When is a beach unit not a “Beach Unit”?
Some confusion can arise at times over the naming and organisation of Royal Air Force beach units.
In 1943 new R.A.F. beach units were formed in the U.K. to operate with Army ‘Beach Groups’. At the same time, in the Middle East, R.A.F. components were formed to operate with the Army in ‘Beach Bricks’. R.A.F. beach units were also formed in North Africa.
The North African beach units were named ‘Auxiliary Embarkation Units’ because their function was related to the conventional type of movement control unit in the R.A.F. - the ‘Embarkation Unit’. The name was therefore logical, though rather prosaic.
The Middle East beach units were not given a proper name of their own and each was identified only as the ‘R.A.F. Component’ of a Beach Brick.
The U.K. beach units were named ‘Beach Units’ which was simple and direct and gave a hint of mystery and dash which was further enhanced when they were renamed ‘Beach Squadrons’.
Units with each of these three different designations, i.e. ‘R.A.F. Beach Unit’, ‘Beach Brick, R.A.F. Component’ and ‘Auxiliary Embarkation Unit’ took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and at Salerno in September 1943. In 1944 and after, all existing R.A.F. beach units were named ‘Beach Unit’ or ‘Beach Squadron’
In August 1943 it was decided to change R.A.F. Beach Unit organisation to conform to Army beach organisation. An Army Beach Sub Area Headquarters controlled two or more Army Beach Groups, so an R.A.F. Beach Unit would now consist of a Headquarters and two or more numbered Beach Sections. The R.A.F. Beach Unit Headquarters would work with the Army Beach Sub Area Headquarters and the R.A.F. Beach Sections would each be attached to an Army Beach Group. An R.A.F. Beach Unit was now a larger organisation and the new R.A.F. Beach Sections were equivalent in size to the original R.A.F. Beach Units (and the R.A.F. Components of Beach Bricks).
After the reorganised U.K. R.A.F. Beach Units came under the control of 2nd T.A.F. in February 1944, there was debate about the most appropriate ‘nomenclature’ for these units and their sections and sub-sections. The final result of this was that from early April 1944 the 2nd T.A.F. Beach Units were renamed Beach Squadrons and their Beach Sections were renamed Beach Flights.
These changes in name and organisation, and the differences in official use of the name ‘Beach Unit’ as opposed to the general use of the term ‘beach unit’ have caused confusion.
In Normandy, apart from a small number of Beach Squadron H.Q. personnel, most men belonged in the first place to a particular Beach Flight. The two Beach Flights in each Beach Squadron operated fairly independently, attached to different Army Beach Groups assigned to different beach sectors, so it is not always known or remembered that these were component parts of a parent Beach Squadron.
Men who had belonged to one of the original beach units that had been disbanded and reformed into one of the new Beach Sections (later renamed Beach Flights) may well have continued to consider themselves as belonging to a “Beach Unit” and after the War may have forgotten the change of name.
All this potential confusion may result in a misleading reference to, for example, No. 101 R.A.F. Beach Unit. Correctly, this would be 101 Beach Flight of No. 1 R.A.F. Beach Squadron.
To add to the confusion over unit names, the uninitiated may be misled by the rather too specific titles of R.A.F. officer ranks. The original beach units were commanded by Squadron Leaders or Flight Lieutenants. The 2nd T.A.F. beach units, ultimately named Beach Squadrons, were each led by a Wing Commander. Subordinate to him, the two Beach Flights in a Beach Squadron were each commanded by a Squadron Leader. A Squadron Leader may have been very much in charge on his section of the beach but he was not the commander of a Beach Squadron, he was the commander of a Beach Flight.
Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, all the previous beach units in that theatre had been replaced by a single Beach Unit commanded by a Squadron Leader and consisting of three Beach Sections, each commanded by a Flight Lieutenant.
I hope that’s clear!