The U.S. Coast Guard's D-Day Saviors

Coast Guard 83-foot cutters CG-20 and CG-21 of the “Matchbox Fleet” underway on D-Day. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Published Jun 7, 2020 2:57 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Vivian Davis, daughter of Edmund Priestly, and William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian]

Edmund Lowry Priestley, known to all as “Eddy,” was born in Scotland on June 13, 1916, and raised in the English Lake District. He spent his early life in Chester as a telephone engineer. He was called up for duty in 1943 and became “#14662602 Priestley” with the rating of Signalman in the Royal Corps of Signals. After a whirlwind tour of training, he found himself prepared to deploy to the Far East with about 50 other Signallers.

Meanwhile, President Franklin Roosevelt suggested that  the naval operation to support the D-Day landings needed a rescue flotilla. The Coast Guard had 60 83-foot patrol boats on anti-submarine duty with trained crews that were available. These cutters were constructed of wood and powered by gasoline engines, hence their nickname the “matchbox fleet.” For D-Day, the Service designated the fleet of small cutters “Flotilla One.”

Close-up of 83-foot Coast Guard cutter CG-1 getting underway on D-Day. (U.S. Coast Guard)

While the Signallers were waiting for the next transport to the Far East, Eddy met with a group of Royal Signalmen assigned to the landings at Normandy. One of them with the same position as Eddy fell sick, so Eddy took his place. Soon, Eddy found himself on board the Liberty Ship S.S. Saminver, steaming for Normandy. 

Things did not go according to plan on D-Day. The British D-Day objective on Gold Beach had not been taken by the end of the day, and when Eddy's landing craft approached the beach, the Beach Master on shore sent them back out to sea. They motored out to sea, but no one knew where to go. While they were deciding what to do, their engine failed and they found themselves drifting helplessly. As they floundered, someone on board realized that they were in fact drifting into a minefield.

The Royal Signalmen in the stricken landing craft shouted for help, but nearby watercraft were too busy to pay attention. It was then, when all seemed lost, that a United States Coast Guard vessel appeared out of nowhere. Its crew assessed the situation and a Coast Guardsman grabbed a rope, jumped off the rescue boat, and swam with it as fast as he could to Eddy’s landing craft. The rope was secured and the cutter towed the landing craft and its occupants to safety.

Eddy never forgot how that Coast Guardsman had saved his life and how the Royal Signalmen had watched as the brave American swam through the waves to save strangers he would never see again. After they secured the tow rope, the Signalmen tried to thank the Coast Guardsmen, but he just waved and swam back to his rescue boat, never to be seen again.

In all, Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla One rescued nearly 500 Allied personnel on June 6, 1944. During the first hours of the D-Day assault, they saved 194 men off of Omaha Beach, 157 off of Utah Beach and 133 off of Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Over the course of the Normandy invasion the Flotilla’s operations off the Normandy coast, the rescue cutters of Flotilla One saved 1,438 men.

The fog of war on D-Day as Allied landing craft put ashore troops on the Normandy beaches. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Eddy and the Signallers finally got ashore on D-Day+1 and set-up a communications centre at Saint-Martin-des-Entrées, just outside Bayeux. After Bayeux, Eddy’s crew moved on to Rouen and into Belgium. As the Allies pushed through France and Belgium, Eddy and the Signalmen supported military forces restoring communications networks. When his unit finally arrived in Germany, Eddy’s work got grimmer as there was so much to repair. He set about restoring civilian services with his fellow Signallers who had become close friends over the months. Well into 1946, Eddy’s crew worked at repeater stations in the German towns of Accum, Bohmte and Bremen.

Group photo Eddy Priestly’s Royal Signallers on assignment on the Continent well after the D-Day landings. (Ms. Vivienne Davis)

After the war, eddy retired to Peterborough, England, and he was fit enough to play a part in the D-Day 50th Anniversary celebrations. He also returned to Normandy to revisit “his” beach and other locations he recalled from the war. Eddy died on November 14, 2010 at 94 years old. He would not have seen 66 of those years were it not for the bravery of the men of the United States Coast Guard.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.