D-Day Commando

The Story of 48 Commando Royal Marines, on the 6th of June 1944.

 48 Royal Marine Commando was the last such unit to be formed in World War Two, and the first to land on D-Day.

   Lance-Corporal Ted Brooks arrived on Nan Red Beach on the morning of 6 June which formed the left flank of Juno Beach. He had combated seasickness during the crossing, for much of the time he avoided feeling ‘queasy’ by lying on his back that was until he stood getting ready to land. This was his first time in action but he felt ‘apprehensive’ rather than afraid.

   ‘It was obviously very noisy during the approach, but one thing that stuck in my mind was the silence on the landing craft just as we went in.’

   This silence was only broken by a burst of machine gun fire when they were still a few hundred yards from the beach. Ted recalled one ‘man shouted with an indignant tone in his voice.’ “Who the f…..g hell’s firing.” This appealed to the Commandos black humour and somehow relieved the tension. Ted felt it ‘was so funny at the time…’

   Ted and his comrades were taking part in the most momentous undertaking in the history of combined operations. This was what, since the dark days of 1940, all the training and previous operations had been leading to. Without securing the beaches the great mass of the Allied Armies could not begin their drive through France to the heart of the Third Reich.

   The Allied Armies taking part in ‘Operation Neptune’ the Normandy invasion were under the overall command of the American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while the field commander was General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. The plan for the invasion had been drawn up by General Sir Frederick Morgan, Chief of Staff to the Allied supreme commander.

Morgan had proposed the landing should take place on a narrow front by three divisions, for he felt constricted by the limited amount of specialist landing craft available. However Montgomery believed, to have a chance of success, the landing must be expanded by five divisions, and several Commando units would be needed. Three Army Commandos No’s 3, 4, and 6 and five Royal Marine Commandos No’s 41,45,46,47, and 48 in two brigades would be landed.

   The Commandos had a variety of tasks to perform but broadly they fell into two main categories, first they could take and hold the flanks of the main beaches allowing other troops to move inland unhindered. Second with their light equipment and ability to move swiftly they could support the airborne troops landing behind enemy lines.

   48 Commando was part of No 4 (special service) brigade commanded by Royal Marine Brigadier, B.W. ‘Jumbo’ Leicester along with 41, 46, and 47 Commandos. 48 was formed in the spring of 1944 largely from 7th battalion Royal Marines, a unit that had a chequered history. It had been raised in 1941 and sent to South Africa to perform guard duties, however there it was not in fact needed and was left idle in Durban. By 1943 it had moved on to Egypt. Later it took part in the Sicily landings, where it fought against the crack Hermann Goering Division. It got onto the Italian mainland, but was soon ordered home to England to reform as a Commando. There it had a stroke of good luck to have Lieutenant-Colonel James Moulton appointed as its commanding officer; he took command in March 1944.

   Moulton was told he could have his pick of men from the 7th Battalion and from the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation II. Not all the men for the commando came from these units, some were seagoing marines from ships of the fleet, all should have been volunteers but it was not always the case. Tony Pratt was ‘selected’ as he explains; he had joined the Royal Naval Air Service when he was seventeen.

   ‘After one Sunday church parade we were all lined up and asked for volunteers to join the Royal Marine Commandos. I thought this would be even worse and of course did not volunteer. The sergeant came along the ranks with his stick and began saying “You you and you” and passed me by.’ Pratt thought he was safe but the Sergeant came back and pointed at him “And you” which is how he got into the Commandos.

   All the men went to Achnacarry in Scotland for Commando training. This was usually a six week course but was reduced to an intensive eighteen days for 48 Commando. Colonel Moulton recalled they went through ‘the usual torments.’ The camp commandant Colonel Charles Vaughan had welcomed them telling them the instructors were the best around and, ‘They will not ask you to do anything that they cannot do themselves.’

   Sergeant Joe Stringer found they lived in the field even thought it was winter and were ‘permanently cold wet and tired.’ Many of them had already experienced active service but it made no difference to the instructors. And any of them could ask at any time to be released and returned to his unit, ‘but none ever did.’ At the end of training they were awarded the coveted Green Beret. 400 men started the course and they finished it together emerging as 48 Royal Marine Commando.

   In early April 48 moved to Gravesend in Kent where they continued training with battle drills, field exercises, speed marches, and assault courses. Ten days were spent on the rifle ranges at Sheerness honing their marksmanship. On 20 May orders arrived that would finally take them to France. Their objective was to land on Juno beach near Nan Red, before the beach resort of St- Aubin-Sur-Mer. They would come in behind the Canadian North Shore infantry regiment, which was supported by the tanks of the Fort Garry Horse, thirty-five minutes later. Passing through the Canadian beach head moving east toward Langrune taking the beach defences from the rear, before linking up with 41 Commando. That unit was landing on Sword Beach on the right flank and would move west toward Langrune, thus linking Juno and Sword beaches.

   48 Commando embarked at Warsash, Hampshire on 5 June and sailed for France. They were transported in LCI’, Landing Craft Infantry (small) across the channel by the 202nd Flotilla from HMS Tormentor at Warsash. The LCI’s were 104 ft long with a speed of eleven knots and could carry ninety-six fully laden troops along with a crew of seventeen. These craft had the advantage of cutting out transfers from larger ships to smaller assault craft but that was about their only advantage. Sea keeping qualities were poor constantly rolling even in moderate seas. Made of plywood they provided little protection from enemy fire coupled to the fact the engines ran on high octane fuel from unprotected fuel tanks.

   Colonel Peter Young commanding officer of No 3 Army Commando was described the crossing in a LCI. ‘The storm which had already delayed us for twenty-four hours had not yet abated. All through the night our small craft pitched and rolled. I found it impossible to sleep; most of us were seasick, flung about by the crazy pitching of our craft; it was a miserable night. Breakfast for me was just a mug of cocoa, which went straight over the side, but otherwise I was not unwell.’

   Colonel Moulton felt the LCI’s were the wrong craft as they were ‘designed for back-up infantry, not as assault craft….you landed by gang-planks over the bow, quite useless for heavily equipped men in rough water…’

The perils of landing on Juno Beach

   48 Commando suffered heavy casualties landing on Juno beach. However Colonel Moulton had the foresight to train his men to fire 2in mortar smoke from the bows of the craft during the run-in to the beach. The smoke screen hid the craft from direct fire, however beach obstacles and shrapnel holed the wooden hulls killing and wounding troops and crews.

   Colonel Moulton also felt their ‘intelligence was poor. We were told of a continuous line of fortifications along the shore, but it wasn’t like that. The Germans built concrete strong points in the villages, and we landed right in front of one.’

   Harry Timmins recalls the approach on board his craft carrying A Troop.

   ‘As we got nearer the beach the noise was more than you could possibly imagine. There were explosions all around us in the sea and the shells and mortars were kicking up sand all over the beach. A couple of buildings were on fire and, to add to the tumult, the Orelikons guns on our boat also joined in the barrage and deafened us.’

   Most craft did not beach square on to the waterline. Exposing troops trying to scramble down the bow gangways even more coupled to the fact they were constantly moving in the swell. Many Marines were pitched into the sea to wade ashore waist deep. While others were thrown in head first and were swept away by the fast flowing current and drowned.

   Captain Geoff Linnell commander of the Heavy Weapons Troop witnessed this desperate scene.

   ‘The ramps were too light for the ends to sink to the sea-bed; they floated about in the surf. As each man tried to come down them, the footway beneath him heaved alarmingly with each incoming wave. Many men were thrown completely off the sides and floundered in the water, dragged down by their heavy packs. When I got down the ramp there was a big sea and a great undertow that nearly took my legs away. Some men with inflatable lifebelts up around their chests had been knocked over by the swell and were floating away upside down with their legs in the air, drowning as we watched.’

   On the beach Colonel Moulton was trying to rally his men, a mortar bomb landed close by him blowing him off his feet. At first he thought he had a broken leg but on closer examination he had been hit by bomb splinters in the hand and leg. He was quickly on his feet directing his men to the assembly area where he found much of his force was missing.

   Dougie Gray of B Troop made his way up the beach to the sea wall picking his way through the bodies of Canadian Soldiers that had fallen during the first assault. The wall provided some cover from small arms fire but not much from mortars.

   The Germans in the strongpoint at St-Aubin had our range and bearings and the mortar bombs came over in regular waves. One bomb landed right among us and I was hit by a piece of shrapnel in my back. I found it hard going when I moved down the wall to try and get off the beach; my wound was slowing me down. Gray was later picked up by Canadian medics and taken to one of their aid posts. After forty-eight hours he was shipped back to the UK.  At the Canadian hospital in Basingstoke he was operated on to remove the shrapnel from his back.

   Harry Timmins recalled seeing Colonel Moulton on the beach.

   ‘I saw our Colonel walking steadily and steadfastly, bolt upright, despite the shells and mortars dropping all around and the ping, ping, ping, of the bullets whizzing by. He stopped looked around and at the top of his voice cried out, “Four-Eight Royal Marine Commando-this way,” pointing along the beach. Everyone within earshot got up and followed him.’

   Jock Mathieson a HQ Troop member got off the beach to the assembly area where he waited with others in a ditch close to the coast road. In the ditch ‘was the body of a young French boy no more than about eight years old. It looked as though he had been killed by blast, probably during the preliminary bombardment. The sight shook me up considerably.’

   Ted Brooks says in the assembly area they came under fire from a sniper in the tower of St-Aubin church. However a disabled Canadian tank came to their assistance that ‘obligingly put several rounds into the tower.’

   Once Moulton felt he had gathered as many men as possible, he had a roll call which told him he had lost about a third of his men. Lieutenant Harold Smedley then returned with a situation report from the North Shores Regimental HQ. After hearing it Moulton decided it was time to advance on Langrune, although it would leave his left flank open as the Canadian Infantry were still trying to take St-Aubin and the German strong points overlooking Nan Red Beach. However he was sure now tanks were assisting the Canadians it was only a matter of time and that position would fall.

   Moulton now split his force in half. Sending B and X troops along the coast road toward Langrune’s seafront. While he took the remainder of the unit with A Troop leading inland toward the church of Langrune 600 yards from the sea, once there he would hold the village from counter attack. Once B and X Troops had cleared the coastal area the re-united Commando would move against the strongpoint WN 26.

   Sargeant Joe Stringer was with B Troop as they started their advance. They soon suffered from ‘friendly fire.’ The second in command was cut down by a burst of ‘Orelikon fire coming from one of the warships off the beach.’ They had to leave the officer there; the gunfire had also killed another Marine and wounded two others.

   However the Commandos and Canadians had broken through the outer defences of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. They were moving inland to allotted objectives. Hundreds of Germans had been taken prisoner and were sent to the UK on LCT’s.

   As the Canadian North Shore Regiment was still trying to take WN 27 at St-Aubin-Sur-Mer which was a lengthy task to clear the defenders, the Marines of 48 Commando moved against WN 26 covering the eastern end of Nan Red Beach. It was connected to the streets and buildings with trenches and wire entanglements. The stretch of coastline between the two strongpoints was lightly held as the 2,000yds between the two was covered by interconnecting fire.

   B and X troops advancing along the road behind the coast line the closer they got to Langrune the enemy fire got heavier. WN 26 was still under the fire by supporting warships. One of the Forward Observer Bombardment group Ralph Dye recalls they ranged in the destroyer assigned to them and, ‘The strongpoint at Langrune was battered with accurate fire from the destroyer but showed little sign of giving up.’  

   The inland group made good progress toward the centre of Langrune. They moved in open order taking advantage of any cover they could. Heavier equipment was brought up in an odd variety of transport including a pram and ice cream barrow. Reaching the town Moulton set up his HQ in a walled manor house which he had already identified from ariel photographs. Close by to the east was the church beyond which were open fields. Sword beach was just three miles away further east.

   By now B and X troops were closing in on the strongpoint WN 26 clearing the shoreline. The Germans fell back in good order. The two troops took it in turns taking the lead, while the other supplied covering fire. They cleared house gardens and climbed over walls between the houses until they began closing in on a minefield and wire entanglements marking the edge of the strongpoint. Here X troop were forced to ground by well-entrenched enemy machine guns protected by concrete.

   WN 26 consisted of a block of ordinary houses facing the seafront all reinforced with concrete, doors and windows were blocked up. They were surrounded by barbed wire. The houses were connected by tunnels that ran out to the trenches. Covering the landward approach from the town were two machine guns.

   Mortars inside the compound covered all approaches. Facing the beach were two guns a 75mm and a 50mm again housed in concrete four feet thick. Many outlying buildings contained snipers.

   With two of his troops engaged Moulton was ready to deploy his remaining force. Z troop with the remains of Y troop was ordered to hold the town from any counter-attack from the south.

    On the run-in to the beach Y troop’s LCI had been holed and started sinking most of the men were rescued by an LST and taken back to the UK. Some jumped into the sea in an attempt to join their unit but many who did drowned in the surf.

   A troop was held in reserve. Part of X troop was ordered to keep the pressure on the enemy while the remainder moved against the western end. B Troop closed in from the south. A party from Z Troop was ordered to try and make contact with Sword Beach. Moulton then sent A Troop to follow B Troop and complete the surrounding of the German Strongpoint from the landward side.

   About this time two Centaur tanks of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment arrived at Moulton’s HQ offering their support. The Colonel sent them down the road to help B Troop. The first Centaur approached WN 26 from the east firing as it moved, giving cover to B Troop who took advantage to move in closer. The tank’s fire smashed one machine gun and drove into the reinforced houses. Colonel Moulton was up with the fighting. Marine Jock Mathieson was with him

   ‘I was with the Colonel when we went forward to survey the strongpoint. He wanted a tank to blast the concrete wall that spanned the road ahead. He spoke to its commander through the phone on the side, but learned that the tank could not depress its gun sufficiently low enough to hit the base, so Moulton told him to keep pounding the concrete until it broke up.’

   The Centaur used all its ammunition to little effect it then reversed out and the second tank came forward. However this tank was not so fortunate. It struck an anti-tank mine losing a track  the crew bailed out joining B Troop who had occupied some houses nearby.

   For the moment the attack was stalled. With the machine gun at the crossroads of the outer defences destroyed B Troop was able to get closer. However they could not find a way into the concrete sealed houses, and they were coming under accurate mortar fire so withdrew back to the houses. Time was now running short in a few hours darkness would descend, and losses were mounting.

   Brigadier Leicester, commander of the 4th Special Service Brigade now arrived at Langrune to confer with Moulton. He told him to call off the attack and dig in to prepare for possible counter attack, but keep the garrison of WN 26 sealed in. 21st Panzer Division was on the move possibly in their direction.

   Thus the longest day for 48 Commando came to a close. The unit had suffered heavy casualties. Only five officers were left out of fifteen. Altogether only 223 of all ranks out of 500 that had left Southampton remained.

   The next day the unit succeeded in capturing WN 26 with the aid of more armoured support and the use of ‘Bangalore Torpedo’s’ pipes packed with explosives, to blast a way in. The German defenders fought tenaciously but once a Sherman tank physically broke into WN 26 followed by the Commandos, Marine Jock Mathieson was one of them

Colonel Moulton watching armoured support

   ‘Once we were inside, many of the enemy quickly gave themselves up. I began searching the prisoners. One of them was well over six feet tall and wore an overcoat that reached down to the ground. I put my hand into one of his pockets and pulled out an English grenade. I nearly shit myself with fright, thinking he had primed it to explode.’

   Thirty-one prisoners were taken at WN 26. 48 Commando for the next two days policed Langrune and St-Aubin, and buried their dead comrades along with some Canadian dead. Lieutenant John Square was given the task. ‘We got a group of our men together and buried mainly men from our Commando, but a few others who happened to be about, including Canadians who were still lying in the garden of a large house fronting the beach. The garden was supposed to be mined, but I don’t think it was. We set up a small cemetery in the garden of another house close by. We wrapped up the bodies in their gas capes and conducted a moving burial service.’

   48 Commando after D-Day and the liberation of Langrune-Sur-Mer waited until the rest of the 4th Special Service Brigade had landed (41, 46, and 47 RM Commandos). The first two days of the D-Day landings cost 48 Commando 217 all ranks, dead, wounded, and missing out of a strength of around 450.  Later in August 48 carried out two attacks to take a hill near the village of Dozule. After these failed the unit was reinforced by 46 and 47 Commandos they then bypassed the village occupying the high ground at point 120.

   The 4th Special Service Brigade instead of being withdrawn after 48 hours continued with the Allied advance to the Seine. They helped liberate Pont L’eveque, Saint-Maclou, Pavilly, Yerville, Motteville, Yvetot, Bermanville, and Valmont, before coming out of the line on 18 August having spent 84 days in action.

   48 Commando returned to the UK, it was in action again in November 1944 taking part in the liberation of the Island of Walcheren off the Dutch coast. Later 48 raided across the Mass River in Holland and took part in the occupation of Germany. 48 Commando was disbanded in 1946, along with all the Army Commandos and some of the Royal Marine Commandos.

Juno Beach today
48 Cdo landing on D-Day