UK Beach Units, Spring 1943

After Operation “TORCH” (D-Day 8th November 1942) it was recommended that a more substantial R.A.F. element should be included in the beach organisation for combined operations. Both overseas and in the U.K., Combined Operations staff and staff of the relevant R.A.F. commands were considering how these new R.A.F. components should be made up. R.A.F. units for this purpose were to be created separately in the U.K., in the Middle East, in North Africa and in India.

In the U.K. there was a meeting on 29th March 1943 at the Air Ministry in Norfolk House, London. This meeting, which included Group Captain Willetts and Wing Commander Symonds from Combined Operations Headquarters (C.O.H.Q.), made recommendations about the R.A.F. personnel that should be included in the Beach Organisation for combined operations. Wing Commander F. Gommersall of the Directorate of War Organisation (D.W.O.) was to be responsible for drawing up an establishment for these special R.A.F. units. The recommendations of the meeting for these units were:-

Attached to Headquarters, Sub-Area (Beach)

One Wing Commander Equipment Officer with ‘X’ qualification and movements experience. Under this officer there would be an adequate staff.

Attached to Beach Groups

Communications – R.A.F. would rely on Army, but the Wing Commander would have a small number of despatch riders for special communications with R.A.F. Units and personnel

Medical – R.A.F. would make no special provision, but would rely on the Army

R.A.F. Equipment and Stores (excluding Petrol and Ammunition) – One Flight Lieutenant Equipment Officer in charge of R.A.F. equipment and stores, assisted by a small staff for minor handling within the dumps, but not responsible for loading and unloading.

Petrol – One officer and one N.C.O.

Ammunition and Bombs – One officer and one N.C.O.

Traffic Control – A small staff under the orders of the Wing Commander at Sub-Area Headquarters, who would receive R.A.F. personnel and be at each transit and assembly area.

M.T. – One M.T. repair section to look after any R.A.F. vehicles that could be repaired. This section to provide liaison with R.E.M.E.

These recommendations, presented by W/Cdr Gommersall, were discussed at a meeting held at Combined Operations Headquarters on 30th March 1943. This meeting concluded that, before a firm decision was made about the permanent composition of the R.A.F. element, the R.A.F. personnel concerned should obtain some insight into the function of a Beach Group.

It was decided that the commanding officer of the first R.A.F. element to be formed should attend No. 3 Beach Group Course, at the Combined Training Centre, Dundonald, with No. 6 Beach Group and afterwards, having consulted the C.O. of 101 Sub Area (Beach) and others, prepare detailed proposals as to the composition of the R.A.F. element.

It was also agreed that the first R.A.F. element should undertake training at the T.T. Wing, C.T.C. Dundonald with 7 Beach Group between 5th and 26th May, and that this R.A.F. element should subsequently take part in Exercise “JANTZEN”.

In the meantime the initial establishment for the R.A.F. element in beach organisation was issued according to the recommendations of the meeting on 29th March and plans were made to form the first of these U.K. R.A.F. elements, which were to be known as R.A.F. Beach Units.

Requirement for Operation “HUSKY”

At the time the composition of the new R.A.F. Beach Units was being considered, a special operation was being planned for which a beach organisation from the U.K. was required.

W/Cdr Gommersall was involved in a meeting, held on 24th April 1943, to decide the composition of an R.A.F. increment to be included in the beach organisation for this operation. Also present and representing the R.A.F. were Air Commodore Sims, Director of Movements and W/Cdr A. B. Yuille of the D.W.O. The commander of 103 Sub Area (Beach), Colonel A.W.B. Becher MC was there and the other attendees were from the War Office and H.Q. 3rd Division.

It was decided that Nos. 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units would be formed to operate with H.Q. 103 Beach Sub Area and Nos. 3 and 4 Beach Groups. The composition of this R.A.F. element was agreed as follows:-

Attached to Headquarters, 103 Beach Sub-Area

One Wing Commander.
One Clerk.
Two Despatch Riders (equipped with pedal cycles)

Attached to the following elements in each of Nos. 3 and 4 Beach Groups

H.Q. Beach Group
To supervise landing and direction of R.A.F. personnel and stores to correct areas and dumps;
One Officer, one Sergeant, one Aircraftman and one Despatch Rider (equipped with one pedal cycle).

Petrol Depot Type C
One Officer, one Sergeant, two Aircraftmen

Ordnance Beach Detachment (Ammunition Section)
One Officer, one Sergeant, two Aircraftmen

Ordnance Beach Detachment (Stores Section)
One Officer, one Sergeant, six Aircraftmen (including two Equipment Assistants)

Provost Section
One Sergeant and two Corporals (each equipped with one pedal cycle).

Beach R.E.M.E. Detachment
One officer and 17 Other Ranks (equipped with hand tools and to include fitters and electricians)

The total of R.A.F. personnel attached to each Beach Group (i.e. the total for each R.AF. Beach Unit) would be 5 Officers and 36 Other Ranks.
The grand total of R.A.F. personnel attached to H.Q. 103 Beach Sub Area and Nos. 3 and 4 Beach Groups would be 11 Officers and 75 Other Ranks.

The special operation was Operation “HUSKY” and these units were required to accompany 1st Canadian Division overseas for an assault landing, the details of which were, of course, Top Secret.

The First U.K. Beach Units Are Formed

In the R.A.F. the new beach units were initially thought of as a variation on the existing R.A.F. Embarkation Units that controlled the movement of the R.A.F.’s men and material through sea ports. The first Beach Units were numbered in the same series as the Embarkation Units and, it seems, may have been briefly named as such. [1]

It was agreed that the personnel for Nos. 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units would be assembled by the R.A.F. authorities by 1st May 1943 and join their respective Beach Groups on 2nd May. No. 3 Beach Group was located at Monkton Camp, near Prestwick in Ayrshire and No. 4 Beach Group was to be found at the County Hotel, Peebles. The R.A.F. Wing Commander and clerk were to report as early as possible to Room 517, Norfolk House, London.

The R.A.F. Beach Unit personnel would be kitted up with khaki battle dress and khaki drill uniform. They would be rationed and fed by the Army and the Beach Groups would equip all the R.A.F. personnel to the scale laid down in the War Office Special Instruction. H.Q. 103 Beach Sub Area would bid for any additional stores e.g. handcarts, required by the R.A.F.

The increase in establishment for Nos. 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units that was decided in the meeting of 24th April was standardised for all R.A.F. Beach Units and the original establishment was altered to include it. There had been no representatives from C.O.H.Q. present at the 24th April meeting and so there was some grumbling from there about not being kept in the picture.

With Nos. 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units being earmarked for the impending operation, Nos. 70 and 71 R.A.F. Beach Units were formed to train with Nos. 5 and 6 Beach Groups and 101 Beach Sub Area and take part in Exercise “JANTZEN”. Nos. 70 and 71 R.A.F. Beach Units formed on 3rd May 1943 and joined their respective Beach Groups on 12th May.

To complete the initial set of U.K. beach units, Nos. 76 and 77 R.A.F. Beach Units were formed to work with Nos. 7 and 8 Beach Groups and 102 Beach Sub Area. Nos. 76 and 77 R.A.F. Beach Units were formed on 26th May 1943 and joined Nos. 7 and 8 Beach Groups on 5th July.

[1] The service record of Edward McMahon who served with No. 68 Beach Unit shows that he was posted to 68 “Embarkation Unit” on its formation.

The main sources of information on this page are documents found in DEFE 2/1022, “Formation and training of RAF element in the Beach Group: minutes of meetings etc” at The National Archives.

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