SS Empire Anvil at the eastern, Colleville end of Omaha Beach, suffered higher casualties. A number of British sailors were killed on Omaha Beach. Many other landing craft, amongst them LCTs for example, were British.
We had to replace and repair our craft at Plymouth and take on fresh crews as quickly as possible so as to make many more trips to Normandy, ferrying men and equipment until suitable harbours could be opened. In November 1944 our services were no longer needed and we left the Javelin at Fowey where we moored our craft in the river there. Shortly after leaving SS Empire Javelin we heard that she had been sunk by a U Boat in the Channel off Cherbourg, where she still rests at the bottom of the sea.
551 Flotilla was earmarked to take part in the recapture of The Channel Islands — the only part of Britain to be captured by the Germans. The reception given to us by the Channel Islanders was rather different from the one we received in Normandy. We were the first into harbour, with the Germans still at their stations. We enjoyed several days of celebration then rounded up the German Garrisons and took them back to Southampton to POW camps. I remember being driven around Jersey in a car that had been hidden in a haystack for the duration of the War.
The flotilla then sort of disintegrated. We were destined for the war against Japan but VJ Day arrived as we were embarking for the Far East. The officers’ postings were cancelled but the crews were sent as far as India where they remained for several months before return to Britain for demobilisation.
I buried my wartime memories for over 50 years and it was not until I became a widower in 1995 that my thoughts returned to my old shipmates. I joined the Landing Craft Association and through them discovered that my flotilla had been holding reunions for a number of years. They had tried to contact me but I had joined the Army after taking a history degree at Bristol University and spent several years in territories throughout the world linked to Britain. I left the Army Education Corps as Lt-Colonel in 1976, so I had flown, sailed and also served in the army during my military service.
I eventually made a reunion in 1997 and once the initial reticence was overcome became shipmates again. There was however an underlying rancour directed at American writers, which had escaped me as I had no desire to resurrect old forgotten nightmares. However, when I read these accounts written by S L A Marshall and Stephen Ambrose, I could see why our veterans were angry. These two writers had no idea what occurred at 06:30 on D-Day so invented some cock and bull yarns to cover their ignorance. According to these writers reluctant British coxswains had to be persuaded at the point of a Colt .45 to land their soldiers on the beach, including the boats under my command. If these two writers had bothered to study photographs of LCAs they might have noticed a box shaped turret ‘forard’ on the starboard side (up front right). This armour-plated turret enclosed the coxswain where he controlled the LCA — well clear of any Colt-toting mutineer intent on assuming command.
I can personally shoot down another flight of fancy dreamt up by Marshall and repeated by Ambrose, who describe how the lead craft (mine) with Captain Taylor Fellers and 31 men aboard was struck by a German weapon (A V3 perhaps) which ‘vaporised’ the LCA and all of its occupants before it could reach the shore. As Taylor Fellers and his men all landed safely and were later killed on the beach one wonders how Ambrose could write such fiction. The body of Taylor Fellers was found on the beach and brought back to the USA and buried in Bedford Cemetery. I laid a wreath on his grave on behalf of 551 Flotilla when I was privileged to attend the dedication of the Memorial gate at the magnificent D-Day memorial.
A bare minimum of research was all that was required to find out how Taylor Fellers died and where he was buried.
Matters were hardly improved by the film 'Saving Private Ryan'. I have no objection to the film as such because it wasn’t a documentary and Spielberg can use his remarkable talents to portray a story. But when asked by a BBC interviewer why he did not show any British involvement, he replied ‘This is a film about Omaha Beach. There were no British on Omaha. There is no role for the British.’ Spielberg also claimed that 'Historical accuracy is the bedrock of films such as Saving Private Ryan.' He follows the tradition of Marshall who wrote in an article ‘Normandy was a great American victory.’ Perhaps it was all a bad dream and I was not there.
'Saving Private Ryan' depicted C Company of 2nd Ranger Infantry Battalion landing on the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach. Their two British LCA landing craft and the six LCAs carrying A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division of the Army of the United States of America came under my command at that exact point and time. I was British then, as were all of the hundreds of other British sailors landing American troops on the morning of D-Day. Denying the presence of the Royal Navy on Omaha Beach or dishonouring them was a gross injustice.
On a more serious note, Omaha deserves a place in American history. Those who died bravely at Omaha deserve to have their death recorded accurately. We who survived owe it to them. We owe it to those who served in World War Two to remember their stories, like mine, and we owe it to them to remember them accurately, as they actually happened.
As Lieutenant Ray Nance, a veteran of and second in command of A Company of 116th Infantry Regiment put it 'We were with the British. They were the best.'
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