Lieutenant Ellis "Dixie" Dean
Unit : Machine Gun Platoon, Headquarters Company, 13th Parachute Battalion
Awards : Member of the British Empire, Military Cross
Lieutenant, later Major Dean MBE MC, became the archivist of the 13th Battalion after the war and wrote an unpublished account of their exploits: "13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment: Luard's Own". The following are extracts relating to his experiences with the Battalion.
"At the beginning of September 1943 I was serving in "Depot Company", Hardwick, and had been taken off a draft for 1st Division on account of my inexperience as an Officer, when I heard that the C.O. [Commanding Officer] of the 13th Battalion was here, interviewing recruits for his battalion, and I arranged to see him. Again I thought my inexperience had resulted in being turned down, and even stressing that I had served as a Serjeant in the 6th Parachute Battalion for eight months, didn't seem to impress him. The Colonel explained that there would be little enough time to train his battalion, so he was looking for experienced Officers only. Imagine my delight, when three weeks later, I received instructions to join my own county Battalion. I travelled down to Larkhill with Lieutenants Fred Skeate and Stan Jeavons."
Flying to Normandy in a Stirling bomber on the 6th June 1944 - "Pre-warned by the pilot that the lights would be switched off, on leaving the coast, we fitted kit bags and weapon valises while we still had light. We also "hooked up" while we could see what we were doing. Hence, when the wireless operator came from the crew's cabin to act as despatcher and announced "twenty minutes to go", we simply stood up. The actual gun numbers with their heavy kit bags needed some assistance, checked static lines and equipment and Serjeant George Kelly reported to the pilot "Stick ready to jump"."
"My next task as No. 1 was to help open and secure the upper aperture doors, but looking backwards down the darkened fuselage, I could see that the W.O. [Wireless Operator] was having problems lowering the "strop guard" (a device hinged to the outside of the fuselage which prevented the empty parachute bags being bashed to pieces on the bottom of the plane). Lance Corporal Harold Turner (No.2), unhooked me and I went and lowered and secured the strop guard as the poor unfortunate air crew man was unable to do so. I returned and was hooked up, but again had to unhook, go to the rear and undo the rear bolts of the aperture doors and then for a third time was hooked up."
"As the aircraft neared the coast of France, the German ack ack units were alerted, searchlights started to probe the sky and the flak guns opened fire. Serjeant Bill Webster thought he was going to jump into a rain storm until the despatcher told him "That's flak". After being hooked up for a third time, I looked down through the hole and was surprised to note that we were flying over land. The last warning from the pilot had been "twenty minutes to go" and I knew that the D.Z. [Drop Zone] was only 90 seconds flying time from the coast, so why were we flying over land. In my confused state, I imagined that we had not crossed the English coast yet and I was still puzzling it out, when from my rear came a great bellow "Green on". I looked up. They were right. What happened to the "red" was my reaction. I looked down. The land was still below. A pace forward and I was out. A common feeling during the descent was "where is everybody". This was a Brigade drop zone, but it seemed deserted, but for the moment the first priority was to release and lower kit bags and valises."
"I landed in a tree rising out of a bocage type hedge on the eastern edge of the D.Z. and even after I had climbed down the leg straps I hadn't reached the ground and was completely enclosed in foliage. Gingerly letting go, I dropped all of twelve inches to the bottom of the hedge and I then had to use my torch in order to locate the butt, body and barrel of the Sten which was threaded under the harness and had crashed to the ground when I twisted and banged the quick release box. Pulling the branches to one side to reach the open field, I was surprised to see, only a few yards away, a large white French cow, staring intently in my direction. Just into the corn was the shadowy figure of Lance Corporal Turner with the tripod who greeted me with the immortal words "I've just told that cow, I've come to liberate her." A little further on we caught up with Private Bill Price, who had jumped No.3 and was carrying the Vickers gun. Some one else who encountered the cows he had been warned about was Jack Sharples, who had to dive into a dry ditch to avoid the stampeding herd."
"Not only were we without ammunition but the location I had been briefed to occupy (and told I was not to move from without Brigade authority) was useless. The corn only yards in front of the single gun was three feet high and that was the limit of our field of observation and fire. There was also the matter of an unknown number of Germans, only 100 yards to our rear, and there was the problem of shortage of ammunition. Captain Bowler (the Officer at Brigade, responsible for coordinating the arcs of fire for all the three Machine Gun Platoons) had not visited us as arranged back in England to sort out any problems on the ground. Try as he did Andy Fairhurst could not contact Brigade, nor could he raise any of the other M.M.G. [Medium Machine Gun] Platoons. In the end I went to Brigade and got permission to take all the members of the Platoon, not actually manning the guns, to go back to the D.Z. and search for ammunition, but I must be back at the guns no later than 1000 hours. Others were making desperate efforts just to join up with the main force."
While Lieutenant Dean was away, a Section from his Machine Gun Platoon was ordered to occupy the "ring contour", in the 12th Battalion sector near Le Bas de Ranville. "The 12th Battalion Platoon Commander told me the Brigadier had moved the Section up to the crest and we were about to cross the road when we first heard the approaching heavy armour. I sent Serjeant Kelly's ammunition carriers at the double to join him and then scrambled up the bank in order to observe. Before I got to the top a gun away to my left opened up, followed immediately by the regular rat-a-ta-tat of a single Vickers. More shots were fired and when I was in a position to see what was happening, three tanks no more than 100 yards away were already stopped, one already blazing and the two others quickly followed suit. Up the slope and further away, a fourth tank was also on fire. (I later learnt that what I had regarded as tanks were in fact S.P.'s.) [Self-Propelled Guns]"
"Before we set off to look for ammunition, I had found a position from where the other section would be able to carry out its task and led the carriers there. On the way we passed close to one of the 6 pounders responsible for knocking out the armour and I paused to congratulate them. Not surprisingly they were as pleased as Punch with themselves. I left the carriers at the new position and went, accompanied by Private Alf Williams, to collect the gun team who had remained behind. Moving up the final stretch of hedge, inexplainably, I took a 36 grenade from my pouch, carried it in the right hand and my left fore finger through the pull ring. I was looking to my left where the German armour had flattened the hedge. Alf was alongside, hissing in my ear, "Jerry's" up there". I looked ahead. A party of Germans had come along the track from the farm and were gazing intently at the burning vehicles. Out came the pin and away went the grenade. I grasped my Sten, released the safety catch and in true Boys Own Paper style, charged. Surprise was complete, the Germans took to their heels back towards "Lieu Harras". For once the Sten didn't let me down, a full magazine without a stoppage. The Vickers had been stuffed under the hedge, I called to Alf to collect it, while I reloaded and got off another full magazine at the fleeing enemy, although they were well out of range by now, but I hit one of them, as he stopped clutching the back of his thigh and two of his companions came back and supported him as they staggered away. Alf hoisted the tripod across his shoulders and picked up the condenser can which left me with only the gun itself to carry. We then legged it as fast as we could back to safety."
"On reaching the track leading to where I had left the ammunition carriers, we slowed to a walk and noticing a rabbit sitting up in the hedge to my left, I halted, lowered the gun to the ground and drawing my .45 pistol took a shot at the animal. Where upon much to my surprise, not twenty yards away in the corn, a German soldier rose up. We looked at each other in silence and then he took to his heels and ran off. Dropping the pistol dangling at the end of the lanyard, I got another full magazine load of Sten fire at the fleeing "Jerry"."
Commenting on the situation that unfolded during the following weeks: "The supply of weapons etc. lost on the drop was unbelievable, a 24 hour service and the two new guns replacing those lost (plus the spare carried in the Q.M.'s [Quartermaster] glider), all came complete with dial sights, which we had not been issued with back home. Serjeant George Kelly pointed out, that if I reported a sight destroyed by enemy action, a replacement would be forthcoming, hence when the Battalion returned to England, he would be able to train the Platoon to use them. I informed the R.Q.M.S. [Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant] of our plans and within days, all four guns were fitted with sights. During this period in reserve, we spent several hours each day mastering these new devices. They were not much different from the mortar sights with which we were already accustomed to using and before we moved back into the front line, Serjeant Kelly informed me that the Platoon, in the words of the training manual, were capable of engaging the enemy, even when the target was obscured by fog, smoke or darkness, at ranges greater than other weapons were capable of."
"We returned to the brickworks for one day and then returned to the riverside, a mile upstream from the bridges. The reason, the Battalion were to rehearse a night attack against a known German Headquarters. That evening prior to the first practice raid, the Battalion was treated to another awe inspiring demonstration of Allied air supremacy. This time it was Bomber Command of the R.A.F. who provided the players and the occasion, yet another attempt by 2nd Army to capture the town of Caen, which was only four miles inland from us. No warning of the attack had been given to us and in the evening sunlight we watched as a single Lancaster flew across our front and then released a shimmering cascade of silver lights, marking the target. Not far behind came a steady stream of other four engine air craft and we could clearly see the bombs leave the bomb bays and start their fall. More coloured markers, red and green added colour to the spectacle and the ack-ack guns roared into action, with the shells bursting among the Halifaxes and Lancasters. But they flew on regardless of the danger. As the bombs exploded a great cloud of smoke started to rise, getting progressively higher as time went on. We stopped counting the number of planes involved and the later arrivals had the easier run in, as the flak guns either ran out of ammunition or were destroyed by the bombing."
"All together we carried out three rehearsals for the attack and then it was cancelled. The C.O. had queried the tactical value of the plan, which would result in the Battalion being marooned several hundred yards away, in German held territory and his view prevailed. So it was back to Le Mesnil. Instead of the Battalion attack a Company of the 7th, repeating a previous exploit of theirs, were to carry out a day time raid on the same objective. This would be launched from "B" Company's area and the Machine Gunners (some one had informed the C.O. of the Platoons recently acquired ability to provide indirect fire) were to isolate the right flank of the enemy in the farm."
As the Battalion approached Pont L'Eveque on the 22nd August 1944, Lieutenant Dean was asked by Lieutenant-Colonel Luard to go forward to conduct a reconnaissance of the German defences. "I realised immediately, that the C.O. did not mean me to organise and lead a fully briefed Recce Patrol, so accompanied solely by Andy Fairhurst, I made my way back to the main road and moved down into the town. Unless the enemy opened fire on us I had no idea as to how I was to fulfill my task. I moved down the right hand side of the road, while Andy Fairhurst followed thirty or forty yards behind, on the opposite side. To begin with, we were out of the built up part of the town advancing between high banks on either side of the road and when we reached the houses on the outskirts, I was dismayed to notice that they rose directly from the edge of the pavement and realised there was no cover at all, should we come under fire. My problem was solved for me, when a hundred yards ahead a group of excited Frenchmen emerged from a side street, shouting and waving their arms about. They noticed our approach, spread across the road, looking our way. By now I could see they all wore tricolour armbands, denoting them as members of the Resistance and were all armed with Stens. Doubtless they had listened on their secret radios to the B.B.C. accounts of the advance of the Allies and of their impressive and overwhelming force of tanks and armour, but they were clearly not impressed with the British Army, or at least with its representatives, two scruffy, dusty foot sloggers, one armed with a Sten (as they all were) and the other with a rifle and made no attempt to greet us."
"At least my school boy French was understood, since on asking if they knew where the Germans were, the two of us were surrounded by jabbering, gesticulating resistants. It was completely incomprehensible to me, so I selected the least excitable of them and asked him to show me the enemy positions. He took me first along the side road and there lying on our bellies and peering round the sides of a bridge, he pointed out M.M.G.'s on the railway embankment, covering the valley. Then we returned to the main road and now moved into the shopping area, but all the windows were shattered. The reason for this soon became apparent, when we reached the site of the first of the two bridges over the river. This had been blown up, but stepping from stone to stone we continued further. Ahead my guide informed me, the other bridge was also destroyed and on the far side was a "cannon". To emphasise the point, the German manning the weapon fired a burst across our front. The heavy "thump, thump thump" echoed from the high walls and the tracer raced between the buildings. I thought I was in possession of the relevant information regarding the enemy, so I thanked my guide and set off back to the Battalion, meeting them on the outskirts of the town."
Lieutenant Dean continued to command the Machine Gun Platoon during the Ardennes offensive, where the 13th Battalion bore the brunt of the 6th Airborne Division's fighting. "Even after we left the road [on the way to the start line for the Battalion's attack] and moved across the fields, the Machine Gunners with their guns and ammunition on the trolleys could still keep their place in the column, immediately behind "B" Company. The first stretch of woods was no difficulty either, but after crossing a shallow gully, the planting of the trees was much closer and the trolleys would not pass between the trees. So a halt was called, while everything was unloaded and individual loads sorted out for a long carry. The "start line" was reached on time and without enemy interference."
"In mid afternoon [at Bure on the 4th January 1945] I was with a Vicker's team in the back bedroom as we watched a group of Germans crawl along a hedge not 200 yards away. They halted and started to set pair of machine guns. Our gun was laid on the target and quickly opened fire but then a Number 1 Position stoppage caused the gun to stop. This was immediately remedied and we had only just recommenced firing when several ear splitting explosions occurred in the roof above us. The force of the blast threw us all to the floor and reduced the room to a shambles. The ceiling was down, roofing timbers and broken slates everywhere and we were all covered in dust from the plaster, but only one man was wounded. The gun had not been damaged and I instructed the Number 1 to set it up in another room and to carry on firing. I then turned to have a look at Private O'Brien's hand which was bleeding quite badly. One of his fingers was almost severed his hand, with only a thin strip of flesh holding it. I tried several times to get a field dressing over the wound but the finger would not slay in place and kept flopping down. I led him to a chest of drawers, cleared the top with my elbow and told him to look away. I then pulled out my fighting knife, removed the offending digit and was then able to tie the dressing and send him on to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post]"
Whilst in Holland in January and February 1945: "Following the Brigade Inspection of the Battalion, prior to the move to Belgium, I was criticised for training the Platoon in the use of the dial sight, but when the C.O. gave me the task for the Vickers in the defences of Kessel, I felt my foresight fully justified. I was told to occupy a position from which the fire power of the Platoon could be brought to fall in front of the Companies holding Kessel, in the unlikely event of a German assault across the River. From a study of the map and a recce on the ground, I informed the Colonel that the only way in which the Platoon could do this was from an indirect fire position and indicated on the map what I considered a suitable site for the guns. Although this area was part of the 3rd Brigades responsibility, I was given the "go ahead". Once dug in, we fired a demonstration shoot into the middle of the river in front of "C" Company. The river was flat calm and the strike of the bullets clearly visible. As a result of this success, we now established an O.P. [Observation Post] with "A" Company in Kesselijk, connected to the gun lines by telephone, and began engaging targets on the far side of the river. Ammunition was being stockpiled for the main offensive battles to come and we were rationed to two belts (500 rounds) per gun daily. Perhaps the target didn't always warrant the amount of ammunition expended, but it helped to keep us happy and for once we were able to put our training into practice on a regular basis."
On the 24th March 1945, Dean participated in the 6th Airborne Division's drop across the River Rhine as part of Operation Varsity. "It was as if the fitting of chutes started us on a course of action from which there was no drawing back and the inevitable was put off until it could be delayed no longer. There was still no sign of the crew, so Serjeant Frank Kenny our Stick Commander was given a leg up into the fuselage so the steps could be reached and fitted in position. We were all at the door waiting for him to hand out our chutes. Four shapeless bundles on the fuselage floor stirred into life and out of their sleeping bags emerged the crew. They were still half asleep but sprung into life when one of them said "Gee fellahs, what about chow?" At great speed they pulled on trousers and jackets before they disappeared across the airfield in search of their breakfast. We fitted chutes and emplaned. All around us we could hear engines being started and run up, but still no pilot and I knew the time scheduled for take off was fast approaching. A Jeep screeched to a halt, out jumped the crew, they climbed aboard, pulled up the steps and disappeared into the cabin. Within seconds the engines coughed and spluttered into life and hardly were they running, but we moved from dispersal onto the perimeter track and joined the stream rolling towards the runway."
"The Dakotas approached the runway from both directions and then turned along it, aircraft slightly staggered on either side. Slowly they edged forward until the full Battalion group were formed up. A signal or an order and all engines were being run at maximum revs, for a moment it was if they were dogs straining at the leash. Then brakes were released and the fleet roared down the run way as one. Slowly to begin with, the under carriage wheels left the ground and the planes started to climb as they gathered into formation for the long flight to Germany. "P" Hour was 1000 hours, but now it was only just after 0630 hours. The flight seemed longer than three and a half hours. It was even longer for those who flew in the gliders, for somewhere over Belgium, we flew under the glider train for several minutes, since their flying speed was slower than the parachute aircraft. All together there were over 300 tug and glider combinations in the 6th Airborne armada."
"We were all jumping with kit bags so we fitted these, hooked up and went through the usual procedure of checking and reporting. While we were busy with these actions our Jump Master moved to the rear of the plane and we could hear him fussing around, but ignored him while we got ready to jump. When all was ready I looked to the rear where he had pulled the inflatable rubber dinghies across the door of the "Elsan" closet. He was behind them and you could just see his head over them, "O.K. you guys" he said, "I'll dispatch you from here". In every plane by now, Number Ones were standing in the door way taking in the spectacle, for it was an unforgettable sight to see all 33 Dakotas in close formation. Whatever other criticisms there were of American air crew on Operation "Varsity", the airmanship of the pilots could not be faulted. Nine abreast in three "Vics" of three they flew, with only yards separating individual air craft which constantly rose and fell a few feet as the pilots worked hard to maintain position."
"The river Rhine was passed, with not a sign of battle on either bank but soon burning buildings indicated we were approaching the time for action. Through the starboard windows were seen the homeward bound Dakotas which had dropped 3 Brigade. From the engine of one of them, streamed a long tongue of orange red flame. Suddenly the ground below was littered with discarded parachutes the 8th, 9th and Canadian Battalions were already in their rendezvous. Flying over their deserted drop zone, meant we were on course for D.Z. "Baker", with a little over one minutes flying time to go. Two questions the Number Ones were asking themselves, when are the pilots going to descend to 600 feet and when are they going to reduce speed? Normally the wing flaps were half lowered, as was the under carriage and the pilot flew at just above stalling speed, but this was not happening. The height was nearer 1000 feet and there was no slackening in the pace of the run in. But now we were all at "action stations" and the open farmland of the drop zone clearly visible ahead. Butterflies were fluttering in all tummies as we awaited the green light." Dean landed safely on the heavily disputed drop zone and reached the Rendezvous.
During the following month, the Brigade was leading the Division's advance into Germany. "Before evening "stand to" 6 Platoon pulled two large farm carts across the road, out side grenade throwing range and also making it impossible for any vehicle to be driven straight through. Only a little while after "stand down" the section manning the forward post reported to me that something was approaching Wieren along the road. I put the Platoon on full alert and went forward to see what was happening. Whatever the vehicle was it had stopped at our road block. Leaving one section to give covering fire, I look the other two down a dry ditch and with cries of "Hande Hoch" (and also "Hands Up", because we had heard English being spoken), we quickly surrounded a horse and cart and close on twenty men. Still with their hands up the party were escorted into the yard behind the farmhouse, which was Platoon H.Q."
"I thought it might be a ruse to put us off our guard, so the Platoon remained on alert and I arranged to see our prisoners one at a time. We had liberated an oil lamp, so I was able to have a good look at the first of our captives. He was wearing shabby, mud stained battledress and in response to my question, stood smartly to attention and reeled off number, rank and name, followed by the title of a distinguished Scottish Regiment. Further enquiries revealed that he had been captured during the retreat in 1940 and for the past four years had worked as a farm labourer. Their guards had disappeared, so he and his comrades had decided to try and reach the advancing British Army. No German, I thought could have imitated the broad Scotch accent, in which this was divulged, but I had to be sure. The next two I interrogated told exactly the same story the only difference being the Scottish Regiment in which they had served. Satisfied that all was well and as I had not received any instructions from Company H.Q. I had them all brought indoors. I chatted to them informally about their experiences and they of course were eager to learn of the progress of the war. But not one of them would look me in the eye they seemed far more interested in my head. Then, I suddenly realised what interested them so much. They were all members of the original 51st. (Highland) Division, forced into surrender at St. Valery in 1940, possibly never learning of the existence of the Parachute Regiment and very clearly had never seen a British soldier wearing a red beret before."
"Next morning, supported by a troop of armoured cars, Lieutenant "Nobby" Prior and his "B" Company Platoon formed a fighting patrol to Konav, but found the place deserted. For the next week, we continued to edge slowly forward, as 15th (Scottish) reached the Elbe and cleared the enemy from the west bank. On 25th the Battalion Advance Party left for Rheine, which was to be the take off airfield for the operation. The following afternoon came the disappointing news that the drop was cancelled, patrols had crossed the river, only to find the enemy forces were virtually nonexistent."
"A successful assault crossing of the Elbe was made by 15th (Scottish) and by 1st May a floating Bailey bridge was in position near Lauenberg. 6th Airborne were now back under command of XVIII American Corps, with orders to exploit the situation. The final approach to the crossing site took us close to Luneberg airfield and what appeared on the maps as a minor road through the woods, had been converted into an aircraft dispersal area, with sand bagged emplacements along its entire length. In each one stood a Luftwaffe fighter immobilised by the Allied Air forces. A German horse drawn supply convoy had also been caught in the same attack, but all that remained of the animals were bare skeletons. Every scrap of flesh had been cut off by the roving gangs of slave labourers, now a daily sight, as they sought to satisfy their hunger."
"It took a couple of days for the Division to concentrate on the east bank, but early on 3rd May we set off on the last lap of the race to the Baltic. To begin with the roads were empty except for our convoys and good speed was made. Then we began to meet the German forces who had been fighting on the Russian front. Mile after mile we moved through the retreating Wehrmacht. We were on one side of the road, the Germans on the other, over flowing into the fields also. At one stage, four German generals were queuing up at Battalion H.Q. to surrender. In one small town through which we passed the population turned out to watch the show. Children, excited as ever by the military, the old men stood in sullen silence, perhaps remembering an earlier defeat in 1918. But the solid "haus fraus" wept openly at the sight of the once all conquering Wehrmacht, now fleeing in terror from the avenging Russians. Undoubtedly we would have been annihilated had the Germans chosen to fight. Enough armour; tanks, S.P.'s and personnel carriers for more than a Division rolled past in the fields on either side of the road. There was only one thought on all their minds, to save their skins and reach the safety with the British before the Russians caught up with them from behind. It really was the most memorable and satisfying experience to be "in at the kill". I don't suppose a single one of us bad given any thought as to how the war might end, but what we witnessed that day was proof enough, that the Germans had had enough."
"By early afternoon, the leading elements of the Division drove into Wismar and on to the shores of the Baltic, thus preventing any further drive westwards of the Red Army and although it was to be a few more days before the campaign in Western Europe officially came to an end we had no doubt at all that it was over and somehow we had survived it all. The Battalion occupied farms and houses around Moltow, only a few miles from Wismar and then "B" Company were detailed to be the protecting force for the Military Mission which was to receive the surrender of enemy forces in Denmark and were flown by Dakota to Copenhagen and received a rapturous welcome from the Danes."
The following article, the "Oily Rags", is a personal recollection by Major Dean of his experiences with the Medium Machine Gun Platoon of the 13th Parachute Battalion.
The Oily Rags
The affectionate "nick-name" given to the men of the "Vickers" Medium-Machine Gun Platoon, by Lt. Col. P.J. Luard, Commanding Officer of the 13th. (Lancashire) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. A personal account of life with the "Gunners" from January 1944 to May 1945. by Major Ellis "Dixie" DEAN MBE, MC
"Whenever I visit your platoon in training, I can be sure that at least one of them, will have an oily rag in his hand, so that is what I am going to call you ----- my oily rags" Lt. Col. P.J. Luard April 1944.
"How old did you say you are?" My questioner was the Recruiting Sergeant in Preston. "Eighteen" I replied and this time I added the word "Sergeant" to my reply. I had omitted to add that when first asked the question, and had very quickly been informed of my error. "You look more than eighteen to me." It was my height that impressed him, for I was over six foot tall, he continued, "You can join the Guards if you're twenty. I'll put you down as twenty then." "No" I persisted, "I'm only eighteen." "It's a mans life in the Guards." But I declined his offer. "What do you want to serve in then?" "The King's Regiment, Sergeant", this was the Regiment in which I knew two previous generations of my family had served in the Volunteer, and later Territorial Battalions. "You can't do that, if you are only eighteen then it has to be The Royal Welch Fusiliers at Shrewsbury, or The Welch Regiment at Haverfordwest. You can only go to a Home Defence Battalion." It did not take long to work out which was the nearer location to my home town of Formby in south west Lancashire, and so it was to the 12th. Battalion R.W.F., I reported to begin my Army career on 29th August 1940. And that one simple decision governed the rest of my life. Had I chosen the alternative, I would not in 1942 been serving as a Sergeant in the 70th. (Young Soldiers) Battalion RWF, nor would I have been stationed in the small Lincolnshire village, Fulbeck.
My progress up the promotion ladder began quite early in my army career. After a week or so in the Coleham Drill Hall, enough young recruits such as myself had reported to form a platoon, so one afternoon, we marched a few miles out of the city to Harlescott, where the bulk of the battalion were already encamped alongside the KSLI [King's Shropshire Light Infantry] unit there. Six of us shared an old bell tent, reminiscent of Scout camp. The only time we left camp was on a Saturday evening, when we either walked or hitched a lift into Shrewsbury to see a film, followed by a visit to the YMCA canteen there. Apart from our NCO instructors, the only other man in the Company with a rifle was the Company clerk.
During September, all the young soldiers (the under 20 year olds) were transferred to the 70th. (Young Soldiers) Battalion ------ the "call up" age was still 20, but after Dunkirk, there were so many lads of 18 and 19 (and even younger), eager to join up, the powers that be, decided to form special units for them. At the same time, TA Reserve Officers (some veterans of WW1) were called up, and ex-Regular WOs and Sergeants, still "on reserve" were called back for service, and I would reckon that by the middle of the month, there was a full Battalion of 70th. RWF. The one event of note during our time there occurred early one Sunday morning, before daylight, when our slumbers were rudely interrupted by the Company Clerk ordering us all to get dressed immediately as the Germans had landed on the south coast, and we were to stay awake. We did as ordered, though what exactly we were expected to do was never explained to us. Religiously every hour the clerk would come round asking "Are you all awake?", to which I replied in the affirmative, while the rest of the tent slept on. Next morning at breakfast, all the KSLI were wearing Battle order and carrying their rifles, while commandeered buses stood by to transport them into battle. It was I learnt after he war ended, the night of the fireblitz on London.
Eventually we were issued with our rifles, but not the standard SMLE .303 of the British Army. Ours were the P14 .300 of the American army of WW1, sent over here to replace some of the weapons lost during the Dunkirk evacuation. We had only just learnt how to slope and order arms, and we marched down to the station and entrained for Rhyl on the north Wales coast. Here we occupied the boarding houses now empty of summer visitors.
While at Harlescott, the instructors of the APTC [Army Physical Training Corps] attached to the KSLI had taken the daily session of PT [Physical Training], but at Rhyl it was our Platoon Sergeants who were responsible for this, until a CSMI from the APTC arrived. Companies were ordered to nominate several Fusiliers as potential assistant instructors, and I was one such detailed from B Company. In the region of 20 of us, spent a week with the CSM while he assessed our capabilities. We were told that at the end of the week he would be selecting 4 of us to attend a 3 week course at the Western Command School of Physical Training. Oswestry. The CSMI was not a Regular Army man, but had been Games Master at a rugby playing Grammar School, and I responded enthusiastically to his instruction, but I have to admit that at the end of the week, I was surprised to be one of those selected to proceed to Oswestry. In recognition of this, I was appointed Acting/Unpaid/Local Lance Corporal. I passed out from the 3 week course with a Q1 qualification, and returned to my unit, and took up my duties as a PTI.
This position carried responsibility, but also provided some advantages. Instead of the standard battle dress worn on parade, I now wore, dark navy trousers, a red and black hooped jersey, and PT shoes, and no head wear. Best of all, we didn't have to queue to be served our meals, being allowed to go to the head of the line of waiting squaddies. There was only one drawback as far as I was concerned. The ex-schoolmaster CSMI had departed to train as an officer, and in his place was a prewar regular CSM of the "old school", nothing more than an ignorant bully, who from the outset, made life as difficult as he could. He clearly did not understand civilian soldiers, and made no attempt to change his attitude. We four youngsters must have been the hardest worked members of the Battalion. In the morning, a succession of four platoons for their daily PT lesson. Four afternoons a week, you either refereed a soccer game, or took the members of the Company on a cross country run, and two nights a week trained the boxing team. But I did become supremely fit, which helped throughout my time in the army. On completing the course, I became a paid L/Cpl. but now, since there were full Corporals among the squads we were instructing, we also became paid Corporals.
That was my life for the next three months, broken only by 7 days leave over the Christmas period ----- the CSM even tried to have that cancelled, but my OC [Officer Commanding]. over-ruled him, and before the end of January 1941 I was free of his tyranny altogether. The OC called me in for interview, and asked if I was interested in training to become an Officer. I declined his invitation ---- I was by no means a trained soldier, and besides I aimed to emulate my father, who had been "called to the Colours" with his TA unit in 1914, and had proved himself in battle (a Military Medal, a Mention in Despatches and a Belgian "Croix de Guerre), before being awarded a "battle field Commission". The OC accepted my decision, but informed me that he was "returning me to duty", since I was capable of better things than an assistant PT Instructor. Shortly after this interview, the battalion were on the move again.
The decision had been made that all the Young Solders Battalions, were to be given the task of the defence of all RAF Aerodromes ---------- the RAF Regiment was not yet in existence. While it was still dark, one late January morning the Battalion entrained for Lincolnshire, all except B Company were to de-train at Skegness, dropping us off at Coningsby on the way.
RAF Coningsby now is well known as the home of the "Battle of Britain Flight", but when we arrived it was still under construction as a permanent station. One Squadron (No 97 I think) was already operational. They were equipped with the Handley-Page "Hampden" bomber ----- the "flying pencil" and already out of date, but still flying on operations. Our first task, once we settled down in the modern accommodation blocks, would be to construct the defences, since there was the possibility that in the spring of !941, the German plan to invade would be put into operation. But before the first weapon slit was dug, myself and four other young Corporals were sent on a Battalion Junior/leader Cadre at Battalion HQ in the Derby Miners Holiday Camp on the coast just north of Skegness. My military training now began, and I had quite a bit of "catching up" to do, but I had really set my mind on equalling my father's record if possible, and put everything I had into the instruction on weapons and minor tactics. On our return to Coningsby, we saw another Squadron (No.106) of bombers had flown in. They were equipped with the latest addition to the RAF s steadily growing strike power ---- the ill fated twin engined "Manchester" (the same design, slightly larger and with four engines became the war winning aircraft the Avro "Lancaster"). It was in a Manchester bomber, I was to become "airborne" for the first time. The usual Sunday routine was "church parade" in the morning, and the rest of the day was free of duties. If the bombers were flying an operation that night, during the afternoon they would take off for a short test flight. We would wait at the dispersal site and more often or not, the pilot was happy to carry several passengers, giving us "brown jobs" something to boast about.
I had passed out top of the class of 30 or so on the unit cadre, and this gained me a place at the Army School of Infantry on a Junior Leaders Course, at Stainborough Castle near Barnsley. Here selected NCOs from all the different Young Soldiers Battalions, were "put through their paces" by the pick of the army instructors (I was to meet some of them again at 163 OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] two years later). Again I excelled, and was the only one of the course to be given an "A/B grading". This earned me promotion to Sergeant ----- rapid progress in under 12 months. By now it was mid-summer, and I was in charge of a Platoon of 35 men. The defensive posts around the perimeter of the 'drome complete. We moved out of the comfortable barrack blocks into either tents, or huts adjacent to the part of the defences we were responsible for at Coningsby. One of the sites my platoon occupied was almost in a farm-yard, and I remember one evening sitting in the farm kitchen, listening to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill announce, that the Soviet Union were now our allies, as that morning the Nazi panzers had advanced into Russia. The threat of invasion had finally been removed.
As members of the Battalion reached their 20th. birthdays, they became eligible for active service, and accordingly were posted to service battalions, resulting in a steady decline in unit strength. At the outbreak of war, now almost 2 years ago, only 20 year olds had been conscripted, but the age for call-up was extended gradually until any-one between the ages of 18 and 40, who was not in a reserved occupation, were liable to be called up. As a result, there were far fewer 18 year olds offering their services before it became compulsory to do so. Any who did, now received the standard 3 months basic training at one of the Infantry Training Centres, which had been established at former Regimental Depots up and down the UK. Those for the three Welsh Regiments received their initial training at the Brecon ITC., and as a result, every three months there was a new squad, trained and ready to be posted to the 70th., replacing our "wastage". To cope with these intakes, a Training Company, G Coy was formed at Skegness, and in October I was posted there to take charge of the latest platoon which had just arrived from Brecon.
I served in G Company for the remainder of my service in the Royal Welch. moving around Lincolnshire. First to Market Rasen, next to Grantham and in early June we ended up in the village of Fulbeck. This move, was a turning point, not just in my army career but in my life ever since. Major C.H.V. Pritchard was posted to the battalion as 2i/c [Second-in-Command], and he it was, who changed my military life.
The battalion were detailed to run a week-end "Battle School" for the Lincolnshire units of the Home Guard ---- I had already been involved with "Dad's Army" during our time in Grantham, instructing one of the platoons based in a nearby village; and where the entire population ---- women, children and old men would turn out to watch me instruct them in bayonet fighting. Major Pritchard was appointed Chief-Instructor, and we became the "Demonstration Platoon", and this appointment brought me into direct contact with him. He was the first Regular Army officer that I had served with, and I was highly impressed, I have to admit. Not only did he know his subject, but he could explain the facts simply and easily. The camp was a tented one, near the small town of Louth. Before the first of the Home Guard students arrived, the platoon spent two days rehearsing the demonstrations of minor tactics we were to give. I was trusted to present two of the demonstrations myself ------ use of cover and camouflage on the Saturday morning, and siting and occupation of a defensive position the next day. His involved becoming acquainted with weapons like the "Blacker Bombard" which we did not have normally. We must have satisfied "our stern task-master", since before we departed back to Fulbeck on the Sunday evening, he, not only congratulated us, but also thanked us ---- a rare honour I felt from a very capable regular officer. I was thanked personally for my efforts.
It was another Regular who was to make an even greater influence on my life. In addition to G Company, Fulbeck was home to Battalion HQ, and this brought me into daily contact with RSM. Johnson. Unknown to me until then, so I was unaware that he was a keen tennis player, and just across the road from Fulbeck Manor (Battalion HQ) were the village tennis courts. The RSM did a deal with them --------------- the RSM would detail men "on defaulters" (confined to barrack for army misdemeanours) to mow the courts, and members of the Sergeants Mess could, if they wish, join the tennis club. It was only a small mess, no more than a dozen or so, and I think there were only four of us who played tennis. There, playing tennis, was where I became acquainted with Olive and Jack Farmer, and one evening I and the Army Education Corps sergeant, were invited back to their home for supper. Jack Farmer, I learnt, had in August 1914, less than a fortnight after his 18th. birthday, joined the Lincolnshire Regiment, and in January 1915 was posted to their 1st. Battalion in France. His promotion to Sergeant was won in the trenches, winning him a DCM, and a commission in the Leicesters. During the German offensive in March 1918, he had been gassed, and spent some of his convalescence at Blackpool, and later at Altcar just a few miles from my home in Formby. I also met their very attractive 16 year old school-girl daughter, Jean, who after the war became my wife.
There was something missing in my life. I had joined the army, fired with eagerness to "do my bit", yet almost three years after the outbreak of hostilities, I was no nearer the front line, than I was when I first "took the King's shilling" in 1940. One of my school friends, who volunteered for flying duties at the same time as I had joined up, had already qualified as a Spitfire pilot, been shot down on a fighter sweep over Holland, and was now a POW. Another, after a year at university was also training to be a pilot, while a third one, had already seen action aboard a Destroyer with the Navy in the Mediterranean. In mid-July, came the chance to change all that. The last Home Guard week-end course was in mid-July, when again we were thanked by Major Pritchard, but he added a post-script. "Perhaps some of you would like to serve in the new unit I have been appointed to command ----- a battalion of the Parachute Regiment. It is keen, energetic young soldiers such as yourselves, who in my opinion are the type of fighting men that Regiment requires, and I will be talking to all the Companies about this."
I needed no further persuading, and since my service and training standard fulfilled the War Office criteria ---------- minimum age, 19, at least 12 months service, and a 1st. Class shot with both rifle and Bren, I applied for a transfer. On a Sunday morning in early August, accompanied by 200 other young soldiers I departed from Lincoln station for Chesterfield and Hardwick Hall, Depot and School of Airborne Forces. We had already undergone one "medical" before our applications were accepted, but at Hardwick next morning, were put through an even stiffer one. There was one slight "hiccup" for me ----- my ears required syringing before a thorough examination of them could be made. This was done by a VAD nurse in the camp, and I then saw the MO again. "That's fine" he said, and he continued "you are a very fit young man, however, if I were to keep strictly to the guide-lines laid down, I should have to fail you. These instructions advise me to RTU [Returned to Unit] all volunteers who are both over 6ft. tall and weigh more than 13 stone - that's because of the limitations of the aircraft. I can't do anything about your height, but reckon you will loose a few pounds during the training --- so good luck."
Such a large influx of volunteers at the same time, was too many for the school to cope with, so half of us spent a week on fatigue duties before starting our pre-para. training. A week later we left for No.I Parachute Training School at RAF "Ringway", and on the following Monday morning "enjoyed" our first experience of "Kilkenny's Circus" (Squadron/Leader Kilkenny was the chief instructor of the school, and the circus was the series of swings, slides and other equipment we exercised on. Two days of this and we were ready for our first jump. This was from the balloon in Tatton Park. Then followed a further balloon jump, then 5 descents, all from old Whitley bombers. First, a slow pair, (each pupil in turn given the order "action stations" followed by "go"); next a fast pair, with No.2 following immediately after No.1. A slow half-stick of 5 ----- each man given time to swing his legs into the hole, before pushing off. Then a fast five ----- no intervals between exits, and finally a full stick of ten. Ringway Basic Parachute Course No.25 was a little unlucky with the weather, and instead of the usual 6 days ending on the Saturday, we did not make our seventh and final qualifying jump until the following Tuesday morning. By the early evening, I was proudly showing off my wings and coveted "red beret" to my astonished parents.
At the end of ten days leave, we reported to HQ. 6th. Battalion (Royal Welch) of the Parachute Regiment, still wearing the traditional "black flash" of the RWF. stitched to the back collar of our blouses. We were part of the 2nd. Parachute Brigade, 1st. Airborne Division, which was stationed in and around Bulford on Salisbury Plain, with our battalion under canvas on Bulford Fields. I joined B Company, under Major John Williams, as a Section Commander Sergeant in No.6 Platoon. Before winter set in, the unit marched the few miles to Larkhill, and there occupied the war-time "Spider Blocks" of Newcome Lines, with the pre-historic monument of Stonehenge only half a mile away.
I was sent on an Anti-Gas course at the Army School of Chemical Warfare, and while I was absent from the unit, Sergeant Harry Fitzgerald joined us as my Platoon Sergeant. He hailed from Birkenhead, and had done his initial training at Harrington Barracks in my home town of Formby. He was only a year older than me, and we became good friends, as well as team mates playing rugby for the Company. Before Christmas, I was instructed to take charge as Platoon Sergeant of NO. 8 Platoon, C Company, a new intake of men.
Major Williams, had already talked to me, about training as an officer, and given me a few days to think it over, and decided I would agree to his suggestion. I hadn't proved myself in battle, but I was Platoon Sergeant in a Parachute Battalion at the age of 20, evidence of my capabilities I reckoned, and agreed to his proposal.
One morning in mid-January I reported to, Battalion HQ for interview by Colonel Pritchard. His first question took me somewhat by surprise "What makes you think you have the qualities to make an officer", and I replied: "I have not asked to be considered for a commission Sir, Major Williams thinks I have it in me to be one", and then added, "if it is a case of a commission or the Parachute Regiment, then my choice is to remain in the Regiment." His reply fully set my mind at rest. "There is no reason why you should not have both. I know from friends of mine at the War Office that the regiment is to be enlarged with another Airborne Division, so there will be a call for more volunteers. Having already invested in training you as a parachutist, they will want to retain your services. But it will be up to you and just how you re-act to the OCTU course." Harry Fitzgerald also had an interview that morning, and as we walked back together to our Company lines, he said, "I told the CO [Commanding Officer] when he spoke to me, that if it meant leaving the Parachute Regiment, then I didn't want a commission" --- so I had to tell him that I had expressed the same sentiments. In early February we reported to separate WOSBs (War Office Selection Boards) for three days of tests and Interviews, and on March 3rd., the day after my 21st. birthday reported to the Pre-OCTU Training Brigade at Wrotham in Kent, and were both attached to the same battalion there for our short course. A month later, we travelled up to Merseyside together for 7 days leave before reporting to 163 OCTU (Artists Rifles) at Heysham Towers, Morecombe, where we joined the same platoon for the training.
Mindful of Colonel Pritchard's advice, I was determined to achieve a good grading. Being a qualified parachutist at this stage of the war, was still a novelty, and the two of us were clearly regarded by our fellow cadets as super-soldiers. During the previous winter, the 1st. Parachute Brigade had been deployed in Tunisia, and the newspapers had contained highly complimentary reports of their battles, and so we had every incentive to ensure their reputation as a fighting elite was not just paper talk. But, I have to admit, the next four months were the easiest of my entire war service. I had only myself to look after, and I was already a well trained exceptionally fit, and, I hope, efficient senior NCO. It was "childs play". Even the Officer instructors were anxious to learn about military parachuting from us.
At the end of three months, we were all given a form to be completed. We were to list in order of preference three regiments into which we wished to be commissioned. The Parachute Regiment was my No.1 choice, followed by the King's (Liverpool), and thirdly the South Lancashires. Finally at the beginning of August we were told of our postings --- Depot and School Airborne Forces. That "was a feather in my cap". The next piece of information was even better - an interview with the OCTU Commandant, and the news I had passed out as Senior Cadet, with an A/B. grading, and although one of the other cadets had also achieved this grading, I was to command the Passing Out Parade on the coming Thursday morning, and to receive from the Inspecting General, the "Sam Brown" Belt of Honour. Next day, at breakfast, we wore our Officers Service Dress with one shiny "pip" for the first time.
A weeks leave, and the following Friday, Harry Fitzgerald and I travelled together to Hardwick, and reported to the Adjutant there, and for me a big disappointment. Harry was posted to P Company, helping to put the potential parachutists through their pre-parachuting toughening up, and then accompanying them to Ringway. I was to be an Assistant Administration Officer in Depot Company.
My duties were not arduous, and didn't tax my ability at all. In addition to the running of the Depot, the Company were responsible for "processing" the volunteers through their medical and suitability tests, inspecting and checking their kit, before passing them on to P Company. The Company, was also responsible for the administration of trained parachutists awaiting posting. A number of such trained men were being prepared for posting to the 1st. Division, fighting as infantry in Italy. I tried to join this draft of reinforcements, only to be old that on War office orders, newly commissioned officers were not to be sent overseas ----- more frustration.
One of the officers awaiting posting was not going to Italy. Freddie Skeate was waiting to join the newly raised 13th (Lancashire) Battalion as their mortar officer. One day in early September, he told me that the CO of the 13th. was coming up to Hardwick to select officers for his battalion, from those undergoing their toughening up training, and suggested I apply for an interview with him. This was arranged, and again I came away disappointed -------- Colonel Luard told me he was looking for experienced officers, since he would only have a short time to train his battalion. I emphasised my experience as a sergeant in the 6th. Battalion, but it did not seem to make any impression on him, and I came away from the interview convinced that I would not be joining his unit, but before the end of September I was posted to the 13th.( Lancashire) Battalion - my own county Battalion, and I was a very proud man. The battalion were housed in the wooden "Belisha" barracks of Newcome Lines, Larkhill, vacated by the 6th. Battalion on their move to North Africa.
The 13th. was a newly raised formation in 5 Parachute Brigade, 6th. Airborne Division, and at this time consisted only of the members of 2nd/4th. South Lancashires, who had volunteered for parachuting, when the Battalion was selected in July to form the basis of the new unit. Possible strength was a dozen Officers and 300 N.C.Os. and men. Priority had been given to specialist training, and these platoons, such as Signals and Mortars, were up to strength. Rifle Companies were only operating on a fully manned H.Q., but platoons were only a section strong with a high percentage of N.C.Os. Two other officers were posted from the Depot at Hardwick with me - Freddie Skeate was to be the Mortar Officer, and Stan Jeavons, who like myself joined B Company.
A little over a week later, I was back at Hardwick, a student at the Divisional Battle School. The course lasted four weeks, and then, myself and the three sergeants who had accompanied me on the course, went home on ten days leave, so it was late November when I reported back to Larkhill. But not much had changed - priority was given to re-inforcing 1st Airborne in Italy.
During my absence, Terry Bibby, a former B Company subaltern had rejoined the battalion and expressed a wish to serve in his old company, and had in fact already assumed command of 6 Platoon. I now moved to "Charlie" Company as O.i/c [Officer-in-Command] 9 Platoon., but within days was attached to the Mortars. Stan Jeavons and myself were to attend a short course of 3 inch Mortar Training at the Netheravon Small Arms School. Two Mortar Platoons were being trained, with No.2 Platoon having an alternative role as Vickers Machine Gunners. There was a school of thought in the Army, that the days of the Vickers gun were over - they were right to a certain extent, but the Bren had neither the range nor the fire power of the German Spandaus, so the old tripod mounted Vickers had been brought back. It was explained to us that we were being trained to take over the Mortars, should either of the regular officers become casualties.
The course only lasted ten days, but on our return, we found the Battalion fully up to strength in all ranks, and the emphasis for the remainder of December's training was on physical fitness, culminating early in January 1944 with a march of 50 miles in 24 hours, with full G1098 Equipment - dressed as for battle, and carrying full scale ammunition. Within days of this march, I was instructed to take over No 2 Mortar Platoon.
My association with the "Oily Rags" was about to begin.
Early Days with the "Gunners" 1944
As soon as I took over the Platoon it was obvious to me that the C.O. intended us to go to war as a Mortar unit, because machine gun training was given a very low priority, and we only carried out such work one day a week. The N.C.Os and men had been training as mortar-men for several months and were highly proficient when doing gun drills, but I did not know how efficient the Section Commanders were as fire controllers. As for myself, during the ten day course at Netheravon, I had been fortunate on one of the live-firing exercises to have acted as a Section Commander, and had managed to land my bombs on the target, but that was the limit of my experience. When it came to machine gunning, the only N.C.O. with any knowledge of the Vickers, was L/Cpl. Alf Turner, a regular soldier who wore the North-West Frontier campaign medal. In the Young Soldiers Battalion, we were employed on aerodrome defence, and used Vickers in static positions, so I knew how to handle and fire the gun, attend to stoppages, and strip and clean the weapon, but knew nothing about the tactical sighting and fire control. So as you can well imagine, when it came to machine gun training, it was very much a case of the blind leading the blind, and most of it had to be done straight from the pamphlets.
But all this changed in mid-April when the Battalion were deployed for Exercise "Mush". In the instructions 6th. Airborne were to act as enemy against 1st Division, who were going to parachute into the exercise, while we would only be ground forces. The C.O. thought that this was just a cover for the cross-Channel operation, and that 1st. Airborne had been selected ahead of us. He addressed all the officers in secret, and told us not to be too disappointed, as our turn would surely come, so it was in a rather disconsolate frame of mind we departed for the exercise area. Here we bivouacked for a couple of days, waiting for good weather. It was one of the few occasions when the Platoon were to be employed in the machine gun role, and I took advantage of this to put in a little extra training. The Colonel accompanied by Brigadier Poett came along, and the Brigadier asked me how the training was progressing. I replied as well as could be expected, only using the guns one day a week. He seemed most surprised, wanting to know what we did for the rest of the time, and when I told him, he shook his head, saying "This will never do", and guided the C.O. away. In next to no time the platoon were on their way back to Larkhill, with a Small Arms School trained instructor from 7 Para. with orders that from now on we were to train as machine gunners only.
At the end of the month, the complete Platoon spent a week at Netheravon, and benefited tremendously from the instruction of the staff there, and at the end of that week. I stayed on, as a student on the full six week course. A call also went out to the Depot for experienced gunners, and as a result, Sergeant George Kelly and Private Jack Carr were posted to us. I kept in touch by returning to Larkhill at the week-ends, and on the first of these, I was told that my Platoon allocation of aircraft for a forthcoming exercise was 4 Albermarles (they could only carry 10 parachutists), and I was to submit my stick lists. No-one was fooled, we all realised that this was the invasion, and we were to be part of it. Next week-end it was changed, and now we had 2 Stirlings, which had twice the capacity.
I had completed half of the course, when I was recalled, and on reporting back learnt that there were only 24 hours before we departed for the transit camp, but the Machine Gunners would not be going with the rest of the Battalion to Brize Norton. Instead we were to travel with the 12th. Battalion to Keevil - hence the change in the aircraft allocation. The reason for this, was the role the platoon had been given once we were down on the ground. So on the morning of 25th. May, I marched the gunners to the opposite end of the barrack square, which we shared with the 12th. and reported to Major David Mayfield, O.C. their Headquarters Company to whom we were attached.
The camp at Keevil was a couple of miles from the aerodrome, and with one single exception, was completely under canvas, but it had been a particularly fine spring that year, and the Wiltshire countryside was at its sparkling best, and if the location was meant to be relaxing, it could hardly have been bettered.
Once in, the camp was sealed, although it would have been easy enough to sneak out after dark, I don't think any-one tried. The one Nissen hut of the camp housed the briefing room, and the door was kept locked, but within days I was told to report there. We waited outside, the 12th. Battalion Company and Support Weapons Commanders - I was the only outsider, but I knew all the others by name, and "Paddy" Shaw their Machine Gun Officer quite well. He came from Liverpool, and was a pre-war regular serving in The Kings Regiment. The talk was all about where the invasion was to take place, with most convinced it would be somewhere in the Pas de Calais area - never once did I hear Normandy mentioned. At last we were allowed in and sat round the sand model in the centre of the room. The only place name which meant anything to me was Caen, but I wasn't at all sure exactly where it was in France. However there were maps on the walls, and so I was able to work out just which part of France we were heading for.
I listened intently as Colonel Johnson gave out his orders, particularly the information that 21 Panzer Division was located south-east of Caen, and only a few hours driving time away from 5 Brigades operational area, and that they posed the main threat. To counter this, 6 pounder anti-tank guns would land by glider, and the task of my Machine Gun Platoon was their defence, for contrary to my limited knowledge of infantry tactics, the anti-tank guns were to be sited outside the rifle companies defensive localities. And if they were outside the defences, then so were we. It was a daunting thought, especially knowing the fearsome reputation the German Panzer Divisions enjoyed. I didn't lose any sleep over it, but felt we had been given a difficult task. However, a couple of days later, we were joined in the camp by members of the Divisional Anti-Tank Regiment, and two of their Officers shared a tent with me, so I asked them for their thoughts on the matter, since my orders were not to open fire under any circumstances before they did. They were full of confidence in a secret hollow charged shot called "Sabot" about to be used for the first time, and which was capable of destroying the heaviest Boche armour, even the dreaded "Tigers"
Transit Camp - Keevil
We went down to the airfield one morning, dressed as we would be for the drop, and were issued with and fitted our chutes which were then marked with our names in chalk before being laid in rows in store. The two Stirlings were Chalk Numbers 204 and 205 - I would fly in the former with Sergeant Kelly and his Section, leaving Sergeant Whalley and Sergeant Osborne's Section in the other. Corporal Tommy Lathom was the odd man out, and he was to jump with one of the 12th. Battalion sticks. The six gun numbers with their "kit bags" jumped Nos. 2 to 7 in each aircraft, and in each case the Stick Commander jumped No. 10 and was plugged in to the plane's intercom.
We knew from the briefing that D Day was scheduled for the 5th. June, and gradually everything was finalised, and we were all ready to go. Until early evening of 3rd. the weather was perfect, and then the calm was broken by a heavy thunderstorm, and the weather on the 4th. was rather unsettled. The morning was spent in last minute tasks, such as adjusting the weights on the various springs of the Vickers, filling magazines of rifles and Stens. There were grenades to be primed, water bottles to be filled, 24 hour ration packs (each man was carrying two) to be broken down and packed away. At mid-day we thought the operation was still on, and the afternoon was given over to "organised" rest - which for some meant another bout of letter writing, for it was impossible to sleep. It wasn't until early evening that the news of a 24 hour postponement came through, and this meant emptying magazines and de-fusing grenades. The tension showed when one of the senior Privates, and one of the few regular soldiers in the Platoon, fired his rifle as he was unloading. Fortunately the muzzle was pointed downwards and no harm was done.
Next day the procedure was gone through once again, and we were more hopeful that the Op. would go ahead as the weather was more settled. Division Adm. [Administration] Orders stipulated a fat free meal to be served at least two hours before emplaning. The Machine Gunners went into battle, fortified with two slices of bully-beef. mashed potatoes and lettuce, followed by boiled rice with sultanas.
The actual date of the invasion was supposed to be secret, but the inhabitants of Keevil village, realised some-thing was afoot, for they turned out in force to cheer us on our way. At the airfield the Stirlings, two Squadrons of them, were all lined up at the bottom end of the main runway-even numbered Chalks on the right, odd numbers the left. The R.A.S.C. drivers deposited us alongside our aircraft, and wished us luck, before driving off.
Each plane had a welcoming air crew, who greeted us with cries of "sooner you than us". George Kelly, who as Stick Commander, had already met the pilot when he took over the aircraft, introduced me to Flight-Sergeant Jack Gilbert, a no nonsense Australian and the rest off the six man crew introduced themselves to us and explained their duties. There was only one officer, the Navigator, and he unconsciously was the cause of merriment among the men of the stick. Apparently he had left some-thing in the crew room, and asked the N.C.O. pilot for permission to fall out. The lads thought this a great joke, but the pilot regardless of rank is the man in charge of the plane, and all must do as he says. The crew were proud of being members of the "Caterpillar Club", since on a training flight one of the inflatable dinghies stored in the wing, had broken loose, wrapped itself round the rudder, making the plane unmanageable, and they had all baled out. So they could tell us a thing or two about parachuting. It was all good hearted fun, and helped to pass the time, before we had to don our chutes, which were laid out under the wing, roll berets and stuff them inside the smock, adjust our "battle bowlers", and then emplane. Before doing so, I walked across the run-way, to have a last minute chat with the other stick.
During the war "double summer time" was introduced, and it was still broad daylight when we emplaned, and "take off" for H for Hellzapoppin of 299 Squadron was timed for 23.48. hours. The pilot had informed us prior to take off, that after about half an hours flying time the aircraft would be crossing the English coast, and he would then extinguish the fuselage lights. Hence once airborne, and there were still the lights to help, we fitted equipment and then hooked up before settling down on the floor. This turned out to be a very wise move.
It was unbearably hot inside the plane. I always did perspire freely but never as much as I did that night. My eyes were soon stinging as beads of perspiration ran down my face, and I could feel my soaking wet shirt clinging to my back, and I wasn't a happy man at all. Then to make matters worse, the two large flasks of tea provided by the R.A.F. were too sweet. Sergeant Kelly reported that the Rear-gunner was complaining that he could see nothing because of the fuselage lights, and would not be able to warn the pilot if any Luftwaffe night fighters put in an appearance. He was told quietly but firmly "to put a sock in it".
We were warned that the lights were about to be extinguished, so knew exactly when we headed out over the Channel. Not much later back from the crew cabin came the Wireless Operator, who would act as despatcher, and announced "twenty minutes to go". He then continued to the rear where he then had to lower into position the strop guard, a device hinged to the outside of the fuselage, which when in position prevented the empty parachute bags becoming entangled in the rudder. The gun numbers with their heavy "kit bags" needed helping to their feet, but once we were all up and standing in line, we went through the standard drills, and Sergeant Kelly reported to the Pilot "Stick ready to jump". This can't have taken any more than five minutes. I had glanced at my watch when the despatcher came back, and noted it was a little after 00.40 hours, so there must still be a quarter of an hour to go. My next task was to help open and fasten back the top doors covering the aperture through which we would exit, but looking back through the darkness, I could see that the strop guard was not yet lowered. Lance/ Corporal Turner (Number Two) unhooked me and I went and helped lower and pin the guard, and then made my way back and was hooked-up again. I undid the bolt at the forward end, but again had to be un-hooked, enabling me to go and release the rear bolt also. The unfortunate air-crew member had worked himself into such a lather, he couldn't hold his hand steady. Back to my action stations position once more, and again Alf Turner saw that I was hooked up. Having something definite to do had calmed me down a lot, and as the despatcher pulled up the lower door on a long handle, I was able to look down, expecting to see the waters of the English Channel below me.
Much to my surprise we were flying over land. Perhaps the "five minutes to go" warning had been given while I was busy, but I had estimated that the D.Z. was only 90 seconds flying time from the coast. All sorts of strange ideas came to mind - I thought we must still be flying over England near Dover, and the light patches I could see on the ground were made by the exploding shells of German long range artillery. I just could not work out what was happening, and then from behind me came a great bellow of "Green On." What on earth was I to make of that?, and what had happened to the "Five Second" Red?. I looked up, the green light, the signal to jump shone brightly, below the ground was still pock marked with white patches. Another glance upwards, the green still shone, and the thought occurred to me, if I delay any longer, the rest of the stick will think I am not going to jump. I wasn't at all happy with the situation, but I took that one step forward, and out into the cool night air I went.
My chute developed normally, and as my body swung into the vertical I looked around. The first thing to catch my eye away to the right were two silver ribbons, threading through the dark earth, and these I assumed were the River Orne and the ship canal running parallel together. That was good, I was over the correct dropping zone. To my front, but some distance away, numbers of red and orange balls were shooting up into the sky. They left the ground at speed, but as they rose, slowed down, and then just fizzled out, and this display I reasoned was the "ack-ack" defences of Caen. I stared at them for too long, because when I finally looked down, much to my dismay, it seemed I was destined to land in one of the orchards bordering the eastern side of the D.Z. Away to the right, I could see the open fields of where I ought to be landing, so I started to pull down on my lift webs, hoping to steer clear of the trees, and it seemed at first I was going to be lucky, but finally decided I wasn't going to make it and prepared myself for a tree landing.
I had never made such a landing, and had last carried out the drill on the basic parachute course at Ringway in August 1942, but I remembered what to do - head down on the chest, arms crossed in front of it, and knees raised to protect my marriage prospects( as my R.A.F. instructor delicately described that vital part of the male anatomy). Down I came, crashing through branches and foliage, without as much as a scratch or bruise, but when I stopped falling and opened my eyes, I was completely enclosed by greenery. I felt around for a branch to get my feet on, but found none, so I turned the quick release on the parachute harness, gave it a bang, the straps flew apart, and my Sten which was broken down into three parts, and threaded under them, fell to the ground. I slid out of the harness, keeping a tight grip on it, lowered myself to the end of the leg straps, and I hadn't reached the ground and was still enclosed in the foliage. I let go of the webbing harness, and dropped all of twelve inches to the soil of Normandy.
Now to find the Sten. I searched all around where I had landed, but found nothing, and thought what a right "Charlie" I'm going to look, turning up at the R.V. [Rendezvous] without a personal weapon. Fortunately I had packed my torch in one of the ammunition pouches, so out it came, and flashing it around in the bottom of the hedge-row, collected my Sten, piece by piece - It was in one of the trees in the middle of a bocage type hedge surrounding an orchard, that I had landed. I was still enshrouded in the under growth, but could tell from the noise of the planes flying over the D.Z. which side I wanted to be, and so I carefully pulled aside the branches, and found there had been a silent listener to my thrashing about in the hedge. Only a few yards to my right stood a large, white French cow, staring in my direction with moon like eyes. She was tethered to a stake in the grass verge of the cornfield of the Dropping Zone the fact that we would be landing in standing corn came as a big surprise, since I imagined we would drop onto grass-land as we always did on exercises). Not many yards into the corn was a shadowy figure, who as I approached paused in hoisting a machine gun tripod onto his shoulders, and greeted me.
"Hello Sir" he said, so calmly and naturally, you would have thought we were in the habit of meeting each other in this particular French cornfield at one o'clock in the morning. It was Lance Corporal Alf Turner - regular soldiers with several years experience of skirmishing on the North West Frontier take operational parachute jumps in their stride. He continued, "I've just been telling that cow I've come to liberate her."
Together we pushed on through the corn. It was hard going for the crop was waist high, and we soon caught up with Private Bill Price who had jumped Number Three, and was carrying the Vickers itself. The "rendez-vous" which we were seeking, lay in a quarry adjacent to the road running along the western side of the D.Z., and we headed in what I thought was the right direction, listening out for the long blasts on a whistle which were to serve as a guide. Just who was supposed to blow the whistle, I never did know, but he certainly wasn't doing his job just then. As the three of us neared a line of bushes, I was challenged and asked the pass-word. One of the Pathfinder Officers identified himself to me, and asked which Battalion R.V. we were making for, and when I told him, he informed me that we were much too close to the village of Ranville, and showed me the direction in which we should be going. We turned and started off again and shortly caught up with a size-able body of men moving in the same direction, so we tagged along in the rear.
The column halted, and the signal came from the front to kneel down. After several minutes of inactivity, I decided to go and find out the cause of the hold-up. We had come to a track running across the D.Z., and now I knew exactly where we were. To arrive at the quarry all we had to do was follow the track until it met the road, turn left for a few yards, and there was the R.V. on the opposite side of the road. I now found out there was a Major in charge of the party, but I did not recognise him. He was busy organising small groups of men to make a dash across the track together. I knew they were moving towards the coast, and I informed the Major of this fact.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded, and when I replied "Lieutenant Dean of the 13th", I was told in no uncertain terms to go and fight my own war, and let him get on with his.
I went back to the tail of the column, collected my two gunners, moved up to the track, and hadn't gone far along it when the rallying call of long whistle blasts was heard. Within minutes we were turning into the quarry, where Colonel Johnson and Johnny Firth, his I.O. [Intelligence Officer], stood on a little mound directing men to their respective company locations. All the sub-units of H.Q. Company were to line the northern edge of the quarry, with 13th Machine Gunners down near the river, but there were not many of the 12th. present yet and we were the first of the Platoon to arrive.
D Day 6th. June 1944.
Numbers only increased slowly, but I was not too concerned since only the gun numbers were to report direct to the R.V., while the ammunition carriers rallied to their Section Commanders, before searching for the containers. Among the early arrivals was Lance Corporal Arthur Higgins, No. 4 of my stick, who had landed with a "kit bag" containing a tripod, still attached to his leg, without sustaining any injury, and Andy Fairhurst when he arrived, told that he had been suspended in telephone wires at the road-side. But he brought the Platoon wireless set with him, and opened up a listening watch. Ken Lang arrived; bringing with him his two belts of ammunition, and reporting that the Stirling must have been flying low, because no sooner had his chute opened, he hit the ground. Also among the early arrivals whom I was greatly relieved to see, was my unflappable, highly efficient Platoon Sergeant, Alf Whalley. Who, I think, must have been the youngest in the Battalion, holding such a responsibility. Sergeant Kelly clocked in, with only a few of his section and no ammunition, and the same applied to Sergeant Osborne, no ammo, but he did have a complete section. However we only could mount two complete guns. The canvas sleeve through which the rate of descent of the "kit bag" was controlled, had proved ineffective, hence some had broken loose and the contents of the bags lost. Apart from two complete guns, there were also three liners of ammunition (No. 3 in a gun team dropped with the condenser can and a belt of 250 rounds).
Dropping had long since finished, and so a vehicle coming along the road from the direction of the coast, was clearly heard by all. It slowly topped a small rise fifty or sixty yards away, and there halted, an armoured car was silhouetted on the skyline, with its engine ticking over. For several minutes it remained stationary before I heard Johnny Firth saying: "The C.O. wants a patrol to go out and deal with that armoured car".
I thought he was addressing members of the 12th. nearer the road than we were, but thought I would get a little nearer the road to see how they dealt with it. I kept my eyes on the vehicle and noticed that it was starting to move slowly forward, so I quickened my pace. Suddenly the armoured car accelerated. I was at the roadside by now, and I thought "its going to get away". Quick as I could I pulled a 36 grenade from my pouch, and had the pin out and my arm back about to throw it, when a restraining hand was clamped on my shoulder, and a voice said "Hold it, a party of our men have just gone to ground across the road, you might hit them". It was Arthur Higgins, who seeing me set off had followed. That's another cool head in the Platoon I thought. Further on towards Ranville, the vehicle turned off the road onto the D.Z. where it was destroyed.
About the same time the D.Z. came under artillery fire from west of the river, not concentrated, just the odd shell whistling overhead, and exploding amid the corn. It was a waste of ammunition, since the drop zone was deserted by this time, and round 03.00 hours the order "Prepare to move" was given. There were now 29 gunners, myself Alf Whalley, Andy Fairhurst of Platoon H.Q., leaving 26 to man and defend the two guns. Instead of sections of two guns we would operate as detachments of thirteen serving a single gun. Alf Whalley had to do some reorganising of personnel, ensuring equal numbers with each gun.
We were almost at the rear of the column on leaving the quarry and setting off for the 12th Battalion's positions in Le Bas de Ranville. Before we reached there, several great black bats came wheeling and whistling out of the dark sky above, and touched down in the corn. These were the gliders bringing in the anti-tank guns we were to defend, and the advance elements of Divisional Headquarters. An excited French family of a man and his wife, together with a little girl, were at the roadside in front of their house, talking animatedly about the events taking place around them.
Past Ranville church, with its distinctive detached tower, we went before entering the small hamlet, and individual companies peeled off to occupy their defensive positions. I had carefully memorised the route from the aerial photographs, and had no difficulty in leading George Kelly and his section to the hedge in Major Gerald Ritchie's Company area, and left them there to dig their position. From this point on, there was 400 yards more to go before the planned location of the other section was reached, and we were on our own --- myself and fourteen men.
It was quite a simple route to follow - continue along the hedge until it ended at the road running from Ranville to Caen, cross the road, scramble up the bank on the far side, and then locate a track running west towards Herouvillette. On the aerial photograph the track looked to be well used, but it turned out to be a sandy path, wide enough to take a horse and cart, with waist high corn on either side. We turned along it and Arthur Higgins came up alongside me, and we had not gone very far when ahead of us, a dark figure emerged from the corn.
"Halt, hands up" I ordered, and the figure obeyed. "Advance and be recognised". The shadow became substance - "Pass word" I demanded. "Punch" came the ready reply. Now "Punch" with the response "Judy", had been the one set for the night 4th/5th June, and a completely different one ---- "Fish" with "Chips" as response, issued for 5th/6th. June. I reckoned there had been an admin. slip up some where, and so a very frightened orderly from 225 Parachute Field Ambulance, joined our little party. There was still two hundred yards to move along this track before arriving at a cross path junction, here turn right and follow the line of the hedgerow until another yet another farm track ran-off left towards "la ferme du Lieu Harras", and in this vicinity I was to site the section. I could not fail to notice that the field of observation and fire was going to be severely restricted by the height of the corn, and in my opinion the Section was incapable of carrying out its task. But I could do nothing about the problem.
On the last Brigade exercise, when the Platoon had operated in the Machine Gun role, we had been briefed from the map to occupy a certain position on the ground, and given arcs of fire for the guns. However once on the position it was impossible to carry out the task, and on my own responsibility had moved to an alternative one of my own choosing. When Captain Anton Bowler, the Brigade Machine Officer gave me my detailed briefing at Keevil, I asked if I had such authority this time, and was told very firmly: "Not under any circumstances. If you do, no-one will know where your platoon are. Besides I will be round as quickly as possible to sort out any problems you may have."
Hence, unsatisfactory as the location was, there was no alternative but to dig in at this location. The single gun was set up, sentries posted on either flank, defensive weapon slits sited and we set to work digging. This was quite a noisy process - every man carried either a short handled pick or shovel, and in addition each detachment had a two foot length of one inch steel piping. Once trenches were spit-locked (marked out and the top sod removed), the length of piping was hammered, with the flat side of the pick, down into the ground, twice in each slit. The piping was removed, and a half pound charge of plastic explosive attached to a slow burning fuse dropped into each hole, and the explosion loosened the earth, which then only required shovelling out. This enabled the rapid development of the position, but the noise alerted the Boche in the farm to our rear, and a few shots were fired in our direction. But the firing was wild, and no serious attempt was made to interfere with out presence there.
The defences were dug, camouflaged and occupied, but there had been no visit from Anton Bowler. Andy Fairhurst kept a continuous listening watch on the wireless, but orders were to maintain radio silence unless contact was made with the enemy. We stood in our slits and waited. I wasn't at all happy with the situation ----- unable to carry out my task, one belt (250 rounds, or two minutes firing at the normal rate) of ammunition, and an unknown number of Boche no more than two hundred yards to our rear.
To the ammunition problem, there was a possible solution close at hand. The pay-load of every plane was made up to maximum with containers, and a number of these had been dropped amid the corn in front of our position. So that the containers could be located in the dark, they carried a device activated when the container hit the ground. This had four legs, one of which always rose vertically, and had both a light and flag at its tip, and since there were three different coloured lights, the area in front of us resembled a railway marshalling yard, with red, yellow and orange lights twinkling away. In the day time these were replaced by flags, one colour for small arms ammunition, another for Sapper stores, and the third indicated Medical supplies.
With an N.C.O. and half a dozen men to search the containers for any Mark VIIIZ, I set off for the low crest of the ring contour south of Ranville. If all had gone well for the 12th. they were to have a force up on this feature and I wanted to know their exact location in case we had to open fire. Both parties were to be disappointed, no machine gun ammunition, and no sign of the 12th. But I had been able to have a good look at the surrounding country side, especially to the south east - the direction from which the Panzers were expected. To the immediate south, the industrial complex of Colombelles dominated the area, and further to the left the village of Sainte Honorine la Chardonerette slept secure within its stone walls, and all was as quiet and peaceful as any morning in rural England. But those vast open fields looked ideal for armour to manoeuvre across. I turned and looked back over towards the D.Z., and several gliders were clearly visible. These and the little coloured flags of the containers, were the only signs of the largest airborne operation the world had ever experienced.
Once back at the Section position, "H" Hour for the seaborne assault was fast approaching, and my binoculars were focused on a solitary Halifax bomber loitering about in the direction of the coast, when suddenly all hell was let loose. We had been warned of the barrage which was to precede the actual landings, but I had never imagined it would be of such a ferocity - from dead quiet to indescribable Bedlam in the matter of seconds. As the minutes passed the uproar rose in fearsome crescendo, and it seemed that no-one could survive such a battering. It also meant that I could at last break radio silence and inform some higher authority of our plight, but try as he may, Andy Fairhurst could not contact Brigade, nor was there any response to our calls from the other Machine Gun Platoons of the 7th. and 12th. Battalions (I now know that Anton Bowler never turned up and has no known grave, "Garth" Hill of 7th. had no guns and was operating as a rifle platoon and "Paddy" Shaw hit one of the anti-air landing poles breaking his leg).
Urgent action was required, so I set off to find my C.O., and since Ronnie Boylan, my bat-man was missing took Alf Williams along and also the Medical Orderly who was to re-join his own unit. We retraced the paths through the corn, until we came to one leading down into the village, and followed this until we reached a group of three houses. On the right of the path were some tall bushes and along side one lay the body of a British soldier, whom I had no difficulty in recognising as Private Johnson, Battalion despatch rider, but all was quiet and deserted with no sign of members of the Thirteenth, so I decided not to go any further into Ranville, but to carry on and report to Colonel Johnson of the 12th. Battalion
As the three of us neared the main road into the village from the south, smoke and flames were rising from the road which ran through a hollow as it entered Ranville, and I made a slight detour to investigate. Looking down from the bank, I saw a burning German half-track slewn across the way, and a body of soldiers led by a Corporal, busy relaying a string of "Hawkins" anti-tank grenades. I stopped to congratulate them, and instantly recognised the N.C.O. as Frank McLean. In 1940 we had been members of the same platoon, and the last time I had seen him was in the balloon cage, one wet morning in August 1942. It was our second jump, and he as first man out, was given the order "Action Stations Number One", but said "I can't jump number one Sergeant". Without a seconds hesitation came the order "Action Stations Number Two", and I swung my legs into the hole. "Go" - and I pushed off with my hands and out I went. Fusilier McLean did not jump that morning, and had been whisked away before we returned to camp at Ringway, but what a brave man he turned out to be.
The Medic said he now knew the way to the proposed Field Ambulance H.Q. and off he went and we moved on to H.Q. 12th. Battalion. Our route had taken us past at least three locations where I had expected to see six pounder anti-tank guns, but not one was in position. I had also kept my eyes open for an alternative site for the Vickers, and believed I had found one. Before I reached his H.Q. I met Colonel Johnson and told him the Platoon were dug in with two guns only, but were desperately short of ammunition. He replied that the 12th. had neither guns nor ammunition, and then gave me orders that I personally was to take as many men as could be spared from manning the guns, go back to the D.Z. and search the containers, but I was to be back in position by 10.00 hours with or without the ammunition.
I sent Alf Williams back with a message to Sergeant Osborne that all spare men were to come to Sergeant Kelly's section to help search for our containers. It must have been 08.30 before we all set off to the D.Z. which was over a mile back to where a path ran into the centre of it. On either side were Horsa gliders, mostly damaged where wings had smashed into the poles, and one I remember with the cock-pit buried deep in a large thorn bush. There were containers galore in the corn, but we concentrated on those holding small arms ammunition, and were not long in finding what we were looking for. We must have been twenty strong, and we each slung the canvas back pack holding two belts onto our shoulders and set off back for the guns, and we really had to move to be back in the specified time.
However we reached Sergeant Kelly's section area before the deadline, only to find no gunners there. I had already realised that he too was unable to carry out his task from the original site. The nearby 12th. Platoon Commander told me that shortly after we left for the D.Z., Brigadier Poett had come along in his jeep, accompanied by another such vehicle towing a six pounder, and this party with the gunners had moved up the road towards the crest of the ring contour.
We moved along to the road and I sent George Kelly's men off to join him ------ then we heard engines - tank engines, and they were heading in our direction through the cornfield. I don't know what I thought I could do about the situation, but I was across the road and scrambling up the far bank. I heard the bark of a gun being fired, followed almost immediately by the regular rat-a-ta-tat of a Vickers away to our right. By the time I reached the top of the bank several more rounds had been fired, and when at last I was in a position to observe, an unbelievable sight met my eyes. Immediately to my front and not one hundred yards away three tanks were stopped and blazing merrily, with another such single armoured hulk away to my right, and it was from that direction the Vickers was firing ----- my war had begun.
I decided that the path through the corn was quite likely under enemy observation, and my party would make a good target, hence we moved a little nearer the village and put a stone wall between us and the ring contour. Along the wall I could see the six pounder gun and its crew responsible for the destruction of the three nearest tanks, which can't have been any more than fifty yards away when the N.C.O. in charge had given the order to fire. His name I learnt was Sergeant Bert Gee of the Divisional Anti-tank Regiment, and I congratulated him and his gun team on their coolness and the accuracy of their shooting. Had the Sergeant not been fully in control of the situation, then the story of D.Day would have been a completely different one. Another hundred yards and those self-propelled guns, they were not tanks after all, would have been on the road leading into Ranville, and then on to the vital bridges. Sergeant Gee was awarded a well deserved Military Medal. ---- I now know, that four anti-tank guns were involved in the destruction of the German armour.
In the next field along Gordon O'Brien-Hitching and his platoon of A Company were busy digging in, and they had sheltered in their half-completed slits as the Boche armour passed by. I then turned down the path leading into the village I had moved down earlier, for it was just past the three houses I thought I might be able to re-site the gun and be able to carry out the task given to me and so it proved. It was in a sunken lane on the southern outskirts of Ranville, I found a good position.
There was no need for us all to go back to the original position, so I left Lance/Sergeant Tom Donnelly with all the ammunition carriers, and just accompanied by Alf Williams set off for Sergeant Osborne and the rest of the section. As we turned to move up the hedge towards the position, for some reason I will never know, I took a 36 grenade from my pouch and carried it in my right hand. I was moving slightly ahead of Alf as we neared the original gun site and was looking to my left where the hedge had been flattened by the armour as it drove through. Suddenly he was alongside, hissing in my ear "Jerry's up there". I looked to the front and sure enough a number of Boche had come down the path from "Lieu Harras", and were intently gazing towards the burning S.Ps. "Down" I said, pulled the pin and threw the 36, they were that close. As it exploded, we were on our feet and charging, firing my Sten as we ran. We took them completely by surprise, and they turned and started running back to the farm. For once the Sten didn't let me down (they were mass produced very cheaply and were prone to stoppages) but I fired a full magazine of twenty rounds non-stop. As I ran I noticed that the Vickers had been moved from its trench and shoved into the hedge. By now I had reached the path to the farm and the Boche were still running, I called to Alf to get the gun, re-loaded my Sten and carried on firing. I must have hit one of them for he stopped, clutching the back of his thigh. He called out and two of his companions came back to support and carry him. I kept on firing even when they were out of range, because I didn't want them to know there were only the two of us.
Alf called out that he had the gun ready. He was a big strong lad and had the forty pound weight tripod over his shoulders, and the partly full condenser can, another twenty pounds, in one hand, leaving me with only the gun itself to carry. We didn't hang around, but started to leg it as fast as we could to where the ammunition carriers had been left. Within minutes we reached the path leading to them and here puffing and panting, exhilarated and quite proud of ourselves, we slowed to a walk.
To the right on the village side was a high stone wall, while on the left bordering the corn-field ran a straggly hedge. We were almost back to the new section area, when I noticed a rabbit, standing on its haunches in the hedge. I motioned Alf to halt, carefully lowered the gun to the ground, took out my 9mm. pistol, aimed and fired. For a second nothing happened. The rabbit was still there, and then slowly it rolled over. In triumph I said "I've killed it", where-upon only ten yards into the corn a single German soldier stood up, looked at me, and then turned and started running. I dropped the pistol, grabbed my Sten, and fired another full magazine at the retreating figure.
I then went to collect what I intended to be the sections supper. The rabbit was dead alright but there was not a mark on it, and I reckon I must have blown the body over with a near miss - it was almost cold.
The rest of the day was not as exciting and frightening as the last hour or so had been. First of all was the dreary task of having to dig a fresh lot of weapon slits, and now there were no explosive charges (we had exhausted our supply of plastic) to help. I sent an N.C.O. and some men to check there were no Boche hiding in the nearby houses. He reported them empty, but asked me to have a look at what he had found in the nearest of the three. It was really a small cottage with a walled yard in front. To the left of the front door, another one opened into a bedroom, which from the highly scented atmosphere was used by a female. The double bed had clearly been used recently for the covers were thrown back, and the bottom sheet was heavily bloodstained. And it was only yards away on the track that Private Johnson had been killed.
While we were digging in Sergeant Osborne came out of the village, and was able to give me an account of how the gun came to be in the hedge. He had sent all but the two junior N.C.Os manning the gun to collect the ammunition, and the armour advancing from the farm, had shot-up his position wounding Lance/Corporals Charlie King and Don Jones. As a consequence the Vickers had been hidden in the bushes, and he had conducted the two wounded to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] The former recovered sufficiently to rejoin us after Normandy.
THE PUBLICATION "RED DEVILS IN NORMANDY", WRITTEN BY GEORGES BERNAGE, CONTAINS AN ACCOUNT OF THE GERMAN ATTACK BY PANZER GRENADIERS, SUPPORTED BY SP GUNS.
THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE 125 PANZER GRENADIER REGIMENT WAS LOCATED IN VIMONT, 13KM. SOUTH-EAST OF CAEN, AND NO.3 COMPANY, 3RD. BATTALION OF THAT REGIMENT WAS IN FIERVILLE-la-CAMPAGNE, ANOTHER 5KM AWAY. THIS COMPANY, EQUIPPED WITH ARMOURED HALF-TRACK PERSONNEL CARRIERS, WAS COMMANDED BY LT. GERHARD BANDOMIR. THE 21ST PANZER DIVISION, ONLY MOVED TO THIS PART OF NORMANDY, IN LATE APRIL1944.
LT. GERHARD BANDOMIR :-------
While elements of the 2nd. Battalion, 125 panzer Grenadier Regiment were engaged with isolated groups of enemy parachutists north of HIGHWAY RN13 (CAEN ---PARIS road), the 3rd.Battalion was getting its act together south of the road.
Our Companies were well prepared, with all the vehicles dug in for defence against a full scale attack. We slept in our "battle dress", with anti-invasion exercises nearly every night, including that of 5th/6th. June. Some time between 02.00 and 03.00 hours, a motor -cycle despatch rider, roared up at my headquarters. This time it looked like the real thing. Earlier I had been woken by the throbbing of aircraft engines as they flew-in from the direction of the coast, and then bombs started to fall on Caen. The sky was lit up by parachute flares, and it was my opinion that the invasion had started. I had already put my Company on full alert before the arrival of the despatch rider with the message for me to report to REGIMENTAL HQ without delay. In the meantime, the Company under my 2I/C was to be ready for deployment whilst maintaining a defensive position, straddling the SANNERVILLE-TROARN crossroads. At HQ. I joined our "KOMMANDEUR" MAJOR HANS von LUCK in a big room. I noticed three British POW., sitting in one corner.
I was given an "update" on the situation, and learnt that enemy parachutists had been dropped nearer the coast, and that two of our Companies were already engaged with the enemy. Unfortunately, we had lost contact with these Companies, and von LUCK feared they might be surrounded. I was ordered to join up with one of the Companies fighting outside TROARN, and together we were to fight our way through to HEROUVILLETTE and RANVILLE. Six Assault Guns, fitted with 125mm. cannon, from our STURMGESCHUTZ-ABTEILUNG 200 were placed under my command for this attack.
I took my orders, and set off, only for the leading formation to take the wrong turn at the first cross-roads, but I realised his error, and led the rest in the right direction.
By this time, it was coming daylight as we advanced on ESCOVILLE from the east where I received definite orders to attack HEROUVILLETTE and then RANVILLE. Enemy parachutists had been positively identified in both villages. We had already managed to relieve NO.2 COMPANY OF THE 2ND. BATTALION without any difficulty, and I took them under command. I discussed the situation with the Officers of both Companies, together with the OC of the Assault guns. The decision was to advance on foot, with NO. 2 COMPANY on the right, mine on the left, with the armour backing us up from the rear.
My Company first had to cross a field with high hedges, and the Assault guns followed too closely. Once in the open we ran into stiff resistance. Four of the SPs were knocked out before they even fired a single shot, and NO.2 COMPANY on my right, made such slow progress, that my Company attack also failed. The leading Platoon Commander was killed, and his platoon suffered heavy losses-----some 15 to 20 casualties
ALL THIS HAPPENED BETWEEN 07 00 HOURS AND MID-DAY.
Later Events D Day
When the new position had been dug and camouflaged, I decided it was time to visit Sergeant Kelly's section and find out exactly what had happened to them since I had last seen them about 08.30 hours. I again kept to the line of the wall, passing the six pounder, and stopped to have a word with them, and mentioned to Sergeant Gee that not all the anti-tank guns intended for our area had arrived. He agreed and said he had not seen one of his own Officers since arriving in Normandy. As we talked there came the roar of a diving aircraft heading in our direction from the coast and before we could take cover an Me. 109 came into sight, flying at no more than 100 feet. It was completely engulfed in flame, and hit the high trees on the road side, somersaulting over, before hitting the ground and exploding not fifty yards away. Wreckage was thrown all around, but we managed to find what was left of the pilot - a charred torso and head, not a pretty sight.
I was surprised to find George Kelly back in his original hedge-row, and he explained how it came to be. The Brigadier had himself repositioned the gun to protect a six pounder, in a small clump of trees, just below the crest of the ring contour, from where they looked south to Ranville, and north-westwards lay Sainte Honorine. It was in that area that shortly after 09.00 they watched the Panzers assembling, and then tracked their movements. The bulk of the armour halted, but two detachments of three S.Ps. [Self-Propelled Guns] continued to advance. The one moving in the direction of Herouvillette was soon lost to sight behind the trees but the second group's course would bring it across his section's front. Then the first troop of three reappeared clearing Lieu de Harras and shooting up Sergeant Osborne's gun, before driving through the hedge and into the corn. Soon the leading vehicle was no more than 100 yards away from them, with its flank exposed, and the six pounder scored a direct hit with its first round. He immediately opened fire with the Vickers, but before the anti-tank gun fired again, one of the accompanying S.Ps. scored a direct hit on the 6 pounder, killing all the crew, and then accelerated behind the Vickers and disappeared into the 12th. Battalion area. Since there was now no reason to stay on the exposed ring contour, he had returned to his original position, adding that before he did so, they had seen the rest of the Panzer force seek shelter among the houses in Sainte Honorine. I fully approved his actions, and I was able to tell him of Sergeant Osborne's brush with the armour.
As I returned to my Command Post, I decided it was high time I reported both my locations and the strength of the Platoon, to some higher authority, so as I passed through Gordon O'Brian-Hitching's position, I asked him where A Company's H.Q. was, and went directly there. It was within fifty yards of my own in the grounds of the Chateau de Ranville. I was surprised to see Jack Watson there, until he explained that he was now Company 2i/c [Second-in-Command], Harry Ainsworth having broken his leg on landing. He directed me to Battalion H.Q., and my route took me past the Mortar weapon pits, so I paused to swap experiences with Freddie Skeate. As we parted, he told me to look in on my way back since he had something for me. Battalion Headquarters was located in the rear garden of a house in the centre of the village, and after reporting to Colonel Luard, I showed Leslie Golding the two section posts on the map, and then set off back, not forgetting to call at the Mortars, where Fred presented me with a half bottle of four star brandy, "Ask no questions" were his instructions, and I was to be most grateful to him for his gift. I felt a lot easier to be back with the 13th. and among friends to whom I could take my troubles.
The rest of the day was uneventful, with a little shelling, but the Platoon suffered no more casualties, and we all remained on full alert. We knew from the briefing that the Air/Landing Brigade were due to fly in and land on our D.Z. some-time in the evening, and around 21.00. there was a marked increase in aerial activity. We had not seen many R.A.F. fighters during the day, but now several squadrons of Spitfires were circling high overhead, and then the growing roar of many larger planes could be heard to our rear, and it wasn't long before the first aircraft and tug combination were above us. They passed overhead in two streams - Albermarles, Stirlings Dakotas and Halifaxes, towing mostly Horsas, but there were also a number of the giant Hamilcars.
We were able to watch as the gliders cast-off their tow ropes, 1000 yards to the south and appear to stand motionless, before making a 180 degree turn, lower their flaps, and dive steeply down towards their landing areas. At last the Boche woke up, and light ack-ack guns in the Lieu de Harras farm pumped their shells into the stream of aircraft, but I did not notice a single one in trouble. Then adding to the noise, our own mortars, with Sergeant Eric Thompson as mobile fire controller in our position, started to engage the Boche guns. The noise was deafening, but what a spectacle it was, a magnificent demonstration of our air power. To the enemy it must have been most disturbing, but to us, it was a tremendous morale booster. Twice that first day of active service, we had witnessed demonstrations of Allied superiority ----- in the morning the gunners had disposed of the Panzers as if they were toys, and now the R.A.F. had shown their supremacy of the skies.
As quickly as it had started it was all over, and all was quiet again as we waited for the first of many "stand-to's", and Alf Whalley produced the first "casualty return" for me to sign. In addition to casualties affecting personnel, details of lost and damaged equipment, also were reported. Two members of the Platoon had been wounded, and twelve men were still missing from the drop - Lance/Sergeant Day, Corporals Hallas and Piddlesden, and Privates Farmer, McKenzie, Shepherd, Middleton, Suckley, Wayne, Boylan, Strachan and Surgey. The last three reported in next morning, having spent D.Day fighting with other units. On the equipment side, the major item was the missing gun parts.
Just before "stand to", a complete gun detachment from the 8th. Battalion, dropped by mistake on D.Z. "N", was brought to me, and I was told to integrate them into my defences, but not to start digging until it was dark. Since there was only about four hours of total darkness, by the time this task was accomplished, there was no time for me to sleep, tired as I was, and this is when I was grateful for the brandy. A couple of big tots, and I was wide awake again. Only one small incident broke the night's silence. A twin engined bomber, flying low and clearly visible in the moonlight, dropped containers of small anti-personnel bombs over the village, and they exploded like a giant firework. But I didn't hear of any casualties resulting from this intrusion.
The morning of 7th. June was reasonably quiet with only spasmodic shelling - on the south side of Ranville we must have been out of range of any mortars, since we were never subjected to firing from them, it was always artillery from the direction of Sainte Honorine that troubled us. All the action was away to our left, as the Ox. and Bucks. extended the airborne bridgehead. They cleared the Boche from Herouvillette, but he was determined to hold on to Escoville, and the Light Infantry suffered quite heavy casualties in their attempt to capture that particular place.
During the afternoon we were joined by Sergeant Kelly and the rest of his section. The 12th. had been relieved by a Commando unit, and lacking any orders, the sergeant had brought his section to Platoon H.Q. Since the detachment from the 8th. Battalion had departed to join their own unit, my other section occupied the position recently vacated. It meant digging more defensive weapon slits, but there was now only 100 yards between the two sections, and I felt more in control of the Platoon. And before nightfall we received two new guns, replacing those lost on the drop. This 24 hour service would never have happened back in England, but is a good demonstration of the meticulous planning for resupply. The surprising thing about this was that the new guns came complete with dial sights, which we were never issued with before. Another good example of careful planning, was the arrival of the Battalion transport, and the cooks together with their equipment.
Every man had jumped with two 24 hour ration packs, but from D plus two onwards Compo rations were drawn daily from Division. Since we were a detached platoon, we enjoyed the luxury of an Army Catering Corps cook, just for the machine gunners, and when he reported together with the next days rations, I instructed Sergeant Whalley to find a suitable site for our field kitchen, and to detail one man to assist him. As a result the walled yard of the nearby cottage was used for this purpose, and Ken Lang, who had worked in the ration stores of the 2/4th. South Lancs. became assistant cook. I never asked our A.C.C. cook what he thought of serving in the front line, but it was a great advantage to us, since no-one had to walk more than 50 yards to collect his food.
Two new guns meant more digging, and again the instructions had been - "No digging before dark", and so I spent another night without sleep, and again the brandy proved its value as a stimulant
We learnt that the 1st. Battalion of The Ulster Rifles had occupied Longueval, south of us on the banks of the river Orne, but they too had been repulsed when endeavouring to capture Sainte Honorine, and it was from that direction we were frequently shelled, though never seriously enough to suggest an attack was imminent, but we did have a bit of a panic on the afternoon of the 8th. The order came from A Company "Stand to, German tanks are crossing the bridges". This really was serious, because it meant that our life line to the seaborne forces was cut, and we waited in our slits, "Gammon" bombs (our only weapon against armour) at hand. For an anxious half-hour we strained our ears for any sound of their approach, before the order came to stand down, and the correction "Sherman (the main battle tank of the Allies), not German tanks are crossing the bridges". This was far better news, for the Division now had armoured support, and late in the day, yet more fire power was placed under my command.
The Quartermaster, Captain George Daisley, was a non-parachutist, as were all Q.Ms., but he was due to arrive in the early hours of D Day, with other re-supply gliders. Included in the stores he was bringing with him was a spare Vickers gun, but the glider never arrived on the Landing Zone. George and his driver are buried in the churchyard of the hamlet of Sainte Vaste-en-Auge. Now R.Q.M.S. Jimmy Handstock delivered the replacement for this gun to me, and the C.O. ordered me to site it covering the exposed eastern flank of the Battalion.
I went on a recce, and found a suitable position in B Company area, along a little sunken path, and formed a detachment under the command of Lance/Sergeant Tom Donnelly to man the position. Again there was to be no digging before dark, and so for the fourth consecutive night I was forced to go without sleep. By now, the stock of brandy was much diminished, since several tots had been consumed, keeping me awake during the daylight hours. Once this gun was dug in, I finished off the brandy, which alone had kept me going for so long.
Fortunately the next morning was a quiet one, and I managed several hours sleep. The afternoon too was undisturbed, but in the early evening we received a sharp concentrated shelling, but suffered no casualties. When the shelling stopped, it was evident from the sounds of firing away to our left, that the Boche were trying to re-capture Herouvillette, and as my fifth gun was on that flank, I went over to join them. The fighting went on for two hours or more, but eventually fizzled out, with the village still in our hands.
Next morning, 10th. June, another attempt was made to dislodge us, but from a different direction. Some two miles east of Ranville, the ground rose to a low wooded ridge, which was being held by units of the 3rd. Parachute Brigade, and a Commando Brigade. They were not strong enough in numbers to hold all the approaches leading to the bridges, and consequently there was a gap in the Divisional perimeter around Breville, and it was from that direction the attack came. Using the abandoned gliders for cover a battalion of infantry worked their way across the D.Z., and 4 and 5 Platoons under Captain Mike Kerr, 2i/c B Company, silently let them approach into their killing zone, before opening a devastating fire with all weapons. The shattered remnants of the Boche retreated into two small copses at Le Mariquet, right in front of Sergeant Donnelly's detachment, who engaged opportunity targets, before a counter attack by the 7th. supported by armour finished the job.
Holding Positions - Ranville
I had seen no civilians in the village at all, but one evening a middle aged French woman turned up in the Platoon area and was brought along to me. My French was very limited, but I was able to understand that she was the owner of one of the houses nearby, and that she wanted to inspect her property. I detailed some-one to accompany her, just in case she was up to no good. The house she claimed as hers, had received a direct shell hit, and there was a great, gaping hole in the gable end. She was soon back, ranting and raving at me because of the damage to her property, and appeared to hold me personally responsible, and she demanded to know why we had come to Normandy to fight the war. All the other wars had been fought elsewhere in France. Why hadn't we gone there? She really meant it, but on the whole, considering that Ranville was in the front line, damage to the houses was negligible compared to a lot of the other villages roundabout.
I was not happy that the Platoon position was overlooked by any enemy on the ring contour to the south, and on several occasions, I made a little trip up there to see if anything was going on, out of sight from where we were dug in. There were at least three farm tracks through the corn up to the top, hence each time I took a different route, and never went at the same time in case my movements were being watched. I didn't see anyone on the crest, until the morning of 12th, and then I came across a Brigadier and several other officers, wearing 51st. (Highland) Division flashes. They were spread along the lip of the small quarry watching St. Honorine through binoculars. However they must have heard me and my single escort, as they turned to face us and the Brigadier said "I don't like Sten guns, so will you please go away". I had completed my little recce, so we returned to base, but that evening were warned to expect heavy shelling next morning as a battalion of the 51st Division, were mounting an attack on St. Honorine at dawn.
And how right they were, as we experienced the first of several intensive barrages we would be subjected to during the next three months, and the Platoon suffered its first casualties since D Day. Corporal Frank Egleton and Private Joe Waterworth, were both evacuated as a result of their wounds, but the N.C.O. rejoined us before the end of the campaign in Normandy. Later on I went up to have a look to see what had happened, but all I saw were dead bodies. The attack had failed.
We never did see the enemy on the ground, but nearly every night the Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the bridges. Again we never saw them, and generally only a single aircraft was employed. Sometimes the sound of exploding bombs was heard. I used to look forward to these raids, as the clatter of the ack-ack guns, and the colourful streams of shells shooting up into the night sky, helped to keep me awake during the dreary hours I was on watch.
After the failed attack on St. Honorine, life became monotonous, with no activity apart from shelling, and Sergeant Kelly came to me with a proposition. The three new guns we had received to replace those lost on the drop, had all come with dial sights, he remarked, and if I reported a sight lost due to enemy action, it would be replaced, and then when we returned to England to prepare for further operations, he would be able to train the platoon in their use. I thought it a wonderful idea, but went and told the R.Q.M.S. what we were planning, and he agreed to co-operate. And so 24 hours later we were in possession of four dial sights. I was ignorant on such matters, but there were a few members of the Platoon trained in their use, and George Kelly especially knew their value, and how much greater use could be made of the Vickers using these sights.
By now life had become so uneventful, that we were all fully convinced that the Division would soon be on is way home, to prepare for further airborne operations. Nothing had been said in the briefing about the length of time we would stay in Normandy, but it was generally expected that once the Infantry Divisions arrived in strength, we would be relieved. The invasion of the continent, had been nothing like the bloody contest I had expected. There had been periods of almost unbearable fear and excitement - thankfully not many, but for the most part, war was sheer boredom, standing around in your weapon slit waiting for the next meal.
We had been lucky regarding casualties in the Platoon, there were no fatalities, and of the five wounded, four would rejoin the battalion. There were still nine men missing, numbers 12 to 20 of my stick, and these men I assumed were prisoners of war. During the first couple of days after 6th. June, parties of men, dropped either on the wrong D.Z., or spilt hap-hazardly over Normandy, had found their way back to the Battalion, but the Boche now ringed the Divisional perimeter, and no-one could get through. Ken Lang had been the last man to jump from Chalk 204, so we had a look a the map together. I could easily pin-point the bocage hedgerow in which I had landed, and he recognised the V shaped road junction on the western edge of the D.Z. close to where he had landed. Now it was clear that H for Hellzapoppin had flown diagonally across the centre of D.Z. "N", and not down its length. It was also clear that we had crossed the French coast further east than planned, and that was why on opening the aperture doors we had been flying over land and not the Channel as I had anticipated. I made further enquiries among the other members of the stick, and learnt that as No.8, Private "Taffy" Price jumped, the red light (signal to stop jumping) came on, but was ignored by numbers 9, 10, and 11. From this I assumed that the bomb aimer of the air crew, and the man who in the Stirling controlled the jumping from his position in the nose of the aircraft could see the river coming into sight, and so called a halt to the jumping. The plane then circled to make a second run in, but for some reason the missing men did not land on D.Z. "N", and were now P.O.W.
Rumours of a move were circulating, and at "O" Group [Orders Group] on the evening of the 15th. we finally received the orders to go - not back to the beaches en-route for Larkhill, but up onto the wooded ridge to the east, where we would relieve the 1st. Canadian of 3rd. Parachute Brigade, who had been heavily engaged at Le Mesnil crossroads since D. Day.
Le Mesnil "The Brickworks"
Perhaps before we march up to the "brickworks" for the first time, information about what had happened elsewhere in the Battalion, would be appropriate. I have already mentioned that Jack Watson was now 2i/c A. Company replacing the wounded Harry Ainsworth, and that the R.Q.M.S. was acting Quartermaster. We were informed early on that George Daisley had been killed, as opposed to missing, but Lieutenant George Lee of C. Company was still missing. His Dakota had become unserviceable before take off, and his stick had switched to a reserve standing by, but had taken off, half an hour after the rest, and never caught up with the main stream, and then to make matters worse, the full stick were dropped in the wrong place. Alf Lagregan, O.C. the Anti-tank Platoon, was in a similar predicament, but in his case there was no spare plane, but he had managed to thumb a lift, and arrived with the Air Landing Brigade.
Some were dropped into the flooded valley of the river Dives, ten miles east of the D.Z., and prominent among these, were Padre Whitfield Foy, and Captain Mike Kerr of B. Company. These two Officers collected other 13th. stragglers in their vicinity, and they reached the Battalion later on 6th. June. C.S.M. McParland and his stick were deposited close to Troarn which housed a battalion of Panzer Grenadiers, but he managed to collect most of his stick, and then contacted a French family seeking information on enemy locations. They provided him with civilian clothes, and accompanied by a young girl, cycled along minor roads to reach the battalion. He then made the return journey in order to escort the others through the enemy lines, but they were not where he had left them, so he then rejoined the battalion.
Most of the casualties suffered in Ranville, occurred around the cross roads, which for a long time were under observation from the Breville area, and the vital junction was frequently shelled and mortared. The early fatalities included "Fan" Ellison, Admin. Captain, and so from the very early days, the Battalion lost its two principal administration officers, proving that there are no safe jobs in a Parachute Battalion. Bill Webster, R.E.M.E. fitter Sergeant, but as fierce a warrior as anyone in the Battalion, was put in charge of the Admin. Platoon. Next, strangely enough, we lost our doctor - Captain Neil Whitley, who was badly wounded outside the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] as he supervised the reception of some German wounded. He was evacuated to England but died from his wounds. Captain David Tibbs, who had been attached to the Battalion with his Casualty Collecting Section, became our new doctor.
C. Company who had cleared the village of enemy in the early hours of D.Day, were responsible for the defence of the cross roads, and were particularly badly affected losing two platoon commanders and the Company Sergeant Major. Harry Pollak rejoined us later, but Jack Sharples (an ex regular guardsman) lost an arm, and C.S.M. Micky Maguire was never fit to fight again, but C/Sgt. "Duggie" Dugdale recovered from his wounds and after Normandy, became CSM. of HQ Company. Later, during the Boche counter attack across the D.Z. Bert Arnold's 4 platoon bore the brunt of the fighting, and he too was wounded and did not return.
The 12th. Battalion's savage mauling during their successful attack to capture Breville on the 11th. June, had its repercussions for the 13th. As a result of the Officer casualties, Major Bill Harris MC. took command, Mike Kerr, promoted to Major became a Company Commander, and "Shadow" Metcalf was the new Adjutant. All these events resulted in promotion to Captain for Leslie Golding and Freddie Skeate, but they remained as I.O. and Mortar Officer respectively. Only a few weeks prior to D.Day Sergeant "Taffy" Lawley, a veteran of the very first airborne operation, the Tragino aqueduct raid, and following the collapse of Mussolini, had escaped, joined the Battalion, and now became C.S.M. "Charlie" Company, and Sgt. Charlie Wrigley was the new C/Sgt, where it was changes all round. Major Gerald Ford moved to Battalion H.Q. as 2i/c, with "Nobby" Clarke promoted to Company O.C.
The night before we moved up to Le Mesnil (it was always referred to as the brickworks, but in fact the kilns were used to manufacture roofing tiles), Sergeant Kelly went as our representative on the advance party, to take over the existing machine gun positions, and to learn a little about the conditions up there. Our means of transporting our equipment, were tubular steel and canvas collapsible barrows (called trolleys), which required one man to hold the handles, while the remainder hitched their toggle ropes to hooks at the front, and pulled them along sleigh team fashion. Not surprisingly the call of encouragement if the going became tough was "Mush". Each detachment possessed two trolleys, one for the gun, and the second for ammunition. Prior to the operation, the trolleys had been delivered to the R.A.S.C., who were responsible for their loading, despatch and recovery, but we never received our full complement, and as a consequence, they were always heavily loaded. There was a shortage of haulers also, since the Platoon was operating at a third below establishment.
June 16th. was a glorious summers day, and it was already hot before we set out to march the couple of miles to our new locations, but it was almost a month since we had moved even that short distance on foot. It didn't affect us until we almost reached our destination, for the ground was flat, but the last stretch to the ridge was quite steep, and we were all glad for a little breather, as we waited for Sergeant Kelly to lead us to our positions. I already knew from the map, that the Platoon would no longer enjoy fields of fire extending to 1500 yards, observation to the front would be 100 yards at the most.
We occupied the trenches which had been dug by the Canadians, whose Machine Gunners had been deployed to cover the open flanks of the battalion. Both section positions were sited in thick hedgerows, and the adjacent shelters all had overhead cover. B. Company was forward on the right, A. on the left with C. in reserve to the left rear. The Anti-tank Platoon held the cross roads, and the Mortars had pits in the yard in rear of the kilns. These kilns provided bomb proof shelter for the doctor and his medical orderlies.
The Battalion operated with B Company forward on the right, A on the left, with C in reserve, slightly to the left and behind A. Battalion H.Q. was located in one of the brickworks outbuildings. I positioned Sergeant Kelly's section on the right, where they were close to B Company H.Q., and since the Canadians had not dug a platoon H.Q., I placed mine in the rear of the other section, across the road in a small copse. All we had done really was to take over the slits dug by the previous occupants, but I felt it was a complete waste of the Vickers with such limited fields of fire and observation.
If we had considered the last few days at Ranville boring, then they were wildly exciting compared with our new routine. In the forward Companies the only movement allowed was to collect food, and the daily visit to the deep trench latrine. Otherwise you stood in your trench looking across to the other side of the field or orchard, where the Boche was doing exactly the same. We quickly learned to respect their mortars - both for the frequency of employment and also for the accuracy of their shooting. If the slightest movement on our part was observed, it meant an immediate "stonk" on that area. Artillery shells you could hear coming and get down, but all you would hear of the mortars was the "plonk, plonk" away in the distance as they were fired, and seconds later (if the bombs were coming your way), the final swish of descending bombs, and by then it was too late to take cover. Most feared of all were the "moaning Minnies" - multi barrelled ( six ) rocket fired mortars. These had a greater range and really were terror weapons as they made a terrible noise as they wobbled through the air towards their target . You could hear them coming from the moment of firing, and then you prayed as hard as you could that they had not been directed onto your position, since they were an area weapon, and heaven help you if they landed near you.
My own slit was within yards of the cross roads, and to reach it meant climbing a low bank, on which grew wild strawberries. The fruit were only small, but deliciously sweet, and ripened rapidly in the sun, and I had a feed of them every day. On the enemy side of the road was an open field, and often mortar bombs landed in the vicinity, but caused no casualties. One morning I heard the swish of falling bombs, and ducked down low in my slit, but the bombs must have been all duds, I thought, since no explosions followed. There must have been a slight breeze, for soon scraps of paper started blowing about - we had experienced a propaganda raid, and the leaflets were eagerly collected, and were the cause for great amusement.
They contained the information that London was ablaze - the result of attacks by the secret weapons the Germans had developed, and against which there was no defence. We already knew of the attacks by the V2s, as the papers reached us only a day after publication, and were eagerly scanned for any reports concerning our activities, and on the whole I think 6th. Airborne had excellent press coverage. No-body was worried by the leaflets since we were mainly Northeners, and as I have said, we regarded them as a joke. Not to be outdone, the R.A.F. one night deposited hundreds of their own "bumph" on us, and that was the use to which it was put, since the daily issue was only three small sheets per man.
Round about this time a minor crisis, which I had not anticipated, arose in the Platoon, when I had to find a replacement Section Commander at a moments notice. Late one morning there was a heavy mortaring, and some-one called from over the road that Sergeant Osborne was wounded. I dashed across and found him out of his trench, lying on his face unconscious. I sent someone to the R.A.P. for a stretcher, and knelt down to take a closer look. The only sign of wounds visible was a severe bleeding from one leg above the knee, and before I could take any action, the Medics arrived, and I helped to place the Sergeant on the stretcher before he was taken away. There were other wounds not noticed by me, and I was informed next day that these had proved fatal, hence my need for a Section Commander. We had only trained as machine gunners for such a short time, and I had concentrated on the gun numbers, completely neglecting to train junior N.C.Os. In a Rifle Company this would not have been a problem, for transfers could be made from other platoons, but any promotions in the gunners, had to come from within the Platoon itself. Nor could I ask my Company Commander for his advice, for not once had he visited the Platoon since our arrival in Normandy, and I am sure he did not know one N.C.O. from another. The only time I had any contact with him as at O Group each evening, and he never asked about my Platoon once. I don't know what he did all day, but others say what a brave man he was, so obviously I only saw one side of his character. I wasn't sorry that he ignored the Platoon, since I had not enjoyed an easy relationship with him in barracks. Fortunately there was Freddie Skeate to turn to for advice, as our two platoons had trained together, and he knew my N.C.Os almost as well as I did, so I had a talk with him about my problem. Matters were made no easier by the fact that already so many N.C.Os. had become casualties. Lance/Sergeant Day, and Corporals Hallas and Piddlesden, all first class were missing, and Frank Egleton who also showed great promise had been wounded. One of the Lance/Corporals had already distinguished himself on more than one occasion, showing both a cool head and a steely determination, which had impressed both my Platoon Sergeant and myself. The two N.C.Os. senior to him were reliable enough, but were some-what lacking in initiative. Hence it was Lance/Corporal Arthur Higgins who was promoted Sergeant and given command of the Section and lead his section with distinction to the end of hostilities. It was an appointment that I never regretted making, as the two of us enjoyed a great rapport between each other. Rapid promotions like this occurred throughout the Battalion, as the natural fighting leaders revealed themselves.
Our first stint at the brickworks lasted ten days, and the night of the 25th. was to be the last, and Jerry for some unknown reason decided to give us a farewell present. In the middle of the night he must have brought every artillery piece and mortar within range to bear on our positions. Shells and bombs rained down on us from the north, east and west, and all points in between. No sooner had one salvo exploded amongst us, when another even more violent barrage descended on our positions, and the terrifying whirling of the "Moaning Minnies" added their contribution to the deafening uproar, while all we could do was crouch in our shelters, and hope no direct hits came our way.
It seemed it was never going to end, and then as suddenly as it had started, a deathly silence descended on us, and we stood to, expecting an infantry attack. O.C. B Company was sure the Boche were infiltrating down his right flank, and ordered Sergeant Kelly to open fire, and they didn't stop until their ammunition was exhausted. We waited and waited until it was daylight, but no attack came, and I was able to visit the two sections, and was very relieved to learn the Platoon had suffered only two casualties. Privates Ken Lang and "Taffy" Price received a "Blighty one". Ken was in fact out of the Army by the end of the year, but "Taffy" rejoined us after Normandy, only to be killed on the Rhine Crossing operation.
Next morning we were relieved and marched back to our rest area on the banks of the river Orne, where shelters with over head cover had already been dug. Before we went to the transit camp, every member of the Battalion handed in his large pack, containing a battle dress, and other spare clothing, together with a blanket. These were now handed out, and since only a patrol guard was required, most of us had our first full night's sleep in three weeks. But better still was the shower we had, courtesy of the Divisional Sappers.
I also found a suitable site where I could zero the three new guns we had been issued with. The place I had found was half a mile from the bivouac area, in the direction of the coast. We were Attached to A Company and I notified John Cramphorn of my intentions, "Good" he said, "I've some Brens which have not been zeroed. I'll send a party along with you." After the mid-day meal we walked over to the high sandy bank, paced out the required 30 yards and carried out the zeroing process, and then set off back for camp. Some-one had failed to notify me that the coastal strip east of the river, had not been cleared of the Boche, and consequently we came under fire from a single machine gun, which must have fired at extreme range. None the less, Corporal Minnery of A Company, must be the only soldier wounded on active service, whilst zeroing Bren guns - it was only a superficial grazing of the leg.
That evening I took a party from the Company down to "Sword" beach, the nearest of the invasion to us, crossing over for the first time, what is now universally known as "Pegasus Bridge", and so were able to see for ourselves the defences the seaborne forces had faced. We talked to members of the beach battalion (a unit of The King's Liverpool Regiment), and compared experiences. They obviously regarded us as supermen, but having seen the pill boxes, gun emplacements, and the damaged landing craft, tanks and vehicles which littered the sands, I much preferred the way we had stormed "Fortress Europe". Perhaps my son's comment when he first asked what I had done in the war. "You cheated" he said, "you landed in the dark, when the Germans were all asleep".
This was the first time the full Platoon, what was left of us, had been together since the days in the transit camp, and it clearly meant a lot to them. There was only one Battalion parade, and that was for a service to honour our fallen comrades. We did an hours P.T. each day, and the rest of the time was our own, so Sergeant Kelly began training us in the use of the dial sights, and I was both amazed and delighted by the men's reactions.. Here we were, having proved our battle efficiency, yet had started training again.
They could not have been keener or more eager to learn. Practically all the junior N.C.Os. who normally were the gun numbers, were casualties, and so the guns were for the most part manned by private soldiers, aged no more than twenty. Whether they had it before we went into action, I don't know, but it was obvious now that they had a great affection for the Vickers, and were proud to be members of the Platoon.
There is an interesting story that went around about how the bridge over the Caen Canal got the name of "Pegasus Bridge". The army formation scheduled to relieve 6th. Airborne was the 51st. (Highland) Division, of 8th. Army fame. Immediately they arrived in the Divisional area, they started to paint their Divisional sign all around the place, and even went as far as to put up a sign on the Benouville bridge, which said "Highland Bridge". According to the story, this so incensed General Gale, he ordered its removal, and one bearing the name "Pegasus Bridge" be erected there.
Later Days "The Brickworks"
At the beginning of July we marched back to Le Mesnil, and took up defensive positions once again, but not the ones previously occupied, since the front line had moved forward one field, and the guns were now sited individually to bolster the fire power of the companies. So for the time being there was no opportunity to demonstrate our new skills. Generally speaking this was to be the routine for the next two months - ten days on the ridge followed by five days rest, and what a waste of highly trained soldiers it was. Not only was the Division woefully mis-employed, but suffered unnecessary casualties a result of the frequent mortaring and shelling. To take the gunners as an example, the first time we marched up twenty six strong, but by the time we climbed the hill for our final stay in mid-August the Platoon strength was down to sixteen, and the rifle companies too had lost the same percentage of their strength. Of these only one was ever fit enough to fight with the Platoon again.
There were minor variations to this routine. For instance our third stay only lasted 24 hours before we marched back again, and this time moved into the grounds of the Chateau de Benouville, to the south of the bridges. During one of our rest periods, the 7th. Battalion had failed in an attack in company strength, to wipe out the garrison of a farm, believed to be the Boche H.Q. These buildings were some 400 yards inside enemy lines, and now the full strength of the 13th. were to carry out the task in a night attack. We had come out of the line to rehearse the operation.
First of all we had to dig shelters, and that occupied the first afternoon, and then in the early evening Bomber Command of the R.A.F., put on another magnificent demonstration of air power, for which we had ringside seats. Monty was about to launch yet another attack to capture the city of Caen, which lay 4 miles up river from our location. The infantry assault was preceded by a massive bombing of enemy defences, which we were able to watch in all its awesome splendour.
Initially a single four engined bomber appeared from behind the trees to our right and released a shimmering cascade of bright silver lights, followed by others which dropped similar clusters of red and green lights. These markers designated the targets for the main force, following closely behind in a loose gaggle. As the bombs started to fall, ack-ack shells could be observed exploding around the aircraft, and they looked like sitting ducks, but the Lancasters and Halifaxes flew on regardless of the danger. As the bombs exploded a great cloud of dust began to rise over the city, and the guns on the ground were silenced by the explosions. It was not one of the famed "thousand bomber raids", but terrifying all the same.
Later I attended a briefing for the planned attack, and to me it seemed rather complicated, requiring precise timing and strict control, both of which I thought difficult to maintain in the dark. The advance would be on a one company front, and the total distance from start line to final objective was about 500 yards. There were to be three phases of the attack, and conveniently running across the line of advance were two hedges, approximately 200 yards apart. These became the objectives of the first two phases. On reaching the first bound the leading company took up a defensive position, allowing the rest of the Battalion to continue the advance. This was to be repeated at the second hedge, where the rear company would carry on and capture the farm area. The C.O. and his recce group would move all the time immediately to the rear of the forward company. I would move with this party, but the guns were deployed to cover the flanks of the advance, and would operate as single gun detachments.
A single gun was to be positioned at either end of the start line, covering the move forward to bound one, and the other gun of the section advanced on the extreme right and left of the leading company, and on reaching the first hedge came into action. The first guns were now dismantled and joined the next company in their move forward, and these actions were to be repeated at the conclusion of phase two. Orders for these advances would be sent by me over the Platoon's 88 sets, and finally we received details for the consolidation on the objective
The hedgerows I knew were going to be tough obstacles to tackle in the dark, because they were not the typical English farm hedge. These "Bocage" hedges were raised earth banks, planted with high bushes and the occasional tree. They would be a nightmare for the heavily laden machine gunners trying to force a way through, so I was anticipating trouble, almost from the word go, hence I was not surprised by the way things turned out.
The tract of land selected for these rehearsals lay between the river and the canal, and closely resembled the site of the actual attack. To begin with, all went well. We moved to the assembly area, and formed up ready to advance to the start line, which was occupied with text book efficiency, and communication between myself and all four guns were working well. The order to advance was given, and we set off on phase one, and even before this had been completed, I lost contact with the rear two guns, screened as they were by the tall hedges. As a result on the completion of this phase of the operation, I was unable to call forward these two guns, and informed the C.O. Eventually a message had to be passed to them, via the Company H.Q. using the battalion wireless net. The delay was not to the Colonel's liking, and when the same hold-up occurred at the next phase line, I sensed I was in serious trouble. Eventually the rehearsal was over, but it had consisted of a series of stops and starts, and not the smooth continuous advance, the success of the operation required.
Next morning there was an "inquest", and naturally the matter of the Platoons inadequate communications was one of the main subjects of discussion. My suggestion that the two guns holding the start line, remain in position throughout the attack, and the other two move with the leading company in each phase of the advance was turned down, and it was "Nobby" Clarke of C. Company, who came up with the answer to be tried out during the coming nights practice. For the first "dummy run", the C.O. and Company Commanders had carried American hand-held "walkie-talkie" sets for immediate personal messages, these "Nobby" submitted only duplicated the Battalion net, which had functioned perfectly well, and with which there had been no problems, so why not give the "walkie-talkies" to the Machine Gunners. This was approved by the Colonel, and so that night detachment commanders and myself, carried these new American gadgets.
There was to be a dramatic opening to that night's events, for as we crossed "Pegasus" bridge en route for the training area. the Luftwaffe chose to mount a bombing raid, and as the ack-ack cannons released their streams of tracer into the sky, the Battalion scattered to avoid any falling bombs. The rehearsal was almost trouble free, and my wireless links remained good throughout. This was followed by a third and final try out, and we were all keyed up for the real thing, only to be told that it had been called off. Colonel Luard had questioned the tactical value of the attack, which would leave the Battalion isolated, several hundred yards inside enemy held territory, and open to any artillery fire the Boche could bring down, without any shelter whatsoever for the Battalion. In doing so, he put his military career and reputation "on the line", but General Gale upheld his objections, and so saved the Battalion many needless casualties.
So it was back to the brickworks again, and the full scale attack by a complete battalion, was changed to a daylight raid in Company strength by the 7th. Battalion, who as you may recall had already put in an earlier attack on the place. This new attempt would be made through the positions we were holding, and the C.O. offered the support of the Battalion's heavy weapons, and in particular the Machine Gun Platoon, since some-one had informed him of our newly acquired ability to supply indirect fire support. As a result, the Platoon had the task of isolating the Boche H.Q., and prevent any counter attack which might develop from left of the objective. All four guns should have been used, but the C.O. ruled that two detachments must stay in the company locations, providing fire support there.
We were all excited by this development, and were looking forward to firing the guns again, since we had been unemployed for a month, and even the digging of a new position in a field alongside the brickworks aroused no complaints, and using plastic explosive we felled a tree which stood in our line of fire.
The raid was timed to start at 17. 00. hours, and not knowing what might follow in the way of enemy reaction, the evening meal was served early, and the Battalion less the Gunners were all to be in their shelters by that time. It was a big occasion for us and we eagerly awaited H. Hour, and from then until H plus 15, when the raid would be over, we sealed off the left flank of the attack. And what a hornets nest of trouble we helped to stir up. The resulting counter bombardment we endured was the worse than ever, with rockets, bombs and shells raining down on the Battalion front for two hours and more, and adding to the bedlam, the Divisional Light Regiment's 75mm. Howitzers, fired retaliatory shells onto the Boche.
As soon as the shelling stopped, I visited the forward guns hoping they had escaped without any casualties, since all positions had excellent overhead protection, but I was to be disappointed. One of the shelters, housing a complete gun team, had received three direct hits from mortar bombs on the roof, and the occupants, Privates Barnett, Strachan, and Tommy Stephenson, were all in a state of shock, and refusing to leave the shelter. The detachment commander was rather hysterical also. I had to go down into the trench, and quietly persuade them that the shelling was over, and that they would be evacuated to the rear for a rest. Fortunately my words of encouragement worked, and they were all sent home. Of the three, only Tommy Stephenson was ever fit enough to rejoin us. It was clear to me also that the N.C.O. had lost the confidence of the other members of the detachment. He had been an excellent leader in training, but was one of the few members of the Platoon affected by the frequent shelling we were subjected to. I asked for him to be transferred to a Rifle Company, where, sadly, he was killed a little later. This meant I had lost another Sergeant, and so I promoted Corporal Tommy Lathom to fill the vacancy.
The only other member of the Platoon to show signs of "battle fatigue" as it is now called. in our time, we (unfeelingly) would have said he was "bomb-happy", was Billy Taylor. I arranged for him to be evacuated. He recovered, and rejoined the Battalion to go out to India, and ended as a Corporal. During the morning of the 12th. July, a strange little incident involving Gordon O'Brien-Hitching occurred. He was the only subaltern in the Battalion who held a regular commission, and had transferred to the Regiment from a cavalry unit, and lacking knowledge of infantry tactics, his answer to every situation was to charge - hence his nick name of "Crasher". According to David Tibbs, he also claimed to be bullet proof, but the events of that morning proved him wrong.
He had completed the task of positioning his company's snipers, but instead of returning to his platoon, he was observed carrying on towards the enemy positions. A single shot was fired and he was seen to fall. One of the Company medical orderlies, Private Graham Corbett, went out to attend the wounded Officer. He was seen to lift "Crasher" onto his shoulder, but instead of returning, the two of them disappeared into the German lines.
It was not until the ceremonies held in the cemetery at Ranville in 1984, and I met Graham Corbett again, that I learnt the full story. On reaching the wounded officer, he lifted him onto his shoulders and was about to return to the Battalion positions when a German soldier armed with rifle and bayonet, standing in the nearby hedge, had motioned him to go in the opposite direction, and escorted them to his H.Q. Shortly after they arrived there, "Crasher" died from the wound he had received. No attempt was made at interrogation, all the Boche were interested in were any cigarettes or maps they were carrying. The most disturbing end to this little story, is that a British Officer killed on active service, was not given a Christian burial, for Gordon O'Brien-Hitching has no known grave.
But I had other things on my mind. At the extreme left hand end of the Battalion area stood two houses, one on either side of the road, where a hundred yards further ahead lay the German positions. The right hand of the two houses was really just four walls so badly had been the damage done to it by shelling, but we mounted a standing patrol there each night. Across the road, the other smaller property was still in a reasonable condition. Actually it was a single floor cottage, with a ladder leading up to a loft. One day some-one, I don't know who, climbed up into the loft, and looking through a hole in the roof, noticed in the area known to be occupied by the Boche, that up the side of a tall tree, ran a ladder, which obviously lead to a well camouflaged observation platform. Secretly, we hoped, the loft was reinforced with sandbags, and a sniper installed during the hours of daylight. Any Boche observer up there would have a bird's eye view of the Battalion's positions, so no wonder his mortaring was so accurate. Then the C.O. had, in my opinion, the crazy idea of mounting a Vickers alongside the sniper, and I was told to investigate the possibilities of such. So I made my recce, scanning the ladder and the possible site of the fire controller, but saw nothing, and the snipers who were there, told me that no-one had used the ladder during the hours of daylight. I reported to the Colonel that it was possible to mount a Vickers in the loft, but in my opinion, it was not a suitable task for a medium machine gun, and I thought that was the end of the matter, because the C.O. did not pursue it any further.
Our current period in the front line was coming to an end, and I received orders to rendez-vous with Brigadier Poett at Ranville church. Using the Platoon's light weight motor bike, I made sure I arrived in good time, and parked the bike inside the churchyard. The Brigadier appeared driving his Jeep, and laying his map case on the bonnet, explained that instead of moving to the banks of the Orne for a rest, the Brigade would occupy a reserve position around Ranville, and I was to co-ordinate the Brigade's machine gun defences. He had marked on his map what he considered to be suitable positions, and also the arcs of fire of each section. We then went round together, and decided the exact position of every section . The Brigadier would brief the Commanding Officers, detailing the respective Battalion's responsibilities. I would check that the agreed positions were actually occupied, and report back to Brigade, when I was satisfied that the machine gun defensive plan was complete. Only partially trained, I was, the only Machine Gun Officer in the Brigade.
On my return, Sergeant Whalley greeted me, "Things have been happening while you've been away", and went on to explain that during my absence a Vickers had been positioned in the cottage loft. Ignoring my Platoon Sergeant, the C.O. had sent for Sergeant Kelly, and instructed him to move one of the guns there. George Kelly was most upset that the C.O. had by-passed both Alf Whalley and myself, and explained as a regular soldier, he had to obey his Commanding Officer. I think he would have been even more upset had he known that I had informed the C.O. of my opinion on mounting a gun in that position. To say that I was furious would be putting it mildly, and I seriously considered asking to be transferred to a rifle company, since the C.O. no longer had confidence in me as the Battalion Machine Gun Officer. But how could I, when the Brigade Commander had only that same afternoon, entrusted me with the co-ordination of all three M.M.G. Platoons in the Brigade, and the C.O. might come up with an even more outrageous employment of the Vickers. So I swallowed my pride, and left things as they were for the few remaining days of the current occupation of the brickworks. No opportunity arose to use the Vickers in the sniping role, and while we were in reserve, the Boche brought up an S.P. and demolished the cottage.
In the reserve role back in Ranville, the complete Platoon were positioned below the crest of the ring contour, close to where Sergeant Kelly's section had opened fire on the morning of D.Day. While the new weapon slits were being dug, I visited the two other Platoons, and the Brigadier's briefing must have been very thorough, for all guns were in the locations we had agreed together, and I was able to report so to Brigade. Once the reserve position had been completed, the plan was to move down into the village, and only occupy our defences over the evening "stand to", but Sergeant Higgins had found some first class shelters with overhead cover in the field immediately to our rear, and suggested we use them as our sleeping quarters. I was agreeable as long as the rest of the Platoon were prepared to go back to the village for their meals. A vote was taken, and as ever the Platoon were keen to escape the Sergeant-Major's attention, so the unanimous decision was made to stop on the hill.
Fortunately our stay co-incided with a spell of perfect summer weather, and we were able to relax and enjoy it. Bathing trips were organised, and also visits to the cinema in Luc-sur-mere, but I found going to the cinema on a hot afternoon not to my liking, and slept through most of the performance. The film being shown was a crazy Hollywood comedy, after which our D.Day aircraft was named - "Hellzapoppin", and perhaps that sparked it off, but we began talking about the nine missing members of the Platoon, speculated what might have happened to them, and wondered if there was any way of finding out. Sergeant Kelly asked if he wrote to the pilot, Flight-Sergeant Jack Gilbert, at Keevil, would I allow the letter to be sent (all out-going mail had to be censored). Instead together we drafted a letter which did not breach security, and George Kelly signed it, and I added my signature as censor. In it we thanked the air-crew for the comfortable ride they had given us, and also for dropping eleven of us on the correct D.Z., and then went on to state that the last nine members of the stick never arrived at the R.V., and were still missing. Finally we asked the pilot if he could tell us any thing about them.
Less than a week later, when we were back once more on the ridge, Sergeant Kelly came to me and handed over the familiar buff envelope, marked with the words "On His Majesty's Service". It was from the Adjutant of 299 Squadron, and the gist of the letter was, rather than the R.A.F. being able to help us, could we help them, since the air-craft was the only one from Keevil which had failed to return from the mission. I told Sergeant Kelly that I would answer it, and duly informed the R.A.F. of all we knew.
The major event of this - our last visit to the brickworks - was Operation "Goodwood", Field- Marshal Montgomery's attempt to break out of the Normandy bridgehead, using three armoured divisions. These had been concentrated to our rear, between the ridge and the Orne, and their advance would be across our supply lines, and so prior to the attack the Battalion stock-piled three days rations and ammunition. July 18th. was D.Day for this advance, and it was supported by the biggest employment of air power ever seen on a field of battle. Prior to the forward move of the armour, the heavy bombers pulverised known defensive locations on the flanks of the attack. Later as the tanks rolled forward medium bombers and rocket firing Typhoons provided support overhead and the whole operational area was under the cover of an umbrella of fighters.
We stood to at dawn, displaying the yellow fluorescent panels to mark our positions, and the sun rose at the start of a perfect summers day. All we could hear was the drone of engines and the thunder of exploding bombs, but later from a ringside seat on the Platoon's deep trench latrine, I was able to watch the Sherman tanks of the 11th. Armoured Division moving forward into the attack. All day long aerial activity was taking place behind us, but we had no idea how the battle was progressing. Next day the weather was still hot and sunny, but that night we experienced a violent thunder storm, accompanied by torrential rain. By morning we were all standing in up to a foot of water, and conditions became so bad, we abandoned the weapon slits, taking shelter in the long, open-sided drying sheds of the brickworks. Conditions must have been the same for the Boche, because when the floods subsided, we re-occupied our old positions without any trouble - rain stopped play. One lasting memory of "Goodwood", is the number of tins of sardines I ate. Every day the "Compo" pack tea meal consisted of a tin of sardines in olive oil, shared between two, and there were a number of men who didn't eat them, so those who did ate as many as they wanted.
On the last day of our next time in reserve, I received orders to report to H.Q. prior to a reconnaissance of new positions the Battalion were to hold at Sallenelles at the northern end of the ridge. "Doc" Tibbs was there with his big B.M.W. motor-bike, offering a lift as a pillion passenger, and I accepted. In the early hours of 6th. June, as C. Company were clearing Ranville, this motor bike, with side-car attachment had entered the village unaware of the British presence. Numerous weapons were fired and the vehicle crashed out of control, scattering boxes of Camembert cheese across the road. The rider's wounds were treated by David Tibbs, who claimed the bike, had it repaired and re-painted, and so the two of us arrived in style at the H.Q. of the Marine Commando we were relieving.
It really was a most civilised take over. The Royal Marines had established their H.Q. in a pleasant country house, and on arriving there, we were invited into the "Ward Room" - their equivalent of the Officers Mess, and there served with generous tots of gin, before venturing out to visit the tactical positions. At Sallenelles, the Germans were well away, and most of our posts were not under direct observation as they were at the brickworks. About 500 yards ahead of the main defences, was the "la Grande Ferme du Buisson", and here we maintained a continual standing patrol, as from the upper floor, observation could be kept on the Boche front line, which ran another quarter of a mile further east. These farm buildings were mainly intact, but all around were massive craters, caused by badly aimed bombs meant for the Merville Battery, which was not very far away.
The Marines had not deployed any Vickers guns, and so for the very first time I was given my task, and told to submit my plan for carrying it out. Briefly, the Platoon had to be capable of bringing defensive fire down, across the front of the two forward companies, and accompanied by Sergeant Kelly, whose advice was essential, toured the area. Roughly in the centre of the Battalion location, was an open field, from where fire could be switched from one company's front to the other, and it was here I reported to the C.O. the complete Platoon could prepare an indirect fire position. My plan was accepted, and so we dug yet another set of trenches, but now no local protection slits needed digging. The Platoon strength was so low, we could just about manage full crews for four guns, and the necessary fire controllers.
Life at this end of the ridge, was almost as quiet as the reserve positions in Ranville. For the first time since 6th. June when in the forward positions, we were not subjected to any mortaring or shelling. We even received a visit from George Formby, the celebrated Lancashire comedian, who put on a show at Battalion H.Q. just for us, and every man who could be spared attended his late afternoon's entertainment.
Some time previously we had been visited by a War Reporter representing the "Liverpool Daily Post", and from home I received a copy of his report. To begin, he described the Colonel as "a fine upright soldier, with his upswept Cavalier moustache, and his hunting horn (the 13th. rallied on the D.Z. to the blowing of the horn) protruding jauntily from the open front of his shirt". I showed the cutting to Leslie Golding, now acting O.C. the Company. "This is libelous" he said, "The Colonel with his unswept moustache, and his horn protruding jauntily from the open front of his shorts."
Somewhere near at hand the black currants must have been ready for picking, and their unmistakable aroma was in the air, and I mentioned the fact in a letter home. A few days later, there was a parcel for me at mail time. There was a strict limit on what could be sent in parcels and this one contained, according to the label, magazines and toilet requisites, but was, in fact one of my mother's blackcurrant pies, which I shared with the Sergeants. Next week there was another parcel, and as he handed it to me, Alf Whalley said, with a twinkle in his eye, "there's some more shaving soap for you".
By mid-August we were back once more in the reserve position at Ranville, but before we could relax, Brigade had a nasty surprise up their sleeves - a Brigadier's Inspection, due to be held on 16th. August. For two days we cleaned and polished (mercifully no blanco was available) - all transport would be inspected by Brigade R.E.M..E., while the Armourers inspected all weapons. Finally, the entire Battalion, drawn up in open order, wearing best B.D. [Battledress] and carrying Field Service Marching Order, paraded on a field adjacent to the village cross roads, for inspection by the Brigadier.
I say the Battalion, but it really was a shadow of its former self. Very few of those with minor wounds had rejoined us - Roy Marsh was the only gunner who had. Three subalterns, Dick Burton, Cyril Bailey and Steve Honnor had come out from Larkhill, and we had received a considerable number of non- parachuting men from the Army Re-inforcement Unit, including three officers. These non jumping Officers had trouble being accepted by the men, who did not take kindly to non-parachutists, but "Steamer" Boyle of the Lancashire Fusiliers proved to be an excellent Platoon Commander, and wanted to remain with the Battalion when we returned to England, and qualify as a parachutist. Unfortunately, he was wounded later in the campaign.
After the inspection we returned to the defensive locality on the ring contour, where away in the distance to the south-east, we could tell there was a battle taking place, since there was a non-stop succession of fighter aircraft circling round. With binoculars, it was possible to watch them dive towards the ground as they shot up their targets. The daily news-sheet "Pegasus" had already informed us of the break-out on the American front, and what we were watching was the battle to close the Falaise gap.
Next morning, 17th. August, we were told that the Boche had withdrawn from the positions on the ridge, retreating beyond the river Dives, and that 6th. Airborne had been ordered to chase the enemy, inflicting maximum possible damage to the retreating force. The days of static defence were over, and we were all excited at the prospect of offensive action.
Years after the war ended, I learned what an enormous debt of gratitude, all survivors of the Normandy campaign, owed the Colonel for his courageous opposition to the proposed night attack on the German Head Quarters.
During the final assault of the Company raid mounted by the 7th. Battalion, as the alternative to our operation, the attacking force was isolated in an anti-personnel mine field covered by machine guns, and the casualties were only evacuated with great difficulty. How much more serious would have been 13th's casualties, had we attacked in the dark.
No medals are awarded for the type of courage shown by Colonel Luard, but he put the welfare of us all before the chance of military glory, and his own reputation as an Officer. We must respect him even more for this.
Advance to the Seine - 17th to 25th. August.
By mid-day on 17th. August, the Battalion was once again assembled on the field at the village cross roads where less than 24 hours previously we had paraded for the Brigade Commanders inspection. Back into store had gone the spare battledress and in its place we wore the well worn jumping trousers and denison smocks, in which we had dressed for the greater part of the last three months. We didn't know what lay ahead of us, but we were convinced we had the beating of the Boche, no matter how, when or where we met him.
It was another perfect late summers day, and we lounged on the grass waiting orders. The Battalion was much changed from the one which had parachuted into Normandy. At Battalion H.Q., Major Gerald Ford was now 2/ic., and Leslie Golding in addition to his appointment as I.O., also acted as Headquarter Company Commander, following Major Reggie Tarrant's move to B Company, when George Bristow was evacuated to a field hospital. During one of the frequent shellings at the brickworks, he had been severely blasted when a bomb exploded close-by. There were no visible wounds, but numerous particles of dust penetrated his skin through his clothing, eventually causing sores which became infected. Support weapons still had their D Day commanders, and Major John Cramphorn continued as O.C. Able Company with Jack Watson as 2i/c, and "Joe" Hodgson and Dick Burton were Platoon Officers. The other Officers in B Company, consisted of "Terry" Bibby, Cyril Bailey, and Steve Honnor. This left "Nobby" Clarke in Charlie Company with "Steamer" Boyle and the two Canadian subalterns. The Battalion were only operating at no more than half the war establishment, and B Company were so low in numbers, that before we moved off, ten trained members of the Mortar Platoon were transferred, to serve as riflemen.
It was late in the afternoon when the order to move finally was given, but we had earlier been issued with maps, so we guessed in advance that we were to move through Troarn and attack across the valley of the River Dives .Troop carrying transport was provided and I myself would move in the second of two jeeps, carrying the C.Os. Recce Group, which were leading the Battalion column.
The move off ressembled the tension of a coiled spring being released. We were off at a cracking pace up the hill to the brickworks. and there turned right along the road leading towards Troarn. Now we had a level, straight road ahead with not another vehicle in sight, and the Battalion raced along in a great cloud of dust. Freed from the confines of weapon slits and gun positions, we were making the most of our introduction to mobile warfare. We became aware of a jeep coming up behind going even faster than us. As it drew alongside, a clearly irate Brigade Commander was frantically signalling us to stop. We hadn't advanced 5 miles and the C.O. didn't want to check the momentum but we reluctantly halted. Brigadier Poett had regained his composure, and gentleman as ever, was quick to praise us for the eagerness and aggressiveness we had shown "but", he continued "the enemy were still in possession of the high ground on the far side of the Dives valley. More important, we were still within range of his artillery, and the great cloud of dust we had raised, made an obvious target."
The advance progressed more slowly, but as we approached the outskirts of Troarn, we were halted and had to de-bus, taking shelter among the trees of le Bois de Bavent. We were still there as darkness fell, and it became clear that there would be no further move that day. How we came to wish there could have been, because with the darkness came the mosquitoes. We spent the worst night of the entire Normandy campaign, for there was no let up in their attack on any patch of exposed flesh. The shelling and mortaring had never gone on all night as these attacks did, and it was with a feeling of great relief, in the early hours of the next morning we formed up on the road, ready to continue the march eastwards.
Into the sleeping town we went, and down the hill into the valley towards the river itself. A Company were leading, and shortly before they reached the western bank, a newly marked track led to a Bailey bridge. Most of the leading company were over to the far side, when the rest of us halted, allowing a bull dozer to move ahead. It was not yet fully daylight, but we watched as the outline of the bridge, and the vehicle, slowly subsided into the water. The rest of the Battalion had to scramble over, using the debris of the stone bridge (destroyed in the early hours of 6th. June by 3 Brigade Sappers), as stepping stones. Once we were all on the eastern side, on we marched again, but only for a few miles. We turned off the road into a lush Normandy meadow, and spread ourselves around the surrounding hedges. There was no sign of friend or foe, nothing disturbed the tranquility of yet another lovely day of clear, blue skies and warm sunshine. The war was far away, and so it remained until after the evening meal, when I was summonsed to attend a Battalion "O" Group.
The Colonel questioned me about the platoon's ability to provide accurate overhead fire in the dark. I replied to the effect that the platoon were well capable to carry out such a task, but were unable to do so, since we lacked night aiming lamps (as a Mortar platoon we were used to using them, but with no dial sights, they had not been included in the equipment we dropped). Freddie Skeate said he could lend two lamps, and I then informed the C.O. that we could provide the necessary fire support, provided we could occupy the position in daylight, and that the enemy position to be engaged could be seen. This seemed to satisfy him. and after a short while as we waited for the "O" Group to assemble, we received orders for a Brigade night attack.
Directly in the path of the Division's advance lay another water obstacle the Dives canal, over which we were informed, units of 3 Brigade had already seized a crossing. It was the task of our Brigade to exploit that success, and to clear the enemy from the far bank, and capture the high ground beyond. This hill feature dominated the whole valley and in particular the scheduled canal crossing site. The 7th. Battalion would cross first and secure the far bank as far as the railway line, allowing the 12th. to pass through and clear the farms and houses at the bottom of the hill which 13 were to assault and capture. The supporting fire of both Mortars and Machine Guns was to enable the Battalion to cross the open ground at the foot of the hill, and was to last for 5 minutes. Considering we had never attempted such an attack during training, it was rather an ambitious plan to which the entire Brigade was committed.
Once the final details for the attack had been given, Fred and I returned to our respective platoons, and gave them their orders. We had already decided on a suitable area for our part in the proceedings, from a study of the map, and leaving our Platoon Sergeants to move the Mortars and Machine Gunners to a forward R.V. on foot, we departed, accompanied by our Signallers with their set, to carry out our reconnaissance. The Platoons had to be sited reasonably close to each other since at this stage of the campaign, there were only enough signallers to maintain the simplest radio communications within the Battalion. Another limiting factor in the choice of positions was range, and finally, the target must be in view from the actual Vicker's guns. Since I had never laid out a night firing position, Sergeant Kelly accompanied us. He would do all the work, while I would be adding to my machine gun knowledge at the same time.
The area we had selected from the map was suitable for both platoons. Near the hamlet of Goustranville a minor road ran off to the left, and slightly to the rear of this junction, but on the opposite side of the road, a thick hedge inter-planted with tall trees ran in a southerly direction parallel to the target some 2500 yards away. This locality suited us both. There was good covered access from the road, we were not under enemy observation, and were well within range of the Battalion objective. More important still, from the Machine gunners point of view, when Sergeant Kelly and I, crawled through the hedge, we found ourselves in a dry ditch. This not only gave us cover from fire, but we had a clear sight of the objective and we would be able to lay the guns onto the target in daylight.
Sergeant Kelly did all the work involved in laying out the gun lines, explaining to me his actions as he went about his duties. I was just the apprentice working along-side a master craftsman, but I was learning all the time. He knew the limitations of my knowledge of the employment of Vickers Guns in the indirect fire role, and I fully appreciated his skills and expertise. I was lucky to have him as a member of the Platoon, and we enjoyed an excellent working relationship. For the latter part of the move along the road, the two Platoons would have been under enemy observation, but if our advance was observed, no action was taken. Both the mortars and ourselves occupied our positions without interference, and reported to Battalion that we had done so, and included a six figure map reference of the site.
All we could do now, was to sit tight and wait for Zero hour. It was still daylight as we lay in the ditch, keyed up for our big moment, for this was the first time the full fire power of the Platoon would be used to support a Battalion attack. There were only enough men to man all four guns, so everybody would be fully employed, when the moment came to open fire.
Darkness was closing in around us, when a runner from the Mortars, came along the hedgerow calling for me, and I accompanied him back to where they had their Headquarters. A minor crisis had arisen, contact with Battalion had been lost, and try as they might, the signallers could not raise any of the other out stations either. They were convinced that the set was faulty, but there was still plenty of time to remedy this, so I departed with the two signallers and the "duff" set, back to the field where the Battalion had spent the day. All the fighting element had departed, leaving only B Echelon transport and cooks, and the fighting units were on their way across country to the F.U.P. (forming-up point for the attack). That was the reason I had not encountered them on the road.
Knowing the location of the F.U.P. from the briefing, I now set off in that direction, which took me past the support weapon's area. The road now ran downhill, and soon what little light there had been, disappeared as trees on either side of the way closed overhead. Without lights we were only moving at walking pace, when we encountered men of the 7th. Battalion moving back from the line of the Dives canal. I quickly learned that they were non too pleased at being "buggered about". Having been marched to the bottom of the hill, they were now being marched back up again. On enquiring why, I was informed that no crossing of the canal had been seized by 3 Brigade. Further questioning revealed that they didn't know what the plan now was, where they were heading or the whereabouts of the 13th.
Back at the Mortar position, Fred and I held "a council of war", and decided that failing further orders to the contrary, we would carry out the fire tasks as already detailed, reasoning
1 the attack might still go ahead as planned.
2 if not the 13th's attack, we might support another unit's attack.
3 if neither of these two assumptions were correct, we would be carrying out a harassing fire task.
It was essential to my mind that we fired the guns, since it was the first opportunity there had been for the complete platoon to fire in an indirect role, and so all the enthusiasm they had shown during the training in the use of the dial sights, would have its reward.
02.00 hours on the 19th. August, was the time I gave the order for the full fire power of the Platoon to be directed against the Boche. Every minute until 02.05. one thousand rounds of Mark viii.z, landed on the crest of the hill, 2500 yards away. Simultaneously, to our left rear, the four mortars also engaged the target with 5 minutes rapid fire. 50 years later I am unaware of the success or otherwise, of the shooting, but it was a great morale boosting experience for all the Gunners, and again demonstrated the foresight George Kelly had shown, when we accidentally acquired the dial sights. Fortunately our action provoked no enemy response, nor were sounds of battle heard, elsewhere in the neighbourhood, so once the task was fired, a minimum watch was kept, while the majority tried to snatch some sleep.
As daylight came, we stood to for the usual vigil of half an hour each side of dawn. Both Fred and I were surprised that no-one from Battalion had attempted to contact us during the night. They certainly knew our location on the map, but despite a watch kept on the roadside by the Mortars, no-one had come looking for us. There had been vehicle traffic up and down the road, but no marching troops. However, daylight revealed that the large farm immediately across the road was now occupied by our own Brigade Headquarters. Fred and I went over, in order that we might contact Battalion on the Brigade wireless net.
The senior officer on duty was the Staff-Captain "A", and since there was no traffic on the net, we were quickly in contact with the Battalion, We learnt that the night attack had been called off, when it was learnt that no crossing of the canal had been captured, but a new plan was now in operation, from which both our platoons were excluded. It would only complicate matters to try and tack our support on to the new fire plan. Both Platoons were to be ready to move forward as soon as required. In the meantime, either Fred or myself had to remain at Brigade, so we could receive any messages.
On the toss of a coin I stayed alongside the Brigade signallers, while Fred returned and prepared the two platoons for the move forward. Since the heavy storm of late July, we had been enjoying a three week spell of fine summer weather, but it had all changed overnight, and now low cloud covered the sky, and intermittent showers made life rather uncomfortable. Daylight too brought a re-awakening of the Boche mortar men and gunners, with the area of the road junction nearby, the target for a regular stonking. Since the platoons were close-by, our locations received the occasional shell, but no casualties resulted.
An hour later, Fred returned to relieve me, and I rejoined the Gunners, and we followed that procedure as we waited for instructions to move. It was during one of my visits to the Platoon that we were the target for a prolonged shelling. Lying face down, close up against the hedge, I felt a sharp stinging in the back of my right hand, and had to remove a piece of shrapnel the size of a large bit of gravel - the nearest I had been so far to receiving a more serious wound.
Fred was on call at Brigade, when early in the afternoon, orders came through for us to re-join the Battalion. We had been aware from the sounds of battle reaching us from ahead that a prolonged engagement had taken place, and somewhere at the bottom of the hill was still being shelled by the Boche. However, the farm where we had to report was on a track running up the hill, which had been the objective for the previous night's assault, so we assumed that all had gone well, and the 13th, were now in possession of Hill 13.
Leaving our Platoon Sergeants in charge, the pair of us set off in the jeep for Battalion. Once out of the field, we turned right and followed the road leading down to the valley floor. Soon we were in the cover of the trees, leaving the metalled road and following a well used track, still under cover came to the canal, which, much to our surprise we crossed via an undamaged bridge. For the next couple of hundred yards we were still sheltered by the trees, but on reaching the edge of the wood saw there was now an open field, before arriving at the railway level crossing. It was here that the shells were landing even as we cleared the trees. The driver put his foot down, and we raced across those 300 yards, crossed the railway, and turned left towards the church, standing on a little knoll. Skirting the churchyard on our left, we entered Putot noticing that one of the battalions was digging in there. Immediately after passing "le Mairie", we turned right up the track leading to our designated R.V., and soon entered the Battalion position, where the rifle companies were also preparing defensive positions. We turned left into the farm yard, halted, jumped out of the jeep, and enquired where we would find the Colonel.
Nothing had prepared us for the news we were about to hear. The Battalion had suffered heavy casualties in their assault on the ridge only 100 yards ahead. B Company had made the final charge, and bore the brunt of the engagement. Reggie Tarrant, leading his Company had been seriously wounded (he died from his wounds), and Bill Grantham was now O.C. B Company, and Malcolm Town was doubling his post as Signals Officer with that of Adjutant. "Terry" Bibby was missing, and David Tibbs the Medical Officer wounded, with Captain Urquhart arriving to take his place.
The Platoon's task was to hold the open left flank of the Battalion position, and I carried out my "Recce". No attempt was being made to interfere with us, as we consolidated short of the ridge, but the railway crossing was clearly a defensive fire task for the artillery, and was regularly being shelled. It had already been agreed between Fred and I, that I would go back and bring the two Platoons forward, so off I went in the jeep. Going in this direction presented no problem, for if the crossing was under observation, I would only be in sight for a short time, after I cleared the church, but returning with the Mortars and Machine Guns, was a different matter altogether. Then a party of forty men, pulling a dozen trolleys, presented a slow moving, worth-while target.
I returned to the over-night position without difficulty, and set off with the two platoons, having given them a brief outline of what had occurred, and where we were heading, but I did not mention the shelling, although it was evident that shells were still falling. We could only move slowly through the trees, since the track was badly rutted, and on reaching the open field. I didn't make straight for the railway. Instead I turned left along the edge of the trees, since the wooded area curved down to the line of the railway, and I figured any Boche observer, might have difficulty in picking the party out against the background of the trees. Where-as, movement across the open would be clearly visible. I don't know if my caution was justified, but we did arrive at the Battalion position without any trouble, although the crossing continued to be shelled.
With the evening meal came the first batch of re-inforcements from our Reserve Company in England. Corporal Frank Egleton along with L/Cpl. Don Jones, recovered from their wounds and Private Alf Head were the only trained machine gunner, and there were two Officers. Fred Tremlett relieved R.Q.M.S. Jimmy Henstock who had been carrying out the duties of Quartermaster since we had landed, and Ken Walton. During the early part of the Normandy campaign, he had attended a 3 inch mortar course at Netherhaven, and he now took command of the Mortars, thus allowing Fred Skeate moving to B Company as 2i/c. The Boche withdrew he had fulfilled his task of delaying the Division's advance, while at the same time inflicting the maximum possible damage and casualties upon us. During the night, a Royal Marine Commando moved up the track to our rear as the forward movement of the Division continued, and over the crest of the hill. in the direction of Dozule, a bright glow illuminated the dark sky. These are the final memories of one of the blackest days in the Battalion's history.
Next day was generally quiet as other formations closed up with the enemy, but there were the odd incidents. On one occasion the Vickers opened fire on a party of Boche who emerged from the woods on the far side of a wide re-entrant which we were covering. I don't think we caused any casualties, but they quickly retreated into the cover of the trees. Our new Doctor was wounded by a sniper, as he ensured there were no untreated wounded of either side still on the actual field of battle. Doc Shiels arrived from the Field Ambulance as replacement. Three Doctors in 24 hours who'd be a non-combatant. Later in the afternoon I went up on to the crest. I don't really know what I was looking for, but hoped I might be able to find evidence of the effectiveness of our night firing, but that was impossible. How many shells and mortar bombs, both British and German had plastered that hillside, I don't know, but it had taken a rare old pounding. Our own fallen comrades were even now being committed to their final resting places in the village churchyard, by Padre Whit Foy. The German dead lay everywhere, too numerous to count, besides I was too shocked for that. For the first time, the true horror of the bloody business of war, was brought home to me on that hillside above Putot. On the way down, I relieved a German Officer of his almost new Luger. He had no further need of it.
Late the following afternoon, we were put on stand-by for a move forward, and transport arrived for this purpose. After the evening meal, the Battalion moved to the road, where the 3 tonners awaited us. They were dispersed among the trees in an orchard, and before we moved off, the decision was made to carry out a rapid de-bussing and dispersal, in the event of air attack. As we jumped down, there was an explosion among the B Company trucks. An insecure grenade in a man's pouch had exploded, killing him outright and wounding several others including Lt. Steve Honnor. It was a terrible tragedy, especially for the Company concerned. Putot will always have bitter memories for them, since they had carried out the final assault, and most of our casualties were from their ranks.
The C.O. was away at Brigade, and Major Ford went ahead with an advance party, to "recce" our new positions, which were to be at la Haie Tondu a hamlet astride a cross roads at the top of a fairly steep escarpment. The position had been captured already by units of 3 Brigade. Our route took us through the small town of Dozule, where we found the source of the large fire which had illuminated the sky on the night of the 19th. There was not a building left standing. The place was a mass of rubble and charred timbers. Not a single property had been spared and to what purpose. It really was sickening to see the wanton destruction of civilian property. The place was of no tactical significance, its inhabitants simple country folk, going about their every day business. Yet a maniac ordered his morons to destroy their every possession. First the mangled bodies on the hill, and now the gutted homes of the innocent, showed us war in all its horror and futility.
The daylight was already fading when we reached our rendez-vous with the Battalion 2/ic, and Headquarter Company elements were made to wait, as he detailed the Rifle Companies to their respective areas. Major Ford himself, (or "Florrie" as we all called him), would have to position us, since Leslie Golding in his capacity as Intelligence Officer had accompanied the C.O. to Brigade. The 2/ic could be rather short tempered at times, and we sorely tried his patience that night.
Enamel mugs were the cause of the trouble, and I'll explain. We had landed in Normandy, not expecting to stay more than a few days, and carried a pair of mess tins from which to eat our food. This arrangement was fine while we lived off the 24 hour ration packs, but the arrival of the cooks and the 14 man Compo Ration packs, brought a problem. Now the main meal of the day consisted of a meat course, a pudding and also a half pint of tea, and three into two won't go. For some weeks we managed some-how, and then the answer to the problem came with the issue of a half pint enamel mug to everyone. This in itself caused trouble. With pouches full of ammunition and grenades, and the limited carrying space of the small pack, filled with washing and shaving kit etc., where was the drinking mug to be carried? Most of us adopted the same solution slip it under the fastening tab of the right hand ammunition pouch, where it was always handy, especially when a "buckshee" brew was on offer.
Major Ford led us forward of the cross roads. He halted and then squeezed through a narrow gap in the hedge, before jumping down into the adjoining meadow, signalling for us to follow. First both the Mortars and ourselves had to unload the trolleys, and the delay caused started to arouse his displeasure, but when we started to jump down into the field, he grew very angry indeed. Each man's landing was followed by a ringing "ting, ting ting", as his mug bounced up and down striking the metal button fastener on the pouch. After several of the Platoon had "sinned" in this manner, a halt was called and the remainder of the Company instructed to keep a tight hold on their mugs, when jumping the 2 foot drop through the hedge. Since all the trolleys had to be unloaded and individual items handed down and then re-packed, the situation became rather chaotic. Perhaps Major Ford's frustration and bad temper were understandable, but the noise and rumpus subsided, and the Company spread out around the field.
I had been instructed to report to the cross roads once I had settled the Platoon into their place, and from there would be escorted with the rest of the "O" Group to Battalion H.Q. As I only had 15 men to deal with, accompanied by Andy Fairhurst, I was the first to arrive at the cross roads. Here in one of the angles of the junction stood a Calvary, with a grass patch in front. We stood there and waited. Not a sound disturbed the silence of the night. Andy came alongside me and whispered, "We're being watched" he said. "Where?" I asked. Jerking his head backwards, "Over there". I turned to peer through the dark behind the Calvary. Two shiny helmets were clearly visible, and they weren't "Para" ones. Cocking my Sten, I moved towards them. "Hande Hoch" I ordered. There was no movement. They were two casualties from the 3rd. Brigade attack.
Eventually the O. Group assembled, and a runner arrived and conducted us to a detached house not far from the cross roads. We walked into a room where the C.O. sat at a table studying the map with Leslie Golding. The curtains were drawn. and a semi-circle of chairs stood in front of the table. We sat down, took out our maps, and waited, each one of us with his own individual torch. "There's been another cock-up" the Colonel began, "we've advanced right through 3rd. Brigade, and there are no friendly forces in front of us" "Where are the Boche then?" someone asked. "There's no firm information on that score" replied the I.O. "Has this house been cleared?" asked an anxious voice. "No" a pause "Ken (Ken Walton) make sure there's no one in the place."
We switched off the torches, and sat in silence as Ken apparently went from room to room. We could hear as he opened and closed the downstairs doors, followed by the odd creak on the stairs. Then I saw the funny side of the situation, and could only restrain my laughter with difficulty. What an unreal night it was proving. First there had been the incident of the bouncing mugs, next the "watchers" by the Calvary, and now house-clearing by torchlight. Nothing like this ever happened during training.
Ken was soon back, reporting the house empty - no Jerries under the beds - and the C.O. detailed our task for the morning. 13th. would lead the 6th. Airborne's advance, and our objective was to secure the high ground west of Pont L'Eveque, which dominated the crossings of the river Touques. An anxious night passed without incident, and we ate our breakfast in the dark. By first light the Battalion was ready to advance.
Crossing the road, we squeezed through the hedge, and deployed in the open field. I moved with the Recce Group in rear of A Company, with the trolleys and guns sandwiched between the two other Rifle Companies. It was a large field and we must have covered 400 yards before a wire fence was reached, and on it hung triangular signs carrying the dreaded "skull and crossbones" The entire Battalion were in a mine field. Perhaps it was a dummy one, or only anti-tank mines were sown, but we got onto the road without a single casualty, and from then on kept to the road, arriving just short of our objective unhindered.
The Battalion halted along a track leading up to the higher ground while A Company made sure there were no Boche about. All was quiet and we stood around in an informal group, as a jeep came up from the road. Brigadier Poett was driving, accompanied by an escort and signallers manning the "rover" set. He congratulated us on the speed of our advance, and went on to say that the Boche appeared to be pulling out of the town, and we were to press on in order to seize a crossing over the river.
Colonel Luard appreciated that the Battalion column needed re-organising, but also that immediate action was called for. He looked round the "Recce Group and his eyes met mine, "Dixie" he said "go down into the town and find out exactly where the Boche positions are".
My mind worked as quickly as the C.Os. had done. Clearly I was not meant to organise and lead a properly prepared and fully briefed patrol. My orders were simply to enter Pont L'Eveque and by some means or other locate any Boche positions. So calling for Andy Fairhurst to join me, we set off through the rear companies lining the sides of the track towards the road. We were not yet in the built up area, and as we walked along, I briefed my escort on how I meant us to operate. I would move on the right hand side of the road, he on the other about 30 yards to my rear, but he was to keep me in sight at all times. Should I be fired on, he was to ignore what happened to me, but report immediately to the C.O. Not that I thought I would be fired on, but I certainly had in the back of my mind that my war was about to come to an end that fine August morning. I assumed the Boche would re-act as we were trained to do when a small patrol approached your position unaware of its location. You hold your fire, wait until the patrol are inside your defences, and then "put them in the bag." That is what I anticipated would happen, but naturally I kept my thoughts to myself.
It was late morning by now, the sun had broken through, and under happier circumstances would have been ideal for a country stroll. Initially high banks rose on either side of the route, but we soon emerged from the cutting, and could look into the wooded valley below, with the river meandering lazily through the lush meadows, and could also see the low hills on the far side, but as yet I could not see into the town itself.
Even when I entered the built up outskirts of the place, I still could not see into the town centre, and was dismayed to find that the single-storey houses rose directly from the back of the pavement. There were no gardens at the front, nor were there any gaps or alleyways between buildings. If I was fired on, all I could hope to do, was to squeeze into a door-way. Fortunately that was never necessary. I went over a little hummock in the road, and now was able to see right into the town. Ahead of me, perhaps a hundred yards away, an excited group of Frenchmen, were having an animated discussion. I paused and waited for Andy to catch up, but watched the group ahead. Several of them ran away to the right waving their weapons in the air, returning more excited than ever. Then as the pair of us came closer, all shouting and waving stopped, and the party spread across the road, enabling each one of them to have a good look at the approaching British Army. These were members of the "Resistance", wearing their tri-colour armbands, and brandishing their "Stens", and clearly curious about our approach. I suppose they had been listening to the B.B.C. broadcasts on their secret radios, and doubtless fed a lot of propaganda about the might of the Allied Invasion Forces, with their untold strength in tanks and aircraft. But the reality was so different, just two dusty scruffy, foot sloggers -- one armed with a "Sten", the other carrying a rifle. They were clearly not impressed, and who could blame them.
"Bon jour, mes braves. Connaissez-vous ou sont les Boches?" At least they understood my school boy French. We were surrounded by 20 gesticulating voluble "resistants", each one eager to pass on the relevant information, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying. My brain wasn't capable of keeping up with the flow of the language. I looked around the group, and selecting the least excitable of them, asked him to show me the Boche positions. Again I was understood for he replied that we were to follow him.
Deeper into the town we went, until we reached a small square on the left of the road, and here we turned off up a minor road to the right. We were now moving away from the main built up area, and soon approached a small bridge over the western arm of the river, with the open valley ahead. My guide signalled me to duck below the height of the parapet, and then we lay on our bellies, peering round the far end, looking out over the broad valley. Along the far side ran the railway, raised on an embankment. Here and beyond I was informed were machine guns. I was then shown where the concrete of the parapet was chipped by their fire. When I returned in 1989 these marks were still clearly visible.
Back on our feet, we returned to the small square and now turned right and moved towards the town centre. Here the raucous barking of a large calibre weapon from some way ahead was more pronounced. This was the shopping centre, but there were no shop windows, instead the glass littered the street, the result of the demolition of the first of the bridges on the main route. This bridge had been constructed of stone, and the river was easily crossed, and further ahead a burst of tracer shot across us from the right. My view forward was constricted by the tall buildings which rose directly from the pavement on either side, and these had also lost all their windows. Not more than 100 yards further on, the road was blocked by the debris thrown up by the destruction of the principal bridge, and this obstacle to our advance was covered by the cannon beyond the river. I was also told that machine guns were sited in the houses on the far side of another small square, and these too were trained on the river bank. By the sound of things all the noise was from, what I believed to be a twin 20 mm. cannon. My guide next took me to the open space along the church, and there pointed out a wooden foot bridge, which was intact, but it was a trap --- machine guns had it covered.
I reckoned I now had all the information the Colonel required, so the three of us started to make our way back to the starting point for our little foray, only to meet the Battalion advancing into the town. I thanked my guide for his invaluable assistance, and informed the C.O. of all I had learnt. The orders for the advance into Pont L'Eveque had already been given out, and the Gunners were to support A Company's move up the main street. I quickly positioned Sergeant Kelly's section to cover the advance up to and over the first crossing point. I then joined John Cramphorn behind his leading platoon, having detailed Sergeant Higgins to follow behind the rest of the company with his No.2 Section.
Pont L'Eveque was a lovely little town, where it appeared that time had stood still since the Middle Ages. The houses were all half-timbered, with red pantile roofs of different heights and angles. Small tree lined squares opened off the main street, some with more imposing stone buildings, and the whole place was more the setting for a rural romance, than the bloody battle field it was about to become. My information that the road was clear even beyond the first bridge was ignored, and when we reached the minor road on the right we turned along it, and soon moved down an alley on the left between two houses, and crossed their back gardens. The women came out to greet their liberators and plied us with cider and small cakes. They didn't realise the misery and destruction that was about to befall them.
The Company had to turn back onto the high street, short of the first river crossing. If only the results of my recce had been noted, there would have been no need travelling, a couple of hundred yards to advance fifty, but then we would have missed the light refreshments.
Once over the first stream the leading platoon dashed up the street towards the main crossing, with the 20mm. cannon advertising its presence. We were passing the square leading to the church, Major Cramphorn pointed to a tall house on the left, and instructed me to put a machine gun in an upstairs room and cover the way forward. I waited for Sergeant Higgins to catch up, and then entered the building via the now missing shop window, and led the way up to the third floor. The place was only a single room wide and just one window overlooked the street. From this high perch I could see beyond the demolitions of the far bridge, and I was able to pin-point the location of the 20mm. gun. In the far corner of a size-able open space which bordered the far bank, was a typical French urinal of metal construction, and the weapon was sited behind it.
Since I could not engage this target. I took a good look at the first floor windows of the rather imposing houses across the square to the rear of the gun. None of these had any glass, and in one a Boche machine gun could be seen, and we quickly engaged it, and then treated all the other windows to several bursts. At least the enemy would think twice before even attempting observation from these buildings. All the time the cannon was blasting away, the tracer flashing across the front and the noise of the firing reverberating from the high walls.
I could see up the road for over 100 yards before it bore away to the left, and was surprised to see an S.P. come round the bend, then the driver had second thoughts and backed slowly out of sight. This was the first time we had seen Boche armour since the morning of D Day.
Nothing very much seemed to be happening. The attack was stalled until the cannon could be dealt with, and I presumed A Company were endeavourung to bring a PIAT into action ------ this was the only weapon in our armoury, capable of taking on such a target. But what a lesson it was in the tactical sighting of weapons. Here a single Boche gunner, was holding up the advance of the complete Division, and was likely to continue doing so, unless his shelter could be destroyed. I didn't envy him, for by the end of the day he must have had the most monumental head ache imaginable, as he fired burst after burst, more in defiance than anything else. No one was foolish enough to expose themselves as a target.
Some-one was coming up the stairs behind us, and I turned to see Bill Price from the other section. "Sergeant, Whalley says will you come quickly Sir? Sergeant Kelly has been wounded." How on earth can that have happened?, was my reaction. Leaving Sergeant Higgins to watch the street, I hurried down to ground level, and then was led along a cloistered walk towards the church, at the end of which lay two bodies. There were no medical orderlies in attendance for both George Kelly and Lance/Corporal Alf Turner were dead.
What a waste of life. There was no necessity for my two NCOs. to be in that part of the town. They had gone along to watch a detachment of the Mortar Platoon as they carried out assault firing (firing without the use of the bi-pod). Clearly this square behind the main street was under observation, and Boche mortar opened up, dropping their bomb accurately around their target. No member of the Mortars was even scratched, but I lost two highly valued NCOs. I was deeply affected by their deaths ------ and I think I have already made it clear, how much I depended on George Kelly, and will always acknowledge the most important part he played in the Platoon's development, and the efficiency we achieved as gunners. Alf Turner too was a thoroughly reliable No.1 (the man who actually fired the gun), and knew the gun as well as he knew his own name. And it was he, who did so much for my morale on the D.Z. with his greeting of "I've just told that cow I've come to liberate her." He was also the last of the original Number 1s. who dropped. Now all the gun teams were the keen, young soldiers, who earlier had been used mainly as ammunition humpers.
There was no time to dwell on these matters, the war had to go on, and I needed another Section Commander. Now there wasn't time to consult anyone. The appointment had to made on the spot and there was only one NCO with the necessary experience. Tommy Lathom was already performing the duties of Section Corporal, with the rank of Lance/Sergeant. He was my choice, and I gave him strict instructions to keep his men under cover until they were needed. However, I think the message had already been delivered by the death of the two NCOs. Some lessons are learnt the hard way.
I made my way back to the section up in the attic. As I had descended the stairs, on the second floor landing, tucked into one of the corners, I had noticed a pile of old clothes. This had struck me as rather strange, since there was nothing else on the landing, but I had thought no more of it. Now as I reached the landing, the clothes were alight, and flames from the blaze had already reached the timbers of the ceiling. We made a hasty evacuation, since the fire spread rapidly, and we dashed through the smoke to reach the ground floor. Incendiary devices had been left in other properties, for once down in the street, flames could be seen coming from the upper windows of other houses. Very quickly the main street was an inferno. The occupants of the houses around the square near the cinema, were endeavouring to save their furniture, by piling it in the middle of the open space. We could neither fight the Boche nor the fire, so we became salvage men, helping the citizens to save what little they could of their possessions.
It was hot, thirsty work. Weatherwise the sun had been shining in a clear blue sky, on a warm late August day, and now the heat from the flames engulfed us. Every house along the street was ablaze, and all we could do was stand and watch, as the fire was completely out of control. The only building not affected in our part of the town, was the beautiful old church, which stood in its own little square off the main highway.
A message must have been passed to Brigade requesting armoured support to destroy the 20mm. cannon, as a troop of the Divisional Armoured Recce Regiment (now re-equipped with Cromwell tanks) and preceded by a bull-dozer arrived in the town. Quickly the rubble of the first bridge was pushed into the stream bed and the armour nudged its way forward, clearly un-happy about entering the blazing town. The leading tank had barely advanced to the cinema square, before lighted timbers from an adjacent building cascaded onto the vehicle, setting fire to the sleeping bags strapped there. That incident convinced the tank commander that further advance was impossible, and they all withdrew.
We had been in the town for several hours now, just ourselves, the Mortars and A Company, and then in a short time it would be dark. Of the rest of the battalion there was no sign, and since we could do nothing where we were, we loaded up the trolleys, and moved back into the western end of the town, expecting to link up with the main force. It wasn't until we came to a field on the outskirts of the town that we contacted them. Clearly they had more important things on their minds, since the supper meal was being served, and I suddenly realised how hungry I was. The last proper meal had been breakfast, eaten while it was still dark, and though by now we always made sure we carried some "hard tack" biscuits, and kept part of the previous day's chocolate to eat with them; there hadn't even been time to nibble these.
We were allotted an area on the far side of the field, dumped our kit, and joined the queue for food. Protective weapon slits were dug before dark, and then we settled down to get some sleep. It rained heavily during the night, and that must have deadened the sound of movement, because when daylight came during the morning stand-to, we discovered that the Rifle Companies had disappeared into the town. We made sure of our breakfast, before setting off to join them.
In the square in front of "le Mairie" we caught up with Rear HQ, and learnt that during the night, when the fires had died down, Freddie Skeate had taken a patrol over the main stream. He found the far bank deserted. The Battalion were now all in the eastern half of the town, and fighting their way forward. CSM. Roy Parrish, P.T. Sergeant-Major, had come back to collect urgently required 2 inch mortar bombs, and offered to lead Ken Walton and myself to the C.O.
We moved initially through the part of the town where the previous day's fighting had taken place. This was now a smouldering ruin. As we moved forward, the CSM. told us of the hazard which lay ahead. The only means of crossing the main stream of the river Touques was a single girder, eighteen inches wide, and nearly twenty yards long. That was the good news. The bad ----- the girder was under enemy fire. However, he would go first and show us how it was done.
You started running yards short of the girder so that by the time you came to it you had picked up a bit of speed. Don't look down ---- there's a drop of ten feet into the water. Off he went, and we watched as he successfully reached the far bank without attracting enemy fire. Now it was my turn, and I started running as fast as I could. I was on the girder before I realised how narrow it was. My eyes were fixed on the far bank, but I could see the big "kink" in the girder that we had been warned about, coming up fast. A big leap and I was over it, and safely on the far bank. The two of us waited in a ruined building for Ken to cross, and then scrambled through the rubble of the burnt out shells of nearby buildings to where Battalion HQ. was established in the under ground vaults of a bank. The CO was in conversation with a Brigadier wearing the green beret of the Commandos (Brigadier Derek Mills-Roberts, who took command of that formation when Lord Lovat was wounded watching the 12th. Battalion attack on Breville). Once the Brigadier had departed, I received my task for the day --- to cover the valley south of the town, and to watch for any attempt to bring reinforcements into Pont L'Eveque from the east. The mortars were given an identical role.
As we were returning across the girder, I noticed some-one wearing battle-dress, disappear into one of the damaged buildings on the west side of the river. Knowing that the rifle companies were now all over the main stream I thought this figure was a member of the Battalion, keeping out of the battle. I dashed after him into the empty shop. Brigadier Mills-Roberts was relieving himself in the far corner. There was no need to carry out a recce, my previous day's look around, had provided enough information, and I led the platoon to a site on the outskirts of the town, close to where I had looked out over the river valley only the morning before. Here in a little hollow, with the road and stream immediately in front, we set up the guns. While the sections were getting into position, I was able to have a long inspection of the ground to my front. Slightly left beyond Pont L'Eveque, the road climbed upwards along the St. Julien spur, and it was along this stretch of road, any Boche reinforcements would come. But the road was deserted. Not so the railway embankment on the far side of the valley. Enemy were plainly visible moving about, and I reckoned there must be machine guns sited there, covering the open ground (I did not know then, that the previous afternoon the 12th Battalion had made a futile attempt, assaulting across the valley to capture the St. Julien feature). Once the guns were in position, we engaged the positions where I had observed movement, and this in itself resulted in our position being shelled, but caused no casualties.
All enemy movement ceased once we had opened fire, so for the platoon it was a case of watch and wait, and it was late in the afternoon when Major Ford emerged from the buildings to our left, calling for me. From the town, all day had come the sounds of battle, but the orders I now received came as a great surprise. The Battalion were to break off the engagement, retire through positions held by the 7th. Battalion, and then move back west of the town into reserve. I was given my new position on the map, and told to move as soon as we were ready. Withdrawal when in close contact with the enemy, I had always understood, was the most difficult tactical manoeuvre to perform and I thought the Platoon would be used to provide covering fire for the move to the rear of the forward troops. So I asked if the machine gunners could help in any way? "No" I was told "my only problem now is to find sufficient transport to move the stretcher bound wounded. You get going as soon as you can," the 2i/c added.
The guns were out of action and on our way to the R.V. in double quick time, and I left Sergeant Whalley to guide the Platoon. Taking the Platoon motor cycle, I set off to try and find transport to help move the wounded. Not far back I drove into an area where a Royal Marine Commando were resting, and there were several jeeps and trailers parked under the trees. Before I had finished making my request for help to their officer, one of the drivers got to his feet, started up his vehicle, and pulled up alongside me. We drove back into the town together, through the ranks of the withdrawing Rifle Companies, and right up to the main bridge. The last of the wounded was being strapped across the bonnet of a Field Ambulance jeep. It was Malcolm Town ---- he looked ghastly. There wasn't a vestige of colour in his face, but he was un-aware of what was going on, since he was heavily sedated. Bad as he looked: he was back in action within a few days. I thanked my Marine driver, and made my way back with the Battalion HQ party. We had been in close contact with the Boche for the best part of 36 hours, and gained our first experience fighting in built up areas, and now knew that the Vickers was not a suitable weapon for such battles. Again, as at Putot, the 13th. had born the brunt of the fighting, and the casualties had been heavy, but there were only two among the Officers. Cyril Bailey was wounded by mortar fire, and never re-joined us. Nor did our other casualty "Steamer" Boyle, the non-para. re-inforcement Lieutenant from the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Our rest lasted for less than 24 hours. During the night, the Boche pulled out of the town and the 7th. started chasing him up the road to Pont Audemer. Consequently the 13th. were ordered to move forward as right flank protection to 7. It was clearly a hurried move, since there was no time to issue detailed large scale maps of the route we were to advance over. All we had, were the standard 1/50000 of the area, and these were lacking in detail. At the briefing, the route was read out by Leslie Golding, and it was obvious that once clear of the built-up area, the Battalion would be moving via secondary roads and tracks, of which according to our maps there was no shortage. He kept reeling off track junctions where the column would turn right or left, and I was following the route with difficulty. Then I failed to recognise one of the turnings before the next one was given, so I gave up trying to follow our proposed route. After all, I would be moving with the Recce Group, with the Platoon sandwiched between the two rear companies.
The Battalion moved back on to the main road, and plodded slowly down into Pont L'Eveque, now strangely quiet compared with the racket of the two previous days. Movement through the town was slowed by the lead company's crossing of the girder, and so there was plenty of time to look around and observe the destruction the fighting had caused. Once over the first stream of the river all the buildings bordering the main street were completely gutted by the fire and were just empty shells compared with the fine shops and houses of 48 hours ago. The centre of the town was just a wilderness of rubble; the skeleton outlines of former homes and businesses, and for what purpose had this obscene horror been perpetrated upon the civilian population of this pleasant Norman community. The bridges had already been destroyed, and that we conceded as a legitimate delaying tactic, and our advance was further delayed by the command of the river bank established in the siting of the 20mm. cannon. So why the fires? We had all read about the scorched policy of the Russians, and admired them for their actions in deliberately destroying their own properties in the face of the German advance. But for the Boche to use similar methods with French property, thus bringing misery and hardship to the civilian population, was beyond our comprehension, and angered us intensely.
I detached myself from the Recce group when we reached the girder, and waited for the Platoon to arrive, since crossing this obstacle would mean unloading the trolleys, man-handling guns, ammunition etc. across, and then re-loading before we were ready to continue the advance. I could envisage the Battalion disappearing into the distance, and the Machine Gunners ignorant of where they had gone. Not that I was any more in the picture than they were, since I had failed to follow the route on the map when attending the "O" Group. Bill Grantham, O.C. B Company, stopped as well, as his Company were the rearguard, and I thought "Thank Heavens for that ------ he'll know the route for us to follow".
As quickly as possible the trolleys were unloaded, and we began to ferry the stores forward, but it meant several trips for each individual, and our actions were recorded by an official war photographer. This was the only time in the whole of my battle experience, that I even saw one such member of the press, and at this stage of the fighting, we were not exactly in the front line. In the meantime, A and C Companies and the Battalion Command Group disappeared from view, and once the trolleys of both the Mortars and ourselves were re-loaded, the advance continued.
Ken Walton and I now moved with Bill Grantham and his Advance H.Q., in the rear of his leading platoon, and when clear of the built-up area we came to a road junction, all movement came to a halt. It soon became evident that I was not the only one who had failed to follow the directions regarding the route ----- none of us had. My confusion about map references had been shared, and like me they too had said "We'll be following the rest so why worry?"
Indian scout fashion, the road surface was inspected to see in which direction the main body had turned, and this system was adopted at a couple more track junctions, before we were completely sure we were on the correct route. We were now moving in an easterly direction, along a broad track ---- you could not call it a road since the surface was of local crushed stone, but it was well maintained, and adequate for the local farm traffic, which normally were its only users. All efforts to contact Battalion on the wireless were thwarted by the high hedges on either side of the track, but we knew we were moving in the right direction. Occasionally through gaps in the hedge, it was possible to look down to the left into the bottom of the shallow valley, where ran the major road along which the 7th. Battalion had advanced. But we never saw any sign of them or of any other military activity. We marched for the best part of an hour with only the sounds of marching feet, the murmur of conversation, and the occasional call of encouragement to the trolley pullers. The silence was finally broken by the rapid unmistakable chattering of a Spandau. Some-where not too far ahead, the 7th. had run into trouble along their axis, and soon their Brens also opened up. Not long afterwards Leslie Golding came back looking for us. The Battalion he informed us were a mile ahead, and the C.O. wanted the support weapons forward as quickly as possible.
Fortunately just at that moment, B Company re-established wireless contact, and heard control calling for all "Sunrays" (code name for commanders at all levels) to assemble in the house immediately above the second "n" in Colonne. Here was another example of the haste in which we had been scrambled to carry on the advance ------ we had not been given the details, which changed daily, of the map reference code. Now it was clear that the 7th. were held up on the approaches to Les Otiers-sur-Colonne, and it was a lucky for the Battalion "O" Group, that no enemy listening service was operating on our part of the front, or else my story might have ended at this point. We stopped to have a look at our maps, hoping to identify the location of the rendez-vous for the "O" Group. There was a gate-way into a field close by, and leaning on the gate, set our maps, which confirmed the location of a building above the second "n" in Colonne, but no path lead to the house --- or it wasn't marked on the maps we had. However we were able to identify the property on the ground, and it lay perhaps half a mile from our present position in the valley bottom.
Freddie Skeate was instructed to take the Company and the two Support Weapons Platoons and link up with the rest of the Battalion. The four of us would take the more direct route across the open fields. Sounds of battle were still coming from the direction of the village, but there were no visible signs of the engagement. We moved in an informal body across a grassy meadow, and were about to negotiate the crossing of a barbed wire fence, when a sniper opened up from the far side of the valley. No one was hit but it wasn't very pleasant out in the open, and faced with a fence to cross. Without any hesitation we ran for cover in a small copse only yards to our right, and threw ourselves down. Some one said "Where's Ken?". He had only recently joined the Battalion as a reinforcement, and clearly had not been under sniper fire before. In attempting to roll under the bottom strand of wire, he had managed to get his small pack caught in the strand, and was struggling to free himself. There must have been armour supporting the 7th. and one of the tanks had located the sniper's position. A long burst of tracer was directed into the straw roof of a small building directly across the valley. As I ran back to help free Ken, the firing stopped when the straw was set a-light. I put my foot under the bottom strand, pulled up and at the same time grabbed hold of his small pack with both hands, and tugged as hard as I could. There was the sound of tearing cloth, but I pulled him clear and we ran back into the shelter of the copse. Ken was non too pleased -- his smock was badly torn, and my laughing over the incident did nothing to improve his temper.
The sounds of fighting died away as we doubled the rest of the way to the RV, which proved to be a delightful country villa, surrounded by trees and set in well maintained gardens. The rest of the "O" Group were already assembled, but of the occupants of the house, there was no sign. We gathered in a room at the front of the house. It was pleasantly furnished, and there were enough chairs for everyone to have a seat. On a side table were several bottles of wine and glasses on a tray. Our party had just run the best part of half a mile, and Bill Grantham suggested we quench our thirst by opening the wine. To begin with the C.O. decided we must wait until the owners of the house returned, and started to give his briefing, but after a few minutes he stopped, saying "Perhaps it would be a good idea to have a drink". A corkscrew had been provided, and soon we were all sitting there with a glass of delicious, refreshing white wine in our hands. It really was the most amazing scene ------ ten be-grimed, heavily armed officers in their dirty, scruffy battle-dress and smocks; sitting down in a country house drawing room, sipping their wine. Then another little bizarre event was added to the unreality of the occasion.
The front door had been left open, and foot steps were heard on the gravel path, and some one entered the house. An elegant, middle aged lady appeared in the doorway, and we all stood up. She took in the scene immediately, and before anyone could speak greeted us in good English, "I'm so glad you have helped yourselves. The wine was meant for you, our liberators, and if some one would be kind enough to pour a glass for me, I will join you, in a toast to victory". What a gracious lady she was. We felt like guilty school boys, caught scrumping apples, but she insisted we were her guests, and her house was at our disposal. It became Battalion H.Q, and the rest of the Battalion were deployed around it in defensive positions, where we dug in for the night.
Again our rest was only of 24 hours duration, and we were on the move again on next day. Intelligence reported that the bridge over the River Risle (a tributary of the Seine) at Pont Audemer was still standing and a rapid advance could seize it before the Boche rear guards had a chance to cause its demolition. Consequently in the half light of the morning of 26th., following a hastily consumed breakfast, we set off on an early "road walk/run" towards our objective. It was months since we had attempted any physical activity as strenuous as this, and the pace was beginning to tell, when a welcome halt was called. The road ahead was blocked by the demolition of a bridge which carried the railway over the road before it disappeared into a tunnel. Here we passed through the 12th. Battalion, and as the Recce group awaited their turn, to clamber over the demolitions, two immaculately dressed R.A.F. officers rolled up in a jeep. Seemingly the rail tunnel had been home for a German long range howitzer, and rocket firing Typhoons had been given the task of sealing the gun in the tunnel prior to D Day. These two observers had come along to assess the effect of the operation. I don't know how successfully the R.A.F. had dealt with the gun, but they had made a first rate job of blocking the road.
Once through the demolitions, there was a straight run to Beuzeville, which had already been occupied by units of 3 Brigade following a stiff fight for the town. There were no signs of the battle, and the population were out in force, but they took no notice of us. In the main square, they were far too busy dealing out rough justice to local females who had associated with their hated conquerors. It seemed as if all the inhabitants had turned out, to jeer and cheer, as the unfortunate victims were shorn of their locks. They took no notice of us at all, and our minds were set on reaching Pont Audemer as quickly as possible.
Clear of the houses we galloped along the open road, turning right as we entered the valley of the Risle. Now there were no signs of any other forces, friend or foe, and by mid-morning were on the outskirts of the town. In three hours we had covered 12 kilometres or more, and considering the last three months had been spent for the most part, standing around in defensive weapon slits, wasn't bad going.
Our forced march had been in vain ----- the river crossing had been demolished. Ordered to disperse off the road ------ for we were under observation from the high ground on the eastern bank of the river ------- the Mortars and Machine Guns spread themselves out around an orchard, and I and my two section commanders went down to the riverside on a recce. I had been given orders to find a position from which the guns could support an assault crossing. That little task carried out, we returned to the shelter of the orchard, where the two platoons were resting under the trees.
The ground rose gradually from the river, and a stream ran along one side of the orchard. Over the centuries, a deepish gulley had been cut in the hillside. Since there had been no time earlier in the morning, on my return I said "Everybody, wash and shave" --- a routine which was strictly enforced. Soon we were all along the stream bed carrying out our daily ablutions.. The Mortars did likewise, but the Boche, in what turned out to be his final gesture of defiance, started to shell the area. We all hugged the ground at the bottom of the gulley, especially when a salvo landed in the orchard just behind us. I felt a sharp jab in my right elbow, and pulled out a slightly larger piece of shrapnel than the one at Putot. But I was the only one who had received even the smallest of cuts.
Ablutions completed, we started to climb back into the orchard, when there was a cry of "Look at that dozy bugger", and the caller pointed towards a tree, where a member of the Mortars was apparently fast asleep, propped against a tree trunk. "Wakey, wakey" was the universal cry, but he slumbered on. Someone went nearer, and then called out. "He's dead" ----- indeed. he was. There was not a mark on his body, and he would not have known "what hit him". Apparently exhausted by the forced march, he had fallen fast asleep, propped against one of the apple trees. He was one of the re-inforcements who had joined us after the Putot fighting, and was not battle hardened like most of us were by now, and so he paid the price. But I couldn't help wondering what the casualty list might have been, had I not ordered that wash and shave, since at least four shells landed in our orchard.
Unknown to us at the time, no units of 6th Airborne should have been in the town. 48 Infantry Division had been given the task, but General Gale thought his division were better placed to seize the place before the Boche could destroy the bridge. Hence our forced march, and how we roared with laughter, when the General himself told us about his deliberate "dis-obedience" of orders, and his opposite numbers remark "Richard, you've pinched my bloody town!"
Later in the day I was a member of an advance party which went back to the village of Genneville, to arrange billets there for the Battalion, as the Division had moved into Corps reserve. The bulk of the unit slept in the barns and lofts, with the officers billeted individually in local houses. That night for the first time since we had landed in Normandy, almost three months previously, we were able to sleep safe in the knowledge that our rest would not be disturbed. For the first time we were out of range of the enemy guns.
As I have said, officially we were in Corps reserve, but a few mornings later I was called from a game of football, to attend an O Group and learnt that a last we were on our way back to England. Our last week in France was a very relaxed affair. The weather was good, and the village itself deep in the Norman countryside. Three times the platoon left its billets ------- firstly to search an area of woodland where deserters from the German army had been reported in hiding, but we found nothing. The second was much more enjoyable --- a visit to the port of Honfleur, with its picturesque harbour and old buildings, plus its bars and estaminets. But to me the last was the most enjoyable -------- a hot shower and a complete change of clothing at the Mobile Bath Unit.
I was particularly lucky with my billet. My hostess was the Mayors secretary, and she lived with her husband, in a pretty little cottage set in an orchard bordering a country lane. Nadette and Raoul, were not natives of Genneville, but had been forcibly evacuated there, when the Boche had commandeered their small family hotel, which they ran in one of the coastal resorts. As was to be expected Nadette was an excellent cook, and in addition Raoul was a trained butcher. All the local farmers were celebrating their liberation, and every evening he would return with a prime cut of meat, varying his choice from day to day. Consequently each day I ignored Army rations, and enjoyed traditional Normandy dishes ------ menus such as were only dreamed of in war time Britain. But the highlight of the week was "la grande fete" which we organised to thank the villagers for their hospitality.
For three days, the members of the Battalion sacrificed their daily ration of cigarettes, sweets and chocolate, and on the last night of our stay invited all the local inhabitants to the celebrations in the village school. They came from miles around, and it just was not possible to fit them all into the room, and consequently there were as many outside as in. The "goodies" were laid out on a large table just inside the door, and in five minutes the table was completely cleared. Colonel Luard made a carefully prepared speech in French, to which the Mayor responded, and then presented the C.O. with a bouquet. Optimistically, dancing was next on the programme, and from somewhere musical instruments had been obtained, and the Battalion dance band (in which Alf Head of the Gunners was the pianist) struck up the first waltz, but dancing was out of the question. Earlier in the evening, relations of Nadette and Raoul, whom they hadn't seen since the invasion had turned up. They all came to the party, but they now returned to the cottage. Several of us moved outside to escape the crush, and then some-one suggested that Genneville's single estaminet might be deserted on account of the fete. It was only just across the road, and on arrival, I found several other Gunners had thought likewise. Fortified by tots of Calvados (I can't remember anything else being available), we reminisced together over the events of the last three months, thankful that we had come through our ordeals unscathed, but remembering also our comrades who would never make the return journey. On returning to the cottage, I found they had been waiting for my return before cutting a large celebratory cake, which one of the cousins had brought.
I did not get much sleep that night, for we were on the move early next morning, and the entire village turned out to wave us farewell as we marched away to meet up with the transport. The RV with the trucks was at the nearest main road junction, and here on a wide grass verge, we had to leave behind the four Vickers guns, which had served us so well. What a tale they could have told ----- but I made certain that we kept the dial sights. For now like "Cheshire" Kelly, I knew how much more use could be made of the guns, when these instruments were available, and the Platoon trained in their use.
Our destination was the small town of Arromanches, where the first of the British seaborne landings had been made, and which was now the site of a "Mulberry" artificial harbour. The route to begin with was the reverse of the axis of our advance, and so was lined with memories for us all. Two new Bailey bridges spanned the river in the centre of Pont L'Eveque, but nothing could hide the senseless, wanton destruction of the place. Next we came to Putot, and that terrible hillside of slaughter. But the place slept in peace once more --- and has done for the last fifty years and more. Though they have not forgotten, and our reception there each June is not bettered anywhere else. Back up the hill into Troarn went the convoy, through the trees of "le Bois de Bavent" and the cider apple orchards to the brickworks, followed by the final run down from the ridge into Ranville itself. Here was one final surprise. Set in the wall at the cross roads, where we slowed to turn along the road to Caen, was a newly erected stone plaque, dedicated to all members of the 13th. killed during the campaign, and immortalising our achievement in liberating the first village in Normandy. I am sure the route had been deliberately selected to take us back through the scenes of our battles, and leave us all with a pride in what 6th. Airborne had accomplished.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the transit camp on the cliffs overlooking Arromanches and its man made harbour. The camp itself was a tented one, and we spent just the one night there. Next morning, I'm pretty sure it was Sunday, Padre Whit Foy held a short service, where "Now thank we all our God" was sung with great emotion and we received orders to embark in late afternoon. Since the crossing would take more than 24 hours and there would be no catering facilities on board ship, we were to pair off with a partner, and after the mid-day meal would be issued with rations for the journey home. One man was to receive a tin of bully beef the other a packet of hard biscuits. The Battalion cooks had been assisting the camp staff, and Sergeant Shaw volunteered to issue rations. I paired with Ken Walton and were among the last to be served. A very apologetic Cook Sergeant explained "I've only tinned fruit and evaporated milk left" -------- he had almost emptied the ration store. Ken got a tin of blackberries, while my prize was the tinned milk. This of course was in addition to the bully and biscuits.
Back to Larkhill
It was late afternoon before we formed up to march down to the boat, firstly through the town and then on to the 1000 yard long floating causeway at the end of which was waiting a tank landing craft. The wide ramp was already lowered. We marched straight on to the boat, and once we were all aboard, chugged out into the man-made artificial harbour where several merchant ships rode at anchor. By now the wind was rising, and the sea was quite choppy, so the sail out to the American built Liberty Ship SS. "Empire Javelin" proved a rough one. This was to be our transport home, and as we manoeuvred alongside, the deck was some thirty feet above us. From the ship's rails, several scramble-nets were hanging; and these were our means of access to the deck. To troops trained in seaborne assaults, this would have been childs-play, but to us air-borne land-lubbers, it was yet another challenge to be faced. Many veterans to whom I have spoken over the years, are in agreement, that it was one of the most hazardous of the entire Normandy campaign.
All the time the sea was getting rougher and rougher as we waited our turn, with the flat bottomed TLC was continuously rising and falling several feet. To begin with, you clambered up onto the 18 inch wide platform running round just above head height, and there you stood balanced, with a small gap between the two vessels as they heaved up and down. At the top of the upward surge, you jumped for the net, hoping to grab a firm hold with both hands, at the same time finding footholds as well. Those carrying rifles or Stens, could sling their weapons over one shoulder, leaving both hands free, but the unfortunate Bren gunners, had to hold on to the gun with one hand, leaving them with one hand only to grasp the net. Once on the netting, it was an easy upward climb, and those already on board, came down to give a hand to any strugglers.
To the relief of us all, the Battalion embarked without any mishaps, and once on board were directed down to the troop decks. Here we found tiers of wire-meshed bunks, selected a bed each, and scarcely had we removed our equipment, when some comedian took over the ship's public address system. "All men on such and such mess decks, are to attend first sitting supper, which is now being served". We thought it a joke in very poor taste, and ignored the call. Five minutes later the call was repeated, with instructions for locating the mess decks, and reminding us that this was the final call. After a bit of a search we found the mess: there were tables with white clothes and cutlery set out, and a civilian steward to guide us to our seats. "I presume you all be having the roast turkey?", he enquired: and roast turkey it was, with all the trimmings.
Some time during the night, the convoy sailed, but we were unaware of this until, roused next morning. But it was not until we heard the "breakfast" call that we realised we were sailing through a Channel gale. Never-the-less we were able to enjoy a "full English breakfast "and return along the deserted upper deck to our sleeping quarters. As I descended the metal stairway, the hot, fetid atmosphere of the lower deck really hit me. My stomach started to heave, and I only just made the lavatory bowl, before I lost my breakfast. We spent the greater part of the day flat out on the bunks, clinging tightly to the sides to avoid being tossed onto the floor. Late in the day, the storm seemed to be blowing itself out, and I went out on deck for some fresh air. The nearest vessel in the convoy was the Liverpool to Isle of Man ferry the "Ben-my-Chree", whose passengers appeared to be having an even rougher ride than we were, as the entire convoy ploughed its way through the gigantic waves. I'll swear to this day, that at one stage, I looked completely under this ship as it was poised above a deep trough between waves. None of us went for any further meals, but Ken and I shared our tinned blackberries and tinned milk for supper. I learnt later that it was the 12th. Battalion that travelled on the "Ben-my-Chree", and they, poor sods, had to survive on their bully beef and biscuits.
Next morning all was calm once more, and as we made our way to breakfast noted that we were sailing up the Solent towards Southampton. We also noted that the barrage balloon attached to the stern of the ship had blown away during the storm. There was a military band to greet us, and across the quayside awaited the train. The ladies of the local WVS served us with tea and provided each man with a paper bag containing sandwiches, a sausage roll and an apple. We had virtually lived for months in apple orchards, but it was very kind of them.
The train finally pulled into Bulford side-ings, where one of the lady volunteer who ran the canteen on the ranges greeted the C.O. very enthusiastically. An unknown voice called out "Why don't you kiss her". He promptly did so, to the resounding cheers of the rest of us.
The trucks awaited us, and not many minutes later we rolled once more onto the square at Newcome Lines, Larkhill. We were home. On the 25th. May, 41 gunners embussed for RAF Keevil, now just 13 climbed down to the ground. Thirteen others would never return. As the Bingo caller says ---- thirteen --- unlucky for some.
CONTINUE TO PAGE 2.
See also: Private Farmer.
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