Late on the night of December 31st 1943, two shadowy figures emerged from the surf of the Normandy beaches. Their story is part of the short but glorious history of a secret unit, based at Hayling Island Sailing Club in south east Hampshire during WW2.
Early that year, the club (pictured above) was taken over by the Royal Navy as the wartime base of COPP or Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. These were dedicated teams trained in covert operations, reconnoitering beaches selected for landings on enemy occupied territory throughout the world. Without detailed knowledge of landing sites and their defences, any large scale deployment of forces for an invasion, was likely to suffer the same fate as the disastrous Gallipoli operation in WW1, when the allies suffered over 100,000 casualties in a poorly planned landing, against well prepared Turkish defensive positions. The Dieppe raid in 1942 also gave some idea of the potential problems for invasion forces. Following that disaster, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations ordered the formal establishment of the COPP unit.
The unit was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nigel Willmott, a Royal Navy navigating officer. Willmott had worked on secret surveys for the invasion of Rhodes two years earlier, and his experiences on that operation had led him to propose the establishment of a specialist unit for future invasions.
Remarkably, this unit of less than 200 men went on to win over 90 medals and commendations in a little under three years.
Major General Logan Scott-Bowden, a highly decorated hero of WW2 is one of the last surviving members of the COPP organisation, and his story is typical of the unit's work. On New Year's Eve 1943, as a 24 year old Royal Engineers Major, he boarded a motor gunboat at Gosport, with his companion Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith, for a top secret mission to survey the Gold Beach area around Ver-sur-Mer. The D-Day planners needed to know what lay beneath the sandy Normandy beaches, to ensure the safe landing of tanks and heavy armoured vehicles. Under the noses of the enemy, the pair took detailed
measurements and core samples along the beach with metal augers, storing them in special containers for analysis back in the UK.
When the Americans heard of this audacious mission, they asked the team to survey the US landing sites as well, so three weeks later, they boarded an X-craft midget submarine at Gosport, and were towed by navy trawler to within a few miles of the French coast. There were five men in the team, two swimmers, two crew, and the COPP commander, all cooped up for four days on the ocean bottom in their tiny craft. They surveyed the defences through the periscope by day, and each night Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith clambered into their cumbersome swimsuits and life jackets, to swim 400 yards to the shore, all the while dodging the enemy searchlights.
Their work was vital to the success of the D-Day landings, but was typical of the exploits of other COPP teams operating throughout the world. We have focused our story on their missions, because of Hayling’s historic connections to Northern France, but there are numerous examples of similar missions worldwide.