13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment: Luard's Own
by Major Ellis "Dixie" DEAN MBE, MC
Page 1, 2, 3
Reproduced with the kind permission of Major Dean. Archivist of the 13th Battalion whose long and arduous task collating the history is greatly appreciated by all who served and who have connections with "Luards Own".
Formation of the Battalion
Course No. 72 assembled at The Parachute Training School, Ringway on 12th. July 1943. At this stage of the school's development there was a capacity to train 300 men on each course and the majority of volunteers for parachuting on this particular course, were all former members of 2nd and 4th. Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. They were to be the nucleus of the newly raised 13th. Battalion (Lancashire) of The Parachute Regiment, the last one to be raised for the invasion of Nazi "Fortress Europa". A fair number of these prewar members of the Territorial Army had already served together for several years, and were founder members of the unit recruited from the towns of Warrington, Newton le Willows, Earlstown, Golbourne, and the surrounding villages of this region of south west Lancashire. Recruiting opened in 1938 when the Territorials were expanded and was in fact a duplicate of the 1st and 4th. Battalion as it became ever increasingly clear that Hitler was determined on war. Both units shared the same Drill Hall in Warrington, and the members of "C" and "D" Companies, plus some men of H.Q. formed the nucleus of the new Battalion. The Battalion formed part of the 55th. (West Lancashire) Division.
Corporal Tom STEER, M.T. Platoon and Serjeant Arthur STUBBS of "C" Company had served together since October 1939, when as Militiamen they had reported to the Fraser Street Drill Hall of the Liverpool Scottish, when they received their "Calling up Papers". They were sent to the small south west Lancashire town of Ormskirk as recruits to the 2/4th. Later they found they shared a common birthday and received consecutive Regimental Numbers.
With the War Office decision in 1943 to raise a second Airborne Division (to be called the 6th.) extra Parachute Battalions were needed and the men of the 2/4th. were given the choice of volunteering for parachuting or transfer to another battalion of the South Lancashire's. Now over 250 of them were about to put their courage to the test. Setting a fine example to the Battalion he commanded was Lieutenant Colonel "Paddy" RUSSELL, although he already knew that on account of his age, he would not be the Commanding Officer of the new battalion.
Colour Serjeant Harry WATKINS recalls how the 2/4th. were informed of their new role:
In June 1943 the Battalion were stationed in the Citadel at Dover and paraded in the O.R.'s Dining Hall, where Brigadier FLAVELL (the first Commander of 5 Brigade) addressed us and told us we had been selected to form the basis of a Parachute Battalion, the 13th. (Lancashire )Battalion and we would all be given the chance to volunteer. Outside we formed up in Companies and returned to our Company Lines, here the O.C., Major M.F. HUSSEY DE BURGH repeated the information and then gave the order. "Those not wishing to volunteer take three paces forward". I stood still, and so became a parachutist by not stepping forward. We had no opportunity to discuss it with our friends but I had been serving with most of the Company for 5 years and had come to know and respect them, besides there always was a good spirit in the 2/4th. and I suppose what I volunteered to do was to continue serving with my friends. Shortly afterwards the complete Battalion moved to Newcombe Lines, Larkhill, which was to be our base until the Battalion sailed for India in July 1945.
Very few, if any, of the volunteers realised just what they were letting themselves in for, by volunteering their services for this novel means of going to war, because after all, that is what it was. Today the volunteer for the Parachute Regiment, even before he steps inside the Recruiting Office, will doubtless have watched on television or cinema screen, close up pictures in all their detail of what military parachuting involves. But not the war time soldier. He might have seen a news reel depicting a demonstration exercise, when tadpole like creatures suddenly appeared from beneath an old Whitley bomber aircraft, before miraculously a parachute developed above them, but that was about all. Hence it was a mixture of excitement, fear and ignorance I the course assembled.
At Larkhill, the Parachute element of the Battalion, was detached from the Administrative and we went to Hardwick Hall to begin the toughening up part of the training. Major HUSSEY DE BURGH, a firm disciplinarian, had trained his Company so well that I found Hardwick the proverbial "piece of cake". The Parachute Course itself didn't bother me as much as I had expected and I was surprised and pleased how well I performed as a parachutist.
How different were the emotions when little over a week later 225 of them had successfully completed their Basic Parachute Course of eight descents, three balloon (one at night) and five aircraft, (all from the Whitley) and were now the proud wearers of the coveted red beret, and carried on the right sleeve of their battle dress a highly prized pair of blue and white wings. This insignia showed to all they had conquered all fears and were now fully fledged members of the Army's elite. The official R.A.F. report rated the new members of the Parachute Regiment very highly, a first class man, intelligent jumper, above standard, quiet and confident, inspiration to the rest of the stick, good man, fine parachutist, worked hard are comments frequently made by their instructors.
The Basic Parachute Course was (and I suppose still is) a unique "tribal inauguration ceremony", and the fact that every member of the Battalion from the Commanding Officer down to the youngest Private soldier (and including the Regimental Serjeant Major) all had to put themselves to this test which meant an unbreakable and undeniable relationship was created. As a result the mutual respect, trust and confidence which resulted, caused everyone to work together, since we were all dependant on one another.
A further bonus (apart from the extra two shillings a day Parachute pay) resulting from the successful completion of the course was ten days leave. When the Battalion reported back to Newcombe Lines, Larkhill, they learned the identity of their new C.O. It was to be Lieutenant Colonel P.J. LUARD, of the Oxford and Buckingham Light Infantry. However it would be several more mouths before the Battalion was brought up to its war establishment. Priority in the autumn of 1943, as far as Airborne Force's were concerned, was given to maintaining the strength of 1st. Airborne, who were operating in a ground role in Italy.
There were exceptions to this though, some joined the battalion by design: 2nd Lieutenant "Dixie" DEAN:
At the beginning of September 1943 I was serving in "Depot Company", Hardwick, and had been taken off a draft for 1st. Division on account of my inexperience as an Officer, when I heard that the C.O. of the 13th. Battalion was here, interviewing recruits for his battalion, and I arranged to see him. Again I thought my inexperience had resulted in being turned down, and even stressing that I had served as a Serjeant in the 6th. Parachute Battalion for eight months, didn't seem to impress him. The Colonel explained that there would be little enough time to train his battalion, so he was looking for experienced Officers only. Imagine my delight, when three weeks later, I received instructions to join my own county Battalion. I travelled down to Larkhill with Lieutenants Fred SKEATE and Stan JEAVONS.
Some were forced to revert to subterfuge even to train as parachutists: Corporal Bill WEBSTER:
In the summer of 1943 I was a R.E.M.E. fitter attached to the Durham Light Infantry and had several times volunteered for parachuting, only for the C.O. refusing my application on the grounds that I was a skilled tradesman. The next time a recruiting team came to the barracks, I was hanging around outside the gymnasium where interviews were being conducted, when one of the team's Officers asked me if I was interested in volunteering. I told him of my eagerness and how my ambitions were continually thwarted by the C.O. It was then arranged that my name should be added to the list of successful applicants after the C.O. had approved and signed it. Naturally he was furious when he learnt of my posting to Hardwick and swore that he would have me back with the Durhams on completion of my Para course. And he did, but it wasn't long before I was sent to H.Q. 6th. Airborne R.E.M.E. and from there it was only a short step to the 13th., but before my posting, I was asked if I was at all superstitious.
Private Dave ROBINSON was another who joined the Battalion at this time:
I served in the 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalion of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment until it was disbanded in 1942 and I was transferred to the R.A.S.C. and taught to drive. Later I was sent to a unit of 49th. Division, but I wasn't happy, so I volunteered for parachuting, reporting to Hardwick in September 1943.
On joining the 13th. in October, along with future Serjeants BRADLEY of "A" Company, HOLLIS and LONGDEN of "B", also Privates B. CHITTY and D. BURGESS, I was posted to the Anti Tank Platoon, equipped with P.I.A.T.'s.
Others trying to volunteer for parachuting found it a frustrating experience. Commanding Officers could always find justification for refusing the applications to do so, thus avoiding the loss of keen young N.C.O.'s.
As Lance Serjeant Len COX was to discover:
In July 1943, I was stationed in Hollywood Barracks, Belfast, having been embodied with the rest of my T.A. Yeomanry unit on the outbreak of war. I was the No. 1 of a 25 Pounder gun team. I had already tried both in 1941 and again in 1942 to transfer into the Parachute Regiment, only for the C.O. to block my application. But it was a case of third time lucky, and I was posted to Hardwick, where I had no difficulty completing the pre-jump course. I did my jumps in September on Ringway Course No. 87, and was posted to the 13th. immediately afterwards.
I was posted to 4 Platoon of "B" Company but had to drop down to Corporal, my substantive rank. During the training that winter I was sent to the Royal Engineers School at Ripon on a "Mines and Demolition" course. On my return I joined 9 Platoon in "C" Company, and with them went to the Brize Norton camp in late May.
Major John CRAMPHORN was invited by the C.O. himself to join the 13th.:
On the outbreak of war I was embodied into the army with the rest of my Territorial Army unit, 6th. Battalion the Essex Regiment. I was commanding a Company at the time and in November, in accordance with a recent War Office decision to exchange all ranks between regular and Territorial Battalions, I was posted to 2nd. Battalion of my Regiment, part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
We came home via Dunkirk, and for the next three years I helped to train a succession of reinforcements for overseas, but was always refused permission to accompany the troops I had trained. As a consequence I was very frustrated.
In the summer of 1943 the Battalion moved to South Wales for a pre-invasion assault landing exercise, and quite by chance I fell into conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Peter LUARD, who was a complete stranger to me. During the course of our talk together, I learnt that he was about to take command of a newly raised Parachute Battalion, and there was a vacancy for a Company Commander. Would I be interested in joining his Battalion, he asked. He questioned me about my Army service to date. My answers must have satisfied him because he then told me to apply for a parachute course, adding that a C.O. could no longer refuse permission to any one wishing to volunteer for parachuting.
Immediately on our return to the Isle of Wight. after the exercise, I sent my application for a transfer to the War Office, and was soon on my way to Hardwick.
Some, although fully trained, had to bide their time in one of the Airborne Training Establishments: Corporal Gordon SIMPSON recalls:
When war broke out I thought it would be exciting to fly a "Spitfire" so I applied to be trained, only to be turned down for medical reasons, a result of recent surgery to remove my appendix. I then had difficulty in joining the army, since as an engineering apprentice, I was in a reserved occupation. But in 1941 the authorities relented, and I was allowed to join the Ordnance Corps. I was selected and trained as an N.C.O. Instructor, and posted to the R.A.O.C. Training Regiment at Chilwell. It was a soul less place, and I wasn't satisfied with my employment, so in late 1943 I applied to join the Parachute Regiment, and when qualified joined the Depot at Clay Cross.
Training: August 1943 to May 1944
For the first four months of its existence, the Battalion was not able to carry out training at much more than section and platoon level. There were just not the soldiers to do it, there were quite a few Chiefs but not many Indians. Priority was given to the formation and training of the specialist units, the Signal and two Mortar Platoons. All three platoons were up to establishment and the Mortars were stronger in numbers than any Rifle Company, where only the H.Q.'s were fully manned, but the Platoon themselves consisted of an H.Q. and possibly a dozen men, a high proportion of whom were N.C.O.'s. It was noticeable that the emphasis was on night training, with plenty of cross country navigation work, and every exercise ended in the digging of a defensive position, arduous work in the hard chalk of Salisbury Plain.
What little parachuting that was done, still entailed an uncomfortable flight, cooped up in the fuselage of an obsolete Whitley bomber. There were never more than twelve aircraft available for any drop. Hence it was never more than one Company that was involved in an Airborne exercise, and even on occasions, parachuting was carried out from the balloon at Bulford to ensure that exit and landing skills were not forgotten. However in November the availability of planes for exercises began to improve with the return to Britain of the Albemarle squadrons which had been deployed in the Middle East for the invasion of Sicily. In some respects the Albemarle was an improvement on the Whitley, but it still only carried ten men, and all weapons and equipment were carried in containers, loaded into the bomb racks. Most of the Battalion managed one descent from this type of aircraft, and it would have been more had we been luckier with the weather. On more than one occasion, an early morning truck ride to one airfield or another, Stoney Cross, Netherhaven and Tarrant Rushton come to mind, was followed by a frustrating day spent hanging around in the cold, with chutes fitted, containers loaded and "bombed up", only at the very last minute the cancellation was given because of the wind. The four engine Halifax was also brought into service with the transport squadrons of the R.A.F. but it was chiefly used as the tug for the giant Hamilcar glider. In its parachuting role, only a stick of ten was carried, and the exit was exactly the same as from the Whitley. The only difference was the speed at which the plane flew and the increased blast of the slip stream as the jumper made his exit.
Throughout the late autumn months there was a steady trickle of newcomers, consisting chiefly of Officers and senior N.C.O.'s. Some of the original Company Commanders too were over the upper age limit for parachuting and they were gradually replaced by younger men. Senior Officers who joined the Battalion at this time were Majors "Moses" SHIPLEY, Second in Command, Bill HARRIS MC., and "Florrie FORD who commanded "A". and "C". Companies respectively. In the middle of December, a sizeable draft reached Larkhill from Hardwick, and at last the Battalion were up to strength, and serious training could begin. For the remainder of the month the emphasis was on physical fitness, and I imagine that most, like myself were stretched to our limits of endurance during the next fortnight. The series of tests through which the entire Battalion were put applied to all the units of 6th. Airborne.
Every volunteer for parachuting was vigorously screened at Hardwick before he even started his training, but now our stamina, strength and resolve, were submitted to an even sterner examination. In rapid succession tests of ten miles in two hours, dressed as for battle and carrying full scale arms and ammunition. Next of twenty miles in three hours wearing P.T. kit and boots was followed by the big one. The Battalion now faced a march of fifty miles in twenty four hours, again dressed and equipped as for battle. We all had our own particular "Bogey" with many the 10 miles in 2 hours being the severest test. Come the turn of the year, confident in our physical abilities and stamina, thought could be given to more advanced formation training.
This was a period of more frustration for John CRAMPHORN:
During my time at Hardwick, I met Major Gerald FORD and was surprised to learn from him that he was training to fill the very vacancy in the 13th that I was expecting to do. He completed the course before I did and when I reported to Newcombe Lines, Larkhill, Gerald who was a regular army Officer, commissioned into the South Lancashire Regiment and also senior to me, was already occupying the Company Commander's chair. However, Lieutenant Colonel LUARD arranged a temporary appointment for me at Divisional H.Q.
It was the posting to the 13th. of Major SHIPLEY which caused the double recruitment of a Company Commander. Major SHIPLEY was fairly senior major, and Major HARRIS, designated second in command, stepped down and became O.C. "A" Company. In spring 1944 Major SHIPLEY was posted to Italy to take command of a battalion of Royal Fusiliers, thus allowing John CRAMPHORN to return as O.C., and Major Bill HARRIS move up to be second in command.
Salisbury Plain in the winter months was not the most welcoming of training areas and every effort was made to move around to more interesting locations, provide variety and so keep us happy and fully occupied. We all realised that the "second front" operation was to start in the spring of 1944 and somehow or other we were to play a part in it. Foremost in all our minds in January was the thought of leave, but immediately prior to travelling to our homes, the Battalion moved by rail to Manchester and on the following morning marched through the city. There were no drums beating or Colours flying but bayonets were fixed. On the saluting base in addition to the Lord Mayor and Garrison Commander, was His Majesty's Lord Lieutenant Lord DERBY, known throughout the county as the "Uncrowned King of Lancashire". After the march past, Company groups dispersed to Liverpool, Warrington and Preston where the next day demonstrations were given to local Home Guard units, before the Battalion concentrated in Warrington and went on leave from there.
At the end of February another rail journey carried us to Sennybridge in South Wales, where the weather was even colder than at Larkhill. But the change of scene was welcome and the several days of field firing which followed proved of great value, particularly for the mortars and machine guns who were firing in support of the Rifle Companies for the first time.
Following the return to barracks, the March weather gradually improved and simultaneously did the aircraft situation when the R.A.F. Dakota Squadrons were formed. To begin with, we all had to be trained to fit and release either a weapons valise, or a "kit bag", After an afternoon's practice in these skills which were carried out on the flat roof of the R.A.P., we motored the few miles to Netheravon for the practical test. With one successful door exit jump to our credit, it wasn't long before our airborne training took a giant step forward, and a mass Battalion descent was made, with the RAF supplying the transport aircraft. This went without mishap, however only a couple of days later when one of the other battalions carried out their identical exercise, one mans chute became caught in the tail wheel and for over an hour the plane flew round and round with the poor unfortunate man spinning in the slip stream. I don't suppose the pilot realised it, but his route took him over Newcombe lines, all training came to a halt as we all gazed sky wards, hoping and praying that some how a rescue could be achieved, Eventually, with a motor launch close at hand, the aircraft flew at wave top height over Studland Bay, and the man's static line was severed. There was no happy ending to the story: but we had volunteered knowing full well the risks, and our morale was not affected in any way.
It was only one step up from a battalion drop, to one involving the whole Brigade group, and that was on the cards only weeks later when the Battalion was briefed for Exercise "Bizz I'. There was to be another step in the development of the Division, because this time we would be flown by the American Air Force. On a bright, breezy afternoon we emplaned, and flew round southern England before heading out towards France. As a precaution, fighter aircraft circled overhead, and eventually the great mass of transports turned and flew back inland. Number Ones were standing in the door as we approached the D.Z. when the red Verey lights arched skywards canceling the drop. Next day we tided again, but the wind was even stronger and we didn't even get airborne.
However, the drop and R.V. were simulated, and the ground exercise started. The Battalion were to seize a bridge over the Thames near Faringdon, and in order to attack both ends simultaneously, a volunteer force, led by Lieutenant "Joe" HODGSON swam the river in the dark. I mention that because, less than a week later, the 13th. acted as enemy on "Bizz II when the rest of the Division were deployed on an identical scheme. On this occasion. three truckloads of Infantry drove up the bridge, claiming to have landed by "coup de main" gliders, and the umpires ruled they had taken their objective. None of us realised the significance of this action at the time.
Having performed as a Brigade, the next stage of training was at Divisional level, and in late April Exercise "Mush" was launched between April 21st and 25th., and caused a certain amount of anguish. The enemy this time, were to be our brothers and great rivals, 1st. Airborne and they were going to parachute, while we would only be ground troops. Was this to be pattern for the invasion we wondered. But summing up the exercise later, General "Boy" BROWNING informed us that we were the formation that would carry out the first operation on the Continent. So all was well!
Even at this late stage of training, changes were being made, and men were having to master new military skills.
Lance Corporal Ken BAILEY "C" Company:
In January I received instructions from the C.O. to investigate the possibility of parachuting war dogs into action together with the parachute troops. The dogs were required to be already trained patrol dogs supplied by the War Dog Training School and I went there to select suitable dogs. The Commandant and Chief Instructor gave me a free hand to select those I thought most suitable, and after a fortnight's testing, four dogs were selected as possible and journeyed back to Larkhill with me. Training began from the moment of kennelling. Two months later all the theoretical work was ready for practical testing.
Around mid day on 2nd. April, the Met people forecast ideal conditions for the next two days. The jump was therefore arranged for late the following afternoon. I carried with me the dogs feed consisting of a two pound piece of meat, and the dog was readily aware of this.
The Albermarle first made a "dummy" run over the D.Z. during which the chute was fitted to the harness, the moment the aircraft throttled back on the run in for the live drop the dog became excited. When the red light came on the dog followed me down to the "action stations" position. As the green light came on, he eagerly watched the stick disappear through the hole, though still keeping the place he had been taught behind my heels.
After my chute developed, I turned to face the fine of flight, the dog was thirty yards away and slightly above. The chute had opened and was oscillating slightly. He looked somewhat bewildered but showed no sign of fear. I called out. He immediately turned in my direction and wagged his tail vigorously. The dog touched down completely relaxed, making no attempt to anticipate or resist the landing, rolled over once, scrambled to his feet and stood looking round. Each dog made four descents, after which they resumed a normal existence.
Number Two Mortar Platoon also changed their role. They always had carried out one days training per week with the Vickers Machine Guns, but following Exercise "Mush", were instructed to concentrate entirely on that weapon. This in itself raised problems since there were no trained instructors among the personnel of the Platoon. The answer was a short course for all at the Support Weapons Wing of the School of Infantry at nearby Netheravon.
Other units of the Division were also carrying out advanced training exercises and one Sunday morning we awoke to find that over night three Horsa gliders had mysteriously appeared on the soccer pitch.
And additional N.C.O.'s were still joining the Battalion, as Gordon SIMPSON remembers:
In the spring of 1944, I was still at Clay Cross but towards the end of April, along with a number of other N.C.O.'s. I was posted to the 13th., and arrived at Larkhill in the dark. We were found beds in one of H.Q. Company's barrack rooms and on looking out of the window next morning, the first thing I saw, half a mile across the fields, was Stonehenge. Major TARRANT interviewed me and asked about my previous service, when I said I had instructed in mines, explosives and enemy A.F.V. recognition, he said my training made me ideal for the Anti Tank Platoon. I reported to Lieutenant LAGREGAN, who put me in charge of No. 3 Section.
In the 13th. I found the comradeship and pride in the Regiment which up to now had been missing in my other units. There was a terrific spirit among us all, and the discipline was different, one of trust and confidence, much more relaxed, not the rigid adherence to strict rules and regulations.
THE FINAL MONTH OF TRAINING
The month of May ushered in a prolonged spell of perfect spring weather and our enjoyment of the warmer days was tempered by the fact that "it won't be long now". It was a busy month and some last minute additions were made to the strength, Serjeants Jack BRADY, "Taff" LAWLEY, and George KELLEY. The latter was a highly qualified machine gun instructor and his impact on the fledgling Vickers Platoon was immediate and decisive. Both of the others were highly experienced regular soldiers and Serjeant LAWLEY enjoyed the distinction of having been a member of the force which carried out the first British Parachute operation against the Tragino Aqueduct. But the highlight of the month was undoubtedly the inspection of the Division by their Majesties the King and Queen accompanied by H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth. (We had already been viewed with an eagle eye by General Montgomery) and the finale to our training was a night aircraft jump. For most off the Battalion this was another novelty and it was a first for all of us because it was to be made from Stirling aircraft. The exercise was marred by a fatal accident.
Colour Serjeant Harry WATKINS was surprised when orders were received to move to the Transit Camp but others had different ideas.
Captain the Reverend Whitfield FOY relates:
Three clear indications were given in our training at that time, as to what might happen if we did go in with the invasion forces. In the first place the Brigade seemed to be passionately interested in how to seize and hold bridges. Secondly, there came at a fairly late stage, training in the speedy demolition of the sort of anti air landing posts which were hastily erected in the fields and meadows of England, during the days when invasion of our island seemed imminent, the sort of posts the Germans were known to have erected on the Continent. Thirdly, was the order that all the Battalion were to make a night jump.
The conviction had hardened by this time and we had little doubt in our minds, as we had been warned that we might be called upon to do a rehearsal of the movements preceding an airborne operation, going to a sealed camp and being briefed etc. But when towards the end of May we were told to prepare for such an exercise, nobody was fooled, we guessed to a man that it was no exercise the invasion was imminent and the 6th. Airborne Division (including the 13th.) would be there.
May 25th. and we were in the heart of the English countryside, surrounded by masses of barbed wire and armed guards. All the Battalion (less the Machine Gun Platoon, who went with the 12th. Battalion to Keevil), were in the Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, Transit Camp, only a stone's throw from the airfield.
In that camp was one Nissen hut which Hitler would have given a great deal to inspect. It was small and innocuous looking and as distasteful as every other Nissen hut in the country. This particular one however was labelled "Briefing Room". When we arrived it was the cynosure of all eyes, the magnet which attracted all attention, for inside that room all the secrets were stored.
There are moments in life when emotional tension reaches a very high level, times when anyone wit a sense of dramatic sense in him feels to be above others. Such a moment occurred to me when a few days after our arrival at Brize Norton, the officers of the Battalion went in past the armed guard to be briefed. We passed through the Model Room, the large model on the floor conveyed no idea as to where we were going, into the Map Room. There, facing us on the wall was what we had waited so long to see the area in France where the 6th. Airborne Division was to make its contribution in the high enterprise to which the Allies were committed in Western Europe. We saw the mouth of the river Orne, the towns of Caen and Troarn and the villages of Ranville, Hérouvillette, Escovillie, Breville and Sainte Honnorine, names of which we had never heard, but which were to live with us for ever just as Mons, Ypres and the Somme lived in the minds of an earlier generation.
Lieutenant Jack SHARPLES of 8 Platoon "C" Company:
I was amazed at the amount of detail that we were given at the briefing, such things as the tower was detached from the rest of the church and that we must expect to find cows on the D.Z. When I came to brief the Platoon and asked for questions, their only concerns were how to find the R.V. (turn to follow the line of fight and look for the church tower), and secondly the strength of the enemy in Ranville, but were reassured when I said "There aren't enough Germans in the village to give "C" Company any trouble".
The excellent weather which characterised the early parts of the month continued over into the first days of June. Day after day was passed under clear blue skies and warm sunshine. The fields around were a brilliant green and above us sang the larks. War seemed as far away as ever, except for the feverish last minute preparations. General GALE visited each transit camp in turn and his final advice was "What you win by your stealth and guile, you must hold with your guts and determination". Then one day all the planes flying round, sported broad white stripes on both wings and fuselage. Surely it can't be long now, we thought and then D Day we learnt was to be 5th June.
The run of ideal invasion weather continued until the early evening of 3rd. and then a violent thunderstorm broke over southern England and next morning brought dull skies and blustery winds. Preparations went ahead for emplaning that evening as magazines of Bren and Sten were filled, grenades primed, 24 hour ration packs broken down, water bottles filled and other last minute tasks performed. By lunchtime all was ready and the afternoon devoted to "Organised Rest", whatever that may mean. But in the early evening came news of a 24 hour postponement and magazines were unloaded (to release pressures on the springs) and grenades de primed. The tension showed when a member of the M.M.G.'s fired his rifle as he unloaded. Fortunately the muzzle was pointing downwards and no one was injured.
The morning of the 5th. was a slight improvement weather-wise and the whole procedure repeated. Divisional instructions stipulated that a fat free meal was to be served at least two hours before take off. I can't speak for the Battalion, but the machine gunners went to war on two slices of bully beef, mashed potatoes and lettuce; followed by boiled rice with raisins.
Padre FOY continues:
It was June 5th. 2100 hours. For months we had been training day and night, toughening our bodies and mastering our weapons, it would have been difficult to find any where in the Army a better disciplined or keener body of men.
The C.O. (not surprisingly) thought likewise:
Our training was exacting and extreme and suffice it to say, that when the Battalion went into the Transit Camp, no fitter or more efficient Battalion of Infantry has ever been seen. They knew, throughout that provided they arrived on the ground they were certain of success. It was therefore, with their spirits high, even though their faces were blackened, that they attended final prayers.
Captain "Nobby" Clark "C" Company:
In the gathering dusk of 5th., off the perimeter track of Brize Norton airfield could just be distinguished parties of what might have been men had it not been for the shapelessness of their appearance. Perhaps a better description might have been that of many caravans of camels, silhouetted against the darkening horizon, all making their way with that peculiar gait known only to an over loaded camel, to one assembly point. The many shapeless caravans converged and like camels sank to their knees. So all six hundred of the Battalion, led by Padre FOY, acknowledged their need and dependence, their fear and yet their trust, their inadequacy and yet their resolve.
The Brigade Commander and Colonel LUARD spoke briefly. The eyes of the world were upon us, we were making history, let it be well and truly made. I read a psalm and together, under the peaceful evening sky we said prayers. Then into the waiting trucks, a wave of the hand to the camp staff, who were there to say "Good Bye" and we were off to the airfield. The Battalion was in two sections, one flying from Broadwell, the other from Brize Norton. I myself was with the latter section.
Over at Keevil, the Transit Camp was in open farmland several miles from the airfield and the drive there took the Machine Gun Platoon through the village, where all the inhabitants stood at their garden gates to cheer them on their way. They drove onto one of the unused runways where two Squadrons of Stirlings awaited them. Odd numbered sticks on the right and waiting to welcome them were the air crew. The pilot and the rest of his team of "H" for "Helizapoppon" boasted to Lieutenant "Dixie" Dean and his stick, of their own ability as parachutists, since on a training flight an inflatable dinghy stowed in the wing broke free, wrapped itself round the tail rudder, rendering the plane uncontrollable. As a result they had all baled out.
But for some there was a last minute disappointment:
Serjeant George BUTLER "A" Company:
On the afternoon of 5th. June I was playing "hooker" in a scratch game of rugby, when the scrum collapsed pinning me underneath and breaking my shoulder. The M.I. Room was already packed for the drop. The M.O. Doc WHITLEY patched me up with Elastoplast, put my arm in a sling, telling me I was off the jump.
This was a blow to my morale but I didn't realise quite how serious a blow it was until the Section I had trained with day and night for the last nine months, climbed into the trucks and departed for the take off airfield. I was left watching as the convoy grew smaller and smaller in the distance and I walked back through the camp, now empty of troops and organised chaos. It was the loneliest feeling I have ever experienced, before or since.
There were to be even later disappointments. At Brize Norton, the Albermarle carrying Lieutenant Alf LAGREGAN and a Section of his P.I.A.T. anti tank platoon went un serviceable before take off and there was no spare available.
Private David ROBINSON:
I was a member of the anti tank platoon, detailed to fly in Chalk 17 with Corporal SIMPSON as Stick Commander. We were boarding the Albermarle through the exit aperture and were all aboard except the last man. As he was climbing in, the tricycle undercarriage air craft, reared up on its tail and several of the stick slid backwards out of the hole onto the Tarmac ending up in a heap under the plane. They scrambled to their feet and tried again but for a second time the plane fell back onto the tail. The pilot then abandoned the take off.
BATTALION WAR DIARY
Ranville 6th June: 0050 hours, 13th. Battalion (Lancashire) The Parachute Regiment, forming part of 5th. Brigade dropped from Dakota and Albermarle a/c on D.Z. "N" north of Ranville, near Caen, Department of Calvados.
A total of eight airfields in south west England were used to launch 6th. Airborne on Operation "Tonga" and 13th.'s involvement used three of these. Headquarters Company, Mortar and Anti Tank Platoons flew from Brize Norton in Albemarle's, while Battalion Head Quarters, "A", "B" and "C" Companies were transported from Broadwell in Dakotas. Finally the Machine Gun Platoon travelled in two Stirlings out of Keevil.
The first plane airborne carried men of the Independent Company whose task was to mark the respective drop zones and these were followed immediately by unit advance parties who were to locate and mark the "Rendezvous". Lieutenant Stan JEAVONS led the Battalion team and he, as a result, became the first man of the 13th. to land in Normandy. A short pause in take off activity and then the main body of both Parachute Brigades were on their way and by 2350. hours the last ones had lifted off the runways. "P" hour was less than 90 minutes ahead and one thought occupied all minds what kind of reception awaited us.
Just as everyone in the United Kingdom knew the invasion of Western Europe was certain to take place in 1944, so did the German occupying forces. The question was did they know when, and where.
Colonel Hans VON LUCK, Regimental Commander, (equivalent of Brigadier) 21st Panzer Division:
The evening of 5th June was unpleasant, Normandy was showing its bad side and during the day there had been rain and high winds.
The general weather conditions, worked out every day by Naval Meteorologists, and passed on to us by Division, gave the "all clear" for 5th. and 6th. June. So we did not anticipate any landings for heavy seas and low flying clouds would make large scale operations at sea and in the air impossible for our opponents.
That evening I felt our lot was very unsatisfactory, like most of my men I was used to mobile actions, such as we had fought in other theatres of war (21st Panzer had formed part of Rommel's "Africa Corps"). This waiting for an invasion, which was undoubtedly coming, was enervating. But in spite of the inactivity, morale amongst the troops remained high.
On that rainy evening my Adjutant and I were awaiting a report from No 2. Battalion that their night exercise had ended. This Battalion was in the area Troarn, Escovillle, while No. 1 Battalion, equipped with armoured personnel carriers had taken up a positions further inland. About midnight I heard the growing roar of aircraft. The machines appeared to be flying low. My Adjutant answered the phone, "paratroops are dropping and gliders have landed". This was in No.11. Battalion area. I gave orders without hesitation, "all units are to be put on full alert immediately". In the mean time my Adjutant telephoned Division to obtain clearance for a concentrated night attack by us.
The RAF transports meanwhile, made steady progress through the waning moonlight, crossing the south coast of England between Worthing and Bognor Regis and the fuselage lights (if any), were now switched off. In some aircraft there was singing Captain "Nobby" CLARK remembers several rousing choruses of "Onward Christian Soldiers", but mostly the noise of the engines made conversation difficult. But soon the warning of "twenty minutes to go", brought every one to their feet and galvanised them into feverish activity.
There were all of us sitting very crushed on the floor of our Albermarle. The aperture by which we were to leave the plane was at the back (in the floor) and was covered during the flight by folding doors. Space was so limited that I was compelled to sit on these doors. The atmosphere rapidly became stifling and then the chapter of accidents started. We had left the coast of England and were out over the Channel when, without warning, the lights went out. Groping about in the dark we had to start fastening kit bags to our legs. To do this we had to use the full length of the plane. Once we had completed securing the kit bags we had to start squeezing backwards, in order to get clear of the doors which would have to be opened soon. We laboured and groaned as we pressed backwards, thrusting elbows and rifles into one another as the pressure increased. After much effort, I managed to get clear of the doors. Leaning over I lifted up the two parts of the door and fastened them back, letting in a welcome gust of fresh air. Looking down through the aperture I saw the waters of the Channel glistening below, an amazing sight, the white paths cut by hundreds of Allied vessels moving steadily toward the French coast, the vanguard of the beach assault troops.
In Stirling "H" for "Hellzapoppin", "Dixie" DEAN too had problems:
Pre-warned by the pilot that the lights would be switched off, on leaving the coast, we fitted kit bags and weapon valises while we still had light. We also "hooked up" while we could see what we were doing. Hence, when the wireless operator came from the crew's cabin to act as despatcher and announced "twenty minuted to go", we simply stood up. The actual gun numbers with their heavy kit bags needed some assistance, checked static lines and equipment and Serjeant George KELLY reported to the pilot "Stick ready to jump".
My next task as No. 1 was to help open and secure the upper aperture doors, but looking backwards down the darkened fuselage, I could see that the W.Op. was having problems lowering the "strop guard" (a device hinged to the outside of the fuselage which prevented the empty parachute bags being bashed to pieces on the bottom of the plane). Lance Corporal Harold TURNER (No.2), unhooked me and I went and lowered and secured the strop guard as the poor unfortunate air crew man was unable to do so. I returned and was hooked up, but again had to unhook, go to the rear and undo the rear bolts of the aperture doors and then for a third time was hooked up.
As the aircraft neared the coast of France, the German ack ack units were alerted, searchlights started to probe the sky and the flak guns opened fire. Serjeant Bill WEBSTER thought he was going to jump into a rain storm until the despatcher told him "That's flak".
"Nobby" CLARK had different thoughts:
Something hit us, it was rather like the sound of a dustbin being emptied, but there was no apparent damage. But at that moment I could tell it would not be long before we would be required to do more than sit and sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" though we did manage a final roaring first verse.
The fingers of my watch moved on. Nearly 0100 hours. I stood there gripping the sides of the fuselage awaiting the warning. The other men staggered to their feet behind me. Suddenly (strange, though it is always expected, it always produces a mild shock when it appears), the red light flashed on in the roof of the plane. French soil was below us. Then came a sensation of flashes all around, the Albermarle swayed so that we had to cling on grimly in order to keep our feet (so that's what flak is like, I thought) but there were no hits. A few more seconds, an eternity of seconds, the red light flicked out and the green one on, I took the usual deep breath, stepped forward, my link with England broken. France, looking neither gay nor Smiling (as in prewar advertisements) was waiting to welcome me below. In some planes the full sequence of instructions from the pilot were not received.
After being hooked up for a third time, I looked down through the hole and was surprised to note that we were flying over land. The last warning from the pilot had been "twenty minutes to go" and I knew that the D.Z. was only 90 seconds flying time from the coast, so why were we flying over land. In my confused state, I imagined that we had not crossed the English coast yet and I was still puzzling it out, when from my rear came a great bellow " Green on". I looked up. They were right. What happened to the "red" was my reaction. I looked down. The land was still below. A pace forward and I was out.
A common feeling during the descent was "where is everybody". This was a Brigade drop zone, but it seemed deserted, but for the moment the first priority was to release and lower kit bags and valises.
I noticed no opening of the chute. All my attention was given to that pernicious and unmanageable kit bag. I strove desperately to slow down its speed of descent. It never happened, the rope held now in my nerveless fingers still remained there, but there was no weight of any bag.
Other men with heavily loaded bags were experiencing similar difficulties. Lance Corporal Arthur HIGGINS who was jumping with a Vickers gun tripod was unable to release his bag and landed with the 40 lb. weight still attached to his leg. Fortunately neither man nor tripod suffered any damage. Other Machine Gunners were not so lucky and several gun parts were lost.
But at least these jumpers were on or near the D.Z., but others were being spilled out all around. Each aircraft carried a navigator who was responsible for setting the correct course for D.Z. "N" and each aircraft was fitted with a "Rebeeca 11" a radar device for homing on to a pinpoint and to assist in finding target areas. On all the main landing zones the Pathfinders set up "Eureka beacons" on which the planes homed from a distance of ten miles. Unfortunately the team for D.Z. "N" were dropped 1,000 yards from where they should have landed and so delay arose in setting up the beacon.
Even when the correct course was flown and the aircraft started the run in, problems arose, as the Official Report on the operation of 296 Squadron states:
The remaining 8 aircraft reached the area. Considerable light flak was encountered and several suffered minor damage. These aircraft dropped without mishap with the exception of Flight Lieutenant SCOTT whose stick also had adventures in the back of the machine. 3 men dropped on the first run in and then the doors collapsed. On the second run the stick were not ready to jump and a third run was made. At the end of this the wireless operator reported from the fuselage that there was still one man and a dog left. A fourth ran was made. On the approach to the D.Z. the W/Op. tried to encourage the dog to jump but finally took refuge near the gun turret. The man and dog jumped on the last run in.
In "H" for "Hellzapoppin" there were difficulties also and Private John SURGEY remembers that the pilot aborted the run in by switching on the red light as number 8 of the stick was about to exit, but he still jumped. John SURGEY followed his particular pal "Taffy" PRICE as did Serjeant George KELLY at number 10 and Private Ken LANG number 11. But then jumping stopped and the aircraft with its 6 man crew plus the last 9 members of the stick disappeared. No trace of it was ever found.
Of the Dakotas from Broadwell which failed to locate the D.Z. were two carrying "A" Company men. C.S.M. McPARLAN and his stick were deposited on the outskirts of Troarn and Serjeant TAYLOR'S stick were even further away. In "B" Company, Captain Mike KERR landed in the middle of the River Dives itself and only narrowly avoided drowning, while Lieutenant George LEE and his stick of 9 Platoon who changed aircraft at the last minute were dropped farthest away of all, 30 miles from the drop zone.
We emplaned with the rest of the sticks taking off from Broadwell, but then our Dakota wouldn't start, so we were switched to the reserve aircraft. The flight as far as the French coast was OK. but then we ran into heavy flak and seemed to fly on and on. It wasn't until the third run in that we actually jumped, something or other went wrong on the first two.
I came down close to road in open country, there was no one around and I was on my own until first light when I met up with Serjeant Tom SMITH who had a damaged ankle (later found to be broken). The French Resistance were out looking for us and about 0700 hours we were reunited with other members of the stick including Serjeant Arthur STUBBS. We learnt we were at Bonnesboque, close to Lisieux, 30 miles from where we should have been.
Officers and N.C.O.'s with their greater experience could be expected to cope with the situation when things did not go according to plan, but how would a young soldier re act in such circumstances.
Private Roy RITCHLEY
was a member of the same stick: I was 18, I was alone, I was frightened, very frightened. A couple of hours ago I had jumped in the middle of the stick and made a good landing in Normandy (or at least I believed I had, but the only name on the escape map which I was able to read in the moonlight said Holland). I had seen no one, nor had I heard gun fire or any other sounds of battle. The spare Bren which I jumped with, was damaged on landing, so I had stripped it down and then hurled the pieces in all directions, except the barrel. This I buried along with my chute and jumping jacket.
I heard a noise and looking up, saw a figure coming across the field towards me, as I crouched in the ditch bordering the field where I had landed. My 9mm. automatic was in one hand, fighting knife in the other and I could see that the approaching figure carried a rifle slung over his shoulder. I decided to use my knife and not shoot. He came to the edge of the ditch, looked down and said one word "Come" and he carried on walking. By the manner in which the sling was attached to the rifle, I could see it was a German one but the man himself was not wearing a uniform.
I followed, round fields, through hedges, until we reached a road running down into a valley. By now it was beginning to get light. There was a school on the road. We climbed the railings, skirted round the building and came to a small shed. My guide tapped on the door. It was opened, he went in and I followed. Immediately inside, something hard and cold was pressed against my head. A candle was lit and I could see two other men one with a pistol to my head and behind them two sacks of German rifles.
They emptied my pouches and pockets, laying everything out on the floor. I was petrified. The man I had followed spoke a little English, said his name was Philippe and they were resistance gypsies but the others never spoke to me and always the pistol was trained on me. We sat and waited.
Both Stirling navigators found the correct place, but not all the Albermarles did so. In addition to Lieutenant LAGREGAN'S plane which failed to get airborne and most of Serjeant Stan PRITCHARD'S stick of the Mortar Platoon became P.OW. Yet another of the Brize Norton planes, provided unexpected difficulties for its passengers.
Padre FOY recalls:
My moment of realisation that all was not well came when, below me I saw a railway line. I had begun to doubt while I was drifting through the air where were the buildings which should have been the village of Ranville? Why did it appear to be unbroken wood down there? And where were all the other aircraft which should have been following us in? But it was the railway line gleaming below which brought the conviction, there was NO RAILWAY on the maps and air photographs we had been studying incessantly for days. Whatever had happened to the rest of the Battalion, I at least had been dropped astray. I was just telling myself that I might be only four miles away from the rendezvous, I might, on the other hand be fourteen and I was expressing the wish that the eggs and bacon which the navigator would be served on his return to England, might be well and truly burnt, when an oscillation swept me across the railway. I got ready for the landing and the next moment I was up to my neck in water. It was just after one o'clock and all was not well.
Some air craft had to make more than one run in before the complete stick had jumped; as Serjeant "Taffy" LAWLEY MM experienced:
When the green light came on, No. 1 jumped, followed by the remainder up to ten, a Bren No. 1 carrying a very heavy kit bag. He fell across the door, preventing anyone from jumping. The only one who could help him to his feet, was the R.A.F. aircrew despatcher. This took some considerable time, during which the Dakota circled the D.Z. three times before I could jump. The first thing I knew, when I was airborne, was that my rifle, kit and shovel had fallen away from me. I landed in a cornfield and lay quite still for a moment listening. In the distance I could hear the sound of battle and guessed it must be the D.Z. I got rid of my chute and with my fighting knife in one hand and a grenade in the other, I made for the R.V. I had gone a considerable distance, when I suddenly saw three bent figures. I got up close and challenged them and heaved a sigh of relief to find they were our chaps. Guided by the Battalion call blown by Colonel LUARD on his hunting horn we were soon at the R.V.
"Nobby" CLARK too was not sure of his whereabouts:
I was coming down into, what seemed to me, like a large wood containing many clearings. Suddenly I was down I had landed in a small clearing, surrounded by, as far as I could see in the moonlight, apple orchards.
Others had an easier entry into Normandy, as Lieutenant Jack WATSON of 3 Platoon, "A" Company relates:
I landed at the north end of the D.Z. in an orchard. Everything was quiet and I thought I was miles away from Ranville, the Battalion's objective. As I moved towards the R.V. a wood north of the village I heard loud and shrill the sound of a hunting horn, the C.O. sounding "L" for Lancashire and the Company calls of "A" for "A" Company etc. there was a strict night curfew imposed by the Nazi occupiers of Normandy, but at least one inhabitant witnessed the drop.
I landed in a tree rising out of a bocage type hedge on the eastern edge of the D.Z. and even after I had climbed down the leg straps I hadn't reached the ground and was completely enclosed in foliage. Gingerly letting go, I dropped all of twelve inches to the bottom of the hedge and I then had to use my torch in order to locate the butt, body and barrel of the Sten which was threaded under the harness and had crashed to the ground when I twisted and banged the quick release box. Pulling the branches to one side to reach the open field, I was surprised to see, only a few yards away, a large white French cow, staring intently in my direction. Just into the corn was the shadowy figure of Lance Corporal TURNER with the tripod who greeted me with the immortal words "I've just told that cow, I've come to liberate her" A little further on we caught up with Private Bill PRICE, who had jumped No. 3 and was carrying the Vickers gun.
Some one else who encountered the cows he had been warned about was Jack SHARPLES, who had to dive into a dry ditch to avoid the stampeding herd.
"Nobby" CLARK continues:
I set off in the general direction in which I believed the R.V. to be and, as far as I could see, I was alone in an uninhabited part of the Calvados region of Normandy. As I plodded on, suddenly from way ahead in the direction I was going, came a sound as welcome as any I had ever heard, a hunting horn. It was fainter and further away than I had expected it to be. "Dit - dah - dit - dit", the morse letter "L" for Lancashire and LUARD. I judged it to be a mile away and I eventually arrived.
The D.Z. was a real bugger's muddle, with all three battalions of our Brigade and some sticks of the 8th. Battalion who had been dropped on the wrong D.Z., all mixed up. But the hunting horns sounded clearly and when I reached the R.V. the Company was about 40 strong, half an hour later, we were up to 60. I was missing one section and my Platoon Serjeant. Major CRAMPHORN decided to wait no longer and we set off to clear D.Z. "N" of poles for the first wave of gliders.
Despite heavy mortaring and machine gun fire, the poles were removed and the ditches filled in by 0300 hours. The poles were, fortunately, not as large as expected. We had trained to remove telegraph poles and the so called Rommel's Asparagus proved much easier. With some funk holes dug to avoid being knocked down by a glider, we waited for them to arrive, bringing in General GALE, his staff and some much needed anti tank guns. At 0315 hrs. they started to come in, but not from the north as expected. They appeared from all directions. It was a nightmare and extremely frightening. I would rather be shelled any day. Some landed well, others crashed into each other. The sparks from the skids, the sounds of splintering wood and the yells from the occupants, was like a scene from hell. Some of our men were hit, and it seemed like a miracle seeing the occupants get out and even drive away with jeeps and anti tank guns.
John CRAMPHORN also remembers clearing the glider Landing Zone:
"A" Company's task was to clear the anti air landing poles from the D.Z. so the gliders could land safely in the dark. We rallied approximately 60 strong, with my Colour Serjeant, Harry WATKINS doing a magnificent job getting the Company organised in the absence of the missing C.S.M. McPARLAN. The task proved easier than I had planned for, all the holes had been dug but many of the posts were simply placed in the hole and not yet upright and firm. In many cases all we did was carry the pole away and fill in the hole. We finished the job with about 15 minutes to spare and were digging our funk holes when the gliders started to arrive. As a result we had a ring side seat for the actual landings. Most of the Horsas made good landings and I was greatly impressed by the speed and efficiency shown by the passengers in unloading the jeeps and guns. Among the last to land was General Gale's glider, one of the few to make a really bad touch down just off the cleared path and as a result suffered damage from poles still standing. But I Don't think he blamed us for that.
THE FIGHT FOR THE VILLAGE
The task of the Battalion was firstly to clear and hold Ranville, a small village which guarded the approaches to the Orne bridges from the east and secondly to clear a lane in the air landing obstacles north of the village so that the gliders bringing in General GALE and his Tac. H.Q. Also the anti tank guns could land in the dark.
Ranville was sleeping peacefully when the large airborne contingents crossed the coast of France. Before it was fully awake and had rubbed the sleep out of its eyes, hundreds of aircraft were ejecting their human cargoes over the nearby fields. In the village was stationed a Company of Germans, most of them deployed away from their base on an anti invasion exercise, the reaction of the remainder was decisive if not commendable. Some unfortunate machine gunners were posted, as the parachutes billowed in the sky, to oppose the landing, others fled hastily not even troubling to dress properly. The machine gun posts lasted only a few minutes, there were two minor skirmishes in the village with retreating Germans and at 0230 hours the first village in Normandy had been cleared, the great liberation of France had begun.
As "A" Company, total strength of 60, with the assistance of 591 (County of Antrim) Squadron, Royal Engineers, set about demolishing and removing the anti air landing poles, the task of clearing Ranville began.
Lieutenant Colonel LUARD reports:
"C" Company, under Major Gerald FORD, had been ordered to mop up the north end of the village, as soon as Major George BRISTOW'S "B" Company had cleared the southern end. Numbers 7 and 8 Platoons, swept down towards the chateau, which was attacked by Lieutenant Harry POLLAK, a fluent German speaker, who answering the sentries challenge in German, located the post and shot him dead. Major Ford entered the chateau where, with his face blackened for night operations and wearing his parachute helmet and smock, was mistaken by the Comteesse de Rohan Chabot for a German trying to trap her. Nor was she satisfied until morning and after that was kindness itself to all ranks.
The remainder of the Company waited in the R.V.
8 Platoon were given the task of clearing the chateau in the village and tracks through the grounds indicated that it was being used by the Germans. When we left the R.V. (we were the last to do so), 7 Platoon were up ahead and came under machine gun fire as they approached the cross roads. The Battalion were under strict orders not to open fire until dawn, it would have been so easy in the dark to shoot friendly forces. Major FORD called me forward and instructed me to find a way round and I went along the street trying the door handles. At last I found one that opened. In the room was a still warm bed, a German uniform jacket draped over the back of a chair and a rifle propped up against the wall. In the yard at the back was another discarded jacket. A grenade, landed amongst us and I dashed into the road and called out at the top of my voice "Harry" (Lieutenant POLLAK of 7 Platoon) it's Jack".
We quickly worked our way round to the chateau, the Germans having scarpered. I left one Section covering the front of the building, another inside on the ground floor and I went upstairs with Privates ORREL and PRINCE, where I was met by le Comte de Ranville and his wife, protesting about the intrusion of their property. I tried to tell him that it was the invasion, we were British soldiers and that they were to stay indoors. Back came a torrent of French which I did not understand but they clearly did not believe me. Seeing the key in their bedroom door, I took it out and gave it to them saying in my best 4th. Form French "Lock the door, I'll talk to you in the morning".
Mortar bombs started to explode, too close to be pleasant. I would have loved to go forward into the comparative shelter of Ranville village but orders said otherwise: Company Headquarters and 9 Platoon were to remain in the rendezvous as a reserve. The only thing that had not gone more or less to plan, was that 9 Platoon were conspicuous by its absence.
The signal was given by the C.O. on his hunting horn, "L" for Lancashire, followed by the hunting call "gone away", and we started to advance, slowly and haltingly. into the south east edge of the village. I looked at my watch it was 0235 hours, only three hours ago we had been in England.
More than a third of the Battalion's strength did not reach the R.V., several had been caught up in tall trees and those not killed by the Germans, proved a considerable problem, as there were no ladders long enough to reach them. One man was in his harness for twelve hours, before he was rescued using ropes.
The Machine Gunners, rallying with the 12th. Battalion in the quarry alongside the Cabourg road, waited until Ranville was cleared and then moved to occupy the Bas de Ranville. By then 29 gunners (out of 41) had reported in. But had only two complete gun teams, with just three belts of 250 rounds between them, since the ammunition carriers had failed to locate the containers. As they moved down towards their objective, out of the darkness above them, came whistling and wheeling, several great black bats, carrying Divisional H.Q. and the anti tank 6 pounders.
There was also, an unexpected passenger.
I walked into the Mess tent and sat for a long time waiting for take off at the airfield. An R.E. Serjeant came into the tent and asked about my injury. When I had finished telling him the story, he enquired if I was willing to risk going in by glider; explaining that one member of his team had been stood down on account of illness. I "jumped" at the chance.
I had never travelled in a glider before and in addition to three passengers, the Horsa carried a small bulldozer, plus Jerrycans of fuel. After the noisy crowdiness of parachuting aircraft the silence of the journey was a rare experience. There was the hissing of the slipstream and it was a bit bumpy, but nothing unusual. Up forward the copilot was silhouetted in the glow of the searchlights. He turned, pointed downwards, followed by the "thumbs up" signal. We banked, the nose of the glider dropped sharply, then we settled into a steady downwards glide Through the hole in the side made by flak, I saw the tower of Ranville church before we levelled off and the pilot touched down beautifully to the sound of the wheels rumbling through the crops on the Landing Zone. The glider slowed and stopped with the cockpit no more than two feet from a stone wall at the far end of the L.Z. I had made it.
Indeed he had, but by a bizarre twist of fate, he was the only member of his original stick to do so. They were dropped miles away and most of them spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
Among the other gliders due to land in this phase of the operation, was the Battalion re-supply one, carrying replacement weapons and reserve ammunition. It never arrived. Captain Quartermaster "George" DAISLEY and his batman, Private ALDRED, together with the two Glider Pilots are buried in the village churchyard of St. Vaast en Auge, some twelve miles east of their intended landing area. The pilot of one Horsa approached the Landing Zone from the wrong direction and instead of touching down facing the coast, he flew into a wall at the rear of the estaminet at Ranville cross roads. Private Bob FALKENBERG and others of the anti tank Platoon ran across to assist. They found the 1st. Pilot killed by the impact and the 2nd. Pilot with both legs broken and unconscious.
C.S.M. McPARLAN'S stick were dropped well south of Ranville, just north of a village called St. Samson. He collected nine men and for a while he organised ambushes of German patrols in the area. German troops became more numerous and dangerous and they were forced to go into hiding.
Serjeant Tommy SMITH crashed into a stone wall on landing and damaged his ankle as a result. It wasn't until daylight came that he met Corporal Len COX, another member of the stick as already reported, and also a member of the French under ground movement, who took the two of them to his house.
George BUTLER was approaching his Company R.V.:
I was challenged by a Scottish voice. After identifying myself, the C.S.M. of The Independent Company asked where I was heading. I told him and he replied "You won't get much further if you don't do something about your bloody aiming mark". I then realised I had been walking about the battle area with my damaged shoulder in a large white sling. Between us we got rid of the sling and I tucked my arm inside my denison smock.
At the R.V. Company Serjeant Harry WATKINS pointed towards the D.Z. and in the half light, I saw Jack WATSON, my Platoon Commander. On seeing me, he asked 'What kept you and where are the rest?".
GUTS AND DETERMINATION - BATTALION WAR DIARY
Ranville June 6th 0300 hours. Village of Ranville now cleared of enemy. Very few enemy were found, as from information received from inhabitants, it appears that the main body of the enemy were away and that the majority of those left behind, departed with all speed when they saw parachutists. Those taken P.O.W. were wounded and seemed very young. Identification from P.O.W. dead and documents, was 7/11 Pz. Gren. Regt. 125. (21st Panzer Division).
The first part of General Gale's stirring call "to seize by stealth and guile", having been accomplished in the still of the night. Now the second half "hold with guts and determination" was about to start in the cold light of dawn.
Morale had never been higher. It had all been so easy, nothing like the hard fighting and bloody casualties we had prepared ourselves for. Surprise had been complete, the enemy routed and we were on top of the world.
What of the Germans; Colonel Hans VON LUCK:
Gradually we were becoming filled with anger. The clearance for an immediate counter attack, taking advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come. It is my firm opinion that by exploiting this confused situation, we would have succeeded in pushing through to the coast and probably also in regaining possession of the two bridges over the River Orne at Benouville.
As a result, while our opponents sat tight, fuming with indignation over the inactivity, the 13th. were able to consolidate our position, dig our weapon pits, site Brens, Vickers, Mortars and supporting 6 pounder guns of the Divisional Anti Tank Regiment to the best advantage. One of the M.M.G. Sections, digging in at a hedgerow junction east of "Lieu Harras" was approached by a patrol from the farm which opened fire at the work party and then withdrew. There were no casualties.
Approximately two thirds of the Battalion (4oo all ranks) had rallied to the sound of the Colonel's hunting horn. All the key members of Battalion Headquarters were present and performing their tactical roles, but missing was Padre FOY and all the men of his Albermarle stick of nine. A full wireless network was manned and functioning satisfactorily. The Regimental Aid Post had been established in a house alongside Battalion H.Q. and the medical back up team from 225 Parachute Field Ambulance with Captain David TIBBS in command, had their own set up in buildings in the grounds of the chateau.
Captain Harry AINSWORTH, 2nd in command of "A" Company hit one of the anti air landing poles, breaking his leg and Lieutenant Jack WATSON was promoted in his place. Other missing members, included C.S.M. McPARLAN and over 30 men from rifle platoons. In "B" Company, Captain Mike KERR and the 17 men of his Dakota stick had not turned up and "C" Company operated without Lieutenant George LEE of 9 Platoon and the other 16 members of his stick. In the Support Weapons Platoons, one Albermarle stick of nine mortar men had not reached the R.V. but all four 3 inch mortars were recovered from their containers when daylight came. Only two complete Vickers guns were landed in kit bags and nine men were un-accounted for. One section of the anti tank Platoon. together with their O.C. Lieutenant Alf LAGREGAN were absent, their Albermarle failed to take off and the re-supply glider with Captain Quartermaster George DAISLEY on board had not checked in.
While the rest of the Battalion were digging in, the members of "A" Company must have been wondering if they were fighting the war entirely on their own. No sooner had the task of clearing the poles been accomplished, but they moved to the eastern end of Ranville, where they were to assist in the laying of an anti tank minefield. This would occupy them for several hours, but for the majority, a false calm descended upon the scene, as they awaited "H" hour the time of the seaborne landing, which on "Sword" beach, the most easterly one, was not until 0700 hours.
The Platoon was only at half strength due to casualties (missing). In the process of laying a minefield east of the village the mines had to be brought from a glider some considerable distance away, so I went and got a wheel barrow from a house nearby. It took us the best part of the morning to lay the mines and all the time we were being sniped, causing one or two casualties. Eventually we discovered the sniping was coming from the house where I had borrowed the barrow A well directed grenade quickly brought forth four badly knocked about Germans.
Once we were certain that the gliders had stopped flying in we formed up to move down into Ranville and take up our defensive responsibilities. It was now beginning to come light and some of the villagers looked on as we entered the built up area in the centre of Ranville. I recall seeing in the windows of one small shop, croissants and Camembert cheese, unknown in England since the outbreak of war.
I established my Headquarters in the grounds of the Chateau, which had also been the H.Q. of the German Company in the village. One of the first messages which came over the wireless was to ask if we had any cooks in the Company (our own A.C.C. cooks came over by sea and did not arrive until "D" plus one). During the confusion in the darkness, the German horse drawn ration cart had arrived and been taken to Battalion H.Q., they had the fresh food but no one to cook it.
The open corn fields south of the village had formed the area where re-supply containers had been jettisoned and the Machine Gunners made an unsuccessful search for Mark VIIIZ ammunition among them.
When it did come, the assault on the coastal defences, the noise was awesome and overwhelming. It rose in a tremendous crescendo from absolute silence to all pervading uproar in a matter of seconds, as the fearful might of the guns of the Royal Navy fired their well orchestrated salvoes. We were left asking the question "How can anyone have survived such a pounding" and it also meant that wireless silence could now he broken. This was of paramount importance to some.
Not only were we without ammunition but the location I had been briefed to occupy (and told I was not to move from without Brigade authority) was useless. The corn only yards in front of the single gun was three feet high and that was the limit of our field of observation and fire. There was also the matter of an unknown number of Germans, only 100 yards to our rear, and there was the problem of shortage of ammunition. Captain BOWLER (the Officer at Brigade, responsible for coordinating the arcs of fire for all the three Machine Gun Platoons) had not visited us as arranged back in England to sort out any problems on the ground. Try as he did Andy FAIRHURST could not contact Brigade, nor could he raise any of the other M.M.G. Platoons. In the end I went to Brigade and got permission to take all the members of the Platoon, not actually manning the guns, to go back to the D.Z. and search for ammunition, but I must be back at the guns no later than 1000 hours.
Others were making desperate efforts just to join up with the main force.
Captain Mike KERR swam ashore, gathered some of his stick together and during the night others of the Division who had been dropped astray. They formed a defensive position until daylight. By morning, now some 200 strong, their location was half a mile west of the Dives. I myself had dropped east of the river in the swamps. My batman was 40 yards away and I contacted him as soon as I was out of my harness. From then, 0110 hours until 0630 hours, we didn't see a single soul, we spent the whole of that miserable nigh, trying, without success, to find a way out of that wretched swamp. For five hours we were never in less than 2 feet of water, very often in 3 and too often in 5 !
At daylight we picked up two more of the stick and together made our way westwards, and arrived on the east bank to find the bridge blown and men of the Canadian Battalion guarding the area. After discussion, it was decided that the Canadians should blow one of the trees standing on their bank, so that it would form a temporary bridge. No sooner said than done and within a few minutes the tree was stretched between the two banks. It was partially submerged and we had to wade waist deep in order to get across. There was quite a body of us now and once over, were directed to a spot a mile away, where they said there was a small concentration of personnel dropped astray. It was Mike KERR and his party and from now on he took control of us all. We brewed some tea and then had to decide on the next move. The slogan "when in doubt, brew up", was very quickly adopted throughout the Battalion.
While Colonel VON LUCK and his battalions awaited orders, other German sub units made feeble ineffective attempts to find out what we were up to. Before the 12th. Battalion had moved from their R.V. an armoured car came down the road from the coast, but was quickly dealt with and set on fire, and shortly after the bombardment by the Royal Navy, an armoured half track approached Ranville down the Colombelles road. Within 100 yards of the village cross roads, a necklace of "Hawkins" grenades, laid by a section of the Brigade Defence Platoon blew, off one of the tracks. Perhaps the next move by the enemy was a serious attempt at a reconnaissance in force.
Private Ken LANG, M.M.G. Platoon:
Shortly after most of the Section went off searching for ammunition, the Brigadier came along the hedge, where we had dug in with a Platoon of the 12th. Battalion, looking for us. He had two anti tank 6 pounders with him and he took us all up the road and positioned the weapons below the crest of what they now call the "ring contour". Here we looked back towards the village and to our right was St. Honnorine. It was in the cornfields near there, at about 09.30 hours we saw the German armour assembling. They were over 1000 yards away. They stopped and then two small groups advanced, one of them in the direction of Hérouvillette, but the second group drove through the corn and the direction of advance meant they would pass immediately across our front. There was just the anti tank team and the three Vickers gun numbers, Bill PRICE was one of them with Serjeant KELLY the Section Commander. We didn't have very much ammunition, besides our orders were not to open fire before the anti tank guns. We waited and watched as the first group, which had disappeared behind some trees, now came in sight again and they too would pass across our position, but further away. Slowly they drove through the corn and still the anti tank gunners held their fire, suddenly "whomff' away went the first round, quickly followed by two more. Serjeant KELLY was behind the Vickers, firing short bursts of 10 rounds or so, not the usual 25 rounds we were trained to fire (he only had one belt of 250 rounds). You could see the shells hit their target, a short pause and then they all went up in flames, with the crews scrambling out and dashing away into the corn out of sight. The rest of the German tanks just disappeared into Sainte Honnorine.
The ammunition search party, having found what they were looking for and loaded up with two liners (pre packed belts of 250 rounds) apiece, were at this moment approaching the area through 12th. Battalion positions.
The 12th Battalion Platoon Commander told me the Brigadier had moved the Section up to the crest and we were about to cross the road when we first heard the approaching heavy armour. I sent Serjeant KELLY'S ammunition carriers at the double to join him and then scrambled up the bank in order to observe. Before I got to the top a gun away to my left opened up, followed immediately by the regular rat-a-ta-tat of a single Vickers. More shots were fired and when I was in a position to see what was happening, three tanks no more than 100 yards away were already stopped, one already blazing and the two others quickly followed suit. Up the slope and further away, a fourth tank was also on fire. (I later learnt that what I had regarded as tanks were in fact S.P.'s.)
Before we set off to look for ammunition, I had found a position from where the other section would be able to carry out its task and led the carriers there. On the way we passed close to one of the 6 pounders responsible for knocking out the armour and I paused to congratulate them. Not surprisingly they were as pleased as Punch with themselves. I left the carriers at the new position and went, accompanied by Private Alf WILLIAMS, to collect the gun team who had remained behind. Moving up the final stretch of hedge, inexplainably, I took a 36 grenade from my pouch, carried it in the right hand and my left fore finger through the pull ring. I was looking to my left where the German armour had flattened the hedge. Alf was alongside, hissing in my ear, "Jerry's" up there". I looked ahead. A party of Germans had come along the track from the farm and were gazing intently at the burning vehicles. Out came the pin and away went the grenade. I grasped my Sten, released the safety catch and in true Boys Own Paper style, charged. Surprise was complete, the Germans took to their heels back towards "Lieu Harras". For once the Sten didn't let me down, a full magazine without a stoppage. The Vickers had been stuffed under the hedge, I called to Alf to collect it, while I reloaded and got off another full magazine at the fleeing enemy, although they were well out of range by now, but I hit one of them, as he stopped clutching the back of his thigh and two of his companions came back and supported him as they staggered away. Alf hoisted the tripod across his shoulders and picked up the condenser can which left me with only the gun itself to carry. We then legged it as fast as we could back to safety.
On reaching the track leading to where I had left the ammunition carriers, we slowed to a walk and noticing a rabbit sitting up in the hedge to my left, I halted, lowered the gun to the ground and drawing my .45 pistol took a shot at the animal. Where upon much to my surprise, not twenty yards away in the corn, a German soldier rose up. We looked at each other in silence and then he took to his heels and ran off. Dropping the pistol dangling at the end of the lanyard, I got another full magazine load of Sten fire at the fleeing "Jerry".
George BROWNLEA, Battery Serjeant Major, 4th.Air Landing Anti Tank Battery:
Serjeant Bert CLEMENT and his 6 pounder gun team on the southern outskirts of Ranville were warned by the Paras ("A" Company) in the field on their left, of the approaching German armour and infantry. They had a look out posted up a high tree overlooking the corn. If they keep coming, he thought, I might be able to get two of them, but all four is impossible. However if we are undetected and let them advance further, then Serjeant PORTMAN'S gun will also be able to engage them.
As the supporting infantry were crossing a path through the corn, the Officer leading them called out and pointed left towards the ridge. The armour was now 175 yards away. Both Serjeants fired, each hitting a different enemy S.P., both burst into flame. Two other 6 pounders now joined in and soon all the enemy A.F.V.'s were ablaze.
The Horsa gliders with their 6 pounder anti tank guns, were all flown by members of "D" Squadron, the Glider Pilot Regiment and were towed to Landing Zone "N" (13th. Battalion drop zone) by Halifax aircraft operating out of R.A.F. Tarrant Rushton. "A" Company had cleared a "run way" through the anti air landing poles, so that these gliders could land safely.
A Horsa glider when fully loaded with the 6 pounder and the Jeep towing vehicle, could not also carry the full crew for the gun and so the glider pilots of such loads were trained to replace the missing men and as a consequence were present when the German Panzers attacked the Battalion position and were involved in the action. The glider pilots were relieved later in the day, when the main force of gliders landed. They then made their own way back to "Sword" Beach and returned to England by landing craft. Once home, they filed their "after action" reports.
Glider Chalk 118 was flown by Staff Serjeant. R.C. DOWNING who stated:
We dug into position and were not bothered by enemy activity until about 1000 hours, when enemy mechanised (vehicles), 2 tanks and 2 self propelled and infantry appeared. Our 6 pounder scored a hit on one of the tanks with the first round, from about 6oo yards and the second blew it up. The infantry were repulsed mainly by the 13th. but I reckon I nailed one Jerry and possibly two.
This gun, I think, must have been the one commanded by Serjeant. Bert GEE (R.A.) and was sited close to the farm, right rear of Lieutenant Gordon O'BRIEN-HITCHING'S Platoon of "A" Company.
Right and 200 yards forward of this gun, another was sited behind a low stone wall. Staff Serjeant. R. WHITE and Serjeant. F. EASON, had landed this gun in Chalk 115.
Staff Serjeant WHITE:
Copilot on lookout, reported enemy tank movement on our left flank. Our gun well concealed, but not very well sited. We came under small arms fire and Serjeant EASON opened up on the Bren gun. By this time the first S.P. tanks in range of the gun but gun layer did not think he could hit the tank.
In the meantime I had loaded a round and had a look along the sights myself. By this time the tank was almost dead ahead in front at 200 yards and needed stopping. So I decided to have a go myself, Serjeant EASON kept the Nazis heads down with Bren fire and I laid the gun ready to fire. The first round missed so I immediately reloaded and this time I applied 200 yards on the sights. The tank had stopped and I was expecting them to open fire on us any minute, so I quickly sighted the gun and fired. This time it was a hit and the tank went up in flames. During this short time another tank had been bit by the gun on our left flank and also one, which was almost unobserved from our position, was put out of action by a gun on our right flank. (most likely the one in Ken LANGS area). From our position three tanks were seen to be blazing and ammo was exploding in each at various intervals. The infantry, who were escorting the tanks, were then engaged by small arms fire for the rest of the day.
In the Battalion War Diary, the first sighting of the enemy by "A" Company is timed at 1005 hours and the final report of attack repulsed is at 1033 hours.
Something always happened when I arrived at "Joe" HODGSON'S platoon position, as I made my round of the Company area. The first time they had just beaten off a German attack and at one of the nearby houses I was asked by a French woman, "Who is this General de Gaulle we hear so much about on the radio". I had to tell her that I did not know him personally, but doubtless she would hear a lot more of him in the future.
Next time I had acquired one of the lightweight motor cycles and as I rode down the avenue of trees towards "Joe's" positions, a German 88 persisted in sniping me as I went along.
Padre FOY and his party were still lost in the swamps of the flooded Dives valley:
Finally Captain KERR made the decision to take a round about route to Ranville, hoping that the Battalion was installed in the village. The trouble was that the route chosen involved a walk of several hours, through more swamps, as though we hadn't seen enough water already. By this time I was beginning to wonder if somehow, France and Holland hadn't got mixed up a bit.
The "bloody nose" treatment meted out on the enemy's first counter attack slowed him down, but he persisted in attacks against "A" Company positions close to Hérouvillette and at one stage "C" Company put in a limited counter attack to relieve the pressure around mid day. Again late in the afternoon another German attack was launched, but made no progress.
Unknown to us, by early afternoon, the complete 21st. Panzer Division were concentrated south of St. Honorine and the Divisional Commander's intention was to launch his entire force against Ranville and re capture the bridges. 130 tanks and 3,000 Infantry against 3 weak Parachute Battalions, six 6 Pounder and three 17 Pounder anti tank guns. Fortunately the German Corps Commander over ruled his subordinate and ordered him to attack west of the Orne into the gap between the "Juno" and "Sword" invasion beaches.
There had been very little air activity throughout the day although a Messerschmitt 109 fighter crashed in flames in the Battalion sector. But shortly before 2100 hours, the sky was filled with Allied fighter planes and it wasn't long before the ever increasing roar of heavier aircraft engines reached our ears. We knew from the plan that the Division's Air Landing Brigade were to fly in before nightfall, but we didn't realise what a magnificent demonstration of command of the skies we were about to witness. All eyes were turned upwards as the long glider train approached. Those holding positions on the north side of Ranville, watched as the two streams of Albermarles, Dakotas, Stirlings and Halifaxes, with Horsas and Hamilcars trailing behind them approached from the coast, but then lost sight of them as they continued on their journey inland. Now those south of the village had their first sighting. Only 1000 feet above and 100 yards apart in two streams, the cavalcade sailed majestically towards Caen. Suddenly the leading tugs swung to the left swooping low as they did so. For a brief moment the following Horsas appeared motionless and then turned quickly through 180 degrees and diving steeply overhead disappeared from sight. Now those who were watching the still oncoming flights, gazed in thankful amazement as the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment calmly put their motorless craft down on the open fields to their front.
The procession seemed never ending, as combination after combination passed effortlessly over head, in a little over half an hour 142 glider loads of Infantry, Gunners, Sappers, Medics and finally the Tetrarch tanks of the Armoured Recce Regiment arrived to strengthen the Division's hold on this vital section of the air bridgehead.
To begin with the enemy were in a state of shock, numbed into inactivity by the boldness of the operation. Eventually lie recovered and rushed some light flak guns to the "Lieu Harras" farm and they started to fire at the low flying tugs turning for home. These guns in turn provided a target for the Battalion's mortars, a triumphant finale to a day of glory for the men of the Red Rose Battalion.
There were some, to whom the glider assault was more than an exciting spectacle.
Padre FOY again:
We set off and immediately plunged into the water again and were in it until just before 2100 hours, but as we finally trudged out onto firm ground we had our reward, for there in the evening sky, away to the north, came streaming in a gigantic glider armada. We whooped with joy, because:
1. On account of the magnificence of the spectacle, and 2. We knew that the gliders would not have been coming in had not the landing zone in Ranville been safe. In other words the Battalion was almost certainly installed there. We pressed forward with relieved minds.
The first H.Q. we struck was that of 3 Para. Brigade at Le Mesnil. There we were assured that we could move down to Ranville with safety and the Battalion was in possession of the village. At about 0100 hours, 7th. June, Mike KERR with his weary band of wanderers reported to the Colonel. Joyous greetings were exchanged, I stripped off my clothes, now stinking to high heaven and got between a couple of blankets, ignored the slit trenches and slept in a house close to Battalion Headquarters.
There were even later arrivals David ROBINSON:
After the pilot failed to take off, there was some confusion about what to do with us, but eventually transport was arranged to take us to some unknown port. Here we boarded a landing craft which landed us on the beach on D Plus 1 and from there we made our own way to join the Battalion in Ranville, where almost the first thing we saw were bodies lined up on the pavement awaiting burial.
Others too were trying to join up with the Battalion. C.S.M. McPARLAN decided to make a bid to get through and was fortunate enough to get help from a French girl and together they reached Ranville. He requested and was given, assistance to go back through no mans land and return with the rest of his party. When, however, they got back to St. Samson, they found the men had disappeared. In fact their hiding place had become very dangerous and they had been forced to move. There was no alternative but return to Ranville.
Several times during the day I heard vehicles moving along the road outside and the noise of aircraft overhead with the sound of exploding bombs not too far away. All day the pistol was pointed at my head. Later on there was a discussion between the three of them, all my possessions were returned and I was given a German rifle and ammunition pouches.
We got ready to leave and I loaded the rifle. We moved slowly, stopping often to listen and always behind me was the gypsy with the pistol aimed at my head. A well used road was reached and we stopped to listen before crossing one at a time. Philippe went first and I followed the second man. I was in the middle of the road when suddenly from nowhere appeared a German soldier riding a push bike. Without a moments hesitation I shot him dead. Quickly we hid the body and the bike in some long grass and then started running to get away from the place. We covered a fair distance before we stopped, where upon I was violently sick. Then the three of them set on me, punching and kicking me as hard as they could. I was totally confused by the way they were treating me, until Philippe explained that when they were moving from one hide out to another, they avoided the Germans never shot them. Clearly I had a lot to learn.
We kept moving until it was getting light and had reached the outskirts of Lisieux. That must have been where the bombing had been that I had heard. Fires were still burning and there were lots of German patrols in the town. We climbed up into an attic in a builders yard and hid there for several days, being fed by the local resistance.
D PLUS ONE ONWARDS - WAR DIARY:
Ranville, 7th June 0630 hours. "B" Company shelled spasmodically from the South.
Shelling and mortaring from now on became an accepted fact of life. Those holding positions south of Ranville escaped the mortar bombs. It was guns only, firing from the St. Honorine area which caused the damage and casualties, but those on the other front suffered from both. For several days the Germans were still in possession of the Breville feature and from the high ground could observe all movement especially around the crossroads. It was on its west facing flank only that the Battalion were in direct contact with friendly forces. During the morning the 2nd. Ox. and Bucks Light Infantry deepened the bridgehead by occupying Hérouvillette, but failed in an attempt to drive the enemy from Escoville further to the south.
Over the next few days the strength of character of the Battalion would be subjected to a severe testing. Missing as a result of aircraft failing to find the correct drop zone, in addition to Lieutenant George LEE, were several Serjeants and other senior N.C.O.'s. Shells and bombs too, do not respect rank and casualties among all ranks drained away other leaders. As a result, new responsibilities had to be accepted. The Regimental Quartermaster Serjeant, Jimmy HENSTOCK, took on the full duties of the Battalion Quarter Master and Serjeant Bill WEBSTER was in command of the Admin. Platoon, when Captain F.A.N. ELLISON was killed. By the end of the first week, more than half of the Rifle Platoons were led by Serjeants. The born fighting leaders, quickly revealed themselves and Lance Corporals and in some cases private soldiers, rose overnight to the rank of Serjeant. "C" Company, in the middle of the village were particularly badly affected by the mortaring and within days had lost both remaining Subalterns, also C.S.M. MAGUIRE and C.Q.M.S. DUGDALE.
Jack SHARPLES and 8 Platoon were close to the crossroads:
We were dug in on the right of the road leading to Caen in a little orchard. Back in Larkhill, Private LLOYD Neale of the Platoon had been selected as one of the dog handlers and they were attached to the Platoon for the operation. He was in his slit with a dog and I said to him "That's not your dog" and he replied "No I lost him on the drop, this is one the Germans left behind" (In all probability the missing dog was picked up by the Canadian Battalion in 3 Brigade). A few days later Neale called out "We're going to be shelled, sir". I asked him how he knew, "Because the dog's trembling and he was like this last time" Sure enough, over came the shells, all airburst.
I had warned the Platoon to keep away from the crossroads, immediately to our rear, since they were an obvious target and who was there on 9th. June? I still get Christmas cards advising me to keep off the crossroads.
By now most of us had tales to tell of how close we had come to death or other serious injury, but Corporal Tom STEER of the M.T. had perhaps the strangest experience of any one:
I came over with the transport personnel and we reached Ranville on 7th. June. The Admin. Platoon held their own part of the Battalion's defences north of the crossroads where we were shelled and mortared both by day and night. After Captain ELLISON was killed, Serjeant Billy WEBSTER took charge of us. There was a Bren gun post which was manned all the time and each evening before "stand to" we would be told the time we were to be on guard there during the coming night. On June 15th. the Battalion cobbler, Corporal Harry GREEN, came to me and asked me to change duties with him, since he had a feeling that something nasty would happen, during the time he had been detailed to be on watch. I had no such worries and so we swapped times of duty.
My time on "stag" was uneventful and I settled down for the few hours kip we got during those short summer nights. Later the area was mortared and the Bren slit received a direct hit, killing Corporal GREEN and Private MELBOURNE.
Men still missing from the drop had problems other than shelling and mortaring.
We had dropped among units of two Panzer Divisions 21st. and Panzer Lehr and they were out looking for us, so the Resistance kept us on the move. Even then the party got split up when we had to make a hurried getaway as the Germans approached the front of the farm building where we sheltered, we all dashed out of the back, losing the two Serjeants in the panic.
No serious attempt at a large scale counter attack was made until the early evening 9th.June:
Colonel Hans VON LUCK:
ORDERS: VON LUCK Combat Group will assemble on the morning of 9th June for a decisive attack on Escoville, advance on Ranville and take possession of the Orne bridges.
For Werner KORTENHAUS, a tank commander in No. 4 Company, 9th. June became a nightmare:
That day was one of the hardest actions ever. We assembled with about ten tanks, under the avenue of trees south of Escoville. Then everything happened very quickly, within a few minutes we had lost 4 tanks, knocked out by naval guns. The fire became more intense and we were forced to withdraw.
On the evening of the 9th. June, we realised that we could no longer drive the British back into the sea.
For an hour or more, the Battalion was subjected to the heaviest concentrations of artillery and mortar fire which it had so far experienced. Even while the shells and bombs were still falling on positions in Ranville, from Escoville and Hérouvillette to the south west, machine gun fire signalled the enemy advance. Gradually the sounds of battle from these two places grew louder as the Germans made steady progress towards the Platoons of "A" and "B" Companies, holding positions to the rear of the Ox. and Bucks. Brigadier POETT drove through the M.M.G. location to take control of the situation and gradually the sounds of battle grew fainter and finally fizzled out all together.
Next morning a far more determined attempt to drive through to the bridges was made by a battalion of German infantry, (later identified as a unit of 346 Division) attacking through the gap in the Divisional perimeter at Breville.
A patrol sent out at around 0330 hours by Captain KERR, who commanded 4 and 5 Platoons, manning weapon slits covering the ground facing Breville, confirmed that enemy troops were massing for an attack. Shortly afterwards artillery ranging shots landed on Battalion positions, hence preparations were made to meet the expected assault It was 0725 hours before infantry emerged from the woods and began to infiltrate across the D.Z. and twenty minutes later a complete battalion were moving steadily towards the waiting Brens and rifles of the 13th.
The men of "B" Company held their fire and by 0825 hours the unsuspecting Germans had closed to within 100 yards. But they got no nearer, 4 and 5 Platoon saw to that, as they poured a relentless hail of bullets into their targets at almost point blank range. While the surviving men of 11/858 Infantry Regiment were still shocked and confused, a counter charge by "C" Company drove what was left of them into the small woods at Le Mariquet. Here they were engaged by the Mortars, a detachment of Vickers and also supporting guns of the Royal Artillery.
Enemy reinforcements infiltrated through the corn and joined their comrades in the woods, but before they could attempt any further moves, the 7th. Battalion supported by Shermans of the 13/18th. Hussars appeared on the scene. These two units carried out a well prepared assault against each wood in turn and the few Germans still alive, surrendered, 73 only of a complete battalion. The Hussars too suffered casualties when discarded parachutes were caught up in the tank driving sprockets and the Shermans were "sitting ducks" for the crew of an S.P. lurking on the ridge. A total of six tanks were put out of action.
Leonard MOSLEY, wrote in the Sheffield "Telegraph":
In batches of 10 to 15, spread out over 200 yards, the German infantrymen came on at a run. They plodded through the waving corn until they reached a glider. Then they fell on their faces and lay there. After a few minutes, they got up and ran forward before dropping down again. It went on like that for 400 yards and still no one fired.
Now the enemy was gaining in confidence from the stillness. Smelling no danger his lopin advances were longer and his periods on the ground of only a few seconds duration. He came on fast; and kept on coming until he was some 100 yards away. And then, at some prearranged signal, every automatic weapon and every rifle in the Paratroops line opened up. It was a roar that set your teeth chattering with shock.
You suddenly saw Germans, grimacing, wildly clutching their bodies, throwing up their hands and then falling by the dozen into the corn. Then all of them flung themselves down. A rain of bullets surged across those 100 yards of French farm land but the Germans were not beaten yet.
One of their Officers rose to his feet, called to his men and those still un-wounded, charged once more. This time the Paratroops held their fire even longer and it was from 25 to 30 yards now, when the small arms barrage hit the enemy. With cool, superb and absolute discipline, fingers squeezed the triggers almost simultaneously and down in writhing heaps went the Germans again. And now the remnants who remained alive turned and began to flee.
About this time, "Pegasus Goes To It" the Divisional News Sheet, was printed for the first time and in Issue No. 2 on 12th. June reported:
AIRBORNE TROOPS FRONT:
Tanks have now arrived in the area of the bridge head held by 6th. Airborne, in addition to the "secret weapon" announced by the B.B.C. this morning; which was the landing of light tanks in gliders. The situation, thanks to the work of the Division in beating back German attacks, is announced as encouraging.
German prisoners have been passing through for interrogation at a rapid rate in your bridge head area. They are forlorn, dishevelled and dirty, tired and hungry, but retain a soldierly bearing. They cycled 120 miles and were thrown into the battle after only two, hours rest. Which shows how much of a nasty surprise to the Germans, your arrival was.
By now we were being fed at regular times and most of us carried a packet of "hard tack" biscuits and the daily bar of chocolate, always at hand, but for others it was very different. After eight days on the run, Serjeant STUBBS and party were close to starvation and Privates RYDER and WHITE, wearing French civilian clothing, went out to look for food. Six hours later, they had not returned and the two Serjeants decided to go looking for them. As they moved towards the barn door, they saw German soldiers closing in on them. They shouted a warning to the others and all four jumped out of a rear window, splitting up as they raced for covering.
THE BRICKWORKS AT LE MESNIL
In the late evening of the following day (11th. June), the 12th. Battalion finally closed the gap in the Divisions defences by driving the Germans from the village of Breville and this event. put a stop to any further attempts to dislodge the 13th. For the next four days bombs and shells continued to remind us that the enemy was still close at hand. The 51st. (Highland) Division, the formation planned to relieve 6th. Airborne, thus freeing them for further operations was already in the area and most of us imagined that we would shortly be on the way home. Now and again the Luftwaffe put in an appearance.
David ROBINSON remembers one such occasion:
After I caught up with the Battalion, we dug a position in the garden of the estaminet at Ranville crossroads, looking out over the D.Z. I was by the wall when a German plane flew over very low and then turned towards the coast, before making another turn and flying back towards us. I had the P.I.A.T. on the wall so I fired at him. Of course it was a futile shot, the speed of the plane and the P.I.A.T.'s range made a hit impossible. The bomb flew up over the D.Z., landed among the gliders and killed a cow grazing there.
The officer casualties suffered by the 12th. Battalion in their capture of the Breville feature resulted in promotion and transfer for three members of the Battalion. Major Bill HARRIS M.C. was new C.O., Captain Mike KERR a Company Commander and Lieutenant Bernard METCALF became the Adjutant. Colonel LUARD had clearly recognised the potential in the Officers he selected. There were also changes in the 13th. Major FORD moved to Battalion H.Q. as 2nd in command with Captain "Nobby" CLARK the new O.C. "Charlie" Company and there were Captaincies for Lieutenant's Leslie GOLDING and Freddie SKEATE. Serjeants "Taffy" LAWLEY MM. was C.S.M. and Charlie WRIGLEY C.Q.M.S. of "C" Company.
Much to our surprise on the morning of the 17th. we were marching up the road to Le Mesnil, there to take over the positions occupied by the Canadian Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Brigade.
The Battalion were to see a lot of this hamlet during the next two months but it was never referred to by that name. Everyone called it "the brickworks" although that itself was a misnomer for the kilns at the large works on the site were used to manufacture roofing tiles. Maps had been issued the previous day and we knew that the long fields of observation enjoyed at Ranville were a thing of the past.
We were to see a lot of this little village during the two months that followed, for we had four spells in the line at this particular place. It was hard and nerve wracking work for our men, not only because of the constant mortaring of our positions, but also because of the interminable patrolling that had to be done. On the crossroads we held at Le Mesnil there was a large notice, which read "Warning Enemy 100 yards ahead". That was literally true. The Germans were on one side of the field and we were on the other. We had a communication trench running right along the front at one point. It was here that we learnt to respect German snipers, several men were to lose their lives because of their shooting ability.
Typical of the patrol activities are the reports for 19th. when following the return in the early hours of a patrol led by Lieutenant "Joe" HODGSON of "A" Company, bringing information on the location of a troublesome S.P. 7 Platoon were detailed to attack and destroy the vehicle. After mortar preparation they advanced, only to run into heavy machine gun fire, were pinned down and forced to withdraw. During this engagement one Officer and 14 O.R.'s were wounded and 2 O.R.'s missing. Contact and Standing Patrols were also mounted day and night by all Companies along likely approaches into the Battalion area, but little was seen of the enemy. The purpose of the Contact Patrols was, as the name implies, to maintain surveillance of known enemy locations and so give early information of any moves by the Germans.
It was here at Le Mesnil that one of the war dogs was to prove his value to the Battalion.
Colonel LUARD reports:
Of the three dogs dropped, one was missing and one wounded, but "BING", though slightly wounded by mortar fire survived. This Alsation with his handler, Lance Corporal Ken BAILEY, held the right hand post, adjacent to the Bois de Bavent. They were on duty all night in their own personal slit trench. "Bing" served throughout the campaign in Normandy, but went into quarantine on the Battalion's return to U.K. in September.
Shortly after the Battalion occupied the Le Mesnil defences, events took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Len COX and party:
In the early hours of the 19th. June our hide out was surrounded and we were all captured. During interrogation at the local H.Q. the place was strafed by Typhoons and I later found other members of the stick had also been rounded up and were in the same building. Next day an attempt was made to escape and some of the guards were shot. Extra guards were brought in and we were all lined up to be shot, but a change of orders and we were herded into covered trucks and driven away.
On the road we ran into a convoy of Panzers that had been recently bombed and again we were threatened with shooting. Eventually we arrived at a large P.O.W. compound of about 500 men, which had been established at the Poutance village stud farm near Falaise.
Roy RITCHLEY was still on the run:
We stayed in the attic at Lisieux until things had quietened down, then we moved on, always by night avoiding the roads and keeping to the open fields. By now I was accepted by them all and was one of their group. I was to stay with the gypsies for the next two months and was surprised when I thought about it later, how quickly I got used to the life of killing and stealing, for now there were Germans to be killed whenever we came across them. It was mostly deserters we dealt with but linesmen repairing telephone wires also received the same treatment. We stripped the bodies of weapons and ammunition before burying them, and when we had a fair collection, Philippe would go off and sell them to the men of the Communist underground groups round Mesidon. He always returned with a wad of money, which they split three ways, I never got a cent, but they did keep me fed.
There were the odd occasion when something happened to re relieve the boredom.
Life at the brickworks was dull and monotonous so to liven things up and have a bit of fun, we constructed a giant catapult out of timber and twisted ropes. This contraption we used to hurl bricks and stones at the German positions only the other side of the field.
There was another occasion during the usual nightly mortaring, a haystack at the deserted farm between ourselves and the enemy, was hit and set on fire. The flames were lighting up all our weapon slits and I decided that we must put out the fire. While we were doing so, I turned to give instructions to the soldier working alongside me who turned out to be a German. My opposite number on the other side of the field, had obviously the same thoughts about the blaze as I did.
While some of us were busy fire fighting the Germans tried to infiltrate a patrol, but we could see them coming and put the whole lot in the bag, one at a time as they crawled through a gap in the hedge.
On the 25th. the Battalion learnt that the following day they would be relieved and would move back to the banks of the Orne for a rest, but before we left, the enemy had a nasty surprise in store for us.
For some reason that never became apparent, the Germans began to shell and mortar our positions in the most devastating way, many of the bombs falling directly on the front line trenches. The hail of bombs was such as I had never experienced until then and indeed have rarely done since. For several hours from 2300 hours onwards, the torrent of fire continued, as the whole area was literally plastered. In spite of the terrific danger of movement in the open, casualties had to be brought in when trenches received direct hits. The Medics had a gruelling task and responded magnificently.
Stretchers were actually blown out of their hands by bomb blast and yet they themselves were unscathed at the end of the night. The men in the front line sat waiting to see if this was the prelude to an attack, as well it might have been. Our own mortars went into action and worked themselves to a standstill. The R.A.P. in the brickworks received several direct hits, because of the thickness of the roof the bombs did not penetrate, but sent down the most appalling showers of dust, which on occasions drove us out into the open bombs or no bombs. And all the time casualties had to be collected, treated and evacuated. It was a pitch black night, visibility nil, and the road down to the M.D.S. in Ranville seemed endless. Corporal WARE was hit in the neck by shrapnel and was brought in to the R.A.P. unable to speak. An urgent tracheotomy was needed to save his life. Doc. TIBBS patched him up quickly and I set off for the M.D.S. with him in a jeep. Never shall I forget the journey down the hill to Ranville. We crept through the inky darkness slowly because every jolt was dangerous to the wounded man. I felt personally responsible for every bump in the road and every lurch of the jeep gave me a sick feeling as I thought of the possible effect on the man behind me. The menace of approaching vehicles was terrible. Neither we nor they carried any form of light, on no less than three occasions we stopped with the bonnet no more than a foot or two from the oncoming car. When we finally arrived at our destination, the man was still alive, but two days later. at the General Field Hospital, I was grieved to learn that he had died. He had been so terribly brave. On the next journey to the M.D.S. on that frightful night, I took a man whose legs and thighs had been smashed to smithereens. For two miles I heard his agonised screams behind and all I could do was drive at walking pace. He died five minutes after reaching the M.D.S.
Daylight was creeping in by the time the tumult died down. We brewed some tea, lay down in utter weariness of body and soul and called it a day. In a room behind the R.A.P. were the men who had seen their last fighting the men who had not recovered. As I lay down, I wondered if we would be able to afford blankets for their burials next day. Then we slept.
The following night, apart from the minimal number on guard, the Battalion were able to enjoy their first full nights sleep for three weeks, as we relaxed on the banks of the River Orne. The Divisional Sappers had erected showers and parties of men visited the nearby "Sword" beach. After viewing the still undamaged defences there a common opinion was that parachuting into battle was the easier option. The small cinema in the coastal village of Luc sur Mere was taken over by E.N.S.A. and Charlie Chester and "His Stars in Battledress" was the current attraction. Of all the different acts, 13th. members of the audience reserved their loudest applause for "Boy" FOY, the internationally acclaimed trick cyclist.
But it was not all fun and games for everyone. The Vickers Machine Gunners, continued with their training.
There supply of weapons etc. lost on the drop was unbelievable, a 24 hour service and the two new guns replacing those lost (plus the spare carried in the Q.M.'s glider), all came complete with dial sights, which we had not been issued with back home. Serjeant George KELLY pointed out, that if I reported a sight destroyed by enemy action, a replacement would be forthcoming, hence when the Battalion returned to England, he would be able to train the Platoon to use them. I informed the R.Q.M.S. of our plans and within days, all four guns were fitted with sights. During this period in reserve, we spent several hours each day mastering these new devices. They were not much different from the mortar sights with which we were already accustomed to using and before we moved back into the front line, Serjeant KELLY informed me that the Platoon, in the words of the training manual, were capable of engaging the enemy, even when the target was obscured by fog, smoke or darkness, at ranges greater than other weapons were capable of.
We returned to the brickworks for one day and then returned to the riverside, a mile upstream from the bridges. The reason, the Battalion were to rehearse a night attack against a known German Headquarters. That evening prior to the first practice raid, the Battalion was treated to another awe inspiring demonstration of Allied air supremacy.
This time it was Bomber Command of the R.A.F. who provided the players and the occasion, yet another attempt by 2nd. Army to capture the town of Caen, which was only four miles inland from us. No warning of the attack had been given to us and in the evening sunlight we watched as a single Lancaster flew across our front and then released a shimmering cascade of silver lights, marking the target. Not far behind came a steady stream of other four engine air craft and we could clearly see the bombs leave the bomb bays and start their fall. More coloured markers, red and green added colour to the spectacle and the ack-ack guns roared into action, with the shells bursting among the Halifaxes and Lancasters. But they flew on regardless of the danger. As the bombs exploded a great cloud of smoke started to rise, getting progressively higher as time went on. We stopped counting the number of planes involved and the later arrivals had the easier run in, as the flak guns either ran out of ammunition or were destroyed by the bombing.
All together we carried out three rehearsals for the attack and then it was cancelled. The C.O. had queried the tactical value of the plan, which would result in the Battalion being marooned several hundred yards away, in German held territory and his view prevailed. So it was back to Le Mesnil. Instead of the Battalion attack a Company of the 7th., repeating a previous exploit of theirs, were to carry out a day time raid on the same objective. This would be launched from "B" Company's area and the Machine Gunners (some one had informed the C.O. of the Platoons recently acquired ability to provide indirect fire) were to isolate the right flank of the enemy in the farm.
I was part of a group detailed to create a diversion on the left, while the real attack went in on the other flank. We moved up to the ruined farm ahead of the cross roads and waited for zero hour. 1700 hours, dead on time, the first 3 inch mortar smoke bomb landed on the enemy just up the road and we opened fire too. Jerry hit back with everything he had a machine gun on a fixed line was firing along the top of the hedge on my right and their mortars came into action. I dived for cover and then "thump, thump, thump" I'd been hit in the head, arm, chest and stomach, I assumed by shrapnel.
Back at the R.A.P., before I was evacuated, I was visited by both Lieutenant LAGREGAN and Colonel LUARD. This was a big comfort to me. Back in Bayeux in the Field Hospital, they removed two large calibre machine gun bullets, which must have been ricocheted off the walls of the farm. After a week, I was sent back to England and was in hospital until Christmas. I was down graded to B.1., and sent to the Reserve Battalion at Beverley. I thought, 4 years training for 4 weeks fighting.
For fifteen minutes (the expected duration of the raid) the gunners fired away and then took cover, because as anticipated, the Germans responded with a devastating barrage by guns and mortars. It was every bit as fearsome as the night pounding a fortnight earlier. Fortunately it did not last quite as long and the casualties were not as serious for the 13th. But the raid was not a success. The German H.Q. (a farmhouse) was protected by a minefield in which the raiding party was trapped and suffered innumerable casualties and were forced to abandon the assault. Imagine how much higher would have been the casualty rate and more difficult the withdrawal, had the Battalion's night attack gone ahead as originally planned in the dark.
The trouble with enemy snipers and the accuracy of their mortars plagued the Battalion every time we returned to the brickworks. Early on, a German O.P. had been located in the top branches of a tall tree not 100 yards from Battalion H.Q. and despite an all day watch on the short stretch of ladder visible, no fire controller was ever seen entering this "bird's eye" look out. But any observer up there, would look right down onto the whole Battalion front. '