Operation Broom

During my two and a half years with the 702 LCP Flotilla we were detailed for several unusual assignments. In some ways the oddest was Operation Broom in September, 1944 - sweeping Le Havre harbour for "Katie" mines.

First, perhaps I may be forgiven for setting out some background detail about the 702 in Normandy for the benefit of those who, excusably, have no idea what we were all about. To backtrack a bit, on the morning of June 6th, 1944, the Flotilla was in attendance as the DD tanks went ashore in Juno area, our job being to provide smoke cover if and when required. We then made smoke over the Sword anchorage every night until, after five weeks of non-stop activity, our 12 wooden boats were in such a deplorable state that a refit was essential. So over to the UK, to repair work at delectable Sandbanks, Poole, and leave for everyone.

On August 12th, in all respects ready for sea again, we returned to the Normandy coast. We found life infinitely safer than before and now we mainly made smoke during the day against Luftwaffe hit and run raids. Early on, unfortunately, our well-liked accommodation ship, the Cap Touraine departed. To our intense indignation we were moved ashore, to be accommodated in J2 camp run by the Royal Marines. I was then in command of the Flotilla and faced a difficult morale problem: the ratings of the 702 said, in effect, "We didn't join the Navy to live in a ------- tent".

Following negotiations at the FOIC's (Flag Office In Command) HQ ashore, I managed to get us transferred to a depot ship in the anchorage. Everyone cheered up - but our joy was short-lived. The SNO (Senior Naval Officer) aboard the depot ship, a Commander RN, took to using the Flotilla's LCPs as duty boats, liberty boats - whatever he fancied. Presenting myself to him in due course I said (with the greatest respect) that I could not permit operational crews and boats to be used for the ship's routine purposes. Eyeing my two rings RNVR the Commander replied icily "I shall report you to the FOIC". Being absolutely sure of my ground I felt able to say "By all means, Sir".

Nevertheless, I wasted no time in leaping into the nearest LCP and getting in first with the appropriate senior officer at FOIC's HQ. As I was leaving, the Commander appeared. To my considerable satisfaction he never had a chance and was told, forcefully, that he was not to interfere with my jurisdiction over the boats. But you will not be surprised to learn that we were now persona non grata with the Commander and had to leave in a hurry for another depot ship!

So onwards to a day in the first half of September when I was told, to my astonishment, that the Flotilla was to acquire the art of minesweeping. The reason was the capture of Le Havre was imminent: apparently when Cherbourg was taken, early in the campaign, the Allies' use of the port had been seriously inconvenienced by the Katie mine, which had proved extremely difficult for standard-sized minesweepers to dispose of within the confined area of a harbour. So for Le Havre small and manoeuverable craft were considered essential - and the 702 LCP Flotilla was selected for the job.

We were issued with the necessary equipment and, as I remember, had about three days in which to perfect our minesweeping techniques. Incidentally, the unique feature of the Katie mine was that secured to it, as it lay on the sea bed, was a rubberised rope which stretched up to and along the surface of the water. The rope was difficult to spot, and if it was picked up by a propeller a pull of 80 Lbs exploded the mine. Sweeping for the Katie involved catching the rope on the paravane while steaming slowly ahead: in due course the necessary pull would be exerted and the mine would go up. The problem was that in a confined area like a harbour the paravanes would have to be streamed at such a relatively short distance from the LCP that the latter might well go up with the mine.

On September 13th British troops entered Le Havre. At 1700 LCPs 188, 173, 234, 207, 195 and 191 left Arromanches and headed towards the objective. At 1915 we anchored for the night ten miles from the entrance to the harbour. At 0650 on September 14th we moved off, streamed the sweeps in a calm sea - then pure anticlimax: thick fog made it impossible to proceed with the operation.

By 1150 visibility had improved. Off we set again, with sweeps streamed, in the direction of the harbour entrance. At 1330 we were in visual signal touch with the RN Port party who were at the harbour entrance, on the north mole. They, of course, had entered Le Havre immediately after the surrender and were already surveying the docks to establish what would need to be done to make them a going concern again. The entrance was partially blocked by sunken ships. But the Port party confirmed that all enemy resistance had ceased. The way was clear for us to get on with our task. So at 1400 LCP 188 became the first Allied vessel to enter the port of Le Havre since June 1940, closely followed by the other five craft.

We began sweeping - very carefully. Not surprisingly, we were less concerned at the prospect of exploding a mine at a distance on the quarter than at the thought of getting a Katie rope round the propeller: the latter was likely to set the mine off right below us, with unfortunate consequences. So the bow lookout was a key figure. If he saw anything remotely resembling a floating rope we manoeuvred ever so gently around it.

Up and down the various basins of the harbour we swept, constantly avoiding wrecks. The devastation was incredible; a huge tonnage of bombs and shells had been hurled on to the port by the RAF and the Royal Navy, not least by the battleships Rodney and Warspite. At one point a harbour tug had been blown clean out of the water: it lay on its side on the quay, like a beached whale.

By 2030, with a break at low water, the six LCPs had been through the whole of the harbour except the Arriere Port. It was time to call a halt. As sleeping on board an LCP was always to be avoided, if possible, we explored the ruined quays for somewhere with a roof and walls. To our great delight we found the barrack room of the German Maritime Artillery virtually undamaged. It was equipped not only with bunks and blankets, but also with clean SHEETS - and a barrel of rather insipid beer. And there we spent an extremely comfortable night.

One oddity about that barrack room: it smelled overpoweringly of scent - not a characteristic odour of RN messdecks, as I recall them. As I don't think for a moment that the German gunners were effeminate, it would seem that they had discovered deodorants, body lotion and so on long before us.

Next morning we completed the job and swept the Arriere Port. With remarkable trust in our efforts, other Allied vessels began to come in. By noon we were on our way back to Arromanches after a strange and memorable interlude. And (I hear you ask) how many mines did you find and explode? I have to tell you - not a single one!

Colin Kitching
March 1988