|Narrative by:||Commander Byron S. Huie, Jr., USNR.|
Salvage ships Operations in Normandy Invasion.
|Commander Huie was in charge of salvage operations off the Normandy beaches in June and July, 1944. He tells a good story of an important phase of the invasion. Work of the salvage units was a definite contribution to the success of the combat operations.|
This is 18 August 1944. I am Commander Byron S. Huie, Jr., United States Naval Reserve. Ship salvage has expanded greatly as a result of the war. This is the story of the combat phase of salvage operations off the Normandy beaches. In May, a salvage and fire fighting group was organized as part of the Western Naval Task Force under Admiral Kirk. This salvage and fire fighting group was placed under the command of Commodore W.W. Sullivan. His group was designated as Task Group 122.3. It, in turn, was divided into a number of units.
The first two of these units were designated combat salvage and fire fighting units. One which I commanded, was assigned to assault Force "O" commanded by Admiral Hall. The other unit commanded by Lieutenant Commander Marshall L. Mac Clung was assigned to assault Force "U" under Admiral Moon. The remaining units of Commodore Sullivan's group consisted of the Reserve unit, harbor clearance salvage unit, harbor clearance mine disposal unit, harbor hydrographic group.
This story will deal chiefly with the combat salvage and fire fighting unit which I commanded. This unit was comprised initially of three ships, the USS Pinto, an ATF, the USS Arikara, another ATF, and the ATR 2. In addition to the normal compliment of these craft, an extra salvage officer and fire fighting officer was assigned to each. Also, 10 salvage specialists and eight fire fighting specialists, making a total of 20 additional personnel assigned to each ship. These men and officers were selected for their special qualifications from the salvage and fire fighting personnel which had been training at Base Two in Rozneath, Scotland since December of the preceding year.
In addition to the additional personnel, additional gear and equipment was also placed aboard these ships. It consisted principally of fire fighting pumps, hose, foam nozzles, salvage pumps, welding machines, diving compressors, diving gear and a small amount of explosives and prepared scuttling charges.
Our operational plan, known as Number 1-44, dated 11 May 1944, provided that our task unit should assemble at Plymouth, England on Y minus 5, take on board additional salvage and fire fighting gear and combat salvage and fire fighting teams, and be prepared to sail by "Y" day. Y day was designated as the day on which all should be in readiness for the attack. That was 1 June. So on that day, the three combat salvage and fire fighting ships assigned to Admiral Hall and assault Force "O" reported readiness and took position near his flagship, the Ancon. This, however, was at Portland and not at Plymouth as previously designated. As commander of the unit, I went aboard the Ancon.
On the afternoon of 5 June, we weighed anchor and put to sea in the direction of Portland Bill. The Ancon led the force, with the other troop transports in line astern of her. My three salvage ships were in line immediately astern of the last transport. On our right and left, the invasion fleet stretched out as far as you could see. Even then, we did not know whether this was the real thing, because prior to that time, numerous maneuvers had been conducted, perhaps to confuse the enemy. So many ships could not be hidden from view.
After dinner that night, however, it was announced aboard the Ancon that we were actually headed for the Normandy coast. At 0330 the next morning, we dropped our anchors in the anchorage area several miles off the beach and lay there watching the aerial bombardment. I believe that bombardment lasted about two hours. We could see the beach silhouetted by the flash of the bombs. After the aerial bombardment, the Naval bombardment opened on previously designated targets. At about 0715, all firing ceased and the first wave, comprised of infantry and Navy combat demolition teams and LCVPs and LCMs, headed through the line of ships, formed a wave and started for the beach. Just before they hit the beach, the enemy opened fire very close range. We lost a lot of small craft as a result of that fire, and also as a result of the rather heavy surf on the beach at the time.
It should be kept in mind that the combat salvage and fire fighting ships have a minimum draft of about 17 feet. We knew that we could not get in near the beach to aid the craft that were stranded there, but it had been understood prior to the attack that salvage crews made up from the various transports of the amphibious force would have sufficient equipment to take care of beach salvage. This equipment consisted mainly of LCMs with an "A" frame rigged forward, and a small winch which was capable in calm water of lifting an LCVP. These salvage crews from the amphibious force headed for the beach shortly after the first wave, and were themselves either destroyed by enemy action or by the heavy surf on the beach, so that within 15 minutes after the first wave landed, the combat salvage and fire fighting unit began to receive urgent appeals for assistance from the beach.
Before going into these operation, I will mention briefly the priorities laid down to the combat salvage units before the attack. Priority "A" provided that we should undertake all salvage work necessary to permit operations on the beaches and later in captured ports. We were to remove at once any vessel in danger of sinking or forming an obstruction.
Here it should be mentioned that elaborate plans had been perfected for building off this beach an artificial port. Large concrete floats had been towed over and were to be sunk off shore, forming a breakwater. Big piers had been constructed and were being towed in to facilitate discharging the cargo of LCTs and LSTs from the ship to the pier and across pontoon causeways to the beach. This, is was of primary importance that no large craft be permitted to sink in a position off the beach that might interfere with these installations. Accordingly, our first priority was not to save ships, but to keep them from sinking in a position where they would obstruct traffic. It was made quite clear that, if necessary, we were to take sinking ships and tow them out to deep water and sink them there ourselves before they could drift in and form an obstruction.
Our second priority was to attempt to save every ship damaged by enemy action or marine casualty, but not to interfere with the first priority.
Now to get back to the actual operations in which we became involved shortly after the first wave hit the beach. At 0825, Pinto completed emergency repairs sustained by LCT(A) 2037, which had been hit by enemy shell fire and had taken position alongside the Arkansas, which at the time was laying close inshore engaging enemy batteries.
A few minutes later, the Pinto completed emergency repairs to the LCT 612 and dispatched the cargo, or rather dispatched both craft to the beach with their cargo of men and tanks. At 0928, Pinto transferred the cargo of guns and motor transport from LCT 294, which had struck a mine and was sinking, to LCT 20, and dispatched the latter craft to the beach and towed the former to deep water, where after pumping failed, the Pinto was forced to sink her. At 1152, the ATR 2 completed emergency repairs needed to keep LCT 210 afloat.
At 1252, Arikara completed emergency repairs to LCT 590, and at 1405, after attempting to repair and pump LCI 85, Arikara was forced to tow her to deep water and sink her.
At 1442, the ATR-2 surveyed damage done to LST 375, towed her to deep water, where she was anchored to await the arrival of a repair ship to perform major repairs. At 1442, Pinto completed emergency repairs to LCT-200. At 1514, ATR 2 pumped and made repairs to LCTs 197 and 27 close off DOG GREEN Beach, all the time under fire of enemy shore batteries. At 1646, Arikara delivered two damaged LCTs loaded with wounded to LST Group 34 for removal to the United Kingdom. ATR 2 likewise picked up two LCTs damaged and adrift off the beach, and delivered them to this group headquarters for return to the United Kingdom. At 1745, Arikara repaired the main control lines of LCT 541 and dispatched her and her cargo to the beach. At 2030, Arikara transferred 28 survivors rescued from a sunken LCI to the LST 134. It was a busy day.
I gave you the details of our action on the first day, but will not go into all of the details from that time on. The second day was even a busier one. Outstanding among the job handled by these combat salvage ships on D+1 was the rescuing of 2,200 Army and Navy personnel from the transport Susan B. Anthony, which struck a mine close off the beach, caught fire and began to sink rapidly. The Pinto was the first craft alongside the sinking Anthony. She secured herself to the Anthony's side, making a fender out of herself to enable other rescue craft to come alongside her and take over her decks the survivors. The ATR 2, in the meantime, secured herself to the Anthony just astern of the Pinot and broke out her fire hoses and beat back the flames, thus enabling the survivors safely to cross the decks.
During the course of that day, numerous other LCTs, LCIs, and lesser craft were either hit by enemy shore batteries or struck mines. These craft were taken in tow as rapidly as conditions would permit, to a safe place off shore and secured to a mooring which we had provided for that purpose. No effort was made to perform repairs of a permanent nature, but only sufficient repairs to keep the craft afloat and prevent having them drift in and sink in such a manner as to form obstructions.
BY the end of the second day, our unit had repaired and assisted 12 large landing craft loaded with personnel and equipment to the beaches. There were four LCT(A)s, seven LCTs and one LCI. All of this work was done within easy range of enemy shore batteries. Also during the course of the first two days, we had several occasions to send divers down to unfoul the screws of craft which had picked up line and wire and wreckage off the beach.
It is interesting here to note that instructions were issued that no diver was to be compelled to dive in a position open to enemy fire and that only volunteers would be used. When this was make known to the divers, they all volunteered to go down and sincerely meant it. We had difficulty in fact, in picking the divers to send down on each job. Fortunately none of them was hurt.
The days that followed were very much like the first two except that, as the Army drove further inland, we were not exposed to much to enemy fire. However, as soon as darkness would come each night, enemy bombers would come over. Some bombs were dropped, some near misses were sustained, but so far as I know, no direct hits were registered on any craft throughout the entire time we spent off OMAHA Beach.
By the end of the 20th day, the unit had performed a total of 215 major operations. Fifteen of these were craft which had received emergency repairs and been assisted to the beaches with their cargo. Eight-nine were craft which had received emergency repairs in one form or another; pumping, tows, fuel or equipment necessary to keep them afloat. This number, eight-one, does not include small craft such as LCVPs and LCMs. A total of 55 craft had been removed from the beaches during that time, and a total of 25 had been sunk by the unit as menaces to navigation and to avoid their drifting in and sinking so as to form obstructions. A total of 2,320 survivors had been picked up and 39 miscellaneous jobs done, such as inspections, laying of buoys, etc.
D-plus 20, the only things left on the beach were a few LCIs which had been damaged so severely by enemy shell fire or mines that their recovery was impracticable. Furthermore, each of these craft was not in a position so as to obstruct traffic or in any way interfere with installing the artificial port which was known as MULBERRY. On the 20th day, we were working on our last job, the LCI 219, which was reported to have sunk some nights earlier during an enemy air attack. We had been informed that she had been hit by a bomb, and consequently we planned on restoring sufficient buoyancy to take her to sea and dispose of her. Divers, however, were unable to find any damage to her hull or superstructure, and it was decided to attempt to raise her and save her. During the course of this operation, the storm hit the beach.
I do no know the force of the wind, but it was reported to be just short of gale proportions. This storm lasted for five days. During that time, few operations of any kind were possible. Nevertheless, the three salvage ships were in and among ships off the beach, doing their best to assist them in every way possible. Many lost their anchors, and other anchors were found and supplied to them. Some were taken out to sea and moored to the mooring which we had provided there.
So severe was the storm that Admiral Hall recognized soon that our salvage unit would have to be reinforced. About the second day of the storm, additional salvage and rescue craft began to report to the unit commander. These included two British tugs, the Empire John and the Empire Bascobeal. The ATR 13 reported and also the ATA 125. The Army tug Cayhead reported also. Before the storm had subsided, the old Cormorant and the Algorma had joined the unit.
On about 25 June, the storm abated, and we found approximately 200 large landing craft aground on the beach. It was said that not even a thousand-bomber raid could have done as much damage. At any rate, the damage was more than four times that which we had suffered as a result of enemy action earlier. Prior to the time when the storm struck, the work of installing the artificial harbor had just about been completed.
Lying a good ways off shore were a group of large metal floats moored in such a way as to form an out breakwater. These floats were called Bombardons. The storm had broken their moorings. Some had been cast adrift, others were up-ended and still hanging on to one or more of the four-legged mooring which held them.
Our first job after the storm was to dispose of these bombardons. Those which were still moored to one or more legs were unshackled and taken off and sunk by gunfire. Then work of clearing the beaches began. It was of paramount importance that this work be done quickly. So great was the wreckage along the entire length of the beach, that great difficulty was being experienced in keeping the Army adequately supplied with ammunition, food, and reinforcements.
The first day, we were able to clear a stretch some 200 yards long. LSTs immediately began to ground on this stretch and discharge their cargoes. Each day thereafter, we succeeded in clearing additional space. Among some of the more important craft stranded on the beach were a number of rather large coasters. These could be refloated only by employing sets of heavy beach gear and our strongest and most powerful tugs. Also of great aid in refloating these larger craft were bulldozers which the Army and Seabee Battalions furnished. These bulldozers were used to scoop out deep channels running from the ship seaward.
Much work connect with the refloating of all of these craft was done during neap tide. The storm had hit at the height of the spring tide, leaving crafts stranded so far in shore that, even at high tide during neap water, we would not reach them with tugs, so we concentrated our efforts on repairing as many craft as possible and scooping channels leading out to the sea so that on the next spring tide we would be able to refloat them.
Our force was further augmented by the assignment to it of some other craft which comprised the combat salvage and fire fighting unit operating off the UTAH Beach under Admiral Moon. The storm had not caused such great damage there. Several large coasters were aground and these were easily refloated by our salvage unit up there so that soon afterwards the USS Bannock and the ATR 3 were assigned to our unit off OMAHA Beach. Also, three British Wreck Disposal Craft, which were laying off the beach area waiting for Cherbourg to fall to commence port clearance operations, were sent in to assist us. These were the Maria, the Tehana and the Admiral Sir John Lawford. These ships carried divers and explosives for demolition purposes. They were soon busily engaged in blowing down sunken wrecks off the shore.
Among these wrecks was a stern two-thirds section of the LCI 219, mentioned earlier. Depth charges were placed on the sand and in a line along about six feet out from her keel, and fired so as to dig a large crater in which the LCI 219 buried herself. Incidentally, here bow section was found high and dry on the beach sometime later. It was removed, carried to sea and sunk.
About the middle of July, two other British craft from another of Commodore Sullivan's units were sent to assist us. These were the Help and the Abigail, two large lifting craft known by the British as BAR boats. They proved to be of great value in lifting sunken wrecks so as to remove them as obstructions close off shore. By the 20th of July, beach clearance operations were completed. The only thing remaining were a few of the LCIs sunk on D and D plus 1 day by enemy action, and a few of the large metal bombardons which the storm had driven high and dry on the shore. and which were to be removed in sections later by the Seabees.
On 20th of July, the unit had completed the following jobs (these figures include all operations from H hour through 19 July).
As previously stated, 12 large landing craft were assisted to the beaches and D and D1 with their cargoes of material and men. A total of 94 craft received emergency repairs, pumping, tows, fuel or equipment. This figure does not include work done on small crafts such as LCVPs and LCMs.
139 craft of the following classifications were removed from the beaches: eight-six LCTs and LCT(a)s, five LCIs, six large coaster, two LCFs, twenty-six LBVs, and fourteen large Army barges sometimes known as Railroad Barges. In addition, 38 craft of miscellaneous types were taken from the beaches. These included four Rhino ferries, twenty-one of the metal bombardons previously mentioned, one warping tug, one LST, two LDDs, two SCs, one LBK, one LBO, one LBE, and the British seagoing tug Dundas.
Our divers rigged for raising thirty-six underwater obstructions sunk off the beach. These obstructions were Sherman tanks, half tracks, DUKWs, jeeps, and equipment such as that which had been lost overboard either during the first two days of the attack or during the storm. They were raised principally by means of a 30-ton floating crane loaned to us by the Army and by using the two British ships Help and Abigail previously mentioned. The figures for craft taken from the beaches do not include approximately the fifth which were able to retract under their own power after salvage methods had been employed to remove other blocking their exit. A total of thirty-two craft of all types were sunk by the unit as menaces to navigation.
The total number of survivors remains 2,320, the same as previously stated. This figure, however, does not include hundreds of men taken from sinking craft and transferred by the salvage tugs almost immediately afterwards to others. There was not always time to count the number of survivors. The wrecks of several large transports, the Empire Broadsword, and the Susan B. Anthony especially, were surveyed by our divers with a view to ascertaining the amount of work needed to blow them down to remove them as menaces. So great would be the amount of explosives needed, and so long a time to accomplish the job, that it was decided to mark these wrecks with light buoys and leave them. In addition to the jobs listed, the salvage craft performed 54 miscellaneous functions such as inspections, investigations, etc. The total number of major operations performed were 390 for the period. The total number of craft assigned to the unit during this period was 21. In addition, a number of LCMs and LCVPs were assigned to the unit as work boats.
I have given a very general account of the operations of our task unit without going into detail in respect to the many jobs. most of our work followed a general pattern of salvage, making emergency repairs sufficient to refloat craft long enough to take them to repair ships or back to the United Kingdom.
There are, however, several points of interest which I do want to mention. The first ships assigned to the task unit, that is the initial three, the Pinto, the Arikara and the ATR 2 did a magnificent job. For the first three weeks, these ships and their crews hardly stopped for a moment. Often they worked directly exposed to enemy batteries. It was necessary for them to go into the beach time and time again in small boats, taking heavy lines to be secured to wrecks stranded there in order to refloat them. Often they worked aboard landing craft which had been heavily hit by enemy fire, literally wading in blood on the decks in order to complete repairs.
Another thing of great interest was the work of our air force. During 43 days off the beach, we never once saw in daylight an enemy aircraft. Our umbrella was perfect. Of course, at night the enemy would slip in an drop some bombs and mines, but as i said, never once during the day did we see a single enemy aircraft.
Up until the time Cherbourg fell, Commodore Sullivan was aboard the flagship of Admiral Kirk, the Augusta. The Commodore often visited us, particularly when we were employed on more important jobs. His advice and help was of the greatest value to us.
When Cherbourg fell, however, the Commodore was one of the first to enter. Following the completion of our work on the beaches on 20 July, the many ships assigned there were dispatched to other areas. The Help and the Abigail went in to Cherbourg to help the harbor clearance parties operating there under the Commodore. The Swivel, which I had not previously mentioned, and which served as the task unit commander's headquarters ship, also went into Cherbourg. The Diver and the Brant likewise entered Cherbourg to begin harbor clearance operations.
This officer went to CHerbourg in the afternoon of 20 July and found already engaged there the salvage craft which had been left in Falmouth until such time as entry could be made to Cherbourg. At first, work in clearing the harbor was slow. This was a result of the numerous enemy mines planted both in the outer and the inner harbors and basins. It was impossible to send divers down to patch holes in wrecks while minesweepers were engaged in their work. Accordingly, the main portion of the salvage work had to be held until the minesweeping was finished. Notwithstanding the fact, however, the salvage craft even then were removing numerous small tugs and trawlers that could be more easily reached.