Private John F. Russell
Unit : No.7 Platoon, "C" Company, 8th Parachute Battalion
Service No. : 14217439
John Russell completed parachute course 79 at RAF Ringway, from the 23rd August to the 2nd September 1943. His instructors comments were simply, "Worked hard and jumped well." The following are his recollections of the 8th Parachute Battalion and the Normandy campaign as related in a series of letters to various comrades, the first of which makes repeated references to the Battalion History. The contents of the letters have been edited together to ensure a cohesive and chronological narrative. The final section, dealing with the 8th Battalion's battle for control of Beuzeville, makes repeated references to the maps to the right.
[Regarding campaign medals -] ...their army number, rank or name. Some blokes had returned theirs so I thought "Right, they can 'stick' mine too." Since de-mob I've never received or applied for them. A man could have three campaign stars on his chest - a young civilian would consider him a big hero, yet he could have been sitting behind a desk, typing reports at a base & never been near danger at any time. Medals not only denote a man's presence, they can also suggest a man's possible experiences; not really factual. (In 1999 I did apply & eventually received the "toffee wrapper" & medals).
Regarding the Bn history, Page 2 states "Could march 50 miles in 48 hrs & then dig in & fight." That occurred on a 4 days away from camp exercise. Some time later before 'D' day we were told that the rifle boys "Must be able to march 50 miles in 24 hrs in F.S.M.O. & carrying all weapons & still be fit to fight."
Lt. "Jan" Cooper informed "Every man must be able to march 50 miles in 24 hrs. before 'D' day." Someone (I think it was Pte Alcock) asked "does that mean we can't go if we fail?" (or words to that effect). Lt. Cooper answered, "I didn't say that; but if you don't succeed this time, you'll try again next week, & again & again if necessary until you do succeed. It will be much less painful if you only do it once - I'm sure you'll succeed first time!"
C Coy left Tilshead at 15.00 hrs - I believe we had 5 mins rest every hour & then 15 mins after three hours. We did a long rest of about 2 hrs at Codford (about 10 miles from Tilshead) round about 07.30 hrs about four of us flopped down on the pavement & rested near a corner dairy. The milkman pulled up from his rounds with a cart, opened the shop & supplied us with cigarettes. In a park or field we had our feet checked for blisters, etc. & I had a meal I think. Anyway I didn't want to rest & "get set", I'd rather be up & away. Most of us, me too, got "muscle set" & certainly felt it for the first 100 yds or so (a feeling of "ooh's" and "aah's" & not those associated with ecstasy! - More like we do now before the morning shower eases all the stiffness! We "marched to attention" past the transport area & so into camp at 12.50 hrs. When taking turns on the Bren I found it easier to carry than my rifle which needed to be swapped from shoulder to shoulder owing to the strap's narrow pressure on the clavicle bone. The Bren could be balanced across the top of the small pack & didn't need to be held there all the time. (A Canadian Coy did it in 18¼ hrs.)
I think we made out our wills in the transit camp. Blokes signed their names on some of the banknotes of mates. £1 equalled 100 francs. We had 1 x 50f & 10 x 5 francs. I still have my signed 5f note but some names have almost faded out. A couple of the lads used their 50f notes, but young Russell was too bloody mean & frugal!!!
Before emplaning we were given a "Benzidrene" tablet to counter tiredness later. We were issued with morphine philes & needles for use if anyone was badly wounded & would need to be left behind. Told too that if used the empty phial should be attached to the wounded one & then he wouldn't be injected again when found. Two injections would kill. Of course bonds were made between us that should we be "hit" hard & be crippled for life we'd administer a double dose. L/Cpl "Ernie" Pearce (later a C.S.M. in Palestine) said, "Right lads, promise - you'll finish me off if I'm going to be useless."
Page (6) "extra ammo obtained unofficially." We were told or rather asked to carry as much extra as possible & to deposit it in a cache in a wood near the Touffreville R.V. together with jump jackets & life jackets where it could be retrieved later if it was required. My kit-bag contained my 2" mortar; the wooden butt of my Mk V Sten; a webbing Sten mag. holder filled with seven full magazines, 2 bandoliers of 50 .303 rounds; my small pack; and a sandbag containing 14 x 2" mortar bombs (a dozen seemed a bit light, so I added another - just right! "but 13!? Sod that! I'll take 14 & put up with the extra weight.") The bag looked uneven, with strange bulged & protrusions & when the time came it "stuffed up" my exit.
I was "chary" of 13. Why court trouble? Remember when the 70th Bn Northants party arrived Tilshead (July 25th?) there were lads hobbling around on crutches or with arms in slings? They'd done the Dundee/Tay Bridge training drop (Exercise "Bluebell") & had emplaned in England "on the 13th hour of the 13th June '43" AND it was a Friday!!! There were 13 aircraft. That was tempting fate (seven men died). Likewise when in B Coy on 21st Dec '43 we did an "Albemarle" night drop on 6th Div D.Z. There were 13 aircraft; one crashed in a wood & caught fire; most of the crew & "stick" were killed or badly injured. (That was before the "boy" Russell fell out of favour with "B" Coy's senior officers & so got "shunted off" to the newly-formed "R" Coy.) The "R" meant "Reserve" but some "piss-taking" types said it meant "Rejects"!!! I was transferred to 'C' Coy in time for Exercise "Co-operation" Feb 5th 1944, a 3 Brigade drop of 8th, 9th & the Canadian Bn in tight formations of American C-47 "Dakotas". Flight of 1¼ hrs. The "drop" at 16:00 near Winterbourne Stoke. A "Yankee" ground-hugging flight in close formation. Cows in the fields looked up then stampeded.
Page (8) Private Richardson was Major Hewetson's batman & was seated No.2 on the starboard side opposite the open "door". I believe No.4 was Private Cooper (all kit-bag men were seated near the exit.) It was dark there when we boarded & very little was spoken on the flight (by anyone!). I was No.6. C.Q.M.S. Peters (No.20) came along during the flight, to Pte Donovan who was having problems with his kit-bag; I believe he was No.7 (he was slightly forward of me in the aircraft, not opposite). We approached the French coast - I could see what looked like the Le Havre peninsular & the R. Seine mouth (looking past No.4 & the "door" opening). A bloke, perhaps No.9, suddenly asked, "What are those flashes?" Someone answered, "Flak." Silence. Then came a tremendous "crack" like a greatly magnified rifle bullet going past. (I presumed it was an 88 shell passing.) Exploding shells could be heard, but their "Karumph"s seemed some distance away - then came a much closer "Karumph" & shortly after a terrifically loud metallic-sounding "Bang" (or "Klang") as a fragment hit nearby. Richardson gave a short gasp. Silence. Then either No.1 Major Hewetson or No.3 came across, & with No.4 unhooked Pte Richardson. Low voices; then the plane violently switched from side to side as the pilot took evasive action. Damn night slithered off my seat as the kit-bag lurched about. I braced feet & shoulders whilst holding my kit-bag with right hand & pulling No.4's kit-bag against the seat to control that for No.4 was holding Richardson presumably to prevent his body going slipping towards the exit. The aircraft kept jigging about & all of us were concentrating on first staying seated. Either No.3 or No.5 muttered "Bugger this!" & those were the only words to reach me - otherwise nobody nearby spoke. I don't recall hearing any noise from the wounded man. The plane steadied & the "Red" came on, we stood & waited for the "Green". Richardson was on the floor just ahead of me it seemed. He gave a low moan or groan, then exhaled a sigh, followed by a deeper sigh, that ended in the "death rattle" as his lungs emptied.
Then came the "Green" & the "wap" of the strops [sound of "chute" strop line hitting door opening when released from chute canopy below]. Left palm against the door frame, I swung my leg & kit-bag out. The bag grazed the door frame & somehow my right foot twisted & jammed my left foot against the opposite door frame. Down to my knees I was out of the plane, but felt my legs & bag jammed, so as the slipstream hit me I spun round & hit the plane aft of the "door" opening with open palms & pushed. I came free (but did I get boot assistance by No.7?). Realised that my kit-bag was fouled & tried to free the lower pin, but no luck for it was twisted over. The harness prevented my reaching far down. Bending the leg to lift the damned bag closer to my hand was very tiring. Decided the unseen dark ground was getting too close so took up a landing position & hit almost immediately. [We normally jumped from 450' to 500 feet height, so at 1 a.m. on a dark night one hadn't much time to "muck about."] Fully expecting to feel & hear the "Shlock!" of a dislocated ankle (at least). I landed without mishap. Nothing untoward happened - but that rod & pin were a real problem to release. Got it free & emptied the bag. Suddenly Sgt Snow went past, saying "Get up, Russell." (no offer to help or enquire if O.K.!) Shouldered the gear & looked for the red & green 2" mortar parachute flares that marked the R.V. & should have been "up there". No sign but a small red & green light were "down there" low on the horizon. Miles away! I looked up at two aircraft passing above. One was a "Halifax", t'other was an "Albemarle" - Not being all "Dakotas", Russell sensed a "balls up" had occurred!!! [Our correct D.Z. (drop zone) was Touffreville (about seven miles inland). Our objective was the Troarn (& the Bures) bridge about a mile away. My "stick" landed near Ranville (the 5th Brigade's D.Z.) at 01.00 hrs approx. Our orders were to "maintain the Troarn Bridge objective" if dropped in wrong area - avoid combat (unless necessary) until you reach the Troarn objective. My stick was spread out through the 12th & 13th Bns & a small group of us (under Major Hewetson) headed for Troarn about 4 miles away.] Round about, against the night sky, steams of 20mm cannon "flak" were weaving upwards (but not in our area). Occasionally a spent bullet whistled or hissed overhead. No "cracks" of short range stuff.
Page (12) "Major George Hewetson... party of 55 men." Don't know where all those blokes came from. Only a small party of us (perhaps 15) left D.Z. "N" spread out. We passed a still form (Para) & later came upon a para wounded in the leg - said the shot had come from a nearby hedge. Major H. told him that help would come soon & so he lay there. At that moment there were about five "bods" this side of a gate, then perhaps four with the wounded man. Behind me was a small group. Not many, but others may have been further back in the field. Through that gate was a large field - could have been short wheat or similar. Three men went ahead. One man was out to the left & [?] of them, so I went to the right shoulder of the "arrow head" (No orders had been given - just acted auto). After some distance, a Pte Williams (an ex-'B' Coy mate) of the Intelligence Section, came up & asked to join me. Said he'd lost his weapon on the drop; wanted to be "up front" to see what was happening (if any!) He offered to carry some of my gear. I recall saying that I was managing O.K. - but I may have passed him the 2" mortar; it being a damned nuisance as I had it slung from my shoulder by the muzzle cover cord. Across the field was a large barn beside a gate, then a Para rose up ahead of us & warned that he had been shot at from the barn area. He went to the rear (a group of about ½ dozen were there & others strung out behind). Through the gate was a "dirt" road & a group of French people outside a couple of houses. To the left was a main road. An officer or was it Cpl. Danny Dudley, spoke in French to them. Our group closed up & I felt uneasy with others close around. I kept to the right & eyed that road for danger. Then we moved into Herouvillette & along the main street it seemed. It bore round to the left (vague memory). Four men formed the leading "section" on the left of the road; then the next "section" of three men was on the right of the road. Pte. Vine (he had had a cleft palate & so spoke "funny".) then myself & perhaps Pte. Williams formed that second "section". The sections were some distance apart & I don't know who followed us. Through the village were fields with post & rail fencing (as for horse paddocks), grass verges with occasional disorderly heaps of concrete curbing edging about 2 ft high. (Obviously an abandoned Borough Council job - run out of rates funds perhaps, or the labour taken for more urgent German requirements.) I could occasionally see the forward "section" (one member was Cpl. "Danny" Dudley, another was Pte. Cooper, a bren gunner, both of 7 Platoon). Moonlight & deep shadows from a cloudy sky. Ahead on the right in the shadow appeared to be a tree-lined driveway with a high brick wall on the far side. The forward section was opposite & in deep shadow when the command of "Halte" came.
Our trio halted - a moment of embarrassed silence" - then, as one, hit the deck close to a conveniently placed curbing heap. Presumably the leading section had also hit the deck, for the Bosche then gave a generous burst & a stream of brilliant greenish-white tracer crossed the road. (It was incredibly beautiful against that black background. Unforgettable.) Pte Vine's fully studded soles were about an inch from my face & I was then concerned that a sudden movement by him could be painful. Then Pte. Cooper replied with a Ben burst (regulation "about five" rounds.) - gold, with a touch of red, not so impressive. The German replied... silence! I believe Vine fired his Sten then, for another "Spandau" from over the paddock opened up on us, behind the curb-stones. Head down, resting on one cheek, all I could see was a tracer mass of yellow ricocheting over my brow; with hot concrete (or stone) dust getting in my eye & mouth (lousy burnt taste). [In November 2001 I had a cataract removed from my right eye. The surgeon informed that I had several "spark burns" on the "white" of that eye. The only explanation can be that Spandau's tracer bullets ricocheting off those curbstones. It stung then & later, but was of no harm.] That guy's generosity knew no bounds, we received the whole belt (& perhaps another hooked on!) Seemed a long long time, & I thought we might be rushed when it ended. Dead silence - then L/Cpl [?] Ealham appeared from behind us & said "We're pulling out. While it's quiet, let's go." (Or a similar message). He'd been up that road, a couple of times, to inform the rear of what was happening, & then to tell us to disengage.
Crossed the road into a field driveway, tall stone gate pillars - a sgt with a thin dark moustache ('A' Coy?) told us to move to shelter as his companion, a private, plonked his Bren on one pillar & prepared to fire if necessary. I entered a clear area in front of a barn & promptly dumped that sandbag of extra bombs (I hadn't a mortar then) & my jumping jacket. At that moment a bloke (perhaps the No.3 out the second section) came by & said "Come on, Russ, they've all gone, we'll be last." We headed for a vine-covered 8 foot wall where a chap was on top to give us a hand-up. From then on, for me it's a blank until we reached a small wood. I was about last to arrive & young officer said to us, "We'll rest up here till dawn." I crouched down beside a track that skirted the wood. Slightly downhill was the roof of a house from where a dog occasionally barked. I watched & listened until dawn. With light came noise of inland bombing (carpet-style) & a rumbling from the coast direction. We gathered & prepared to leave. Through the tree tops I could see what looked like a great bank of cumulus cloud & a Lancaster came out over the top of it. It was a yellowish column & it was smoke & dust from the coast bombing.
We were on the move along hedgerows - that's all I know & remember. There was a road behind a hedge on a small bank. Two "half-tracks" were ahead. Pte. Davies (7 Platoon) squeezed half-through the hedge to observe. He lay out with the ditch below - I held his legs & he slid down towards the ditch. I moved out & held his thighs - Somebody held my legs, & a pair of binoculars got passed down. Davies studied the "half-tracks" - one halted at the roadside & the other angled out as though having intended to press-on to see better. Anyway both were stopped & with no sign of any occupants. Being completely exposed, hanging over & down that bank & ditch, I was thinking "Sod you, Taffy - hurry up & finish." If we'd come under fire I'd be a "sitting duck" unable to move.
We hauled back. My next memory is of being closer to the half-tracks in a small wooded area. There were about a dozen "bods" & a Captain Scaife (tall, big moustache). There was a P.I.A.T. man & two others with ONE bomb, who were going to check out the "half-tracks". Capt Scaife called for a sten gunner; nobody stepped forward from the group. He swivelled round & saw me well to the rear, "you've got a sten, go with them & cover." We moved along the tall roadside hedge of a field, I was further out from the hedge than the trio & intent on the cross hedge ahead (I'd noted that nobody had been detailed to cover us, so was all swivel-eyed for danger). We were approaching a gate where the P.I.A.T. could get into position, then the bomb carrier examined the bomb to find that the vanes were crushed & so was useless. We turned to go back & just then a burst of Bren fire "cracked" across ahead (nothing to do with us). Back in the trees we found that some of the Bn was there already & the area was to be the Bn's "strong point". So I don't know where the remainder of Major Hewetson's "55 strong" party came from - of that number, how come Mrs Russell's little boy capped for the "crappy" parts at the beginning & also the end of that journey?
In another book's account of 'D' day it is mentioned that a thirty-strong party came through Herouvillette that day & no Germans were seen. Perhaps that party's number has been added to Maj. H's in the history? [Re: the remainder of Major Hewetson's "stick", Pte Jack Steele (later a Provost L/Cpl in Palestine & then Provost Cpl) was either No.15 or 17. He & others had landed amongst the 12th Bn, then gathered at Div. H.Q. & were wounded by mortar fire before being able to be returned to 8th Bn. The group I was with was not all 7 Platoon. Pte Vine wasn't, nor was the Sgt (?) with the Bren gunner by the gate post in Herouvillette area - & where did Capt. Scaife come from? We had boarded that aircraft in darkness so I don't know by name who else was aboard. It seems doubtful, but was Capt. Scaife (to me!) the unknown No.3? It's improbable that two senior officers would be on the same aircraft. Major Hewetson was with a group of about three men when he left the D.Z. but I don't know who they were. The "stick" definitely included C.Q.M.S. Peters (No.20), Sgt Snow, Cpl Dudley, Ptes Donovan, Davies, Steele, Cooper & Gosling. The young officer who told us to rest till dawn was a stranger to me.]
Others of the Platoon joined us late in the day as we continued digging-in. A D.Z. group had gathered at Div. H.Q. awaiting re-joining the Bn & were caught in the mortaring there. Four of those wounded were from 7 Platoon. (Two of them eventually rejoined us on August 13th or 14th). Just before a batch of shells landed, one was a L/Cpl & as he lay, paralysed on the ground, Pte Allcock saw him & exclaimed, "What, again! You lucky bastard!" Hit in the upper leg. The other, Pte Tom McAfferty was wounded on the evening of August 18th at Goustranville. During that morning he & two others had been on a "Recce" patrol & they had been the intended targets of a machine-gunner who was perhaps too nervous to hold his "Spandau" steady. On our return journey we were showered with dirt from a batch of shells that were directed at a building we had to visit. We just happened to get there at the same time. Sgt "Danny" Dudley was a clergyman's son so perhaps there was some "Divine guidance" helping us!!! McAfferty was a L/Cpl in the Provost in Palestine 1946-7 & died in his home town of Liverpool, aged 70 about 1989.
Regarding those "half-tracks". When returning from an all-night "offensive reconnaissance patrol" in the Troarn area on the night of 7-8 June, we passed them & an officer shone his torch. The leading "half-track" had a P.I.A.T. bomb hole in its radiator, & the other had been hit & disabled. There were two dead Germans in the ditch. Their faces appeared waxen in the moonlight, one had small red & black bruise (?) marks on his pale face (Blast injured?) There was an "egg" grenade in his hand & that had been booby-trapped. [There was another body some distance away.] So it appears we had been stalking "dead ducks" on D-day. Pte Vine was killed on June 16th, during the big German attack.
[Pte Davies listed as killed 16-6-44. Was he the Davies of 7 Platoon? The Pte Davies who was observing those half-tracks on 'D' day was left near 7 Plat's (in reserve) position on June 16th to look after our small packs (left in a heap) when we went on a counter attack. This was aborted when the commander of the three M.10 "tank destroyer" (Self-propelled guns) decided it was too risky for his vehicles to proceed further down the narrow road (out of Le Mesnil) flanked by tall hedges when a German S.P. gun was known to be in the area. The M.10s halted; & with our own men then emptying all their weapons at a nearby wood, they fired their "Besa" M.Gs. When we returned Pte Davies was missing. As we were returning from Le Mesnil village a 51st Highland Div officer came along the road in search of the M.10s, saying that German tanks "Only light Mk III & Mk IVs" had knocked out all their 6-pounders. I said that they'd left us at Le Mesnil. There were distant track-vehicle sounds & at least two ricocheting solid shot tank shells going end-over-end & making a fearsome sound passed overhead from the direction of our 7 Platoon positions near the "Brickworks". We never saw Pte Davies again; but there were rumours that someone similar had been seen later near Arromanches. Next day 17th June we moved to Herouvillette & stayed for four days.]
[Re: that aborted counter-attack during afternoon of June 16th. As we approached Le Mesnil in single files either side of the road, we had just reached the first houses on left of road. Several Canadians were in front of them. On the right was a short-hedged field with some apple trees. That hedge joined a taller hedge & at that point a big broad-shouldered German emerged with his hands "up". Quick as a flash a Para, perhaps from the Intelligence Section (he was in the Sgt's mess in Palestine. I don't recall his name but he used to sit opposite me at the meal table) rushed forward & extracted his "papers" from the breast pockets. We continued on & then entered a small road on the left, where we joined up with the M.10s (3rd Div?) moving behind them in groups. L/Cpl "Ernie" Pearce passed by group, saying, "Right, lads, we'll knock the shit out of them to-day." I think those tall hedgerows & narrow (10 ft?) road would prevent the "M10"s being able to traverse their guns & so they would be "sitting ducks" for a German SP sitting in ambush.]
In early July 7 Platoon (only about ½ strength then) were to do an afternoon raid on a Jerry forward M/G post to get a prisoner (& find out what Jerry's defensive fire consisted of). To cover our party of about seven, Cpl "Percy" Harris & a bren gunner were dropped off by the corner of a field & a hedge with tall elm trees. The opposite corner & end of that hedge met a narrow gravel road & across that was a wooded strip where our Coy's forward observation position was. In that area was a Lt., a sniper & a bren gunner also "Ernie" Pearce were to engage the Jerry M/G post. Such little caper commenced when we'd almost reached a hedge forward of that where Percy Harris was. That hedge met the afore-mentioned road & just over that road was the Jerry M/G post (completely concealed). By now the "gents in field-grey" there had informed their mates in their mortar platoon that they were expecting "visitors" & desired a little support with "defensive fire". Rapid "Ponk-ing" ["PONK!" - sound of discharging 81mm mortar] followed that request & black smoke & gold & red flashes appeared along the line of hedge & trees - aforementioned - where Percy had been stationed. Very shortly that was a wall of black smoke & flashes - & only a few bombs fell short of that hedge & landed in the field. "Beautiful" precision - you'd have been fascinated, Andy would have thought, "So that's how it's done!"
Apart from some fearful fascination, I was thinking "[?]! I hope they don't shorten the bloody range!" By this time another "Spandau" M/G was adding to the noise & I was told later a lot of Jerries were appearing from around a house further along that road (I was not in a position to observe such - my hedge was too thick). Anyway, Lt Cooper got a bullet in the heel of his boot & because the "Spandau" fire down that road would cause unnecessary casualties if we crossed it he decided to retire. (For which I am truly thankful!!!)
This unfortunately gives a wrong impression - a couple of men had already crossed the road & found two Germans "cowering in a trench" & took them (prisoner) to Bn H.Q. via the road. As such, there was no need for us to cross that road. Lt. Cooper we heard had "had a bullet hit his boot." - His L/Cpl Whitehouse informed later that he was examining a groove on his boot heel next day. Prisoners had been taken, but I never saw them nor the two men who crossed that road. My account refers only to what I saw & what affected me. Perhaps of interest - Ted Eaglen was one of the pair who captured the two Germans. He'd been recommended for the M.M. on 'D' day - but never had it awarded. He received it 50 years later. It was reported in some New Zealand newspapers, including the "Oamaru Mail", about September 1994.
The mortaring had ceased, so our section trip wasn't threatened & we crouched our way back to the trees/hedge. Percy & his B-gunner were unscathed, being just beyond the mortars line of hedge. From there we first walked back the field & a half to our positions. We heard that Ernie Pearce & that officer had been wounded, their B-gunner was killed & the sniper was O.K. Weeks later that sniper told me that Ernie had got a mortar fragment in his back & thought he'd been crippled for life so was pleading "Shoot men, for f___ sake". The medics came & took him away. He was in Tilshead in September/October onwards until I left the Bn. in November/Dec about. & when I got back to the 8th in August '46 he was C.S.M. of 'C' Coy. I'd say he was glad his plea wasn't granted in July '44. His intention on de-mob was to open a fish & chip shop with his mother. I wonder if he did.
Bois de Bavent
...On the phone I reminded you of - was it your first trip up to the Bois de Bavent with its pleasant down-to-earth, country-living lifestyle & with its pre-dug earthen-floored slit trench residences (a real bonus!)? - the day when you & at least two other hard-muscled "hairy-armed para's" (were they "Ginger" Marshall & Cpl Stead?) were detailed off to dig a slit trench in rock-hard soil by the junction of two hedgerows slightly forward of our "front". Presumably that was to strategically enhance the coverage of the Platoon's fire power. It could also have been just to keep us occupied, because at the time when your muscles started to really ache & you began to lose interest in that part of your "war effort", the project was abandoned. Likewise with my efforts to cover up those portions that protruded from under the groundsheets that covered the bulk of the two surface-buried corpses. You blokes had the only available pick-axe(?) & two shovels whilst I made use of my entrenching tool. The first scrapings of the soil landed on the skull which promptly rolled off down a slope. It was returned & wedged into its place with soil - & that's how it remained until we moved further South-East. That day the "Compo ration" arrived - my favourite "pudding" in that issue - creamy rice. Made my day!
At that time there were plenty of wasps about, most probably because of the flies which hatched from under those groundsheets. (The flies are used as "tucker" for the larvae in their nests!) Our jam ration attracted them also. I recall having a jam-covered square biscuit by one corner eating from another whilst the other two corners were each occupied by a wasp. Both were willing to share the jam with me as they buried their noses in it & slurped it down. Soon my nose was getting very close to them & they angrily (or nervously?) buzzed their wings. I thought that was a bit "on the nose" - Fair go! It was my bloody jam! I gave a mighty "Sod off!" blast which dislodged them. They buzzed around for a short time, then "took off". Perhaps I was unaware that I had "bad breath?" (The Colgate & Macleans advertisements stressed that with that anti-social oral condition "even one's best friends wouldn't tell you.")
We weren't on that position very long. One day a sapper was cleaning "booby-trap" grenades from the strip of bushes beside our positions. They were Jerry "egg grenades", I think one detonated & the sapper departed to get a dressing applied.
We were next by the Bois de Bures - There was a shot-up Chateau in a clear area to the left & forward of our positions. Some 9th Bn were dug-in to our left under solitary trees in that clear area. (I think that was the area where Major Hewetson's ex-Ranville area D.Z. party linked up with the Bn. about mid-day on 'D'-day - seemed familiar). We heard that the Chateau was often occupied by Jerry patrols, but it was 9th Bn's responsibility to attend to such little details! So, there was no need for us to have nervous thoughts & sweaty armpits. One night you & I & a Cpl (was it?) shared a "standing patrol" duty in a slit-trench in a wooded strip. Had to be careful with lighting & smoking fags. We "puffed up large" at the bottom of the "slittie".
I mentioned on the phone that Pte. Berry whilst beside the bren there had a sniper's bullet hit & splinter on the barrel. Well in 1949 or 50, the girlfriend wanted to see the Chelsea Flower Show, whilst I was home (Enfield, Middx) for three days from Grimsby (3½ weeks at sea, then 3 or 4 days ashore). She was admiring the exhibits & blooms - I was admiring any attractive "bits of skirt" who were in sight beyond the rows of blooms (Made a pleasant change to the complete lack of such opportunities whilst "earning a crust" between the latitudes of 63 - 73. "New Look" dresses were not part of that scene). My companion told me that a bloke in a kiosk some distance away was trying to attract my attention - I was wearing an O.C.A. Para badge. The bloke was young Berry (he & his brother had a pet shop & stocked tropical fish, etc) He told me that he still had small bits of shrapnel in his arm but they were working their way out. As far as I know he was wounded on the evening of Aug 17th whilst you, "Ginger" & myself & an older Infantry (Border Regt?) reinforcement (He & his taller mate Chamberlain (?) had come from a Beach Group & were the Platoon's first reinforcements when the Battalion went to the "Rest-Area" near the Orne River bridge in late June.) were out on a flank & nestled under & between two long stumps of fallen elm trees over a ditch. There were at least three big bomb craters in the field, & in the closest one you & Ginger put some dead branches & draped a gas cape over them to serve as shelter for "Ginger" who manned a Bren there. We'd sorted out our guard roster for the night. Our task as set by Sgt "Danny" Dudley was to deter any German patrols who might venture into our area. Once, you came back from a visit to "Ginger" & said "I think young 'Ginge' is lonely. He may have been having a little weep." (That could have been said in jest, but you sounded serious.) ["Ginger" had a cold & was a "sniffer". Why mess a handkerchief which you cannot wash when you can "sniff sniff sniff"? If the nose is 'full' one places a thumb against one nostril & snorts into the grass! So when Dick approached he would have heard the sniffing (which can sound like weeping - Anyway, on the 'phone he agrees that is what happened). Actually our "little Ginger" is four years older than me!]
Bois de Bures again. There was a No.3 Commando "bod" in the field when we first arrived & during a chat he was not happy that on that very day we were both doing exactly the same job yet the Para were getting 2/- a day extra.
Came a day when Lt. Clarke, accompanied by Cpl Stead, erroneously assuming that I was a good, keen man, raring for excitement, adventure & eager for an opportunity to be shot at by enthusiastic members of the Wehrmacht, asked, requested, persuaded, no! told me to accompany them & venture into the Bois de Bures & the haunt of the 346 Div. Close to that standing patrol "slittie" we crossed the low bank; there came a slight rise & atop that stood Cpl. Stead directing my attention to a rusty tripwire just ahead of my size 10 boots. It was attached to a Jerry "egg" grenade a short distance away. Cpl Stead stealthily led from tree to tree. Lt Clarke [Lt Clarke was a reinforcement from Infantry who replaced Lt Cooper who'd been wounded in July.] had deemed that we should do this "recce" "by the book" - with care & without haste. We proceeded in such fashion. Cpl Stead raised his hand & signalled "halt" & then came a Spandau burst. No worries, it "cracked" well to our left. Was repeated again & directed to our left as before. Stead had heard the sound of the metal lid of the belt container being thrown back ready for firing. We hadn't been seen for the aim wasn't at us; perhaps the guy just got bored with silence & decided to reassure himself that his weapon was in working order (unlike "Ginger's" Bren at Beuzeville, eh?) [It's possible that the M.G's sights were not aligned & so it fired to our left. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it prevented them enjoying schadenfeuede that day.] We gently eased back to home ground. At the de-briefing tent was the Company "Brass" & Capt. Bookless (He'd been at Hardwick & on Course 79 at Ringway - & our paths hadn't crossed since those days.) Next day he sought me out & offered me a "tape". My mind at once switched to thoughts of extra pay - riches!! 9 pence a day could increase my daily cigarette consumption; give me an extra NAAFI bun every day & the girlfriend could be lured into the back row at the "Pictures" more often. Money is the root of all evil 'tis said!!! When we got back to U.K. I found that that pay had been backdated to about July 25. At times, fate grants gifts - but very seldom; very seldom!
Some days later approx. August 13th they pulled us out of the line to an area once occupied by 51st HD [Highland Division] to get prepared to follow the Germans who were about to retreat. A few fields away in a grove was the mass grave of a HD Bn. marked by a Regt. shield sign denoting 23 (?) bodies. Close by was the wreck of a Mark IV tank - its turret slid off and resting against tracks with a body crushed beneath. Two more were lying against the rear & a headless body was up a short tree with its skull on the ground. It looked as though a Typhoon's rocket had done the damage. Other rocket-type craters were nearby. There other corpses were in a cluster in the next field; ones face had shrivelled into a Mongolian likeness & there was a lifebouy type flame-thrower on one's back. A nearby hut was marked "booby trapped". On a grassed farm road that the tank's gun had covered, I saw a brand new British Inf. helmet. I picked it up - inside was the owner's complete dark-haired scalp & the blood was still damp. That was a pointer to the area being still in shelling range & perhaps why the Jocks had made no attempt to bury the dead Germans. By that hut were several discarded photos of the Russian front - a dead Russian lying behind his bi-pod mounted M.G. with its flat, round magazine on top. Another showed a long column of horse drawn carts (German Army) winding across downland-type country. Someone "souvenired" them.
Three of us were near an open field gate, with another group nearby. There was a deep rut where a tank had slewed as it had passed through the gate. I heard drumfire & almost immediately the shells were "whiz-banging" around us. That slew-rut came in handy. The half-dozen or so shells was our ration for the moment. I stood up; to see all the others rising up in the grey smoke. Hey! That reminds me of your mate Frank Allcock ("All-to-cock" by nickname) & his advice when asked by some reinforcements what shelling & mortaring was like - "You'll be flat on the ground trying to press yourself into it or screwed up in a ball in your trench & every time you feel one land you'll have just one thought & that's "Next one's mine!"" By August I think most of us had a different outlook. We still minimised our chances of being hit, but we no longer thought "Next one's mine."
Was is that same day or the next that MacCafferty (was a L/Cpl provost, with Jack Steele & a ginger-haired "Paddy" in Palestine) & a long, thin L/cpl returned to the Bn? Had been wounded at Div H.Q. Ranville in the 'D' day shelling & mortaring together with little Collier (later wounded on the Rhine drop) who'd been underneath "Tubby" Harry Gilbert. A couple of others had been there too & had been "jumpy" ever since. The pair had only been back with us for about fifteen minutes when "drumming" started & the "whizz-bangs" arrived as we got earth bound. Then the L/cpl lay on the ground looking pale & shocked & with a leg wound. Frank Allcock stuck his head out of his "hole"; saw who'd copped it & called out, "What, again! You lucky barstand" then gave his usual cheerful grin.
Next day we did a "recreational" route march - to strengthen our legs after the weeks of trench-living & idleness. That took us to near the Sannerville-Bannerville area which had been "crater-bombed" on 17th-18th July to prevent a German counter-attack by tanks. Ahead of us was the view of a railway track with twin rail lengths curled up like mammoth's tusks. On one side of the road was a brick or stone barn & on the verge before it was a surface-burial grave with a rough cross marked "Unknown French civilian".
On the 16th August, "old soldier" Sgt McIlhargey with his "loot bag" - a small pack with a protruding German bayonet & [?] & bulging with acquisitions, registered his enthusiasm for the coming advance by prostrating himself Muslim-fashion on his knees, touching the earth with his forehead & wailing "Allah, send me more loot." For all the clowning, he was a down-to-earth, serious Scot. He was a regular & had contracted malaria whilst abroad. In the Spring of '44 whilst doing Company Clerk duty, he'd been typing away, wrapped in a big blanket & uncontrollably shivering with a recurrence of that malaria. That year he'd married a considerably younger girl from the Tilshead Camp "Naafi" - a quiet lass [She became a widow in September. His grave is near the Seine & is thought that RAF planes had attacked the German transport in which he was a prisoner.] [McIlhargey was, in fact, murdered by the German soldiers who took him prisoner, as told below in another letter.]. But, the new manageress who arrived that year was something different. Mature, pleasant features & smile - & the cream uniform blouse was a salient feature. Many an extra Naafi "rock cake" was consumed as young lads (me too!) had fantasies.
Aug 17. Up early & away. The 9th & Canadians had had casualties from booby traps in the Bois. In a field beside the gravelled road to Bures there was a big stack of empty shallow boxes (said to have contained mines) & at one spot leafy branches covered Teller mines on the road - no danger to us though. Entrance to Bures; there was a rubber tyred German Army waggon on its side in the left hand ditch - the dead horses were still in the shafts. The rail bridge had had its centre blasted out & spans had collapsed into the river. I got my boots wet in crossing low down but others crossed on a higher level. By the far abutment was a German forage cap (clean & newish) lying on the ground. I didn't pick that up. We headed in file up to the line of the long-removed tracks & then dropped down to a submerged track & crossed the flooded valley about calf deep. There was a barn near the top of the far escarpment slope. We paused about ¾ up & waited. There were three big yellow swallow-tail butterflies on what looked like hemlock or hedge-parsley type flowers (in England they are very rare & only breed in the Reserve at Wicken Fen on fennel plants). A large house along the ridge had a table outside in the garden under a small tree. The blokes who had last used it had left used plates & food scraps on it. Definitely untidy types! - Would make lousy husbands until brought under control by their hausfraus resorting to husband-beating! Just a guess: Fortunately I'm a tidy type mostly & the wife is almost 3 stone lighter.
About a mile away were the files of another Coy. moving along a narrow road. Later, on a main road there was shellfire ahead & we dropped into a shallow ditch. There was a chap sitting next to me; his face covered with a face veil, & his tanned skin drained yellow. Quite dead - I recognised him as a tall, slim infantry reinforcement officer from another Coy. Dr R.A. (Tony) Leake the 8th Bn historian informed me this year that he was leading scout that day & a burst put three holes through his smock's press stud flap & a groove in one buttock. That officer was Lt. John Ruddick 'B' Coy. He didn't take the advice of Sgt Roberts & other lads that he would get shot if he went to help Leake. Such occurred. Leake didn't find out about Ruddick until 2 years ago & then eventually traced his widow & son (who was only 8 months old in 1944). I was only a short distance from the ramp leading to a field gate. Some officers were by the gate & RSM Parsons came along & joined them. There was a large pool of blood on the ramp, he exclaimed that "someone's hit bad." then looked down & said "Oh!" as he saw the body.
In file we reached a small hamlet/village with spaced houses. Shelling ahead - with a burst beside the road there. We adopted the prone position in the gutter & waited. Whilst there I saw Brigadier Hill standing in the porch recess of the close house. His hands were on the wall edge & he peered up the road. "Jock" Pearson was stooped behind & peering from under the Brig's elbow. I felt uneasy lying there, when those blokes were standing. Shells commenced again - this time closer. One landed behind the house opposite & pebbles landed & rolled against my wrist. That was all. When I looked up the Brig & "Jock" had gone.
On our way again. Heard the platoon (at least) was to occupy up to stream ahead. And so it came to pass that there was a hedge beside a driveway that led to a large house that appeared to have like a bell tower on one end & tall trees by the drive there. There was a small bomb crater in that hedge & two or three "bods" lined the far rim. One was an infantry Cpl. A stream of white tracer angled across the green hedge ahead & was meant for those to the left of us - Harry Gilbert & Co perhaps, with their Bren. The bursts continued. To the right was a cross hedge which obscured a building, tall trees & perhaps apple trees. Decided to use the 2" mortar - from the bottom of the crater of course! Little Edwards (was that his name?) fed me the bombs. There were plenty of smoke, but only three H.E. [High Explosive] on hand between us. Sighting from a point in that hedge, through the Cpl's uplifted straight arm & the barrel (at steep angle) three H.E. bombs were discharged. Instead of shouts of "Kamerad" & Krauts waving white flags there was more Spandau fire. The Germans treated our "magnificent effort" with complete indifference. Lt. Clarke came along & appraised the situation - we obviously lacked the resources to complete the task. [The Troarn and Bures bridges were "down", so a Bailey (or pontoon) bridge had to be built to bring our heavy gear up to us next day. Brens & 2" mortars were useless against well-prepared defences.] Sgt Jackson came along. We were next to a pale green leaved bush (an elderberry?) when something gave an unusual "crack" & a red furrow appeared on Sgt Jackson's temple. He checked with his hand & said "It's nothing" but the Lt. told him to go back for a dressing. We wandered through some apple trees; little Edwards with a mouthful of chewed apple asked "What'll we do now, Russ?" I shrugged, "Go & dig-in, I expect." Sgt. Danny Dudley later put me with a sapper who was beside the main road with a Bren & we were to cover in case there was a counter attack. The guy agreed that I should have the first session of "shut-eye". I was just about to "drop off" when Danny turned up & I joined you, "Ginger" & the infantryman for our lonely night on the flank.
Next morning (some time) Danny Dudley & Tom MacCafferty visited us & informed that during the evening whilst having a brew up in a hollow a mortar bomb or bombs wounded Cpl Stead, Ptes Gilson, Allcock, Williams, Wheeler & Berry (?). Wounded also was L/Cpl Porter who lost a foot & died of loss of blood at Brigade.
I expect Danny thought I was a "country boy" who'd appreciate a little stroll through the Normandy countryside admiring the wildflowers & the butterflies. Anyway, he was such a pleasant person (the son of a clergyman; I only heard him say "bloody" once). How could one refuse when he offered, "Do join us, we're going thataway." I said that I was anti-volunteering but would go if told to. Off we went, along a hedge, through a gate & a long orchard (that led up to outhouses & a big house - I think it was that with the bell-tower(?)). Crossed that & through another gate into a narrow field. Followed the hedge & ditch to where the hedge ended at two small wooden shelters (animal or human?) & then it turned a right-angle to the right. So our narrow field became/joined a huge one. We were no longer camouflaged into the hedge colours [Unlike heavy infantry - we had camouflaged "Dennison smocks"], but silhouetted against the huts (I was, at least). At that point in time across that field a German drooling over his favourite Spandau & just itching to hear it go "bang", had his chance to strike a blow for the Fatherland. Nearest to him was F.J. Russell (in his prime, 20 yrs old & still a virgin!) He got his burst away and... much to his annoyance & my relief (Tom's & Danny's too!!) his aim was off. The Army "D.C.O.F." instruction was instantaneously obeyed - at least the "Down - crawl to cover" part was. The "observe - fire" didn't occur until much later & at a greater distance. My crawl style was definitely a fast "lower than a snake's belly wriggle" & a slither into that ditch. Danny called, "You O.K. Russ?" then "You, Tom?" & all was well. The "gent" in field grey vented his spite with at least two more bursts which harmlessly ripped into the hedge roots above me (the heart beat could return to normal!) We emerged near to that gate. Danny decided to try to draw fire as he wasn't sure of the exact position of the Spandau. Danny had borrowed Lt Clarke's Yankee M1 carbine which Tom fired from the gate post. There was no reply.
Next was the house with the "tower". Was being used as an artillery O.P. [Observation Post] & Danny was to see how they were faring. Had just reached the outhouses at rear when "drumming" commenced & the "Whiz-bangs" arrived (meant for the house of course, we just happened to be in the vicinity). A bit of dirt fell around, but when you're lying in assorted rubbish between two brick buildings about 5' apart there's no need to get anxious. The officer at the O.P. told Danny that, earlier on, a big German fighting patrol had gone through our orchard. We moved back through that orchard with caution & all swivel-eyed!!! And so back to our little out-post by the bomb craters & the opportunity to contentedly "drag" on a "fag" (In those days, when you could "cough your lungs up" & not give a thought about emphysema or lung cancer, eh?) You blokes would have heard the firing but we'd all come back O.K. so there was no need to talk about it. As I remember we never discussed such incidents.
Funny about that spot - every so often one or more shells landed in the Bn's area, nearly always when one of us returned from the Coy. H.Q. (food, water, a crap, etc). One time we were in our scraping below the tree stumps, a salvo landed nearby as we lay silently waiting the outcome. The Infantry "bod" suddenly said, "God help us" quietly. Surprised me, not ever expecting such a prayer - being an atheist. I was struck by the use of "us" & not "me". That increased my respect for him.
On a visit to Coy H.Q. I found one of those huge cider barrels to be really rough & about undrinkable for delicate English palates. It occurred to me that my first taste of English beer (age 15 yrs) seemed equally foul; until with constant practice I found it to be at least drinkable. Therefore with practice, like the French, I'd acquire a taste for it. So, out with the water, & in with the cider & with two mouthfulls & a quick shudder I holstered my water bottle & headed to our den. By the time I reached it there was a ball of dull pain between my eyes - & it didn't go away for hours. I didn't persevere with the cider trial: Uneven contest - I gave up the fight!!! (Perhaps that barrel was immature & not ready for drinking).
That evening the 9th Bn & the Canadians did their respective attacks. The Canadian's "[?]" came from our left front & from approx where that Spandau had been in the morning, came two high pitched shouts of "Kamerad" followed by a short pause & then two Sten bursts. Makes one think.... about 'D'-plus-6 we heard that two Germans came into the "Canucks" area by Le Mesnil, showed the white flag & when an officer went forward to accept them, they shot the officer; and word came to us that they'd never take a German prisoner after that episode (that could have been just rage of the moment - but was it?)
Later Information Re: the Canadians. What we heard about D+6 was just a rumour. Face is - a damaged German armoured vehicle crashed into a ditch. A German inside pleaded for help & "Nich shiesen", but had then emerged (apparently unhurt) with a Schmeisser & severely wounded the officer who'd gone forward. Result - all the other occupants of that vehicle were shot. That account comes from the Canadian Bn's Le Mesnil history "The Rising of Courage" as loaned to me by Captain John Madden (was Lt. on 'D'-day & wounded on June 16th at Le Mesnil) who now lives at Piha, (North of Auckland) N.Z.
August 21st 1944 - Goustranville to Annebault
I don't recall anything of what we did after the night of August 18th. Did we stay in our "den" under the elm tree stumps? At one time I was near the main road & there was a tall 48 Marine Commando C.S.M. with Danny Dudley - his brother. We "fell in" on the road & piled our small packs beside it then set off in Platoon formation. We came to a bridge entrance with a German anti-tank(?) gun on the left hand side. I don't know if we crossed there or took a detour to our right & crossed the stream later. There was a morning mist to above the height of the roadside trees. Later in thicker mist there was a "pill box" type structure on our right with a field gate to our left & a dead German with a bandaged arm in a sling was seated against the hinge post. Being in the left rank I didn't look at that "pill box", but later either you or Alcock said that a German in the "pill box" was behind a gun & it was pointing straight at him. He thought "This is it!" & then realised that the bloke was dead. On a diet of white flour biscuits & "Compo" rations which lacked dietary fibre & "roughage" an occasional like that could loosen up the bowels & cure one's chronic constipation.
Dozulé was ahead on higher ground. A big long range gun had been firing occasional shells which passed to the side of us & landed well away, but then it fired at least two which were closer (but no danger to us physically - nevertheless the train-like unusual sound of their approach & passing made me feel uneasy). That happened as we approached a group of R.E.'s beside a trench dug across the road to just past the middle. In the trench were at least two huge shells standing upright, having had a long thick plank balanced over their nose cones before the R.E.'s came along.
Entered Dozulé in section files. On the right of the road, a terrace of houses, with entrances straight off the pavement & some with shop windows, were on fire. The flames jetted out to the curb & so we had to move into the road. One shop had been looted; with empty, underwear-type boxes strewn over the pavement, that's all I can recall. Later we were in open formation & moving across a forward slope of a grassed area towards a hedgerow, with a house in the field beyond. On the right was the rear of a house with a trench or dug-out in the field in front - a white flag was above that "trench" (could have been a French shelter). 'Twas said that there was a possibility that some Germans were still hiding in that area, but it was a false alarm. I remember being in single file moving fast up a slope in an orchard of straggling apple trees; grass nearly knee high. The bloke, there ahead of me suddenly veered sharply to his right for about four feet & then continued back on his original track. The next one did the same & I saw that an apple tree there had a small swarm of hornets buzzing around its trunk. We all followed in the original bloke's track (not that hornets are nasty sods like wasps - but its wiser not to antagonise them!?) Haven't a clue as to why we were there - perhaps that was our return to the road route. Back on the road, plodding on; past a few French people beside the road offering food & drink. On the principle, "Thou shalt not eat on the march," I declined the "tucker", but when a "tot" of what looked like gin was offered, I threw it straight down - my mistake!! Sheez, was it hot! It burned its way down & I gagged. Then tears streamed from my eyes. That was my introduction to "Calvados" spirits - I'm wiser! Damn stuff must have been 100% alcohol.
A couple of miles further & an (or was it two?) armoured car approached from ahead, was a Belgian, with smoke canister dischargers on its turret's side. An officer (could have been Lt Clarke) said, "Keep going; there's nothing ahead" (or similar words). About a couple of miles later, a "Spandau" opened up ahead & a forward platoon went to ground by the roadside. A slight left hand bend prevented my seeing more than a couple of the men there. Anyway, another burst came & those "bods" moved into the ditch. The forward blokes must have deployed, for a motorbike roared away into the distance. We passed where the "Spandau" had been - a big heap of cartridge cases was by the roadside. When that "Spandau" had opened up ahead, I noticed that a green-coloured smoke projectile was on the road. That Belgian armoured car had made contact.
Eventually 7 Platoon were "on point". A "young" bloke and that infantryman who'd been our mate under the tree stumps at Goustranville were the leading scouts on the left side of the road. The "point" section was a bit too close to the scouts - almost opposite. Ahead of me was Harry "Tubby" Gilbert, then L/Cpl "Jacko" Jackson & perhaps another - was he Ron Marshall? Behind me was that infantry corporal & I think another man was behind him.
We'd just passed a house on the right & were rounding a slight bend with about four big plane trees close to the road edge. There was a tall hedge there & there could have been a field gate & ramp over the ditch just ahead of them. A "Spandau" burst went past. The scouts went to ground. The others crouched behind those plane trees but I went to the ditch - suspecting that the trees would be the natural spot to place a booby trap. The cpl called to the scouts to see if they were O.K. Then a rifle grenade burst on the verge by the infantry "bod" & wounded him behind the arm. The cpl told him to try to get back to safety otherwise we'd get help later. "Tubby" Gilbert was peering around his tree when there was a sharp metallic sound & "Tubby" behind the tree held out his helmet and said "Cor, look at that!" A bullet had hit the rim of the helmet & split it. That Jerry had been a good shot.
Lt. Clarke from somewhere to the rear shouted, "2" mortar!" I said, "Not under these trees." If "Tubby" could be seen on the road side of his tree, then the next two trees would be worse. The right hand view would be shielded by the tree ahead & the closest one would be suicide to try. Time passed & from ahead to the left came the sound of a vehicle going away. The Cpl said "See if they're still there." & I moved forward, Harry Gilbert & "Jacko" followed. Just ahead was a gate on the right & a house in that field. We crossed the ramp & crawled along the ditch. Hadn't gone many yards & then a "Spandau" fired a burst down the road. I heard young teenager-sounding voices making excited whispers from somewhere over the road. They were the Germans who'd fired the rifle grenade, etc. A grenade could have "fixed" them but then the M.G. up the road would have "fixed" us. The road appeared to bear to the left about 100 yards ahead, in which case the M.G. would not necessarily be able to enfilade into our ditch. A broken sapling lay out from the hedge & I saw a line of severed grass stems & leaves sliding down into the ditch from its rim - a foot above & eighteen inches to the right of my shoulder it certainly gave me cause to ponder the "wisdom" of my presence there. But it was above the depth of the ditch so that lessened its risk. I slid forward about four feet & then something "cracked" past; my right ear went dead & there was a feeling of numbness over that side of my face & head. I shook my head & wriggled my little finger into my ear but that didn't help. That round(s) was too close & well down in the ditch so with left hand behind me I signalled for Harry G. to go back. I slid backwards for some distance & looked over my left shoulder to see Harry. His chin was resting on his hand & for a moment I thought, "You calm sod; you've fallen asleep." Then I saw the neat round hole half-an-inch above the arch of his right eyebrow. Up close - complexion normal, no draining to grey or yellow as happens with wounds that bleed. The heart must have stopped immediately; no blood; just the thin red circle of cut flesh & a slight bulge of grey matter. Eyes almost closed, he had unusual coloured eyelashes, quite pale. I slid slowly backwards alongside & over him, expecting any moment to take a bullet in the head or shoulders (that's why I didn't turn around!!!) I had to get to his other side which lay over his Bren gun so I came up from behind & shouldered him over. "Never leave an automatic behind" was our pre-"D" day instruction. His body was surprisingly warm to the touch & it provided a shield for me as I retrieved the Bren. His side-arm was Lt. Clarke's .38 Webley & the lanyard was under his arm & around his neck, so I cut it with my knife. Took a bit of time & I heard "Jacko's" stressed voice call, "Leave it, Russ." With my Sten, pistol & the Bren I got back to "Jacko". He took the Bren & we got back to the ramp & that gate. I saw that the other lads were no longer by the plane trees & I remember saying, "They've gone; they've f___ left us!" I was feeling stressed with nervous exhaustion. We went through the gate & I saw the silhouettes of people seated at a table in the nearest room of that house in the field. Thought of firing from that gateway to where the young Germans were, but couldn't see their position. Went to the hedgerow of the next house & one of the platoon called "Is that you, Jacko?" Inside the house, the corporal & at least one of the lads were upstairs keeping watch by a window. I told him where the enemy were, but they were invisible behind that tall hedge. Downstairs we waited. A fire-place(?) had a mantel with various ornaments. A board(?) with various mementos on hooks was beside it. A small gold fob watch & a medal (could have been 1914-18 Verdun?) were there. Several lads were having a "look-see" & one removed the watch so I said "Be sure to put it back - the Germans didn't take it." Perhaps I was a tad distrustful - Englishmen are honest people, but some like to collect "souvenirs" to remind them of their travels in foreign lands!!!
Later I heard a motorbike in the distant rear approaching. He came closer & closer & I thought that he'd stop before reaching our Company. Next moment he sped past straight to the enemy. Came a "Spandau" burst & we heard the bike crash & the metallic sound as it slid along the road. There was a large red blanket on a bed or couch so I took it out to the gate, swung the gate out to the verge & draped the blanket over it as a warning sign. Heard later that a German had risen from the ditch & shot that despatch rider.
One of our platoons had already gone on a flanking movement - we stayed by that house. There was a sudden "Whoosh! Whoosh!" from the German lines as two rocket mortars were fired. The projectiles passed overhead & exploded loudly to our rear. The Bn Signals Section beside the road "copped" it & were practically "wiped out". Major Cramp of Signals Platoon was one of those killed. Those rockets didn't sound like the big "Moaning Minnies" we'd had on Jun 16th when 346 Div had paid a visit. These were smaller versions of the Nebelwerfer launchers, but what of their anti-tank weapon the "Panzerfaust?" Could that, like our own P.I.A.T.s be used as a mortar also? If so....?
Later, we were sitting under the roadside hedge, with our feet in the ditch passing time & smoking. A tall laughing Para came along with three dishevelled-looking young German prisoners. They looked just kids of 16-17 years at most. The nearest to us, the shortest, was grinning, making smoking motions with hand to lips & gesturing for us to give him a cigarette. These blokes were possibly the ones I'd heard across the road earlier. I lifted my sten, pointed to the muzzle implying that that was the only smoke he'd get. He seemed too cocky for me. If he'd had a straight face I'd have given him a "fag". I've no idea of what we did next but eventually we marched to a place called Haie Tondu (so I'm told) & I remember it rained on the way, I was half asleep & I think it was after dark when we got there. Distance about 3½ miles.
There's something you may not know, Nick. Our infantry reinforcement mate (who was wounded by the rifle grenade) & his taller friend Chamberlain came from a Beach Group (Broad white band around their infantry helmets). Had arrived after the main assault & cleared the area for the landing of vehicles, etc. Bodies had been stacked "like cardwood". Shortly after they joined us as our "rest area" by the River Orne, a man asked them how they felt about "their chances" in the Para. Chamberlain said that during a leave an old lady in their street who could "read the tea cups" & "always got it right" had told them that nothing would happen to them - so they were confident that all would be well. Of course I saw the flaw in that. If the old lass saw doom in the tea leaves she'd certainly not tell them - her neighbours. Chamberlain (and another) was killed by rifle grenades on Aug 21st. I know nothing about what happened with 8 or 9 Platoons that day. That's war as we knew it. We only see & hear what's happening in the 50 yards or so around us (if our chins are touching the grass we see even less, eh?) AND we never talked about it afterwards.
That was 7 Platoon's part in 3 Para Brigade's battle for Annebault. My afterthoughts - "See if they're still there" was the corporal's order. They were still there; so I should have returned, & Harry would still be alive then. But would we have then gone with Chamberlain's party? The only certainty is that Harry got the "Infantryman's Prayer" - Instant death, no pain. But, I was responsible for his death.
Beuzeville next. You & Ron had your "Moments to Remember" then.
August 25th 1944 - Beuzeville
August 25 '44. Most of Aug 24 we'd been on trucks. Late afternoon we'd boarded a ferry & crossed a river. On foot through a village & it was raining. Were to occupy a large barn for the night with 50% of us to be on guard beside a tall hedge boundary because the Germans were not far up the road. (The French partisans intended to give them some trouble that night.) Come morning, breakfast was later (tinned bacon) & before we could eat it came the order to "Get on parade", our unfinished food stuffed into our pockets ready for eating later (not on the march!) A sergeant did eat "on the march" & was put "on a charge" by Capt. Scaife & duly punished. I re-call nothing of the march until we caught-up with the 41st Marine Commando ahead of us. They were held-up at a cutting by shell fire. We were in single files either side of the road & halted beside the 41st's rear-following jeeps. Again a blank space in my memory.
Later, presumably we'd moved to the right flank & advanced via a road - We were in a field. Beyond the hedge-bank ahead of us was a house. There was "Spandau" fire from the hedge-bank beyond that house. I was a short distance from Sgt McCabe-Dallas (from 8 or 9 Platoon) who was with Pte's Neilson & Britcher who were close to the near sparse hedge-bank. To the left a wooded strip led to near where the machine-gun was. McCabe-Dallas asked Neilson, "Would you be able to get through that wood & shoot?" Neilson gave a "sling off" comment, "I'd rather not!" At which, Britcher said, "I'll go with the Bren, but first I'll have to have a 'crap' - I'm bursting!" and away he went. (Later in the day he re-joined us. He still had the Bren gun but he also had a bullet hole clean through the centre of one of his palms).
Came another Spandau burst & a Para raced from the far side of that house to shelter at the rear. Then 7 Platoon (see map No.1) took the route as shown & because they were slowed by the hedge several men took an easier route to the road gate. Ahead of me was Ron Marshall. I crossed the gate & saw a recent Para. reinforcement behind me (he had auburn streaks in his hair - I never knew his name, so I'll refer to him later as "Auburn"). Ron went straight past road (2) entrance (didn't notice the others on that road). I decided to catch up & correct him rather than shouting & distracting the others on the road (2). Ahead was an intersection, road (4) & a man was there beckoning to behind him. He was silhouetted & I couldn't recognise his dress; then the beckoned one's head & shoulders appeared & the muzzle of a "Spandau" appeared too. Germans!!! As Ron was carrying his Bren & naturally thought that he'd "take them" from the waist - no trouble. I looked at the guy with the "Spandau" but he'd ducked back. Ron was hunched over & doing something with his Bren but not firing. I looked at the first German - he had his rifle to his shoulder and it was sighted straight at me. As he either was closing the bolt or flipping-over the safety catch. I squeezed the trigger of my Sten (from the waist) & my finger went right to the back of the finger guard & nothing happened! Idiot!!! Not expecting to meet enemy for some time, I'd not had to prepare & take the cocking handle out of its safety recess. Only one action to take - distract his aim by dropping to the ground & rolling to the ditch then come up firing. As I hit the ground his bullet "crack"ed past me. In the ditch, knees up, with Sten braced over them, as "Jerry" took four long strides & loped to the road (4) sheltering bank. I fired as he disappeared (& missed!) I'd seen that Ron was lying in the ditch ahead of me - perhaps shot? The "Jerry" took a quick peep around the hedge-bank & was gone by the time my burst reached him. I then noticed that Ron was, or appeared to be, carrying out the 2nd I.A. (Instant Action) with the Bren & altering the gas ports. 'Twas a good thing that he'd not lifted his head as I had fired over him. No more peeps by our "playmate" so I decided that I'd fire a burst in anticipation that he'd have another peep at that moment. Before I could do so I noticed grenades arcing up over our hedge. They passed over me & landed on the road. I ducked as I saw them explode, but they were of no danger to us. No sign of the "peeper" being inquisitive so I called & asked Ron "You all right? Let's go." & so we re-joined the others in road (2) intending to try from there. By the gate on the left was "Auburn". He said, "-?- has just thrown a grenade." (Perhaps that man had been the infantry corporal or Pte L[ori?].) At that moment "drumming" of artillery fire could be heard & then the "[?]-bangs" arrived. I hit the ground by the hedge-bank as one shell exploded about 20 feet inside the field opposite - I saw it through the gate there. Two men raced away as it landed.
Then we were on the move again, & where that shell had landed I saw a dead Para beside his Bren. I wasn't going to leave that behind, so went over the gate to retrieve it. The shell "scraping" was about 5 feet from him & his drained face was already grey. I couldn't see a wound but that could have been under him. He was "in looks" the "double of" if not the man on Para Course 79 who in a "Whitley" decided that he couldn't do his seventh jump & I had to change places with him. (Some men on that Course done likewise & then later completed the Course. Perhaps he was one. If so it's strange that we never re-acquainted.) Anyway, no luck - I got the Bren to the road & found the "small of the butt" was splintered; useless! So I kept the magazine & dumped the gun by the roadside near a house.
And so, on our way. Instead of getting behind that earlier Spandau by moving to the right we turned left into road (3). Up front were Sgt Whittle (later killed in the Ardennes 27 Jan 1945) & about five men including Pte Dick Lach. Then followed a few men & Lt Clarke. Continued some distance & I felt uneasy because we were travelling past & perhaps not noticing our flanks. I looked over the waist-high rocks-&-earth bank with foliage atop & saw a gate X at the far end of the field (I was at Z). Leaning on that gate were three men with jackets undone & some with the sleeves rolled or pushed up to the elbows, light shirts open at neck. Looked like farm workers - didn't notice if wearing headwear. Hard to discern through the foliage. Notified Lt. Clarke. He lifted his binoculars & ordered "They're enemy. Shoot them." Near me was a Bren gunner (I think he was one of the recent new Para arrivals). I said, "You shoot & I'll back you up with the Sten. Take a good slow aim & check that you are on automatic." (He was a new man & perhaps could be nervous). I sighted up & waited for his burst before I squeezed. Instead of a burst, there came a single shot & the "Jerries" vanished. I said "Fix that." - then, expecting the ex-targets to then be peering through their roadside hedge I raked the hedge-base on one side of the gate. Shifted about eight feet & then raked the hedge on other side of the gate. That was a fine example of Murphy's Law. (If anything can go wrong - it will!)
Shortly after, Sgt Whittle's party got a prisoner. Apparently a German patrol of about five came along (? Was it the same party we'd fired on?) & Whittle was ready for them. On the command "Hande hoch" & seeing weapons aimed at them most raised their hands I was told. That same person commented that "There's always one that needs to be a hero" and one went for his weapon. Result they were fired upon. I don't know the details but a corporal was captured. Later I saw Sgt Whittle & men with the prisoner in area Q. The prisoners equipment was bring thrown over the wall by that gate (R) & Pte Dick Lach had his Lüger pistol. Sgt Whittle had a strained look on his face. The prisoner came back to where several of us were (T) on the road. About that time (or just before) there was Spandau fire from about the house & trees at (W) & 3 Paras came racing through that group of apple trees. A Sgt led (he had told me weeks before, that he had been with Sgt McIlhargey on voluntary patrols in the Bois de Bures & Bavent areas - "Just to break the monotony & boredom." Once "Mac" brought back a "Spandau" which had been unattended with some mail in a German trench. Result of these patrols was that General Montgomery sent a personal letter of appreciation to "Mac" for his efforts.)
Behind that Sgt came two men - bullets were plucking at the ground just in front of the last man's feet. Then he fell face down & I don't think he moved again for then our group were pulling the others over the bank-wall. The fallen man was Pte Williams (ex-'B' Coy in late 1943 & then went to the Intelligence Section. He'd accompanied me for a period in the early hours of 'D' day when we were in the advance 5-man group of the party that left the Ranville (wrong D.Z.) area under Major George Hewetson's command.) The prisoner was next to me - a mature man with dark 2-day's old stubble on his unshaven chin. I asked "Rauchen sie?" & offered a cigarette. He accepted with "Danke." I lit it. He had to hold his trousers up because his belt had been taken as a precaution against possible escape. He put both hands in his trouser pockets & then withdrew them - each holding an "egg" grenade & offered them to me, I think I said "Danke" & told the man next to me to "Take them." His captors had failed to check all his pockets - never occurred to them perhaps.
Later we moved back to the field (B). Lt Clarke under the apple trees told me to liaise with Sgt McCabe-Dallas who was beside House (P) over the road with Pte Neilson observing our rear. The Sgt sat near the gate with his empty pipe between his teeth with its curved trunk resting on his chin. Neilson was by the corner of the house. He had seen 2 Germans retreating back along that rear hedge, I reported that to Lt. Clarke then returned to see another 5 crouched shapes passing behind the hedge. Again reported & returned. There was a mournful-looking red cow by that hedge (as shown) & a shard of shrapnel 2 inches by 1 inch & ½ inch thick protruded from its left abdomen. (I thought of shooting it, but then if it was curable the French would not be pleased.)
Shortly afterwards I saw the Green beret of a 41st Marine Commando by the hedge at (E) so I entered that field displaying my yellow aircraft-recognition scarf. He informed that his section with a c-sergeant major was in road (4) by the gate X. I reported to Lt. Clarke - leaving, and about 15 feet from him when a single rifle bullet "crack"'d past. I immediately dropped to one knee & called "Sniper" as warning. Lt. Clarke & a Sgt (Infantry reinforcement) with him looked at me as though surprised (I couldn't have been hit because the "CRACK" meant it had missed whoever it was aimed at). Came another "CRACK" & the Sgt dropped to one knee. (Thereby both of us took advantage of the waist high bank (O) for part cover.) Lt. Clarke remained standing but turned & moved as if to walk more under those apple trees. A third bullet came & gave a "thud" sound as it hit Lt. Clarke. He was standing side-on towards me, took one step forward, then placed his hands to his lower chest, gasped "medics", dropped to his knees & collapsed forward face down. The Sgt moved towards him, as I hurriedly fumbled in my field-dressing packet for my 'D' day morphine syringe which was wedged under my field dressing. Lt. Clarke was motionless; the Sgt above him; when at last one perhaps two Spandau unleashed continuous fire at the area. The continuous sound of the Spandau's rapid rate of fire, bits of bark & leaves falling from the apple trees & the bullets "crack"-ing caused that Sgt. to shout, "Every man for himself!" & he moved to the small gate & road (3). I did a fast belly crawl to hedge-bank (E) where the Pte "Auburn" had earlier been firing from. Pte Levi was along there too. I reached the bank & then crawled backwards toward that small gate from which a Bren gun was firing a continuous stream of red-yellow tracer bullets about five feet out from that bank.
"Auburn" & Levi moving at a fast crawl overtook me with "Auburn" saying, "Hurry up, Russ". I muttered, "If I'm to 'get it' I'd rather be facing it" so I moved close to the bank & they passed by, still clear of the Bren's tracer stream. My crawl was slow, but I saw "Auburn" closer to the gate & Bren muzzle. He stood & leapt over the tracer stream & ran through that gate. Sgt "Danny" Dudley was beside the gunner supplying fresh full magazines as the gunner flicked off the empties. Levi approached & paused, then either jumped or waited for a magazine change. Anyway came my turn & there on the ground was a set of belt, pouches & shoulder straps plus a Mark III infantry Sten gun. (I'd picked that Sten up beside the road back in early July when we'd left Bois de Bavent & were returning to the rest area by the R. Orne. I'd carried it as a "spare" until Levi joined us in late July without possessing a weapon so I'd passed it to him.) Levi was slightly-built & probably doubted his ability to jump over the tracer so jettisoned his equipment to lighten his load (& "self-preservation" took precedence). No way was I going to leave equipment that wasn't blood-stained behind for the Germans to find. I stood "at the crouch" holding it all & waited for the next magazine change. Went through & found Levi, handed him his equipment & said "Remember you are a 'Para'." (As I'd been crawling backwards along that bank I'd seen an infantry lad with a radio set on his shoulder climbing over a tall chicken wire fence at the rear of house (J) very hurriedly. We'd shared a slit trench when he'd arrived as a reinforcement in mid-July in the Bois de Bavent. Only about 19 years of age & then quite nervous. He told me later that the prisoner had been in that house & Sgt McIlhargey had been firing from the doorway earlier.)
In road (3) we waited by that gate until the Bren had finished then retired slowly through field (C) to the 41st Marine's little group in Road (4) by gate X. A Cromwell tank was there & it nosed into the gate opening. About 3 Marines were in the gateway on the left of the tank. The remainder, about seven, with a c-sergeant major who had a bandaged wrist (or arm) slung from his neck were seated by the roadside behind the tank. Sgt "Danny" & others covered area Q & beyond & about six of us lay along the roadside opposite (E) & watched the area beyond. Suddenly one of the Marines fired his weapon & shouted "They're showing themselves." The tank moved further into the gate way & slowed. Its track hit a Marine's leg and injured him. Then it began firing its solid-shot shells at the house (P) & its hedge-bank where the Germans had appeared.
All became quiet & a party of Paras accompanying Lt. Colonel "Jock" Pearson the 8th Bn C.O. arrived from road (I) area. Jock said, "This looks a bit 'sticky'. Hold on here and I'll get "B" Company to come up on the other flank." Pte Critcher came with that party & as mentioned earlier his hand had a neat bullet hole through the centre of its palm.
Later we moved back down the road (I) & bedded down in the hedgerows until early September. After a couple of days a couple of us went for a walk to road (3) & saw the former occupier of the house (P). He showed us the interior & the shell holes through his main room. One shell-hole on either side of his china display cabinet as they went out. He spoke a little English so I tried what I could remember of my schoolday's French. "Combien des vaches sont mort?" His eyes opened with surprise & he looked at his companion & murmoured something. He replied, "Non, une blessé." and so we parted.
A few days later I was sitting on an army "toilet" in the middle of a field (the "toilet" seat consisted of an ex-rations wooden box with a hole in its top placed over a deep hole). No enclosure or cover, just an all-round view of the pasture & any butterflies that might flutter by. 'Twas really pleasant being able to sit there with no fear of hearing the "PONK" of a discharging "Jerry" mortar & then having approx 23 seconds to decide whether to "sit it out" or "fall flat" before the mortar bomb landed (perhaps nearby). I heard children's voices & a call of "Shet, shet." I looked to the nearby roadside gate & perched on it was a small girl pointing at me & her brother perhaps was peering over the gate. I waved & called, "Bonjour, mes enfantes." & they ran away giggling loudly. Fortunately my long tailed army shirt gave ample coverage from view - & horse flies!
We heard that seven men were found dead afterwards & Lt. Clarke's weapon - an American carbine - had been found with its butt broken off (by the Germans). Nothing was said of him being found wounded & being removed to an aid post. No sound had come from him whilst "Danny" had been with the Bren gun by the gate. I don't know why his death is listed as Aug. 26th.
"Mac" and Box [L/Sgt Charles McIhargey and Private Robert Box] were said to have been in "a French shelter" tending their wounds before the German attack came in. That's all I heard - apart from the report that they could have been shot later as the Germans retreated. That's all the information I can give you regarding "Mac". At least it will give you a better understanding of those days. Ted Eaglen was "Company Runner" in those days & was able to gain more knowledge of various incidents - unlike the rest of us confined to just the area allotted to our Platoon.
Of the 34 of 'D' days 7 Platoon only 10 were left & one of those had gone to the P.I.A.T. Platoon in July (Sgt. Snow). Sgt "Danny" Dudley got a bullet through his triceps muscle area of one arm & a grenade splinter in his other upper arm that night [6th June] in Herouvillette (was selected for O.C.T.U. whilst in Normandy & later returned to the Bn as an officer. He'd been de-mobbed shortly before & rejoined the Bn in Palestine 1946). The Bren-gunner Pte Cooper was badly wounded & left behind that night. French people found him dead in the morning. Cpl/Sgt "Danny" Dudley had his "light" wounds dressed when we rejoined the Bn. group. For some days his arms were sore & he didn't use them much. Every night 50% of the Bn. would be out on "offensive reconnaissance" until June 14th when we moved to the Le Mesnil area & the Bois de Bavent with its dead cows, & after June 16th, its groundsheet-covered stinking corpses & mosquitoes.
That's all I'll write of 'D' day & its aftermath, Andy. I'll fill in the gaps & later events in that "history" to John Hunter. As you'll know he was hit as soon as he landed; was evacuated to England & came out again in late July/early Aug & went to the Mortar Platoon. He had been in "B" Coy before. We didn't know each other when I was in 'B' Coy in 1943 - perhaps he joined after I'd gone to 'C' Coy.
John Russell died at the age of 83 on the 4th May 2007.
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