D-Day Landings Remembered – A Voyage in Tall Ship SV Tenacious

Posted by ap507 at Jul 07, 2015 10:50 AM |
Dr Jim McDermott, Associate Tutor at the Centre for Labour Market Studies, who joined the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s historic voyage from 2-12, outlines his experience at sea
D-Day Landings Remembered – A Voyage in Tall Ship SV Tenacious

At the helm

In late May 2015 The Jubilee Sailing Trust offered The Royal British Legion (TRBL) two crew places on a D-Day Landings commemorative voyage on Tall Ship Tenacious sailing from Southampton to retrace the journeys taken by the D-Day landing ships and landing craft on 6 June 1944. I volunteered and much to my surprise was offered a place. I joined the rest of the volunteer crew and we signed on aboard SV Tenacious on 2 June.  Foul weather delayed the planned departure but after being allocated a bunk and issued with harnesses, sea boots, wet weather gear and receiving and practicing safety drills we eventually embarked from Southampton early on 3 June 2015.

We headed towards Cowes first on the Isle of Wight, where we were surrounded by yachts of all kinds, racing and cruising, in a good force 5 south westerly breeze. We passed close to HMS Northumberland and dipped our ensign as she dipped hers. Then we headed westwards down the narrow Needles Channel with the Shingles to Starboard (right hand side looking towards the bows), and the white cliffs and Lighthouse off the Western tip of the Isle of Wight to our port (left hand side looking towards the bows).

Now to set sails! First order of business was to get some training on climbing the rigging, and going out on the lower topsail yards of the fore and mainmasts. Thereafter, all hands gained experience in bracing the yards hard to starboard and to port, before setting the lower topsails.   SV Tenacious is rigged in the traditional way so setting the sails requires a great deal of pulling and holding onto ropes (bracing) and in particular pulling and letting go of the right ropes at the right time – real teamwork needed and absolute confidence in the bosuns’ mates who are in control.  Standing on a thin rope a long way above the deck on a vessel pitching and tossing in all directions is quite an experience.  The engine was off and we enjoyed a southerly course under sail for Cherbourg, France.

This write up is not a day by day log which can be found on the Jubilee Sailing Trust website but rather some of my key memories of a truly excellent experience.

Each day followed much the same routine, wake-up call over the tannoy; breakfast; watch briefing;’ happy hour’ (which is actually cleaning the ship from top to bottom); training including knots, sail setting, safety, navigation, flags; mid-morning is ‘Smoko – a short break with refreshments; attending to the rigging; lunch; perhaps a short snooze, or relaxing on deck – not too much of that!

After dinner each evening there was a lecture by Bjorg Watson on the D-Day operations with visual aids and lots of interesting discussion.  The crew was divided into watches with a watch leader and a permanent crew member on call.  The on duty watch took the helm (steered the ship) kept the log, kept watch when at sea; looking out for other vessels and anything floating in the sea that might cause problems.  The duty watch, helped set up and dismantle the gangway, set out the fenders and also provided crew as the shore party to catch the mooring ropes, having gone ashore in the DOTI (sounds exotic but stands for Department of Transport Inflatable) and crew as the line party to prepare the ropes (called flaking out) and to throw them ashore.

High point of the voyage
Each day one member of each watch was on Mess duty – so excused all other tasks and helped in the galley (the kitchen)  set the tables in the upper and lower mess  (the dining areas) served the meals, cleared away afterwards and washed up. So every day was very busy, very interesting and very rewarding.  Someone remarked that we have clothes to wear, food to eat, somewhere to sleep, good company and a meaningful purpose as part of a team– and we seem to manage perfectly well without all the clutter of modern day living.  A most perceptive remark embracing various definitions of (almost all) man’s hierarchy of needs.

In the course of the next 10 days the ship visited key locations related to the D-Day landings including ‘Piccadilly Circus’ a rendezvous area in the Channel from where the invasion vessels assembled before heading to the invasion zones. The crew included an expert on the Normandy Landings and he gave daily briefing as the voyage progressed; he was also a working member of the crew – there were no passengers!  Everyone was encouraged to join in the discussions and several aboard had stories of relatives who had been part of the invasion.

I contributed my knowledge of the role of intelligence both before and during the invasion especially the deception plans which had kept Hitler guessing.  Having crossed the Channel, learning the skills of working on a sailing ship on the way, the Tenacious sailed along the Normandy coast locating and viewing the landing beaches.  We moored at the quayside in Cherbourg, the scene of fierce fighting in 1944.  The ship’s arrival created great excitement in the town with swarms of people waiting for us on the quayside.  An evening ashore, for those not on watch, and then the voyage continued along the coast before the ship anchored, on 6 June about two miles off Gold beach at Arromanches.  We were awoken this morning by the recorded sound of a bugler playing reveille – to set the scene for what was to be a most memorable day.

The ship’s Captain led a short and moving remembrance ceremony on deck and then groups of veterans and other crew went ashore in the ship’s small boats experiencing just one tiny aspect of the 1944 landings – the choppy sea.  We could only imagine the shock, the horror, the noise and destruction experienced by the combat troops who stormed the beaches in 1944. We passed the remains of the Mulberry harbour still visible above the water and, since the tide was in, we had to wade ashore, so no possibility of wearing parade rig.   Our 6 June beach landing was, however more of a stumble than an assault.

Arromanches on 6 June 2015, D-Day was buzzing; thousands of people, including lots of veterans and Royal British Legion members in their distinctive outfits.  The crowds packed the colourful streets, many in military or civilian 1940s attire.  Authentic jeeps, half-tracks, tanks, guns, motor cycles and other period vehicles and weapons were placed at every available street corner. Music was playing from every café and bar and from the specially erected stages.

After a little while, some of the crew who had landed in different locations along the coast (echoing the

Line party flaking out
experiences of many vessels that landed in the wrong place in 1944) joined up for the short, but very steep, walk up the hill, to where the Royal Engineer memorial is situated commanding superb panoramic views over the bay and our own Tenacious, bobbing quietly on the sea some mile and a half away.  Myself and Kyle, a wounded Rifles veteran of the Afghan conflict and Nigel, a Royal Marine who was badly wounded in Panama formed a wreath laying party and, accompanied by many of the crew laid a wreath at the Royal Engineers memorial.

Nearby is a large modern 360 degree ‘cinema’ where we all gathered with several other visitors from many nations to watch a moving and interesting film montage of the D-Day landings and the aftermath.  On the way in armed forces veterans were called to the front to be ushered in free of charge. We left the cinema, in sombre mood and into bright sunshine – back to the almost carnival atmosphere in the town and were fortunate to witness a Spitfire and a Mustang chasing, swooping and diving over Arromanche.

Clusters of veterans, very old, old and not so old exchanged the universal banter of the military, one group doing so in the middle of a zebra crossing, advising all who would listen that they planned to hold the crossing until relieved.

The return to the ship was as eventful as the arrival ashore; the tide was well out, exposing more of the wartime harbour and the remains of sunken vessels.   With a strong swell running getting back onto the DOTI was something of a struggle.  We then chugged back to SV Tenacious at anchor.

Next day we travelled along the coast under sail and then, having negotiated the lock at Ouistreham motored up the Caen Canal to the city of Caen passing the famous Pegasus Bridge en-route.  Moored alongside in Caen we sampled the local beer and many of us also visited British cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and remembered the fallen.  A large bridge meant we had to moor some way out of the town but this did not stop many townsfolk from visiting the ship.

We visited the Pegasus Bridge museum and the café next to the bridge, owned and run by Madame Arlette Gondrée who was just four years old when the bridge was captured from the Germans by glider borne troops. Madame Gondrée took time for a brief chat but sadly declined an invitation from the Captain to visit the ship, June being an extremely busy month.  She did however promise to give us a wave on our departure next day. We in turn promised to sing loud and clear as we departed.

Wreath laying
With the ship decked out with flags of many nations and everyone on deck waving and cheering we gave an impressive rendition of “We’ll meet again” to Madame Gondrée and the many people on the canal banks who saw us off.  At the Ouistreham Canal Lock the Pilot came aboard and took us out into a very wild and rough Channel. The chasing Pilot Cutter pitching and chopping in huge waves eventually managed to come alongside in open sea to take the Pilot off.

Then the voyage back to UK waters in a Force 8 gale which coincided with my watch on the bridge.  An awful night with sick bags in full use!  Eventually the sun crept over the horizon and we anchored, in much calmer water off Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight.  Then my final watch on the line party forward (up at the front of the ship) preparing the lines for mooring in Southampton, getting the DOTI launched, setting up the gangway and then back down below to pack my kit, return my sea boots, harnesses and wet weather gear before a hearty breakfast.  Finally SV Tenacious arrived alongside at Dock 10 berth 104.  A farewell speech from the Captain followed by three hearty cheers and a return, somewhat unsteadily, to land.

My most vivid memory is of approaching the Cherbourg peninsula and sailing by Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword and Gold beaches along the Normandy Coast and along the canal to Caen.  It clearly demonstrated the vast scale of the momentous tasks carried out by the Allied invasion force.  We remembered the sacrifice of all those who died, were wounded, many maimed for life and those who still live and continue to relive the horrors of their experiences.

The experiences of those who landed on D-Day 1944 were vividly brought back to reality by what we have seen and heard. What a privilege then to have been able to make what was for me a truly memorable, emotional and rewarding experience – even more memorable as 6th June was my 72nd birthday and the ship’s cook had baked a superb birthday cake which was enjoyed by all.

Throughout the many locations visited we were warmly welcomed both as sailors from a square rigged vessel but also, for many of us, as veterans of later conflicts.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust’s two vessels, Tenacious and Lord Nelson were specially designed and are operated to provide sailing experiences for anyone over 16 years of age with a physical handicap. On most voyages at least half the crew will be able bodied and are buddied up with those less able.  When I asked the organiser, before the voyage, what I would be doing, the answer was: “Everything!” and this proved to be the case.

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