Ex Neptune Landings

Six personnel from the Joint Data Link Management Organisation (JDLMO) managed to escape the confines of the Air Command Bunker to undertake a 5-day Staff Ride to Normandy, from 24 – 28 Sep 12.

It began with a 0530 departure from RAF High Wycombe on the Monday, but despite the unsociably early start, morale was high as we coasted around a, surprisingly, busy M25, destined for an 0850 Eurotunnel Channel crossing. A quick nap later and we were cruising westwards across the Pas de Calais and soon into Normandy.  Despite the buffoonery of a local citizen, who disabled a toll road payment gate for the better part of 30 minutes, we arrived in Ouistreham, our home for the following 4 nights.

After a quick drop-off of bags and a hasty swapping of double rooms for twins, we were en-route to our first ‘Stand’, Sword Beach (the most easterly of the 5 Allied invasion beaches) and a brief about the Allied tactics employed by the British 3rd Infantry Division on D-Day of Operation OVERLORD, followed by a discussion about the success of their tactics.

Well rested, we set out on Day 2 with a sense of excitement and anticipation, travelling a few miles eastwards to the site of the Merville Battery.  At this formidable fortified artillery gun emplacement, a key part of Hitler’s so-called Atlantic Wall of coastal defences, we held our next Stand, a briefing on the Big Drop of the Allied 6th Airborne Division on the night of 5 June 1944.  Focussing on the 9th Battalion, we learned of the heroic efforts of Lt Col Otway and his men, numbering barely 150 of the planned 600, who assaulted the Merville Battery and put its guns out of action so that they could not be used to bombard the shores of Sword Beach on D-Day.  We then walked around the site and saw the 4 reinforced concrete gun casemates which, when protected by barbed wire, minefields and machine gun emplacements, must have seemed like an impenetrable fortress to the assaulting troops.

We then travelled a short distance to Pegasus Bridge on the Caen Canal, a key Allied objective on D-Day, and our next Stand, Operation TONGA and a discussion about how the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Company secured the bridge intact on D-Day, after landing nearby in gliders, and the importance of Pegasus Bridge to the Allies’ later advance southwards and eastwards.  After spending some time in the fantastic Pegasus Memorial Museum, we headed across to the Ranville Commonwealth War Cemetery.  After a Stand examining the exploits of Sqn Ldr John Russell Collins DFC & Bar, RAFVR, who is buried at Ranville, we took time to walk through the Cemetery and found the grave of one particular soldier, Private RJ Johns who was killed on 23 July 1944, at just 16 years of age, possibly the youngest British soldier to have died in WW2.  With time on our side, we made a spontaneous decision to drive westwards to visit Omaha Beach, the place where the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions came ashore, suffering heavy casualties in the process.

Day 3 was soon upon us, and we headed off to the Hillman Bunker just outside Ouistreham, HQ of the German 736th Regiment Grenadier and part of the inland defences in the Sword Beach sector.  At this Stand, a briefing covering the positioning, role and defences of the Hillman Bunker complex was given, and the 1st Suffolk Regiment, plus supporting units’, assault to capture the Bunker was discussed in detail.  This was followed by a visit to Le Grande Bunker in Ouistreham, HQ for the German Batteries covering the entrance of the River Orne and Caen Canal.  It was here that 52 German soldiers surrendered to 4 British troops on 9 June 1944, signalling the complete liberation of Ouistreham.  The Bunker building has since been converted into the Atlantic Wall Museum, and we spent a good deal of time soaking up the displays.

Our final day of visits was already at hand, and it started with a journey to Bayeux to see the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum.  After a Stand examining the planning and preparation for the D-Day invasion, we discussed how this might change in today’s operations and with current doctrine.  We spent the rest of the morning engrossed in the Museum exhibits which provided a brilliant overview of the entire Normandy campaign.  The afternoon saw us at Gold Beach, the landing area for the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and 8th Armoured Brigade.  Following a Stand examining the landings in detail, we travelled to Juno Beach, the landing area of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.  At this Stand we discussed Operation NEPTUNE, the maritime element of the D-Day invasion, and looked specifically at the part played by the Royal Navy under Admiral Sir Ramsay.

All too soon, it was time to head home.  We returned to High Wycombe having had a most enjoyable time and having gained a far greater understanding of the scale, complexity and risks of Operation OVERLORD and the lessons from it which continue to influence modern military doctrine.  Most importantly though, we’ve developed a profound appreciation for the bravery and sacrifice of those who took part.