The Run-Up to D-Day

Following on from the last post which gave Anthony Cotterell’s account of RAF service teams, it seems only appropriate, given the momentousness of the anniversary in two days time, that I should also include entries from his diary about the run-up to D-Day and D-Day itself. It is a totally unique view, written by a superb soldier-journalist.

Like thousands of others, Anthony, who had been detailed to report D-Day for ABCA, the War Office, was waiting on a ship for several days before the D-Day armada finally sailed. We catch up with him exactly 75 years ago when he was updating his pre-invasion diary.

Sunday, 4 June

At 10.55 the Chaplain: ‘A short service will take place on the after-deck in five minutes time. I feel that on a day like this we should all attend. Owing to it being late it won’t be possible to hold a communion service afterwards, but the short service — it won’t last more than fifteen minutes — will take place in five minutes time.’

About 150 people turned up. The chaplain had an unusually attractive personality, but his sermon made me laugh a bit on the quiet. He said he had been thinking a lot about what to say to us and in the end had decided that all he could say was Have Faith in God. He then asked whether we were prepared spiritually, materially and in our training for what lay ahead. He thought that we were spiritually prepared because we were fighting for the good things, we were on God’s side, while the Nazis were not on God’s side. We were prepared materially. Excellent material and — so far as we knew — plenty of it. As for our training, he knew that the naval training was excellent and he had no doubt that so was the Army’s.

An agitated voice: ‘The Corporal who has two sacks of hymn books belonging to the Padre, deliver them to the boat alongside the port quarter now.’

The weather has been windy and cloudy. The possibility of postponement looms.

The Colonel of the Green Howards was brought into my cabin after lunch. He had come in to see his company on this ship and tell them about the thickened anti-tank defences which now beset their path. The weather was too rough for the LCA to take him back. I lent him a book and presently he went to sleep.

On the floor of the lavatory there was the front cover of Picture Post for October 21st 1939. There were two ecstatically laughing soldiers with the caption: ‘The New War Song: Run, Adolf, Run, Adolf, Run, Run, Run.’ On the reverse side of the page there was a lady urging readers to say goodbye to dull, uninteresting hair. Another lady in bed saying, ‘Good morning! I’ve slept like a top on a “two-light” mattress’, and the story of another lady who realised what all men know — that attractiveness is an air of freshness.

The nightly Brains Trust:

‘Sergeant Dixon, if someone gave you an aphrodisiac would it be a non-malarial mosquito or a sexual stimulant?’

Sergeant thought it would be a non-malarial mosquito.

‘If someone gave you an enema would you bury it in the garden or use it to clear your stomach?’

In the near future I won’t need one.

During the afternoon I worked up in the Signals office.

The Colonel went away and a lieutenant-commander, RNVR, arrived instead.[1] He is a kingpin of the naval beach organisation and was equipped only for the austerities of battle. He also had a bottle of Brylcream, which seemed superfluous in a life reduced to a one-blanket basis.

I returned to the Signals office at 9 p.m. until 10.30 p.m.

The Lieutenant-Commander slept with no bedclothes and dressed only in a pair of shorts. He told me that he has always slept like this, war and peace. Well, now I have seen everything.

[1] RNVR – Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Monday, 5 June

They tell me that this was to have been D-Day morning. But it wasn’t. After breakfast I had my blister dressed. The ship was very busy, mostly with loading marking poles, extremity signals and transit signs for marking the beaches. Signs of personal excitement, my own and other people’s.

I arranged with the Royal Marines Captain to switch my position from the ferry service (H+150) to an LCM carrying a brigadier’s jeep and carrier (H+45).[1] This should give what is known as a completer picture and will also save humping my unique assault type valise from LSI to LCT to LCA to shore.[2]

The Royal Marines Captain was a very Noel Cowardish character, one of the school who pretend that everything is completely out of control. He was talking about his farewell speech to LCA crews. He said he could never deliver it without bursting into tears.

The weather was the main preoccupation. It didn’t look too good. Then at 1.20 p.m.:

‘Attention. All troops all services will pre-load all kit except small kit into LCAs between 4 and 6.

‘Canteen will close to all military personnel and Naval Commandoes at 8 tonight.

‘The purser will change all English money into French at 7.30.

‘Library books will be handed in at 8 tonight.’

About 3.30 p.m. the Principal Beach Master, a pale-faced, bemedalled young Lieutenant-Commander, arrived in a lifeboat, together with an Engineer Commander.

Apparently the small stuff has started already, and this is inextricably D minus 1.

At 3.45 p.m. there was a bit of a rumble. ‘Those are the engines, I believe,’ said the Lieutenant-Commander. He was packing up. ‘I always wear gloves. I find you can get a better grip on everything with gloves on,’ he said.

While sitting in the canteen two messages were broadcast, one to the Navy, one to the Marines, wishing them good luck in their respective jobs and enlarging slightly on the eve of great events theme.[3] People listened dutifully, but were not, on the face of it, particularly injected with any extra resolve. ‘Same old bullshit,’ they said, though not in any particular spirit of complaint. Tolerant smiles were more the note.

‘Attention. This is the Roman Catholic chaplain speaking. I will be saying the Mass at 6.30 this evening.’

These messages helped to underline the nearness. Singing started down in the troop decks. Very feeble jokes began to seem funny.

At 6.25 the amplified voice said in urgent tones:

‘Attention. Men who wish to take their anti-seasickness tablets should take the first one NOW.’

We sailed about 7 p.m.

Rather late in the day I loaded my kit into the landing craft, and came up into the wireless cabin to finish typing this story. It is now 10 p.m. The ship’s motion is just enough to be felt. It is a grey, commonplace sort of night, and the English coast is a receding blur. Most people have gone to bed. We are being called at 4 a.m. tomorrow, and the first flight of assault craft is due away shortly after 5 a.m.

[1] LCM – Landing Craft Mechanised; H+150 — two and a half hours after the first landings, H+45 — three-quarters of an hour after the first landings. Anthony was determined to go in as near as possible to the first wave of assault troops.

[2] LSI – Landing Ship Infantry; LCT – Landing Craft Tank; LCA – Landing Craft Assault.

[3] Possibly referring to General Eisenhower’s broadcast message, which began: ‘Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.’