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

Captain The Reverend Whitfield Foy

 

Unit : Battalion HQ, 13th Parachute Battalion

 

The following has been taken from the previously unpublished account of the 13th Battalion at war, "13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment: Luard's Own" by Major Ellis "Dixie" Dean MBE MC.

 

Three clear indications were given in our training at that time [May 1944], as to what might happen if we did go in with the invasion forces. In the first place the Brigade seemed to be passionately interested in how to seize and hold bridges. Secondly, there came at a fairly late stage, training in the speedy demolition of the sort of anti air landing posts which were hastily erected in the fields and meadows of England, during the days when invasion of our island seemed imminent, the sort of posts the Germans were known to have erected on the Continent. Thirdly, was the order that all the Battalion were to make a night jump. The conviction had hardened by this time and we had little doubt in our minds, as we had been warned that we might be called upon to do a rehearsal of the movements preceding an airborne operation, going to a sealed camp and being briefed etc. But when towards the end of May we were told to prepare for such an exercise, nobody was fooled, we guessed to a man that it was no exercise, the invasion was imminent and the 6th Airborne Division (including the 13th) would be there.

 

May 25th and we were in the heart of the English countryside, surrounded by masses of barbed wire and armed guards. All the Battalion (less the Machine Gun Platoon, who went with the 12th. Battalion to Keevil), were in the Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, Transit Camp, only a stone's throw from the airfield. In that camp was one Nissen hut which Hitler would have given a great deal to inspect. It was small and innocuous looking and as distasteful as every other Nissen hut in the country. This particular one however was labelled "Briefing Room". When we arrived it was the cynosure of all eyes, the magnet which attracted all attention, for inside that room all the secrets were stored.

 

There are moments in life when emotional tension reaches a very high level, times when anyone with a sense of dramatic sense in him feels to be above others. Such a moment occurred to me when a few days after our arrival at Brize Norton, the officers of the Battalion went in past the armed guard to be briefed. We passed through the Model Room, the large model on the floor conveyed no idea as to where we were going, into the Map Room. There, facing us on the wall was what we had waited so long to see the area in France where the 6th Airborne Division was to make its contribution in the high enterprise to which the Allies were committed in Western Europe. We saw the mouth of the river Orne, the towns of Caen and Troarn and the villages of Ranville, Hérouvillette, Escoville, Breville and Sainte Honnorine, names of which we had never heard, but which were to live with us for ever just as Mons, Ypres and the Somme lived in the minds of an earlier generation.

 

It was June 5th 2100 hours. For months we had been training day and night, toughening our bodies and mastering our weapons, it would have been difficult to find any where in the Army a better disciplined or keener body of men. The Brigade Commander [Nigel Poett] and Colonel Luard spoke briefly. The eyes of the world were upon us, we were making history, let it be well and truly made. I read a psalm and together, under the peaceful evening sky we said prayers. Then into the waiting trucks, a wave of the hand to the camp staff, who were there to say "Good Bye" and we were off to the airfield. The Battalion was in two sections, one flying from Broadwell, the other from Brize Norton. I myself was with the latter section.

 

There were all of us sitting very crushed on the floor of our Albermarle. The aperture by which we were to leave the plane was at the back (in the floor) and was covered during the flight by folding doors. Space was so limited that I was compelled to sit on these doors. The atmosphere rapidly became stifling and then the chapter of accidents started. We had left the coast of England and were out over the Channel when, without warning, the lights went out. Groping about in the dark we had to start fastening kit bags to our legs. To do this we had to use the full length of the plane. Once we had completed securing the kit bags we had to start squeezing backwards, in order to get clear of the doors which would have to be opened soon. We laboured and groaned as we pressed backwards, thrusting elbows and rifles into one another as the pressure increased. After much effort, I managed to get clear of the doors. Leaning over I lifted up the two parts of the door and fastened them back, letting in a welcome gust of fresh air. Looking down through the aperture I saw the waters of the Channel glistening below, an amazing sight, the white paths cut by hundreds of Allied vessels moving steadily toward the French coast, the vanguard of the beach assault troops.

 

The fingers of my watch moved on. Nearly 0100 hours. I stood there gripping the sides of the fuselage awaiting the warning. The other men staggered to their feet behind me. Suddenly (strange, though it is always expected, it always produces a mild shock when it appears), the red light flashed on in the roof of the plane. French soil was below us. Then came a sensation of flashes all around, the Albermarle swayed so that we had to cling on grimly in order to keep our feet (so that's what flak is like, I thought) but there were no hits. A few more seconds, an eternity of seconds, the red light flicked out and the green one on, I took the usual deep breath, stepped forward, my link with England broken. France, looking neither gay nor smiling (as in prewar advertisements) was waiting to welcome me below.

 

My moment of realisation that all was not well came when, below me I saw a railway line. I had begun to doubt while I was drifting through the air where were the buildings which should have been the village of Ranville? Why did it appear to be unbroken wood down there? And where were all the other aircraft which should have been following us in? But it was the railway line gleaming below which brought the conviction, there was NO RAILWAY on the maps and air photographs we had been studying incessantly for days. Whatever had happened to the rest of the Battalion, I at least had been dropped astray. I was just telling myself that I might be only four miles away from the rendezvous, I might, on the other hand be fourteen and I was expressing the wish that the eggs and bacon which the navigator would be served on his return to England, might be well and truly burnt, when an oscillation swept me across the railway. I got ready for the landing and the next moment I was up to my neck in water. It was just after one o'clock and all was not well.

 

Captain Mike Kerr [Second-in-Command, "B" Company] swam ashore, gathered some of his stick together and during the night others of the Division who had been dropped astray. They formed a defensive position until daylight. By morning, now some 200 strong, their location was half a mile west of the Dives. I myself had dropped east of the river in the swamps. My batman was 40 yards away and I contacted him as soon as I was out of my harness. From then, 0110 hours until 0630 hours, we didn't see a single soul, we spent the whole of that miserable night, trying, without success, to find a way out of that wretched swamp. For five hours we were never in less than 2 feet of water, very often in 3 and too often in 5!

 

At daylight we picked up two more of the stick and together made our way westwards, and arrived on the east bank to find the bridge blown and men of the Canadian Battalion guarding the area. After discussion, it was decided that the Canadians should blow one of the trees standing on their bank, so that it would form a temporary bridge. No sooner said than done and within a few minutes the tree was stretched between the two banks. It was partially submerged and we had to wade waist deep in order to get across. There was quite a body of us now and once over, were directed to a spot a mile away, where they said there was a small concentration of personnel dropped astray. It was Mike Kerr and his party and from now on he took control of us all. We brewed some tea and then had to decide on the next move. The slogan "when in doubt, brew up", was very quickly adopted throughout the Battalion.

 

Finally Captain Kerr made the decision to take a round about route to Ranville, hoping that the Battalion was installed in the village. The trouble was that the route chosen involved a walk of several hours, through more swamps, as though we hadn't seen enough water already. By this time I was beginning to wonder if somehow, France and Holland hadn't got mixed up a bit. We set off and immediately plunged into the water again and were in it until just before 2100 hours, but as we finally trudged out onto firm ground we had our reward, for there in the evening sky, away to the north, came streaming in a gigantic glider armada. We whooped with joy, because: 1. On account of the magnificence of the spectacle, and 2. We knew that the gliders would not have been coming in had not the landing zone in Ranville been safe. In other words the Battalion was almost certainly installed there. We pressed forward with relieved minds.

 

The first H.Q. we struck was that of 3 Para Brigade at Le Mesnil. There we were assured that we could move down to Ranville with safety and the Battalion was in possession of the village. At about 0100 hours, 7th June, Mike Kerr with his weary band of wanderers reported to the Colonel. Joyous greetings were exchanged, I stripped off my clothes, now stinking to high heaven and got between a couple of blankets, ignored the slit trenches and slept in a house close to Battalion Headquarters.

 

We were to see a lot of this little village during the two months that followed, for we had four spells in the line at this particular place. It was hard and nerve wracking work for our men, not only because of the constant mortaring of our positions, but also because of the interminable patrolling that had to be done. On the crossroads we held at Le Mesnil there was a large notice, which read "Warning Enemy 100 yards ahead". That was literally true. The Germans were on one side of the field and we were on the other. We had a communication trench running right along the front at one point. It was here that we learnt to respect German snipers, several men were to lose their lives because of their shooting ability.

 

For some reason that never became apparent [on the 25th June], the Germans began to shell and mortar our positions in the most devastating way, many of the bombs falling directly on the front line trenches. The hail of bombs was such as I had never experienced until then and indeed have rarely done since. For several hours from 2300 hours onwards, the torrent of fire continued, as the whole area was literally plastered. In spite of the terrific danger of movement in the open, casualties had to be brought in when trenches received direct hits. The Medics had a gruelling task and responded magnificently.

 

Stretchers were actually blown out of their hands by bomb blast and yet they themselves were unscathed at the end of the night. The men in the front line sat waiting to see if this was the prelude to an attack, as well it might have been. Our own mortars went into action and worked themselves to a standstill. The R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] in the brickworks received several direct hits, because of the thickness of the roof the bombs did not penetrate, but sent down the most appalling showers of dust, which on occasions drove us out into the open, bombs or no bombs. And all the time casualties had to be collected, treated and evacuated. It was a pitch black night, visibility nil, and the road down to the M.D.S. [Main Dressing Station] in Ranville seemed endless. Corporal Ware was hit in the neck by shrapnel and was brought in to the R.A.P. unable to speak. An urgent tracheotomy was needed to save his life. Doc. Tibbs patched him up quickly and I set off for the M.D.S. with him in a jeep. Never shall I forget the journey down the hill to Ranville. We crept through the inky darkness slowly because every jolt was dangerous to the wounded man. I felt personally responsible for every bump in the road and every lurch of the jeep gave me a sick feeling as I thought of the possible effect on the man behind me. The menace of approaching vehicles was terrible. Neither we nor they carried any form of light, on no less than three occasions we stopped with the bonnet no more than a foot or two from the oncoming car. When we finally arrived at our destination, the man was still alive, but two days later, at the General Field Hospital, I was grieved to learn that he had died. He had been so terribly brave. On the next journey to the M.D.S. on that frightful night, I took a man whose legs and thighs had been smashed to smithereens. For two miles I heard his agonised screams behind and all I could do was drive at walking pace. He died five minutes after reaching the M.D.S. Daylight was creeping in by the time the tumult died down. We brewed some tea, lay down in utter weariness of body and soul and called it a day. In a room behind the R.A.P. were the men who had seen their last fighting the men who had not recovered. As I lay down, I wondered if we would be able to afford blankets for their burials next day. Then we slept.

 

[At Putot-en-Auge on the 19th August] "B" Company led by Major Tarrant began the attack up the slope [of Hill-13]. In open formation, they moved steadily up the hill, weapons at the ready. I stood at a little house 200 yards away and watched intently. For some minutes there was no reaction from the hillside, then without warning, (in the shape of visible Germans), concealed machine guns cracked into action. A hail of bullets, fired by unseen assailants stormed into the advancing men. Major Tarrant was wounded in the stomach. After that it was bitter slaughter. Man after man went down, the remainder never faltered, but pushed steadily forward in spite of the vicious torrents of fire. But it was costly and it became apparent that the possibility of getting established at the top of the hill, was very remote. Some did reach the top, some actually fought in the enemy positions. Lieutenant Terry Bibby did that with one section and failed to return. Meanwhile "C" Company which had been sent round to reinforce, was pinned down in a re-entrant and could offer no assistance. Orders were given on the spot that the men were to take whatever cover was available. We were to reform for another go. I have very vivid impressions of what happened after the German machine guns opened up. I remember the R.S.M. doubling round, grabbing hold of any man with a rifle for the purpose of defending Battalion H.Q. in the event of the leading Companies being over run. I had the strange feeling then, what would happen if the enemy did break through not for the first time I thought that it would be nice at least to have a gun and be able to hit back.

 

I can see the stretcher bearers sitting down for a brief moment, absolutely exhausted after carrying repeated loads a distance of several hundred yards in the hot Normandy sun and when men like Emie Barns and John McCutcheon sat down it was because the only alternative was to fall down. They were the most willing and tireless of workers. Came the moment when I heard some one shout " The M.O.'s [Medical Officer] been hit and I knew, with a sickening feeling, this was the worst thing that could have happened. Going forward to a wounded man, Captain Tibbs had been sniped. Laying on the floor of the R.A.P. he went on giving instructions about the treatment of the casualties as they were brought in. But the wound was a nasty one and he gradually became weaker. By this time we were stripped to the waist, having used the top half of our clothing for pillows and covering. The water had run out completely, all water bottles had been emptied and the burning thirst of the wounded was having to be slaked with crude cider from the large vat in the farmhouse. Just then as I began to realise the seriousness of the situation, for the first time and the last, I used the wireless.

 

The scene at the R.A.P. was indescribably bad. The barns we were using were completely filled with the wounded, dying and the dead. Lying outside were the men we simply could not get under cover. There was absolutely no means of evacuation because there was trouble getting wheeled vehicles over the canal, two miles back. My wireless procedure would have sent a Catterick instructor to bed for a month. "Hello Padre here, I want to speak to the Colonel. Hello Sir, Padre here, can you shake Brigade up about transport for the evacuation of the casualties, We have dozens of them here and many of them will die on our hands, unless we can get them back to the Dressing Station. That's all". About four in the afternoon the first Jeep arrived, followed closely by two others and we began to get the wounded away. In one of the barns we laid those who had fought for the last time.

 

[At the end of August, the 13th Battalion came to rest at Gennueville, and on the eve of their return to England they threw a party for the villagers.] The party was a terrific success. For several days the Battalion saved some of its food, chocolate, sweets and cigarette ration and when the great day arrived the whole village joined in. Everyone appeared from babes in arms only a few weeks old, to old men over 80 who hadn't left the house for years, but who insisted in being trundled in bath chairs to celebrate the return of freedom.

 

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