One of my enjoyments as an editorial researcher at National Geographic was writing a “Did You Know” article for the magazine website. This was reserved for the fact-checkers for the article text. It was an additional task that I never minded, for it gave a place to put some of the extra facts turned up while researching an article.
Did You Know: Scouts and Raiders at D-Day
Early in the war Allied planners realized the value of scouts for reconnoitering enemy-held beaches. From this need the Scouts and Raiders were born. Originally a joint Navy-Army unit, by 1944 the outfit was all Navy and all volunteer. Scouts and Raiders were trained in long-distance swimming, small-boat handling, and the use of weapons and explosives. They used rubber boats and a type of kayak-like craft called a Folboat to sneak onto the shore without being seen. In the weeks just prior to D-Day, Scouts and Raiders visited many Normandy beaches, checking on such things as the type of sand—to see if it would hold up a tank—or the placement of steel obstacles and teller mines on wooden poles. They also verified water depths and the speed of currents, then slipped back to sea, sometimes swimming miles to their moored Folboats before paddling quietly and swiftly to waiting motorboats for return to their base in England.The Scouts and Raiders trained closely with other special teams such as the naval combat demolition units (NCDUs), whose specialty was demolition of beach obstacles: welded-steel hedgehogs, Belgian gates, and other impediments to landing craft. The Navy recruited civilian experts from coal mines and quarries to train the NDCU teams in handling explosives.
As landing craft approached Omaha and Utah Beaches on June 6, 1944, they were guided by Scouts and Raiders in several LCC—Landing Craft, Control. One of the boat captains off Omaha Beach was Lt. Phil Bucklew, who saw that sea conditions were too dangerous for launching amphibious duplex drive (DD) tanks from landing craft several miles at sea. Unfortunately, his radio report was ignored. Most of the DD tanks that were launched toward Omaha Beach sank, some taking crewmen to the floor of the shallow but deadly Bay of the Seine.
Other Scouts and Raiders teams were close to the beaches in LCS—Landing Craft, Support—armed with twin .50-caliber machine guns, .30-caliber machine guns, and rockets mounted in racks. Their job was to give covering fire for landing craft as they approached the beaches.
In the water near the tide line on Omaha Beach, NCDUs worked with Army teams from the 146th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions, placing charges against steel obstacles and blasting eight clearings through to the beach. They had trained together before the invasion and were combined for this operation to form part of the Special Engineer Task Force, arriving on the beach five minutes after the first landing craft came to shore. The NCDUs accomplished their task at a heavy cost to themselves and were sometimes hampered by soldiers who tried to use the obstacles as shelter while under heavy fire from German machine guns. The NCDUs on Omaha Beach lost 31 men and suffered 60 wounded out of a total of 180 men. They later received a presidential unit citation.
On Utah Beach, where the firefight was much less intense than on Omaha Beach, the NCDUs lost only 6 men, and 11 were wounded. There, Navy teams worked with Army demolition men from the 237th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions and cleared the beach of all steel and concrete obstacles—by day’s end they could claim 1,600 yards (1,463 meters) of cleared beach available for safe landings. It was an invaluable accomplishment, allowing the Navy to unload 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles onto Utah Beach by the end of the day.
The Navy’s use of Scouts and Raiders, NCDUs, and other special operations groups including underwater demolition teams (UDTs) in World War II eventually led to the creation of a dedicated unit that handles many secret tasks that involve the sea and land. Called SEALs (for Sea, Air, Land), they are one of the elite forces in the United States military today. As their command historian, Don Crawford, says, they are “busier than ever answering ‘911 calls’ from around the globe.”
—David W. Wooddell