“That’s easy; of course I remember. It was ‘All Fools’ Day’ – 1st April 1941. It was a week before my 18th birthday. They signed me up and I was sent pretty much straight away to the CTC-RM in Lympstone. This was the Commando Training Centre. I don’t recall exactly when the change was made, but in the early stages of the War there was no such thing as a ‘Commando’.”
The original Camp had been built in 1939 as the Corps expanded with the expectation of War. This was built for training of reservists and was initially called the Royal Marines Reserve Depot. By November of that year expansion was rapid and new training teams were formed taking over part of the estate of Sir Francis Drake. By January 1940 the first of many thousands of Royal Marines arrived for the style of training, which later became a benchmark for Special Forces.
In September 1941 the Camp was renamed “Depot Royal Marines Lympstone” and headed for its peak of 800 marines in training. Soon after, a second Camp was established at nearby Budleigh Salterton and entitled the “Royal Marines Infantry Training Centre (RMITC); this being responsible for the second phase of training which could run in total from six to eight weeks, but this was extended in 1944 to a further eighteen weeks.
“On arrival I was told the training would be twelve weeks but I stayed there for about six months. It was the usual commando type training which is more familiar these days – lots of swinging from trees, zip wires, rope climbing, tunnelling and weapons training. We covered just about every physical activity imaginable yet I never learned how to swim which has always struck me as odd for a Marine.
I suppose Britain was developing into a big army camp with men training all over the place. I was attached to the 2nd Mobile RM Reconnaissance Unit and we were trained on bren carriers. The Royal Navy was not doing well at this stage of the War and there was a call for volunteers to join the effort against enemy submarine activity. I was transferred to HMS York City which was a converted trawler. Again, at that stage of the War we seemed to be scraping the barrel.”
Jim was then based in Milford Haven in South Wales and became part of the efforts in that area to patrol Western Approaches. Although a fairly desolate region with a sparse population, Pembrokeshire was a hive of activity at that time. The Flying Boat Station in Pembroke became the largest of its type in the World, with support structures throughout the estuary. New airfields were built, the biggest being at Dale and Talbenny, where more than 2,000 men were based at each location. The new twin engine Wellington Bomber was used in support of Royal Navy activities to protect the critical shipping lanes into the Irish Sea.
“I was in and around Milford Haven for about nine months where we lived under canvas. After that I was transferred to the Penally Camp and attached to the 18th Battalion Royal Marines.”
Like most of the Royal Marines, Jim was moved up to Scotland where many new training camps had been established. The best known of these is ‘Achnacarry House’ just north of Fort William, but many such establishments were formed in that region. It was well out of the way of enemy bombing and beyond surveillance. Inveraray on Loch Fyne was a major centre for organisation of training, with many of the islands such as Arran & Bute used for practice beach landings.
"We were sent to Scotland for Assault Landing Craft training, being based mainly at Inveraray and Port Glasgow. I was there for about six months doing practice landings under fire. I recall we spent a good deal of our time around the Isle of Arran. Some of the landings were carried out with live firing – all very realistic. There were casualties of course but it was all very necessary.
Something I had in mind all the time was that I had never learned to swim; this didn’t seem to matter but I was careful to keep out of the water!"
In the more advanced stages of training mock landings took take place under realistic war conditions. 516 Squadron based at RAF Dundonald in Ayrshire laid on low level 'attacks' strafing the beaches or laying smoke while landings were in progress. Mortar shells were fired from nearby positions and small arms fire completed the sense of realism. Injuries and even deaths occurred during these exercises, but the greater need was to thoroughly prepare the men for the conditions they were likely to face against the enemy.
At this time Inveraray had an indigenous population of about 500 while the various training camps often had 15,000 men stationed at any one time. Introducing a new type of warfare, commando training was developed across the western highlands during this period. Well away from the conflict and offering a wealth of natural features, the district was used well for various forms of combat training. For the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and infantrymen expected to take part in the Invasion, there was a concentration on beach landings so that troops could become familiar with all types of craft. The first flotillas from Canada joined the Royal Navy in January 1942 and Canadian troops soon followed and joined in the training exercises.
Many of the Canadians were moved to HMS Quebec near Inveraray on Loch Fyne, the main training establishment where hundreds of thousands of Allied troops were trained. The Canadian sailors ran the various landing craft to help train the Army in embarking and landing on hostile shores. This was undertaken mainly on the shores of Loch Fyne under realistic conditions.
There were many types of landing craft used:
Landing Craft Assault (LCA) - length of 41 feet, beam 10 feet, draft of 1 foot aft and 9 inches forward. This craft is the outstanding type of all assault craft. Its maximum carrying capacity was 35 fully equipped men, discharging them by means of a lowered ramp. The LCA at slow speeds was a most silent craft and capable of beaching without giving its position away.
Landing Craft Mechanised (LCM). These craft were designed to be carried on larger ships and lowered into the sea near the landing destination. With a carrying capacity of 35 tons they were used to land equipment in support of initial assault troops.
Landing Craft Infantry - Large (LCI L). Thirty of these boats were entrusted to 850 officers and crew of the RCN. They were typically 260 feet long with a beam of 24 feet. They carried two officers with a third during the Normandy landings and a crew of up to 25 men. These ships could carry 250 fully armed soldiers.
Jim doesn’t recall exactly where he was based in Scotland. In fact a lot of the time the location of the training bases was not made clear, even to those based there. A typical example was HMS Dundonald on the Ayrshire coast where the camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. ‘Escape’ into the local community was discouraged and the men were all kept busy, yet there were ways to get to the pubs in the harbour. Jim found himself training alongside the Canadians, an experience which prepared him well for the eventual landings on Juno Beach.
Troops arriving from Canada were split between Scotland and Hayling Island, situated east of Portsmouth. Hayling Island was ideal for initial training in the smaller 'Landing Craft Assault', LCAs. After his combat training in Dartmoor, Jim was moved over to Hayling Island for final LCA practices.
“After Scotland, in early 1944, we were sent down to Dartmoor in Devon. This was for more training, although this time it was more directed towards unarmed combat.
After this we moved to Hayling Island where we carried out more landing practices with the LCAs.”
“By this time I had been promoted to Acting Corporal. We spent about three weeks in May in hard training with the French Canadian Régiment de la Chaudière; they were mostly really young lads of 17 and 18 years of age. I was impressed with them from the start; they certainly knew how to fight and were keen as mustard."
By the end of May ’44 that area of the Channel Coast was packed with troops – British, Canadian and American. We were sealed into camps and prevented from any contact with the outside world. I suppose that whole coastline was much the same as final preparations were made for the ‘off’.
We were all in a sort of quarantine, kept separated from the rest of the Country. Although we were not allowed to write letters home, we were all given postcards which had set options to tick: these were along the lines of ‘I am well’ or ‘I am wounded’ or ‘I need socks’… that sort of thing. I know that Southampton Water was a mass of shipping and it never ceases to amaze me how the secret was kept. The weather was consistently grim, so I suppose the enemy couldn’t imagine we would be daft enough to invade in such conditions. We boarded the SS Monawai during the first few days of June.”
In its original name of Razmak, this cruise liner was launched in 1924 by Harland & Wolff from their yard in Greenock, Scotland. The new liner of 10,600 tons was especially suited to service in Indian waters. After a refit in 1930, ownership was transferred from Peninsula & Orient (P&O) to the Union Steam Ship Co. of New Zealand & the ship’s name was changed to Monawai.
In October 1939 the SS Monawai was requisitioned for military service by the Royal Navy, undergoing a refit in Auckland, New Zealand. By August 1940 the ship went into active service as HMNZS Monawai, with eight 6” guns and depth charges. After busy service in convoy escort, the ship was taken to Liverpool in June 1943 for conversion into an Assault Landing Ship. In this way, the cruise liner originally built to accommodate 400 passengers in luxury was now capable of landing 800 troops and their equipment. Now a very different looking ship, with the main mast removed, instead of lifeboats slung from davits on both sides of the hull there were 20 LCAs.
After her first run under the Red Ensign carrying gold bullion back from Sicily to Liverpool, by the end of April the Monowai was in the Solent along with the ever-growing number of vessels preparing for the invasion of Europe. On 3rd June 1,800 Canadian and British Royal Marine Commandos were embarked in Southampton and the ship was made ready for the crossing to Normandy and what would become known as Juno Beach.
On the evening of 5th June, Monowai left the Cowes Roads off the Isle of Wight. As one of the largest transport ships, the overnight run was uneventful and she anchored at dawn seven miles off Gold Beach. Within 30 minutes of arrival, disembarkation began at 0615 as the first wave of assault troops was despatched in LCAs. None of the assault troops knew the details which only became clear to them later – that Monawai was just a tiny part of this invasion armada of over 4,000 ships, supported by airborne landings to neutralise key defensive installations and secure beach exits and river crossings. The day would see over 150,000 men landing to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall which had been constructed during four years of occupation.
“Late in the evening we heard the anchor chain being pulled up so we knew we were on our way. Many of us noticed a lot of ships being left at anchor and wondered about the plan. We weren’t on our own but it was clear we were heading off as the first wave. I spoke to one of the ship’s crew on deck and asked him why we were in front of the rest. His less than encouraging answer was: ‘Don’t you know – you lot aren’t expected to survive so the others are following as back-up. From what I’ve heard you’ll be lucky if a quarter of you get through.’
“At first light we dropped 12 LCAs and started to make our way to shore. I was coxswain in charge of the small craft which was packed with 38 lads of the Régiment de la Chaudière infantry, with two other RM crew members. Although we were instructed to go all out for the beach, I saw a sailor bobbing in the water. Despite orders, I couldn’t leave him there so I pulled up close and jumped out. Of course I couldn’t swim but I got a couple of the lads to hold onto my ankles as I reached out. He was a Yank from the ‘Big Red One’, their 1st Division. I know now they landed about an hour before us on ‘Omaha’ which was the next beach along to the West. Because of the difference in tide times they were planned to land sooner so they could better avoid the underwater defences.
“On the run in we lost 10 LCAs to enemy gunfire and mines. What can I say? It was murderous. So that left just two of us in that final assault to the beach. Of course this was Juno Beach. In reality it is the forgotten Omaha, as it was every bit as heavily defended.”
Juno Beach was within the sector assigned to the British Second Army under Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey. The beach itself was divided into two assault sections: ‘Nan’ to the east (comprising Red/White/Green) and ‘Mike’ to the west (Red/White). Juno was allocated mainly to the 3rd Canadian Division under Major General RFL Keller, with support by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. Timing of landings was critical due to the features of offshore reefs.
This meant that H-Hour at Juno, originally set for 0745, had to be delayed to allow sufficient time for the rising tide to cover natural obstacles. It was also the case during that morning that bad weather more adversely affected the Juno Sector than any other, with a very severe swell making the sea very choppy for the ‘swimming’ DD Tanks and the small heavily loaded LCAs.
In fact the Juno assault was at least one and a half hours after the first landings at Omaha. As Monowai was moored off Gold Beach, it is quite understandable that US Army bodies could be found drifting. Actually, the initial hazard for the invaders was not the enemy obstacles but natural offshore reefs or shoals. Of the main 3rd Division, the 7th Brigade landed at Courseulles in ‘Mike’ Sector whilst the 8th Brigade landed at Bernières in ‘Nan’ sector.
The Juno landing area was approximately 10 km (6 miles) wide, with the small fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer in the centre. The two smaller villages of Bernières and Saint-Aubin lay to the east of Courseulles. Smaller villages behind the sand dunes had been heavily fortified by the occupying Germans with casemates and adjacent defensive positions.
The coastal defences along Juno Beach were defended by three battalions of the 716th Infantry Division with a strength of 7,771 soldiers all ranks. Although the division was made up of ordinary rated troops, they proved to be strong defenders when concealed and protected by the well designed coastal fortifications as well as the sea front houses which they used for observation and concealed firing positions. The German plan was for the 716th Division to delay the Allied advance with artillery, mortars, mines and anti-tank guns until reinforcements from the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions positioned near Caen could arrive.
The first assault wave landed at 0755 hours, fully three hours after the optimum rising tide. This delay presented the invading troops with a very difficult situation. The beach obstacles were already partially submerged, and the engineers were unable to clear paths to the beach. The landing craft were therefore forced to feel their way in, and the mines took a heavy toll. Roughly 30% of the landing craft at Juno were destroyed or damaged.
The huge minefield had been judged by senior planners as an acceptable risk, but this took its toll on the LCAs. Running through an area which was covered by an estimated 7,000 mines, many craft were destroyed both on the landing itself and also after landing as they returned to the LSIs for re-loading. In the case of one battalion, 20 LCAs were lost in the first attack out of 24 launched. By the time the Régiment de la Chaudière landed in the second wave, they came under fire mainly from mortars and snipers.
Out of the twelve LCAs launched for his group’s assault, Jim Baker’s was the only craft to reach the shore even though they were caught in the blast alongside as they beached. “As we got to within about 1,000 yards of the shore, out of twelve of us who had started there was just my LCA and my dear pal, Hooky Walker, coxswain of the LCA nearby. We approached the beach side by side and as I looked across he gave me a bold thumbs-up, with a broad grin to say ‘we’ve made it; we’re there’ but I froze. I could see three teller mines strapped together just under his bow. They just vapourised him – the infantry, the boat, all gone in a split second.
The blast blew our boat up in the air to about 20 feet and we landed on the ‘Belgian Gates’ defences. I landed in the water; here we go again, I can’t swim. Even so I sort of paddled around with the help of a couple of bike inner-tubes and helped to gather together what we had left of the infantry. We managed to get to the beach but were then held up by the barbed wire coils.”
For Juno, tanks were launched as close as 800 yards from shore so were mostly successful in reaching the beach. This compares starkly with the experience at Omaha where DD ‘swimming’ tanks were released miles out and most foundered in the swell as a consequence, leaving infantry unprotected from prepared beach defences. Even though tanks were ashore on Juno, in securing beach exits this led to blockages on the narrow beach front which became a bottleneck of armour, losing some impetus of the attack.
“Once up the beach, we came under more fire from the Church; this time it was snipers. By this point we were climbing over bodies already victims of sniper fire and mortars. Using these and whatever we could find for cover, we reached the Church and the Sergeant climbed the tower. In the mood everyone was in, there was no mercy shown to the sniper he found.”
Disregarding his own injuries, Jim concentrated on rescuing his Canadian ‘passengers’ and gathered them out of the water and onto the beach. For his gallantry under intensive fire he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and was later called to Buckingham Palace to receive his medal from the King.
“The Langibby Castle and other ships were landing troops and reinforcements were coming in quickly. Still outside the Church, the fighting was really fierce. I was hit and part scalped by a blast from a 6 barrelled mortar. This knocked me unconscious and I was found by a couple of Canadian Medics. The explosion had caused my mouth to lock closed and I had swallowed my own tongue - quickly choking to death.
There were no niceties in this situation as one of the medics smashed through my teeth, then pulled my tongue out with the point of my own bayonet! I don’t remember much, not then and certainly not now… but he saved my life. I was taken to a dressing station where they fixed up my head. I suppose that I was a bit of a mess, but there were plenty worse off than me.”
As the troops waded ashore, there was little opposing ground small-arms fire at first. This was mainly because the German gun positions did not aim out to sea, but were set to enfilade the coastline. As the Canadian soldiers worked their way through the obstacles and came into the enfilading killing zones, the first wave took dreadful casualties. In the assault teams on Juno, there was a 50% chance of becoming a casualty in that first hour.
Despite losses sustained in the fiercely opposed landing, with many blown into the shallows by the final row of defensive mines, the Chaudières fought their way quickly into the town of Bernières. By 0930 the town was clear and the French Canadians began to move through it, to be halted by heavy resistance on the southern outskirts. By mid-morning, hard fighting had brought the town of Bernières into Canadian hands, and later Saint-Aubin was also occupied.
The determined opposition on the road to Bény sur Mer was overcome and the Régiment de la Chaudière and the Queen’s Own Rifles pushed inland. By 12.30 the Chaudières had advanced three miles inland and were still going strong. Despite beach restrictions and heavy casualties, the breakout was generally successful and foremost troops had reached the Caen-Bayeux road by nightfall, the closest of all the assault groups to achieving their D-Day objectives.
Progress inland past the towns was good and, as some armoured units arrived in later waves, they briefly interdicted the Caen-Bayeux road. One Troop of the 1st Hussar tank regiment was thus the only unit of the entire Allied invasion to reach its final objective on D-Day.
Troops of the Régiment de la Chaudière, 8th Brigade, pushed inland from Juno Beach toward Bény-sur-Mer on D-Day. Once the landing zones were secured, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade proceeded to land reserve battalions and deploy inland. Meanwhile the Royal Marine Commandos were to establish contact with the British 3rd Infantry Division on Sword and the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade to link up with the British 50th Infantry Division on Gold Beach.
The 3rd Canadian Division's D-Day objectives were to drive south to capture Carpiquet Airfield and reach the Caen-Bayeux railway line by nightfall.
One witness offshore on the Monowai, the ship's surgeon recalls the mass of shipping all around, with warships forming a complete half circle round the horizon firing continual broadsides inland as the men were landed. Some hours later a few of Monowai's landing craft returned, but only six of the original 20 survived; the remainder being blown up by mines off the beaches. After embarking about a dozen casualties, Monowai returned to Southampton.
“After I had recovered at the dressing station I was despatched to the American Sector where they had been meeting heavy resistance at Omaha Beach. There was so much activity I didn’t give much thought to this relocation. It’s all very well looking back now, but at the time none of us had much idea of the overall plan!
“The Americans were off the beach by that time but they were still meeting heavy resistance and there was heavy shelling of the beach area. Lots of LCAs had been lost in the first waves of attack and of course most of these craft were manned by Royal Navy or Royal Marines.
“I was quickly allocated an Assault Landing Craft and subsequently carried out 22 separate landings onto Omaha Beach. I think I was on that for two or three days before going ashore; by this time the beach was no longer under small arms fire and some degree of organisation was achieved with a steady flow of troops and material. Most of the DD tanks had been lost but a huge flow of material was being landed directly onto the beach front.
“I stayed with the Americans for some time after that. I managed to get back into the 2nd Mobile and had an armoured bren carrier for a while. We became attached to the 82nd Airborne and I started to cope quite well with the American accent! In fact I remember at some point I was elected as an honorary member of the U.S. AAA Brigade”
Jim recalls his visit to Buckingham Palace when he received his Distinguished Service Medal from King George VI.
“They talk now of how the King had a stammer, but when I met him he spoke to me clearly and was word perfect. In fact I really liked him, in that he wasn’t at all what I expected. I had been called to the Palace for my DSM; I don’t recall exactly when – I think it was in September or October 1944. The War was still in full swing but I was out of France then. There were two RAF officers in front of me; I thought it was Guy Gibson and his ‘Oppo’ but I might be wrong. I was just an acting corporal so I expected a quick pat on the back and to be moved on, but the King shook my hand and pulled me a little towards him. He asked me to tell him about D-Day, about what happened. I distinctly remember feeling very surprised; he was a real Gentleman.
In 1945 I was sent out to the Far East. That was a different war altogether and my experiences there didn’t leave me with any fond memories. Normandy was my time and I try to go back every June to pay respects to my boys. That’s what they were – just boys - those French Canadian lads from the Régiment de la Chaudière. I was only just 21 when we landed but some of them were just 17. It doesn’t seem much of a difference now that we are all old men but at the time I felt so much more senior and I wanted to look after them. I owe it to them to visit Juno Beach every year and I visit the Canada House on the sea front... and I shed a tear for my boys.”
In June 2013, Jim visited Normandy again with ‘D-Day Revisited’, this time to join celebrations and commemorations of the 69th Anniversary.
During the trip Jim was introduced to another Royal Marine Commando Veteran, Patrick Churchill. Both had landed on Juno Beach on D-Day morning, but had never met before. Of course they found a great deal to discuss.
During a visit to the small French town of Rots, the townsfolk made both Royal Marines very welcome. In fact Jim’s bright red shoulder flash of “Régiment de la Chaudière” made him a guest of honour!
It was the Régiment de la Chaudière who liberated that town, supported by elements of Royal Marine Commandos.
In fact, after a ceremony held at the town memorial outside the St Ouen Church, Jean Pierre Benamou of ‘D-Day Academy’ explained to the assembly of veterans and residents how the church steeple had been destroyed during the liberation. Both Pat and Jim could be seen smiling sheepishly. Choosing his moment carefully, Pat explained that he had fired that shot from his Centaur Tank!
It was the following day during a visit to the inland town of Thury Harcourt that Jim was faced with his greatest surprise!
After the group of 50 Normandy Veterans had enjoyed a visit to the Paul Herault Primary School, all were invited by the Town Mayor, Monsieur Paul Chandelier, to accompany him to a reception at the Town Hall. Here in the Ernie Blincoe Memorial Hall the Mayor led Jim to meet his larger self.
Jim was faced with a 2½ metre high image of himself. Without anyone realising, Monsieur Chandelier explained they had erected this image in their Memorial Hall as a fitting tribute to all British Veterans, seeing Jim’s image as a very typical representation of a Normandy Veteran. There was much amusement amongst the group, veterans and townsfolk alike.
There was also a serious point which is always emphasised during visits to Thury Harcourt: how important it is to bring British veterans and the people of Normandy together. On the one hand the people of Thury Harcourt are fine representatives of all French people: seizing this opportunity to show their enduring gratitude for the Liberation. In reaction, the veterans take immense delight in the visit, especially in visiting the school, meeting the younger generations who enjoy the freedom they and their comrades fought for so hard 70 years ago.
This natural meeting always forms a moving reunion of combatants; the Liberators meet the Liberated. At the same time it is recognised that French people suffered dearly and a ceremony always takes place at the school to commemorate the pupils and teachers who lost their lives during the fight for freedom in 1944.
For the seventieth anniversary in June 2014, Jim Baker has been invited back to Omaha Beach. The crew of HMS Medusa have invited Jim to join them on board in their short sea journey from Ouistreham Harbour to Omaha. HMS Medusa is believed to be the last surviving Royal Navy vessel to have taken part in the American Sector Landings. As an armed Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML), HMS Medusa was a passage marker for the last run in to Omaha Beach in the early hours of D-Day 6th June 1944.