SSEF - Landing Craft Support Squadron - Op Infatuate - Walcheren
Updated: Nov 23
Unit/ Formation: Landing Craft Units
Period/ Conflict: World War II
Date/s: 01 November 1944
LCH 269 now had a new Skipper. Commander Kenneth Sellars RN, a very high ranking officer for a landing craft! He was mostly known as "Monkey" Sellars and had been in pre-war days an international rugby star.
He was now taking over the command of the SSEF which comprised twenty seven various types of landing craft and approximately four hundred naval personnel.
The Support Squadron Eastern Flank left from Poole on 28th October 1944 for Walcheren via Oosend where they sailed at 19:15 on the 31st October.
Just after midnight, November 1st 1944, we had left Ostend harbour and a few miles out at sea, rendezvoused with the remainder of the Support squadron. At 2100 hours all commissioned and non-commissioned officers, seven in all, were instructed to report for a briefing in the ward room. We were all invited to sit around the table.
Around the wardroom bulkheads were air photographic maps of an island coastline. Commander Sellars entered the room and told us to remain seated. He stood at the end of the room and said "Gentlemen, this is Walcheren island".
We all looked very surprised as this was the first time we had ever heard of the place!
"It is located at the mouth of the river Scheldt. Like most Dutch islands that are lower than sea level, it is dyked. It is preventing our ships, by its heavy shelling, from entering the Scheldt with supplies that could be unloaded at Antwerp. The air force has attempted to damage the dykes and flood the island, with the possibility that the flooding has put some of the heavy fortified gun positions out of action. However our sources tell us that these heavy fortified gun positions are still operational. The guns are in six and eight foot reinforced concrete emplacements and are untouched by the bombing, and they are extremely accurate. Our orders are to get onto the beaches, and land our Royal Marine Commandos who will systematically silence each gun position."
"Hitler has declared this island a bastion, which means that his men are forbidden to surrender, and will fight to the last man. The guns on the island are various types. There are 3in anti-aircraft guns, 5.9in (150mm) which have a high rate of fire and are extremely accurate, numerous 88mm and 50mm are fully operational (gs ? also 8.7in (220mm) and 4.1in (105mm) guns). The beaches are heavily mined with booby traps on underwater stakes, barbed wire completely surrounds the beaches, which are strewn with thousands of mines. He pointed to a 400 foot broken area of the dykes and said " this is where we will land our Marines, a place called Westkapelle."
"The island also has several pads that are being used to launch the V2 rockets* on the civilians in London. The island must be taken. It is imperative that our supply ships get up the Scheldt to Antwerp. General Patton is currently relying on supplies to get to him by land all the way from Normandy. The German army have retreated to the other side of the Scheldt and are attempting to reinforce. The overthrow of this bastion will give us victory and considerably shorten this war."
"At the same time as our landing takes place, a large scale attack will take place at Breskens to our south, by British and Canadian commando units, followed by British and Canadian Infantry units.
The landing by the SSEF is supposed to coincide with a thousand bomber raid prior to our landing on the beach, but I have been notified that the weather is getting worse in England, and due to very foggy conditions, the Royal Air Force will not be able to participate. It is too late to change our plans at this point. We are going in. It won?t be a piece of cake. We will use anything at our disposal, even if it means going in with small arms. Be prepared for a heavy bombardment by our monitors, which will start some time before we hit the beaches.
I wish you all the best of luck, gentlemen.
Touchdown for operation "INFATUATE" will be 0900 November 1st."
We headed north, and at 0440 hours course was altered to 056 degrees. The seas were very heavy, under a grey miserable sky. At 0550 hours, speed was increased to 6 1/2 knots and course altered to 041 degrees true. At 0645 hours "action stations" was called and all hands took their positions. At 0700 hours the coastline was clearly visible and at 0713 hrs the tower on Westkapelle, on Walcheren was clearly seen.
At 0808 hrs, course was altered to 079 degrees, the ships company continued closed-up on "action stations". At 0809 the first fire came from the Westkapelle batteries. They had spotted us!
The Naval bombardment started with three large ships of the Royal Navy battleship WARSPITE and monitors ROBERTS and EREBUS. The latter had one gun turret inoperable from damage sustained at Normandy (believed to be HMS Warspite as the two monitors only had one 15in turret each), and at 0825 hours the Westkapelle battery ceased to fire after receiving direct hits from the large ship's guns.
In our group of 27 landing craft were three LCRs. These were tank landing craft that had been adapted as rocket ships. The upper deck had chutes for 1200 rockets, all fired by twelve volt batteries. The bridge was protected by a large steel flameshield. All the crew were positioned behind the shield. These rockets when fired were able to clear a beach of any living person for a quarter of a mile, as the rockets would come down straight, like mortars. Slit trenches would be of no use. The deck of the LCR would glow red after ignition.
The three LCRs were coming up behind the main group of landing craft heading for the beach. A shell hit one of the LCRs directly on the starboard side, the craft listed badly and pre-ignition set off 1200 rockets that landed amongst the support squadron. I have never heard explosions like that in all my years of war! They appeared to go on for several minutes, but in reality it was probably 45 seconds. We had no ear protection, my stomach turned over, my ears rang with the clamour. I could do nothing but clap my hands to my ears and put my head down. From up above I could hear screaming. Leaving one of my hands at the controls, I climbed the stairs from the engine room to find out what had happened, a necessary option as no one bothers with the engine room staff. We are down in that hole like troglodytes.
I saw landing craft burning and sinking all around. The sea was on fire. Men were in the water, some motionless, some attempting to swim. Our ship was picking men out of the water, The welldeck was full of injured sailors. Five of our craft were sunk by this "friendly fire". Thirty sailors were injured.
"The Support Squadron had also opened fire but though all its craft were being straddled or near-missed by batteries W 11, W 15 and W 17, it was not till 0920 that the first serious hit was registered when L.C.F. 37 was severely damaged forward by an enemy shell and eventually blew up." [The Campaign in North-West Europe June 1944-1945", HMSO, 1994, page 49 ]
The Germans found, to their dismay that the large 88mm guns could not be lowered enough against the craft closing in on the beach. However the smaller guns were used and sank and damaged many craft, causing heavy casualties.
"The Support Squadron had also suffered heavily for by 12:30 only seven of its twenty-seven craft, including three equipped for firing smoke only, remained completely fit for action.
The Squadron's state was:
Sunk or sinking - L.C.G (L)?s 1 and 2, L.C.F. 37, L.C.G.(M)?s 101 and 102, L.C.S.(L)?s 252, 256 and 258 On fire in the magazine and abandoned - L.C.F. 38 Damaged and out of action - L.C.G.(L)?s 11 and 17, L.C.T.(R)?s 334 and 363, L.C.M. 42 and 36, L.C.S.(L) 260 Damaged but capable of further action - L.C.G.(L) 10, L.C.F.?s 35 and 32, L.C.H. 98 Fit for action - L.C.G.(L) 9, L.C.S.(L)?s 254 and 259, L.C.T.(R)?s 457, 331 and 378 (firing smoke only), L.C.H. 269 (Abbreviations: LC ? Landing craft, G(L) ? gun (large), F ? flak, G(M) ? gun (medium), S(L) - Support (large), T(R) ? tank (rockets), H ? headquarters)
["The Campaign in North-West Europe June 1944-1945", page 51]
As was only to be expected, casualties among the officers and men of the Squadron were also extremely heavy, 172 killed and 200 wounded, but their sacrifice had not been in vain for it was under cover of the Squadron that the incoming waves of landing craft had continued to beach so successfully all the morning.
There can be no doubt that the Squadron's outstanding gallantry had done much to make the seaborne landing possible and by 12:30 the three Commandos were well established ashore. Captain Pugsley now decided that all craft no longer fit for action should return to Ostend.
Previous experience had shown that German Shore batteries could rarely resist the temptation of concentrating their fire on any craft attacking them. It was therefore a part of the plan that the Support Squadron, which was under the command of Commander K. A. Sellars and consisted of twenty seven landing craft of various types should close the shore and deliberately draw the enemy fire upon itself. This would inevitably result in heavy casualties, but as it was hoped that it would enable the assault forces to land with comparative immunity, it was considered that so long as the enemy made the fatal error of concentrating fire on the Support Squadron, close action was justified and heavy losses acceptable. In other words this was a suicide operation.
Commander Sellars, in his report on the action said "It was early recognised that we were up against formidable opposition, and that losses and damage were to be expected in craft engaging shore batteries at close range. It is considered that this was fully justified because the Commandos got ashore well and lightly (sic?). I considered that, so long as the Germans made the mistake of concentrating their fire on the Support Squadron, close action was justified and losses acceptable. In fact, I decided that if there was signs of batteries selecting incoming loaded L.C.T?s with troops as their primary target, even closer action would be ordered so as to force the Germans to fire on the Support Squadron."
He also added later, "There can have been few more gallant actions in Naval history than the way in which the Support Squadron drew the fire of the formidable German Batteries on to itself and provided the assault forces with a comparative safe conduct to the shore"
Read More/ Web Link: Memories of PETTY OFFICER BASIL WOOLF, SUPPORT SQUADRON EASTERN FLANK and THE BATTLE FOR WALCHEREN ISLAND [Naval History Net]
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