D Day from an LCA
Combined Ops Signals Officer Charles Armstrong:
(Continued from Embarking 47 Cdo at Southampton)
We knew exactly where we were going, for on the Monday the captain gave us a final lecture in the wardroom with the charts. The flotilla officer gave us a final briefing of the coastline etc., that we were to assault. L.C.A. 442 was carefully loaded, I had two radio sets. The crew and I packed essential gear in small white kit-bags, and stowed them at the back of the engine room. The R.N. Commando had one radio set type 22 on a hand-cart affair stowed in the boat. We steamed south through the night, I slept in the boat with the crew, as did the other boat officers. We entered the swept channel through the German minefield. It was windy and the sea was quite rough. Dawn broke around 5 o’clock, a little later we anchored about 8 miles from the coast, there was ack ack fire from Le Hamel direction.
The Commandos came aboard their landing craft, their confidence and determination was quite apparent, it gave one a feeling of deep respect for them. Their objective was to capture “Port-en-Bessin” at Arromanches, and were to be landed at the western end of the British beach head “Gold” next to the American Sector. The boats were lowered and we got under way. We formed up in line ahead as a flotilla, heading towards “Le Hamel”, with “Victoria’s” six boats astern of us. I was sixth in line.
Soon after we were shipping water in the rough seas, the pump was started by Ted Sloane, it worked for about 5 minutes, then stopped. It transpired afterwards that it was switched over to pump out the engine room only, when this was dry it pumped air until more water had leaked through from the bilges. The auxiliary pump would not work, I was worried for we were shipping water all the time from the waves breaking over the bows. Frank Ganney and I went aft and had a go, no good of course. Tom Jones our stoker got a spanner and tried to correct it, I then suggested to Mick Sweeney the coxswain the idea of getting an auxiliary pump from the craft ahead, to my horror he told me the only other boat that carried one was in the flotilla officer’s boat, which was the leading one.
We could not have caught up with this craft anyway as we were already going full ahead. I was just going to suggest to the R.M. Lieutenant that his men bale out with their helmets, when Frank Ganney shouted from aft that the pump was working again. How relieved I was. The Lieutenant shouted “thank goodness for that, I would not have wanted my men to get their heads wet on a day like this, they might have caught a cold”. We grinned at each other, he turned from me and was promptly sick over the ramp door. It seemed amusing at the time. At this moment the pump failed again.
Then about 2 miles from the beach we saw the little village of “Le Hamel”, easily recognisable in our little book of pictures of the beach we were to assault. There were the buildings I had pointed out to the crew the night before, with the church and woods behind it. Our beach should have been to the east of this village, but the flotilla officer in No.1 boat had miscalculated the drift and tide which should have pushed us over to the east to land us on target. I looked at the beach we were heading for through my binoculars, and suddenly spotted tanks, one of which was burning. It was the first sign I had that our landing was being opposed.
The Commandos were now all crouched in the boat, except for a French captain who was sitting on the stern bare-headed, he had been grinning happily all the way. I thought to myself “vive la France”, he sat there swinging his legs looking at his native land. We could hear the whine of the shells from the destroyers nearby as they passed over us, some seemed a little too close. I couldn’t spot any shells bursting on the ominous black hole in the concrete built on the cliff. Then the enemy took our attention.
The sudden black smoke a hundred yards ahead of us, and the hollow sound of an exploding shell surprised us slightly. “Hell they are firing at us” shouted Frank Ganney from the forward cockpit, sitting with his “Lewis” gun at the ready. So they darn well were. It scared me for a moment, then there were explosions all round us, I heard and felt the horrid crack and whing of bullets. I glanced back, even the French captain still grinning, thought it wiser to get down.
Then one of the boats astern of us was hit. I realised we were in range of their heavy guns now. The noise and explosions were increasing, the near misses were pushing us off course, the rough seas didn’t help either. Then I noticed an arm waving from the leading boat and pointing to port, we were to change course. I shouted these instructions to the coxswain, who promptly swung the wheel round. At that moment No. 7 boat on our starboard bow was hit. The Lieutenant told his men it was the boat that carried the other half of their company. As a tribute to their discipline and courage, they accepted it with quiet dignity. I felt proud to be with them. Then a boat ahead of us to port was hit amidships, it was one of “Victoria’s” boats, it was an awful sight, apparently there was only one survivor. After avoiding the wreckage we carried on. Our orders were not to stop to pick anyone up.
Frank Ganney was loudly bewailing the fact that he couldn’t see anyone to shoot at, the sides of the boat were being peppered by bullets and shrapnel etc., the armour plating stood up well, the noise, smoke and confusion coupled with the shouts and cries of unfortunate men created a scene in my mind I shall never forget. Because we had turned to port it brought us broadside on to the coast, therefore making us an excellent target. The flotilla officer in No. 1 boat was turning in to beach, apparently we were about a mile west of our prearranged landing place, we followed suit. He headed for the only possible place to beach between an L.C.T. and a smashed L.C.M. I shall never know how he managed to miss the underwater obstructions which we could feel scraping holes in the bottom of our boat as we followed more or less in his wake. We had not expected to encounter somehow those underwater obstructions which had devilish beer bottle mines tied to them. Then an explosion at our stern sent a shock right through our craft, I thought to myself we had hit a mine and yelled down the voice pipe “are you alright Jones”, his head popped up from the engine room, he gave a thumbs up sign. We began to fill with water more quickly now, stoker Tom Jones throttled his engines to full ahead even though his engine room was filling with water. My coxswain cleverly avoided two whopping great obstructions and came to rest on a submerged tank.
We were about 20 yards from the beach, the water was fairly deep, the troops were weighted down by their heavy packs, but they never hesitated and splashed into the turbulent sea onto the ramp and stepping onto the tank, while others went straight over the side up to their armpits holding their rifles above their heads, they waded their way to the shore. The mortar fire was getting uncomfortably close, we grabbed our two “Lewis” guns which ‘Sweeney’ had managed to save as they were about to disappear under the water, these with the five pans of ammunition, followed the commandos to the beach. It was no easy task, as I had the two “Lewis” guns each with a pan of ammo held above my head, one in each hand. I dashed across the narrow beach and laid the guns down behind the sea wall.
Then we returned to salvage what we could. The radio set had become waterlogged and was useless, so I could not contact the ship. It occurred to me when I was carrying the “Lewis” guns ashore that when Lt. Commander Peter Scott went aboard his stream gun boat “The Grey Owl” for the first time, his ship’s company had dubbed him “two gun Pete”, because he had been carrying a “Lewis” gun under each arm.
I decided to go back to our boat to see what we could salvage, in retrospect it was rather foolhardy, as there was still a lot of enemy fire coming our way. After reaching our craft I grabbed the radio set and kit-bag with the thermos flask etc., the crew took what belongings they could plus some more pans of ammo. We then plunged once more into the water and headed back to the beach. The radio set as I thought was useless. We joined a little group of ratings from the other sunken craft, some were lying on the beach obviously badly wounded. I took stock of our situation, we were just behind the sea wall, it was preventing our tanks from getting onto the roadway, there was an “achtung minen” sign and some barbed wire, there were some wounded lying all around, some making most pitiful sounds that could be heard through the noise and clamour on that dreadful stretch of beach.
An army captain was lead by, his eyes were wide open but he was quite blind, I looked at my watch it was 9.30 a.m. We had a drink from the thermos, I tried once more to get the radio to work, no good. An L.C.T. that was high and dry nearby gave me an idea, so I ran over to it, scrambled aboard, and tried their set, but got no reply from our ship. I went back to the boys and found a few more had joined our group, some of our own lads and H.M.S. “SS Victoria’s”. I thought we had better look for a passage back to the ship or U.K. So moving away from the shelling, hopefully we looked along the shore for a likely lift. Two of our party had died and had to be left where they were. It was sad.
After fifteen minutes search we rested near some R.A.M.C. men who were looking after wounded. One poor fellow just laid back and died, they covered him over with an army blanket. I shall never forget what I saw next, our own commandos whom we had brought ashore had formed up with the rest of our group. Many of them had no equipment, were without rifles and were bare-headed. A sergeant, whom I had seen aboard our ship practising daily with his radio, formed the men up. They were to march smartly off to fight the enemy without even, as far as I could see, a hand grenade or rifle, just empty handed. I gave them our “Lewis” guns and ammo, which they eagerly accepted. My heart filled with admiration for these brave men, showing the sort of spirit and determination that Royal Marine Commandos are made of.
Lieutenant Wayne, flotilla officer from the “Victoria” found our party. He reckoned that we should load our wounded into an L.C.T. We did this. The L.C.T. was high and dry and looked as if it would be there for some time, so I carried on with the chaps who were fit, to try and find a landing craft to take us back. I gathered about 30 ratings together. We got into an L.C.I.L. which was also out of action, as we discovered. So we went ashore again dragging our small possessions with us, brown with sand and wet through as we were ourselves. We tried another L.C.I. U.S. which started to get off. Frank Ganney was the last man aboard, he managed to do so only by sheer guts.
The captain of the craft we were now on had noticed the other L.C.I.’s getting stranded on the beach, through not getting away quickly enough due to the ebbing tide. He suddenly decided it was high time for him to be leaving. So he went full astern paying little attention to the fact that we were still piling onto his craft from an L.C.T. against which his bows were jammed, he had by the way, disembarked his own troops into this L.C.T. At the moment the captain went full astern Frank Ganney was in the act of jumping from one craft to the other. He missed but grabbed the bowline of the craft we were now on, the line was being chopped away from the L.C.T. Frank held on like grim death hanging about 30 feet above the water, he then worked his way hand over hand towards our craft (the L.C.I.), he reached the side and hauled himself aboard. We were all shouting encouragement, he was just in time for a split second later the line parted. How did he do it? I don’t know, for we were all pretty exhausted long before that. A few men out of my party were left behind on the L.C.T.
The men I had gathered with me amounted to 28 ratings and one P.O. The captain on the bridge informed me the best he could do was to land us at Calshott. That sounded very good to me. And so we came home and eventually joined our ship the P.J. Charlotte at 10 O’clock the following evening. The authorities wanted to send us on a survivors routine, it took a great deal of talking to dissuade them and let us return to our ships right away.
There were 14 Landing Craft in our flotilla when we set out for the beach, only one managed to get back to the ship, even this one had a gaping hole in it. The crew who consisted of Hutchings, Penny, Mellor, and stoker Hardy worked unceasingly to stay afloat. I thought this episode should be mentioned, because it must have taken a great deal of courage, determination, and good seamanship to make that 8 mile journey in a craft in that condition and to find the ship among all the hundreds that were out there.
Therefore I say “Well done lads”. Thus ends my story.
No. 47 R.M. Commando, despite their depleted numbers, stormed “Port-en-Bessin” and after overcoming fierce opposition captured this important position, sustaining more casualties in the process. I take my hat off to them, that brave body of men, and say a prayer for those who found their last resting place on that eventful historic day.
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