Ned Hitchcock’s account of RAF Radar on Omaha Beach

Flight-Lieutenant E.H. (‘Ned’) Hitchcock, Electrical Engineer Officer, Royal New Zealand Air Force

RAF Radar on Omaha Beach

Not many people know that an RAF radar unit landed on D-Day, in the midst of bloody Omaha Beach!  This US Navy photograph (the main image on the front page of this website) with the caption ‘Underwater Obstacles on Omaha Beach’ shows a beach studded with heavy timber tri-poles.  On the horizon there is a dense mass of shipping.  The sea between is empty.  To the left appears a grounded L.S.T, to the right a tank deep in the sand.  In the foreground is the heavy barbed-wire defence.

A military historian studying this photograph might be puzzled by the presence, centre stage, of British vehicles.  Two burnt-out wrecks are Thorneycroft three-tonners, and immediately behind is the shape, so familiar to radar staff, of an Austin three-tonner housing a 20 kVA diesel generator.  Why should such vehicles be in the midst of ‘Bloody Omaha’ on D-Day itself – the beach where so many American soldiers gave their lives storming Fortress Europe?

About five o’clock on the afternoon of that day I had rather similar thoughts.  The beginning of the wet landing had been easy.  Truck after truck of our radar convoy had plunged down the ramp from our LST and roared shoreward.  But alas, the water, instead of shallowing, steadily grew deeper.  About the time it reached our waists, the truck in front stalled.  Ours immediately followed suit, engine noise ceased, and all around pounded the relentless sea, already tearing at the canvas sides that protected the diesel generator.

Far in the grey distance lay the beach.  We could see the occasional spellburst.  There seemed to be very little American activity; it all seemed to be suspended – and little promise of welcome.  We could see no other vehicles rushing ashore.  It was all rather isolated and lonely.

 

Four years earlier, I had arrived in Liverpool from New Zealand on board the Empress of Asia in 1940, having just completed my degree course in engineering, and having already been accepted for training in radiolocation, as it was then called.  I soon found my way to Yatesbury in Wiltshire, to the RDF Training School, where even our notebooks were classified ‘secret’.  We had been honoured with the rank of leading aircraftman before we even left home, and in due course I was promoted to corporal, along with another chap whose name might be familiar – Arthur C. Clarke.

Feeling it was time to apply for a commission, I found that I must become an electrical engineer in order to do so.  With dizzying speed I went through an office cadet course at Cosford, and then on to Henlow for the electrical course, which was intense.

After this, I shot off to Swanton Morley, in Norfolk, to be in charge of electrical and instrument sections of three squadrons of 2 Group’s medium bombers.  But not for long!  Somebody suggested that my place should be in the newly-established electrical-mechanical engineering section at 60 Group, 60 Group being responsible for ground radar in Britain.  About the time I arrived, 10cm radar had come, adding paraboloids, turning gear high on the towers and transmission through waveguides – more like plumbing than electronics.

To cope with all these developments, the new Section TM4 had been established, headed by a livewire Aussie.  There we had a mix of design and development work, particularly for the new centimetre wavelengths; of coping with emergencies in old, overworked gear, and of acceptance inspections.

 

We Join the Offensive

Late in May 1944, I was working at Group one morning when a colleague put his head round the door.

‘Want to go in with the invasion, Hitch?’

‘Sure,’ said I.

Next day: ‘Get your kit – we’re going!’

We learned that two mobile radar units had been assigned to go in with the invasion, and that a number of specialists in various aspects were to be attached, for the initial period, to assist with setting up complex technical equipment in battle conditions.  Norman Best was to be the GCI specialist, and I was to be electrical engineering specialist.  And fate decreed that we were to join the unit allotted to the Americans and scheduled to land on what was to be known as the infamous Omaha Beach.

 

GCI – The Invasion Role

We gathered that in a seaborne invasion of a hostile shore, the best time for counter-attack is on the first night, or in the early stages of the build-up.  Air activity at night could be difficult to counter, so a necessary defence for the invaders would be effective nightfighter protection.  Mobile GCI units were to be landed close behind the initial waves of the attack, and to be operational in support of the beachhead on D-Night.  Because the Americans had no available fully-operational system, one unit had been assigned from the RAF to the American Sector.  And in mid-channel there would be shipborne units (Fighter Direction Tenders) to provide cover over the invasion routes, and link with the beachhead units.

 

The Assignment

Our first move was to collect gear from 85 Group at Uxbridge.  In addition to the usual field service items were some that underlined aspects of the way ahead – anti gas impregnated battledress, an escape map and a service revolver meant business.  There was at the same time desperate activity – all the ground RAF units which operated in Army territory were having their khaki clothing recalled and being reissued with RAF blue.  It was said that the RAF went into battle in blue – more of this later.

Back to 60 Group that night, and amid the farewell party, another grim note: WAAF friends putting rank badges on loops that could be slid off – snipers were said to be selective!  The next day we drove into the sealed area of the south coast, where no civilian movements were permitted in or out, and no communication was allowed between civilian and military.  The Second Front, so long awaited, was under way.

 

Camp D2

We joined Radar Unit 15082 – already ensconced among some thousands of American troops.  Strict discipline – no short cuts across open grass, everything camouflaged.  The Americans were friendly, helpful and efficient.  More deadly serious equipment was issued – an American assault respirator, worn on the chest in a waterproof bag (destined to be a lifesaver!); supplies to make us completely independent for forty-eight hours (including three condoms!), and maps of the landing area showing fortifications and machine-gun sites.  Our briefing explained that we were to land at H-Hour plus five (about full tide) on Sector Dog-Red, entering by a cleared lane, and that a beachmaster would direct us to our exit.

 

We Set Sail – Twice

In the late afternoon of 4 June we set sail for France from Portland.  Our slow fleet would take all night to cross the channel and arrive at dawn on 5 June.  But next morning I awoke to find land close on our right – we must have turned back!  What could have happened?  Was it all off?

We spent the day pottering about in a borrowed dinghy, rowing around among the ships.  Later, of course, we learned of the critical decision to postpone the landings for a day to minimize the effect of expected bad weather.  That afternoon, we set off again, and woke to grey skies and a barely visible French coast.

 

We Go in to Land

At about 0900 hours our LST suddenly set off from the middle of the invasion fleet – straight in – our leadings, the other four following.  The recce party was third.  A patrol craft tossing about in the rough seas came close: ‘What wave are you?’  I didn’t hear the reply, but the patrol seemed satisfied:  ‘In you go!’

As we neared the beach we could see clearly that it was not yet captured.  The men ashore were taking cover from enemy fire; there was a vehicle burning; as we watched, an explosion blew a figure high in the air.

Aboard our vessel was a US observer, who had experience at Pantellaria.  He, we heard, had assessed the situation and concluded that the last thing needed ashore at this stage was a collection of technicians armed with radar aerials.  Rather relieved, we turned seaward, presuming we could land next day.

We stood off while naval guns pounded the shore.  We saw the Vierville clock tower destroyed (we later learned it was suspected of housing German artillery observers).  Mercifully, we knew nothing of the desperate battle by the American infantry to gain a foothold (this was the sector eastward of us, where the Americans had been carried by strong tidal currents).  Nor did we know of General Bradley’s debating whether the Omaha landing should be abandoned.

About four o’clock in the afternoon we were concluding that it would be useless to land now – no chance of working that night.  Then, suddenly, in we went!  It was now low tide, so we could be landed below the beach obstacles which the Army engineers had not yet been able to clear, because of enemy fire.  Then followed the debâcle.

 

The Debâcle

The unplanned landing at low tide instead of high had disastrous results.  Some vehicles were landed on sandbars and stalled as they drover into deeper water.  Others sank in patches of soft sand on the long run up the beach and were immersed as the tide rose.  Those reaching the shoreline found that the wire and earth barriers had not yet been breached and there was no way off the exposed beach.  They became sitting targets for enemy shellfire, and shrapnel-punctured diesel oil drums fed the flames.

On our LCT, the ramp splashed down as the vessel grounded; the vehicles roared down the ramp, the water rose steadily around our waists; the engines gave up, and we sat – thinking the thoughts with which I began this tale.

Suddenly, past us there surged a Thorneycroft – great bow wave, cab high above water – and leaning out, a grinning face under a tin hat, hand-signalling to us what might have been charitably interpreted as a V-sign.  Just the irrepressible humour needed to jerk us back to practicality!

I waded ashore to where our rescue Diamond-T crane waited, and managed to drag a cable back and grope under water to hook up.  By the time it became clear that the surging se had embedded the wheels too deep for retrieval to be possible, the water had risen to cab-top level.  There was no way ashore except a swim in full kit, made possible by two factors – nightly keep-fit runs back at 60 Group, and that assault respirator, giving buoyancy!

The crane crew had already one man wounded, and after I staggered exhausted up the beach between the obstacles, I could see nothing and no one – no beachmaster, no medics – just dead and wounded, and abandoned vehicles.

After a brief rest, leaning against one of the vehicles, it seemed to me best to get busy; the urgent task of being to save what equipment we could.  Flames threatened an undamaged truck.  I managed to pull out a wounded GI from his doubtful shelter underneath it, and drove my first ever heavy transport clear of the flames.

Then a bulldozer suddenly appeared and cleared away the barriers, and there was a way off the beach, and our group seemed to come together again, rescuing what vehicles could be driven up to a field in the narrow valley and collecting wounded for evacuation.  We had suffered heavy casualties – ten dead and forty wounded.  The Americans had suffered horrific casualties, and the beaches were strewn with their dead.

In the midst of all this, some of us found a place to sleep, under a hedge in the grounds of a seaside villa.  I managed to borrow a blanket, and I don’t recall discomfort from wet clothes.  There was wry compensation in that the only air attack on our location came from a lone Ju88 flying very low to avoid the hail of fire from the assembled shipping.  (This uncontrolled ack-ack fire was to make the nightfighter task more difficult.

 

D-Day Plus One

Up at dawn, some sodden biscuits, and off to rescue our Type 14 transmitter, caught in soft sand and then by the tide.  A dead American leaned against the wheel, seaweed draped over all.  We requested help from a bulldozer which was busy rescuing other bulldozers.  Shelling started, and the engineers removing beach obstacles took over.  The LST was shelled.  The bulldozer arrived, extracted the Type 14 like a cork from a bottle, and towed it, still sinking into sand, past the LST wreck.  Then came the sniper fire from the bluffs, and the driver prudently abandoned the tow: he was too good a target.  (We soon learned that walking briskly from cover to cover baffled the snipers – don’t stand still!)

It appeared that further landings had been abandoned.  Had it all been a failure?  Were we just a few stranded on an enemy shore?  Then came relief – American tanks advancing from the next sector (misnamed ‘Easy Beach’).  Then a little later came one of those indelible moments in the memory – a group of men crowded round a vehicle listening to the BBC news – to be told that the invasion had been successful and that men and materials were pouring ashore on the other beaches.

We carried on collecting our battered remnants and started the task of putting together what we could to become operational.  Later, we moved to a camp site nearby.

 

D-Day Plus Two and Later

The American commander said that we’d better get out of that RAF blue – it was too much like German field grey, and he couldn’t guarantee that his own men might not mistake us for the enemy!  And miraculously – in the middle of an invasion – our American allies produced from nowhere a miscellany of assorted khaki and we were instantly transformed into Americans – gum-chewing and all!

A suitable operational site have been selected and tested for mines by carefully backing of the Crossleys, some replacement gear arrived and we were on the air!  On the night of D-Day plus one, 1½ enemy aircraft were shot down – the first GCI-controlled interception from the American beachhead.  (It sometimes happened that two aircraft or ground-based units attacked and brought down the same enemy aircraft, each claiming a kill.  Because it was impossible to decide whose fire had been the more successful, the credit was divided between them.  Hence a score of half an aircraft.)

Within a week, we were hitching a return lift on an American LST from Utah Beach to Portland.

Back at 60 Group, we were set to work on countering the buzz-bombs.  These were programmed to change course after launching, to prevent tracking back to the site.  Attacks on those sites would be helped if radar range could be extended.  Transmitter h.t. had been increased, and an extended aerial army might help.  Firstly, I located some GCI aerial mesh frames at the maintenance unit in Carlisle.  Then a few days on the drawing board designing a frame extension which was made up at the Kidbrooke Depot.  Next, with a Kidbrooke party down to Wartling, and the extension frame was mounted.  (I gather the Germans soon introduced mobile launching gear; the inevitable move and counter-move!)

As the Liberation Army advanced, plans were made for the ground stations of the radar navigational aids (Gee and Oboe) to follow up.  A new wing organisation was set up and given the name of 72 Wing.  I was put in charge of the Electrical-Mechanical section, whose main task was to service the very large numbers of generating sets, from Lister diesels down to light-weight petrol sets suitable for airborne transport.

No turning gear to plague us, but a whole new set of problems – those 110 ft timber towers!  They were beautifully designed, lightweight and transportable, but had an infinity of small pieces to maintain.  There was a desperate rush to work out what equipment was needed; mobile workshops and the provision of spares.

Our convoy landed on Sword Beach on 5 September 1944.  All very civilised this time – even a bulldozer to pile sand at the ramp for easy exit.  We learnt that we could take over buildings previously occupied by the Germans, and their taste was good!

But the speed of the Allied advance across France meant it was soon time to move forward, and Mons was chosen for the next HQ site.  It took two days for the convoy to reach Belgium. – driving past slag heaps in the mining areas – dreary surroundings after our outdoor life in Normandy, but all compensated for by the warmth and friendliness of the city – with the added link of New Zealanders having been there in 1914-1918.

Radar was back in the firing line during the German Ardennes offensive.  An Oboe unit had no warning: the story goes that a crew member looking at a footbridge down in the valley suddenly realised there were German soldiers crossing.  The unit made a hasty exit, struggling with winter mud and the need for help to extract highly-secret equipment from very preoccupied Americans.  (Von Rundstedt later disclosed that he had detailed an armoured unit for the specific purpose of capturing intact all the 72 Wing units.)

Not long before VE Day, we delivered a new power unit to a station in what was to become the Russian Zone.  We were told that civil affairs officers had displayed photographs from Belsen, not too far distant.  These had been dismissed by the locals as typical Allied photographs.  Yet, in that village, we saw a factory with the workers – mostly Russian girls – camped in it.  The villagers must have known that this was forced labour; the girls were virtually slaves and could now easily run riot.

We had wondered why those villagers were so terrified of the rumour that they were to be in the proposed Russian Zone.  Now we understood.

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