Signalman Harry Read
Unit : "J" Section, 6th Airborne Divisional Signals, attached to Headquarters 3rd Parachute Brigade.
Excerpts from the transcript of an interview of former Signalman Harry Read. The interview was conducted by Bryan Stephenson of the World War II Experience Centre and edited, largely for the sake of clarity, and expanded by the interviewee.
The headings in heavy type and capitals reflect the questions asked by Bryan Stephenson and the flow of the interview.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A MEMBER OF THE 6TH AIRBORNE DIVISION?
While we were doing our training as Operators, Wireless and Line - at this time I would be about eighteen and three quarter years old - a posting on the notice board stated that the Army was in the process of forming another Airborne Division and any volunteers for this form of warfare should put their names forward. I thought it was a good idea. I had often wondered where I would be posted after completing my training and now I was being given a choice. So I volunteered.
Quite soon, I was sent for by the interviewing officer: he was Major Donald of the Royal Corps of Signals who has seen service in North Africa with the 1st Airborne Division. He was the youngest looking Major I had seen thus far and was most impressive. Clearly, he thought he had a hard sell on his hands, although I suppose he used the same spiel with everyone, it went something like, 'You know its more dangerous crossing a road than it is jumping out of an aeroplane.' He went on to say, 'A woman having a baby is in a far more dangerous situation than a man dangling at the end of a parachute,' and I remember laughing and saying to him, 'But it wasn't my intention, Sir, to have a baby, and furthermore I am volunteering. I don't need to be persuaded.' That cut the interview short, and when I completed my training, which was in Prestatyn, North Wales, I was posted to Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain which was being established as the base of the 6th Airborne Division.
The records say that it was on the 2nd of May 1943 that the 6th Airborne Division was inaugurated. Major-General Gale took over as officer commanding on the 7th of May, and it was on the 25th of May that I joined. Understandably, we were few in number and for a time I was the youngest man in the unit. A status I was soon to lose.
On arrival I found that they had recorded me as a volunteer for the Air Landing (glider-borne) Brigade. I was disappointed at this because I had made it clear that I wanted to go parachuting. However, while they were getting their records straight, I had a couple of flights in gliders from Netheravon airfield. In fact, the very first time I ever flew was in a glider and I enjoyed those flights very much. Then, within a matter of days - the early part of June 1943 - a group of us entrained for Chesterfield from which railway station we marched to a stately home known as Hardwick Hall: this being the obligatory physical training centre for all para personnel. The course at Hardwick Hall was make or break time for all aspiring paras.
At this time I was a Signalman. The only rank above Signalman that I held was in Primary Training where I rejoiced in the title, and status of, Unpaid Acting Local Lance-Corporal. It really was quite laughable. I held that exalted rank for a brief period because I had been nominated for Officer Cadet Training. When I was interviewed for this I found that, largely, they were looking for Infantry officers and I didn't wish to serve in the infantry. Had not my Father been wounded and hospitalised twice at Ypres in WW I, and had he not drummed it into me, 'Whatever you volunteer for son, it must not the Infantry?' But, more importantly, I wanted to work with wireless sets and so I said to the interviewing officer, 'Sir, I would like to be an officer but I would like to be an officer in The Royal Corps of Signals,' to which he replied, 'We are not terribly short of officers in The Royal Corps of Signals.' I replied with, 'I would rather stay with the Signals than go through to OCTU to be an officer elsewhere,' and he responded, 'When you get to your unit then you can apply and you can refer to this interview.' When I went to Bulford I was a Signalman, perhaps I should add, a Signalman I remained.
So we went to Hardwick Hall. It was a dogsbody of a journey - what would the distance be, a couple of hundred miles? But in wartime, goods trains took priority over passenger/troop trains, and every journey was of the stop and go variety.
IS HARDWICK HALL IN LANCASHIRE?
No, it's Derbyshire. We eventually got off the train in Chesterfield and had to march the twelve or thirteen miles to the Hall, which wasn't much of a distance really except that the first part of the march was over cobblestones, and it was incredible what marching on those cobblestones took out of all of us. One or two men actually fainted which I thought was quite remarkable. In due course we arrived at Hardwick Hall.
The Hall is a very impressive looking building but we never got inside it. The grounds were extensive and we who were soon to be tested to the limits of our endurance were allocated our places in the bell tents erected for our use. By this time we were all happily aware of the elite nature of the paras and knew that, in the next three weeks we would be subjected to stresses we had never previously experienced. If we completed the course to the satisfaction of the staff, we would move on to the Parachute Training School at Ringway, Manchester, but we knew that a very substantial number would fail the course and be returned to their original units. A smaller number of men would decide that the paras were not for them and would ask to be RTUed.
As you would expect, Hardwick Hall, was a unique experience. Hardly a moment was lost in ensuring that we were thoroughly tested. From 7am to 7pm we were not allowed to walk but had to do everything 'at the double.' Not that that was difficult but the days were tightly scheduled with a variety of physically demanding activities. There seemed to be an unlimited supply of PTIs - Physical Training Instructors - this ensured that those who were putting us through our paces were able to maintain the pressure without difficulty because, at the end of each session, another PTI was wheeled out to maintain the exacting physical regime. It felt unreal in its intensity, but still there was a lot of fun in it. And if, when you got to four o'clock in the afternoon and were saying to yourself, 'Gee, I've managed it,' another PTI Sgt would appear, his job, seemingly, to ensure your demise before tea at five o'clock. After tea, running at the double was not quite so easy, but that was all part of the Hardwick experience. It was survivable. It was a challenge. We were young. It was a young man's job and we were all mates together. We were okay.
However, on the Saturday at the conclusion of the first week I received word that my Father was desperately ill and I was sent for, given a train warrant and put on the train for home. I had been granted nine days compassionate leave and, sadly, my Dad died the day after I arrived. We had his funeral, I did all the other bits and pieces that one is expected to do, and hoped to do, for a widowed Mum, and then I returned to my unit anticipating that I would be back-squadded. As expected, I was interviewed and the interviewing officer said, 'You have two options here. You can either continue with the squad you are in - it will be hard work - but you can continue with it if you like, or we can back-squad you and you will do the full three weeks training.' So I said, 'I would rather stay with my squad, Sir.' I was, therefore, allowed to do this, but it had its demerits. One of which was that my muscles had got slack, and whilst everyone else was riding on the crest of a physical wave I was wallowing in the troughs! Somehow, I got through all right.
WHAT ABOUT THE ACTUAL PARACHUTE TRAINING?
From Hardwick Hall we went to Ringway. Ringway is now Manchester Airport and we did our jump training there. For the first week we leapt out of mock-up aircraft on the ground, learned how to fall, and did all the other related activities in a very large hanger. It was all very interesting. Some men withdrew from the course, possibly discovering that they were uncomfortable with heights. They went back to their units but it all seemed good fun to me. At that time, the standard number of jumps for qualifying for the coveted parachute wings was nine, but we were told that much depended on how urgently they needed reinforcements elsewhere as to whether we did eight jumps or even seven. Well, we did the nine and that seemed much more satisfactory but, while we were there, some of the infantrymen on the course were given their wings after 7 jumps and were posted as reinforcements for the 1st Airborne Division.
Our first two jumps were from a balloon and I didn't find the first one pleasant. The balloon was an ordinary Air Raid Defence Barrage balloon. The original purpose of these balloons was to lift a wire from a truck up to a reasonable height, say, 1000', with the intention of deterring enemy aircraft from attempting low-level attacks. For our jumping purposes, a relatively small wooden structure had been constructed - possible 6 or 7 feet square. In the centre of the base a hole, possible 3' in diameter, had been cut. The four sides to the cage were roughly 3' to 4' high. This cage was suspended from the balloon.
Because, in those days, the War Department could only secure old Whitley Bombers for the use of paratroops, we had to exit these planes in an unusual way. The conversion of these old, smelly and slow machines, consisted of removing the air-gunner's cupola from underneath the fuselage. This removal provided a hole approximately 3' in diameter through which we had to jump. It was not the best way of jumping but, for us, it was the only way. This meant, of course, that the jump from the balloon had to simulate the exit from a Whitley. Regarding the cage and the jump, a maximum of 6 men gathered round the hole: 5 novices and 1 RAF instructor. We leaned as nonchalantly as we could manage on the low sides with this brooding, non-inviting hole at our feet. The instructor tried to lift our morale with some corny jokes that must have fallen on a multitude of unresponsive ears. When the truck engine started and its power was applied to the large cylinder housing the wire, the cage and balloon were able to ascend at a controlled speed. To see, through the hole the land becoming more distant, and to look out over the side at the unfolding landscape, were experiences to savour. When a height of 850' was reached, the balloon stopped, swaying slightly in the breeze. Our big moment had come. We had already received our jumping order and the Sgt repeated the guidance already given. Number 1, sat gingerly on the rim of the hole to make his feet-first exit awaiting the words of command, 'action stations No.1,' then, 'go.' On 'go,' he pushed with his hands, hard enough to allow his parachute pack to clear the rim behind him, but not too hard so as to project himself into the rim opposite, and proceeded to fall 150' as his parachute unfolded. He was followed in turn by numbers 2 to 5 and then the instructor, following tradition scorned the use of the hole, placed his hand on the top of the side, and casually leapt over to record his umpteenth jump.
To be truthful I didn't like the first jump and we had another to do that same evening. When I landed and rolled my chute up and went to where the refreshment truck was I was saying to myself, 'You're not liking this very much Harry. No one would mind if you said you wouldn't do it again,' But I was in a squad of blokes who were much more positive because they were all saying, 'Hey, what a marvellous… oh, super this, super that and super the other,' So I said to myself, 'Well, maybe the next one will be different.' The next one was different; I quite enjoyed it and continued with the course.
IN THOSE NINE JUMPS WERE ANY AT NIGHT?
Yes. Indeed, yes.
APART FROM THE BALLOON JUMPS WERE ALL OTHER JUMPS FROM THE WHITLEY?
Yes. Some time later, the Albemarle, another medium bomber, was made available. It was much roomier than the Whitley and gave a much better flight. The conversion of the Albermarle followed the pattern of the Whitley insofar as it meant the removal of the gunner's cupola which was also on the underside of the fuselage but nearer the tail than in the Whitley. It was a longer cupola than the Whitley's and, when it was removed left a space, shaped like, and about the size of a longish bath. Standing up in the aircraft was not comfortable and the drill for exiting the aircraft was that we bunny-hopped towards the hole, our last hop being through this bath-shaped hole. To an observer, it must have been an amusing sight. It was much to be preferred to the Whitley which had the nickname of 'the flying coffin' because of the long, narrow, box-like shape of the fuselage. I am not tall but the Whitley fuselage, not having been designed for passengers, offered nothing with regard to comfort. It was so cramped that we couldn't stand, and we were seated in jumping order that is to say, our backs were against one side of the fuselage and our feet, quite literally were against the other side. If you can imagine the centrally located jump-hole separating those fore and aft the jump order was, no.1 sat with the hole on his right, no. 2 was on the aft side, the hole on his right also. This meant that, allowing for the width of the hole, they were facing each other. No. 3 was next to and facing no.1, so when he reached the hole, it was on his left. No. 4 was next to no. 2 and facing him, and so the order went through the stick.
On the action stations order, no. 1 swung his legs into the hole and positioned himself to exit, pushing off on the command go, immediately no. 2 swung his legs round and pushed off, by which time no. 3 had moved himself ready for exit and so on. We moved by pushing on the floor to cover the small distance to the dispatch point. Had we sat shoulder to shoulder in the aircraft we would have been inhibited by the lack of room.
We felt quite at ease and much more civilised when the Americans made the C47s (Dakotas) available for us and we could sit on proper seats with our backs to the fuselage, stand up and make our way to the door, put our hands on the door frame and push off - helped by the despatcher - Into the slip stream as if we were in command of the situation.
The Albermarle was used also as a tug for gliders. It was a quite a versatile aircraft as indeed was the Dakota.
BUT YOU GOT YOUR WINGS WITH THE WHITLEY?
WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR RED BERET?
The beret was issued to me when I reported to Bulford on 25th May 1943.
SO YOU WERE, FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES, AN AIRBORNE TROOPER AND STILL HAD THE ROYAL SIGNALS FLASHES ON YOUR SHOULDERS?
Yes, our Royal Corps of Signals flashes were sewn across the top in an arc at the shoulder seam and underneath we had Pegasus. Then underneath that, just in case people didn't understand it said, "Airborne", and of course, the wings came between the Regimental flash on the shoulder and Pegasus.
After Ringway and 14 days leave for completing the course successfully, we went back to Bulford. By this time the Division was growing rapidly and training programmes were being established. We knew from the onset that we were being trained for the invasion of Europe. I became a member of J Section, 6 Airborne Division Signals. J Section was the Signal Section of the 3rd Parachute Brigade; K Section belonged to the 5th Parachute Brigade and L Section to the Air Landing Brigade.
The training grew in intensity as our numbers began to reach the required level. Like much of military service there were high moments of interest and long moments of boredom.
It is, for instance, extremely boring marching twenty-five miles, even more so marching thirty-five miles, and very much more boring marching fifty miles, but we had to do this because we needed to develop the physical resources to do the job properly. And so, we who were signals did the marching; the shooting ranges; the unarmed combat and the basic infantry stuff in case those skills were required of us. But we also had to behave like wireless operators because we had a crucial communications system to run. A variety of factors could impede communications but operator incompetence could not be one of them.
Which leads me to say that in those very early days they actually gave us an option as to the type of wireless set we wanted to work on. Some of the men would be with the Battalions. You know there are three Battalions to a Brigade, and so there were signal representatives at each of them, their responsibility being to link back to Brigade and they operated a set which was called a "Sixty-eight set". It was a man-pack thing. They had the privilege of being full Corporals if they took that job. A number were happy to do that and so they put their stripes up and traipsed around with a voice-only wireless set. My own preference was to be on the set, the larger, morse-code set, that communicated back to Division, to England if necessary and whatever the Brigade Commander chose to do. For example, in the early days of the invasion, not having much in the way of artillery, we were greatly helped with the fire-power of HMS Belfast. When we no longer needed the warship's help I recall sending the Brigadier's thanks to the warship's commander. But, back to the choice of wireless set. I only just squeezed into this little group which was operating this set, because we already had a Corporal, and a Lance-Corporal so I was quite happy to be a Signalman. I was doing what I wanted to do.
Shortly after this choice was made I was sent for by the CO who told me that a note had come via Divisional HQ who were following through on the suggestion that I might apply for a Commission. I hadn't given the earlier interview a great deal of thought, but I didn't want to miss D-Day. It sounds ridiculous, probably stupid of me, but I didn't wish to miss what would probably be one of the truly defining battles of WWII and, if I had gone to OCTU, I would missed it. I thanked the CO for the opportunity and stayed with J Section and never regretted the decision.
THAT WAS AT BRIGADE LEVEL?
Yes. We did all our training with the Brigade. Most of it I thoroughly enjoyed but experiences could be mixed. I recall us doing a couple of jumps with a day in between. We did a night drop on 7th September '43 [dates taken from the record of jumps in my Pay Book] and this posed a number of difficulties. For a start, it was not a good night because there was little or no moonlight. In addition, a new kind of landing flare was being tested which meant that intermittently the sky was flooded with light which dazzled us and then we were in total darkness.
WHEREABOUTS WAS THIS?
On Salisbury Plain. As it turned out we came in lower than we expected although, at the time, we thought we were jumping from the regulation height. Jumping out was no problem but then we were blinded by the flare, then at a loss coping with the darkness followed by, thump, we were on the ground. Because of the flare - which I do not recall being used again - we had no way of gauging where we were in relationship to the ground. I hurt my leg quite substantially with this jump, but some of the men landed in trees, which didn't do them much good either.
The day jump on the 9th, was in the presence of The Princess Royal, who was the Colonel-in-Chief of The Royal Corps of Signals. The weather conditions posed problems. In fact, the wind was gusting hard enough for the jump to have been cancelled but, with royalty present the judgement of the powers-that-be was probably influenced in favour of the jump. I suppose fifty or sixty of us did the drop. I had two unusual passengers with me on the jump. In those days we still used carrier pigeons and in a box with two compartments secured to my chest, I carried two of them. If I said the jump was horrendous it would be an exaggeration, but the weather wasn't conducive to a good jump. When we hit the ground we hit hard enough to believe that we bounced. Then the wind got into our chutes and we were dragged along the ground. There we were being dragged along at an unseemly rate of knots, pulling like mad on our lower rigging lines to spill the air out so that we could stop and get out of our harnesses. My left knee objected to the force of that fall and I had the feeling that I was in some kind of trouble. Quite what the two pigeons thought of all this I do not know, but they functioned all right when they were released for the entertainment of our royal guest.
DID YOU HAVE THE INJURY SEEN TO?
I went to the MO but I can't remember what he said. Probably I was given a fortnight excused parades, and that would have its compensations. I would enjoy watching the others going off on their thirty five-mile march while I was keeping the signal office going. But when it came to D-Day, and as I was landing (I don't mind filling in the details of that later,) I realised what an idiot I was to go into action with a gammy leg. As it happened I had a soft landing because I landed in water, but if I had landed on something hard, or uneven ground or something like that, I could have been left there waiting to be picked up or not to be picked up as the case may be. In the lead up to D-Day I suppose I ought to have done something about my injury. But what if they had sent me back to my unit and I missed the big day? So I soldiered on with a leg that was saying, 'What you are doing is not very smart,' and I did my route marches and everything else required of me but I was always conscious of the problem lurking in my knee joint.
However - back tracking to the preparation for D-Day, this was really quite thorough. We went on a variety of schemes and they were mostly enjoyable. They were tough, they were rough but they were enjoyable. I remember the last one we had before D-Day: we went into the Somerset area, the area having been carefully chosen because the terrain was much like the area we would be working in after D-Day. There was a jump associated with this exercise although our wireless team, with our more substantial set and other equipment, travelled by Horsa Glider. The rain was torrential. We bivouacked - you know, a couple of ground sheets put together to make a two-man tent. Sheltering in this very basic way meant that we didn't sleep very well. As we moved during the day we used one of those little hand trolly contraptions. It was a tubular frame with a canvas body which held our wireless and other bits as well. A couple of us pulled the trolley and the third man watched the back end because we kept slipping down wet slopes and it was not at all pleasant. We were drenched through, and in the middle of all that it suddenly occurred to me it was my birthday. I was twenty that day, 17th May. What a way to spend your birthday!
WHAT ABOUT THE FINAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR D-DAY?
We were each given a 36 hour pass the week-end before we went into the special concentration areas prior to D-Day. A pass of this duration was not too bad for those who lived reasonably near to Bulford, such as London, but it was of little value to those of us who lived further away. It was a sore point with us that we had never been able to take advantage of such passes whereas the London lads had. We decided, therefore, that we would travel home, spend a few hours with our families and take whatever punishment came our way for being AWOL. We reckoned that we would be punished immediately because we were needed on D-Day and we assumed that the punishment would not be too severe for the same reason. We reckoned correctly.
Some of the lads were picked up by the MPs but I was one of those who reported back without the aid of the Military Police. We were all charged and lost three day's pay and were awarded three days confined to barracks. It was not too much to pay for a week-end with our families.
Our next stage was to go to an appointed concentration area. We went to Down Ampney for this important few days.
WHERE IS DOWN AMPNEY?
Not very far from Oxford. We were accommodated on a farm prepared for this purpose. We lived in bell-tents and were well looked after. No contact was allowed with the outside world for security reasons. Shortly after settling in, briefing sessions began to ensure that each man knew his own role and, also, what the overall strategy was. It was all very impressive but also salutary. The crucial nature of many of the objectives conveyed a health warning, 'whatever the cost, this objective must be achieved,' Obviously, 'whatever the cost,' related to our lives rather than just equipment.
Like most young men I was convinced of my immortality but, as I looked round my friends during those briefings, I realised that my/our conviction was ill-founded. Some of us, perhaps many of us, did not have long to live. Put it down to a youthful lack of perception if you like but, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason why we had so many wireless operators in the section, was because our battle-hardened leaders knew there would be casualties, even heavy casualties, and hoped that enough men would be left standing to ensure success.
I remember leaving the first briefing session and finding a quiet place where I could come to terms with what I had just heard. For some time I sat and meditated on my own role in the unfolding drama and how I would react in the stresses of battle. Would I do my duty well or would I be a liability, even cowardly? Please God! Not that! I would rather die than be a coward. Having come this far, I promised myself I would not shrink from doing whatever was required of me.
I had a strong Christian (Salvation Army) family background with loving parents and two brothers and a sister. It was a family to be proud of. My late father had served almost four years in France with the Green Howards in WW 1. My mother had served in a munitions factory at the same time. My older brother was a Captain in the Royal Artillery serving in North Africa, my older sister was serving in the WAAF, and my younger brother was still at school. I was privileged to belong to and be loved by such a family.
At the risk of sounding mawkish I had a deep love for my country also. To me, it was a country to be proud of but, was I willing to die for it? Calmly and thoughtfully I settled the issue, 'Yes, I was willing to die - but not cheaply. If necessary I would sell my life dearly.'
D-Day was originally scheduled for 5th June and we had our kit all ready. We were to be taken to the airfield late afternoon/early evening so that nothing would delay the intended take-off.
WHICH AIRFIELD DID YOU TAKE-OFF FROM?
I don't recall the name but it was not far from Down Ampney. With D-Day being on the 5th June, we would be flying out very late on the 4th. Some time during the afternoon however, it was announced that, because of adverse weather conditions, D-Day would be deferred for 24 hours. At least, this postponement meant that a substantial number of men would live for another day. Instead of the 4th, it was late afternoon on the 5th of June when we left our concentration area for the airfield.
On arrival we saw this magnificent array of Dakotas in take-off order awaiting us. After the inevitable hanging around we emplaned and sat in our appointed jumping order. I was number 12. The seat next to me had been booked for a member of the press corps but he never turned up. Perhaps he was fearful of the number 13 but his absence gave me a little more room. As we settled into our seats we were cheerful enough, but we were sombre too. All our training had led us to this point - the invasion of France - an event that might prove to be the most crucial battle in a war that had known many crucial battles. We just hoped that we would succeed - it was a serious, thought provoking occasion.
WHAT TIME DID YOU EMPLANE?
I don't really recall. Somewhere between 10pm and 11pm I imagine. We had been waiting around for a long time - getting an entire Brigade of over 3000 men into aircraft is not the easiest of exercises.
WELL, IT'S TYPICAL ARMY ISN'T IT. HURRY UP TO WAIT?
Yes, that's right. That's a good way of putting it and, once airborne we just flew round and round and round seemingly for hours. Each airfield we overflew during that assembling time appeared to have a unique configuration of identification lights, and as we stooged around we began to recognise the distinctive patterns of the various airfields. It was obvious that we were part of a predetermined holding procedure, obvious also that until every plane was up and into formation we could not commence the flight to Normandy. In due course, the pilot told us that the preliminaries were over and that we were now on our way. That was an interesting moment! One of the other interesting moments occurred as we passed over the coast, the pilot said over the intercom, 'If you look down you will see Poole Bay'. [52 years later my wife and I retired to Bournemouth and our beach hut looks out over Poole Bay. The sound of a piston-driven aircraft brings all the memories of that D-Day flight back to me.] I don't recall the duration of the flight but, all too soon we had the command to stand up and check that our neighbour's parachute was properly hooked up. We could hear the noise and see the flashes of exploding AA shells and, in one breathtaking moment, our aircraft suddenly lurched upwards and we wondered what on earth was happening, but the pilot announced that this was because he had released anti-personnel bombs to 'keep the heads of the enemy down.' [It is now 65 years after the event, and it has taken me that long to realise that the pilot was less than truthful. The Dakota was not equipped to carry bombs. Perhaps he didn't want to worry us about the intensity of the AA fire directed towards us.] We became conscious of the aircraft slowing for the run-in to the dropping zone and the red light came on. Then came the green light and the activity began as we shuffled towards the exit. We shuffled because we were so loaded with equipment that movement was not easy. [Over and above the equipment we had on our bodies most, if not all of us, had a kit bag fastened to our right leg which contained a particular load. Mine was an accumulator (battery), a big wooden-sided accumulator. The idea was that once your chute opened you lowered the kit bag on a rope and it hit the ground first causing the parachute to belly a little, thereby giving you a gentler landing.] I reached the door, turned right, grabbed the sides of the door to exit and was grateful for the help of the despatcher as I pulled myself through the doorway into the night air of France to be buffeted as never before by the slipstream. Clearly, the pilot had no intention of hanging around in that flak and at that low altitude, but the die was cast and my war had begun.
Those few seconds it took from hitting the slipstream to hitting the ground were fascinating. The noise of the Dakota's engines diminished quickly merging into the background noise of many other hard working aero engines. There was the noise of AA shells exploding above and around me, in the distance I saw a plane descending in flames, tracer bullets seemed to climb innocuously, lazily and gracefully into the sky. I needed no reminding that for every tracer bullet there was 5 or 6 more bullets on that trajectory that could not be seen. Surprisingly, although the activity was dangerous in the extreme, for those brief seconds I did not feel as vulnerable as I expected. It was unreal. Then, I landed - if landed is the right word because I came down in water. Fortunately, at this point, the water was not deep and it had made the ground soft, in consequence, with the water and soft ground, I had a trouble free landing. I detached myself from my chute and took a quick look round - there was a broken hedgerow a few yards away - no apparent danger there - no sign of any of my mates - no sign either of the bright green light which was to indicate our rendezvous point. Some small white lights were visible which I assumed belonged to equipment containers dropped with us but - I was alone - and the fact that I had dropped in a flooded area meant that I was in the wrong place.
CAN YOU REMEMBER WHAT TIME YOU JUMPED?
For years I thought I dropped at 0120hrs. Where I got that time from, I do not know but, having read a couple of well-researched books, I now know the actual time was 0050hrs. According to the records we were due to land at 0050 and, apparently, we were right on schedule.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE YOU LANDED?
Yes, I do. From the maps we had seen in the briefing, and the details on a well-made scale model of the area, it was clear that our dropping zone was more or less equidistant between the Rivers Caen and Dives. The briefing officer shared with us the fact that, as an anti parachute and glider deterrent, the Germans had, first of all, dug substantial trenches in the low-lying land around the River Dives, and then flooded the area. I didn't have to be bright to know that I had landed to the east of my dropping zone and that I was in the flooded area. As I faced south - the line of flight our aircraft had taken - the Atlantic Wall and the English Channel were behind me. To my right was where I should have been and where, already, small-arms fire could be heard as the Germans, alerted by the battle for what was to become known as Pegasus Bridge, and the Canal Bridge, reacted to what was happening more locally. To my left was the River Dives and, ahead of me, two villages, Varaville and Robhomme. Beyond those villages were Troarn and, to the South West, the City of Caen.
Since the escalating volume of fire was to my right it seemed sensible to move South in the hope of meeting up with others who had jumped after me. I put my accumulator on my shoulder and starting wading forward only to be suddenly submerged in a trench full of water. Fortunately the trailing grasses and weeds round the trench were strong and I was able to use them to pull myself out. I put the accumulator back on my shoulder and continued to walk. Not many yards further on I fell into another trench and had to extricate myself. In the darkness, there was no way of knowing what the next few yards held in store. When, for a third time I disappeared and struggled even harder to get out, I concluded that I could manage better without the accumulator so I threw it into the trench from which I had just emerged, and continued. Because of the water, my clothing and equipment weighed very heavily on me and climbing out of the trenches had become increasingly difficult. Fortunately, third time was lucky and I encountered no more trenches. After a while, how long, I do not know, I saw someone ahead of me who turned out to be a member of our Brigade Headquarters Defence Platoon. I knew him only as Paddy. In the next few hours I was to learn that he came from Galway Bay and to learn quite a deal about his background. So we were now two wet and isolated men moving fairly slowly southward in the water.
Some time later we met a very small group of stragglers under the command of an Artillery Officer. They were not sure what to do but when they decided that they would move westward toward the River Caen, that seemed not very sensible to us. It was obvious that a battle was already in progress in that area. Our reasoning told us that we would have to get through the German line and into the British line to make a link, and if the Germans didn't get us our friends might well do so. When they left, Paddy and I continued to move South. It ought to be said that the little group we left to their own devices made the Brigade Headquarters area ahead of us! Probably we should have stayed with them. Possibly, the officer should have commanded us to do so, after all, we were soldiers.
Our progress became even slower from that point. Much of the time we were wading in water chest high. To our left where the water was obviously deeper, we saw occasionally a circle of parachute silk resting on the surface of the still flood water. We assumed there was a man attached, who, having landed in deep water, had been unable to rise to the surface because of his heavy equipment. Later, we learned that 192 men had died that way. Occasionally, the water became shallow, but, mostly, it was chest high. My Pay Book, carried in my breast pocket, still shows the high water mark where it became saturated in this long struggle through the flooding.
In the afternoon we began to emerge from the water - we assumed we were approaching Robhomme - and we came to a knoll. There were a few trees with some grass in between and we made our way into this little oasis. The sun was shining and we were able to dry out some of our clothes. We made a meal from our emergency rations which tasted good. But, more than this: we had seen that, just a little distance beyond the knoll and across a road, was a farmhouse. We thought we would keep it under observation and, if we saw nothing suspicious, we would make our way to it and work out our next move from there. It would be round about 6pm when we left this little idyllic spot. I ought to add, that we had been shot at while we were in the water it wasn't…
IT WASN'T A STROLL IN THE SUN?
No, no it wasn't, it certainly wasn't. It had its moments! We left our place of relative safety and waded through some more water. The water was a bit deeper than we expected, but it wasn't as bad as it had been previously and, as we arrived at the farmhouse Paddy knocked at the door while I covered him with my Sten gun. The door opened quickly and we were immediately invited inside. It was such a warm, friendly welcome we received, and when we got into the large living room there was a substantial group of 20, perhaps 30 other Airborne blokes there to greet us. The village priest - who spoke fairly good English - was there also.
The priest had just arrived and he was saying that we would be wise to stay put in the farmhouse because, whichever direction we took from there, we would find ourselves in great danger. He went on to say that the other side of Robehomme there was another, larger group of Paras holed up, and he would make further contact with them and come back to us.
So we slept that night in a barn and it was wonderful to have a few hours sleep. The next morning the priest came back with the message that contact would be made by the other group, and we would receive our instructions. Very soon a Sergeant came along. We were glad to see him, but he seemed unduly anxious to take command and let us all know he was the Sergeant in charge. His message was that during the evening someone would come for us and would lead us to the other party. It would be, therefore, that as a combined force we would make our way from Robehomme into Le Mesnil: the proposed site of our 3rd Brigade headquarters.
Although we had to keep a low profile on the farm for security reasons, the time passed fairly pleasantly. Our Sergeant came as promised and led us to the other group. We had to wait around until it was dark and then we were formed up in single file. The people they didn't trust with firearms - namely we HQ men - were stuck in the middle while the infantrymen were fore and aft. We made this, what seemed to be a very very long journey, at night.
IS THIS STILL THE NIGHT OF THE 5TH/6TH JUNE?
No. This was the night of the seventh. We landed on the sixth - the morning of the sixth - 0050. We were in the farmhouse on the night of the sixth. We made our way on the night of the seventh to Le Mesnil, and it was quite memorable because fairly frequently the column shuffled to a halt and we heard guns firing either front or back. Then the word of command came to advance and we would go past a vehicle they had just attacked with the occupants dead, just where they sat or as they tried to defend themselves. It was early in the morning of 8th June - five or six o'clock - when Paddy and I linked up with the 3rd Parachute Brigade at Le Mesnil. I was amazed how few of us there were. Chaps I hardly knew even though we were in the same section, greeted me like a long lost brother. I guess we had lost at least a third of our personnel - not all killed of course, some would be prisoners and some wounded, some missing of whom we heard nothing thereafter. One or two men straggled in after us but the losses were not very good, and that wireless set I was supposed to operate never did appear.
THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN PARACHUTED DOWN?
Yes, in it's own container - it too, probably landed in the flooded area. Our Brigade headquarters had already been established in a farm. The farmer and his wife continued to live in the farm house. He, the farmer, moved around his farm caring for his livestock although, in time, the frequent bombardments killed his entire stock.
Adjacent to the farm house was a very large barn which was taken over by the medics. The medical team was enormously skilful and extremely busy because there was an unending procession of men needing all kinds of operations. Next to this barn, sharing the same separating wall, was a smaller barn which became the mortuary, and next to that barn, again sharing the separating wall, was a smaller barn which had been designated as the Signal Office. In this was installed the Field telephone exchange and, when a replacement set arrived, the wireless link to Divisional HQ and beyond. Sadly, the Lance-Corporal, Josh Moore, who was part of our team and a good friend of mine, never reached the HQ. He was killed in action on the 8th. A nearby field became a temporary burial ground for both British and German casualties.
CAN YOU REMEMBER WHO YOUR BRIGADE COMMANDER WAS?
Indeed I can. He was Brigadier James Hill. At the age of 32 he must have been one of the youngest Brigadiers in the Army. He was a superb soldier: incredibly brave and focused. He served in North Africa with the 1st Airborne Division and was seriously wounded when he stepped forward to receive the surrender of German tank crew. One of the German gunners, still inside the tank, shot him in the chest. If the gunner found satisfaction in shooting the then Major Hill, it was a satisfaction short lived because the Major's men rightly assumed that hostilities were still in progress and dealt with the tank crew accordingly. During his hospitalisation, Major Hill discharged himself to continue with his active service. He was repatriated and appointed as the Brigade Commander of the 3rd Para Brigade. No Brigade could be more worthily led. The Brigadier became one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Army, his tally including the DSO and two bars.
When, in the middle of August, we broke out from our holding position east of the River Caen and commenced to press the enemy back towards the River Seine, I was one of the two wireless operators deputed to man the 'roving set' with the Brigadier. Ours was largely a listening role but, at any time, at the Brigadier's desire, we could take over the network and exercise control. This meant that one of us trudged up behind him with one of these wretched voice-only sets on our backs or, when we had the luxury of the jeep, we had a decent wireless set at our disposal. It was an honour to serve such a distinguished Brigade Commander.
No one serving in the front line has an easy time and it was not easy at Le Mesnil. There had been a lot of hard fighting to establish us there and we were under almost constant attack. I suppose it was common to us all that being a survivor at the end of the day was regarded as an achievement. At dawn and dusk each day everyone had to man the trenches because these were favoured times for an enemy attack, but the periods in between those times seemed exceedingly long. I'm sure I was not alone in marvelling at both dawn and dusk that I was still alive and well. Survival wasn't the only goal but it was a relief to achieve it.
YOU MEAN THE DAWN AND DUSK STANDBY?
Yes. Our Para Battalions - who had been reduced in number so dramatically by the drop and the subsequent fighting - really performed miracles. They were quite magnificent. But holding that position for a number of weeks was not easy because the Germans knew that if they could breakthrough us they could destroy the bridgehead, and with our limited weaponry we had to beat them off. Because we were static for so long, they had our range almost to the inch and made things uncomfortable for us. Our trenches were important so we dug in from the beginning. After about ten days the 5th Para Brigade Signals replaced us and we went to their location which was a big chateau - a magnificent ancient chateau - in Ranville and, among other things, we discovered that our opposite numbers really knew how to dig trenches. Their trenches were superb. When, after another ten days or so, we went back to le Mesnil to occupy our original trenches, we found that they had turned them into wonderful trenches also. We were indebted to them. They were good diggers and we were not! But I like to think that we were as good soldiers as they were, and so this war of attrition went on. As a Division we were sitting targets, but we continued to hold to all that we had gained.
The course of the invasion took a very dramatic turn when the Americans were able to break out from their positions in the west and rampage at bewildering speed through the French countryside. It was a magnificent, imaginative and wholly successful strategy, but we were the crucial hinge on which the strategy swung.
YOU WERE THERE BASICALLY TO STOP THE PANZERS COMING ACROSS THE RIVER DIVES AND CUTTING OFF THE SUPPLY CHAIN?
Yes. It will be remembered that one of the D-Day objectives was to blow up the bridges across the River Dives and those objectives were fully met. There was a lot of heroism in those early hours of D-Day, not least in the way in which those bridges were destroyed. Had those objectives not been achieved the story of the invasion could have been very different.
But in the August we broke out - or perhaps that is not quite right. The enemy withdrew, and we helped them to withdraw more quickly, and that began the previously mentioned period when two of us, wireless operators, were either in a jeep or back-packing with the Brigadier.
AT THAT POINT DID YOU HEAD STRAIGHT EAST TOWARDS LE HAVRE?
Almost in a straight line eastward following the main road, but I don't think Le Havre was on our agenda. Even though the enemy was retreating they fought fierce rearguard actions making the advance out of the D-Day bridgehead very hazardous. They chose their defensive lines with skill and displayed the courage we had come to associate with the German Army. They never ceased to be a resourceful and dangerous enemy. I remember one occasion, when one of our Battalion wireless sets was not working, Brigadier Hill wanted to make contact with the Battalion because of the lost link, and he and his ADC and me - complete with a replacement wireless set on my back - went to find them. The enemy was occupying the crest of a hill, successfully holding up our progress. Their positions had been carefully chosen and they fought with great tenacity thwarting us for some crucial hours. The road ran straight up the hill and it seemed as if the Germans were firing their 88mm guns straight down at us. We had a feeling that the shells would take our heads off if we stood up straight! Because of this, we moved off the road into the wooded area flanking the road, and I stood in amazement when Brigadier Hill produced his map and both of them, using their torches, tried working out an alternative way of reaching the Battalion. They didn't even take cover, but just stood there as though they believed themselves to be indestructible. Even so, when the shells seemed to coming straight for us, the three of us went to ground. My problem was that when I hit the ground then the wireless set hit me. In the end we linked up with the Battalion and I handed over the replacement set. The set that needed repairing I put on my back and, the Brigadier having completed his task, we prepared to return.
Then followed something that still seems to me to be surreal. A Jeep drew up on the road that separated the Germans from us. Quite where the jeep had come from, how it could have got there, I do not know. Already it was full to overflowing with men but the Brigadier, ADC and I added to the number and we rode - careered more likely - back to the main force. Only then could we breathe easily.
Regarding our advance we got as far as Pont Audemer. Almost every inch of the way had been contested. As the Germans left a village they shelled it and more than once we moved down the main street with houses burning on each side. Had we reached Pont Audemer 20 minutes earlier we might have been able to prevent the Germans blowing up the bridge and we were left rueing that 20 minutes. From Pont Audemar it was easy to find a vantage point where we could see Honfleur and, across the river, Le Havre, but the advance was gathering momentum and required us to move more quickly than our feet could take us. Being Airborne we had no transport to help us and we had been in the field for almost three months. For these reasons we were withdrawn from the line and located on a farm near Beuzeville. But not to rest! We had to get our equipment up to scratch and word leaked out that we had another jump to make. In order to maximise the precarious position of the German Army, we were to land on the other side of the Seine River and trap the retreating Army. However, before these preparations could be completed the Germans retreated quickly enough to render the strategy unnecessary and, instead of further conflict, preparations began for our return to England.
WHEN DID YOU ACTUALLY LEAVE FRANCE?
We sailed from the Mullberry Harbour on 7th September having first landed in France on 6th June. It was with great interest that we retraced the line of our advance from Le Mesnil and the surrounding area. For the first time we saw the massive defences of the Atlantic Wall and marvelled at the raw courage that had taken our sea-borne forces over the beaches and through those defences. We had, of course, heard much about the Mullberry Harbour but were unprepared for the sight of it. What ingenuity! And what a massive undertaking! As we moved along the floating causeway to embark on our transport home, war materials were continuing to pour into France through this painstakingly, but quickly assembled temporary harbour.
It was not possible to be unaware of the men who were not returning with us. Some, wounded, had preceded us. Some, we knew were prisoners of war. Some were missing which meant that we could hope for positive news but some, far, far too many, had paid the final sacrifice.
We knew that, shortly after arriving in Bulford, we would be granted leave and then the Division would be rebuilt for whatever action was required in the future. I was unaware of the fact that this was both my first and last battle engagement with the Division. Having been admitted to the Shaftsbury Military Hospital the decision was made that my injured leg would not stand up to the rigours of parachuting and, with an amended medical rating of B7, I was - dreaded phrase - Returned to Unit.
MY FINAL QUESTION WOULD BE, DID YOU SEE THOSE YEARS AS BEING FORMATIVE IN YOUR CHARACTER, PERSONALITY OR FUTURE PROSPECTS AT THAT TIME?
As a nineteen and twenty year old soldier, the answer to that question has to be no. I think I was too young for that kind of thoughtfulness. Probably, we were all too young. Don't forget that most of us had been schoolboys when the war commenced, and I don't think many of us could see beyond D-Day. We had been conditioned by events and training to do everything in relationship to the invasion of France. As Vera Lynn sang about the Bluebirds and the White Cliffs of Dover we listened with all the nostalgia and all the yearning for peace and home as everyone else, but we had no, at least I hadn't, view beyond the war itself and being active in the war. However, as I look back I see how formative those years really were.
I think to be in The Paras - and this relates to all the special forces of course, the Marines, Commandos, Special Boat Squad, and SAS - you learn to keep going when other people stop. You just keep going, and going. You know that you can always do a bit more, try harder, push yourself harder and that becomes ingrained in your character, and I think that has been a supreme lesson to learn and habit to form.
Further to this, you have the confidence of knowing that you have faced up to the biggest physical and mental demands that the military can make of you, and you have passed. You know too, that you have stood alongside some of the Army's finest soldiers, and you have not faltered: as you depended on them, they depended on you, and that trust was not misplaced. You know that you have taken part in one of the biggest battles of the Second World War - a definitive battle - and because you have faced up to that, you can face just about everything that life can throw at you.
I think too, that the Special Forces, are success oriented perhaps in a way that others are not; though some of the others may dispute that. Defeat is not even an option - it is unthinkable; but, when it happens - as happened with the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem a few days after we were withdrawn from France - the defeat is so heroic that, although the objectives were not gained, it was a massive triumph for the human spirit. Military history sees Arnhem, not as a defeat, but as a victory largely unparalleled in these many years of warfare. In all walks of life, and all times of life, it helps when the word defeat, and the underlying spirit of defeat have been defeated.
My time in the Paras is not the only quality character-shaping influence in my life of course, but I am very grateful for the time that I spent in the 6th Airborne Division. Very grateful - and very proud.
ON PURCHASING GENERAL RICHARD GALE’S BOOK,
With the 6th Airborne division in Normandy.
Just flicking through the pages stirs my heart
And memories move gently through my mind,
Was I not of that mighty force a part?
And did I not with them my manhood find?
I sense again the tension of the flight,
The nonchalance, the jocularity
Concealing fear with death in sight,
The swift unfolding of our destiny.
I felt that almost fatalistic thrill
As we prepared to exit from the plane,
The coolness caused by fear’s compulsive chill,
The question: ‘Would I see my home again?’
The jump – the slipstream – now this war I own,
The shooting – landing – vigilance – alone.
ALONE and wet – so soon to be half-drowned –
This was the land the Germans chose to flood,
And in those trenches dug deep in the ground
I struggled through the water, weeds and mud.
Around, small battles more intensive grew,
Above, more aircraft followed on our path,
In lazy arcs the tracer bullets flew,
Beyond, planes earthward plunged in fiery wrath.
I waded on and, on some higher ground,
Met up with Paddy, also from my stick*.
Quite clearly, nothing seemed to be as planned,
Was fortune, good or bad, about to play a trick?
If safety and success in numbers lay,
Gut-feeling had to guide us on our way.
· Stick, the name given to group exiting the same aircraft.
TWO OF US
I learned that Paddy came from Galway Bay,
Now, every time I hear that haunting tune
My mind slips gears and back I go to D Day
And the hazards of the 6th of June.
Although the battle noises were intense,
Our stretch of water seemed to generate
An air of unreality – a sense
That we were not quite part of war’s estate.
And yet, we knew our lives were still at stake,
We still could drown, be killed by sniper’s fire,
In ambush die, or unwise pathway take:
This separation was not our desire.
We would have been encouraged much to know
Our feet had found the safest way to go.
D DAY plus
How long those days were and how very short!
The minutes seemed to pass on leaden feet
As though allowing time our hopes to thwart,
And forces to conspire for our defeat.
Our watches gave us no encouragement
As we by shot and shell were targeted;
So much explosive bent on carnage meant
Survival hopes were quite unmerited.
We felt so vulnerable, so exposed,
So conscious of our own mortality:
Felt also, that the foe whom we opposed
Feared us much more for our ferocity.
Our foe well knew that we would never yield
And he would die on this our battlefield.
A REFLECTION ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF D DAY
How vivid still are all those memories!
Our blackened faces, nervous, cheerful talk,
Our heavy loads, our laboured, awkward walk,
Our aim: to overpower our enemies.
The big occasion! Yet, not over-awed –
A massive task from which not one would shrink –
We were the vanguard – massing on war’s brink –
A fearsome, focused, fired-up, fighting horde.
But each heart felt the un-voiced, chilling fear
That very soon, so many will be dead.
Our prayer: to fight like heroes born and bred,
Regardless of the cost, to persevere.
The order given, we shuffle to emplane,
Not one of us would be the same again.
I have known fear
the kind that overwhelms
The mind and causes heart and blood to freeze.
I well remember one projected jump
Which, for the life of me, I do not know
Kept me awake at nights and marred my days,
Such was my apprehension and my fear.
And then, for no good reason came the word
The jump was cancelled. I was off the hook!
Then, quite irrationally, I begrudged
The nervous energy my fear had cost.
And in a strange and convoluted way
I felt resentment at the price I paid
To make a jump that never came about.
I never feared another jump again.
I have known fear
Alone was I, and trapped
On signal duty in an ill-lit barn,
Receiving and re-routing messages
By line, from this commander and from that
To headquarters and back to them again.
Then, suddenly, the skies rained mortar shells,
The thunderous rain of shells turned to a storm,
Shrill cries of wounded men pierced through the noise,
While on my basic telephone exchange
Incoming calls matched well the mortar fire,
My brain, my hands and voice continued with
The discipline I learned in quieter days,
Then, one by one the clamorous calls were quelled
As shells destroyed the crucial, flimsy lines
Until my telephone exchange was still.
I stayed on duty in the lonely barn,
Expecting any moment that a shell
Would manage to break through that stout, stone wall
With consequences of the direst kind.
And all I cherished in this world, be lost.
I have known fear
from so-called friendly fire.
The Typhoon fighter, one of ours, of course,
Took time from shooting up the enemy
And, turning briskly, lined us in his sights.
He dived, his engine roared and screamed, his guns
Barked briskly in their eagerness to kill,
And we? We scuttled here and there to dodge
Their fire. My body was alive with fear,
I rushed headlong into a barn and tried
To burrow ‘neath the pile of dead-mens’ kit.
I felt the shells were tearing through my flesh
And in those seconds died a thousand times,
Each second marked a long eternity.
The aircraft roared away – with shame I stood –
Yet once again the tyrant, fear, had won.
I made the solemn promise that next time
The victory over fear would be mine.
I have known fear
but not this kind of fear:
To be the victim of sadistic guards,
Available for sheer brutality
And feel my courage ebbing day by day.
I have not been intimidated by
Those twisted men who plant fear in the mind
Until resistance fails and manhood goes.
Nor have I been consistently abused
By threats, starvation, beatings and the like,
Or seen my comrades tortured ‘til they died.
My aircraft, though attacked was not shot down,
Nor did I ever sail in submarine
And know the enemy lurked overhead.
Nor did I row a cockleshell canoe
And keep on rowing – rowing to hell’s mouth,
Or work as spy in alien territory
Alert to every shadow, every sound.
A war creates so many cruel fears
That lay outside of my experience.
I only hope that, had their lot been mine
I would have had the courage those men showed
And, though afraid, had helped to pay the price
Of bringing peace back to our world again.
The ordinary man’s tenacity
Persuades me of mankind’s divinity.
THE GRAVESTONES OF TWO MATES, TONY BASS AND JOSH MOORE
Naught quietens more a former soldier’s soul
Than looking at the headstones of his friends
Who fell in battle, striving for the goal
Of conquest on which sacrifice depends.
Their loss was total – youth and love denied:
They lost their hopes, their dreams and undreamed dreams
That war’s vile appetite be satisfied
And evil men fulfil their evil schemes.
While we, who by some chance evaded death
Look back on many years of life,
Exhilarated by life’s joy-filled breath
But saddened by these casualties of strife.
The headstones and the memories make me weep
For friends who in that cemetery sleep.
A MILITARY CEMETERY
The lines of headstones are precise
Whatever vantage point you choose.
A fixed parade-ground paradise
Of shattered dreams – unmade adieus.
An air of deep solemnity
From these grey headstones emanates.
Each headstone speaking tenderly
A name and poignant dates.
The voices heard are in the mind,
The speech in sombre, measured sound.
These men thought they would victory find
Instead, ‘twas pain and grief they found.
They fell where they were shot or shelled
With writhing bodies, gasping breath
Until, by wounds and shock compelled
They yielded to unwelcome death.
These fallen soldiers were reclaimed,
Their twisted limbs by care made straight,
With sadness and with honour named,
Their claim to fame inviolate.
Straight and in line these heroes lie
Like well-drilled soldiers, ‘neath this sod:
In life they chose to live or die,
In death, their hearts are known to God.
Those light grey headstones, standing rank on rank
Speak eloquently of the cost of war.
With love erected, an attempt to thank
Our heroes who the weight of battle bore.
These are the men, No! numbers on the stone
Declare some to be boys, still in their teens,
Who plunged into death's valley, all alone
Despite the noise, and war's own brutish scenes.
These are the youths and men for whom defeat
Was quite unthinkable, their bravery,
Their confidence, (for were they not the elite?)
Excised that word from their vocabulary.
Through bright, autumnal skies they earthward plunged
(An Army better far than merely good)
To deeds of valour, ne'er to be expunged
And soak good Arnhem's soil with bravest blood.
Here then they lie, those boys whom war made men.
Denied by well-aimed bullet, blasting shell
The right to live, and see their kin again
And in the art of living to excel,
But to the art of war – the art of death –
They brought unfathomed courage, noble skill,
As every pain-wracked, fume-filled, urgent breath
Was used their un-real orders to fulfil.
In this, their dying, they have honour found:
Though deep they lie beneath this well-kept sod,
New generations deem it holy ground
And make their prayers of thankfulness to God.
The strength and folly of all wars are here:
The wife's and mother's life-time load of grief,
The waste of birth; of life; all love holds dear,
And nerve enough, to die for one's belief.
These serried ranks of silent stone will speak
Throughout the years of human greed and hate
And, hopefully, will cause us all to seek
More peaceful ways to make our nations great.
SILENCE AND TEARS
The silence eloquently speaks of men
Who fought like heroes ‘til their lives were spent
And lay untidily in death, ‘til when
The grave would marks death’s cold entitlement.
The silence speaks as well of family tears –
Of grief-torn hearts and questioning red-rimmed eyes –
Of memories recalling halcyon years –
Of throbbing pain time can’t anaesthetize.
The green, luxuriant cemetery lawns
Are watered well by nature’s tear-like dew,
Reminding us that nature also mourns,
For nature is war’s casualty too.
But through the silence and the tears God tells
That in his heart our suffering also dwells.
WHERE COMRADES REST
Weep not for those who lie in this cold earth,
They rest like heroes in their hallowed grave,
As men upon whom destiny from birth
Decreed they would a world from bondage save.
Shed then no tears, for they no tears have shed,
As they a mighty enemy o’ercame;
These men chose noble sacrifice instead
Of meek submission to a tyrant’s claim.
And yet, our hearts are moved, and tears we weep
As we consider all these men have lost;
Their precious hopes and plans, by guns made cheap,
By war’s red hands into oblivion tossed.
How great their sacrifice; how great our debt;
We need our tears, lest we that debt forget.
I cannot understand why I was spared,
Why, in war’s conflict, cruel, fierce, depraved,
I should be one of those whose life was saved
As though protected by a hand that cared.
Does not the God of all, for all men care?
He cannot then from some withdraw his grace,
Make here a refuge – there a barren place,
Leave some men joyful, others in despair.
I know not why one lives, another dies,
Why one is wheelchair bound, another whole;
I know not how but, God stays in control
Although not his the war – ‘tis man’s emprise.
And we who have been spared must work his will,
With gratitude and love our lives fulfil.
We dreamed that one day people should be free
To live and work and play in liberty.
Because we had that dream we trained to fight,
To turn war’s darkness into freedom’s light.
The cost was high, for high is warfare’s price,
And many paid the final sacrifice.
We tried hard not to think of violent death,
Of wounds or capture or disfigurement.
Our dreams were fuelled by youth’s hopeful breath
Of great ideals and lives to be well spent.
Into our lungs we drew that noble air
Inspired for bruising conflict to prepare.
Not only for our land was this choice made:
The wider world our call to arms required,
We were to fight like soldiers unafraid,
Although within us doubts with fears conspired.
And blood, young and heroic blood was spilt –
The sacrifice on which world peace is built.
WE ARE NOT MEANT…
We are not meant for war –
For target-seeking arms –
For blood that stains a fun-meant shore –
For shells that scream alarms.
We are not meant to kill
Or, even worse, to main
Because of some despotic will,
And do it in God’s name.
We are not meant to mourn,
Have chilling memories:
Of youth and innocence be shorn,
Call good men enemies.
We are not meant to hate
And hate with gathering force
Because our hate we cultivate
And poison reason’s source.
But we are meant for peace
And joy and harmony,
For hearts that know a blest release
From hate and enmity.
And we are meant for God –
For whom our spirits yearn –
Who has our war-torn pathways trod
In hope of our return.
GLORY IN WAR
There is no glory in the art of war:
Though common men by war are heroes made
Their decencies rebel against its trade:
Its cost in pain and grief: its lust for more.
But glory can be gathered on the way,
In comradeship, in laughter and in tears,
In confidence despite those haunting fears,
In sacrifice, from day to harrowing day.
There is a glory too, when peace is won,
When combatants civilians are again,
And those who suffered, suffered not in vain,
Because the world’s rebuilding has begun.
But God requires war’s glory not of us
‘Tis love, not hate, which he deems glorious.
The graves of war are marked in millions,
And countless living people bear the scars,
As soldiers in their proud battalions
Engaged in wars which were to end all wars.
My mind and heart recoil from all the grief.
The pointless suffering and endless pain,
The bright-eyed men for whom life’s span was brief.
The widow’s loss which time will ne`er regain.
We pause awhile, to show our deep respect,
Recall the sounds of war, the names of friends,
Deplore the price they paid, our sad neglect
Of their great deeds: for hate and warring never ends.
And never will! ‘Till men the Christ obey,
Then peace will come – on that Armistice Day.
MEDALS (Armistice Day)
I put my medals on today,
The first time ever they’ve been worn,
‘About time too’ they seemed to say
‘Since they were given your chest to adorn.’
And as my medals brightly gleamed,
I thought of drills and parachutes,
Of boots which shone until they beamed,
And sergeants bawling out recruits.
Of route marches and wireless sets,
Of Army pay and Army grub,
Of weary limbs and epithets,
Of brasses clean and blanco scrub.
I thought of courage and of fear,
The feeling I would not return
And then – as D Day’s dawn drew near –
The fight fear’s overtures to spurn.
I thought of battle, all the noise,
The feelings of impermanence,
The bombs which life and limb destroys,
The waiting – waiting in suspense.
I thought of mates like Tony Bass,
Of Lofty, and of young Josh Moore
Who lie like soldiers ‘neath the grass.
Their end both swift and premature.
I wore my medals for my mates,
They had not, cannot wear their own,
And my poor tribute understates
The courage each of them had shown.
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