Thursday, June 4, 2009

Submarines on D Day

Its that time of year again when our thoughts should drift back 65 years to the days just prior to Operation Overlord; the assault on Hitler's Fortress Europa. As members of the submarine service, we should remember the role our British cousins played on this day of days.

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum has the following information on their website:

Operation Gambit

HMS X23 on D-Day

HMS X23 on D-DayThe first craft off the shore of Normandy on D-Day were midget submarines. Two X-craft, HMS X20 (Lt K Hudspeth DSC*) and X23 (Lt G Honour DSC RNVR) were chosen to play a hazardous part in Operation Neptune, the naval assault phase of D-Day.

Codenamed Operation Gambit, the aim was to set up landing markers to guide the invasion force towards the beaches.

Lt George Honour DSC RNVR

Lt George Honour DSC RNVR

HMS X23 Badge

HMS X23 Badge

On 4 June 1944 the X-craft fixed their positions in front of the Normandy coast. At nightfall they surfaced only to be told that the operation had been postponed due to bad weather.

On 6 June at 0445 the submarines surfaced in rough seas. They set up the 18 feet high navigation beacons that each were carrying and switched them on. These shone a green light indicating their position away from the coast, visible up to 5 miles away although undetectable to anyone on land.

They used the radio beacon and echo sounder to tap out a message for the minelayers approaching Sword and Juno beaches. The incoming fleet appeared on time and roared past them.

The D-Day Invasion Fleet

The D-Day Invasion Fleet

Lt George Honour DSC RNVR (HMS X23) recalled seeing the incoming invasion fleet years later:

"It was unbelievable. Although I knew they were on our side it was still a frightening sight. One can only imagine what the enemy must have felt, waking up to this awesome spectacle and knowing that they were the targets".

D-Day painting by Guy Todd depicting George Honour on X23 watching the invasion fleet having completed Operation Gambit

D-Day painting by Guy Todd depicting George Honour on X23 watching the invasion fleet having completed Operation Gambit"To mark the approaches to the beaches for Forces "S" and "J", two X-craft were employed, as it was very important that Force "S" should not be too far eastward and the coast in Force "J"s section was not too distinctive in outline.

These craft had sailed on the night of the 2nd/3rd June - being towed for part of the passage. Each submarine received at 0100 hours, 5th June, a message that the assault had been postponed for twenty-four hours and in spite of the difficulties of navigation for a craft of very slow diving speed in a cross-tidal stream, had maintained their positions off the enemy coast until daylight on the 6th June, when they flashed their lights to seaward from the surface in their correct positions as a guide to the oncoming assault craft.

It is considered that great skill and endurance was shown by the crews of X20 and X23. Their report of the proceedings, which were a masterpiece of understatement, read like a deck log of a surface ship in peacetime, and not of a very small and vulnerable submarine carrying out a hazardous operation in time of war".

Admiral Ramsey

At sunrise their job was done, the lamps were taken down and replaced with the signal flags representing ‘D’ for D-Day.

The ‘D’ for Dog flag and white ensign flown by X23 on D-Day. Both are in the Museum’s Collection.

HMS X23 on D-Day. Lt George Honour and S/Lt H J Hodges RNVR on the casing

HMS X23 on D-Day. Lt George Honour and S/Lt H J Hodges RNVR on the casing

X20 and X23 had led the way in the largest ever combined assault.

Incidentally, the word ‘Gambit’, the codename for this operation, is defined in the dictionary as "the pawn you thrown away before a big move in chess".

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