Operation Pirate

This was a British and Canadian training exercise for the assault techniques for ‘Overlord’ in Studland Bay, England (17/19 October 1943).

The formation selected for the first full-scale test of the newly developed tactics was Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division in co-operation with the ships of Force ‘J’ and the aircraft of the RAF’s Nos 11 and 83 Groups. The trial’s object was ‘to exercise the forces of all three Services in their functions during a major combined operation’, and the plan included embarkation, assault against a heavily defended beach, the work of the ‘Turn Round Control’ organisation that controlled shipping during the build-up phase, and the rapid construction of an airfield in the bridgehead.

Particularly vital was the fire plan for the assault, which was the subject of a detailed memorandum by Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar, commanding the Canadian 1st Army. Crerar sent the plan to Keller on 30 August, and the plan included most of the elements that had emerged from the operations and studies of the last few months: naval bombardment (destroyer gunfire, supplemented by rocket fire and 'Hedgerows' during the final approach, and close support craft carrying tanks which beached in the first wave to engage the beach defences), air bombardment (attacks by medium and light bombers before the landings, plus cannon and rocket attacks by fighters), and a ‘beach barrage’ by two field regiments of army artillery firing from tank landing craft.

‘Pirate’ was scheduled for 17 October, but the exercise was disrupted by poor weather in the opening stage, which required a change in the general plan and led to the premature termination of the exercise on 19 October.

A major landmark, not only in the training of the 3rd Division but also in the development of the assault tactics for ‘Overlord’ as a whole, ‘Pirate’ involved an assault delivered by Brigadier H. W. Foster’s 7th Brigade, with the build-up phase undertaken by the rest of the 3rd Division and attached troops. The execution of the exercise was far from perfect. Apart from the fact that adverse weather conditions forced the abandonment of the intended ‘Turn Round Control’ and build-up phase entirely and also led to cancellation of the RAF bomber effort, the shooting by the 3rd Division’s artillery while seaborne did not turn out well, the fire falling several hundred yards short in the opening stages. This was the less surprising as the guns used were not self-propelled weapons on tank chassis but wheeled guns lashed to the decks of the tank landing craft.

Fog on inland airfields prevented the smoke-laying and bombing aircraft taking off and, with the exception of the provision of air cover to the convoy at sea and dummy attacks by Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers against pre-arranged targets on the beaches, the designated air support plan was not carried out.

In spite of these and other problems, the exercise was judged to have been a success, and the conclusion of the Keller and his staff was that the ‘Combined Fire Plan of RN, RAF and Army proved itself to be workable and feasible, subject of course to further training based on the detailed lessons learned’, and that it had been shown that army artillery while seaborne could carry out a successful ‘area shoot’. ‘Hedgerow’ and AVRE vehicles had done their work well. It appeared that a firm foundation now existed for an assault plan, and in succeeding exercises Force ‘J’ and the 3rd Division confirmed the soundness of the conclusions drawn from ‘Pirate’.