Private John Airey
Unit : No.5 Troop, No.3 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade
Nearly 50 years ago one's memory becomes a little blurred, but as a member of No 3 Commando, No.1 Special Service Brigade I can still remember vividly the afternoon of 5th June 1944 as I embarked at Southampton into a landing craft. Then as we sailed through the line of warships on either side, it seemed more like a regatta than a page out of history. We were sailing into the unknown, feeling very apprehensive. As the waves and the cheers of the sailors came across the water, gradually taken up by ship after ship, it grew into a crescendo. It was a moment when I felt so proud to be British.
It was indeed a rough crossing as we sailed across the Channel. During the night we could hear the roar of the wave after wave of aircraft overhead, heading for France, and the sound of shelling as the Navy's big guns pounded the beachhead. At approximately 8 a.m. we approached the beach, and our first encounter with the enemy, as shells from their batteries seemed to pass close to our landing craft; then suddenly there was a loud bang and water flooded into our cabin. We realised then that we had had been hit by a shell or sailed into an obstacle in the water. No panic - but just a re-assuring message from the ship's Captain that the Navy would bring us as near to the shore as humanly possible.
True to his word the
Captain brought the landing craft to about 30 yards from the beach, before the
vessel sank. It was then possible to wade to the shore.
There was spasmodic shelling on the beach as we arrived. Many bodies lay sprawled all over the beach, as young men of the East Yorkshire Regiment who had been in the first wave of the landing, now lay mutilated or dying.
Our next task was to meet up with the 6th Airbourne Division who were holding the Bridgehead over the River Orme. By 2 p.m. with Lord Lovatt at our head, his Piper playing a cheerful tune, we then crossed the bridge under heavy sniper fire. We then had to dig in at the Bridgehead and we repeatedly came into heavy mortar and gun fire from the enemy.
That evening our hearts were gladdened by the arrival at dusk by hundreds of planes and gliders flying steadily through a very heavy anti-aircraft barrage. They bore the remainder of the 6th Airbourne Division and many landed among us. Sadly many of the gliders crashed and the young paratroopers were killed instantly. But those that survived were later to take up our position at the Bridge-head, and they were heartened to see us, as comrades.
On the morning of 7th June 1944, Colonel Peter Young asked for volunteers for a stretcher party to evacuate the rest of the wounded from the Battery at Merville. As our Bren gunner had been blown to pieces in between us, we readily volunteered. While we were carrying the Airbourne wounded soldiers from the Battery, a huge shell landed in a previous crater and blew up most of the remaining Commando troop.
My friend Trooper Desmond Hughes and myself carried all the men that were alive to the safety of a huge ditch by the side of the road, including Lt H.T.Williams, who recommended us for an award for bravery under enemy fire as we were surrounded by Germans in a wood. Trooper Desmond Hughes was awarded a Military Medal.
Shortly afterwards we were captured by the Germans and transported through Germany into Poland to Stalag VIIIA. To cut a long story short, after being manacled, put into solitary confinement, interrogated, marched across Poland in Arctic conditions, working in a Polish sugar factory for 12 hours a day, on a ladle of soup and 1/5th of a loaf a day. I was eventually released in February 1945 by the Russians and then made our way to the River Ebve where we were finally rescued by the Americans.
I feel proud and privileged to have served my country during the second World War and thankful that I returned home safely.
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