Corporal Ron Pidgley
Unit : HQ, 1st Special Service Brigade
I was a corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals, attached to No.1 Commando Brigade HQ. We had seen action in Norway and North Africa but were beginning training for the invasion of Europe. We spent several months at Petworth in West Sussex where I made many friends and met Sheila, who was to become my wife.
At the beginning of June 1944, we moved to a tented holding camp on the outskirts of the New Forest, days were spent checking all signals equipment, which must not let us down. It was our job to keep the radios and telephones working so that units could stay in touch with each other. Personal affairs were seen to, letters written with cheerful sentences to wives, sweethearts and of course particularly to our mothers. The agony these ladies were to bear over the months ahead. The padre would be sympathetic if consulted and he surely was aware when he gave a brief Church Service, that the prayers offered by those chaps attending would not be the last to be uttered when terrified in battle. How true.
Security was of utmost importance. Unnecessary letters were not to be carried. I destroyed the letter Mum had written to me to say that my young brother, Peter, still on Air Training in Canada, was now a Midshipman, the Fleet Air Arm’s way of saying you may be a real officer one day.
Briefing took place in a marquee where large scale models indicated the places upon a coastline where a sea borne landing was to take place and tasks allocated to various sections along with the order in which each would approach the shore line. Correct in all details, the maps and models bore no place names.
Operation Overlord was to commence. The weather had worsened, the heavy seas stirred by fierce winds made a 24-hour postponement necessary but on the afternoon of 5th June 1944 we embarked at Warsash on our (LCI)(s) (Landing Craft Infantry (small)) - assault vessels. Each craft carried about 90 men, including the crew, a wooden, flat-bottomed vessel with some armoured plating around the helmsman’s cockpit.
Had I remembered to pack it all? Voltmeter, hand drill, soldering iron, solder, screw drivers, pliers, reel of light wire, emery paper and etc, the heavy 120 volt Batteries, cases of spare valves - and the ammo - 200 rounds of ×303, 2 grenades, field dressing, water bottle, 24 hours of emergency rations, chocolate and fags plus matches. And a rifle. Green Beret; we were to wear that - no steel helmets for us. We must be seen, by ourselves and others: seen and respected they said. Seasick tablets? Yes, yes of course, thanks - I remembered the 24 hours on a RAF rescue launch pitching and tossing in the Channel when we did our stint called sea training. Wouldn't be much good being sick as a dog. Rucksack straps adjusted, one Mae West for the kit and one already round my waist, fat and rubbery. Fighting knife and bayonet, not cut out for that sort of thing - just the rifle, hopefully at long range. May not be able to write, I'd told them back home - don't forget No news is Good news!
I was on the same craft as our chief, the well-respected Brigade Commander, Lord Lovat and members of the Brigade staff with about half the signal troop. Our officer in charge was the young Lt. Bruce Beattie, a nice efficient officer. I was told that there would be about 22 LCI(s), in the Commando flotilla, part of the whole set up known as "J Force" commanded by Lt. Commander Rupert Curtis RN (later awarded a DSC).
At 1800 hours on 5th June, the flotilla sailed down the Solent. Steaming steadily in line, lead by our HQ craft, we were allowed "on top" until the Nab where we left the shelter provided by the Isle of Wight. The sea becoming choppy with a stiff breeze, Lord Lovat’s piper found the conditions unsuitable for more continuous playing on his bagpipes. Below decks, cramped, smelly with some sickness, we were offered soup - oxtail! and Huntley and Palmers dry biscuits. Fine!
By now maps of the French coast had been studied upon which the proper place names were clearly printed. The secret was out. The Normandy shoreline was our destination. We were to land on Sword Beach at Ouistreham just west of the River Orne estuary and the Caen Canal.
The sea became rough and there was a keen wind blowing half a gale; occasionally a thump was heard - and felt - as the bottom of the craft, found a difficult passage on the swell. The occupants looked quietly apprehensive, taut and fidgety and I would describe myself as being pretty scared!
At 5.30am on the 6th June we sniffed fresh air, real Continental sea air; not long now. Up on deck now, taking up our positions. The radio sets were switched to receive, on the allotted frequency. At H-Hour, it was essential to start listening watch in order to receive essential information as arranged. The sets worked well! The code names were Rugby and Cricket. As dawn broke, a glimmer from the East, on this "Our Longest Day", the sky lit up by gunfire flashes, we could see the size of the Armada of which we were a part, in the fore now, stretching as far as the eye could see.
The battleships, huge grey shapes, Ramillies and Warspite, joined by the cruiser Frobisher opened fire on enemy defence installations along the Normandy coast, the sound and glare of the heavy gun blasts incessant, lighting up the sea area around us with their shells screaming overhead, hopefully aimed at our targets.
Ready now, crouched low alongside the gunwales of the landing craft, bulky loads awkward to handle, we could glimpse, cautiously, the darkened shapes of buildings appearing on the shoreline; oddly recognisable from models and aerial photographs. Must be in the right place but it seems we're not wanted by Jerry. The German shore batteries were firing out at the ships and incoming craft, just a few ugly spouts in the sea close to us and then our craft grounded and the gangplanks went down.
The Naval lads urging us on, “All the best” and “Good luck” - swallowing hard, grabbing a hand rail, following on, the one in front seeming to disappear into the water, dropping off the end of the plank up to his waist. Now my turn! . . .
Why were there other troops ashore before us? Surely we were to make the initial assault? Noise, fire, soaking wet, making haste behind Lord Lovat, his walking stick prodding, try not to look too closely at the bundles of khaki strewn around, their armour shattered, like their bodies, no further use so early on. Poor Sods. The initial assault at "H" hour on our sector had been carried out by No.8 Brigade of 3 Division including the brave East Yorkshire Regiment who had suffered severe losses - hence the pitiful sights seen as we crossed the beach. Our lot owe these lads a great deal.
The road along the coast was covered with debris. Moving to the left, our section encountered no opposition. On the corner, I spoke to three chaps already applying their field dressings. I was lucky, so far. It was some comfort to know each man wearing a green beret was making in the same direction, not organised but keeping close to - and taking - cover when possible. Once away from the beach area, we'd pick up the road. Then a Spandau machine gun fired upon us; taking rapidly to a sheltering wall, it seemed ages before we were able to move again.
Our task was to proceed and as necessary force our way some eight miles inland to a point already held by units of the 6th Airborne Division. The planned rendezvous was at the two important bridges spanning the river and the canal. The strategy behind the securing of both bridges by overcoming sentries was to prevent their destruction by the enemy. It was vital that the road was kept open and that the Airborne troops maintained possession until relieved by seaborne forces and parachutists.
I remember better than most things, the scent from the over hanging rose tree, a climber, full of bloom and beautiful, Albertine, surely. A smashed folding bicycle, the ginger haired lad from the forward cycle troop, lying shattered over his machine; dead horses, legs sticking grotesquely up in the air, bloated and smelling.
Aircraft, our support, always flying over - just one Jerry ‘plane I saw all day - thankfully we were together again.
A group lying low in a ditch waiting for No.6 Commando to clear a path through minefields; their primary job had been imperative in silencing a strongly fortified gun battery emplacement just east of us. Hermanville was the name.
The sound of activity continued, the noise coming from the warships plus the multiple 12-barrel mortars firing from smaller vessels backed up by increasing numbers of Allied planes, so distinctive in their black and white stripes; Spitfires, Typhoons and Mustangs probably piloted by Poles. Back on their native soil, the Free French of No.10 Inter Allied Commando were happy to be busy mopping up pockets of resistance and silencing enemy pillboxes which obstructed their way. A very few sombre inhabitants of the villages that we skirted, peered out, seemingly unimpressed.
The rucksacks had become implements of torture, the load having shifted to a back wracking position. Sweaty, hungry we marched ever on towards Benouville and the bridges. Our arrival there was welcomed as they had been under fire since midnight and were still being shelled, mortared and subject to sniper fire. So we became attached to the 6th Airborne Division. Trying to look smart, we marched over the bridges, when we received a warning of enemy snipers along the banks of the canal and nearby river. So don't hang about! I remember the smokescreen set up and then doubling at some pace towards a wood to seek some shelter.
Re-grouping, hot work, a brief respite after the eight mile stomp, heavily laden, it would have been good to have a nap! But off towards the village of Ecarde. A mortar attack as we crossed the road, then the sound of tracked vehicles. Shock and dread, someone said “Tanks!” but it was a self-propelled 88mm howitzer moving away. We had nothing better than a ×303 Bren gun. The 3-man load for the 3" mortar, barrel, baseplate and bombs was fine for support but not on the move.
A green and fertile country, fields with leafy hedges, orchards with apple trees, farmhouses so very much like the county of Kent. One such orchard was to be home for the night for the Signals Troop. The Commando troops took up positions ahead, stretched thinly to form a line, the most easterly on the edge of the Beachhead. Additional troops would be urgently required or an enemy counter attack could soon neutralise the whole Allied effort.
Aid was at hand. As we dug our slit trenches, the hum of approaching aircraft was heard. No need to scarper; these planes were steadily moving in, at a lowish altitude, from the direction of the sea towards Ranville. Dakotas, dozens of them, each towing a large dark glider. A little ack-ack fire as they circled our area and then the approach; tow ropes adrift and that steep dive as silently, seemingly too close together the gliders skidded to an abrupt halt, the nose of one crashing the stone wall surrounding our orchard. The body of the gliders seemed to split on impact, with Airborne troops spewing out and taking up defensive positions, melting quickly into the shelter and obscurity of ditches and hedges. Their job was no doubt planned for them and so far luck was on our side. Good to see you mate!
The very next morning saw us advancing, vacating the overnight doss-down trench, shallow but efficient. Not far to go; up the hill to the village of Amfreville standing on a ridge which possessed a commanding view down over the Orne valley to the distant Beachhead. The Germans had been driven from their fortifications on the previous day by units of the Parachute Regiment. With the ground firmly in our hands and the German artillery denied their observation posts, the Brigade, Nos. 3, 4, 6 and 45 RM Commandos took up their positions, spread rather too thinly in an arc stretching from Ranville to Sallenelles.
They were hidden, silently watching and listening for any presence of the enemy, waiting for some false move or a giveaway sign that was imminent danger, concealed but close at hand. Just a field or an orchard could separate the two opponents and often a hedge was shared between them.
Patrols were active as darkness fell. The Commandos were on unfamiliar ground as distinct from the advantage held by Jerry; after all he had held this ground for several years, but had never expected that anywhere near here would be subject to invasion. Better trenches were dug, better food eaten and a brew up possible; a wash, a shave each day - letters home. Telephone lines were laid out, Don 8 (D8) on drums, by our line section, to the Commando HQs and it was our job to repair it should shell fire cause disconnections, as it did, often. The radio spares were kept in the chateau that was now Brigade HQ and I had a table as a workbench for the few tools and test gear.
It was more prudent to sleep in trenches, known as “flea pits“, although the shelling was fearful, some nights incessant, each shot thought to be aimed in with us - me - as a personal target. Coward - chain smoking - that was me, I am ashamed to say!
Next morning, reports in regarding news from our advance positions - some welcome news - but often a casualty list - touch and go. All the time the radio sets kept working I was in the clear; our stint on watch and guard duty came round with monotonous regularity, ever on the alert and sleeping with one eye open. Four hours of kip if lucky! Soon the word ‘Calvados’ was prominent. Wherever squaddies abound, loot is the trophy; it is not thieving, just the spoils of war. In this case it was the locally brewed apple liqueur somehow acquired and consumed in small quantities, an innocent looking drink almost like water. In the same way, I had made it my business to remove several windows - or port holes - from the nearest abandoned Horsa glider. It was a good clear shatterproof material, called Perspex, the very first use of this product that I had seen. Using my mini hacksaw and files, it was ideal for making small articles like paper knives shaped like fighting knives. Gave me something to do while waiting.
Once, in broad daylight, I had to almost crawl along ditches between hedges with a No. 18 set on my back, my rifle substituted for a Colt ×45 automatic. A spare set was needed in a forward position as a replacement. Hairy, but essential.
Lord Lovat had been wounded and the CO of No.6 Commando Derek Mills-Roberts, Irish Guards, replaced him. Sadly, Capt. Alexander, our Troop O.C. was blinded and returned to the UK.
The ships were still called upon to support the land forces with accurate gunfire and our aircraft were ever active, so reassuring. The Germans also had their big guns. One such weapon fired huge shells on the shoreline from the east, way over to the west. Periodically, we in Amfreville would hear on ominous Bang followed several seconds later by a whizzing approaching, then disappearing sound as the shell sped quite near overhead. Then the crump as the shell exploded. So nice to know it was not aimed at us.
Another enemy were the mosquitoes who appeared to thrive on the cream supplied to help repel the creatures! Enemy mortar bombs were still a menace and it was such good news when towards the middle of July that we heard armour would move up to us - units of VIII Corps. Less chance of getting caught with yer trousers down!
The boxes of Compo (compound rations) were searched for the super bits, (fags, chocolate and rice pudding tins), ready to discard all surplus when orders came to move.
An advance was made at the beginning of August. The main forces crossed over Pegasus Bridge, using the main roads in their advance, which left the sector close to the coast still occupied by Jerry. Our job was to clear up all remaining opposition. We were also warned to watch out for booby traps - deadly things - there may be loads of 'em about. The weather was awful, sodden ditches, cold and I was beginning to think my trade was no longer required. There was more shelling but this time we were backed up by 25-pounders of the Royal Artillery. Over the River Dives and through Pont l'Eveque. The Germans were by now in retreat, over the Seine heading for the Fatherland.
Then we were able to rejoin our unit, No.1 Commando Brigade, depleted, but justly chuffed with our efforts and drive to Arromanches. A Tank Landing Craft took us to Southampton. Eighty five days in the line, with no rest, so the leave we were granted was indeed well earned, and our base now was in the old Canadian Camp at Pheasant Copse, near Petworth and so many of our friends. What could possibly be better? Sheila and I were married in 1945.
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