With the 'Suicide Squads' Who Cleared the Way
An 80-mile breach in the vaunted West Wall on the Normandy coast lies at the back of our Armies in France. It can now be revealed how, in fantastic circumstances, British scientists stole the beach-head secrets, and how the first cracks of that breach were made by Royal Navy men and Marines and Royal Engineers shortly before zero hour on June 6, 1944.
Wriggling inland on their stomachs, blackened faces within an inch of the ground, a number of men who had been secretly landed in darkness at a point on the French coast went calmly about their work – probing here and there with special instruments, making notes and generally behaving as do fantastic visions in an uneasy dream. Noiselessly they continued their crawl, and no crack of a shot to indicate that their movements had been spotted by a German sentry.
Half a mile or more in different direction, members of this silent party went: scouring the beaches until they were satisfied their mission was well and truly completed. Assembled at last at the appointed rendezvous back at the sea-edge they packed up their instruments and the soil-samples which these had secured, put away their notes and departed for Britain, as mysteriously as they had arrived.
These “bright lads” (as one of them described this adventurous party) were civilian scientists, and the information and specimens they brought back with them proved of inestimable value to the authorities in whose hands lay the final planning which should put the assaulting troops ashore dead on time on D-Day – which yet lay months ahead.
A great deal had been learned of the nature of the ground and of the defences where our landings might eventually take place, through innumerable photographs secured by low-flying planes of the R.A.F.: and, appertaining to the topography and terrain characteristics, old French books – some published before the 18th century – had yielded much that was of use. This midnight crawl of the scientists over Hitler's weapon-bristling beached added the final footlines and marginal notes. Summed up, all this diversely gleaned information resulted in invasion-rehearsals in Britain which went far towards ensuring the assault troops' brilliant success.
From the crawling scientists' painstaking charting was discovered where treacherously soft patches of beach would be encountered, where boggy ground and slippery clay and firm or shifting sand would have to be negotiated. The beach obstacles they had sketched were reproduced on British beaches and assaulted by way of rehearsal. Landings were practised on British coastline stretches identical in nature with the Normandy beach-heads. Vehicle types to be used in the actual landing were decided upon as the outcome of the practices, and where necessary they were specially adapted. Angle of slope of the beaches made it desirable that some should be waterproofed and others considerably lightened.
At dawn of the day appointed for attack, suicide squads – they call themselves, officially Landing Craft Obstacle Clearance Units – went in to clear the way for the troops who were speeding in their wake across the Channel. These Naval parties and Royal Marines and Engineers had the task of clearing all the beaches of the sudden death so plentifully besprinkled there. Up to their necks in water they mostly worked at this touch-and-go job.
There were stout steel pickets with thick supporting rods driven into sand or turf or concrete, each 7 feet high and 8 feet wide and weighing a ton and a half, placed there to rip the bottoms out of landing craft and tanks. Other steel obstacles blocked the beach exits. There were continuous rows of angle-iron hedgehogs, and rows of steel rails set upright or at a sharp angle. Timber tripod obstacles were concealed at high tide, to impale landing vessels. There were anti-boat cables, and numerous types of mines – some hanging from stake-ends and capable of being detonated at a touch.
Weary indeed, and bloodshot and nerve-frayed were these suicide men when at last they rested. They had been sniped at from pillboxes, and whilst they laboured some of the beach areas had been under bombardment by our own naval forces. They didn't talk much of their comrades who fell, but one swift picture of their ordeal has been given by a correspondent to whom one spoke:
It was the toughest job we've ever had. Some of our plans went just as scheduled and others all went screwy. For instance, we were a little late getting in and the water was higher than we expected. We had to work with water up to our necks, sometimes higher. Then there were the snipers. They were nipping us off as I was working with two blokes on a tough bit of element, when suddenly I found myself working alone. My two pals just gurgled and disappeared under water.
Naturally they could not deal in the short time at their disposal with all the thousands of deadly obstacles and booby traps that, hidden or exposed, littered the landing areas, and one officer observer has recorded how his craft was among the few that met with dire misfortune:
Her bottom had been ripped by one of the thousands of obstacles. With the water rising well over her engine-room plates, and her engines out of action, the Commanding Officer decided to beach her. At low tide it would be possible to patch her up and make the passage back to her home-port and carry on with the “shuttle-service”. The tide receded a long way, to reveal an amazing sight on the beaches. Thousands of rusted iron girders, bolted together in threes like stacked rifles, had been driven into the clay and sand. Their jagged edges at high-tide either barely protruded above the water or, more often, were just submerged. Between them wooden stakes were driven into the beach to which shells, mines, and other under-water traps had been attached. How so few craft had sustained really serious damage was a miracle. That there was not a single landing-craft bigger than the smallest assault craft – and of these there were very few – actually sunk, throughout our sector, was a tribute to those who designed and built them, as well as to the seamanship of the crews.
Bulldozers smashed down, and mobile cranes tore away, iron girders and stakes with utmost speed to enable successive waves of assault craft to come in. There were great lines of barbed wire, and where this had not had gaps blown in it by the naval bombardment it had to be cut for the infantry to pass through and get at what ever chanced to lay immediately beyond – enemy trench systems, pill boxes and gun emplacements.
Each man of the demolition parties carried T.N.T., and as their work took them farther up the beaches some were detailed to blast passages through concrete of masonry sea-walls which in some places were about 20 feet high and many feet thick – though nothing like a continuous “wall” was anywhere encountered. The solid “wall” as popularly visualized was a phantom of Nazi bluff; but what there was of it rocked and splintered throughout invasion day and intermittently throughout the night and next morning, and mines of every description continued to detonate.
“Occasionally” (said another war report) “the men dealing with them miss one, but not often, Then a man or vehicle sets it off, and the man goes to a hospital or a grave, and the vehicle to a repair crew or junk heap.” Salute to the Brave!