Operation Neptune - A Sailor Remembers...
By Andy Irwin
I was serving in HMCS Algonquin (R17), a V-class destroyer assigned to the 26th Destroyer Flotilla stationed with the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow. I believe we sailed from Scapa on May 25, 1944 and arrived off Portsmouth on May 27th, proceeding to anchor off Seaview, Isle of Wight. I celebrated my 19th birthday on the 28th.
We realized there was a major operation about to take place because of the mass of all types of shipping in the area. Speculation about what may be happening was rife in the mess decks. We carried out several night patrols in the English Channel until June 4, and on the afternoon of June 5th we learned that Operation Neptune, the naval component of the invasion of Europe, was to commence that evening. It became quite obvious when the landing craft loaded with troops began moving out of the harbour in mid-afternoon.
We weighed anchor at 1600 and proceeded to rendezvous off Cowes where we joined with HMS Hilary, the headquarters ship of "Force J" (Juno Beach). Enroute we passed HMC Ships Prince Henry and Prince David, the two former Canadian National BC coastal liners which had been refitted from AMCs to Infantry Landing Ships. Our initial role was to escort HMS Hillary which had on board, MGen. Keller, the commander of the 3rd Canadian Division and his staff, to the assault area off Normandy. Hilary got under way at 1800 with HMCS Algonquin astern, followed by a flotilla of LCIs carrying Royal Marine Commandos.
As we steamed through the Solent, "Clear Lower Decks" was piped and all hands gathered around the aft torpedo tubes to hear a briefing on our role by our Commanding Officer, LCdr. Desmond W. Piers, DSC, CD. The route to the beaches of Normandy had been swept of mines and the Channel marked with blue lights. While a surface attack was possible, the greatest danger was posed by drifting mines. Two of them gave us a good scare during the trip.
During the crossing, bridge lookouts could see that the Commandos in the landing craft were having a bad time in the rolling seas. We closed up to action stations at midnight, and sailed in darkness until about 0500 when the sky began to brighten and it was soon daylight. What a sight! Ships of every size and type, from mighty battleships to barges, as far as the eye could see. It was amazing there were no collisions reported during the crossing.
At about 0600, the battleships and cruisers opened fire with their main armament on shore batteries and other defensive positions. The noise was absolutely thunderous! I believe HMS Rodney was outboard on Juno Beach. It was eerie seeing her 16-inch shells passing overhead, inbound for the beaches. Around 0630, the sky was obliterated by a huge mass of bombers in-bound to blast shore positions. Then followed aircraft towing gliders loaded with troops. We could see them going in to land under heavy fire. It was unnerving to see some hit and disintegrate. We commenced our bombardment at 0700 and our initial target was a battery of two German 75mm guns. When the guns were silenced, we then targeted houses and other buildings along the shoreline. We ceased fire at about 0745 in preparation for H-hour (landing time) for the infantry. They had been proceeding past us toward the shore during the course of our bombardment, and hit the beaches at about 0800. At 0900 we were slowly moving up and down the landing area when an LCI came alongside and asked us to take off casualties. A mortar had landed inside their craft killing one and injuring five. All were taken to the wardroom which had been transformed into a sickbay where "Doc" Dixon proceeded to provide treatment. Two of the survivors succumbed during the night and we buried all three at sea on the morning of June 7.
At 1100 on the 6th, we received a request from our artillery officer spotter ashore to take out three 88mm German guns holding up the advance of our troops about three miles inland. Our four 4.7-inch guns put the first salvo short, the next a bit long, then right on target to demolish the position. I later learned that it was Le Regiment de la Chaudiere we had helped, as they advanced on Bene sur Mer. At the 55th anniversary of D-Day in 1999, I met Sgt. Jean Minveille of the Chaudiere's, and we reminisced about the occasion as he introduced me to Calvados, the drink of Normandy.
Following D-Day, we carried out night patrols to keep the area clear of U-boats and E-boats. We had a few nervous nights when enemy aircraft randomly dropped their bombs in the anchorage area. One bomb exploded about 50 yards off our port beam. On Sunday, June 18 (D+12), we escorted the battleship Rodney from Portsmouth back to Normandy. LGen. H. D. G. Crerar, CB, DSO, Commander 1st Canadian Army and his staff of twenty two, were on board Algonquin. It was a proud moment for us as this was the first time a Canadian Army commander with his army standard flying from the yardarm, had gone into battle from a Canadian warship.
At 0400 June 19 (D+13), we got a call for bombardment from the army on the eastern flank at Gonnerville where commandos were to make a dawn attack. We received the following signal later:"THE COMMANDING OFFICER AND ALL RANKS OF THE 45TH ROYAL MARINE COMMANDO WISH TO RECORD THEIR APPRECIATION FOR THE EXCELLENT SUPPORT RECEIVED DURING THE OPERATION AT 0445. ITS SUCCESS WAS LARGELY DUE TO YOUR COOPERATION."
On Saturday, June 24, while returning from patrol following a night of dodging parachute mines, we were approaching Sword area to carry out a bombardment when the destroyer HMS Swift, about a half mile ahead and on patrol with us, hit a mine, broke in two amidships and sank within minutes. On June 28,1944, we departed Portsmouth to rejoin the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow.
[Andy Irwin resides in Toronto. He is a former President of the NOAC Toronto Branch and currently serves as National Fund Raising Chairman for The Naval Officers Association of Canada. This article was published in the Summer 2000 issue of Ensign, the newsletter of the Naval Museum of Alberta]