Training for D-day

By MSW Add a Comment 11 Min Read


1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers, the heart of what eventually became 79th Armoured Division, had been raised in December 1942 following the Anglo-Canadian debacle of the Dieppe raid. From the failure, it was apparent that assaulting a heavily defended enemy coast would require specially designed armour to lead the way ashore. Major General Percy Hobart, an early enthusiast of the tank, had been forced to resign some years earlier and had, in a peculiarly British way, become a Lance Corporal in Churchill’s Home Guard. Taking off his NCO’s tapes and replacing his general’s crossed sword and baton, he returned to service. Taking command of 79th Armoured Division, in April 1944, Hobart, With Combined Operations assistance, studied the experience gained in the Mediterranean and at Dieppe, which he combined with an analysis of German defences on the coast of Europe. The result was a series of vehicles or ‘funnies’ that were manned by armoured regiments and Royal Engineers, each designed to address a specific beach assault problem.

Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for ‘gadgets’ and technology had given impetus to the development of new weapons. He wrote in a Cabinet memo:

‘This war is not however a war of masses of men hurling masses of shells at each other. It is by devising new weapons and above all by scientific leadership that we shall best cope with the enemy’s superior strength.’

Major General Hobart took over development and refined designs into practical battlefield weapon systems, and, in parallel, developed tactical doctrine for effective use of his ‘zoo of funnies’. He set about forging a creative atmosphere:

‘Suggestions from all ranks for improvements in equipment are to be encouraged … all ranks are to have direct access to their CO for putting forward their ideas.’

One of Hobart’s first decisions was the development of the amphibious tanks. The idea of ‘swimming tanks’ was not new. However, in July 1943 Hobart’s demonstration of launching the Duplex Drive tank from a tank-landing craft persuaded the Chief of Imperial General Staff to authorise the conversion of five hundred valuable Shermans. The key features of this ‘funny’ were a tall canvas screen and a pair of small propellers that could be engaged to the engine instead of the tracks. Viewing an exercise in Studland Bay, Montgomery took up the idea that the DD tanks should lead the invasion. However, with only a low freeboard, DD tanks were limited to operations in calm seas with wind strength of less than Force 4.

Most numerous of the funnies were the Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers (AVRE). A conversion of the heavily armoured Churchill tank, the AVREs’ main weapon was a Petard demolition gun that fired a 40-pound projectile, known as a ‘flying dustbin’, out to a range of two hundred yards. The shaped charge warhead, most accurate at a range of eighty yards, was designed to take on steel and concrete defences on the coast of France. On the back of the AVRE, a variety of obstacle-crossing devices could be carried, although most commonly carried was a fascine of logs for dropping in anti-tank ditches.

Completing the line-up of main equipment, were the Crab and the Crocodile. With Resistance organizations reporting that the Germans were laying more and more mines along the coast, and appreciating how slow and ponderous conventional mine clearance was, a quicker, less vulnerable, method had to be developed. Again not a new idea, the unreliable Matilda Scorpion had been used at El Alamein but Hobart produced a successful operational vehicle: the Crab or Sherman Flail, mounting a revolving drum with heavy chains to beat the ground, thus setting off mines and ripping up wire, as it advanced at H mph. The Crocodile was a flame thrower conversion of a standard Churchill tank. Towing a four-hundred-gallon armoured trailer, the Crocodile could squirt a lance of flame, a hundred yards long, at a rate of four gallons of fire a second. The result was a fearsome weapon system, but as it was delivered only just before the invasion, few of the assault divisions knew much about the Crocodile and little use was made of flame on D-Day, despite numerous suitable targets.

At Montgomery’s insistence, 50th Northumbrian Division replaced 49th West Riding Division in the assault role for the coming invasion. 50th Division’s brigade groups, along with elements of 79th Armoured Division, were sent north to Scotland to the Combined Training Centre at Inveraray. Here they learnt the OVERLORD assault techniques. However, with the late change of tasking, 231 Brigade, as experienced amphibious assault troops, had a shortened training package. It was at this time, with a mixture of bravado and foreboding that the Brigade realized that they were, for the third time, not only to take part in an invasion but that they were also to spearhead it.

Lieutenant Colonel ‘Cosmo’ Nevill, Commanding Officer of 2 Devon, recalled the Brigade’s arrival at Inveraray:

‘There were some who wondered why all this training should be necessary as the battalion had already plenty of experience in this particular type of warfare. After a very short time, however, we realized there was still much to learn; new weapons, new types of landing craft, new techniques had been developed and perfected since the Italy days. We found Gunners supporting assault landings by shooting their 25-pounders out of LCTs from far out to sea, with FOOs well forward in special support landing craft. This procedure appeared, to the mere infantry soldier, to be highly dangerous, but no untoward incident occurred. We heard of the amphibious DD tanks, highly secret and only spoken of with bated breath.

‘Throughout the course, emphasis was laid on the importance of close co-operation between all Services and especially with the Royal Navy. In this, we were particularly fortunate. HMS Glenroy, newly converted as an assault ship, and under command of Captain Stephen Barry RN, had just arrived in Loch Fyne. It was whispered that the Glenroy would probably carry the battalion on D-Day. … We were the first troops to go on board and an entente was started between all ranks which grew closer and closer.’

By the end of March, 231 Brigade was based to the west of Southampton. Lieutenant Colonel Nevill recorded that low level

‘… training was a difficult problem. We were told that there would be at least six weeks available in which to get fighting fit and ready for the great day. The training areas were however few and very small, rifle ranges became progressively more difficult to obtain as more troops poured into the area. Many of us learnt for the first time that the New Forest meant literally forest, excellent for camouflage purposes, but useless for training troops m the finer points of assault landings.’

However, during this period, exercise followed exercise. Each was on a larger scale and increasingly relevant to the Brigade’s D-Day tanks. The series of SMASH Exercises took the West Countrymen to their home territory. In April, many of 1 Dorset had the strange experience of conducting live firing assaults on the country surrounding their hometowns and villages along Studland Bay, while the Hampshires, during the 50th Division/Task Force G’s rehearsal, Exercise FABIUS in early May, attacked the Hampshire coast at Hayling Island. In this period the Brigade,

‘… saw a good deal of our affiliated armour, the Sherwood Rangers (Notts Yeomanry), an experienced armoured regiment, who had seen service m the desert and in Italy. The gunners of 90th Field Regiment were unfortunately too busy most of the time – what with trying to get the SP guns into LCTs and, having succeeded in doing that, trying to fire them from the moving craft.’

Also not properly practised was co-operation with some of the elements of 79th Armoured Division, who were concentrating on overcoming their own technical problems and developing last minute solutions to new problems. One such problem was the discovery of two peat outcrops on JIG Sector of GOLD Beach that would almost certainly bog vehicles. Lieutenant Colonel ‘Cosmo’ Nevill remembered:

‘Would the tanks and carriers be able to get across what appeared to be a somewhat muddy beach? …experts were put ashore about three weeks before D-Day to test the beaches. They were found to be muddy. Experiments were immediately started on the Norfolk coast near Brancaster, where a similar type of beach exists. A gadget, known as a bobbin, was invented, which, attached to the front of a tank, would automatically unwind a coconut matting. This coconut matting was sufficiently strong to prevent the tanks and other vehicles from sticking in the soft sand and mud.’

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version