Bill stood near the stern of the HMCS Bayfield, one of sixteen Bangor Class mine sweepers comprising the 31st Flotilla of the Royal Canadian Navy. He watched the sea off Omaha Beach and waited for the next sighting of a soldier’s body. As lead stoker, he should have been below deck, spared the sight of carnage that dotted the waves. Since mines were now few and far between, however, the sweepers had been charged with recovery as well.
Two days prior, the Bangors had been ordered to the Bay of Normandy. The Germans had planted a minefield stretching 120 kilometers across the Bay, sixteen kilometers wide. For the allied troops to reach the beaches the following day, ten channels had to be cleared, each 900 meters wide. Six Bangors in an overlapping v-formation cleared those channels. Vessels carrying danbuoys followed behind marking the boundaries between life and death.
Cables had been lowered from either side of the sweepers and dragged through the mine fields. When a cable snagged the mooring line of a mine, the line was cut, and the mine popped to the surface. Typically, a spotter stood ready with an armed rifleman next to him. As soon as the mine appeared on the surface, he’d point out its location. Then the rifleman took aim and fired. A successful hit detonated the mine. However, on this occasion, labelled Operation Overload by those in higher command, the riflemen were told to stand down. The sweepers were operating too close to shore, too close to have explosions witnessed by beach defenders. The mines were left to float away on the sea’s current.
The Bangors began their risky work late in the afternoon of June 5th, 1944 and worked through the black of night. By early morning on June 6th, the Bayfield was less than two kilometers from Omaha Beach, cruising under overcast skies. Bangor Class mine sweepers up and down the coast had cleared the channels making it safe for 7,000 invasion vessels carrying military personnel tasked with taking the beaches along the Bay of Normandy. Beaches labelled by the allied forces as Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach.
As troop ships began arriving, the sweepers patrolled the coastline keeping the sea clear and safe. That day, they had been assigned a secondary task: picking up survivors.
From a deck on the Bayfield, Bill and other crew watched the beach invasion unfold. He kept his small Brownie camera handy and took photographs of the carnage and horror. As the Bay of Normandy ran red with rivers of blood, he felt helpless. He watched vessels explode, and bodies blown to bits. He saw wounded men and men weighted by their military gear drown yards from shore, unable to swim the distance to the beach. His ears throbbed from thundering sounds of aircraft overhead, of antiaircraft fire and exploding missiles fired from concrete bunkers hidden on the cliffs. He saw planes burst into flames, their death screams silenced only when they’d slammed into the sea. He knew there’d be no survivors. And, like the rest of the crew, he continued to watch for survivors.
As the hours crawled by, the sailors began voicing their frustration, feeling helpless and guilt-ridden for not doing their part.
“This is shit!” hollered one of the on-lookers. “Those men are being slaughtered. We need to do something!”
“Your work here is and has been vital,” the captain said approaching from behind. “Clearing the channels so those brave boys can get through was heroic. It’s up to them now, to reach the shore and carry on. Our job is to save as many of those who can’t.” The captain looked around him and seemed to look every crewman in they eye. “Now, get back to work. We don’t want a man dying when we could have saved him.”
At the age of seventeen, in 1942, Bill and two of his friends had enlisted. They were tired of the hard life dictated by the Depression Years. Unlike the drifters who had been unable to find employment for several years, they wanted real jobs that paid real money, and the billboards told them that the Armed Forces would provide that. Underaged, they lied on their enlistment applications. They soon learned that boys from the prairies were sent to sea, deemed less likely to become seasick, having grown up around wheat fields that rose and fell in the wind, like ocean waves.
The three friends stood together near the railing, one with binoculars, searching the sea for survivors. The others held grappling hooks to reach into the sea, to snag soldiers before they succumbed to the unusually red sea.
“This is ridiculous!” Albert declared. “I’m getting off this bucket. I can do more on land.”
“I’m with you, Bertie,” Thomas said. “I’m better with a rifle than a hook. Besides, this bucket stinks! Let’s get us some fresh air!”
“Wait, fellas,” Bill said. “Don’t be hasty. Think about it. How do you plan to get to shore? You can’t take a boat.”
“We can swim!” Albert snapped. “We’re both ace swimmers.”
“And then what?” Bill asked. “You won’t have guns.”
“We’ll have our knives,” Thomas said. “We’ll creep into that bunker and slit the gunners’ throats.” He pointed to the guns atop a cliff.”
“Ya!” Albert said. “Then we’ll take over! We’ll win this war, us two!”
Bill tried to dissuade them. They wouldn’t listen.
As one, his two friends leaped over the side of the ship and began swimming toward the shoreline. He screamed at them to return. They didn’t listen. They swam as if their life depended on it. Bill heard the muffled sound of yelling as Thomas and Albert encouraged each other to shore. He watched them drag themselves out of the icy water and pause long enough to wave at Bill. Smiles of delight and relief seemed to brighten their faces. In the next moment, Bill watched in horror as they ran in single file across the beach, each of them unwittingly stepping on a land mine. In the lead, Albert seemed to die instantly. Thomas lay a meter from the water’s edge, his detached leg nearby. They were nineteen.
Bill’s knees buckled and he sank to the deck. He was barely down when he felt firm hands under his arms, lifting him to his feet.
“On your feet, man,” the captain said. “Won’t do for the other men to see weakness.” He patted Bill firmly on the back, his gaze full of concern. “Stand down for thirty minutes and pull yourself together. Get some hot tea. There’s nothing to be done about your friends. They made a dire mistake and they’ve paid for it. This is war.”
So much for yesterday, Bill thought. No more survivors. Just bodies now and free-floating mines.
The crewman next to Bill pointed. He saw the soldier’s body float toward the Bayfield and lowered the grappling hook, snagging an arm. He raised the body alongside the ship and waited while another crewman reached over the side and pulled off the dog-tag. Then, Bill lowered the body gently into the sea and nudged it away from the ship.
“Today,” the captain had said earlier during morning orders, “we watch for free-floating mines and bodies. Snatch the bodies, remove the tags and release the bodies back into the sea. We’re here for at least another week and have no way of stowing bodies until we’re ordered back to shore. This war isn’t over yet.” He gazed around the gathered crew. “Now, to your posts. Families back home will want to know what happened to their sons and fathers.”
In memory of Bill Opitz, who, in June of 2014, shared with me his memories of life aboard HMCS Bayfield, a Bangor Class minesweeper, during Operation Overload. He returned to Europe many times over the intervening years, hoping to chase demons from his dreams. At 90 years, he was still hoping.
Additional information provided by Valour Canada’s video D-Day: Clear the Mines, http://valourcanada.ca/video-documentaries/dday-3-clear-the-mines/