ALTHOUGH nearly all the pictures and stories of D-Day concern men landing in the waves and storming up the beaches, there were many other players in this great seaborne invasion.

Before anyone set foot on a beach, there were the fliers of the RAF who pounded the German defences from the air, and there were the paratroopers who landed, some in gliders, behind enemy lines to destroy the most dangerous gun emplacements.

And there were the sailors of the Royal Navy who targeted the enemy guns from a couple of miles out. One of those sailors was Surgical Lieutenant Morris Metcalf, the ship’s doctor on HMS Tanatside, a destroyer.

He had been born in Sunderland in 1919 and had studied medicine at Newcastle Medical School, which was then part of Durham university. He graduated in 1942 and worked as a house doctor at Ashington in Northumbria, where he treated men hurt in pit accidents, before spending time as a locum GP in Spennymoor, where he cycled to his patients.


From the outbreak of war, he had been keen to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – his father was a ship’s engineer in Sunderland so the family had a close connection to the sea – but he was instructed to finish his medical studies. Once they were concluded, and he had a little experience, he joined up in March 1943, and as D-Day approached he was in charge of the health of the 168 crew members of HMS Tanatside, a destroyer that specialised in convoy escort and anti-submarine work.

Surgical Lieutenant Morris Metcalf

He kept a fast-paced diary throughout the war, and it has kindly be lent to us by his daughter, Jane Fortune, who lives in Hurworth, after it was transcribed by his son, John Metcalf, who is now in Switzerland.

This, then, is what it was like to be on the waves about two miles out as D-Day – June 6, 1944 – unfolds in front of you…


May 27. Proceeded to Weymouth. Speculation as to reason why on board, mostly correct. Place alive with shipping. American 18 Destroyer Sqn and ourselves take it in turn to do E boat patrols at night in pairs. Nothing eventful.
(An E boat was an enemy boat, usually a fast attack boat)

June 1. Became sealed ship. No shore leave allowed. Officers prevent any idle gossip. No mail, and all our mail is getting no further than Portland. More ships arrive every day.

Weather brilliant. Relieve monotony by sailing a whaler – think I know a little about sailing now. Determined to get a boat after war.
(Morris did indeed get a boat after the war, and became a rear commodore at Sunderland yacht club.)

June 3 and 4. Air raid on Weymouth bay – missed us by a cable or so. (A cable is about 100 fathoms or 180 metres).

June 5 and 6. Have seen THE ORDERS and know whereabouts we are going – gives you the creeps to see all the Jerry gunsights. Can only hope the air force reduce them. We will be 2 miles off. Book of orders must weigh about 2 stone itself. Amendments to it weigh about 1 stone.

News that D Day is not to be today but tomorrow owing to dreadful weather. Terrific pent up feeling. Have written to all and sundry. Forgotten the will.

Briefed by Capt – expects 50% losses in ships, nice thought.

We attack an echo (on the radar that we think might be a submarine). All ships on toes and are attacking anything like an echo. Yankee destroyers seem to be dropping chargers every half hour.

It is foggy and visibility is only about 1.5 miles and low cloud 10/10. Feel worried more about the success of the mission and the weather than being hurt. Hear parachute troops going over.

Feel a bit cynical hearing some trash on the wireless and wonder what they’ll all say back home tomorrow.

Action stations at 2230. Second Degree at 2400 hours. Try to sleep and can’t. Awake 0430. Everybody astern. Can hear bombers blasting French coast. ‘’Slept’’ all night fully clothed, get a ‘cats lick’ then give sick bay a once over.

Morris's model of HMS Tanatside

Go on to upper deck. Tin helmet, anti flash gear. Gas mask, valise. Amazing spectacle. The Gold beach force and the rest of the ships supporting British beaches have veered off to the south, leaving Texas, Nevada, 2 French cruisers and Bologna Glasgow, ourselves and US destroyers advancing on Omaha beach.

Minesweepers are going in ahead of us. They are old fashioned and don’t neutralize magnetic mines. Then come the destroyers, us and the others and some small American marker craft and troops in dinghies – I suppose for neutralizing mines.

The French coast in places is literally on fire and every so often a great black mushroom cloud is silhouetted against these flames. I see 2 poor devils plummet to earth in flames – both look like bombers and probably ours.

Sandwiches are set aside for officers and also Cornish pasties but I just can’t eat for excitement and apprehension.

American troops wading ashore at Omaha Beach

0515. The French coast is now clear. Sea is rough and it is foggy. Planes are still bombing. We have numerous allied fighters overhead.

0615. All Hell seems to be let loose. We are in line with US destroyers, and HMS Melbreak is further in than any of us. Jerry does not seem to have come out of his first daze and shock.

We pass the stern of a French ship to take up our firing positions about 2.5 miles from shore. The Froggies cheer us and dance up and down like only Frenchmen will. We don’t feel like that however.

0630. Jerry is waking up. I can see shell spouts near Melbreak, two big ones fell near our starboard quarter between us and USS Nevada. A Yankee destroyer is hit by something but goes on firing.

I am rushing around trying to take shots with a camera but have to keep my head down. One falls 10 yards away from our starboard beam – a splinter knocks a large patch of paint off port side. The noise is terrible especially from the big ships.

No Jerry aircraft yet. Our rocket guns are laying down murderous fire on the cliffs.

Landing ships are going in a bit wave tossed – poor blokes will be seasick no doubt. Have a splitting headache now but no appetite.

Firing has died down. We move in to shell Port-en-Bessin which seems a dead town but we learned later took 3 days to capture.

A little fishing boat pulls out from P-en-B. Maybe going to meet our ships.

We bombard the fort and pill boxes on the pier. We shell gunsites on cliffs.

We are all covered in soot from galley chimney.

The boys are going in an endless stream now. Wave heartily to some Yanks armed to the teeth in a small landing craft. Am proud to see a British marine standing on the bows above everybody else, waiting to jump ashore and let down the ramp. Give a prayer of thanks for preservation so far.

Royal Marine Commandos of Headquarters, 4th Special Service Brigade, make their way onto Juno Beach, at St Aubin-sur-Mer at about 9am on D-Day. 

0830. We have fired 750 rounds of ammo and are now moving out. The worst seems over. Shrapnel is bursting above the beaches but the Yanks are making headway. Fighting has moved in about 2 miles or so.

2000. We return to Plymouth for more ammo and oil. Beautiful moon out but still choppy. Plymouth deserted, like a dead city. Not a Yank to be seen. Return next day and shrapnel is still bursting on beaches.

(Tanatside continued its patrols in the English Channel looking out for E boats as supplies and men went across.)

June 22. Attacked by torpedo bombers for 2 hours. Great black plane swooped down starboard side and torpedo passes 40 yards ahead of us. Lucky again.

5 Jerries brought down. Horrible to see them hit the water and burst into flames. 2 parachutes came down from one of them. One jerry prisoner – he was shot down by the destroyer flak.

For the last 2 weeks, bombing of the (Normandy) peninsula has lit up the night skies and tonight it is particularly terrific. During daytime terrific detonations are heard inshore. Machine gun fire is continual ashore.

Three Royal Navy doctors in Rome, with Morris Metcalf in the centre

Morris remained with the navy until being demobbed in 1946. He then became a GP in Sunderland, working until he was 72. In 1959, he married Valerie, a respiratory specialist who he met while visiting a patient in Sunderland General Hospital and who became one of the founding doctors of St Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland. They lived in Cleadon – you could spot their house because Morris kept his yacht on the drive. Their daughter Jane was a consultant physician at North Tees and a professor of medical education at Durham and Sunderland universities while John worked in the pharmaceutical industry and inherited his father’s love of sailing.

Morris and Valerie Metcalf in 1999

Valerie died in 2001 and Morris in 2012.

  • With many thanks to Jane and John for lending us this wonderful document.


A reunion of some of the crew of HMS Tanatside