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Part my father played in the Normandy Landings in 1944

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 24, 2014

By By Gail Middleton

  • Merchant tugs tow the huge concrete caissons for the Mulberry Harbours

  • Tom Joesbury ties the knot with wife Eileen

  • The Royal Daffodil probably carried more troops during the war than any other ship in the Merchant Navy

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AS dawn broke on June 6, 1944, one of the most significant events in modern history was about to play out. The Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy signalled the final phase of the war in Europe – liberating occupied France and leading to the eventual downfall of the Nazi regime.

During the first hour alone, more than 350,000 men and 20,000 vehicles came ashore, many of the men dying in the surf and on the sand. Today Normandy's soil provides a peaceful resting place for those who never made it home, including many from the Midlands.

As we watched the recent events commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, for the remaining veterans it must have been especially poignant – knowing that this was probably the last time they would salute their fallen comrades.

Films like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and the TV series, Band of Brothers, have made young people more aware of the superhuman effort involved, and the cost in lives. But no film can match the reality of scenes etched in the memories of those who took part.

Ten years ago, during the 60th anniversary of D-Day, my father watched the commemorative events with a mixture of pride tinged with sadness. Sadly Dad died in 2012, but whenever June 6 comes round, we remember the part he played in 1944. Here's his story.

In June 1944 Tom Joesbury was just a 17-year- old Brummie when he "landed" in Normandy.

Having joined the Merchant Navy as soon as he looked old enough, he was part of the fleet responsible for transporting the famous Mulberry Harbours across the Channel.

The worst problem facing the Allies was the rapid unloading of troops and equipment. The eventual solution came with the development of the artificial harbours known as "Mulberries".

These consisted of an outer breakwater, formed partly of scuttled ships and gigantic concrete "caissons", around 200 feet long.

Churchill, himself, had been supervising their development since 1942. So when D-Day finally arrived, the giant Mullberries had to be towed across the Channel in readiness for the Allied assault.

With just six weeks' training young Tom found himself aboard the Merchant ship MV Empire Jean, about to embark on the biggest adventure of his life. It was his very first ship and little did the young chef/steward from Handsworth think he'd be heading straight for the beaches of enemy occupied Normandy.

At the start of the war Britain's Merchant fleet was the largest in the world and the nation relied on it for the import of food, equipment and raw materials. This was still the case in wartime, with the added tasks of transporting servicemen and supplies to sustain them overseas.

All those who served in the Merchant Navy were civilians and volunteers. Like those who served in the Royal Navy, they faced not only the dangers of enemy attack but the hazards of the elements. If a merchant seaman's ship was sunk at sea his chances of survival were poor.

As a teenaged novice Tom was too full of excitement to think of such things before the momentous voyage. He was more concerned about doing his job well, but as things turned out, that job would be far more demanding than working in the ship's galley.

Under cover of darkness the Jean and her sister ship, the Empire Joan, both deep sea salvage tugs, slipped out of Falmouth, towing a massive, concrete Mulberry. Tom was the only Midlander on board the Jean, one of 74 ocean-going Merchant ships and 200 coasters engaged in the pre-landing operation. Altogether more than 800 Merchant ships took part in the Normandy Landings operation.

Tom recalled: "We were part of the Eastern Task Force supporting the British and Canadian landings at Gold Beach, near Arromanches. Our job was to tow the harbour in place before the invasion started."

To keep the element of surprise, the vessels sailed without lights, enduring rough weather conditions that had already delayed the operation by a day. Being at sea in such conditions was bad enough, let alone with several tons of concrete in tow. Tom remembered: "It was pretty scary sailing in the dark and the weather being so rough. We made really slow progress across the Channel."

Apart from the awful weather the ships had to run the gauntlet of enemy mines. And, just off the Normandy coast, there were mined obstacles sprouting from the beaches. The Royal Navy had organised a massive mine sweeping exercise, but there were still many mines left out there. And, who knows what might be waiting for the Merchant ships when they finally arrived? Behind the treacherous clay of Gold Beach lay the heavily fortified villages of Arromanches and Le Hamel.

Tom said: "By the end of the crossing our hands were red raw from the ropes. They were 16 inches in diameter and everyone took a turn on the windlass. It was hard but we were glad we'd made it!"

As the two ships approached the Normandy coast it was eerily quiet, the calm before the storm. Tom said: "You could just hear the odd gunshot, but nothing much more." As they neared their destination the captains of both ships vied for the honour of towing the harbour into place.

As Tom explained: "Our skipper wanted the job of towing the harbour into position so the two skippers discussed it. But the Joan's captain decided he'd have the honour! Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, the Joan struck a mine and we had to rescue the crew. In the end it was our ship that towed the harbour into place."

Her job done, the Empire Jean sailed back to England, this time to Gravesend, with the crew from her wrecked sister ship on board. On the return trip, despite the fate of the Empire Joan, the men's mood was buoyant. Even though they hadn't been part of the actual invasion, D-Day could not have succeeded without their efforts. For the remainder of the war Dad served on board the Royal Daffodil, an ex-passenger ship that had been commandeered as a troop ship.

He said: "We used to make three trips across the Channel a day, ferrying troops and wounded. About 4,000 men would be packed in like sardines, but our ship was a fast one and could do about 20 knots. We would do the Dover to Calais run in just over an hour on a good day.

"There were still mines around, and tank traps on the beaches, well after the landings. But the Royal Daffodil probably carried more troops during the war than any other ship in the Merchant Navy."

The Royal Daffodil was a valiant ship indeed, having taken part in the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. On that occasion she was holed by a bomb, but the resourceful skipper had the hole patched up with bits of timber and mattresses – and they made it back safely to Ramsgate with their cargo of evacuees. The ship also survived machine gun and torpedo attacks.

After the war she was refitted and used for pleasure trips around the south coast and to France – a great attraction being the lack of restrictions regarding licensing laws at sea, plus live music from the likes of Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. Nevertheless the trips proved unprofitable and, despite her role at Dunkirk, in 1967 the Daffodil was sold for scrap.

Dad had fond memories of both his vessels and was justly proud of the role played by the 185,000 seamen who served with the Merchant Navy during the war.

He knew only too well that he was one of the lucky ones - 30,248 merchant seamen lost their lives in World War Two, a death rate that was higher, proportionately, than in any of the armed forces.

Just before the end of the war Dad went on another important mission. This time, to Antwerp, to tow back Hitler's personal yacht.

He told us: "It was a beautiful steam yacht, really luxurious. We went over it with a fine-tooth comb, but never found any souvenirs. I don't think Hitler used it much – he was probably too busy!"

Were any of your family involved in the Normandy Landings? If so email editor@black countrybugle.co.uk, log on to www.blackcoun trybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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