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Royal Air Force Beach Units

Glen McBride

Glen McBride in 1945Glen McBride was an Australian who had joined the R.A.F. in 1941. After service in Malaya, the Maldives, Burma, China and India he came to the U.K. at the end of 1943, hoping to participate in the coming invasion of North West Europe. After taking leave and effecting a transfer to the R.A.A.F. he spent a short period with No. 3 Embarkation Unit in Liverpool and No. 2 Embarkation Unit in Southampton. He was posted to No 1 R.A.F. Beach Unit in early March 1944 and assigned to No 101 Beach Section.

Glen McBride was promoted to Acting Flight Lieutenant and appointed Landing Officer. When 101 Beach Section commenced ‘Toughening Training’ on 19th April 1944, he was given the additional role of Training Officer. Around this time, No. 1 Beach Unit was renamed No. 1 Beach Squadron and 101 Beach Section was renamed 101 Beach Flight.

These extracts from Glen McBride’s memoirs begin in May 1944, after Exercise “FABIUS” and cover some of his experiences leading up to his landing on D-Day and on the day itself.

At this time I was trying hard to get permission to wear an Australian battle dress to France. I was part of the invasion force, and the one representative of the R.A.A.F. who would land in France early on D-day. I thought it only fitting that I should wear an Australian battle dress. But Kodak House had different ideas on the subject, and turned down my request flat. It couldn't be done, they said. But I didn't take their refusal too much to heart, and eventually used the Squadron's name to requisition an Australian battle dress which I carried to France with me, in a pack on my back, an extra load, but one that I was proud to carry.

Briefing began towards the end of May. It was a well-organised business, for which huge huts capable of seating 200 men had been erected. Our Colonels had been briefed by "Monty" himself, and much of what he told them was embodied in their talks to us.

The walls of the hut at camp A3, where we went for our first briefing, were covered with large scale photographs and maps. The maps of France had all the real names removed and other names, such as Calcutta, Bombay or Liverpool, substituted. Caen, for instance, was called Calcutta. The topography of the ground, though, was correct as shown on the maps.

Before the briefing began, we wandered around eagerly examining the maps and pictures of beaches and defences. Some of the maps showed every minefield; others showed gun positions and flamethrowers on the coast. There were also maps showing how it was expected the beach maintenance area would be laid out.

The first briefing was by Colonel Board, who outlined the method of the assault. A day after our briefing by Colonel Board, we were briefed by Colonel Montgomery. Next came the Wing Commander, followed by our immediate O.C., the Squadron Leader. Every officer then went over the full details of the plan with the N.C.O.s and the men under his command with maps and photographs. Looking back I see that briefing as a faultless piece of organisation. We were not told on which part of the coast we would land, nor were we given the names of the towns. Complete secrecy was maintained, although after the first briefing, with the structure of the coast in our minds, we were able to forecast correctly that our landing would take place north of Caen -- with the aid of an atlas.

We got rid of all surplus kit, for each man was to carry his entire possessions on his back, with the exception of extra blankets, which were to be taken to France in the trucks.

On May 26, we got word to be prepared to leave next morning, and early next morning we fell in and were loaded on lorries. We had no idea where we were going, except that the trip would very likely be a full day's journey, as we'd been given parcels of lunch to take with us. We travelled all day westwards along the coast till, towards evening, our convoy turned into a big camp situated in undulating country which, some of the men said was within ten miles of Brighton. But at no time during our stay there were we ever able to obtain even a semi-official word of our whereabouts. The camp was on a vast country estate, said by the gossips to be the residence of the Earl of Chichester.

Once in the camp we were debarred from further contact with the outside world. It was our embarkation area. Sentries guarded the gates and the surrounding fences, and personnel were not allowed to go near enough to the fence to look over. There was a big NAAFI canteen in the camp and a picture show where films were screened all day. The camp had been well stocked so there was no need to bring even fresh food. If for any reason a person came to the camp, he stayed there. It was more difficult to get in, but impossible to get out. There was no training here, and everybody enjoyed the rest that they thought they deserved. On the second day we started a poker game that occupied all our afternoons and evenings.

On the afternoon of June 4, the officers were called to a big briefing tent. Here we were issued with our embarkation papers, not a very formidable document. It was just a roster of names; against a small section of names was a number. The number for me and the men with me was 415, being the number of the L.C.I. (Landing Craft Infantry) on which we were to embark. We were told to fall in at 9 a.m. next day, ready to move off.

Even then there wasn't any great excitement; nobody bothered to discuss what tomorrow might bring. That night we played cards as usual, and even going to bed our talk was about the night's play, not about the next day's job. In retrospect, I wonder about the calm on the eve of such a tremendous event. Perhaps it was the complete confidence we had in the success of the invasion that left us quite unperturbed.

When we fell in at nine o'clock next morning the weather was bad but the sky showed signs of clearing. Our convoy moved off without much delay and we got to Newhaven before 1 o'clock. Then embarkation began. We were served hot tea and sandwiches before going aboard L.C.I. 415, an American craft with an American crew. The American L.C.I.s were better fitted than the English. Down below, the English craft had only wooden seats for the men to sit on; the American ones of the same size, carrying the same number of men, approximately 180, were fitted with bunks which made it possible for every man to lie down.

I was happy when I was invited to share the second-in-command's Cabin, which had three iron bunks against one wall, and a normal ship's bed against the other.

There was a stiff breeze blowing, but inside the sheltered harbor the weather seemed good enough. It was impossible for the ship to serve the men aboard with a meal, but we'd been provided with cases of tinned soup and cocoa. The tins were about the size of a 21b (900g) jam tin, and were hollowed down the centre; in this hollow had been placed a preparation with a wick like a candle's. All you had to do was to light this wick and the composition would burn, heating the liquid in the tin to boiling point. We also had bread, meat and potatoes for the cooks among our men to prepare a hot meal that night. In our haversacks we carried rations for 24 hours, not to be opened until we landed in France.

About 5.30 p.m., the L.C.I.s cast off their ropes and moved out of the little harbor to, sea. And what a sea! These narrow-gutted flat-bottomed craft were made for calm waters, and once outside on the open sea our boat did everything but turn a complete somersault. We sailed up and down, then round in circles, sometimes facing into the wind, at other times with the breeze on our beam.

Aboard 415 with us was Monty Taylor, a Reuter's correspondent and Colin Wills, a fellow Australian, who was there to record the invasion for the B.B.C. Noel Monks had come aboard before we sailed; he was in the L.C.I. following next in line. Eight or nine craft behind me was my Squadron Leader, who would land twenty minutes after I did.

With the weather prevailing, we thought an invasion that day was impossible. Major Brown, a little chap of about 58 and a veteran of the last war, Taylor, Colin Wills, a couple of other officers and I held an informal discussion in the shelter of the bridge on the upper deck. We were unanimous in deciding that the invasion was off for tomorrow.

The men were not feeling too happy by this time. Most of them had swallowed their hyoscine tablets to ward off sea-sickness, but it was hard to keep a balanced stomach in this tossing cockleshell. Once darkness came it was much too cold to stay on deck, and we retired to whatever shelter we could find.

It was about 7.30 p.m. when word came that the officers were requested to go to the captain's cabin. He was a big chap, about six foot three (188cm), who wasted no words. "Tomorrow is D-day," he told us. "We're on our way to France now."

For me this was the most exciting moment of the invasion. Opening his safe, the captain produced a number of big brown envelopes, and, reading out the name on each, handed them out to us. In an enclosed small white envelope was a message from the Commander-in-Chief, General Eisenhower, wishing us God speed.

I asked the captain what kind of landing we should make. "I'll run her up on the beach," he said. "You won't even get your toes wet."

We had a discussion then, and decided that each officer in turn would have the use of the cabin for a quarter of an hour to issue our sergeants with maps and have a talk with them. This time the maps had the correct names of towns. I think we would have ail liked an hour or two to study the maps for the last time and fix the names of the towns in our minds. But there was too much to do, and a quarter of an hour was as long as each officer could be spared the cabin.

When I'd spoken to the sergeants I went straight to the second- in-command's cabin, Lay down on a bunk and was asleep within seconds. It was daylight when I woke and went on deck. There was still a fair sea running but the wind had died down and there was blue sky overhead. L.C.I.s were sailing three abreast as far ahead and as far back as we could see. We were in a lane about three hundred yards (270m) wide, marked by buoys.

In the distance was the sound of heavy gunfire; our ships were bombarding the French coast. Although none of our aircraft were in sight, we knew they would be thick over France. In the briefing we had been told that 10,500 aircraft would be at the disposai of the invading forces, 6,000 bombers and 4,500 fighters.

The coast of France was coming over the horizon now, and we could see smoke rising along the shore. There were two battleships, five cruisers and fourteen destroyers lying off that part of the coast, our objective. As we came closer to the shore, the thunder of these ships' guns made our small craft shudder every time they fired.

Apart from the crew, only the officers were on deck at this time; the men were crowded down below, retaining perfect order of line. When we were half a mile off the shore, shells began falling among the landing boats. I saw that the boat following us was hit, but she still kept her position and speed.

Each beach selected for the landings had been given a name and divided into three sections, the left being called red, the centre white and the right green. I was to land on Queen Beach, red section. The next beach along on the right was Peter, with its three sections, Peter red, Peter white and Peter green.

As we came close inshore, the beach looked a chaotic mass of tanks, trucks, jeeps and men. It seemed a scene of terrible confusion but actually every man there knew his job and where he was bound for. The first confusion was caused by burnt-out trucks and tanks holding up incoming traffic; in places a shell or a bomb had made a hole in the sand, and the sides of the hole had gradually caved in to bring about a deceptive levelness. The caved-in sand had become a quicksand into which a vehicle would sink without hope of getting out again under its own power.

A few hundred yards off shore, the two gangways on our L.C.I. were still fastened at deck level, 15 feet (4.5m) aft of the bow on each side of the craft. They were partly lowered, and when it ran right up onto the beach, they were quickly set down to rest on the sand. Our orders were to disembark as quickly as possible, and we scurried off under heavy shellfire from three directions. The fast rising tide allowed the captain of the L.C.I. to back off immediately and head for home.

The Germans were firing onto the beach and the first lateral road about twenty yards (18m) back; they were firing from Ouistreham, a mile (1.6km) away on the left flank and from the wooded, undulating country immediately behind the beach. There was also a group of machine gunners ensconced in a number of houses along the waterfront three hundred yards (270m) to our right.

We had landed midway between the villages of Ouistreham and Lion- sur-Mer. Ouistreham was situated at the mouth of the Caen Canal and had many fine homes. It had some importance by reason of the fact that ships plying up and down the Canal could dock at its wharves. Lion-sur-Mer was purely a seaside resort, a town somewhat similar to but smaller than Deauville, a few miles up the coast. Between the two towns were scattered a number of fair-sized villas.

At high tide the beach was no more than a hundred feet (30m) wide. Colonel Board had gone ashore early and had set up a command post at a point opposite where I had landed. Our first job was to dig slit trenches, and it was only a matter of minutes before we had holes for ourselves in the soft sand. With me were my batman, Little, a W.O. from the Transport Section, one of the Squadron Leader's sergeants, and five Service Police.

Once the slit trenches were dug I sent the W.O. to reccy a place where he could set up workshops, and told the Service Police and the sergeant to stay put while I reported to the Colonel. The Colonel told me that there was little I could do because the assaulting troops had not advanced far enough inland to allow a reconnaissance to be made for the Beach Maintenance Area. Instead it had been decided to take over areas alongside the second lateral road, which was only a hundred yards or so back from the beach.

These areas were known as Stores Section Dumps, and necessarily were risky because the huge quantities of petrol and ammunition stacked high together made an inviting target.

This was the last time I saw Colonel Board. An hour later he was reported missing; his body was not found till next day.

All this time, engineers and pioneers were working steadily to establish beach exits, despite the heavy enemy fire. The heavy sand immediately off the beach was being levelled by bulldozers, and following the bulldozers, men were laying down heavy wire netting roads. At the edge of the water, big armoured rescue vehicles were towing away stranded trucks and burnt-out tanks. These rescue vehicles were designed so that they could go into five feet (2.7m) of water.

I put my Service Police on traffic duty and looked around to see what I could do myself. Still lying on the beach, and as far back as the second lateral road, were hundreds of our wounded. A P.O.W. cage had been put up on the beach and a lot of Jerries had been herded into this. I borrowed eight of the Jerries and went in search of stretchers. But there were no stretchers available, for two of the boats loaded with stretchers had sunk on their way in. However at every dressing station, the M.O.s and their staff were so busy attending to the wounded that there was nobody to lift the bodies of the dead from the stretchers. I put the Jerries to work clearing these stretchers, and then to bringing in every wounded man who looked as though he had a chance of recovering. The worst cases we left for the stretcher bearers. The Jerries were a willing team and hastened about their work, although I wasn't even armed; I'd handed over all my packs and equipment to Little.

There were hundreds of mines scattered between the beach and the second lateral road, and I'd seen several men blown up by them. But we were lucky and within two hours most of the wounded lying within a radius of two or three hundred yards had been brought in. I handed the Jerries back to their guards and went in search of the Squadron Leader.

He had taken over a Decontamination Centre built of concrete and covered with two layers of sandbags, about sixty yards off the beach. We decided that we could not work according to the plan as we had known it on exercises, and thought our best plan would be to keep all available men on traffic duty. There were thousands of craft beaching one after another on a beach no more than a mile long; each was disgorging men and vehicles. There were inevitably casualties, of men and transport. My biggest task, one to which every man put his shoulder, was to provide clearance at every exit.

Glen McBride was 43 years old when he landed in Normandy. When No 1 R.A.F. Beach Squadron returned to the UK at the end of August 1944 it was the end of Glen’s active service with the R.A.F.. He returned to Australia via the USA early in 1945.

SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 1 JANUARY, 1945

Air Ministry,1st January, 1945.
The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the publication of the names of the following personnel who have been mentioned in despatches:-

ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE


Acting Flight Lieutenants-.

G. McBRIDE (Aus.287435)

See Gazette Issue 36866 at www.thegazette.co.uk

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