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Royal Air Force Beach Units

H G W Roberts

The story of H.G.W. Roberts is edited from his correspondence with John Fenton. They exchanged a few letters early in 1990 when Mr Roberts was aged 81.  Mr. Roberts experienced three D-Days, serving, from its formation in 1943, with No 69 R.A.F. Beach Unit which became, in January 1944, No 108 R.A.F. Beach Section and later, in April 1944, No.108 R.A.F. Beach Flight.

 

No's 68 and 69 Beach Units were raised at R.A.F. West Kirby in April 1943, were kitted out in khaki and sent for training to H.M.S. Dundonald and Gailes, near Troon, in Scotland. Subsequently we were embarked at Gourock, in June 1943, aboard the old liner, Ascania, and set ashore on the D-Day of the landings on Sicily. Thence, via Souse and Tripoli for the landings at Salerno, September 9th, 1943. After this we were sent via Naples and Algiers back to England to prepare for the big one. To this end we were camped at Brockenhurst whence we were, eventually, taken to, and embarked into landing craft at, Felixstowe, for transport to the beaches in Normandy.

We did miss Anzio since, we were told, the landing of R.A.F. personnel and stores over the beaches there was not necessary as the port of Naples was available for this and there were operational airfields within striking distance.

Our units comprised the obvious stores personnel (fuel and ammunition), M.T. with associated trades vis blacksmith and "tin basher", a medical team, despatch rider, cook, a Sgt and two Corporals of RAF Police (of whom I was one) in each unit, together with some admin folk to deal with the Assembly Area.

To begin with, at West Kirby, we were first issued with thick woollen underwear and K.D.s which was withdrawn and replaced with khaki, army style, down to gaiters and boots, though we retained our blue ”side hats” and “s****hawk” at shoulders. (I can see that I must be careful when venturing into the vernacular!) Then it was decided that we should have “wellies”, though why we should travel by lorry to Peebles in Scotland to get them remains a mystery. Then, of course, we six policemen (2 Sgts. and 4 Cpls.) were the wrong type. Those required were traffic police, whereas we were ordinary Station police. None of us could ride motor cycles. Indeed there weren’t any, except for that of the D/R. Eventually motor cycles were provided but instead of our being sent for instruction to the school at R.A.F. Warton, the D/R was told to take us into a nearby field and teach us. Even though we did gain some proficiency, the Officers decided, one night, to go out on a “thrash” and smashed them up, so again no motor cycles. Guess what they gave us instead? Push bikes!! In the event, these were never disembarked onto the beaches of Sicily.

Similarly the M/T and allied trades had only a few loose tools which they were obliged to carry where possible about their webbing. Here we were able to help, by attaching the odd spanner or such to our gear, although we were all loaded with fully packed webbing. We had two blankets and a groundsheet bound round our big pack, our side pack contained our mess tin, inside which was 48 hrs contingency rations, mepacrin and water purification tablets together with the usual small kit, a filled water bottle, an entrenching tool, a weapon and spare ammo. In this regard the chaps had choice of rifles or Tommy guns so you can guess as to the weight of ammo to be carried. Here, of course, we “coppers” were fortunate in that we had just our pistols and about a dozen spare rounds, slung cowboy fashion under our belts. Add to all this a mosquito net plus iron hoops to support them. It was upon the occasion when all this was being “toted” and an officer told one chap that he could carry the portable radio set; that the reply heard was, “Yes Sir and if you’ll give me a broom I’ll shove the handle up my **** and sweep a path for you as well!!”

I shan’t bore you with our trials and tribulations during training in Scotland and on the journey in the troop ship to its destination off the beaches of Sicily. Transferring from troopship to landing craft was a bit “hairy”, for the troopship, being a large vessel, lay quite a distance off shore which meant, as I’ve said, hopping – literally – from one to the other. We all had to assemble at the “sally port” in the ship’s side and, as the sea was rough, leap into the landing craft as it rose to the appropriate level, before it dropped about twenty feet into the trough of the wave, and repeat the operation whilst the landing craft rose up and down like a yo-yo. Considering the amount of gear we were carrying, it’s a wonder that there weren’t any broken bones! We had a wet landing, though the water was only calf deep, and upon gaining our allotted site, proceeded to dig slit trenches, which, since the ground was rock hard, couldn’t be made very deep. Since we’d no transport or shelter there was a great deal of make do and mend, for we certainly lived rough during our, about three week, stay on the beaches in Sicily. People talk about the Normandy dust, well, imagine, if you can, narrow un-surfaced roads edged by dry stone walls which after a day or two’s heavy traffic – tanks, lorries etc – were pulverised into powder, with no walls left. In some sections the dust was like talcum powder and in others, like cocoa powder, and all of it ankle deep. Dust, phew!!

Salerno was slightly better. We had a dry landing from an L.S.T. and little tents, about four feet high with enough ground coverage for two six-footers to lay down inside. We also were supplied with portable cookers, oil fuelled, and compo rations. Otherwise as before.

You’ll perhaps believe me and appreciate that we found the Normandy landings a "piece of cake", even though we were transported in L.C.T.s from England and had a wet landing. We were billeted in a brick built farm house (I suppose) with roof intact and two-tier bunks with pallaises. Luxury indeed after our usual bedding down on the ground. There was even a small detachment of Traffic Police on duty at the Assembly Area. There were less problems about equipment in Normandy. Those responsible in these matters must have learned something from our earlier experiences. I was down as duty D/R upon occasion and once, at least, took some papers to H.Q. inland. I found officers entrenched about 12 feet down to whom the ‘bumf’ was handed, how I don’t remember. I do know there wasn’t a lift installed!

Gold King Green was our area of operations. Our Assembly Area being behind the beaches above the Mulberry harbour. It was during our stay there that I, being a policeman, was detailed as an escort, with an officer to bring a German P.O.W. to England. I noted – "embarked L.C.T. 11:45 July 25, sailed 06:00 July 26, disembarked Portsmouth 18:00hrs". Also I noted that on Saturday August 12th I was detailed, with a Sgt. to attend the official opening of the Malcolm Club, where, with the 85 Group complement, we were dispersed upon the frontal lawn pending the arrival of Sir A. Sinclair, A.C.M. Sir A. Tedder, General Spatz and others. After the official opening we were given tickets for a meal and a pint. We later saw a W.A.A.F. Gang Show.

We continued to function whilst Mulberry Harbour was operating, accepting personnel through our Assembly Area who were coming ashore from there. At our final parade upon our Assembly Area, on August 28 1944, we received a message of appreciation from an Air Vice Marshal. We had a similar commendation on behalf of the C in C by a Group Captain at Algiers prior to embarkation for England at the end of 1943. (I regret that these gentlemen's names escape me.) Apart from this it was our conviction that we were unheard of, unsung and unloved.

I had my police notebooks into which I was able to enter, in all brevity, my comings and goings. Were it not for those I should be at a loss, for there is very little, apart from the more outstanding events, that I remember, particularly with regard to dates. So it is that I am able to tell you that on Monday August 28th, 1944 at 15.30hrs we boarded L.C.I. No. 244 and sailed for England at 16.30hrs; that we tied up at Newhaven at 04.30hrs on the 29th, went ashore at 08.15 and, with all our gear, proceeded (lovely police word that!) to the port rail station, leaving there at 09.20 for Gatwick Airport.

I was posted to the police unit of 83 Group, 2nd. T.A.F., arriving in Eindhoven, Holland, in October 1944. I was put into the Traffic section for starters, then into the Security section with which I stayed to the end, at which time I was centred in Hamburg.

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Copyright  © J.M.Fenton, 2007-2016

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