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HEROES OF D-DAY: Bertie 'Boy' Male remembers the Longest Day
Updated 8:53am Wednesday 4th June 2014 in News
Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Ten years ago we spoke to many of the heroes of D-Day to mark the 60th anniversary celebrations. Many have sadly passed away in the intervening years. But their legacy lives on.
Without exception, each one said it was simply a job that had to be done. None thought themselves a hero. We beg to differ. Throughout this week we will be re-telling their remarkable stories in their own humble words:
Herbert Gordon ‘Boy’ Male was a Portlander through and through.
From a working-class background, he started work alongside his father in the quarries at 14 years of age but his young eyes were always on the sea.
When war came in 1939, he joined the Royal Navy and the former quarry boy rose through the ranks from an Ordinary Seaman to Lieutenant eventually taking command of minesweepers, corvettes and landing craft.
Bertie was the First Lieutenant of a British landing craft, LCT 628.
Following the disaster of Operation Tiger when German E-boats sank American landing craft in Lyme Bay, two British LCTs were tasked to help the Americans make up the shortfall. One of them was LCT 628.
Bertie died last May, aged 96.
We were singled out quite suddenly and, with one other LCT, sailed to Portland on detached service.
“Once there we found that we had been seconded to the Americans and would be taking their assault engineers in on D-Day.
“A vehicle park was carved at the rear of Chesil Beach filled with the ever-rolling mass of the armour of The Big Red One (the US 1st Division).
“In all some 144,090 of a great variety of the engines of war, and 418,588 troops, passed through Portland and Weymouth harbours on their way to what became known as Bloody Omaha beach.
“Many of the landing craft in which they were to be transported over the 150 sea miles to Omaha were either the large American-built Landing Ship Tank (LST) or the English-built Landing Craft Tank (LCT).
“The former were large and unwieldy vessels capable of carrying some 80 vehicles and often had to be unloaded some distance from the beach into pontoon ferries.
“We, the LCTs, carried up to 12 tanks and were of shallow enough draft to dispose our cargoes right on to the beach.
“The various ‘hards’ at Portland were alive with movement.
“Great tanks with every other kind of vehicle were being loaded into the waiting LCTs.
“As each loaded vessel drew away its place was taken by another, tank doors lowered ready to receive all the equipment. Our full load was 12 of the largest type of tank.
“We watched in amazement as the drivers of these great machines backed them along the tank deck into the two abreast positions in the tank hold.
“Once in position, each tank had to be union-screwed down to prevent any movement should we meet bad weather. This too was heavy work for the crew.
“However, the heavy exit door was our main tribulation.
“It could be well controlled when lowering, but to hoist it back and secure it for sea was another matter.
“All this was backbreaking work which had to be done by the hand-winches under the forecastle.
“Our living conditions were at best spartan.
“A metal box, about 12 feet by 8 feet, served as a wardroom, to be shared by two officers.
“The crew’s accommodation was literally among the Paxman Ricardo engines, enormous diesels, quite deafening when we were underweight.
“How men lived in such conditions, conducted conversations or wrote letters, was a mystery.
“We chugged out of Portland Harbour in droves making our way up to St Catherine’s point off the Isle of Wight and then to J area where we altered course for the beaches.
“With freshening wind, a lumpy sea developed and by now our American tank crews had gone very quiet and not a little green around the gills.
“Now surrounded by great masses of ships coming out of Southampton and Portsmouth, hundreds of all kinds of craft and among them great slab-sided concrete monsters wallowed along hauled by tugs.
“Only later did we learn that these were the portions of our own harbour that we were bringing with us.
“Never had such an armada set out for what became known as The Longest Day. We punched on, now wet, and even if it was June it was cold, with angry seas splashing over the tank deck, much to the annoyance of our American passengers.
“Our course was now south four east, and it was not until Cap Barfleur came abeam that we began to feel the lee of the land, and pushed on into calmer waters.
“The sea was full of ships, all moving inexorably towards dawn and the beaches. At dawn we saw that the ‘battle wagons’ were wearing their battle ensigns, so we broke ours out too.
“After all, we would be getting in close enough to see the whites of their eyes while the ‘big fellers’ would be lobbing their 15-inch bricks over our heads as we went in to discharge our tanks on the beach.
“With dawn breaking, it was a great comfort to have them providing us with their ‘umbrella’.
“The masses of landing craft now veered off to starboard, and then, as if in a review at Spithead, split into the appropriate squadrons for their allotted beaches. Omaha and Utah were the code names given to the American beaches.
“The British beaches were Sword, Juno and Gold but, having been seconded to the Americans, we used only the American beaches throughout the entire campaign.
“The immensity of the event became evident as the day wore on, when entire harbours began to take shape – those leviathan floating concrete blocks that none of us had been able to guess the reason for.
“We had brought our own harbours with us. The impossible had become a fact before our very eyes and men and equipment were being piled ashore both day and night.
“Way down between the American and British sectors there were high cliffs and the majestic old Warspite was hurling eight-gun salvoes at the enemy gun emplacements sited at the top of them.
“Finally our water supply ran out and we were released from this endless ship-to-shore shuttle.
“We had been hauling that blasted tank door up several times a day for the past seven days.
“How glad we were to see Portland again and to tell our contemporaries of the night that we were ordered alongside HMS Rodney, to act as a plug ship for the night, and how at dawn she had fired a full salvo with us alongside. Based at Portland, we had around 300 miles to steam for a round trip and, of the three main departure points, we had by far the most exposed passage to make.
“For these waters of the Channel during spring tides are notorious for the effect of being squeezed between the Cherbourg Peninsular and Portland Bill.
“Add to this total exposure to the pounding of a south-westerly gale and some idea may be gained of the permutations of problems that had to be faced.
“The area is renowned for its summer gales, but we were fortified by the knowledge that these craft were not designed to be sailed in more than force four winds – so we were told, though this was totally ignored once the invasion had begun.
“We battled back and forth, day and night, from June until the end of November and in all chalked up 23 round trips.”
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