Action Reports Series 5
The English Channel – D-Day and After

Below are one of the four Action Reports included this section "The English Channel – D-Day and After." If you would like to read more, please order the newly re-published book available from the Ship's Store.


Report 5-1 - D-Day and the Mason Line
The English Channel was the British Coastal Forces’ own backyard. From the summer of 1940, when German blitzkrieg flashed across the Low Countries and northern France, until the end of the war in Europe, the MTB’s, MGB’s, and ML’s fought 464 actions in British home waters, claiming 269 enemy vessels sunk or probably sunk, as against the loss of 76 Coastal Force craft. With the British boats carrying out the double mission of preying on enemy coastal convoys and protecting Allied shipping from E-boat attack, there was no need for American PT’s in the Channel until the spring of 1944, when the invasion of Normandy was imminent.

An urgent request by the Office of Strategic Services for PT’s to land and pick up agents on the French coast resulted in the hasty commissioning of a new Squadron 2 (the original squadron had been decommissioned in the Solomons in November 1943) on March 23, 1944, at Fyfe’s Shipyard, Glenwood Landing, Long Island. The squadron, commanded by Lt. Comdr. John D. Bulkeley, was made up of three early Higgins boats, PT’s 71, 72, and 199, which has had almost two years of service as training boats in Squadron 4 at Melville. After a rapid overhaul at Fyfe’s Shipyard, the boats were shipped to England, arriving at Dartmouth on April 24. There they were fitted with special navigational equipment to give them pinpoint accuracy in locating their objectives on the French coast. Officers and men practice launching, rowing, loading, and unloading four-oared pulling boats, constructed with padded sides and muffled oarlocks, until they could land men and equipment on a beach swiftly and silently on the darkest night.

PT 71 made the first trip across the Channel on the night of May 19/20, carrying agents and several hundreds of pounds of equipment. The 71 crossed German convoy lanes and minefields, anchored within 500 yards of a beach commanded by German shore guns and a radar station, landed the men and their gear under the noses of German sentries, and returned to Dartmouth without discovery. That was typical of the 19 missions Squadron 2 performed for the Office of Strategic Services between May and November. Sometimes they put men ashore, sometimes they took them out of France. The boat officers and men never knew the identity of their passengers of the exact nature of their missions. The job of the boats was to land their passengers or to pick them up a precisely the right position on the coast, and to do it without being detected. The squadron completed its 19 missions without once making contact with the enemy, which is entirely as it should have been.

Three more squadrons of PT’s were sent to the Channel to join the screening forces in the invasion of Normandy, though only one of them, Squadron 34, 12 Elco boats, commanded by Lt. Allen H. Harris, USNR, was in time to take part in the operations on D-day, June 6, 19444. Squadron 34 arrived in England in May; Squadron 35, 12 Elco boats, under Lt. Comdr. Richard Davis, Jr., on June 4; and Squadron 30, 6 Higgins boats, under Lt. Robert L. Searles, USNR, on June 7. Also in June, Lieutenant Commander Bulkeley was designated a task group commander in charge of all PT operations during the invasion of Normandy.

Invasion plans called for landings by five great task forces in the Baie de la Seine, which was divided into the British assault area on the east and the American assault area on the west. Admiral Sir Philip Vian, RN, Commander Easter Task Force, was in command of the three task forces in the British area; Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk, in command of the two task forces in the American area. Admiral Kirk’s forces were Task Force U, commanded by Read Adm. Don P. Moon, to land troops at Utah Beach, westernmost of the invasion beaches, and Task Force O, under Rear Adm. John L. Hall, Jr., to effect landings at Omaha Beach, between Utah Beach and the British area.

The PT’s of Squadron 34, in divisions of three, were to escort four groups of minesweepers in advance of the invasion fleet to clear a broad sea lane to the beaches and the fire support areas offshore. The first group, PT’s 500, 498, and 509, under Lt. Herbert J. Sheretz, USNR, nearly invaded France a day too soon. D-day had been scheduled for June 5, so early on the morning of the 4th the boats rendezvoused with their minesweepers and set out from the Isle of Wight for the Baie de la Seine. Later in the morning the PT base at Portland received belated notice that D-day had been postponed until June 6. Fortunately a patrolling destroyer was able to intercept the boats, already halfway to France, and send them back to Portland.

They made a fresh start on the morning of June 5, and stayed with their minesweepers through the night of the 5th and morning of the 6th, at times approaching within half a mile of the French coast, protected from shore batteries by a tremendous naval and aerial bombardment. The only casualty was the minesweeper Osprey, which struck a mine and sank just as she took station of the evening of the 5th. PT’s 505 and 508 picked up six of her survivors.

The boats of Squadron 2 crossed the Channel on the night of June 5/6 with flagships to which they had been assigned as dispatch boats. PT 71 accompanied the USS Augusta, Admiral Kirk’s flagship; PT 72, the USS Ancon, Admiral Hall’s flagship; and PT 199, the USS Bayfield, flagship of Admiral Moon. After taking an Army officer from the Bayfield to Utah Beach on the morning of June 6, PT 199 rescued 61 survivors of the destroyer Corry, which had been mined.

Except for these rescue operations, D-day turned out to be a routine affair for the PT’s. “We might have had trouble with mines, with shore batteries or with E-boats,” Bulkeley said. “As it was, we didn’t have any trouble at all.”

At 1600 on D-day the PT’s of Squadron 34 joined the Western Task Force Area screen, which included destroyers, destroyer escorts, PC’s, and British steam gunboats. The PT’s were stationed on the “Mason Line,” extending 6-1/2 miles to seaward from the beach near St. Marcouf, as an inner defense against infiltration by E-boats into the convoy unloading area. They were joined on June 7 and 8 by boats of Squadron 35, and on the 10th by those of Squadron 30. Until the end of the month, an average of 19 PT’s remained on the line at all times. Boats rotated between the Mason Line and the Portland Base, usually patrolling for a week at a time, although some boats stayed on the line for as long as three weeks without relief. E-boats made so few attempts to penetrate the screen that PT’s had no contact with enemy surface craft. In the midst of the greatest invasion in history, however, their duty was seldom dull.

On the evening of June 7, Lt. William C. Godfrey’s PT 505 gave chase to what appeared to be a submarine periscope cutting through the water near St. Marcouf Island. The periscope disappeared when the 505 came within 75 yards, and Godfrey was about to give the order to release depth charges when the 505 ran over a mine. A violent explosion lifted the stern of the PT out of the water, injured two men, tore loose one depth charge, snapped the warheads off the torpedoes, threw the engine beds awry, and caused some damage to practically every part of the boat. The PT went down quickly by the stern until the base of the 40mm gun was awash. Godfrey jettisoned his torpedoes and his other depth charge, and transferred his forward guns, radar, and radio equipment to PT 507, which towed the 505 to anchorage in the lee of St. Marcouf Island. Although there was some danger that the boat would sink, Godfrey, two other officers, and one enlisted man remained aboard that night. The next morning two LCM’s towed the 505 onto the invasion beach at high tide. Low tide left the boat high and dry for six hours, time enough for the crew to put emergency patches on the hull and to paint the side with the legend, “PORTLAND OR BUST!” PT 500 towed the 505 back to Poland on June 11, in a crossing made miserable by four partings of the towline in heavy seas.

Mines were perhaps the greatest single menace in the Baie de la Seine. During the month of June, PT’s rescued 203 survivors of mined ships. On the morning of June 8, the destroyer Glennon hit a mine and began to settle by the stern. The destroyer escort Rich, preceded by two minesweepers, approached Glennon and was passing a towline to the destroyer when a mine exploded 50 yards to starboard. Rich was shaken, but not damaged. PT 504 (Lt. (jg.) Harold B. Sherwood, Jr., USNR) at this time was drawing near to Rich to offer assistance. Two minutes later another mine blew the stern off Rich. PT 504 circled Rich, and within 3 minutes still another mine caught Rich amidships. PT 504, joined by PT 502 (Lt. Charles E. Twadell, Jr. USNR) and PT 506 (Lt. Jaquelin J. Daniel, USNR), made fast to the sinking ship and sent rescue parties aboard. The boats took off 69 wounded men, casting off their lines only when the decks of the Rich were awash. R. W. Gretter, QM2c, of the 504, and Paul E. Cayer, S1c, of the 506, did not hear the order to abandon the Rich, and were still aboard when the ship sank. They were picked up by a Coast Guard vessel. Cayer was cited for removing “nine crew members who would have died without his aid.” PT 508 (Lt. (jg.) Calvin R. Whorton, USNR) rescued the last two survivors aboard the detached stern section of the ship.

On the night of June 14/15, German planes tried something new in the way of illumination for night bombing attacks on shipping, dropping brilliant and long-burning float flares in two rows in the assault area. Capt. Harry Sanders, commander of the Western Task Force Area Screen, ordered PT’s to sink the flares if the enemy should attempt a repeat performance. The next night the Germans again dropped two long rows of flares on the water and PT’s went alongside them and sank them with submachine guns before bombers came over. On the night of June 16/17, PT’s again extinguished flares, with the result that the German planes dropped their bombs in empty water well clear of shipping. “Thereafter,” Captain Sanders reported, “the Germans dropped no more floating flares. I believe that the frustration of bombing attacks by extinguishing marker flares is a new achievement for PT boats.”

Boats of Squadron 34 relieved PT’s 71, 72 and 199 of their routine but exacting duties as dispatch boats of June 17, and the Squadron 2 boats returned to Portland for repairs and resumption of their special work for the Office of Strategic Services. Lt. William M. Snelling, USNR, boat captain of PT 71, claimed the all-time PT record for carrying gold braid. On June 12, he has as passengers for an inspection tour of the invasion beaches, Admirals King, Stark, Kirk, Moon, and Wilkes, and Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, Arnold, Bradley, and Hodges.

The boats on the Mason Line took a beating from June 19 to 22, during what Prime Minister Churchill described as the “worst Channel storm in 40 years.” Many boats suffered hull damage from gale-lashed debris and narrowly missed being crushed by drifting ships and barges, but 11 boats of Squadron 34, eight of Squadron 35, and two of Squadron 30 rode out the 4-day storm maintaining their positions on the line.

In addition to the Mason Line assignment, PT’s patrolled in divisions of two or three to the northwest during most of June. Toward the end of the month they began to cover the approaches to Cherbourg in the hope of catching Germans attempting to evacuate by sea, but none of these patrols was productive. On June 15, a force of American battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, bombarded Cherbourg for more that three hours, knocking out most of the big coastal guns. By nightfall American troops had entered the city and were fighting in the streets. That night PT’s patrolling with destroyers drew fire from shore batteries on Cap de la Hague, to the west of Cherbourg, and on the evening of the 27th went right up to the Cherbourg breakwater to learn whether any enemy guns were still active.

While four other PT’s patrolled offshore with the destroyer Shubrick, Lieutenant Commander Bulkeley, in PT 510 Lt. (jg.) Elliott B. MacSwan, USNR), with PT 521 (Lt. (jg.) Peter S. Zaley, USNR), maneuvered for 25 minutes within a quarter mile of the breakwater, at times approaching within 150 yards. Then a large-caliber battery in the harbor fort opened on the boats, dropping one explosive shell 30 feet ahead and another 20 feet behind the 521, which was following 200 yards behind the 510. The explosions stopped all three of the 521’s engines, bent the throttle rods, loosened the deck planking, and jarred the port torpedo halfway out of its rack. PT 510 laid a smokescreen around the 521, whose engineers got her underway again in 5 minutes. Bulkeley ordered the 521 to launch her dangling port torpedo toward the breakwater and the boats retired, zigzagging away behind smoke. Because of the smoke and noise it was impossible to observe the effect of the torpedo on the breakwater.

“We decided then and there that that fort had not fallen,” Bulkeley said, “and waited until the next day to pay our next call. This time we saw a white flag in the fort so we went right into the harbor.”

While the 510 and 521 were drawing fire from the fort, Shubrick and the other four PT’s continued westward toward Cap de la Hague. When they were 2-1/2 miles off the cape, a heavy shore battery opened fire, dropping shells within 30 yards of Lt. (jg.) Stewart J. Moulin’s PT 459 and 300 yards from Shubrick. The group took evasive action, with the Shubrick retiring behind a smokescreen. A few minutes later PT 457 (Lt. (jg.) Waldemar A Tomski, (USNR) observed the position of the shore guns and reported it to Shubrick. The destroyer came about through the smoke, fired a salvo, and then was forced to retire by renewed fire from ashore.

Patrolling on the Mason Line continued through July without incident. Bulkeley, promoted to commander, was detached in the middle of July to take command of the destroyer Endicott. He was succeeded as overall commander of PT’s in the Channel by Lt. Allen H. Harris, USNR. He previously had been relieved as commander of Squadron 2 by Lt. Robert R. Read, USNR. Lt. Herbert J. Sheretz, USNR, relieved Harris as commander of Squadron 34. Squadron 35 had had a change of command on June 11, when Lt. Arthur N. Barnes, USNR, relieved Lieutenant Commander Davis as squadron commander and Davis assumed command of the PT base at Portland. Lt. Ralph S. Duley, USNR, succeeded Davis as base commander in mid-July.

Admiral Kirk, his duties as Commander Western Task Force completed, wrote on July 5:

Dear Bulkeley:
As you know, I have turned over command off the beaches and at Cherbourg to Admiral Wilkes, and have withdrawn from the assault area. I cannot leave without congratulating you, and, through you, all your men, on the very fine job done by PT boats during the first month of the campaign. Your boys have fully justified our very high expectations, and if they have not had as much direct action as we had all hoped, that in itself is a tribute to the high respect the German has for them.
Whether in the area Screen or on Advanced Patrol, or in the dull but demanding business of ferrying old men around the bay, your boys have done themselves proud. I wish you and them all the luck in the world.
Sincerely,
Alan Kirk

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