Captain A. F. Jackson

 

Unit : No.2 Troop, 591st Parachute Squadron, RE.

 

The following is Captain Tony Jackson's account of his experiences, and that of No.2 Troop, on D-Day, written on the 27th January 1991.

 

It is sometimes asked what happened to the troop of 591 Parachute Squadron RE who were dropped wide of the Varaville DZ and were unable to support 9th Parachute Battalion in their assault on the Merville Battery on D Day. This brief account is based on information provided after the war by surviving officers of the troop.

 

Seven men from the troop, under command of Lieutenant L. Shand, had volunteered to cross to Normandy in one of the three gliders scheduled to crash-land on the battery during the assault. Not long after take-off, the tow-rope of their glider parted so the occupants could not take part in the operation. The sappers rejoined their comrades in Normandy where Lieutenant Shand was killed a month later whilst accompanying the CRE of 6th Airborne Division, Lieutenant-Colonel F.H. Lowman, who was seriously wounded in the same incident.

 

The bulk of the troop, comprising three officers and thirty men, took off from Broadwell in two twin-engined Dakotas at 2320 hrs on 5th June 1944, joining the air armada setting out from airfields throughout Southern England. Before departure the parachutists had been led to believe they need have no doubts about being dropped in the right place so no-one was worrying about this. There was a general feeling of relief that the long months of training and rehearsal had come to an end but everyone was well aware that the operation later that night would be a severe test for each man taking part. Some comfort was derived from an erroneous intelligence report that many of the German units in Normandy consisted mainly of conscripted Russian soldiers who would surrender at the first opportunity.

 

Captain A.F. Jackson, Lieutenant K.H. Best and fifteen NCOs and men boarded one of the Dakotas. Captain Jackson records in his diary:

 

"We emplaned at 1 o'clock. The aerodrome was an impressive sight. Douglas (Dakota) aircraft had been drawn up in long rows, their new black and white striped markings showing up vividly in the moonlight. Here and there, gliders could be seen, loaded up ready for the following night. The long convoy of lorries was soon marshalled. The men were quiet; in turn, they clambered out of the vehicles, shouldered their kitbags and rifle valises, formed up into sticks and marched off to the aircraft. Our crew was waiting for us. We had about half-an-hour to fit our 'chutes and life-belts and check our arms and equipment. RAF ground-crew produced a container of hot tea - it was very welcome. At last the men were ready. They lined up and were inspected rapidly. The order was given to emplane."

 

"One by one we climbed through the door in the fuselage, the wireless operator helping us up. The crew then took up their positions. The roar of the engines made it impossible to talk. All at once the noise increased and the aircraft began to move forward. It was twenty past eleven. Soon, we felt her lift and were airborne. Our plane was one of the last to take off and we circled the 'drome several times in order to reach our place in the big formation already overhead."

 

"All the aircraft had their navigation lights on and the sky seemed full of twinkling points of red and green. Some of the men were smoking, others chatted; a few sat very quiet. Soon we started singing but not for long."

 

"I looked out of the door and saw that we had reached the Channel. Far below, the sea sparkled in the moonlight. We tried to pick out the invasion craft but could not see them. Twenty minutes to go. The wireless operator, who was acting as despatcher, made his way to the rear of the aircraft. 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes - the warning bell rang. We stood up. I balanced precariously by the door. The French coast was visible, lying parallel to our line of flight. Another Dakota came into view for a moment, several hundred feet below us. The flak was fairly heavy. Our aircraft did a steep left bank and in a few seconds was over a fair-sized coastal town. Several shells burst near us. One minute to go! We closed up, one behind the other and waited for the red light. It was a long minute. Then I heard the wireless operator shout "Go!". I grabbed my kitbag and jumped."

 

Captain Jackson recalls that he landed heavily only a few moments after his parachute opened. His most lasting memory is one of total isolation - no sappers, no Germans and no French people. Shortly after landing he saw a four-engined aircraft and a solitary glider passing overhead but these soon disappeared and the silence was then complete. For the rest of the night he walked round trying to establish his location and contact his sappers but without success.

 

As it slowly became light he found he was in hilly countryside with orchards and small fields surrounded by high hedges. In the distance he could hear the tremendous naval barrage opening up and then realised he must be several miles east of the river Dives - a long way from the 6th Airborne Divisional area.

 

Having only a rough idea of his whereabouts he started walking towards the west hoping eventually to make contact with 6th Airborne troops. Soon after day-break he saw a Frenchman with a horse and cart at a cross-roads about 150 yards away but as soon as the Frenchman caught sight of this lone parachutist he turned his horse and cart round and hurried away.

 

A little later Captain Jackson passed close by a large building with five windows on the first floor. He remembers that at each window there were two or three young men staring out at him; they must have been German troops billeted in the area. Having been spotted all he could do was to walk slowly on; he was wearing a helmet and airborne smock - not unlike the uniform of a German parachutist - so he felt there was a slim chance that he had not been recognised as a British soldier. No shots were fired and he carried on across country.

 

About mid-morning he was ambushed in a small field by a detachment of German troops and taken prisoner. He was transported by lorry to a German formation HQ in a chateau near Dozule. Here he met other British officers who had been captured after suffering various misadventures during the night. One of these was his friend, Lieutenant J.S. Shinner, the Intelligence Officer RE at 6th Airborne Divisional HQ. Lieutenant Shinner had crossed the Channel in a Stirling aircraft which was hit by AA fire and crashed. Apart from a handful of men who managed to jump before the crash (including Major P.A. Wood RE, OC of 591 Parachute Squadron, who was subsequently captured) all the occupants of the plane were either killed or taken prisoner. Some of the survivors, including Lieutenant Shinner, were wounded.

 

Lieutenant Best, who had been in the Dakota with Captain Jackson, was among the last to jump from the aircraft. He landed near Bourgeauville where he succeeded in assembling some of the sappers who had dropped with him. They had been widely dispersed and there had been some casualties. The Squadron history relates that Sapper Read was wounded, losing an arm, and Driver Handley was killed in a lone gallant fight against hopeless odds.

 

Lieutenant Best and his small group were given sanctuary by local French people. Over the next few days their numbers were augmented by infantry from parachute battalions who had been dropped wide. This little party made several attempts to break out and became involved in skirmishes with the Germans. Eventually they were intercepted and taken prisoner within half a mile of the British lines - 14 days after D Day.

 

The other half troop of the sappers supporting 9th Parachute Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant J.R. Hinshelwood, were dropped between Varaville and Robehomme. They too were widely scattered and conditions were made more difficult because the low-lying ground where they had landed alongside the river Dives had been flooded by the Germans.

 

After much tribulation the sappers joined up with an element of 'C' Company of the Canadian Parachute Battalion. They helped the Canadians in the defence of Varaville where there was spirited fighting, with 17 German prisoners being taken. The next day they withdrew in a hectic forced march to the forward positions of 3rd Parachute Brigade at Le Mesnil.

 

The above account gives some indication of what befell No. 2 Troop of 591 Parachute Squadron RE on and immediately after D Day. Before the invasion they had built a replica of the Merville Battery in England and in a concentrated programme had supported 9th Parachute Battalion in rehearsals for the assault by day and night. The sappers carried General Wade charges, each weighing 30 lbs, for demolishing the steel doors of the casemates and specially-prepared plastic explosive charges for putting the guns out of action. Every man knew his exact role in the planned operation and was proud to be taking part.

 

As events turned out no sappers were able to participate in the D Day assault on the battery. It is to the eternal credit of 9th Parachute Battalion that with a much depleted force and no help from other arms they overcame fierce opposition and succeeded in achieving their objective.

 

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