Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Journey into Normandy Part III

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Part III

One little anecdote, told by the Brigadier. They had all been very seasick on the way over. The LCT(A) grounded and dropped its ramp, and the first tank drove down in to the shallow water as the German guns opened fire on them. Inside the tank the driver turned his head to the Brigadier as they roared up the beach through the shallow water. "Thank God we're off that bloody ship, sir," he said. "I know what to do now." So they went in to action.

No instructions reached us during the night; by morning Captain Shaw had thirty one loaded LSTs of his flotilla anchored and waiting orders to unload. The sea was quite rough, and the wind strong. At seven o'clock I went off in an LCVP, to the flagship, HMS Hilary, to see what I could glean for Captain Shaw about the prospect of unloading. One of HMS Hilary's accommodation ladders had been smashed to matchwood by boats in the rough sea and the other did not look inviting as the boat was rising and falling five; feet or so and I was afraid of getting underneath it. So we edged up to the side and I made a jump for a rope ladder, and want on board that way while my boat laid off to wait for me.

In the Operations Room I found Commander Edwards, Staff Officer (Plans) who had looked after me on the operational exercises. In less than five minutes he gave me the complete picture. I said that Captain Shaw now had thirty one LSTs loaded with vehicles and reinforcements urgently needed on shore; he had been there over twelve hours with no instructions to unload, and he had sent me to ascertain whether he might beach his ships and get the stuff ashore that way. I said that he wanted to get on with the war, as we all did.

Commander Edwards said that he was on no account to beach his ships without orders. There were other ships to unload before those of Captain Shaw's flotilla, and to put stuff on the beach in the wrong order would not be helpful. For the moment, he said, the Army on shore were all right; they were getting good artillery support from the battleships and cruisers in the anchorage. The front was not very far inland, about four or five miles; things were not so good as we had hoped for, but not so bad; there would he no question of having to evacuate now. The weather was just sheer bad luck in that it had held up the unloading; the unloading program would be about twenty four hours behind. We had started the operation in doubtful weather, he said, because we had promised the Russians to start on a given day, and he hoped that the Russians were getting on-with it. Regarding the beaching of the ships, he said that a decision was being taken on that at that moment; if it was decided to put the ships on shore, Captain Shaw would get instructions when and where to beach, and in what order of ships, and he would be given a pilot. He pointed out that beaching big ships like LSTs and coasters in so high a wind was tricky; the wind was along the beach and so at right angles to the hull of a ship beaching at right angles to the waters edge, and would blow the ship round so that she might end up lying any way upon the beach. He pointed out that lt would not be helpful to the army ln the long run lf we damaged every ship in putting it upon the beach; we might get the build-up now, but we should not get lt next week unless we conserved our shipping. He pointed out that this beach was not altogether a clean beach. There was a rocky outcrop on the sea bottom perhaps half a mile from high tide mark. This showed at dead low water, so that at low tide the appearance of the beach was a long stretch of flat wet sand, and then a little water, and then a ridge of rocks just awash, and then the sea. If any ship going in to beach got standed across that ridge of rocks she would certainly break her back as the tide went down. Commander Edwards told me to take his compliments to Captain Shaw, and to tell him that there was nothing that he could do but wait for orders.

I was very much impressed, and left Hilary after less than five minutes feeling that everything was in control, and was being handled by people who knew exactly what they were doing. I hope I succeeded in conveying this impression to Captain Shaw, and I had a crack at it in the Wardroom over a late breakfast. In an American ship when things are going mysteriously awry there is a very natural tendency to criticize the British naval staff, and most of these keen young American officers were very worried indeed at the position. I don't know if I really satisfied them by repeating what I had learned in Hilary, but they became less vocal.

To finish up this story of the unloading, that afternoon the wind dropped, and half a dozen LSTs were beached at about half ebb tide, put down their ramps immediately the water was low enough, and let the vehicles drive off and up the beach. An LST draws about ten feet of water aft when loaded and the depth of water for the trucks to disembark must not be more than three feet; one or two or those ships stranded too far down the beach and were unable to disembark the whole of their load at that low tide, and had to watt and finish on the next tide.

Next day, on Thursday June 8th, D+2, a very large number of ships were put upon the beach to dry out and unload their cargos on the sand. They came in at about high water to get well up the beach and have plenty of time to unload on one tide, regardless of the fact that the tides were neaping, that is, coming up less each day after the full moon, and they might have been caught and unable to get off again; perhaps the lessened draught caused by unloading made then safe in this respect. LSTs, motor transport coasters, and store coasters were all beached to unload, ships up to three or four thousand tons. At one time on D+2 there must have been thirty large ships all in a row, high and dry upon the beaches of Juno sector. It was a most extraordinary sight.

I do not know who was responsible for the decision to beach the ships in this way as the only means of getting the stuff ashore to build up the Army; it was almost certainly Commodore Oliver, the naval officer commanding Juno sector. It was a courageous decision. Although it was part of the staff plan as an emergency operation, the risk of damaging the vital shipping was great. Not only was there the rocky outcrop to consider, but the beach itself was by no means level by D+2. There were great holes in the sand where landing craft had stranded and worked engines furiously to get off or to hold straight, scooping great saucer-like depressions ln the sand with the wash from their propellers, many yards in diameter and up to three feet deep. I saw one LST that had beached over one of those hollows ln the sand; from memory I would say that eighty feet of her bow was entirely unsupported; you could see daylight between the sand and her keel for that distance. I did not see that any ships had suffered damage from the beaching. I think that the decision to beach the ships in this way was largely the reason for the steady advance of the army from the beach. I repeat, it was a bold and courageous decision.

A few bombs fell on the beach that morning, D+1, dropped by German fighters that dived through the cloud, dropped their bombs at random on the crowded beach, and vanished back in to the cloud. There were occasional explosions from the shore, and continuous bombardment from the battleships and cruisers behind us in the anchorage. At about 1300 an LCVP. was going on some errand from the flagship; I asked Captain Shaw if this boat might put me on the beach.

It was not very easy to decide how to land upon the beach when we got near. Many of the beach obstacles were still in place and sticking up out of the water. I did not want to risk the boat and her crew by taking them in through these, particularly as I did not know that they had not still got mines tied to them. Finally I selected a wrecked LCT Mark 111 that lay upon the beach; the ebblng tide would soon leave her dry. We edged the boat up to her stern and I got on board her, and the boat backed away to safety.

The LCT was abandoned. She had been holed by a mine and water dribbled from her wardroom door; she was littered with derelict equipment left by the army ln her hold and washing about ln the sea water, blankets, gas masks, Mae Wests, webbing, groundsheets - all the great waste of war. The beach was in a similar condition, strewn with holed and battered landing craft and one or two shattered and burned out vehicles and guns. There was intense activity along the beach. A tracked roadway had been formed above high water mark and trucks and vehicles and men were passing up and down this in a thronging crowd; from time to time an LCI or LCT would come ln to the beach guided by men from the Beachmaster's party waving flags, and strand, and add its quota of men and vehicles to the throng.

The tide went down, and presently I walked delicately ashore from the wrecked LCT, treading carefully ln the wheel tracks of vehicles until I could find out a little more about the situation in regard to mines. I reached the roadway and went west along the beach till I came to the Beachmaster's party, meaning to report myself. I know him slightly, Lt Cdr. Lowndes, and I knew his army colleague, Colonel Humphries. They greeted me cheerfully and gave me an old German slit trench to sleep in, and told me about the mines. The Germans, they said, had had to get out so hurriedly that they had been unable to take down their own notices of the minefields, and in many places their deaths head above the word MINEN showed the danger spots. At the same time, constant vigilance was needed; only that morning they had lost their tracked Bren carrier and its driver on an unsuspected mine.

I had brought with me to the beach all that I could carry readily, but gas mask and tin hat and duffle coat and revolver and ammunition, and two twenty four hour ration packs, and camera and writing materials - all these make quite a load, and I was glad to dump most of it in the slit trench. I had brought no blankets or ground sheet and a glance along the beach showed that I had been wise not to add to my burdens; the beach was littered with blankets everywhere one looked. One of my impressions of the beach is that of sodden blankets washed with sand and water at the edge of the tide.

I started off along the beach to walk towards Courseulles. Presently I came to the first German pillbox, a large concrete structure jutting out from the sandhills to enfilade the beach. It contained a field gun upon wheels, an old gun once drawn by horses, with wooden wheels and iron tyres. The whole gun was mounted on a wooden turntable so that it could be trained around its sector of fire. I think It was an old French 75 mm, gun, or something of that sort. The floor of the pillbox was of such a height that the barrel of the gun was about fifteen feet above beach level, and all approach to the pillbox was heavily defended by barbed wire. I got inside it later by the German trenches, from behind the sandhills.

In front of this pillbox, on the sandy beach, lay two or three dead Canadian soldiers, as they had fallen.

In general, the casualties on the sector cannot have been very heavy. The dead had been removed inland, but on the beach they still lay as they fell. In two miles of beach I saw about fifteen dead Canadians and one dead German. I do not for one moment suggest that this was the total of the killed. Further down the beach they may have been washed out to sea, and on dry ground they had evidently been gathered in. But I must put down what I saw myself, and what I saw was nothing like so bad as I had expected it to be. I should perhaps make mention of several wrecked tanks upon the beach. I did not look inside any of these.

I left the beach, and passed through the sandhills and along a track towards the little hamlet of Graye-sur-Mer. The river Seulles runs in to the sea at this point, a sluggish stream about thirty yards across at high tide. On the west side stands the hamlet of Graye, a very few houses and a church; on the east side stands Courseulles-sur-Mer, a town of perhaps three thousand people. Between the two there is a little tidal dock and a lock gate that is the beginning of some canal. It is all very rural, a little agricultural town, no more than that.

The track by which I went passed by a patch of rough ground and scrub, perhaps three hundred yards in diameter. Opposite this patch I met a soldier walking casually in the opposite direction. He said, "I wouldn't hang about here, sir. There's a sniper in there, comes up and pots at someone, now and then." And he pointed to a line of British soldiers, tense and alert with Sten guns and rifles at the ready, going slowly through this patch like beaters.

I wished very much that I had been wearing khaki and not blue, and walked on to Graye. Later that afternoon I heard that they had caught this sniper; he was a lad of sixteen, and he thought that he was to be shot immediately. The Germans had told their men that the English shot all prisoners they took, and this boy believed it.

I heard next day that two German women had been found behind a hedge with a trench mortar, lobbing a bomb on to the beach now and then. I did not see these women myself, but I believe it to be true. My own guess is that they were German prostitutes with the army, who had taken up weapons at the invasion. The German army in this sector was composed very largely of foreigners. Thirty per cent of the prisoners we took were Poles, and at the time I landed there were fifty Russians still holding out in a wood up on a hill within sight of the beach, giving nobody much trouble and clearly not knowing what they had better do. We cleaned them up next day and took then all prisoner.

Graye had been badly knocked about; most of the little houses - there were only about a dozen all told - had been ruined by our shelling, and some were still burning. I crossed the dock where British LBV's were unloading, and walked down a railway line towards the front at Courseulles. In a railway truck an old woman was standing throwing down logs on to the ground; she came and grasped my hand and said, "Good, Good - ver' good." My French was always lame and halting, and lamer after five years of disuse; I said something and smiled at her and passed on.

The sea front at Courseulles runs east from the river mouth. It is only about two hundred yards long, just a few houses and a hotel or two, with a road before them and then a sea wall down to the beach. The town extends inland behind this front, a long thin town about a mile deep inland and only about two hundred yards wide. The first hundred yards behind the front had been taken by the Germans as a defense zone; the French had been evacuated from these houses. It was in this area most of our bombardment had fallen, and the houses on the front were utterly ruined. Not very much had fallen in the town behind, and I was surprised to find next day in what good condition the town was.

There was a pillbox at the west end of the front, of the same type as I have described before, commanding the beach; these pillboxes with field guns in them seemed to occur about every quarter mile along the beach. Behind this was a complicated maze of trenches and dugouts. Soldiers were down in those dugouts ransacking them for souvenirs; I joined them presently having waited for a few moments to see if they got blown up by booby traps. But the Germans had left too hurriedly for anything like that.

The dugouts were well built of concrete and lit by electric light, as was natural after four years of occupation. In general they were clean and decent. Now they were a litter of letters, equipment, food, and junk of every sort, for the soldiers had been there before me ransacking the place for Luger pistols, the great prize of the souvenir hunter. I spent an hour in these dugouts and pillboxes examining the junk and the equipment. The uniforms were thin and shoddy by our standards; the ground sheets seemed to be made of impregnated paper. There were great numbers of grenades, both of the stick type and the Mills bomb type; these things were lying about everywhere. I found what appeared to be a flame thrower stored with tanks of black oil and creosote, but the complete equipment did not seem to be there. I found a very large dog kennel in a bay by itself in the dugout system, labeled CESAR, but the dog had gone.

I emerged from the catacombs in the end with a couple of bottles of mineral water to wash down my supper, and a clean new German blanket for my bed; I cached these in a ruined house, and walked on. Captain Maude, the Naval Officer in Charge of the sector had set up his headquarters a quarter of a mile further on, and I stopped there for a little chatting with his staff. By that time it was nearly seven o'clock and I was growing hungry and rather tired; I began to retrace my steps towards the beach and my slit trench, picking up my blanket and mineral water on the way.

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