Lieutenant J. S. Shinner

 

Unit : Headquarters Royal Engineers, 6th Airborne Division

Awards : Mentioned in Despatches.

 

HQRE 6 Airborne Division - 5/6 June 1944

J S SHINNER BSc FICE

 

The author enlisted in late 1940 and, after passing through 142 OCTU, was posted to 257 Field Company RE. He joined Airborne Forces in 1943, going first to 3 Parachute Squadron RE, then to HQRE as Intelligence Officer on the formation of 6 Airborne Division. A Prisoner of War from 6 June 1944 until April 1945, he returned to Germany after repatriation, until demobilization in early 1946. He was Mentioned in Despatches. Since the war, his career has been in the water supply industry in the United Kingdom, and in the mid-fifties he joined the East Surrey Water Company, becoming successively chief engineer, general manager and a director. He became a non-executive director in 1985 and was appointed Deputy Chairman from 1989 until his retirement in 1991.

 

HQRE was a small unit consisting of the CRE [Commander Royal Engineers], Adjutant and Intelligence Officer and ten NCOs, sappers and drivers. For the assault into Normandy the CRE and IO, each with one sapper, travelled in separate aircraft carrying troops of 591 Parachute Squadron RE in the first parachute drop, landing from 0050hrs onwards. The remainder of HQRE followed in two gliders in the first glider wave.

 

This account consists essentially of extracts copied verbatim (omitting only names) from my diary, written shortly after the events described. To fill in the picture I have added some descriptive and explanatory material, much of which is the result of research over the last few years.

 

The hamlet of Grangues lies in a valley about 5km south of the coastal town of Houlgate. About 1km further south the D27 road from Varaville towards Pont l'Eveque runs along a ridge at about 120-140m above sea level. Significantly, the location of Grangues relative to the River Dives is very similar to that of Ranville relative to the River Orne, some 10km further west. The terrain, however, is very different, with steep-sided valleys, small fields and orchards and woods, as opposed to the open undulating countryside around Ranville.

 

Among the habitations scattered along the D27 ridge is a farm, close to the road on the north side at Lieu St Laurent; a little further east, on the south-facing slope and surrounded by its own parkland is the Chateau de Grangues.

 

In June 1944 a unit of the German 711th Division occupied the Chateau and grounds. The owner and his family, including his son and his five year old daughter, had been allowed to stay on, living in very restricted and uncomfortable circumstances in the basement. Their household included a very old Irish woman, who had been nanny to two generations of the family, and the young daughter of the farmer at Lieu St Laurent, who was a Red Cross helper.

 

So, on the evening of 5 June 1944, these people and the other French folk in the neighbourhood settled down for just another night under German occupation. On the other side of the Channel on 5 June, preparations for the assault were reaching their climax. The troops were in their transit camps, isolated from the outside world, and final arrangements and briefings were taking place.

 

My diary records:

 

"D-l, 5th June 1944 dawned fine but windy at our transit camp at Harwell. We looked out of our tents as we woke up and saw that all the aircraft and gliders had overnight become zebra-like in black and white identification stripes. I made quite certain that my kit was all correct and stowed away my camp bed and stuff to be left behind, and put it in charge of a driver who was to follow by sea. Towards the end of the morning, the CRE and I got our small team together and, with the latest and largest photos of the DZ (dropping zone), we went through final details of our plan; in the afternoon I slept for an hour, sunbathed a little, and ate a large meal at 1900hrs. At 1930hrs we left for Fairford, our take-off airfield. We had a pleasant 30 mile or so drive through the English countryside. I think we all Wondered a little how long it would be before we saw it again - I know I did. We were to fly in a Stirling of 620 Squadron. Most of our people had been up a couple of days previously for a flight to familiarize themselves with the aircraft and crew - I had missed this because I was away with the CRE at Tarrant Rushton. Once on the airfield I felt no nervousness, just a slight feeling of expectation and excitement.

 

The wind was still strong but was forecast to drop at about 2200hrs; sure enough, it did. Take-off was timed for 2337hrs. At 2245hrs we got into our kit. This is what I wore and carried:- Underwear, string vest, shirt, battledress, camouflage scarf, airborne smock, beret, 11b of gelignite, two No 36 grenades, .45 Colt automatic and ammunition, shell dressing and morphia tubes, code list, escape kit (magnetic "compass" fly buttons and silk maps sewn into linings of clothes) emergency rations, fighting knife, compass, map, jumping jacket, helmet, mae west, parachute and a leg kit bag containing two small packs, a map board and a Sten gun. Others carried more than this and we popped through the door of the aircraft like corks in a bottle."

 

The Sappers of 591 Squadron were carrying an assortment of weapons, tools and equipment, including such items as a folding bicycle. Their primary task on landing was to demolish and remove the poles which had been erected to obstruct the glider LZ (landing zone). For this purpose each man carried a 51b charge of plastic explosive in a bicycle inner tube wrapped around his body - these were to contribute substantially to our subsequent troubles.

 

It is easy to be wise after the event, but I am convinced that we underestimated the difficult-ties experienced by heavily laden men in an aircraft lurching under fire, and that we tried to carry too much.

 

"In the aircraft we settled down comfortably. I was in the navigator's compartment for take-off, and we were off the ground within one second of the correct time. We climbed for five or ten minutes and then I went back to my travelling position behind the main spar. The trip across could not have been more uneventful. Until 20 minutes before jumping time we had the lights on. Then one of the aircrew went back to the rear of the aircraft, the lights went off and for a moment or two all one could see was the big luminous 'D' above the dinghy toggle."

 

The crewman who went aft was the wireless operator. As well as his job of acting as dispatcher, he had to investigate an intercom failure between the rear gunner and the cockpit. This resulted, among other things, in the navigator receiving no estimates of drift.

 

"When one's eyes adjusted to the moonlight coming through the portholes, one could see ripples on the sea below. We were to jump at 0100hrs, and our last two minutes' flight would be overland. Three minutes to go, and leaning over to a porthole I could see surf and a strip of sand. Red light on! Then, someone on the beach picked up a handful of pebbles and threw them against the fuselage. Then another and another - only they were not pebbles, they were flak. One bit nicked my right arm - it didn't hurt, but felt a bit numb. The sky seemed to be full of vivid flashes and orange streaks. Suddenly there was a flash and a burst of flame inside the aircraft, astern of where I stood. In a matter of seconds the whole of the inside of the aircraft was blazing. Each of the sappers had been carrying 5lb sausages of plastic explosive and one poor chap had his hit, and it burned fiercely. Five or six of us at the forward end of the fire were forced forward towards the main spar by the flames. I felt the flames singeing my face and yelled to someone to get the escape hatch off to let out the suffocating smoke. I told one of the sappers to go forward to the radio cabin to find out what the situation was. He contacted one of the crew, but obviously things were badly wrong up there, because they passed the order to jump and then immediately cancelled it. In any case we could not have got past the blaze between us and the exit hole."

 

Four parachutists aft of the fire did, in fact, jump and all survived - three becoming prisoners of war and one evading the Germans and making his way back to the beachhead. The officer who jumped at No 1 recollected, before he jumped, seeing one of the port engines on fire, and had a vivid image of the contrast between the orange red of the flames and the greenish flames and dense smoke inside the aircraft. He had a short glimpse, after he jumped, of the aircraft "well alight" disappearing over a hill, and assumed that there could be no other survivors.

 

"Almost immediately after this the nose dipped, there was a horrendous rending and crashing and I had the sensation that we were being rolled over and over. It seemed to go on for an awfully long time. When all the movement stopped I became aware of something (fuel?) swilling over my face and that there was a fierce fire burning in the forward part of the aircraft a few feet away. I also realized that I couldn't move of my own accord because I was hanging upside down, by one leg, on my static line, which had become entangled with the roof of the aircraft . If I didn't do something I was going to cook in the immediate future. Again my luck was in, and the urgent action required was taken by another survivor who came staggering my way. I shouted to him to cut me loose and in two seconds his fighting knife had done the job and we were both on our feet. We only had a few feet to walk because, just behind where I had been hung up, the fuselage was broken off and there was a pile of wreckage and dead and injured men. We couldn't see any sign of the tail!

 

The two of us set about getting some of the injured out. As far as I could tell - I was pretty dazed and shaken - there were four of us on our feet, three or four men alive but badly injured and the others dead. The front part of the aircraft was a raging furnace and there was obviously nothing to be done for the aircrew there. We pulled out two of the sappers but couldn't shift a third man who was very firmly trapped in the wreckage. There was a good deal of tracer flying about - I don't know where it came from or who it was aimed at - and a fair amount of banging. Another fire was burning not far away and I thought it must be another unlucky one.

 

We thought we had crashed a little way south of the DZ and that we might be able to make friendly contact, so I left two men at the site and went with a corporal to a lane at the side of the field to see if we could locate ourselves. I got out my compass and we started off - with difficulty, because we were both injured - northward towards where we thought the DZ was. We couldn't make anything of the country - it was not nearly as open as we had expected - and after a while we started back the way we had come. We had not gone far before we spotted two German helmets bobbing up and down in the field on the left of the lane. At the same time they saw us and started to climb through the hedge. I let off at them with my Colt, but because my arm was nearly useless it went high above their heads. At the same moment another half a dozen appeared in the lane behind us and it was a case of "put your hands up" or be bayoneted. We put our hands up.

 

The patrol which had captured us was led by an Unteroffizier. We were marched maybe a Quarter of a mile and down a drive through some trees to a fair sized house, evidently a Company HQ. Here we had our equipment removed and one of our chaps was allowed to put a shell dressing on my arm, after which I was tied up with a piece of rope. There was a good deal of banging and crashing going on and the Germans were in a state of some agitation."

 

We had in fact crashed in a small meadow amongst orchards on the ridge along which the D27 road runs, about 6km from the coast, less than 250m from the farmhouse and 500m from Grangues Chateau.

 

An air photograph taken on 20 June 1944 shows that we approached from the northeast -not due north as might have been expected - lost the tail on impact and then ploughed on for a further 100m through the corner of an orchard and across the meadow, leaving wreckage on the way so that only the wing centre section and a relatively short length of the fuselage were left by the time we came to rest.

 

The inference must be that after being hit and losing one or both port engines the aircraft veered left (eastward) and went into a gentle descent and was then brought round on to a southwest course in an effort to correct for the deviation. So much for the several lurid stories I have heard, including one that we were seen flying no more than ten feet above the roof of the Chateau, minus the tail!

 

The aircraft carried six crew and seventeen parachutists, four of whom managed to jump as the fire took hold. Of those who remained on board, four aircrew and four parachutists were killed in the crash. Two of the aircrew, the rear gunner and the wireless operator, had miraculous escapes when the tail broke off. The remaining nine parachutists survived, some of them injured; seven of these survivors were shot by the Germans later that night.

 

A second aircraft crashed less than 400m from ours; it is probable that this happened shortly before we came down and accounts for the flames that I saw nearby. It is known that this aircraft carried a complement of twenty five; the parachutists were from the 7th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment and 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment. There were no survivors.

 

Between the two crash sites the air photograph shows a line of four very large bomb craters, evidently dropped by a bomber off course, and possibly mistaking our fires for his target.

 

The building to which we had been taken was a stable block in the grounds of Grangues Chateau.

 

"After what I judge to be about half an hour an officer arrived in a car. He immediately ordered me to be untied and I was separated from the others, put into the back of a car with him and we drove away. We travelled about four miles, twice running through roadblocks and once narrowly avoiding a dead German lying in the road. Our destination was a fairly large (probably brigade) headquarters. I was taken into a small room where a senior staff officer in mess kit (red stripes on trousers etc) was sitting with a 'phone in each hand. He was furious at the intrusion - I was filthy and dripping blood on his carpet - and I was hastily removed and taken to an office where there was an intelligence officer. He was totally reasonable and correct. He first produced a British paratroop medical orderly, who dressed my arm as best he could. The IO gave me a superficial search after which he asked me my number, rank and name. He also asked for further details with the offer that, if I helped, news of my capture would be sent to England quickly. I refused, and he didn't press the point, going so far as to say, ' You are quite right'. I was then taken to a stable and locked in with about eight other prisoners."

 

I believe that the headquarters to which I was removed was la Briboudiere just to the west of Dozule. It is interesting that, although the Germans were very much awake and about in large numbers quite early on in the proceedings they did not - at least in my case - exploit their advantage. My search was so superficial that the code list for the day which I was carrying was not found and I was able to dispose of it next day. Nor did this, and subsequent searches, reveal my wrist watch which I wore under bandages and ultimately brought back to England. My interrogation was almost nonexistent.

 

The crashes of the two aircraft were only the start of a night of terrible and sinister events around the Chateau, the full details of which are unlikely ever to be unravelled.

 

After my removal there was probably little action until about 0320hrs when the first gliders came in. Two gliders crashed in the Chateau grounds; another landed a short distance away. Of those 1 close to the Chateau one crashed into a dense copse and there were no survivors. Little is known of the others, but undoubtedly there were both casualties and prisoners taken.

 

At some time during the night, after the arrival of the gliders, eight British soldiers were shot by the Germans, including others from my aircraft. The Germans claimed that there had been an attempted breakout, but all the evidence points to their having been shot out of hand.

 

There is a bizarre and touching conclusion to the story. Apparently the old Irish woman living with the family, deeply religious, was outraged at the way the bodies were being treated. Being a neutral subject she was in no fear of the Germans; she harnessed up a donkey and cart, commandeered a working party, and ensured that they all had decent burials. Now they lie in Ranville cemetery.

 

Today all is quiet and peaceful at Grangues. The small girl from the Chateau married and she and her husband, as well as her brother and his family, divide their time between their Paris homes and their country retreat at the Chateau. The farmer's daughter married after the war and lives with her husband in Houlgate.

 

The only signs of war in the area are the four large bomb craters and, in "our field", astonishingly after so many years, a stunted growth of the grass in the area scorched and devastated by the crash.

 

A memorial to the fifty two men who died at Grangues has been planned. It will be erected in the village and unveiled in June 1994.

 

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