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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

In 1944, Tom Bradbury was serving as a 22-year-old Royal Navy lieutenant in the DIDO class cruiser HMS Scylla. Having previously served for three and a half years in the Mediterranean Fleet, he had been appointed to the ship in late 1943 when it returned to refi t in Chatham Dockyard after Russian convoy duty. Now 96 years old, Tom recalls participation in D-Day, 6 June 1944.

“As a member of an almost entirely new crew, we had sailed up to Scapa Flow in January for everyone to get to know the warship. But on the way up the East Coast and whilst following a line of unlit buoys, our starboard propeller hit one of the buoys which severely reduced our speed. Although we were able to carry on to Scapa and complete our work-up, the damage required us to return to Portsmouth for repairs in dry dock before we joined the Fleet. We remained there until April.

Operation Overlord was the name given to the invasion and was originally scheduled for Monday 4 June. We were due to sail from Portsmouth on Sunday 3 June and all the ship’s captains were summoned to the Portsmouth naval headquarters to be given the operational orders. These included reams of amendments which my Captain immediately passed to me to insert into the main Op Order. HMS Scylla was to be flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, Naval Commander Eastern Task Force, and our job was to lead the landing craft towards the assault area at Ouistreham, known as Sword Beach. We were to range our guns on the church there so we could add to the bombardment of the shoreline.

However, as soon as we had sailed from Portsmouth on Sunday evening, the weather deteriorated, and the landing was postponed. Firstly, by 24 hours and then by another 24 hours. But the MET people then reckoned there was a short window in the bad weather and we were finally given the all-clear for the landing craft, which had been assembled in every conceivable location along the south coast, to head for the Normandy beaches on Wednesday morning, 6 June. Some 48 hours after the planned time. The actual landing sites were helped by a fake landing in the Calais area, including dummy paratroop drops. There was also good intelligence to show the Germans hurriedly re-positioning their forces to the proper landing area further to the west. All this helped to give us a small, but important, advantage.

Having joined up with our landing craft at a pre-arranged position, and befitting our status as an admiral’s flagship, HMS Scylla led from the front. Then, as soon as the landings were underway, we positioned ourselves to cover the expected attacks from the German E-boats based in Le Havre. Fortunately, we had been fitted with brand new radar from which we could see the E-boats as shapes leaving the jetty and coming out into the open sea to attack the task force. But, by now, we were controlling our own force of MTBs and the battle to keep the E-boats away from our ships went on for the rest of the day and all night.

We anchored sufficiently close to the coast so the MTBs, sometimes six at a time, could safely come alongside and allow the crews sufficient time to prepare for the next night’s action. Those crew members who had been killed in action were taken off their ships and buried at sea by us later in the day. In our role as ‘mother ship’ for the MTBs, we carried replacement crew members. All this soon became an established routine and was successful in keeping our ships safe from attack from E-boats. It also allowed the continued arrival of more and more ships with troops, equipment, supplies and ammunition as the invasion gathered momentum and the landings continued.

After about three weeks, we were moving out one evening to take up our position facing Le Havre when we ran over a mine laid by a German aircraft. There was an enormous explosion and we were, literally, blown up causing our main propulsion turbines to shatter. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, but the ship was irretrievably damaged and never again sailed under her own power. We were towed back to Portsmouth where the crew was taken off to man other ships. Our Captain, as required by the naval discipline act, was court-martialed for losing his ship although, thankfully, acquitted. I was one of his defendants. The original plan after D-Day had been for HMS Scylla to cover the expected landings in the South of France but, of course, this never happened’’.

By the end of D-Day, over 130,000 men had been transported from England and landed on the Normandy beaches in one lift. This astonishing display of seapower was a tribute to the seamanship, fighting spirit and skill of the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, United Sates Navy and Merchant Navy who, with ships of other Allied nations, put into effect Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay’s master plan. Tom Bradbury went on to reach the rank of Rear Admiral and retired from the Royal Navy in August 1979, having served a total of over 39 years.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - November 2019 Issue
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