Private Harry W. Clark

 

Unit : No.24 Platoon, "D" Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

 

The morning of the 5th was much brighter and we were informed that it was 'on' for that night. The company had a day of rest. Sleep, however was out of the question, we were all too keyed up. A service was held in the afternoon and very well attended it was. All the Company sinners, including myself, were present. That evening about 8pm we donned our equipment, loaded our personal weapons and boarded the vehicles which were to transport us to the airfield. When we arrived at Tarrant Rushton dusk was just falling. I was amazed at the large number of people around the drome. We drove direct to the Horsa and sat on the grass beside them chatting to the glider pilots. The pilots appeared somewhat dismayed at the weight we were carrying. Some kind soul appeared with a large dixie of tea, on tasting it we were highly delighted to detect a good mixture of rum in it. We entered the Horsa at 10.30pm amid cries of 'Good luck!' from various bodies. The atmosphere in the glider was somewhat like a London tube train in the rush hour. We were in good heart. [Major] John Howard came along and wished us well, we could all feel the emotion in his voice. The glider doors were closed. We now sat in a world of our own. The first Horsa was airborne at 2259 hrs. The second, of which I was a passenger was up at approximately 2300 hrs. The remaining Horsas followed at one minute intervals. The tug planes were Halifax Bombers of 298/644 Squadrons. The success of our mission was now in the hands of the tug crews and of the six pairs of glider pilots.

 

The flight across the Channel took just over an hour. We encountered very light turbulence. The platoon were in great spirits, singing their heads off until we crossed the French coast. Suddenly we cast off from our Halifax tug. We were now on our own and there was no going back. The time was approximately 0019 hrs on the 5/6 June 1944. We knew that our glider path would take us a further three and a half minutes. Lt. David Wood, the Platoon Commander stood up and opened the glider front entrance. The rear door was also flung open. With about sixty seconds to touchdown, Lt Wood shouted 'Brace for impact!' We linked arms and prepared for the inevitable. After what seemed like an eternity we hit Mother Earth with a splintering crash. The very violence of hitting the ground threw us forward, breaking our safety harnesses. I was propelled through the wrecked side of the Horsa to land flat on my back, several other members of the platoon were in a mass of bodies alongside me, including Lt David Wood, still clutching his canvas bucket of grenades. Within seconds we had formed up and moved off towards the bridge. We heard small arms fire. A grenade exploded and a German flare went up. 25 Platoon, commanded by Lt Den Brotheridge had crash landed a short time before and had gone hell for leather across the bridge and were now attacking the outer defences on the Bénouville side. We, being the second platoon to land, had the task of taking out the inner defences. As we neared the bridge we passed the shattered wreck of the 25 Platoon glider, Major John Howard, the Company Commander, had been a passenger in this one. He had set up Company HQ at a pillbox on the eastern bank. By the time we reached the road that crossed the bridge the sound of heavy firing and grenade explosions were heard from the Bénouville side. My platoon, 24, were given the order to attack our objective. We moved forward across the road shouting 'Baker, Baker,' which was the platoon identification signal. In the darkness one relied on this call-sign to identify friend from foe.

 

As we crossed the road we came immediately under fire from automatic weapons in the trenches to our left front. Myself and Cpl 'Claude' Godbold threw our stun grenades and two figures were seen running towards the canal. Further firing was heard from our right front. We took up a defensive position in the captured trench. Shortly afterwards we heard a burst of LMG [Light Machine Gun] fire to the right of our position and prepared ourselves for the inevitable counter-attack. A few moments later I heard Cpl Godbold calling for me, it appeared that the last burst of fire had wounded Lt Wood, Sgt Leather and Pte Chatfield who was the radio operator. 'Claude' Godbold was now our Platoon Commander. I was to take over the 38 set radio and act as his runner. The heavy firing had now ceased, just a sporadic shot or two could be heard. We had our bridge and word soon arrived that the Orne Bridge was captured. One glider had gone astray which left us short of thirty men. This left us with about 135 men to defend the two bridges until our relief came from the 7th Parachute Battalion who were to drop with the 5th Para Brigade at 0050 hrs. Their drop-zone was to the north of Ranville and we did not expect to see them until at least 0200 hrs. Several probing attacks were made by the enemy and the sound of the vehicles was heard from the Ranville area. We stayed in a tight position and waited. The company had been ordered to capture the bridges intact and to hold them until relieved. We had achieved the first part, now we were into the second act. Soon the sound of heavy formations of aircraft was heard. The 3rd and 5th Para Brigades began their drop to the east of our position. We were no longer alone in France.

 

By now the Germans had their counter-attack well under way on the west side of the canal, the tempo of firing was stepped up and tracked vehicles were heard in the vicinity of the Le Port road junction. An anti-tank weapon was carried forward by Sgt 'Wagger' Thornton and with his first shot he put a tank out of action. The ammunition in this tank began to explode and catch fire. This, coupled with the cries and screams of the trapped tank commander did little good for our nerves. The battle was well and truly engaged. We had little or no idea what to expect from the enemy. If he had armour in the area we were in for a very rough battle indeed. At about 0200 hrs Cpl Godbold asked me to accompany him over to the west side of the bridge. The situation was looking tough. The enemy were pressing in greater numbers. We were to move one of 24 Platoon's sections across to the west bank to cover the area looking towards Le Port. By this time (0245 hrs) the leading elements of a much depleted 7th Para Battalion were taking up position in and around Bénouville. The time was now about 0300 hrs, and the situation was getting more desperate by the minute, Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin of the 7th Para was now in command of the bridge area.

 

Shortly after 0300 hrs the section returned to the east bank of the canal and resumed their position in the captured enemy trenches. I settled down behind a pill box and started to get a brew going. It was like nectar and filled me with hope. The battle was raging all around us now but with six Parachute Battalions within a few miles of us we felt more secure. The first sign of dawn was now in evidence, with it came heavy renewed attacks on the 7th Para positions just over the canal. As dawn broke we stood to, in expectation of heavy counter-attacks from infantry and tanks. This situation never happened. The sound of Naval bombardment on the beaches reminded us that the sea-borne troops were coming ashore. It was now a question of holding out until relief came. With dawn came another serious problem. Intense sniper fire came down with great accuracy causing a number of casualties among our troops. The bridge was well covered by one very accurate sniper. One ran like hell when crossing to the west side, to dawdle was to invite death. Later in the morning the Division got some support from the navy, 16 inch shells passed over our heads making a noise like an express train. We had a visit from General Gale and Brigadier Poett during the morning, we even got a shout of 'Good morning, chaps' from them.

 

During this period the 7th Para were taking an increasing number of casualties in Bénouville and Le Port. A German patrol boat was spotting coming from the direction of the coast. When it was some 200 yards away Cpl Godbold, myself and Pte Cheesely ran with a PIAT to some cover on the canal bank. We kept a close eye on it. There was no sign of life. The engine was ticking over and someone appeared to be steering it. A wicked looking gun was mounted on the forward deck. At about 50 yards range Cpl Godbold fired a PIAT grenade. It struck the boat just behind the wheelhouse and exploded internally. The boat drifted in to the canal bank. Two very scared Germans appeared from below deck. They were lucky to have survived the blast. We ordered them ashore. The NCO, a blond Germanic type started to argue and shout, so I thumped him on the shoulder with the butt of my rifle and he immediately became meek and caused no further problems. John Howard ordered me to march them down to 5th Para Brigade Headquarters. This entailed a walk of some 1000 yards or so along a stretch of road which was exposed to enemy snipers. All went well until we came to the Orne Bridge where we came under fire. Like myself, the prisoners were reluctant to cross, but it had to be done so we set off at a gallop and arrived safely on the other bank. From there on it was safe going to Brigade HQ. I handed the two prisoners over to an MP Sgt, scrounged a mug of tea and started the return journey back to my Company. I managed it without incident. It was now nearing midday and I was very hungry. I decided to open the 24 hour ration pack, it contained a load of rubbish in the form of soup and oatmeal cubes plus some very hard biscuits. The only items of any use were several cubes of tea, sugar and milk. The remainder was consigned to the Caen canal. It was fortunate that I had hoarded my chocolate ration for 6 weeks. The sounds of battle from the beaches was now more pronounced. Word came through that the Commando Brigades leading elements were in the vicinity. Within a few minutes the wail of bagpipes was heard and Lord Lovat and his piper crossed the canal bridge. It was shortly after 1300 hrs our spirits rose, relief at last.

 

We sat in our trenches and watched the whole Brigade come across the bridge. A number were killed and wounded by very accurate snipers. They had a tough time fighting their way from the beaches and now were on their way to join our Para boys to the north of Ranville. We stayed in a position of defence around the bridges and had a wonderful grandstand view of the 6th Airlanding Brigade's gliders coming over during the evening. We were relieved by troops of the 3rd Division just before midnight on the 6 June.

 

Harry Clark was later moved to No.25 Platoon and participated in the Rhine Crossing on the 24th March 1945. On the 5th April, during the advance to the Baltic, Clark was hit by four bullets and lost his right hand.

 

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