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Officers of the 6th Airborne Division with Field Marshal Montgomery in May 1945

Lieutenant Henry John Sweeney

 

Unit : No.23 Platoon, "D" Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

Service No. : 204283

Awards : Military Cross

 

Lieutenant Sweeney, predictably nicknamed "Tod" after the infamous Sweeney Tod, commanded No.23 Platoon which, when it became a part of Major Howard's coup de main force, was temporarily renamed No.5 Platoon. Their Horsa was to be the second of the three gliders to land on LZ-Y, alongside Ranville Bridge.

 

No.5 Platoon's glider landed 700 yards short of the zone due to encountering an air pocket on their final approach, however they safely disembarked and made their way forward, Sweeney accidentally falling into a drainage ditch shortly after and getting soaked. When they reached the Bridge they could find no signs that it had been taken, although Sweeney assumed that the other two gliders had landed well ahead of him and had secured the Bridge. Nevertheless his men raced across it, expecting to meet enemy fire at any moment or for the Bridge to be blown beneath them. The only figure they encountered on the Bridge, however, was Lieutenant Fox, whose No.6 Platoon had already captured the Bridge. Sweeney wrote, "I hadn't cottoned on to the fact that the bridge had been seized at all. As I was beginning to go across, I thought that someone was in fact there before me, but you still had that awful feeling as you went over the bridge that it might go up under your feet. I went racing across with my heart in my mouth, eventually coming a halt, a bit disappointed, because we were all worked up to kill the enemy, bayonet the enemy, be blown up or something, and then there on the other side of the bridge was nothing more than the unmistakable figure of Dennis Fox."

 

No.5 Platoon dug in around the bridge, and shortly after they heard a party of four men approaching from the south. "They were challenged by the section on that side of the road. They shouted back something that sounded German, so the section opened fire and killed them all. We found them there the next morning. Unfortunately, one of the people in that bunch was a {British} paratrooper." The man was a pathfinder of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, and he had been gagged after being captured by men of the 21st Panzer Division and was on his way to be interrogated.

 

With the threat of the heaviest counterattacks, possibly from tanks, taking place at Bénouville Bridge, Major Howard ordered No.6 Platoon to strengthen their position, leaving Sweeney's No.5 Platoon in sole charge of the river bridge. The first man of the remaining 6th Airborne Division to visit the coup de main force was the commander of the 5th Parachute Brigade, Brigadier Poett, however when he met Sweeney, at 00:52, and pressed on to visit Major Howard, Sweeney neglected to pass on a message to his company commander to inform him of the approach of the Brigadier, and Howard was not at all pleased when he happened across him whilst inspecting his positions.

 

In the hours before the 7th Parachute Battalion arrived, No.5 Platoon were waiting around the Bridge when they could hear the heavy sound of an armoured vehicle approaching them. "We heard the grinding of gears and the noise of what sounded like a very heavy vehicle coming round the corner... I thought, "Well, here we go. This is the first tank attack". And I got everybody ready. Around the corner came low dimmed yellow lights and the grinding of gears with the sound of a track running. So I sent a message over the air. Down the road came an open half-track - an officer's vehicle - followed by a motorcyclist. We were all down in the ditches on the side of the road so we were looking up and as it passed everyone opened fire." Both vehicles were eventually stopped by No.5 Platoon's fire, killing, or wounding and capturing all of the German occupants. Amongst those taken prisoner was Major Schmidt, the commander of the bridge garrison who had been in Ranville when the coup de main raid took place.

 

By the following day, with Nos.3 and 6 Platoons returned to "B" Company, Major Howard and Lieutenant Sweeney were the only officers remaining in "D" Company, although they would soon be reunited with Captain Priday, Lieutenant Hooper and his No.22 Platoon. During the night, "D" Company moved off to locate the remainder of the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, and Lieutenant Sweeney was sent ahead with two men to discover their whereabouts.

 

They set off in the direction of Escoville and, eventually reaching it after taking a wrong turning, they approached to find a German vehicle barring their path. Sweeney threw a grenade at the vehicle and sprinted back the way he had come whilst Corporal Porter covered him with his Bren gun. Sweeney and the other man waited for Porter to catch them up, however he was heard still firing his Bren gun and, having wasted too much time already, Sweeney decided to leave Porter behind and report to Howard. Porter rejoined No.23 Platoon several hours later, and, at 03:00, "D" Company located the remainder of the Battalion at Ranville, to where they had been redirected.

 

On the following day the Battalion captured Herouvillette and became involved in bitter fighting in Escoville. For his deeds in the defence of this village, Lieutenant Sweeney was awarded the Military Cross:

 

During the morning of 7th June 1944, "D" Company seized a sector of Escoville and prepared to defend same. The Company was under very active sniper fire from the start and many casualties resulted. Sweeney's platoon was in the centre of the sniping, and he was wounded in the neck during an enemy attack and managed to come back to Company Headquarters. When the Company received orders to withdraw to Herouvillette, I asked for volunteers to go out and fetch in a Lance-Corporal Stacey who was previously wounded in an exposed position on the front. Lieutenant Sweeney was his Platoon Commander and he insisted on leading the party. They were fired at but managed to get Stacey back. Lieutenant Sweeney's leadership on this occasion was of the highest quality.

 

Following the withdrawal, "D" Company had lost so much of its strength that it was reorganised into two platoons, named "A" and "B", the latter under the command of Lieutenant Sweeney.

 

Sweeney continued to serve in the Army after the war, retiring at the age of fifty-five, having attained the rank of Colonel. He went on to become Director General of the Battersea Dog's Home and also headed the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regimental Association.

 

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