Obituary: Cmdr Jim Speed, early Normandy lander

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Commander Jim Speed, who has died aged 96, was a beach commando who landed on Sword beach before H-Hour on June 6 1944, leading a two-man “underwater clearance marking party”, The Daily Telegraph, London, reports.

Before dawn, the 19-year old newly-promoted Sub-Lieutenant Speed RNVR was one of the first men to set foot on red sector of Sword Beach. He was part of “Roger” Royal Navy Commando, the specially trained beach commandos whose task on D-Day was to hurry men, vehicles and supplies off the landing beaches – where otherwise they were subjected to enemy fire – and to prevent bottlenecks which might stem the flow of reinforcements.

Speed ran forward across a quarter of a mile of exposed sand to the dunes, where he lay on his belly to dig a slit-trench, but every attempt to hold up a signal flag on a 9ft pole was greeted by a rattle of machine-gun bullets fired from a pillbox, which killed or wounded many of his section of the commando.

In a pause between bursts of fire, Speed ran forward and, he recalled, “popped a hand grenade through the slit”, before he could resume his task of marking safe passages through the mined, German obstacles. Planting large signs amid a hail of mortar fire made him an obvious target, and when the beachmaster arrived later, “he was a little surprised to see I was still there.”

On the second night, after little sleep or food, “R” Commando had to dig in to fight off a German counterattack, though this was thought to be less difficult than dealing with the congestion on the beaches. The first days passed in a blur of activity – Speed mostly remembered missing his lunch – amid persistent fire from a hidden German howitzer “which made things a little bit unpleasant”.

As the landings progressed, Speed’s task changed, to clearing the beaches of damaged ships, bodies and unexploded munitions, and scavenging the wrecks for valuable equipment, including the rum ration. Later he borrowed a motorbike to visit the hinterland to buy eggs and cheese to supplement his iron rations.

Speed was wounded three times before he was evacuated to England; to him it was all “a bit of an adventure”, but he was awarded the DSC for his courage under fire.

James Henry Speed was born near Southampton on November 20 1924 and educated in the area. He wanted to follow his father into architecture, but joined the Navy aged 18 years and four days. He volunteered for hazardous duties and trained in Scotland as a beach commando.

Hazardous duties allowance doubled his pay as a midshipman, but he had little idea where he was going to land until briefed on the eve of D-Day. Later he trained for the invasion of Japan, but never deployed to the Far East.

Speed was demobbed in 1946 and resumed his studies briefly, but abandoned these to work in forestry in North Wales and Shropshire. Falling on hard times, he was declared bankrupt in 1953; he rejoined the Navy as an able seaman but was quickly put through for a commission.

While on exchange in the Royal Australian Navy, in HMAS Cootamundra (1957-60), he married an Australian, Olga Natalie Dickson, but his request to transfer to the RAN was denied by the Admiralty, and he was obliged to return to the UK to serve a further three years.

However, in 1963 he emigrated and began a 20-year career in the RAN, ending as an acting commander and in command of HMAS Lonsdale, the navy’s Melbourne depot, before retiring in 1984.

Subsequently Speed was Man Friday and general factotum at a prep school for 14 years before retiring to live in Melbourne, where he enjoyed painting, walking, and reading.

Jim Speed was appointed a member of the Légion d’honneur earlier this year. His wife Natalie survives him with their son and two daughters.

Jim Speed, born November 20 1924, died May 15 2020

The Daily Telegraph, London     

 

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