A letter home from D-Day

This is a letter from my wife's father to his parents detailing his experiences as a radio operator on HMS Virago during the D-Day landings. Des had lied about his age to join up at 16, and served on Arctic convoys as well as being present at the Battle of the North Cape. My wife found the letter in an unmarked envelope whilst sorting through things whilst getting ready to move house. She had no idea of its existence before this. There are also three diaries, one for 1943 and two for 1944 (which is confusing, and which I will endeavour to read and transcribe, but the writing is very small and cramped indeed). Note that Des uses dates in dd/mm/yy format throughout, not being American...

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Tel. D. R. T. Wright, C./JX427899,
Mess 3, HMS Virago,
c/o GPO London
Mon, 19.6.44
Dear Mum & Dad
It’s been quite a time now since I was last able to write to you, in fact, I believe it was on the 9th, wasn’t it? Well, since then we’ve been told that we may write of out own experiences, and of our movements and doings in this the greatest combined assault of any war. So here goes.
Since that letter was written, we “weighed” that night, and slipped back to Normandy during
[bottom of page torn off, presumably by censor. Continued on page 2]
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present time, it’s been a quiet trip – although of course, one never knows when or if things are going to break…
To continue, since that time, we’ve been laying off-shore over there making ourselves generally useful. Judging by the few papers that have reached us, not a great deal has been said about the Navy’s part in this particular department of Hell & Co. Ltd. As usual, of course, the “big ships” have been mentioned again and again, but when I speak of the Navy, I mean the ships that are always on the go, the ships that get all the unobtrusive, never mentioned jobs to do, the ships whose crew have almost forgotten the art of sleeping – Minesweepers, Sloops, Frigates, Corvettes, M.T.B’s, supply ships, launches, trawlers – and of course, Destroyers. Without these ships, Britain would have no Navy.

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There’s not much I can tell you about the Minesweepers, because nothing I could say would make any people who are not in the Navy realise the true value of their work. The men who man them (must) have guts. It takes some doing y’know to go right into a foreign and hostile coast and proceed slowly back and forth calmly sweeping… But they did it, and did it long before the big guns of the big ships were there to rub out the opposition. Of course, the night previously the RAF had dropped 5 000 tons on the shore batteries around Ouistreham – that did help a bit…
The there’s “our ships” – Destroyers. To give you a rough idea of what we did, I’ll start by saying that it was Destroyers alone who guarded the great Armada and guided it across to the French beaches. The night previously, the “Skipper” had told us all about it, and shown

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us the plans and maps. Of course the ships Co. had been kept on board for quite a time previous to this; yes, the ship had been “sealed”. As you know, “D-day” was fixed for the 5th, but weather proved too bad.
Well, all day on the 6th there was a constant and never-ending stream of ships & landing craft, battle-ships, monitors and cruisers taking up position, ready to string out and over the 80 odd miles of channel to be crossed. With each succeeding craft that slipped out quietly to it’s appointed place, then tension on board increased and increased until the whole Ship’s Co. was wound up like a spring. Tension was at breaking point, and zero hour (0600/bst) was drawing near… At last our flagship (that of
[section cut out by censor] fame), past which the Armada had been moving, hauled down it’s signal of “Good Luck, Sail On!”, weighed, and slipped. Fifteen minutes later we, also, weighed. . . . for France, and Battle . . . . . .

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Once outside the anchorage, we saw it – all of the 4 000 ships due to take part in the initial landings. We took our position at the head of this mass of ships, and almost before we knew it, we were under way, with the last glow of sunset still faintly showing in the limitless expanse of the sky, and England in a velvet blackness save for one twinkling light which was still winking at us when we were well out to sea. With “Y” gun’s crew, down aft at my action station (emergency set, you remember) we fell to wondering idly where that light was burning, and howe many “civvies” were resting or reading near it. At last it was no longer visible – we hoped it had been put out. We arrived next morning with a dark smudge on the grey horizon. It was windy, cold and very grey, in fact it looked like rain any time, but

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Part 1 had been accomplished, and we were glad – you see, there was one bad patch of mines which, because of the weather hadn’t been swept . . . . but our losses were very small, negligible really. I was on deck at zero hour – 0600, when the cruisers opened up. Stil no opposition, and we crept in further still, land getting larger now. 7 miles to go; 6 miles; 5 miles, three . . . . now the bombardment was warming up. Time about 0625. Rocket barges open up, and then the very devil, it seems, was cut free onshore . . . . they are literally awful and terrible those rockets. Will they never stop? 0640, and about a mile and a half to go . . . . I felt scared stiff and brain is numb – is Jerry holding his fire (as in “Wake Island”, remember Mum)? 0645 was our appointed hour to start our bombardment, we are in touch with the spotting officer who had crept ashore and into a good position many hours before – wouldn’t like to be in his shoes . . . . range 2000 yds. – 1 naval mile – bearing

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Red (Port side) 110˚ - Fire !!! ‘Strewth – that’s only the ranging shot . . . . Shore officer radio’s back necessary corrections, then we start . . . . by the way, Jerry is now answering back with some concealed batteries . . . . still we carry on . . . . that was a close one; Whew! and again . . . . that’s better, the cruisers are onto them . . . . coast is now becoming obscured by smoke, 0700 . . . . still firing . . . . my head’s ringing, but I feel gloriously exhilarated as the troops land and fan up the beach, the Navy pounds away, and the bombers roar overhead with collosal [sic] fighter screens weaving above them, no Jerry planes to be seen . . . . this then is the result of four years concentrated effort on the part of millions – but what could we have achieved if it had been effort for peace? – Or would we have done so much? . . . . Ah, coast is now clearing . . . . there just at the base of a factory

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chimney is a troublesome battery . . . . 8 “spits” arrive and dive on it . . . . can’t see that chimney any more, it’s gone – also the battery! Good old RAF!! 0730 Tanks are landing . . . . 0800 now come the trucks and wagons . . . . all by landing craft. Later. Barrage of H.E. sent with best wishes by the Navy moves further inland. We fire sporadically when targets are picked for u. The wonderful part about it is that each bombardment ship had its own spotting officer ashore – naturally this make a lot of extra work on the radio side of it. We’re busy enough without this . . . . but they’d be lost without is. They don’t realise this, these seamen, though; we’re “loafing sparkers” to them . . . . we’re doing OK though. 1400 now we’re landing trucks and tanks etc., by large, motor-drive “raft-ferries” – that’s the only way I can describe them, have you seen any pictures of ‘em?

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[top of page 9 has been torn off, probably by censor] get any nearer than about 10 or 12 miles before scores of “Lightnings” and “Spits” jump on them from a seemingly empty sky. It’s almost as though our boys are pinned up aloft waiting to drop on them . . . . it’s marvellous how they do it. Jerry jettisons his bombs – this is his first attempt at a raid, and the first planes that we have seen (of Jerry’s). Many big fires burning ashore. Can still hear the chatter of machine-gun fire ashore ‘cos we’re still within 2000 yds of it. – Have just learned of the RAF’s plastering of Jerry’s batteries last night – I need not have worried, need I? 2020 Now a group of “heavies” is approaching – hello” they’ve got gliders behind them –

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More are coming – and more, more still – ‘strewth how many are there? 2030, they now cover the whole sky from right as far as the eye can see across France, right out to and over the sea horizon. Those boys re now slipping their tow-ropes and others are cascading out on their ‘chutes – God be with you lads, you’ve a tough fight ahead. They’re believed to be the 5th Airborne, but it’s only a buzz. Geez! It’s unbelievable. How long will they keep it up? Poor devil – one’s just crashed into the sea as he was returning. His inside Port engine was afire – he could have baled out but he was heading straight for a destroyer . . . . he stayed in and cleared it by a small margin. Could see him trying to pull out to make a crash landing on

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the sea, but it was too late . . . . I bet that took some doing; sheer grit needed to deliberately stay in and die in a failing, falling Liberator’s cockpit when there is a good chance of saving your neck. That air-crew dies and saved hundreds of our lads. – ‘cos if that destroyer had been hit and blown up, Lords knows what would have happened. Shipping was very closely packed about there . . . . Night has fallen, and it’s just like Crystal Palace Firework display with H.E., rockets, and tracers forming transient, fleeting, lethal patterns in the dark sky. Jerry is doing that “steady” bombing of his, raising huge fountains of “golden rain” as his bombs fall into the calm sea. When I told some of the lads who didn’t know what was going on, that he was doing his “steady”

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bombing, they thought I was enjoying it! ‘Spose I used the wrong word! What I meant was that he lets ‘em go one after the other – just like a machine. As for food, we got none barring a pasty, and a very occasional cup of tea or soup, that’s all we ever get at action stations. We’re back to normal food now, though. Of course. Now I’m working back in the office proper now (no longer needed for the time, down aft) and we’re in two watches – have been ever since June 6th. This of course means 4 hours on, 4 hours off – day and night, with action stations in between time. Just let that sink it, will you? Seamen can sometimes sleep on watch, but we never can because that message for us would be sure to come through just when we were asleep!
I think I’ve told you all I can for the present about D-day. There are still a few things

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I can’t mention at present, but you’ve got a pretty good picture here I think. Of course, since I last wrote, we’ve been lying just off the beaches out there with our anchor down (that’s true!), waiting for a decent target, generally Hun troops, tanks or transports, then we “up hook” and away to action stations for bombardment. This usually takes place after lunch, and lasts the afternoon, then we cease fire (the Navy never “knocks off”, please note!) for tea, and perhaps continue after tea during the dog watches – that’s up to 2000. As our first salvoes are nearly always on the mark, our spotting officer has his afternoons work cut out to keep us supplied with fresh targets!

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At night of course, there are E-boat patrols to go on, and when we’re not hunting on these we’re sitting in the front seat of the Firework Display – sometimes giving a “clap” ourselves. Sometimes by the light of a fire or by the last faint ray of sundown, you can actually see Jerry planes up there. They only come over in one’s, but (they’re not any) their bombs are still dangerous – if they hit you. So far, however, they’ve been singular unfortunate! Honestly, Mum, there’s a darn sight more to worry about during a raid at home. It's a queer sensation though, to look around and say to yourself “this bit here is ours, and all round there is still under “Jerry”

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– and all the time you’re at anchor! Last letter of yours reached me over there, and it was number 45 dated 4/6/44; I also got 44 of 2/6 at the same time, nothing heard from you since then (Sat 17/6). Also got a letter from Gran Bates dated June 11th! Queer isn’t it? Thank her for me will you, I’ve no time to write any more. Also than Tom and Laura for their three packets of papers with two notes enclosed dated June 1st & 11th. I wish I had (more) time to write, but “4 on 4 off” – two watches, doesn’t leave much time for anything bar eating, a bit of a bath, and sleep (if you can find a spot on the deck – we’re not allowed to sling hammocks because it impedes and hinders quick and vital movements by various repair parties if we’re ever hit, you see). (Althou)

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Although life is a bit on the hard side – and has been for the past fortnight now – we’re all in good form, good health and good spirits (when we’re awake!), because we know we’re winning now. We’re bound to. In fact if the German people as a nation could see the forces and the power arranged against them, I feel sure that they’d just “Jag it in”, to use a bit of Navalese, and sue for peace, because they’re just as beaten now as if we were in Berlin. Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this letter my dears – I’ve enjoyed writing to you. Wish I could write more, but “c’est la guerre” or perhaps “c’est la watch” would be more fitting. Anyhow we’re all of us O.K. on board, and we’re always thinking of you. One dominant,

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fervent hope – almost a prayer – is that the people “back home” aren’t losing sleep and worrying about us. Everyone thinks that all the time – and that goes especially for me. We’re doing alright, and I’ve achieved my ambition, or one of ‘em, in being in the “Second Front” (remember Mum?), and I’m glad, very glad to have been there. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the world. Cheerio for now, let’s get back to stun the Hun some more. ‘Cos we’re winning now, we’re winning, winning, winning – and oh boy! it’s a grand feeling to be working it off against him. With each shell we are winning. Cheerio, Good Luck (from robot bombs), keep smiling and don’t worry. I’ll soon be back for good at this rate! God Bless.
You’ve got
All my love –
Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Desmond, xxxx