Major John Francis Cramphorn

 

Unit : "A" Company, 13th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 50349

Awards : Croix de Guerre

 

The following has been taken from the previously unpublished account of the 13th Battalion at war, "13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment: Luard's Own" by Major Ellis "Dixie" Dean MBE MC.

 

On the outbreak of war I was embodied into the army with the rest of my Territorial Army unit, 6th Battalion the Essex Regiment. I was commanding a Company at the time and in November, in accordance with a recent War Office decision to exchange all ranks between regular and Territorial Battalions, I was posted to 2nd Battalion of my Regiment, part of the British Expeditionary Force in France. We came home via Dunkirk, and for the next three years I helped to train a succession of reinforcements for overseas, but was always refused permission to accompany the troops I had trained. As a consequence I was very frustrated.

 

In the summer of 1943 the Battalion moved to South Wales for a pre-invasion assault landing exercise, and quite by chance I fell into conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Peter Luard, who was a complete stranger to me. During the course of our talk together, I learnt that he was about to take command of a newly raised Parachute Battalion, and there was a vacancy for a Company Commander. Would I be interested in joining his Battalion, he asked. He questioned me about my Army service to date. My answers must have satisfied him because he then told me to apply for a parachute course, adding that a C.O. [Commanding Officer] could no longer refuse permission to any one wishing to volunteer for parachuting. Immediately on our return to the Isle of Wight, after the exercise, I sent my application for a transfer to the War Office, and was soon on my way to Hardwick.

 

During my time at Hardwick, I met Major Gerald Ford and was surprised to learn from him that he was training to fill the very vacancy in the 13th that I was expecting to do. He completed the course before I did and when I reported to Newcombe Lines, Larkhill, Gerald who was a regular army Officer, commissioned into the South Lancashire Regiment and also senior to me, was already occupying the Company Commander's chair. However, Lieutenant Colonel Luard arranged a temporary appointment for me at Divisional H.Q.

 

Salisbury Plain in the winter months was not the most welcoming of training areas and every effort was made to move around to more interesting locations, provide variety and so keep us happy and fully occupied. We all realised that the "second front" operation was to start in the spring of 1944 and somehow or other we were to play a part in it. Foremost in all our minds in January was the thought of leave, but immediately prior to travelling to our homes, the Battalion moved by rail to Manchester and on the following morning marched through the city. There were no drums beating or Colours flying but bayonets were fixed. On the saluting base in addition to the Lord Mayor and Garrison Commander, was His Majesty's Lord Lieutenant Lord Derby, known throughout the county as the "Uncrowned King of Lancashire". After the march past, Company groups dispersed to Liverpool, Warrington and Preston where the next day demonstrations were given to local Home Guard units, before the Battalion concentrated in Warrington and went on leave from there.

 

At the end of February another rail journey carried us to Sennybridge in South Wales, where the weather was even colder than at Larkhill. But the change of scene was welcome and the several days of field firing which followed proved of great value, particularly for the mortars and machine guns who were firing in support of the Rifle Companies for the first time.

 

Following the return to barracks, the March weather gradually improved and simultaneously did the aircraft situation when the R.A.F. Dakota Squadrons were formed. To begin with, we all had to be trained to fit and release either a weapons valise, or a "kit bag", After an afternoon's practice in these skills which were carried out on the flat roof of the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post], we motored the few miles to Netheravon for the practical test. With one successful door exit jump to our credit, it wasn't long before our airborne training took a giant step forward, and a mass Battalion descent was made, with the RAF supplying the transport aircraft. This went without mishap, however only a couple of days later when one of the other battalions carried out their identical exercise, one mans chute became caught in the tail wheel and for over an hour the plane flew round and round with the poor unfortunate man spinning in the slip stream. I don't suppose the pilot realised it, but his route took him over Newcombe lines, all training came to a halt as we all gazed sky wards, hoping and praying that some how a rescue could be achieved. Eventually, with a motor launch close at hand, the aircraft flew at wave top height over Studland Bay, and the man's static line was severed. There was no happy ending to the story: but we had volunteered knowing full well the risks, and our morale was not affected in any way.

 

It was only one step up from a battalion drop, to one involving the whole Brigade group, and that was on the cards only weeks later when the Battalion was briefed for Exercise "Bizz I'. There was to be another step in the development of the Division, because this time we would be flown by the American Air Force. On a bright, breezy afternoon we emplaned, and flew round southern England before heading out towards France. As a precaution, fighter aircraft circled overhead, and eventually the great mass of transports turned and flew back inland. Number Ones were standing in the door as we approached the D.Z. when the red Verey lights arched skywards cancelling the drop. Next day we tried again, but the wind was even stronger and we didn't even get airborne. However, the drop and R.V. [Rendezous] were simulated, and the ground exercise started. The Battalion were to seize a bridge over the Thames near Faringdon, and in order to attack both ends simultaneously, a volunteer force, led by Lieutenant "Joe" Hodgson swam the river in the dark. I mention that because, less than a week later, the 13th acted as enemy on "Bizz II when the rest of the Division were deployed on an identical scheme. On this occasion, three truckloads of Infantry drove up the bridge, claiming to have landed by "coup de main" gliders, and the umpires ruled they had taken their objective. None of us realised the significance of this action at the time.

 

Having performed as a Brigade, the next stage of training was at Divisional level, and in late April Exercise "Mush" was launched between April 21st and 25th, and caused a certain amount of anguish. The enemy this time, were to be our brothers and great rivals, 1st Airborne and they were going to parachute, while we would only be ground troops. Was this to be pattern for the invasion we wondered. But summing up the exercise later, General "Boy" Browning informed us that we were the formation that would carry out the first operation on the Continent. So all was well!

 

"A" Company's task was to clear the anti air landing poles from the D.Z. so the gliders could land safely in the dark. We rallied approximately 60 strong, with my Colour Serjeant, Harry Watkins doing a magnificent job getting the Company organised in the absence of the missing C.S.M. McParlan. The task proved easier than I had planned for, all the holes had been dug but many of the posts were simply placed in the hole and not yet upright and firm. In many cases all we did was carry the pole away and fill in the hole. We finished the job with about 15 minutes to spare and were digging our funk holes when the gliders started to arrive. As a result we had a ring side seat for the actual landings. Most of the Horsas made good landings and I was greatly impressed by the speed and efficiency shown by the passengers in unloading the jeeps and guns. Among the last to land was General Gale's glider, one of the few to make a really bad touch down just off the cleared path and as a result suffered damage from poles still standing. But I don't think he blamed us for that.

 

Once we were certain that the gliders had stopped flying in we formed up to move down into Ranville and take up our defensive responsibilities. It was now beginning to come light and some of the villagers looked on as we entered the built up area in the centre of Ranville. I recall seeing in the windows of one small shop, croissants and Camembert cheese, unknown in England since the outbreak of war. I established my Headquarters in the grounds of the Chateau, which had also been the H.Q. of the German Company in the village. One of the first messages which came over the wireless was to ask if we had any cooks in the Company (our own A.C.C. [Army Catering Corps] cooks came over by sea and did not arrive until "D" plus one). During the confusion in the darkness, the German horse drawn ration cart had arrived and been taken to Battalion H.Q., they had the fresh food but no one to cook it. The open corn fields south of the village had formed the area where re-supply containers had been jettisoned and the Machine Gunners made an unsuccessful search for Mark VIIIZ ammunition among them.

 

When it did come, the assault on the coastal defences, the noise was awesome and overwhelming. It rose in a tremendous crescendo from absolute silence to all pervading uproar in a matter of seconds, as the fearful might of the guns of the Royal Navy fired their well orchestrated salvoes. We were left asking the question "How can anyone have survived such a pounding" and it also meant that wireless silence could now he broken. This was of paramount importance to some.

 

Something always happened when I arrived at "Joe" Hodgson's platoon position, as I made my round of the Company area. The first time they had just beaten off a German attack and at one of the nearby houses I was asked by a French woman, "Who is this General de Gaulle we hear so much about on the radio". I had to tell her that I did not know him personally, but doubtless she would hear a lot more of him in the future. Next time I had acquired one of the lightweight motor cycles and as I rode down the avenue of trees towards "Joe's" positions, a German 88 persisted in sniping me as I went along.

 

[In the days following the invasion...] Life at the brickworks was dull and monotonous so to liven things up and have a bit of fun, we constructed a giant catapult out of timber and twisted ropes. This contraption we used to hurl bricks and stones at the German positions only the other side of the field. There was another occasion during the usual nightly mortaring, a haystack at the deserted farm between ourselves and the enemy, was hit and set on fire. The flames were lighting up all our weapon slits and I decided that we must put out the fire. While we were doing so, I turned to give instructions to the soldier working alongside me who turned out to be a German. My opposite number on the other side of the field, had obviously the same thoughts about the blaze as I did. While some of us were busy fire fighting the Germans tried to infiltrate a patrol, but we could see them coming and put the whole lot in the bag, one at a time as they crawled through a gap in the hedge.

 

[During the advance to the Seine in August] We were ordered to advance on Pont L'Eveque with all speed and capture and hold the high ground west of the town. This we did with no trouble at all and I set up my Company H.Q. in a farm, where the lady of the house offered to cook us an omelette. I thanked her and said "Yes please", but before she could serve us, orders came to get down into the town and grab a crossing over the river. There was no problem crossing the first stream, the bridge had been destroyed but we were able to scramble across. A hundred yards further on, all that remained of the main bridge was a single girder, with a multi barrelled 20mm flak gun covering the river bank. The leading Platoon, established themselves upstairs in a house overlooking the river. When they first moved in, in the square on the far bank a German officer was conducting an "O" Group. They quickly dispersed as we opened fire, leaving several casualties behind.

 

The plan called for "A" Company to lead the way, moving down the backs of the houses fronting the main street, with the occupants pressing glasses of cider and small cakes into the hands of the advancing troops. Once over the minor waterway, the leading Platoon dashed up the main street towards the second crossing with the "cannon" advertising its presence every half minute or so. Nobody was foolish enough to offer themselves as a target and the position of the German 20mm gun was almost impregnable. On the right hand side of the far river bank was a large open square, in the far corner of which, stood the typical French urinal of metal construction. And it was behind this cover, the "cannon" was sited. Nevertheless, "Joe" Hodgson and one of his Platoons Bren gunners swam the river, but could make no further progress and were forced to return

 

"Nobby" and I were the last two members of the 13th to wade the river to safety. We were not able to cross the girder until the early hours of the morning and spent the best part of the day fighting our way slowly forward, but casualties were mounting. Orders came that the Battalion were to break off contact with the enemy and withdraw. A really tricky operation but we pulled it off.

 

[Several days later...] "A" Company were holding the town centre in Pont Audemer when word reached us that once the advance guard from 38 Infantry Division arrived in the town, we were to hand over to them and we would be going back into Corps reserve. Imagine my surprise, the relieving unit was my old battalion, the 2nd Essex. The information that the Battalion (the complete Division in fact) were now in Corps Reserve, reached them later in the morning and by nightfall we had moved back to the tiny village of Gennueville. That night for the first time since we had landed in Normandy, almost three months previously, we slept secure in the knowledge that our rest would be undisturbed, we were now out of range of the German guns. Later in the week came the news that 6th Airborne were to return to their home base on Salisbury Plain. The night prior to their move home the Battalion organised a party to thank the Villagers for their hospitality. For the party, members of the Battalion dance band had managed to beg, borrow or steal instruments and after the speeches provided music for dancing. This proved very popular until the band started to Play "Lili. Marlene", whereupon the mayor called "Stop I won't have any German tunes played in my village".

 

On Saturday 2nd September, we said good bye to Genneville and made the long trip by road across Normandy to Arromanches, where the now famous floating harbour (Mulberry) had been installed. We spent a wet and cramped night in the Transit Camp. On the Sunday morning, while waiting for instructions to go aboard, we held our last service in France. When we sang (neither for the first nor last time) "Now thank we all our God, everyone meant it". At 1600 hours the loudspeaker called us to embark. We staggered with all our kit along the floating gangway onto a tank landing craft which took us out to a troop ship waiting in the artificial harbour. We made a perilous climb aboard by scramble net, found our sleeping quarters, had an evening meal and then retired for the night. By the time we were awake and dressed next morning the ship had begun to move and the coast of France was slipping into the morning mist.

 

Yes, there was a band to welcome us on the Southampton, but the highlight was provided by the ladies of the W.V.S. who had "char" ready for us and a small bag of rations to eat on the train. In the bag were, a sausage roll, a tomato and an apple we had lived in apple orchards for nearly three months. But they were very kind. When we steamed through the English countryside the population were alarmed at the sight of a train plastered from window to window with large German Swastika flags, but when they saw the red berets behind them, they were reassured.

 

END.

 

For his actions throughout the Normandy campaign, Major Cramphorn was awarded the Croix de Guerre:

 

Throughout the operations in which the 13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment have been engaged, Major Cramphorn has led the Company that he trained with outstanding ability and gallantry.

 

While the Battalion was in the Ranville and later in the Le Mesnil areas, A Company, under Major Cramphorn's command was never otherwise than inspired by his personal example of gallantry, under fire, high standard of leadership and personal initiative.

 

Later when the Division advanced to follow up the retreating Germans, Major Cramphorn once more led his Company with conspicuous ability. Especially was this so at Pont L'Eveque, where by his extraordinary coolness and example under extremely heavy fire at many times directed at him personally, he refused to run to take cover, but treated the enemy with a contempt that was an inspiration to his men in a most difficult battle when they were at all times hard pressed and outnumbered.

 

His conduct and example have at all times been beyond praise and in the highest traditions of the Service.

 

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