47 Cdo Port-en-Bessin
The Battle for the Port 6-8th June 1944
The previous page was: "47 Commando Kapelsche-Veer"
On a wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London in 1944 was hung a cautionary copy of the six line verse: "For Want of a Nail". In the logistics for D-Day, there must have been a long list of items as tiny as they were potentially crucial.
The provision of Petrol for the Allied armies after the landings was never in much danger of being overlooked. With about 6,000 vehicles set to disembark over the first twenty-four hours alone, attaching a cross Channel pipeline to the French shore was obviously going to be vitally important to the success of the forth coming invasion.
Securing the pipeline's landing point was a task delegated to a relative tiny force of Royal Marine Commandos, in contrast to the huge German garrison stationed there.
Their mission ran into serious trouble and seemed likely at one point to end in disaster. It was rescued by an act of great courage by one officer and a handful of men. For want of their bravery, the aftermath of the landings might arguably have been a different story.
47 Commando Kapelsche-Veer
FROM GOLD TO OMAHA
John Forfar's 'From Gold to Omaha' is a slip of a book - lavishly illustrated but scarcely longer than the potted guide one might buy at the entrance to any of the Second World War museums that dot the Normandy region.
What it does provide is a valuable and moving first-hand account
of an episode that has received little or no attention in the block buster histories of Operation Overlord that has been published over the years.
In 1944, Forfar, at the age of twenty-eight, was the medical officer with 47 Royal Marine Commando. He led this unit, against heavy odds, captured the small harbour town of Port-en-Bessin, slotted in between the eleven-mile stretch of cliffs that separated the British and American beach fronts.
As the first Allied trucks and tanks were rolling onto the beaches, a pipe-laying vessel was already making its way from the Isle of Wight to Port-en-Bessin. Designated as Project 'PLUTO' (Pipe-Line Under The Ocean) as the primary petrol port for the campaigne.
The attack on Port-en-Bessin
But the town had heavily entrenched German defences. Lessons having been learnt from the commando's disasterous experimental Dieppe Raid of 1942, a frontal assault on the harbour was ruled out.
Instead, 47 Royal Marine Commando went ashore early on June 6th with the first British forces. It then struck inland immediately, marched twelve miles to the west and then attacked
Port-en-Bessin from the south on June 7th.
By the time the assault was launched, the unit had already lost three of its four wireless sets, much of its ammunition and almost a quater of the 420 men who left England.
Unknown to its officers, the supposedly empty harbour was occupied by two substantially armed German flak ships.
Overlooking the town were headlands to either side, both topped with strong German defensive bunkers with their guns all trained on the port. An attack up the steep western headland by sixty men drew fire from the flak ships and left half the men dead.
Courage and determintation
By the evening, and now at the end of their third day with virtually no sleep, those still fighting knew the Germans had regained control of the exit road and had cut off the town.
The men at the first aid post set up by the Commando outside the town were busy destroying all of their maps and papers in anticipation of being taken prisoner. As Forfar remarks with a typical understatement: "the tide of action was running seriously against the Commandos."
What turned it was the assault on the other headland; in the dying light of the late evening, one of the Commando's officers, Captain Terance Cousins, led a party of twenty-five men up a zig-zag cliff path towards the German position's at the top.
Taking just four men with him, he launched a charge at a bunker. Cousins himself was killed, and the others were badly wounded. But this desperate act of courage seems to have so impressed the occupants of the bunker that when the rest of the assault party ran forward and shouted for their surrender, a white flag appeared.
As darkness fell, other pockets of German defenders along the cliff top followed suit. Though outnumbered four to one, the Commando fighters cleared the entire headland. This prompted a general collapse in the morale of the port's defenders.
The two flak ships were hastily abandoned - and by dawn on
June 8th, Port-en-Bessin had been taken by the Commandos. Montgomery turned up there the next day to congratulate its captors, the Royal Marines.
Fast Boats Pages
Joe Wezley Pages
The horrors of serious injury
Forfar, who later became a distinguished professor of medicine in Edinburgh, tells his story in the third person, with a modesty that has long fallen out of fashion. He must have spent time talking to the French inhabitants of the town after the war, and descibes events from their perspective in almost as much detail as cases, it is the detail that counts.
The book has been re-produced - by a small publisher in Port-en-Bessin itself - it was re-published towards the end of the author's long life, but it is far from being an old man's hazy recollections.
Forfar obviously noted down everything that he saw at the time. This account is able to trace the action almost hour by hour, giving the reader a sense of what happened with an immediacy that only a direct participent could have captured.
The horrors of serious injury and the difficulties of tending the wounded are given with meticulous attention. The strangeness of being in action behind the front line is also well caught.
As they make their way to Port-en-Bessin, the Commandos pass a French farmer "unconcernedly ploughing a field with two horses and apparently paying little attention to the historic events unfolding around him." Further on they encounter a fat German sergeant, cycling to a village brothel to say his farewells.
The dying moments of the Germans
A striking feature of the account is the tenderness with which he describes the dying moments of the Germans taken by surprise and shot on that extraordinary June morning. one senses their deaths have stayed with the author just as vividly as the suffering of his own comrades in arms.
As for the Commandos themselves, they were mostly volunteers in their early twenties. They had been highly trained, but had never been tested in battle.
Their self-belief had to overcome the physical advantages enjoyed by the German defenders from the same 352 Infantry Division that fought back hard against the Americans on Omaha Beach.
That so many of these were induced to surrender at the Port is remarkable. No doubt the different circumstances gave smaller groups of men more time to weigh up their options.
But the collapse of the port's defences must also be a tribute to the determination of the attackers, celebrated now as part of an active campaigne within the town to ensure that those who liberated it in 1944 will not be forgotten.
John Forfar, "From Gold to Omaha" The Battle for Port-en-Bessin, 6-8 June 1944
95pp, Les Gens du Phare. £15 ISBN: 9782911924446
I would like to thank Duncan Campbell-Smith for his: 'Between beaches' review of the book: FROM GOLD TO OMAHA
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47 Cdo Port-en-Bessin
47 Commando Returns
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