Bill Coffey wrote a book about his experiences. :: SUR
As well as remembering the 156,000 soldiers who were landed on the beaches of northern France on the day and the estimated 4,400 who lost their lives in the action, one Costa del Sol resident will also be thinking of her father, Bill Coffey MBE, who came ashore on Gold Beach as part of the largest seaborne invasion in history. He was armed with nothing more than a bible and a prayer book.
Although Jo Taylor from Coín says her father rarely spoke about the events he witnessed during the Normandy landings 70 years ago, thanks to a book he wrote in later life, she has a full narrative of her father’s journey across the channel, the sights he witnessed and his account of the days following the landings, as Allied troops first took Caen from the occupying German forces and then moved further into France.
“Dad was a Navy chaplain, born in Belfast in 1915 and the kind of man who could bring a crowd of 2,000 people to heel just with the power of his voice. ” explains Jo, who is Chairman of the Royal British Legion in Coín.
By the mid 1990s and after a lifetime of preaching and travelling all over the world, Bill completed and published a book of his life experiences from his adopted home country of Australia.
“The Chaplain’s Wars” starts with Bill, his wife Betty and their children emigrating to Australia in 1953 but moves back in time to tell the story of the Naval chaplain’s role in the D-Day landings. Describing the departure from Southampton late on the evening of Monday 5th June 1944, Bill’s book tells how the landings were timed to coincide with the tides, so the first vessels to beach were those on the most westerly part of the 80 kilometre coastline at 6.30am, while the most easterly landings didn’t begin until 8.30am.
“There were 9,210 aircraft overhead on that day,” Bill writes in his book, adding that none of the pilots were aware of the actual location of the D-Day Landings until the day before. According to the chaplain’s account, 2,727 ships, boats and landing craft reached the shores of France, although over 5,000 would eventually be involved in ‘Operation Overlord’, the official name given to the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Wearing a khaki uniform with a clerical collar and stepping off the ship straight into the sea, Bill Coffey made his way onto the beach carrying a knapsack which held a change of underwear, a spare shirt, a bible and a prayer book. His only protection was a steel helmet, which was later pierced by shrapnel when he laid it on the ground while he spoke to dying soldiers.
Recounting the deafening noise of the ship’s 16 inch guns, the book tells how Bill made his way along the beach, giving comfort to dying men, writing down their dying messages to loved ones at home and easing the pains of the wounded with glass vials of morphine until the men could be seen by the onshore medics.
Bill’s tale describes the carnage and seeing the hundreds of young men wounded and dying, as well as talking about the soldiers whose job it was to collect bodies from the beach and prepare graves for them in the French sand.
At the end of the first day of walking through the dunes administering to the wounded and dying, the chaplain returned to the ship for the night. Tracer bullets lit up the night sky seeking out Luftwaffer aircraft. The next morning he woke to find his cabin flooding with sea water following a direct hit on the ship by a German bomber plane.
As well as providing comfort to the wounded and dying, Bill Coffey was also responsible for arranging burials at sea. “All who fell below the high-water mark or who drowned in the water trying to reach the beach were buried at sea,” says Bill in his book, adding that the bodies were wrapped in thick canvas and weighted down with heavy iron bars. Unfortunately many bodies re-floated over the coming days as the bars proved insufficient and the gruesome task of re-committing the bodies to the deep fell on Bill and a few selected sailors as they worked off a floating platform away from the main ship.
Jo says “My father met my mother when she was a WREN officer and they were engaged just before he left for D-Day. She was a smoker but vowed she would not have another cigarette until he returned to her.” Even though Bill made it back, Betty never smoked again. “My father died in 2001 at the age of 86 but my mum is 93 now and still living in Australia,” says Jo.
Although he never spoke much about his work in Normandy 70 years ago, ‘The Chaplain’s Wars’ sets out the many adventures of her father’s life. Jo says “I went to Gold Beach once to see where the landing took place. It was very moving. My dad’s book has given me great respect for those who serve in any conflicts, and I take great pride in the work of The Royal British Legion, which makes sure these brave people are not forgotten.”