I'd like to introduce you to a military Chronometre Royal of the Royal Navy. While the watch wasn't present on this fateful date, she saw proud service on two ships that did participate in the invasion, and this is their story.
First the watch. At 59mm wide, it fits the typical pattern of a silver-cased ship's chronometer and could have seen duty with either side, but the broad arrow on the enamel dial and "H.S.2" on the back tell us it was British. The inner cuvette is plain polished and all business, while underneath resides what may be the prettiest iteration of the 18-ligne Chronometre Royal calibre. Specifications included 15 jewels, cut bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring, swan-neck fine regulator, and finely finished Geneva stripes with bright rhodium plating. VC archives indicate the watch was completed in 1943.
Further evidence of British origin is the wood transit box which secured the chronometer in a screw-top Dennison brass bowl. The label testifies to issuance on the 5th of March, 1945; the date this watch went into service. As an H.S.2-rated Ship's Chronometer, the watch was one step above an H.S.3 deck watch and one below the master H.S.1 gimballed box Chronometer with detent escapement. The timekeeping requirements were quite strict; an H.S.2 had to be accurate to less than 1 sec. per 24 hours!
During my research on this piece, I was fortunate enough to connect with the very helpful people at the Royal Maritime Museum who managed to locate the inventory ledger for the watch. The details were exciting:
Royal Navy “Chronometer Watch” inventory sheet for Vacheron & Constantin (36) 9409
Date of Purchase: 3 Sep. 1943 from H. Golay
- 5 Mar. 1945 Transferred to C.S.O. Saltcoats
- 3 May 1945 F.D.T. 217
- 15 Jun. 1945 Sheerness
- 11 July 1945 H.M.S. Southdown
- 26 Apr. 1946 Taunton
- 1 Aug. 1961 Southern Watch Co. (taken off charge)
To learn about FDT 217 is to visit the very beaches of Normandy on D-Day and for weeks afterwards. I am very indebted to an essay by Horance Macaulay for this history. In the entire Royal Navy there were only three such craft. Converted from 328 ft. Landing Ship Tank (LST) craft, these top-secret radar-equipped vessels were brought in close to shore for the invasion, to detect enemy aircraft and control their interception.
The radar systems on the FDTs were developed following the capture of sophisticated German Wurzburg radar in a commando raid on the Cherbourg peninsula in 1942. The concept of using ground radar on floating vessels was initially tried by the Allies during the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, and proved so successful that Fighter Command requested similar vessels for the invasion of the landings in Europe.
FDT 217 was converted in Scotland and carried a compliment of 100 Navy officers & men in addition to 176 Air Force personnel. Sent for sea trials in April, 1944, she was involved in the ill-fated exercise Operation Tiger. A squadron of German E-boats intercepted the flotilla and sank many LSTs for a loss of over 600 American personnel. Among the missing were ten officers with knowledge of the planned D-Day landings. The security of the entire invasion was at risk while the beaches were searched for their bodies. By some miracle, all ten were located and the plans were considered safe again.
Soon enough the FDTs were ready for action and joined the Assault Task Force on June 5, 1944. FDT 217 was stationed off the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold. Happily enough, the radar technical crew onboard were all members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. FDT 217 performed its radar interception duties amidst the shell fire and also acted as the co-ordinating vessel to order reinforcements where required. After 17 days of continuous operations, FDT 217 was withdrawn from the beaches.
RCAF radar crew of FDT 217 who saw service during D-Day
FDT 217 was undergoing re-fit for Japan when the watch was delivered to the vessel. The atomic bomb was dropped before work was completed, ending the war. The crew was paid off and the ship returned to the US Navy in February, 1946. She was sold for scrap a year later, minus the top-secret radar equipment.
The inventory ledger next shows the watch being delivered to HMS Southdown in July of 1945. Southdown was one of 86 Hunt-class Escort Destroyers built under the 1939 rearmament program, and was launched in July of 1940. As one of the first twenty Type I ships of the series, she was equipped with two 2x4" gun mounts, one 4x2-pounder "pom pom" AA gun, two 20mm Oerlikons, and one 2-pounder "bowchaser" gun. For anti-submarine use, she carried two depth-charge mortars and a single depth-charge rack. Her compliment was 146 officers and men.
She was 280 feet long and 29 feet abeam, with two steam-driven turbine engines geared for a top speed of 27 knots. At a more sedate 15 knots, range was 3,500 nautical miles. This speed and range suited her role as convoy escort and she earned battle honors in the North Sea from 1941-45 and Normandy in 1944. Nineteen Hunt-Class ships were lost in action and a further six damaged beyond repair, while another seventeen were out of operation by the end of the war undergoing repairs. This certainly speaks to a hard life!
HMS Southdown was next involved in Operation Deadlight, towing captured U-boats out to sea for disposal past the North Channel. She towed out six submarines and was almost dragged under when U-218 sunk on the way out. Quick action by the crew in cutting the lines during a Force 8 storm saved the ship. After the war, Southdown was converted for use as a target ship until placed in the Reserve Fleet in 1946. She was sold for demolition in 1956.
Having a Ship's Chronometer in-hand for these ships has given me a reason to pause and reflect on this day in history. Thank-you for joining me.