Commemorating Commander E.S.D. Fremantle – Juno Beachmaster

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Edmund Fremantle as a boy sailor (right) with his father, Admiral Sir Sydney Robert Fremantle (left) and grandfather, Admiral Sir Edmund Robert Fremantle (centre) (Donor’s collection).

The staff of the Juno Beach Centre Association communicates with many passionate and generous donors throughout the year. Today, we pay tribute to Commander Charles Fremantle, Royal Navy (retired) and his father, the late Commander Edmund Seymour Denis Fremantle DSC.

The late Commander Fremantle landed with the Canadians on Juno as a Beachmaster on D-Day, but his naval career began during the First World War. Edmund Fremantle joined the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 13, on January 15, 1918. In so doing, he followed a great family naval tradition going back to 1779, when Thomas Fremantle, commander of HMS Neptune at the Battle of Trafalgar, joined the Royal Navy. Edmund’s father and grandfather were also admirals. With this family background, he was not easily intimidated, making him good Beachmaster material for ordering around any number of senior officers who found their way onto his beach.

Edmund Fremantle rose through the navy’s ranks, advancing from midshipman to lieutenant commander between 1922 and 1934. In 1925, he qualified as an acting interpreter in French, a valuable skill for his interactions with French civilians in 1944-1945. Edmund was a champion welterweight boxer and often competed at with the Royal Navy team at the Bisley Shooting Contest. Trained as a gunnery officer, he served aboard the light cruisers HMS Cairo and HMS Curacoa and the battleship HMS Revenge before the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany.

Destroyers HMS Icarus (centre) and HMS Bedouin (right) form up on HMS Warspite (left) at the Ofotfjord during the Second naval Battle of Narvik (Donor’s collection).

Lieutenant Commander Fremantle began the Second World War aboard the battleship HMS Warspite in the Mediterranean. The twice-rebuilt First World War battleship sailed to Halifax in November 1939 and escorted fuel from Canada to the United Kingdom in late November. Afterwards, Warspite joined the Home Fleet stationed at Scape Flow, Scotland. She left port on December 13th to escort a troopship convoy after intelligence placed German warships in the North Sea. This convoy, carrying elements of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, arrived unscathed. Fremantle and Warspite’s crew participated in the Second naval Battle of Narvik on April 13, 1940. The battleship and its escorts trapped eight German destroyers in the Ofotfjord, sinking three. German sailors sank or ran aground their remaining five destroyers when they ran out of fuel and ammunition. The Admiralty awarded Edmund Fremantle a mention in dispatches for his role in this battle.

HMS Warspite returned to the Mediterranean in late April 1940. The successful German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May led to the Italian declaration of war on France and Britain on June 10, 1940. One month later, on July 9, 1940, Warspite sailed into battle with the Italian navy at the Battle of Calabria. The battle ended in a draw but Fremantle managed to direct one of the British battleship’s 15-inch guns to hit the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare at a range of 26,000 yards or nearly 24 kilometres! This matched a record and earned the gunnery officer his second mention in dispatches in three months.

Sailors aboard the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare survey the damage caused by one of HMS Warspite’s 15-inch shells. Scoring this hit at a range of nearly 24 kilometres earned Lt. Commander Femantle his second mention in dispatches of the Second World War (Donor’s collection).

Lieutenant Commander Fremantle left Warspite in March 1941. He spent over two years at the Liverpool shore establishment, HMS Eaglet. Here he was a planner and analyst for the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, the command responsible for the safety of Allied shipping off the British Isles. A personnel report dated 21 August 1942 described Fremantle as “a zealous and able officer who has proved to be an excellent Flotilla Gunnery Officer.” He even made a secret visit to Ireland to advise on that neutral country’s coastal defences against a German invasion. After further staff postings, Edmund Fremantle joined HMS Odyssey, another shore establishment, for training and employment as a Beach Commando.

The Royal Canadian Navy fielded Beach Commando “W”, which worked at Juno Beach from early July 1944. In this photo, Able Seaman Douglas F. Trewin examines a German sign warning for mines, 20 July 1944 (Lieutenant Richard G. Arless / DND / LAC / PA-180832).

Royal Navy Beach Commandos played a crucial role in the Normandy assault. Since the Allies would not capture a major port in their initial landings, they had to maintain a steady flow of supplies and reinforcements over the beaches. They also sought to open smaller ports, like Courseulles-sur-Mer on Juno Beach, as soon as possible. Beach Commandos, led by officers known as Beachmasters, behaved much like traffic cops. They would assign spots on the beach to landing craft, using flags, signal lamps, and loud hailers to guide their pilots into position. They also marked hazards so that landing craft could steer clear of danger. Fremantle was a Principal Beachmaster and led “S” Beach Commando, consisting of 10 officers and 65 ratings.

At 9am on the morning on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Lieutenant Commander Fremantle came ashore at Juno Beach (Bernières-sur-Mer). He landed alongside members of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, including the battalion commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Godfrey Spragge. Fremantle and his men set about their work of organizing the beachhead. Although the fighting soon moved inland, the dangers of undiscovered mines, German aerial bombing, and artillery fire persisted. By the end of the campaign, Fremantle’s position was Chief Principal Beach Master for Juno Beach. He received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his part in the Battle of Normandy.

In mid-August 1944, the heavily battered German army in Lower Normandy began a retreat from France. The Canadian Army became responsible for liberating channel ports like Dieppe, Boulogne, and Calais. Promoted to acting commander, Edmund Fremantle and a small group of officers and ratings from his “S” Commando formed Naval Party 1747.

This cropped photograph depicts Brigadier John “Jock” G. Spragge DSO, OBE, ED on August 30, 1944 at Gouy (south of Rouen), France, shortly after his elevation to command the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Donald I. Grant / DND / LAC / PA-132816).

In September, Fremantle’s party moved between Courseulles on Juno Beach and ports like Dieppe, Le Havre, and Boulogne. They organized living quarters for Royal Naval parties at Dieppe, turned over Le Havre to the US Navy, and assisted the Naval Officer-in-Charge Boulogne in surveying and opening that port. Finally, Fremantle’s party arrived on Calais’s outskirts, intent on making the port operable as soon as possible following its capture.

From a temporary headquarters in the nearby town of Guines, Commander Fremantle maintained a close liaison with Brigadier John G. Spragge. The Canadian officer, who Fremantle had landed with on D-Day, now commanded the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, the force responsible for capturing the port facilities at Calais. On September 29th, Fremantle joined a Canadian artillery officer in surveying local coastal defence guns to determine their suitability for bombarding Calais. Able to use his gunnery expertise once again, Fremantle and his companion found that the guns could only fire out to sea.

The German garrison in Calais surrendered on September 30th and Fremantle and Brigadier Spragge entered Calais on October 1st. The Calais naval party, reinforced with men from the naval party in Boulogne, set about surveying the port area and preparing it to receive supply vessels. Royal Navy fire pumps from Boulogne brought the many large fires burning in the town under control. Minesweeping began two days later and the port soon began receiving naval traffic. Commander Fremantle remained in Calais for the remainder of the war, ensuring that it continued to function as an important cog in the Allied supply chain.

Commander Edmund Fremantle retired from the Royal Navy in 1949. Unfortunately, his life outside the navy was not as successful. He bought a fishing company at Brixham and lost all his money. During the war, his first wife, an actress named Dorothy Sinclair, left Edmund and their three children, including Charles Fremantle, for her lover, a French naval aviator. Edmund and Dorothy divorced during the war and he won custody of the children. In 1946, he married Edna Lyddon, the widow of a Royal Armoured Corps officer killed in action at Calais in 1940. Edna and Edmund met in the months before D-Day when she was his driver as a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). They had two children. In total, Edmund had one daughter and four sons, including Charles Fremantle, who rose to the same rank as his father in the Royal Navy during the Cold War.

Edmund Fremantle’s war included numerous run-ins with Canadians. The connections also extend to his children. Charles recalls that “My brother, sister and I were sheltered with a family near Montreal during the war. So, we have good reason to thank the Canadians.” He and two of his siblings were among the 7,000 or more “guest children” evacuated from Britain to Canada starting in 1940 amid a German invasion scare. In the mid-1960s, Charles returned to Canada and served for two years at HMCS Stadacona, the Royal Canadian Navy’s east coast headquarters in Halifax.

Last year, Charles connected with us about sponsoring a brick to honour his late father. Charles says that his father never spoke about his D-Day experience and suspects the Beachmaster’s memories were too horrific to share. Staff installed the Fremantle brick at the Juno Beach Centre in time for Remembrance Day in 2020. The museum is honoured to display this brick and preserve Commander Edmund Fremantle’s memory.

Thanks to generous contributions like Charles’s, the Juno Beach Centre can continue its mission to preserve the legacy of Canadian service and sacrifice in the Second World War. We will never forget the role of friends and Allies like Commander Edmund Fremantle, who also fought to ensure their children would inherit a better world.

Remember Today. Remember Always.

Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at jbca@junobeach.org.

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