Pictures

Lord Lovat on his wedding day, 1938

Lord Lovat, winter 1939

Brigadier The Lord Lovat

Brigadier The Lord Lovat

Lord Lovat, October 1944

Brigadier The Lord Lovat

 

Unit : Brigade HQ, 1st Special Service Brigade

Service No. : 63633

Awards : Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross.

 

The Lord Lovat, known to his friends as "Shimi" Lovat, was born Simon Fraser in 1911. He was educated at Ampleworth College and attended Oxford University. He joined the University's Cavalry Squadron and, after graduation in 1932, was commissioned into the Scots Guards. His father, who had founded the Lovat Scouts during the Boer War, died in 1933, and so Simon Fraser succeeded him to become the Seventeenth Baron Lovat, and the twenty-fifth chief of the Fraser Clan. His service with the Scots Guards continued, however when the Second World War began it was obvious that Lovat was destined to join a much more unorthodox fighting formation. In 1940, the Army requested volunteers for the newly formed Commando units and Lovat was amongst the first to apply. The tendency towards the special forces would seem to have been in Lovat's blood because his first cousin was no less a man than David Stirling, who later famously founded the Special Air Service in North Africa. For their exploits during the War, both Stirling and Lovat were personally singled out by Adolf Hitler as "dangerous terrorists", and orders had been issued for them to be executed in the event of their capture.

 

Eventually posted to No.4 Commando, Lovat's first action of the War came in March 1941 with the Lofoten Raid. The Lofoten Islands lay off the coast of northern Norway, and the object of the operation was to destroy oil installations, enemy shipping, capture prisoners and to bring back Norwegian volunteers for active service. The raid was an enormous success and, without meeting any opposition worth speaking of, the Commandos destroyed eighteen factories and seven installations holding eight hundred thousand gallons of oil, and they also captured over two hundred prisoners, sunk in excess of twenty thousand tons of enemy shipping, and returned with three hundred Norwegian volunteers.

 

In April 1942, Major The Lord Lovat was awarded the Military Cross for his part in a raid on Hardelot. His citation reads:

 

Major The Lord Lovat commanded a detachment of No.4 Commando which carried out a successful raid on the German occupied coast in the vicinity of Hardelot on the night of 21st/22nd April, 1942.

 

Although the area selected for the raid forms part of a highly organised defensive position and although the enemy brought fire to bear on and around our attacking troops as soon as their presence ashore became known, Major The Lord Lovat by his speedy and clear-headed appreciation of the situation and by his cool leadership succeeded in retaining the initiative and, driving the Germans from their positions, enabled our patrols to carry out the reconnaissance which was the object of the raid.

 

Throughout the operation Major The Lord Lovat exercised faultless control and bold and skilful handling of his forces, not only in the initial stages which entailed crossing deep belts of enemy wire, but also during the two hours spent ashore in the attaining of the objective.

 

Later, although the withdrawal was a precarious undertaking owing to the enemy's searchlights and defensive fire, and to the flat beaches which necessitated wading through deep water back to the landing craft, it was achieved without casualties and with a carefully planned and laid smoke screen.

 

I consider the fact that this operation was carried out with complete success and practically without loss to our troops was largely due to the excellent leadership and control of Major The Lord Lovat.

 

In August 1942, Lovat, now a Lieutenant-Colonel and in command of No.4 Commando, took part in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid. The plan was for two Commandos to land on the opposite flanks of the invasion area to destroy two coastal batteries ahead of the main landing of five thousand Canadian troops in the centre. No.3 Commando were chosen to land on the western flank whilst a composite force, under the command of Lord Lovat and consisting of elements of No.4 Commando and the Canadian Carlton and Yorkshire Regiments, landed in the east. The beach defences around Dieppe were formidable, and to make matters worse the Germans had learned when and where the raid was to take place; as such the Dieppe Raid was a complete disaster. Of the five thousand Canadians who landed, over two thousand were killed or taken prisoner. The performance of both of the Commandos, however, was one of the very few positive highlights to emerge from the venture. So meticulous was Lovat's planning for the raid that his attack upon the six-gun battery was a great tactical success, achieved at the cost of comparatively few casualties. The overall raid may have been a disaster, but Lovat's flare for planning was unshakeable. A Canadian officer once expressed the view that, for his rank and role, Lovat probably possessed the finest military brain of the War.

 

When the Normandy invasion drew near it was recognised that a large number of Commando forces would be needed to operate under a single command, and so Lovat was promoted to Brigadier and given charge of the 1st Special Service Brigade. What follows are extracts from Lord Lovat's excellent memoir, "March Past".

 

"We had been assigned a formidable task. I told commanding officers to emphasize our considerable psychological advantage. The Germans were concentrated behind the 'Wall', in strongly defended localities dotted over the area. Concrete emplacements are difficult to destroy; but they impose a defensively motivated outlook on the occupants: the feeling "It's bullet proof indoors and here we'll stay and not sally forth." The view inside a pill-box remains restricted while those without can see more clearly. I intended to take full advantage of this fact. After dealing with immediate defences we faced a running fight across country. Nothing was left to chance. The assault was worked out in great detail. Three hours to get through to the bridges appeared on the short side. I stood on my word - having said it was possible - but I had to debunk the pessimists."

 

"To prove the point I suggested a dress rehearsal with identical landing-craft and crews carrying the same personnel they would put ashore on D-Day. The selected beach (cleared of mines, but with the wire left standing and backed by similar terrain) lay between Angmering and Littlehampton, near Arundel on the Sussex coast... NCO's were warned to run the course in light raiding order. I asked for a blinder with no holds barred, and signalled we must show Home Forces what Commando speed was all about. My word, how they responded to the spirit of that five-mile dash! All the top brass came down from London. I provided the running commentary on a loud hailer, first advising Generals Morgan, Bob Laycock and Freddy de Guingand, along with Dempsey's Chief of Staff, to stand clear of the beach and not to part with the keys of their cars."

 

"The craft carrying No.6 Commando ran in, well controlled, in line abreast, hitting the sandy beach in a dry landing. {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts} had borrowed two-inch mortars to thicken up his smoke; men mounted in the bows opened up still well out to sea. The little bombs rained down just wide of the spectators, obliterating the landing. There were lucky escapes, but not one got hurt. Some of the higher staff, fearful of mishap, shouted for a cease-fire, but I continued the commentary as No.6 swept inland through the crowd. "Rude but high-ranking" was Bill Coade's comment as he cannoned into a furious G1 from Southern Command, coughing in the fog, who was trying to find me. "Lovat, call off your bloodhounds - somebody is going to get killed." But the pace was too good to enquire."

 

"{Lieutenant-Colonel} Peter Young came in on the second wave and the treatment was repeated. No.3 Commando went one better. "Finding was keeping" on this occasion. Section leaders became pirates as they crossed the sea wall and doubled inland. Their CO had asked if he could make use of car park facilities. This was a demonstration; to end arguments, permission was granted. Staff cars, Jeeps, motorcycles - everything in sight was commandeered; protesting drivers were tipped out of their seats or relieved of keys. Fully thirty vehicles roared out of the car park and headed across country for Arundel... The whole {of No.6} Commando had reached the Arundel gap in the Downs beyond the river when I called a halt. Generals Morgan, Laycock, Freddy, and John Durnford-Slater, were delighted. The planners were impressed. Everybody else was extremely angry: Southern Command asked for my head and put in a claim for damaged vehicles. No further doubts were expressed over the brigade's speed off the mark: tactically, the exercise had been completely successful."

 

Lovat was supremely confident that his Brigade could fight their way off Sword Beach and link-up with the 6th Airborne Division, however he had grave doubts about the Brigade's role once they were east of the River Orne. "In the planning stages, the airborne forces had seemed preoccupied with their own affairs. I had seen little of General Gale, who, at first blush, struck me as vain and egotistical, with a hectoring manner and loud voice. I don't think he liked my peculiarities either... {Nevertheless} the commandos made friends at all levels with the airborne, who were fine people. The old general was a fine person too... At one briefing I expressed surprise at the vagueness of my remit. "You will infest this area!" stated General Gale, placing a large hand upon the map and blotting out a land-mass of sixty square miles of territory, including the coast towns of Cabourg and Franceville Plage, and stretching back inland to cover enclosed wooden country between the Dives and Orne river systems. I welcomed independence (since we were under airborne command), but a suspicion had been growing, and I asked, "Does that mean my four Commandos are considered expendable, and only required to wander about like the maquis in no man's land, harrying unspecified targets, without any fire support or supply system? My brigade has not been trained for bush-whacking." This caused an explosion. It was a tactless question, and I was hurried out by Gale's G1. It was clear the general expected blind obedience from subordinates. But I was determined to get the right answer before leaving England. Every commando soldier was going to know his exact duties prior to departure."

 

"My last opportunity to get a hearing occurred at a final conference at Bulford, with General Browning {the Commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps} in the chair (his arm in a sling after a glider crash), attended by high-ups in 1st Corps and 3rd, 6th and 50th Divisions or their representatives. Certain officers holding responsibilities on D-Day were given a hearing, or asked questions. I raised the matter again. "Sir, Phase 1, from the beach to the bridges, presents no serious problem, but I have misgivings about my brigade's subsequent tasks, which remain undetermined. With respect, I wish to offer suggestions for consideration. With no specific targets after crossing the River Orne, four highly trained units, chosen for ability to fight through the West Wall, are apparently going to be dispersed, in order to wage guerrilla warfare. If my brigade scatter they will be lost as an effective formation, and bush-whacking, with only a German battery at Cabourg to destroy, seems a waste of key men. That task can be done by ships at sea, or indeed the Airborne Division. A salient serves no useful purpose. Once dispersed, the commandos will only be able to fight a delaying action, inflicting all the damage they can contrive. Commandos will give a good account of themselves in any situation until their ammunition runs out. But these are shock troops, trained for a man-size job - not beating out bushes. If higher command presuppose there will be no one left after reaching the Orne, they are making a mistake.""

 

"Gale and his planners looked askance; the other generals sat in silence but our corps commander seemed interested. General Browning, a fine soldier, encouraged me to go on. "As I see it, the high ground across the river control the battle, and responsibility must turn immediately to its defence. If one or more commandos push out a salient unsupported, they will simply disappear, perhaps unable to return to the main body. My priority task is surely to consolidate the length of the ridge between Amfréville-Le Plein-Hauger to the sea coast, dug into positions, penetrating deep and sufficiently far, inflict maximum damage to communications and troop concentrations, always returning to previously prepared positions before first light through standing patrols (themselves at all times alert), to give warning of enemy approach? While the defence line has priority importance, it appears essential to disrupt any advance along approach roads which channel traffic to the Orne bridges. It is here Brigade can expect to be attacked. I see little sense in beating up the area, or pushing commandos out to Cabourg. May I ask one important question?" Permission was granted. "This will be difficult to answer, as forthcoming events will be affected by time and circumstance. How long does the army commander, in his overall strategy, expect us to anchor the left flank of the battle? The longer we stay, the deeper we should dig in, and the less we should wander about. Let the enemy find us, until such time as close support is available - I mean armour and artillery. How long will that be? Failing reinforcements, can I please be given ships' guns to break up the Hun concentrations?" To this I received a favourable reply. Gale wangled the inevitable compromise over Cabourg. It would take a good Commando to march the distance, destroy the battery and then extricate itself, without transport, in daylight from the town. But {Lieutenant-Colonel} Peter Young said it could be done. After the meeting General "Boy" Browning asked me over to the Mess, saying, "I have got the message and am in full agreement. The idea of wandering about in the blue will get us nowhere, and I liked that crack "to dig in, lie low, and don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes".""

 

"I had my own doubts about the Second Front. Despite superior technical resources in weapons and equipment, and increasing air strength, the general standard of efficiency - both British and American - left much to be desired. In the spring of 1944 few regiments in Home Forces had faced a German tank, nor, in cold hindsight, had General Paget been the best of trainers. Some of the best soldiers in our experienced army were still fighting in Italy, while the navy waited impatiently for the return of salted landing-craft from the Mediterranean. There were top-level differences of opinion: Montgomery was said to be at variance with the planners, and maybe with Eisenhower... To avoid mistakes I envisaged a shorter sea crossing - given favourable conditions - in late May, bound for the Pas de Calais; so did the enemy who had massed their Panzer divisions north of the Seine!"

 

"My destination theory proved entirely wrong: rear details stayed where they were, enjoying the comforts of John Cowdray's stately home {Cowdray Park - Brigade HQ}. I was visiting them overnight when the embarkation signal flashed over England: "Top Priority. From Movement Control, Southern Command." The message was short and to the point: "Commandos will be collected and moved under separate arrangements at xxx hours as detailed: proceeding to C18 Transit Camp, Southampton. Acknowledge and alert all units concerned." Brigade headquarters was waiting packed and ready. Despatch riders roared out of town with sealed orders for commanding officers. The wheels of invasion began to turn. Our waterproofed Jeeps had already gone ahead, loaded into ships for France... The rear party took over files and switchboard; John Cowdray (who had lost a limb at Dunkirk) gave me breakfast before departure. The fighting men had far to travel, and there was time to say goodbye to Rosie {Lovat's wife} and the children. Then the convoy rolled."

 

"In Southampton the holiday spirit prevailed. There was a NAAFI, run by American GIs, selling confectionery and soft drinks; there was also a cinema tent and enough space for football played in gym-shoes - Hyde Park style - and stump cricket. Ropes were obtained to provide a Tarzan course among the treetops. Officers busied themselves with final arrangements and the check-ups that save lives; dinghies were inflated, bayonets sharpened, automatic springs tested, magazines oiled, waterproof wrapping wound round all weapons, escape maps were issued with ammunition, rations and first-aid kits. Hand grenades were not primed until the day of departure. The intelligence section made a sand table to supplement air photographs showing half-hidden details of enemy fortifications, wire and suspected minefields. Place-named and destinations were withheld until embarkation, but Frenchmen {of No.10 Inter-Allied Commando} identified the destination at a glance. Sappers and signals attended to the mysteries of their trade. The briefings were a formality: everybody knew his job... The sun shone; there were no parades. After breakfast roll call, some PT, a fox-hole "dig or die" competition, a rifle inspection before lunch, and then the day was clear. The US caterers did not approve of the commissariat ("If it's cold, it's soup. If it's hot, it's beer."), but the British enjoyed this get together of old friends. It was their last relaxation before weeks in the front line."


"From Tactical Headquarters, Southwick House, near Portsmouth, General Montgomery called his captains to a last conference: an unpleasant drive against the traffic, and for some a waste of time, being a repeat of the Brighton visit. I had a great respect for the future field marshal. When he got to know us better, commandos were to win his particular regard; but on this occasion he missed an opportunity of remaining modest and to the point, and his lengthy address largely concerned himself... We digested some impressive facts: "The whole of the Allied air power is available to see us on shore. Its strength is terrific: 4,500 fighters and fighter-bombers; 6,000 bombers of all types." Montgomery did not mention the juggernaught weight of 21st Army Group or our naval strength at sea. I seem to remember it mustered 5,000 craft of varying sizes. It looked as if the invasion was getting off to a good start!"

 

"The more impressionable members of the audience tiptoed from the room. I left feeling that I had been listening to a headmaster taking a backward class: concise in his approach, but egotistical to a fault and, on this occasion, something of a poseur into the bargain. There was a piece of good news. De Guingand, the power behind the throne (Chief of Staff and a former schoolfellow), drew me aside. "If they can land and clear Sword Beach you will have swimming tanks in the assault after all. But intelligence says Rommel has thickened up the underwater obstacles. Frogmen go in early, but no chance to clean them up in time. The Ouistreham end of Sword looks a hot potato; the town is strongly garrisoned but please knock out the battery in double quick time." I disliked the sound of those underwater obstacles. The ones appearing on the surface looked bad enough."

 

"On Sunday René de Naurois, his decorations a splash of colour on a white surplice, said Mass for three hundred men kneeling on the grass. At the Interdenominational Church Parade a favourite hymn, that has since become our own, was sung with feeling: "Eternal Father, strong to save, O hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea." It goes well with male voices, but the new padre preached a rotten sermon about death and destruction which caused surprise. There are few atheists to be found before a battle, or later in shell-holes. Tension was building up, and charity perhaps a trifle thin on the ground. There were a number of complaints; the cleric was suspended and told to return from whence he came. Poor fellow! A spark can cause the prairie fire! It was mistaken zeal from a man, lacking combat experience, who did not know his congregation, and doubly unfortunate in that it conflicted with my own "God speed" before departure. The incident was forgotten but the dismissal was taken badly. On the last day in camp the unfortunate man took his own life. A sad business, with barely time for regrets, for troops were belting up amid the dust and shouting as embarkation transport came grinding in to Southampton to take us away. Max, a most humane officer and the soundest of administrators, cleared up the pitiful remains. The padre was put down as a "battle casualty"."

 

"In the right mood soldiers appreciate a word of encouragement, but not a lecture as seconds get out of the ring. The commandos were no exception: as professionals they knew the score and with that knowledge did not accept half-truths or doubtful leadership. It was mutual trust that raised men above themselves in the encounter; now on the start line something was expected and I faced a critical audience. What I said took two minutes. It was simple enough, the message plain. I weighed each word, then drove it home, concentrating on the task ahead and simple facts - how to pace the battle, which in the event came true. First I spoke in English, then in colloquial French, which was greeted with a yell: "Vous allez rentrer chez vous. Vous serez les premiers militaires français en uniforme à casser la gueule des salauds en France même. A chacun son Boche. Vous allez nous montrer ce que vous savez faire. Demain matin on les aura." The English version was different. I touched on past achievements, then congratulated the commandos for being chosen to fight together for the first time as a Brigade - a proper striking force, the fine cutting edge of the BEF. They knew their ability from past experience; they could expect a physical encounter in which they had no equal; the greater the opportunity, the greater our chances of success. They knew their job and I knew they would not fail. Put it this way: "The bigger the challenge, the better we play.""

 

"Our task appeared a tough assignment, but we held the advantage both in initiative and fire support. It was better to attack than defend. The enemy coastline would be flattened and defences pulverized before we arrived. Three "maids of all work" infantry battalions, landing at zero hour, would clear the beach, then find us exits through the minefields above the tide-mark - as easy as kiss your hand. It was all laid on a plate... The momentum of our advance inland must be kept going at the double to reach the airborne division. Dropped overnight, the paras would be holding the high ground over the canal and river bridges north-east of Caen: we were not going to let good men down."

 

"The break-out meant fierce fighting by direct assault on a narrow front, without getting involved on exposed flanks or stopped by any holdups. Each commando would leap-frog through the one in trouble, and there would be no pause to slow the speed of our thrusting attack. I allowed three hours to reach the Orne bridges and all afternoon to make good the high ground beyond. We would be dug in before dark to meet inevitable counter-attacks... It was going to be a long day, but given a reasonable crossing in fast launches, we should be fresh for the encounter phase of the battle. After that, stamina would decide. Michael's signallers would be in touch with airborne forces. If the bridges had been seized intact, the rubber dinghies - which weighed men down - could be cast aside. The brigade was going to make history and I had complete confidence in every man taking part! I ended with the suggestion, "If you wish to live to a ripe old age - keep moving tomorrow." And so we stood across the sea to France."

 

"There was a knifing wind in the Channel. Robert Curtis described the sea as "lumpy" when I joined him on the bridge... Waiting for the darkness, {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts} clambered over from his motor launch to mine. Immediate worries were over, with time to unwind before touch-down. Now the parcel was in the post and out of my hands. The navy found a half-bottle of gin. Later, amid unseemly merriment, {Lieutenant-Colonel} Peter Young, another bachelor, was summoned to attend the party - not, as expected, for a fond farewell, but to study some remarkable information in a paperback discovered below decks. The guidance in Dr Marie Stopes's Marital Advice Bureau for Young Couples setting out on a honeymoon was full of surprises. Soft beds and hard battles had something in common after all! The officers returned to their commands, shaken by the revelations... I took my boots off for a last kip in Rupert's bunk and slept well. I can snore through any form of disturbance, provided I go to bed with a quiet mind."

 

""C'est le jour - le jour de la Liberation." The paling stars spelt out "Invasion". It was blowing half a gale and getting light enough to see Curtis, now with his steel helmet on... "Twenty miles from the coast and twelve to lowering point," he shouted against the wind. I nodded respectfully, trying a shivering smile with eyes on the duffle coat. The navigator had done his job well - on course and ahead of the clock. Nautical twilight was past and the sea changing colour to oystershell in the grey dawn when an Aldis lamp blinked on our port bow. "Good morning, commandos, and the best of British luck." Curtis and his yeoman spelt out the signal. We made a suitable reply: "Thanks; think we are going to bloody well need it." Rupert ran up his battle ensign. War was becoming personal again."

 

"At 0530 {the battleships} Warspite and Ramillies opened fire. The men came up from below to stretch legs, and sea-sick soldiers gulped in fresh air. The cruiser Frobisher joined the battleships on our port quarter. Muzzle blast from the turrets of the ironclads lit the dawn with a yellow glare as fifteen-inch guns hurled their one-ton shells into the batteries round Le Havre. The fearsome salvoes screamed over like trains coming out of a tunnel. Tony Smith - veteran of the Norway, Dieppe and Boulogne sorties, a philosopher with a dry sense of humour - thought it was noisy and overdone... Tony, like myself, preferred night raiding to this kind of public exposure. "Fear nowt, Tony!" I said. "That is just an overture. Listen to the racket starting on the starboard side; old Ajax with destroyers are way on ahead, shooting up defences. Quincy Qu'Appelle, Restigouch and Saskatchewan. HMS Enterprise and Black Prince are there as well. At 6 o'clock some real noise will startle the Herrenvolk.""

 

"Thoughts turned to the inner man. Commandos carried forty-eight hours' rations, and I ordered those who could swallow to eat breakfast. Hot ship's cocoa and oily sardines (I can still smell them on my fingers) meant a tin less in rucksacks. No rum ration was issued to my HQ; it was thought to be bad for the wind in the forthcoming marathon... Judging by the crumps on Sword - eight miles ahead - the Germans were taking a pasting; but, there again, the battery area in Ouistreham - No.4 Commando's objective - escaped with little damage. The blitz ended before the coastline hove in sight; desultory firing continued as destroyers closed the range in an attempt to deal with closer gun flashes. Relative silence cast an ominous chill as we blew Mae Wests up, checked safety catches and strapped on equipment. Fire would soon be flying in the opposite direction."

 

"The lowering position (later to be more crowded than Piccadilly Circus) appeared empty, except for one policeman on patrol. It was Admiral Vian, flying his flag in HMS Scylla; the gun crews on the cruiser's turrets wore white protective clothing, giving them a curious polar bear appearance. She looked superb - impressive with a massive dignity that came from being almost stationary. Britannia ruled the waves that morning. The launches passed close to her bows, Rupert's battle pennant snapping in the wind... The run-in took forty minutes. At the lowering position we changed formation. The flotilla divided into equal flights, landing ten minutes apart. I did not want the whole brigade boiling on the beach at the same time... Our own approach, which had the legs of the field, relied on speed rather than protection. The thin skins of three-ply wooden hulls did not stop machine-gun bullets, and we knew it. As a precaution against trouble I had divided headquarters, with Max in charge of the other party."

 

"Half seen through palls of smoke, boats were burning to our left and front... A tank landing-craft with damaged steering came limping back through the flotilla. The helmsman had a bandage round his head and there were dead men on board, but he gave us the V sign and shouted something as the unwieldy craft went by. Spouts of water splashed a pattern of falling shells. Out among the offshore obstacles - heavy poles and hedgehog pyramids with Teller mines attached - we started to take direct hits. Curtis picked his spot to land, increased speed and headed for the widest gap, our arrowhead formation closing station on either side... The German batteries mistakenly used armour-piercing ammunition in preference to high explosive and bursting shrapnel. Derek's {Mills-Roberts} landing brows were shot away and beyond him Ryan Price's boat went up with a roar. Max had an unpleasant experience when a shell went through his petrol tanks without exploding. Rear headquarters got away with minor casualties. Our command ship took two shells in the stern. The impact must have swung round the two boats, Max's and mine, touched down side by side. Each carried four thousand gallons of high-octane fuel in non-sealing tanks aft of the bridge. Had Max blown up we would have gone with him. Five launches out of twenty-two were knocked out, but the water was not deep and commandos got ashore wading; a few took a swim in the shell craters."

 

"The smoky foreground was not inviting. The rising tide slopped round bodies with tin hats that bobbed grotesquely in the waves. Wounded men, kept afloat by life-jackets, clung to stranded impedimenta. Barely clear of the creeping tide, soldiers lay with heads down, pinned to the sand. Half-way up the beach, others dug themselves into what amounted to certain death-trap... "I am going in," said Curtis. He gunned his engines and bumped over the shallows. "Stand by with the ramps!" Four able seamen sprang to the gangways. "Lower away there," and the brows ran sweetly down at a steep angle. The command craft had a comfortable landing. On these occasions the senior officer, stepping cautiously (rather than attempting a headlong dive), is first off the boat. Surprisingly, it is as safe a place as any. The water was knee-deep when Piper Millin struck up "Blue Bonnets", keeping the pipes going as he played the commandos up the beach. It was not a place to hang about in, and we stood not on the order of our going. That eruption of twelve hundred men covered the sand in record time... As we ran up the slope, tearing the waterproof bandages off weapons, the odd man fell, but swift reactions saved casualties. Ryan Price, sunk at sea, was as good a soldier as he is now a racehorse trainer. After swimming ashore, he re-equipped his troop with the small arms of the East Yorkshire battalion picked off the beach as his men dashed on. Michael delivered good news: the Orne bridges had been seized intact."

 

"Hard pounding was reported everywhere in Ouistreham, with a resolute garrison fighting from house to house. The landings had gone better than expected; I estimated maybe sixty casualties, but the battle still to come... During the saturation bombing Monsieur Lefevre, a Resistance leader, risked death to walk from Ouistreham and cut cables connected with flame-throwers in the beach defences. He did more than the 8th Brigade, 3rd Division, who landed to our immediate front. A poor showing in the last rehearsal was faithfully repeated on the battlefield. We passed through them, leaving platoons scrabbling in sand where the shelling hit hardest, digging holes which would be drowned when the tide returned. No.6 Commando led the way. Alan Pyman, commanding the point element with Donald Colquhoun, bombed a path through the built-up area, widening the gap where No.4 had previously forced a passage. Throwing down rucksacks, the troops moved fast, mopping up pill-boxes and the immediate strong-points with hand grenades and portable flame-throwers; supporting Bren guns sprayed lead at every loophole and casement aperture. Houses not destroyed by bombardment were occupied by a few Germans; firing small arms, they sniped from roofs and windows. These pockets of resistance were wiped out by selected marksmen."

 

"We were almost through the Atlantic Wall. The immediate defences were laid out with German thoroughness: they warrant a description. They were not, as it were, a continuous row of grouse butts, but rather a system of ingeniously interlocked defence works equipped with every weapon, from underwater obstacles and devices to set the sea on fire to wire and minefields at the water's edge, ranging back through strong-points laced with machine-guns and anti-tank guns to distant artillery and self-propelled half-track cannon - all bearing on the beach. Beyond lay German infantry dug into weapon pits - again with interlocking fields of fire. The tanks and armour were held some distance to the rear. It was a question of how long they would stay there! Each pill-box was a citadel of reinforced concrete, sunk hull-down and half-buried in the ridges of the dunes. Walls two feet thick stood six feet above ground level, their height made up by a very solid roof giving further feet of concrete head cover. They were certainly bomb - if not blast - proof, and made equivalent precautions at home appear inadequate. Positions sited in depth, 100 to 150 yards apart, were surrounded with barbed wire, with minefields in between. No pill-box faced directly to the front, but each was at an angle to either side, sited to enfilade the wire and deal effectively with approach from the flanks. Each was manned by a crew of half-a-dozen men firing 75mm cannon and light automatics. In support to the rear were heavy machine-guns set in less solid foundations equipped with revolving turrets. Some had suffered bomb damage caused by blast."

 

"All this was seen before smoke blinded the last nests of resistance. The furious pace quickened and determination turned the scales. Our team-work went well. Men remembered that "he who hesitates is lost". No.6 Commando moved like a knife through enemy butter... Prisoners were forced to hoist packed explosives: here also we collected a windy gentleman in officer's uniform, smoking a pipe at the bottom of a shell-hole and taking no part in the battle. The pipe annoyed me and he was kicked up, told to join the party and consider himself under arrest: Salsbury, who enjoyed any untoward occurrence, put a rifle to his back and we pushed blindly on. Skull and cross-bones marked minefields; with no time to play grandmother's footsteps, the advance went straight ahead, Bangalore torpedoes blasting through wire, which promised the safest route. A dash across a road, and then a tram-line: we were through. The smoke rolled away; not far ahead the point element broke from the built-up area into open country. We were past the immediate defences in the wall - pierced over a three-hundred-yard front. A short pause while Derek {Mills-Roberts} regrouped on the first of a series of deep irrigation ditches. Green fields and marshlands lay beyond. There was little cover as the country widened out, climbing to the slope that lay barely two miles ahead. From there the gun flashes were continuous, but shells now screamed over land behind the advance. After the maelstrom on the coast comparative silence engulfed the perspiring men... Here an advanced aid post was set up."

 

"From this point No.6 Commando proved its worth. The men pushed forward in Indian file, using cover where possible, avoiding paths or side roads, to slip across the plain... {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts} was on time when he reached the east end of the straggling houses in St Aubin d'Arquenay. Behind it an Italian battery was surprised and sorted out with no great difficulty. A wrecking party was left to spike the guns. The village itself was supposedly held by German troops. As Derek dealt with one end of the long street, my party came in at the other. Brigade HQ kept a more direct route before turning left... Ahead lay the tree-lined hedgerow (seen on previous photographs, now amputated) that ran at right angles from the coast. Even a tree-stump offers protection and there were still odd bushes standing about. A German machine-gunner, as if scenting danger, was firing at the gaps: I calculated Derek would be up to him by the time we got started. It looked the route for me. There was a last ditch to cross before the hedge began and the machine-gun caught us before we got to ground. Here we lost the pipesmoker; it was not his lucky day, and there were other casualties, including one of my runners."

 

"In this large drain {an irrigation ditch}, which had its bottomless attractions, crouched a small party of Marines from the 4th Brigade: No.41 Royal Marine Commando had landed close alongside the flotilla's starboard quarter. They had lost their officer and NCOs, but had pushed on gallantly, then missed direction, veered inwards, and brought to a halt, demoralized by the fire bombs {Nebelwerfers - "Moaning Minnies"}. There were grounds for compassion here. The soldiers were boys who looked absurdly young and only lacked for leadership. I tapped a pair of boots projecting over the opposite bank, thinking they must belong to an observer taking bearings. I tapped again, climbed up and found I was talking to a dead man. We were pinned in mud for two minutes, and I swore foolishly at the unfortunate castaways - an error, for cursing never helped a frightened soldier. With irresolute troops, any hold-up can prove fatal to success: it is hard to get men on their feet again. A cheery voice sorted us out. It was Robbie Robinson, one of Derek's best, leading his sixty-man cycle troop. This belated appearance was due to parachute bicycles (each with a mortar bomb strapped to handlebars), that had caused balance adjustments climbing in and out of drains. They hauled their loads across and struggled on, Robbie remarking as he did so, "I'd rather be shot up on a road any day than do this sort of thing." Every man in the ditch leapt up and followed him. Such is the force of example."

 

"The rest was plain sailing all the way. The machine-gun making trouble had been outflanked. Away out to the right, but pointing in the proper direction. I spotted a pair of tanks; they were firing inland towards Colleville-sur-Mer. One came to a halt on a track that led to a bridge. It had suffered damage by mine or direct hit, but continued firing at Colleville. The other cut in our direction, as if anxious to find friends. We got to St Aubin. Tony Smith was told to bring the armour up behind. We required moral support. Brigade headquarters was out on its own... Max was detailed to form a rearguard, armed with the anti-tank weapon, just in case we had mistaken the identity of our approaching neighbour. We were in good tank country now and a Panzer attack, from any direction, was simply a question of time."

 

"The houses in St Aubin straggled out of sight - a bad example of ribbon development. Strategically, the crest remained of considerable importance: the hogsback gave a fine view of the beaches below. There was rifle shooting ahead. For reasons unknown, we met only token resistance from poor-quality troops as my mixed assortment of signals, sappers, intelligence, medical staff, despatch riders, interpreters, admin. and soldier servants moved up the main street... I disliked street fighting. Scouts were sent out front and headquarters (the motley crew all armed to the teeth) were deployed sufficiently to deal with emergencies, then moved on fast, hugging the pavements and covering windows to either side. I may have grown careless: they say you never hear the shot that kills you; one bullet is usually enough. The moral to this tale: avoid stopping in built-up areas when the presence of snipers is suspected. Officers are favoured targets, and so it proved. At a crossing, a knot of civilians gesticulated outside a low-roofed edifice damaged in the morning's blitz. The occupants - old people - had been badly injured; the family begged for a doctor and bandages. As I turned to point out the medical team (with armbands) bringing up the rear, a sniper's bullet smacked the wall beside my head with a crack like a whip. A near miss, that showered the relatives with chips and rubble. "He's over there, top storey," shouted Bobby Holmes, charging across the street to a house at the corner. Someone tossed a grenade through the window as Bobby kicked the door down and cut loose with his Tommy gun. He looked out at us with shocked surprise. "This one was dressed in civvies, but he had a Jerry rifle and there's a parachute silk under the bed." The commentary ended. "My God, I'm coming down. More Huns are advancing over fields to the south." Here was a predicament."

 

"Our fire would certainly halt the approaching enemy - who, leaving their horse-drawn vehicles on a side road, were now closing on the village in open order across green patches of standing corn. It was not our job to interfere with hostile strangers, but the Germans would create problems for the inexperienced troops following close behind... The enemy - a platoon about thirty strong - looked a soft touch: the sun was in their eyes and we were unobserved. Back gardens offered possibilities. I made a quick decision to ambush them. It was a relief to get the rucksack off - straps were already burning shoulders - then tee up behind its bulk and go into action with a light, short-barrelled US army carbine. Joe Lawrence and Salsbury's brother, a despatch rider, sneaked one of the quick-firing K guns up on to a shed. The Germans were five hundred yards away. We had not been seen. They were in the bag. The fire order whispered down the ambushing party is not found in training manuals. "Pick the officers and NCOs and let them come right in." The ragged volley caused a surprise: dust flew off the back of the fair-haired platoon commander as he spun round and fell' half-a-dozen others, who had bunched in the centre on reaching the buildings, went down in a heap. The rest took cover in the corn. The fight was over before the tank {of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars} arrived; either the rumble coming closer or the long swinging gun had an electrifying effect on the survivors, who leapt to their feet, throwing weapons away. All shouted their surrender in an unknown language. With shaven heads and smelling to high heaven, they turned out to be Russians press-ganged into service, commanded by German personnel. They appeared delighted to be led into captivity. Schmeisser sub-machine-guns were annexed by brigade intelligence. The horse-drawn transport proved useful: carts were loaded with wireless sets, packs and spare ammunition: Bobby's high explosives kept well to the rear. Preceded by the swimming tank {Duplex Drive - DD Tank} (now an inseparable friend), we moved on to find {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts and No.6 Commando}. Brigade were late and could not raise him on the walky-talky."

 

"At the end of the village, seated on a kitchen chair where the T-junction runs to Caen and Ouistreham, sat a wounded NCO guarding some noisy Italian prisoners - all field gunners. He explained that No.6 Commando, getting no signal, had crossed the main road and pushed on to the canal, making use of scrub along the bank below. The crack of small arms fire and chatter of automatics traced Derek's progress. Bénouville lay a bare mile ahead. There a battle was raging (a discouraging sound before joining in) supplemented by the vicious reports of self-propelled guns. The approach march had been easy, against moderate antagonists. Now it would be bitter fighting all the way. A counter-attack against the bridges was going on - pressed home by determined Germans from Caen supported by self-propelled guns. The Airborne sounded in trouble, and it was our job to bail them out. No time to hang about or proceed with caution. But the supporting tank created confidence and the Luftwaffe were elsewhere engaged. (I had not seen a German fighting plane all morning.) Despite lack of cover, headquarters pushed up the road - at best pace, with scouts ahead and thrown wide on flanks through crops red with flowering poppies. Timing and good fortune were still on our side."

 

"The road junction at Bénouville dipped into a hollow; the main road continuing inland, sloped perceptibly up to Caen. Down on the left, close to houses, lay the turn-table bridge across the Caen Canal. Burning transport smoked ahead. A German half-track, upturned in a ditch, provided some protection for wounded men. The dead of both sides sprawled about the hollow, where airborne troops dug deeper into slit trenches. Others brewed up tea: the scene reminiscent of some Indian swoop on the wagon train in a western movie. The defenders had put up a good performance. They came from the 7th Parachute Battalion, mixed with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry. The attack had been beaten off: it was not the first that morning... Michael raised a laugh as we got to ground. "I fear the natives are hostile." "The natives are revolting," I replied. Unbidden, headquarters sprinted to join the hard-pressed square."

 

"I ran across {Bénouville Bridge} with Piper Millin, Salsbury and a handful of fighting men. There was a fair amount of mortaring, and a machine-gun up the water pinged bullets off the steel struts, but no one noticed and brave fellows from the gliders were cheering from their fox-holes as the other end. Soon I was hailing John Howard... He advised me to keep moving: it was no place to hang about. No.6 and No.3 Commandos got across in no time; the marines, close behind, had their CO picked off by a sniper. As the day wore on, German infiltrated along the river and canal banks, causing considerable damage... There were apologies as we doubled over this hot potato {the bridge}. "Sorry about the mortaring from that ruddy château. The bastards have got the range, but it happens to be a maternity hospital and I have strict orders not to disturb the inmates!" More apologies for the two-minute late arrival came at the wide river, which flowed four hundred yards of lush water meadows ahead. The grazings provided a nasty spectacle: swollen cattle and horses lay with legs in the air, while others dragged around, tripping on spilled insides, bellowing their agony. Two Schmeisser men under Sergeant Phillot ran over to put them out of pain."

 

"Piper Millin struck into a march and played us across the water (I should mention that no piper played on the first occasion while crossing the canal). Peter Wilson, an old friend from early days in B Troop, was shot through the head as No.4 Commando crossed later that afternoon. Derek {Mills-Roberts} had a man killed by a sniper, pierced (curiously) through the nostril. Several other ranks became casualties, but the good music drowned the shooting and we managed to strive over in step - almost with pomp and circumstance!"

 

"The news {from Divisional HQ} was serious. The Germans (elements of the 21st Panzer Division) were attacking from the south; their infantry was reported to moving along all roads leading to the river. Most of the 3rd Parachute Brigade had dropped miles off course, blown by strong winds; thin cloud obscured the moon, but in many cases pilots had confused the river valleys of Orne and Dives. Until the gliders of the Air Landing Brigade came in that evening the division was short of troops and already had difficulties. Gale required a Commando immediately at Le Bas de Ranville to protect him against attack in the area where gliders were to land. Parachutists dropped overnight on the Merville battery were also in trouble, reduced to two hundred men and driven back into Hauger and Le Plein. Commando assistance was required without delay; the enemy was moving along both roads into Bréville. The original plan and other good intentions were cancelled. In military parlance, "there was a flap on" and by brigade's rôle was now restricted though necessity to a more intelligent proforma."

 

"In England, I had tried to forecast the likely course of events, perhaps taking an optimistic view of our ability to reach the high ground over the Orne. I had argued that if the Germans were good - the Commandos were better! The more cautious of my masters looked positively ill on receipt of this information. So far, so good. We retained the initiative and events had clicked into place. The sea crossing, dry landing, rapid break-through and intact bridges were bonus marks. Shock tactics had proved a complete success. How would we get on after losing the element of surprise? It is one thing to go on the warpath; quite another to stay put and take what's coming to you. These thoughts were uppermost in my mind as we climbed out of the river - with two miles to go and dog-tired by this time. To take the ridge above would cost many lives: the enemy had seen us coming. But that was not all. Would I be counter-attacked before we got dug in?... Much depended on the enemy's reaction. The coming battle threatened two alternatives. Having learned the pattern of our army build-up, the Germans would concentrate on first "containing", then knocking out the bridgehead, by attacking over open country from the south, or rolling up our exposed flank along the coast road and through Bréville, thereby capturing high ground from which to shell the beach below. This second alternative offered a shorter route for the Panzer divisions, but would slow down the requisite punch. Poor lateral communications and perilous river crossings were less suited to blitzkrieg than the open plain. With Rommel in the ring, however, and one tank available, anything might happen. The field-marshal liked nothing better than a lightning strike from the unexpected direction."

 

"With a modicum of fortune, the counter-attack would come from the south. An advance from Caen seemed the likeliest course of action. That thrust could also head for the Orne crossings: without fire support (and where was that coming from?), we would inevitably be over-run, hopefully to bob up again after help arrived. But that was hardly reassuring. Meanwhile Brigade were out on a limb; retaliation must be expected in the first twenty-four hours. The high ground supplied the answer to the enemy's requirements. There would be no respite. I envisaged probing infantry attacks, looking for soft spots along the defence line. The method was familiar: always effective but lacking originality. Skirmishers, at platoon strength, would come tapping along the forward areas, seeking to draw fire and give positions away. When discovered, defended localities would be systematically destroyed by shelling and mortaring, closely followed by infantry advancing behind tanks to mop up resistance. Fierce pressure would be exerted to win the salient and control the beach exits below. {Lieutenant-Colonels} Derek {Mills-Roberts} and Peter Young agreed with my proposed course of action... it had been decided to establish hedgehog perimeter (hill top) defences, well hidden from observation with close-range predetermined killing-grounds, covered by maximum concentration of small arms fire. I was confident no Germans on foot would get the better of either commanding officer."

 

"The cover ended short of Le Plein, which lay above us a few fields away, crowning the ridge in a long village street which stretched half a mile from end to end. I signalled the brigade to regroup in dead ground for orders, and a breather. There was little respite. At the six-mile post I called a halt. It was a bad decision. A mortar "stonk", directed by some invisible observation post, crashed through the trees into the lane where headquarters had sat down. Salsbury and his brother were among the casualties (both walking wounded). Put out of action, they both recovered and survived the war. The fire fight was thickening, but men were being killed; the Germans had started to react fiercely. We had run into trouble. The enemy had to be dislodged without delay. {Lieutenant-Colonel} Otway's paratroops {9th Battalion} seemed to have lost the upper hand. I had orders to bail him out; Gale must accept less assistance at Ranville, whither Peter Young  was hurrying with his Commando. I stopped one of his officers, Roy Westley, and ordered his cycle troop, which had forged ahead of the main body, to help No.6 Commando storm the village and find Otway. {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts} was still going strong. His speed during the advance had kept down the casualty rate. A great performance! He had led the way over contested country; but there is a limit to endurance."

 

"No.45 Royal Marines were largely intact; there was a good man there in Nicol Gray, who assumed command after {Lieutenant-Colonel} Ries got picked off. Nicol was told to push up the coast to Franceville Plage (bypassing Sallenelles if necessary) with orders to disrupt communications and contain the enemy long enough for Second Army to establish the bridgehead. Nicol had an awkward assignment, but it would soon be dusk. I would be well pleased if he could get back into the line the following night, when positions would be prepared for him. In the meantime, the coast road was under heavy fire. The marines waited while Derek sorted out the village. The mortaring continued as No.6 Commando worked round for a flank attack. The naval bombardment officer was sent forward with his signal party, with orders to raise any battleship on call. Their feet were in poor shape and ship-to-shore communications were giving trouble. But they pressed on regardless, keen to play a part. Before evening, the FOB's {Forward Observation Bombardment officer} presence was fully justified."

 

"There was hand-to-hand fighting along the ridge. Roy Westley, with a bullet through his wrist; reported the Germans held one side of the street on top of the hill; a wide, leafy "village green" ran down the middle of Le Plein. Isolated houses on the forward slope still contained small but determined parties of the enemy, firing light automatics at anything that moved below. These were troops who had been in action before - with no intention of giving ground. Roy had contact {Lieutenant-Colonel} Otway, still holding at Hauger, a hamlet farther to the left and nearer the sea. The heavy stuff was coming over from the Bréville area. Roy's troop had lost several men, but his Lieutenant Ponsford was dealing with the machine-guns that were doing damage. Roy Westley was a gallant fellow, the best type of junior leader. His wrist, still numb (before real hurt set in), was bound up tight, and with Max, Joe Lawrence and the few men I could spare, he was ordered back to clear the Germans, get dug in and hold until No.4 arrived. As they belted up for departure, Derek signalled he had rolled up one end of Le Plein. Otway was advised that help was on the way. Wishful thinking. I did not like the situation. Isolated driblets of James Hill's disrupted 3rd Parachute Brigade were struggling in behind us, along the coast, after a bad drop in the Dives valley, where bridges had to be destroyed... it seemed the initiative was passing to the enemy."

 

"By mid-afternoon Airborne Division signalled that the coastal battery at Merville, supposedly destroyed, was shelling Sword Beach and shipping lying off the shore. Could I deal with it forthwith? "Yes," I signalled back, "if you return No.3 Commando." There was no reply. The coast road was wide open, and enemy pressure had suddenly become dangerous. Nicol Gray moved out to plug the gap, his cyclists pedalling ahead with orders to hold Sallenelles, then probe the Merville-Franceville Plage area if possible. Their priority was to block all approaches and hang on. Brigade had scraped the bottom of the barrel. I could field no more of {Major-General} Gale's dropped catches. There were no reserves left."

 

"By way of diversion, I brought off a long shot that afternoon. Waiting for Roy's success signal, I noticed a group of cattle huddled in the corner of an enclosure below and left of our position. Two animals were taking an interest - as cows do, sniffing and throwing their heads - at a thorn bush that overlooked the road. It was a good light, but the carbine did not get the distance. The first round from a borrowed rifle, however, scored a bull's eyes, winging a prone civilian, who jumped up, nicked through the fleshy part of his shoulder. Sergeant Phillott went down to bring him in and paced my shot to better than four hundred yards. The man was a shifty-looking yokel in plain clothes, speaking a French dialect which the interpreters could not break under interrogation. He was clearly some sort of spy, with a wad of money and binoculars, but no signalling aids about his person. "Looking to the cattle", was his story. I gave him the benefit of the doubt - then a spade, which altered his complexion. When he was told to dig trenches, his relief was apparent. When the transport arrived, Joe Lawrence handed the wretch over to the prisoner-of-war cage at divisional headquarters, where they subsequently released the collaborator."

 

"The sun had passed the meridian. It was time to dig in brigade headquarters. About now Max, composed as ever, returning from Le Plein with a Camembert cheese taken from the command post captured at the north end of the village. The house appeared suitable for our own requirements: well sandbagged, with deep comfortable trenches in the garden. Max had got a nice room for me, hot and cold water laid on. Joe was clearing bodies from the building. He had garrisoned the newly acquired property against all comers. After a swift "recce" - shot at en route - on the back of Bobby's motorbike, I decided to take up an overnight position (for better control) in some draughty sheds - astride the main route, with the anti-tank weapon pointing towards Sallenelles and the sea. Who would arrive first? The Germans or No.4 Commando? Dog-tired, they were on their way. My old friends, who had been fighting all morning in Ouistreham, had taken a lot of stick, on the beach and through suburbs now called Riva Bella. {Lieutenant-Colonel} Dawson and {Commandant} Kieffer were both casualties. The two Allied commanding officers had lost a hundred men in bitter street fighting."

 

"We were getting tired. By the end of the fourth day those left in headquarters showed strain: red-eyed and easily upset. Mental anxiety as it winds up, makes no allowance for snatched rest. I was jumpy and increasingly irritable. The shelling seemed continuous: part of the roof had gone; with the crashes of sound one's brains seemed to be blown out as well. Words came slowly from afar, and although the mind raced in mental overdrive it became increasingly hard to concentrate. There were no laughs any more... Yet two days before we had laughed like hyenas when a divisional staff officer found his cautious way up the hill to warn of an intended visit from the general: things happened to be fairly quiet and we were sitting pretty, for I discouraged all unnecessary movement. The iron gates of the villa were bolted and barred, with a light automatic covering the street and village green beyond. Accordingly, I advised the back-door approach through a hole knocked in the wall by which a Jeep could enter unseen... Gale disregarded the proffered advice: at the appointed hour he arrived at the wrong entrance and sounded his horn... A Bren gunner untied the chains and opened up. With the brigade major I walked down the strip of drive to meet the general. Four immaculate "hatchet" men in pipe-clayed belts and armed with Tommy guns bounded lightly out of a second vehicle and ran twenty paces to face outwards in all directions, to form a theatrical bodyguard. The general was in a testy mood. "I cannot make head or tail of your positions. Nobody seems to know where your commandos have got to." "No, Sir," I replied. "And neither does the enemy." Even as I spoke the mortaring began. The holes previously dug in the flower-beds again proved useful, and Gale departed down the hill."

 

"On 10 June the brigade stood its ground in desperate fighting which hung in the balance until the very end... The battle rolled all day along the ridge, starting with mass attacks by the enemy from Bréville Wood against {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek's {Mills-Roberts} front, where six battalions of the 857 and 858th Infantry Regiments were repulsed with severe losses by No.6 Commando. Tony Smith and Lieutenant Griffiths (the German interpreter, a fine officer, killed after crossing the Rhine) gathered from Hun prisoners that none had experienced such withering small arms fire or known less about the defences they had been ordered to capture. Beaten off at that end of the village, the assault switched direction: after an intensive period of mortar and shell fire a massive attack was launched against No.4 Commando and the Free French in the Hauger area, left of Le Plein and half-a-mile nearer to the coast. Here three battalions of the 744th Infantry Regiment - the remnants of the 857th and elements of the 21st Panzer Division's Reconnaissance regiment, supported by self-propelled guns - were taken on by a weakened Commando and some peerless Frenchmen - perhaps three hundred men in all... The line was twice broken, but no strong-points in the hedgehog were actually over-run. The enemy were sealed off after pushing forward without the support they counted on - and then systematically destroyed. Every available reserve was thrown in from headquarters, who all welcomed a scrap. With them went a newly arrived, and no doubt bewildered, party of reinforcements from England who had not seen action before. They acquitted themselves well enough... The artillery support - it was first class - bombarded the forward areas; capital ships, which fired their broadsides, smashed down among the follow-up concentrations preparing to exploit the breakthrough. As the battle turned and the Germans broke, {Lieutenant-Colonel} Peter Young and Nicol Gray, with strong fighting patrols, routed the withdrawal up to and beyond no man's land, where the Germans had sustained heavy casualties: the bodies of their troops, killed by shelling, lay everywhere. But if the opposition suffered a bloody nose the brigade had also taken a severe hammering. Nos 4 and 6 Commandos had borne the brunt of the fighting, but mortaring and counter battery fire had taken its toll all through the brigade."

 

"There was no question of a truce when the time came to bury the dead. If there were snipers about we were too tired to notice as we made a round of the forward areas, nor can I remember the names of those who fell: the first elation after victory outweighed by a deeper sense of loss. The aftermath was desolation. The survivors, as always, rose magnificently to the dark hour: stretcher-bearers moved along the front line; doctors and the walking wounded, helped by medical orderlies, came and went. Burial parties performed their appointed duties: "The Band of Brothers" were very close that day... And so we dug the commandos' graves, lowering them away in groundsheets in long straight rows; then set about making them wooden crosses to mark each spot. Later the men, after repairing trenches, brewed up tea to start again. Funerals in the field, rough and ready though they be, seem less bleak than those performed with formal rites, as though the soldier whose calling deals with sudden death can find a way to stand easy in its shadow."

 

"I called a conference of commanding officers. The situation was grim... Though incomplete, preliminary figures showed losses of 270 men, the majority of which, thank God, were wounded; but hors de combat. This could not go on indefinitely; the line was becoming too thin to hold. I suggested to John Durnford-Slater, who came up with congratulations from the army commander, that if the Germans repeated the performance next day, General Dempsey {Commander of the 2nd British Army} could expect a butcher's bill that spelt curtains for brigade and the certainty that our high ground would fall. My reactions, I fear, were shrill! "And where the hell are the reinforcements to cope with this wholesale destruction? You're supposed to have a depot and a training centre full of soldiers - and supply fuck all. Twenty-five lads as replacements for four days' fighting - less than half one troop - committed piecemeal to the battle the moment they arrived. Killed or missing, poor devils, without knowing what hit them. Fifty more were needed before we cleared the beach. We lost more than this handful, sunk at sea. Who is responsible for the balls-up?" Old John took the outburst in good part. He was a man of great understanding. The same evening Brigadier Jumbo Leicester, in command of the 4th Royal Marine Commando Brigade, moved into the line with four more Commandos, taking over the open flank on the ridge between ourselves and the Channel coast."

 

"It was my turn to bite the dust on 12 June. After this {Lieutenant-Colonel} Derek {Mills-Roberts} took over the brigade... I was in poor shape at the time. But I remember how, on that last night but one (11 June), everybody's mood changed suddenly. I cannot explain why. The party became hilarious before midnight, enlivened by Arthur de Jonghe, a splendid Belgian who had joined HQ staff as liaison officer. On one of the sorties that afternoon he had captured a large rabbit in a cottage garden. This was cooked in red wine by Arthur over the kitchen fire and devoured amid general rejoicing. It made a feast after iron rations. Bobbie Holmes, who was another good scrounger, supplied the red wine... I decided it was the right moment for a message of goodwill to cheer up the local inhabitants. Some must be around, though they were all in hiding. Excepting Monsieur Saulnier at La Grand Ferme and his brave son Bernard, a boy of sixteen, we had seen no French civilians since D-Day. Before taking off my boots for the first time since landing, a proclamation was composed. Arthur de Jonghe, who seemed to get around, promised to nail up copies at every crossroads in the forward areas: "Les Commandos disent bien le bonjour à tout le monde. Le chêf des Bêrets Verts salue ses amis et veut leur dire que Hitler commence déjà à faire pipi dans sa culotte! Ayez du courage. Nous allons gagner. Vive La France!" This task was duly performed by Arthur next morning."

 

At 22:00 on the 12th June, the 12th Parachute Battalion began its attack on Bréville. During the massive Allied artillery barrage brought down upon the village, a stray shell from a gun of the 51st Highland Division fell short of its target and landed amongst a group of senior officers observing the attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson of the 12th Battalion was killed, and Brigadiers The Lord Lovat and Hugh Kindersley of the 6th Airlanding Brigade were left badly injured. A message was sent to Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts, of No.6 Commando, to visit his wounded commander: He later remarked, "He {Lovat} was in a frightful mess; a large shell fragment had cut deeply into his back and side: Peter Tasker, No.6 Commando's medical officer, was giving a blood transfusion. He was very calm. "Take over the brigade," he said, "and whatever happens - not a foot back." He repeated this several times. And then, "Get me a priest," he said. "Get me the Abbé de Naurois."

 

Despite his very serious condition, Lovat eventually made a full recovery. He was, however, no longer a member of the armed forces, yet Winston Churchill had an eye upon the young Lord and invited him to become Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms in the House of Lords. Lovat, however, declined the offer but soon entered the political arena in 1945 when he became Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In early 1945, with the defeat of Germany now inevitable and the minds of political leaders becoming far more concerned with the shape of post-war Europe than the present situation on the battlefield, the relations between the Western Allies and the Russians began to sour somewhat. In an effort to smooth over the cracks, the British sent a parliamentary delegation to visit Stalin in Russia, and Lord Lovat was amongst them. Churchill wrote to Stalin and informed him that Lord Lovat was "the mildest-mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat." Lovat later became Minister of Economic Warfare, however his involvement in the front-line political arena was short lived and he resigned after Churchill's government fell in the post-war period. Lovat returned home to manage his estate, which standing at some 250,000 acres was consequently not a trifling matter. He remained involved in politics, both as a speaker on Highland affairs in the House of Lords and as a member of Inverness County Council, to which he devoted forty-two years of his life. The Seventeenth Baron Lovat died on the 16th March 1995.

 

See also: Lieutenant-Colonel Otway, Major Howard, Piper Millin.

 

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