Lieutenant Jim Booth, naval officer who reconnoitred Sword Beach on the eve of D-Day – obituary
Lieutenant Jim Booth, who has died aged 101, was believed to be the last surviving member of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties, a secret navy formed in the war to reconnoitre enemy beaches.
On Friday, June 2 1944, he embarked in the midget submarine X23 commanded by Lieutenant George Honour. Two days later, as part of Operation Gambit, X23 bottomed off the coast of Normandy. Through the periscope, Honour and his crew watched the Germans playing football on the sand, unaware of what awaited them over the horizon.
X23’s crew of four was augmented by a two-man team from COPP No 9 commanded by Lieutenant LG Lyne. Their task was to mark the eastern end of Sword beach, using lights, flags and wireless. They had the honour, with X20, of being the first ships to arrive in the assault area, only to receive the coded message, “Trouble in Scarborough”, telling them that Operation Neptune, the Allied landings in northern France, was delayed 24 hours by bad weather.
X23 lay helpless on the bottom, fixed by her anchor to prevent her drifting from her carefully checked position; it was smelly and dirty, and they were sustained by tea and baked beans warmed over an electric ring in a pan they called the “gluepot”, taking it in half-hour turns to warm up by lying in a sleeping bag over the submarine’s batteries.
Although everyone was trained in each other’s tasks, Booth’s particular task was to row inshore and set up the inner end of a navigational transit, but the weather forced the cancellation of this part of the operation. Instead, at 0507 on the morning of June 6, after spending 64 of the last 76 hours submerged, X23 surfaced to hoist an 18ft telescopic mast to begin flashing a predawn light to seaward and broadcasting a wireless beacon tapped out in Morse for minesweepers escorting the landing forces approaching Sword and Juno beaches.
At dawn Booth was awed to see the seas covered by Allied craft, and watched in admiration as amphibious tanks swam ashore and troops waded up the beaches. Their job done, by midday on D-Day the crew of X23 and COPP9 were so exhausted that Booth, when ordered, could not lift the anchor: instead, he cut the cable.
Lyne and Booth spent the following night in the headquarters ship Largs before returning to Portsmouth in a destroyer. Lyne was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, while Booth was Mentioned in Despatches. Later he received the Croix de Guerre for “outstanding gallantry on D-Day”.
Lord Mountbatten, who as Chief of Combined Operations and as Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia had intimate knowledge of the work of COPP, wrote that “None of the great amphibious operations of the last war could have been carried out, with such efficiency and skill, without the vital information that COPPs provided”.
James Charles Macauley Booth was born on July 9 1921 in London, where his father was a retired businessman. He was educated at Eton, where he was a “wetbob” and was awarded an organ scholarship. When war broke out he had just started his first term reading Medicine at Cambridge when he volunteered for service. His sister was a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) who transferred to the SOE; his uncle was Cecil Spring-Rice, who wrote the words of I Vow to Thee, My Country.
Booth’s talent was spotted while under training at Skegness when a sailor was needed to play golf with a visiting admiral, and he volunteered. He served only five months on the lower deck in the minesweeper Hussar, service which was brought to an end when she was bombed on May 15 1940 off the Dutch coast; though severely damaged, she returned under her own way to harbour.
He served briefly in the new cruiser Kenya among many survivors of Exeter who had fought at the Battle of the River Plate. Sent to HMS King Alfred at Hove, after a five-week course he became a midshipman RNVR. He served in the coal-burning, anti-submarine trawlers Turquoise and Pict in the North Sea and off the west coast of Africa (1941-43), but became bored and volunteered for “anything more exciting”.
Failed on medical grounds for human-torpedoes (his hearing had been damaged loading 4-inch guns Kenya), he joined COPP and practised underwater beach reconnaissance surveys during the winter of 1943-44 in Loch Striven.
After D-Day Booth prepared for operations in the Channel Islands, but was sent to Ceylon to train for the British landings in Burma and Malaya. Working behind enemy lines, Booth, who had been issued with a commando knife, eventually had to use it: his party was fired on by the Japanese army.
He told an interviewer from the Imperial War Museum: “We now knew where their base was, so we sneaked up overnight and eliminated them. There were about ten of them. We weren’t really supposed to do that [aggressive operations] and our commanding officer didn’t put that in his report, but it was the right thing to do.”
In August 1945 Booth received his one and only injury when he broke his ankle during parachute training in northern India. He sheepishly admitted that a late night in the bar had addled his co-ordination. The next day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Post-war, Booth accepted a permanent commission in the Navy and spent the next four years clearing German mines in the Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean and magnetic mines in the Thames estuary. However, he was invalided in 1949 after a routine x-ray showed a shadow on his chest.
Booth attended agricultural college and became a sheep farmer on Dartmoor for 30 years. He retired to Taunton, where he played the organ at several churches in the town and at Taunton School.
A lover of steam trains, he was a sprightly figure who in his nineties once cycled many miles to watch his grandson play cricket. At a celebration of the 70th anniversary of VJ-Day in 2015, in a marquee outside Westminster Abbey, the 94-year-old Booth danced with the Duchess of Cornwall, as Queen Camilla was known then.
Two years later he was attacked at home by a burglar and suffered multiple skull fractures. “Worse things happen at sea,” he commented. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in the following New Year’s Honours for service to the community.
In 1951 he married Berry Evans, a Wren whom he had met on a blind date while in Malta. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their four children.
Jim Booth, born July 9 1921, died December 18 2022