Servicing Commando Units and Airfield Landing Strips
No. 3205 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
No 3205 SC Unit RAF sailed from Gosport at 1100 on D-Day aboard 4 LCTs. It comprised 5 officers, 176 other ranks, 20 3-ton lorries, 2 x 350 gallon water tenders, 2 x 1500wt trucks and a jeep. In the rush to unload, the doors of one LCT were opened prematurely and two 3-tonners were driven off into deep water. The two vehicles and equipment were lost but the occupants swam ashore.
In a history of No. 3205 Servicing Commando Unit, RAF, by Joe Grainger, Group Captain Johnnie Johnstone, at the time a Wing Commander and Leader of a Spitfire Wing, wrote the following piece about 3205 SCU:
"On 7 June No. 3205 RAF SC arrived at Croix sur Mer. They found an airfield Construction Unit of the Army busily emerged in preparing an airstrip. The Commandos knew that soon our Spitfires would be landing and requiring refueling and re-arming. However, not a gallon of fuel or round of ammunition was to be had and so they raided the Beach Dumps and waylaid supplies landing craft until they had everything they wanted to equip an operational airfield. Thus when on 10 June I led 36 Spitfires of No. 144 Canadian Wing to land at St Croix, the SC guided our aircraft to their various dispersal points, sprang into action, helped us from our cockpits and were soon refueling and re-arming our fighters. In less than 20 minutes we were ready for take off."
No. 3207 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
No. 3207 Servicing Commando Unit RAF went aboard two British LCIs and an American LST at Gosport at 1800 on D-Day. Early next morning the ships were attacked by torpedo bombers. The LCT was hit amidships and caught fire. One airman was killed and another badly burnt. The damaged ship was rescued by a US Coastguard Cutter and at 0800 on 7 June the unit went ashore on Gold beach.
No. 3209 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
Landed on 8 June near Beny sur Mer.
No. 3210 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
Landed on 8 June on Juno Beach .
No. 3206 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
Landed on 15 June.
No. 3208 Servicing Commando Unit RAF
Landed on 16 June.
Dress - The SCUs originally wore Khaki uniforms, but reverted to RAF blue before embarkation. The advantage of this was that they could be readily identified by aircrew, the disadvantage was that, when operating close to the German lines, SCU personnel could be shot at by their own side as RAF blue, when work-worn faded and covered in engine oil, bore an uncanny resemblance to German field grey. The SCU personnel were also frequently abused by the locals, until they were identified properly!
Airfield Construction - Landing Grounds were numbered, a B prefix was applied to those of the RAF, an A prefix was for the USAAF.
There were three types of Airfield:
Emergency Landing Strips (ELS) – 600m long for aircraft in trouble and unable to reach another airfield.
Rearming and Refueling Strip (RRS) – for aircraft operating from England or needing to fly another sortie as soon as possible.
Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) – 1200-1700m long and 40-50m wide. An ALG was capable of accommodating up to 54 fighters.
Usually three runways were used in turn, according to the amount of traffic and whether they were affected by dust and/or rain. Only one or two were of made of pierced steel plank (PSP) or wire mesh, the others were grass strips. Some runways were made of PSP, oblong steel planks with holes in them for lightness, slotted together. Others consisted of squares of steel wire mesh known as Somerfield track. Taxi tracks and dispersals were also laid. Runways were orientated in the direction of the prevailing winds.
Preparing the ground before laying the PSP required a vast amount of equipment; bulldozers, scrapers, tractors, carryalls and rollers. If all went well a runway could be built in only two days. It took five or six days to make a 1200m runway and ten to twelve days for one of 1700m. The shorter runway needed 2,560 rolls of wire mesh each weighing 250kg, in all 640 tons. 370,000 pegs and clips weighing 100 tons were also required, which meant 370 3-ton lorry loads, and there was space in each lorry for only 7 rolls of mesh.
All this work had to be completed under a barrage of fire from the German 88mm guns still in range of the beachhead area. Nevertheless, by 16 June there were 12 airfields in each of the British and American sectors.
Maintenance. The wire mesh runways had to be watered at night to keep the dust down. After rain, a leveler was dragged over them by a lorry or tractor to disperse the water and level the surface. PSP had to be lifted, mud removed, ruts filled and the steel plates carefully re-laid level.
Airfields in service.
A total of three Landing Grounds were ready on D+2 or 8 June;
B1 at Asnelles an (ELS) – northeast of Bayeux.
B2 at Bazenville (RRS)
B3 at St Croix sur Mer (RRS)
Wg Cdr J Johnson commented upon landing at B3 and seeing the unending stream of vehicles moving towards the Front line; "The incalculable value of our complete air superiority was clearly demonstrated to me."
Within 3 weeks from D-Day, 31 Allied Squadrons were operating from airfields in northwestern France, which eventually reached a total of 81. Without the SCUs, the projection of Close Air Support and tactical air power over the battlefield would have been seriously hampered, and as the troops advanced, become increasingly difficult as aircraft had further to travel to reach the battles. The SCUs gave tactical air power in Normandy a vital characteristic. Immediacy.