Corporal John Cooper
Unit : 195th Airlanding Field Ambulance, RAMC
The beginning of June 1944 found a number of the members of the 195 Airborne Field Ambulance in a close embarkation camp outside Winchester. We had trained to go into battle in the gliders, but unfortunately there was not sufficient to transport the whole brigade, with the result that some members were designated to go by sea borne. Of 195 Field Ambulance there were approximately 50 and of these about 20 were equipped with airborne bicycles. Also in the camp was a French Canadian Regiment – ‘The Regiment de Chaudiere.
One of the cyclists had never ridden a bicycle before and on a practice run he steered it into a ditch, falling off and cracking the frame of the bicycle (gratefully to his relief, as it was not possible to ride it) His relief was short lived as another of the cyclists, emulating the French Canadian’s swinging from ropes and landing onto small platforms, fell and broke his leg, thus avoiding the trip to France, and his bicycle was handed to the ‘Wrecker’.
The 3rd of June saw us transported to Southampton, to embark with our French Canadian comrades on the Lady of Mann, a steam ship of the Isle of Mann steamship company. Its peacetime occupation being that of ferrying of holiday makers from Liverpool and Heysham to Douglas.
The Lady of Mann sailed out of the port, we anchored in the Solent until the 5th June when we returned to Southampton to refuel and revictual. Whilst in dock we received a visit from Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts (of South Africa) to wish us 'God Speed'.
That night we set sail for Normandy, that night the sea was choppy, we were issued seasickness tablet (which we were advised to take an hour before feeling sick!). I found a bunk, lay down and went to sleep until shortly after dawn on the 6th. Going on deck I found myself on the port side looking over to an empty sea, Thinking that somehow that we had lost the rest of the invasion fleet, I turned to the starboard side to find a very different sight, hundreds of craft from war ships to landing craft were every where. Shortly the whole fleet wheeled to the right, sailing parallel to the coast until we were opposite to our landing point, from here the coast was dimly lit visible through a haze of smoke.
The landing craft were speedily readied for launching and with the French Canadian’s aboard; they were lowered and cast off. Off they went, each landing craft in charge of a Royal Marine, to be part of the initial invasion force.
When the landing craft returned, two of the twelve were missing having struck mines as they neared the shore.
Some three hours later a tank landing craft, having safely landed its original cargo arrived along side and we scrambled down the nets, to transfer to it. By this time the tide had ebbed considerably and twice we were caught on the sand banks from which the R.N.V.R skipper freed us before apologising on the third occasion on which we were grounded for not being able to get us nearer to the shore, about 100 yards away. The ramp was lowered and off we went into the water, I went straight down the ramp and the water came just above the knees, but others who could not swim and as a rest of being nervous stepped off the side of the ramp holding on to the chains ended being waist deep, However we all reached the beach safely.
Here we all stood in a group, whilst the three officers in charge of the party decided which way to go. It seemed to remind me of a Sunday school party rather than an introduction to war! However a solitary plane helped to restore the realism by dropping two bombs, fortunately nothing was hit and fell into the water producing spectacular fountains.
By then it had been decided that we should proceed along the beach, which we did for quite some distance, walking along the wire mesh roadway that had been laid earlier for the lorries and tanks. As we proceeded a ‘PLOP’, ‘PLOP’ was heard and seeing a portly officer getting on one knee. I dropped my cycle and dived onto the sand, digging my own slit trench as I slid. Again fortune favoured us as a lone plane (whether the same one which we had seen earlier I don’t know) came down firing its machine guns, our party all dived to the left and the bullets all tracked to the right of the road way producing little puffs of sand.
Eventually we left the beach, where we were divided into two parties, those with bicycles and those without. Naturally it was not possible for those walking to keep up with the cyclists and I was appointed to be liaison officer to keep the two in touch, riding backwards and forwards between them.
On one occasion when chasing the cyclists, I came to a cross roads with no indication of the direction they had taken. As a military policeman was on ‘point duty’ I asked him if he had seen a party of airborne troops on cycles, and was told that they had gone straight ahead, he also added that they were peddling ‘hell for leather’ and he did not know where they thought they were going as the Germans were only about three quarters of a mile down the road.
Proceeding with some caution, I followed, thankfully finding that they had stopped after quarter of a mile, where we dug slit trenches, and stayed there for two nights due to there being a German strongpoint still holding out, on route to the unit headquarters. Little sleep was enjoyed due to the noise of small arms fire and bombardment by heaver weapons.
We did have one major alarm during the first night, but the infiltrating Germans were revealed as a herd of wandering cattle.
Thanks to Simon Cooper, John Cooper's grandson, for contributing this story.
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