COPP: Beach Reconnaissance for D-Day

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My latest book – Invasion! – is out very soon. It covers Operation Overlord and the D-Day landings by focussing on 100 key ‘moments’ that made up the invasion. Here is a sneak preview of one of these critical (and very dangerous) ‘moments’ – beach reconnaissance.

On paper, the Normandy coast seemed to tick all the invasion boxes – apart from one. There were rumours that underneath the sand was a layer of peat, if true this could cause huge issues for some of the larger vehicles coming ashore, which could sink through the sand and get stuck in the peat. The big question that needed answering was this: could the beaches in this region cope with tanks, trucks, bulldozers and other heavy vehicles that would be needed during the landings?

There was only one way to find out – someone had to go to those beaches and collect samples.

That job fell to the men of No. 1 Combined Operations Pilotage and Beach Reconnaissance Party (COPP), namely Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith who swam ashore to take samples of the sands on a beach that would later be given the code name ‘Gold’. It was New Year’s Eve 1943. Disembarking from their midget submarine a quarter of a mile from land, Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith swam ashore carrying various small arms and a dozen twelve-inch test tubes. This mission was so dangerous they were both offered cyanide capsules – both refused, even though they knew if they were discovered they would face certain death.

Keeping within the high tide mark so the sea would wash away their prints, they crawled along the sand taking samples, noting the location of each sample on waterproof writing tablets. As they worked, they could hear the local German garrison singing as they celebrated the New Year. On leaving, they had to negotiate waves sweeping them back to shore. This was not an easy night’s work, but they managed it without major incident.

Back in England, the beach samples were closely examined. The results were good – the Normandy sand would be able to cope with the heavy traffic of an invasion force.

Similar missions were carried out on the other beaches – Sword, Juno, Utah, and the trickiest of all, Omaha, which presented a high bluff to be scaled beyond the sand. Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith reconnoitred Omaha in January 1944, based for four days in a midget X20 submarine, emerging at night to take samples.

When Scott-Bowden was summoned to speak to a dozen admirals and generals at Norfolk House in London’s St James’s Square, he had a simple message for Bradley: ‘Sir, I hope you don’t mind me saying it, but this beach [Omaha] is a very formidable proposition indeed and there are bound to be tremendous casualties.’ Bradley replied, ‘I know, my boy, I know.’

This excerpt has been taken from Invasion! D-Day & Operation Overlord in One Hundred Moments (Unicorn Publishing).

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