TRIPOLI, LIBYA, 1943
Instructions received from Air HQ, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean for the formation of a Beach Balloon Detachment consisting of 19 men and one Flying Officer. Airmen to be volunteers if possible. The detachment was drawn from No. 976 Squadron personnel with Flying Officer E.J.G. NICHOLAS as officer commanding, 3 corporals and 16 men. These proceeded No. 3 Beach Group Camp on the Castel Benito Road near TRIPOLI (L) where they commenced a period of training whilst living in bivouac together with other units of the beach group.
The function of this unit was to proceed with other specially trained units, both Navy, Army and Air Force on an invasion of an unknown place, the unit carrying balloon equipment with hydrogen cylinders in the same manner as the former beach detachments landing in Sicily. The essential difference in this case being that the unit was to land as nearly as possible at Zero Hour on the initial invasion with balloons ready inflated and affording immediate protection to the beaches. The scheme outlined included provision for inflation of 6 balloons at a staging point between North Africa and the enemy occupied territory.
The unit although called a detachment is entirely self-administering and operationally responsible only to Air HQ, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean. Close liaison to be maintained with gun operations and Royal Naval authorities in charge. The detachment was to land with sufficient equipment for the early stages, the balance of equipment to follow on L.S.T.s arriving within 24 hours of zero hour.
22nd – 29th August
Airmen remained in camp under training.
Flying Officer NICHOLAS falls sick and it is admitted to hospital with dysentery.
Flying Officer A.G. LAMBERTH detailed to assume command of the Beach Detachment.
F/O A.G. Lamberth had been an officer in No. 976 Balloon Squadron, possibly since its formation in the UK in September 1941 and its arrival in the Suez area in December 1941.
From 6th to 12th September 1942 he assumed command of ‘B’ Flight in the absence of the Flight Commander. On 29th October 1942 he was admitted to 13th General Hospital (probably with malaria) and on 26th November 1942 he went to Abassia for a course on Leadership. On 15th December 1942 he assumed command of ‘B’ Flight but on 1st January 1943 he was posted to No. 974 Squadron at Port Tewfik.
He came from No. 971 Squadron to take command of No. 6 Detachment..
(Source: Operations Record Book of No. 976 Squadron, Catalogue Reference:AIR/27/2324 at The National Archives)
Received urgent instructions to pack minimum of kit (not more than 40 lbs) and proceed to CAIRO to report to Air HQ, Air Defences Eastern Mediterranean pending posting to urgent duties. He returned to Flight HQ, packed in great hurry and caught the 1200 hrs train to CAIRO. Arrived CAIRO 1625, reported to Group Captain Jackson, A.H.Q.A.D.E.M.
The Group Captain immediately briefed this officer instructing him to proceed to TRIPOLI by air early next morning and take over command of No. 6 Beach Balloon Detachment in place of Flying Officer NICHOLAS, who had fallen ill. The new C.O. was delighted with this opportunity and read with great interest all the papers produced by the Group Captain. During the next few hours he visited the air transport section at General Headquarters, made the official arrangements for air travel, returned to Group Captain Jackson, took his leave and spent the night at a hotel in CAIRO.
Flying Officer Lamberth rose early, proceeded to the Metropole Hotel where he was picked up by an R.A.F. vehicle and proceeded to the airfield a considerable distance. An American transport plane took off ant 0800 hours passing over the Western Desert en route to TRIPOLI. Arrived Castel Benito airfield 1600 hours. Conveyed by service transport to TRIPOLI, located 976 Squadron in due course. Introduced to S/Ldr. SHUTTE, who passed on the remaining details of forthcoming operations.
Flying Officer LAMBERTH is taken to 976 Squadron H.Q. where he obtains the necessary service equipment to complete Army scale of Assault Kit. Morning’s peace disturbed by terrific explosion, an L.C.T. blown up in docks assembly area. Particularly bad thing at this time.
Tripoli harbour an amazing sight, full of naval craft – strange looking ships of all shapes and sizes. F/O Lamberth next proceeded with S/Ldr. Shutte to No. 3 Beach Group Camp to contact men, found all fit and well, very enthusiastic and anxious to get on with it. All living bivouac fashion in lemon grove. Spartan conditions, no frills, comforts, or red tape. Unit commander makes the acquaintance of 3 Beach Group officers. The men, generally speaking, seem reliable and sound.
Now begins the extraordinarily difficult task of wresting transport from the Army, for conveying essential equipment to destination. Not very successful in the early stages. C.O. visits 167 Brigade H.Q. at TRIPOLI. To the uninitiated a state of chaos seems to exist, no doubt it will work out in the end as it always seems to do. After struggle and in spite of certain opposition we finally obtain three 3-ton vehicles. Great jubilation.
It is decided to split up the unit personnel into 6 parties of 3 for the purpose of inflating their balloons at the staging beach. Each party to embark on a different craft with sufficient equipment taken for this purpose. Arrangements are made for all personnel to embark in initial assault craft with high landing priorities. Heavy transport to follow in L.S.T.s with drivers. Secret papers began to pour in. Embarkation instructions expected very soon.
During the morning all staging beach equipment loaded on L.C.T.s by unit personnel. Made contact with all Royal Naval personnel of these ships, found them very pleasant and willing to cooperate.
Loaded all hydrogen cylinders, heavy and difficult work as we have to use 3 or 4 other craft as pontoons, completed 1530 hours, party returns to the camp. Terribly hot just now, almost impossible to keep clean. The whole area covered with fine white dust at least twelve inches deep. The men attempt to swim in a large water tank containing 3 feet of dirty water and 50 stark naked soldiers.
Plans now almost complete. The men have tremendous packs to carry. They look like Christmas trees when ready for marching. Very keen interest shown by the men. After the conference with other units, Unit C.O. proceeded to give the men a short outline of the pending operations omitting secret details. Tension rises gradually.
0130 hours received signal instructing all personnel embarking on the L.C.T. to proceed to Embarkation Camp, Racecourse, TRIPOLI, at 1200 hrs. today. Strange that it is necessary to get one out of bed at that unearthly hour for instructions taking effect at midday, when we could have moved off with half an hour’s notice. This signal affected three crews of three. Men paraded with kits packed and received final instruction. The CO had a few words with each, expressing the hope that they would do their jobs well and arrive safely on the other side. They departed with general good wishes.
1430 hours final conference with the C.O. of the Beach Group and all unit commanders. Final details of operation revealed with certain most secret reservations. The C.O’ makes acquaintance of Col. MORRISON, L.A.A. and G.O.R. Commander. The remaining personnel spent quiet day, resting in the sun, waiting their instructions to move off. These came through at 2355. All personnel embarking on L.C.I.s with the exception of one crew, to move off in the morning to the embarkation camp at the usual time.
Everything is now proceeding according to plan. The men are a bit restive, probably nervous tension caused by so much waiting for the final move. Emergency and compo rations split up between the crew. We decide to cut down weight and leave the gravestakes behind. Possibly we won’t need them. This extensive camp is now rapidly emptying. The D.Q.M.G. sits disconsolately on a margarine box, trying to write in the dark. We lent him our only hurricane lamp (foolish action, we were never to see it again).
All rise early and pack kits in good time for move off. As the cook departed yesterday, the food is now straight out of the tins with a little sand added here and there. We move off finally in 3-ton trucks with various army units, with kit all over us and hanging from all sides. It seems difficult to imagine landing on an enemy occupied beach handicapped in this manner. Transport stops half a mile from the camp and we proceed on foot the remaining distance. This gives us a foretaste of the weight of this kit, we feel sorry for the ‘P.B.I.’ who had to march all the way.
The C.O. reports to the Camp Commandant on arrival and we are allotted a small portion of a “pen”, a half mile stretch of ground 20 feet wide, separated from the next identical plot by wire. There must be 50 of these pens, each one packed with men are waiting embarkation. Remarks are made about “cattle waiting for the slaughter”. Even so everyone is cheerful.
This camp is an extraordinary and quite unforgettable sight. There is no room and no time to attempt making beds. We sleep fully dressed on the ground. Before all this, however, there is a meal, for which we queue in the dark. It is quite impossible to see what one is getting. We hope for the best and get the worst. We go for a quick swim in the dusk – the end of the pen leads down to the sea. After this there is an impromptu concert given by one of the army units under the African night sky. This is very well received, no sentiment, no mention of invasions, just good clean (?) fun. We turn in, if you can call it that, at 2130 hours. We have to get a up at 0430 in the morning and move off before 0600.
Tomorrow, we embark. We wonder how it will all end for each and every one. If only someone could have painted an impression of this incredible camp.
0430 hours. We wake, or become conscious, it seems confoundedly cold. Hundreds of dim figures can be seen moving around in the dark. Muffled and not so muffled curses come from unexpected places. Men can be seen trying to adjust packs, drink tea and find their colleagues all at once. Some units have already moved off. We pack hurriedly, quick wash under the tap, no time to shave, a chunk of bread and a mug of water for breakfast.
The march to the embarkation point is 3 miles. Being a small party, we manage to squeeze into an ambulance. We are first to arrive. There is of course still one crew to follow. Our party splits up into three and each crew boards their own craft. The Commanding Officer embarks on L.C.I. No. 144, is greeted by the naval officers who invite him to join their mess. The men are fixed up in the crew’s quarters and are reasonably comfortable.
The army arrives, three majors, four captains and large numbers of mere lieutenants and approximately 250 men. All destined to live on a craft not 150 feet long. The army grumbles, upsets everyone and still grumbles.
The Unit Commander and Senior Corporal visit 976 squadron H.Q. to pick up the last mail.
First night’s sleep proves to be a very uncomfortable one, the C.O. spends the night on the very small upper deck wedged between a ventilator and an Oerlikon gun. These L.C.I.s were certainly not built for long trips but only for ferrying across short distances. There is no news of moving.
On board one is quite unable to move more than a few yards. The most strenuous in exercise consists of climbing the 6-rung ladder to the deck. There are 36 of these craft to a squadron, 12 to a flotilla. The Tripoli anchorage is seething with activity, craft of all kinds packed with men, hundreds of these bathe or rather swim in the dirty water of the harbour. Many of these ships have a strange appearance reminding one of a Wells phantasy.
Another day at anchor. One cannot help sympathising with these men, literally packed like sardines on these tiny frail-looking craft. The L.C.T.s have already moved off, so we shall not be long in following. We move over to the only water point, but find many ships already waiting and have to go back without filling our tanks. The M.O. finds a bottle of gin, The officers all crowd into the tiny wardroom to share this rare treat.
The ship’s captain tells the C.O. we move at 0530 in the morning. The voyage to the staging beach in Sicily will take two days, after that one or two days further, and then – what? There are depressing stories of the behaviour of L.C.I.s in rough weather. It will be difficult to find a quiet corner if one does not feel up to scratch.
We wake to find L.C.I. 144 moving through the boom; Tripoli in the distance looks dim and Moorish and in the middle distance the long lanes of our convoy streaming slowly out of harbour.
The plan is to follow in the North African coast towards BIZERTA, changing course when in sight of CAPE BON, recent scene of Nazi defeat. The convoy, which totals some 45 of these small craft, looking rather like surfaced submarines from a distance, maintains an orderly formation. We have an escort of naval motor launches but no destroyer. The Mediterranean is obviously considered ours now.
We forge ahead steadily and the sea becomes a little rough. It is hot on deck and still hotter below decks. 144 begins to roll and pitch abominably. These little craft have a curious motion, being of shallow draught construction they ride on, rather than through, the waves and frequently fall flat on a trough which causes a tremendous shudder to pass from bow to stern. Already we have broken a cross-stay. It is to be hoped we manage to hold together. Many of the men are sick, the small decks are in a shambles, with men lying and squatting in every conceivable position, very uncomfortable but stoical and quiet.
Early morning. We sight CAP BON, a grim peninsula where “Monty” drove Rommel’s forces from Africa. We can see how hopeless it must have been to attempt an evacuation of any kind. We change course and veer to the North towards Sicily. There is a heavy swell. The convoy keeps perfect formation.
One L.C.I. loses a ramp owing to the rough sea. 148A with one of the balloon crews aboard develops engine trouble and drops several miles behind. She looks lonely with an M.L. trotting back to keep an eye on her. If she does not catch up we shall be seriously handicapped.
We draw in sight of SICILY and pass round the North-West coast, past PALERMO. There are many American balloons over PALERMO. We approach TERMINI, the staging point and lay off waiting for instructions to move into the mole.
After a great delay this is accomplished and the balloon crews rush ashore to carry out their inflations. It is 1300 hours. We must have completed our work and all be aboard by 1600 hours. There is little room for inflations and we are handicapped by the army which is trying to get a little exercise. The inflations are completed and the balloons flying by 200 ft. legs from our 6 craft.
1600 hours we move away from TERMINI. The O.C. Troops calls all officers to the wardroom – at last we learn our destination. We are invading Italy over the beaches in the GULF OF SALERNO. The object being to seize airfields in the vicinity and capture the port of NAPLES.
Tension increases. This is the last lap. In less than 20 hours we shall be there. Many other craft appear on all sides. The Americans join us. The sea is a vast mass of ships all moving steadily to their goal. The scheme is a well-conceived one. The men are briefed and warned of the necessary preparations. The balloons are flying well. A constant watch is now maintained on deck. Guns are always manned.
1730 Hours – we sight land. We are amazed and astounded at the audacity of the navy. This is Italy and it is broad daylight. We can most certainly be seen from the coast and wonder when the first aircraft will appear.
1800 hours – a Messerschmitt dives unexpectedly out of the sun and very inconsiderately drops three bombs on our starboard side, most unpleasantly close. Our ship is the nearest one. It seems to jump clean out of the water and settle back with a shudder and very nearly throws the troops off the deck. There is, however, no serious damage. We “stand to” at “action stations”.
1945 hours. Darkness: formations of enemy planes begin to come over and drop hundreds of flares over the whole convoy. The sky is literally bright with light. It seems impossible that this can be true. Gunfire is deafening. Several bombs fall on and close to ships near us. The order is given for the Oerlikon guns to ceasefire as they betray the ship’s position to the aircraft overhead. The number of enemy planes increases. There is no apparent air support for us.
On the horizon the American convoy is being severely attacked. Several ships are in flames and huge explosions can be seen and heard. Two craft close to us appear to be sinking. There are collisions in the dark. The low ships, crowded with men, are silhouetted against the water by the light of the flares. The sky is a moving network of tracer bullets. The bombing becomes more intense. We take the precaution of inflating our lifebelts. For 30 minutes the raid continues, then the planes move off, the flares die out and the ships get into orderly formation once more. Only the burning vessels to show what has happened.
9th September – D-Day
The convoy he is no longer moving. We are waiting for the final signal to commence the invasion. We have approximately two hours to wait. It is impossible to smoke either above or below decks. At 0200 hours the men are roused, adjust packs, and eat sandwiches at least four inches thick. Zero hour is 0330 hours. Our party is to land at 0400 hours. All ready for landing. The convoy begins to move forward, slowly, so that the ships do not show a wake which can be seen easily from the air. Once the course and speed are set, no deviation from this is allowed. They have to go in at all costs.
At 0245 the naval bombardment commences. We stand on the decks watching silently, first the cruisers and destroyers shell the beaches and coast. This continues throughout. Then the gunboats and finally the rocket ships let all hell loose in the most terrific and terrible sight we have ever seen. Several mines are seen to float past.
Two ships are struck, one astern of us sinking quickly. The coastline cannot be seen, it is quite dark, two huge fires are burning ashore. The Boche shore batteries and not yet knocked out. They begin to shell the foremost craft. Many shells fall around us.
The speed increases. We are going into the beaches. The excitement can almost be felt. There is no talking. We have taken up positions and move steadily, men are lined up below deck to rush up to the deck and out on the narrow ramps into the shallow water. The whole craft must be empty in 3 minutes. We prepare the balloon for transfer. The speed increases in order to drive the craft as far as possible on to the beach. The gunfire begins again.
From the bridge or sharp order rings out, the ship lurches and stops suddenly. Another order, “down ramps”, and with a clatter they drop into the water. The metal decks are noisy with the sound of metal-shod boots; the men pour ashore. Lifelines are held by two naval ratings; the water reaches to their armpits and is icy cold. Some of the shorter men almost go under. Mercifully it is calm. We wade to the shore and stagger with our sodden packs onto the beach.
As if by signal the night suddenly becomes hideous with noise. There is a continual crossfire of machine gun bullets over the whole of our section. Heavier guns further inland get the range of the beach and drop shells on the sand and in the water close by. It is staggering to the senses. A thin white tape indicates the only path.
The C.O. tries to contact the men from the other ships. Machine gun fire becomes more intense, and we are forced to flatten out and make the use of transport offloaded on the beach as protection from the fire. A number of casualties can be seen receiving such attention as can be given them under the circumstances. German 88 mm shells hit several L.C.T.s as they move out. Amazing things can be seen; shells going straight through ships, terrible explosions and all the time the ceaseless stream of tracer bullets. The machine gunners aim at the balloons, two are hit and begin to lose gas.
We move offshore and up towards our proper beach some 4 miles north of this point. One ship near us has been hit and is burning fiercely, with huge columns of smoke going up into the dawn sky. There is a shattering explosion and ammunition shoots hundreds of feet into the air. The water around is full of struggling men. The burning hulk settles and capsizes. Survivors gradually swim to the beach. Some cannot make it. We are helpless and cannot assist them. We finally reach ROGER AMBER beach and get ashore.
Flying Officer LAMBERTH goes off to find the beachmaster; it is obvious that the situation is an unexpected one. The beachmaster is contacted, he informs the C.O. we have landed on the wrong beach. This one is still largely in enemy hands. We are ordered to move off. This is not so easy as all but damaged ships have moved off with all speed. (This is hardly surprising.) There are five balloons, all personnel, and a great deal of kit. We find a small L.C.M. and get aboard. It is stuck on the sand and cannot be moved. The bullets rattle against the steel plated sides. A launch is seen and hailed. It was picking up survivors, but pulls alongside and takes us aboard, together with a dozen Germans who have surrendered to us.
Here the rest of the unit who were landed on the right beach are flying balloons at operational height. The narrow stretch of sand is mined intensively, and we see several soldiers injured by walking over them. The engineers are busy making a road of steel and network on the sand. The cruisers ORION and AJAX shell the beach we had just left and wipe out the gun batteries which have caused so much havoc. A long line of stretcher bearers carrying casualties, both German and British, moves along the beach to the dressing station. Both Germans and Italians surrender in large numbers to the men working on the beaches. Most of them are quite young and very frightened.
It is now possible to examine the damage to balloons. The bullet holes are repaired, extra gas is pushed in from ex-DEMS balloons and they are all flown at maximum operational height. By 0830 hours we have six flying. There is still a great deal of shellfire, but the barrage stands up well. The cooks prepare a rough meal, with difficulty as they have to flatten out on the sand every few minutes.
Everyone has now provided himself with a narrow slit-trench. We do not attempt to erect the bivouac tents for the time being. Assistance is urgently needed for the huge task of offloading stores from the many craft now lined up on the beaches. Every effort is made to prevent congestion on the narrow temporary road.
One of the balloon crews has not put in appearance. Nothing has been heard of the ship they were on. We are told by the beachmaster that this craft will probably come in later.
By this time we are beginning to feel the effects of immersion in water and we all look appallingly dirty. We have an air raid. It is Messerschmitts again. The bombs fall just by the water’s edge, cover us with water and wet sand. There are masses of troops now disembarking. These are all infantrymen. There are no tanks and no armour. We are mystified.
Several miles along the coast No. 5 Detachment is flying five balloons.
Our clothes are drying on us, but boots are still full of water. We make a rough camp on the beach. The C.O. makes reconnaissance of the area near the beach and visits the beach dressing station. This has been set up in the buildings of a tobacco farm close by. It is full to overflowing.
1100 hours. L.S.T.s begin to come in to the beaches. One of our vehicles arrives loaded with technical equipment and hydrogen cylinders. These are offloaded at once and placed in a roughly constructed pit on the upper level of the beach.
Reviewing the situation, it is found that one balloon was lost from the L.C.T.s when coming in to the beach and there is still no news of L.C.T. 154. Another visit to the beachmaster to enquire about this craft results in bad news. It has been sunk offshore by an enemy mine. There is no news of any survivors. Our three men are missing. The C.O. makes exhaustive enquiries in an effort to trace any man recovered from the ship. This cuts the personnel in the unit down to 17 and during the initial stages it is heavy work for them.
To conserve our supplies we begin the systematic salvage of all D.E.M.S. (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) balloons damaged or serviceable. We are now flying 7 balloons. Total losses to date 3 only. The camp begins to look a bit organised.
The enemy is still very close to the shore. Boche tanks break through and move towards the beach but are cut off by a detachment of the Greys and destroyed. Some of us render assistance in carrying stretcher cases from the beach dressing station to the empty craft on the beach ready for transfer to hospital ships.
It becomes dark and we roll into blankets feeling quite exhausted. Three times during the night we have bad air raids, but the balloon barrage prevents dive bombing of the beaches and landing craft and the Luftwaffe drops his bombs at random over the anchorage. A few ships are hit, one burns fiercely and sinks within half an hour, but there are no direct hits on the beaches. Principal danger is still from enemy machine gun bullets and the more formidable 88 mm shells. A great deal of shrapnel falls in and around the camp. There are many similar camps to ours, set up by Army, Navy and Air Force beach parties.
At midnight our three remaining vehicles disembark, and we are required to offload these immediately as they are required for troop transportation.
10th September – D+1
This task took us well into the early hours of the morning, while this was being done a terrific air raid was in progress and the enemy guns commenced to shell the beach. In spite of this the offloading was finished in record time. We now have all our equipment, the men turned in again for a few hours but did not get much sleep.
When daylight arrives we organise the hydrogen cylinders in stacks and generally straighten up. A number of bodies are washed up on the beach, the C.O. has to examine them in an effort to trace our three missing men.
The balloons are all flying well and enemy planes are deliberately avoiding the barrage. Two enemy planes are brought down in the sea. It is gratifying to find that the balloons are a success. Captain DICKINSON, the Senior Naval Officer compliments us on our success.
The C.O. is compelled to spend some time in making enquiries at the dressing stations and hospitals and in visiting the cemeteries, but without news of any kind. The second day is nearly gone. The 10th Corps has established a bridgehead, contact is made between our unit and 3 Beach Group H.Q., telephone is laid down to G.O.R. We turn in again on the beach.
11th September – D+2
The C.O. makes a reconnaissance of the area immediately behind the beach and discovers an empty house near the beach dressing station. Authority is obtained and we move in. We make use of a room in the house as a balloon store. The cylinders are split into small stacks and left on the beach. We have more raids. The A.A. barrage is formidable. The enemy planes still keep away from the barrage. This is very important today, as the beach is packed with disembarking infantrymen.
The men are delighted with their billet which provides them with a roof and cooking facilities. The routine servicing of balloons is now organised, and the unit is split up into three crews. One balloon lost, cable appears to have been hit by a shell or a splinter. It is replaced at once within half an hour. There is much activity in the BATTAPAGLIA area, less than three miles inland. The Boche retakes the town and airfield.
No. 5 Beach Balloon Detachment is unlucky. They have lost all their balloons and their gas has not arrived for replacements.
We are running out of rations and must visit the D.I.D. which is some distance in land. No. 3 Beach Group is moving into a farm tomorrow. We are unable to obtain official information regarding the situation and realise it is far from satisfactory.
12th September – D+3
During the morning our vehicle went to the new Beach Group H.Q., the whole area is under intense shell fire and numerous casualties are caused. The Boche is using heavy guns and 88mm mortars. Vehicle goes from the Beach Group H.Q. to the D.I.D. and the road is congested with traffic and is under direct fire. The C.O. walks on ahead to the D.I.D. and is advised to get his vehicle off the road. He returns across the field between and is almost hit buy an 88mm. The Beach Group H.Q. comes under direct fire and is severely damaged. We obtain rations and move away quickly, and although the road is under fire we pass through safely. Dead horses are lying in the fields. News comes through that the Beach Group H.Q. suffered several casualties.
Our H.Q. is the next to be shelled. This seems much worse to us than bombing, as once the Boche gets the range he is able to drop the shells on approximately the same spot throughout the day. An Army captain coming just by us is fatally injured together with several O.R.s. We abandon the house for the time being and take to the fields. The situation deteriorates.
The C.O. takes our vehicle and travels to the water point, which is inland, along the main road. While waiting for the lorry to turn round, he sees soldiers running towards him over the fields. He stops an N.C.O. and asks what is the trouble? They are Fusiliers and report that the Boche has broken through, and his tanks are making for the beach and are only half a mile away.
The C.O. returns with all possible speed to the Unit H.Q. and musters all personnel to man the bridge. We have only Sten guns which are useless against tanks, but we take up positions on each side of the bridge in the ditches and in the fields. Our 25-pounder guns are putting up a terrific fire just ahead. Shortly we are joined by two platoons of the Royal Engineers and the ambush is strengthened. The battle ahead of us is furious and continues. The noise is deafening.
We wait silently in the ditches by the road, a number of fast-moving vehicles and armoured cars move towards us and we wonder if they are enemy or our own. They are challenged and prove to be British and are allowed to go through. There appears to be some fighting on the road ahead of us.
Presently the firing dies down a little. The D.R. brings a signal saying that the enemy is temporarily held up. An urgent appeal is sent by the gunners for supplies of 25-pounder shells. Some of us go down to the beach to load shells from the ships to the lorries. The bridge is manned until 0 230 hours.
13th September – D+4
When further news comes that the situation is in hand, we have still seven balloons flying. It seems rather more quiet this morning, the C.O. orders another inflation increasing the barrage to 8. We have re-sited some of the balloons, moving some inland, and the barrage now provides excellent protection. Raids are still frequent, but the beaches are only hit by high altitude bombers, with little consequent damage.
Shelling begins again. They seem to be holding out in spite of constant attack by our forces. Some of the men are feeling the strain but all are otherwise fit and unharmed. Beach Group H.Q. today left the farm and returned to their original camp in the field. It is too hot for them in the farm. The long-awaited 7th Armoured Division is reported to be coming in.
The C.O. of the Beach Group holds a conference with all unit commanders. The Beach Group is to leave ROGER sector and join 21 Beach Group on SUGAR sector. The future of the barrage is undecided. Apart from the decision that this sector must have balloon barrage protection, the Americans are taking over SUGAR sector.
We construct an air raid shelter but get little sleep at night. The enemy is still very close. 21 Beach Group Petrol Dump is bombed and set on fire, causing a terrific blast, several casualties. Heavy raids in progress over the American sector.
14th September – D+5
The Navy is ordered to fire on enemy gun positions, five of the principal ships in the area draw close inshore and begin to fire shells over our heads by day and by night. The balloons begin to suffer considerably from the resultant concussion. Constant repair is necessary. Many of the balloons require a complete set of bungees replaced in one day. We maintain a barrage of eight balloons. The advanced party of the 7th Armoured Division arrives.
Together with No. 4 Beach Group, it is decided we are to remain here attached to No. 4 Beach Group. Much shipping is now coming in on the ROGER beaches. The Boche carries out frequent raids with single planes.
The men are all very fit. Our little unit is now running smoothly. The only difficulty is provided by the soft ground on the beach which has to be covered by our heavy vehicle. We still have a good reserve of balloons and gas.
The general situation is still very unsecure. The Germans drive a wedge between us and the Americans at QUEEN beach which is just South of this one. The Luftwaffe tries machine-gunning the balloons but is not very successful. Damage is repaired and they are all maintained flying. Anti-personnel mines undiscovered by the R.E.s are exploded by bomb blast. A line of these, 20 in number, goes up just outside our billet.
15th September – D+6
The changeover is affected. No. 4 Beach Group have moved in. The C.O. meets Colonel MORTIMER. There are many soldiers living in the surrounding fields. During the morning the beach is packed with men. It is a remarkable sight. Thousands of khaki-clad men crowded on the narrow strip of sand, awaiting transport to move them inland. We are glad the balloons are successful as any attack at this time would mean many casualties.
There are now many of the original naval craft here again, with these follow-up troops. Tanks and armoured cars, the first we have seen, begin to come off the L.S.T.s, a very welcome sight. Enemy activity is now slackening off. The news is more encouraging, the weather is cooler with considerable mist. We maintain a barrage of eight balloons. The C.O. has had to report our three men are missing. The nearby temporary airfields begin to function. The first Spitfires are seen. They are much better than the American Lightnings.
16th September – D+7
We are visited by the public relations officer, who takes a number of photographs of men working with balloons on the beaches. Through S.N.O.L. a signal is sent to Africa for another balloon pack-up to replace the barrage moving to Salerno. If we have to cover this double area it will make it hard work for 17 men.
17th September – D+8
Balloons have flown 24 hours a day for eight days and have done very well. Barrage of eight balloons flying.
18th September – D+9
One balloon inflated, one deflated. Still gunfire in the distance, but cruises seem to have moved danger by silencing the nearest guns.
19th September – D+10
Some bombing and shelling. Balloons in good condition. Barrage of eight flying.
20th September – D+11
Nothing of importance. All quiet. 8 balloons flying.
21st September – D+12
Trailer of gas arrives from Africa and is collected from SUGAR beach. Full cylinders offloaded and replaced by empties; we dispatch a total of 50 empty cylinders to Africa.
The Army has moved over the hills north of the plain towards the Naples plain and is having difficulties over the question of supplies. It is decided to make another landing north of the peninsula in order to relieve the situation. The C.O. receives instructions to move with this operation taking all balloons and equipment. We are to move with No. 4 Beach Group.
22nd September – D+13
Confirmation of last night’s instructions received. In the meantime, three vehicles arrived from North Africa with gas and equipment as requested. Three drivers also arrived with the vehicles and in view of the move pending these are left loaded and standing by. A conference is held and the details of the operation revealed. For U.S.A. amphibious vehicles obtained to carry balance of gas and equipment. We are to embark on L.S.T.s total of eight loaded vehicles, 20 men and 10 inflated balloons.
23rd September – D+14
We are to move today. The 4 D.U.K.W.s are loaded with gas and kit, personnel only to carry small packs and webbing. All eight vehicles and drivers departed for embarkation camp, ROGER sector, where they will embark, personnel to embark with inflated balloons from SUGAR sector. Convoy arrives safely at camp.
S.N.O.L. places an L.C.I. at the C.O.’s disposal for transferring all balloons to ships, the men are ordered down to the beach and detailed for embarkation. The detachment is split up and embarks on five L.S.T.s this is satisfactorily carried out, and the C.O. embarks on L.S.T. 418. Move completed by 1900 hours. All men very tired.
The L.S.T.s now awaiting orders to move into ROGER sector and load. No movement today. The delay provides a difficulty in the matter of topping up as no gas is available. This is all on the vehicles still ashore.
Two balloons deflated through loss of gas.
One balloon lost during the night owing to bad condition and high winds. This leaves seven. We are moving into SUGAR beach for loading. Still another balloon deflated for loss of gas, leaving 6. Swell is considerable and the beaching is unsatisfactory. Loading proves very difficult. We managed to top up the remaining balloons and have six now in good condition. High seas are running and to avoid damage to the L.S.T.s they move from the beach to the anchorage for the night.
We are going into the beach again to complete loading. There is still a high sea running. We complete this and move out again. At 2000 hours a terrific storm blows up and we are in considerable danger of breaking adrift. The winds increase to 90 miles an hour with mountainous seas. Many ships can be seen drifting hopelessly. We are narrowly missing a collision with a cruiser. The balloons break away. It is impossible to do anything to save them. The storm continues till 2100 hours. Our starboard side is stove in by a collision with an L.C.T.
Morning shows great devastation on the beaches. All balloons lost. All land balloons as far as Salerno lost also. 6 L.C.T.s are wrecked on the beach, and one L.S.T. containing the bulk of our equipment is washed stern up on the beach with heavy seas breaking right over her. Fortunately we have good reserves of gas and equipment, so can inflate full barrage on arrival. It is not possible to inflate on board ship.
Early in the morning we move off in convoy, northward along the coast, passing SALERNO and moving between CAPRI and the mainland. We are the first ship to go through this channel. As we move into the Bay of Naples, we can see fires and bombing all along the coast. VESUVIUS can be seen in the distance. We pass SORRENTO, following the swept channel. Many fires are burning ashore, shell bursts can be seen in front of VESUVIUS, and NAPLES is covered by a pall of smoke. We are not troubled by enemy aircraft; the convoy moves into CASTELLAMMARE which is our destination. This is a small coastal town with a tiny port and a suitable beach for landing supplies. We beach without incident. The enemy has already vacated the town. The usual rush takes place in disembarking. The C.O. goes in search of a billet, after organising the immediate inflation of a barrage. This is done in record time; six balloons only are inflated as it is a small area. Fires are burning in CASTELLAMMARE and the harbour is blocked by sunken ships.
1st October 1943
Balloons serviced and sited in a satisfactory manner. The C.O. is contacted by F/Lt. DODRIDGE of 977 Squadron who has arrived this morning to establish a permanent flight at CASTELLAMARE. This is satisfactory for us as we have instructions today to move on again to TORRE ANNUNCIATA under the control of S.N.O.L.Q. The move must take place tomorrow. We arrange to hand over our inflated balloons in exchange for packed ones, to facilitate easy movement in convoy. This time we move over land, all the personnel work hard until midnight reloading all equipment and gas cylinders. Some cylinders have to be left behind. The L.S.T. stranded on the beach at SUGAR sector has not turned up yet and contains all our personal kit.
Convoy of five vehicles moves off at 0740 hours. Travel over very bad road, hastily repaired by the R.E.s. Serious danger at times of vehicles turning over. After three hours arrive in TORRE ANNUNCIATA. The harbour is small but convenient for balloon protection and a circular barrage can easily be flown. The weather prevents inflation today. A billet is found and equipment is stored in the docks area.
Proceed with inflations and siting all balloons. Eight flying in record time, and deployed at regular intervals around the perimeter of the harbour. S.N.O.L. loans the unit a R.N. motor launch for transferring balloons. Our kit arrives from the stranded L.S.T. Weather is bad with rain and thunderstorms. No raids, eight balloons flying.
Nothing of importance, eight balloons flying.
Normal day. Telephone installed. Bad electric storms.
A new G.O.R. arrives in the area. Balloons flying normally.
Normal day, during the evening the C.O. is requested to visit Br. Gen. General WHEELER who is in charge of the A.A. of the whole area, to discuss the flying policy for our unit. The Brigadier demands that the balloons remain bedded at night and fly only in the daytime. Up to date we have flown 24 hours a day and this renders us virtually non-effective.
Bad thunderstorm. Two balloons destroyed by lightning, two ripped on beds by high winds on unprotected sites, two only, replaced. Remaining six still bedded. S.N.O.L. Capt. DICKINSON discovers the balloons are bedded at night and insists they fly. He accepts full responsibility for this instruction. Weather keeps the balloons down.
Another ripped on bed, high winds continue, six only inflated.
Normal day, six balloons flying.
Six balloons flying, we have reverted to 24 hour flying. S/Ldr. GARLAND of 977 Squadron visits the C.O. and instructs him to hand over equipment and M.T. as soon as possible.
Two further inflations making total of eight balloons. Very little air activity during the whole of this period.
Preparations made for move. F/Lt. DODRIDGE arrives to take over.
8 balloons flying. All equipment prepared for hand-over, uneventful day.
No. 6 Beach Balloon Detachment hand-over to “B” Flight, 977 Squadron and becomes non-operative.
Report R.A.F. Embarkation Officer, and endeavour to arrange embarkation of vehicles and cylinders.
16th – 20th October
Remain in TORRE ANNUNCIATA awaiting instructions from R.A.F. Embarkation.
Instructed report NAPLES Embarkation Office a.m. Three vehicles, all personnel and kit. Report 1130 hours. The Squadron Leader knows nothing about it. We stay overnight with 977 Squadron.
Unit moves to No. 3 Base Area H.Q., R.A.F. Transit Area. C.O. reports daily R.A.F. Embarkation NAPLES for news.
21st – 27th October
Accommodated by No. 3 Base Area H.Q., R.A.F. pending embarkation.
27th October – 9th November
Unit accommodated in own billet, still awaiting embarkation instructions.
Embarked NAPLES in L.S.T. Three vehicles, 20 men, one officer.
9th – 13th November
On board L.S.T. crossing from Italy to Africa.
Disembarked BIZERTA and proceeded in convoy to TUNIS. Obtained accommodation for the night.
Unit proceeded in convoy to 976 Squadron TRIPOLI, journey taking in all four days.
Arrive TRIPOLI, attached for accommodation and rations only, pending disposal instructions.
F/O Lamberth concluded his record by writing:
A review of the whole period indicates that when organised in this manner a beach balloon detachment, arriving with the initial assault troops on the beaches, with balloons ready inflated, does effectually provide protection for the beached craft, troops and stores on the beaches, and if equipment is carefully repaired and supplies of gas used with care, can remain effective for a considerable period. Both Army and Navy authorities reported being highly satisfied with the work of the beach detachment and were unanimous in expressing the opinion that similar detachments should be used for future operations.
From a technical point of view the equipment was in most cases satisfactory, but it is essential to have additional transport in the form of a small vehicle, we suggest a Jeep, to cover the difficult ground over which the unit has to function. Other technical details covering additions to equipment need not be dealt with here.
6 Beach Balloon Detachment was disbanded with effect from 21st November 1943.
The above account is a transcript of the Operations Record Book of No. 6 Beach Balloon Detachment (found in, ‘Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence: Operations Record Books, Miscellaneous Units’ AIR 29/58/18 at The National Archives) with some punctuation changes for better readability, and a few added notes and images.