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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
The fullness of living,
With death close at hand.
[Photo; Air photo of part of the invasion fleet awaiting zero hour. © IWM
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
I am so proud of my dad, my hero.
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.