Lieutenant Vince Walker
Unit : Battalion HQ, 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment.
I am very proud to have been a member of the 6th Air Landing Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. The Brigade was formed in 1943 of three battalions, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles; The 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry — both regular battalions — and The 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment known as the Swedebashers, commanded by a regular soldier, but nearly all of the officers and men had enlisted for the duration of the war only. Our Divisional Commander was General Sir Richard Gale, later to become Field Marshall and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Brigade Commander was Brigadier Lord Kindersley who was to be seriously wounded on D + 3.
I was Intelligence Officer of 12th Devons and this resulted in my becoming involved in the planning of the role of 6th Airlanding Brigade from the beginning of April 1944 and an early briefing of the precise location of our landing area in France. The amount of information available from Aircraft Reconnaissance and French underground sources was amazing. Apart from German troop disposition, we were given the names and addresses of French citizens who we could trust. Briefing sessions took place in a large house between Netheravon and Bulford on Salisbury Plain — and was codenamed “Broadmoor”.
Our general training placed great emphasis on physical fitness and initiative, and culminated in the whole Division landing (or rather crash landing) in fields around the village of Southrop in Gloucestershire, as a dress rehearsal for “D” Day. The bridges over the Thames and tributaries at Lechiade were not dissimilar to those over the River Orne in Normandy. Having trained so hard to master the tactics of going to war by Glider and landing behind enemy lines, I was surprised to be informed at a briefing meeting at the beginning of May that the Aircraft Resources of 38 and 46 Group of Troop Carrier Command were insufficient to permit the transport of the whole division in one Airlift and so the Devonshires, the junior Battalion were required to go by sea, although we had no experience or training involving the sea or landing on beaches, and so I found myself in a sealed camp at Grays in Essex, prior to embarking in an LCI (L) at Tilbury for quite a long sea journey to our designated landing spot at Lyon-sur-Mer on Sword Beach.
Perhaps I can now tell you briefly how eventually I came to Pegasus Bridge. As I have already explained the 12th Battalion, the Devons (less 1 Company) were due to travel by sea - and so in the very early hours of “D” Day I was somewhere in the Thames Estuary having embarked on an LCI (L) at Tilbury on the evening of the 4th June and we were all bored, fed up and sea-sick. We passed through the straits on the morning of “D” Day, and came under fire from Cape Gris Nez. We were not very concerned; large guns taking pot shots at little ships didn’t frighten us - but then a Tank Landing Ship about 500 yards astern received a direct hit, there was quite a firework display before it sank and after that we were not quite so nonchalant.
However, we arrived safely at our assembly area to the South of the Isle of Wight and in the evening we had a grandstand view of the rest of the 6th Airlanding Brigade as they flew overhead on their way to their landing zone near Ranville. The Halifax Bombers and Horsa and Hamilcar Gliders made an impressive sight (260 aircraft towing 228 Horsa and 32 Hamilcars) and as we cheered them on we really were very envious, as their journey time was about one and a half hours whereas we had already been at sea for nearly 48 hours.
That night we had a great sing song until we got underway for France and then everyone tried without much success to get some sleep. The sea was choppy and many were sea-sick. At first light we approached Sword Beach, and we began to see the debris of war everywhere. There was isolated shelling, but no small arms fire, but we were very anxious to get off the Landing Craft and off the beach where we felt very exposed and vulnerable. We were particularly concerned about air attack - but little was seen of the German Air Force - The Royal Air Force ruled supreme. There was quite a heavy swell and in dropping the gangways one was lost overboard and the other tilted at an alarming angle. We also discovered that the gangway did not reach bottom and in jumping off we were in about 5 feet of water one minute and out of our depth the next. It might have been alright for sailors, but we didn’t think much of it as we struggled ashore like drowned rats.
The Beach Master (a Naval Officer) was superb (true to tradition) - cool, calm, and collected, we were rapidly directed off the beach to the sand dunes, and heavily damaged bungalows and beach huts where we could find some shelter while we regrouped. The dry sand clung to our wet clothes and made movement very difficult and very uncomfortable - but we soon had other problems to occupy our minds. Our orders were to avoid combat if possible and make for the village of Ranville as quickly as possible where we were to relieve the 12th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. After a few detours and minor skirmishes, we finally crossed Pegasus Bridge at about 4 p.m. and arrived in Ranville at 4.30 to be warmly greeted by an exhausted and sadly depleted Parachute Battalion - who were so glad to see us.
I wasn’t to know at that time but our real war was about to begin. It is important to remember this is a mere fragment of the many experiences lived through, minute by minute, by those troops who landed on “D” Day. Nearly 160,000 men landed and nearly 11,000 became casualties, killed, missing and wounded, many of the latter bear the scars to this day. By far the heaviest casualties were suffered by the Americans on Omaha Beach, and by the American and British Airborne Forces. It is for them that we commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, and to the disabled and those families who were bereaved. Time has softened the edges of fear and horror which affected the events of that day, and we are grateful for nature which blanks out the worst memories. “D” Day itself was but the beginning of a long slog across Europe, with many battles still to come before total Victory in Europe was achieved in May 1945 - that anniversary will rightly couple celebration with commemoration.
I conclude with the words by Laurence Binyon which aptly reflect the nostalgic thoughts of most veterans:
“They went with songs to the battle
They were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted
They fell with their faces to the foe
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again
They sit no more at familiar tables of Home
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time
They sleep beyond England’s foam.”
© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
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