The great invasion was a wonderful achievement made possible only by overwhelming sea power. Once the troops had been established ashore the role of the big ships was to provide them with gunfire support for as long as the enemy were within range, and with battleships such as the Nelson and Rodney, that meant twenty miles or more. The pounding of their great 16 inch guns brought devastation to the Germans for many days after the initial landings. To protect the enormous amount of mercantile shipping, the thousands of landing craft and the host of smaller vessels that filled the crowded waters of the Narrow Sea after 6 June, required long-standing vigilance on the part of the myriad escort vessels. Despite the enormity of the target, losses were remarkably small.
The German response continued to be muted. The bulk of their air power was heavily involved on the Eastern Front, but their torpedo bomber units and others adopted the tactic of mixing with the huge bomber streams from Britain so that they were almost undetectable when making sneak attacks at dusk. It was almost impossible to counter this type of attack. Luckily, they only had limited numbers of this type of aircraft available. Their coastal batteries continued to be troublesome until they were overrun; this did not take long. Although U-boats were switched to attack this great mass of shipping, anti-submarine flotillas made their task very hazardous, although some losses were taken for a short time, especially when submarines turned their frustrated anger against the escorts. More troublesome along the beach-head and the Mulberry Harbours were the ‘human chariots’ or one-man torpedo units, the so-called ‘K’ men. Their attacks were largely in vain from the point of view of valuable targets, but there were so many of them that some successes were bound to occur, due in part to an initial lack of vigilance by the Allied seamen. Several valuable warships therefore fell victim to this form of underwater attack. But by far the most lethal German weapon off the beaches was of course the mine, especially the new ‘ground mine’ or oyster mine, detonated by the pressure of ships’ hulls. Some grievous losses were suffered from this weapon, whose effects were devastating.
Our main concern was of course surface attack. Here the limited German forces found themselves overwhelmed by the huge size of the Allied fleet.
They could never hope to make more than a few sorties before destruction but, in the event, made even less of an impression than had been expected. The strong cruiser/destroyer striking forces deployed to block both ends of the Channel funnel were soon in almost nightly action against the German destroyers and minesweepers. In fact, the actions were largely in the form of interceptions as, with their command cut in half, those German destroyers on the wrong side of Normandy desperately tried to make their way back up-Channel to comparative safety. Few managed it.
HMS BOADICEA, the British “Beagle” class destroyer, underway in coastal waters off Greenock.
Loss of HMS Boadicea, 13 June 1944
One of the saddest warship losses of this period was that of the destroyer Boadicea, one of the Beagle class destroyers; ships which had formed the original Dover flotilla back in 1939. There were few left afloat by 1944 but, with Beagle, Boreas and Bulldog, Boadicea had survived the intervening five years of warfare and had served in distant climes and exotic waters from the South Atlantic to the cruel Arctic Circle. Now she was back in the waters of the English Channel, which she had known so well, and was one of the innumerable British escort vessels guarding the endless convoys supplying the Allied armies ashore. Unsung and unrecorded, they kept the soldiers going while the headlines concentrated on events ashore. With total air and sea control claimed for the Channel, it was widely assumed that such duties were ‘safe and routine’; such, however, was far from the case.
Boadicea (Lieutenant Commander F. W. Hawkins) had sailed from Milford Haven on 12 June with the corvette Bluebell and four trawlers escorting a convoy of six merchant vessels, with Boadicea as SO of the escort. Standing orders on board at the time were that nobody, other than those actually on watch, was to go between decks until after Dawn Action Stations at 0500. The passage was quiet for most of the evening and night. Overhead, huge numbers of Allied aircraft of all types were passing in both directions, the radar screen was swamped with contacts. Thus a Junkers Ju88 torpedo bomber was able to pull one of the oldest tricks in the book by tagging himself on to the Allied bomber stream to avoid detection and then making a swift breakaway attack against a totally surprised ship.
One survivor was Leading Seaman A. J. B. Randall and he later wrote:
I was on the morning watch with three other guns’ crew on the after Oerlikon gun deck. Dawn was just breaking, we had collected our fanny of ‘Kai’ from the galley and all seemed quiet and normal in the small convoy. Our own aircraft were still streaming back across the Channel, as they had been for some time, and suddenly I saw one aircraft apparently peel off from the rest and flatten out towards the port side of the ship. I immediately recognized it as a Ju88, shouted a warning to the other lads, and turned to the starboard Oerlikon which was my station. As I swivelled the gun I saw a torpedo running towards the stern but not running correctly – it was bouncing out of the water, and it blew up some fifty yards astern. At the same instant the ship gave a tremendous shudder and lurch and as I glanced forward I had an impression of just a skeleton of the bridge silhouetted against a sea of flame. As I looked a tongue of flame shot towards me and I ducked, managing to get my hands over my face and head before it hit me with some force.
Whether it was blazing wreckage or burning oil I shall never know, but I was knocked from the Oerlikon deck and pinned under it on the main deck. I remember thinking quite detachedly ‘Oh well -this is it – I can’t get up’, and then I was seized with what I can only describe as an insane rage at what was happening. My only thought was to get back to the gun, and I must have thrown off whatever was lying on top of me and started to climb back up the ladder to the gun deck. I must, however, have been blown along the deck quite a way as I soon realized that I was on the ladder leading to ‘X’ gun deck. As I reached the top, what was left of the ship tilted straight up and I was thrown into the water accompanied by various items such as most of the depth charges. Fortunately these were set to safe and did not explode, and as I reached out I touched a rolled up cork scrambling net. I clung to this for a moment, and half of a Carley raft floated by into which I managed to scramble despite the oil fuel, which by this time covered me and most of the surrounding area. As I looked round I saw the ship, propellers still turning, slide beneath the surface.
Another survivor was the Gunner (T), now Lieutenant Harry E. Howting, and his memory of the incident is as follows:
At or about 0440 a terrific explosion rocked Boadicea, which resulted in everything forward of the funnels disappearing. Eyewitnesses have stated that this was caused by the torpedo hitting the ship near the break of the forecastle. The attack was so sudden that nothing could be done to defend the ship, nor was there any chance to open fire at the attacker. The rest of the ship remained afloat for two or three minutes.
I literally fell out of the HF/DF office, after having been shaken to the deck when the explosion occurred. The atmosphere was full of steam, dust and smoke. At the same time the deck started to tilt downwards. I heard Leading Seaman Randall say ‘We’ve been hit’. He had been thrown from the after Oerlikon deck to the main deck, sustaining burnt hands. It was obvious that the end of the Boadicea was near – so I jumped into the water. When I surfaced for air I saw above my head the port screw still turning. I decided to swim away. After a few seconds she had gone, taking with her most of the Ship’s Company.
Whilst waiting to be picked up, a lashed hammock brushed me. Remembering my instructor’s advice in my youth, ‘A well lashed hammock will keep a person afloat for 24 hours’ – I also remembered on further thought that, due to the dilution of the service because of the war, some of those caught up in the dilution possibly had not been instructed in the ’24 hour survival duty’. Nevertheless, I am certain that they were very well versed in many more important items. Anyway, I found a large, piece of wood and clung to this.
We were eventually picked up by the American merchantman Freeman Hatch, who lowered a boat contrary to orders ‘not to lower boats to pick up survivors’ (this duty was normally carried out by Rescue Ships, such as trawlers). Upon counting, we numbered 12 from a total of 188, some with injuries necessitating immediate hospital treatment, such as a broken leg, broken wrists and burnt hands, and all of us sick of the taste of oil fuel.
Frantic loud hailing conversation between the new Senior Officer of the escort and Freeman Hatch resulted in our eventually being transferred to HMS Vanquisher, who deposited us on the jetty at Portland dressed like characters from a child’s fairy story book. We had on grey/white sweaters, tweedy drainpipe trousers, grey socks and brown gym shoes – the end result of some warm-hearted Association – God bless them. But we were a strange looking bunch.
We finished up at the Portland Prison, incidentally, the first visit to one of those places for us! There we were re-washed, re-kitted and re-fed in that order. The injured survivors had been taken straight to hospital from the jetty, while the rest eventually finished up in HMS Osprey (a shore base) where we stayed the night. Early next morning, after a certain amount of ‘table tapping’ (I was not senior enough for table-thumping!) we left for our homes and fourteen days’ leave. Orders were given for us to report back after leave to attend the Inquiry.
While the tally of survivors is variously reported as twelve or thirteen, it is known that apart from these, the whole crew of the Boadicea went down with her, including her captain and 175 officers and ratings. The very speed with which the ship went down was stunning. Other ships took longer to die: witness another very hard-working destroyer lost soon afterwards off Normandy during the great storm.
HMS FURY high and dry on the beach at Arromanches after she had been mined and driven ashore in a gale off the beachhead.
Loss of HMS Fury: 20-21 June 1944
The destroyer Fury (Lieutenant Commander T. F. Taylor, DSC} had given invaluable supporting fire from D-Day onward, but on 20 June she was mined off the beach-head. She found herself in an unenviable position, without steerage on a lee shore. Since 0400 on the previous day the wind had freshened, until by noon it was blowing at gale force. It was dusk; night was closing in when Fury was mined. The captain of the Red Ensign tug Empire Jonathan, Captain Wilkinson, later recorded in his log the efforts to save the crippled destroyer in impossible conditions:
At 2100 we received orders from the Despatch to assist the Fury, which was being towed into harbour by the tug Thames. The Fury had been mined and disabled. As the Thames towed the destroyer the wind and swell proved too much and took control of the Fury. She hit a salvage ship and the Thames’s towing wire parted. Fury dropped her anchor but continued to drift towards the beach. We connected up to her stern but the wire parted in the heavy swell. Got another wire off her but that parted immediately. Empire Winnie connected up at the stern but her ropes parted. I manoeuvred alongside and got our rope and wire connected up forward. Could not get away from the side of the Fury to start towing so asked Danube VI to get hold of me and pull me round. The first attempt fractured the port hawser pipes. The next one succeeded; and we got within 100 yards of her, but as we came level with the harbour entrance the swell and wind once again were too much and our docking spring parted. Away went Fury cannoning off the ships, which were at anchor. By now the tide was with the wind and driving her hard to the beach. We connected up again after a lot of difficulty dodging ships and submerged wrecks. We started towing again toward the Despatch; the Fury was to lay alongside of her.
At 0100 we managed to get his bow tight up so the Fury could get a mooring aboard, but as he touched, his bows cut through our tow rope and they failed to get a mooring strong enough to hold him. Once more she started her voyage through the harbour and shipping. At 0130 I connected up again with another 8-inch manila, but the sharp edge of her bows cut through it and we picked up the rope in our propeller, disabling ourselves. We started to drift through the ships ourselves, even after we had let both our anchors down. Eventually we brought up and helplessly watched the Fury drive on to the beach.
Here she lay, high and dry. She was eventually refloated and towed back to England, but such was the pressure of work on the shipyards and the quantity of new destroyers now joining the fleet that she was never repaired, but instead written off as a constructive total loss. She was immediately sold to the shipbreaking firm of T. W. Ward and arrived at Briton Ferry on 18 August where she was dismantled. A sad end to a proud ship.
A few days later, the brand new destroyer Swift (Lieutenant Commander J. R. Gower) suffered a similar fate, joining the growing list of destroyer casualties, when she struck a mine at 0730 on 24 June, and sank with heavy casualties.