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Part 1 - Disaster At Sea

by Major Desmond Scarr

Contributed by 
Major Desmond Scarr
People in story: 
Major Desmond Scarr, C.B.E.
Location of story: 
Normandy, France
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5847393
Contributed on: 
21 September 2005

'A' squadron 43rd Recce. All but two (including myself, seated 5th from left, front row) of these men died in the sinking of the Derrycunihy 7.30am 24th June 1944. My first week in action was made very sad in that I spent all my spare time writing to the relatives of those who died.

'Disaster at Sea' is the first extract taken from the personal memoirs of Major Desmond Scarr. Entitled "recollections" the memoirs were written in 1989 and distributed in hardback form to close family and friends.

This is Major Desmond Scarr's story. It has been submitted by his son, Edward Scarr, with permission from the author, who understands the terms and conditions of this site.

By 1944 my war so far could hardly be described as dangerous but I knew that that time was coming to and end, with the coming assault on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. RAF Officers took pleasure in telling us how formidable these defences were but we were inclined to dismiss such thoughts from our mind. In January 1944 I rejoined 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment in Eastbourne, reverting to the rank of Lieutenant. My brother Douglas was there, commanding the anti-tank troop, whilst I took over a recce troop in ‘A’ Squadron. This consisted of three Humber armoured cars, Two light reconnaissance cars and seven bren gun carriers, all of which represented a great deal of fire power. As troop leader I rode in one of the Humbers and controlled my troop by radio. Our job was to reconnoitre forward, make contact with the enemy, engage him and report; and on others occasions hold extended lines, usually to a flank. We were not expected to slug it out at close quarters with enemy tanks or infantry but, as history was to show, this could not always be avoided.

D Day came and a few days after the landings on the 6th June we were ordered to the Port of London. We drove up from the coast through cheering East End crowds and on to Tilbury docks. Our arrival there coincided with the opening shots of the V1 flying bomb attacks and from our staging area in the docks we watched, without fully understanding, the spluttering missiles which after a time cut out and crashed with a large bang. Before we embarked for Normandy we listened to the 1944 Derby, won by Ocean Swell. Despite the war some aspects of life in England continued as always, and none of us thought it should be otherwise.

On 18th June we sailed aboard the SS “Derrycunihy” (a liberty ship) which took us into the Thames estuary and out to sea. We rounded the Kent coast, passed the cliffs of Dover and, in what had now become a large convoy, headed for the Normandy beaches. So far, in glorious weather, it had the appearance of a pleasure cruise. I shared a cabin with one of the ship's officers somewhere near the bridge. Our vehicles were stowed in the forward holds and the rear holds were used to house the troops (two squadrons only since ‘B’ Squadron was to follow later). Douglas was already in Normandy with the advance party.

We arrived off the coast of Normandy on 20th June and were kept waiting due to bad weather. During the next few days our ship played a deadly game with the German shore batteries at Le Harvre (we were at the extreme end of the bridgehead). First a huge waterspout one side of the ship would indicate a ranging shot. At this point the ship’s engines would rev up. Then followed a second whoosh and a waterspout the other side of the ship. A bracket had been achieved but with agonising slowness the ship would move away and the guns had to start all over again, or, better still, choose another target.

Then, before dawn on 24th June orders came for our ship to move inshore preparatory to disembarkation. The troops were still below and most of us were in bed when a violent shudder shook the ship. I saw the washbasin on the wall of my cabin fly off its brackets and end up on the floor. I had no idea what had happened but presumed we had had a direct hit from one of the coastal guns. As I started to throw on my clothes my cabin mate, who had been on duty, rushed in saying “Quick — you have no time to dress- get out!” However, I completed dressing, which took a few seconds and went out onto the deck. I quickly came to a yawning gap of several yards and in front of me was a scene from Dante’s Inferno, which I simply could not grasp. The stern part of the ship had fallen away and was low in the water. On the as yet unsubmerged deck, part of which was in flames, lay several bodies. An ammunition truck near me was on fire and, feeling rather useless in that there was no way I could reach the stricken part of the ship, I turned a water hose on to the vehicle. Some small arms ammunition started to explode, adding to the general mayhem. Shortly after we were told to get aboard a small craft which had come alongside.

In this boat I found several injured men and I could not help feeling some shame that I was fully clothed and unharmed whilst others were in such dire straits. Our rescue boat was a launch of some kind and on a raised bridge two naval officers stood at the helm. As we moved off we passed within feet of the blazing ammunition truck and those of us who were standing sank to the deck instinctively. Not so the two naval officers who stood rigidly upright gazing disdainfully at the exploding vehicle although there was nothing to protect them other than plywood. This is an image of the Royal Navy which I carry to this day.

As we moved towards a large ship a mile or so away I spent my time comforting the injured. Our objective turned out to be a depot ship, the ‘Cap Tourain’, equipped with extensive hospital facilities. This was as well as, soon after we boarded, the ship received a hit from the shore batteries and two of our officers were wounded, among others. There was little I could do on this ship, where I found other survivors from the ‘Derrycunihy’. We still had no idea of the extent of the losses suffered by the regiment and this became apparent only later in the day when the roll was called. It then became clear that a great many men, especially from ‘A’ Squadron, had been killed or drowned immediately when our ship struck what I later learned was a mine. This was the so-called ‘oyster’ mine, which German aircraft parachuted down at night among the ships offshore. They were very powerful and activated acoustically when a ship passed overhead. At much the same time as the ‘Derrycunihy’ was sunk so also, by another oyster mine, was the destroyer HMS Swift with the loss of most of its crew of 150. The few survivors from that ship were also on the ‘Cap Tourain’.

I found that none of my own troop, except one, had escaped death or injury in the disaster. I grieved the loss of my own armoured car crew, Corporal Malcolm, my gunner/wireless operator, and Trooper Robertson, my driver, both whom lost their lives. They were tough Scots, short of stature and given to few words, but they were first class at their jobs and we had formed a close-knit team. I was to miss them even more later.

That afternoon some of us returned to the ‘Derrycunihy’. The ship had settled on the bottom with the front half still above the water. The rear part was submerged. After a short service conducted on the bridge by the Padre, The Rev. Gethyn-Jones, we went down to the forward holds and started to unload the armoured vehicles (which were largely undamaged). These were lifted out by cranes onto rafts manned by sappers. This work went on for 24 hours and finally, late on the evening of the 25th, I found myself landing on the Continent of Europe for the first time. We touched down at Ouistreham and I was much struck by the French scene, the houses with wooden shutters flapping on glassless windows and a few palm trees to complete the picture. There was also much dust and debris in evidence, and not a Frenchman in sight. It was clear that this area had been hard fought over.

We concentrated a mile or so inland near the Caen canal, within range of enemy mortars which did their best to make us uncomfortable. The next day I was given a group of vehicles and told to report to a RV near Pouligny, not far from Bayeux, about 20 miles away. I led off and after a while made my first and only map reading error of my campaign- perhaps distracted by the occasional German shell landing beside the road. We viewed these more with interest than concern; after all we now knew we were in the war. Be that as it may, I pressed on until, coming to a corner in the wood, my vehicle was stopped by a very small infantryman who suddenly emerged and said very politely “ if you go round that corner, Sir, you will be in the German front line”. I thanked him and with difficulty extricated my convoy which in any case was in no shape to fight since none of the vehicles were properly crewed- many having only one driver, all of whom were dressed in blue sailor jerseys. We were lucky to be shielded by the trees. I have often though of that helpful private soldier outside Caen, usually in the context of the Army saying — ‘the nearer the front line you are the nicer the people you meet'. I hope he survived the war. The odds against an infantryman doing that in the fierce Normandy fighting were not great but I hope he did. Thanks to him we reached Pouligny safely. There the regiment was sorting itself out, a process which took three weeks. During this time I was sent back to England to collect reinforcements. Returning with these we landed at the artificial harbour (“Mulberry”) which had, with astonishing engineering and naval skill, been built on to the beaches.

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