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Private Roy Farmer

Private Roy Kenneth Farmer

 

Unit : No.1 Section, Machine Gun Platoon, Headquarters Company, 13th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 14627663

 

Private Roy Farmer, born in 1924, was killed in action on the 6th June 1944, aged 20. The following is a letter from his commander, then Lieutenant Ellis "Dixie" Dean, to his relative, Brian Duffy, explaining the events of that night.

 

My good friend and former fellow Officer, Jack Watson, 13th (Lancashire) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, has passed your letter on to me for a reply, since your relative Roy Farmer was a member of my platoon and we actually flew to Normandy in the same aircraft. I will give you all the information I have on the events of the night of the 5/6th June 1944 that I have been able to learn about them. But, I'm afraid it is quite a harrowing tale, resulting in the painful and agonising death of your relative.

 

We were both members of the Medium Machine Gun (Vickers) Platoon. My association with the "gunners" began in January 1944 when I was posted from a Rifle Platoon, to take over No. 2 Mortar Platoon, which in early April (when 6th Airborne's plan for Normandy was known) was ordered to retrain as "Vickers" machine gunners. Roy was not a member of the platoon at this time. I imagine he would have been a member of the Reinforcement Company, and volunteered to join the platoon when one of the original members was injured during the final hectic months of training for the big day itself. I, myself, was away from the battalion, being trained as a Machine Gun Platoon Commander at the Army Small Arms School, and did not in fact re-join my platoon, until 24 hours before we moved to the Transit Camp on the 25th May. So... it was only during the last 12 days we were in the transit camp prior to the operation that I would have got to know Roy. I found him a very pleasant, fresh faced young man, full of energy and vitality, and ready to tackle anything. Which I suppose was typical of us all. He had already settled in well with the rest of the lads, and I had no doubt whatsoever that he would give a good account of himself, come what may.

 

The Machine Gunners did not go to the same transit camp (Brize Norton) as the rest of the 13th. We went to Keevil with the 12th Battalion; this, it was explained to me, was because of the special task the Platoon had been given in the 5th Parachute Brigade plan to seize and hold the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal. This task, it turned out, was to protect the screen of anti-tank guns deployed covering the open fields south of the village of Ranville; the direction from which the German counter-attacks with tanks and infantry were expected to develop. (This is exactly what did happen at 10.00 hours on 6th June). The transit camp was a tented one in open grassland some 3 or 4 miles from the airfield - peaceful and relaxing with long days of warm sunshine as we made the final preparations for the operation.

 

A Machine Gun Platoon operated as 2 sections each of 2 guns (the World War I tripod mounted Vickers). A gun detachment consisted of Gun No's 1, 2 and 3 who carried the gun parts and fired and maintained it in action, and 5 ammunition carriers. Roy was one of these carrying on his back, a canvas "hold-all" of 2 Machine Gun Liners (metal cases of a 250 round prefilled canvas belt of ammunition - weight altogether about 40lbs). He was a member of No.1 Section commanded by Sergeant George Kelly outstanding NCO, regular soldier and by far the most experienced and knowledgeable machine gunner in the Platoon.

 

For the operation (Operation "Tonga" to the RAF), the Platoons allocation of aircraft was 2 Stirlings of 299 Squadron, which were allocated Stick "Chalk" Numbers 204 and 205. I would fly with No.1 Section in Chalk 204, and my Platoon Sergeant, Alf Whalley would go with No.2 Section, under Sergeant Sam Osborne in 205. 204 carried the Squadron letter H and had been nick-named "H for HELLZAPOPPIN", the title of a Hollywood wackey comedy film of the time.

 

As you most likely already know, "D-DAY" was postponed for 24 hours, and it would have been on the evening of 5th that we made the short drive to the airfield. On the way we passed through a village where all the people stood at their garden gates cheering us on our way. At RAF Keevil, two squadrons of Stirlings (36 aircraft) were lined up along a spare runway - even numbered sticks on the right, odd on the left. The Lorries deposited us at the appropriate plane, and departed. Waiting to greet us were the aircrew, who introduced themselves to us and explained their respective responsibilities. The pilot was a no nonsense Australian, Flight Sergeant Jack Gilbert DFM. We stood around chatting and joking, in some cases smoking, as we waited to fit our chutes. On an earlier visit, we had already fitted these, and [they] were laid out on the tarmac under the port wing of H for Hellzapoppin.

 

Double summer time was introduced in war time, so it was still daylight when we fitted chutes and emplaned. There were 36 Stirlings to take off at 1 minute intervals, so since we would be of the last to become airborne [we] had quite a wait, cooped up in the stuffy fuselage, with the engines ticking away, before we realised that the plane had swung onto the take off runway. A sudden roaring of the engines, breaks released, and we thundered down the tarmac. It was 23.48 hours, and we were on our way to war, for the first time for most of us. Jack Gilbert [pilot] had warned us, that after about 30 minutes flying time, the small light in the fuselage would be extinguished, and so while there was still light to do so, we hooked up, and fitted equipment leg bags holding the gun parts, personal weapons - a rifle in Roy's case, plus either a short handled pick or shovel. This drill was not normally carried out, until the order "20 minutes to go" was received from the pilot.

 

Everything went as normal until we did get the "20 minutes to go" signal. This was received by George Kelly, who as Stick Commander, and jumping No.10, was plugged into the plane's intercom. As the signal came from the cockpit, it was conveyed personally by the Wireless Operator who was to act as dispatcher. Once he had worked his way up to the rear, stepping over our legs stretched out on the floor, George Kelly (Sgt. No.10) ordered "Stand Up!, Hook Up!, Equipment Check!". Since we were already hooked up and had fitted equipment, he just waited until we were all on our feet, and then said "Check Equipment!" We checked individually that you were indeed hooked up, and all equipment was fitted correctly. A minute or so to do this, and then came "Sound off for Equipment Check!" From Number 20 in the stick came "Number 20 ...OK!", and as he did so, in case he hadn't been heard, he would grasp the left shoulder of Number 19 firmly in his hand. This was a tremendously reassuring action, letting the man know he wasn't on his own, you were right behind him, and come what may you would be facing it together. Number 19 would then repeat this, "Number 19 ... OK!, and so it went on, "Number 18 ... OK!", "Number 17 ... OK!", until Number 2, in this case L/Cpl Alf Turner, grasped my shoulder and called "Number 2 ... OK!" I would then have reported "Number 1 ... OK; Stick .. OK!" and George Kelly would then have reported to the pilot, "Stick Ready To Jump!"

 

Perhaps all of this would have taken 5 minutes or so, and my next task as Number 1 was to help the dispatcher open and fasten back, the doors covering the bathtub shaped aperture in the floor just in front of me, through which we were to make our exits. But looking back down the plane, I could see that the dispatcher had not yet secured the strop guard. This is a gate like device, peculiar to the Stirling, which was attached to the underside of the fuselage, and had to be lowered and pinned into position in order to prevent the empty parachute bags getting blown up into the rudder. Alf Turner unhooked me and I went back to where the dispatcher was struggling with the strop guard. I don't know what was troubling the poor unfortunate man, but his hand was trembling so much that he could hardly grasp the retaining pin, let alone insert the same through the required slot. I did the job for him [and] went back to my jump position. Alf hooked me up, and I then slid back the front bolt of the aperture doors. But once more I had to be unhooked and go back and release the rear bolt. Hooked up for the 3rd time, I opened and fastened back the upper doors on my own. The dispatcher from his position to the rear of the aperture was the only one who could open the lower door, by pulling it up a long handle. This he managed to do.

 

Sometime while all this was happening I should have received the "5 minutes to go" signal. I had not done so, as a consequence, when the bottom door was opened and I was able to look down, much to my surprise, we were flying over land, not the English Channel as I had expected. Because the Drop Zone was only 4 miles from the coast, I had it worked out in my own mind, that once we crossed the [French] coast , we less than 2 minutes from jumping, so what was going on? I was completely confused by it all, and still trying to puzzle it out when, from behind me, came a great bellow "Green On!" Half the stick must have yelled out the warning. My immediate reaction was "Why haven't I had the 5 second Action Stations Red I had asked for? I glanced up, Green it was, and with another glance down, we were still flying over land and, although I was not happy about it, I took one pace forward and out into the cool night air I went. Once my chute developed, I looked around for any landmarks which might give me some indication as to where I was. The first things to catch my eye, away to my right, were two silver ribbons shining in the moonlight - the River Orne and the Caen Canal. Further away to my front, the ack-ack defences of Caen were blazing away.

 

Looking down, much to my dismay, it appeared I was going to land in one of the orchards, which I knew from a study of the air photos, ran down the eastern edge of the DZ. Instead of landing in the orchard itself, I ended up in a tall tree rising from the thick hedge bordering the fruit trees. Luckily, I was able to reach the ground with not too much difficulty, and also made the Rendezvous in a quarry alongside the road running from the coast to Pegasus Bridge. But not all the gunners arrived. When the time came to move out towards our objective, only 29 of the 41 members of the platoon had checked in. Sgt Sam Osborne's section was complete, but George Kelly's was 11 men short, but 2 of these clocked in the 7th June, having spent D-Day fighting with one of the other battalions.

 

We were not the only platoon with men missing; altogether some 100 or so members of the 13th were dropped astray. The lucky ones were only a few miles away, and some, like the Battalion Padre, managed to reach us late on the 6th. But the Germans reacted swiftly, and blocked off all roads leading to the Divisions perimeter, making it a hazardous adventure for many. Some made it, many were captured and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp, while others, such as 1 Stick of 9 Platoon, dropped 30 km. from the DZ, evaded capture, lived with their brave French hosts in the middle of the enemy occupying army, and rejoined us once the breakout from the bridgehead was made. The last 9 men of my stick, I reported missing through the proper channels, and heard no more.

 

Once the seaborne troops caught up with us, we expected to return to UK and prepare for further operations. But instead, we held the right flank of the bridgehead unit mid August, spending 10 days holding defensive positions on the ridge east of the Orne, followed by the same spell in reserve in the Ranville area. It was during one of these spells in reserve in mid-July; we got talking about the missing nine, and speculating as to what might have happened after No.11 jumped. George Kelly suggested that he could write to the pilot back at Keevil, and ask where they had been dropped. This he did, and about a week later came a letter from RAF Station Adjutant, Keevil, the gist of which was "Rather than us telling you what happened, will you tell us all you know, because H for Hellzapoppin was the only aircraft from the station despatched on the mission which had failed to return to base". I replied giving them what little information I could.

 

I heard no more until February 1945 (we were in Holland at the time, occupying defensive positions on the River Maas). Then came a letter from the relevant War Office Department, asking what information I could supply regarding the missing 9, since they had not been reported POW by the Red Cross. The War Office at this stage were not aware that they had all been in the same aircraft, or that the plane and aircrew too had disappeared completely. And I never heard anything more from either Army or Air Force. Of the 11 of us who dropped, 3 (including both George Kelly and Alf Turner) were killed in action; 4 were wounded and never rejoined the battalion while 4 came through completely unscathed. 2 of them, L/Cpl Arthur Higgins (jumped No. 4) and Pte John Surgey (jumped No. 9), ended the war in Germany as my 2 Section Leaders, and together with Pte Ken Lang (jumped No. 11), the last man to jump, who though wounded and out of the Army by Christmas 1944, the 4 of us have revisited the battle area several times together.

 

This is what we have managed to piece together over the years. First of all, back in 1985 I wrote to the Air History Branch, MOD, and enclose a copy of the reply I received; so we know the plane was not shot down by German flak. I have already stated that I landed in a tree on the eastern edge of the DZ. Ken Lang too, can fairly accurately identify close to where he landed in a triangle of roads just off the western edge. I have a copy of the air photograph of the DZ, so if you draw a line between our two landings it is obvious the plane was not flying along the correct course. Instead of dropping the stick in a North - South direction, down the full length of the DZ, we are dropped approximately Nor, Nor/East West, Sou/West across the top end.

 

John Surgey tells me that as Number 8 was actually disappearing down the hole, the "Green Light" was replaced by RED - the signal to stop jumping. But Number 12 must have been the first man to comply. At first I thought this must be because the Bomb Aimer (the man who controlled the drop, could see a river and canal looming close and didn't want to drop the men in these. But then Ken added what little time there was between him exiting and hitting the ground. I, if you remember, had time (about 20-30 seconds) to look around and identify where I was, but Ken said no sooner had his chute developed he hit the ground. So now it is my opinion that the reason for aborting the run in was because, for some reason we will never know, the plane was losing height, and the pilot decided it was no longer safe to continue with the drop.

 

The rest of the story, I will admit, is my supposition, and I have no facts to support what I say. Realising the state of the plane, the pilot made the decision to put the aircraft down in the Channel, reasonably close to the French Coast. Stored in the wings were sufficient inflatable rubber dinghies for all still on board. The air-crew and ourselves had both practised the drills for such an emergency, and we were all wearing automatically inflated life-jackets. So, what went wrong? I have to assume that the aperture doors on the floor of the fuselage had not been closed before the pilot put the plane down on water. I'll say no more. War is a nasty, dirty business as we all too soon realised and those of us who did come through it all were very fortunate indeed.

 

Ken, Arthur and I are the last 3 of Chalk 204, and Ken was the only one of us, still fit enough to attend the 65th Anniversary Ceremonies. He took with him a wreath on behalf of the surviving veterans of the "Oily Rags" (Col. Peter Luard's affectionate nick-name for the machine-gunners), which he place in the appropriate alcove of the Bayeux Memorial. I am sorry it is such a grisly tale, but Roy volunteered knowing he would be in the thick of things from the start. Most of us were in our late teens or early twenties, who but for the war would never even have considered joining the army, but when the call came were ready to lay down our lives for what we believed in. We, all the war time members of the Parachute Regiment, left for future generations of the regiment a high standard of fighting efficiency for them to follow. Utrinque Paratus, Ready For Anything. You will have gathered, I am proud of my Regiment and particularly of the young men of the Oily Rags.

 

Kind Regards

 

Ellis Dean (but always 'Dixie' in the army)

 

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