"What Philip of Spain tried and failed to do, what Napoleon didn’t try, what Hitler hadn’t the courage to do ... we did"
Commander Peter MacRitchieJuly151944
"What Philip of Spain tried and failed to do, what Napoleon didn’t try, what Hitler hadn’t the courage to do ... we did"
LONDON (By Cable) — Along the runnels that carve the Seine Bay from Ouistreham to Grandcamp landing craft of the Royal Canadian Navy are still scudding in, depositing their troops and slipping out again. Meanwhile, behind them is a formidable array of Canadian destroyers, assault craft and parent ships farther out in the Channel. Canadian motor torpedo boat flotillas are harassing E-boats in waters swept clean by Canadian minesweepers for convoys, which Canadian corvettes and frigates are helping escort.
That was the picture that presented itself as I stood on the bridge of Landing Craft 250, flirting with the coast of Normandy in the flush of D-Day noontime, while we awaited the order to crash onto the beach at Bernieres-sur-Mer and disgorge our troops of the Third Canadian Division. It was a picture of a Dominion burgeoning forth as a naval power, marshalled with the ships of the other Allied nations in the greatest display of unchallenged might the world has ever known
What made the scene possible? I asked myself this question as we nursed our damaged craft back to England in the purple of that Tuesday evening. She was down by the bows, her forepeak filled with water, and we were a haggard and weary band of reservists. I raised my head and there to the west came our little sweepers, steaming proudly to sweep fresh channels for that unbroken procession of ships that crossed from England to France and back again to the westward. Beating up Channel came our Canadian corvettes, escorting new and strange devices which sailors hesitate to call ships. They were rocket ships.
In these two scenes I found the answer. These little ships had created this magnificent panorama. These little ships who in Britain’s days of adversity had brought the convoys across the western ocean and ultimately won the Battle of the Atlantic. They had made it possible, because without victory in the Atlantic this great excursion to the shores of France could never have been accomplished. And the sweepers had played their part—Georgian, Minas, Wasaga and the rest of them. Now that the bigger ships could be spared they had reverted to the role for which they were first built. Britain had asked Canada if she could spare them. Now Canada could. So their
sweeping gear was reinstalled and two flotillas of them sailed from Canada, manned fully by Canadians, to sweep the lanes for this gigantic landing. And if you ask any sailor who was there on D-Day which ships had done the major job he would tell you without hesitation, “Why, the sweepers did.’’
We in the landing craft flotillas went to France on the Monday afternoon that was heralded in official quarters as D-Day but which meteorological reports vetoed. There was something gala about the scene. Row on row of little craft and big ships steamed their way almost idly across the waters that separate England from the Continent. This kaleidoscope was accentuated as you sailed into the Bay at dawn of Tuesday, right under the noses of the Nazi batteries. It looked like the dawn that marked the opening of the season’s regatta rather than the dawn of freedom. It was like Spithead all lit up for the coronation. Colored chandeliers dropped by enemy reconnaissance planes had flared all over the nocturnal scene, and now, as our little white-and-blue striped LCT’s nudged each other along, with their jack staffs a galaxy of bunting, the bigger ships hoisted their pennants. “Good luck, drive on,” they read.
Warspite Opens Up
We drove on and I could see Lieut.Cdr. Harris Huston, Rosshurn, Man., our flotilla leader, sweeping the horizon, looking for that speck on the chart which we were told at our briefing would he our landing spot. We pirouetted around that Bay almost endlessly, and suddenly you forgot j about the regatta atmosphere for I Nelson and Warspite and Ramillies I were firing. They were stilling the I coastal batteries and their accuracy was phenomenal. The cruisers Scylla and I Orion and a dozen others were firing too.
As we spun, around on the coast side ¡ fringe of the armada we could see the 1 Canadian destroyers Algonquin and Sioux smashing away at their land targets, and assault craft from Prince Henry and Prince David, loaded down, crashing through the waves on their way to the beaches. But the assault craft were having a hard time of it. The booby traps and submerged mines were taking their toll.
It was here that two of Canada’s three landing craft flotillas entered the picture. It happened almost three hours after the first landings had been effected and the order, or, rather, the request to the Canadians was accepted without hesitation. The signal said, “Assault craft having a hard time at Bernieres-sur-Mer. Will you have a go, Canada?” We were driving around in line ahead when all of a sudden the flotilla leader’s lamp flashed and in a second we were line abreast and striking for the beach of Bernieres-sur-Mer at full speed.
Those soldier boys from Galt and Kitchener and Cape Breton and Ottawa and Toronto and Brantford and a hundred villages and hamlets have courted death a score of times since we set them down that morning, but I doubt very much if the thrill of that drive through the sea to Bernieres will ever leave them. We who had lived in cramped quarters in the ship with them for days and had eaten out of the same ration tins cried to them as they stood nearly 200 strong in our ship with their packs and their bicycles and their rifles ready to land. We cried to them, “Hold tight, we’re going in.” They held tight and in almost a split second we had crashed our way head on, right onto the sand, right over the mines and booby traps.
The Nazi death-dealing appliances were exploding all around us but these men of the Third Division never faltered. The ramps went crashing to the beach; the soldiers grabbed their gear and after wading ashore up to their armpits, with rifles and bicycles held high, were piped up the beaches by their regimental pipers. The enemy snipers to the west of us were kicking dust spots on the greensward above the sand and the enemy mortars were moaning as the troops took up their position. They were undertaking a job to which they had not been assigned.
When the landing had first been planned this brigade was a follow-up unit. These soldiers were supposed to grab their bicyles and force their way into a certain rendezvous, there to dig in. But as we received our order to beach, which incidentally was not at the spot to which we had first been assigned, we could see that it was not being held by Allied troops. This brigade, therefore, had to create a bridgehead, and as we forced our way from the sand bars we could see them digging in at the beaches. From Bernieres eastward there was a mass of smoke and flame, but we know that those rugged men of Canada counteracted all the obstacles of warfare and are now fighting their way well inland. We left three of our craft on the beach badly holed but our casualties were few.
Lieut. Charles Bond, RCNVR, husky Toronto policeman, was hit in the neck when a mine went up right under our craft and the shrapnel flew onto the bridge of his craft. Farther along to the eastward a flotilla under Lieut.-Cdr. Hugh Doheny, Montreal, was landing more Canadian troops and contending with the same hazards as we had, while the third flotilla under Lieut.-Cdr. Lome Kyle, Vancouver, was operating with the United States Navy, beaching troops of another force.
We had little time to wait, but as we pumped our way out we stopped to look about us and lend a hand to other cripples if need be. You could see Lieut. Johnny O’Rourke, the redheaded Irishman who was at St. Nazaire and Dieppe and knows the coast of France like his home street in Calgary. You could see him on the bridge exchanging pleasantries with Lieut. Hugh McColl Harrison, Toronto.
In our craft there was still the same banter in the midst of all this. Some of us were going back for another load but others had to stay as their craft were too far gone. Lieut. Andy Wedd, Toronto, who won his D.S.C. at Dieppe and went on to North Africa and Sicily, had another craft in tow and he took his place in that proceasion to sail back to England at four knots. It
took him many hours but he got there, j and he has since been back to the same j beaches. You could see Lieut. John Shaw, Vancouver, a veteran of convoy ! work who was converted to landing j craft, standing offshore, waiting for the ! word to crash his way in. And crash j his way in he did, and we watched his men go down the ramps with lightning precision. You could see officers and men in other Canadian craft wading ashore to detach mines and traps from obstacles. These they piled on the beach, regardless of danger, and miraculously enough they live to tell the story.
We came back through that concentration of ships, to which no film or story will ever do justice from a descriptive standpoint. Warspite and Nelson were still busy at work, hurling their one-ton projectiles far into enemyheld territory. And far to the west of us two of Canada’s outstanding ships, the Tribal destroyers Haida and Huron, in company with sister ships of the Royal Navy, were patrolling the middle reaches of the English Channel. They were guarding the western flanks of the invasion armada on its way across. Had any enemy destroyers, E-boats or submarines attempted to attack they would have had to pass through that screen. Enemy destroyers a night or two later did try to attack, and for their pains suffered the loss of at least one of their destroyers midway across the Channel. Prince Henry and Prince David passed us and the officers and men waved. Many of their assault craft had been lost on the beaches and the ships decks looked bare. They were going back to their home port for a fresh supply of craft and a fresh supply of troops. They got them and back they went on the shuttle service.
Midnight found us in England, in a semi-sinking condition; but two days later the craft liad been patched up and was in service again. I went over that same scene by air five days later and 1 could see the same warships hammering away and the same landing craft methodically discharging their troops. There were the same scenes of desolation on the beaches—stranded enemy tanks and burned-out homes all enveloped in smoke.
D-Day and H-Hour. We had waited ¡ for four months, during which time the ships of the Allied navies and of the 1 Allied merchant navies had worked continuously in preparation. Now here ! was the aftermath. Still not an enemy plane in the sky and the land batteries | had been silenced.
As I looked down from this reconnaissance aircraft I could not help but think of the words of the Chief of j Staff at our last briefing prior to embarkation. He said, “What Philip of Spain tried and failed to do; what Napoleon would have liked to do but didn’t do; what Hitler hadn’t the courage to do, we are about to do, and by the grace of Cod we shall.” We did, and we of the Royal Canadian Navy are proud to have been there.
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