As we celebrate Armed Forces day, 78 Squadron, Air Traffic Control Officer, Flight Lieutenant Ross Hammerton, tells us about his recent trip to the D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations in Normandy. The event commemorated members of RAF No. 15082 GCI & Mobile Signals Units, a little-known British radar unit that landed on Omaha Beach with US Forces and lost several personnel. 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Bayeux Cemetery. Members of RAF Air Command & Control Force, our counterparts from the French Air and Space Force Escadron de Détection et de Contrôle Mobiles 90.555 ‘Augny’ and members of the British Army Royal Corps of Signals Regiment, pay their respects at the graves of members of 21 Base Defence Sector (BDS), killed in the Normandy landings.

78 Squadron Corporal Ash Hands and I joined other personnel of the Air Command & Control Force from RAF Boulmer to attend ceremonies at the British Cemetery in Bayeux and on the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer. We represented the RAF at an official commemoration parade at the only RAF memorial on the assault sectors of the Normandy beaches, having previously paid our respects at the graves of those members killed during the D-Day landings. 

Corporal Ash Hands (third from left) and myself (fourth from right), alongside other personnel at the RAF memorial at Vierville-sur-Mer in Normandy.

The unit was made up of mostly RAF radar controllers and operators (essentially, predecessors of air traffic controllers), as well as communications specialists, drivers, technicians and mechanics from the RAF and the British Army Royal Corps of Signals. Their purpose was to protect the American troops from air attack by establishing a radar warning and Ground-Control Intercept capability as the landings began. 

On 6 June 1944, the unit came ashore on Omaha Beach – the setting for the famous and gruesomely accurate opening scene of the Saving Private Ryan film. They came under heavy shellfire, facing many casualties; of the 27 vehicles unloaded by four landing craft tanks (LCTs), only eight made it off the beach. 

Burnt out vehicles of No. 15082 GCI can be seen in the centre of the picture, taken in the evening of D-Day 6 June 1944.

A fifth LCT hit a sandbank further out to sea and unloaded its vehicles into about six feet of water, so that they were all promptly submerged. Their occupants only saved themselves by scrambling onto the roofs of the various trucks. 

“The beach was littered with debris, burnt-out vehicles and dead bodies. Anyone still alive was attempting to take cover behind or under whatever wreckage existed. The sky was lit up with shell bursts and the noise was eardrum shattering.” Flight Sergeant Muir Adair, who landed with No. 15082 GCI, described the scene he saw on the beach.

I had the pleasure of knowing D-Day veteran Les Dobinson, who was, before his passing in 2021, the last known surviving member of 21 BDS who landed on Omaha Beach. I was amazed to hear his involvement and stories when we first met at a remembrance parade in Penkridge, Staffordshire, close to where I grew up. Les almost single-handedly spearheaded the campaign to get the memorial erected in 2014 which appropriately sits alongside the US National Guard memorial, honouring the US 29th Infantry Division that landed alongside No. 15082 GCI on that historic day.

2019 at the 75th anniversary of D-Day – with D-Day veteran Les Dobinson, a Corporal Wireless Mechanic of 21 BDS, who landed with US Forces on Omaha Beach.

Attending this ceremony with Les in 2019, with my brother, Squadron Leader Greg Hammerton, and other personnel from RAF Boulmer and RAF Scampton, was one the most humbling experiences of my life. Les was a real character and was treated like a dignitary by officials and a celebrity by spectating civilians, both local and of various nationalities. Like so many D-Day veterans, he spoke so movingly about the real heroes of D-Day, those that did not come home, such as his close friend from training. 

Sadly, Les passed away in 2021 and I feel very honoured to have taken part in the commemorations at Vierville-sur-Mer in June this year with my RAF colleagues and the military contingents from our French and US Allies, to honour him and his unit. His legacy still lives on, with many I spoke to at the ceremony fondly remembering him. He would have been so proud to see the exposure that the story of No. 15082 GCI and 21 BDS is now receiving. 

It is an incredible and relatively unknown story which saw the unit awarded four Military Crosses, two Military Medals and a Croix de Guerre – the highest number of gallantry awards won by the RAF in a single operation outside of the Dambusters Raid. 

You can read more about this story of extraordinary human courage and endeavour in the face of extreme adversity, the British RAF Landing at Omaha Beach | The Story of 21 BDS,  which includes personal testimonies of the veterans and a short video documentary. 

The event, which commemorated the men of RAF 21 BDS and 29th US Infantry Division who landed at Omaha Beach, comprised a parade of the RAF Air Command & Control personnel with two members of the Royal Corps of Signals, along with personnel from the French Air and Space Force Escadron de Détection et de Contrôle Mobiles 90.555 ‘Augny’ and members of the 29th US Infantry Division. It was also attended by the town’s Mayor, high ranking RAF and US Army Officers, local residents and numerous tourists.


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