Ours or Theirs . . . .

by Derek James

DEREK JAMES was One of ten Seaborne Observers who were Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished service aboard Merchant Navy vessels during the D-Day invasion, helping to ensure that Allied aircraft did not become victims of Allied guns.

In April 1944 the Air Ministry asked three 17-year-old schoolboys, Ian Ramsbotham, Wally Shonfield and Jack Thompson, if the would volunteer to join the Royal Navy (RN) as Petty Officer Aircraft Identifiers and take part in "future operations". They said yes. So did some 1,100 other members of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) when invited.

Throughout the Second World War the ROC, dubbed "the eyes and ears of the Royal Air Force", identified, tracked and reported the movement of all aircraft, hostile and friendly, flying over the British Isles. Early in 1944, when the Allied top brass were planning Operations Overlord and Neptune, they knew that, among the guncrews of the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) that would carry the Allied Armies to France, the standard of aircraft recognition was poor. Thus the risk of friendly fire against Allied aircraft was extremely high. Seeking a quick solution to this problem, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) asked the ROC to provide large numbers of expert recognition personnel to sail in these ships to advise their gunnery officers about which aircraft to fire at.

An Air Ministry Confidential Order issued to the ROC on April 29, 1944, called for volunteers. Eight days later the first batch of 150 Observers (of which I was one) arrived at a rapidly organised depot in Bournemouth. In retrospect the medical checks seemed to have been based on the "if you're warm, you're in" principle, because one Welsh Observer, who had neglected to confess that he had an artificial leg, was passed fit. Nearly 300 volunteers failed these medicals and fiendishly difficult aircraft recognition tests, 796 being accepted as Petty Officer Aircraft Identifiers. The ROC took men who had fought in khaki in the First World War, gave them RAF blue uniforms for Second World War service and then turned them into RN Petty Officers!

Our seven days at Bournemouth were filled with every kind of recognition training; films, half-second flash trainers, and models whizzing down wires or hidden in a bag. Finally, No 1426 Flight RAF flew captured Junkers Ju 88 HM509, Focke-Wulf Fw 190 PE882 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 RN228, plus numbers of Allied fighters, up and down Bournemouth seafront for us.

On May 15, the next day, six volunteers were called for at morning "parade" to join three ships at Portsmouth. Everyone stood up. Fortunately, six of us, from No 24 Group, Gloucester, ROC, now officially Petty Officer Aircraft Identifiers (PO/AI), RN, were at the head of the queue in the depot's 1 Sqn, A Flight. A lorry took us to Stokes Bay, where a tug took us to our ships anchored in the Solent.

With my shipmate, Chief Observer Arthur Ash, I climbed aboard SS Empire Cutlass, a 7,000-ton vessel carrying 16 small assault landing craft (LCA) on davits. The crew included men of the Merchant Service, RN and Maritime Royal Artillery. Our RAF-style battledress and black berets completed the set. We reported to the RN Gunnery Officer and assured him we could identify any aircraft we could see. He looked sceptical, said "just tell me pretty damn quick which ones are theirs", then introduced us to the ceremony of the rum barrel and "tots". About half the PO/AIs served in US Liberty ships. The captain of at least one of them said that he "didn't need a coupla Limeys to tell him when and what to fire at". He shot at anything within five miles, including seagulls. But things got better after that.

For two weeks we "swung round the anchor", practising communications drills and teaching aircraft recognition to the gunners. Then, on Saturday June 3, soldiers of the British 3rd Division came aboard and, late on Monday June 5, SS Empire Cutlass, as part of S Force, steamed slowly eastward along channels swept clear of mines towards Sword Beach in Normandy. Precise navigation was essential and a midget submarine, which sat on the seabed off Sword for 72hr, displayed a blue light to seaward as a guide.

As D-Day dawned, from Cutlass's bridge we saw France. Then German E-boats launched an 18-torpedo salvo at us, hitting only a Norwegian destroyer, the Svenner, which sank very quickly. Fortunately we rescued some survivors. By H-Hour, 0600hr, we were stopped about five miles offshore and the first of our landing craft was away, its troops, sustained by soup laced with rum, singing Me and My Girl.

As we awaited the return of our landing craft the sky was full of Allied aircraft wearing black-and-white invasion stripes. However, at 0930hr about eight Ju 88s bombed the beach area and a lone Fw 190 suddenly appeared, then vanished just as quickly. We stopped our trigger-happy gunners from firing on a Douglas Boston laying a smokescreen behind the beaches, and on a group of low-flying Typhoons, though naval ships were banging away at them. Then a distant B-24 with a wing on fire spiralled down; we counted only three parachutes.

About midday we joined a returning convoy escorted by a French corvette and the battleship HMS Warspite. En route, our gunners sank two drifting mines with rifle fire and an enemy gun battery near Le Havre shelled us. Empire Cutlass dropped anchor in the Solent at about 2000hr and we were stood down after 24hr on the bridge.

We made three more Channel crossings to Sword and Utah, but by then V 1 "doodlebug" flying bombs had arrived in Kent. They were first identified and reported by the ROC post at Dymchurch on June 13, 1944, at 0409hr, and within 3min Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been informed.

Encounter with a doodlebug

Back in the Solent one late June night we heard the familiar rumble of a VI's pulse-jet motor. Instead of stopping before the V 1 dived, this motor kept running until it exploded on our foredeck. The ship rolled, the lights went out and sirens screamed. When the emergency lighting came on we scrambled on deck to find a large hole, and assorted winches, gun mountings and hatches blasted over the side. The V 1's wing had hit our barrage balloon's cable, which brought the bomb down before it ran out of fuel. Empire Cutlass, needing extensive repairs, limped back to Southampton.

We returned to the Bournemouth depot and were honourably discharged from the RN. The following day I returned to my "day job" as an engineering apprentice with the Gloster Aircraft Company, building Typhoons. The wheel had turned a full circle.


Some members of the National Association of Spotters' Clubs were upset when only the ROC was asked to supply volunteers to serve on Merchant Navy ships on D-Day. An article in the June 1, 1944, Issue of The Aeroplane Spotter reassured them that this was not due to their skills being deemed Inferior.

From Aeroplane, June 2004