~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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10th LCA Flotilla / 60th LCA Flotilla / 524 LCA Flotilla

THE "PHOENIX" FLOTILLA

Background

LCAs (Landing Craft Assault), were small, flat-bottomed craft that carried 36 armed troops from a mother ship onto nearby landing beaches, often under heavy enemy fire during the initial assaults. Their crews of four comprised a coxswain, two seamen and a stoker, plus one officer per group of three craft.

The craft were powered by two engines giving them a speed of 9 knots. On reaching their pre-determined landing beaches, they lowered their ramps and quickly disembarked their troops to minimise the risk from enemy shells, mortars and gunfire.

They then winched themselves off the beaches using their stern mounted kedge anchors which were lowered on the way in. They then returned to their mother ship or rendezvoused with larger landing craft to embark more troops waiting in line. The 10th LCA Flotilla was one of the first established in 1940. Before the war was over, the Flotilla saw several reincarnations, not unlike the mythological Phoenix bird of Greek legend, hence the sub-title of this page.

[Photo; Troops leaving LCA on landing beach. Imperial War Museum © IWM (B5092)].

Almost all the crews of the Flotilla were young civilians with little or no previous experience of the sea or the Royal Navy. To reflect this “civvie” background, the Flotilla badge was designed as a civilian version of the official badge of “Combined Operations.” It was much admired and attracted good-natured comment.

10th LCA Flotilla

Following the evacuation of the Allied Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in June of 1940, it was clear that a future invasion of enemy occupied Europe would require an overwhelming amphibious assault force to overcome entrenched enemy defences. The army would need several years to re-equip and re-train as part of a unified amphibious force under the auspices of the Combined Operations Command. The Royal Navy's task was no less daunting. They needed to recruit personnel for the thousands of landing craft that, on D Day alone, would transport over 150,000 troops, their equipment and supplies to the landing beaches. Some basic training in seamanship was provided in Milford Haven from November 1940, using Yorkshire Cobles (small fishing boats) with a limited speed of about 4 knots. However, they served their purpose during training in basic seamanship while the many types of landing craft were designed and manufactured in sufficient numbers to meet demand.

In 1941, the crews of the 10th LCA Flotilla reported to the Princess Astrid, a Belgium cross-Channel passenger ferry which had been converted to an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) in Falmouth Dockyard. It had davits for eight LCAs, four each side, an arrangement not dissimilar to that used for lifeboats on ferries. The Princess Astrid was destined for Inveraray on Loch Fyne in Scotland, which was the site of the No 1 Combined Training Centre of which HMS Quebec was the naval component.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017].

In the absence of finished LCAs, single engine, timber hulled “Eureka” boats from the USA were made available providing a more appropriate speed of about 10 knots. However, while they were good sea boats, they were unpopular because of their loud engine noise, difficulty in disembarking troops onto landing beaches and their vulnerability to enemy fire in conflict situations.

The design specifications of the various landing craft were modified as training exercises and operations provided useful feedback on their performance. Over the years, new versions emerged in the series Mark 1, Mark 2 etc.. Early in 1942, the “Eurekas” were replaced by LCAs constructed of steel and for the following six months, the Flotilla carried out training exercises in Scotland and the south of England. These included seamanship, embarkation and disembarkation of troops and realistic landings with smoke screens, beach strafing and the dropping of small bombs courtesy of 516 Squadron RAF. The true value of all this training became apparent when the Flotilla was engaged in real operations against the enemy, which tested the crews to the limit and beyond.

The Dieppe Raid

On the 3rd July 1942, Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten briefed the crews on an imminent raid. It was on the small French port of Dieppe in north-west France. Codenamed Operation Jubilee, the plan required the flotilla to carry troops of the Royal Regiment of Canada from our mother ship to a small beach adjacent to the village of Puys, to the north-east of Dieppe and to collect them from a beach, adjacent to Dieppe, on completion of the operation.

The operation was to begin the following morning but unfavourable weather forced a postponement. A further setback occurred when, at 06.00 hrs on July 7th, four German aircraft attacked Princess Josephine, Princess Charlotte and Princess Astrid scoring direct hits on all three. Remarkably, all the bombs passed straight through the ships before exploding, causing only minor casualties and limited damage. The troops were disembarked and the ships returned to Portsmouth for repairs. Against the advice of General Montgomery that the operation “be off for all time” because the pre-raid tight security had been compromised, the Chiefs of Staff approved a revised plan to mount the attack in August.

Our landing was on the 270 yard 'Blue Beach' which was liberally spiked with obstacles and overlooked by high cliffs on which a number of concrete pillboxes were strategically placed. Confronted by these conditions, it was vital to achieve complete surprise lest the assault troops became sitting ducks to the enemy's fire. Critically, touch-down at 05.05 hours was 15 minutes late and in the early dawn light the enemy opened fire long before the troops reached the beach.

The LCAs scraped to a halt several yards from the beach and the bow ramp was lowered to allow the soldiers to storm ashore. Intense machine gun fire rained down from the cliff as dead and wounded piled up in the bow of the landing craft. Those who managed to disembark, struggled in the shallow water and were not immune to the fusillade. The sea wall was only 40 yards away but not more than fifteen men from the first wave, reached it. Within a few tragic minutes, Puys beach was a bloody shambles.

The Flotilla withdrew to a relatively safe distance to await orders. At about 0900 hrs, a motor launch approached and by loud hailer ordered us to “go immediately to Blue beach to take off troops.” Under cover of a smoke screen, four craft set off but as they emerged from it, two of them were immediately hit, one of which sank. When there was no sign of life on Blue beach, the remaining craft were ordered to “come back.”

Unbeknown to our commanders, Canadian troops had started to surrender at 0830 hrs when the odds against them were overwhelming and by 0840 hrs, Puys beach was firmly in German hands. Of the 490 men who landed, 225 were killed and the survivors became prisoners of war. At about 1030 hrs, all available craft were ordered to rescue troops from the Dieppe beach. Together with craft from other flotillas, about 500 men were rescued under intense enemy fire from mortars and machine guns.

Describing the events of that day, the official record of the Canadian Army observed “the disaster at Puys beach was the blackest event of a black day. The Royal Regiment of Canada suffered such heavy casualties that it had virtually ceased to exist as a unit.” The Canadian public were outraged by the loss of life and demanded that the Admiralty should court-martial those responsible, but none was held.

Shockingly, of the Canadians troops carried by the Flotilla to Puys beach that day, not one returned. They were either killed or captured and many of the survivors, unsurprisingly, suffered from shock. The crews of the 10th LCA Flotilla will always remember, with deep sadness, the loss of so many young Canadian soldiers whom they had come to know and respect.

The above account was based on one written by Alasdair Ferguson who took part in the raid for which he was awarded the DSC for his courage. Lessons were learned for future landings including D-Day, but a very heavy price was paid.

Watch Michael J Moore's moving musical tribute to the 6000 men who took part in the raid (highly recommended). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05aoODbtOUw

The 60th LCA Flotilla 1942/43

Shortly after the Dieppe raid, the Admiralty created the 60th LCA Flotilla with Lt Alasdair Ferguson as the Flotilla Officer. Some members of the 10th LCA Flotilla were transferred to it and just two weeks after Dieppe, the Flotilla joined its mother ship, the SS Duchess of Bedford. Before being requisitioned for war duties, she was a Canadian Pacific ship of 23,000 tons designed for the North Atlantic run. In her converted state she had a capacity of 14 LCAs with their crews and troops, a total of 560 men.

North Africa - 8th November 1942.

As part of Operation Torch, not known to us at the time, we embarked the United States 1st Infantry Division for joint amphibious training exercises in the River Clyde estuary in Scotland. Observing the rain falling on Greenock with the barrage balloons overhead, one wit is said to have remarked: “Why do they not cut the strings and let the god-dammed place sink!” Clearly the young soldiers were unimpressed with the weather!

Training over, we sailed from Liverpool through the Bay of Biscay as part of a huge convoy of ships stretching from horizon to horizon. With heavy Naval protection, we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar with the North African coast to our right. Our destination was a dropping off point about 9 miles off the beach at Arzeu, Algeria. The troops embarked the LCAs and were lowered into a calm sea. The run into the beach was uneventful and the landing was unopposed. Several return trips were made with additional troops and equipment landed. Surprise was complete and the Vichy French were unable to react.

The Duchess of Bedford then returned to Liverpool through the Bay of Biscay where the Flotilla left the ship for Westcliffe-on-Sea to await further orders.

Sicily - 10th July 1943

Early in March 1943, the Flotilla rejoined the Duchess of Bedford on the River Clyde. As part of a convoy, she travelled to Freetown in north-west Africa, across the Equator to Cape Town, South Africa arriving there by mid-April. After refuelling and re-provisioning, she sailed up the east coast of Africa, through the Red Sea to arrive in Tewfik at the southern end of the Suez Canal.

For a month the Flotilla carried out training exercises in amphibious landings with the crack British 50th Division that had fought in the desert campaign. On completion of this, the flotilla continued its journey north through the Suez Canal to Mers el Kebir in Algeria in readiness for our next operation which proved to be Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. We were briefed on our landing beach at Porto Gerbo, including beach conditions and soon after departed for Sicily, fully provisioned and loaded, arriving at our disembarkation point about 7 miles offshore on the 10th of July. We transported the 50th Division to the beach where they encountered some light shelling.

Gliders were deployed to transport British paratroops behind enemy lines, but all did not go well. With our troops safely delivered to the assault beaches, we began a search for 47 gliders that had ditched in the sea having been released early from their towing aircraft. We found some gliders floating serenely on a calm sea but nothing prepared us for the gruesome sight that confronted us when we looked inside. There was row upon row of young British paratroopers all dead; their necks broken on impact with the water. No words can describe the emotions of those who witnessed these horrific scenes. It was no doubt a simple error that had tragic consequences made all the more impalpable since the landings had been comparatively easy.

Reggio, Italy - Operation Baytown, 3rd September 1943

When the Allies reached the north of Sicily there was an immediate need to transport the advancing troops across the Strait of Messina to Reggio on the "toe" of Italy, a few kilometres away. To assist with this, the Naval authorities in Cairo ordered part of the Flotilla, including three LCAs, to Messina in the north-east of the island, the closest port to the Italian mainland. During the hours of darkness, searchlights were used to guide the craft safely to their destination and the task was completed without casualties.

Salerno, Italy - Operation Avalanche, 9th September 1943

Meantime, the Duchess of Bedford, with the remainder of the LCAs, was lying in Mers el Kebir in Algeria about 1,500k to the west. As a plan developed to by-pass the German defensive line by landing troops further north on the west coast of Italy, the Naval authorities in Cairo reluctantly allowed the Reggio detachment of LCAs to rejoin the main Flotilla.

On the 8th of September, the 35th Division of the United States Army was embarked and the next day the flotilla departed for the beaches at Salerno. Whilst at sea we learned that Italy had surrendered, which caused great jubilation. We expected the Italian forces would not oppose the landings, but, as we were soon to find out, the Germans had other ideas. Under cover of darkness, the LCAs were lowered into the water nine miles from the beach. To maintain the element of surprise, there was no bombardment but, as we neared the beach, we could see German tanks firing at the approaching craft. The Allied ships, including Warspite, returned with heavy gun-fire.

The Flotilla made several more trips and although some LCAs were hit, no serious damage resulted. However, the Germans deployed glider bombs for the first time with devastating effect. Allied casualties were so great and unexpected that orders were given to prepare to evacuate the troops, but in the event, this prove unnecessary. During the night, the Duchess of Bedford was targeted for a heavy bombing raid. All hands manned the twin Oerlikon guns repelling the enemy planes and no damage was inflicted upon us.

With our job done at Salerno, The Duchess of Bedford sailed to Malta in time to witness the surrender of the Italian Fleet. On the way back to the UK, we picked up German prisoners of war from Mers el Kebir and Algiers, including Panzer troops whose arrogant bearing and discipline was, nonetheless, quite magnificent to witness. When the Duchess of Bedford arrived in Liverpool, the Flotilla left the ship for the last time. We had become very fond of her and were sorry to bid her farewell.

Recollections of L/Coc Howard Milner 1942/43

I first met the Duchess of Bedford and the 60th LCA Flotilla in September 1942 in preparations for the landings on North Africa (Arzeu), a small town close to Oran.

Upon completion, we returned to the UK where we made preparations for the next landing in the Mediterranean. We rejoined the Duchess and sailed out into the Atlantic and south refuelling and re-provisioning at Freetown, Capetown and Aden before proceeding through the Red Sea to Taufiq in the Gulf of Suez. There, routine maintenance such as painting, together with joint amphibious training exercises, were undertaken as we prepared for the assault on Sicily which, for us, took place on the 10th of July 1943 at Porto Gerbo.

We returned to the UK, reprovisioned and embarked more troops for Sicily where the action was drawing to a close. We disembarked the troops at Augusta and the Flotilla was split into two parts; the smaller part joined up with other splinter groups to land on mainland Italy at Reggio on the 3rd of September and the larger part landed on Salerno on the 9th. After a couple of other jobs in the Mediterranean, we returned to the UK once again. On arrival in Liverpool, our LCAs were taken off the ship and tied up to harbour bollards. This was to be the last time I saw the Flotilla since, after a short shore leave, I reported to Hayling Island for training on LCM/LCT craft (myself and Fred Harris).

We were also trained to coxswain and crew Thames barges, which turned out to be the real purpose of the training. This training was given by civilian Thames Lightermen who taught a crew of three, one stoker and two seamen, how to handle these monsters. Someone must have thought this was a job for the Navy! After training, Fred Harris who was not a fit person, was returned to Chatham barracks and invalided out of the service.

I and two other crew members took the barge to Portsmouth where we were loaded to the gunnels with ammo and given two other “engineless” fully loaded ammunition barges to take in tow. For security reasons, these vessels were given no identification. We were given an escort of three Motor Launches to help us navigate our way across the English Channel..

We sailed on the late tide on 5th June, my birthday, consuming double shots of rum to numb the pain. I anchored my barge off the beach and reported to the beach master. The barges were tied to a central mooring point formed by a breaker of sunken ships off Juno beach. I worked for the beach party for two days – then returned to the UK in an American LCI. At Portsmouth, I joined the crew of an LCT loading it with tanks and supplies and returned to Juno beach.

On return to the UK, I was drafted back to RN Portsmouth and took leave for a couple of weeks. I then joined HMS Formidable as part of the ship’s company regulating staff. The ship carried RN personnel, aircraft and supplies as well as injured Aussie service personnel back to Australia for care and demob.

We returned to the UK for a further load and on arrival in Australia, I worked as shore patrol in Sydney as assistant to the RPO. In this job, I learnt to ride a motorbike and did a stint as a despatch rider. I was given an old Harley Davidson to ride and have you ever seen a matelot on a motorbike!

I returned to the UK in Formidable in 1946 and back to Portsmouth for demob.

524 LCA Flotilla - 1943-44 (HMS Cricket & SS Empire Arquebus)

In December 1943, the name of the Flotilla was changed once more from the 60th LCA Flotilla to the 524 LCA Flotilla. Its new shore-based establishment was HMS Cricket in Burseldon, Hampshire.

The Flotilla undertook training exercises in the Solent and local waters but, in view of our past operational experience, it added little to what we knew already. However, it was better than doing nothing since inactivity and boredom had an adverse effect on discipline and morale. The poorly insulated Nissan huts we lived in were very cold especially when the log burning stove ran low on fuel during the nights. There was, however, no shortage of logs in this wooded area.

One day, as a change from the normal routine, the Flotilla invited the workers who built our craft, to join us on a short trip out to sea. They thoroughly enjoyed seeing the product of their labours in action. We repeated the exercise with the Wrens who ferried us back and forth to our craft which were moored a short distance from the bank of the River Hambel. After such outings and training exercises, we often visited The Swan for a few “bevvies” therein. Very welcome indeed! When a night out in Winchester was called for, we would hitch rides from passing lorries.
 

SS Empire Arquebus

In early April 1944, much to our relief, the Flotilla transferred to the Empire Arquebus. She was built in Wilmington, California and pre-war had been a Red Ensign ship managed by Donaldson Brothers. She was 4,800 tons (net) and was fitted out to carry 20 landing craft - 17  LCAs and 3 LCMs, the latter being stowed on the upper deck and the former hung on davits.

The Flotilla increased to 10 craft with the arrival of a contingent of Royal Marines, For the next two months, numerous training exercises were carried out in different locations along the South coast.

Operation Overlord - 6th June 1944

Although everyone knew an invasion was likely in the weeks ahead, only a select few senior military personnel and politicians knew the full details. They were on the 'BIGOT' list, an acronym derived from British Invasion of German Occupied Territory, a designation that remained unchanged even after the USA entered the war. However, no one was in any doubt that our flotilla would be involved when the time came. We could see troops and vehicles assembling along roads for countless miles in the surrounding Hampshire countryside as they prepared for embarkation.

At the end of May, a top-secret meeting was held in the Civic Centre, Southampton. Security precautions were very tight to avoid the enemy gaining any prior knowledge of the planned invasion. I was instructed to carry my identity card and furthermore, I was to be accompanied by another officer who could vouch for my identity. At the entrance to the Civic Centre, I was searched and had my identity card examined twice. I was shown into the hall which was filling up with officers from the Royal Navy, the Army, the Air Force and other allied fighting forces. Admirals, Generals, Captains, Colonels and other lesser beings, were seated facing a large stage.

On the stroke of ten, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas of the BBC stood up and advanced to the lectern. He spoke briefly and with great gravitas. He said “Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to be told the greatest secret of the war. You will be told where and when the invasion will take place. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the need for total security.” With a dramatic gesture, he pointed to a doorway from which General Montgomery strode purposely on to the stage and advanced to the lectern. In his clipped military voice he began to speak. We were all ears and we leant forward to catch every word but, to the astonishment of all, he was competing against an earnest discussion between two cleaning ladies who emerged with pails and mops quite oblivious to the proceedings going on around them. They strolled through the hall talking to one another “Well, you know what Bert is like, he always wants his own way just like my Bill. Men are all the same!” Everybody burst into laughter. Monty looked furious! After a while, he started again but titters still continued. Sometimes reality is indeed stranger than fiction!

In essence, General Bernard Montgomery announced the date and destinations of the amphibious stage of the invasion, codenamed Neptune. Specific maps, charts and photographs were issued for each flotilla together with detailed assembly and convoy instructions according to a strict timetable.

The 524 Flotilla was given the task of landing the 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment of the 231 Brigade, 50th Division. They were a very experienced Division with whom we had worked before. Our destination was Le Hamel near Arromanches. The original date of the landing was the 4th of June but there was a delay of 24 hours due to force 5/6 winds from the west/south-west. Once the details of the landings had been disseminated to those taking part in the invasion, no one was allowed ashore.

On June 5, a gap in the bad weather was identified and after careful consideration, Eisenhower issued orders for the invasion to go ahead. By this time a massive fleet of ships had gathered in the Solent, the largest ever seen before or since. The anchorage stretched as far as the eye could see. From our assembly point, the ships weighed anchor at about 1830 on 5th June, soon passing by the Needles before turning south through the marked channel, which had been cleared of mines. The Fleet was an awe-inspiring sight, quite impossible to comprehend in its vastness and complexity.

At 0530 on June the 6th, the Empire Arquebus dropped anchor in its marked spot some seven miles off Gold beach. The Flotilla was lowered into the choppy water, formed up in two lines and made for the beach. Battleships, cruisers and destroyers fired their guns, aircraft dropped bombs and smaller craft fired their rocket salvos, all designed to destroy or disable enemy defensive positions on and behind the landing beaches. The landing craft, carrying troops and equipment ashore, stretched as far as the eye could see. Such was the spectacle that fear and apprehension about what would unfold in the hours ahead, gave way to sheer amazement.

As we neared the beach, the Flotilla craft took up their landing formation of “line abeam.” Each craft weaved its way passed the fixed beach defences with shells attached pointing towards the approaching craft. Machine gun bullets could be heard striking the sides of the LCAs. The German defenders were still very active despite the intensive bombardment they had been subjected to. On the order “down ramp”, the troops we carried ducked and dived their way off the craft and onto the beach. We then headed out again to a predetermined point where we would receive fresh orders. On the way, Alasdair spotted a diver in the water. He had been engaged in removing mines from the beach obstacles. He was lifted on board and to everyone's amazement he turned out to be a classmate of Alasdair's!

For the rest of the day, we were kept busy ferrying troops from the off-lying troop-carrying ships to the beach. Many LCAs had been sunk or disabled so our services were in high demand. As night fell, we secured the landing craft to the stern of a motor launch. During the night the wind increased enough to make us wonder if the next day's landings would be in jeopardy. Fortunately, by dawn the wind had dropped but, despite this, many craft had been driven ashore. We managed to tow off some of our LCAs so that they could resume the ferrying of troops but, sadly, by then my LCA lay on the seabed.

When Ian and I visited the Arromanches area, we witnessed the arrival of the first block-ships to create the outer breakwater of the Mulberry Harbour and the placement of the enormous concrete caissons as they were manoeuvred into position and then sunk. By then, the work of the minor landing craft, including the LCAs, was over; our task was done. The Flotilla returned to Southampton on our mother ship and then sent to Brighton under its own power, where it was disbanded. Those who took part in the largest amphibious invasion force in history can look back with pride to the part they played in the eventual defeat and downfall of Hitler and his hated Nazi regime. I hope that this brief record will bring back memories to those who were there and preserve the memory for younger generations to appreciate.

For a more detailed account of the LCAs and LCMs in the 524 Flotilla on D Day visit this page.  

                             Roll of Honour                                                                                           Decorations and Awards

A/B Stanley Bayliss Killed in action 1944   J. Allen A/B  DSM.
Sea. T. Brown Killed in action 1942   B. Anderson  L/S DSM
A/B David Hynd Killed in action 1942 A. Ferguson L/S DSC and Bar. MID
Lt. Hugh Mace Killed in action 1942 R. Gale A/B DSM
O/S William Martin Killed in action 1942 F. Grant S/Lt MID
A/B Philip Peake Died in POW camp 1942   S. Harris  A/B MID
Sto. W. Walker Died in POW camp 1942 R. Hill  Lt. RM  DSC
Sto. QA.  A. Warren Killed in action  1942. W. Hewitt Lt. RNVR DSC
      I. Lowry S/Lt. RNVR MID
      J. Msckensie A/B MID
      M. Mellett  RM MID
      D. Murray Lt RNVR DSC
      J. Roberts P.O.  MID
      D./ Shaverin  Eng. MID
      P. Snow    Lt. RNVR MID
      E. Wheeldon Sto MID
      E. White A/B MID

Acknowledgments

The content of this webpage, unless otherwise stated, is based upon material supplied by Alasdair Ferguson and Royal Marine HR ‘Lofty’ Whitting. It was transcribed by Tony Chapman of the LST and Landing Craft Association and redrafted by Geoff Slee for website presentation. This was the last of many web pages about landing craft provided by Tony over 10 years until his untimely death on June 6th, 2013. His contribution to the recording of the history of landing craft was enormous and his great knowledge of the subject is sorely missed.
 

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