FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1943-1944 PREPARING FOR D DAY
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL3 1942-1944 1
1943 Although drafting had ceased, the chances of active employment appeared as remote as ever. By March nothing had been done to bring the Battalion up to strength, and it was known that the prospects of the 54th Division being used overseas were beginning to fade. The tank brigade had been withdrawn and it was significant that the division had not been allotted any combatant role in the G.H.Q. Exercise “Spartan” held in the Midlands during the first fortnight of March. The exercise had almost ended when the general was asked by the G.S.O.l to nominate a battalion in his command for training in beach organisation. He replied:“Send the 1st Bucks.” It was to be a turning point in the history of the Battalion. No.6 Beach Group was born.
Immediately on his return to Walberswick Lieutenant Colonel Sale addressed all officers and men of the Battalion and told them that the 1st Bucks had been chosen to form the nucleus of a beach group, a new formation designed to land men, vehicles and stores across open beaches in the early stages of a seaborne landing. Pointing out that this might well prove to be a costly and hazardous operation, he continued by stating that, although not primarily a fighting job, it would demand all the good qualities of a well-disciplined battalion. In conclusion he said that we would be brought up to full strength immediately and move to the Firth of Clyde for training. He called on everyone to give of his best. “From now on,” he said, “we have a seat in the front row of the stalls.”
An advance party of officers and men, who were to receive preliminary instruction, was dispatched to Scotland on the 30th March and two days later drafts of 120 men from the young soldiers’ battalion of the Regiment and ninety-five men from the Leicestershire Regiment were received. These were allotted to rifle companies, who took immediate steps to equip them and teach the Leicestershire Regiment’s men rifle drill.
On the 3rd April the transport left under command of Captain E. A. Low, and the following day, at 1400 hrs., the train carrying the main body steamed out of Halesworth Station in glorious weather bound for Scotland. A new page in the history of the Battalion had begun.
The camp to which the Battalion had been allotted was near Troon and named Gailes. An immediate start was made by the staff of the combined training centre, known as H.M.S. Dundonald, to teach all ranks their new duties.
The basis of the teaching was: (a) How to lay out a beach immediately after landing. (b)The establishment of dumps and transit areas. (c) The use of folding boats for landing stores. These boats were normal sapper bridging material, were made of wood and canvas and were collapsible. Each boat held one and a half tons and was pulled by a crew along a warp stretched from coaster to shore, the load being transferred to lorry on the water’s edge. It proved a primitive and unreliable method. The boats were unmanouevrable in anything but a flat calm and the maximum tonnage unloaded by one beach group in one day in perfect conditions was 900 tons. Twice this amount was achieved by other methods used in the invasion of Normandy.
The beach group consisted eventually of no fewer than 3,298 officers and men.
The group was composed of an infantry battalion with under command a field company, R.E., a general transport company, R.A.S.C., a provost company, two field dressing stations, R.A.M.C., a petrol depot, Ordnance beach detachment, detailed issue depot and other smaller bodies, and, attached, a Royal Navy commando, R.A.F. beach section and an R.A.F. balloon squadron.
Two beach groups constituted a beach sub-area commanded by a colonel.
The battalions beach group was numbered 6 and, with No. 5, formed round the 5th King’s Regiment, constituted No. 101 Beach Sub-Area.
On the 24th April the entire group, less the medical units, moved to Ayr racecourse, the medical men being accommodated in Nissen huts at Cranley Hill camp near by.
Ayr was a pleasant station. The race-course made comfortable quarters, and, once difficulties in messing some 2,000 troops had been overcome, the group settled down well.
Two coasters, the Heron and Empire Jonquil, and several thousand tons of dummy stores were stationed at the port of Irvine under the orders of the combined training centre at Dundonald.
During May and June facilities for training beach companies, helped by a limited number of services and small craft, were obtained at Inverkip, farther east on the Firth of Clyde, and all rifle companies were put through a course of training.
There was another large combined training centre at Inverary where two L.S.I. (landing ships infantry), some landing craft assault and other craft were available. Here the two beach companies (A and B) were dispatched at different times for exercises with a Canadian brigade. In these the Battalion trained for the first time in assault landings from the sea. 1
The beach sub-area took part in a large-scale exercise held in South Wales in July and preparations for the move began at the beginning of the month. The road convoy of over 200 vehicles left Ayr on the 8th July and the main body departed by train three days later. Troops detrained at Haverfordwest station, where three-ton lorries lifted them to Picton Park.
Picton Park, consisting of Nissen huts and tents, provided an excellent concentration area and preparations for Exercise “Jantzen,” due to start on the 17th July, were pressed forward. All was ready by the 17th, but the exercise was postponed owing to bad weather, and the move to the assembly area at Cresselly did not begin until the 20th.
The area allotted to No. 6 Beach Group consisted of the village of Saundersfoot and its immediate hinterland. There were two small beaches and a tiny port, and the country behind the beaches was hilly and heavily wooded, with narrow country lanes. No. 5 Beach Group had an equally difficult area some miles to the east with a steep, shingle bank at the head of the beach which made exits and entrances serious problems.
The first key plan prepared before the exercise needed little adjustment and the deployment of thousands of men and hundreds of vehicles and guns proceeded most smoothly.
Coasters and barges were loaded at Tenby and beached at Saundersfoot on a falling tide. Stores were unloaded first to barge and then to lorry, and, when the coasters had dried out, direct to lorry. Folding boats were not used and the DUKW had still not made its appearance. On the 5th August (D+14) the exercise was closed.
A great many lessons had been learned from “Jantzen.” The organisation and training of the group were sound. The complicated deployment drill had worked smoothly although it had been shown how vulnerable any beach organisation is to deterioration in weather.
One of our visitors on “Jantzen” had been Major-General Ramsden, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., G.O.C. 3rd British Division, who told Lieutenant-Colonel Sale that No. 6 Beach Group would come under his command at the end of the year and carry out large-scale exercises in the north of Scotland.
Confirmation of this move was received in November, the main body moving north on the 12th. No. 6 Beach Group was accommodated north-west of Inverness along the northern shore of the Cromarty Firth, with the headquarters at the small spa of Strathpeffer, and troops at Dingwall, Evantown, Alness and as far north as Tain on the Dornoch Firth.
Soon after our arrival Colonel Montgomery replaced Colonel Windsor as commander of No. 101 Beach Sub-Area.
The 3rd British Division was anxious that the battalion and group should feel part of the division and authority was given on the 28th November 1943 for all to wear the divisional flash. This was worn until shortly before the invasion, when a special beach group flash (a red anchor on a pale-blue field) was introduced. 2
The 3rd Division (composed of the 8th, 9th and 185th Infantry Brigades), with the troops placed under its command for the operation, formed a vast concentration centred on Inverness, where divisional headquarters were installed in Cameron Barracks.
The divisional planning staff was already in London working on the first stages of the operation in conjunction with the staff of I Corps. This plan was the Cossac plan (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander), which involved an assault landing of three divisions only, one British, one Canadian and one American, of which the 3rd Division was to be the British representative and was given the extreme left flank.
It was proposed that the division should land on a two-brigade front, with the 8th and 185th Brigades up and one of the beach groups in support of each infantry brigade.
The Cossac plan did not long survive the appointment of General Sir Bernard Montgomery as commander-in-chief, 21st Army Group, at Christmas time, followed shortly afterwards by the appointment of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as supreme allied commander. These generals at once gave their opinion that the assault force was too small for the task, with the result that another British division (the 50th) and another American division were included. The effect of this change of plan, which necessitated a vastly increased number of landing craft, was twofold: it caused the date of D day to be postponed for a month to allow for further production of craft, and it reduced the number of vehicles for each division from over 3,000 to 2,500 in order to economise shipping space. One other important change affected the 3rd Division. As a result of further study of the terrain, it was decided that owing to rocks on part of the sector the division could assault with only one brigade up. This meant that only one beach group could be landed on the initial assault and, much to the disgust of No. 6, the senior beach group, No.5 was assigned to this role. No. 6, except for reconnaissance troops, was to land on second tide.
While great decisions were being taken in London, preparations went on apace in the far North. The naval force (known as Force S and commanded by Rear-Admiral A. G. Talbot, R.N.), which was to land the 3rd Division, began to assemble in the Moray Firth. Burghead Bay had been chosen as a suitable site for the division’s practice landings.
1944 - The first divisional exercise, entitled “Smash,” was scheduled to begin on New Year’s Day, 1944, and the troops were actually in the marshalling area when the weather broke so violently that the exercise was cancelled. Another exercise, named “Grab,” took place on the 10th/11th January in spite of threatening weather; a substantial proportion of the troops was embarked in Landing Craft Infantry and Landing Craft Tank from Chanonry Point and made wet landings in Burghead Bay after a voyage of two hours. The remainder were fed in dry-shod after spending a freezing night in some aeroplane hangars nearby. The weather deteriorated as the exercise proceeded, craft beached broadside on were pounded by the rising seas, and the pebble beach became jammed with immobile vehicles and carriers, many of which had lost their tracks. It was not until the exercises took place at Burghead that the battalion had a chance to see both landing craft and coasters.
Since the days of the preceding April. when the group had wrestled with folding boats at Gailes, the Americans had tackled the problems of unloading craft and by the production of the DUKW revolutionised the whole process. This invaluable amphibious vehicle carried two and a half tons of stores, was capable of withstanding heavy seas, and was faster than most lorries on land. We were to have our first chance to use these vehicles at Gullane, Aberlady Bay in the Firth of Forth at the end of January.
All beach groups were to undertake Exercise “Roundabout” at Gullane. D day for the exercise was the 29th January and deployment proceeded smoothly. The first coasters beached early the following morning and in spite of the fact that the use of dukws was quite novel a total of 800 tons of stores was landed in the first twenty-four hours. This looked promising, but the weather was steadily deteriorating, the total tonnage on the second day sank to 550 and on the third day even lower. Eventually, on the 3rd February, with even the dukws defeated by the gale, the directing staff cancelled the exercise.
March saw preparations starting in earnest for the invasion.
Planning took place at Aberlour, a large house on the River Spey in the depths of the Highlands, and here were assembled the whole of the divisional staff, all brigade staffs, the beach sub area staff and commanding officers with their staffs. Every individual man (and there were thousands of them), every vehicle (and these included lorries, dukws, tanks, guns, bulldozers and cranes), had not only to be accounted for but landed at precisely the correct moment without wasting a square yard of shipping space. Each ship had to be stowed so that if it were sunk duplicates could be found for the men and vehicles which it carried, the result being that no complete unit or headquarters could embark in one craft.
A last-minute development, which was viewed with considerable concern and resulted in some alterations of the plan and a substantial change in timing, was the news that the Germans (now under Rommel) were hard at work erecting beach obstacles on the Normandy coastline between high- and low water marks. These consisted of lines of timber ramps alternating with lines of steel tripods, most of which were armed with teller mines or other devices. Provision was made for clearing lanes through these obstacles at an early stage of the assault and their gradual elimination thereafter; and H hour had to be adjusted so as to allow the first craft to touch down before the obstacles were covered by the rising tide.
A final exercise with the 3rd Division was held on the 30th/3lst March at Burghead. It was named “Leapyear,” and the planning and landing tables had been done at Aberlour side by side with those for Operation “Overlord.
Although the troops were not informed, the lay-out of the exercise was as similar to that adopted for “Overlord” as the ground allowed, and for the first time the division landed with one brigade up, the second brigade coming ashore as intermediate brigade two hours later. This involved No. 6 Beach Group in playing for the first time the role it was intended to play in the operation—sole responsibility for the beach maintenance area.
A fortnight later the move south began in preparation for the assault.
The residual transport not required on the operation was marshalled under Captain E. A. Low and left on the 16th April for Malplaquet Barracks, Aldershot, and on the 15th and 16th the main bodies moved by train and road. The carrier and antitank platoons went by sea in Landing Craft Tanks.
No. 6 Beach Group’s destination was Petworth in Sussex, the seat of Lord Leconfield, and the Battalion was adequately accommodated in a new camp of Nissen huts erected in the fine park.
The commanding officer had told company commanders before leaving Scotland that an operation was in preparation, but no further communication had been made to the remaining officers and men, although from the preparations which were afoot, such as water-proofing of vehicles, separation of residual transport, and the issue of special equipment, light respirators and anti-vapour clothing, they must have known that the date was drawing near. General Eisenhower, the supreme commander, inspected the group on the 20th May.
There were innumerable administrative matters needing attention. The clothing of the entire group was exchanged, anti-vapour suits and the new general service cap being issued. The latter was greeted with mixed feelings. Other items distributed were spare jerricans, watercans,stretchers, whisky, bags of sweets, emergency rations, pills to prevent seasickness, and water-sterilising tablets.
The final parade of the entire group was for His Majesty The King, who visited Petworth and inspected the group on the 22nd May.
Instructions were now received to wire in the camps and prepare briefing rooms. A triple dannert wire fence was placed round each camp and two Nissen huts in Petworth III had a similar fence within the outer perimeter.
A large diagram of the groups operations area showing the beaches was erected and illuminated at the end of one hut, and an excellent sand-table model was made in the other hut by the intelligence section. This hut also contained enlargements of air photographs and other exhibits.
Since arriving at Petworth all ranks had been free to enter and leave camp as they wished, but from the 26th May they were confined to the wired camp perimeters, except for a small number of officers who were given passes. N.A.A.F.I. staffs were included in this order.
The sub-area briefing took place on the 26th May in tents erected at their headquarters and was attended by all commanders. The briefing occupied the entire day. The following day, the 27th May, Lieutenant-Colonel Sale, briefed all officers at Petworth. A number of officers from No. 5 Beach Group, whose troops had been placed under command of No. 6 Beach Group, attended, and the beach company commanders attended No. 5 Beach Group briefing.
At none of the three conferences was the real name of locations given code names being still used throughout. Nor was any indication given of the country in which we were to land. This latter precaution, however, was promptly defeated by the field cashier, who issued French francs to all ranks immediately after the briefing. The final touches were put to the Waterproofing, vehicles and handcarts were loaded, personal kits were checked and rechecked. 3
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 88-93, 2. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 165-171 3. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 282-292