Boat Normandy

Exercise Normandy Eagle 70th Anniversary 2nd – 8th June 2014

Exercise NORMANDY EAGLE was designed to allow personnel to conduct adventurous training related to the operations conducted during Operation OVERLORD, the Normandy landings of World War II during June 1944.

It allowed participants to study specific actions that took place on D-Day, in order to mark the 70th anniversary of the historic military Operation.

So, on 1st June 2014, three members of 56(R) Squadron – Flight Sergeant Al Cameron, Chief Technician Sean Webster and Sergeant James ‘Rookie’ Rooke – joined four other Air Warfare Centre personnel setting off from RAF Waddington to the birthplace of 56 Sqn at Gosport, to take part in Ex Normandy Eagle. The exercise involved sailing to France to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy landings (where 56(F) Sqn provided Air Support on the 6th June 1944 in Ouistreham).

After an overnight stay at Port Blockhouse we met up with the rest of the crews, some of which were experienced but most were novices. We were kitted out in preparation to take over the two boats: “Kukri” a 55-foot Nicholson and “Discoverer” a 67-foot Challenger. Having received the compulsory Health & Safety briefs we loaded the boat and finally motored out of Gosport into open waters and hoisted up the sails.

Once in the Solent, a few practice procedures involving tacks (turning one way) and gybes (turning the other way) ‘prepared’ us for the open water environment crossing the channel. After only a short time and with a declining wind, it was sadly decided we would revert to the use of the engine to assist our crossing. It only took one hour for our journey to suffer another misfortune when Kirsty from RAF Scampton noticed that below deck was turning into a ‘shipmates’ sauna’. After a quick check of the engine bay, we realised the engine had dumped all its anti-freeze into the bilge and the engine was cooking itself. With no Ground Electrical Fitters onboard, all we had was a Radar Technician to investigate. A broken clip was soon found to be the guilty part and a replacement was sourced; with a subsequent transfusion of anti-freeze from another boat instigated, ‘voilà’ we were back up and running.

Both boats had personnel split into two Watches, each conducting 4-hour shifts and with a volunteer from each Watch becoming Mother Watch. A constant Watch was necessary to prevent a collision at sea, with the boats adopting transit bearings, especially those without Automatic Identification System (AIS). We were collision free an hour out from Ouistreham when, déjà vu, the ‘shipmates’ sauna’ reappeared; this time the engine was  bleeding from another area. Having sailed 110 nautical miles, both Kukri and Discoverer finally met together at the port lock gates; having initially left Gosport at 1400, Discoverer limped in with a now cracked header tank, finally docking at Ouistreham at 1000 the following morning.

On the quayside were waiting our support crew/minibus drivers: Ruth from GETC RAFC Cranwell, Nev and Andy from FDTC Grantown-on-Spey.

The next day all the ships’ personnel were split up into two distinct groups irrespective of boat allocation. Half went on a staff ride to Omaha Beach and the other half attempted gliding. After a 1 ½-hour drive, the gliding party arrived at the Alencon airfield to be met by the RAF Gliding Association, who had travelled over from RAF Halton. After a long wait, numerous teas and coffees, and with darkening skies it was decided that conditions were not safe enough to allow us to glide so we returned to the boat. A fruitless endeavour!

The following day the two groups swapped activities, with the new gliding party having ideal conditions, allowing personnel to get 3–4 launches each throughout the day. In the meantime the Staff Ride group visited Green Howard’s Memorial at Crepon and the B-3 Bazenville Airfield which was constructed by the Royal Engineers’ 16th Airfield Construction Group on 11 June 1944. Upon our arrival, and by pure coincidence, we met up with Alan, a 91-year-old (that day) RAF veteran, who was present 70 years previously. Alan gave us his version of events and quite rightly and comically corrected any factual errors that the two young Aircraftsmen gave on their researched presentation. Alan was thanked for his participation and presented with an RAF baseball hat by Air Vice-Marshal Stubbs, which he gratefully received.

On 6th June 2014, with a host of dignitaries and world leaders in the vicinity, Ouistreham and all Normandy beaches were on lockdown. Being only two miles from Pegasus Bridge, we decided that the RAF should show presence by motoring down with both our boats. With the RAF Ensign, Pennant and 56(R) Squadron flag flying from the forestay and banners fixed to the sides of the boat, we thought we should get noticed. Approaching the bridge we were met by the Gendarine Marine police who escorted us to the bridge where an audience of thousands of people stood waiting for events to unfold. After circling around a few times, the Pegasus Bridge was raised to allow us through. After some clapping and three cheers from the crowd we motored on. Upon our return a willing volunteer was sourced and subsequently winched up to near top of the 60-foot mast in a Bosun’s Chair. Armed with a camera, various aerial shots were taken of the surroundings. Various aircraft displays were in progress which included Hurricanes, Spitfires, Dakotas and Lancaster bombers, not to mention the  obligatory parachutists. After around an hour and a half we were starting to get chilly, so we donned our jackets to warm up; realising our willing volunteer up in the Bosun’s Chair may be feeling slightly cooler than us, we let him down gracefully to the deck to get ready for the evening event.

The evening event started off with all personnel ensuring they had all their mess dress in good order as we were attending a Top Table event at the Grand Hotel in Cabourg. Both ships’ personnel and gliding party were in attendance. Reception drinks were held on the beachfront veranda with the main meal in the main dining area. Photos of the week’s activities were put on a projector and entertainment was provided and, with a good night had by all personnel, we went back to the boats in preparation for an early start to catch the tide.

All hands were on deck ready to depart by 0700. Crews woke up, some feeling worse than others from the previous night’s festivities. Regardless, the boats departed on time with or without personal effects, as Kirsty and

Dutch soon found out as they unwittingly said goodbye to their handbag and rucksack in Ouistreham, although whose was whose we never discovered! With a resin battle damage repair completed on the header tank, the ship was ready to sail. With some wind due imminently, and with Air Vice-Marshal Stubbs and his Watch tucked in their bunks, we hoisted the Yankee sail (front sail), the Stay sail (middle sail) and the Main sail. Picking up speed the boat started to heel over, causing all the loose articles to fly around the boat and extensive groaning from personnel not strapped in their bunks. The sailing fun was short-lived and winds were not favourable for the rest of the journey, so the engine was required for most of the return trip. 110 nautical miles later we docked at Gosport at 2200, ready for a good night’s rest.

All in all, an excellent time was had by all. For those who like a bit of adventure but at a minimal (no) cost, I would highly recommend you all look at the website.

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