PC 209 Off Arromanches; at night; in a gale!

This is a page from my Royal Yachting Association Log Book. Note the entry for 10th – 17th June 1979:

…… doesn’t say more than the very basic headlines but the memories from those few days, in fact one particular two hour period, linger on over forty years later. I attended the two year Army Staff Course at the end of the seventies: Division 1 at RMCS in 1978 and then a year at The Staff College Camberley 1979. In the summer of that second year we were fortunate enough to tour the Normandy beaches and hinterland used in D Day 1944. The Battlefield Tour was a welcome relief to classroom discussions and it lived up to its colloquial name, The Bottlefield Tour!

The battlefield tour was unique in that soldiers who had attacked and defended this part of northern France came and talked about their experiences and memories. I think it was the last, given the increasing age of our guest speakers; we were blessed. The administrative part of the tour was centred around Deauville but by tradition a number of us sailed across on service yachts to Trouville, the next-door harbour. I was lucky enough to skipper the RAYC flagship St Barbara III, a Nicholson 43.

The crew with St B on the left

After all the normal pre-voyage activity we assembled at Gosport opposite Portsmouth on 9th June. The weather forecast for the week was mixed, a bit like the weather of early June 1944, but for our outward trip was set fair. From memory a north-easterly F4 allowed us to clear the Solent forts and set a course for Trouville. Trouville, in keeping with a number of ports on the northern coast of France, could only be entered some two hours either side of high water.

We found the harbour entrance on the bow after some 65 miles of uneventful sailing and tied up stern-to on the harbour wall, bow to anchor, not a method I was well practised in but fortunately there weren’t too many rubberneckers!

When I was doing my military service or sailing offshore, the mnemonic ‘grid to mag add, mag to grid get rid’ served us well as the variation was some 4 degrees ……. and mistakes happened! An hour after our arrival one of the other skippers, who I knew well, took me aside up on the quay and quietly questioned whether you added the magnetic variation or not, as they had missed the channel entrance!! (Note 1)

Some left for the on shore accommodation, others stayed on board; we had a chance to have a party on Gladeye, skippered by Robin Duchesne.   

Of the tour itself, out of all the stands where a veteran, of whatever nationality or rank, told us of their experience, one particular talk stays in my memory. A grey-haired rather rotund Yeoman Officer told us he had been in command of a troop of three tanks and that they had come under fire from some Germany artillery on top of a ridge to his front. His leading tank was hit and he had watched in horror as his troop sergeant had emerged from the hatch in a ball of flame. We stood exactly where his tank had been 41 years before; on the horizon we could see the escarpment.

This lovely chap told us how it was. “I hadn’t really listened to much of the training about radio procedures and artillery cooperation and stuff, I just knew I wanted to get hold of some artillery fire to neutralise the enemy, and bloody quickly. I picked up my radio mic and yelled: “Hello Gunners, this is Tony! I need your help.” (Note 2) “Hello Tony, Gunners here!” a voice crackled in his headset “Where do you need us?” Tony admitted he wasn’t very good at map reading but after some discussion eventually the gunners put a round on the ground somewhere towards the ridge. From there Tony was able to say “Further on” “Right a bit” until he was satisfied that three rounds fire-for-effect would sort out Jerry. And it did!

The tour eventually ended and some of the participants left for the ferries whilst us sailors returned to the harbour basin in preparation for our trip back across the Channel. In an ideal world we would have time to wait for favourable weather but so often work commitments squeeze that window. The forecast was a squally Force 8 gusting 9 out of the North East …… so prudence suggested waiting a while. Just after midnight on 17th June, with the gale forecast to blow itself out, we hoisted the mainsail with its four rolls, tacked on the No2 Jib,

Bottom right shows the crew putting the reefs in. Bottom left happens to have the late Robin Duchesne.

…….. slipped our moorings and headed down the sheltered harbour entrance towards the sea. I sensed it was going to be a bit bumpy and ensured the fenders and warps were safely stored in their lockers and all the crew had well-fitted safety harnesses; I reminded myself the crew were not particularly experienced. Two of them worked on the foredeck, under the lights and in the torrential rain, to stow the anchor in its bow locker. Their stance was made difficult by the sea rolling in, and St Barbara rose and pitched as we motored out; every now and again there was a loud bang as she smashed into a large wave. By the time we cleared the entrance pilings they had returned to the safety of the cockpit. We could just about make our bearing to the Solent and, having hoisted the Jib, after about 30 minutes I switched off the engine; Tony went below to put the kettle on.

“Hey! Skipper! There’s lots of water on the cabin floor” (‘cabin sole’ for whom this sort of thing is important!)

To be continued …..

Richard 18th December 2020

Note 1 Each degree of variation over a distance of 60 miles will result in one nautical mile off course. A 4 degree variation would give you 4 nautical miles off course …… and the entrance to Trouville was a narrow dredged channel you approached on a transit!

Note 2 I was a Gunner so knew it should have been something like ‘Hello G31 this is Tango 23A over’

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