Private H. John Butler
Unit : No.9 Platoon, C Company, 7th Parachute Battalion.
"Into Action "D". Day 1944
By Private H. J. Butler
6th Airborne Div.
7th (L.I.) Parachute Btn.
Written from notes
Sept.1944 Age-19 years.
Edited March 1997.
We had a meal and the Padre Capt. Parry held a service -- an occasion which I think will remain in the minds of all the men who came back. After the service we were loaded into trucks and driven off to the 'drome. We arrived at the drome, debussed and checked our kit arms and ammo then we drew our parachutes, put camouflage cream on our faces and had our last cup of tea in Blighty, the very last for many. After the tea we again climbed into our trucks and were driven over to our respective planes -- we were using Sterling's - once there, we checked over all the gear in the plane that was our concern then fitted our chutes on. We stood around for some time chatting to the RAF crew and were told we were to be the second plane in. At 21:50 amidst shouts of "Good Luck" and "Give it Em" from the ground staff chaps we all emplaned and were soon airborne.
We flew around over Blighty for about an hour to allow the many planes to assume formation and then started off for France. Before long the Navigator came forward and told us twenty minutes to go so we hooked our chutes up and all that had kitbags fixed them to their legs. The Navigator came forward again and told us to switch out the lights as we were nearing the French coast, he also told us that we would be the first plane in as the Colonel's plane had dropped back a bit. About five minutes later the Navigator came through us to the tail and he and the Gunner opened up the door in the floor, then he came back to his duty station and we all stood silently in the darkness, each man with his own thoughts. How long we stood there I could not tell, but it seemed hours before -- crash, crash, crash, -- the sound of strops rushing down the rails and hitting the buffers commenced, none of us at the back had seen the red and green lights, but we all knew that we were there and were going "Into Action" the first, and last time for a lot of us.
As soon as I heard the strops I shouted to George Turnbull in front of me, "They're jumping George, get going" and commenced to shove like hell down towards the door. Suddenly George went and I realised I was on the edge of the hole so I kicked the leg with the kitbag attached into space and as that weighed about 120 pounds I couldn't have stopped if I had wanted to. Out I went into the slipstream and before my chute was completely open I had started lowering my kitbag on its twenty feet of cord. When that was done I had time to look around at all the coloured flak lazily crawling up and then tearing past at express speed, even though I realised the danger of it I could not help admiring such a marvellous sight, I seemed to be in the centre of a massive great dome of moving coloured lights.
The ground! Where was it? That thought started me peering down, then crash! I had landed, heavily too, as their was a wind of gale intensity and I bashed my head pretty hard and knocked myself dizzy for a moment or two, however I soon came to myself when I realised somebody was shooting into the corn around where I had landed. I quickly got out of my harness and dragged my kitbag towards me, as I was doing this the moon came through the clouds and I saw some of the lads coming down and German tracers creeping up. It swept round one chap for a moment or two and I saw him jerk and then hang limp and lifeless as it swept on toward other targets, however I hadn't time to watch this for long and as my kitbag came in on the end of the rope, I proceed to get my Sten gun out by the simple expedient of taking out my fighting knife and ripping the top off the kitbag -- I subsequently lost my knife because when I put it back in the sheath I forgot to clip it down and it must have fallen out whilst I was running around. When I had my Sten clear I checked over it to see if it was in working order only to find that the ejection opening was jammed up with earth, I soon cleared it out and was going to fire a burst to see if it was OK, but decided not to because there were many of our chaps running around and dropping and I might have hit one of them, also firing from amongst them I might have attracted unwarranted attention. Time enough to fire when I had to I thought.
All this of course only took a matter of seconds and as the chap who had been firing at me had stopped I decided it was reasonably safe to stand up so I stood up and hurried off in the direction of the R.V. with my kitbag over my shoulder. The first person I met was a chap called O'Shea who had lost his rifle, he was more than glad to see me, as I had a gun. He and I soon tagged onto chaps of various Battalions and soon spotted someone flashing a green light that was our Battalion signal so we made for it. The Officer who was flashing the torch gave us directions to the R.V. which turned out to be all wrong and sent us to the wrong side of the D.Z. where we bumped into a lot more chaps who had received the same directions, however another Officer came along just as I arrived and we all started off in the right direction this time. By this time my kitbag was beginning to weigh me down, 120 pounds is no light weight to lug around and I had already walked about a mile with it so after a bit more walking I ditched it, in it by the way was two men's equipment and spare ammo but I am glad to say we both managed OK without it.
By this time I was by myself again and after walking a little further I came to a hedge bordering the road, which was what I was looking for because just over the road was the company R.V. Just as I started forcing through the hedge I noticed a car followed by a D.R. on a motorbike come tearing up the road so I threw myself flat which was lucky for me as the occupants of the car opened up with a machine gun and continued firing all along the road until one of our chaps piled them up with a Bren gun. The D.R. had also spotted me and he threw a grenade which landed about ten feet away, but as the Jerry grenade only has a tin casing and relies on blast not shrapnel like ours, I was untouched. As soon as they were passed I scrambled through the hedge, ran across the road and over a barbed wire fence -- upon which I tore my slacks and tumbled down a slope into a little dell where there were about forty more lads of my company.
We waited there for about ten minutes while other chaps came in and then started off towards our objective, the plan being to take and hold two bridges; one over the river Orne, and the other over the Caen canal -- until the sea borne troops got through to us, my company was to be assault coy, and my platoon the leading platoon hence the reason for jumping with all our equipment in kitbags and not wearing it: it was to be left at the R.V. and collected the next day, but I am afraid the Jerries beat us to it.
As we started out of the dell the Officer in the lead turned around and asked for a man with a Sten. To be quite frank, I wouldn't have said a word but as I was near him he spotted me before anyone could speak up and told me to go 50 yards ahead of the main body to act as a scout, so I had what struck me as being the rather doubtful distinction of possibly being the first man in the Battalion on the Bridges.
The trip down to them was uneventful and one or two places where we expected trouble were absolutely deserted: when we got on the bridges we found the situation well in hand and both intact, kept that way by men of the Oxf. and Bucks Light Infantry who had crash landed in six gliders right next to the bridges -- at the same time as we dropped -- to prevent any charges being blown. There were only two guards on the river bridge and the Ox. and Bucks had shot one and the other had had both legs blown off from the knee down by a grenade and had died as a result -- this being the first dead Jerry I had seen. Over the canal bridge however, fighting was in progress in and amongst a small group of houses bordering the road leading to the canal and a fair amount of light was being thrown on the subject by a Jerry armoured half track that had pulled up at the crossroads about 200 yards from the bridge to fire a 37 mm cannon at us but had been hit by a P.I.A.T. projectile before it could get going.
As the initial attack that was expected, to get through some houses before approaching the bridge, had not materialised my company--'C coy'--went straight forward to do their next task which was a forward patrol, once clear of the houses we proceeded forward for about half a mile when we bumped into some Jerries and shot them up. The firing, however, attracted some of our chaps who were on top of a nearby escarpment and thinking we were Jerries firing at them, opened up on us, we hit the deck and as none of us fired back, having seen one of the chaps outline against the skyline and recognising his dress, the firing soon stopped and our section Sgt. Harry French shouted up to them. "Tommy" Farr, a lieutenant, answered back and asked if anybody had been hit, after counting round we found that one lad, Puddiford had two Sten slugs in his leg but could still walk so we sent him back to the bridge and then moved out of the dip we were in to the other side of the field in line with 'Tommy' Farr's men, got behind a hedge and made ourselves "comfortable" for the night.
Nothing happened then until about 07:00 when we spotted some Jerries about 800 yds away jumping around all over the place and occasionally firing bursts at a farmhouse about 200 yds in front of 'Tommy' Farr's section, finally they came round towards our direction and proceeded to pass across our front at about 200 yds range, realising that to get to the farm building which they seemed very interested in they would bump into the backs of 'Tommy' Farr's men and that neither could see the other owing to a small copse in between them, I shouted to the nearest Sgt. named Winstanley -- and we all had a bash, being the first to see them I was first to fire and let off a complete mag. of 32 rounds at 200 yds, maximum range for a Sten knocking several of them over, as the rest of the section chimed in they scrambled for cover in a nearby ditch and three more went down before they got there: then the big mistake, our sniper had a habit of using tracer to be able to watch his strike and he shot at a Jerry and gave our position away and then the Jerries started raking our hedge with machine gun fire which made our position untenable so we had to beat it quickly, one man getting shot through the buttocks as he crawled out of the hedge.
When we got to some cover, Harry French decided to make a break for it across the open ground to warn Farr's men Winstanley stopped him however pointing out that he was the senior amongst us and therefore shouldn't take the risk, so French sent one of the lads by the name of Mortimer, and if any soldier deserved the V.C., Mortimer did, he gave his life to warn Farr's men. He ran out into the open and had got about half way when a burst hit him, after a few seconds we saw him move again and he started crawling painfully towards Farr's position. Every few seconds stopping as a burst was fired at him, whether he was hit again or not whilst he was crawling I am afraid I do not know, but he kept on going until he was near enough to shout at Farr's men; this he did, raising himself as he did it, so getting another burst which killed him but undoubtedly saved the lives of Farr's men, as I said before, Mortimer should have had the V.C. but like so many other gallant actions in the heat of battle it was forgotten by those whose job it was to recommend such acts of gallantry.
During this time more Jerries had come up and as we were in a very bad position and also out-numbered we were soon driven back, we contacted our main body and Farr had taken his men just outside the village of Le Port about a quarter of a mile to the right of the bridge, there they dug in whilst we formed up in the ditch from the crossroads above the bridge down to Le Port and waited for what had now developed into a large scale attack to come in. Twice they came in but the guns on each flank held them off, then as our position in the centre was impossible - owing to the fact that our ditch was on the side of the road furthest from the Jerries and on the other side was a thick hedge with the ground dropping away from the road so that the Jerries would be on top of us before we could see them -- the Coy. Commander, Major Neill (B. Coy) decided to withdraw us back to the next hedge, which left 200yds of open ground in front of us.
When we got back to the hedge the chaps in the houses on each flank quietened down and the Jerries came through then B. Coy from Le Port put in a counter attack and we all fired and broke up the attack. The Jerries withdrew in no little disorder and B. Coy chaps chased them, myself and some more C. Coy chaps stayed in some buildings by the bridge where we were told by an officer to keep a lookout for gunboats and sure enough about an hour later one came up the canal armed with a light cannon approx. 20 mm and a heavy machine gun, there was not much we could do against this lot but we grabbed our rifles, Stens, and grenades and made off down the bank towards it, then just as we started firing there was a terrific crash from the other side of the canal and looking over we found to our delight that some of our chaps had got a 6 pounder dug in there, apparently it had been brought in by a glider just after we had dropped. With this they soon drove the gunboat back, followed by a fusillade of lead from us. (Years later found out that it was not a British 6 pounder but a German 50 mm anti tank gun in a pillbox at the bridge entrance which some Oxf & Bucks chaps had got working).
When it had gone I moved to a quiet corner where I could drop my slacks and bandage a flesh wound on my thigh. I then returned to our houses and as I was feeling thirsty I went into a little cafe which we were using as an R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] and asked the R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] Corporal if he had any water, he told me to knock on the inner door and ask the French people so I knocked on the door and went in to be greeted by a terrific outburst of French, and kisses on both cheeks from the proprietor -- and he did need a shave. When he had finished kissing me and shaking my hand I asked in my rather halting schoolboy French for a drink of water, grinning, the Frenchman waited till I had finished and said in almost perfect English, "Not water, I have something far better to drink, wait whilst I fetch it." With that he disappeared into his cellar and came back about five minutes later with an armful of dirty bottles, which turned out to be bottles of Champagne, which he had had buried in his cellar floor since the war started so the Jerries could not have them. He poured me out a glass and I quickly disposed of it. He then started to fill my glass again, thought better of it, and gave me the bottle and within a matter of minutes that quart was no more, and the same with the next bottle. When I had drunk them he gave me four more bottles to take out to the lads and just as I was going out of the door, in bounced one of the lads shouting "the Commandos are here" and sure enough as I dashed out of the door two Sherman tanks came round the corner of the crossroads followed by Lord Lovat with a piper on one side blowing his pipes and his bodyguard on the other side. They were several hours overdue by then which made them all the more welcome. I think on reflection that was the sweetest music I ever heard.
As the tanks drew level I gave them a bottle of champagne each and gave the rest to my pals then we proceeded to shake the hand of every Commando we could, giving them swigs of champagne and also cigarettes as coming up the beaches theirs had been soaked. They didn't stop however as they had an objective to take about two miles the other side of the bridges and within an hour the Bde. [Brigade] had passed through giving B., C. and H. Q. Coys a well earned respite, then A Coy or what was left of them came in and reported that they had been cut off in the village of Benouville to our left and had been mortared practically out of existence. Twenty men and one officer being all that was left, the wounded and R.A.M.C. had stayed behind in the village in a house that was being used as an R.A.P.
As the Sherman's were unable to cross the canal bridge owing to their weight they left to help us and four of them were sent up to Benouville with about a dozen of us and one officer. The Sherman's appearing in the streets were apparently so unexpected that they put the Jerries to flight with pretty heavy losses, we lost one tank. When our party arrived all that was left was a few snipers who were trying to stop us evacuating our wounded so the officer sent a section of us into the village to clear the snipers, posted the others to fire on anybody trying to run from the village and then went to borrow a White Scout Car off some R.E.'s who had come in prior to the Commandos to recce the bridge area for pontoon bridges as they expected them to be blown up. Whilst he was gone my section started to clear the village and I must admit to a very foolish thing here. As we advanced into the village my pals kept close in to the walls and doors taking cover in the correct manner but myself, well after two quarts of champagne on an empty stomach I was fighting drunk so I just strolled down the centre of the street and shot out a few windows with my Sten and as luck would have it we didn't encounter a single sniper, perhaps the sheer audacity of it kept them quiet, who knows? When we got down to the R.A.P. we reported back all clear and the Scout Car came in and evacuated the wounded in a short while. There were several dead on stretchers also medics and the Padre, shot and killed by the Jerries. We then joined the rest of A Coy. at the end of the village and fought off several attacks during the afternoon.
Then Jerry was spotted coming in with tanks and infantry in strength and I am of the opinion that if that attack had materialized, our now sadly depleted Battalion would have been overwhelmed and the bridges destroyed, but we were lucky once again for just then someone yelled out, "look the gliders"--sure enough the sky was black with planes and gliders coming towards us. The sight of this armada must have scared the Jerries because they withdrew, thereby making a big mistake. He should have swept straight in and shot the chaps up before they had had time to form up but as he didn't the Glider-riders soon formed up and chased after and shot up the Jerries instead. This drove the Jerries out of our area so we were withdrawn to the bridge into reserve and there waited until news came through that the sea borne troops were past our area, we then went back across both bridges into a small orchard for a well earned nights rest and as soon as we were told to dig in, I just hit the deck and was asleep before the first shovel was put in the ground. That was the last time we went anywhere that no matter how tired I was I dug a slit trench. And so ended D.Day.
D1. I woke up the next day to find all the lads dug in so as soon as I could get a shovel I dug myself a shallow pit in case of trouble, then we had a wash at a nearby farmhouse. I still had my washing kit because I had wisely put it in the capacious rear pocket of my smock instead of in my small pack. After the wash a very small ration of food was found, it being the first we had had since our last meal in England and it only seemed to make everybody hungrier, but it was the best that could be done so we had to make due with it and be content. We did have a tin of "Emergency Ration", which turned out to be a solid block of chocolate, very high calorie. This was marked "Only to be opened on the instructions of an Officer"' fat chance, we found it bitter but quite filling. About midday we set off to our reserve position in the rear of Ranville and were about half way there when some shelling started and also some small arms fire, so we dived for cover in the hedges. Within a few minutes the news came round that a heavy fighting patrol of Jerries had broken through Ranville and we were to dig in and be prepared to fight, before we were able to start digging in however a Jeep and trailer loaded with 75mm shells was hit by an 88mm about 40yds away and started to burn and explode so we had to just hug the ground for about an hour because of the shrapnel. When it had burnt itself out we dug in but the expected attack didn't materialize. The Jerries were apparently scared of being cut off in the rear so that had withdrawn.
We stayed in this position till about 04:00 on D.3 and then moved into Ranville where we took up positions on the furthest edge of the village. I dug a shallow weapon pit behind a wall and sat in it with my head and shoulders well above ground and then started our first experience of shelling and mortaring, at first not realising its danger I just sat and watched the bursts meanwhile stitching up a tear in my slacks, however I soon realised my danger when one or two chaps became casualties and hopped out of my hole into a well dug German slit trench some few yards away with George, it had been left vacant because we were told not to occupy Jerry slit trenches as they always had the mortar range of them but he didn't seem to have this one so we were quite OK. I here wrote my first letter home and also had my next meal, fried bacon this time from the fourteen men packs which started coming through. D.4--D.8 were nondescript days spent sitting in our holes whilst there was shelling, and going into the village whilst all was quiet.
The first morning there an ME109 attempted to dive bomb the bridge and then fled back to his base across our front. I had a go at it with the Bren gun, no result. The same thing happened the following day, no hits. The third morning we were waiting for it and as it came by, about 300yds in front of us, George on the gun fired and let the plane run into it, we could see the tracers hitting it this time and as it went off into the distance it trailed a light stream of smoke. We didn't down it, but we did hit it and cause some damage. The following morning as we waited the ME appeared followed by two Spitfires, we could see twinkling lights on the wings where the Spits cannon were hitting, the nose of the ME dipped and it hit about 200yds from us skidded across the field went through some trees which ripped the wings off and then completely disintegrated. The engine went through a stone wall and ended up half in the wall of a house 1/2 a mile away. We later found a leather boot with a wooden sole with a foot in it. I guess the pilot had been torn apart and spread all over the field.
In the early hours of D.9 we moved off to the village of Herouvillette and arrived amidst a heavy artillery barrage. My platoon went right forward to the extreme end of the village and I was sent into three houses to make sure they were clear, then the platoon came in and took up positions in and around them. About midday the shelling stopped and soon after three armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry came up as support units. My pal George Turnbull and I occupied another Jerry slit trench -- which commanded the road leading into the village -- and stocked it well with anti-tank grenades in case any Jerry tanks tried to get in that way.
The next four days were absolutely quiet and we spent our time eating, sleeping and brushing up our French with the aid of the village school mistress who could speak a little English. Quiet, I should say, as far as the Jerries were concerned, our only bit of trouble being when our own Typhoons came over and strafed and rocketed us, no damage to personnel was done though I am glad to say.
On the fifth day just as it got daylight the Jerries started sending over a terrific artillery barrage and some were uncomfortably near our slit trench and as it was a Jerry one and we had been warned about them George and I decided to beat it back into the houses. We had just got out when a shell landed about 20 feet away blowing both George and I back in, we were extremely lucky not to have been killed, George had a narrow escape from wounding. A bandolier slung round his body had stopped a fair sized piece of shrapnel cutting through two layers of bullets and ending up in the bandolier, after that we waited for a lull and then dashed out to the houses. We made it just in time too for five minutes later the trench received a direct hit and blew up the anti-tank grenades making quite a hole.
After about fifteen minutes more of this it slackened off and 4 MK IV tanks, an SP gun and about a company of infantry started to come in. As we had no officer with our platoon the officer in charge of the armoured cars took over command wirelessed back for artillery and aircraft support and also directed a couple of A/T guns that some glider chaps had nearby. The A/T guns damaged one tank and the tanks withdrew behind a ridge. The infantry then came forward into a wood in between Herouvillette and Escoville a village about a half a mile distance, so B.Coy who were in reserve were brought out and attacked the wood killing or taking prisoner practically the whole lot. Things quieted down again after this and we resumed our normal routine of eating and sleeping. Towards evening the three armoured cars moved off and three more came in, they had only been there for about an hour when one single shell came over and the officer in charge of the cars received a bad shrapnel wound in the back. That was the last shell we had at Herouvillette as we moved out next morning at daybreak over to the third Brigade area where we went to relieve the 8th Battalion which had had a bit of bashing. When we arrived at the 8th area we found it to be heavily wooded country that was under almost constant mortar shelling.
The first few hours my platoon was with the rest of the company and then about four hours after we arrived we were moved across a small road, which bordered our position into a very thickly wooded copse that was almost impassable owing to the thick dense undergrowth, here we forced a way in and dug our slit trenches, for three days we were here and during that time not a single mortar shell came near us, though the rest of the Battalion was getting plenty. I believe the Jerry left it alone because he thought it too thick to be used by us.
On the afternoon of the third day three snipers were sent out to cause as much damage as possible prior to an attack that was to be put in by B.Coy three hours later. A Sten gunner was also wanted for local protection for the snipers so I volunteered to go for the simple reason that I was fed up with being sat at the bottom of the slit trench for 24 hours a day. We got well behind Jerry lines OK and the snipers started doing their stuff. At the end of the stated three hours we had heard no sounds of an attack so we hung on for another hour, at the end of that time we decided it must have been postponed so we started our way back.
When we were about 200yds from the Jerry front line the long waited for attack started and we got caught in a hail of lead coming from our own chaps, we hit the deck, but as things were still warm and we were liable to be discovered we decided to make a run for it out to our flank and then back to our position. All went well until we were about half way between our lines and the Jerry's when we were spotted by a Jerry sniper. We were running along by a ditch so we dived in and my pals spread out, located the sniper, and disposed of him. We had no sooner left our ditch when our own artillery opened up and started dropping short, so we got back in again in a hurry and lay there till that was over. When it had cleared off we got out again and this time made our position safely only to find when we got there that one of our shells had hit a nearby tree showering shrapnel into our trenches and wounding four of the chaps, one of whom died later. I might add that was the last patrol I ever volunteered for. The rest of that day and night were uneventful and at daybreak next morning two sections of my platoon were moved into reserve behind the Coy and my section was put on the flank of a Vickers MED. M.G. [Medium Machine Gun] position as a protection unit. Here George left us as he contracted some intestinal trouble and was sent back to Blighty.
The following 24 hours were quiet and uneventful except for a short spell of mortaring nearby. When it came daylight our section N.C.O., a Corporal, was sent for to take a patrol out to a forward listening post, during his stay there some Jerries came forward from their lines toward the patrols position so on the N.C.O.'s orders the patrol ran back to our lines leaving a Bren gun and a snipers rifle and sights behind so the company commander ordered the company to attack to retrieve them, this they did also bringing back a Jerry M.G. and some prisoners. The Pln. Comm. was made a casualty and also 12 other ranks entirely due I am afraid to that one corporal losing his head, I might add, that he was the first casualty, being wounded in the shoulder by a piece of mortar shrapnel.
Surprisingly enough the mortar barrage that is generally laid down after an attack never came, but about 30 minutes later whilst I was standing in between two slit trenches, about six feet apart, talking to the occupants a terrific 'crump' came over the first shell of which hit a nearby tree and blew me head first into one of the slit trenches on top of the occupant, I found I was dazed but not hurt and crouched down until the 'crump', which lasted about three minutes was over then I popped my head up and called each of the section asking if they were OK - this was the normal procedure after a 'crump' and as our N.C.O. had gone I took it upon myself -- they all replied OK until I shouted to the Vickers crew from one trench I received the answer "one man slightly wounded, but he's quite OK" from the next there was no answer and from the one nearest, next to which I had been standing I received a groan in reply to my question, that was the first and last time the occupant groaned and I was not sure whether I had imagined it or not, however, I dived straight across the intervening six feet of earth and found the Vickers corporal barely conscious with blood spurting from a leg, half-severed just below the calf.
I immediately jumped into the trench, tore open a field dressing and applied the pad to the wound and started to tourniquet the bandage just above it, but I am afraid I was too late as the first shell had done the damage and he had been bleeding freely for about 3 minutes. He died as I finished tourniqueting the leg. As soon as I realised he was dead and that I could do nothing more for him I looked into the trench from where I had received no answer to my shouts, and here also the occupant was killed, having received innumerable small pieces of shrapnel through the chest and abdomen. The other two of the Vickers crew had disappeared too, I went to the R.A.P. and told the M.O. [Medical Officer], here I spotted the chap who had been wounded, I'm glad to say only slightly, so I asked him where the other lad was and he told me he had gone off to where the rest of the Vickers platoon was. Realising that he knew nothing about the death of the other two, I went along also and reported to the officer in charge that the Vickers was now unmanned.
On investigation we found that the M.G. position was the only place mortared and the officer decided to move it as it was obvious that the Jerries had discovered it's whereabouts, so I went to "C" Coy H.Q. and reported that we were no longer needed and was given instructions to fetch the remainder of the section over to some spare trenches at Coy H.Q. When I returned to the lads and told them, I went to my own slit trench to get my blanket and small pack only to find the trench half full of rubble and the blanket and pack torn and holed, that being the second trench I had had destroyed.
As soon as we were all ready we went back to Coy H.Q. and settled down in our slit trenches to another quiet night, I was unable to sleep however, and the next morning the R.A.M.C. corporal attached to Coy H.Q. sent me to the M.O. because he said I looked, and certainly was for that matter, shaken up by the blast from the shell of the previous night. The M.O. diagnosed Battle Exhaustion, or what the lads call Bomb Happy, and as we were to be relieved for a rest next day he told me to lie low in a slit trench at the rear Bn. [Battalion] H.Q. until then. When we were relieved at midday next day we marched back to a rest area on the river bank next to our bridges and from here the M.O. sent me to an R&R camp where I received treatment for the next four days for shell shock. When I arrived back at the rest area I found we still had another three days to go before going into the line again and that the day before we were to go, reinforcements were due to be sent up to us. Also while here we had our first shower from an Army Bath Coy and an issue of clean underwear.
All went according to plan and at daybreak on the fourth day we started out for the woods again with a fresh issue of kit and also reinforcements from a K.S.L.I. [King's Shropshire Light Infantry], R.H.U. It was about midday when we arrived and took over from the 8th again and as there was now quite a few more of us we had to dig extra slit trenches, whilst doing this we had a nice greeting from a battery of "Moaning Minnie's" six barreled rocket mortars and though we were in the open, nobody was hurt. I had a narrow escape though, I was caught right out in the open when they came screaming in, too far from a slit trench to run for it, so I just laid flat, then I felt, it seemed, like a lot of pressure and I was pelted with dirt and small stones. I do not remember hearing a bang at all, but when I got up I found that I had literally been in the centre of the six bombs that are sent over at one time. The nearest one to me had been no further than 2 - 2.1/2 yards away and the next about 5 yards. What had saved me was the fact that we had had a lot of rain and the ground was wet and soggy, this allowed the bombs to penetrate the ground about 12 inches before they went off, and had directed the main force of the blast and shrapnel upwards instead of at ground level. I did however find dried blood from my ear later in the day, so I was affected to a degree by the blast and I had a ringing in my ears that has never really gone away.
That night, two of us sitting in a slit trench in a ditch, it started to pour with rain, next thing we knew the dirt banked up at the end of the trench gave way and we were both sitting in water up to our waists - most uncomfortable! We spent the rest of the night sitting on the side of the trench waiting for daybreak and some sun to dry us out. That was the last bit of mortaring for the next four days, though there was a bit of activity from some night patrols that the Jerries sent out during this time.
On the fifth day my platoon moved forward to the next hedgerow unopposed. The platoon dug in the thick copse on the other side of the road was by then three fields back so they also came forward trying to get level with us, they were fired upon whilst crossing the last field losing the platoon officer and his batman and one other man wounded, so they retired to the hedge one field behind us and dug in there. Whilst we were digging in another Salvo of mortar shell came making it only two "crumps" in five days. It was a very trying three days and especially nights that I spent down in this position owing to the fact that we were only about 150 to 200 yds from Jerry and of a night time he was sending out patrols to rig up booby traps in our rear and cause such damage as was possible, this meant a lack of sleep which greatly affects morale.
On the fourth day things were going along smoothly until midday when word came through that "B" Coy was going to put in an attack upon a farmhouse on our left flank, get prisoners and documents, run along the Jerry line until they reached our right flank and then back to their trenches, we were to give covering fire for this attack and extra automatics were sent down and also Vickers. I was given a Spandau, the Jerry equivalent to a Bren gun and 2500 rounds of ammo. Just before tea time, our mortars threw over a few shells and "B" Coy went in, "C" Coy along the whole front started opening up with everything they had got, to cover the attack in. For about five minutes all went well and "B" Coy were about halfway round when a "Moaning Minnie" 60 lb mortar shell landed into the bank in front of me and I and the gun were sent hurtling backwards by the blast. When I got up I discovered my hand was covered with blood so I made a dive for my slit trench only to find that it had been filled in by a direct hit - once again I was lucky in being out of my trench - so I turned round and dived into the next one and one of the lads followed me in and proceeded to bandage my hand up. Then started the biggest barrage I had been under and the walls of my slit trench literally shook.
During a pause I poked my head out and saw a couple of the lads out of their trench a few yards away, one of them seeing me called me over. When I clambered out he asked me to help him with the other lad who had had one leg chopped off and one badly damaged by the same shell that hit me. Upon seeing my hand bandaged up and realising that I was useless he told me to get one of the other lads out of his trench and then to go for the stretcher bearers, just then however, the barrage started up again and I felt so dizzy and scared, that at first I flatly refused to go and dived into my trench again. After a couple of minutes thinking about the lad outside I managed to overcome my attack of the "jitters" and clambered out of my trench again and ran the gauntlet across 200 yds of open mortared ground to Coy H.Q. where I told the stretcher bearers and then dived into a slit trench. After once starting to run I felt that I couldn't sit in a trench a moment longer and although the barrage was still as intense I just had to get out and run, my destination was the R.A.P. which I eventually reached after diving into numerous slit trenches when ever any shells came close. That, I am glad to say, was the last I saw of any fighting as the M.O. sent me back to the C.C.S. and it wasn't long before I was on a boat en route for England.
My thanks to John Butler for sending me a copy of his story.
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