Terror of the sea before the hell of coming under Nazi fire during D-Day landings

Derek Coyle joined the Royal Marines in 1942.
Derek Coyle joined the Royal Marines in 1942.

A Nazi sniper was picking off Allied soldiers one-by-one as Derek Coyle scrambled ashore during the D-Day landings.

The former Royal Marine, from Blackpool, had nothing but his Lee-Enfield rifle to defend himself with when heavy German artillery began firing at British and Canadian troops as they landed on Normandy’s Juno Beach.

Derek on a return trip to Normandys Juno Beach, where he arrived during the first wave of the D-Day Landings on June 6, 1944.

Derek on a return trip to Normandys Juno Beach, where he arrived during the first wave of the D-Day Landings on June 6, 1944.

It was June 6, 1944 and Operation Overlord had begun.

“The firing was terrible,” he recalls. “Anybody who said they weren’t frightened is a liar.

“There was a lot of fighting. Bombs, machine guns, every sort of gun.

“There was even a sniper positioned up a church steeple and he was popping our blokes off left, right and centre and nobody could get at him.

Derek with some of his Royal Navy comrades.

Derek with some of his Royal Navy comrades.

“Not long after two of my best mates were killed. So we sent a message out to a battleship and it turned its big gun around, let the peg go and blew the top right off the church steeple.

“The sniper didn’t fire anymore. But there were a few French people killed with all the bricks coming down.”

Derek was just 16 when he joined the Royal Marines, training at Deal, in Whitley Bay; the Commando School Towyn, in Wales, and the RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw) in Scotland.

At D-Day, 18-year-old Derek was part of a landing craft crew tasked with transporting and guarding Canadian troops belonging to both The Regina Rifles and Princess Pats as they unloaded under deadly fire on to Juno Beach.

Derek with his wife Hilda.

Derek with his wife Hilda.

For at least six weeks during the war he made this gruelling journey, travelling backwards and forwards from sea to sand while recruits from Hitler Youth took shots at them.

A protector of three units of Canadian forces, he helped to deliver Churchill tanks and around 20 to 30 soldiers at one time.

Margaret Taylor, a family friend and welfare officer for Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Royal Marines Association, explains: “The German artillery would have gone for the landing crafts, rather than the bigger ships because they could blow them off the water more easily.

“They were heavier and slower than today’s landing crafts.”

And with a sniper picking the men off as they landed, there wasn’t much need for hand-to-hand fighting.

In the words of Margaret, “They were like sitting ducks really.”

After a fortnight, the Allies’ N650 flotilla was split in two and half marched on to liberate the port city of Caen from Nazi rule. Heavily defended, with another sniper positioned at the top of a church, Caen made for a gruesome battlefield which was most almost entirely wiped out by the six-week bombardment by Allied land, naval and air forces.

“I was there when that 1.000 bomber raid came over,” said Derek.

“A thousand planes went over, dropping bombs on Caen.”

And then, finally, he made the journey for the final time when he was shipped back to Britain with the remaining flotilla.

But his horror story was far from over.

“When we got half away across the Channel, the landing craft was sunk. I’ll never forget its number: LC1278.

“I don’t know if it hit something or if it was down to wear and tear but it just started going down really quickly.”

There was not a moment to lose: every second that passed put the men in danger of being sucked under with the boat.

And if somehow they survived, they could then face days on end, stranded in the Channel and fighting hypothermia with nothing more than old-fashioned May West life jackets to keep them afloat.

“The jackets were more cumbersome than of any actual use,” Margaret says.

“They haven’t got any flotation; and because they were made of cork they would eventually soak up the water.

“If another boat hadn’t been there at the time, the soldiers would have drowned.”

Thankfully, the LC1278 was travelling alongside a second vessel and all the crew were pulled to safety and taken back to Portsmouth.

But even near-drowning was not Derek’s most frightening experience at war.

That moment came with an early trauma; but perhaps it gave him the resilience and strength he needed to make it through the ferocious arrival in Normandy.

On June 5, 1944, he had set sail for France from Chichester with the N650 Flotilla but a strong storm had forced the crew to moor the LCM1278 off the Isle of Wight for the night.

And to this day, not even the unerring accuracy of a German sniper terrorises his memory like that night’s journey across the English Channel, the waves thrashing the boat through the air like a rag-doll in the teeth of a pit bull.

“We went down past Hayling Island and got just outside the Isle of Wight when this terrible storm came,” Derek recalls.

“And the landing crafts, having flat-bottoms, were chucked 10 feet in the air. So they cancelled D-Day for 24 hours.

“It was more frightening than the beach landings,” he adds.

“Of course, you were sure you were going to drown. There was nothing you could do, only hold on.

“Nowadays, you’ve got to be able to swim to join the Royal Navy so they make you learn but in those days half of us couldn’t and a lot of landing crafts went down.”

Having flat bottoms that dropped down at the front to let off tanks, wagons, troops and equipment, landing crafts lacked the buoyancy of ordinary boats, according to Margaret.

“The storm went on all night,” she says. “The large crafts, destroyers, cruisers, all of them would have felt it a little bit but they wouldn’t have felt anything like landing craft drivers did.”

The majority of the ships had a bow allowing them to move through waves.

But a 20ft wave could smack a flat-bottom boat three or four feet into the air while tanks on board could crush passengers to death if they came loose.

Derek had survived storms, snipers, raids and near death.

But despite all of this, he was given just seven days’ survivor’s leave when he returned to England and was transferred to Southampton to train with the troop ship SS Strathmore.

From there the teenager was sent to Bombay and then to Burma where he spent the rest of the war fighting the Japanese.

He was demobbed in 1950 at the age of 24 and told he was not up to Royal Marine physical standards, for what Margaret believes could have been post-traumatic stress disorder, an unknown illness at the time.

Today, Derek is the last remaining veteran in the Blackpool Royal British Legion branch.

And he finally revisited Juno Beach last year, more than seven decades after he first made that dangerous journey, with the help of national war charity Return to Normandy.

“Back then, you couldn’t see the sea for ships and landing crafts.

“You couldn’t see much water, there were that many thousands of battleships, landing crafts, destroyers, everything.

“But when I went back with Margaret and my son Barry, I didn’t even recognise it. There were luxury yachts there and, oh beautiful buildings.”

Also there to greet him – and ask for his autograph - were young French civilians and Canadian military recruits, the offspring or grandchildren of the men Derek had protected on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day landings.

And, the veteran adds: “They made a right fuss of me.”

In 2016 Derek was presented with the Legion d’honneur for his services to France during D-Day. The medal is the highest French order of merit for military merits.