A D-Day Retrospective - Part 2 (or how I joined the Bigot List!)
In this business and as a collector myself, we often get asked if anything special has come our way. Over the years I could name a number of highlights, some of which have subsequently found their way into my own modest collection and some which today I would have liked to have still owned but as "needs must" have been rehomed. One particular grouping stands out at this time and is I feel an appropriate story to retell here. Some year ago I received a call from a trade contact to see if we were interested in viewing and possibly buying a range of original documents that had been issued to the owner's father who served with British Intelligence throughout WWII. He had taken part in the D- Day landings himself and was one of the first to enter the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen in 1945. The story given to me was that the papers were retained post war as a reminder of his direct involvement in the planning and implementation of Operation Overlord. Subsequently the majority of these were disposed of but a proportion had slipped down the back of a desk to be forgotten over the many passing years and only rediscovered when the owners son was clearing his Fathers house.
In the antiques trade we refer to a "sleeper" as describing an item that has not seen the light of day for years. It usually refers to an object which may have been languishing in a barn or perhaps in storage, or as here hidden behind a desk draw covered in dust and long forgotten. Perhaps most importantly, it has not been through the trade, is new to market and is in untouched original condition. It is the Holy Grail for both dealers and collectors alike to find a true "sleeper" but it is a dream that rarely comes true. When I put down the phone that cold January morning I felt a shiver of excitement that we could be on the verge of a serious and possibly unique opportunity!
Arrangements were made to meet our contact at a convenient pub and on neutral territory. We dealers are, like the intelligence services, very sensitive about our sources and the war time maxims "The Walls have Ears" and "Careless talk Costs Lives" both stand the test of time!
Whilst the ground was frozen hard outside, a blazing fire was in the hearth and I waited with both excitement and a little trepidation as pints and pasties were ordered, then a large sealed buff folder was placed before me awaiting my inspection. A trick I have learned on similar occasions is never get too excited in advance, as often the promised deal does not materialise at all or if it does the item has been "over gilded" by the owner and the "one off, unique and scarce item" is none of these things. One is then left somewhat underwhelmed and faced with the challenge of withdrawal without upsetting the excited owner!
I broke the seal on the folder and I knew at once with this collection that the description given me was accurate and we did indeed have something rather special here. The very first document out (they were in no particular order) featured a coloured map of the UK and all of France. This was clearly marked "Top Secret Bigot Neptune Trace Q to Operation Overlord Instructions to A.L.O's" and below "The German Army in the West".
The map was fully marked with troop locations from Holland in the North down to the Spanish border and over to the French Mediterranean coast . The legend covered the detail of the troops such as Panzer and SS Divisions, Infantry on the coast and inland with the chart supporting the locations and the specific detail of the units where known. This and other subsequent documents were marked "Copy No. 72" and clearly the set was issued complete with a unique number for critical security reasons and issued only to the select few who were included for top level clearance on the "Bigot list".
My thought in holding this document was had I chanced upon it in January 1944 rather than on a cold January morning in 2009, I would probably have been a marked man. I could not avoid a surreptitious look around the bar to make sure no gentlemen in long raincoats and a bulging pocket were monitoring me!
I did not know it then, but further research indicated that an "A.L.O." was an "Air Liaison Officer" and this and other clues indicated this was the role of the man these papers were originally issued to. Whilst we have no information on his direct responsibilities, my research online has indicated a report by a Naval Liaison Officer who clearly had a similar function to the ALO:-
"I attended two or three conferences in London, dealing with planning for the Operation NEPTUNE, the seaborne assault phase of Operation OVERLORD. We had been "bigoted", bigot being a higher degree of secrecy than top secret for the planning and preparation for Operation OVERLORD. We were issued with maps of the whole of the north coast of France in one scale, and in a larger scale, the invasion area from the Seine Estuary and Le Havre peninsula to the Cherbourg peninsula. We carried these around with us as necessary, and slept with them under our pillows! Being under canvas we had nowhere to lock them up. On D-Day our landing ship anchored off the beach at Graye-sur-Mer at about 10 o'clock. We were under fire for a time, but were not hit, though several shells landed uncomfortably close! The smaller assault craft went right into the beaches, but to prevent the larger landing ships being damaged or stranded on beaching, the early ones across (including ours) each towed over a Rhino raft, built from many watertight sections joined together, with a ramp forward, and two large outboard engines aft. The ship unloaded onto the Rhino raft, which then ferried the vehicles and men the short distance to shore. It took three trips to unload our ship. We (our Naval Party and others) were on the second trip. On the third trip the Rhino raft ran into underwater explosives, suffered casualties and damage to vehicles and the raft. Having got ashore, we, the Sector HQ ,were held at up at Graye-sur-Mer for the night, as the Germans were holding out in a wood nearby, barring the way to our setting-up point at Meuvaines. They were dislodged next morning when our infantry went in after a naval bombardment! We then proceeded to Meuvaines, where we set up our HQ.The HQ operations room was formed by three large vehicles fitted out with phone and radio links, forming three sides of a square, with the Plot in the middle. The inner sides of the vehicles were opened up for the Commanding Officer, controllers, Naval and Army liaison officers, to have a clear view of the Plot, which showed the movements of aircraft, hostile and friendly. The 24 Base Defence Sector HQ, with its outlying Ground Control Interception and other radar units, was responsible for controlling the RAF's night fighter Mosquito aircraft, based in the UK to start with, that were patrolling the assault area. We Naval Air Liaison Officers had radio contact (and, in due course, land line contact) with the naval HQ at Courseulles-sur-Mer, and we directly controlled the ships' anti-aircraft gunnery when necessary, to safeguard our own aircraft flying over the anchorages. We also carried out general liaison duties between the three Armed Services."
With Acknowledgements to Freddie Corpes, Naval Air Liaison Officer and The D-Day & Normandy Fellowship
In sifting through the mass of papers before me, it was clear our A.L.O had had a similar role. Many of the documents related to obstructions to be expected on the five landing beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Some were detailed overlay diagrams on translucent paper and clearly intelligence on the ground was very sophisticated, despite operating under the watchful eye of the German occupying forces. An example in a document marked "Top Secret" for Omaha beach showed below the low water mark defences including "triple staggered rows of hedgehogs" whilst on Gold beach the chaps could expect the same as well as a mass of "tetrahedra" and rows of stakes "to be assumed fitted with "tellermine" type mines with charges of 12lbs will be attached to some stakes at intervals". The amazing thing about these overlays is the fact they were marked "information up to 19 May 1944" so were issued just 18 days before the invasion!
To my mind whilst the officially issued maps and charts were hugely exciting, perhaps the most interesting papers were the actual field documents used by our ALO on the ground. One covers a target spotting briefing notes for spotting Ops for 268 (flying Mustangs), 414 and 2 Squadrons giving pilots, pilots call signs, allied ships names (including Belfast, Ajax, Black Prince ,Glasgow) and their gun sizes, the ships call sign, the target with grid reference and description ( strong point, battery etc ) and HQ's call sign. Each time period is detailed with period 2 being from sunrise +5 to +50 whilst period 3 is from +50 to + 95. Written at the bottom of this page in blue crayon is "All sorties land at Lee (Lee on Solent) for interrogation then back to Gatwick or Odiham" and below marked in red crayon "More Gen on the back!"
Many other documents were to follow. Some of these were duplicated sheets that do not reproduce well but include "Overlord Outline Order of Targets" and then details of the RAF and USAAF units delegated with the tasks. Others cover RT procedures for communicating with ships and HQ. Another fascinating overlay details a 30 Corps beach landing chart showing the objectives form phase 1D code named "Toastig", phase 2 marked D+3/4 code "Partridge", phase 3 D +7/8 code "Thrush" and finally D+ 12/17 code "Vulture".
Time and space do not allow further details here but suffice to say I was more than a little awed by what I had viewed that January day .This snap shot is but a tiny fraction of what was involved in the planning and execution of Operations Neptune and Overlord and the cooperation between all three services and the integration of the allied forces from the UK, USA, Canada and elsewhere beggars belief. The following slide show represents the detail of the collection . Apologies for the definition of some shots which is not as strong as we would have liked but technology was not as hot in 1944 and the originals are now over 70 years old!
Click for the Slideshow
To read Part 1 of this feature "A D-Day Retrospective - Part 1" click
To read Part 3 of this feature "A D-Day Retrospective - Part 3 - weather or not?" click