Personal War Diary

Don Derrah

Donald C. Derrah

6 June 1944 to 11 June 1944

Normandy Invasion


USS Shubrick DD639
Shipmate's diaries
Normandy by Don Derrah
June 6, 1944
It is impossible to record all that will happen tonight and succeeding nights because one pair of eyes cannot see everything, but from what I see of the action and from our shooting the breeze afterwards I will be able to get a fair account of the action in our area (the Utah area).

In a few moments this ship will go to general quarters – everyone is tense, excited, and perhaps afraid for we expect the worst. Everyone is trying to be casual, joking about 30 days survivor’s leave, being glad to get off the ship, telling each other not to use mines for life rafts, etc., but it is very plain to see that this talk is just a front. We are about half way across the channel; the sun is setting in the west, its bright colors reflected from the clouds, the wind is still strong, and the sea is rough. Our battle line is the same as before strung out in a long line – we are near the head with the Nevada, Tuscaloosa, & Quincy.

2230 hr. All hands went to general quarters. It is very quiet. I have the lookout. Mr. Hardcastle, our control officer, is putting out the dope to the director crew – Hess FCO 2/C (trainer), Abrams FC 1/C (FD operator), Gavin FC 3/C (RF operator), Kelly FC 3/C (JA Talker), Springer SK 1/C (JP talker) and myself (pointer). The place of attack is the east side of the Cherbourg peninsula in the Bay of the Seine. We are the furthest west of all the landings (five). Three destroyers including us (Corry & Herndon) will be the closest to shore in this cove. When he marked the positions of the various batteries, and the calibers, our hearts sank. It didn’t look good at all for the bay could easily be covered in their cross fire. The bombers will just have to do a good job, but we know they can’t possibly get them all for some will be mobile units and others uncharted.

2300 hr. We made a 90 degree turn to the right. Our course is 185 degrees T so not many minutes to go before we hit the transport area. As we near land, star shells bursts can be seen. I guess they are looking for our mine sweeps or maybe us. We are in a mine swept channel that is marked with buoys which have been treated with a luminous chemical. They are visible for 2-3 thousand yards. We reached the transport area at 0300 without casualties. The mine sweeps have done a swell job so far. At this point, we wait for two hours or until those batteries of 280 mms near Pt. De Barfleur open up on us. More stars and tracer fire can be seen on the beach. Our C-47s are dropping our paratroopers a few miles inland. Their objective is a battery of heavy coastal guns. Some 8,000 men are to be landed. Several large flashes can be seen over the beachhead. I guess that they are planes that have been hit – our planes? Occasionally, one can be seen to hit the beach. Suddenly yellow flares light the whole sky – flaming balls that hang in the air like chandeliers. Our bombers are after the 280 mm batteries in the hills. They drop about a hundred flares and then make their bomb runs. The beach is just a solid mass of flames. The roar of exploding bombs mumble incessantly for fifteen minutes, then it was quiet for an equal length of time. After this pause, again flares were dropped and again our bombers came over. By this time all the beach is obscured by heavy smoke from the first raid.

Later, weeks later, we learned from our gunnery officer that the planes and flares over the beach had been German. That terrific attack had been made by mistake. They apparently thought that we had already landed in the beach area whereas only paratroops had made an attempt, and that well inland. If that is entirely true, it must have been a costly mistake for the enemy. 

June 7

0430 hr. Commandos took the two small islands off the east side of the peninsula that bar our way into the bay. These islands had several batteries of 88’s plus a few heavies and might have proved troublesome to us on our way in.

0500 hr. We started on our way in to the assault area. Dawn is just starting to break in the east and the dark line of land is becoming visible from this mass of clouds that cover the sky. We are going in with the two other cans, us in the middle. Several shots are fired from the hill on the west side of the bay. They splash about 1000 yards from us. They appear to be fair sized shells, judging from the column of water thrown up.
0530 hr. We are in position to fire. Only twenty minutes remain for the official assault on France. The Corry has run into trouble already for she has opened fire and is going at it hot and heavy. Zero hour for us (0550) and at this moment – as they say in books – all hell broke loose, every bombardment ship in the bay started laying them in there! We started lobbing shells on schedule and in our designated areas. Our objectives are small batteries of 88’s grouped to one side of the landing area. There are heavy concentrations of machine gun nests in this area, also. Our range to the target is 7,000 to 9,000 yards. Actual range to the beach is much less. As the shelling rose in intensity, the area became obscured in heavy clouds of smoke. Only ten minutes of this and we slacked our fire for observation. What was the effect? We didn’t have time to find out for just then the bombing started. Ours definitely – waves of A-20 havocs and B-26 Marauders gave the beach an unmerciful bombing, passing over the target area in small groups of 5 or 6 – drop their bombs- right behind them were more till as many bombs hit and exploded at the same instant that the sound reaching us was just one prolonged roar, punctuated frequently by heavier detonations made by “block busters”. As we watched, we wondered how any living thing could escape. The vibrations of the earth actually shook the ship. During the raid, several planes were hit. One, an A-20, was hit and burst into a huge flaming pyre. Only a small piece of the plane ever hit the ground.

0625 hr. Two LCR’s, which had crept up to the beach under cover of our fire and the bombing, opened up with rockets. They fired banks (10) of 500 5” projectiles. They sounded like thunder – not like the swoosh a rocket usually gives. A sheet of flame shot skyward as each salvo was fired.

0630 hr. zero hour for the troops. There is a continuous line of LCT, and Higgins boats going from the transport area to the beach. We are still firing at shore installations and will continue to do so until relieved. It is a great relief to open up on the enemy after waiting so many hours; we all begin to feel better. One of the tensest moments came when a lookout reported a JU-88 coming in on us. He is coming in on our starboard quarter. There are six planes, more planes coming out of the clouds behind the 88. The JU starts to dive on us and one of the six planes behind him starts down to. We can see that the six planes are spitfires. The JU88 starts to level off and run out a short burst of tracer fire darts between the two planes. The [Nazi] plane starts to smoke and crashed into the sea a few seconds later. Before the JU88 was hit he released his bomb. I guess he was too rushed to make his shot good because he hit a P.C. that was about fifty yards astern of us. The P.C. just rose up into the air then settled out of sight. Landing craft that were nearby picked up the survivors.

As we went in the first time, I understood that the heavy battery that fired on us kept getting closer and closer until the burst were directly in our wake and about 500 yards off before the Old Man asked permission to pull out of our area for a while. I saw the first few bursts but forgot about them when we opened up. (I learned about this a month later while talking to a lookout. Funny, I guess I’ll never know the whole story.) Several minutes later an LCT hit a mine. She went up – boat, equipment and men went in all directions. There was only one survivor. He was brought aboard later but died before we could do much for him. Two LCTs passed us on their way to the beach, each carrying two army field pieces (150mm). Now they are going up and down the beach firing at anything and everything. We have ceased firing (0700) and are
waiting until we can get in touch with our shore fire control party who will assign new targets to us. Shells from a battery (150mm) east of us are landing about 1000 yards off our port beam (toward the beach).

We are trying to spot their gun flashes and do so after minutes of patient (?) search! We have a perfect setup and the Old Man won’t let us go ahead. How we like that.
Some of the shells are landing near the LCT’s. They get mad and start shooting’ back. They do pretty good considering their lack of FC equipment. Later the Herndon opened up on the batteries and shortly they are silenced. The Captain just told us to train out to a church spire about 3 miles inland and see if we can hit it. Some shells (88mm) are landing on our starboard beam (towards the beach). The spire could be used to great advantage to spot for these batteries.

We fire 3 or 4 salvos and get one hit when the Old Man said to quit because some of our paratroopers might be in that area. The shells on our starboard beam are getting closer. A splash every five minutes are its only indication. We couldn’t seem to locate the gun. A Higgins boat is signaling us. They have some wounded men aboard that they want us to take. As they come alongside we can see that the men are in pretty bad shape. T here are seven in all – one doesn’t seem to be wounded, just in a daze – shell shock, others with a leg off, chest blown off, one with both arms missing. We’ll take them back to England with us.

We have finally spotted a flash which we believe is from the battery that is after us. We just get on him – set up the problem when WHAM! We opened up rapid fire. You can bet that we opened up. He has our range now and is getting pretty close. The Old Man ordered full speed astern in an attempt to fool him until our fire is effective. Our lookouts counted the splashes near us and judge that there are about eleven guns that are firing at us. It isn’t more than a minute before our burst covers the area and begins taking effect. Both of us are putting out a lot of fire after six or seven more salvos and we cease firing to let the smoke and debris clear away. When it cleared they started to fire again. So did we, and that was all. From later reports that we got, we learned that there were fifteen units in that area. They were either destroyed, damaged or their crews were killed. We did a good job.

A Higgins boat just hit a mine off our port beam. It was lifted whole to the top of a column of water about 75 feet high. Then it broke up men, equipment, and boat going in all directions. It was a terrible sight. Most of us in the director saw it and, for the first time since we went to GQ, there is silence in the director.

Word just came over the TBS that the Corry has been hit by two 14” shells and is sinking. Sure enough, there she is, her director and the two forward guns still out of the water. Our relief has taken her place. The next half hour passed quietly for us. The Quincy, Tuscaloosa, and Nevada are maintaining a constant barrage on the beach. Occasionally, a large splash can be seen near those ships. The Herndon is still after those batteries she challenged earlier.

We have just spotted another small battery and are ready to fire when word comes that some of our tanks will take care of them. We can see four tanks approach the emplacement. Suddenly, the two LCT’s open up on the tanks and they begin a duel. One tank is hit and the batteries are silenced in the ensuing fire. We never got the full story of what happened, but it’s probably another incident of mixed signals. We finally contacted our fire control party and they have no business for us. Our relief is on her way and the Glennon will officially relieve us in a half hour. After that we will go to the transport area for further orders.

After circling this area several times, we received word that we are to escort two empty transports back to U.K., refuel, load ammunition, effect repairs on the throttle and come back as fast as possible. We have expended about 550 rounds of ammunition and need much more if we are to do a lot of firing. A large group of LCT’s is approaching this area. They are loaded to the bulwarks with soldiers all eyes on the invasion coast as they go in. I wonder how they feel?

1600 hr. We got underway with another can and the transports bound for England. Secured from GQ about an hour later. Arrived in Waymouth about 0230, fueled and underway again at 0700 in the direction of Plymouth. Passed many small convoys, all jam packed with troops and supplies. We took the transport to Falmouth and then returned to Waymouth for ammunition. Our war correspondent is still aboard.

We moved alongside the USS Melville, a LST tender. Our gunnery officer made a check to see that none of the director crew are broken out for working parties, as they have the hardest job aboard ship.

0100 hr. An ammunition barge came alongside and we started unloading, only to find out that it is the wrong ammunition. It should go to the CA 71, so back to the barge it goes. Secured at last. Now for a few hours sleep (for the crew, we slept through this). At reveille we find the right barge alongside and we began unloading 700 rounds before breakfast.

June 8

Underway for the assault area and sight France again at 1600. Boy, what a mess of ships. Three big groups close in, a line of destroyers extending as far as one can see, about ten miles out from the coast. This line is known as the Dixie line. It’s primarily an E-Boat screen. The sky wasn’t exactly dark with planes, but there must have been two or three hundred bombers continuously overhead plus our screen of fighters. Shells from the larger shore batteries still are falling among the ships. We are in the inner screen, a few thousand yards from the transports. GQ sounded at 2130 just before sunset. We had a very active night. Our advance screens has had constant contact with E-boats and are continuously putting up a barrage of star shells and service projectiles. We didn’t do any firing but had to track all unidentified targets within 1500 yards. We had a baker (?) west about midnight which means that enemy planes are in our vicinity. We can hear them make their runs and hear their bombs explode and the ships vibrate. Apparently, they’re after the ships in the convoy. They’re putting up a great deal of flack; one, perhaps two planes are shot down. The rest of the night is quiet. Two groups of enemy destroyers and E-boats were picked up the S.G. about 12 miles out. Our outer screen drove them off. Word came over the TBS that the Glennon has hit a mine. She lost her fantail and gen. #4 and is floundering in the middle of a mine field now. Two LST’s were torpedoed, while crossing the channel unescorted, last night. H ad breakfast at GQ and two hours of broken sleep since 0600 yesterday (June 8th).

At dawn today (June 9th), the Nevada and the cruisers opened up, boom, boom, boom all day long. At 1000. we secured from GQ. I had the 1200 to 1600 watch, so didn’t bother to sleep. I just took a shower and changed into clean clothes (a great feeling). The engineers are putting the liberty ships into position for sinking to form a breakwater because of the twenty-foot tides. GQ sounds at 1430 as we move into our new station. We’re going in to relieve another can (2300) 5000 yards from the beach. Our purpose is to support the troops and knock out enemy strong points with the aid of a shore FC party. We are in “restricted” waters, an area where only a few expendable ships are allowed because of the mines. The Glennon is to the west of us and slightly closer in. She only had about 50 casualties. The town, Carentin, is still under heavy shell fire and bombings. One good meal a day and two or three hours of broken sleep is all we manage to get. We expect to be here for some time. I made a fast count of the ships in our immediate area and I counted 375, but there are many more behind these that I can’t count. Just about sunset (it’s raining now) four planes flew low over the beach past us and towards the landing area. We identified them as P51’s. Just as they reached the beach area, all hell broke loose as the transports opened up on them. Nothing could have survived that curtain of fire and none of the planes did. As one fell we saw a parachute blossom forth.

Later a Higgins boat brought him aboard. His legs were severely bruised when two boats came together while picking him up. His job was reconnaissance and he was one of the pilots who had photographed this area for D-Day. That was rough treatment for a good job.

Later a Spitfire was shot down. These damn fools on the transport and LCT fire on anything that comes along. Our air coverage will be taken away if this firing at friendly planes continues. They even fired at typhoons and lightening. The amount of flack that they put up is traffic. The whole sky is just a mass of tracers. Even the Old Man gave us the word to fire on a plane. We told him it was a Spitfire. He was quiet for the rest of the night. We fired about a hundred and eighty rounds at various targets designated by the shore FC party. The rest of the night was quiet. Our outer screen had several E-boat attacks, about no damage.

June 10

We opened up again this morning on our old friends the machine gun batteries (yesterday’s acquaintance). It wasn’t long before their chatter was stopped. We were called upon to fire at several targets during the day, but no dope was forthcoming as to the results. At 2000, we had an urgent call from our FCP to fire. We were spotted on and told to go to rapid salvo fire. We fired for ten minutes and then went to two gun salvos. (I guess this was an enemy counter attack or troop concentration judging from the area it covered and the rounds fired.) We expended 579 rounds on this one target over 15 tons of steel and TNT. That makes a total of 1060 rounds to date. The Glennon just sank. The Jerries fired at her again today. She was still burning when she went down. Nine ducks came alongside this afternoon. The stupid guys tried to land on enemy held ground and got shot at. Two men (colored) were wounded and one dead.

June 11

Our daily routine began at sunrise this morning and continued until noon. Our objectives and score, as far as we know, are an 88mm battery knocked out, neutralized 2 six-barrel mortars, destroyed another 88 mm battery and scored a direct hit on an ammo dump. This afternoon our FCP tried to put us on another battery, but they could not give us good spots because they were some distance from the target. As luck would have it, we saw the battery fire and it wasn’t long before we got an all clear. While we were still trained out on this area Gavin, an RFO, spotted a German officer walking along the beach. The Old Man said “See how close you can come to him”. We let go one salvo and when the smoke had cleared there wasn’t anything except a big hole there. I guess we came too close. We also located several batteries in our wandering, but they were either out of our range or so close to it that our fire would not be very accurate. (17000-18000), so we did not fire.

Although most of the results of her shore bombardment could not be determined during this period, four batteries, two 6-barrelled mortars and an ammunition dump were blown up. Relieved on the 12th, the ship steamed back to Plymouth, England for fuel, ammunition and engineering repairs.

She was off France again on June 14th for another tour of duty. Two German aviators were picked up on the 23rd from their rubber raft and made prisoners. Four days later the Shubrick received orders for hazardous sweep north of the Contenin Peninsula, at Cherbourg, France, to determine enemy resistance there.

In company with six motor torpedo boats, the Shubrick was to run north as close to shore as possible, detaching two PTs under Lieutenant Commander D.D. Bulkeley, USN, to make a high speed dash close to the Cherbourg outer breakwater to draw fire, and return. The group got underway as planned, but near the breakwater, began coming under fire from shore batteries. The Shubrick was straddled by the opening salvo and began retiring at flank speed, laying a smoke screen. One PT was hit near the breakwater, but was able to get away. After being straddled again, the group returned to their station with the information they had gathered. The last salvo, presumably from 20 inch tunnel guns, landed 300 yards astern when the ship was 30,000 yards offshore.