The 6th Airborne Divisional Engineers on D Day 1944

by Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Lowman

 

Brigadier F. H. Lowman CBE, DSO, BA

 

FHL was commissioned (28 Batch) in Sep 1932. After a tour in Mauritius as OC 43 Fortress Coy and Garrison Engineer and a number of short spells with the Trg Bns at Chatham and Ripon, he joined the SME as SI Demolitions in 1940. After a brief tour in command of a Fd Coy he attended a War Staff Course at Camberley and then became GS02 (SD) {General Staff Officer 2nd Class} to HQ 1 Airborne Div soon after its formation in 1942. When 6 Airborne Div was formed in May 1943 he was appointed CRE {Commander Royal Engineers} and took the Div Engrs to Normandy where he was wounded in Jul 1944. After the War he was on the DS at Camberley and attended the Joint Services Staff College. He was CRE Works in Hong Kong, commanded 2 Port Task Force and the Tn Centre RE. He also held various staff appointments including Western Europe Cs-in-C Cttee, CDS Staff and Brig Q (Army Equipment) from which he retired in 1967.

 

On 22 June 1940 Mr Winston Churchill, who had recently become Prime Minister, announced that we should have a corps of at least 5000 parachute troops. Two days later a Royal Engineer Officer, Major (later Lieut Colonel) J F Rock, was ordered to take charge of the Organisation of airborne troops. Thus once again a Royal Engineer Officer was responsible for the earliest development of an adjunct to our armed forces. He was later to command the Glider Pilot Regiment and was killed in a glider accident in 1943.

 

The first operation carried out by British airborne troops was the raid on the Apulian Viaduct, north of Taranto, on 10 February 1941.

 

As the Airborne Forces developed Lieut Colonel M C A Henniker was appointed as the first CRE of 1st Airborne Division in 1942. In 1943 Lieut Colonel F H Lowman became the first CRE Of 6th Airborne Division.

 

This article takes us forward to D-Day 1944 and is concerned with the activities of the units of 6th Airborne Divisional Engineers. The co-ordinating Author was then CRE and the units under command were 3 and 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadrons RE, 249 Field Company RE (Airborne) and 286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne). The "Official" account of the exploits, is published in Corps History Volume IX pares 339-343.

 

 

3 Parachute Squadron RE and the Bridges over the River Dives

 

One of the specific tasks given to 6 Airborne Division was to protect the left flank of 1 British Corps (and thereby provide the hingepin for the whole Allied assault) by denying to the enemy the use of the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives north of the road Troarn-Sannerville-Colombelles and delaying the movement of enemy reserves and reinforcements attempting to move towards Caen from the east and south east.

 

One obvious way of assisting in this task was for the Divisional Engineers to create a demolition or obstacle belt to hamper enemy movement. The four bridges over the upper reaches of the Dives between Troarn and Robehomme made obvious targets but as the river then swung away to the north east the demolition line had to be pulled back to include two smaller bridges over streams at Le Hoin and Varaville. Fuller details of the targets were:

 

(a) Troarn-5-span masonry arch bridge 110ft long

(b) Bures-Steel lattice girder farm bridge 80ft long

(c) Bures-Steel lattice girder railway bridge 80ft long

(d) Robehomme-Steel lattice girder bridge Soft long

(e) Le Hoin-Small masonry arch bridge

(f) Varaville-Small masonry arch bridge

 

Detailed intelligence on the targets was meagre for a series of rapid unreconnoitred demolitions and therefore a low level photo reconnaissance mission was commissioned. Similar missions had of course to be flown elsewhere to avoid disclosing the actual target area. This task was undertaken by an RAF Typhoon fitted with a forward facing oblique camera which followed the river at a 'height of 600ft. The enlarged pictures provided such excellent detail that the draughtsman at Headquarters Royal Engineers (HQRE), Sapper Clark, was able to produce scale models from which charges could be precisely calculated and the demolition parties fully briefed.

 

The outline plan was that 3 Parachute Squadron RE, less 3 Troop, was to drop with 8 Parachute Battalion at 0050hrs with the task of destroying the bridges at Troarn and Bures. 1 Troop was to destroy the Troarn bridge covered by a Company of 8 Parachute Battalion in Sainte Samson and another Company in Troarn. 2 Troop was to destroy the bridges at Bures covered by a Platoon of 8 Parachute Battalion. 3 Troop was to drop with 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion on another dropping zone (DZ) further to the north east at the same time with the task of destroying the bridges at Robehomme and Varaville. One Company of the Canadian Battalion was to cover the demolition at Varaville and a Platoon of the same Battalion that at Robehomme. In addition two gliders were allotted to the main body of 3 Parachute Squadron and one to 3 Troop to land on the appropriate DZs. These gliders each carried a jeep and two 10cwt trailers plus additional explosives and equipment, and were intended to provide a minimum of transport beyond the folding hand trolleys with which the Squadron was to drop.

 

All the demolitions were to be blown by 0715hrs which was H Hour for the seaborne assault. This meant that the approximate time available at the various sites varied from two hours at the Troarn bridge to three and a half hours at Varaville after an approach march in the dark with the barest minimum of wheeled transport and a considerable weight of explosive and engineer equipment. In the case of the bridges at Troarn and Bures the approach march was four miles or more. As part of the overall plan the RE Troop in Lord Lovat's Special Service Brigade, under command of Captain Bobby Holmes RE, was to extend the main demolition belt north west to the sea by cratering access roads on the arrival of the Brigade in the divisional area later on D Day.

 

In the event matters turned out very differently. The Squadron less 3 Troop which should have dropped between Escoville and Touffreville with 8 Parachute Battalion was actually dropped east of the road from Le Mariquet to Escoville. This was due to misplaced navigational aids caused in turn by the pathfinders of 22 Independent Parachute Company having been dropped in the wrong place. The only members of 8 Parachute Battalion to arrive with the Engineer Squadron were a few Other Ranks but no Officers. At the rendezvous it was established that a satisfactory quantity of explosive and demolition equipment was available from kit bag and container loads, thanks to the efficiency of the illuminated container locating devices. This was enough to make some sort of demolition at the three bridges at Troarn and Bures, but only six trolleys were available to move the heavy loads. The party then moved off about 0230hrs. The march was fortunately unopposed but it was a feat of endurance by the Sappers hauling the heavily laden trolleys and several of them were limping with injuries from the drop.

 

A little further on at a road junction the RE party met up with further elements of 8 Parachute Battalion and a jeep and trailer loaded with medical stores. The Infantry were left to hold the road junction and the jeep and trailer were reloaded with forty-five heavy General Wade shaped demolition charges required for the Troarn demolition. The RE party then split up. All the plastic explosive and cratering equipment were loaded on to the trolleys and Captain Tim Juckes RE was sent off with the main body of the Sappers to attack his two bridges at Bures. The Squadron Commander Major Tim Roseveare RE, Lieutenant David Breese RE and seven Sapper Other Ranks set off with the heavily laden jeep and trailer to tackle the Troarn bridge. Neither party had any Infantry protection and had therefore to organise their own within their resources.

 

The attack on the Troarn bridge is best told in the Squadron Commander's own words:

 

"We set off down the road at a moderate pace with everyone ready with a Bren gun or one of our several Sten guns for any trouble. Just before the level crossing we ran slap into a barbed wire knife-rest road block. One Boche fired a shot and then went off. It took twenty minutes' hard work with wire cutters before the jeep was freed. We then proceeded on, leaving behind, it transpired later, Sapper Moon; two scouts were sent ahead to the next cross roads. As they arrived a Boche soldier cycled across complete with rifle. On being dragged from his bicycle he protested volubly and we made the mistake of silencing him with a Sten gun instead of a knife.

 

"The town (Troarn) was now getting roused so we lost no time and everyone jumped aboard while I tried to make the best speed possible. As the total load was about 3,000lbs we only made about 35mph. At the corner (of the town) the fun started, as there seemed to be a Boche in every doorway shooting like mad. However, the boys got to work with their Sten guns and Sapper Peachey did very good work as rear gunner with the Bren gun. What saved the day was the steep hill down the main street. As the speed rose rapidly and we careered from side to side of the road, as the heavy trailer was swinging violently, we were chased out of the town by a German machine gun which fired tracer just over our heads.

 

"On arrival at the bridge which was not held, we found that Sapper Peachey arid his Bren gun were missing. Thirty-nine General Wade charges were immediately placed across the centre span, a Cordtex (detonating cord) lead was connected up and the charges fired. The demolition was completely successful - the whole centre span being completely demolished giving a gap of 15 to 20ft. The time taken was about five minutes.

 

"I decided Troarn would not be a healthy spot to return to, so we drove the jeep up a track due north towards Bures as far as possible and then ditched it. It was now 0500hrs. Lieutenant Breese made a reconnaissance of Bures which led him to believe it was occupied. The party therefore swam several streams south of Bures and took to the woods. A good deal of machine gun fire from a road junction ahead made me alter my plan and I decided to make for Le Mesnil which was reached at 1300hrs."

 

At about 1230hrs the CO of 8 Parachute Battalion decided that a further attack should be made on the Troarn bridge but could only spare one Infantry Platoon as protection party. The following party therefore formed up under Captain Tim Juckes RE, who had by then linked up with the Battalion on his return from the bridges at Bures:

 

(a) One Platoon of 8 Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant G Brown,

(b) Protective detachment RE under Sergeant Shrubsole RE,

(c) Jeep and trailer carrying Lieutenant Tony Wade RE, six Sappers and forty General Wade demolition charges,

(d) Rear-guard detachment RE under Lieutenant John Shave.

 

The route taken was east to Bures and then down a road leading south towards Troarn. Just outside the town a firm base was established with the demolition party and Lieutenant Shave's detachment. While Lieutenant Brown's Platoon set about driving the enemy up the street, Sergeant Shrubsole's RE detachment pushed into the town and worked their way down the hill towards the bridge. On the way they came under fire and a small battle ensued in which one German was killed and five surrendered. The way was now clear to the bridge and the demolition patty with the jeep and trailer proceeded straight down to the bridge and laid their charges across the next span to that already destroyed and successfully demolished it. The total gap was now about 35 to 40ft as the intervening pier was almost completely destroyed by the second explosion. The time was about 1500hrs. The demolition party then withdrew in good order through Troarn by the route they had come. The Infantry Platoon was withdrawn through Lieutenant Shave's rearguard and the return march completed successfully by about 1630hrs.

 

Captain Juckes and his RE party had a less eventful time. After making their way through the Bois de Bures they reached the two bridges at Bures unopposed about 0630hrs and work was started immediately on the two demolitions. Lieutenant John Shave RE and one Section tackled the farm track bridge while Lieutenant Alan Forster RE and about one and a half Sections dealt with the railway bridge. Local protection was provided by Sappers of 1 Troop. Both bridges were blown by 0930hrs after giving a local farmer a few minutes to move his cattle back across the river to the home side and Captain Juckes' party made their way back to the 8 Parachute Battalion area by 1215hrs.

 

Captain Smith's troop, which was scheduled to drop north west of Varaville with the Canadian Parachute Battalion, was scattered largely over the flooded area to the east and in the village itself. One aircraft took such violent evasive action that the men were thrown flat and the stick stretched from Varaville to Robehomme, some 3,500yds. The containers proved very difficult to retrieve even though the illuminated locating device showed up under two and three feet of water.

 

Lieutenant Jack Inman RE collected twelve Sappers and three containers of explosive and took them with considerable difficulty across a network of ditches to Varaville where he met Lieutenant Ted Baillie RE who was on his own. Five Sappers and 200lb of explosive were left with Lieutenant Baillie who proceeded to destroy successfully the Varaville bridge. Lieutenant Inman then set off for the Robehomme bridge with the remainder. On his way he met Captain Smith, Lieutenant Beverley Holloway and three Sappers. Captain Smith went to the Varaville bridge whilst the rest went on to Robehomme. Bavent was held by the enemy and the party had to take to the flooded fields carrying the explosive on their backs. They eventually reached the bridge at 0900hrs, to meet Sergeant Poole RE there and hear that he had dropped nearby and destroyed the steel span with a clean cut, using 30lb of plastic explosive collected from troops of 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion who had dropped in the vicinity.

 

Sappers jumping towards the ends of the sticks tended to get embroiled with the enemy at once and there were many stories of Sappers being cornered and escaping. The individual reports all showed that a heavy toll of the enemy was taken by these small bands. Sergeant Jones for instance killed eight of his captors with their own weapons. Sapper Thomas, although wounded during his descent, killed three of the enemy on landing with two 36-grenades. Nearly all these parties rejoined the Squadron later in the day.

 

Thus 3 Parachute Squadron RE, despite many difficulties, successfully carried out its allotted tasks. Unfortunately these demolitions could not be covered by fire and in due course the enemy was able to circumvent them. However, there is no doubt that they served to delay and hamper the enemy build-up seriously during the early critical stages following the initial assault.

 

Postscript

 

The gallantry and initiative of the Squadron Commander, Tim Roseveare RE, was recognised by the award of an immediate DSO in the field. Sadly Captain Tim Juckes RE was killed some time later during a mortar attack on Le Mesnil and Sergeant Jones was also to be killed.

 

Major Roseveare's exploit also forms the basis of the Airborne Chapter in Sappers, at War by Anthony Armstrong (AA) who was himself once a Sapper Officer.

 

 

249 Field Company RE (Airborne). 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE and the Bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne

 

One of the primary tasks given to 6 Airborne Division was to "Capture, intact if possible, the bridges over the Caen canal at Benouville and over the River Orne at Ranville". The story of the successful assault by the coup de main glider force under Major John Howard, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, is well known but the engineer role in support of this critical task is worthy of documentation, not the least since it brings out the breadth and depth of contingency planning in airborne operations.

 

In view of the importance of the two bridges it was certain that they would have been prepared for demolition and the demolition charges might well be actually in place. To this end detailed models of the bridges were made from available information and the likely placing of demolition charges assessed. Here it is interesting to note that the best information on the canal bridge was a copy of a pre-war picture postcard supplied by a member of the public in response to a general appeal in the United Kingdom for information on occupied Europe.

 

2 Platoon of 249 Field Company RE (Airborne) under Captain Jock Neilson RE with Lieutenant Jack Bence RE was distributed one Officer or NCO and four Sappers in each of the six gliders allotted to the coup de main force. Each glider party was briefed to search the same places for demolition charges on their own and on the other bridge. Their equipment comprised scaling ladders, hand axes, small crowbars, torches and pliers as well as a folding canvas assault boat and an inflatable reconnaissance boat.

 

The three gliders intended for the canal bridge, including Captain Neilson RE, all landed within 100yd of the bridge as planned. Despite the roughness of the landing due to the marshy ground every Sapper was at his allotted place searching for demolition charges within two minutes of touching down. It was found that the places intended for demolition charges had been indicated with paint, and no charges being found in place the bridge was declared clear within five minutes. A wireless message then came through that only one glider had arrived at the River Orne bridge. Captain Neilson RE therefore promptly took an RE party from the Benouville to the Ranville bridge and was able to declare the latter also clear just as Lieutenant Bence RE arrived on the scene: his glider had landed some 500yd from its target. The third glider for this party landed even further away in the marshes near the coast and the party did not arrive until the evening of D plus 1.

 

Sometime after first light the Frenchman responsible for working the lifting bridge at Benouville arrived and the RE party learned from him the rudiments of the mechanism before he beat a hasty retreat.

 

Lieutenant Bence RE then set about the next task which was to assess what load class of vehicle the two bridges were capable of carrying. This involved taking measurements with tape and footrule and applying a known formula, and it was no healthy task with the sites still under aimed small arms fire. The answers showed that both the bridges were Class 30, ie capable of carrying Sherman tanks, but the approaches to the Ranville bridge were rather below this figure. This was important, as a Squadron of the amphibious Sherman tanks that had swum ashore leading the seaborne assault over the beaches were due to cross into 6 Airborne Division's Area to provide sorely needed tank support. Bearing in mind also that the formula included a factor of safety and that the doubtful area was clear of the watergap, the Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) of 6 Airborne Division took the decision when visiting the bridges during the morning that the tanks should be allowed to cross. This they did later without mishap.

 

So much for the operation at the bridges as it turned out, but what if the bridges had not been captured intact and one or both had been blown? This was a contingency for which plans had to be made in advance and equipment provided. There was also another ugly hazard. The level of water in the canal was controlled by locks near the coast at Ouistreham. If these were destroyed by the enemy the canal waterway at Benouville would be reduced to a few feet in width with steep muddy slopes on either side.

 

The contingency plan was for 7 Parachute Battalion dropping north of Ranville to secure a bridgehead to the west of Benouville and the canal. This would involve ferrying troops across the water gaps and was to be supervised by a detachment of a Sergeant RE and four Sappers dropping with 7 Parachute Battalion. The equipment required, consisting of thirty inflatable RAF type dinghies and 500 fathoms of cordage, was carried down by Battalion personnel in kitbags with which they jumped. In order to get some light vehicles and 6-pounder anti-tank guns across four gliders with the balance of 2 Platoon 249 Field Company RE (Airborne) were to land with the main glider force some two hours later. Each of these gliders carried one light anti-tank gun raft, further RAF type inflatable dinghies, ferrying gear and two 30ft rolls of chespaling. The last had hessian sacking stitched underneath, sprayed with oil paint, designed to complete with the steep muddy slopes which might have been met on the canal. The equipment was not of course needed but it was dumped on the east bank of the River Orne for use if the bridges were subsequently destroyed. In fact the canal bridge was lucky to escape a bombing attack on the evening of D Day when one bomb glanced off the superstructure into the water.

 

Postscript

 

Later in June 1944 another Division appeared in the area and this Division had earned the nickname of the "Highway Decorators" from its habit of daubing available walls with its insignia. The CRE 6 Airborne Division therefore sought the Divisional Commander's approval to staking our own claim on the canal bridge. General Gale readily gave his assent and two swinging inn type signs with 6 Airborne Division and Pegasus Bridge painted in the correct colours were made in the workshops of 286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne) and erected on 26 June 1944.

 

On the cessation of hostilities the sign at the Benouville end was formally unveiled in the presence of local dignitaries. An addendum plaque was added to mark the role of 6 Airborne Division in the invasion. The signs, together with the Pegasus Cafe (home of the Gondree family) nearby are today well known landmarks.

 

 

591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE and the Clearance of the Glider Landing Zones

 

The original 6 Airborne Division plan had provided for the early landing of as many gliders as possible on the open ground north of Ranville so as to have available the heavier weapons and best possible anti-tank defence against the expected counter attacks by German armour. However, some four weeks before D Day, routine photographic reconnaissance suddenly revealed a pattern of white spots on the air photographs of the intended landing zone (LZ). Fortunately the CRE had seen these half-an-hour before being summoned to the Divisional Commander, General Gale. "Have you seen these air photos, Frank?", said General Gale, "Do you realise what they mean and what do you propose to do about them?" "Yes Sir," replied the CRE, "They are anti-airlanding poles and we shall have to blow them down and carry them away." The divisional plan had then to be recast to drop the maximum parachute force first in order to secure the area and to clear sufficient lanes through the poles to enable the essential glider elements to come in as early as possible.

 

Detailed examination of the air photographs indicated that the obstructions consisted either of wooden poles 12 to 18in in diameter or of metal girders, in both cases about 15ft high and sunk in holes about four feet deep. It was also possible that the taps of the poles were laced together with stout plain or barbed wire. In some areas the holes had been dug but no poles erected at that stage. The spacing of the poles was 30 to 60yd.

 

The CRE and the CO of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Lieut Colonel George Chatterton examined the problem in detail and decided that for the initial glider force of some seventy Horsa gliders, needed to carry Divisional HQ and one 6-pounder Anti-Tank Battery and to be landed by moonlight, two strips would have to be cleared, each 1,000yd by 60yd. This would involve the demolition and removal of one complete row of poles in each strip. Each strip would then take thirty-five Horsa gliders. In order to take the main glider force of some 140 gliders due to land at 2100hrs on D Day under the revised plan two strips further to the east would be needed. As this force also included some of the much larger Hamilcar gliders carrying 17-pounder anti-tank guns, the strips would have to be increased to 90yd in width. This would involve the demolition and removal of two complete rows of poles in each 1,000yd strip. In addition each landing strip would need an approach funnel 120yd long in which the poles would have to be dropped but need not be removed to the side. All strips would be marked with a landing "T" of lights by night and ground strips by day and this would be for the Independent Parachute Company to do.

 

So much for the commitment. There remained the problem of dropping the poles and then removing them. Permission was obtained to fell 100 suitable trees in the New Forest, something that would be unheard of in peacetime, and these were then transported to Bulford Fields on Salisbury Plain where they were erected according to the pattern in the air photographs. Following trials of various possible methods a standard drill was evolved as follows:

 

(a) The ground round the base of each pole was excavated to a depth of 6in and about 12in out from the pole.

(b) A 5lb sausage of plastic explosive was attached round the base of the pole to be fired individually by safety fuse and igniter. These sausages were made up in bicycle inner tubes and carried down by the parachute Engineers as bandoliers.

(c) Each pole was then removed by human porterage provided by an Infantry working party and the shallow crater filled in and stamped down. Demolished poles were carried away to the side of the strip and laid at the base of a standing boundary pole and at 45 to the axis of the strip to allow gliders to turn off. Six infantry teams of twelve men were required for each strip and they were headed by an RE NCO to ensure a safe separation from the demolition parties.

 

With one RE Troop working on each strip target timings were ninety minutes to clear each night strip and two hours each day strip. The two night strips had to be ready by 0320hrs, when the glider force was due to land.

 

The troops allotted for the task of clearing the two night strips were:

 

591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE (less one Troop),

Infantry working party of 4 Officers, 12 NCOs and 120 men from 13 Parachute Battalion,

A detachment of the Divisional Signals,

Protection party from 12 Parachute Battalion.

 

Two Engineer reconnaissance parties were to drop at 0030hrs to tape out the two strips, with the remainder dropping at 0100hrs to prepare the landing strips.

 

In general the drop went fairly well. However, one RE reconnaissance party under Lieutenant Pip Mitchley RE was dropped wide and did not arrive in time to carry out its task. The other party under Corporal Stoner RE therefore reconnoitered and set out both strips though they were very short of tapes for this. Also the two Squadron HQ sticks with the Squadron Commander and his 2IC failed to appear at all. Captain Fergie Semple RE of 3 Troop therefore took charge and got the two Troops working with the Infantry party which had arrived as planned.

 

The removal of the obstruction poles proved easier than was expected. Few of them exceeded 8in diameter, and little more than half of them were in place in the ground. Towards the northern part of the LZ they were securely wired together with heavy gauge wire. In many cases manual removal by three men was found to be quicker than using the prepared explosive charges. The two westerly strips were ready in good time for the gliders at 0320hrs but lighting by the Independent Parachute Company proved unsatisfactory due to lack of personnel and special equipment. As a result gliders came in from all directions but with the traditional ability of the Horsa glider to absorb punishment, casualties to men and equipment were remarkably few.

 

Immediately the gliders were down the Engineers set about clearing the two easterly strips and completed these by 0500hrs. Up to this time only light rifle and machine gun fire had been met and a patrolling armoured car which kept at a discreet distance.

 

 

591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE and the Merville Battery

 

The story of the capture of the Merville Battery by 9 Parachute Battalion in the face of great difficulties is now well known. As planned, a Troop of 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE was to support the Battalion and destroy the guns and equipment after capture of the Battery position. This Troop, under Captain Tony Jackson RE, less a glider detachment, was to drop with the Battalion and assist by making gaps through the perimeter minefield. The glider detachment consisting of seven Sappers under Lieutenant Leslie Shand RE was to crash-land with members of the Battalion in three gliders between the actual gun emplacements at 0430 hrs to synchronise with the main assault, storm the emplacements and destroy the guns.

 

In the event the Engineers in the parachute element were scattered far and wide - as indeed was 9 Parachute Battalion - and none were able to reach the Battalion rendezvous. Half the Troop under Lieutenant Jock Hinshelwood RE were dropped as far away as Robehomme where they linked up with 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion. Of the three gliders, one crash landed in England, a second with Lieutenant Shand RE landed at a distance from the Battery near Varaville but eventually rejoined the Battalion and the third managed to land fairly close to the Battery.

 

Regretfully therefore, through no fault of their own. the Engineers were unable to carry out their allotted tasks.

 

 

286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne) and its Work on D Day

 

The "Field Park" was the workshop, equipment, plant and stores unit of the Divisional Engineers and important though it was it seldom gained a front line role. However, in order to maintain morale the CRE had told 286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne) that every effort would be made to include at least elements of the unit in the initial assault.

 

Because of the weight limitations imposed by parachutes and gliders, carriage of the standard types of bulldozer was not possible and the Plant element was equipped with light wheeled agricultural tractors. The Company itself made bulldozing blades for these, ingeniously operated with oleo legs from the undercarriage of bomber aircraft but as a machine it was not a great success. However a month or two before the invasion took place the CRE heard that a small American bulldozer, called a Clark Crawler Tractor, had been used in a glider landing by Wingate's Chindits behind the Japanese lines in Burma. The CRE visited the HQ United States Aviation Engineers in England and asked if he could have three of these machines. "Sure", said the Commanding General, "Just get your CG to drop me a line and they're yours." So the Plant Troop got three of these small bulldozers which would load into a Horsa glider without dismantling.

 

As they would be valuable in clearing the glider landing zones for the second and main landing on the evening of D Day a detachment of fifteen Sappers under Lieutenant "Gunner" Read RE of 286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne) was to land in four gliders with the first glider wave at 0320hrs. Three of these gliders were each to carry a Clark bulldozer, one American tipper trailer, petrol and tools. The fourth glider was to carry a jeep and air compressor.

 

Two of the three gliders carrying bulldozers and the fourth with the jeep and air compressor landed as planned at 0325hrs. It is believed that the remaining glider broke its tow rope over the Channel and landed in the sea. Sadly the bulldozer operator involved was a Sergeant Rousseau RE, a French speaking Channel Islander, whose linguistic ability would have been most useful. Unloading the bulldozers posed some problems. One broke the loading ramp on the glider but survived the drop to the ground. The second was also difficult to unload as the glider had shed its nosewheel. Both machines were working on their strips within one and a half hours of landing, about 0445hrs. In eight hours and well in time for the next glider force landing at 2100hrs, they had cleared, unassisted, glider debris from the first landing as well as filling in holes on the two easterly strips where the poles had not in fact been placed in the ground. During this time the LZ had become subject to some sniping, mortar and shell fire but despite this the operators persevered and completed their task.

 

The other requirement at an early stage was for an Engineer stores collection and distribution unit and the balance of the detachment mentioned above was organised to do this. Only part of the bomb bays in the parachute aircraft was required to carry equipment containers for the use of the paratroops it was to drop. The remainder of the bomb bays was therefore filled with containers of stores likely to be needed, principally anti-tank mines. These latter containers were released shortly after the equipment containers and the system called the Jettison Drop. This Jettison Drop was inevitably very scattered and though only about fifty per cent of it was retrieved, it proved to be a valuable bonus.

 

There was a further development of the Jettison Drop principle. HQRE heard that all the RAF tug aircraft towing gliders were to drop their nylon tow ropes into the Channel on their way back to their base. These tow ropes might be most useful to the Engineers on the ground whose resources were naturally very limited. So arrangements were made for each stream of tug aircraft to drop their tow ropes over specified map squares in Normandy itself, where they could be collected later.

 

Postscript

 

Tragically Lieutenant Read RE was killed soon after landing, the first Divisional Sapper Officer to fall in action.

 

It would be an omission in this account of the work of 286 Field Park Company RE (Airborne) not to mention the Memorial Cross. Sadly the temporary divisional burial ground at Ranville began to fill and later in June 1944, when there was a lull in the battle, the CRE approached the Divisional Commander and Senior Chaplain, George Hales with a design for a simple temporary memorial cross sketched on the back of a message form. Both readily agreed. The cross was actually made by Sapper Hanslip RE of cement cast in moulds and speckled with coal dust to simulate marble. A Pegasus and "6 June 1944" were attached, made from copper compressed air bottles salvaged from derelict gliders, beaten flat and stippled with the Pegasus design and lettering. The cross was erected on 24 June 1944 and consecrated by the Senior Chaplain. The burial ground became a permanent War Graves site and the cross was still standing thirty years after - and still is, it is believed - a fine tribute to Sapper Hanslip's workmanship. In the days when the annual Airborne Pilgrimage took place, the service in the cemetery was always held round this memorial cross rather than the much larger formal one erected by the War Graves Commission.

 

 

Headquarters Royal Engineers and its Misfortunes on D Day

 

HQRE of an Airborne Division was a small affair with the barest minimum of staff. It consisted of three Officers - the Commander, Adjutant and Intelligence Officer and ten Other Ranks, including an Army Physical Training Corps Parachuting Instructor. To match the pattern of the divisional plan an advance element consisting of the Commander, Intelligence Officer, one clerk and one despatch rider were to go in by parachute with 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE at 0050hrs. The main body comprising the Adjutant and seven Other Ranks in two gliders was to land with two jeeps and trailers at 0320hrs with Divisional HQ. Because of the shortage of Officers Lieutenant Jim Lockey RE of 591 Squadron was to join the HQ as a Liaison Officer after landing and after finding out the situation at the Canal and River Orne bridges. In fact the Commander landed far south of the DZ and it took him some one and a half hours evading German opposition trying to ring the landing before he reached the rendezvous at about 0230hrs. Here he found the despatch rider, Sapper Souster, but there was no sign of the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Johnnie Shinner RE nor of the clerk, Sapper Guard. However Lieutenant Jim Lockey RE arrived shortly after with the good news that the bridges had been captured intact. Following the glider landing at 0320hrs the small party waited for the two glider loads with the main body to link up. Presently one load consisting of Staff Sergeant Rickman, Army Physical Training Corps, Lance Corporal Hullin (clerk) and Sapper Clark the draughtsman arrived with a jeep and trailer but there was no sign of the second load with the Adjutant, Captain Jack Maynard RE, and three Other Ranks.

 

Lieutenant Lockey went ahead with the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal to confirm whether the site at the Chateau du Heaume in Ranville, which had been earmarked as Divisional Headquarters, was in fact in our hands and they established that it was. So at O600hrs RE Headquarters was established alongside Divisional Headquarters, but the RE staff consisted only of the Commander, Lieutenant Lockey RE as combined Adjutant and Intelligence Officer, one Lance Corporal clerk, one despatch rider, one draughtsman and the Parachute Training Instructor.

 

It transpired later that Captain Maynard and his glider load had been hit by flak and landed beyond the River Dives, only to be taken prisoner soon after. Lieutenant Shinner and Sapper Guard were in the same parachute aircraft as Major Andy Wood RE, the Officer Commanding 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE. Their Stirling was shot down in flames but miraculously the parachutists survived. They were all taken prisoner and Lieutenant Shinner was promptly removed for interrogation. Sapper Guard and several Other Ranks were summarily executed with a machine pistol.

 

 

Subsequent Engineer Tasks on D Day

 

In view of the tactical situation and dispersion, 3 Parachute Squadron RE was left under the command of 3 Parachute Brigade but it continued with the tasks laid down for it. These included road reconnaissance within the Brigade area to see if they were clear of mines and the laying of an anti-tank minefield at the Le Mesnil crossroads with mines collected from the jettison drop round Le Mesnil. After completing these tasks the Squadron took its place in the line in an Infantry role at Le Mesnil and gave a very creditable account of itself.

 

The remaining Engineer units reverted to the CRE's command at 0600hrs on D Day. Those that had completed their initial tasks were deployed on essential work planned as the second phase. This comprised mainly road reconnaissance in the Divisional area to determine if any mining had been carried out by the enemy and also the laying of our own minefields which were essential to thwart Infantry and Armoured counter-attack. The actual mines required had to come from the jettison drop containers and these were not easy to find, especially as many of them had come down in the village of Ranville, south of the main DZ.

 

Shortly after 1200hrs enough anti-personnel mines had been collected to enable one Troop of 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE to lay one anti-personnel minefield to deny the covered approach between Le Bas de Ranville and the River Orne to the enemy but insufficient mines had been found by then to complete another anti-personnel minefield nearby. At the same time another Troop of the Squadron made a start on an anti-tank minefield through the orchards between Le Mariquet and Herouvillette: However, there were only enough mines to do the southern half of the belt and even that at half the normal density. The northern belt was therefore laid as a dummy minefield as sufficient fencing wire and minefield marking materials were available.

 

The Platoon of 249 Field Company RE (Airborne) with the Infantry Company on the Canal and River Orne bridges had to be left there to assist with their defences as they were still subject to sporadic counter-attack. The Platoon was however given the task of providing a water point. Apart from a few small shallow wells in the villages the only adequate source initially was the canal which fortunately was passed as fit to drink. A water point was therefore established close by the canal bridge at Benouville using a water purification trailer handed over during the afternoon as planned by 3 British Infantry Division at the bridge. Unfortunately during the evening the bridges was dive bombed and received a direct hit. The bomb must have disintegrated without exploding as the bridge escaped any damage. The water point alongside was less lucky and it was damaged beyond repair.

 

 

Finale

 

The Engineer tasks on D Day were probably more varied than in any other airborne operation and entailed a dispersion of the Sappers in small parties over the whole Divisional area. They had their full share of casualties, faulty dropping and loss of equipment. That all the allotted tasks were nevertheless carried out on time, with the single exception of the destruction of the guns in the Merville Battery position, was due to flexibility in the plan, a wide dispersion of equipment and stores throughout the various parties and above all the determination of all ranks to get their tasks completed, even when left by circumstances to their own devices: In fact they lived up well to the Royal Engineers motto of UBIQUE.