Late on the night of 31 December 1943, two shadowy figures emerged from the surf on the Normandy beaches. Their story is part of the short history of a secret unit based at Hayling Island Sailing Club in Hampshire during the Second World War.
Early that year, the club had been taken over by the Royal Navy as the wartime base of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP). These were dedicated teams trained in covert operations and reconnoitring beaches selected for landings on enemy occupied territory. The unit was commanded by Lieutenant Commander, later Captain, Nigel Willmott, a Royal Navy navigating officer. Remarkably, this unit of less than 200 volunteers went on to win over ninety medals and commendations in a little under three years.
Major General Logan Scott-Bowden 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. To ensure the safe landing of tanks and heavy armoured vehicles, the D-Day planners needed to know what lay beneath the sandy Normandy beaches. 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. Three weeks later, a five-man team boarded an X-craft midget submarine at Gosport and was 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 COPPs commander, all cooped up for four days 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. 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.
To help commemorate the men of the COPP, the Discover Hayling team has established the COPP Heroes Memorial Fund. The intention is to raise £30,000 to create a permanent memorial which will take the form of a four-metre high standing stone on a raised mound on Hayling’s beachside common. Planning approval was recently granted by Havant Borough Council.
In January 2011, Prince Charles invited the COPP Heroes Memorial project leader Robin Walton, and former COPP member Lieutenant Jim Booth RNVR, to a meeting at Clarence House. Expressing much interest in the project, Prince Charles assisted in arranging the offer of a block of Cornish granite to form the basis of the memorial. Since the meeting, HRH Prince Charles has agreed to become the Fund’s patron.
The publicity surrounding the appeal has also resulted in the location of a third COPP survivor being made known to the team. Corporal David Owen was a young member of the COPP 7 unit which operated in the Far East. “David is alive and well and has fond memories of his time training on Hayling”, said Mr Walton.