Sgt. J. M. Cross
Royal Navy Royal Marines
An Exciting Frustration.
We in 697 L.C.M… Folitlla, a Royal Marines manned Landing Craft Flotilla, had been practising the landing of troops and light mechanised vehicles, together with other less mobile stores, on various beaches locally, from our base on the Beaulieu River, at H.M.S… Cricket, to as far afield as Bracklesham Bay, and The Witterings,…for some weeks past.
We had travelled in our twin-engined craft, sometimes loaded, otherwise not, and we reckoned that we knew these beaches well enough not to get stuck on them even on a falling tide. We had practised estimating the length of approach, so as to drop the kedge anchor from the stern of the carft and then secure it so as to be able to pull ourselves off on a falling tide, after having deposited our craft contents, (the load), on to the beach or as near to it as possible. L.C.V.M..'s were Landing Craft Mechanical, capable of carrying one 30cwt. Truck, or a Bren Carrier, or cargo. The craft was driven by twin petrol engines, mounted side by side.
We had practised in all weathers, fair (mostly!) and foul, so that neither daunted us. We had taken all our kit aboard, then after the exercises returned it to the Nissen huts, all in practise for the Great Day.
Being a sort of 'up-homer' from H.M.S… Cricket, our base at Bursledon, and my home in Gosport, I was able to spend quite a bit of my time at home in the evenings when not on duty. I would leave the following morning, having arisen about 6 am with my Mum, who at that time was working in Priddy's Hard, the local Munitions factory, or to give it it's formal title, The Royal Naval Armament Supply Depot, Priddy's Hard, Gosport.
I used to leave Gosport via Gosport Railway Station, and changing at Fareham, travel to Bursledon, just a few stations along the Southampton line from Fareham.
On each day, I had told my Mum that I would or would not return the following evening, depending on my duty requirements back at H.M.S. Cricket.
In those days anyone in uniform could be picked up and given a lift almost at will, by a variety of vehicles, lorries, vans, even buses etc. I even remember, on one occasion, having 'marched' out of H.M.S. Cricket, and on reaching the main road, I opted to try my luck on the road, rather than wait for a train, and I thus found myself travelling in a real American Jeep towards Fareham, from where I caught the bus to Gosport! It was so strange to hear the accents, which until then, we had only heard in the films, actually being used in normal conversation, by normal men!
As D Day approached, I could see, when making this journey, the build-up of troops and vehicles in the area and realised that as each day passed our departure became more imminent. Finally, it was such, that I said to my Mum, 'I don't think I will be home much more', and sure enough, on arrival back at Cricket, we were informed that all leave was cancelled from then on.
At this time I was serving as a Sergeant, Royal Marines, and had six landing craft under my command and in my sub-division. We were ordered onto our craft, with our gear (kit), and we moved off. We steamed down the Beaulieu River to Warsash, and moored at a jetty belonging to the then H.M.S. Tormentor a supply depot for the purposes of fuelling or re-fuelling. (Both before and after the War, H.M.S. Tormentor reverted to its original name of HMS Mercury, a land based 'ship' for training Merchant Navy Officers). We remained there just long enough to be fuelled and just long enough to take on petrol, can fuel for the landing craft engines, enough to take us to France, and begin work. Spare cans of fuel for after 'our trip' were stacked in-board close to the gunwales, as emergency fuel. Here, we picked up a R.N.V.R. Sub Lieutenant, named Rees, who had been attached to our Flotilla, to navigate us to our designated landing beaches.
Then we moved off into the Southampton Water, and at the southern end, we were directed to moor alongside an L.S.T.(Landing Ship Tank), which, with hindsight, I imagined to be moored at or near to Lepe Bay.
We were invited aboard, and bearing in mind that most of us were like myself, only 20 years of age, we were very excited by what lay ahead.
When the news came later in the night, for us to slip our moorings, we did so and saw that some of our flotilla craft had been hauled aboard the L.S.T. before they sailed, but we were not included in that manoeuvre.
We made our slow way down the Solent, and I can remember that it was almost twilight, and it was getting darker as we moved on. The sea was becoming rougher all the time. We arrived somewhere off the Needles when we received orders to turn about, our destination at that time unknown.
However, we ended up at H.M.S. Northney, at Hayling Island, a pre-war holiday camp, and spent the night there. We were still mystified as to the reason, for the 'about turn', and to me, it remained a mystery until the 50th Anniversary D-Day celebrations. I had made contact with another Landing Craft man, and asked him why. He told me that apparently because some of L.C.A.s (Landing Craft Assault), which were smaller than our craft, and who began with us travelling towards France, had almost been swamped, due to the heavy weather. They had been ordered to return, but because we were travelling 'under our own steam', and although we started out early the following morning, we later realised that we were travelling towards the beaches on D-Day itself.
Looking around at the time, there seemed to be millions of boats, mainly small craft, just like ours, all mainly going in the same direction, towards France, in the apparently endless sea.
The trip was somewhat bumpy, because our Landing Craft were unable to ride the waves, up and down. Instead the craft had to go across the peaks of them, striking the on-coming waves as they approached, head on. We were in a flat-bottomed craft which at the time, presented a flat square bottom to the waves as we moved forward. Not exactly a comfortable ride!!
We also noticed the mustering area, which we later found out to have been nick-named, 'Piccadilly Circus', together with Landing craft and other craft trying to sort themselves out, gradually falling in with others, who, like ourselves, seemed to know where they were heading.
We also had the new Compo Ration boxes aboard, and tried the contents, which were a new experience for us. We found that the chocolate part of these rations 'disappeared' quite quickly, due to 'hunger!' and popularity. The biscuit section was probably extremely nutritious but not very tasty, so consequently was not so much sought after. In addition there was also a ready supply of tea available, and I can still see Sub. Lt. Rees wearing his uniform overcoat, hunched over the wheel in the almost open wheelhouse of our craft, peering ahead, with a mug of hot tea in his hand. His body responding to the bumpy ride, lurching mainly forward, sometimes sideways.
One craft I remember seeing, and it was one, which we actually overtook on the way. It was an old Thames Barge, which we were later told was now a Landing Barge Oil, carrying that sort of cargo she was old, and she slowly made her way lumbering forward to France, and there were others like her.
To his credit, although he did not engage in much conversation with us, Sub. Lt. Rees stayed at his appointed post all the time, and navigated us into the Mulberry area, near Arromanches, where the block-ships were at that time being sunk in their planned position, after their seacocks had been opened. This was also the time that the great concrete Mulberry constructions were being put into position. This also necessitated noise, as holes were blown in the bottoms of them. They formed the two lines of outer breakwaters, and were enough to afford shelter from the sea.
As we drew near to the French coast, we could hear, rather that see, that something was going on because the aircraft, and the gunfire of the bombarding ships became noisier and noisier. At the time the Fleet Monitor, (H.M.S. Erebus we were later told) and the Battleship H.M.S. Warspite, with other smaller ships were thundering, discharging their shells onto and eventually beyond the beachhead itself. This mainly appeared to come from the sea in front of us, when we were working.
When we arrived at the Beachhead, I beached our craft and found the Beachmaster, to whom I had received orders to report. He allocated to us the job of going just outside the Blockships breakwaters, which at that time formed the entrance to the 'harbour' and to help in unloading coasters stationary in the open sea.
This we did, and we similarly serviced many other similar ships during our time there. Whilst the weather remained 'inclement', this was quite a job.
The running swell caused the landing craft to be raised up on a 'peak' usually just as the load, contained in a scrambling net, was being lowered, and by the time it had reached our deck, the craft had dropped a few feet, only to be raised again, striking the scrambling net. Thus there was something of a hastening to detach all or part of the rope eye of the scrambling net, then signal the winchman on board to raise the attached end, so as to spill the contents on to our deck. Again 'practice' came to our aid as we had met giant hooks previously when we practised on L.CA.'s
We didn't know the contents of the scrambling net until it had been 'up-ended' on to our craft deck. We then set about distributing the load evenly over the deck, and stacking it. We would take about three or four net loads, then shout to tell them up top that we were casting off, and leave the coaster. Of course by that time another landing craft had arrived, and was waiting to tie up loosely in the berth, which we had vacated, ready to take on another load. I remember on more than one occasion, we were loaded with petrol cans, and 78mm. tank shells, and if we could not off-load these supplies, we would dry out on the beach. If it was afternoon or evening, we would make a 'comfortable' area amongst the cargo and sleep there until the tide rose!! On arrival at the beach we were sometimes met by lorries which had been backed into the water, as far as possible, and we would man-handle the loan on to it, by means of a board 'gangway', (which was carried on the lorry) for as much as it would take. This sounds complicated, but it worked better than it sounds.
On one of the first runs into the beach, I saw floating logs and to the ends of each of these logs were fitted, (or tied) shells presumably designed to explode on contact. There were also steel spikes with sharpened ends, driven into the beach, so that at high water they were invisible, which we later realised were probably part of Rommel's defences to the 'Atlantic Wall'.
On another such visit, I saw an L.C.A., which had been split into two lengthwise, and was resting on the beach in that state, wide open. My thoughts were with the crew and any personnel carried in that craft at that time.
On one such return trip from the harbour towards the beach one of the stationary rhinos (a section of the as yet, not connected floating pontoons,) a large part of what was to become the pontoon roadway on to the port from the beach became detached and swung right across our path. We managed to swerve and avoid it, but as we passed it, it swung round and collided with our craft stern. Afterwards we found to our dismay that the craft would not answer to the helm. (i.e. it could not be steered using the wheel). Later, on a subsequent occasion, we 'dried out' on the beach and found that the rudder blade covering of one of our engines' propellers had been forced under the craft, and jammed the propeller in an 'inoperative' position. Using the two engines, we recovered, and by dint of reversing one engine at the appropriate times, eventually 'steered' our way to the beach where I reported our dilemma to the Beachmaster, who ordered us back into the sea to carry on as best we could until a repair could be made. This was eventually swiftly made by substitution of the rudder, with renewal, and we were back to 'easy' normal work again.
Eventually the weather cleared, and we were able to take advantage of subsequent 'drying out' periods to 'make do and mend', including a warm water shave! All this time the beach was subject to much movement by both personnel and vehicular traffic. When this traffic died down the beach became less of a 'battleground' and we settled down to servicing the approaching ships, and by the same token, the fighting boys of the Army. This was eased one day when we were beached and one of the crew noticed that one of the onboard 'jerry cans' began to swell. I ordered it to be thrown over the side, but one of the more adventurous Marines decided to go overboard just after it. We were beached at the time, and watched. I had previously told him to get away from it, but just as he stood over the can, it exploded and flame shot up to his face. We all went overboard and rendered what First Aid we could, and I reported the accident to the Beachmaster. Eventually, Marine O'Connor was taken to a field hospital and was subsequently returned to us. Now Marine O'Connor was of an Albino colouring and we noticed that even the blond eyebrows had been burned off. When he returned he seemed none the worse for his adventure.
We saw the 1000 bomber raid on Caen, or rather we saw the aircraft flying towards Caen after hearing the drone of their engines.
We saw one bomber turn back with smoke coming from it, make it's way out to sea. After spotting some parachutes, we saw the plane dive into the sea and explode. This sight was almost as frightening as seeing pictures of 'condemned' ships in their death-throes just before sinking, and that is a very sad thought.
After some time, we were allowed into Bayeaux, and I was aware of rather a strange and peculiar feeling, knowing that we were actually walking on streets in a foreign land which most of us had never done before, and which, until a short while previously had been occupied by the Germans!! At Bayeaux we saw butter in large chunks and eggs etc., all the produce of a dairy countryside, but not much else was on sale. I bought some butter but when we tried to eat it on board, it tasted rancid. We also saw cows laying in a field, which were apparently blasted by explosion, and were bloated, their legs straight and rigid.
In all, we were working on the beachhead for about three months, during which time we witnessed the Mulberry being 'born', nurtured, and up and working. From the odd looking rhinos, to the small tower-looking constructions, the whole thing became a thriving, working port, which eventually made our landing craft redundant.
During those three months we had one rest period of one week, aboard a floating stationary ship, which gave us a chance to become clean, bright and upright Royal Marines once again.
Regular food was supplied and the necessary incentive to return to the beachhead and complete the job, for which we had been detailed, was restored.
The day eventually came when we saw an L.S,.D., a Landing Ship Dock, which rejoiced by the name of Princess Iris (or was it Princess Daffodil?) which lay just outside the Harbour entrance, and to which we were told to report. On arrival, the whole of the rear end became submerged into the sea enabling us and other Flotilla of similar craft to sail in. Having made ourselves secure, the dock area dried out by expelling the water and raising itself to the water surface level. It provided us with more or less 'the run of the ship' during our voyage home and it brought us home to Portsmouth!!
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