The Battle for Port-en-Bessin
The commando embarked on 3 June 1944 and left the Solent in two mother ships on 5 June.
6th June 1944
At 5am on 6 June, eight miles off the Normandy coast, we were loaded into 14 Landing Craft Assault (LCA) - each carrying 30 marines and headed for Gold Beach. Soon the big guns at Le Hamel and at Longues had the range of the approaching LCAs.
Far out from the shore one LCA was hit and sank: 12 of the marines were killed or drowned, 11 were seriously injured but reached the shore. As the other LCAs moved in they had to cross a wide band of obstacles constructed from steel girders, many of which were tipped with mines. Unfortunately, the state of the tide was such that many of the obstacles were just covered as 47 RM Commando moved in and the LCAs passing over them were in great danger of being impaled on a steel girder and exploding a mine. Four of the other LCAs were impaled in this way and sank. Some of the occupants were killed.
Of the remaining nine LCAs, seven were damaged and only two were able to return to the mother ships. The orders were that incoming craft were not to stop to rescue men in the water as this would delay and disrupt the invasion landing schedules. As a consequence, wounded men would have had to struggle in the water and in their wounded state some drowned. Others were caught in a coastal current which swept them far from the landing beach.
Mustering on the beach the commando had already lost 28 killed or drowned, 21 wounded and 27 missing. In these sinkings many weapons and much other equipment, such as wireless sets, had been lost. Reduced to 340 men the commando, under fire, now penetrated the enemy front line and embarked on a 12-mile march through enemy-held territory behind the German front line towards its objective, Port-en-Bessin. The importance of this port was that it was required as the Normandy terminal of PLUTO (the Pipe Line Under The Ocean) which ran from the Isle of Wight to France and was intended to supply a large proportion of the petrol which would sustain the 21st Army Group.
One man was killed and 11 wounded during the march as several enemy positions were overcome. In these encounters some of the commando’s lost weaponry was made good by the capture of German arms.
The commando stopped for the night on a hill at Escures, a mile from Port-en-Bessin, and commenced its assault task the next day.
7th June 1944
The port’s outer defences consisted of an entrenched and concreted position (the Weapon Pits) just south of the port on the Bayeux Road, but the main defences were two heavily defended positions on the Western and Eastern Features, each rising to 200 feet on either side of the harbour, and the harbour area itself.
The defensive position on the Bayeux Road was charged and quickly overcome and its occupants captured. One troop was then detailed to attack the Western Feature. As the marines moved up the open slope of the Feature, rifle and machine-gun fire was directed at them and grenades thrown down on them. The slope was also mined and had a few hidden flame throwers. Using their field-craft to good effect, the marines had advanced more than halfway up the slope when disaster struck. The intelligence given to the commando was that the harbour was empty of any armed ships, but just before D-Day, and unknown to the commando, two FLAK had moved into the harbour. They had a direct view of the marines on the slope. Opening fire they killed 12 and wounded 17 - more than half the troop - within a few minutes. The troop had to withdraw.
This disaster was further compounded when the commando’s rear HQ was over-run and some of its members killed, wounded or captured. An enemy counter-attack across the Escures to Port-en-Bessin Road cut off the troop left to defend Escures. The commando’s strength in the port was now down to 280, many of them wounded.
The enemy defences in the harbour area consisted of dispersed strong points. The marines, in the open, had now to attack heavily defended buildings. Gradually the harbour area was cleared but casualties were continuing to rise, the FLAK ships were still a threat, ammunition was running low, the marines were tiring and the Eastern Feature, as well as the Western Feature, were unconquered. The commando was now in a parlous position. The battle was going very badly.
At this point, a reconnaissance of the Eastern Feature revealed a possible route of attack. With darkness falling Captain Cousins, the commanding officer of one of the troops, led a small group of four officers and 25 men in a desperate assault on the Feature. With the enemy positions above them they first encountered a major concrete bunker which Cousins, with four men, rushed. Cousins was killed by a grenade and the men accompanying him wounded, but the bunker was captured.
The group, outnumbered four to one by the enemy, then fought their way up the Feature against the concrete, entrenched, mine and barbed wire defences above them. Their determination prevailed. One enemy position after another was captured and before the night was out the whole of the Eastern Feature was in the commando’s hands. Although the defenders were from a top class German division (the same one the Americans encountered at Omaha), their morale had been weakened. The next day the commando over-ran the Western Feature and re-occupied Escures.
In the whole operation there were 116 casualties, 48 killed or drowned and 70 wounded.
General Sir Brian Horrocks, commander of the British 30th Corps in Normandy, wrote of 47 Royal Marine Commando’s capture of Port-en-Bessin: ‘It is doubtful whether, in their long, distinguished history, the marines have ever achieved anything finer.'
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, historian and Director General of the British Political Warfare Executive during World War Two, described 47 RM Commando’s performance as: ‘The most spectacular of all commando exploits during the actual invasion.’
And the military historian, Major General Julian Thompson, wrote: 'In my opinion the operation by 47 RM Commando at Port-en-Bessin was one of the great feats of arms of any unit, Royal Marines, Army, Navy or Air Force of any nation in the Second World War’.