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D-Day and the Scottish Piper

Updated on April 16, 2013
The British Destroyer 'The Derwent' - My father served on this for a year before D-Day. Note the open bridge.
The British Destroyer 'The Derwent' - My father served on this for a year before D-Day. Note the open bridge.

What is the D-Day Invasion?

There's been a lot of disagreement over the years as to what the meaning of the D in D Day actually is. It's now acknowledged that it simply means Day. Strange you might think to have Day Day but it just means the code for the day of the military D Day invasion.

When was the D Day Invasion? The well known answer is the 6th June 1944, but there have been references to other 'D Day's' right back into the First World War of 1914 -1918. Strategists also used a numbering system to show the days either before or after D Day. So, for example six days before the D Day invasion was known simply as D-6 and six days after D Day was known as D+6.

The D-Day invasion was at the height of the Second World War that had been going on with huge casualties since 1939. In September 1st of 1939, Germany, controlled by Hitler, invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Germany was in fact a highly effective enemy and Britain and its allies, Russia, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (The USA did not join them until 1943) virtually had an uphill battle until the United States joined in 1943. However, we'll not go into the actual war here is that's not what this article's about. There's lots of WW2 history recorded on the net, so best to look there.This article is a little about the planning towards the D Day invasion and in particular, my father's involvement.

Planning For the D Day Invasion

D Day involved the crossing to the French coast of Normandy in one night as a surprise attack with , 120,000 troops, 12,000 planes and 7000 naval vessels. It's difficult when you see the numbers involved, of how the logistics could be worked through. It's not just the numbers here, but imagine also the forward planning required for the dead and wounded, ammunition, food, water and trasport to name just a few nightmares they must have faced upon the way. But imagine with what was involved for the D Day invasion, the incredibly secretive planning. This part I find stunning. With the involvement of so many senior commanders and yet nothing was ever divulged. But more on this latter. There are some interesting stories surrounding the secrecy of D-Day.The planning was actually begun three years before in 1941, at a time when Great Britain was in fact losing the war. Germany at this time had completely dominated Europe, with the exception of Switzerland (neutral) Italy ( an ally of Germany under the Dictator Mussolini) and Russia (too large for Germany to take at this stage). Great Britain had also just had the humiliation of losing a battle with Germany and having to evacuate 300,000 very weary troops from Dunkirk. To evacuate these men quickly before they were all slaughtered, Britain through radio and newspapers called on anyone with a seaworthy boat to cross the English Channel to Dunkirk and take as many troops as they could fit on their boats back to Britain. Thousands of boat owners responded to the message and some of these boats that went across were as small as 15 feet. There was a beautiful book by Paul Galico called 'The Snow Goose' on exactly this very brave mission that if you haven't read - you should. I'll list it down below on Amazon.

Plans for the operation christened Operation Overlord (the D Day Invasion) began earnestly after the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, where the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the US President at the time, Franklin D Roosevelt and the French President, Charles de Gaulle all met to discuss the next strategy of WW11. Stalin of Russia declined to attend due to him having his hands full with an invasion by Germany onto Russian soil.

All of Britain and all of Europe knew there was always going to be an invasion on the coast of France at some stage, but nobody knew when it was going to be, where it was going to be and how large it was going to be. So a deception game was ongoing. Under instruction from the defense department, the BBC appealed to the public for any old holiday snaps that they were going to display in a n exhibition. Of all of the snaps that came in, any photos to do with the beaches were seized and studied for geographical reasons.

Paul Galico - "The Snow Goose" -True story of huge bravery as tiny civilian boats go and rescue 300,000 tired British troops from Dunkirk in 1940

D Day Invasion Inventiveness

It was known that there were areas of the Normandy beach containing ancient woodlands that had become peat. It would not be possible for heavy duty vehicles such as tanks to ride up the beach and not become bogged down in the peat. Rolls of heavy duty matting called bobbins were invented that the tanks themselves would first deploy so that vehicles behind could safely follow.

The planners of the D Day Invasion realized that they would require a port to land all the equipment, supplies and men after the initial invasion. They knew it would not be possible to just 'take' a handy port, so instead worked on a brilliant engineering idea proposed by a civil engineer by the name of Hugh Hughes. He designed a portable floating harbor that's basic structure was towed across the English channel by tugboats directly after the D Day invasion and assembled by 1000 military engineers. In fact they built two of what were called the Mulberry Harbors One for the US combat forces and one for the British. The harbors were very effectual providing a total of ten miles in available tying up facilities. Unfortunately the US harbor was destroyed in a violent storm on June 19th, but the British one survived for eight months. A remnant of this is still visible today.

Percy Hobart invented amphibious tanks. These were modified Sherman and Churchill tanks. The reason for these tanks was that the vehicle landing craft could often not get all the way into the beachhead and so had to drop their loads beyond the surf breaks. These tanks known as 'Hobart's Funnies' although successful to a degree still had many casualties with a lot sinking instantaneously with the result of the entire crew drowning.

Hitler was always convinced that the allies would invade down south in Calais, as it was the shortest distance by sea and air. The allies had to keep the Germans thinking that this was there plan too, so they invented inflatable tanks. While the real tanks were getting ready to be deployed for the D Day invasion of Normandy, hundreds of blow up tanks were used in a simulation to show German Reconnaissancethat that was indeed the plan. But it wasn't just inflatable tanks that they saw. It was also, jeeps, cannon and aircraft.

'Bobbins" - Or colloquially 'Bog Rolls"
'Bobbins" - Or colloquially 'Bog Rolls"
Four men lifting an inflatable tank
Four men lifting an inflatable tank

The Importance of Deception on the D-Day Invasion

Deception of course was imperative to this invasion. As I said earlier, all of Europe was expecting the D Day invasion for years including France and Germany but nobody knew when or where. At the time there were a lot of German agents operating in Britain but most became double agents for Britain so it was easy for Britain to fool Germany into believing that the invasion would as suspected be undertaken in Pas de Calais. An entire battalion was based in South Eastern Britain purely for deception purposes (where the inflatable tanks / landing craft etc were based and the Luftwaffe were allowed to fly over to confirm that this was indeed a training force with the express purpose of invading Pas de Calais.

There were naval, army and troop exercises for eighteen months leading up to the invasion in completely different areas with not one leader knowing where the invasion was going to take place nor where.

German Defenses:

The WW11 famous and widely respected by the British, German, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel took over what was known as the Atlantic Wall that the Germans had constructed to defend the French coastline in 1942 and 1943. When Rommel inspected this wall in early 1944 he saw that the wall defended the ports well but there had been nothing done for the areas between the ports, therefore they could easily be attacked and then the Allies could take the ports from the inside. Rommel immediately ratcheted up the gaps in the Atlantic Wall by installing concrete spikes at the high tide mark, concrete reinforcing and a lot of barbed wire. In addition he had the low lands flooded. The Allies of course became aware of all this and just had to plan for the D Day invasion a little harder for these obstacles.

The defense of the wall was really relatively weak in comparison to what was about to arrive. Although Rommel had sufficient tropps at his disposal, at this time Hitler was facing defeat on his invasion into Russia and so many of the best troops were on the Russian front line. Others under Rommel's command were Poles or captured Russian POW's that preferred the option of fighting for the Germans instead of the conditions inside the POW camps. Additionally, Hitler never could believe that an invasion would take place on the Normandy Coast, so the best troops were placed down in Pas de Calais.

The Curious Coincidence of the Daily Telegraph Crossword:

Given the huge secrecy behind the D Day invasion it would have been a huge surprise to see in the Daily Telegraph on the 2nd May the first of five clues that would reveal themselves over the next month. The crosswords were all written by Leonard Dawe, a Surrey headmaster. The first clue for 17 across was "One of the US' - The answer was Utah. On May 22nd, Dawe's second crossword was published. The clue for 3 down was 'Red Indian on the Missouri' The answer was Omaha. On the 11th May the answer to 11 across was Overlord.On the 30th May the answer was Mulberry to the clue for 11 across - 'This bush is the centre of nursery revolutions'. Finally on the 1st June the clue was 'Britannia and he hold the same thing' The answer was Neptune. At this point Dawes was taken in by MI5. He was released saying he had compiled the crosswords months ago. One wonder's if this was pure coincidence or was it to do with his brother in law who was in the admiralty.

Crossword in the Daily Telegraph of May 2nd 1944 showing the Clue for Utah.
Crossword in the Daily Telegraph of May 2nd 1944 showing the Clue for Utah.
D-Day Map of the Normandy Coast and Landing Beaches
D-Day Map of the Normandy Coast and Landing Beaches

My Father's D-Day Invasion

Planning for the date of the D Day invasion was all down to the weather. Conditions had to be perfect. A full moon, slight sea, few clouds. On the 4th June, Eisenhower was ready to go the next day, but then the weather packed in with heavy low cloud and a rising sea. He consulted with Montgomery and with further consultation, the weather looked better for the 6th. The Germans took heart with the poor weather and relaxed a little, with Rommel going back to Germany for his wife's birthday.

The Allies D-Day Invasion Plan:

Operation Overlord was actually planned for the 5th June 1944. A huge invasion force was going to be taken mainly by sea overnight to land on the beaches of the Normandy coast. It was planned that the British would take Gold Beach and then team up with the Canadians to take Sword Beach. The Canadians had Juno Beach to themselves. The Americans were to take Omaha and Utah Beaches.

My Father's Preparation for D Day:

He like most were based in the naval headquarters of Plymouth. Like all men in the forces, he had been undergoing intensive training for months in Plymouth. Plymouth, huge as it was, was full to overflowing with Battleships, Frigates, Destroyers, LCT's (Tank Landing Craft) and LCI's (Infantry Landing Craft). It was an LCI (LCI 540) that my father was the Captain of. An LCI is 105 feet long by 23 feet wide. They carried about 48 troops and had 20 crew. They were powered by 8 GM motors producing 1600 hp in total and had a flat bottom that enabled them to beach the bow end. The forward hatch was then opened, releasing the troops into the surf and then the powerful motors enabled the LCI to drag itself backwards back out of the surf again.

My father's overall commander was Senior Naval Officer Rupert Curtis, who was in charge of 24 LCI's for the landing. My father was a New Zealander. There were another 7 New Zealand Captains within this Flotilla of 24 LCI's.

Specially Trained Commandos:

The 24 LCI's under Rupert Curtis's command were to deliver 2000 specially trained private Commandos under the famous Brigadier Lord Lovat (DSO, MC) to Queen Red and Queen White beaches at La Breche, near Quistreham in Area Sword. The Commando Unit under Lovat was known as the First Special Service Brigade and he has specially trained them in the Scottish Highlands. Lord Lovat was a very interesting fellow. He was from an old Scottish lineage, he being the 15th Lord of the Clan. He was Oxford educated but at the outbreak of war in 1939, resigned his commission, however he quickly climbed through the ranks to become a Major by 1941. In this year he led a Commando force of 150 men onto a raid on a French coastal village of Hardelot in 1942. For this action he was awarded the Military Cross.

On the 19th August 1942, Lovat and his Commando's destroyed a battery of 6 150mm guns in the disastrous battle of Dieppe. Lovat for this action was awarded the Distinguished Service order, even though the raid had gone very badly. 4000 mostly Canadian troops were casualties.

My father and the other 24 LCI's left Plymouth along with 5000 other ships and 103 Battleships, Destroyers and Frigates, 11,500 aircraft and 3,500 gliders in 60 different conveys, setting off at varying times for the D Day invasion. The sea was rough and the journey long. Most Commando's were very seasick. My father was in a LCI convoy with eleven other LCI's. There mission was to navigate their way to Bernieres / St Aubin (Area Juno), hit the beach, disembark the Commando's, then return to Plymouth to transport more troops across. In all, in that first 24 hours they would take across 156,000 troops. D-Day Invasion casualties on that first day were about 30,000 were killed in the surf or on the beaches. Average age was just 22 years old.

The only way they had to recognize St Aubin was a small black and white photo of a house just off the beach. This must have been a terrifying time, approaching the beach. Remember that the German gun emplacements lined the entire French coast and by the time this Flotilla of eleven LCI's arrived, it was an hour after the first LCT's had arrived further up the beach. A couple of miles out to sea, the British and American Battleships and Destroyers were ponding rounds onto these emplacements, while the emplacements were firing heavy rounds at the LCI's plus motors and machine gun fire.

As my father's LCI got into the start of the surf it hit an unseen mine that immediately blew a hole in the bottom and shattered the cabin. Nine troops and crew were instantly killed along with 15 wounded.

An interesting story that my father told me (he passed away in 1987) was the fact of him punching out a Cockney crew member at this time. He caught this crew member just minutes after the explosion cutting the finger off a dead commando to take his gold ring. I guess this could either be put down to extraordinary opportune moment, or, sheer nerves and panic on the crewman's behalf. Perhaps both.

Another New Zealand LCI Captain who was also disembarking the Commandos at the same time as this was a New Zealand poet who became very famous after the war years. A man by the name of Dennis Glover. Not only was he a poet, but a large man who in his university years (he was only 27 years old, the same as my father at this time) was also a famous New Zealand Boxer. A bit of an oxymoron for a poet.

Dennis Glover, ever the eccentric, while he was disembarking the Commandos had a record player playing some really loud Mozart all this time.

He came alongside my father's sinking LCI, still with Mozart blaring out and took all the Commando's off, then went ashore to disembark them. He then came back and picked up the wounded, plus my father and the crew and shipped them out to a Frigate lying a few miles off the coast. A very calm brave man.

My father always thought he was very lucky to survive the D Day invasion as they were sitting ducks. He pulled the large British Ensign off the back before getting onto Glover's LCI and we still have this ensign today with its mortar shell rounds and machine gun fire.

Lord Lovat and the Scottish Piper:

Lord Lovat was onboard Rupert Curtis's LCI. Alongside Lovat was his personal piper. If you ever saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, you would have seen this Piper landing on one of the American beaches. He didn't. He had nothing to do with the Americans, they stole him for the movie. The Piper's name was Bill Millen and he always accompanied Lovat into battle. Incredibly brave, the Piper was always unarmed. However, in the 1963 movie about the D Day invasion, 'The Longest Day' The piper and Lovat were portrayed properly.

Rupert Curtis landed at La Breche, two minutes after the planned time. The LCI next to him, like my father's LCI also hit a mine. But worse was to follow as some German mortar fire hit some ammunition on the deck of the sinking LCI and caused a huge amount of casualties on that LCI as well as some on Curtis's LCI as well.

Lovat and his personal Piper were the first off Curtis's LCI. Lovat was dressed in his favourite white polo neck underneath his uniform. Under heavy fire Lovat armed with a Winchester rifle and the Piper lead the Commandos up the beach with the Piper playing a rousing 'Scotland the Brave' Lovat and what was left of his 2000 Commando's pressed on to their first destination of Pegasus Bridge. Pegasus Bridge had already been taken by a defiant light infantry division that had been dropped on the eve of the D Day invasion in by Glider. They then went on to take Ranville. On the 12th June Lovat's war was over when he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Breville.

Lord Lovat landing on Sword Beach - Showing his personal Piper about to disembark into the surf.
Lord Lovat landing on Sword Beach - Showing his personal Piper about to disembark into the surf.

The Movie 'The Longest Day' An epic that showed the reality of D-Day and also featured Lord Lovat playing himself.


My Father after D-Day:

My father was taken back to Britain on the frigate along with his wounded crew and Lovat's wounded Commando's. He was the first LCI Captain to be interviewed when he got off the ship, by the BBC. It sounded as though he'd had a lot of rum on the way back. The reporter asked him what it was like there and he said to all of Britain, in a Noel Coward voice ' Oh, the noise - The crowds".

He returned from Britain in 1945, newly married. Every two years they held a naval reunion with the other LCI New Zealand captains and other New Zealand friends who were also in the Navy at the time. My father died in 1987 when he was 70 years old. Interesting fact here is that everyone in the reunion's died mainly around the same time or no longer than five years later. All had a fairly happy, successful career after returning but presumably that day of the 6th June, 1944 must have literally taken 10 years off their lives.

Dennis Glover, the great New Zealand poet died a rather bitter alcoholic in 1980. He wanted nothing to do with the reunions.

Biannual reunions were also held every two years in London by Rupert Curtis. These were much bigger affairs as many of the crews would go to them as well. Incredibly these only lasted until 1985 as it was deemed that through old age and death that the numbers were too few to continue. Rupert Curtis died in 1989.

Lord Lovat recovered from his injuries but had a rather tragic life afterwards. Two of his sons died within a year of each other and Lovat himself died in 1995. He had previously lost his entire estate due to maintenance upkeep.

At the top of this newspaper clipping my father has penned " My old ship sinking rapidly" That may be Dennis Glover's LCI in the foreground.
At the top of this newspaper clipping my father has penned " My old ship sinking rapidly" That may be Dennis Glover's LCI in the foreground.
Here's the ensign that my father saved from his sinking LCI. You can see a few bullet rounds have gone through it plus a mortar shell has blown one corner off it.
Here's the ensign that my father saved from his sinking LCI. You can see a few bullet rounds have gone through it plus a mortar shell has blown one corner off it.

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