Combined Ops Badge (Woven)
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Royal Air Force Beach Units

Airmen on the Beach

An Introduction to R.A.F. Beach Units

 

D-Day, June 6th 1944, Normandy, France

After the first wave of attack by British and Canadian forces early in the morning, the assault troops and their supporting echelons continued to pour ashore throughout the day and into the night. Large numbers of men and vehicles waded through the surf and made their way off the beach with varying degrees of difficulty. At a glance it is probable that all the drably painted wheeled transport and all the men festooned with equipment and carrying their personal weapons looked much the same. However, in some cases a closer look would have revealed a surprising difference.

Some of those men were wearing blue battledress, not khaki and their vehicles had a small red, white and blue roundel on the front and an identification number prefixed by the letters R.A.F. These were men and vehicles of the Royal Air Force. Why were R.A.F. units landing amongst the assault troops?

Some of these ‘boys in blue’ wore on each sleeve, in addition to their R.A.F. insignia and badges of rank and trade, the Combined Operations badge. The Combined Operations badge with red eagle, anchor and tommy gun positioned together on a dark blue background was worn, not just by fighting Commando units but by various personnel of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force who had been trained for special roles in the seaborne invasion.

The men who wore the Combined Ops badge had jobs that involved co-operation between the three armed services in joint operations. Indeed their training and their purpose was the product of that co-operation, developed over time and through the experience of earlier landing operations.

Combined Ops Badge (Printed)

Combined Operations Badge worn in Normandy by Sergeant J. H. Fenton of No. 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron

The R.A.F.’s 2nd Tactical Air Force had to provide close air support and fighter cover for the ground forces in the spearhead of the invasion. They needed to direct their aircraft from the ground, close to the front line. Also, due to the limited range of fighter aircraft they had to be able to operate from airstrips within the beach-head as soon as possible. In order to provide that support, the R.A.F. needed men and material on the ground from day one of the invasion. To meet the immediate requirements of 2nd T.A.F., a number of R.A.F. units landed on D-Day, all initially under the command of 83 Group which was to be the first formation of 2nd T.A.F. to base aircraft in Normandy.

R.A.F. Beach Squadrons came ashore and began to establish themselves in the beach areas to help with the large quantity of fuel, ammunition, equipment, vehicles and personnel that was going to arrive for the R.A.F. over the coming days and weeks. The R.A.F. Beach Squadrons were part of the Combined Operations beach organisation in the British and Canadian assault areas. The beach organisation also included R.A.F. Beach Balloon Squadrons that handled barrage balloons intended to help protect the beach areas from low level air attack.

Also landing on D-Day were advance command and control elements of R.A.F.’s 83 Group and 85 Group (which was responsible for base defence operations). 483 G.C.C. (the Group Control Centre of 83 Group) came ashore on Gold Beach around 17:30. 15083 G.C.I., one of 85 Group’s Ground Control Interception radar units, arrived to help direct fighter defence operations and the H..Q of it’s parent unit, 24 Base Defence Sector, 85 Group landed near Graye-sur-Mer on the afternoon of D-Day.

Even more surprising to some might be the fact that the R.A.F. landed on Omaha beach on D-Day. Although the American 9th Air Force was providing tactical air support in the American sector, it was the job of 85 Group, 2nd T.A.F. to provide the radar facilities for directing R.A.F. night fighters in defence of the beach-heads. The first echelon of 21 Base Defence Sector R.A.F. landed with 15082 G.C.I. at around 17:00 near St Laurent, about one mile to the west of Colleville beach.

The R.A.F. men arriving on D-Day were the first of many to land from the sea. Overnight, the first R.A.F. Regiment units landed and, on the morning of D+1, came the first of the R.A.F. Servicing Commando Units, moving up to the sites chosen for the advanced airstrips that were already being marked out and built by the Army’s Airfield Construction Units. The R.A.F. Servicing Commandos helped to prepare the landing strips and when they were ready, refuelled, re-armed and repaired the aircraft that used them while the light anti-aircraft guns, armoured cars and riflemen of the R.A.F Regiment provided defence. The first landing strips were completed and ready for action within a few days.

In the early days of the invasion the R.A.F. Beach Squadrons facilitated the landing, assembly and onward movement of most of the R.A.F. men and materials that supported the operations of the Tactical Air Force in Normandy. After a few weeks traffic over the beaches diminished and 89 Embarkation Unit, R.A.F. based at Arromanches, where the Mulberry Harbour was established, gradually took over responsibility for the movements of R.A.F. men and materials.

It is unsurprising that after a while there was a large R.A.F. presence in Normandy but the landing of R.A.F. units with the assault troops on D-Day is not well known and should be more widely recognised.

The Normandy invasion (Operation OVERLORD) was the famous ‘D-Day’, now remembered as the greatest amphibious assault operation in history. ”OVERLORD” was the high point of R.A.F involvement in assault landings but it was achieved due to what had been done before. With a little changing of details the piece above could be describing the earlier invasion of Sicily or the Salerno assault landings. For a number of the men in the R.A.F. Beach Squadrons, Normandy was their third D-Day. On the pages of this website you will learn something of the history of R.A.F. beach units and how ‘airmen on the beach’ helped the R.A.F. bring tactical air support to the invasion front line.

 

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Copyright  © J.M.Fenton, 2007-2016

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