Captain/Reverend A. L. Beckingham
Unit : 224th Parachute Field Ambulance, RAMC
In June 1943 I was appointed chaplain and as at this time the 6th Airborne Division was being formed it was a simple matter to 'move down the road' from the Chaplains' training School at Tidworth to the Airborne Division's camp at Bulford. Within a matter of days I was at Hardwick for the pre-parachuting course, taking the fortnight's course to reach the required physical standards. It was not always easy to keep alongside men who were well-trained soldiers but already the comradeship that was so real a part of parachuting was developing and this helped me a great deal to pass all the tests required for those going on to Ringway for the jumping course.
It was at Ringway that I was introduced to one of the tasks of an Airborne Chaplain. On the night jump from the basket attached to the air defence balloon, the parachute of the young soldier preceding me from the basket failed to open. I was always very thankful the R.A.F. Sergeant in charge quietly carried on and gave me normal instructions for my exit. The young wife of the lad killed that night lived in Manchester and mine was the task of breaking the news to her. She was a brave little woman and for some time afterwards my wife kept in touch with her. It was good to be able to tell her of the living Christ who could comfort and help as no other could.
On qualifying as a parachutist I was posted to the 8th Battalion at Tilshead, an isolated spot on the Salisbury Plains. There for almost a year I trained with them. As the Baptist United Board Chaplain I had duties with other units throughout the Division but with a real ecumenical spirit prevailing through the team of chaplains it was left to me for the most part to cover the spiritual and moral needs of the Protestants in the battalion with whom I lived. One of my most vivid memories of my year with the 8th was night exercise during which one plane crashed into a hillside, killing the crew and parachutists. A battalion memorial service was held and as the church at Tilshead could not take all who wished to attend we were kindly given permission to use the beautiful Devizes Parish Church.
Shortly before D Day it was decided by the Senior Chaplain that Padre G.A. Kay should drop with the 8th Battalion and I would drop with the 224 Parachute Field Ambulance. Little did I realise at the time of this switch that one of my first duties in Normandy would be to lay to rest the body of poor Kay so tragically killed within a few hours of our landing.
So in May 1944 I went to live with the 224 Field Ambulance, a unit whose men and officers I already knew well. They numbered in their ranks quite a few conscientious objectors who had volunteered to serve their country in this way as stretcher bearers and many of these were fine Christian lads with whom I found it a great privilege to serve and with whom fellowship was very real.
The main function of the 224 Parachute Field Ambulance was to treat and clear casualties sustained by the 3rd Parachute Brigade when it dropped into action in the early morning of D Day in the area between the River Orne and the River Dives. That of the Padre attached to them? He saw his task as ministering to the wounded, giving moral strength to the sound and helping in any practical way possible those in need. To make more realistic help the padre might give if the situation called for it, all the chaplains not only knew the basic facts of first aid but attended a week's course at the Tidworth Military Hospital watching operations performed and gaining some ideas of the help required by surgeon in an emergency.
On the 25th May, 1944, we moved to Down Ampney in the Cotswold District. Here in our transit camp were not only the Field Ambulance but also the Canadian Parachute Battalion one of the three battalions that formed the 3rd Brigade. The weather was lovely and the freedom of the brown, ploughed fields and stretches of summery grass invited us beyond the stone walls and barbed wire which shut us in. We were prisoners in our country. For the operation had begun.
Few of us will forget our feelings when we set eyes for the first time on the huge important maps marked 'OPERATION OVERLORD' and noted for the first time place names like Varaville, Ouistreham and Caen. Soon every man learnt just where he was to drop and all became aware of our collective importance as the spearhead of the invasion for which the world was waiting. Men did not suddenly become 'spiritual' but the padre found it a time when there were many opportunities of talking to men seriously about God and life. On the Sunday there was a united service for all units in the camp taken by the Canadian padre, the Rev. G.A. Harris and myself. In the evening we held a voluntary service and many attended. The speaker was Major Darling, one of the surgeons of the Field Ambulance and I for one shall long remember his talk on 'Why I a Christian.'
By midday on June 4th we heard that the operation had been postponed. Next day it was all on again. Three hours before dusk we paraded. My pockets and haversack contained a small Bible and the 'mini' Army Prayer Book, a specially designed 'Airborne' communion set and some shell-dressings. At the airfield the Dakotas were lined upon the tarmac runway. We put on parachutes and Mae Wests. All the men for the plane in which I was to travel were cheerful but quiet. My batman, Phillips, a splendid Christian fellow who had volunteered to be my right hand man, was as always full of good humour.
All the aircraft took of between 11pm and midnight. It seemed in incredibly short time we were over the channel. When we reached the French coast, things began to happen. Evidently the pilots of the aircraft were surprised by the amount of flak that came up to meet us. It was not easy to line up in the plane ready for jumping with the aircraft taking avoiding action nor was it easy for the pilot to be sure we were in the exact dropping zone when the time for the red warning light was due to be pressed. However at last it was on and then the green light and the first man in our stick was on his way down into Normandy. As far as I am aware our stick got out fairly easily but I was too nervous to be sure of how it was really going. Joyfully I heard my 'chute open and as I looked down it seemed to me we were failing into a cornfield. It was the softest drop I ever made. I landed with a splash in a ditch and in my eagerness to get clear of my parachute in order to clamber out, I lost some of my equipment.
It was not a case of clambering onto dry ground however for coming out of the ditch I found myself in the marshes that had been flooded by the Germans a fortnight before D Day. Quite close to me was good friend Phillips and a number of other men were clambering to their feet, still, I supposed, getting over the shock of landing in water and finding how extremely heavy the water-logged equipment now seemed. There was certainly no sign of the enemy and apart from the distant rattle of machine-gun fire, the night was very still and seemed remarkably peaceful remembering that we were now in enemy occupied France. Phillips and I said a brief prayer for guidance and joined the other men to decide which way to strike out.
We decided on the direction we must take to reach Varaville and found it slow, exhausting business trudging through the water and occasionally crossing deep ditches. It was a tremendous relief when eventually we emerged from the marshes and [onto] a road. As we approached Varaville we found fighting was going on. The Canadian Parachute Battalion was finishing the job taking the village. Whilst sheltering from the firing, Phillips and I were parted and for some hours I feared he had been captured. The group of men with whom I was met the Brigade Intelligence Officer [Captain A. T. Wilkinson] and under his guidance we reached the Main Dressing Station at Le Mesnil about 11am on D Day. It was a great relief to see Phillips with others of our stick arrive about 8pm. They had narrowly escaped falling into enemy hands.
So began the busy days of caring for the wounded and visiting the men as they infested the ground between two rivers. We were surrounded on three sides by the enemy and there was constant mortaring to remind us of his being very much alive. One of the first wounded men I saw was our splendid Brigadier James Hill, a man born to inspire others. When he saw me, he told me perhaps jokingly but not completely so, to pray very hard that his wound might not mean his withdrawal from the battle. All too soon the first of our dead were being brought in for me to identify, remove their personal possessions and record these carefully and then to lay their bodies reverently to rest in a site we had chosen as a provisional burying ground Phillips my batman was of tremendous help as we moved amongst the blood-stained stretchers and still forms. As I have mentioned earlier one of the first of our dead was Padre Kay who had died whilst bravely bringing in wounded men. Soon we were to learn that the Canadian Padre had been killed on landing and so our Brigade had lost two of its four Protestant chaplains in the first few hours of D Day.
With no padres for the 8th Battalion and 1st Canadian Para Battalion and Gwinnett more than occupied with his duties with the 9th Bn. I did what I could to get round to see the men holding their positions at Le Mesnil and in the south-east of Escoville. For the first few days before the real link-up with sea-borne troops, our men were constantly under fire and our Field Ambulance was working round the clock to deal with casualties. Between the 6th and the 19th June our 224 Field Ambulance Performed 112 operations.
The 8th Para Bn. holding the thick forest of de Bavant were in small groups and there was a great sense of loneliness in that position. No man, except by looking down the main road through the Forest or down a drive could see more than a few yards ahead. Perhaps for this reason they were always very glad to have the padre look them up, bring them news of other men and when a little later welfare supplies of chocolate and cigarettes arrived I was more than welcome! At the Main Dressing Station itself, in addition to the sad duties of our little mortuary, there were also opportunities to take round cigs and sweets to the wounded men, cheering those who often thought wrongly that their last hours had come. After the first few hectic days, it became possible to take a brief service of prayer each evening in the barn alongside the M.D.S., that was using a farm House as its centre and we never lacked a congregation.
On the 16th June the Divisional Commander was given re-inforcements that meant that the tired 3rd Brigade could be relieved of their forward position and be given some opportunity to sleep after days and nights of constant enemy fire. Even the M.D.S. had become increasingly under shell and mortar fire sometimes ceaselessly for almost an hour. But though it was possible for the 3rd Brigade Battalions to be rested, the 224 Field Ambulance had to stay at Le Mesnil for the time being. At 10.30pm on the 19th June the enemy began shelling Le Mesnil with 105mm guns. Several shells landed in the farmyard itself and one scored a direct hit on the loft above the Evacuation Ward. It wounded one of our R.A.S.C. corporals who was standing just outside the door of the pigsty next to my little "office". We carried him to the Post-Operative Ward but he died before he could be given a blood transfusion.
During a lull in the shelling the O.C. [Officer Commanding] received orders from the Commander of the 5th Brigade to evacuate the buildings and move further down the line. Shelling continued throughout the night and this plus the intense darkness made the move something of a nightmare. It was so dark that one motor cyclist crashed into the back of an ambulance and continued his journey as a patient in the ambulance! So ended our first 'stage' in Normandy. For only a fortnight we had been there, but so much had happened it seemed far longer and despite the casualties and the deaths we had seen take place, it had become almost home to us and we were sorry to be driven out from our farmhouse H.Q.
After a period of rest at Ecarde, the 3rd Brigade battalions, but not the 224 Field Ambulance were returned to the line. As the Canadian Parachute Battalion had no opportunity of replacing their padre killed on the Normandy drop, it was decided that I should leave 224 and be with Canadians. So we were returned to Le Mesnil on June 24th. The battalion was holding the brickworks there and their Regimental Aid post was set up in a brick kiln close to a mortar position. This became my home too. It was extremely dusty but relatively comfortable. The R.M.O. [Regimental Medical Officer] was doubtful about the safety of the roof but one night it received eight direct hits by shells and after that he had absolute faith in its strength.
The 8th Para Bn was still without a replacement for poor Kay and the C.O. invited me to live with them, but having accepted the invitation of the Canadians it seemed wiser to stay with them and go on my "missionary" journeys both to their battalions and those of the 8th as opportunity afforded. These were not always easy journeys for though I was now provided with a jeep its dust on the roads brought immediate fire from the enemy. On the 4th July the whole Brigade went down the line again to the rest area. After a week's respite we returned to the forward positions and there followed some weeks of difficult conditions. The weather was very wet, trenches were flooded out and mosquitoes clouded the air, causing infected bites and depriving the men of badly needed sleep. There had been many rumours of the Division being brought home and when these were dashed to the ground, morale was being inclined to drop. The Germans were as busy as ever, using mortaring and 'snap' bombardments by self-propelled guns and the Luftwaffe with nightly loads of H.E. [High Explosive] and anti-personnel bombs. The job of the padre was to bring as much cheer as possible to the men at a time when all were feeling the re-action to the excitement and strain of the first weeks of the invasion.
Then in the first week of August came the news that the Division was to advance against the enemy who was slowly withdrawing. We were all overjoyed that our static role was over. But for my battalion, the Canadians, the advance began with disaster. Passing through the Bois de Bavent having nearly reached Troarn, a whole section was wiped out on a minefield. However, for the most part, this was a time of good cheer with everyone delighted to be moving forward. The greatest excitement came with news that the Brigade was to do a parachute drop on to the ground overlooking St. Andre d'Herbertot which dominated the German line of retreat. But the excitement fizzled out when the Germans withdrew and made the drop unnecessary.
So we continued to move up towards the Seine, enjoying the beauty of the countryside and the warmth of the welcome of the French people and not enjoying so much the determined resistance of the enemy. One of my outstanding memories of those days was being pinned down with a company of the Canadians in ditches on the side of the rode, seeking what shelter we could find as we waited an order to attack. Finding myself close to the second in command of the battalion, I was surprised to find him taking a small New Testament and Psalms from his pocket and to see him read a Psalm. More interesting still was his comment, "It was written for me padre." Maybe the finest proof of the inspiration of the Scriptures is that they continue to inspire even in a ditch under enemy fire!
At the end of August we reached the Seine and the Germans were streaming over in full retreat. The job of the 6th Airborne Division was for the time being over and it was now no mere rumour that we were to return. It was decided that I should join the 224 Parachute Field Ambulance for the homeward journey. So I left the Canadians but not before the C.O. [Commanding Officer] had kindly presented me with something I still treasure - the splendid parachute wings of the Canadian Parachute Battalion.
On Sunday September 3rd, the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of war had fallen in Normandy and in thanksgiving for those lives that had been spared. The service for 224 was held in the Chateau at St. Andre. In the afternoon everyone said goodbye to French friends and soon we were on our way to H.M.S. Invicta that was to take us back to Southampton.
When leave in England was over, I reported back to 224 but it was decided by the S.C.F. that whilst I should continue to serve the Field Ambulance and the Canadian Parachute Battalion until their padre arrived, I should for the time being live with the R.A.S.C. at Bulford. One of their Companies was moved out to Minstead and I went with them. This was very enjoyable period for we were made most welcome by the people of this lovely New Forest village. For the padre it was a question of many journeys however, for many other units had to be visited over a considerable area.
The Christmas party for the children of Minstead was well planned but Montgomery had other ideas for the 6th Airborne Division and when von Runstedt lunged west from Germany, the Division was hastily called to help fill the breach. On Christmas Day 1944 we were in convoy passing through London - within a few hundred yards of my home and family but not allowed to see them! This was a Christmas night I want to forget but find it difficult to do so. Our transit camp at the coast en route for France and Belgium was under canvas. Was there ever a night so cold or cheerless as that one?
Soon we were in the mountains of the Ardennes and fighting not only a desperate enemy but cold and ice that made it agony for the men in the forward positions. It was a murderous task and when the snow melted slush was ankle-high on the roads and a foot or two deep in the fields. It was an unpleasant time for all but much more so for those with the battalions than for myself with the R.A.S.C. more comfortably based in the rear. It was not long before the German drive for the Meuse and Antwerp was stopped and the Division was on its way home to prepare for the Rhine crossing. Not all the troops however were to go: R.A.S.C., R.E.M.E., R.E. and some R.A.M.C. companies were to withdraw into Holland, prepare there for the advance from Rhineland rejoin the Division when the Rhine had been crossed. As the padre already living with the R.A.S.C. it was decided I should be the poor stooge to remain on the Continent whilst my brethren went home. I don't think I have ever worked harder than in that period. Everyday was Sunday. There were so many units scattered over a wide area it was impossible for me to reach them all on a Sunday for services, so it was agreed that on whatever day I could visit them we should have a short service. They were well attended and I felt it was a profitable time. Then came the news that the padre of the 7th Para Battalion [Captain/Reverend Hyde] was ill and would be unable to make the drop over the Rhine. So I was flown home in a tiny plane, skipping over the waves of the Channel and following Saturday I was on my way back again but this time in the great fleet of planes carrying the Division into action over the Rhine. The 7th Bn was a part of the 5th Para Brigade and therefore almost completely new to me. I had one week to move around amongst the men in England before going into action with them. It was a splendid battalion under a fine set of officers and led by a first rate C.O.- Colonel Pine-Coffin. I therefore did not find it difficult to settle-in quickly.
The crossing of the Rhine was a completely different drop from the Normandy invasion. That had been in the dark in the early hours of the morning before the invasion by sea took place. In Germany the Brigade dropping was timed for 10.20 hours on 24th March, 1945, which was some three or four hours after the land troops were to cross the Rhine in their assault craft. Our Brigade was to seize and hold a spur in the dropping zone. It was much pleasanter coming down in daylight but the drop itself was from rather high up, estimated I believe between 800 and 1000 feet, with the result that we were in the air for what seemed a long time. This increased the casualty rate as the Germans were bursting AA shells amongst the parachutists. The visibility on landing was not so good as the dropping zone was largely obscured by smoke. Some of our men actually fell into German gun pits and were in fact firing on the enemy before landing. I was fortunate to land in a rather healthier spot and as soon as we had reached our RV with Dr. Wagstaff and his R.A.M.C. orderlies, I was amazed and delighted to be presented with a hot cup of tea by my batman! He had dropped into Germany carrying amongst his kit a flask of tea! I have yet to meet anyone else who was privileged to drink hot tea within a few minutes of landing in Germany during a fierce battle. There was little time during the rest of the day for food or drink as casualties were soon needing the attention of all available hands. But though the shelling and mortaring went on all the time it was not so intense as I had expected it would be. We had 93 casualties in the Battalion on the first day, including 17 killed.
Then began the great advance through Germany. In several respects this was similar to our advance from Le Mesnil to the Seine, but of course there was no welcome from the people. Constantly there was the surrender of German soldiers who by this time had grown more than weary of Hitler's war. Not all gave up easily however and one of the notable incidents of this as far as the 7th Bn was concerned was the overrunning of the Neustadt Airfield. At this time the battalion was leading the Divisional advance and for some reason we were without the Armoured Recce unit that normally probed ahead. Our troops were being carried in 3 ton lorries and half way across the rather muddy airdrome the four leading trucks came under heavy fire. In a matter of minutes, six of our boys were killed and eleven wounded. For a time it was a most unpleasant situation and had the German gunners been better at their job our casualties must have been far higher. Soon the enemy guns were taken and the doctor, his orderlies and the padre were left to deal with the wounded and dead. It was a case of working incessantly throughout the rest of the day. To me this was a particularly sad incident because amongst those killed was a fine Christian lad who with his brother I had known well from my first days in the Division when they were with 224 Para Field Ambulance. I counted them both as personal friends and it was not easy telling the brother who survived what had happened. But such was the task of the chaplain and always grace was given for the difficult tasks.
Whilst we were still working on the casualties of the airfield, the advance had to continue and almost immediately further wounded (mercifully light) were requiring attention. The enemy placed aerial bombs in a concrete pipe under the road and these were fired electrically from a slit trench. By some miracle only one exploded and though the result was a huge crater in the road, our men escaped lightly. But the worst was yet to come. The objective of the battalion was to capture Neustadt Bridge. The attack was put in at Company strength and one platoon safely was safely across the bridge with others following when the first arch of the bridge was blown. Many and severe casualties were suffered by the troops on both sides of the explosion but the small party that got across completely routed the garrison there and held their bridgehead all night. By this time Dr. Wagstaff, his men and myself had caught up with the battalion. This was at 0015 hours on April 8th - my birthday! But there was not time for birthday celebrations. The doctor and his men were tired after the incident at the airfield but it was a case of working all through the night to cope with the many injured by the bridge explosion. Nineteen were killed by this incident, a similar number wounded and six men were missing, believed killed but their bodies not found. Part of our trouble was reaching the men wounded on the further side of the river with the bridge impassable and having no means of telling until daylight who was holding the other side - our platoon or the enemy. The river was wide and fast flowing and made the night's work one to be long remembered.
After this sad day and night, the advance went well for the battalion. In no time the battalion was at Wismar on the Baltic, linking hands with the Russians. Then came the memorable surrender. The doctor and I sat on the grass outside a German farm and listened to the historic broadcast of Winston Churchill on VE Day on May 8th. There followed our own battalion thanksgiving service and a Divisional service in Nikolaikkirche at Wismar. It was not long before we were back home in England.
My thanks to Hugo Mitchell for this account.
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