It was just starting to get light when Frank Baugh caught sight of the French coast from his position on the bridge of a landing craft ship. From behind his boat, a naval fleet opened up the bombardment.
“They were firing 16 inch shells that were going over our heads. We could feel the shimmer of the air as they went over. And then of course the Germans realised we were there and there was the shimmer the other way.”
His craft was the first to land on the Queen Red sector of Sword Beach as the Allied forces mounted their invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. “We found it empty. We were the first landing craft on that section of that beach and that’s not a good place to be.”
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It proved to be true. As the boat moved closer to the shore, it became a target, facing not only the shells but heavy machine gun fire too. As it reached the beach, it was struck with a direct hit.
“A shell came in on the Port side, into the troops base, blew up inside, set the ship on fire and blew a fair-sized hole on the waterline on the Starboard side, so we were absolutely scuppered then. We were on the beach and we were stuck...Our lads were starting to get off but the machine guns were really wicked, cutting them down before they even got to the shoreline.”
His boat, a 150ft by 25ft Landing Craft Infantry (Large) 380, was transporting 200 men from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, as part of a fleet of ten.
The whole operation saw 156,000 Allied troops land by sea or air that day. “The thing that was noticeable was the number of aircraft that passed over us. We were saying ‘get on’ and ‘great lads’ because we knew that the more of them there were dropping bombs on the coast, the better it would be for us.”
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Having bottomed out, the craft had landed in about four feet of water and the troops disembarked down the ramps into crashing waves. From the boat’s bridge, signalman Frank, who grew up in Wakefield district, witnessed death and destruction.
“The quicker [they got off], the better, because if they didn’t move they were dead. They didn’t take any urging, but when they got into four foot of water, they were being knocked over and if they weren’t picked up by their pal in front or behind, they would drown.” Once all the soldiers were off, the plan was for Frank, then 20, and his crewmates to return to Britain, to pick up more. It took around four hours to repair the ship sufficient enough to take to the sea again.
“All that time, we were in trouble with the German gunners. When the shell came in to the troop space, most of the men had got onto the upper deck ready to leave, but one or two got caught.”
Around 20 were wounded, and seven seriously so. The crew tried to transport them to a bigger ship with more medical facilities on their return to the UK, but the waves were too rough and they were forced to abandon the plan and head to their base at Newhaven as quickly as they could.
It had become the flotilla’s home port at the beginning of May, after five months of training near Inverness in Scotland. Frank had joined the Royal Navy 18 months prior to that in June 1942, training as a signalman at HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth. He had grown up in Hemsworth and at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, was studying under a scholarship at St Michael’s Catholic College in Leeds. His father, a mineworker, had been killed in an explosion at South Kirkby Colliery four years earlier and, seeing his family were struggling financially, Frank dropped out of school without his mother’s knowledge at the age of 16.
He secured a job as a management trainee, above ground, at Hemsworth Colliery, but joined the forces with his call up papers when he turned 18. After his initial Navy training, Frank, now 95 and living in Doncaster, was drafted into Combined Operations, a division working with the army and airforce to prepare for the landings.
Though he knew he would be involved in an invasion, he had no idea of the details or scale and it was only when the craft docked back in Newhaven late on D-Day that he and his comrades were able to pick up a newspaper and find out where they had been.
“It was a big secret and it was kept very well. The beach was chaos, it wasn’t a good place to be, but there was a lot of organisation put into getting all those men, materials, ships and aircraft in one place.”
Frank left the navy after the war in 1946 and married a year later. His late wife, the sister of a girl his cousin was courting during the war, had written to him for months during his time in service.
They went on to have two daughters, and Frank re-joined the mining industry, retiring as a director of purchasing with the National Coal Board at the age of 60.
Though Frank has returned to Normandy for the past decade, he didn’t go back for 65 years - he didn’t want to. “On D-Day, I never expected living the next hour, never mind to 95,” he says. “Anybody who says he wasn’t frightened, he wasn’t there. That’s my opinion...
“The beach was littered with lads who had been killed. It’s an awful feeling. I was 20 then and you’re seeing death in that nature for the first time and seeing it on that scale, you’re frightened.
“But you do your job. You have to do it and you don’t want to let your pals down.”