~ 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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Hundreds of thousands of visits each year to 200  web pages & 4000 photos. The Website has been published & hosted by Geoff Slee since 2000.

Around 40 D-Day Stories by veterans of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines who served in or alongside Combined Operations

D DAY - A COMBINED OPERATIONS (RN) SIGNALLER

A Daughter's Appreciation

Background

My dad, Ralph Matthews, was from Shildon, County Durham. In early 1944, as a Senior Yeoman of Signals in the Royal Navy, he was posted to Weymouth and billeted in the town, having earlier been attached to Combined Operations for what turned out to be preparations for D-Day as part of Assault Force G - Gold Beach.

Training

There were weeks upon weeks of intensive training based at Weymouth prior to receiving the order to assemble at Southampton. Everyone realised the long planned for invasion was rapidly approaching, although only a very few senior military personnel knew when and where the assault would take place.

[Photo; Commandos of 47 (RM) Commando coming ashore from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 6 June 1944. LCTs unloading priority vehicles of 231st Brigade, 50th Division, can be seen in the background. IWM (B 5245).]

My dad attended lectures and meetings about the landings and participated in countless exercises on the south coast in places such as Hayling Island to simulate the conditions of an actual landing.

Preparations

There were thousands of landing craft of many types dispersed in every river estuary and port around the south of England, ready to assemble as the largest amphibious invasion force in history at the appointed time.

Weymouth and its surroundings had been largely taken over by Combined Ops and, as part of Communications/Telegraphy, my dad served on HMS Kingsmill, one of 18 Assault HQ ships. She was originally an American ship, which, together with a couple of others, were fitted out with state of the art radio communications equipment. Remarkably, my dad met an old boyhood friend from Shildon, Donald Bulch, who was attached to one of these vessels, the Kingsmill being the HQ ship for Gold Beach, while the two LCHs were the HQ vessels for the Red and Green sectors of Gold Beach.

Unlike the main HQ ships highlighted in the map below, the Assault HQ ships communicated with troops ashore, who provided intelligence on targets and reported back on the accuracy of shelling to allow the warships' gunners to fine tune the trajectory of their shells. The Assault HQ ships also directed minor landing craft and amphibian vehicles operating between the beaches and large troop and cargo transports anchored a few miles offshore. The Assault HQ ships also had lines of communication with the crews of fighter bombers and rocket firing aircraft via the air force personnel aboard Kingsmill. When required for strikes against specific ground targets impeding the progress of the Allied troops, direct radio contact between air crews and forward platoons and other junior commanders was arranged.

As D Day approached, the forces were told to consolidate their kit by placing wanted items in store and disposing of others, since their battle kit alone would be more than enough to carry and look after. Dad destroyed letters from my mother but kept her photograph and a verse copied from a poem, which we found much later in his New Testament/Prayer Book that he took with him to Normandy.

The poem is called The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller, written in 1940.

It just about breaks my heart.
Lovers in peacetime
With fifty years to live,
Have time to tease and quarrel
And question what to give;
But lovers in wartime
Better understand
The fullness of living,
With death close at hand.

[Photo; Air photo of part of the invasion fleet awaiting zero hour. IWM (A 23836).]

As a signalman, my dad carried the same kit as a soldier, except for the rifle. Extra men were drafted in and troops were moved to the Southampton area too. He was initially billeted in tented accommodation under strict security before being moved by lorry to board the Kingsmill. This was it, they thought, but the invasion was delayed by a day due to bad weather.

D Day

Late at night on Monday 5 June, the Kingsmill and the heavy landing craft dad's friend, Donald, was on made their way into the Solent. My dad had never seen such an armada ships of every size and class carrying men of various nationalities with a multitude of skills, setting off at different times throughout the night according to the precise timetable of Operation Neptune, the amphibious phase of Operation Overlord. Within his range of vision, he saw many hundreds of aircraft flying overhead, fighters, troop carriers, bombers and towed gliders carrying paratroopers and equipment or providing aerial cover and support.

As daylight dawned, ships began taking up their final positions off the Normandy coast with the Kingsmill's two LCHs just ahead. My dad had been on the bridge of his ship most of the night communicating with neighbouring craft by signal lamp (Aldis lamp) since strict radio silence was in force to ensure the German defences remained unaware of what was to befall them in just a few hours. The element of surprise was paramount.

Dad saw landing craft of all sizes ferrying men and equipment ashore, while battleships and cruisers bombarded the shore in advance of the initial assault troops landing... the enemy big guns ashore returning fire. Enemy shells exploded on ships and landing craft, causing death and destruction. The LCH vessel on which Donald Bulch was serving, was hit and her aerials shot away. Donald  was awarded the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) for quickly erecting makeshift aerials, holding them in place and helping to re-establish communications with other vessels. The noise was horrendous and few managed to sleep on the crossing and for many hours afterwards. For those who survived D Day it was indeed the longest day.

Assault Force G headed for Gold Beach with HMS Kingsmill as the flagship of section G2. Here, 30th Corps, 50th Infantry Division and 8th Armoured Brigade of the British 2nd Army landed. On Omaha the Americans met fierce resistance and difficult terrain, which they eventually overcame after great losses.

[Photo; The scene on Omaha assault area after the initial landings on 6 June 1944, showing naval vessels massed offshore. In the foreground, LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), which have grounded on the beach are unloading directly onto the shore. IWM (EA 26941).]

There was resistance to overcome on all landing beaches. On Gold itself, there were places where a  breakout allowed armour and men to move inland but in another location a German pillbox stubbornly blocked the way. CSM Stan Hollis, a Middlesbrough man of the 50th Northumbrian Division of the Green Howards, dealt with it almost single-handedly, rescuing many of his men in the process. For this most courageous act, he received the only Victoria Cross awarded on D-Day.

As the invasion developed, the Assault HQ ships amended the overall plan in the light of operational experience on the ground, including new targets for the 'Bombarding' warships, committing reserve brigades earlier than planned, the provision of hot food for minor landing craft crews (Landing Barge Kitchens) and the replacement of lost or damaged equipment.

Beyond the initial assaults the longest day continued as wave after wave of follow on troops, tanks, lorries, munitions and supplies were landed but, as the longest day turned into night, German planes were finally mobilised in significant numbers and the beachheads were bombed.

Post D Day

My dad's initial job of communicating with other vessels and with the beachhead was over. He was landed on the beach in the late afternoon/early evening to report to the Beachmaster's HQ, located on a farm in Ver sur Mer (see map above). He was expected but wasn't really needed, so he was dispatched to the nearby village of Meuvaines, where he was to help establish a communications unit based in the grounds of a chateau. However, it wasn't as luxurious as it sounds, since his accommodation was a tent on the lawn in front of the chateau! D-Day for dad ended under canvas in Normandy, with the sights and sounds of battle all around. Camped in the same ground was war artist Stephen Bone. Some of his drawings of Meuvaines can be viewed at https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipM5mbWAD3IbzaIZmq4_-vPoircmxN10r4PukJOycU4_L9NCjW-7dDpu3dXefhTJcg?key=MEczSms0YWg2ekk0bnVxNTRpTTBIU1g5X3Btenpn

Dad awoke on Wednesday 7 June after a restless sleep but better than he had managed during the previous two days. In and around Meuvaines, the signs of the battle were evident from burned out jeeps, motorbikes, armoured cars, tanks, lorries, demolished buildings and small craters. The village itself comprised a church, some farms, a couple of chateaux and rather shabby village houses. The expansive lawns at the chateaux were already crammed full of tents and lorries, which served as Communications and Signals "offices" complete with aerials, transmitters and mobile radio telephones. The unit was soon routing signals amongst naval, army and air force units, mainly by radio telephones using special frequencies. All of this was under Combined Operations.

The more opulent chateau, which had been used by German forces, was booby trapped, so sleeping, eating, washing and toileting under canvas was necessary until the building had been cleared and declared safe. Bombs were frequently dropped with deadly shrapnel covering a wide area around the impact site. Leaping into slit trenches, at the first hint of an air raid, became routine.

Initially, rations from the army's Detail Issuing Depot, comprising mainly dried and tinned food that required little cooking or even heating up, sustained them but, inevitably, bartering with and begging from the locals and newly arrived landing craft became the norm. Dad became quite adept in obtaining food and learned to make the best of limited ingredients including the resurrection of stale bread! As they became familiar faces in the local community, wine and vegetables were regularly exchanged for chocolate and other 'goodies' available only to servicemen. The men celebrated Bastille Day, 14 July, 1944, with the villagers, including a feast and a procession. Dad and his comrades became renowned for their cooking, though none had any qualifications or training. They even catered for a party of "top brass", which dad always thought included Churchill. These important men tipped them 5 for their trouble... between about 8 of them! [Churchill and his military advisers certainly visited the Normandy beaches on D Day + 6. For more information on this, visit https://combinedops.com/Churchill_Signal.htm ].

On the 7th of July, the men witnessed the overwhelming Allied fire power during the concerted attack on Caen, which resulted in its liberation on the 9 July. Bayeaux and Rouen were also liberated. The Mulberry Harbour off Arromanches became operational and was soon receiving large vessels carrying men, equipment, munitions and supplies for the advancing armies. The job of communications unit at the chateau was easing, which provided an opportunity to sight-see in relative safety. One of the men had sufficient spare time to build motor cycles from abandoned vehicles and to repair other equipment.

The decision was taken to redeploy the unit, so a short leave back to 'Blighty' was authorised and my dad was able to see his beloved wife for a few days. After a couple more weeks under orders in Fareham, he returned to France as part of a special Communications unit, which followed the army from port to port along the coast up to Calais, via Caen, Le Havre and the Seine, establishing signal posts as they went. The sounds of war were receding as the enemy retreated towards their homeland, however, the physical destruction in the aftermath of burned out vehicles and buildings was omnipresent. Dad light-heartedly thought that each nation had its distinctive smell, which was probably not politically correct even then. Britain smelled of milk, the USA of newspapers, comic books or possibly money, Germany of sauerkraut, Italy of olive oil and France of garlic. The smell common to all, everywhere, was the pungent odour of death.

As he moved with the Allied advance, he stayed in German barracks, French chateaux, schools and in the lighthouse in Calais, where he was based until the end of 1945. When there were troops in the area, a good social and sporting life presented itself. Dad played rugby and football against other units and services when he was listed in the match programmes as famous footballer of the day, Stanley Matthews. They drew the largest crowd ever known in those parts!

As the war drew to an end, the once busy base was run down as men were transferred to Belgium, the Netherlands and back to Britain. For a while my dad and his lads were the only Communications unit left in Northern France and he was promoted to Chief Yeoman of Signals, the most senior rating in the area.

He was posted back to Fareham in November 1945 and decided to leave the Royal Navy, although they were keen for him to become an instructor. He had joined up as a 16 year old boy to serve on ships, not to work on shore, so he request demob. Instead they posted him to Peterhead on the north east coast of Scotland! Hell hath no fury like the Navy scorned!

He finally returned to civvy-street and my mum in time for bonfire night, 1946. He looked back fondly on his time in the navy and in particular his time in Combined Ops. He claimed he and his lads were the most efficient, best organised and best fed unit in France! Such was their culinary reputation that they even cooked for "top brass"!

He was very proud to have played his part in the liberation of Europe. He was just a Shildon lad but, like thousands and thousands of ordinary lads from the area, he played his part.

I am so proud of my dad, my hero.

Acknowledgements

This account of Combined Operations (Royal Navy) signaller, Ralph Matthews was expanded and collated by Geoff Slee from a story written by his daughter, Di Mellor, based on Ralph's journals. It was approved by her before publication.
 

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