Sunday 12 April 2015

The next Battle.

SUPPORT SQUADRON, EASTERN FLANK.               7-Jul-1944  to  30-Jun-1945
Dad wasn’t to be away from the action too long it seems. Again it is extremely difficult to track him down to specific places and times as he was not on any particular vessels books that we can track. He is still down as an additional to HMS Odyssey the ‘hotel in Ilfracombe’. His duty is written as special service for cipher duties on the staff of the Supports Squadron Eastern Flank. This is also the time that he was again promoted to the dizzy rank of Temporary Sub Lieutenant. If you remember he was only ‘Acting’ previously. He is Temporary due to the fact he was RNVR, hostilities only, draft.  He actually is recorded as going back on the Secret list on 25th July 1944. This may indicate that this was when he went aboard a vessel and not ashore.
Dad’s final report for this phase in his career is signed by Commander Anthony F. Pugsley RN. This chap was the commanding officer of the support squadron so once again Dad was at the centre of things. I cannot find much about Commander Pugsley, or for that matter the Support Squadron, Eastern Flank SSEF. It seems that the SSEF was formed after the Normandy Landings and was the follow up to the ‘Trout Line’ that was established on the eastern side of Sword beach. This utilised the smaller assault ships that had participated in the landings. At night they were anchored in a long line around the large units, very close to each other to provide a barrier against the attack of E Boats (Called E boats as it was ‘Enemy’! The Germans called them Schnell S Boats), unmanned explosive boats, human torpedoes and drifting mines. The earliest reference to the SSEF I can find is about 5 days after D Day. The vessels had been used to support the landings but as the battle had moved in land they had become redundant for their primary role. Dad had spoken of being involved in throwing hand grenades over the side and patrolling all night to protect the ships from human topedoes and I had always assumed this would be in the Mediterranean as I didn’t know that the Germans had them. He also spoke of driving DUKWs so I assume that this was when he was with the SSEF.
The SSEF was made up mainly of LCG (L) and (M)’s (Landing Craft Gun, large and Medium), LCF (Landing Craft Flak) and LCT(R) (Landing Craft Tank (Rocket). As an aside the LCF’s were the only RN vessels to have a German name as Flak is German for anti aircraft fire! All these craft were landing craft for tanks that had the deck space plated over and magazines and accommodation put under. The LCG’s had two 4.3” guns and some machine guns mounted and a crew of 40, 24 of whom were Royal Marines to man the guns. The LCF’s had Oerlikons and Pom Pom guns. The LCT(R) had 1080 6” rockets fitted in ranks that were fired off by a 12v battery, They were fired off in salvos at the beaches to clear obstacles etc.
LCF 37 at Portsmouth before D Day. Note PLUTO reel in background.
LCG(L) 2 before Operation Infatuate

LCT(R) showing details of rocket launch apparatus.

Another photo of the deck of an LCF.

There were also LCH’s Landing Craft Headquarters and landing craft used for hospital first aid stations.
Dad was specifically on the staff of the Support Squadron. I am not sure whether this means he was attached to a particular vessel or moved with the Commanding Officer or not.
The Support Squadron, Eastern Flank’s big battle was one of the bloodiest and funnily enough one of the least known of the Second World War. It was also in a place where British Forces had been humbled previously whilst trying to open up a second front. On 30-Jul-1809 during the Napoleonic wars 300 ships landed 42000 men on the island of Walcheren. Their task was to open up a second front, to capture a French fleet in Holland, to capture the arsenal at Antwerp and deny the use of the Scheldt to the French. They never left the island as they were literally bogged down as the French had flooded the place. The troops suffered a terrible disease that became known as Walcheren Fever. 8000 died and 10’s of thousands were too sick to do anything. They eventually withdrew to lick there wounds.
The same island was to be the site of a decisive battle once again as the tide of war again broke on the beaches of the Scheldt. Following the D Day landings the fighting had moved from the beaches and the supply lines were getting ever more stretched. Eventually the French Channel ports were taken but these were already far from the lines. Montgomery was urged to move on Antwerp and the Belgium and Dutch ports but he waited until his supplies had built up but finally took Antwerp in early September. However it could not be used as a port as the river access to it was protected by very heavy gun emplacements on the island of Walcheren. Polish and Canadian troops were ordered to take the ground between Antwerp and Walcheren and then storm the island. The island had a causeway to the mainland that was about 30yds wide and dead straight for nearly a mile. Either side were marsh and mud flats. The Canadians fought their way to the causeway over the next weeks and continued to try to cross the causeway. It was decided that a three pronged attack should take place to speed up the taking of the island. The island had perhaps the most heavily fortified coastline in the world. It had 30 batteries in various types of fortifications. There were 50 to 60 guns of 75 to 220mm calibre. The guns were manned by Lieutenant General Dasser’s 70th Infantry Division. They were known as the ‘white bread men’ as most of them had gastric complaints so were not fit of front line infantry. It was thought there were approximately 4000 German troops.
Map showing the German defences of Walcheren and the landings of the Allies.
After much soul searching and discussion it was decided that to try to disable the guns the dykes surrounding the island should be breeched which would mean most of the island would be inundated. It was obvious that there would be loss of life amongst the inhabitants so on 2nd October they were warned by radio, and by pamphlets dropped by planes. Most chose to stay. Between 3rd and 11th October the dykes were pounded with 2378t of explosives and 4 large breaks were created. The fields were completely flooded and at certain states of the tide a 6kt current flew in and out of the breeches. However there was little damage caused to the gun emplacements as they were either built on the dykes them selves, or were sufficiently elevated to avoid been flooded. Communications between them and the ease of supply were severely disrupted though. In Westkapelle only 50 house were left habitable.
Air reconnaissance photograph showing the breech at Westkapelle and the damage to the town.
There were further air raids in the run up to the invasion for which the date had been set when there were the first favourable tides, 1st November 1944. It was decided that heavy bombardment by airplanes would be required to ‘soften up’ the opposition despite the belief that only direct hits would have any effect on the fortifications. On 28th October 261 bombers dropped 1189t, on the 29th 327 planes dropped 1562t and on the 30th 89 planes dropped 555t of explosives. Six aircraft were lost during these operations. Further bombardments were to have taken place just prior to the landings but there was much political to’ing and fro’ing about the priorities of Bomber Command, and in the end the weather was not good enough for the planes to take off any way.
The three pronged attack was for the Canadians to the east, who were fighting to establish a bridgehead on the island end of the Causeway, to continue their attempt. The second prong was for a force of Royal Marine Commandos to go ashore from Landing Craft in the area of Flushing to the south and the third would be a landing from the sea at Westkapelle to the north west. Dad and the SSEF were to be the protection for the third Prong to Westkapelle.

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