“A Day at the Seaside”

‘A Day at the Seaside — Going on Shore’, written by Anthony Cotterell, remains a totally unique slant on what happened on that momentous day, 6 June 1944.  It was published in WAR, issue 74, 8 July 1944.

Above: Arromanches, Gold Beech, where Anthony came shore.

‘A Day at the Seaside: Going on Shore’
 
Breakfast was at 4.25 a.m.
‘Attention. The second seasickness pill should be taken now,’ said the ship’s amplifier as the liver and bacon was served.
We were passing up a mine-swept channel marked by red lights, about eight miles off the French coast. There had been a good deal of flares and flak in the distance but right now there was nothing. As I came out on deck a solitary fighter flew across the ship.
Over the amplifier the Senior Naval Officer’s voice said, ‘Telephone operators and winchmen will be required in about five minutes’ time.’
I went to put on my Christmas-tree-like equipment, and transferred as much stuff as possible from my trouser pockets to my battledress blouse. In the agitated lightheadedness of the moment I decided that the battledress blouse pockets wouldn’t take it all and transferred a good deal back again.
I had been told that with any luck we should step ashore in water not more than ankle deep.
The amplifiers said: ‘LCA crews, man your craft. Telephone operators to your stations. Winchmen close up. Serial numbers stand by to embark.’
The first flight of the assault troops formed up by the two rows of rectangular and frail, blue and white assault craft. They were a company from the 50th Division.[1] I joined the miscellaneous party in which I was travelling.[2] We didn’t belong to the first flight, but we were being lowered in the same batch of LCAs. The crew began wishing us good luck and made very depressing comments about the choppiness of the Channel. The officers and NCOs of the troops going into the craft were telling their men not to worry, there were miles of time to do everything.
At 5.28 a.m. by my now rubber-cased watch, the amplifier began to order craftloads. ‘To your stations now.’
We clambered over the rope-laden side of the ship into our landing craft. It had a Bren carrier and a jeep occupying nearly all the deck space. Gunfire started up. The guns of the nearest cruiser looked as if they were firing big brown puffs of smoke, which lolloped vanishingly through the air.
‘Go on, shell the bastards,’ men said.
‘There’s no reply yet. From the shore,’ one man said.
‘There’s a hell of a swell on, Sergeant.’
‘Not so bad as it was,’ said the Royal Marine Sergeant in charge of our craft.
‘Do you know which way we’re going, Sergeant?’
‘Any way you like, son.’
Three naval officers and a Royal Marine major came aboard. Their luggage included two wildly incongruous-looking weekend cases.
‘Coxswains report their troops onboard,’ said the amplifier.
‘I wouldn’t miss this for worlds, would you?’ said someone who probably hadn’t been studying the state of the weather.
At 6.28 a.m. the amplifier said ‘Lower away 1, 2, 5, 6, 9 and 10.’ They hit the water with a splashing plop.
A double line of Landing Craft Tanks dawdled past some two hundred yards away, and they split into a Y-formation. Of course, there were ships all round us. Apparently they were now spaced more widely apart than they had been earlier in the journey, so there didn’t seem so many.
Our number came up on the amplifier. ‘Get inside lads, get inside,’ said the Marine Sergeant.
They cast off the craft from the side of the ship. We were now suspended over the water from a single derrick by a cable split into four, one strand to each corner, in umbrella fashion. We bumped about while we waited for two Marines who had been sent to fetch something. Then we were lowered about ten feet and a Royal Corps of Signals sergeant appeared, breathless and urgent, shouting to be put on board. He stood there with one leg over the ship’s side, undecided whether or not to jump, until someone pointed out a rope down which he slid, just as they were finally lowering us into the water.
We weren’t being lowered into any mill-pond. Goodness, it was rough, and it went on being rough all the way to the shore.
‘All the way to the shore’ — what a simple phrase that is. What a wealth of colourful and seasick events it fails to picture. Before landing at H hour + 45 minutes we were to go to the Headquarters ship and exchange the naval officers for the Brigadier and staff of the assaulting brigade. We certainly went to the Headquarters ship. In fact, we started going through her, and tore a gash in her side.
By sucking boiled sweets I just managed to avoid seasickness. Others had no boiled sweets or found boiled sweets no antidote. We had all been issued with vomit bags, but in the event men leaned over the pitching side.
The unfortunate coxswain, the Sergeant in the Royal Marines, seriously injured himself in trying to move single-handed the cable which had supported the landing craft when slung from the ship and which was now entangled in the carrier and would thus prevent its swift rush for the beach. The poor devil writhed about in the carrier and we had to half lift him out. He refused to rest, much as we tried to make him do so. He was obviously in great pain.
The barrage had now started all round us. There were ships and landing craft kicking up the devil’s own row. A line of assault craft corkscrewed slowly past us, and I thanked my stars I wasn’t expected to assault anybody. There was none of the infectiously emboldening qualities of smooth speed. They were being pitched and tossed and soaked, all very slowly.
So were we. The faces of the Brigadier and his staff when we came junketing alongside to take them off were what is known as a study. The journey down the little rope ladder was not an inviting one. It took some time to exchange our passengers. We now started on the last run-in to the shore. It was a grey, miserable day and it looked a grey, miserable shore, clouded over with smoke and with only occasional signs of firing. A few shells fell casually in our neighbourhood but the splash and noise they made were entirely lost in the noise and splash made by our own side.
We could see the spikes of the beach obstacles above the surface of the water. It was now getting on for high tide.
A little way out the coxswain ordered the kedge to be dropped and from then on the sea, which up to now had mysteriously refrained from swamping us, began to take its chances. Our feet disappeared below sea level, and great dollops of surf came washing over the sides, soaking people from head to foot. Some forty yards out, the craft stopped, the front door was lowered, and we were invited to make for the shore. The jeep plunged into the water, the water came over the floor, and after a few yards it stuck there.[3]
I loaded my kit onto the carrier. Unfortunately I hesitated just too long to load myself on to it. It made a sudden belly dive into the sea and started unsteadily for the shore. Three men stood hesitating, as well they might. It seemed the moment for encouragement by example and I followed the carrier down the ramp.
The water was quite warm and waist-high. We waded towards a narrow strip of shingle into which men and vehicles were beginning to pour. Running parallel to the beach was a track, behind which clouds of smoke were being generated. Through gaps in the smoke you could see English-looking green fields and a narrow road running up hill and inland, to a ridge some 600 yards behind.
To the right of the road on the ridge an ugly-looking house stood against the skyline. There was machine-gun fire away to the left and in the centre. But the main effect on the beach was of some macabre circus coming to town. I followed the carrier in. The officer in charge of it took one look at the exit from the beach which was now developing into a traffic jam and ordered the driver to take a short cut.
But it wasn’t that kind of beach. The carrier went a few yards, and stuck in making a turn to avoid a wounded man lying on the beach with a blanket round him. The track came off, and there the carrier was stuck in the traffic line.
The minefield between the beach and the parallel tracks was already being cleared. In one cleared corner sat about a dozen German prisoners whose attitude was remarkably serene. They sat or lounged there like men whose day’s work was done, greeting new arrivals with the wry sympathy of people committed to some boring social function. They weren’t under any great constraint. Everyone was too busy trying to get along the beach themselves to waste time with prisoners.
British wounded were lying on the fringe of the beach in twos and threes. Beach dressing stations were just being established. There were two sergeants lying together. I asked one what he thought of it. He had been hit in the landing craft and again on coming ashore. He said it hadn’t been as tough as he thought it would be. Apparently he was easy to please. They were shivering with cold, though the driver of the broken-down carrier had given them his blankets. I fed them each a little rum.
A few yards up the beach a man was lying dead. An equal distance the other way a man was dying. His clothes were in ribbons, his helmet was gone. So were his legs. He was terribly disfigured, but still lingeringly alive. His mouth twitched and his arm moved a little. A doctor came and looked at him, but there was nothing he could do except cover him with more blankets. The poor devil stayed alive a few minutes more, and died. 
Casualties had been sharp but light, considering what they might have been. The main trouble had been an 88 millimetre gun, which had had a disastrous field of fire right up the beach. This particular sector was about 1,000 yards long.
At first the beach looked haphazard. The whole horizon was dotted with LCTs beached at curious angles, either to avoid the underwater obstacles (long poles to which mines were attached), or because they had failed to avoid them. I helped dig slit trenches, which a tank then obliterated. I did some stretcher-bearing with a padre. I rescued a case of tins of self-heating soup which had fallen from a tank as it came ashore and shared some out with people who were wet through.
By noon the sun was out, the smoke screens were disappearing, the beach was remarkably quiet.
Two CMPs walked along carrying marking flags.[4] They put up a big banner a few yards away. It pointed to the exit for tracked vehicles in 18 inch letters. There were also separate exits from the beach for wheeled vehicles and for marching parties.
There were some pretty wet landings both for vehicles and men. Many of the vehicles got stuck. Some of the men were drowned. When the tide went down there were more vehicles stuck in the sand in one particular bit of our beach.
Parties of men were drying themselves. A man dressed in a blanket, gym shoes and a tin hat walked along the water’s edge looking for his kit. A man came in the opposite direction carrying a primus stove. Two young officers walked along deep in conference, one of them carrying a large penguin doll. About twenty yards out from the shore a man stood marooned on the bonnet of his truck. The fringe of the beach was littered with packs, petrol cans, tins of food, greatcoats and discarded boots which already looked old boots.
A man came up to the driver of the carrier on which my kit had landed.
‘The Brigadier’s gone forward. Taken Hope with him.’
‘In the jeep?’
‘No, no jeep, damn all he’s got. He’s walking.’
‘Oh, well, soon be Christmas,’ said the driver and crawled back under the carrier to continue his repair work.
Tanks began coming in in great numbers. The tracked vehicle exit which had had some pretensions to a surface was now reduced to a condition of morass. But thanks to professional attention it was still usable.
I came on a man scraping sand out of the engine of a jeep. I asked how it got there.
‘I don’t know, sir. It was upside down when I found it.’
The afternoon was made hideous by the Sappers exploding underwater obstacles. They went up with a detonating crack and a cloud of smoke, and came down with a shower of pebbles and shrapnel. At 3.45 p.m. three-ton lorries started driving up the sands guided by men who stood at the water’s edge signalling with yellow flags. It was much easier for vehicles to land there now the tide was out.
I met a colonel from Combined Operations HQ who was writing a report on the landing and we walked the length of the beach. There were thirteen LCTs beached by the under-water obstacles with varying large holes blown in their sides. Many of them were floated successfully on the second tide. We met the Colonel commanding the Beach Group. He said that he was fighting an infantry battle on the side, having killed five Germans himself.
He went on to say that there were still a lot of snipers and one substantial party, a platoon or more, of Germans about with anti-tank guns and mortars. They had already destroyed an armoured car. A company was being sent against them. Walking up the road we came across part of the company, crouching by the roadside, keyed for action.
We walked on up the one-way road to the village. An information room had been set up in an amusement arcade called the Salles des Fêtes. A batch of prisoners were sitting by the village war memorial. The corner was crowded with miscellaneous troops.
There was a good deal of bomb damage, but also a number of houses and people left standing. A small boy stood on one of the garden gates playing with toy binoculars. A larger boy came along carrying a souvenir shell case. We passed a deserted and damaged tank whose wireless was still going, echoing oddly along the country road
The shops and the two little cafes were shut. We looked in one shop which had suffered a little from blast, and were surprised to note the extent of its stocks of proprietary goods, like matches and toothpaste. The stocks weren’t big, but by wartime standards you could not call them inadequate.
At the next corner we were warned by a military policeman to keep to the left, as remaining enemy elements were about to be shelled. We emerged on to the beach again from this semicircular tour. At this end there was a fairly solid sea wall. Incorporated in the wall was a well-built concrete strong-point, based on the 88 millimetre gun which had given so much trouble in the morning.
The Colonel prevented some sailors from being blown up on booby traps while looking for souvenirs. One of them was drinking Vichy Water, happy in the delusion that it was champagne. The Military Police had established themselves in the pillbox and were talking to a little Sapper who had been resting. He said that after the assault, and after seeing a lot of his pals killed by grenades thrown from the pillbox whilst they were clearing the minefield, he had felt ‘a bit queer’. He was all right again now, but he felt funny. When the infantry finally assaulted the pillbox they found the surviving Germans hidden shivering, clutched together in a cupboard. But up to then the Germans had fought hard.
Sprawled among the seaweed at the foot of the lea wall there were four of the men who had been killed in trying to make a frontal assault on the pillbox, while others went in behind. The Germans had lobbed hand grenades over the walls. They could hardly miss. It hadn’t been possible to bury them yet because the burial ground for the beach was still under enemy fire.
AA guns had now arrived on the beach. I sat down for the first time since breakfast and ate some chocolate and biscuits from my 24-hour ration pack.
An RE officer told me that in some places his men had been clearing mines at the rate of seventeen mines in about ten yards. Most of them had been hurriedly laid. The grass was still dead over them.
The beach dressing stations kept up a constant series of jeep patrols looking for casualties along the beaches. One dressing station had had about sixty casualties during the day, roughly divided into twelve fractures, twelve head wounds, one or two perforating wounds of chest or stomach, and the rest mostly arm and leg wounds.
This beach dressing station was a tent in which eight stretchers had been made up, each with a hot-water bottle. While I was talking to the young doctor in charge a man came running in to report that a CMP had had his foot blown off by a mine. The RE had warned people to take cover while they exploded a mine and this man had jumped on to another one. The jeep went down and evacuated him back to the field dressing station in the village in a matter of minutes. They worked there all night, in the Mairie.[5] Simultaneously they were building a tented Field Dressing Station in a neighbouring field. I went up there that evening.
D-Day ended for me, trying to sleep in a field, with a frighteningly noisy but quite ineffectual air raid around midnight.
On D+8 I went back to the beach. The under-water obstacles had been cleared away. D-Day debris of drowned and blown-up vehicles had gone, towed into the minefields, now looking like a long strip of junkyard. The beach staff were living in dugouts along the front — the same dugouts they had scratched in the sand on D-Day, but expanded and developed with packing cases and tarpaulins. The beach dressing stations were packing up. Lately their only casualties had been from AA shrapnel.
It was now a settled organisation ready to work smoothly for months, if necessary.

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[1] 50th (Northumberland) Division.
[2] Anthony gives details of his party in ‘On a Steamer Going Over’. ‘Our ship […] carried a beach company commander, half his company HQ, seven sappers under an officer, and three military policemen, together with a party of Royal Navy beach commandos. All these were to go in at H+45 with the reserve battalion and reconnoitre the beaches, particularly TME exits through which succeeding waves would pass inland. Various oddments would go in with them, e.g. the Brigade Commander’s jeep and carrier, not to mention (from another ship) the Brigade Commander.’
[3] This was the Brigadier’s jeep.
[4] CMPs — from the Corps of Military Police.
[5] Local mayor’s office.