D-DAY: A Personal Memoir

Where do I start, as a miniscule contributor to one of the greatest events in military history? With a few background details, presumably.

At the time I was First lieutenant of a flotilla of twelve tiny boats known as LCPs - landing craft, personnel. In fact by 1944 we had ceased to carry soldiers, for a very good reason. LCPs were just 37 feet long, made of seven-ply wood and completely unarmoured. On the Dieppe raid in 1942 we landed brave Canadians on the ferociously defended central beach in broad daylight, and ourselves suffered 30% casualties. It was obvious that LCPs were unsuitable for landing assault troops and we were switched to carrying out specialist smoke-laying duties. This was done by way of a highly dangerous substance - chloro-sulphonic acid - pumped under pressure through a jet at the LCP's stern. As soon as the droplets of acid hit the air a huge cloud of white smoke was formed.

For the D-Day invasion HM 702 Flotilla was part of assault group 321, led by the redoubtable Cdr. Ryder VC RN. Our task was to provide smoke-screen cover for amphibious tanks in Juno landing area and for some of the bombarding warships. The Flotilla sailed from its home base, HMS Tormentor on the Hamble River at Warsash, at 9.15 am on D-1, i.e. Monday 5 June. We got no further than Calshot where we had a rendezvous with LCH (landing craft, headquarters) 239 carrying Cdr. Ryder, and eight LCTs (landing craft, tank) loaded with DD (amphibious) tanks.

Group 321 sailed from Calshot at 12.30 pm on D-1. The mood of the Flotilla's officers and ratings was remarkably high-spirited, bordering on ebullience. On our previous operations the mood had been determined, but quiet and low-key. The difference was that this was the day we had been waiting for, training for - and we knew that if things went well it was the beginning of the end of the long war in Europe.

The journey eastwards along the Solent was almost like a carnival. Several of the bigger warships had their Royal Marine bands playing on the quarterdeck. This, I imagine, was not only for the benefit of the ship's company but also to entertain the soldiers in their transports, many of whom had been cooped up since Saturday. Apart from the musical boost we were very touched to be the recipients of a huge volume of cheers from soldiers crowding the rails of their troop ships. The speed of Group 321 was set by the unwieldy tank landing craft - a mere six knots. The journey seemed endless and the force five wind made life extremely uncomfortable for us; incidentally, of the thousands of vessels which took part in the D-Day invasion the smoke-laying LCPs were the smallest to cross the Channel under their own power. At 11.15 pm we sighted the first of the light buoys which sweepers had put down to mark the safe passage through the Channel minefield. Daylight came at 5.15 am (remember we were on double summer time), and at 5.40 the Normandy coast came in sight.

At 6.05 six of our LCPs went in with the LCTs for the approach to Juno 2 beach. The rest of the flotilla took up smoke-laying positions to cover bombarding warships. Radio silence was now broken. By 6.30 LCAs (landing craft, assault) were going in, crammed with troops. These initial landings met severe resistance: but thanks to the courage of the British and Canadian soldiers involved, the Juno bridgehead was formed.

At 7.30 our six LCPs returned from escorting the LCTs with the unexpected news that (a) because the sea was so rough Cdr. Ryder had decided not to launch the DD tanks which, instead, had been put down on the beach, and (b) the LCPs had not been required to make smoke.

Three miles or so off the beach the situation was surprisingly peaceful - a great contrast to our plight at Dieppe. The RAF and the USAF had virtually overwhelmed the Luftwaffe, whose response seemed to be limited to hit and run attacks. British and American warships, some of them screened by our LCPs, kept up an awesome bombardment of German positions on shore. And at 9.30 am John Snagge announced, on BBC radio, that the invasion had begun; it was nice to know that it was official.

By 11 am the 702 Flotilla had completed its tasks in Juno and, as arranged, we moved to Sword area on the extreme eastern flank of the bridgehead. The planners had foreseen that for some time the Sword area was likely to be within reach of enemy artillery. Reinforcement and supply operations on that beach would be hazardous and the anchorage at risk: maximum smoke protection would be needed.

The day moved on, full of excitement and interest. Above all I had to admire the brilliant planning of this colossal undertaking; at sea, certainly, everything seemed to click into place as intended. The 702 Flotilla continued to make smoke to cover warship bombardments; we were very much on a high. At 8.00 pm we gaped at the sight of hundreds of gliders being towed over the anchorage to launch further attacks inland. A little later a Stirling aircraft, in flames, crashed into the sea some 400 yards from my boat (LCP 192): sadly, we could find no survivors. At 11.00 pm a lone Messerschmitt 110 was shot down close to us and we picked up a deeply shocked German pilot.

But it was from D+1, 7 June, that the 702 Flotilla really had to pull out all the stops. Enemy air activity during the day was limited - the Allied air forces were far too dominant. But at night the Luftwaffe did what it could to bomb the anchorage and the beaches: and by mid-June enemy shelling of Sword area was incessant. Apart from the period of the great storm (19-22 June) the Flotilla made smoke every night for nearly five weeks, a very strenuous routine. Operating in the dark was demanding: we had to keep track of where we going relative to the wind and to the anchorage, and constantly to be wary of such possible hazards as E-boats, against which we would have stood no chance. Even during the day German artillery fire often pitched close to our LCP maintenance depot ship - which was hit three times in one morning, by the way.

It may seem odd that smoke screens were not demanded more often during the day. But the Sword Headquarters ship felt that, as so many vessels were on the move in daylight, to cover the area with clouds of smoke might confuse our own side more than the enemy. But so hazardous and disruptive did German shelling become that on 29 June Sword beach was abandoned as a supply area. Until the enemy were pushed back out of gun range, all that remained in Sword were the splendid gunboat HMS Locust and two of our LCPs which provided smoke protection for the bombarding cruisers stationed on the outer limits of the area.

It was at this time that I, with two LCPs, gave cover to HMS Belfast and had the exquisite pleasure, for a junior RNVR officer, of being piped over the side as a commanding officer. I was then ushered into conference with Admiral Sir Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton and Captain Parham and asked to outline my smoke-screen intentions for the night and for the proposed bombardment of Le Havre the next day. I might add that, nearly 50 years later, it is on the strength of this curious assignment that I have been invited to a special lunch on board Belfast on 6 June.

By July our frail wooden boats were in a woeful state and their crews very tired; miraculously, however, the flotilla had suffered only two casualties. On 9 July we sailed to England for a refit and some leave, and then back to Normandy for another five weeks. It is only too easy, 50 years on, to be over-sentimental about youthful experiences. But my lasting memory of the Normandy invasion is of the Flotilla crews. With a few exceptions they were young - in their early twenties - and wartime sailors only. Yet their dogged good humour and refusal to give up in unpleasant circumstances were marvellous to behold.

Colin Kitching
May 1994