The Story of the First Echelon of 21 BDS (Base Defence Sector) at Omaha Beach 6th June 1944.
The Allies were most concerned that the invasion force, should they be successful in establishing a beachhead on the French Coast of Normandy, would be at their most vulnerable in the first few days of the offensive.
To protect the armies of the US, UK, Canada and many other nations that made up the Allied force, the Generals wanted to provide as soon as possible advanced Radar on the ground to give air defence and control of the skies above the beaches and to advance with the Allies as the invasion spread into France.
The only nation that had the technology to provide advanced mobile Radar was the UK, and so it was decided to send two separate Radar forces to support the invasion. The two groups were 24 BDS, that went with the Canadian and British forces and landed on Juno Beach, and 21 BDS, that was seconded to the US 5th Army and landed on Omaha Beach. Bloody Omaha Beach.
Each BDS had about 500 men attached to them and the plan was that on 6th June, the first Echelon of about 150-180 men and equipment (some of whom are shown in Picture 1) would land about 4 hours after the first assault troops and establish on the first night Ground Control Intercept (GCI) capabilities to warn of incoming enemy aircraft and to direct Allied fighters to intercept them. The remainder of the two BDS were to land 7 to 10 days after the invasion, with a second set of GCI equipment and further mobile signal units (MSUs).
Their equipment was bulky, slow and vulnerable, as illustrated in Photo 2, which shows part of the GCI equipment.
The first Echelon of 21 BDS congregated at Portland, Dorset, and was allocated 5 Landing Craft for the crossing to Omaha Beach.
They had 27 vehicles in total, were self contained with mobile kitchens, stores, fuel and spares, to operate on their own for 10 days until the balance of 21 BDS joined them.
Some personnel had received weapons training and some had not. Some were only armed with pistols and specialists had been added to the original party as recently as 10 days before the invasion, allowing no time for training beach landings or building teamwork.
Picture 3 shows a typical group that made up a MSU team.
The beach at Omaha was split into 5 main sub-sections.
The entire beach was heavily defended and, apart from 4 narrow valleys or draws, the whole length of the 7 km beach consisted of a narrow shingle top beach, a thin flat marshy area, and a range of low hills or bluffs that rose to a maximum height of 60 m.
This was far from promising land to invade, but it was the only possible beach between the more suitable beaches to the east where the British and Canadians invaded, and the most westerly beach codenamed Utah.
The Americans elected to take on this challenge where the German defenders had virtually all the aces in their hand.
The plan was for 21 BDS to land at Easy Red Beach at around 11.30 am when the tide would be in and to drive ashore, up the E1 exit to transit area 2. (Photograph 4)
The plan went badly wrong.
In theory, the combined efforts of the US Air Force and Navy should have battered the German defences to smithereens, and whilst the Armies did not expect a walk over, the hope had been that the bulk of the German heavy armoury would have been destroyed and fighting capabilities of the defenders would have been severely compromised.
They were definitely not! The US 29th and 1st Divisions who landed at 06:30 had a terrible time, suffering huge numbers of casualties. The film, “Saving Private Ryan”, showed accurately and graphically the slaughter that those brave men endured.
All along the beach, hundreds of men perished and the sands became littered with burned out vehicles, boats and bodies.
Photograph 5 shows the beach and exit D3 at Les Moulins in 1943, before the Germans built up their Fortress Europe defences. Most houses were destroyed in preparing these defences with few exceptions including the house at the bottom left of the image, called Les Sables d’Or.
At the appointed hour for 21 BDS to land, the beach had not been taken, and so they were ordered to circle offshore until the situation improved. Slowly, the Americans began to penetrate the bluffs, fighting with immense bravery, and by early afternoon at several points along the beach, advances were being made.
By mid afternoon, the first draw had been taken (E-1), quickly followed by E-3. There was now a chance to land 21 BDS, and so at 5.00pm, 6 hours behind schedule, they were ordered in. Tragically, they should have landed at the E-1 draw, they actually were put ashore closer to the D-3 draw, which was still being viciously fought over.
The tide was also low, and so the vehicles were dropped far out on the flat, sandy beach into low water. There were deep, hidden channels. The whole contents of one LCT drove off the ship and straight into a deep channel, never to be seen again.
Other vehicles became stuck in deep sand and mud, and became drowned out by the advancing tide. Those that made it to the edge of the shingle found themselves trapped with no exit off the beach. They became sitting targets for the German mortar and artillery shells that picked them off, one after another.
The US forces that were on the beach with them were traumatised and immobile. Many men were dead or injured. 21 BDS’ position was grave and they too were suffering casualties. The only solution was to get off the beach and get into the shelter of a ravine.
Several of the British Officers managed to organise themselves and some of the Americans to utilise an abandoned bulldozer to break through the shingle and effect their escape.
Fortunately, their plan was successful, and the remaining, unscathed vehicles were driven a few hundred yards to the comparative safety of the destroyed hamlet of Les Moulins. Out of the original 27 vehicles, only 8 survived, and 21 BDS had lost 11 dead and 39 seriously injured out of their starting complement of about 150.
Photo 6 shows the layout of their landing.
Photo 8 shows the remains of Les Sables d’Or; photo 9 shows the hamlet of Les Moulins where 21 BDS took shelter on the night of 6th June.
Along with many detachments of the US 5th Army, they had suffered shocking losses, and had endured a frightening ordeal.
Despite losing most of their equipment, they were able to re-group on 7th June and salvage some vehicles from the beach, though still under sniper fire.
By 8th June, they had established a temporary working base at the airstrip close to St. Laurent and claimed their first “kill” on the 9th June.
6 men won either the Military Cross or Military Medal from 21 BDS (photo 11) including my father, Norman Best.
One tragic error that the RAF committed was to send these men into conflict in their RAF blue battle dress.
Sadly, once this uniform got wet, it became more grey than blue and became far too similar to the German grey uniform.
It was reported that, on many occasions, the ill-fated 21 BDS were being shot at from both sides.
Photo 12 shows my Father and another, New Zealand survivor from the group on their return to England outside a pub, beer in hand and in borrowed US military uniforms.
Replacement vehicles and men were sent over after a week or so, and the rest of 21 BDS were operational by 1st July. 21 BDS went on to become the joint most successful GCI unit on the Western Front, with over 46 enemy aircraft downed in the first three months of the invasion alone.