Joseph Kelsey - 5th RM (Independent) Armoured Support Battery
Updated: Oct 22
1st January 2019
(Originally published in Britain At War)
D-Day veteran Joseph Kelsey talks to Melody Foreman about the build up to the invasion and fight in Normandy. Additional words by John Ash.
When Joseph Kelsey heard he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre by France in 2016 for his outstanding bravery on the beaches of Normandy, his thoughts immediately turned to a childhood pal and many other comrades who never made it home. Joe, now 96, is believed to be the only remaining veteran of his dynamic unit – the 5th RM (Independent) Armoured Support Battery, of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group (RMASG).
The battery landed in Queen Red Sector, on Sword Beach, on 6 June 1944 and faced a ravaging bombardment during Operation Overlord. His great friend, a commando by the name of Leonard ‘Lenny’ Thomas Waygood, was killed in Normandy and is buried at Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy. Today, big-hearted Joe is proud of the gallantry medal awarded to him by the French Ambassador, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, because it helps him to cherish the memory of Lenny and his other brothers-in-arms who faced the enemy during Overlord.
A letter from the French Ambassador reads: “As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France. We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”
Joe was 18 and his pal Lenny was barely 17 when they joined the Royal Marines on the same day in February 1941. “We were a couple of lads who grew up together in the same street and went to the same school in Barking, Essex. We shared everything. We knew we had to join up [during the war] and had a good think about what we’d opt for. We both decided it would be the Royal Marines for us as it was as good as any of the other service options.
“We took our call up letters off to an office in Romford. It was a chilly old day, I remember, and we were met by two middle-aged men in uniform. One of them from the Royal Navy told us a life at sea was for us! He was quite persistent, but I told him I couldn’t even swim, so it wasn’t for me. Basically, Lenny and I just said no to the navy. We’re here for the Royal Marines, we said. We were adamant about that.” Both lads were handed leaflets and forms to take home to read, fill in and send back.
Joe recalled: “It wasn’t long before we were told to catch a train to Paddington and from there travel on to Exeter. The last train was just for the Royal Marines, and when we arrived a corporal carrying a clipboard greeted us and ticked our names off on a list. “We were given a good dinner as a sort of welcome and then we spent six weeks at the Royal Marine barracks [in Lympstone, Devon] where we were given a rifle and a uniform. I proved a crack-shot during rifle training and received a [marksman] badge.” Joe, Lenny and other volunteers were sent for advanced instruction in signals at Chatham, Kent. Joe recounted: “When we’d finished that, Lenny was mad keen to join the Commandos, and I was eventually picked for the Royal Marines armoured formations. I was chosen to be part of the 5th Independent Armoured Support Battery.”
PROUD TO WEAR HIS BERET
Joe, who today is still proud to wear his RMASG beret, received more training – this time in the use of artillery – and then waited to be sent on to his specialist unit. “One day I was walking towards a beach on the south coast when an officer approached and told me I was wanted at once. It was the early summer of 1944, and the invasion was approaching fast. The RMASG, it turned out, was to provide important fire support for the armies landing on the British and Canadian invasion beaches, Gold, Sword, and Juno.” However, he still did not know how they’d complete their mission. For the first time in the history of the 5th Independents IV and Sherman tanks of the 5th, the amphibious DD Shermans of the 13th/18th Hussars, and the AVREs, Crabs, and other ‘Funnies’ allocated to Sword from the 79th Armoured Division. Stretching five miles from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, Sword was a vast stretch of sand and the easternmost invasion site. Elements of Gen Sir John Crocker’s I Corps 3rd Division were to land on the beach, which despite its size unhelpfully offered the narrowest of landing zones. Thinking back almost 75 years, Joe recalled: “Suddenly, before we left for Normandy, they took all of our guns away and our ammunition. We waited and waited and wondered what was going on. Suddenly, these tanks came rolling in for us and we hadn’t got a clue what they were doing in our unit! We thought they’d taken a wrong turn.” ROYAL MARINE TANKS
The 5th was one of three armoured units formed ahead of D-Day as the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group (see pages 16 to 23) and was a four-troop battery that operated independently of the two larger RMASG units and would land on Sword beach. The 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, consisting of were to go ashore on Gold, while the 2nd Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, with 3rd and 4th Batteries, supported the Canadians as they fought on Juno.
Each troop was formed of a quartet of Centaur IV tanks armed with 95mm howitzers for close support and the RMASG used the majority of Centaur IVs produced. The shells they fired were more powerful than the 25Pdr howitzers (then equipping the army as the standard field gun) and fell between the 25Pdr and larger pieces, such as the 4.5in guns, in terms of explosive power. The trade-off was that, being mounted in a traditional tank turret and encased in armour, the range of these 95mms was much shorter, but they were a useful support asset in lieu of towed artillery until the latter was established after landing. Each troop was supported by a Sherman, in which the troop commander carried out his duties with the aid of an artillery board. When the section disembarked from the landing craft, he’d direct its fire. The Shermans, with their 75mm guns, were also the RMASG’s primary anti-tank counter. The main task of this support group was to use their fire from approaching landing craft to assist the assault waves and its tanks were modified to better fulfil this duty. They received their distinctive compass-style markings to aid in fire direction and the mudguards were removed.
The hull machine gun was taken off and plated over, with the occupant’s seat initially taken out to stow more ammunition. At first, the unreliable Liberty engines were stripped out and replaced with further ammunition stowage because the Centaurs would remain on the landing craft as they completed their valuable tasking. However, it was decided that if the RMASG was to deliver armour to Normandy it would make sense for it to be used. So the engines were put back, drivers were acquired from the army and the tanks were fitted with wading gear and all instead towed sledges carrying additional rounds. Each Centaur deployed with 165 shells per gun – a large amount but needed considering there was little other logistic support available. The city of Caen following heavy bombing. (AKG IMAGES)
”SUDDENLY, THESE TANKS CAME ROLLING IN FOR US AND WE HADN’T GOT A CLUE WHAT THEY WERE DOING IN OUR UNIT! WE THOUGHT THEY’D TAKEN A WRONG TURN”
Always ready to meet a new challenge, Joe knew at the time it would be a good tale to tell Lenny when they met again. Tanks indeed! Sadly, he would never get to share stories or catch up with his pal, whose heroic time with the commandos would prove short-lived. Recollecting the build-up to D-Day, Joe said: “I soon met up with two chaps of the Royal Tank Regiment who would be part of the crew. I was to be the loader. As you can imagine, I felt quite cramped up in there [in the turret] because I am 5ft 10in tall. Fortunately, there were two flaps above me that formed a hatch, which I could open and stand up in and stretch my legs.”
Joe shrugged off any discomfort from gun fire noise, “it wasn’t that bad at all and really quite bearable”, but the terrible headaches caused by the fumes which backfired into the tank was a struggled to live with: “It was hard not to breathe it in. It’s difficult to remember how long at a time we spent cooped up in it all – it could be a day or a few hours…”.
Was he ever afraid? “Yes, is the answer. We knew where we were needed by the soldiers, as we heard their calls for our assistance. I know that one or two of our men nearly drowned just before we landed. I felt so sick on 6 June, the weather was really bad, and the waves were so high. It was also so very dark. Then in the middle of the night at sea there was a loud bang. Our landing craft had collided with one of the support ships, HMS Diadem [a Dido-class light cruiser which was part of Force ‘G’, the group of cruisers and destroyers providing gunfire support to Juno during the invasion]. HITTING THE BEACH “We were told we would be escorted in, but I never saw them. There were four tanks on our landing craft. When we were approaching the beach, we got shot at from the coast and one tank was hit really badly. Just as we landed there was a brief respite and the Germans stopped their firing but as soon as we reached the sands, we had a real battle as it seemed as if the Germans had it surrounded, and we couldn’t turn back either.
“Two Luftwaffe Me 109s swooped down on us, firing their cannons at mast height. Then the Royal Navy opened up on them, a pom-pom gun destroyed one of the aircraft. We began our attack and took many casualties, and we were hit twice. Then General Montgomery decided that was enough, and had the RAF bomb the area to shreds to slow the German’s reinforcements. Ouistreham and Caen were turned into just piles of stone and rubble.” In the latter raid, 800 were killed as its inhabitants largely ignored [or were unable to adhere to] a leaflet drop urging them to leave. On D-Day, the 5th lost a battery commander within 45 minutes of landing, and several tanks were swamped by the rising tide or sunk after their waterproofing was punctured by enemy fire. Just two of the unit’s four troops could operate as planned, but these tanks were deemed effective in their support of 4th (Army) Commando and 41st (Royal Marine) Commando while on and immediately beyond Sword, as the troops moved inland. “We mostly kept moving on, slowly but surely”, reflected Joe. The 5th was not alone in sustaining casualties that day. Over on Gold, leading the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Group Regiment’s charge was Lieutenant-Colonel Stanley Victor Peskett who recorded a detailed report in his war diary for the whole period the RMASG was in Normandy.
On 6 June he wrote: “At 7.30am one Sherman and four Centaur tanks landed, having engaged no targets by direct fire during the run-in. The Sherman was hit twice by enemy artillery – possibly 88mm – and all members of the crew were wounded or injured by burns. One Centaur had its tracks blown off, another was hit without casualty, and a third had track blown off. “By 8.50am two Centaurs landed on King sector; by 9.30am one Sherman and two Centaurs joined them and 20 minutes later another Sherman and two Centaurs were also on King sector.” That afternoon, after reaching Meuvaines Lt-Col Peskett reported his situation to Brigadier C H Norton of the 90th Field Artillery. (Lt-Col Victor Peskett MA survived the war and became a well-respected school principal. He died in 2012.)
On Sword, 683 casualties were recorded out of almost 29,000 Allied troops who landed there on 6 June. The number of German dead and wounded is unknown, but more than 50 Panzers are believed to have been lost. Like the DD tanks and the ‘Funnies’, the marine’s tanks had done their bit and preserved Allied lives in the initial assault.
PUSHING THE ENEMY BACK
Strongest of all Joe’s memories, which remain as bold as ever, is the story of a marine from the 5th Independents who wanted to take in some fresh air. When the gunfire ceased, he climbed out and took a short walk along the sands. Joe said: “This chap found a discarded bike along the way and so he picked it up, dusted the sand off and rode it into the enemy! I’ll never forget it and he got clean away with it. Now that took some courage. He certainly had a good sense of humour. It was a good indication that we had managed to push the enemy right back. “As we tried to advance off the beach, we were slowed in the heavily defended area behind the beachhead. Our tank was hit many times although it did not sustain crippling damage. We never really heard the small arms fire or the bullets bouncing off the armour which was around three inches thick. “More progress towards Caen was made and we managed to get through the only armoured counter-attack of the day, which had been mounted by the 21st Panzer Division. When it was night-time we’d sleep underneath our tank and take turns to keep watch. We were all good mates and looked out for one another.”
GOING HOME The RMASG was withdrawn on D-Day plus 14, but the war went on for Joe. Thankfully he survived, but he found the loss of friends in battle hard to deal with: “When I got home after the war, I missed Lenny and couldn’t bear it when I met his mother on the street. Lenny was just 19. It was all very upsetting for her, his family and me. I felt so bad that I had come back, and Lenny had not.”
On 4 June 2014, two days before the start of the 70th anniversary of D-Day Commemorations, Joe arrived at Ouistreham Ferry Station in northwest France and stayed with a host family. Today he remains proud to know he was part of the vast military operation which marked the turning point of the Second World War – a time which led to the liberation of occupied France. He knows too that during D-Day an estimated 10,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or missing, including his long-time commando pal Lenny Waygood. Germany lost between 4,000 and 9,000 troops and thousands of French civilians were killed.
“I’ve been to Normandy several times since the war and am always greeted warmly at the wonderful museums”, mused Joe. He added: “When they find out I was part of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Group I am allowed to walk straight in without buying a ticket!” A fine and appreciated gesture for a modest man and a true hero.
FURTHER SERVICE The Royal Marine Armoured Support Group (RMASG) was disbanded shortly after withdrawing from Normandy, its task completed. However, elements of the group reorganised for service in India ahead of the planned invasion of Malaya in September 1945.
The 34th Amphibian Support Regiment was to carry out the same task its forebears had in Normandy, but this time using amphibious LVTs (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) armed with a 75mm howitzer, a Ronson flamethrower or rockets. The war ended before that invasion could be launched. Since 2007, a revived RMASG uses BVs 10 Viking all-terrain armoured vehicles to support Royal Marine operations and saw much action in Afghanistan.
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