Combined Operations Pilotage and the Beach Organisation

Chalk pavement drawings depicting the celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of D-Day by Ranville school childrenChalk pavement drawings for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day by Ranville school children

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The village is celebrated as the first to be liberated from occupied Europe in the early hours of D-Day, 6th June 1944.
Everyday life continues in the village of Ranville despite the presence of British Paras from 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment.

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HRH Prince Charles and General Sir Mike Jackson watch as Paratroop veterans of the 3rd Parachute Brigade
HRH Prince Charles and General Sir Mike Jackson watch as Paratroop veterans of the 3rd Parachute Brigade March past during a ceremonial parade at the Le Mesnil Crossroads.

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Brigadier James Hill, now 92 years old, former Commanding Officer of 3rd Parachute Brigade, comes face to face with his statue erected at the Les Mesnil
Brigadier James Hill, now 92 years old, former Commanding Officer of 3rd Parachute Brigade, comes face to face with his statue erected at the Les Mesnil cross roads near Ranville in Normandy.

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Normandy Veteran John Cornwell, 77 from Cheltenham talks to the Duke of Gloucester after a ceremony at Colleville-Montgomery
Normandy Veteran John Cornwell, 77 from Cheltenham talks to the Duke of Gloucester after a ceremony at Colleville-Montgomery to pay homage to the wartime leader Field Marshal Montgomery, during the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day landings.

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Jack Tilley 79 from London, a Royal Marine of 19 on DDay and Albert Lewis 83 who served in 4th Battalion The Parachute Regiment
L-R: Jack Tilley 79 from London now living in Norway, a Royal Marine of 19 on DDay and Albert Lewis 83 from Bethnal Green in London who served in 4th Battalion The Parachute Regiment.

The Normandy beaches, and how the Allied troops would safely land across them, clearly lay at the very heart of the challenges faced by the Neptune planners. As a result, perhaps no aspect of operations during the war saw closer cooperation between the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force than the related requirements of firstly establishing the precise nature of the beaches and the German defences, and secondly creating a unique organisation to ensure that, amidst all the inevitable confusion and chaos of landing from thousands of small craft under direct enemy fire, men and equipment would be efficiently organised upon the beach and helped to advance inland as speedily as possible.

Reconnoitring the beaches

The first phase of building as comprehensive a picture of each beach's characteristics consisted of a thorough trawl of any and all published information. Naturally, every relevant existing map and chart was studied, but pre-war holiday photographs were also collected. The British devised a system of code-names for every possible beach. Thus, for example, the Normandy beaches from the Cotentin Peninsula to the mouth of the River Orne at Ouistreham were divided into a series of sectors named from a phonetic alphabet. The sectors in the British-Canadian area of proposed operations ran consecutively from How (at Port-en-Bessin) to Roger (at Ouistreham): How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger. Each sector in turn comprised two or three beaches, named Green (west), White (centre) and Red (east).

In the event, five beach sectors and eleven beaches were selected for the initial British and Canadian landings: 

Gold Jig Jig Green
Jig Red
King King Green
King Red
Juno Mike Mike Green
Mike Red
Nan Nan Green
Nan White
Nan Red
Sword Queen Queen White
Queen Red

Once the beach head had been secured on D-Day, work began to open up neighbouring beach sectors for the arrival of reinforcements. Thus beaches in Item, Love and Peter sectors were all gradually brought into use.

RAF and USAAF reconnaissance aircraft were tasked with the photographic survey of the beaches, taking pictures at different states of tide, to help the planners calculate the gradient of the beach. This was a critical factor in determining how close inshore the landing craft would be able to get before grounding, and how deep the water would be for troops and vehicles to wade through. Steeper gradients would allow the larger landing craft to get much closer than more shallow gradients. Just as important was the intelligence that the photographs offered, especially at low tide, on the positions and design of the beach obstacles which the Germans were erecting on any beach they thought at risk of attack. To photograph only the beaches in Normandy would have made revealed the Allies intent to the Germans - thus the French and Belgian coasts were photographed from the Spanish border to the Dutch border. The photographic missions were often conducted at extremely low level, and all too often required the reconnaissance pilots to fly in a predictable straight line over heavy German defences and vulnerable to being bounced by German fighters. And since the Germans were continually working to extend and improve their beach defences, particularly after Rommel was assigned to command, the surveys had to be frequently repeated to ensure that every new obstacle was detected if at all possible. One of the results of this huge reconnaissance effort was that the coxswains of the assault landing craft on D-Day could be given photographs of the appearance of their particular beach taken from almost wave-top height 1,500 yards from shore.

However, the best information of all could clearly be gained by a physical covert inspection of the beaches. In particular, sandbars could only really be studied in the detail needed by swimmers. To this end, Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, or COPPs, had been formed. These were small teams of specialist officers from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army trained to conduct night reconnaissance work on the beaches and in the shallows. Each team included a Royal Navy navigation specialist and a Royal Engineer officer. They were transported to the French coast by small craft or submarines after dark, and made their way ashore in Folbot collapsible canoes. They then had to conduct their survey work amidst mines and booby-trapped obstacles under the noses of German sentries, before making their way back out to sea before dawn. The information sought on each beach included:

  • Material - mud, firm sand, soft sand, sand dunes, clay, gravel, stones or rock.
  • Slope - steep, allowing troops and equipment to land dry, or flat, requiring a long wade ashore.
  • Width - the useable portion of beach, taking account of obstructions, whether natural or artificial.
  • Depth - the distance from the water's edge to the hinterland, varied by the tidal state.
  • False beaches - reefs, sand bars, etc, which might prevent landing craft reaching the true beach.
  • Tides and currents - these could have a critical effect on a landing operation.

Most of the beaches in Normandy proved to be very flat, with a long subsequent wade ashore from larger landing craft, and with significant tidal variation. Several were backed by dunes or cliffs, but many had the advantage of being relatively wide.  The COPP teams trained on the beaches at Brancaster in Norfolk, which were suitably similar to those in Normandy, before undertaking their hazardous missions during the winter of 1943-44.

Organisation on the beach

The British Armed Forces had recognised before the war that a system to organise men and equipment on a beach during anything but the simplest landing operation would be needed. However, the 1938 doctrine assumed that this could be achieved by an ad hoc team under the command of a Royal Navy officer acting as the Beach Master, and an Army logistics officer as the Military Landing Officer. During the early war years, it became clear that a more formal structure was needed, properly trained to operate with specific Army assault formations. By 1942, Combined Operations Headquarters had established a training establishment at Dundonald near Kilmarnock, where personnel from all three Services trained together on Beach Organisation, and the concept and structure of the teams was steadily tested and refined during the amphibious landings in Madagascar, North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

Beach communications
Two RAF Policemen man a Beach Organisation communications point established in a captured German pillbox

For Neptune, each of the three British and Canadian sectors was allocated a Beach Sub-Area headquarters - Sword was the responsibility of 101st Beach Sub-Area, Juno was allocated to the 102nd, and Gold to the 104th. Each of the Beach Sub-Areas commanded in turn two or three Royal Navy Beach Commandos, two or three Army Beach Groups, and one RAF Beach Unit.

Each of the Army Beach Groups was based around an infantry battalion, responsible for an individual beach. The infantry both provided the bulk of the labour needed, as well as a significant combat capability, whether to seize key parts of the beach or to defend against counter-attacks. Attached to the battalion were specialists from the Royal Engineers to clear obstructions and prepare exit routes from the beach, the Royal Army Service Corps and Royal Army Ordnance Corps to handle supplies, beach recovery units from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to clear damaged or drowned vehicles out of the way, Royal Army Medical Corps personnel to tend to casualties, Military Police to organise traffic flow across the beach, and Pioneer Corps units to provide additional labour.

The Royal Navy Beach Commandos each consisted of some seven officers as Beach Masters, assisted by 48 ratings. Their responsibilities focused on controlling the arrival and departure of landing craft, with the Army Beach Groups taking responsibility for their cargoes once ashore. The small Royal Air Force Beach Units were needed to handle special RAF needs and equipment - the establishment of Advanced Landing Grounds just behind the beach heads were an early priority to allow aircraft to refuel and rearm and thus provide more efficient air support to the invading forces. The also handled the arrival of a mobile fighter control and radar unit on the afternoon of D-Day, which was operational by the evening, controlling the RAF night-fighter patrols which protected the beaches during the hours of darkness. The RAF also provided the barrage balloon units to protect the shore and anchorages from low-level air attack.

An RAF Beach Unit unloads fuel from a landing craft
Members of an RAF Beach Unit unload jerricans from a landing craft

Advanced parties from the Beach Group and Beach Commando went ashore with the first wave of the assault, to take immediate charge and start marking exits and the locations for ammunition and supply dumps. The three Services contributed signallers to man a Main Beach Signal Station to keep the headquarters ships offshore informed of the situation on the beach and adjust the flow of landing craft ashore in light of the tactical situation. Personnel from the Beach Organisation can often be easily recognised in photographs of the landings - they had a white band painted around their steel helmets.

The major Beach units involved on D-Day in the British and Canadian sectors were:

  Sword Juno Gold
Beach Sub-Area

101st

102nd

104th

RN Beach Commandos

F and R

L, P and S

J, Q and T

Beach Groups

5th (5th Battalion The King's Regiment) -
Queen Beach

 

6th (1st Battalion The Buckinghamshire Regiment) -
Reserve

 

7th (8th Battalion The King's Regiment)
Mike Beach

 

8th (5th Battalion The Buckinghamshire Regiment) -
Nan Beach

 

4th - Reserve

9th (2nd Battalion The King's Regiment)
King Beach

 

10th (6th Battalion The Buckinghamshire Regiment) -
Jig Beach

 

36th (18th Durham Light Infantry) -
Reserve

RAF Beach Units

1st, comprising 101st and 102nd Beach Sections

2nd, comprising 103rd and 104th Beach Sections

4th, comprising 107th and 108th Beach Sections

 

Obstacle Clearance and Beach Breaching Units

The German anti-landing craft obstructions on the beaches tended to fall into three belts. Furthest out were large gate-like scaffolding barriers, called Element C, each nine feet high and nine feet wide. Closer inshore were rows of large stakes angled outwards, often with either a "tin-opener" blade or a mine or artillery shell strapped to the end. Lastly, the shallows were lined with "hedgehogs" of steel girders seven feet long, welded together in an angled cluster and set in concrete. All of these had the ability to blow up, impale or overturn a landing craft that struck them.

Accordingly, Royal Navy and Royal Engineer teams were assembled to clear paths through the obstacles. Navy frogmen from Landing Craft Obstacle Clearance Units would deal with those in deeper water, while the sappers would take care of those in the shallows or exposed on the beach. The Combined Operations Experimental Establishment developed special shallow water diving gear, prototypes of the scuba equipment taken for granted nowadays by sports divers, consisting of a rubber two piece suit and fins, with an air tank giving twenty minutes supply. Small and easily handled underwater demolition charges were also developed, with methods of attaching them to a variety of surfaces. The divers had to contend with the dangers of tide and current, limited air supply, the risk of being run over by landing craft or their propellers, and the numbing effect of the cold on their hands - gloves were impracticable given the careful work needed setting the charges.

During the initial assault, the specially developed Landing Craft Assault (Hedgerow) were also available. Unlike the larger LCT(R)s which had been fitted with a thousand artillery rockets each to drench the shore defences with explosives, the Hedgerows mounted 24 large demolition spigot mortars - a salvo was calculated to clear a path 80 yards long and twelve yards wide.

Ashore, the specialised armour of 79th Armoured Division was available to help clear obstacles and minefields, and open up exits from the beaches. The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers was a converted Churchill tank, chosen for its thick armour, roomy hull to carry sappers and equipment, and its excellent mobility - although slow, it could climb steep inclines better than any other Allied tank. The AVRE was armed with a Petard spigot mortar which could throw a large demolition bomb about eighty yards. Most were also fitted with additional equipment on D-Day. Some carried fascines - large bundles of wood which could be dropped into ditches or trenches to provide a crossing - while others carried assault bridges or were fitted with "bobbins" - large drums of steel and canvas matting to be laid in strips up the beach to help vehicles get across patches of soft sand. The AVREs on D-Day were manned by the 5th and 6th Assault Regiments Royal Engineers, and were distributed in squadron strength along the beaches that made up Sword, Juno and Gold.

The Royal Engineers also deployed a number of bulldozers, some of which were armoured, on the beaches. The task of clearing a rapid path through German minefields fell to the Sherman Crab tanks, manned by the 2nd County of London Yeomanry (Westminster Dragoons) and the 22nd Dragoons. These were fitted with a rotating drum and chains with which to flail the ground ahead of the vehicle to explode mines. This was dangerous work - the vehicles were vulnerable to anti-tank fire while flailing, and the chains could miss mines lying in hollows.

Vehicles on the beach
The scene on one of the beaches in the British sector on 7 June, with the Beach Organisation clearing damaged vehicles and establishing order to allow reinforcements to be landed

Lastly, mention should be made of the prodigious quantities of smoke equipment brought ashore, or operated afloat from trawlers by specialist Pioneer Companies to provide smoke screens to protect the beaches. By the end of August, 28,500 No24 smoke generators had been consumed, along with 2,800 smoke floats and 141,000 gallons of fog oil. When Queen Beach was evacuated in July due to continual German shelling, the smoke screen there was maintained to give the impression it was still in use. Furthermore, an RAF Camouflage and Decoy unit set up appropriate lighting to suggest vehicle movements, and dummy vehicles were constructed to populate the beach. A dummy coaster was even built on the wreck of a landing craft. As a result of the decoys, the Germans continued to shell the now empty beach.

Last Updated: 5 Jan 05