Tag Archives: normandy

‘the tail': US Army logistics in Britain, 1944

It’s the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings coming up soon, and aside from the blanket coverage of the First World War, expect various documentaries about the subject.

One of the things that has always interested me about D-Day and Operations Neptune and Overlord, is the sheer amount of administration, planning and ‘behind the scenes’ work needed to keep an army in action. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I think during the Second World War less than 20% of all servicemen in allied armies fought in the ‘teeth’ arms. War had become so technologically advanced that it took far more resources to keep vehicles, weapons and the men that operated them in action.

One case in point is the huge number of US units based in England from 1942 onwards. American units began to arrive from early 1942 as part of Operation Bolero – the American build up in Europe – but the numbers of troops and units reached a high water mark just before 6 June 1944.

Very few parts of the British Isles did not have US troops stationed near them. There were particularly large concentrations of US troops in places such as Northern Ireland, the West Country in Devon, Cornwall and Wiltshire, and Eight Air Force airfields in East Anglia.

Hilsea in Portsmouth was home to a significant US Army supply depot. Under General Depot G-65 came 1 Special Services Company, 51 Ordnance Group, 53 Army Postal Unit, 91 Finance Distribution Section, 120 Chemical Procurement Company, 193 Chemical Depot Company, 196 Quartermaster Battalion, 208 Army Postal Unit, 245 Quartermaster Battalion, 284 Quartermaster Refrigeration Company, 298 Ordnance Company, 321 Ordnance Battalion, 346 Quartermaster Depot Company, 350 Ordnance Battalion, 532 Quartermaster Salvage Repair Company, 555 Army Postal Unit, 604 Ordnance Base Armament Maintenance Battalion, 784 Base Depot Company, 864 Ordnance Heavy Auto Maintenance Company, 1212 Engineer Firefighting Platoon, 3040 Quartermaster Bakery, 3267 and 3269 Quartermaster Service Companies and 4232 Quartermaster Sterilization Company. Clearly, Hilsea was a significant Ordnance and Quartermaster Depot, which supported US units in the Portsmouth area. It must have consisted of thousands of men, none of whom were infantrymen, artillerymen or tank men.

It was a similar situation at airfields. Stoney Cross airfield, in the New Forest in Hampshire, hosted the 367 Fighter Bomber Group Headquarters and 392, 393 and 394 Fighter Bomber Squadrons of the US Army Air Forces.These Squadrons operated P-38 Lightnings and during D-Day and the three days after flew nine missions. But aside from these rather more glamorous units, the station was also home to 17 Station Complement Squadron, 32 Mobile Reclamation and Repair Squadron, 217 Medical Dispensary, 327 Service Group, 807 Chemical Company, 1113 Signal Company, 1180 Quartermaster Company, 1292 Military Police Company 1830 Ordnance Company and 2200 Quartermaster Truck Company. To keep aircraft in the air, the men operating them needed engineering, signal, logistics, transport and ordnance support. And once you have that many men on an air base, you are bound to need medical and provost services to keep them healthy and well-behaved! And Stoney Cross was a particularly small and remote place – check it out here.

Some of the units that we see here are not the kinds that we think of. I love Band of Brothers, but how many men behind the scenes worked to get Easy Company into action? Sometimes it is all too easy to overlook the many unglamorous units and roles in an army, but they are all part of the same spear, with the infantry, armour and artillery being the sharp tip.

For more information about US Army units in GreatBritain in 1944, have a look at these invaluable documents prepared by Phil Grinton.

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Walking D-Day by Paul Reed

Paul Reed has carved out something of a niche with his ‘Walking’ Battlefield Guides. His ‘Walking the Somme‘ in particular set the standard for Battlefield Guides, long before the explosion in Battlefield tourism. The interesting thing I find about Battlefield Guides is that I own so many of them, yet out of all the Battlefields out there I have only ever actually been to Arnhem! The thing is, they are actually useful for getting a grip on what happened, where and when. If you forget that you’re sat in living room, and if the book is well written and well illustrated, then you can still go some way to visualising what happened at the Battlefield in question. Paul has spent an awful lot of time around Battlefields in North West Europe, and it certainly shows in the manner in which he writes.

This is unlike most other Battlefield Guides on Normandy, in that it only deals with D-Day itself. No doubt if you are interested in visiting the Battlefield area in Normandy in general you might find this a bit anaemic, but I actually think its a very good choice. To do all of the D-Day beaches and all of the Normandy sites, in detail, would take you forever. However, doing the D-Day Beaches and the airborne areas might take you a nice couple of days, and would make much more sense into the bargain. And from what I have seen such a tour would take in some lovely scenery as a nice by product. There are plenty of museums and sites to see along the landing beaches too. Perhaps a Holt’s style map might make a useful addition, but there are plenty of places from where the tourist can obtain a good map nowadays. It has enough useful practical information without being overloaded – the beauty of the modern world is that anyone can go online and search for hotels, ferries etc, so there isn’t such a need to include them in what is first and foremost a history book.

I’ve written a fair bit about what happened on D-Day, unsurprisingly, for a Portsmouth military historian and somebody who has worked at the D-Day Museum in Southsea. I found Paul’s book very illuminating – in particular, I enjoyed the section on Sword Beach near Ouistreham, where I was unable to get off my ferry a month or so ago! I also enjoyed reading about the 1st Hampshires at Hamel in the first wave on D-Day. I’ve written about them in my own book, but reading their story here certainly added to my understanding of what happened in those fateful hours on 6 June 1944. Obviously elements such as Pegasus Bridge and Merville have been raked over so much that it is difficult to write much new about them. It’s also got some cracking illustrations, including many that I haven’t seen before. In common with many battles, we are used to seeing the same old photographs of D-Day again and again, so it’s nice to see some that I suspect have never been published before.

It’s quite hard to write about such a well-known event as D-Day in a fresh way, in what is a very crowded market, and especially when it comes to the battlefield guide. But Paul Reed has done a very good job indeed here. My acid test for any battlefield guide is whether it makes me feel like I have been there, when I haven’t. This one sure does. I don’t know how Paul finds time to fit it all in!

Walking D-Day is published by Pen and Sword

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D-Day in Photographs by Andrew Whitmarsh

D-Day – and indeed the subsequent  Battle of Normandy – has to be one of the most photographed military campaigns in history. Even before the age of mass media and digital photography, some of the images that came out of 6 June 1944 are iconic. But we could also be forgiven for wondering, if there are so many photographs of Normandy, why do we keep seeing the same photographs again and again in books? If I asked you to nominate five famous D-Day images, I reckon I could probably guess three of them. In fact, it’s quite shameful how some authors – and indeed publishers – seem willing to peddle the same images, and history, over and over again whilst presenting it as ‘new’ to the unsuspecting enthusiast. This is a quandry that Andrew Whitmarsh has gone a long way towards remedying.

It is intriguing why authors decide to use some photos over and over again as illustrations. There are literally millions of photographs in military museums, such as the Imperial War Museum. And the D-Day Museum‘s collections are no different. There aremany photographs, most from the collections of the D-Day Museum, many of which have never been seen before. But it’s not just a catalogue of photos – they are very well explained and interpreted, and cover not just D-Day itself, but also the build up to the liberation, and the subsequent fighting in Normandy in the summer of 1944. There is also a very interesting section about the fantastic Overlord Embroidery. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestery, the Embroidery is an epic portrayal of Operation Overlord, and is housed in the D-Day Museum. Almost as interesting as the Embroidery itself, is a behind-the-scenes look at how it was conceived and created, and how it came to Portsmouth.

Published some years ago in hardback, the publishers have recently released a paperback version. As somebody who has possibly ready every book published about D-Day, it is refreshing to see some new images. I enjoyed reading this book very much.

D-Day in Photographs is published by The History Press

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Merville Battery and the Dives Bridges and Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge by Carl Shilleto

Having received these guides that both relate to the Airborne Brigdgehead in Normandy, and are both by Carl Shilleto, I thought it would make sense to review them together. I have used the Battleground series of Battlefield Guides myself when visiting Arnhem in the past. To my eternal regret, I haven’t actually managed to get to any other battlefields apart from Arnhem, so until the time that somebody gives me a break in becoming a battlefield guide I will have to make do with reading battlefield guide books from the comfort of my own home!

Mind you, in this case it’s not really a case of making do – these are very good books indeed. Exceptionally well illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs, and with a wealth of appendices covering recommended reading, order of battle, glossaries and a handy reference list of grid reference co-ordinates for Satnav use. The maps in particular are a great resource – in particular the colour maps on the back are very useful. Perhaps the only thing that is missing with this series is a larger scale, detailed Holts-style map, but I guess if you want something like that you can go out and buy one yourself, or one of the French Michelin maps. There isn’t a huge amount on tourist information – some basic information such as climate, health, getting there, the perils of battlefield relics are well covered. With the internet, and ever disappearing international borders, it shouldn’t take too much trouble to google up some ferries and hotels.

I’ve done a fair bit of studying of individual soldiers who fought in the airborne bridgehead – namely Portsmouth’s own Sergeant Sid Cornell DCM and the 16 year old Boy Para Private Bobby Johns. Reading this book has helped me understand what happened to both of them in much more context. And I guess that’s what a good battlefield guidebook should do – make you feel like you have been there, without actually being there. I wouldn’t mind betting that out of everyone who buys a battlefield guide, something like 75% might not actually got to the area. And is that such a bad thing?

Both Battleground guides are available from Pen and Sword

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Ian Daglish

I was very saddened to hear of the tragic passing of Ian Daglish yesterday.

Ian was the author of the Over the Battlefield series of books looking at the Normandy battles of Operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat. These took a very refreshing view of the battlefields and helped me a great deal in my understanding of the battle of Normandy. Ian was also very helpful to me personally when it came to researching Portsmouth’s World War Two dead, in particular a couple of men killed in those battles that he had written about himself.

The Second World War military history field is a lesser place for his passing. I’m sure the military history community will join me in offering my condolences to his family.

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The location of War Graves: some aspects considered

My map of Portsmouth War Graves locations gives a pretty interesting insight not only into the conduct of the war between 1939 and 1945, but also into other factors, such as the policy of the War Graves registration units and the CWGC. Thinking about these issues helps us place in context war casualties, and probably goes a long way to solving a lot of mysteries about the location of war graves.

You can see from the location of War cemeteries and individual war graves where most of the heavy fighting took place – Northern France, in particular Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais, Belgium and southern Holland, Italy, North Africa, in particular Tunisia and Egypt, and the Far East, especially Burma, Thailand and India.

There are also some interesting variances in policy, it would seem. In some theatres, there are a large number of smaller cemeteries. In Normandy, for example, there are a relatively high number of war grave locations. In Burma and Thailand, however, almost all men were reburied in larger central cemeteries, even if they were some distance from their original burial site.

RAF casualties are also commemorated differently. Army dead were usually buried in larger war cemeteries, even if it meant exhumation and reburial after the war. Indeed, most men killed in action on land were invariably buried in a field grave near to the site of their death, and the details recorded for later reburial.

On the other hand if a Bomber crashed over occupied territory its dead crewmembers were almost always buried in the local churchyard, and most remain there to this day. Therefore many burials in parts of France, Belgium and Holland are in small local churchyards. You can almost plot the flight routes from their locations in relation to that nights target. Almost all Bomber sorties – and there were many from 1942 onwards – had to fly over parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland. And these were where the Kammhuber line defences swung into action.

A large proportion of Portsmouth men are buried in Italy – this is due to the presence of four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment in the Italian Campaign, compared to only two in North West Europe from Normandy onwards.

You can also tell how far-flung British forces were during the war years. Servicemen are buried in outposts such as The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Australia and New Zealand. None of these countries saw any fighting, but they were important stopping off points, for Royal Navy ships or for convoys. A number of British airmen are also buried in the US and in Canada – they were almost certainly there for training, and died either in accidents or of illness.

But by far the most casualties are buried at home in Britain. They died at home of natural causes, illness, wounds received in action, or were victims of Bombing while on leave. Normally the authorities allowed families to bury their dead in their local cemetery – and happened with my Great-Uncle – but there do seem to have been exceptions. For example, the dead recovered from the sinking of the Royal Oak were buried in a nearby churchyard – the public health implication of transporting a large number of bodies around Britain from Scap Flow did not bear thinking about.

I also suspect that where men were the victims of explosions, for example, they were buried quickly in a local cemetery rather than being handed over to the family. This may have been to prevent the family from having to go through the ordeal of seeing the body. Also, when a large number of people were killed in one go – say in a bombing raid, for example – the priority of the authorities was to safely bury bodies to prevent disease spreading.

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Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan

For me, one of the most amusing stories of the Second World War is the argument between Winston Churchill and King George VI. Churchill was keen to get into the action, in his usual schoolboy like way. The King, meanwhile, felt that if the Prime Minister went, he should too. Eventually, Eisenhower pressured both into backing down – the King’s private secretary informed his master that if he was to go he would have to advise his daughter on a choice of Prime Minister, should he and Churchill be killed. George VI then ordered that if he could not go, then the Prime Minister could not go either. One wonders if the King, normally shy and content to not interfere, made a show wanting to go merely to prevent Churchill going!

Churchill eventually got to visit the Normandy Bridgehead on 13 June 1944. After sailing across the Channel on the fast Destroyer HMS Kelvin, the Prime Minister and his party disembarked at Arromanches, landing on the shore in a DUKW amphibious vehicle. The historic meeting between Winston Churchill and General Montgomery, the Land Forces Commander for Overlord, was filmed by none other than the South African Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts. Monty was no doubt keen to get the visit over and done with, due to his well-known dislike for VIP visits while he was trying to fight a battle!

From the D-Day beaches the group travelled by lunch to Monty’s forward tactical Headquarters at Creully. Monty had developed a system of an advanced headquarters during his time in North Africa, and in North West Europe his spartan existence consisted of three caravans, captured from the Italians in the Desert. One of them housed an array of maps relating to the military situation, and Churchill was treated to a ‘Monty special’ description of how the battle was progressing. The group then had lunch, at which point the Prime Minister enquired about where the front line was (3 miles away) and whether there was any risk of their lunch being interrupted by a German counter-attack (Monty did not think so). One almost wonders if Churchill was hoping for some kind of drama – it would certainly have been in keeping with his mischievous personality.

From Monty’s Headquarters the group travelled back to the sea, where Churchill, Brooke and Smuts boarded the launch of Admiral Vian, the commander of the British Naval task force for Operation Neptune. They were mobbed while on the dockside, and Churchill returned the cheers of the soldiers and sailors. From there they sailed off the other British and Canadian beaches.

One interesting episode occured when Churchill informed those present that he had never been onboard a Royal Navy ship while she was engaging the enemy. As a result he convinced the commanding officer of the Kelvin to try and let him board the monitor HMS Roberts while she was bombarding German positions ashore, something that was not possible due to the difficulty of climbing onboard. On the return journey, however, an ambition was fulfilled when HMS Kelvin briefly joined in the shore bombardment before crossing the Channel. It is unclear whether the bombardment was militarily necessary, or put on to satisfy the Prime Minister.

Another interesting aspect that Jordan looks at is the Mulberry Harbour – opportune, given that Churchill sailed through it to and from Normandy. The origin for Mulberry is often given as a well known note when Churchill wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, suggesting transportable harbours. I haven’t been able to research this myself, but personally I doubt whether Churchill was the sole originator of the idea. Britain had a multitude of scientists and engineers working on all kinds of ideas, so its possible that the idea was already being worked on, and that Churchill’s note has been given more importance than it deserves. Something very similar happened with the creation of Britain’s Airborne Forces in 1940.

None the less, William Jordan gives us a very interesting view of how Mulberry was developed, its consituent parts, how it was assembled off Arromanches, and in particular how some parts of the plan went awry – several caissons sank in the wrong positions, for example, and it proved difficult to tow some of the roadways across the Channel. Mulberry was surely one of the triumphs of Operation Overlord, and played a significant part in getting the Allies firmly ashore in June 1944. Along with Hobarts Funnies and PLUTO, Mulberry seems to have been one of those projects that the British excelled at – although I suspect that, like in other cases, Churchill’s involvement has been overestimated.

This is a very interesting guide, none the less. It is impeccably well researched, and illustrated with some never-seen-before photographs, which can only ever be a good thing. I’m also very impressed with the map on the back cover, showing Churchill’s movements through the Arromanches anchorage and the layout and development of Mulberry – it helps the reader get a very firm handle on an episode that tells us much about Churchill the man. Maybe the narrative clings a little too closely to orthodoxy for my liking, but perhaps on the other hand a Pitkin Guide is not the place for revisionism!

Churchill in Normandy by William Jordan is published by Pitkin, part of The History Press

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