Combined Operations Badge (embroidered cotton)
BuiltWithNOF
H. G. W. Roberts

No's 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units were raised at R.A.F. West Kirby in April 1943, and the men were sent for training to HMS Dundonald and Gailes, near Troon, in Scotland. In June 1943 they were embarked at Gourock, aboard the old liner, Ascania, and landed on D-Day in Sicily, 10th July 1943. After the invasion of Sicily they were withdrawn to North Africa and the two units joined forces in Tripoli before taking part in the landings at Salerno, D-Day 9th September 1943. After this they were returned, via Naples and Algiers, to England to prepare for ‘the big one’. Back at R.A.F. West Kirby, Nos 68 and 69 Beach Units were disbanded and reformed as No 4 R.A.F. Beach Unit (later No 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron) for the Normandy Invasion, D-Day 6th June 1944.

Corporal H G W Roberts was an R.A.F. policeman who served through all of this. He recalled:

“To begin with, at West Kirby, we were first issued with thick woollen underwear and K.D.s which was withdrawn and replaced with khaki, army style down to gaiters and boots, though we retained our blue ‘side hats’. Then it was decided that we should have ‘Wellies’ though why we should travel by lorry to Peebles in Scotland to get them remains a mystery.

Then, of course, we six policemen 2 Sgts. 4 Cpls. were the wrong type, those required were traffic police, whereas we were ordinary Station police, we none of us could ride motor cycles – indeed there weren’t any, except for that of the D/R. Eventually motor cycles were provided, but instead of our being sent for instruction to the school at R.A.F. Warton, the D/R was told to take us into a nearby field and teach us. Even though we did gain some proficiency, the Officers decided, one night, to go out on a “thrash” and smashed them up, so again no motor cycles. Guess what they gave us instead? Push-bikes!! Which, in the event, were never disembarked onto the beaches of Sicily.

Similarly the M/T and allied trades had only a few loose tools which they were obliged to carry where possible about their webbing. Here we were able to help, by attaching the odd spanner or such to our gear. When you consider that we were all loaded with fully packed webbing, with two blankets and groundsheet bound round our big pack, our side pack contained our mess tin, inside which was 48hrs contingency rations, mepacrin and water purification tablets together with the usual small kit, filled water bottle, entrenching tool, weapon and spare ammo. In this regard the chaps had choice of rifles or tommy guns, so you can guess as to the weight of ammo to be carried. Here, of course, we “coppers” were fortunate in that we had just our pistols and about a dozen spare rounds, slung cowboy fashion under our belts. Add to all this a mosquito net plus iron hoops to support them.”

Mr Roberts remembered the occasion when the men were carrying all this kit and an officer told one chap that he could carry the portable radio set. Yes Sir and if you’ll give me a broom I’ll shove the handle up my arse and sweep a path for you as well!” was the reply.

Invasion of Sicily – D-Day, 10th July 1943

Mr Roberts had this to say about Sicily:

“Transferring from troopship to landing craft was a bit “hairy”, for the troopship, being a large vessel, lay quite a distance off shore which meant, as I’ve said, hopping – literally – from one to the other. We all had to assemble at the “sally port” in the ship’s side, and as the sea was rough, leap into the landing craft as it rose to the appropriate level, before it dropped about twenty feet into the trough of the wave, and repeat the operation whilst the landing craft rose up and down like a yo-yo. Considering the amount of gear we were carrying, it’s a wonder that there weren’t any broken bones! We had a wet landing, tho’ the water was only calf deep, and upon gaining our allotted site, proceeded to dig slit trenches, which, since the ground was rock hard, couldn’t be made very deep. Since we’d no transport or shelter there was a great deal of make do and mend, for we certainly lived rough during our about three week stay on the beaches.”

Prompted by a reference to the dust experienced in Normandy in 1944, Mr Roberts commented on the dust in Sicily, “Imagine, if you can, narrow unsurfaced roads, edged by dry stone walls, which after a day or two’s heavy traffic – tanks, lorries etc – was pulverised into powder, no walls left, which in some sections was like talcum powder and others like cocoa powder, and all ankle deep. Dust, phew!!”

Not much official information has come to light about Nos 68 and 69 R.A.F. Beach Units’ part in the invasion of Sicily but a record of No 68 R.A.F. Beach Unit’s last days in Sicily is found in a hand written notebook preserved in the National Archive. That notebook constitutes the Operations Record Book of No. 68 R.A.F. Beach Unit from 29th July 1943 to 27th October 1943 and the following extract is taken from the start of the Record Book.

Operations Record Book
No. 68 R.A.F. Beach Unit

1943

 

1

29th July

Bark South
Sicily

Stores and personnel – nil
Camp rapidly becoming insanitary
Plague of flies – men’s health indifferent.
Difficult collect rations and water due lack of transport.

30th July

Bark South
Sicily

Stores and personnel – nil
F/L Stevenson admitted to No 3 F.D.S. Pachino
F/L Kinsey discharged from No 24 M.F.H. Tripoli and attached No 38 P.T.C. R.A.F. Tripoli (Auth. Rear HQ. D.A.F.)

31st July

Bark South
Sicily

Stores and personnel – nil
F/L Liddell admitted to No 3 F.D.S. Pachino
Sgt Drinkwater (No 103 Sub Area) admitted F.D.S. Portopalo.

1943

 

2

1st Aug.

Bark South
Sicily

Stores and personnel – nil
F/L Cane visited F/L Hanns No 2 R.A.F. E.U. (Overseas) at Syracuse and arranged embarkation of Unit to Tripoli 2/8/43 (Auth. AOC AHQ. DAF)

2nd Aug.

Bark South
Sicily

Unit removed from Pachino and embarked at Syracuse
Strength :- 3     Officers
                  32     Other Ranks
Attached 2 Other Ranks (103 S.A.)

F/Sgt Gill detached to W/Cdr Hackett and embarked for Sousse 2/8/43.

F/L Stevenson discharged from No 3 F.D.S. Pachino and rejoined Unit.

1943

 

3

3rd Aug.

At Sea

Nothing to report.
Food and accommodation all ranks satisfactory.

4th Aug.

Tripoli

Unit disembarked at Tripoli.
F/L Cane reported G/Cpt Sliff  No 214 Group and received instructions to proceed to No 39 P.T.C. pending link up with No 3 Beach Group at 56 Div. H.Q. Tripoli.
G/Cpt Sliff advised that 114 M.U. Zavia had instructions to rekit unit.

It would seem that Mr Roberts served with No 69 R.A.F. Beach Unit, sailing from Sicily to Sousse (in Tunisia) after Operation Husky. They were encamped with the Army’s No 4 Beach Group at Mellaha, about seven miles (11 km) east of Tripoli (in Libya) when on 22nd August 1943 a signal was received from M.A.A.F. (Mediterranean Allied Air Force) requesting No 69 R.A.F. Beach Unit to join forces with No 68 R.A.F. Beach Unit (attached to the Army’s No 3 Beach Group near Tripoli) and the Units sailed from Tripoli for the Salerno landings.

Invasion of Italy (Salerno) – D-Day, 9th September 1943

Mr Roberts’ comments:

“Salerno was slightly better, we had a dry landing from an L.S.T. and little tents, about four feet high with enough ground coverage for two six-footers to lay down inside. We also were supplied with portable cookers, oil fuelled, and compo rations. Otherwise as before.”

And from the Operations Record Book of No. 68 R.A.F. Beach Unit:

1943

 

6 Sept.

Sailed from Tripoli at approximately 06.00 hours. Engines of vehicles started up and O.K.

7/8 Sept.

Units at sea
 1
st. party on L.S.T. 419. (Ser. 166)
 2nd --- “ ---  L.S.T.    64  (Ser.168)
{3rd  --- “ --- L.S.T.           (Ser. 170)
{Cpl. Smith and one vehicle)

9 Sept.

Serial No. 166 dis-embarked Roger Beach 13.00 Hours.
Ship under shell fire during landing.
H.Q. and Transit Area established immediately as per key plan. – W/Cdr George contacted.
Serial No. 168 dis-embarked at 16.00 Hours.
Petrol section under F/Lt Holdaway and Ordnance Section under F/Lt Liddell proceeded to respective dumps.
New Petrol Dump on beach recc’ied by W/Cdr George who bivouacked in Transit Area.

1943

 

10 Sept.

Approximately 30 Tons petrol and Oil landed and despatched to new site.
Sgt. Drinkwater and LAC McGowan detached with W/Cdr George and S/Ldr Denvil to Div. H.Q.
F/Lt Holdaway and Petrol party taken to new site.

11 Sept.

Large influx of R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. personnel into Transit Area. For details see Returns Book.
Stores & Petrol Receipts – Nil.
Ammunition – Approx. 3 Tons.

Unit still under occasional Shell Fire.
Contact established with Captain Peister (U.S.A.A.F. Liaison Officer) Major Cobb and Major Ross (U.S.A.A.F.)

12 Sept.

Various units passed through to Roger Air Strip, and all Petrol Stores held at Dump despatched to Strip.
First planes in operation on Strip.

The entries in the Operations Record Book continue until 27th October 1943, ending just after Nos 68/69 Beach Units moved from Salerno to Naples.

After their return to the UK via Algiers, Nos 68 and 69 Beach Units were disbanded and reformed as No 4 R.A.F. Beach Unit in January 1944. Basically, No 68 Beach Unit became No 107 Beach Section (later 107 Beach Flight) and No 69 Beach Unit became No 108 Beach Section (later 108 Beach Flight). With the addition of a HQ this constituted the new No 4 R.A.F. Beach Unit (later No 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron).

No 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron was to operate in the GOLD assault area in the Normandy invasion from D-Day, 6th June 1944 until 28th August 1944, with 107 Beach Flight assigned to King Beach and 108 Beach Flight assigned to Jig Beach.

After Sicily and Salerno, Mr Roberts found the Normandy landings ‘a piece of cake!’, even though he was transported in an L.C.T. from Felixstowe and had a wet landing. When he came to be billeted in a solid and intact house, fitted with two tier bunks and palliasses, he considered it luxury after sleeping on the ground!

After No 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron returned to England and disbanded. Cpl Roberts was posted to an R.A.F. Police unit in 83 Group, 2nd T.A.F. Arriving in Eindhoven in October 1944 he served initially in the traffic section and then, for the rest of his service, in the Security section.

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