On New Year's Eve 1943, a full five months before D-Day, British Major Logan Scott-Bowden and Sgt. Bruce Ogden-Smith swam ashore near the village of Luc-sur-Mer in France's German-held Normandy region.
In the distance, they could hear Germans singing as they celebrated the new year. A fierce wind that began blowing as they crossed the English Channel carried them a mile from their target landing site, a beach code-named "Sword." Armed with daggers and Colt .45 pistols, the two men began walking in the darkness, careful to stay below the tide line — where their footsteps would be erased by morning.
"We had to creep past the searchlights to make our way to the correct beach, dropping down on our stomachs every few minutes when the search light came back round," Scott-Bowden later said.
Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith were members of the Combined Operations Pilotage and Beach Reconnaissance Party (COPP), a secret British unit that had been formed by Lord Mountbatten, British Chief of Combined Operations, after the disastrous Dieppe landing in August 1942.
They were there to answer a question.
By late 1943, planning for the Allied invasion of Europe narrowed the invasion site to the east coast of the Calvados Peninsula in Normandy, which had all the factors the Allies believed they needed for success: A good port at Caen, shelter from the worst of Atlantic Ocean storms, thirty miles of beach, decent exits from the beaches, and a good road network. But old Roman maps of the area, found among the information supplied by the Resistance, indicated the Romans gathered peat from the area, which worried planners.
If there were peat bogs under a thin layer of sand at the proposed invasion sites, the beaches might not be able to support the heavy equipment — tanks, trucks, bulldozers, and the like — that would be part of the landing.
When Scott-Bowden and Ogden-Smith were selected for the mission, and before they left from Gosport, near Portsmouth, they were offered cyanide tablets to be used if they were captured and faced torture.
As the men moved closer to shore in the area around Luc-sur-Mer, a gale was blowing. A few miles from the target beach, they changed into rubber wet suits, strapped on their equipment, and transferred to a hydrographical survey craft that took them to within two miles of the shore, where the two men jumped over the side and started swimming.
Besides their other equipment, the men carried a dozen twelve-inch tubes for sand samples and a special instrument, said to look like a pogo stick, for taking the samples.
Eventually the men reached Sword Beach, began taking samples, marking the location from which each was taken on underwater writing tablets strapped to their arms. But they stopped suddenly when they spotted German guard patrolling the dark beach. The two men flattened themselves in the sand as the guard crossed the beach to within twenty feet of them.
"We both had our pistols in our hands," Scott-Bowden said, "and I really thought I was going to have to shoot him."
After a few minutes, however, the guard moved on without spotting the two men who quickly resumed work and finished their sample collecting.
Weighted down with the samples and their other equipment, they returned to the surf and tried to swim out from the shore to their pickup point – only to be thrown back by the crashing waves kicked up by the wind. A second attempt ended the same way.
The two men rested in shallow water for a few minutes, studying the incoming waves and timing their occurrence before being able to escape the surf and swim into calmer water.
At this point, Scott-Bowden could hear his partner yelling. Fearing Ogden-Smith was in danger — and would alert the Germans to their presence — Scott-Bowden headed in his direction only to realize Ogden-Smith was simply yelling, "Happy New Year."
"I swore at him, " Scott-Bowden said, "then wished him a Happy New Year, too."
They made it.
It was later reported that they left one of the "pogo stick" devices on the beach, but a French civilian found it and hid it for the duration of the war.