Up The Airborne: The History of the 12th Yorkshire Bn The Parachute Regiment
Formation of 5 Para Bde to D-Day (6 June 44)
The 5th Parachute Bde was formed in direct anticipation of the Normandy landing by the Airborne Forces. The first Bn to be formed was the 7th (Light Infantry) Bn, which was followed very shortly afterwards by the 12th (Yorkshire) and 13th (Lancashire) Bns. This Battalion was originally the 10th Bn Green Howards of which some 250-350 volunteered as parachutists when the 'powers that be' decided to convert it.
This was in May 1943, and the whole crowd moved to Hardwicke to commence the gruelling training that precedes the passing on to Ringway. This fortnight was enjoyed by all ranks there and the eventual jumping at Ringway was entered into with a spirit of zest and keen-ness.
The Battalion returned to Larkhill - still known even now, as the HOME of this Bn - and commenced a year's hard training - preparing for the great invasion of the Continent.
Every member of the Bn must have been aware even from the outset that his job was to jump the vaunted 'West Wall', and the enthusiasm of all ranks was remarkable. Day after day vigorous road walks, runs, jumps and schemes were practiced. This was occasionally interrupted for such things as the tour of Yorkshire in October '43. The Bn visited several of the towns including Richmond, Middlesborough (where the Padre, Rev Jenkins, and the MO were observed in a pub waiting for the Bn to come along; so that they could join in with it for the march past) and "Brancepeth".
They were happy days these. After the Yorkshire Tour the Bn went straight on 10 days leave - the first since jumping leave, and for the most part much journeying about the country was saved insofar as the Bn was already in Yorkshire where the greater percentage of its members lived.
On the return to Larkhill work began again - in even greater earnest. Time was getting short now - 7 months left before D-Day, and the will and conscientious work rendered by all men in the unit gave its commander and other senior officers the greatest satisfaction and confidence. Those who were then in the Bn will never forget the freshness of early morning P.T. of the schemes at places like Reading or Bournemouth. This was really a 'racket' worked by the Commanding Officer Lieut. Col. A.P. Johnston DSO, to enable the men to get home at the week-end by being near a large town and railway terminus at the end of the scheme. The rush on the Stations was always a thing which caused great amusement to the onlookers and embarrassment to the Railway officials and MPs. When the 12th Bn went on the train to London (Waterloo) there would be a mad rush for the barrier by hundreds of red-bereted men. Shouts of 'Up the Airborne' echoed through this great London terminus as in a great surge the men dashed for the barriers and 'Bashed On' through.
The general plan for the part to be played in the landing in Normandy by the 6th Airborne Division was revealed to senior officers many days in advance of the actual operation. The briefing of Unit, Coy and Pln Commanders took place shortly afterwards and all the men in the Bn very quickly learnt what part they were to play on June 6th. (Though this actual date was not then known). The final work of seeing that all were properly equipped and aware of their tasks was carried out and ten days before (May 27th) the Bn moved to Keevil aerodrome.
The first men to drop into Normandy were of the 22nd Independent Para Coy; they landed in the Brigade DZ a mile or two N.E. of the bridges over the R. Orne and the Canal. Brigadier J.H.N. Poett DSO was with them as they erected the lights for the "T" Panel and adjusted their Eureka sets to guide in the Bde. Half an hour later, soon after midnight, Stirlings and Albemarles flew in independently from all angles, and soon the DZ was alive with parachutists. Quiet, hustling, shadowy groups were suddenly seen, only to disappear again into the darkness. The droning of aircraft, more paratroops floating down to earth, and in the distance an orange neckless of tracer floating skywards - the odd searchlight: this was the scene, and the Germans seem to have been hypnotised, not realising what was happening about and around them.
The Bn RV was a stone quarry near a road running parallel to the River and the Canal. The Adjutant, Captain Bernard was to have flashed a red car lamp to conduct us in, but this had been smashed on the drop and small hand torches had to suffice. During the next two hours men dribbled into the RV. They were all cheerful.
The task of the 6th Airborne Div was twofold. First the two road bridges over the R. Orne and the Canal, running parallel to each other from Caen to the sea, had to be captured intact. Secondly, the Div was to defend the left flank of the 2nd Army Bridgehead.
The 5th Para Bde was to drop near these two bridges, at the same time six gliders from the 2nd Ox and Bucks Light Infantry Bn were to land as near to the bridges as possible, after a long glider over the coast. The men aboard were to rush the bridges on landing and destroy the prepared demolition charges. Then the 7th Para Bn of this Bde were to cross the bridges, dig in on the opposite bank and prepare to ward off any potential counter-attacks from the West. The 12th Bn were to guard the east bank, facing south towards Caen. The 13th Bn, lastly, having cleared a lane for the arrival of the 6th Airlanding Bde, were to join the 12th to face East and North. In short - the Bde was to form a firm base astride, and either side of, the R. Orne and Canal. Within its perimeter were not only these bridges but also the village of Ranville containing Div HQ and Bde HQ. Following immediately after the 6th A/Landing Bde were to come gliders bearing the vitally important 6 and 17 pounder anti-tank guns.
Such was the plan and in point of fact, it was carried out to the letter.
A few hours after landing the Commanding Officer - Lieut Col. A.P. Johnston DSO - decided that he could not risk waiting any longer if we were to be fully established in our positions by first light. Not half the Bn had arrived at the RV, but these moved off at 0315 hrs towards Ranville. The village was reached without the enemy being encountered, and the various Companies deployed to their allotted positions and began to dig in or blast themselves into the ground. Here it is worth pointing out that everyone in the Bn knew the country like the back of his hand, and consequently the entrenching was carried out with little supervision for every man was acquainted with the precise position he had to dig, and for what arc of fire he was responsible. In the darkness the only hindrance was the jettisoned supply containers which had been dropped from the aircraft, and these were being stumbled across time and again by men in the darkness.
It was here that the main body met up with scores of the Bn who had been dropped well south of Ranville, and had decided not to tramp all the way to the RV only to come back later. They had, therefore, gone to the first objective positions. Many more men turned up during the course of the early morning, and of these, some had been dropped as many as 8 to 12 miles away. For them, the extensive night marches we had endured for many weeks previously, stood them in good stead.
There was an amusing incident when a small party from 'C' Company proceeded to clear the half-dozen houses where Bn HQ was going to establish itself. They had difficulty in getting to the houses as the garden gates were strongly barred and pad-locked, and they were surrounded by high chicken wire. However, they cut their way into a garden and the leader knocked on the door. After some time a pleasant middle-aged woman opened the door and stared with horror at the black-faced men, apparently from a different world. It took some time for the leader, whose French was frightful, to convince the good lady that she was confronted by British Parachutists and that the "L'hour liberation être arrivé". Perhaps the strong Yorkshire back-chats and cracks from other members of the party, did more to convince her that we were the 'mad dogs' rather than the Gestapo endeavouring to trick her! Hysterical, weeping, but speaking very good English, she embraced and kissed each member of the party in turn, and after she had calmed down was able to impart useful information concerning the enemy in that locality.
The first counter-attack came in 'C' Company's area at about 1130.
For hours the men had been sitting motionless in their trenches. When dawn broke there had been little to see. In front of the positions a farmer was loading his horse and cart, above, scores of Spitfires were circling around like hawks, while behind, the rumble of guns informed us that furious battle was being raged on the beaches. The invasion by sea had started then, yet we had already been here 6 hours. At 1115 a party of smock and steel-helmet clad troops were observed advancing across 'B' Coy's front towards the Canal. They were about 100 strong, and quite in the open a mere 400 yards away. They walked across towards 'C' Coy's front, then suddenly turned right, and advanced towards the Company's outlying screen. Fire was held, except for the two snipers who merrily bowled over the odd man here and there. Even when the enemy had advanced to within 100 yards, fire was still held. The enemy halted and lay down in the long grass, disappearing from view. The clanking of tracked vehicles was heard, and from behind dead ground two light recce tanks appeared. The forward observation post tried to contact the guns of the cruiser lying off shore, to bring down fire on this target, but alas, they were on a priority target. The two tanks rumbled to a halt, right in the open a bare 70 yards from our positions - a sitting target for the 6lb guns. However, the breach block of the 6 pounder had been damaged, and it was impossible to fire. One of the tanks opened up fire on our positions and at the same time, their infantry worked round to the right towards the canal bank. 'C' Coy immediately opened up with rapid fire, after a pre-arranged signal had been given. They stuck to their positions and continued to fire. A signal for Mortar fire to be brought down on the right flank was not answered. Meanwhile the nearest tank systematically blasted the position - the defenders continued to fire until they were either killed or badly wounded. Eventually, with the enemy creeping closer, the leader of the screening party, one of the four left unwounded, decided that the position was untenable, and that they should make a dash back, risking the gauntlet of fire. This was done, and immediately afterwards the long-awaited Mortar barrage crashed down. The two tanks advanced a further 100 yards and were immediately knocked out by the Anti Tank guns in 'B' Coy positions.
Quietness fell again. There was no movement from the position we had had to evacuate, so a small party was sent forward to reconnoitre. The enemy had fled, leaving their dead behind. Our casualties were quickly evacuated and the position re-occupied by another section from 'C' Coy. Shortly afterwards (about tea time - or sweet sucking time, for there was no tea) 'A' Coy advanced forward of 'C' Coy positions and occupied the area including a small ridge, very much in the open. 'C' Coy was now in reserve and started to brew up.
Major General R.N. Gale DSO OBE MC, the Div Commander, with the Brigadier shortly visited our sector. They expressed pleasure at 'C' Coy's battle and reported that all was well on the other front. The bridges had been captured intact, as planned, though the 7th Bn on the opposite bank were meeting tough opposition, and were being continually counter-attacked.
Towards late afternoon and evening it became apparent that the enemy were endeavouring to find out our positions and strength, and that they were determined to regain our positions, the bridges, and drive us into the sea. The Coy Commander of 'A' Coy - Major G. Ritchie - had been wounded, as had also the Bn's Second in Command when he came up to take over the company. (Major K.T. Darling). The Adjutant eventually took over the coy (Capt Bernhard).
Fire was being brought to bear on the village of Ranville itself, by the enemy. Shells and Mortar bombs fell everywhere, particularly in the area of the Church.
During one of the longer periods of quiet and peacefulness the sky was suddenly filled with gliders - diving, swooping and skimming over the woods and hedgerows. German Ack Ack around Caen opened up, and many of the tug-aircraft were hit and crashed in flames. The majority of the gliders however made successful landings on our DZ. The sight of them coming in greatly heartened us, and the thought that we were being heavily reinforced gave a feeling of greater security.
We had also been reinforced by a Brigade of Commando led by Brigadier Lord Lovatt. They had landed on the beaches near Onistram west of the river, bashed through the enemy defences, and with two bag-pipers playing Lord Lovatt led his men through the 7th Bn positions, across the bridges and took up his position to the north and north east of our sector near Le Plein.
The first night was pretty quiet. Spasmodically automatics opened up with tracer, but it was just nerves on both sides and nothing materialised out of it.
Early in the morning of D + 1 a Coy of the 1st Bn R.U.R's occupied a position forward of 'A' Coy, but the Germans attacked, and they were driven back. The Germans continued to advance supported by three tanks, towards 'A' Coy lines, and Pte Hall of 1 Platoon, seeing a 6 pounder Anti-tank gun unmanned in his section position, fired the gun himself, and with two shots knocked out the two rearmost tanks. The forward tank was destroyed by another gun and the German infantry fled when 'A' Coy opened up with small arms fire.
Throughout the day our fighters protected us from overhead. No enemy planes were seen. No determined drive was made against our positions, and the main trouble came from snipers lurking in the orchards and trees. It was certainly not safe to walk around alone. Such sniper hunting patrols as were sent out were most successful.
In the afternoon the 1st Bn R.U.R. advanced through our lines and attacked and captured Longueval a village on the river bank 1½ miles South towards Caen. Just before dusk the Bn was relieved by the 12th Devons (Airlanding) and we withdrew to a rest area close to the Chateau of Ranville. We spent a peaceful night in the wood.
In the morning we received orders to take over the village of Longueval from the R.U.R., who, with us covering them, were to attack and take the village of St Honorine further south. So we marched along the river bank and arrived without incident at the village Longueval. The enemy surrounding the village were there in force. They quickly appreciated that something was afoot, and mortar fire was rapidly brought to bear on us, heavily. The Bn endeavoured to seek the open country, but was soon pinned down by very heavy fire. The Germans had every approach to the village well guarded and covered. Orders were received to retire from Longueval back to Ranville - somewhat surprisingly - so the Bn once again wended its way along the river bank, this time with our backs towards the enemy. We arrived back at the quarry which had been our original RV on D-Day and began to dig in. For the first time German aircraft appeared and dive-bombed the bridges as our tail was passing by. We suffered a few casualties. At the quarry we were overjoyed to see the Capt Quartermaster, Capt Clarke, who had arrived with the sea party; and we fed in style on 14 men compo packs, cooking in the Coy dixies etc. Up till then we had existed on 24 hr ration packs, carried from England on each man.
The Bn was again in reserve and overlooking the wide expanse of our DZ littered with crashed gliders. It was a quiet night, and once more, we rested well. It had been noticed at this time, that the behaviour of the locals left much to be desired. The inhabitants of one house would be having their tea. Suddenly they would all dash out of the building and tumble into their air-raid shelter. A moment later, down would come a mortar stonk from the enemy. Afterwards they would return to their meal. This happened two or three times and then one of our men discovered the secret. His trench was near a wall, and he noticed a piece of string moving. Closer investigation revealed, a cunningly concealed line running from the house towards the enemy lines. Thus a tug or two warned the locals to take cover!!!
The morning of the next day brought cloudless skies, and glittering bombers passed overhead inland. Above them were the vapour trails of their fighter escort. Yet our usual air-cover hadn't turned up. This was odd. In actual fact the weather in England was such, that they were unable to leave their bases. The Bn remained in the quarry for the day, but great activity was going on around us, particularly in the area of Lord Lovatt's 2nd Commando to the north. Reorganisation of the Bn, to equalise losses throughout the Bn, or neutralise them, was carried out. Each rifle company had no more than two officers apiece, and two platoons commanded by Sergeants. In the evening 3 Messerschmitt planes attacked in the area of the Ox and Bucks positions. We had a grandstand view of this operation.
D + 4 was similarly quiet. We remained in our positions until tea time, when 'B' Coy moved to take over from a Coy of the 7th Bn. A Squadron of Sherman tanks swept across the DZ just after 'B' Coy had arrived in their position, and cleared the woods on the far side. At the same time a Bn of the Black Watch marched down the road and headed for the enemy. They were in close formation and certainly in no fighting order. Later we heard they had truly bumped into the enemy at Breville, and their leading platoon had been wiped out to a man. That the enemy were strong in Breville was evident when we captured it later on.
The Bn less 'B' Coy had moved north to Amfreville and took over a sector of the front from a Commando Unit. 'B' Coy itself joined the rest of the Bn at dawn on Sunday morning (D + 5) having been relieved from the bridge area at midnight and marched to Amfreville to join them.
On Sunday morning mortar were frequently dropping around us, but the enemy put in no attack. The Padre, Capt J. Jenkins, visited each platoon in turn, and in hollows, just behind their positions, prayers were said and hymns sung, followed by a short address. Everyone attended except the Bren gun teams.
As it was getting dark the Bn was relieved by a commando Bde and we withdrew a mile or so to some very deep quarries where we slept like logs. Monday was gloriously hot. We washed and changed our underclothes and lazed about in the sun for the rest of the day. It was rumoured that we were to put in a dawn attack on Breville!
At 8pm we were ordered to prepare for battle, and at 8.30 the Bn moved off, uphill, towards Amfreville. There, to our surprise we filed into the Church. The men sat in the pews, smoking, chattering or sucking sweets, or gazing at the gaily painted effigies of saints, of the Virgin and at the elaborate gilded cross on the altar. After some minutes there was a scurry and a bustle, quick orders were given and the Bn filed out of the Church. On the steps the Padre handed out bundles of the Div paper 'Pegasus'. We lined up on the road in the order 'C' 'A' 'B' & 'HQ' Coys, and were informed that an attack on Breville was indeed to be executed. We were to be supported by a Squadron of Sherman tanks and a Company from the 12th Devons (Airlanding) Bn. We started off down the road towards Breville at approximately 2150 hrs, the noise was colossal, shells whistling over our heads and exploded with a crash ahead. Trails of white smoke appeared overhead from smoke shells, then, suddenly, among and around us, everywhere, shells and mortars began with deafening noise to explode. We sought such cover as was available. It became evident that most of this fire around us came from our own guns (this being discovered true later), but it couldn't be stopped now - and was perhaps not misunderstandable with the attack mounted in such short notice. The firing ceased some ten minutes past 10, and the remnants of the Bn moved towards the start line. Men with limp arms, bloody faces, and men crawling on their hands and knees were passed. Of the Devons only 1 officer and some 6 men could be found. We approached the start line and assumed position along the hedgerow. Ahead was the burning, dust smoked village, and between it and us was a large open field. In the centre of the field four Shermans were blazing away with tracer into the houses. Steadily, and in line we advanced up to the tanks, and, as they were still firing, we halted and waited for them to stop. Behind and to the left, a pillar of black, oily smoke billowed up from one of the Shermans. The fire from the tanks was switched to the left of the village into some dark woods. Again the advance continued. 'B' Coy was joined by Col. R.G. Parker DSO, our old Bn commander. Apparently he was at a loose end and had come to see us in. He had just been wounded in the hand.
With little fuss or bother 'B' Coy entered the village and deployed into an orchard close to the blazing church. Dead Germans, with their weapons - automatics, rifles, etc, lying around their empty trenches, were to be seen everywhere. According to the drill the men quickly found themselves trenches. In one was a live, shivering German. On being made to come out he dived at one of our men who immediately shot him. He turned and faced the Coy 2 i/c with horror stamped on his face, saying "God! Look what I've done".
When the expected counter barrage came down the men were safely in trenches. For ten minutes it was hell in that orchard with mortar bombs and shells mercilessly pouring down - It ceased very suddenly.
The Company Commander was found lying half in and half out of his trench, moaning. He died two minutes later.
In the other rifle Coys, much the same had been happening. But the objective had been secured.
And it was held.
General Gale visited Breville, but few of the men saw him. We were sorry to learn that the Commanding Officer had been killed near the church at Amfreville, and that Lord Lovatt had been wounded by the same shell.
The M.O. (Capt T.M. Wilson, who had taken over from Capt Kennedy when he was wounded at Longueval) had 20 jeeps supplied from Div. These were invaluable in evacuating the casualties, and in an hour and a half the field was clear.
At dawn the QM, Capt E. Clarke, brought us dixies of tea. We found out that of the Bn of 10 officers and some 500 other ranks, two Officers and approximately 170 other ranks reached the village of Breville, and held on to it that night - but the threat to the bridges had been eliminated.
Thus fought the gallant 12th Bn in the first week of the invasion. Although sadly depleted in numbers, reinforcements were received from within the Brigade and it continued to fight on as a unit. In a month or two men, wounded in these seven days, would be returning.