Best of The Hour Lounge: June 6, 1944

Jun 05, 2024,21:04 PM

Few survivors are left to tell their first-hand accounts of this date in history, but physical reminders are still spread along the coast of Normandy.  D-Day was a tremendous operation involving untold numbers of men and materials, including the proud ships of the Royal Navy.  Vacheron & Constantin was present as well, keeping time on the ships in aid of navigation and other military operations.

The timepiece that motivates this discussion wasn't actually present on that fateful date but it did see later service on two ships that were part of the invasion fleet, sent to reclaim Europe from fascist forces. Eighty years on, as the clouds gather once again, this feels like an appropriate time to re-tell their story.

At 59mm wide, the watch fits the typical pattern of a silver-cased ship's chronometer and could have seen duty with either side, but the broad arrow on the enamel dial and "H.S.2" on the back tells us it was British.  The inner cuvette is plain polished and all business, while underneath resides what may be the prettiest iteration of the 18-ligne Chronometre Royal calibre.  Specifications included 15 jewels, cut bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring, swan-neck fine regulator, and finely finished Geneva stripes with bright rhodium plating.  Vacheron Constantin archives indicate the watch was completed in 1943.

Further evidence of British origin is the wood transit box which secured the chronometer in a screw-top brass bowl.  The label testifies to issuance on the 5th of March, 1945; the date this watch went into service.  As an H.S.2-rated Ship's Chronometer, the watch was one step above an H.S.3 deck watch and one below the master H.S.1 gimballed box Chronometer with detent escapement.  The timekeeping requirements were quite strict; an H.S.2 had to be accurate to less than 1 sec. per 24 hours.

During my research on this piece, I was fortunate enough to obtain the inventory ledger for the watch from the helpful people at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  The ledger outlines its entire service life:

Date of Purchase: 3 Sep. 1943 from H. Golay

  • 5 Mar. 1945: Transferred to C.S.O. Saltcoats
  • 3 May 1945:          “          “   F.D.T. 217
  • 15 Jun. 1945:        “          “   Sheerness
  • 11 July 1945:         “          “   H.M.S. Southdown
  • 26 Apr. 1946:         “          “   Taunton
  • 1 Aug. 1961:          “          “   Southern Watch Co. (taken off charge)

The first entry proved quite a mystery to research, even the staff at Greenwich were in the dark, but eventually I learned that Composite Signals Organization (CSO) Stations were part of the super-secret Y Service of British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which had its origins in World War I.  GCHQ is probably best known for code-breaking and research efforts centred at Bletchley Park during WWII.  I'm sure many have heard the exciting stories around the captured Enigma code machine.  Its existence was kept secret except for a few at the very top, and after the war many lamented in hind-sight how much death and destruction could have been prevented if they used this intelligence more generously.  Churchill was always of the belief that too many coincidences would have compromised the code-breaking program and he was very likely correct.

CSO Stations were tasked with intercepting radio traffic, or SIGINT, and forwarding to Bletchley for decryption.  Saltcoats is a coastal town in North Ayrshire, Scotland, which provided an excellent base for monitoring the North Sea.  Even today a few battered buildings scattered along the Scottish coast provide evidence of this past, such as the site at Brora.

The book; Code Name Caesar, by Jerome Preisler and Kenneth Sewell revealed the role of Y-stations like CSO Saltcoats:

" 1941 Bletchley's code breakers were deciphering nearly all encrypted German army, naval, and diplomatic communications with ease.  The transmissions were snatched out of the air by signals intelligence posts, or Y (for cryptology) stations, at remote sites across the British coast and countryside, then relayed to Bletchley via motorcycle courier, landline, and teletype, and decoded on the eight-foot-high iron 'bombes'.  Generally working in small huts bristling with radio aerials, Y-station operators - or wireless monitors, as they were called - ranged from MI6 agents to army, navy, and RAF personnel, to WRENS and women's Auxiliary Territorial Service conscripts, to volunteer ham radio buffs.

Working on a need-to-know basis and sworn to secrecy, the men and women at the listening stations diligently went about their business, spending long, exhausting shifts at their radio equipment, living close by in spartan bungalows.  They were never told the destination of the messages or informed of their importance.  They referred to the recipient of their intercepts only as Station X, the British code name for Bletchley Park, and had no information about what was being done there.  But ULTRA would have starved and withered without their steady flow of intercepted communications."

The ledger indicated the watch was next transferred to Fighter Direction Tender (FDT) 217 in May of 1945.  To learn about FDT 217 is to visit the very beaches of Normandy on D-Day and for weeks afterwards.  In the entire Royal Navy there were only three such craft.  Converted from American Landing Ship Tank (LST) ships, these top-secret radar-equipped vessels were brought in close to shore for the invasion.  Their purpose: to detect enemy aircraft and control their interception by RAF aircraft patrolling the skis above the allied forces.

The radar systems on the FDTs were developed following the capture of sophisticated German Wurzburg radar in a commando raid on the Cherbourg peninsula in 1942.  The concept of using ground radar on floating vessels was initially tried by the Allies during the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, and proved so successful that Fighter Command requested similar craft for the landings in Europe.

FDT 217 was converted in Scotland and carried a compliment of 100 Navy officers & men in addition to 176 Air Force personnel.  Sent for sea trials in April, 1944, she was involved in the ill-fated exercise Operation Tiger.  A squadron of German E-boats intercepted the flotilla and sank many LSTs for a loss of over 600 American personnel.  Among the missing were ten officers with knowledge of the planned D-Day landings.  The security of the entire invasion was at risk while the beaches were searched for their bodies.  By some miracle, all ten were located and the plans were considered safe again.

Soon enough the FDTs were ready for action and joined the Assault Task Force on June 5, 1944.  FDT 217 was stationed off the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold.  The radar technical crew onboard were all members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.  FDT 217 performed its radar interception duties amidst the shell fire and also acted as the co-ordinating vessel to direct reinforcements where required.  After 17 days of continuous operations, FDT 217 was withdrawn from the beaches.

FDT 217 was undergoing re-fit for Japan when the watch was delivered to the ship.  The atomic bomb was dropped before work was completed, ending the war.  The crew was paid off and the ship returned to the US Navy in February, 1946.  She was sold for scrap a year later, minus the top-secret radar equipment.

The inventory ledger shows the watch next being delivered to HMS Southdown in July of 1945.  Southdown was one of 86 Hunt-class Escort Destroyers built under the 1939 rearmament program, and was launched in July of 1940.  As one of the first twenty Type I ships of the series, she was equipped with two 2x4" gun mounts, one 4x2-pounder "pom pom" AA gun, two 20mm Oerlikons, and one 2-pounder "bowchaser" gun.  For anti-submarine use, she carried two depth-charge mortars and a single depth-charge rack.  Her compliment was 146 officers and men.

Southdown was 280 feet long and 29 feet abeam, with two steam-driven turbine engines geared for a top speed of 27 knots.  At a more sedate 15 knots, range was 3,500 nautical miles.  This speed and range suited her role as convoy escort and she earned battle honours in the North Sea from 1941-45 and Normandy in 1944.  Nineteen Hunt-Class ships were lost in action and a further six damaged beyond repair, while another seventeen were out of operation by the end of the war undergoing repairs.  This certainly speaks to a hard life!

Southdown was involved in Operation Neptune, the D-Day landings, as part of an escort group accompanying transport and supply ships to the beaches.  She remained with the invasion force until June 24th when next assigned to general patrol and convoy defence in the North Sea.

At the close of hostilities HMS Southdown was involved in Operation Deadlight, towing captured U-boats out to sea for disposal by sinking.  She towed out six submarines but was almost dragged under when U-218 went under during a storm while being towed on the outbound journey.  Quick action by the crew in cutting the lines saved the ship.  After the war, Southdown was converted for use as a target ship until placed in the Reserve Fleet in 1946.  She was sold for demolition in 1956.

This chronometer was saved from the ship's inventory and later sold by HM Government following 15 years in storage.  That it survived, and now rests peacefully in my cabinet, is a minor miracle in itself.  I hope this story finds you all well and safe, and perhaps we can give a thought to those who made it possible.

Tick Talk

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Comments: view entire thread


The breath of history

 By: FranckAlexandre : June 5th, 2024-21:57
Great post Thank you very much for this history and to Share this wonderful chronomètre de Marine

Those who cannot remember the past

 By: Tick Talk : June 6th, 2024-15:31
Are condemned to repeat it. This quote has been attributed to Winston Churchill but likely not. Regardless of the source, the sentiment remains valid and one of the contradictions of human nature that still puzzles me greatly.