The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 9 No 5 - June 1994

(incorporating Museum Review)

The experience of a young South African as recorded in his Midshipman's Journal

C Lawton and B Thomas

Lt Cdr N C D Lawton, RN (Ret'd) was born in the Transvaal, a fifth generation South African. In 1931, following the death of his father, the family moved to England where, in March 1939, Lawton took the entrance examination at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth. His application was successful and in May 1939 he joined the College as a Naval Cadet at the age of 13, passing out in December 1942 when he was appointed midshipman and joined the battleship HMS Nelson in the Western Mediterranean in February 1943. HMS Nelson, the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Willis, took part in the invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943 and subsequently the Allied landing at Salerno on 9 September 1943.

On 3 May 1944, Lawton joined the destroyer, HMS Serapis, which took part in the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. It was a requirement of a midshipman to record daily events and experiences in his Midshipman's Journal, which was then examined periodically and marked, to be taken into consideration in examination for promotion to the rank of sub-lieutenant. An extract from Colin Lawton's Midshipman's Journal, dealing with his experiences on 'D' Day, is recorded below:


A midshipman's eye witness account

Sunday, 4 June 1944:
On Sunday, the atmosphere of suspense was lifted. In the morning, all the officers were briefed by the captain and the invasion plans revealed to us. Five landings were to be made on beaches between the eastern heel of the Cherbourg peninsula and the estuary of the River Orne near Ouistreham. The two westernmost beaches, OMAHA and UTAH, were to be secured by the Americans while the other three beaches, GOLD, JUNO and SWORD, were to be secured by British and Canadian forces. Serapis was firstly to escort fleet minesweepers to a point some miles off the French coast and then to escort BYMMS to the area SWORD and the easternmost beach in front of Ouistreham. There we were to give the army close support during the landings.

We were to have sailed during the afternoon, but "D" Day had been postponed twenty-four hours as a result of the weather. We therefore expected to sail on Monday afternoon. The ship's company was briefed during the afternoon and it was with mixed feelings that we awaited the word to sail.

Monday, 5 June 1944:
The word was passed the next day and during the latter part of the afternoon on Monday we weighed and, with Scourge, proceeded through a mass of shipping out past Spithead where we joined the flotilla of fleet minesweepers we were to escort. Everywhere, the invasion armadas were forming up, but soon we left them far behind. Slowly, the Isle of Wight disappeared from view.

Through the night, we steamed south, following behind our minesweepers at seven knots - the wind was fresh from the west and showed no signs of decreasing. The sea was moderate and, although we hardly noticed it, I think that the smaller landing craft found it troublesome.

Tuesday, 6 June:
The night was silent except for the swishing of the water and an occasional splash as the danlayers ahead of us dropped a buoy over the side to mark the swept channel. By 03:30 we had reached a position some eight miles (13 km) off shore and we waited there for two hours until some smaller "sweepers", BYMMS, arrived to take us to our bombarding positions.

Although the night was fairly cloudy, a full moon made visibility good and during our wait we were able to watch all kinds of craft move slowly up past us. Away to the right was Cherbourg and to the left, Le Havre. At intervals between these two places the night was lit up by tracer green and yellow flares and the flashes of gunfire as the Germans strove to drive off hundreds of aircraft raining bombs on their defences. Behind all this, our paratroops were landing in thousands to disrupt communications, destroy bridges, knock out shore batteries and hold key points.

Just before we moved forward again, the dim outlines of two battleships and a monitor could be seen moving silently towards the coast. At 05:00 they opened fire at the flanking batteries near Le Havre.

A quarter past five and the time had come - with a dozen other destroyers and innumerable small craft, preceded by the BYMMS, we closed the shore. The first signs of dawn were already in the sky and the faint outline of the French coast was soon visible; a thin grey strip, so inoffensive in appearance, but held by an unscrupulous enemy.

"D" DAY, 6 June 1944

Suddenly the ship shuddered - there had been an underwater explosion somewhere - and looking out to port we could see a destroyer stopped about a mile on our beam. Smoke and steam were rising from her in a great cloud. Several ships were standing by her and, as we watched, her back broke, the centre of the ship sinking, while the two ends rose into the air to form a colossal "V". It was an awe-inspiring sight and the air was now full of tension. Our attention was distracted by the three destroyers next to us going full ahead. They had just received a signal "torpedoes approaching". We promptly followed them, but no torpedoes were seen. Although we could not distinguish her pennants at the time, the unlucky destroyer proved to be Svenner, the first of our flotilla to be lost.

Still the great armada bore on irresistibly towards the coast. The battleships were firing spasmodically at the eastern end of the bay, but visibility was poor and made observation difficult.

Soon after 06:00 the "lowering positions" were reached where the large transports stopped to drop off their small landing craft. We were now five miles (8 km) off the shore, but there was no sign of the enemy; only an occasional tracer spurting upwards at an odd bomber and the sound of gunfire to the east.

We passed the transports and, in single line, some eight destroyers continued slowly towards the beach which was now easily visible; a long strip of yellow sand behind which rose rows of houses all along the front of the little town of Ouistreham. We were now only three miles (5 km) off those sinister dunes, but no flashes of gunfire came from them. Either they were holding their fire or our bombers had knocked out their batteries; we did not know, but waited in a state of tension. One or two cruisers had turned their attention to our particular beach and we could see the shells bursting, some just short of the beach, some on it and others amongst the houses behind.

By 07:00, the LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank) were passing us and slowly moving forward to the northern shore of France - the moment the world had been waiting for had come at last. It was now our duty to fire as many shells as possible at the pill-boxes and beach defence positions during the thirty-five minutes before "H" Hour. The roar of gunfire was shattering non-stop, every ship around us was firing, broadside after broadside thundered along the line - it was devastating. More LCTs were coming up and we cheered them on as they passed us.

At 07:15, the heavy American bombers came over, too high for us to see, but we could hear their solid drone as they passed over the beach in their formations. Suddenly, a corner of the beach became a flickering mass, little spurts of flame springing up all along the ground and, before we realised what had happened, the air was split with the roar and thunder of falling bombs. This was precision bombing. Again and again it happened, the earth quivering as the ripple of flashes appeared concentrated in such a small area. How anything could have lived through this ordeal was beyond conception. Five minutes to zero hour - still the bombers came and still the bombardment continued. There was now so much smoke on the beach it was difficult to see and the air was full of the pungent smell of cordite. A new, awesome sight attracted our attention - rocket ships which were lying about a mile offshore had opened fire. Like streaks of red flame, the rockets shot upwards in groups of twenty, only to disappear into the cloud of smoke which enveloped the beach. Our own gunfire seemed pathetic in the face of those terrible weapons; it was a sight that can never have been equalled. The whole area seemed alive with flame and drifting smoke.

07:35! "H" Hour had come at last. The first amphibious tanks were touching down and struggling through numerous obstacles on the beach. About thirty craft were in the first wave with further waves coming at short intervals. Tanks and bulldozers landed first, then men and more men.

The bombing was over, but we still carried on bombarding whenever we saw a target. The smoke was clearing now and we could see the shattered houses along the front, although here and there some were almost untouched. Our rate of fire was reduced now as we had to conserve ammunition, having already used up some thirty per cent of it.

At first, it seemed that very little was happening on the beach; we could see LCTs going in and tanks moving across the sand, otherwise the enemy seemed stunned by the previous hour. Then one or two splashes could be seen among our landing craft. At first, just odd shots, then more regular salvos further out among the destroyers and ships lying off shore. The enemy was beginning to recover; other batteries near Le Havre opened fire and a duel was fought between these batteries and Warspite. Then escorting destroyers laid protective smoke screens, but this fire on the flank was not yet very menacing.

As the morning wore on, the fighting ashore increased. The beach was still under fairly heavy fire from enemy mortars. Parts of the bay were under fire too and several German strong points seemed to be in action despite the terrific blasting they must have received. Not knowing the whereabouts of our own troops, we had to be careful at what we fired and our role became that of a spectator. Several landing craft came alongside to transfer the wounded to us, but it was risky to stay stopped for any length of time as shore batteries were active and had already engaged us once, while transferring a seriously wounded FOB (Forward Observer, Bombardment) aboard. That time, the last shell had burst only 40-50 yards (36-45 m) off the stern before we moved out of range. It had been an anxious moment. Several LCTs had been hit and were on fire.

By now our troops were well established in the town of Ouistreham and bursts of machine gun fire, streams of tracer and small explosions indicated that heavy street fighting was in progress. Just after midday, three FW 190s shot out of the clouds, dived down at the beach dropping their bombs and made off at a terrific speed, twisting and turning to avoid the flak. The whole attack was over in thirty seconds; one LCT was damaged but nothing else. The Luftwaffe had at last put in an appearance, a very sudden one.

During the afternoon, the unloading of supplies continued on the beaches and it appeared that a good part of Ouistreham was now ours. The explosions continued as the snipers were driven out of house after house. A great deal of smoke was used on the left until that flank was secured. This ran along the canal in the River Orne estuary and was the eastern extremity of the whole front. The 6th Airborne Division was to land there later in the day. Six of the wounded brought on board earlier in the day were buried during the afternoon. Five were probably dead when they first came on board and one, Captain Llewellyn RA, the FOB, died later. It was a sad scene.

The end of the afternoon brought another tip and run raid, but all the bombs fell in the sea and no damage was done. The planes were out of range of our anti-aircraft weapons, unfortunately. At 17:00, we bombarded an infantry concentration and dispersed it with a few well placed salvos.

Heavy American bombers came over again to plaster the batteries to the east of us and we were able to watch the whole target disappear in a great cloud of smoke as the rain of bombs fell in a mass upon it. More formations of aircraft passed over us to drop their loads on the roads and railways a few miles inland and we could hear the rumble of bombs as they attacked.

At eight o'clock, as the sun was beginning to sink in the west, the shore was a fearsome sight. Flickering fires were dotted here and there, a burning house in the town or a blazing LCT on the beach added to the smoke and grime of battle that hung over the whole area. Then, from the north, came a dark cloud that grew and grew until it spread itself right over us and with it came the roar of engines. Hundreds and hundreds of gliders, towed by many varieties of aircraft, swarmed over us at 500 feet (450 m). To the enemy, the sight must have been terrifying. Over the Orne estuary the gliders were slipped and, amidst wild flak, they circled down to land.

At the same time, hundreds of paratroops poured out of Stirling bombers, slowly floating earthwards. In all, some ten thousand men must have been landed within a few minutes to spread panic and confusion amongst the enemy. There were casualties, naturally. One Stirling crashed into the sea, bursting into flames on impact, and several others were shot down over the land to add yet another pyre to the grim scene. As the new forces came into action, fresh explosions could be heard inland and it was with this scene imprinted on our minds that we left the assault area; we were to escort a battleship and a monitor back to Portsmouth, namely the Ramillies and the Roberts. As the sun finally dipped below the horizon and the battle-scarred shore faded from view, I felt that I had witnessed in the last twelve hours a sight I should never forget; the first act in the liberation of Europe.

Thursday, 8 June 1944 At 06:00 on the following morning we sailed for the assault area, reaching it four hours later and reporting to Largs for further orders. There we were told that we were attached to F0B86 and were ordered to proceed to SWORD area. There we came to anchor off the Orne estuary and waited for a call. Ouistreham was now entirely in our possession and one was not able to see much fighting from the sea as it had all moved inland several miles. There was still a good deal of smoke about, especially on the eastern flank and the beaches were littered with landing craft. The large transports had all moved in much closer and were surrounded by swarms of "ducks" (amphibious landing craft, DUKWS) and small craft busily unloading them.

It was not long before the forward observation officer called us up and soon after 11:00 we engaged a column of all arms, quickly dispersing them. Two hours later, we engaged a shore battery situated among the sand dunes to the east of Orne. This battery was spotted when it opened fire on a landing craft in the vicinity. We fired ninety-six rounds into it after which the battery remained silent. This was followed an hour later by the bombardment of an infantry column which quickly broke up.

During the evening, the peace was shattered by the sudden rattle of Oerlikons and thumping of the Bofors and those of us in the wardroom at the time rushed out on deck to see four FW 190s diving over us. Two of them dropped their bombs about 200 yards (180 m) off the starboard bow while the others streaked onto the beach to drop their bombs on the stores there. The Bofors hit one of them which disappeared over the hills, black smoke pouring from its tail. This was claimed as a "probable" and was the Bofors' first blood. The crew was wildly enthusiastic. We went out to anchor further off shore for the night and remained at AA action stations, relaxed. Some enemy bombers were over during this time and a great deal of tracer went up from the beach.

Friday, 9 June 1944:
We weighed anchor early on Friday morning and closed the shore to bombard an enemy battery east of the Orne at 07:00. Two hours later, we engaged an enemy strong point from which fire was observed and soon after 11:00 we engaged the battery at Houlgate, silencing two guns. This battery had been shelling the beaches. At 13:00 our FOB called for fire and seventy rounds were fired at a German troop concentration. Later during the afternoon we were called to escort five LCTs (R) (Landing Craft, Tank [Rocket]) close inshore while they plastered the beach at Franceville with their deadly rockets. It was fascinating watching groups of twenty streak into the sky, disappear from view and then land, blowing up great clouds of dust among the enemy positions.

Meanwhile, ashore the Commandos were advancing. In the middle of it all, several large splashes sprang up among the LCTs and soon after we spotted the battery at Trouville; out of range of our guns, unfortunately, and so we just had to sit there while the shells went on falling. However, they did not hit any of the craft, although several shots fell within 20 or 30 yards (18-27 m) of one LCT. This one promptly headed in our direction and the shells started falling near us until we all steamed away out of range. These batteries were beginning to make a nuisance of themselves.

The weather was dull and cloudy now, just right for a quick air attack and, sure enough, towards the evening twelve FW 190s came streaking across the beachhead. They split into two groups of six, one going for the beach and the other for the shipping. The latter half we engaged with the main armament for a minute and then they disappeared into the clouds only to emerge a few seconds later and dive right down over us with a deafening roar. All the close range weapons opened fire at once and, to add to the noise, two bombs fell astern of us, near misses. In a few seconds, the raiders were out of range, twisting and turning as they sped away. These Focke-Wolfes certainly moved fast and it was extremely difficult to catch them.

A few minutes later we had another call from the FOB and were soon firing off a further fifty-two rounds. At 18:30 we carried out three more unobserved shoots for the FOB, firing 138 rounds this time.

Just before sunset, a group of FW 190s attacked the beach again but they were not so near us this time. At 22:00 we proceeded westward and anchored on the three fathom line inshore of Largs for close support to the army. We had now fired nearly a thousand rounds at the enemy since "D" Day.

Enemy aircraft were overhead again during the night and a great deal of flak was put up by hundreds of ships off the beach. The amount of tracer in the sky was fantastic.

Saturday, 10 June 1944:
Saturday was a quiet day for us and from 10:00 to 21:00 we carried out an anti-submarine patrol on the northern limits of the area SWORD. Nothing untoward occurred but the weather had improved since Friday and increased numbers of our bombers could be seen flying towards France on their deadly missions.

At 21:30 in company with the Suamarez, we proceeded to the Le Havre area at thirty knots to intercept two German destroyers and two minesweepers which had been reported leaving the port. We never made contact with them, unfortunately, as they returned to Le Havre on our approach and after midnight we returned to anti E-boat patrol, lying stopped most of the night at the eastern end of the bay. An MTB (motor torpedo boat) rather startled us during this time by suddenly firing a burst of "snowflake" flares over us. Fortunately she didn't open fire with anything more deadly and recognition was promptly made.

Sunday, ll June 1944:
At 06:00 the ship was ordered to investigate a position off Cape D'antifer. We proceeded there at twenty-eight knots, but nothing was observed and so we returned to the SWORD area and anchored a few miles off shore.

During the early afternoon, Suamarez, Swift and ourselves opened blind fire on an enemy concentration and another eighty-one rounds hurtled over France to break up the concentration. The breaking up of all troop concentrations by naval gunfire must have considerably influenced the lack of a decisive counter-attack by the Germans during these early hand-fought days.

Monday, l2June 1944:
We were out on a patrol again on Sunday night in company with Verulam and Swift. The night was uneventful until 03:30, when we came into contact with E-boats. Starshell was fired and several E-boats seen, but they made off at high speed before we could engage them. At dawn, the, patrol was completed and we lay at anchor until 10:00 when we came alongside Suamarez to embark ammunition. Practically all her remaining ammunition was taken on board as we had nearly expended our entire ouffit; all the HEDA and a good part of our SAP. The ship then proceeded to the SWORD area and came to anchor a few miles off the beach.

During the afternoon we had a call for fire from our FOB and carried out an indirect bombardment of an enemy troop concentration.

We were again detailed for patrol on Monday night; this time with Swift; it was to prove quite an eventful one.

Tuesday, 13 June 1944:
Both ships remained under weigh in the SWORD anchorage until a few minutes before 02:00, when we were ordered by HMS Scylla to investigate unknown radar contacts in position 49 31N 00 06W. We approached this position in line ahead, with Swift astern clear of our wake on the engaged side. Half an hour later, two radar contacts were obtained in the above position and Scylla was asked to confirm that no friendly forces were in the area, which she did.

Five minutes later, Swift was ordered to fire starshell on the radar bearing. A minute later, two enemy ships were illuminated and immediately engaged by Serapis with three gun salvos, using semi-armour-piercing shell, at the left-hand ship at a range of 068. We were using flashless cordite and there was no blinding glare as the first salvo left the guns. Away on our starboard bow, the starshell was bursting, silhouetting two ships against the horizon. The first salvo crashed home, it was a "straddle" with one certain "hit". Another hit was observed with the second salvo and with the third, two hits.

The right-hand ship was now retiring towards Le Havre at thirty knots while the target ship was steaming slowly away emitting thick black smoke. Fire was checked after the third salvo as the target had become obscured, friendly ships were reported to be closing the area by Scylla, and we were closely approaching enemy minefields.

Suddenly, night became day as a group of starshell burst right over us; another few seconds and shells whined over too. Enemy batteries had come to life and we were straddled. Here we were then, not many miles off Le Havre itself, fully exposed to the fire of German batteries of whose whereabouts we had no idea. It was an embarrassing position but RCM (Radar Countermeasures) was switched on and the fire stopped as we retired from the area and continued the patrol in SWORD anchorage.

The ship's company were now feeling the strain of the last week very much as we had just completed three night patrols in succession and were all extremely tired.

Wednesday, 14 June 1944:
As soon as the patrol was completed, Serapis in company with Virago was ordered to proceed to the eastern side of the bay towards Le Havre where we were to escort a flotilla of BYMMS while they swept the area of mines. Luckily, there was a thick mist during the forenoon and the shore was obscured, but it lifted later in the day and we were woken from our lethargy during the afternoon by a salvo of shells from the Trouville battery. Virago was also straddled and so we both turned away out of range. We were, at this time, several miles inshore of the sweepers and they were not troubled by shell fire at all.

A number of mines were exploded during the day, detonating with terrific force and sending columns of water hundreds of feet into the air. The BYMMS had completed the sweep by 18:00 and we returned to the SWORD area where we came to anchor. At last we had a night in. Le Havre was very heavily bombed early in the morning; over 1 200 tons being dropped. We could see the sky filled with flak and great flashes as the "block-busters" dropped on the city while the rumble of explosions filled the air.'

In August 1944, Lawton went ashore to undergo sub-lieutenant's technical courses and was promoted to sub-lieutenant. In February 1945, he was appointed to the Hunt class destroyer, HMS Zetland based at Harwich on the east coast of England where she was employed escorting convoys and fought a number of night actions against German E-boats until the end of the war against Germany on 7 May 1945.

In June, the ship was sent to Alexandria, preparatory to joining the Eastern Fleet for the war against Japan. However, after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, she returned to the United Kingdom and was based at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, for Operation "Deadlight", the scuttling at sea of some 100 surrendered German U-boats which were lying there. In December, Zetland and other warships took ten U-boats to Libau in Latvia to hand them over to the Russians. Thereafter, the ship returned to Portsmouth.

In June 1946, Sub Lt Lawton was appointed to the destroyer HMS Charity, based at Malta, and was promoted to lieutenant in the following month. At first, Charity was employed on patrol off the Dalmatian coast, based at Trieste, to keep the peace between the Italians and the Yugoslavs who at that time were laying territorial claims to Trieste.

Subsequently, she was employed on the Palestine patrol based at Haifa. This was an operation to control the illegal immigration of Jewish refugees. During this time the most notable arrest, made in July 1947, was that of the American river steamer President Warfield (alias Exodus in the novel of that name). She was a vessel of 4500 tons and was carrying over 4 000 Jews. For the four destroyers attempting to board her this was an extremely hazardous operation carried out at night against a large ship turning in tight circles at 13 knots. Between the four warships, only thirty men managed to board her. Charity had her side badly damaged and had to return to Malta for extensive repairs.

During this time, Lt Lawson was appointed to the destroyer HMS Volage at Malta. In 1946 this ship, together with Suamarez, had hit a mine laid by the Albanians in the Corfu channel and had had her bow blown off. Subsequently, a new bow had been fitted at Malta dockyard. She was employed on the Palestine patrol until May 1948 when the British mandate ended and the first Arab/Israeli war commenced.

In September 1948, Lawson returned to the UK and joined the destroyer HMS Wrangler as navigator. (This vessel was subsequently converted into an anti-submarine frigate and transferred to the South African Navy and renamed the Vrystaat.)

In June 1950, Lt Lawson was appointed to the MTB Base, HMS Hornet at Gosport. He was given command of the ex-German E-boat S 208, a forty-two knot torpedo boat of 110 tons, against which he had fought a number of actions during the war. After three months, he took her back to Hamburg for use in clandestine operations. He was then given a British MTB of similar tonnage.

In January 1951 he was selected to specialise in torpedo anti-submarine warfare and joined the RN College Greenwich for three months' theoretical studies before completing a twelve month course in anti-submarine, torpedo, mining and minesweeping warfare at HMS Vernon, HMS Osprey and other shore establishments. Qualifying in March 1952, he was employed first in minesweeping acceptance trials and then as an instructor for sub-lieutenants' courses.

In October 1953, he was appointed TAS Officer to HMS Birmingham on the Far East Station, also as staff TAS Officer to the second-in-command Far East Station, Rear Admiral Gladstone. There is a very fine model of this cruiser in the South African National Museum of Military History at the Zoo Park in Johannesburg. On paying off in June 1955, the Birmingham called at Durban, East London, and Simonstown on her return passage to the UK.

In September 1955, Lt Cdr Lawton was appointed Naval Applications Officer to the RN Underwater Countermeasures Establishment at Havant and was based at HMS Lochinvar, situated at South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth, where he was responsible for seagoing trials on experimental minesweeping and minehunting equipment. At this time, the famous Commander Buster Crabbe was serving in this establishment at Havant. He subsequently disappeared under mysterious circumstances during the visit of the Soviet cruiser Sverdlov to Portsmouth in 1956.

In June 1957, Lt Cdr Lawton was appointed to the Anti-Submarine Training School HMS Osprey at Portland as Foreign Training Officer responsible for the training of all NATO, New Commonwealth and foreign personnel. In September 1958, he was appointed Training Commander of HMS Osprey, responsible for all training at the school.

In July 1959 he took early voluntary retirement from the Royal Navy and, in September, he returned to South Africa where he started a business career. He has lived at Kloof in Natal ever since.

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