Pictures

Denis Edwards with John Howard and "D" Company's snipers

Denis Edwards in Palestine, 1946

Private Denis Edwards

 

Unit : No.25 Platoon, "D" Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

 

Denis "Eddie" Edwards was born in Sundridge, Kent in July 1924. He had always intended to join the Royal Navy and became a Sea Cadet after leaving school, however he was unfortunate in the severity of the Petty Officers that were assigned to train his group and so the novelty of life at sea quickly wore off. On the 25th March 1941, Edwards applied to join the British Army and was posted to the 70th Young Persons Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

 

What follows is an account of Denis Edwards' experiences as taken from his excellent book, "The Devil's Own Luck", which chronicles his journey with the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry during pre-invasion training, then on to Normandy, the Ardennes, the Rhine Crossing and the advance to the Baltic Sea in 1945. I am indebted to Mr Edwards for granting me permission to publish extracts of it on the site. There is a great deal in the book about the Normandy campaign that has not been quoted here, should you wish to obtain a copy please visit the Shop section.

 

"There was great excitement when a notice was posted on the Battalion notice board calling for volunteers to transfer to the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. Apparently this was something to do with the Airborne Forces, about which we knew very little, but it sounded interesting. The greatest part of the attraction, however, was the location, which our enquiries revealed to be at Bulford, on Salisbury Plain, and therefore much closer to our homes. Almost everyone volunteered... To join the Airborne Forces there was a requirement for a good standard of vision, and I knew that my eyesight was slightly below par. To overcome this obstacle, I plotted with a pal of mine, persuading him to get into the queue ahead of me, to memorize the critical line from the eyesight chart and let me know it before I went in. The scheme worked perfectly."

 

"The regime at Bulford camp was tough, consisting of hard work, long marches and poor food. I was assigned initially to the Recce Platoon of "S" Company and I have good memories of those times... I transferred from "S" Company Recce platoon into "D" Company after a while and life became even tougher. In "D" Company we had the hardest of taskmasters in Major John Howard as Company Commander... His Company had to be the best at everything, be it sport, marches, field exercises or physical and endurance training... Sometimes, without warning, we would be roughly roused from our beds at around midnight, loaded into lorries and driven several miles out into Salisbury Plain. With little idea of our precise whereabouts we were dropped off in Sections and told to find our way back to camp, avoiding patrols that were sent out to catch us. To get back to the camp we would have to cross the Artillery Firing Ranges, which would be in use, with live shells, from dawn onwards! Alternatively, in what were called Initiative Tests, we would be taken even further afield, dropped off in ones and twos, without money or food, and told that the local population had been advised to report any sightings of suspected enemy paratroops. Farmers tended to let fly with both barrels of their shotguns if they found us helping ourselves from their vegetable fields!"

 

"While "D" Company invariably appeared to be best at everything, we were probably no better or worse than the lads in the other companies. However, our extraordinarily zealous Company Commander insisted that his Company had to win at everything. This virtually ensured that when a Company from the gliderborne Airlanding Brigade - with a choice from twelve infantry companies from Ox and Bucks, Devons and Royal Ulster Rifles - was required for a special mission "D" Company stood out as the natural choice for the job. In fact, if "D" Company had an advantage over the other companies in the Brigade, it was simply because it was led by the most determined and dedicated Company Commander."

 

"Despite all the hardships, life was not entirely disagreeable. The tension of a grueling week of training was alleviated by a trip into Salisbury at weekends, where we would drink the pubs dry and engage in pitched battles with the Americans, who also converged on Salisbury for rest and recreation. The local people must have dreaded our forays into the city and we were surely seen as a bunch of hooligans as we fell upon the city..."

 

"Apart from flying training, we were continuously undergoing every other type of training for the skills that we should need when, eventually, we had to face a real enemy, so fieldcraft and rifle shooting were constantly practiced... we were constantly wondering when we would go into action. There were frequent rumours that this might happen soon, and the news constantly reminded us that the Russians were pushing hard for the Allies to open a second front in the West, to take the pressure away from them. We could never have suspected that, to ensure a successful bridgehead for that second front, "D" Company would be selected to carry out a daring and terrifyingly dangerous mission, a mission for which we were to receive the most intensive training."

 

"It was in the middle of May, 1944, when we were loaded into trucks, with the covering tarpaulins all tied down to conceal us from public view, as a security measure. We were transported to Exeter where we were briefed that we were to undertake an exercise to attack a pair of bridges with a view to capturing them intact. One of the bridges was over the River Exe, while the second crossed the Exeter canal just a short distance from it. Unknown to anyone, with the exception of Major John Howard, the two bridges at Countess Weir, Exeter, being very similar in appearance and positioning to two bridges near Caen in Normandy, had become an important part of the plans being secretly discussed for the invasion of Normandy. To us this was just another exercise of course, and we had no notion that our objectives bore any relation to anything else."

 

"Just a few weeks later, at the end of May, we were again loaded into trucks and were driven to an airfield "somewhere in southern England". We were instructed to remain concealed at all times while en route, and when we arrived at our destination none of us knew where we were or why we were there. Within a short time we would learn that our exercise at Countess Weir had been a dress rehearsal. Now the stage was set and the curtain was about to go up... A day or so after our arrival we were ordered from our Section tents, told to "Fall In" and marched to an inner guarded and wired-off enclosure in the heart of the camp... We entered a large tent and received a briefing from Major Howard. Later, by platoons, each consisting of about twenty-eight men, we went to smaller tents for more detailed briefings from our Platoon Commanders."

 

"My platoon, No.25, was to fly in the first of the three gliders to go down on to the canal bridge... The latest aerial photographs were very useful, as they showed the bridges and surrounding terrain in great detail. There was also a large-scale model and we were assured that every house, outbuilding, tree, bush, hedge, gateway, ditch and fortification had been meticulously recorded. Even if a pane of glass in one of the windows had been broken, we were assured, it would be shown!... For this special mission we were fortunate in having been allocated the best pilots that the Glider Pilot Regiment could produce. They were cool efficient characters who informed us that although we may lose a wing or two, they were confident that they would be able to put us down close to our targets, and fully expected to finish the trip the right way up!"

 

"At 1700 hours we had tea and strolled over to a large tent to see a film show. There was little else to do because, now that our mission had been disclosed, the camp was sealed; no one could get in or out. Afterwards we rushed to the NAAFI tent where we queued for a glass of beer, but became fed up with the long wait, gave up and returned to our tent where we played cards, turning in eventually at around 2200 hours. It was hot inside the small tent and I suspect that, like me, few of the others slept soundly. On my mind was the thought that the task that had been allocated to us seemed so great for so small a force. To be the only Allied unit in France, even if for only a short time, facing whatever German forces might be thrown at us, seemed a daunting prospect. What if the Germans counter-attacked before the Paras came in to reinforce us? What if the seaborne forces didn't break through the German defences in time to take over the positions we were holding? Although everything was planned down to the smallest detail, it was clear to us that there we so many possibilities for everything to go badly wrong. I have never made a secret of the fact that I, like every one of my colleagues, thought that the whole scheme was little more than a suicide mission... Even if we succeeded in taking the bridges - which was in itself quite possible as we had surprise on our side - the task of holding them until reinforcements got to us by air or fought their way through from the beaches seemed like a pipedream. I smoked a great many cigarettes on the night after the first briefing, just about the longest night I can ever remember, and as such the most appropriate, if uncomfortable start to D-Day."

 

"We had an easy day, checking equipment and carrying out final briefings. Everyone was keyed up and the air felt charged with tension. Latest intelligence reports informed us that within the past few days the 12th SS Panzer Division and 21st Panzer Division (30,000 men and 300 tanks) had both been moved into the area around Caen, some five miles from our targets... Upon hearing this unwelcome news, the general feeling was expressed by one and all as "Just our bloody luck!""

 

"Fully equipped, we looked like pack mules. Everything that we would need during the next five days we had to carry ourselves... We clambered on to trucks that took us on the short ride to the airfield where we sorted ourselves into Sections and Platoons, drank hot tea and sat around on the edge of the runway smoking heavily and cracking corny jokes. The gliders were already in position behind their Halifax bombers, which were to be our glider tugs. Nervously we waited to clamber aboard. We kept busy, smearing our recently issued multi-coloured grease paint on our hands, necks and faces so that our white skin would not show up in the dark. Then, at 2200 hours, the order rang out "emplane" and we clambered aboard the gliders, wishing each other good luck, singing and joking. Once aboard the jokes continued, and on the surface there was an air of good humour but it did not cover the strong undercurrent of tension. As I strapped myself into my seat I became aware that I was becoming increasingly scared."

 

"At 2256 hours the steady hum of the bomber engines suddenly increased to a deafening roar. My muscles tightened, a cold shiver ran up my spine, I went hot and cold, and sang all the louder to stop my teeth from chattering. Suddenly there was a violent jerk and a loud "twang" as our tug plane took up the slack on the 125-foot towrope... I experienced an interesting psychological change in the few minutes before and immediately after take off. As I had climbed aboard and strapped myself into my sea I felt tense, strange and extremely frightened, much as I imagined a condemned man must feel on his last morning when he is being led from the condemned cell to the gallows. It was as if I were in a fantasy dream world and I thought that at any moment I would wake up from this unreality and find that I was back in the barrack room at Bulford Camp. Laughing and singing, each one of us attempted to show the others that we were not frightened, but personally I knew that I was scared half to death. The idea of carrying out a night-time airborne landing of such a small force into the midst of the German army seemed to me to be a sure way of getting killed, yet at the moment that the glider parted company with the ground I experienced an inexplicable change. The feeling of terror vanished and was replaced by exhilaration. I felt as if I were on top of the world. The hand of destiny had guided me to this point in my life and I remember thinking, "You've had it chum. It's no good worrying any more... the die is cast; what will be will be, and there is nothing that you can do about it", and so I sat back to enjoy my first trip to continental Europe."

 

D-Day - Bénouville, Tuesday, 6th June

 

"As we drew level with the thickest of the flak and were beginning to make out the coastline, there came the familiar "twang", and jerk of the tow-rope, followed by almost total silence which, from past experience, told us that we had parted company from the towing bomber. While in tow there had been a continuous high-pitched scream of wind forcing its way through the cracks and crevices in the thin fabric covering of the wooden fuselage. The noise was increased by the fact that the door had been opened to facilitate rapid exit once we landed. As we approached the coast the order was given to keep quiet. Hardly a sound could be heard as the bombers flew onwards on a diversionary inland bombing mission."

 

"Immediately after cast-off we had gone into a steep dive, a manoeuvre that had more than one purposes. Firstly of course the pilots knew exactly where we were and exactly the point we had to reach. Having no alternative to descent, they had to lose height at a rate which would allow us to arrive at the landing zone alongside the bridges with no further height to lose. To arrive at the landing zone while still too high, and then circling around to lose height is not a good idea when you are being shot at. Secondly, the German flak was ranged at the bomber formation, and rapid descent took us away from the immediate danger of flak damage. Thirdly, it was hoped that observers on the ground would assume that the rapidly descending glider was a crippled bomber on its way down. From around 6000 feet we plummeted earthwards at what felt to us like breakneck speed until we were within 1000 feet of the ground, where we levelled out to glide more slowly down and take two sweeping right-hand turns to position ourselves for the run-in to the landing zone."

 

"With our bodies tensed and weapons tightly gripped, the Senior Pilot, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, yelled, "Link Arms", and we knew that at any moment we would touch down. The time was 0015 hours as we all held tight and braced ourselves for touchdown. There was the usual slight bump, a small jerk and a much heavier thump, as the glider made contact with the ground, but only for a moment. It jerked again, shuddered, left the ground for a second or two, bumped over the rough surface and lurched forward like a bucking bronco. We sped forward, bouncing up and down on our hard wooden seats as the vehicle lost contact with the ground, then came down again with another heavy thump, a tug and a jerk. For a few moments it appeared that we were in for a comparatively smooth landing, but just as that thought flashed through my mind the darkness was suddenly filled with a stream of brilliant sparks as the glider lost its wheels and the skid hit some stony ground. There followed a sound like a giant canvas sheet being viciously ripped apart, then a mighty crash like a clap of thunder and my body seemed to be moving in several directions at once. Moments later the crippled glider skidded and bounced over the uneven ground to slide finally to a juddering halt, whereupon I found myself perched in a very strange position at an uneven angle."

 

"I peered into a misty blue and greyish haze. From somewhere out in endless space there zoomed towards me a long tracer-like stream of multi-coloured lights, like a host of shooting stars that moved towards me at high speed. I realized after a moment that I was not being shot at. I was simply concussed and seeing stars! The noise from the landing had ceased very suddenly and was replaced by an ominous silence. No one stirred, nothing moved. My immediate thought was "God help me - we must all be dead". The peace, after all the din and commotion, was unexpected and eerie. Then some of the others began to stir and the realization that we were not all dead came quickly as bodies began unstrapping themselves and moving around in the darkness of the glider's shattered interior."

 

"The whole interior of the glider erupted into a hive of furious activity as everyone sought their various weapons and equipment. The exit door had been right beside my feet. Now there was only a mass of twisted wood and fabric across the doorway and we had to use the butts of our rifles to smash our way out. When it was my turn, I clambered out and dropped to the ground. I glanced around from beneath the glider's tilted wing and saw the canal bridge's massive steel superstructure towering above me. The pilots had done a fantastic job in bringing the slithering, bouncing and crippled glider to a halt with its nose buried into the canal bank and within seventy-five yards of the bridge. As I moved forward I glanced back towards the glider and saw that the entire front had been smashed inwards - almost back to the wing... I had been very lucky, but I thought that those who were forward of me must have been badly smashed up or killed. There was no time to think about this, however. The medics would take care of the injured. A few of the lads were already up ahead and, not wishing to be left behind in this exposed place, I made haste to join them. Major Howard was already on the approach to the bridge and shouted, "Come on, boys. This is it!""

 

"Charging forward, we reached the wide steel bridge, letting fly with rifles and automatics, and threw grenades, shouting at the top of our voices to frighten the German defenders and to boost our own morale. An enemy machine gun on the far side of the bridge chattered into life. We returned fire and kept going, with our Platoon Commander Lieutenant Brotheridge, leading the way. The machine gun was firing long bursts as we charged, and Brotheridge, who was at the very front of the charge, was hit and fell to the ground mortally wounded. Later, when we heard what had happened, every one of us was really distressed that Lieutenant Brotheridge should have been killed in that way at the very start of our mission. He was a man for whom we had the greatest respect. Like all our Airborne officers, he had never asked us to do anything that he would not do himself. As we neared the far side of the bridge, still shouting, firing our weapons and lobbing hand grenades, the Germans jumped to their feet and ran for their lives, scattering in all directions. Relief, exhilaration, incredulity - I experienced all these feelings upon realizing that we had taken the bridge."

 

"We expected the Paras to reach us within an hour and, with the bridges now in our hands, we had to defend them against whatever counter-attack might be made. Still operating to the detailed plan rehearsed at the briefings before our departure, we took up our prearranged defensive positions. Our seven-man section moved a short distance down to the west side of the canal and took up positions astride a single-track railway that ran from Ouistreham to Caen along the top of the embankment. We removed our heavy equipment and unstrapped our small lightweight entrenching tools. These had a short wooden shaft, with a metal head having a small pick and spade... This was our only digging equipment - not the most effective tool, but just about the maximum that we could carry on top of everything else... Apart from the scraping and chinking noise of our entrenching tools against the ballast stones all was surprisingly quiet until the peace was suddenly interrupted by the sound of powerful engines from the west, somewhere around Bénouville. The accompanying clanking, rattling and squealing noises heralded the movement of tanks, and very obviously they were coming our way."

 

"For tanks to arrive so quickly was terrifying and we stopped digging as they drew nearer. Our main concern was their size, as we had nothing to stop larger tanks. No doubt the guards who had fled from the bridge had been able to warn a nearby unit of our arrival and the tanks were sent to investigate. By now they were less than fifty yards to my rear and moving towards the bridge. Suddenly I heard the familiar crack as one of the lads by the bridge fired a PIAT weapon... We had all been trained to use these weapons and, frankly, we were thoroughly skeptical about their effectiveness against real tanks. To our utter amazement, however, within a second or so of the PIAT being fired there was a mighty explosion quickly followed by shouts and screams, and it was obvious that an effective hit had been scored on the leading tank... The tank that was hit was a light machine, fortunately for us all, but still it burned very nicely, illuminating the bridge structure with a huge blaze of orange, red and yellow. There followed the sound of exploding ammunition as the tank "brewed up"."

 

"After the tanks were driven off we settled down to await the arrival of the Paras. All was quiet again until the parachute transports came overhead, when the German anti-aircraft guns and ground forces began firing into the night sky. The first few planes flew over with little opposition, but those that followed ran into heavy flak and at least one took a direct hit, was set on fire and came hurtling down like a comet from about 3000 feet. I couldn't see anything of them in the darkness but I hoped that the Paras and aircrew had been able to bail out before it crashed, since it hit the ground with such force that no one on board could possibly have survived the impact... The Paras should have been with us within an hour but it was obvious from the way that they were being carried by the wind that they were being scattered over a wide area and not within the compact dropping zone that had been planned. The result of all the confusion was that it was around 0230 hours before the first of them arrived, and the only in dribs and drabs."

 

"It became very tricky as figures suddenly appeared in the darkness. It was impossible to tell whether they were friend or foe until they got to within whispering distance and we challenged them with a pre-arranged password. We whispered "V", and the correct response was "for Victory". A German patrol which came close to us was challenged, then cut down by the light machine-gun fire when they failed to respond with the password. Killed with them were three of our Paras whom they had taken prisoner, and who obviously had declined to supply the password at the appropriate time, and so paid with their lives, along with the German patrol that had captured them. It was tragic bad luck, but a hazard of war."

 

"Generally the night was quieter than we had expected but with the dawn came Germans in droves and from all directions. Under cover of darkness their snipers had climbed into tall trees and buildings and from daylight onwards began firing their high-powered rifles with deadly accuracy. My first indication was the distant "crack" as they fired and, almost instantaneously, one of our lads would crash to the ground. They were fantastic marksmen and seldom let off a shot without hitting what they were aiming at... With no ammunition to spare we knew that there was no point in blazing away at every high tree and building in the surrounding area. In any event we were reluctant to disclose our defensive positions and firepower. We knew that the Germans could still have had little idea of our strength, so we were not keen to help them revise their estimates. All we could do was to lie doggo and keep a sharp eye open for a definite target. When we had to move it was a case of crawling rapidly across open spaces and, when we thought that we were reasonably concealed from view, jumping to our feet and running for dear life!"

 

"Later in the morning our seven-man Section was ordered to leave the comparative protection of the bridge defences. It was to the small village of Le Port that we were directed, on the higher ground just to the north-west of the canal bridge. During the night Le Port had been occupied by units of the 7th Parachute Battalion who were now under intensive attack by elements of the 21st Panzer Division. Moving with great caution, our of respect for the German snipers who appeared to have every inch of open ground well covered, we reached the outskirts of the village... Before becoming involved in the fight around the village of Le Port, we found a quiet spot beneath a tree to have a bite to eat. I had eaten nothing since leaving England and was glad to open my twenty-four-hour ration pack which consisted of a few dry biscuits, boiled sweets and a bar of unsweetened chocolate. I chewed a hard biscuit and sucked a sweet. It was not much, but for a short time it took my mind off the thought of food, until suddenly our "meal" was interrupted by a long burst from an enemy heavy machine gun."

 

"The stream of bullets ripped through the tree, inches above our heads, showering us with twigs and leaves. At that moment the 7th Para Battalion's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Pine-Coffin, accompanied by a young officer, appeared next to our tree, crouching to keep below the line of the machine-gun fire, and busily looked all around, taking in the picture. The two of them paused momentarily, glanced up at the splintered tree and the Colonel said to his companion, "That is not too healthy old boy. He's firing just a shade too close for comfort. We had better deal with him, eh?" With Stens tucked under their arms, they wandered southwards in a leisurely manner and disappeared through a gap in a nearby hedge. A few moments later came the rat-a-tat tat of two Stens, followed by complete silence. Soon they reappeared with broad smiles upon their faces, looked towards us and the Colonel said, "Well lads, that's fixed him up"... Years later I realized that the young Officer who had accompanied the Para Commander was Richard Todd, the film actor, who resumed his career after the war and appropriately played the role of Major John Howard in the film The Longest Day. No other actor could have had quite the same feel for the role as he had!"

 

"The village of Le Port was not large, but when we arrived only a small part of it was still under our control. The Germans had already gained the western and southern areas and the centre was a no-man's land... On arrival at the outskirts of the village we made contact with the Paras who directed us to defend a short row of cottages just to the south of the church. It was inside one of these cottages that I found a partly used laundry book which I stuffed into my tunic pocket. This was the notebook in which I was to scribble my daily recollections during the coming weeks and months of my stay in Normandy. Having gained access to one of the cottages from the rear, two of us went upstairs while the others stayed below. Peering through the front window, we realized that the Germans were occupying a cottage directly across the narrow street. We lobbed a couple of hand grenades through their window and scampered downstairs and waited until they retaliated with their stick grenades. As soon as these exploded in the bedroom above, we ran back up the stairs and repeated the process."

 

"Because of the danger of being pinned down we soon found it necessary to vacate the first cottage by nipping out of the back door, over the side garden wall, and entering the next one... With Germans occupying buildings on either side of ours we decided to carry out a fast withdrawal by running down the back garden and out through a gate in the end wall. As we did so the garden was raked by machine-gun fire, but we all got clear without being hit. We moved into a small field on the eastern fringe of the village and immediately to the south of the church. In our new position it would be difficult for the enemy to carry out a surprise attack as we spread out and lay down in the longish grass... Soon a German peered cautiously through the gateway. We ducked down and kept still. Then another appeared and, obviously assuming that we had vacated the area, they both stepped out into the field. Despite our shortage of ammunition, all seven of us opened fire with everything we had... The two Germans could hardly have known what hit them and they crashed to the ground and made no further movement."

 

"At the front, the church was separated from the road by a high wall. We could hear Germans on the other side barking orders to each other. Two of us slithered through the tall grass to climb over the low wall that separated the south side of the church from our field. Once within the churchyard, we darted from gravestone to gravestone, until close enough to the much higher front boundary wall to lob over a couple of grenades, before turning and running back to the field. As we ran back into the field the grenades exploded and we had the satisfaction of hearing screams from someone in the roadway. Suddenly, in perfect English, a German shouted, "You English in the church. You are surrounded and cannot escape. Leave your weapons behind you and come out through the church gate and no harm will come to you." Two of the others jumped over the wall along the southern edge of the churchyard to hurl the last of our grenades over the wall, shouting, "Have these, then. That's all we're giving up.""

 

"After all the earlier din of battle it suddenly became very quiet. Even the Germans had stopped shouting to each other, when suddenly, in the uncanny stillness of that spring day, I heard a sound that will live with me for the rest of my days... One of the lads shouted "It's them - it's the Commando!" and we all let out a cheer as the noise grew louder and we recognized it as the high-pitched and uneven wailing of bagpipes!... Shouting and cheering, we all expressed our joy together and, abandoning all caution, were up on our feet and leapt over the wall into the churchyard again, yelling things like "Now you Jerry bastards, you've got a real fight on your hands." Suddenly, as if in response to our lack of caution, and from just above our heads somewhere up in the church tower, a fast-firing enemy machine gun burst into life. We dived for the cover of the nearest gravestones, but then realized that he was not firing at us, but towards the Commando... From the churchyard we could see nothing of the machine-gunner, so we ran back to the field and fired our last few rounds at the upper part of the church in the hope of keeping him quiet. He ignored us and continued to fire long bursts towards the Commando. After a quick discussion we decided to rush the church, get inside and dislodge him from there. However, just as the decision was made, we heard the Commando in the street beyond the churchyard's front wall. They were accompanied by two Sherman tanks which halted, swung their guns over the wall and fired with a deafening crash, blasting away the top of the church tower. When the firing stopped we went back into the churchyard, out through the front gate, and greeted the Commando and assisted them in clearing out the few remaining Germans. Most had fled once the reinforcements had arrived and we were ordered to return to our Company."

 

"Once darkness fell it became quiet around the bridges. I slid into a roadside ditch and immediately fell asleep. Between 2200 and 2300 hours apparently over a thousand pairs of hobnailed boots and an assortment of vehicles passed along the road within a few feet of my head, but I heard nothing of them."

 

D+1 - Hérouvillette and Escoville - Wednesday, 7 June

 

"Apart from my profound sleep in the ditch, which had lasted all too short a time - only an hour or so - I had been virtually without sleep for forty-eight hours. None of the other lads was in any better shape because most of them, like me, had slept very little during the last night at Transit Camp, as we were full of apprehension at the thought of the daunting task that lay ahead. Since then we had been in continuous action of one sort or another, but, despite this, soon after midnight we were ordered to "fall in, ready to move off"... At around 0300 hours we arrived at what we assumed was Ranville. Here we were to rendezvous with the rest of our Battalion... As we approached the village we came under fire. Although surprised at this reception, our officers concluded that a few Germans had infiltrated the area so we shot our way through the light opposition only to meet heavier fire-power in the village centre, which forced a hasty retreat and a hurried discussion among the officers. They concluded that in the dark we had somehow by-passed Ranville and entered Hérouvillette, which was to be the Regiment's battle objective at dawn... Tired to the point of total exhaustion, we were allowed to get a little more sleep near Ranville, but were roused before dawn to make the short journey into Hérvouvillette, but now in full battalion strength."

 

"As our Company had already been in action, it was placed in reserve, but we gathered that the lead units met little opposition and were then able to continue southwards to the next village, Escoville... It was quiet and peaceful when most of us reached the centre of the village, and we were congratulating ourselves for having gained the Regimental objective without a real fight, but our self-satisfaction was premature. It was about 1100 when all hell broke loose. The Germans were dug in on wooded and rising ground to the south of the village from where they had been watching us move into their trap. They opened fire with a massive bombardment. Most of our Platoon was in a small coppice that formed part of the château's grounds and, as shells and mortar bombs exploded in the trees above, we were showered with bits of trees, whole branches and red-hot shrapnel... All around me I saw men falling to the ground, killed or wounded; it was sheer murder, trapped as we were in what was effectively a killing-field."

 

"The 88's were not very far away and were firing through open sights in much the same way as we used our rifles, and they were wreaking havoc. As the barrage continued, one of our six-pounder anti-tank guns was wheeled into the gateway of the château's drive with the intention of knocking out the SP's... but unfortunately for us our gun didn't even get a shot off before it received a direct hit from one of the 88s... As the blue-grey smoke cleared around the gateway I saw that the little gun had suffered a direct hit. It had been blown backward about six feet, and all that was left were the shattered remains of gun and crew."

 

"The noise of the shelling and mortaring stopped quite suddenly and was replaced by small arms fire - sporadic bursts from machine gun and sub-machine gun - and uncoordinated rifle fire. The German infantry were moving forward through the orchards and wooded area along the south side of the village, firing their weapons as they advanced... As the enemy advanced bullets were chipping the tree trunks just above our heads and bits of stone and dust were coming off the top of our low wall. From the first salvo our position had been hopeless... Peering around the stone gatepost I was horrified to find myself looking at hordes of German infantry advancing down the track opposite the gateway! They saw me immediately and a hail of small-arms fire spattered around the entrance to the gateway, but with little accuracy as they were firing from the hip as they advanced. I dived behind the wall, severely shaken by what I had seen, and, shouting to the others, I took out a No.36 hand grenade. In my panic and haste I fumbled with the safety pin and nearly blew myself up as I released the firing pin before I threw the grenade. This meant that the very short fuse was already burning while the grenade was still in my hand. As it transpired, this was an advantage for there is only a few seconds' delay between the release of the firing pin and the explosion of the grenade... Some of the others also hurled grenades, which caused a succession of explosions, which were certainly effective as we heard screams of pain from injured Germans."

 

"As this was happening I turned my head and glanced along the wall, where to my amazement I saw our Section Lance Corporal Minns standing up with a Bren light machine gun propped between his body and one of the larger trees. As cool as can be, he was carefully firing long bursts towards the now disorganized enemy infantry. Seeing him standing there without being hit encouraged me to leap to my feet and open fire with my rifle, giving Minns the opportunity to load another magazine and fire another long burst... For the moment we had halted their advance, but with their superiority of numbers it was obvious that they would soon be coming at us again."

 

"With bullets chipping the tree trunks only a foot or two above our heads, we could only slither along the ground as fast as possible. One lad who was crawling alongside me became panic stricken and shouted, "I'm not stopping here to be killed I'm going to make a run for it". As he began to get to his feet I reached out to grab him, cursing and shouting, "Keep down you bloody fool. You haven't got a chance." They were the last words he heard. Before he could get his body into an upright position there was a long burst from an enemy automatic and he crashed back to the ground with a line of bullet holes across his back and shoulders, his blood splattering over me as I lay prostrate just behind him."

 

"The 88s, as well as mortars and machine guns, opened up again soon after the infantry attack had stalled, and as we crawled away two of the others were hit, either by shrapnel or bullets, and our seven-man Section was now down to four... We came to an alley that connected with the main road. This was just beyond the built-up area of the village. Some of the lads from No.22 Platoon were sheltering in ditches on either side of the road. As soon as they spotted us they shouted a warning that an enemy machine gun was firing directly into the alley from an opposite track to the south... The lads of 22 Platoon were obviously pinned down but the prospect of getting into one of the roadside ditches seemed to be a better idea than staying in my present somewhat exposed spot, so we dashed across the alley and dived into the nearest ditch."

 

"Suddenly I heard tanks moving to our east... As they came up the road I had a good view of them, and to my delight I recognized them as our Airborne Light Reconnaissance tanks. Some of the lads from 22 Platoon beckoned them to come forward in the hope that we could use their cover to allow us to withdraw. They moved towards us cautiously but after a short distance they stopped, then went into reverse and were soon back to the fork junction where they swivelled round and sped away northwards. Confused, I eased my body up the roadside bank and, looking eastwards again, I now saw more tanks. They were coming up from the south and were much larger than those that had just disappeared, but I could not identify them positively... Behind the two leading tanks I could see two or three more. Then I noticed that around these tanks and moving from the south fork and into the north one were long lines of infantry... This was enough to convince me that we were in danger. The tanks suddenly revved their engines and began moving slowly toward us. I shouted across to the others, "I don't know about you lot, but I still think they could be bloody Germans and I'm getting out of this road until I know who they are." "Please your bloody self," responded the Platoon Sergeant impatiently, underlining his point with an emphatic "but my platoon stays here." The other three in our little group of four agree with me that, as this was not our Platoon, our safest option was to be found in making ourselves scarce until we had established the identity of the new and strangely reticent arrivals."

 

"Being now reasonably concealed, I got to my feet and looked back towards the sunken road. I saw that the lead tank had its offside track in the north side ditch and the one following had its track in the south side ditch and both were firing their machine guns. The lads from 22 Platoon didn't have a chance. Those still in the ditches were being run over by the tanks. We were glad to see that some were standing in the road with their hands above their heads, so we hoped that they might at least get away with being taken prisoner... We moved off rapidly westwards across the orchard, in case the tanks came looking for us. Approaching the row of cottages, and taking great care not to be seen by whoever might be in occupation, we progressed cautiously from one end of the row towards the other, scanning the cottages from a respectable distance and from behind cover as we looked for signs of activity. About halfway along we spotted movement in an upper window and froze to the spot. After a while the figure reappeared and we recognized him as one of the lads from Company HQ. Now our problem was to make contact without being shot at by our own side... We crept forward until we were level with the back of the occupied cottage which was separated from the orchard by a high boundary wall with a tall and solid gate. Then I called quietly to the soldier by name. After a short pause a voice from the back garden called back. "Is that you Eddie?" "Yes," I replied, "There are four of us and it ain't healthy out here. For Christ's sake open this bloody gate..." The gate swung open and we dashed inside and found some of our own Company HQ people and a few remnants from other Platoons, all under the command of Major John Howard, whose head was swathed in blood-stained bandages, having been hit by a sniper earlier in the day."

 

"With the arrival of the four of us, the cottage now contained about a dozen men of various ranks, and we all busied ourselves barricading the lower windows and doors with whatever furniture was to hand. As far as anyone knew we were the only British left in the village and presumably the attacking Germans had bypassed us. The time passed slowly, but to our great relief towards the end of the afternoon a counter-attack was launched on the western side of the village... We got out from the east side and without making any further contact with the enemy we made our way carefully back to Hérouvillette where we rejoined the Regiment. It was estimated that we had suffered about sixty casualties, which was worrying. Our only consolation was that we were sure that the Germans had incurred even higher losses."

 

"With everyone pulling out of Escoville in such a hurry, a fair amount of equipment, ammunition, weapons, medical supplies and rations had been abandoned... Early in the evening a group of us were detailed to go back into the village to salvage whatever we could. We approached it with a great deal of caution, but were relieved to discover that the Germans, not wishing to make artillery targets of themselves, appeared to have pulled out... The first thing we found when we got there was our old cart, which we loaded with anything that we could conveniently grab, and there was a lot of it to be had. With our heavy load of salvaged supplies, and with plenty of sweating and swearing, we manhandled the heavily laden cart back towards our new area. In the gathering dusk when we were about midway the two villages an enemy fighter plane spotted us... It was very fortunate that no one was hit, because if we had taken a single casualty it is doubtful that the survivors would have had enough strength to get the heavily laden cart back to our lines."

 

D+2 - Hérouvillette - Thursday, 8 June

 

"In our new positions we quickly settled into a routine. The first night was divided into spells of guard duty and digging out new defensive trenches... To be effective, a trench suitable for two men needs to be about six feet long, two feet wide and over five feet deep. It was no easy task to dig out such a trench with a small implement like the entrenching tool supplied to airborne troops... An hour before daylight everyone was alerted and watching the front in anticipation of a dawn attack. When this did not materialize at daybreak we were permitted to leave our trenches in ones and twos to make our way to Company HQ which was located in a nearby caravan."

 

"In the evening I went out with a five-man patrol to explore the area to our east. We made our way slowly to a farmhouse about 500 yards from our positions. We could not risk entering as the Germans were known to be around and it was more than likely that they would be in occupation. We moved eastwards until we came to a road and wooded slope, where we settled down for some time to watch and listen for any sign of enemy activity, but heard and saw nothing so returned quietly to our lines."

 

D+7 - Hérouvillette/St. Come - Tuesday, 13 June

 

"In the early hours we were roused and ordered to pack everything and be ready to move out at short notice. Because the 51st Highland Division had just moved into our area, some of the lads got the bright idea that we were being pulled out and taken home... At around 0400 hours we were quietly ordered to fall in in sections, ready to move off. We advanced eastwards up the lane towards the higher ground of the Orne river valley. This was a very odd route to be taking if we were being pulled out!... As we trudged up a track we passed some of the Paras who were being pulled out. They had been badly mauled. Most had blood-soaked field dressings covering various parts of their bodies and they looked badly shaken. It took about three hours to cover the mile or so to the top of the east bank of the Orne, arriving around 0700 hours. For the first time we saw the carnage of the night-time battle as we met up with the shattered remnants from those units that had been involved. All around was evidence of brutal warfare such as I had never seen before; it was horrific, a scene that will stay with me for the rest of my life."

 

"Before long we encountered the lads of the Highland Division, and here was shell shock on a massive scale. The poor devils stood around in groups, staring at us through vacant and bewildered eyes. I had never seen the result of warfare so grimly demonstrated, with every ditch, gully, hedgerow, track and roadway strewn with dead and shattered bodies of both British and German soldiers of various units... We moved up the drive that led to the Château St. Come, stepping around what the day before had been Sherman tanks and armoured troop carriers. Now they were simply twisted, smouldering and burnt-out wrecks. Beneath one burning tank were the shrivelled and blackened remains of two burnt bodies."

 

"The scene was horrifying but the smell was even worse. The air was heavy and sickly with the small of burnt or burning flesh and clothing, wood, leaves, grass, petrol, oil and cordite. The night-time rain had stopped soon after dawn and been replaced by warm sunshine which was already having its effect upon human flesh... There {near Bréville} I saw many other horrific sights, one of which was a weird tableau in which one of the Canadian Paras had been run through the middle of his body by a German bayonet, pinning him to a tree. At the instant that this was happening he had reached over the bent German and plunged his dagger into the middle of his opponent's back. The two had died at some time during the night but in daylight they were as they had been when they died together, still propping each other up."

 

D+8 - Château St. Come - Wednesday, 14 June

 

"The day began with the normal stand to, followed by heavy and accurate shelling and mortaring from the enemy. Soon after breakfast I went out with an officer who led small recce around the hedgerows to the front. He wanted to see the area and plot possible routes from which an attack might come, in particular the route along which tanks and self-propelled 88s might approach our positions. German snipers still infested the area and taking a fair toll of men that we could ill afford to lose. To discourage their activities we snipers were sent forward in small groups to find a secluded spot from where we could watch the taller trees in which we guessed enemy snipers would be located. When a sniper fired a telltale wisp of smoke could be seen. His position would then be given a real pasting, but they seldom worked alone, so that when we hit one, another would fire at us, so it was a case of firing and quickly moving to another location. Sometimes it was a matter of hurling a smoke grenade or two to cover our move. Using smoke was often a problem, however, because it worried Jerry, who took it as a prelude to an attack, and he would usually retaliate by mortaring and shelling the whole area."

 

D+9 - Château St. Come - Thursday, 15 June

 

"We took turns in going out to the front on patrols and sniper hunts. One team decided upon an ingenious innovation - they took a PIAT with them. When a sniper was spotted a PIAT bomb was fired at the top of his tree. We had no way of measuring the success of their effort other than from the fact that several of us thought that fewer snipers were bothering us after this incident!"

 

"We were delighted to receive some more fags - a present from Monty - a nice thought since we understood that our British Commander neither drank alcohol nor smoked. I guess that he understood that we lesser mortals were in need for the nerve-soothing weed!

 

D+13 - Château St. Come - Monday, 19 June

 

"In the dawn stonk the Company Sergeant Major was killed when a shell exploded near his trench and detonated his Gammon Anti-tank bombs. These bloody awful things were standard issue for us all and we hated them. They consisted of a sort of grenade or bomb, which was sticky and had a handle, resembling a large toffee apple. It was protected by a thin metal cover that was discarded when the bomb was about to be used. The bombs were highly sensitive and exploded with little encouragement. Standing orders were that these should be kept in every trench. If tanks overran us, the required procedure was to reach up and stick a bomb on the thin underside of the tank as it passed overhead. From fear of the sensitivity of these infernal things, born of past experience with them, most of us dug a shallow hole within arm's reach of the trench and placed the bombs there. If tanks came our way we could grab a bomb or two before they arrived. The only occasions that we took them into the trench were when the officers came round on a tour of inspection! Since the CSM was a stickler for discipline and orders, he probably kept his bombs with him inside his trench, and when an enemy shell exploded nearby it set them off. The same explosion that detonated the bombs that killed the CSM also wounded the Company Commander {Major John Howard}. He was in an adjoining trench and hit by shrapnel. He was taken to the Regimental Aid Post where the shrapnel was removed and he was patched up and, very courageously, insisted on returning to the Company, when most would have accepted such a wound as a sure ticket back to Blighty!"

 

D+15 - Le Mesnil - Wednesday, 21 June

 

"During the afternoon a small wounded pig wandered into our area and was promptly dispatched by a pistol shot, providing us with our first taste of fresh meat since arriving in Normandy. Unfortunately, firing a shot in the Rest Area was an unusual occurrence, which attracted the attention of several surrounding units who all came "on the scrounge". Alas, the little pig did not go very far, but at least it made for a pleasant change of diet."

 

D+20 - Le Mesnil - Monday, 26 June

 

"During the night some of our bigger guns were moved into our area and our relative peace of the past few days was shattered by the violent crashes as the big stuff began firing from only a short distance to our rear. While we were always glad to know that if we were attacked we could call upon these big guns to fire upon the Germans, we were not overjoyed to have them so close at hand. Apart from the deafening noise, big guns need large ammunition stocks and these attract Germans like bees to a honey pot! In some ways we were not too displeased to learn that our rest period was over and that we were to move up to the front line again, this time to Bréville. Indeed, we thought that the front line might now be more peaceful than the Rest Area, but we were wrong."

 

D+23 - Bréville - Thursday, 29 June

 

"At dawn a small group of us went forward on a Recce to Longuemare crossroads. It was some distance to the north-east and we had learnt from the "Paddies" that it was no-man's-land. It was a wooded area and provided concealed lines of approach for either side so that no one could establish a permanent post out there as it was too vulnerable to attack or ambush. At the road junction was a farmhouse and outbuildings, from the upper floor of which it was possible for either side to observe the other's positions. We approached with caution but were seen and fired upon and forced to withdraw. As we moved away we had frequently to dive for cover as the Germans put a steady flow of mortar bombs all along the route. They were probably aware that a new lot had moved into Bréville and wanted to make it clear that Longuemare was "off limits"."

 

"To round off the day a lone fighter plane flew in from the direction of the setting sun and, at just above tree-top level, strafed our new trenches with cannon and machine-gun fire, but there were no casualties."

 

D+27 - Bréville - Monday, 3 July

 

"Our Gunners did their best to make life unpleasant for Jerry, hammering away mercilessly at his lines. Despite the abysmal weather, we sent out patrols as well, to keep him on his toes. I was not detailed to go on any of these patrols, for which I was very grateful. There was no joy in being cooped up in a muddy and waterlogged trench, but crawling through wet grass, mud and waterlogged ditches was even less enjoyable and a good deal more dangerous as well."

 

D+28 - Bréville - Tuesday, 4 July

 

"To make an already lousy day even worse our people decided to put out a propaganda broadcast. This was achieved by a Jeep fitted with a public address system, which drove up close to the front line... We were, however, well aware of the consequences and dived into our trenches, because whatever they said always made the Germans furious. It took them a short while to plot the approximate location of the Jeep with its PA system, and to get details to the gunners, and then the whole area came in for a real plastering. Of course by that time the Broadcast Unit had driven off at high speed and we poor devils were left to face the music. In addition to this type of propaganda, both sides made frequent use of leaflets dropped from the air or fired in shells that exploded as air-bursts spreading the leaflets over a wide area. Both sides offered surrendering soldiers good food, comfort and medical attention, etc. The Germans would try to spook us by suggesting that the Americans were surrendering in droves, or were being pushed into the sea... Although I never heard of anyone taking up the generous offers made in them, the leaflets had a particularly useful secondary purpose as they made ideal toilet paper which was always in short supply!"

 

D+30 - Bréville - Thursday, 6 July

 

"Late in the day three of us took off for a scouting and sniping trip into no-man's-land. We had plenty of fun but saw nothing worth taking a shot at and, since Jerry was not bothering us, it made no sense to stir him up, particularly as the other lads back in the line were still busy drying out."

 

D+31 - Bréville - Friday, 7 July

 

"Before dawn the three of us who had been out yesterday were sent on another trip. This time we aimed to reach the farmhouse at Longuemare. We wanted to be there early to see if the Germans occupied it during the night. If there was no sign of life we hoped to enter the house or at least the outbuildings. On the way there we heard the sound of many people digging trenches on the far side of the crossroads. One at a time, and flitting from cover to cover, we reached the farm and, after many stops to listen and observe, managed to get inside the farmhouse. From the upper floor we overlooked the road junction and saw a mass of Germans digging new trenches. While the other two stayed to observe, my job was to get back to Company lines and report to Major Howard."


"After getting the OK from Regimental HQ, Major Howard organized and led a large and well-armed fighting patrol out to the farmhouse. After withdrawing the other snipers, we lined up along the edge of an adjoining orchard and, on a signal, let fly with rifles, automatics, machine guns and mortars. A few minutes later, having caused pandemonium, on the Major's signal we stopped firing and quickly withdrew to our lines."

 

D+35 - Château St. Come - Tuesday, 11 July

 

"When I went out sniping I invariably took my captured German weaponry along with me, the Schmeisser and the P38 pistol, as well as the Helios wristwatch of course. Wally {Parr} and Paddy {O'Donnell - fellow snipers} joked that if I were to be captured, Jerry would execute me on the spot for carrying such an arsenal of German equipment with me, but I always reckoned it was worth the risk. In all the grime and mud that we had to contend with, crawling through ditches and so forth, the chances of having a weapon jam when it was most needed were pretty high, and I was of the opinion that it did no harm to have back-up defences."

 

"It was quite likely that when their Stand-To ended, Jerry would be out of his trenches drying out after the rain of the previous day. This proved to be the case and we had no difficulty in spotting targets. All was peace and tranquility until Wally let fly at an excellent target. By the time he hit the ground the rest dived for cover. It was a long time before they began to reappear, probably assuming that the man had been hit by a stray shot. I took careful aim at a hole in the hedgerow. It was well lit by the lighter back-ground. Soon it filled as someone peered across the orchard towards us. I held my fire, hoping that it would encourage others to surface. After a short time the hole reappeared as the man moved away. Then it filled again. This time I gently squeezed the trigger and the target crashed backwards. Paddy should have been the next to fire, but as I was closing the bolt on a fresh cartridge which I had just loaded into my rifle I saw a well-built German out in the open and exposed to my view from his head to his knees. I waited for a few seconds for Paddy to fire, but assumed that he could not see this target who began to move. I fired and almost certainly winged him as he let out a loud yell and disappeared from sight. Paddy was furious, and all the more so when I whispered, "Blast - I think I only winged him!" It was several hours before they got over the shock of two kills and a wounding. We had to wait until getting towards lunchtime before, once again, they began moving around, probably on their way to the cookhouse, and at last Paddy was rewarded for his long vigil. Happy to have made a hit apiece, we reckoned that three "kills" would mean that no further targets would appear, so we decided to call it a day and we returned to the lines."

 

D+41 - Château St. Come - Monday, 17 July

 

"The listening patrol had reported that the night before they thought someone had come close to their positions. I was ordered to investigate and I made my way to the area about which they had expressed their concern. I crawled up a bank close to where they were located and into an adjoining orchard. Within about ten yards I found tracks which indicated that someone had recently flattened the tall grass. I checked with the patrol that none of them had been out there. Assured that no one had, I advised them that someone had crawled to within spitting distance of their positions; it gave them quite a jolt. When I reported to the Company Commander he instructed Paddy and me to set up an ambush. Just before sunset we left the listening post and crawled out into an adjoining orchard. We moved out through the long grass in a wide semi-circle hoping to get into a hedge above a ditch that was about seventy-five yards forward of our listening post. The idea was to lie in wait and then jump on anyone who might come along the ditch after dark."

 

"As we approached the hedge we heard a noise coming from the ditch below. Someone was already there! We used our hands to signal to each other that a strategic withdrawal was the only appropriate action to take... Keeping flat upon the ground we swivelled round and began crawling back towards our side of the orchard but, all too soon came the familiar "plop" sound as a mortar fired and seconds later the first bomb exploded. Then others fired in quick succession and bombs exploded all round us. We crawled as fast as we could but expected that at any moment both of us would be blown to bits. If Paddy and I had guardian angels watching over us they were working overtime during the time it took us to cover the seventy-five yards across that orchard. We finally made it to the far side and dived headfirst through the hedge and into the ditch. How we both survived that barrage of mortar bombs without getting so much as a scratch I will never know. I can only conclude that, because of the recent heavy rain, the grassy orchard ground was particularly soft so that the bombs penetrated well into the earth before exploding."

 

"After linking up with the listening post we took a long rest before returning to our lines and reporting to the Company Commander. After receiving our report he said, "Never mind chaps - better luck next time" I thought I had been lucky enough this time, without having to worry about next time."

 

D+43 - Château St. Come - Wednesday, 19 July

 

"Paddy and I went out to our sniping hides before dawn and spotted a German standing in a gap, yawning his head off. We let fly together and put him back to sleep. Then we peppered away along their entire hedgerow, hoping to make them think that we were launching a dawn attack. We may not have hit any more but I guess that we caused a fair amount of panic. We stayed around for some while and had just decided to make our way back to the Company lines for breakfast when I spotted a German who must have had a similar idea. He flitted across two small gaps in his hedgerow and I selected the widest gap in front of him. As he moved into the gap that I was covering I fired. He let out a loud yell and crashed to the ground to disappear from sight."

 

D+49 - Le Mesnil - Tuesday, 25 July

 

"To my surprise and delight, I was issued with a brand new sniper rifle straight out from Ordnance. It was covered with a thick layer of grease and wrapped in greaseproof paper. I spent much of the day taking it apart and cleaning it. Until this time my rifle had been a completely stand issue Lee Enfield .303 Mk.IV, with no telescopic sights, and this new weapon was much more suitable for sniping, especially for when we would leave our trenches and get moving again."

 

D+51 - Le Mesnil - Thursday, 27 July

 

"By asking a few questions I discovered that no one from the forward units was out sniping, so I pestered the officers and eventually obtained permission to go out into no-man's-land. After finding a suitable spot in view of the German positions, and waiting for a little while, I saw a German in a small gap, took quick aim and fired. Judging by the way he fell backwards I was satisfied that the weapon was correctly zeroed. Like a kid with a new toy, I spent most of that afternoon and evening looking for more targets, but, to my great disappointment, none appeared. Eventually I returned to the Company lines where I found to my astonishment that the entire Battalion had packed up and gone. I gathered my kit and went in search of them, and found that they had been moved even further back from the front line, still in the area of Le Mesnil but considerably further from the front line than we had been previously. Everyone was busy digging new trenches as I arrived, so there was nothing for me to do except dump my kit and join in everyone's favourite pastime - digging."

 

D+66 - Hellfire Corner {Near Bréville} - Friday, 11 August

 

"The day ended pleasantly with a completely unexpected treat, when George and Beryl Formby suddenly arrived at the farm just behind our front line. Leaving only a minimum number of bods in the trenches, we ran down the hillside to the farm that, surprisingly, still possessed two large and fairly sound barns. While George and Beryl stood in the doorway of one barn, the rest of us crowded into the opening of the one across the yard. We thought that it was really terrific - two stars of stage, screen and radio risking life and limb by coming to within a few hundred yards of one of the most dangerous areas along the entire front. To say simply that we admired their courage would not do justice to our feelings about these two wonderful people."

 

D+68 - Le Mesnil - Sunday, 13 August

 

"We were called from our trenches on the Sunday morning and told to assemble in the rear farmyard. We were being moved further back into a rest area around Le Mesnil again. Was this a prelude to an advance? We were immediately issued with some extra junk to carry. This was a certain sign that we were about to be on the move; whenever we needed to be lightly clad and mobile someone always came up with the bright idea of giving us some extras to carry. We were all raring to go and very keen to be on the move, although nothing more was heard of the matter that day."

 

D+72 - On the Move - Thursday, 17 August

 

"Early in the morning, and not before time we all thought, the long-awaited advance began. After being cooped up in the trenches for so long, it was a wonderful feeling to be on the move again. Jerry said farewell with a really heavy barrage along the entire front. Eventually all went quiet. He was on the run, off towards the east... The advance began at 0930 hours but was hardly dramatic, more of an anti-climax after our high hopes for an easy advance. It was a tiring, stop-go process, a case of jump to your feet - advance a few hundred yards - stop - sit down at the roadside - up on your feet again for a few more yards - and so on, as the day wore on. The cause of the problem was that Jerry was using tough and determined rearguards to cover his withdrawal. It took an entire morning for us to advance no more than a few hundred yards."

 

D+74 - On the Move - Saturday, 19 August

 

"It was now "D" Company's turn to take the lead in the advance towards Varaville... As we neared the village the leading section came under fire from a German MG34 machine gun. Lance Corporal "Smacker" Drew was killed and Corporal "Smoky" Howard and Private Dancy were both badly wounded. It was very easy to slip into complacency and this incident was a grim reminder that the war was far from finished. Two snipers, one of them being myself, were sent ahead to locate the machine gun and silence it. We thought the gun was located in or near some far buildings a short way off, but the terrain thereabouts offered no chance of concealment for a direct approach, and we were forced to make a wide detour around, crawling and making painfully slow progress. We clambered through a hedge and worked our way around to the side of the buildings, with an officer and a section of men following in our wake, not far behind. Ready to shoot up anything we saw, we made a dash into the farmyard. As we did so, we heard a motor cycle engine roar into life. A motorbike with a crew of two men, complete with MG34 mounted on a sidecar, sped out of the farmyard and down the road. We fired wildly at the speeding machine, having no time to take a decent aim, but in an instant it was gone. We were a little bitter at having to let this successful enemy unit get away."

 

D+76 - On the Move - Monday, 21 August

 

"At 0300 hours a long night march began in pouring rain. It was an incredibly tiring and difficult march, all of us virtually asleep as we marched, but, despite our state of extreme fatigue, we could hear the sound of a furious battle up ahead of us. The Commando that we had met earlier at Varaville had overtaken us again at some point, and had gone ahead to Brucourt, where they had set up a splendid ambush against a large German force that was moving down a hillside track. Almost completely exhausted, at 0800 we arrived at Brucourt, where we witnessed the Commando's handiwork. Attacking from both sides of the track, they had trapped and then wiped out the enemy force, causing massive casualties. The hillside was strewn with German dead, upturned carts and abandoned weapons and equipment... We pressed on until we arrived at a road junction just to the north of Heuland. One of our Companies pushed ahead to try to make contact with the retreating Germans, while we settled in for the night, fraternizing with the locals, handing around our cigarettes and chocolate, and even having a sing-song with them, until finally I got some much-needed sleep."

 

D+77 - On the Move - Tuesday, 22 August

 

"Approaching Forges-de-Bionville, the village was heavily shelled by the Germans, forcing us to wait for the bombardment to stop. After a decent interval we began approaching the village centre, but there was a suspicious silence about the place... It did not take us long to realize that we had walked into an ambush from an enemy force consisting of two self-propelled 88mm guns protected by teams of well-trained and effective snipers. We took what cover we could find in the roadside ditches, while red-hot shrapnel from the exploding 88 shells flew through the air just inches above our heads... A shell exploded quite close to me and I felt a thud in my back, while at the same time I was covered in a shower of dirt and small stones. I thought my last moment had come and tried moving my legs, but I couldn't feel them. Moving my hand to my back, I was relieved that there was no blood and, as my body moved, a large chunk of rock rolled from my back and fell into the ditch beside me. Gradually the feeling returned to my legs and only then did I understand what had happened. I felt lucky to be alive and only a little bruised and winded."

 

"Luckily, some of our lads had been able to work their way around the village to outflank the 88s, who were, however, alerted to the move by their sniper observers. Possibly fearing that the reason for the approach could be that our lads had some close-range anti-tank weapons, which in fact they did not, the SPs started their engines and sped off. We soon realized, however, that the movements of the first two SPs were being covered by a second pair, much further off, and these began shelling the village immediately after the withdrawal of the first pair, and again we were pinned down until sunset... We knew that the German 88s and snipers were there to hold up our advance and so we knew that we had not seen the last of them. We had also now had an opportunity to observe their tactics, which were really very smart, using their resources economically and effectively. The lesson had cost us time and we had taken several casualties."

 

D+78 - On the Move - Wednesday, 23 August

 

"At first light we were on our way eastwards from the village. At 1000 hours we came to what I will always remember as "Hellfire Hill"... Across the open hillside we had to negotiate a steep uphill track, which led up and around to the north-western outskirts of St Arnoult. This meant that we were completely exposed to the enemy mobile artillery, and we were continuously shelled by 88s firing from another nearby wooded hilltop, to the north-west and quite close to Touques... Near the top of the hill, on the outskirts of St Arnoult, we were still taking punishment from the German 88s. An old French woman came out of her cottage to offer us shelter, but tragically she too was killed by a shell-burst from an 88 as she stood in her garden calling to us"

 

D+80 - Manneville la Raoult - Friday, 25 August

 

"A well-organised and determined group of really young German fanatics caused us plenty of trouble early on the Friday morning... There were not many of them, but they held us up very successfully, and before we could advance we had to kill all but two of them. These last two finally surrendered, and it was pitiful. They looked as if they should have been at school rather than on a battlefield dying for a lost cause."

 

"Not much further ahead was our next objective, the village of Manneville-la-Raoult, which was on higher ground and separated from us by a densely wooded valley. The Company Commander came to our lead position with the news that the village was occupied by a handful of demoralized troops who wouldn't put up much of a fight. The idea was to soften up the defenders by means of a barrage from our 25-pounder guns, after which we were supposed to stroll in and accept their surrender. It sounded too good to be true - and of course, it was... As soon as the bombardment ceased, we advanced, weapons at the ready, towards the village, and I was sent ahead to scout the approach, closely followed by the rest of our section."

 

"Suddenly, and to our rear, came a sound. I looked around, startled, with the hairs on the back of my neck telling me that I was in immediate danger. I was alarmed to see a Jerry soldier standing there, high above our heads, with just the upper part of his body showing above the hedge along the top of the bank that rose from the side of the lane we were in... However, to my relief, the man had his hands in the air, apparently as if to surrender, but he still held his Mauser rifle, horizontally above his head. He started to shout, "Me good, me Russ, me good, Russ, Russ." I wondered why a White Russian was fighting here in Normandy as I shouted to him, "Drop the weapon," and then in pidgin German, "Drappen ze Waffen". I couldn't get to the man, as he was behind the thick hedge, and so I had no way of removing his weapon, nor did I seem able to communicate to him that he must throw down the wretched rifle. The scene was now commanding all our attention, with the result that we were no longer watching the street, from which direction there came the clattering sound of rapidly moving feet."

 

"One lad swung around and shouted, "Look out - Germans," and at the same time from somewhere across the road an enemy machine gun opened fire with a long burst. The German up on the bank, still swaying in a drunken fashion, swung his rifle down-wards with its business end pointing at me. A corporal standing next to me fired his Sten and simultaneously I fired my rifle from the hip. The German above the hedge fell backwards and at the same moment those further along the road dived for cover and began firing in our direction. We returned fired as we dived for cover below the low front-garden wall. At this point if an enemy grenade had come our way it would have accounted for quite a few of us and we desperately needed to take up more dispersed positions. We rushed out into the main road firing from the hip and fanning out to right and to left so as to present the fewest targets to the enemy... As we hit the ground German artillery and mortars opened fire and bombarded the village, presumably on the assumption that the village was now in our hands. When, after a few minutes of heavy bombardment, the enemy guns ceased firing we immediately set about clearing the row of cottages along our side of the road... To the front the houses were under direct fire from the enemy machine guns and snipers across the other side of the main road. Working our way along the back of the properties, we hurled hand grenades and fired as we entered each house, some of which had been set ablaze during the bombardment."

 

"While we fired across the road we were restricted by the fact that we were not too sure where our own lads were now located. I was watching a gap in the hedge at the side of a small orchard where I suspected a Jerry machine gun might be located. Eventually I saw the machine gunner and managed to hit him and so silence the gun, but no sooner had that one stopped firing when another opened up nearby and a stream of bullets came through the upper window through which I had fired."

 

"They {the Germans} had certainly done a good job since they held us up for a day and most of the following night. The intelligence report had said that we would only find a handful of demoralized, poor-quality troops ready to surrender. It had been very wide of the mark, but I shall always wonder whether we would have been able to take the village without a fight if we had managed to take the White Russian prisoner and the rest had seen that he had come to no harm. As it happened, an unfortunate set of circumstances had arisen at the critical moment. This may have decided some of them to make a fight of it, even though not all of them would have realized that the Russian had been shot. It still concerns me, however, that I may have contributed to what might have been an unnecessary day-long battle which resulted in the loss of the lives of some brave comrades. Others, with whom I have discussed this incident, have all been of the opinion that what happened was unavoidable... it has always been an unpleasant memory for me, and has left me with a bad taste in my mouth."

 

D+82/86 - Foulbec - Sunday/Thursday, 27/31 August

 

"For a change we had an easy time at Foulbec. We had no real need for trenches as we were not under fire, the Germans being far too busy trying to get away across the Seine. From our hillside vantage point we watched a massive aerial and artillery bombardment of German forces crossing the river far below our positions. It was a fantastic sight. I had been under severe bombardment myself many times, and I have seen others get the same or worse than I got, but I had never seen anyone take such a pounding as those Germans were getting."

 

D+87 - Back to the Beaches - Friday, 1 September

 

"Our life of leisure came to a sudden, but not unwelcome, end. We were to go home... The day we thought we would never see had finally arrived; it was not just another rumour! We were roused very early and ordered to get ready to move out. No one was complaining this time. Loaded down as usual with all our gear, assembled and nervous with anticipation, we boarded the trucks that were to take us all the way back to the D-Day beaches."

 

D+88/89 - Embarking -Saturday/Sunday, 2/3 September

 

"Early in the morning we prepared to embark. It was windy and the sea was rough... We were heavily laden, every man dressed in full kit and carrying a full complement of equipment. Even though encumbered in this way, we had only one way of boarding the troopship - by scaling nets hanging down from the ship. As the landing craft rose on the heavy swell, we had to jump for the nets and hang on for dear life, as the landing craft would then drop away in the waves until it was twenty feet or so below us. Having gained a foothold on the nets it was essential to climb quickly to avoid being crushed by the landing craft as it rode up, often on an even higher wave, and struck the side of the troopship. Many of the lads were simply unable to board in these conditions, and the boarding process had to be extended into the next day. Finally, with a full complement at last, we weighed anchor at 1600 hours. Our Normandy adventure was at an end."

 

Denis Edwards died on the 20th May 2008.

 

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