|Narrative by:||Commander John F. Curtin, USNR.|
CO, Beach Battalion in NEPTUNE Operation.
|Commander Curtin tells of the experiences of the Second Beach Battalion in Sicily, Salerno, and Normandy, with emphasis on his experiences on UTAH Beach. He left that beach on 6 July 1944 and gave this recording on 25 July.|
This is 25 July 1944. John F. Curtin, Commander, USNR, Commanding Officer of the Second Beach Battalion, returned from the United Kingdom 24 July 1944.
The Second Beach Battalion was organized and commissioned at Camp Bradford, Virginia, during the latter half of March 1943. It moved from Camp Allen to New York on 31 March of that year and sailed for North Africa the following day.
The trip was made on the Army transport H.F. Alexander, and the Battalion arrived in Oran, Algeria, 13 April 1943 -- in a convoy which included the S.S. Acadia, upon which the Fourth Beach Battalion was embarked.
Both Battalions reported to the Commander, Eighth Amphibious Force, and at once began a period of intensive training in the field with the 1st Engineer Amphibian Brigade, U.S. Army. (The training continued up to the Sicilian landing.)
The Second Beach Battalion worked with the 36th and 540th Regiments, Combat Engineers, U.S. Army. The Fourth Beach Battalion was attached to the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment.
The Second Battalion, with the 36th Regiment, moved to Tunisia during the last half of June. It embarked, for the Sicilian Invasion, on various landing craft of the JOSS Attack Force, which was assembled in and near Bizerte.
The Fourth Battalion proceeded from Algeria by water, on various Transport Divisions and on LCI, and, in the Sicilian Invasion, landed with the DIME Attack Force at Gela.
The JOSS Attack Force, to which the Second Beach Battalion was attached, landed on the beaches adjacent to Licata, Sicily, and later moved into that port. I was C.O. of the Second Battalion and, of course, landed with it.
The Sicilian Operation was not an especially difficult one from an amphibious standpoint. The assault beaches had gradients ranging from 1 in 30 to 1 in 70 and, while landing operations were hampered somewhat by surf for the first day or so, conditions were never so bad as to compel the cessation of operations.
The enemy defense of the beaches in and around Licata -- and of the port, itself -- was somewhat "spotty." That is, some units stood to their positions and fought well, while others surrendered with no resistance, or only a show of it.
The defense at Gela was somewhat along the same line or, I should say, proceeded somewhat along the same pattern. But at Gela, the enemy was able to mount a strong counter-attack (if memory serves me rightly, on D+1) and, at that time, drove tanks into the town, which was on a cliff overlooking the beach. All arms ashore, of course, attempted to repel the tanks. So also did the forces afloat. It is impossible to say which service definitely should be credited with the destruction of 14 out of the 18 enemy tanks which attacked. The Savannah is, generally, credited with having put most of them out of action.
Things went well ashore in the Licata area, so well, in fact, that troops of the Third Division which landed there were able to move to the assistance of the First Division and were of material help in repelling the enemy counter-attack, and in facilitating the advance which followed the defeat of the enemy force attempting it.
The progress of our attack, or rather, of our forces in Sicily, is well known (and better known to many people than it is to me), so that I shall not attempt to describe it.
The forces of the Second Battalion had duty, as our troops progressed, at Porto Empodocle, Palermo, Termini Imerese, Santa Caronia and as far east on the north coast of Sicily as Cap d-Orlando, officers and men of the Battalion participating in certain movements of our troops (in comparatively small landings behind the enemy lines) which were of much value in compelling the enemy's withdrawal.
The last of the officers and men of the Second Battalion returned to base in Algeria (from Sicily) on 20 August.
Enemy aerial activity was sporadic. But frequent hit-and-run attacks were made on the beaches on D-day, on D+1 and D+2, and a few on D+3 and D+4. Generally, the attacks were more damaging to the enemy than to ourselves, because they lost many of the planes attempting them. But some of their bombing was effective and they did score some direct hits, not only on the beaches, but on landing craft lying upon them. One LST, if memory serves me rightly, #358, was destroyed on the morning of D+1, and other craft of the JOSS Attack Force were sunk or damaged.
The period after the return of the Second Battalion from Sicily was occupied with the re-equipment and continued training of the officers and men.
One Platoon of the Battalion participated in the landing at Salerno and left Algeria for that operation early in September. There were non unusual occurrences connected with its participation. Enemy defense at Salerno was spirited, but followed the usual pattern, and after the landing, the Platoon returned to Algeria and rejoined the other units of the Battalion.
During the following weeks, the Battalion engaged, upon a somewhat limited scale, in the training, in amphibious operations, of French Shore Engineers and in the training of French Colonial Divisions. It also trained small French Naval Units in beach word, and carried on this activity until the end of October, at which time advice was received that the battalion would be moved to another theater.
Training was stiffened; effort was made fully to equip the Battalion, and it sailed from Mers-el-Kebir, on 12 November, for the United Kingdom.
The personnel of the Battalion were dispersed over 7 LSTs and they, in turn, formed part of a convoy which numbered more than 70 vessels when it passed the Straits of Gibraltar.
The convoy was under enemy observation from the time it cleared the Straits, and was the subject of almost continuous enemy submarine attack until it arrived in the United Kingdom.
Many of these attacks were smashed by the convoy escort, but in some of them the escort screen was penetrated, and the enemy submarines were attacked within the body of the convoy. This was the case on 20 November.
On 21 November, the convoy was attacked by glider bombs, the enemy sending against our ships in the neighborhood of 20 to 24.
Control of the bombs appeared to be excellent. The enemy was able to change their courses at will, and appeared to have some degree of control over their altitude as well. The discharging planes remained out of range, sending the glider bombs in over the convoy with comparative safety to themselves.
One escort ship was sunk, one large merchant ship was sunk, and some others in the convoy were damaged.
The speed of the bombs appeared to prevent absolute accuracy of control. There were many "near misses", which came so close alongside the ships at which the bombs were directed, that some damage was done.
The enemy planes, during the attack, were hampered somewhat by the necessity of defending themselves from attacks by friendly planes. But the latter were compelled to break off the action because of lack of fuel or, I should say, because of shortage of fuel. And, for a short time, the ships in the convoy were "on their own" so far as active defense went.
The convoy arrived in the United Kingdom on the day after Thanksgiving. (The voyage of the convoy, and a report of the enemy attacks upon it, was covered by an Admiralty Release of either the 20 or 21 of January 1944.)
The Battalion, upon arrival in the United Kingdom, was compelled, by the "quartering" situation, to order some of its officers and men to Instowe -- four platoons being ordered to our Base there. The other five platoons, with Battalion Headquarters, were ordered to Fowey, England.
Most of the officers and men at the latter point immediately were turned-to on various "Base DUties", and in the erection of Nissen Huts in which the Battalion could be quartered. The accommodations available upon arrival -- in hotels, etc. -- were not at all satisfactory, and every effort was made to complete the "Hut Camp" so that proper command control could be exercised.
At the same time, contact was made with Navy command and the Army upon arrival in the U.K., and it was learned, with pleasure, that the Battalion would be affiliated with the "1st Engineer Special Brigade" -- the Commanding Officer of which (with many members of his staff) had worked with the Battalion in North Africa and in Sicily and at Salerno. The Battalion and Brigade Staffs at once were coordinated and the Units participated in several landing exercises, the first being designated as "DUCK 1" and occurring about 1 January. This was the first large amphibious exercise of American forces in the U.K. Other exercises were carried on, some of them large and some of them small, practically continuously until the final mounting of the NEPTUNE operation.
During the early part of the year, the Second Beach Battalion was the only one in the United Kingdom. It was joined, at the end of January, by the Sixth Beach Battalion, which came over from the United States, and in March, by the Seventh Battalion, which likewise came across especially for the operation.
The 1st Engineer Special Brigade and the Second Beach Battalion were assigned the duty of landing, in assault, the Fourth Infantry Division, and operated with the UTAH Attack Force. Landing was on beaches near Varreville -- those beaches being closest, of those utilized for the assault, to Cherbourg and, of course, on the Cotentin Peninsula.
Naval Combat Demolition Units were ordered to the Battalion in February, and their training continued, under Battalion direction, until the end of April. At that time, information in hand definitely showed the Units then attacked to the Battalion would be inadequate in number and in individual strength to meet the demands the operation would place upon them. For those reasons, additional Units were brought from the United States, and all Units were strengthened by the addition of Army personnel, so that, instead of the original units of 1 officer and 5 men, those finally destined to operate in the landing consisted of 1 officer and 15 men; and to each Unit the Battalion added a Signalman.
The landing of the Attack Force on the UTAH Beaches was not made exactly at the points which had been selected in advance -- the Beaches on which the assault actually occurred being about 1200 yards to the southward of the selected ones. This worked very much to our advantage, it was discovered later, because the enemy strong points upon the selected beaches were much heavier that were those of the sectors upon which the landing actually was made, and the underwater obstacles upon the selected beaches were more numerous, were of much more substantial construction, and were heavily mined -- while those upon the beaches upon which we actually "went in" were not mined. The UTAH Beach area itself, or rather, the area behind the stone wall which ran along the beaches, just above the high-water line, was heavily mined. Losses were sustained, in clearing the area and in clearing paths through it for men and equipment for many days after the landing.
There was a certain amount of aimed (manual and automatic) small-arms fire on the Beaches at the time of the landing, and the beach defenses, which included guns up to 88 mm., were also active. Those on the Assault Beaches were put out of action quite early and without too many casualties.
The Beaches, however, were under fire from enemy batteries, located north and south of them, for many days after the landing. The batteries consisting of 155's (so nearly as we could judge) and of 88's.
On D-day and D+1 and D+2, tow batteries, each of four guns, ranged the Beaches. Quite evidently, they had good spotting service, because their fire was concentrated upon points on the beaches at which there were many landing craft and men. One of the batteries -- that which was firing on the beaches from the southward -- was "taken out" sometime on D+2. The other continued to fire on the beaches for some days thereafter.
The fire was not heavy, and after D+4 or 5 was only sporadic. But, such as it was, it was fairly accurate. And it is considered miraculous that our losses were not much heavier than they were.
The guns bearing on the Beaches finally were eliminated, or I should say, the guns were originally bore on the Beaches were liquidated. At about D+9, mobile (we believed) guns opened fire. These guns operated from positions to the northward, and it was impossible to locate them. They continued to fire on the Beaches, but not at frequent intervals, until about 1700 on 17 June, at which time our forces had advanced sufficiently to the northward to drive the enemy beyond range. It is not known whether these guns retired or whether they were destroyed.
There was some aerial activity over the Beaches by the enemy. But our coverage functioned so well, although, as a rule, out of our sight, that the attacks were few and far between. Planes came over occasionally and not only dropped bombs on the Beaches, but on two occasions dropped sea mines on them. This last activity may have been accidental because frequent attempts were made by the enemy to fly over the transport area and mine it. These attempts met with some success, four of our minesweepers being lost in one day because of them.
The operation of the Beaches continued under these conditions from the time of the landing, except when the gale of June 18-21 interfered. (The Beaches were very flat, the gale was an on-shore one, and during it, surf was breaking over such an extended area that the use of "ferry-craft" -- i.e., Rhino ferries, LCT and LCM -- to unload the larger craft and bring their cargoes and the equipment they carried into the Beaches was absolutely impossible.) At that time, there was a rather acute shortage of certain kinds of ammunition, and in order to prevent the shortage from becoming a dangerous one, many coasters loaded with ammunition were deliberately brought in and beached at about high-water, so that they would "dry-out" and could be worked with DUKWs and trucks after the water had receded from them. A considerable quantity of much-needed ammunition was brought in in this way. And the coasters were cleared of the beaches without the loss of any of them.
The initial assault landing was made on two beaches -- one of which was designated as "UNCLE RED" and the other as "TARE GREEN". On D+1, a third beach, designated as "SUGAR RED", was opened to the northward, and on the same day and the following one, the naval combat demolition units cleared a fourth beach area of obstacles and mines -0-0 about a mile and a quarter to the northward of "SUGAR RED". This beach was known as "ROGER WHITE", and was opened, primarily, for the handling of coasters. Early attempts to work coasters off it were discontinued because of enemy artillery fire, but after liquidation of the batteries and mobile guns heretofore mentioned, the beach was worked without interruption and proved to be a very useful one.
Up to 1800, 3 July, the UTAH Beaches had landed 188,098 men, 119,529 tons of equipment and supplies, and 32,617 vehicles, including mobile artillery. During the same period, 14,802 casualties and 30,805 prisoners of war were evacuated from the beaches.
I sailed from UTAH Beaches on 6 July, after being delayed in departure for a day by breakage of the ramp of the LST upon which I embarked, and for that reason, the record of landings and evacuations form the beaches is given only up to the date and time specified, that is, to 1800, 3 July.
Approximately two-thirds of the Second Beach Battalion left with me, the remaining one-third standing by to continue the operation of the UTAH Beaches, and also to operate the small port of St. Vaast, about 11 miles to the northward of them.
The operation of the UTAH Beaches brought much commendation from military and naval authorities, who had inspected all of them beaches in the NEPTUNE Operation. The efficiency and smoothness with which the landing was made, and the operation of the beaches carried on, were stated not to have been surpassed anywhere.
Much of the credit for the success of the operation is due the 1st Engineer Special Brigade and the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment which was a component of it. (The Brigade had worked with the Navy in Mediterranean operations; the Regiment had been in all of our landing operations.)
Brigade and Regimental Commands not only had the knowledge, skill, and experience necessary successfully to carry on the operation, but, as well, consistently were motivated by a spirit of cooperation and help, which did much to facilitate the performance of duty by the Navy. The thanks of the Second Beach Battalion are extended for that cooperation.