The Allied preparations for the invasion of Europe were now accelerating. Hundreds of thousands of new troops were arriving from the United States and Canada. Most of those now arriving were destined for the follow up waves that would travel to France following D-Day itself.
For those who were destined for the invasion itself, the training intensified. Everyone was expected to take part in exercises that rehearsed the process of embarking on landing craft, travelling by sea and disembarking.
For camouflage officer Steven Sykes, a veteran of the war in the desert, it proved to be a rather testing experience:
After a number of complicated conferences we were broken down into small parties according to the landing craft we were to join. The training document concerned is entitled Allocation of units to ship and landing craft ( by units) and Landing Table Index. I have it still in my war album.
I have no record of the other units which were to sail on this tank landing craft (LCT) (type 4). The main cargo was, of course, the tanks. The LCT 4 held nine, and there was a large metal locker at the stern end of the tank compartment which would provide cover for the tank crews during the voyage. It was known as the ‘army shelter’ and had no comfort whatsoever. Due to the need to cram as many troops as possible on the available landing craft, all kinds of small parties were also put on the LCTs. For them there was no cover unless they could inﬁltrate into the crew’s quarters.
In theory a quick trip across the Channel in June sounds very agreeable; in the event, on 5-6 lune, it was cold, rough and most unpleasant. At midday on 28 March we went aboard our LCT from the hards at Chanonry (near Inverness) but alas, there were no tanks embarking for this exercise and the LCTs were more than ever unmanageable.
We put to sea, but next day, 29 March, it was rough, very cold, and the rehearsal was postponed (indeed, this proved to be an accurate rehearsal for D Day itself). The postponement was not much of a relief, for it meant we would be aboard so much longer. As this was not planned, we had no means of combating the extreme cold. I do not think I slept at all in the army shelter, in which there had already been a lot of seasickness.
In the morning we got away, and although it was still choppy we completed our sea mileage (the equivalent I suppose of Newhaven to Normandy) and at 1615 hours we approached the coast. There had been some kind of real bombardment earlier and this had set ﬁre to some pine woods and marram grass on the sandhills. By the time we landed there were squads of Land Army girls beating out the ﬁres, which tended to spoil the realism.
The craft should have run right up on to the beach which would, when the ramp went down, have allowed us to run through a foot or so of water, on to the beach and away to our ﬁrst objective. To our dismay the craft hovered just short of the beach, went astern and began to twist sideways.
The ramp went down amid yelling from the bridge above, and the troops pitched themselves off the end of the ramp into some ﬁve feet of freezing cold sea. Just ahead of me I saw QMS Edwards of the King’s HQ Company, who was a very short man, disappear completely for a few seconds before he emerged and struggled up the sand.
Once on the beach I thought my lungs were going to burst from the extreme cold. I started running to try to get my circulation going, but the compressed feeling got worse. Then I realised that I had forgotten to deﬂate my Mae West life jacket, which was under my webbing equipment, and its pressure was preventing me from drawing breath.
Once ashore we had to establish a Beach Group HQ and begin to organise the landing and dumping of stores, etc. After dark the Sergeant and I scooped a hollow in the side of a sandhill, covered it with a sheet of corrugated tin, and piled sand over the edges. We had settled down in this, were trying our most unappetising emergency ration pack and had begun to conjure up a little cosiness, when we heard voices approaching. An ofﬁcer rapped our tin roof with his cane and snapped, ‘Get that cover down. No shelters allowed.’
The exercise seemed interminable, and not particularly helpful or realistic since so much had to be make believe. No doubt, however, many administrative wrinkles were ironed out as a result of ‘Leap Year’.
The veto on cover could not have affected the Beach Group HQ, which was in a tent; when I sneaked in, pretending some urgent business, I found they had acquired a stove. I stood as near to this as I could and must have fallen asleep for a spell, standing and leaning on the tent pole. I awoke befogged as to where I could be, hugging the tent pole for support.