This is the headline that has never been seen anywhere!
As an 80-year old ex-RAF WW2 Veteran, who landed on Omaha Beach during the 1944 Normandy landings, I was privileged to be the only British Normandy veteran to attend the ceremony to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-day, that was conducted by Presidents Bush and Chirac at the Normandy American Cemetery on 6th June 2004.
In the VIP enclosure I took the opportunity to talk to American veterans and a number of 3 and 4-Star Generals, and with Senators and Congressmen. I was astonished to find that none of these VIP’s had any idea that British Forces personnel had participated directly in the D-day landings on Omaha Beach, in support of the Americans.
The RAF Mobile Radar Unit (15082 GCI), with which I was associated, landed there that day and sustained substantial casualties. Since some of these had roomed with me at RAF Signals Schools during our technical training, I felt obliged to see that their sacrifice would no longer go unrecorded. To this end I arranged, through the Mayor of Vierville-sur-Mer, for local school children to regularly visit these RAF graves in the Bayeux Commonwealth Cemetery. I returned home to seek related records and publications, with such little success that I decided to donate a perpetual shield in their memory to my local ATC Squadron. Even the RAF's official website, and others (mainly U.S.) detailing the units engaged on Omaha beach, fail to mention this and other RAF Mobile Signals unit involvement there.
Only one record that is directly related, and covers the events in graphic detail, is due to a fellow RAF Corporal, Eric John Heathcote, who survived to pass on a hand-written account to his son David. His copyright for the original text, that appears in the BBC’s “ww2peopleswar” archive as ID: A1947567, is hereby acknowledged. Its inclusion here is justified by the BBC archive no longer being maintained and, snce the search facitlity no longer functions, there is a danger of this important information being lost.
The narrative that follows is based upon this, with some minor editing drawn from my own experience. Omaha beach stretches 8km east from Vierville-sur-Mer. The RAF’s No.21 Base Defence Sector included the aforementioned Ground Control Interception (GCI) mobile Radar Unit, to locate enemy aircraft and to direct Fighter patrols of the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force to intercept them and thus provide air cover for the beaches. By some standards the number of casualties may seem 'modest', but they represent a significant proprtion of the unit's operational strength - and I am proud to say they were all my friends!
Edited Report on the Landing in France of 21BD Sector on D-day, 6 June 1944
The first Echelon of 21 B.D. Sector embarked in five LCT’s (Landing Craft, Tanks) on June 2nd 1944, at Portland, where they remained in harbour until Sunday, June 4th 1944. At approx 0400 hrs the armada left port and set sail for Poole. Before reaching there the whole fleet turned around and was back in port again by 0700 hrs, where it remained until 0430 hrs the following morning. At this time the armada set sail for France. The rendezvous off the coast of Normandy was reached soon after dawn on 6th June 1944. The sea voyage was completely without any enemy interference; no enemy aircraft having been seen during the whole voyage. The sea was rough, with a strong south-westerly wind blowing.
A first attempt at landing was made at 1130 hrs on 6th June 1944. The convoy moved towards the beach with the engines of all vehicles running, ready to disembark when the ramps were lowered. But, as the convoy approached, it was clear that the beach was still under machine gun fire as well as heavy shelling. It was obviously inappropriate to land non-combatant vehicles at that time, so we withdrew.
During this time heavy shelling of the cliffs was being carried out by the Royal Navy to try to silence the shore batteries that were concentrating their fire upon the beaches. Despite this, at 1700 hrs, the convoy was directed to the beach at St Laurent, having been ordered to land there whatever the outcome. This was about one mile west of Colleville-sur-Mer, which had been our intended landfall.
As we drew close to the shore, we saw that this, too, was under heavy fire from 88 mm guns that were zeroed in on the beach and were consistently shelling the American vehicles that were lined up there. These were unable to get away as both exits from this beach were blocked. Nevertheless, it was considered timely for 21 B.D. Sector to land there. Most of the vehicles disembarked in over 4ft of water but many suddenly became totally submerged in encountering hidden shell holes. In all 27 vehicles disembarked, but only 8 were driven off the beach, others to be salvaged in various states of disrepair.
LCT 649 dropped its ramp on a sandbank, in 4 ft of water, but considerably further out to sea than the other landing craft. In driving ashore the vehicles were soon submerged in 6ft of water, their occupants needing to scramble onto the tops of the vehicles to avoid being drowned. All the vehicles from this craft were lost except one; this one never disembarked due to a failure to start. The skipper refused to countenance any delay. With such a considerable distance to swim there was great difficulty in saving the men from this craft; but we eventually got them all safely ashore without loss of life.
Very soon after the vehicles were landed, they came under further shellfire from an 88mm gun and a number of them were destroyed as it was impossible to move them off the beach with both exits being completely blocked. This beach was more or less deserted, except for the crews of the American vehicles that were jammed on the beach, and for the many American dead and wounded who had been lying there since the first assault. We learned later that, in view of the fact that the emergency Medical Services were almost completely wiped out, and the fact that the beach was still under heavy shell fire, it had been decided to postpone the landing of the elaborate beach marshalling organization that was intended to handle the disembarkation of the “follow-up” RAF units.
Our whole unit came under heavy shelling on the beach and we soon made our way to the top of the beach, where we dug foxholes in the shingle for shelter, and remained there until the situation could be reviewed and a place found for the Unit to be moved to; the front line being only about a mile inland.
Our wounded Padre, Squadron Leader Harding, gallantly reconnoitred the little village of Les Moulins, which is situated at the westerly end of that beach. He came back and reported that this village was not under fire and afforded some cover. Squadron Leader Trollope then went over the beach and ordered everybody to move to this western end of the beach, the men at this time being very scattered in craft-loads. For the next two hours, all personnel who were not wounded, were employed at the exit of the beach either in helping to recover vehicles from the sea, with a bulldozer that had now arrived, or with carrying both our own and American wounded off the beach. Whilst mostly under fire, our Medical Officer, Flight Lieutenant Ryecroft, aided by the Padre, was continuously employed rendering emergency medical aid to the wounded under the worst possible conditions, from the time of landing until late the following afternoon; by which time all the wounded had received further treatment at the American Forward Aid Post that overlooked the next beach. All of our serious cases were evacuated to U.K. that night by LCT, except Wing Commander Anderson, who stayed until the following day to have his arm X-rayed and to see what was to happen to the Unit.
When these tasks at the beachhead were completed, the unit moved up the road to the small hamlet of Les Moulins. Some of the treated wounded were taken to a courtyard of a house in this village, the rest being taken to a convenient crater on the beach, above high water mark, where we made them as comfortable as possible for the night. The rest of the unit spent the night lying on the edge of the road at the entrance to the village, which was situated between two thickly wooded hills. In most places there was a low wall at the side of the road. This rendered some shelter from the sniping that continued throughout the night from the hills on both sides. The cliffs were full of snipers who had access to underground passages, like rabbit warrens, honeycombing the whole area.
Soon after dark six Junkers JU88’s, the only enemy aircraft so far seen or heard, came over and dropped some bombs on the beach. One of these aircraft was shot down by the Royal Navy. At intervals throughout the night we were disturbed by shelling from the 88mm guns, that burst just above us.
At 0500 hrs S/Ldr Trollope went up the road to see if it was possible to move the Unit farther inland, as we were obviously in a very dangerous position and our remaining vehicles were blocking the road should further transport be disembarked. It appeared from S/Ldr Trollope’s reconnoitre that it might be possible to move a mile or so up the road. In fact, F/Lt Efinberger, who had been sent up this road to find a position to park the Unit, came back to report that the road was now under cross machine-gun fire. He had been fired at a number of times; on one occasion having his steel helmet knocked off. From our later experience it is likely this was ‘friendly’ fire by the Americans, who frequently mistook our R.A.F. blue uniforms for the enemy’s field grey; so we stayed where we were. Actually, nothing else was disembarked on this beach, after us, until late the following afternoon.
At about 1100 hrs the 88 mm guns opened up on the beach with greater determination, so the Unit, after a further reconnaissance, moved up the road about ¾ mile and, as Transit Area No. 3 was still not taken, we pulled into a field. This field was full of American snipers, who were firing over our heads at random into the wooded hillside. There was also a certain amount of return fire from enemy snipers, but nobody was seen to be hit. At approx. 1400 hrs, Major Kolakos, the US Intelligence Office of 49th A.A. Brigade, contacted us in the field and told us that Gen. Timberlake suggested that the unit pull into Transit Area No. 2, at the top of the hill, and adjacent to his headquarters. This was the first official contact of any sort that had been made with the Americans since landing. We moved out of this field almost immediately. We passed through the village of St Laurent (where terrific rifle fire was taking place) and settled in Transit Area No. 2 for the night. This place was pretty crowded but we managed to find room to dig foxholes to sleep in. It was an extremely noisy position, as there was cross shell fire going on overhead between the Navy and the 88 mm guns that were still shelling both beaches.
The Military position during the whole of this period was extremely precarious, the bridgehead reported not to be anywhere more than 2 to 3 miles deep. W/Cdr Anderson, who had been wounded in the wrist, and S/Ldr Trollope contacted Gen. Timberlake in the evening and the position was reviewed. It was decided to move out next morning, June 8th, to a nearby field so that we could examine our equipment to see if it was possible to get any of it operational. By that time S/Ldr Best and the other technical officers (who had worked unceasingly salvaging equipment of all sorts from the beaches, ranging from complete vehicles, down to small items of serviceable equipment from derelict vehicles) considered that it would be possible for the GCI Radar Unit to set up and become operational if a site was selected, our intended site still being in the hands of the enemy. S/Ldr Trollope again saw Gen. Timberlake, and a site was chosen that overlooked the cliff at Pointe-du-Hoc. The convoy moved there through Vierville-sur-Mer in the afternoon, and our Radar equipment was set up ready to become operational on the following night. The 83Group HQ part of our convoy having been established in Vierville-sur-Mer
By the afternoon of the 9th, the military position in this sector had improved to such an extent, the bridgehead now being 7 to 8 miles deep, that a signal was received, ordering G.C.I. 15082 to prepare to move tp another location. The work of packing up was started immediately, hence the Unit did not operate on the night of 9th June as planned. We moved to the new site on June 10th, where we set up and became operational that night, to claim one enemy aircraft destroyed and one aircraft damaged.
Up to and including 9th June there were large numbers of snipers in all the area surrounding St Laurent, with sniping continuing almost incessantly day and night. There was also a terrific barrage at intervals every night, from heavy and light AA, when enemy aircraft were over the area. The snipers were firmly established, some in underground tunnels, others in thick woods surrounding the village. It was found that some of these were secured in trees, by the aid of nets, and firing smokeless ammunition making them almost impossible to find until they gave themselves up when their ammunition had run out.
Of the total of 47 casualties that our Unit suffered 1 officer and 9 other ranks were killed; 1 was reported missing; and 5 officers and 31 other ranks were wounded (one of whom subsequently died).
Biographical Note: Corporal Eric Heathcote, Royal Air Force No. 1264340, was one of a team who operated an RAF Mobile Radar Unit. Although British, his unit landed on Omaha Beach. He was born in Wembley, London, in July, 1920 and died in April, 1990.
Edited by DoctorD, 05 May 2010 - 01:12 AM.
Insertion of additional text in 3rd paragraph re ATC Sqdn