Corporal A. Darlington

 

Unit : 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment

 

Before D-day we were all penned in near Tarrant Rushton. The gliders were herring-boned in formation along the runway which we believed to be the longest in Britain at that time. Our loading was completed, whilst our tow planes, souped up Halifaxes came later. Two Tetrarchs were in the hangars both having something wrong with them. An officer asked me whether I could get one good one out of the pair. Cpl Elsey and myself, along with a couple of RAF fitters, decided that changing the good engine to the good rest of the tank would make one good one fit for action. We worked through the night and loaded it into its empty glider, and we reported all was well to the highly pleased officer who gave us permission for a late Reveille.

 

D-day had been postponed because of heavy gales. We were of course being briefed with aerial photographs and special lenses on stands that gave us a 3D image of our landing zones. There were, of course, posts erected in some areas to prevent such an airborne landing. Our objectives as a Division were to protect the whole left flank of the invasion, seize the bridges over the River Orne and the Canal du Orne, eliminate the guns near Merville, as per history books which only summarise. The 6th Airborne were given the job of protecting the left of the bridges and protecting also the open country overlooking Caen and Columbelles, and through the Bois de Barent to Troarn outskirts. D-day for us, therefore, started in the late hours of June 5 1944. Our stick of Paras took off, I believe, from Brize Norton, along with Major Howard's glidermen and the 13th Para etc, etc, who landed in the early hours of 6 June. There were others, of course, all with their own specific tasks to perform.

 

We arrived at the airfield in the morning and were given a meal by the Air Force WAAFs. We even had sugar in bowls and the best meal we'd had in years. WAAF even refilled our water bottles for us, and gave us what turned out to be a useless object called Soap! This we termed the "Last Supper" and for many of us it was. We had been issued with a 48 hour emergency ration, which looked more like a child's compendium of games when opened. Creamy coloured dominoes turned out to be porridge with milk and sugar, if reconstituted, the dice were tea, milk and sugar cubes. Chocolate was so hard it could only be gnawed with the front teeth, and there were boiled sweets and a couple of 'pink pills' to keep us awake if necessary. Two pieces of tin plate could be slotted together to become a cooker with solidified methylated spirits, and another useless component was 6 pieces of brown bumph! This 48 hour emergency pack, however, lasted me 10 days, and there was no opportunity to cook them, nor had we any room in the overladen Jeep for anything else but our equipment, weapons and ammo, so our food was nibbled with sips of water from our bottles. What other vehicles carried I do not know as we were supposed to be relieved before our rations ran out.

 

We were then taken to our respective gliders which were still in herring-bone formation, but this time with the Halifaxes attached with tow ropes and intercom lines connected. We met our pilots for the first time. Two sergeants called Jones were brothers. One trusts pilots as these are roughly in the same boat as you are, and will pick the easiest landing, as they also became foot soldiers when they re-joined their units. Our glider was at the back end of the runway, apparently the handiest for several last minute "just in case" packages and we were about to find out that we were slightly overloaded. Door closed. Brakes on. Anchors firm. Strapped in. We're off! A gentle tug, then bump - bump from the wheels. Bump-bum-bu-bump which speeded up as we raced down the runway. Bu-bu-bump - then silence as we became slightly airborne; then bu-bu-bump again. "What the hell have you got in there?" "Take off or cast off!" Then silence - we were airborne. Whether we were flying below the tug or above we will never really know, as the sound of the wind through the glider carried on.

 

For what seemed an eternity we flew on and Lt Hughes produced a bottle of whiskey which was by no means full but returned empty as each of us took a mouthful, shuddered and felt it warm up our innards. A jagged hole appeared to the right of the carrier. Flak or a seagull? We saw the wire mesh that covered it. Probably for the earthing of the radio. I don't know. Strange how one remembers little things like that. "Approaching LZ. Ready for cast off. Cast off." Then a gentle tug backwards, the opposite from take-off. The nose dipped and turned and the wind whistled through the fuselage. It was as if we had come off the top of a scenic railway at night.

 

The landing was a roaring, twisting, bumping, skidding from high speed to a dead stop, and we were all momentarily knocked out. The side door opened and the pilot looked in and shouted "Sorry for the rough landing, boys" which wakened me up. I unstrapped, dashed out of the door to let the struts down for exit, only to find that the under carriage no longer existed and parts of the wings were missing. The front was clear and the engines were running. "All clear for exit, sir!" "The damned anchors are jammed!" Out of the Jeep again, I took the escape hatchet from the wall, after three or four good swipes, the carrier shot forward. The door opened and off they went. As they left the glider, the glider settled down backwards and our Jeep anchor ropes were jammed also. The hatchet came into action once more but the front edge of the exit had risen some 2 ft; on hindsight, I realise the tail wheel was also torn off. The Jeep's front wheels could not reach the ground as we see-sawed on the edge with the chassis. I got out again, grasping the bumper so that the back wheels could drive the Jeep slowly forward and then the front wheels take over. Then we were off, following the carrier. I often wondered how I completed this feat of strength.

 

On the way, it was obvious from the parachutes scattered around that we were not alone. As we reached the edge of a wood and a small track, we turned and saw the rest of the gliders of our units coming in all manoeuvring for the empty spaces. I witnessed two Hamilcars heading for the same space, and obviously they had seen each other. As they tried to bank away from each other, one glider's wing tip turned the other over and it crashed sideways into the wood and the Tetrarch shot out of the front on impact. We made a mad dash over and the tank was upright although it had somersaulted out of the glider. The crew of which the driver was Tpr Kewney and two others were unstrapped and dragged out. Their foreheads were bulged and purple and they were unconscious. They were strapped on the back of a passing tank's engine compartment with camouflage nets  and the retaining straps over their midriffs.

 

The fields were hives of activities as gliders landed and unloaded. The problems, however, were not yet over for as the tanks disembarked, along with many other vehicles, they made for cover, running over the chutes left behind by the Paras, who had been dropped to clear the DZ of any hazards, such as stout poles that had been dug in, and in some cases cemented, in our LZs. These chutes, however, became a bigger hazard than the poles, for as the tanks ran over them, the tracks picked them up, then wrapped them tightly round the driving sprockets, bringing the tanks to a halt either by slewing the tank round, or to a dead stop. The summary records that blowlamps were used. We had no such luxury, and even if we had, I would not have used them, as the heat would just have solidified them and been a permanent lock on the sprockets. The tank I ran to had one wrapped round the port track and I commenced cutting, firstly with my jack knife, then my razor sharp fighting knife, whilst the tank commander and his gunner protected me from the small arms fire that had started. The task was made harder as not only was the canopy wrapped round the track and sprockets, but the rigging and harness as well. Finally we succeeded and there was a brief thanks and away it went to rendezvous. I do not know the tank commander's name nor, I suspect, did he know me. About half of my knife was lost from the point in this frenzied recovery and there were still a few more bogged down through the same problem. As others were freeing their vehicles, until finally all that was left on the LZ and the DZ were the wrecked gliders, parachutes scatters around and the odd burst of small arms firing.

 

I know not how long it took us to assemble at our various points. I do know, however, that our "stick" of 12 men and Lt Belchem never turned up, and I found out many years later that the gales were still blowing on the night of 5/6 June, and that these brave fellows had overshot the DZ and landed in the marshes near Troarn, and some of them were never seen again until the marshes were drained much later. One or two others rejoined the unit after a few days of coming back through the enemy lines.

 

Time has no meaning on these occasions. Knowing where one was by use of the map did not show where the enemy was. All one knew was that they were all around you and we had to find out where they were! The last four hours of daylight were taken up by establishing a perimeter and putting out observation posts with machine guns behind. But first one had to patrol to these places. Birds do not whistle or chirp any more. Civilians are dug in or hiding. One develops ears like pixies and can hear a pin drop a hundred yards away. Our eyes have marvelous properties for if one stares in one direction at night, suddenly one can see the very leaves on the trees and much detail of what is in front of you. Then pitch black once more as the sky lights up as battles rage around us. The Aurora Borealis of fires in buildings some way off. Come the dawn, more patrols, moving through the villages, clearing out a few snipers and clashes of patrols.

 

At Ranville, or near to it, was a church with a separate tower... Two German machine gunners {attacked us here and} killed or wounded many of the boys and, if you go to the church wall about fifty yards from the tower, you will find a hole where several stones were removed to allow a rifle to be pointed at the top of the tower and the offending machine gunners. Their graves are at the back of the cemetery in Ranville.

 

It is difficult to put any date or time to these actions. I do, however, know that I still had my tin hat on! I also had my tin hat on when going with the Y troop to their location. I found four young dead soldiers, British or Canadian, I don't know, and when I looked over the Eophen [/sp] Dyke, I heard the mortar shell some 15 yards away and this hit the top of it. A red hot flash and flame knocked me on my back and as I put my hands to my face and opened my eyes, I thought my face had been blown apart and I was blind. However, it was only the camouflage net off my tin hat! So this must have been in the first few days.

 

The "Y" Troop I mentioned had never been referred to in either the Summary or the History books, yet they played a great part in the diversion of troops in the Breakthrough. They also had casualties! Not many Other Ranks knew of their existence. Many months before D-day a few of us had to take tanks and other vehicles to a set destination and, at night without talking, proceeded to run along roads and grass and then harbour them as an armoured regiment on the move and then in position. These sounds were recorded on tape. "Y" Troop therefore had Jeeps and covered trailers, and their playing gave the enemy the impression that two regiments had landed, not one, to hold the front secure, while in fact only a troop was being deployed. They also had similar tapes, but this time heavier equipment, and whilst we were dug in the REs actually built a bridge and a road that went nowhere, and we were constantly bombarded by Artillery and SPs, all due, we said to that "blasted "Y" troop!" I do not know if these people were or still are on the Secrets list.

 

D-day, to me at least, was not the 24 hours of 6 June. My Jeep had been taken away in the first few hours so my crew were foot soldiers, dogsbodies, moving from our DZ through to the Bois de Barent. Even patrolling to the start of Troarn. We were told on one occasion that a "prisoner" had said there was a regiment of Poles with a few German officers in the woods near Troarn. Some of us as a patrol went down to find out, and on reaching the open field on the right of the wood track just before the road to Troarn, we were greeted with what sounded like a cow - or many cows - dying. Minenwerfers, a rocket propelled explosive, whoosed overhead, blasting the trees behind us. These were people ready to give themselves up? L/Cpl Bradley, our tail-end Charlie, had taken the liberty of not opening his eyes after a blink, and never heard a thing. We dragged him several yards before he came to! I do not know what happened to the "prisoner".

 

We also spotted a build-up of armour and troops at a farm. A naval spotter came later. He told me he was from the "Warspite"; the Summary says the "Mauritius". After a few minutes of what sounded like houses flying over, the farm disintegrated. God bless Warspite or Mauritius or whoever sent them. On another occasion we witnessed the bombing of Caen by 1000 bombers, an awe-inspiring sight as flak, heavy at first, slowly subsided and planes dropped their deadly cargo, one or two turning left, either for a second run or being damaged. All this, and more, in 10 days on a 48 hour compendium of games as food and one flask of water. I was down to my last tea-leaf when a tank from the HD stopped alongside us. We were relieved!

 

"Have you got any grub?" I was handed down a tin of sausages and the tank moved on. Opening the tin with my jack knife I hurriedly dug in. My tongue now was like a horse chestnut, so the sausages were tasteless until they turned green in colour half way down. The tin was blown! We went back and tasted our first hot meal since the Last Supper. I lay in a ditch and had my first sleep since the 6 June, which was rudely shattered after what seemed minutes by a big counter-attack. We had to go back up once more. Tanks were coming. Our tanks and ground troops were in position. Sgt Sheffield's tank moved first, there was an exchange of shots and a tank's turret lid landed beside me. Smoke bombs and the slow retreat of both parties. Sgt Sheffield received the Croix de Guerre for this and other actions. He still says that it wasn't his lid. I didn't mind as it made a fine cover for my dugout, as we all dug in together for the first time.

 

I began to have the 'flu and saw the MO who with his assistant, Cpl Ian Colquahoon were the bravest people I had ever seen. They were attending calls even under the heaviest gun fire. Connie Boswell lost both legs, whilst in the same slit trench Joe Musgrove lost half his head. I helped three lads back who had been shot through the shoulders, and I had a bullet hole which went right through the middle of my flying jacket's right arm and out of the back, and it wasn't painful. They treated the lads who were "blighted" and they were sent home; they buried the dead for recovery, and there was I with blood running down my arms and onto my hands. I stripped. It was cleaned with surgical spirit to reveal a groove about an inch long in my left arm. The MO laughed, slapped a sticking plaster on it and missed! We both laughed, and I put the patch back in the right place. "You have impetigo on and around your mouth," he said and he cleaned it up. "I think purple is becoming," he said and dabbed gentian violet all over my scabs. "I wish all my patients were as easy as you, son." "Thanks, sir," and we both laughed again. I couldn't remember the last time I had laughed.

 

There I was again, however, with a temperature and shivering. "A few tablets and under that tank over there," he said. "On the other hand, could the 'flu have been the green sausages?" In the interim, I along with others had been driven to Bayeux to pick up Cromwells and other vehicles for the Breakout. This journey found us getting a good meal, a slice of real bread and a bottle of beer, for which we thanked the Sgt Major. "Pleasure, boys, and by the way there's a film on in that building while we get your gear ready." 'Three Heaps in a Jeep' the film was, isn't that how we landed? The film was showing so we lay on the banking outside and slept, wakening only by the sound of a clicking camera. A War Correspondent. We rose up, smiles and collected our vehicles and back once more.

 

Having been given the pills and got under the tank, I was once more rudely awakened and told we were breaking out. My only means of transport was the lop-sided tank that I had slept under. The suspension on one side had collapsed, the 2 pdr, Besa and radio had been removed but the engine worked. Another walking wounded arrived. "Can you drive?" "Yes." Then he got in and I signalled to move, but with faulty suspension and a person unused to Tetrarchs, I soon had to change over as one could see that some of the ditches were mined. Traverse the turret to the rear and cover me with your weapon, and I will fire if need be out of the front. We must have looked an incredible sight as we ambled off behind the heavies. It was either this, or walk! - or be left behind. The next few hours were hectic indeed. Sonnerville and Bannerville were just two heaps of rubble, while Pont l'Aveque was a tower with just chimney stacks left. At the end of the first day, my 'flu had disappeared, probably frightened out of my system, or a "mind over matter" miracle.

 

D-day therefore ended for me at the end of August, three months after leaving England and making History by flying an armoured regiment and landing them on a foreign shore with the finest bunch of men one could ever wish to meet. I am proud to have been part of them. This brainwash of the events of D-day only applies to my part of the hectic actions that took place, and I was fortunate to survive to Pont au du Mer where we were withdrawn as we were no longer deemed a "fighting force" by Col Stewart. We came out like Rag, Tag and Bobtail, extremely tired and dirty, and with memories as our cameras. Faces remain but names fade.

 

Bovington Tank Museum. Thanks to Keith Flint for his help.

 

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