Although exact numbers of South Africans (and southern Africans) involved in the D-Day landings of the 6 June 1944 [Operation Neptune] would be difficult to assess (including those who served as enlisted members of the British armed forces as well as those individuals seconded from the [SA] Union Defence Force) they most certainly were represented “in all branches of the Services now engaged in the assault on Western Europe”.
A report in the “South Africa” newspaper of 10 June 1944 states: “ A large number of them are in the Navy, principally in little craft like minesweepers, helping to clear the way for the troops’ landing. Scores are flying escorting fighters and bombers of the Royal Air Force, and some are with the paratroops, including a doctor who had completed his training to drop from a plane together with medical personnel [possibly Leo Kessel]. There is also a large contingent of [South African] officers serving with the Marine Commandos [the Commandos having, interestingly enough, been founded by a South African-born officer of the Royal Artillery, Brigadier Dudley Wrangel Clarke] .”
And it was D-Day + 10 when the South African statesman, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, was also to cross over to Normandy, accompanying the British prime minister Winston Churchill. The same “South Africa” newspaper article was also to report that on the day of the invasion General Smuts was to accompany “ Mr. Churchill to a British port to wish godspeed to British and Canadian troops embarking for the liberation of Europe. The troops waiting on the quayside gave the two Prime Ministers a hearty cheer as they went up the gangway.”
In addition “General Smuts also accompanied the King, the Prime Minister, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on a visit to to General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters on ‘D-Day’ and went to the operations room to follow the progress of the battle. Throughout the day General Smuts received independent reports from the highest quarters, of the progress of the invasion operations.”
It was at Eisenhower’s headquarters that, a few days earlier, Smuts had met the French soldier and statesman General De Gaulle at “a quiet, tree-shaded spot” and that “General Eisenhower, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were there as well.” The group had spent “nearly two hours together, largely in the war room tent of the Allied Supreme Commander, where the walls are hung with detailed maps and the planned liberation of France.”
And below are two interesting pictures depicting Smuts with Churchill at the time of the invasion. The first caption reads “Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 12 June 1944, on board a destroyer going to France, with Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Rear Admiral W E Parry (bottom right).”
Copyright IWM (B5354)
The K-Class destroyer is the HMS Kelvin (see below) which reached the French coast at 9.30 a.m. and “steamed through the battle fleet during a bombardment and later joined in the shelling of the German north-east flank.” Churchill and Smuts were then conveyed to the beach via a “DUKW” amphibious vehicle where they then met Field Marshal Montgomery, where-after they departed in a jeep for Montgomery’s headquarters.
￼ (Wikimedia Commons)
While the second caption states “Prime Minister Winston Churchill looking at enemy and British aircraft engaged overhead with Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, General Sir Bernard Montgomery and others in Normandy, 12 June 1944.”
Copyright IWM (B5364)
And yet, incredibly it would seem, Smuts was rather lucky to survive his visit to Normandy, as both he and Churchill could very well have been killed while visiting Monty’s headquarters at Cruelly. The author Nicholas Rankin, in his book “Churchill’s Wizards, British Genius for Deception 1914-1945” relates on page 406 that while visiting the headquarters and as “senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister [Churchill], South African Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, ‘There are some Germans near us now…I can always tell!’” And low and behold, just two days later, “two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby Rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along. Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill [and Smuts], everything would have changed.”
It is also really amazing when one considers that Smuts, an erstwhile enemy of the British empire, was not only to reconcile himself to his former enemy over the succeeding years, but was also to be greatly respected by two British prime ministers: Lloyd George appointing him head of the war council that was ultimately to bring about the amalgamation of the RFC and the RNAS and the subsequent founding of the Royal Air Force during the closing stages of WWI, while he was also earmarked to have been Churchill’s successor should the British prime minister succumb for whatever reason during the war.
The aforementioned article also states: “General Smuts who has been attending further meetings of the War Cabinet, is pleased with the progress made in Italy and with the way in which his own South African troops have contributed to the success so far achieved. Another achievement specially gratifying to General Smuts, and giving general satisfaction to the military leaders in charge of the Allied operations in Italy, has been the success of widespread air attacks by the South African Air Force [SAAF] in the Mediterranean in support of the land forces.”
It goes on to say: “Last Thursday General Smuts [technically by then a field marshal, but universally known as “General“] had an interview with Colonel J.J. Llewellin, Minister of Food, and was told of the state of Britain’s larder on the eve of the invasion, as well as the steps taken to ensure that the civilian population will have adequate food supplies during the coming operations in Western Europe.”
While one of the South Africans’ who was to take part during the D-Day invasion was Sub Lieutenant Anthony Large, South African Naval Forces (SANF). Large had won the BEM earlier in the war while still a rating. Here he’s depicted taking a compass bearing aboard the frigate HMS Holmes while “helping to guard the Allied supply lines to and from the Normandy beachhead.” HMS Holmes was built in Massachusetts, USA, and commissioned in January 1944, and was ultimately sold for scrap in October 1947.
Copyright IWM (A4208)
And as mentioned in the report above a sizeable contingent of South African officers seconded from the UDF was also to serve with the Royal Marine Commandos during the Normandy landings. The “South Africa” newspaper of the 24 June 1944, states-
“Springbok Commando Leaders in Action in Normandy
Their Part in Brilliant Exploit by the Royal marines
S.H.A.E.F., Tuesday.- South Africans seconded from the Union Forces to the Royal Marines are distinguishing themselves in Normandy. They helped their British colleagues to capture Port en Bassein, a small but important harbour in the gap between the original British and American beachheads - a performance which is officially described as one of the most brilliant achievements in the history of the Royal Marines. The names of the South Africans concerned in this report cannot be disclosed for the time being.
The enemy had strongly fortified the port with a triangle of three strongpoints. As these were designed to beat off attack from the sea, the Royal marine Commandos decided it could be taken from the rear. This involved a ten-mile march against tremendous odds through enemy territory. The landing was planned to take place at Le Hamel, but as the ships closed in they came under heavy fire from a German battery. Before they even touched down, a mile to the eastward of their original objective, they almost met disaster, for five of their fourteen landing craft were mined and sunk. Undaunted, they swam ashore with what equipment they could salvage. During their hazardous march inland they fully rearmed themselves with weapons captured from the enemy. Such circumstances had been anticipated; the Marines had been trained to use enemy weapons such as the MG 34, the German light machine-gun.
Under Heavy Fire
As they struck inland they came continually under heavy fire. They advanced against machine-gun posts, manned largely by Polish and Russian troops, and subdued them one by one. The Marines fought their way through, carrying heavy equipment and mortar ammunition - each man carried a load of nearly three-quarters of a hundredweight. To avoid more of these machine-gun nests, which were delaying their progress, the Marines struck across country to a main road south of the enemy battery at Langues. This battery did not attempt to interfere with the Commandos. They reached their objective for the night- Hill 72, immediately south of Port en Bassein - and there distributed more captured arms.
Then the Royal navy took a hand, opening a heavy fire on the port. This was followed by a fierce strafe by R.A.F. bombers and rocket-carrying fighters. Finally guns of the Royal Artillery away in the British beachhead laid down a heavy smoke-screen, under cover of which the Marines took three strongpoints and subdued them after stiff fighting. As they burst into the defences German flak ships in the harbour opened fire, causing enemy casualties. The Marines silenced this attack from the rear with machine-gun and mortar fire. A desperate battle was fought for the third and most powerful point; twice the Marines won the positions and twice they were driven off, but the third time their assault succeeded.
Even then they had not finished. While the fight for the last strongpoint was in progress the Germans launched a strong counter-attack from south of Hill 72, the Commandos base. After a heavy mortar bombardment the enemy overran the positions, scattering the Commando headquarters and the support troops there. Most of these troops made their way into the town, where they joined up with the main body. A machine-gun section arrived just in time to support the final attack on the last strongpoint. Late that day the Marines “dug in” to defend the position they had won. They made contact with the Americans to the west and handed over to them the German prisoners they had taken. The enemy did not attack during the night, and when the Marines moved forward in the morning to retake Hill 72 the enemy had had enough and withdrew. The port and Hill 72 were held by the Marines until Army forces destroyed the battery at Langues and advanced to relieve them. - Reuter.”
While an additional article printed in a later edition of the “South Africa” newspaper reports:
With the Commandos on D-Day
Lieutenant “Tommy” Thomas [pictured above], one of the South African officers serving with the Royal Marine Commandos, is back from the old beach-head in Normandy with several little shrapnel souvenirs still in his leg, but otherwise he is none the worse for wear. The chief change his friends have observed is that his well-known Clark Gable moustache is threatening to develop into a Dutch gable.
His most painful recollection of D Day is the stormy passage he and his contingent had in crossing the Channel in their landing craft. The seas were running high, and hardly a man escaped sea sickness. They landed in the second wave at first light. Their boat got a direct hit as they approached the shore, and half a dozen men were killed. Lieutenant Thomas found himself up to the neck in water when he jumped from the landing craft as it struck the beach. The Commando boys, having “dumped” their steel helmets, went ashore in their green berets. ‘It was more comfortable,’ he told me.
They had a specific job to do, which was to connect up as soon as possible with the paratroops who had dropped five miles inland four hours before zero. They found themselves under fire, but did not wait to deal with the resistance at the coast, pushing inland instead with all speed. It was tough going through the mine-fields, but they got there. ‘And were the paratroops glad to see us!’ Lieutenant Thomas remarked. For the next few days none of them knew much of what was happening. They could not be sure whether the invasion was a success or not. All they knew was that in their own sector on the left flank of the beach-head they were kept hard at it. The ‘toughening’ they had had in in advance was more than useful.
According to plan, they kept on the move all the time - ‘frigging about,’ as it is apparently called in Commando language. They snatched some sleep in slit trenches during the day, and every night there were patrols or raids to be carried out. It was while returning from one of these nocturnal excursions that Lieutenant Thomas shared with his sergeant and another man the benefit of a German grenade. I asked him how Normandy compared with the Western Desert. ‘I’d say it was worse,’ he said. ‘For one thing, in the Desert, you could see whom you were fighting, but in Normandy most of the time you couldn’t.’ He had a glimpse of Paris before he came away, and now he is wondering how he will be able to settle down on the family farm in the Maclear district of the Transkei after all this excitement.”
And of those South Africans seconded from the Union of South Africa Defence Force (UDF) to the Royal Marine Commandos at least two were to be awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on D-Day, namely Captain Lyle Louwrens Archibald MacKay and Lieutenant Cecil Arthur Douglas Bircher.
There were also other South African connections during the Normandy operations 68 years ago, and in the picture below one can see the wreck of HMS Durban (D99), a Danae-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy, launched in May 1919 and commissioned in November 1921. During WWII HMS Durban was to serve in Atlantic and Far Eastern waters, and after various trials and tribulations was one of the ships selected to be scuttled to form a breakwater for the now famous Mulberry harbours that would be used to help facilitate the logistical support of the Allied forces during the Battle of Normandy. This grand old lady was duly scuttled on the 9 June to form part of the Gooseberry 5 breakwater for protecting the artificial harbour at Ouistreham in the Seine Bay, and there she rests to this day, submerged beneath approximately 11 metres of water.
Copyright IWM (A24054)
Interestingly enough, a South African, namely Lieutenant George Charles Mander, Royal Engineers (300428), originally from Calvinia, in the Cape, was to be awarded the MBE (LG 23 March 1945) while engaged in service pertaining to the Mulberry harbours. He was awarded the order “for bravery, when two Phoenix units [reinforced concrete caissons] - parts of the “Mulberry” harbour - were involved in a night collision last June [June 1944], several men were washed into the sea. Regardless of the swift current and the darkness, Lieutenant Mander dived into the water to rescue a seaman and, after supporting him in the water for three-quarters of an hour, succeeded in getting him into a rescue boat. He then dived overboard again to assist another man to safety.”
And additional South Africans and Rhodesians (No’s 44 and 266 “Rhodesia” squadrons, RAF) would also partake in various branches of the British and Allied armed forces in the subsequent fighting in Normandy [Operation Overlord] and the advance into North West Europe (NWE) (and ultimately Germany itself), including Major-General Eric Hakewill-Smith, OC 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division (from Kimberley, Griqualand West); Air Vice Marshal Leslie Oswald Brown (OC No 84 Group, 2TAF); Brigadier Walter Greenacre, OC 6th Guards Armoured Brigade (from Durban); Wing Commander A.G. “Sailor” Malan, commanding No 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing (accompanying his squadrons on multiple sorties over the Normandy beaches); Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Crisp, 3 Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR); Squadron leader J.J. le Roux (RAF); Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Mackenzie, 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers; and Lieutenant Donald Gray, King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB).
The last mentioned individual might be better known to some as the South African actor Eldred Tidbury. He was born on an ostrich farm at Tidbury's Toll near Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, in 1914, and had won a film contest in 1932, where-after he then left SA for Hollywood and later Britain. With the outbreak of WWII Gray joined the British Army, and was severely wounded during the fighting at Caen in July 1944 while serving with the King‘s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB). Gray’s left arm was shattered by an anti-tank shell, the limb having to be amputated a few days later at an emergency hospital near the front line. Gray had also appeared as “Bruce MacIntosh” in the British musical, “We’ll Meet Again” (1943), starring Vera Lynn, and would later provide the voices of Colonel White, Captain Black and the Mysterons in the 1960s TV series, captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. He later returned to South Africa, where he passed away in April 1978.