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Royal Air Force Beach Units

David Teacher

This account of David Teacher’s R.A.F. Beach Unit experiences has been edited from David’s own autobiographical writings and appears here with his kind permission and approval.

 

David TeacherAs an apprentice motor mechanic, I had been given the choice of an alternative to military service. I could work assembling "Lease Lend" motor vehicles instead (a Reserved Occupation). I declined this offer and, in September 1942, I was called up to serve in H.M. Forces.

I had previously joined the Air Training Corps to enable me to join the R. A. F. When I arrived at Dover Street, Manchester for a medical I was directed to the Army enlisting desk and despite my objections to the sergeant in charge I went through the whole procedure and joined the Army. However, as I was leaving the building I saw an R.A.F. officer whom I approached. He was not too pleased to hear my complaint and so we went back together to the sergeant, who received a reprimand. My Army papers were recovered and in the afternoon I started the whole procedure again, only this time to join the R.A.F.

Within two weeks I reported to R.A.F. Penarth and was kitted out, I then went on to Weston-super-Mare for six weeks square-bashing. From Weston-super-Mare I was posted to Weeton, near Blackpool for a 12 week course on Motor Mechanics, which I passed, and in January 1943. I was posted to Stranraer in Scotland. After three months there, I went down to Bristol and was posted to Devon to a new Coastal Command airfield. Whilst there, a call was made for volunteers to join a completely new Combined Operations outfit. I was not over-keen with my contribution to the war effort so far. I therefore 'took the bull by the horns' and did something that we were all told never to do - volunteer! I soon had an interview, followed by a medical, and was accepted. So began a most exciting chapter in my early years of service in the R.A.F. It was to become everything I had dreamed of.

I was posted to No. 71 R.A.F. Beach Unit as an M.T. Mechanic. Soon I was on my way to Ayr, Scotland where the racecourse was our headquarters. Two of us were billeted in each stable. There were only 36 of us in the whole Unit, plus 5 Officers. We spent the first few days being briefed on our role in this new concept. We had Physical Training (P.T.) every day. It was not normal P.T. as we ran until we dropped, and then some more. We spent many days running round the racecourse as part of our training. We were made to believe in ourselves. We would soon be joining up with the Army lads in a Beach Group and were told that coming second to the Army would not be acceptable. Only First would be good enough.

When we met our Army compatriots for the first time, they immediately tried to intimidate us with cat calls such as 'The Brylcream Boys'. At this time we were still in our own R.A.F. blue battledress as our khaki uniforms had not as yet arrived at the base. We were determined to compete with our Army friends and be Number One. We took them on in every aspect of training: cross country running, unarmed combat and on the rifle range. We would taunt our Army friends constantly, coming second was never an issue. Eventually we gained their respect.

The only thing we R.A.F. boys, as a unit, had in common was that we had all volunteered to join it. We had come from all parts of the British Isles, all different religions, different backgrounds with different upbringings. Our unit included bank clerks, motor mechanics, clerks, cooks and a hairdresser. We were 100% physically and mentally fit. We were a great team, the fellowship and comradeship was immeasurable. It never crossed our minds that we would fail. In all the months of training we never practiced evacuation from the beach. It was never an option. When you think that, apart from one Flight Sergeant, we were not regular serviceman, we could all be proud of a job well done.

In June 1943, those of us in the M.T. Recovery and Repair section returned to R.A.F. Weeton for a course in the waterproofing of vehicles. Whilst there we also attended Derby swimming baths in Blackpool. There we would walk across the swimming pool in full kit, pick up objects from the bottom, under six feet of water and exit the pool on the opposite side. We handed over the objects to our trainers who would throw them back into the water for us to recover once again.

Then, in July 1943, we moved down to Haverfordwest, Wales. This time we were in our own transport, with our own new insignia. We were a unit that mattered and we would gain due respect. The following morning some 500 or more Army lads and ourselves, joined together for P.T. It was a lovely sunny morning. We did all the usual loosening up exercises and then collected our own tree trunks and started to throw them up and over, shoulder to shoulder. The competition had begun and we more than held our own. Later on, we would scale cliffs on certain beaches and then lower ourselves by a single rope, jumping outwards until we reached the sand below. We were getting fitter and stronger in both mind and body.

We were there to take part in an exercise in which landings were made near Tenby in Wales. Everything was going well and according to plan and the weather had been absolutely superb throughout the month. Then, one morning in our fifth week, a major problem suddenly developed. We were advised that a new way of landing bulk petrol was being tried. Full of expectancy we waited on the beaches to see what the hierarchy had come up with this time. Looking out to sea we saw concrete barges being towed towards the beach. Wondering what we were supposed to do with them when they arrived, we also noticed the barges were slowing down and the sea was beginning to turn red. The concrete was cracking and petrol was leaking from the barges. Thousands of gallons of petrol leaked into Tenby Bay which turned red due to the dye in the petrol. Emergency operations were called for and the whole area was evacuated within hours. A few of us stayed behind to try and help with the evacuation.

On 17th August 1943, we left by road to return to Ayr. I asked to see the C.O. on the 20th for leave to get married on the 22nd. This was granted and I arrived home on Friday 20th at 11 p.m. Only when I went to Shul on Saturday did my bride to be, Nancy and her family know I was home and that the wedding would go ahead the next day as arranged. Nan and I married on the 22nd August 1943 at the Holy Law Synagogue, Bury Old Road, Prestwich, Manchester. We returned to Ayr on 25th August. I was given a sleeping-out pass and Nan stayed with me for a month in digs with a wonderful family who looked after me so well whilst I was stationed in Ayr, on the racecourse.

The R.A.F. Beach Units were re-organised at the beginning of September 1943. My unit became part of No. 1 R.A.F. Beach Unit but I was posted out of the unit at the end of September. I protested because I wanted to continue with the role I had been training for and I was able to join another beach unit, No. 2 R.A.F. Beach Unit in December 1943.

We were involved in all sorts of exercises on beaches around the British Isles, some by day and some by night. It was during these exercises we met colleagues from the Royal Navy who showed us the ropes, just in case we had to take over. We could at least get the craft ashore. We did have accidents, the bad weather being the main culprit. The landing craft have flat bottoms and the slightest swell would cause havoc. Each vehicle had to be chained down to the landing craft. In bad weather, some of the chains would break. The vehicle or tank would slide and crash through the side of the landing craft, sometimes with loss of life. What this did was to enhance the comradeship between us all.

We would do anything to protect each other. However, the competition between the services continued. We made sure that when we went out at night our shoes would shine more than theirs. We always had a crease in our trousers. I acquired some wooden boards in which I placed two pairs of trousers, I then jacked up a three ton wagon, placed the boards under the wheels and, "Hey presto!", well pressed trousers!

To be so confident, yet to show respect to our competition made us very arrogant. However we knew we could beat anybody, especially the 'Hun'. We were trained to win in body and mind. This was a mind game, never to lose control and let fear take over. To concentrate on the job you have to do and not to let the team down. We all wore our Combined Operations badges with great pride. We did get some leave, but not too often, so we appreciated seeing our loved ones more when we went home.

By May 1944, we knew the big day was not far away. Somewhere in Hampshire, our whole Beach Group was assembled in a large field to be given a pep talk by General Montgomery (Monty), and King George VI was to inspect. A last minute decision by the R.A.F. hierarchy was that our battle dress was to be changed from Khaki to Air Force Blue, in spite of the disapproval of our C.O. The argument from the hierarchy was simple, you are Air Force and you will dress Air Force. It was only because we were wearing Air Force Blue on this parade that we attracted the attention of King George VI. He wondered what this small unit wearing blue were doing here. The vehicle stopped, he dismounted and spoke to our C.O. who ordered us to open ranks to enable the King to inspect all of us. Once again we were Number One. We said to one and all, "Who inspected us?" " Our King!" It took a considerable time for the parade to dismiss with some 5,000 officers and men in one large field. Eventually we arrived back at the local H.Q.

We were given a form, "Last Will and Testament". Strange really, as we had nothing to call our own, even the clothes and shoes we stood up in belonged to the R.A.F. We moved nearer to Southampton. Rumours and even more rumours. It seemed everyone had heard something from someone. There was an air of expectancy. A great deal of traffic was moving to the southern part of England. Soldiers, tanks and artillery were all moving south. The roads and fields were packed. We were all told that we were confined to camp and there would be no passes. I was told that I was to drive the first R.A.F. vehicle ashore. How proud I was to have this honour.

I was amongst hundreds of other drivers to be directed to Chandlers Ford, near Southampton, to await embarkation from Southampton. As I was to land on D-Day, I would have to be amongst the first to be aboard. The men who did not have a vehicle went into camps and enjoyed hot food, hot water, toilets and entertainment, but those of us who had a vehicle to drive ended up in some street or other, in order of embarkation. I was parked in my three ton wagon in a road in Chandlers Ford for some two weeks or so. We would get a few tins of food every morning. I was very fortunate. I was parked outside the house of a most charming lady who took pity on me. She treated me like a son. I was invited to use their bathroom daily and in spite of rationing she helped with food. She really was most kind. She even phoned Nan, my wife, on June 5th to say that a "mutual friend" had just left. I am sorry I did not keep her name and address. It would have been nice to have thanked her later in life.

On the morning of June 4th we were told to stand by, we would be moving out sometime today. We were getting excited and the adrenalin began to flow. How would I cope? What sort of situations might arise? Our main worry was the weather. Heavy rain, strong winds, high seas! Early afternoon however, we were told to stand down. There was a postponement due to the bad weather - a body blow, as we were all keyed up and ready to go. It was a setback, particularly for those poor souls aboard flat bottom landing craft exposed to the high seas. There were many who had already left and were at sea. They had to return. We were all shattered. We would have to go through all the waiting and expectancy again.

However, around mid-afternoon on 5th June we were told, "It is on. We are going" and in order of embarkation we drove slowly to Southampton to load onto our landing craft. The party I was with eventually left to embark at Southampton in the late afternoon of 5th June. We were surprised, as the weather had not improved a great deal as yet, and because the weather was no better, this time we were not so keyed up.

We made our way to Southampton docks. What a sight! Landing craft and Navy ships were everywhere. To embark we had to reverse the vehicle onto the landing craft and secure it underneath with chains. This was not very pleasant with the sea running high. There were three 3 ton Bedford vehicles on our landing craft and a barrage balloon. I did not know the other two drivers. We were being tossed around like a cork in water. After chaining down the vehicles to the deck we were soaked to the skin, and we had not even left the docks yet!

Eventually, we set sail for our assembly area near the Isle of Wight, under a black, uninviting sky with the seas still very high. Flat bottom craft are most difficult to control in any sort of heavy seas. In fact, many exercises were cancelled due to bad weather, as it was deemed too dangerous. But we were now setting out on the invasion of Europe and luckily, as we moved towards the open sea, the weather improved slightly. The wind had dropped and it had stopped raining, although the swell was high throughout the whole night. We left the assembly area at about 10pm and set off across the Channel. The two other drivers sat with me on top of my 3 ton wagon and we talked of our fears: one dreaded drowning, one dreaded losing a limb and I dreaded losing my sight. Thankfully, we all survived without injury, although we did have some very near escapes. The waves were high and not at all pleasant. However, we were used to the sea. We had spent a great deal of time on landing craft during our months of training, unlike many thousands of young lads who were to arrive in Normandy very sick indeed. Some were too ill to undertake their duties.

As dawn broke on 6th June 1944 there was a sight I shall always remember. The Channel was filled with ships and landing craft. We sat there in awe. Nothing was going to stop us now. Soon we would be making history. At about 5am, our ships started to bombard the French coast. Special landing craft fired rockets. The noise was horrendous. Thinking back, I can vividly remember my feelings while we were waiting for orders to proceed ashore. I kept checking details and I was not nervous but impatient to get started. We had all been up and about for almost 48 hours, not the best way to prepare for an invasion, however the adrenalin started to flow when, at about 7 a.m. I was told to prepare to go ashore. We unchained our vehicles, started the engines, and made our final checks. We soon began our approach to the beach. We were being tossed all over the place. The coxswain told us that he dare not go as far inshore as he would have liked. The waves were too high. He said he dare not risk being grounded. He regretted that he would have to drop us off in deep water. "How deep"? we asked. "Deep" he replied. It was approximately 7.40 a.m. He wished me good luck. I was not too concerned for myself as I was confident my vehicle would not let me down, but pity the poor soldiers carrying all the heavy equipment struggling through deep water with many still very groggy.

This is what we had trained for. We were about to make 'history'. I was not at all panicky. I had too much to think about. I engaged 4 wheel drive and drove the 3 tonner down the ramp into some 6ft of water saying, "Don't let me down baby!". Somehow it seemed like ages as I drove slowly onto the beach. I was surprised how quiet it all was. There was very little enemy gun fire.

There were lads already ashore. Their job was to make sure that the exits were made safe, to clear mines and obstacles and to mark the safe areas to the exits with white tape. A most dangerous but necessary job. The safety of thousands of lives depended on their success. I found the white tapes and drove in between, thinking this could be a normal exercise, up to now, no problems. I found the spot for the Drowned Vehicle Park where we would repair damaged vehicles. I left the 3 tonner there and made my way on foot back to the beach, to report to the rest of our unit and update. I had landed on Juno Beach (The Canadian Sector). It was the beginning of a most horrendous day.

As yet there was not a great deal of enemy opposition on our beach, although the noise from our battleships and destroyers was deafening. However, things were beginning to look nasty, The incoming landing craft were having difficulty as they began to arrive on the beach. Some foundered on obstacles with mines attached. Many craft were out of control and were swept onto other craft, causing mayhem. We had never experienced anything like this before, but worse was to come. There were many injured, sick and dead lying around the beach. Many injured boys were run over by our own vehicles - transport had nowhere to manoeuvre round the injured. Our concern now was the welfare of our comrades - Canadians, whom we had never met. We went to the water's edge to direct troops to the safe areas and to the road inland, some 100 to 150 yards off the beach. Recovery vehicles were now becoming available, to assist in removing obstructions and keeping the exits open. Slowly but surely we began to make progress. Still the boys continued to come ashore, by this time we were even more concerned for their welfare. Too many were so sea sick that they could hardly stand. When we tried to help, some said, "All I want to do is die." We told them, "You've come to the right place!"

Jerry started to shell the beach at about 9 a.m. Suddenly, all hell let loose. The beach was under fire from shells, mortars and machine guns, we dived for cover. The sea was covered in blood and vomit and flies began to arrive by the thousands, which created another nightmare. At around midday three German aircraft attacked our beach. Three bombs were dropped. The first hit a landing craft causing many casualties. Number two hit an anti-aircraft post where all were killed. The third bomb landed not more than 20 feet away from me. It did not explode. I didn't know what to think, other than someone was certainly taking care of me that day The bomb was still there when we left the beach three months later.

We continued all night and the following day without a break. Slowly, slowly we overcame all the nightmares. By D-Day plus 3 we were in complete control. We had to get all ashore safely and quickly and we had to help the wounded on the boats back to England. Some L.S.T.s (Landing Ships, Tank) were converted for the journey home to carry the wounded. We got many ambulances on our beach to transfer them home. It was not a duty that I liked at all. We were also asked to help to bury our dead in shallow graves. There were also prisoners to contend with, although we did not see many on our beach.

There was no lack of humour. A soldier coming ashore asked, "Is this a private beach? I was promised a private beach. If not I am not staying." And we heard, "My mother told me not to travel by air, she thought it was much safer by sea". An army officer came ashore and instead of getting his men off the beach quickly, he stopped to consult his map. I approached him,
"Sir, off this beach, now!"
"And who are you?" he asked.
"Sorry, no time for introductions."
At that moment the Beachmaster gave him a mouthful on his megaphone.

Our beach unit stayed on the beach until early September. I had lived on the beach in a trench which sometimes filled with water when there was a higher than average tide. We had to contend with sand lice, flies and working very long hours. Every four hours, in came the landing craft. They were discharged, and refilled with either prisoners or wounded. We also had to supervise the unloading of L.S.T.s which would beach on the outgoing tide and so enjoy a dry landing. All our food was out of a tin. We had no bread, only hard tack. We had no toilet facilities or ablutions but we had to shave daily and be clean. From our unit, we lost one killed, a corporal, on D-Day, and one officer was returned home after two weeks as he was unable to cope. It was very sad as he was a good officer.

The unit returned to England in early September, and was disbanded. We were given two weeks leave and sent home to await a posting. Whilst on leave I tried to enjoy being at home, especially with my beloved Nancy. Strange as it may seem, I found it difficult to adjust to the peace and quiet. I was tired and edgy. Nancy and I spent a few days in St Annes on Sea, near Blackpool. I got myself into trouble with holidaymakers staying in the hotel, who were saying that the casualties in Normandy were light. I disagreed. However, the weather was good and I tried to relax, being with Nan. When I returned home I received a posting to No. 2742 Squadron, R.A.F Regiment.

No. 2742 Squadron operated light armoured reconnaissance cars. David had the task of maintaining all the vehicles of “A” Flight, one of five Flights in the Squadron. In November 1944 he went with No. 2742 Squadron over to Belgium. Instead of having a comfortable Christmas in Ghent, David’s unit were sent, at short notice, to the Ardennes. David passed his 21st birthday participating in the "Battle of the Bulge." During this tough time his unit was attached to the American 1st Army, with whom they later advanced into Germany. After the end of the war in Europe, David spent eight months in the Azores, returning to the U.K. in March 1946. He was released from active service in December 1946 and finally discharged from the R.A.F. in February 1947.

David Teacher is a former Vice-Chairman of the Bolton and District Normandy Veterans Association and a former Chairman of the Manchester Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen. On 6th June 2011, the 67th anniversary of “D-Day”, David achieved his ambition to have a plaque unveiled in Normandy to commemorate the part played by the R.A.F. Beach Squadrons in Operation “OVERLORD”. A year later, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, 2012, David Teacher was awarded the M.B.E. for services to ex-service organisations and to charity in Greater Manchester.

In July 2016 David published a book of his life story entitled “Beyond My Wildest Dreams”. Copies are available on Amazon and eBay Signed copies can be obtained by sending a message to the David Leon page on Facebook.

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Copyright  © J.M.Fenton, 2007-2016

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