Paul LeFaivre was a signaler with the 264th Canadian Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) flotilla.
This flotilla was one of three the Canadian Navy mobilized to assist with the D-Day Landings in June 1944. On June 5th, after days of agonizing wait, they slipped away from the British coast under cover of darkness with several other LCI's to meet their escorting destroyer, the HMS Blankney, just south of the Isle of Wight.
The trip across the English Channel was very rough, but as dawn broke, they were greeted by an astonishing sight, the largest naval armada in the history of the world! The invasion of Normandy had begun. Paul's LCI would make a total of 10 trips across the English Channel, and carry over 1,700 troops to France. Another year of fighting remained ahead of them.
A Small Ship in a Big Storm
The story of H.M.C.LCl(L)305 during the Normandy Invasion, by Paul LaFaivre
The 22-man crew of H.M.C.LCI(L)305, one of seven landing craft in the 264th Canadian Landing Craft Infantry flotilla, had been together since January in 1944, doing practice landings along the beaches of southern England and taking part in other rugged combined operations training.
On the night of June 16th, we were at Calshot in Southampton waters, taking on board 197 American troops with orders to disembark them in Mulberry "A", an artificial port, which had been hurriedly constructed on Omaha beach in the days following D-Day, the invasion Normandy. The whole operation was code-named Overlord with the naval component being tagged Neptune. But first, something of a preamble to the story of a small ship in a big storm!
On the 3rd day of June, our crew was briefed by our skipper regarding our participation in Neptune. We were told where we would land in the Bay of the Seine on June 5th and that same afternoon embarked 190 British troops, mostly from the Durham Light Infantry, and a few from the Border Regiment. We had expected to leave Southhampton in the evening of June 4th to meet our convoy out past the Isle of Wight.
The tension was practically unbearable! About the hour we were ready to sail, word came down that the operation was being postponed for at least 24 hours due to severe weather in the English Channel. Tough on everyone, especially the soldiers crammed into three small troop decks! Although each man had a narrow bunk, the lack of decent washroom facilities made life very difficult and no one knew when we would get the word to go again.
June 6, 1944: D-Day
That welcome news arrived at 1600 hours on June 5th and we slipped our lines at 1930 hours, joining our sister craft, along with 3 American and 2 British LCI(L)'s to meet our escorting destroyer, H.M.S. Blankney, in the vicinity of Picadilly Circus, the designated meeting point in the Channel south of the Isle of Wight. A force 8 gale made things very rough throughout the night and sea-sickness was common among the soldiers who, although facing a daunting task once ashore, would all be happy to see the last ofLCI(L)305.
At first light, we found ourselves surrounded by vessels of all types, as far as the eye could see - battleships, cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, assault landing craft, tank landing craft and ships, rocket firing craft, converted merchant vessels representing virtually all of the Allied nations - the largest naval armada in the history of the world and we were part of it. At dawn, we barely evaded a number of floating mines which had been cut loose from their moorings by the minesweepers which had swept channels into each of the five landing beaches.
Arriving in French coastal waters at approximately 0700 hours on June 6th, we spent a long time circling in line ahead formation awaiting orders to land our troops on Gold Beach, very close to the village of Asnelles and a short distance east of the town of Arromanches, where the D-Day museum erected by the French now stands as testimony to the landings on Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah beaches.
It was obvious from the smoke, shelling and apparent confusion ashore that it might be some time before the flotilla was given orders to run for the beach. This was forthcoming from the cruiser H.M.S. Bulola about 1100 hours and all craft of the 264th drove hard for the shore in line abreast, about 75 feet apart. Fortunately, we gave our troops practically a dry landing, resistance appeared quite light and I am not aware of any casualties being suffered.
What a difference a few miles can make - our troops landing on Gold did not meet the fierce resistance put up by the German defenders on both Juno and Omaha beaches, to the east and west respectively. After disembarking our troops, we used our reversible pitch engines and kedge anchor to winch off the beach, which was done without any particular difficulty.
We then awaited some two miles offshore for further orders, expecting to be utilized to ferry other troops from the assault ships to the beaches. All were surprised and elated when we were instructed to return in convoy to Southampton.
Our landing craft was the first vessel back into the Solent after the initial assault and we were accorded a "caps off' cheer by the crew of the battle cruiser H.M.S. Rodney, which ship was being held in reserve. Not bad for a simple Canadian landing craft! A proud moment!
June 7, 1944
Our second trip started on June 7th from Southampton, having aboard 250 American troops which we were to disembark on Omaha beach. Despite the carnage on Omaha on D-Day, we safely put the troops ashore and they were happy to hit dry land as conditions were very overcrowded. Machine gun as well as artillery and naval gunfire was constant and the smell of cordite filled the air. It is difficult to describe the activity in the English Channel and the Bay of the Seine during those hectic days.
At times, there would be ships as far as the eye could see, many of them floating barrage balloons to discourage enemy dive bombers; at other times, particularly at night, it seemed you were all alone - of course, there were no running lights or lights of any kind being shown and often the only light at all would be from some motor torpedo boat or destroyer firing a star shell. It was not a particularly comforting time as our only defence was four Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns and an old and mostly useless stripped Lewis machine gun.
In any event, after D-Day our mission was to land as many troops as possible, in as short a time as possible on the Norman shores.
We had arrived back in Southampton waters from Trip #2 on the morning of June 9th -looking forward to a little rest following several hectic days. This was not to be! We were ordered back to Lymington for another load, this time 220 United States combat engineers and anti-aircraft gunners. We took them over the channel in convoy and again landed them safely on Omaha. The skipper was told by some authority that 305 had then made one more trip between England and France than any other vessel. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time but in retrospect, it was something of an accomplishment.
Unfortunately, on the way back to the U.K., our starboard engine quit completely when we were some 15 miles off the French coast and we limped back all night on the port engine which was not performing that well, arriving in Southampton in the forenoon of June 11th. Very discomforting to be crossing 80 miles of the channel on bad engines, particularly in those early days.
The slipways and beach areas around Southampton and Portsmouth were jammed at this time with damaged landing craft awaiting repairs. We were among them!
June 16, 1944
It was some four days before our engines were repaired sufficiently to carry on and on June 16th, we proceeded to the Royal Pier in Southampton to load troops. Imagine our delight when we learned our passengers were to be 40 Royal Victorian nursing sisters, all officers in the British Army. A rather amusing sidelight of the whole thing was they were marched aboard to the tune of "Anchors Aweigh" by a United States Army band. Some nice treatment, as they would say in the Maritimes!
However, it must be said their time with us was certainly a welcome break from the tedium of nothing but sweaty and tired sailors and soldiers for more than two weeks. The first nurses into France, they were to be attached to a field hospital in the British sector and we landed them safely on a section of Gold beach, not far from Arromanches. This time, we proceeded independently back across the Channel and tied to a buoy in the Calshot anchorage.
On each of our trips following the D-Day landings, we observed ocean going tugs towing huge concrete caissons or platforms toward the French shore. We also saw in the area of Arromanches and on Omaha beach, old freighters being sunk some distance offshore, stem to stem in a straight line to form something of a breakwater.
In due course, we learned the reasoning behind all this; artificial ports were being constructed, using the caissons with the freighter breakwaters providing relief from the rough channel waters during the construction phase. It was a quite fantastic concept which in the initial stages was prompted by an idea coming from Winston Churchill.
In mid 1942, he wrote the following to the Chief of Combined Operations, then Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten "Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don't argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves". And so Port Winston or Mulberry "B" was constructed on Gold beach in front of the town of Arromanches and Port St. Laurent or Mulberry "A" was erected facing Omaha beach.
June 18, 1944
Now back to the 18th of June! Our American troops safely aboard, we proceeded at 0900 hours from Calshot in convoy with three other LCI's and H.M.M.L.(MotorLaunch)222. It was the worst day in the channel in 1944 and history now tells us that the ensuing storm was the most violent in the Channel in the first half of the 20th century. Waves often reached more than 30 feet and three times on the way across washed right over the bridge.
Virtually all of the troops were seasick and the whole vessel was a total mess by the time we unloaded onto Mulberry "A" at 2100 hours. The unloading was accomplished only with tremendous difficulty due to the increasing severity of the storm. As it was determined it would be foolhardy to attempt the return trip, we anchored about a half mile from shore for the night. The usual air raid alarm was raised but came to nothing.
To our west, we could see the sky lit up as the battle for the Cotentin peninsula and eventually Cherbourg blazed away. Just inland, British forces had control of Bayeux and together with the Canadians were pressing toward Caen. The dark hours of June 19th - June 20th were nothing but a nightmare.
June 19 - 20, 1944
We were anchored by our kedge and the line snapped at 0605 hours, sending us crashing into USS LCI(L)5ll. We finally got our bow anchor down but it dragged and snapped within minutes and resulted in us broadsiding an American P.T. boat. In his book, "Far Distant Ships", Joseph Schull describes the frenzy of the gale and the breakup of the Mulberry.
For many hours, because of the cruelty of the storm, now a Force 11 with winds of 45-65 miles per hour, we were faced with seeking shelter in the protection of the Mulberry but unfortunately, our anchor lines were not holding and the ship was not known for its manoeuvring capabilities in rough seas. We faced the danger of colliding with other ships seeking refuge from the storm as well as from the breakup of the Mulberry itself.
With devastation all around us and with no apparent authority in charge, the skipper and the coxswain briefly discussed the feasibility of running hard onto the beach, not only to save the ship, but, more importantly, to save the crew.
Every man on board would not have wanted to abandon our craft after what we had been through so we persevered through the night of June 20-21, colliding on several occasions with other vessels or parts of the huge concrete caissons, now badly broken up and obviously of no further use as a port facility.
June 21, 1944
My memory tells me that June 21, 1944, the longest day of the year, was then by far the longest day of my young life. We had managed over the previous couple of days to escape with only two holes below the waterline, one in the bow and the other in the tiller flats. About noon, we received a signal to proceed further to sea as we had become a danger, not only to others but to ourselves.
It was not a case of finding an anchorage, as we had neither anchors nor anchor lines left - they had all parted company with us. For three or four hours, we beat a path east of Omaha beach, back and forth, back and forth, and praying for some abatement in the storm.
Around 1600 hours, we were between Omaha and Gold beaches when to my everlasting surprise, I noticed a signal light challenge in Morse Code coming from what appeared at the distance to be a shore base. It was a small port and after responding promptly by Aldis light to the challenge with the appropriate identification letters, I suggested to the skipper that we ask for shelter.
To our astonishment and timeless gratitude, the shore base, controlled by British Commandos, gave us permission to enter and so we took sanctuary in the little harbour of Port-en-Bessin for the following twenty-four hours.
I will always be truly indebted to the keepers of that little port for giving us the privilege of sheltering there, tied to a jetty. We were only the second Allied vessel to use Port-en-Bessin since the start of the German occupation of France.
As a matter of interest, it was at Port-en-Bessin that PLUTO (pipeline under the ocean) came ashore, some time after D-Day, from Ramsgate, England. This pipeline provided many of the petroleum requirements of the Allied forces in the struggle for Normandy and beyond.
June 22, 1944
So, around noon of June 22nd, we risked the Channel again and started for England. Much smoother seas and a "splice the main brace" found us in Calshot around midnight, with our crew enjoying the first hot food and looking forward to the first dry sleep we had had in nearly four days.
Thus, our fifth trip to the Norman beaches was concluded, with plenty of damage to our small ship but with all members of our crew giving thanks for her survival, as well as their own. Mulberry A at Omaha beach was lost as a result of the storm but Mulberry B survived and worked well until the end of 1944. It has been said this storm came close to the undoing of Operation Overlord but the Allies pressed on even though the beaches were littered with more wrecked landing craft and other vessels than on D-Day.
June 23 - Aug 11, 1944
After undergoing the necessary repairs, we continued carrying troops to France until our tenth and last trip into Cherbourg on August 11th, this major port having been captured earlier in the campaign by the American army.
The build-up into Normandy had now been largely accomplished, with our craft landing some 1776 British and American troops. Major ports had become available and small craft such as LCl(L)305 had done their duty. We took 305 to Plymouth, then around Lands End and up through the Irish Sea to Belfast in Northern Ireland where she was decommissioned as a ship of the Royal Canadian Navy and turned over to the Royal Navy.
She was then due for a major refit prior to engaging in the far east war against Japan. The crew was drafted to HMCS Niobe, the Canadian Navy base in Greenock, Scotland for dispersement and expected further service on the high seas.
Although never much acknowledged, the three Canadian LCI(L) Flotillas, the 260th,, 262nd, and 264th consisting of a total of 30 craft, did yeoman service in the historic D-Day assault and ongoing build-up of Allied forces which contributed to the successful conclusion of the battle for Normandy. Their efforts are recognized, along with other participating ships of the Canadian Navy, on a marble pillar in the Canadian memorial gardens in the City of Caen.
W.P. LeFaivre, SIG.T/0 V45100 H.M.C.LCI(L)305 RCMVR