As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, it’s exactly 75 years ago this week that my father deployed to Normandy as a member of 15th Canadian Field Regiment RCA, a unit of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. I wonder what it must have been like to be finally going into action. In July of 1944 Dad was 24. He had been in the army for three years and was a bombardier (corporal), “NCO i/c Signals” for A Troop, 17th Field Battery.
I wish I’d asked him. It’s too late for that, and he might not have wanted to answer. We’re left with official accounts. Here, slightly abridged and occasionally annotated, is Part 2 of war historian’s Robert Spencer’s excellent account of the regiment’s deployment for France. It covers the period from July 20 to 24, 1944. The troops with their 25-pounder howitzers, vehicles, and all their equipment were embarked on the Liberty ship Hannibal Hamlin and the merchantman Fort Biloxi at Tilbury Docks, downstream of London, awaiting the voyage to the beaches of Normandy. “Hurry up and wait,” goes the army saying, and for good reason. The men of 15th Field would be bottled up on those two ships for six days as their convoy marshalled and waited for orders to sail. Destroyers screened the convoy from attack by sea or air. The soldiers played cards, wrote letters, and helplessly watched air battles and explosions overhead.
During the afternoon of the 20th July loading was completed and the ships moved out into the [Thames] river. Anchor was dropped off Southend, and again the regiment settled down to wait — this time for the convoy to marshall. Troops passed the afternoon making themselves as comfortable as possible, exploring the ship and watching the activity in the harbour. Card games and letter writing went on in secluded corners out of the wind. In the limited space of the forward hold of the Fort Biloxi, a volleyball net was stretched and a tournament organized.
Each evening the question would be asked, “Do we sail tonight?” But the master shook his head – high winds across the channel had delayed unloading and the convoy must wait its turn. The troops grew restless and impatient as the hours passed and the ships lay swinging on the tide. The nights were quiet except for the “doodlebugs” which passed low overhead on their way to London. Sometimes there would be the dull rumble of an explosion in the distance; one night the sky over the city was illuminated by the pink glow of a fire.
On the third evening a launch came alongside, bringing orders to the ships. At 1900 hours anchors were weighed and the ships nosed slowly down the river. The decks were jammed with troops who lined the rails to watch London slip away astern. The Fort Biloxi and the Hannibal Hamlin fitted into the line of grey ships filing slowly out of the harbour to where the escorting destroyer waited to lead the way through the minefield. As the sun sank behind the Kentish hills, the convoy steamed slowly down the Thames, past the AA towers, grotesque sentinels which guarded the Port of London, and out into the Estuary…
About midnight word of anti-aircraft fire ahead lured a number on deck. It was impossible to know the exact position but, from the high cliffs that could be seen through the greyish gloom off to the right, it was estimated that the convoy must be off Dover. Seaward were the ghostlike shapes of the ships, steaming in two lines. From the shore a siren was heard, followed a few minutes later by a dazzling orange flash and a loud report. A number flattened on the deck while the remainder sought cover around the gun turrets… As the convoy steamed slowly past, the big guns spoke again and again, but there was no reply from the German batteries at Gris Nez.
Soon heavy anti-aircraft fire – distinguishable only as tiny pinpoints of light at a great height – was observed ahead and to starboard… Away off to the left the flying bombs [V1 rockets or “doodlebugs”] could be seen shortly after they left their launching sites on the French coast, simply appearing as tiny red lights which grew brighter as they approached. Sometimes a great flash of light and an explosion out to sea revealed that a watching plane had dived out of the sky to score a kill… heavy anti-aircraft guns opened fire, their starlike bursts marking a path like the trail of sparks from the grindstone. Closer to the shore, the light AA opened up, lighting the sky with brilliant streaks of orange tracer… The convoy steamed on, the lines of grey clad ships illuminated by the gun flashes. Rounding Dungeness the firework display was left behind and the sky was quiet. Only a series of dim flashes from the French coast told that the RAF was again pounding the launching sites.
Dawn [of July 23rd] found the convoy off the Hampshire coast with the Isle of Wight looming up on the left side. The coast of Sussex, Beachy Head, Seaford, Brighton, had all been left behind during the hours of darkness. In the early morning light the convoy steamed slowly past Portsmouth, past Gosport, through the submarine net at Spithead into the Solent. By mid-morning, the convoy was slipping at a snail’s pace through the maze of ships to drop anchor off Cowes…
The convoy lay at anchor in the Solent for the remainder of the day. There was little excitement and nothing to do except watch the ships which dotted the water on all sides. Ships were of all sorts and sizes, ranging from MTBs to cruisers, from tiny LCAs to large LSTs, from small coasters to large transports.
Early next morning (July 24), the convoy slipped quietly away from this mass of idle shipping and turned eastward into the grey morning sky. Before most the troops were awake the Solent was left behind and the English coast was disappearing astern. All morning the convoy of twelve ships moved slowly over the calm sea. The sun broke through the morning mist, heralding a spell of fine weather which materially assisted operations in the beachhead. Destroyers — seemingly too few — skirted the convoy. Overhead planes roared on their way to missions inland, and huge flying boats on anti-submarine patrol circled over the calm sea.
All ranks crowded the forward decks, seeking the first glimpse of land. About noon, marker buoys, planted during the preparations for the landing, were sighted. Land could now not be far off – compo boxes and other wreckage drifted by, and the body of a soldier, complete with steel helmet, web and small pack perfectly fitted, floated amongst the wreckage.