~ COMBINED OPERATIONS EXPLAINED ~
After you've read this page
you should know why Churchill set up the Combined Operations Command, the
duties and responsibilities he bestowed upon it and some of its
Beyond this page there are
over 100 individual stories from the crew members of landing craft, the
troops they carried to the landing beaches, Commandos, seaborne radar
specialists, pilots and many more, on such diverse subjects as raids and landings, joint training exercises, Mulberry Harbours,
PLUTO fuel pipelines under the English Channel, Hobart's "Funnies" tank
adaptations for beach clearance work, and even experiments with
ice ships! [Photo;
Normandy, 60th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6 2004. A US veteran explains
to young people the part he played in the D-Day landings.]
War with Germany was declared on the 3rd of November 1939 but fighting
between the opposing land forces did not start in the west until the following
May. As part of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the British Army joined forces
with their French counterparts to prepare defensive positions along the
The Germans attacked on the 10th of May
using a new, aggressive form of warfare called Blitzkrieg (lightening war). This
involved the coordinated use of very mobile ground forces with close quarter air
support, for which the Allies were ill prepared to resist. Over the ensuing weeks
they retreated into a small area around the French Channel port of Dunkirk in
Northern France. There was no prospect of an orderly withdrawal back to the UK, so countless
lorries, tanks, heavy guns, stores and ammunition were destroyed and abandoned.
Over 300,000 men were later rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk on an armada
of small boats and returned safely to the UK. The evacuation was a great achievement, but Churchill and his military advisers knew it
would take years to re-equip and train an invasion force that could seriously
challenge the might of the enemy… and the next time they would need to invade
from the sea onto landing beaches. Thousands of shallow draft craft of many types would,
therefore, be needed but they had yet to be designed and manufactured and their
future crews recruited and trained in seamanship, craft control and amphibious
warfare. It was a
daunting task on an epic scale.
The need was urgent and Churchill wasted no time. On June 4th 1940, just
hours after the evacuation at Dunkirk came to an end, he ordered the Chiefs of
Staff (Army, Navy and Air Force) to set up what became the Combined Operations
Command. The Command would concentrate solely on offensive operations against
the enemy and not to be distracted by defensive considerations.
These were anxious times since the country was very vulnerable to invasion.
The defence of the country fell to the Royal Navy, RAF, Bomber Command, Coastal Command, the
Observer Corps, the Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers, Civil Defence etc.,
leaving the Combined Operations Command, as Churchill had ordered, to focus on
From the outset, senior ranks recruited to the Combined Operations Command,
realised the Command's ethos was a unique blend of best practices from the Army,
Navy and RAF. This avoided endless arguments about protocols and procedures and
paved the way for blue sky thinking unencumbered by the "we did it this way"
However, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. The Chiefs of Staff did not like
"the new boy on the block", particularly its Commander, Roger Keyes and for a
good year, tensions ran high. To restore harmony,
Churchill replaced Keyes with a younger naval officer with a highly developed sense of
diplomacy. Lord Louis Mountbatten took over from Admiral
of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes, in October 1941.
It would take years to equip and train a full scale invasion force but
Churchill ordered the Command to establish a lightly equipped fast reaction
force to undertook small
raids along the coasts of enemy occupied countries with friendly populations.
The early raids were undertaken by the Small Scale Raiding
Force and later by the newly formed Commando units, most of which comprised
around 500 officers and men. Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes played a vital
role in the formation of the Commandos and his son, Geoffrey, was killed on a
Commando raid to capture Rommel.
The first of these raids took place on the Channel Islands and Norway,
followed by others in France as far south as Bordeaux. The enemy never knew
where, or when, attacks would happen, forcing them to commit far more troops to
vulnerable coastal areas than would otherwise have been necessary. This took
a little pressure off the Russians who were, by June 1941, fighting the
Germans on the Eastern Front. Successful raids also provided morale boosting
stories for the armed services and the country at large at a time when the tide
of war was with the enemy.
The Ministry of Information's 144 page booklet 'Combined
Operations 1940 -1942'
published by HMSO is a good
example of this. [Copies available on line from the Advance Book Exchange (ABE)
for a few pounds including postage.
Click here for ABE link].
Dozens of Commando raids were undertaken in the ensuing years
(see Raids and Landings Index), but
throughout this period the Combined Operations Command's main effort was to
train the 3 services to work together for large scale amphibious invasions of occupied
The Command ran a vast training programme in the use of landing craft for
major landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy
(D-Day), Southern France and Walcheren in Holland. In each case there were no friendly ports to disembark the many
thousands of troops, their transport, tanks, big mobile guns, ammunition, food,
medical services, fuel, reinforcements and general supplies. All ports suitable
for Allied use were heavily garrisoned by the enemy and set to be blown up in
the event of the Allies taking control. Everything required to supply and equip the invading force had,
therefore, to be landed
on beaches in specially designed shallow draft, flat bottomed boats of which
there were around 40
types to meet all requirements. Thousands of Royal Navy Volunteer
Reserve personnel were recruited and trained to man the craft including
seamanship. Not surprisingly, they proved to be more difficult to manoeuvre than
conventional keeled craft.
Throughout the four years from June 1940 to June 1944, each of the three
services undertook their own training programmes to keep their personnel fit and
skilled in their particular aspect of warfare. The Combined Operations Command
added another layer of training, where these respective skills were brought
together to form a unified fighting force. A good football team does not only
need eleven fit and skilled players but players who work together as a team to
defeat the opposition. "United We Conquer" applies in any team activity.
When the RNVR crews reached an acceptable standard in seamanship and craft
control, they undertook joint training exercises with Army units in places like
Loch Fyne in the west of Scotland. Here, the Army and Navy learned to work
together, embarking troops, sailing in convoy in open waters and landing on
"enemy" beaches… procedures repeated over and over until they became second
nature. In a similar fashion, larger landing craft embarked and disembarked
lorries, tanks, fuel, munitions and stores while specialist craft, such as those
designed for firing rocket bombs, spigot bombs and anti-aircraft shells, honed
their skills in less busy waters.
Near the end of each 6 week training courses, 516 Squadron from RAF Dundonald
in Ayrshire, provided smoke cover, dropped small bombs on the landing beaches
and strafed the beaches with machine gun fire. On the ground, mortars were fired
onto the beaches, all to provide the landing craft crews and the assault troops
they carried, with a good sense of what to expect when they landed on enemy held
beaches. Deaths and serious injury did occur occasionally during these realistic training
The Combined Training Centre’s administrative and training staff formed the
core of the training operation but amongst the landing craft crews and the
troops they carried, there was a constant turnover as they made way for others
on completion of their own training courses. Further training then continued in many different locations throughout the UK, and by
this means, our armed forces became ready to embark upon the largest amphibious
invasion in history – D-Day, June 6th 1944.
The print below was taken from a painting by military artist, David Thorp. It
depicts the initial assault phase of the invasion at the height of opposition
from the enemy. Further down this page, action points are explained by means of
a numbered version of the painting. The legend below the painting reads;
* COMBINED OPERATIONS – A NORMANDY BEACHHEAD *
Normandy, early D-Day
morning, June 6 1944. The co-ordinated sea, land and air operation to
establish a beachhead from which to liberate Europe was gaining momentum,
but the beaches and their approaches remained extremely hazardous.
The painting measures 750 mm by 550 mm and is set on the eastern flank of Sword
beach early on D-Day morning between Riva Bella (Ouistreham) and Lion sur Mer.
It does not portray a particular event but all the actions described did take
place in the area over the space of a few hours. With the skill of the artist
they are brought together in a seamless montage which is fully explained in a
monochrome copy of the painting that bears a numbered
legend with links to descriptions of the most significant elements.
It is impossible in a single painting to show the
vast extent of Operation Neptune, the amphibious part of Operation Overlord,
since its 5 landing beaches stretched around 50 miles (80k) to the west of Lion
sur Mer. While British and Canadian forces were attacking Gold, Juno and Sword
beaches, American forces faced major challenges of their own on Omaha and Utah
beaches, the former because of the strength of German defences and cliffs at
either end of the landing area and Utah because of the terrain inland of the
beaches that favoured the defenders. The landscape was a maze of narrow lanes
bordered by thick hedgerows and embankments. Although the painting, of
necessity, concentrates on a small area of one beach the painting honours the
memory of all land, sea and air forces from the UK, USA, Canada and all who
served the Allied cause.
Six days after the events described in the
painting, Churchill and his military advisers visited the Sword, Juno and Gold
beaches. On returning to Downing Street Churchill sent a signal to Mountbatten,
by then in Burma. It readily acknowledged the vital role he and Combined
Operations had played in the operation and expressed the Nation's gratitude. David
Thorp's painting captures the essence of what Churchill described as "this
Today we visited the British and American Armies on the soil of France. We
sailed through vast fleets of ships with landing-craft of many types pouring
more men, vehicles and stores ashore. We saw clearly the manoeuvre in progress
of rapid development. We have shared our secrets in common and helped each other
all we could. We wish to tell you at this moment in your arduous campaign that
we realise how much of this remarkable technique and therefore the success of
the venture has its origin in developments effected by you and your staff of
(Signed) Arnold, Brooke, Churchill, King,
The painting depicts a landing on Sword beach between 7.30 am and 8.30 am (5.30 am
to 6.30 am local time), an hour or so after the first assault troops ducked and
dived as they tenaciously fought their way up the Normandy beaches that D-Day
The German defences are still holding out and the beach and its approaches
are extremely hazardous as the lines of machine gun bullets striking the water,
the huge explosion out to sea, the stretcher bearers going about their
life-saving work and the blood stained water lapping the shore all testify. It
was not a place to tarry unless your name was Bill Millin who, against HQ
orders, piped Lord Lovat and his No 4 Commandos off their landing craft and then
proceeded to march up and down the beach to the tune of "The Road to the Isles."
The Germans could easily have shot Millin dead but they had no wish to kill
someone who had clearly lost his mind!
There were five landing beaches, Sword being the most easterly, with Juno, Gold,
Omaha and Utah stretching out to the west for a distance of around 50 miles
(80k). On D-Day alone, around 6000 vessels crossed the Channel and over 150,000
men with their supplies and equipment were transported to Normandy. Around 800
RAF and USAF bombers dropped their payloads on selected targets inland of the
beach areas and 13,000 paratroops were dropped behind enemy lines. All the while,
Allied fighters patrolled the skies in support of the invading force and to
harass the enemy.
Click on the numbers for an explanation of the key events and actions or just
scroll down the page and let the story unfold. [Print
Friendly Version of Text.
Print Friendly Copy of Numbered Painting].
This was the largest Combined Operation in history
and is unlikely to be surpassed or repeated because of changes in the conduct of
war since WW2. The objective was to land assault troops with their supplies and
equipment in pre-planned designated places at the right time and in sufficient
numbers to overwhelm the enemy. All other activity on land, sea and in the air,
was in support of this.
Because of the landing craft
chosen to appear in this painting, the honour of representing the hundreds of
thousands of Allied troops which landed on the Normandy beaches fell to
the men of the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment of the 8th
Infantry Brigade of the 3rd British Division and the Royal Marines.
The assault infantry are moving
off the landing beach supported by a Bren Gun carrier 
while a colour sergeant is holding aloft the battle flag 
of the regiment. To carry the flag was neither expected nor required by
regulations because of the risk of attracting the attention of snipers. Whatever
motivated the colour sergeant that day, his action was unselfish and courageous
and no doubt promoted a spirit of camaraderie amongst the troops of the EYR.
At the water’s edge
further infantry are dashing ashore from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault), small
flat bottomed craft with a capacity to carry about 36 troops. They had been
lowered from the troopship SS Empire Battleaxe
earlier that morning. Nearby, a Sherman tank 
momentarily takes up a position in support of the landing troops before leaving
the beach area. Meanwhile, more LCAs 
from the ship are making their way to the beach. She carried in her davits the
18 craft of 537 LCA Flotilla each with a crew of 4 and space for 36 assault
troops - a total of around 650 men on each full deployment of the craft. Her
total capacity was 1195 fully equipped men. The Empire Battleaxe and many
others ships destined for Sword beach that morning, set out from Spithead the
previous evening arriving at their planned position at 5.30 hrs, two hours
before H Hour.
This was the time of the initial assault landings
for a particular beach, which varied according to the progress of
the tide along the Normandy coast.
At the appointed time the Empire Battleaxe lowered her LCAs into the water much as a modern ship
would lower her lifeboats during an emergency at sea.
The build-up of troops and equipment was
relentless and awe inspiring as LCAs 770, 429 and 778 
poured more troops onto the landing beach. Progress was made but at considerable
cost in lives.
Further east along the
water's edge, lie the bodies of men 
caught in a hail of gunfire as they landed. The bodies of others, who drowned or
were fatally wounded before they reached the landing beach, are washing back and
forth with the tide. No beach was free of such gory images and in places the sea
turned red. The wounded on the beach are receiving attention from regimental
medics  as a
chaplain kneels in prayer over a man close to death. Stretcher bearers 
are transporting casualties to the relative safety of cover provided by an
embankment and parked vehicles.
Lancaster bombers 
are making their way inland from the beaches to bomb heavy gun emplacements,
enemy strong-points, fuel and ammunition dumps, troop concentrations, radar and
communications facilities and HQ buildings; mostly targets in support of the
advancing land forces. In the run up to D-Day their primary purpose had been to
destroy rail and road routes into Normandy to delay the arrival of enemy
reinforcements, although their area of operation was more extensive than
necessary to confuse the enemy. In this way the Allied plans for the invasion of
Normandy were not compromised. After D-Day, the
heavy bombers increasingly returned to operations
against strategic targets with the exception of the largest fixed defensive
installations that impeded the Allied advance in the battle grounds.
Air cover was provided by the RAF and USAF. The patrolling Spitfire 
is one of hundreds of Allied fighter aircraft of many types that took to the air
that day. Once the beachhead had been secured and the Allied Armies had moved
inland, fighters operated in support of the troops using the 'cab rank'
arrangement described below. As it happened, the Luftwaffe were conspicuously
absent for much of D-Day and when they finally made an appearance, they were very
few in number.
The versatile Mosquito light/medium bomber 
was used in many different roles. Here, it is responding to a request from the
advancing troops for support to clear an enemy strong point, successfully
avoiding the flashes of anti-aircraft flak in the process. Later, when Army and
RAF "Forward Air Controllers" were operating on, or near, the front line with RAF
radio equipment, requests for air support were channelled through them. 'Mossies'
were called upon so regularly that they circled in the forward areas like taxi
cabs cruising for a fare to allow them to respond very quickly to any request
Barrage Balloons 
were attached to many craft to deter low level strafing and bombing attacks by
enemy planes. Although not clearly visible in the painting, the tethering cables
were lethal obstacles to low flying aircraft. However, not everyone aboard the
landing craft felt they were a power for good. Some believed the balloons could
be used by enemy observers to pin-point the location of their craft thereby
increasing the accuracy of the enemy's fire.
On the horizon far out to sea 
battleships, cruisers and destroyers had completed their shelling of the beach
area but they remained on station to shell predetermined targets inland of the
beaches or specific targets identified by observers and the advancing troops.
LCT(R)s (Landing Craft Tank Rocket) had fired salvos of rocket propelled bombs
onto the landing beaches in advance of the assault troops to soften up the enemy
defences and salvos of spigot bombs had been fired from LCA(HR)s (Landing Craft
Assault Hedgerow). Hedgerow was the code for spigot bombs launched in salvos
while fairly close to the shoreline onto the landing beaches. The pressure wave
they created detonated mines blocking exit routes from the beaches.
HQ ships of many types also occupied
these waters at varying distances as they received information on the progress
of the invasion and intelligence on enemy activity. Much of the information came
from the three Fighter Direction Tenders, converted LSTs
(Landing Ship Tanks). These craft were close to 400 ft long and normally carried
heavy tanks and large lorries. However, instead
the above deck area of the FDTs bristled with radio aerials and rotating
radar gantries. The main HQ ship off Sword, HMS Largs, used the
information from the FDTs to call on the support of the RAF and the Navy's big
guns while the smaller HQ craft controlled the flow of landing craft to and from
the beaches according to need and priorities .
The 2nd East
Yorkshires were supported by ‘swimming tanks’, more properly called DD or Duplex
Drive tanks .
They were Sherman tanks of ‘B’ Squadron of the 13th/18th
Hussars of the 27th Armoured Brigade carried by Mk3 LCTs of the 14th
LCT Flotilla of E Squadron Landing Craft under the command of Acting Commander
Kenneth Sellar RN. Prior to launching, their floatation skirts were raised and
secured in place to provide sufficient buoyancy for the tanks to ‘swim’ ashore
under their own power transmitted through two propellers. They were launched
about 5000 metres from shore and on reaching the beach the propeller mechanism
was detached and the tank proceeded along the beach in the
LCT(A) 2433 
was part of the 100th LCT(A)(HE) Flotilla (Landing Craft Tank High
These were tank carriers adapted to allow the leading tanks to fire onto the
beaches on the approach. She was hit by an errant rocket
fired from a LCT(R) further out to sea. 2433's bow door sustained damage but she
still managed to successfully unload her cargo and withdraw from the beach. One
DD tank was sunk after being rammed by an LCT while those on LCT 467 were landed
directly onto the beach after the leading tank damaged its flotation skirt and
could not be launched.
The Mk 5 LCT(A)
(Landing Craft Tank Assault) 2052 
and 2191 
were built in the USA and crewed by the Royal Navy. The could carry a couple of
heavy tanks and field guns that were mounted on the bow to fire on the enemy as
they approached the beach. They were also part of the 100th LCT(A)(HE)
Flotilla of Assault Group S3 Support Squadron out of Portsmouth. There were
originally 8 craft in the Flotilla but only 6 reached their destination,
including 2052 and 2191, the other two having broken down. They were
transporting the 5th Independent Battery of the Royal Marine Armoured
Support Group with their Centaur and Sherman tanks. Both LCTs received direct
hits from an enemy mobile 88mm gun and became total losses. Fortunately, in both
cases their tanks had already been off-loaded.
LCT(A) 2191 lost half
her crew with others severely wounded. LCT(A) 2052 did not fair much better.
Their coxswain was killed at his station in the wheelhouse and other crew
members were severely wounded. The dead from both craft are buried in Hermanville cemetery. Full story here.
Mk4 LCT 947 (Mk 4
Landing Craft Tank) 
was the mainstay of the Royal Navy in ferrying troops, tanks, lorries and
supplies from the UK to the landing beaches. Over 800 were built. 947 led the 45th
Craft Tank Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers). They were LCTs
adapted to carry Hobart's
"Funnies", tanks adapted for beach clearance work.
Only one tank managed to disembark LCT 947 that morning.
The second tank in line
carried Commander Royal Engineers, Lt Col ADB Cocks. As the tank moved forward
the LCT took three direct hits in her bows. The tank lurched sideways and
stopped in its tracks blocking the exit. Despite frantic efforts by engineers
and the forecastle party, it proved impossible to move the tank out of the way
so the remaining tanks on board could not disembark. A greater explosion soon
followed when pipes packed with dynamite on board a neighbouring AVRE 'Carpet–Layer'(k),
exploded. The blast killed Lt Col Cocks and the tank commander. Despite the
damage, LCT 947 turned about and returned to England with most of her original
cargo and the bodies of the men who had been killed aboard that morning.
LCI(S) 519 
Landing Craft Infantry (Small) could carry up to 96 fully equipped troops.
519 was ‘Leader’ of the 200th LCI(S) Flotilla out of Warsash on the
River Hamble. She carried the 200th Flotilla Officer, Lt Commander
Rupert Curtis and Commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade.
Amongst them were the Commanding Officer of No 4 Commando, Brigadier Lord Simon
Lovat and his piper Bill Millin.
Both of them waded ashore, Millin wearing his kilt and playing the bagpipes and
Lord Lovat wearing a ‘Tam o' Shanter’, a Scottish bonnet, often tartan with a
pom pom at its centre, with his white Commando sweater under his battledress
tunic, although, on the day, his tunic would, undoubtedly, have been fastened!
Another craft of the 200th
LCI(S) Flotilla was the LCI(S) 524. 
She had beached under fire and took casualties after landing her Commandos.
Having successfully withdrawn from the beach she received a direct hit in her
high octane tanks. The craft disintegrated and the fuel ignited setting the sea
ablaze. Survivors struggling in the sea were picked up by a US Navy coastguard
cutter but despite this 8 members of her crew were lost.
Also in view are LCI(S) 506 
and nearby LCI(S) 531 lying on her side. Although originally part of the 201st
Flotilla these craft were assigned to the 200th LCI(S) Flotilla on D-Day. 506
was badly damaged but managed to take off the crew of LCI(S) 531 which was
At the rear of LCT(A)
2433 is the American built LCI(L) 269
(Landing Craft Infantry Large). It could carry 190 troops below deck with
room for 50 more above deck when the weather permitted. She was fitted
with communications and radar equipment and re-designated LCH 269 (Landing Craft
Headquarters). Her role during the assault was to direct the flow of
landing craft to and from Queen Red beach.
Because of their
considerable experience of recovering downed pilots and air crew, particularly
from the waters around the south coast of England, the RAF Search and Rescue
Launch 2687 
patrols off the beach in search of men in the water.
The beaches were heavily
defended by gun emplacements, pill boxes and beach obstacles, the latter
designed to obstruct and impede the progress of landing craft as they approached
their predetermined landing areas or, in the case of those obstacles primed with
powerful mines, to destroy or disable the craft. Other obstacles placed above
the waterline had a similar purpose but were aimed at tanks and other mechanised
vehicles and the assault troops. An armoured bulldozer 
is clearing an area of the beach of
The Royal Marine sniper 
may well have had a German officer in his sights whose elimination would add to
the confusion and bewilderment spreading amongst the German troops defending the
landing area. The Royal Marines were reputed to be amongst the best of snipers
since they had a tradition of sniping from the cross trees of sailing ships
centuries before. They had continued with sniper training when most warring
nations abandoned it during periods of peace.
Makeshift signs 
to warn of mine fields and other hard to see dangers were hastily erected. The
skull and crossbones captured the attention of passing troops and vehicle
drivers, while the direction and distance of the danger, scrawled underneath,
provided the vital information they needed, in this case about mines.
There are around 300 books listed on
our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any
other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the
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WW2 Combined Operation
D-Day Assault Convoy G6
Grateful thanks to David Thorp for donating his painting and giving his
consent to produce prints in aid of the Combined Operations Memorial Fund and to
Tony Chapman, erstwhile archivist and historian of the LST and Landing Craft
Association for his advice on the content of the painting.