I Was There! - We of the Warspite Shelled the French Coast
How went the first hours of D-Day? In these personal stories glimpses are give of some of the actions and incidents that made June 6, 1944, memorable as the actual commencement of the greatest combined operation known to mankind – the mighty assault on Hitler's fabled fortress in the West to free the enslaved peoples of Europe.
Four men with their eyes glued to their powerful binoculars mounted in the control tower from which the fire of this battleship is directed shouted together “there he goes again!” as a winking light on the shoulder of the skyline this afternoon betrayed a powerful German gun in action. It had obviously been dragged into position overnight to take the place of the battery which we had knocked clean out with our 15-inch salvos yesterday. The new arrivals had dug themselves in near the old position probably because no other so completely commanded our beaches.
They had no intention of interfering with us. Seeing the devastation of yesterday so near them, they probably had a healthy respect for our gunnery, but they betrayed their activity by a few unostentatious ranging shots which they put out to sea. What they wanted to do was to take advantage of the hazy distance between us and them to get on with their real job of harassing the beach without being spotted by guns like ours which could answer back. It was part of the schedule of the cruisers Frobisher and Scylla to investigate certain targets reported to them by aircraft, and so they were instructed as they passed nearby to let the new-occupants have a few salvos. It was hoped that the Germans would return the fire and so give us an opportunity of marking them down accurately for the attention of our heavier guns. I was in the director control tower when one of the gunnery officers' team reported “Frobisher has opened fire, sir”.
“Now we will see if Jerry accepts the bait”, said the gunnery officer (“Guns”). It was a few seconds later that the cry went up from the watchers, of whom I happened tenants bit all right, and the tell-tale gun flashes from the all but invisible skyline were quickly translated into a target for our “B” turret. Distance, angle of sight and a dozen other readings were transmitted to the G.T. “table” in the bowels of the ship from which all the guns get their instructions.
In the meantime, another of our team had noted the fall of shot about the two cruisers. It was too close to be healthy, and from the splashes we judged the guns to be 5'9 in. or 6'1 in, big pieces to have got into position so quickly unless they were mobile. The Germans had taken the bait wholly, and flash after flash revealed them as they tried to pin down the weaving cruisers.
I took my eyes from the binoculars for a second to peep through my armoured slit at the blistered and blackened barrels of the old “Spite's” guns. They were already trained of the “new tenants”, cocked so aggressively so that where I sat 20 feet above the captain's bridge I could almost look down their grizzled muzzles. They were only waiting the order of Captain Kelsey to spit out the inferno of flame and brown smoke speeding their ton-weight of high explosive to its billet. “Open fire!” came the order from the bridge. The Director Layer – an experienced warrant officer – pressed a foot-pedal which can fire all the main armament in one mighty broadside.
Two ranging shells went screaming away through the volcano of smoke and flame which blotted everything from our view temporarily. “Guns” imperturbably noted the passage of the seconds. It was amazing how all the crew could tell you exactly when the projectiles were going to burst. “Splash!” sang out “Guns”, using the technical slang to indicate that the shot had fallen; and peering through my binoculars I saw two fountains of grey smoke spring up from the side of the hill. We were “right for line” as they say, but a little short. “Up 200” and “right one” were the instructions that sent the next two ranging shots screaming on their path. Then whoops of delight rang through the D.C.T. As the next salvo spouted high above the horizon, exactly where we had seen the gun flashes of the “new tenants”.
“That will make them think again, but let them have another for luck!” said “Guns”. Away screamed another salvo and as the “projjies” hurtled on their way still echoing faintly back at us the German battery flashed again. “Wait until this one reaches you!” Again we seemed dead on the target, and behind the dun-coloured bursts of our shells a great cauliflower of angry smoke spread and drifted to leeward in a heavy pall.
In the absence of a spotting aircraft to give us a bird's-eye report, we could only gauge our success by whether or not the “new tenants” manned their guns again. There was no sign of life and no further reply to Frosbisher's fire, nothing from that direction harrying the beach, and we came to the conclusion that the gun site was again “to let”.
Though we had fired until dusk on Tuesday we were ready again by 6.30 this morning. The first target reported to us came at 7.40 when spotting aircraft recommended for our attention a group of transport attached to a Panzer column two miles north of Caen. It was moving south-westerly along a road. Three two-gun salvos landed smack in the middle of them, and then, shifting range a thousand yards, we put three more salvos into some more transport concentrated near a village. The aircraft reported so many of the vehicles destroyed that they did not consider it worth our while continuing.
Then we had indicated to use some strongly held earthworks in a wooded area south of a village. Including our ranging shots we only needed to put 20 rounds into this strong-point before we received the report that it appeared to be totally destroyed. Next came news of a troublesome German A.A. Battery of five guns lying on high ground and, ranging on it, we quickly knocked out four of them.
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