D-Day 77 years on – how Gwent played it’s part on this historic day

Phillip Howells looks back at D-Day 77 years on and how Gwent played it’s part on this historic day. They had only been in the UK since the beginning of April and had been stationed in the Shropshire area with their headquarters in Birmingham, but 77 years ago, the ‘Tough ‘Ombre’ GIs of the 90th ‘Texas Oklahoma’ Infantry Division were now in South Wales, packed, fighting fit and ready to leave for Northern France. Marshalling camps had been buzzing with activity since mid May.

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Newport special school set for GBP1 million expansion Around Chepstow – on the Racecourse, at Bulwark and over the Wye at Sedbury – the 357th Infantry Regiment had managed to secure last minute supplies through the SOS (Service of Supply) quartermasters. Llanmartin Camp static troops from the 360th Engineers tasked with providing hospitality had prepared the sister 358th Regiment for departure and more Engineers had looked after the Second Battalion 359th Infantry up at Cwrt-y-Gollen (the 1st and 3rd Battalions were down in Devon as part of the 4th Division UTAH assault teams).

Division troops together with thousands of others were at Llantarnam, Llanover, Dan-y-Parc, Llangattock and Glanusk Parks with many more at St Mellons and even up country at Pontllanfraith. The 90th Division Headquarters was at Heath Camp, Cardiff, well situated as Roath Dock in the capital and Alexandra Dock Newport were to share the out loading of troops with Barry, Port Talbot and Swansea. By truck or road march the GIs left their camps in the very early morning for railway stations or direct to ports – most wondering what was happening – ‘another goddamned exercise being a frequent thought’ – but then not just hot coffee and doughnuts before boarding, but steak sandwiches in white bread – ‘the Army must be up to something but what?’. ‘Hurry up and stand still!’ was the familiar shout from irate First Sergeants as men prepared to board.

Force Flagship AP72 fondly nicknamed the ‘Susie B’ in Newport not for the first time, loaded the 90th Div. Advance Hq. under deputy C/O Brig.-Gen. Sam Williams, the 2/359th Infantry plus VII Corps troops and elements of the 101st Airborne Division not scheduled to fly.

Today it’s easy to see what was happening with the obvious benefit of hindsight, but in June 1944 amid an amazing amount of secrecy, very few knew that they were about to take part in or witness the greatest amphibious invasion in history. In South Wales, even today, many people are still unaware that the largest single force of US troops in the Normandy Invasion were to sail from the Welsh ports of the Bristol Channel. Now detailed research by author and historian Phil Howells has resulted in the book ‘Oxwich to Omaha – American GI’s in South Wales ’43-’44’ and published on Amazon, tells the story for the first time in a single volume the true extent of the preparations for D-Day in this area of the United Kingdom.

Reviews have included ‘a quite remarkable book’ – Roy Noble BBC Wales and ‘a work of scholarship’ – US veterans’ daughter Gwen Webster, Wyoming. Four Marshalling sub-zones labelled U, V, W and X, similar to those on the South and East coast of England, contained 28 specially prepared camps manned here by detachments of the 373rd and 360th Engineer General Service Regiments. They played host to the 2nd and the 90th Infantry Divisions scheduled for Omaha and Utah beaches respectively, together with service companies and reserves of the assaulting 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions, seaborne elements of the 82nd and 101st Airborne, much of the 5th and 6th Engineer Special Brigades and command elements of the Provisional ESB Group.

General Gerow’s V Corps masterminding the Omaha Assault and Collins VII Corps landing on Utah also had troops embarked in South Wales – even advance sections of the 9th Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions were aboard. Nine troopships led by the force flagship AP72 ‘Susan B. Anthony’ were to sail in two convoys together with others consisting of 37 ‘Liberty’ ships converted into troop carrying Motor Transport Vessels, US Navy accommodation vessels plus various other ships.

Early on Sunday morning, June 4, the USAT’s ‘George W Goethals’, ‘George S. Simonds’ and ‘Borinquen’ slipped out of King’s Dock, Swansea joining the USN flagship which had left Newport on this first tide, the four ships carrying nearly 8,000 combat troops. Assembling in the bay, they were joined on the next tide by the ‘Excelsior’, then the ‘Bienville’ and ‘Explorer’ from Cardiff and finally the ‘Exchequer’ and ‘Marine Raven’ also out of King’s Dock all carrying another 11,400 men.

Now they just had to wait together with more than 80 other ships – MTVs, stores coasters with army ‘hatch gangs’ aboard, tankers and Royal Navy escorts – as Eisenhower had to delay the invasion by 24 hours. All ships had to drop anchor and ride out the rough seas – cue seasickness! The consequent damage to the highly successful, albeit experimental Hais (Pluto) pipeline from Swansea to Devon resulted in abandonment.

Finally, a day late but as per schedule, on June 5 and 6, the convoys were away down the Bristol Channel, skirting minefields and along the North Devon and Cornwall coast, around Lands End and eastwards up the English Channel until off the Isle of Wight they turned south to follow in the path of the earlier D-Day assault force – the Bristol Channel Pre-loaded Build Up Force of more than 42,000 GI’s had arrived off Normandy.

Now the drama would unfold and for just one troopship, it would be her last voyage.

A veteran of the North Africa landings Operation TORCH and the Sicily assault code named HUSKY, the ‘Susie B’ would attract acoustic mines and sink in just over two hours, but not before every single one of her 2,317 passengers plus crewmen were saved by the actions of her Captain, Commander Gray and accompanying escorts – the singularly most successful evacuation of a stricken ship in history.