Lieutenant-Colonel Mills-Roberts with Brigadier John Durnford-Slater in Le Plein on the 14th July

Lieutenant-Colonel Mills-Roberts with General Dempsey in Germany

Lieutenant-Colonel Mills-Roberts attending a post-war cocktail party

Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts


Unit : No.6 Commando, 1st Special Service Brigade (6th - 12th June), then Commander 1st Special Service Brigade (12th June -)

Awards : Commander of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Military Cross, Legion D'Honneur, Croix de Guerre.


Derek Mills-Roberts was one of the most experienced officers in the newly formed Commando Group. During the 1930's, he had trained as a solicitor but also joined the Irish Guards Supplementary Reserve of Officers, which required him to give up four weeks in the year to military service. When the War began, Mills-Roberts accompanied the 1st Battalion The Irish Guards in the hastily improvised and, in the end, entirely futile landings in Norway, in April 1940. He landed in the far north of the country at Narvik, but missed out on the serious rear-guard fighting that the Battalion was involved in further to the south as he was admitted to hospital suffering from pneumonia.


Upon his return, Mills-Roberts applied to join the Commandos, and it was here that he met his old friend, Lord Lovat. The two had first met in their days at Oxford University, and their relationship got off to the worst possible beginning with a heated argument and an exchange of blows. From that time on, however they became great friends, and when Lovat was given command of No.4 Commando, he asked that the then Major Mills-Roberts be made his Second-in-Command. It was in these capacities that both men, in August 1942, took part in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid. The Raid, a small-scale test invasion mounted by Canadian infantry against Hitler's Atlantic Wall, was a complete disaster and those involved suffered very heavily. The role of Nos. 3 and 4 Commandos, however, to secure the opposing flanks of the landing area and to destroy coastal batteries, was a great success and was achieved with few losses, mainly due to Lovat's meticulous planning.


In late 1942, Mills-Roberts was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and given command of No.6 Commando, then stationed in North Africa. Here he led them in several actions before returning to Britain to participate in the Normandy Landings. The following is taken from "Clash By Night", Derek Mills-Roberts' excellent account of his wartime exploits with the Commandos:


"6 Commando was ordered to make the initial break through and lead the brigade during this six-mile dash for the bridges. It appeared to be a formidable task. The Germans were in carefully prepared concrete emplacements, and inland from the beach it was unlikely that they would have suffered much damage from the massive air bombardment which was to start the invasion. We would have no artillery to support us and the complicated battle through the German positions to the bridges would have to be fought with small-arms fire and smoke."


"Fortunately, as in the Dieppe Raid, the air photographs were good and many enemy positions were clearly indicated. Our job was to cut the way through as fast as possible and not get involved with flank formations of the enemy which were not directly barring our progress. In this particular type of warfare the leading troops must constantly be changed and alert men must always be in front; thus as soon as one troop of the Commando had been in the lead for a specified time it would drop back to the rear, and the next troop would then become the spearhead."


"When attempting to infiltrate one's way through a strongly defended position, it is absolutely essential to avoid roads and tracks as far as possible and to use the most unlikely routes. The route we had chosen was only passable for foot-soldiers and the idea was that it would by-pass most of the strong enemy positions which were concentrated on the tracks and roads... Generally speaking the Germans were concentrated in pill-boxes, of various sizes, dotted over the area. Concrete emplacements are difficult to destroy, but, if you think of it, they can in turn inflict a defensive type of outlook on their occupants: a feeling of "It's bullet-proof in here, and here we'll stay and not venture out". When the fog of war grows the view from inside becomes restricted and those outside can see more clearly. We intended to make full use of this important fact."


"Week after week on the South Downs near Brighton, and in the close country behind them, the Commando sweated away at its training. Everyone tried to be one hundred per cent accurate with his weapons: we had built a range of our own for this purpose, in a valley where shooting was possible at moving targets. Also pill-boxes and other defences were built resembling, as far as possible, the places over which we would have to fight. Most of the seasoned troops from North Africa found that they were out of practice and had to work as hard as the newcomers. But we knew that in the end sweat would save blood. In any war, apart from the inevitable losses, casualties are caused by the incompetence of those fighting it - we were going to keep such casualties down to a minimum."


"Shortly before the invasion we went into a concentration area in Southampton. As far as one could see every road, patch of land and approach to the sea was cluttered up with tanks and vehicles - all well camouflaged against air observation... As I got into camp I met David Powell, the Adjutant, who was anxiously waiting for me. We went into the air photograph tent and there he showed me that a particular line of trees and scrub, which we were going to use for our approach inland from the beach, had been razed to the ground. The Germans had a habit of cutting down all trees and hedges which might conceivably give useful cover to an invader. Apparently our hedge had come under suspicion. This was not only slightly sinister but an appalling nuisance, as the first part of our plan would have to be done again."


"On the evening of the 5th June we embarked and dropped down the Solent... At 9 p.m. we got our sailing orders and soon after this anchors were weighed and we set sail for France. We had arranged with the Navy that we would bring our duffle coats and oilskins and leave them in the craft on landing. We certainly needed them that night; the weather was bad with a driving wind which worsened as we hit the full force of the Channel... Despite the appalling conditions we could see the silhouettes of other craft around us and it was a very reassuring sight... Many of the men had been abominably sea-sick, despite the fact that they were well used to rough weather, but now they began to pull themselves together and take a keen interest in their surroundings."


"It was full daylight as we approached the shore and prepared to land. Just a little time before we had passed close to a large capital ship anchored several miles out, and had seen her guns blazing away against a shore battery to our left. As we passed close by her we saw one of her gun crews, wearing what looked like white protective clothing, emerge from a turret to wave and give us the thumbs-up signal. The coastline ahead was low and flat and covered in a fog-like haze after the recent tremendous assault bombardment from the air... Away to our right a destroyer was on fire from stem to stern, but I had no time to look at her as I had to keep my eyes glued on where our landmark should be. As I leant on the forward edge of the bridge there was a shattering explosion, and the craft in line with us and to our right went up with a full-blooded roar. A shell had pierced her petrol tanks - several thousand gallons of high octane fuel can cause quite a bang."


"I had got our landmark now but it was still indistinct in the smoke haze. The heavy swell had lessened inshore, but our way was barred by huge iron stakes and on the end of each was a live mine... The shell fire was now more intense and the splashes round us more frequent. Our men were lying flat on the deck behind the cover of their bullet-proof casings. We would strike the beach any second now. On these occasions the officer always goes first. I took up my position on the port bow with Alan Pyman in a similar position on the starboard bow. As the landing-craft touched, the two light gangways were slammed ashore, but almost immediately the sea took the stern of the vessel and my gangway swung adrift. There was no time for delay and I jumped into the sea, followed by Corporal Smith and those on the port side of the ship. We were about waist deep and I turned to Corporal Smith and said, "It seems ages since we've had a dry landing. D'you find the sea cold?" "Not as cold as the west coast of Scotland, sir," he replied, thinking of our numerous immersions during training."


"We doubled up the beach, with the water pouring from our battledress and rucksacks. As I ran I tore the water-proof bandages from the breech of my automatic rifle and checked the mechanism. Looking back, I saw that our gangway had been rigged again but almost immediately both of them were hit by an anti-tank gun sited just beyond the beach. By this time most of the men were ashore, but three of them were wounded on the gangways. The beach was littered with equipment and dead. One poor devil floated in the shallow water supported by his Mae West: he was quite dead but the swell gave him grotesque lifelike movements - he was only one of many."


"It looked as if the Allied air bombardment had done its work well. The beach was not now under small-arms fire but there was plenty of mortaring and shelling... The beach was still getting a pounding but we were assembled, according to plan, on the side of the road beyond the beach. David Powell reported that 6 Commando was now ashore complete and we turned off inland to cut through the German defences as we had so carefully planned. It was curiously quiet as we left the noisy beach and cut inland along our ordinary-looking hedgerow which led towards the enemy defensive positions. We had two hundred yards to go across a flat salt marsh before we hit the first pill-box. Suddenly to our left fell six thermite bombs from a thing called a Nebelwerfer; as the bombs touched the ground and exploded they also burst into flames. The Nebelwerfer fired again - it made a low moaning sound like a cow in labour - and I hoped that the Germans had not noticed our stealthy but rapid advance along the hedgerow. There was no time for careful concealment or caution."


"We came to a hedge junction, and Alan Pyman's troop pulled off to attack a position of three small pill-boxes which could be seen from where we were. The following troop pushed on to the next objective - we had no time to lose. It was our intention to outflank the village of Colville-sur-Orne and then enter a patch of well-grown woodland beyond. I got a signal from Alan Pyman: he had destroyed his enemy position and had given the occupants of the pill-boxes a taste of his portable flame-throwing apparatus. I knew they had been bursting to use it."


"We went through a field and I saw a cow which had been badly wounded by shell fire. I told a corporal to put it out of its misery. So far we had been following very closely to the route we had so carefully selected from the map of the German defences... Now that we were on our route we were committed to it; movement to either flank was sometimes virtually impossible, at other times it would mean jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps the greatest difficulty was that we were trying to beat not only the Germans but also the clock."


"Suddenly the column came to a halt. I pushed my way up a little lane with high hedgerows on either side and came to a gap where the hedge had been broken. On the far side of this gap was a clump of bushes and there I saw Bill Coade, my Second-in-Command. His face was a mass of blood. He had been hit by a grenade. Someone shouted, "Look out! There's a sniper covering that gap." I got across it all right, but Corporal Smith, who followed me, was shot through the forearm. Bill Coade was a shocking mess; knowing that speed was essential he had gallantly tried to rush a pill-box and received a stick grenade right in the face. Somehow this had to be sorted out really quickly. There was no possibility of an alternative approach without running into more trouble. A wireless message came from Shimi Lovat: "Why are you halted?"... About seventy yards away on the right I saw a British D.D. tank, which had come straight up a track from the beach... I cut back to the tank and asked for fire. It lumbered forward and fired two rounds; the first one did no damage, but the second one split the pill-box like a rotten apple. A medical orderly gave Bill Coade an injection. I turned to Corporal Smith. "As you've got one through the arm you'd better go back and get it fixed up. Anyway, I want you to take the Major back - he's in great pain and I'm afraid he's blind." Corporal Smith, without much ado, led him back."


"Ronnie Hardy's troop was now in the lead. He was starting to have a cut at some Germans on the flank, but I abruptly turned him from this red herring on to his immediate front... It was the job of the leading troop to push on ahead and to leave the flanks alone. If they were causing trouble, one of the following fighting troops would be detached to deal with it. If it was only passive interference, we blinded the enemy post with smoke from 2-inch mortars."


"Down to our left, in a clump of trees, was a large German position bristling with trouble and this we intended to by-pass. In front of us was a minefield surrounded by barbed wire, with a notice Achtung Minen. We did not know about the minefield, but in any case it had to be crossed: the only alternative was to get mixed up with the German strong-point to our left. Out came the cutters and bang went two over-tight strands of wire... I breathed a sign of relief when I saw that the minefield was not as lethal as it sounded - this would save a lot of time and trouble; convenient-looking tufts of grass showed where some German working party had deposited the mines without levelling the ground properly."


"Round the corner of a small spinney the map showed another German position in front of a road. It was not very clearly marked. Here the leading troop got down ready to cover the second troop, which then went forward into the lead... A rifle cracked, and then came the high-pitched whine of German light automatic fire as the leading troop was fired on and pinned to the ground. The support troop was ready for this, and soon the enemy themselves were under a hail of small-arms fire. Round their left flank came a third troop into the assault and raced for the German position. This was not a pill-box but a small trench system which was quickly overwhelmed. Had we come across it without taking proper precautions it could have made a nasty mess of our column."


"We pushed on along the narrow track through the thick scrub. I spotted a movement in the bushes to our right. The column halted and flattened itself on the track. We fired into the scrub on our right: after the second burst a small knot of Germans came out and surrendered. They were quickly interrogated, but appeared to know little of value. There was no time to waste now and we pushed on as hard as we could down the track, bustling our German friends along with us. Their movements became more and more reluctant. Eventually one of them - no doubt unwilling to make the "supreme sacrifice" - drew his interpreter's attention to the next bend in the track where an enemy post was situated. Once we knew where it was we were able to deal with it far more quickly and economically than would otherwise have been possible."


"Our plan of cutting through the unlikely places and avoiding, as far as possible, the German main defensive positions seemed to be working out, and we were now up to schedule after our quick work in the last half mile. We had managed to insinuate ourselves through the much-vaunted West Wall by taking the most remote cross-country diversions. No doubt the highways, and other likely approaches, were watched with great vigilance - but the minor tracks were not."


"Soon we came to the outskirts of a small village called St. Aubin d'Arquenay, and close by, in a field to our right, was the noise of field guns firing. The guns were firing on to the beach. One troop peeled off and attacked them in the rear. The battery was manned by Italians, who surrendered without much fuss; to be honest, they were well and truly taken aback and had not much option... We left a wrecking party to spike their guns, whilst they {The Italians} joined our motley column of prisoners. The village itself lay ahead: we swung left and hit the main road between this village and the Orne Bridges. Here was a straight run down towards the Canal - we made all possible speed. If the Germans had any tanks available they could cut our column up badly here. A mile and a half down the road, near the Canal, we came under desultory rifle fire, but continued our fast progress."


"Lovat ran on ahead of the brigade and came down the road to join us - he was anxious to keep his date with the Airborne troops at the Benouville Bridges. We were now well through the German coast defences. There were plenty of snipers in this area. Soon Lovat was hailing Colonel Pine-Coffin of the Parachute Regiment - we were only two and a half minutes behind schedule. In front of the houses near the entrances to the Bridges stood a number of good Norman country folk; they spat vehemently at our German prisoners."


"We doubled over the two bridges, with the rest of 1st Commando Brigade following on... Once across the bridges, our next task was to capture the village of Le Plein. This village lay on top of the all-important ridge. We started off at a brisk pace. I planned to approach the village from a cross-country direction, and we took the road near the bank of the River Orne, later turning right up the hill near a quarry. Just below the village we halted to reorganise, and I sent a reconnaissance patrol forward... Our patrol reported that they had run into trouble and the patrol Commander and several others had been killed."


"We pressed on until we came out of the gate of a long meadow on to a road which ran through Le Plein. There a soldierly figure, dressed in corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket, greeted us courteously: he quickly explained that he was the owner of the solidly built farm which lay in front of us and that it would make an excellent observation post. I said, "You know what that means?" His farm would be likely to be badly damaged by German guns if it was used for this purpose. He answered quite simply, "I am an ex-Warrant Officer of the Cuirassiers of the Guard." He was completely unperturbed. His farm dominated the right-hand half of the village and was a most important feature. The farmer gave us useful information about the enemy. I sent a fighting patrol along the village street to watch our left flank. Enemy troops were also in the area of Breville, another small village half a mile in front of us."


"As Alan Pyman's troop sped down the road to Breville we spotted Germans in the wood to the left of the village. We had with us a Bombardment Officer from the Royal Artillery, who had a signal link with the Navy. Standing by to give us direct support was the destroyer H.M.S. Samaurez, and I asked the Bombardment Officer if he could take on the enemy in the wood with this ship. He made a rapid calculation and the shell dropped close to our left, in line with us. "That's no good," I said. "No," he said, "she's actually steaming at the moment and the target's a difficult one. But I've got two capital ships on call and they're at anchor." An anchored ship had a reasonable chance of hitting a shore target. It is a difficult task for a vessel on the move. The capital ships were armed with 16-inch guns which fired a weighty projectile. He made a careful calculation and after what seemed to be an interminable time, there was a tremendous crash as six gigantic shells landed in the wood. It was a splendid effort which must have shaken the Germans."


"We were... more or less on our own on the ridge and were ordered to evacuate Breville and consolidate in the village of Le Plein. It was hoped 4 Commando would shortly get across the bridges and move up to a position on our left... It was now time to dig in and fortify our position in the farm area. The farm and its immediate surroundings formed a natural fortress, and although we would be isolated from other British troops we would have a secure footing on the ridge whatever happened... The obvious place for us to dig our defensive line was along the extreme border of the orchard facing Breville, but I decided against this and dug along the line of the hedge some seventy yards back within the orchard. The reason for this was that if you dig in an obvious or suspected place you will inevitably be shelled and mortared. These were our main positions and in front of them I ordered standing patrols to be placed which could give us full and accurate information if an enemy advanced upon the orchard."


"Our defensive perimeter had to be complete by darkness. Under the screen of vigilant patrol activity the Commando dug in. We were well used to this and had carried out experiments far in excess of the ordinary standard entrenching tool which was of limited use. Half the men carried miners' picks and the other half carried general-service shovels, which had been specially foreshortened to facilitate digging - they were all experts in this digging business. Whatever happened, the camouflage of the area had to be preserved - movements across the grass which would leave tracks for spying aircraft next morning were to be avoided. Two strips of barbed wire were hastily tacked on either side of the hedge in which our weapon pits were situated, to prevent clumsy oafs treading on the grass and making tracks."


"Tonight, in our own area, I expected trouble mainly from our front and right flank, but one could never be sure. The German would do all in their power to locate our positions with accuracy, so that they could shell and mortar us. The night was one of ceaseless vigil. The only movement was that of routine patrols - our own and those of the Germans. German snipers crawled up in the darkness to the forward edge of the orchard and started shooting: their idea was, of course, to draw our fire and, having succeeded in doing this, to locate our positions by this means. We were determined to prevent them discovering our positions and we held our fire. The snipers had no idea where we were. At about 3 a.m. I reached over the edge of our pit and talked softly to the Adjutant, David Powell. He was obviously finding the inaction irksome and said, "Sir, I'm perfectly certain I could get that bastard in front. I know exactly where the last shot came from." "No. Don't fire on any account," I whispered. "I'm quite sure I could get him with the Bren," David went on. "No," I said. "Don't fire. He'd only get away with it in the darkness and you'd merely disclose the line of our main positions." These snipers became an irritation, and later - just before first light - I myself thought I had spotted someone about sixty yards away. I whispered to David that I would risk a shot. "Please, don't sir. You know what you said to me during the night," he whispered back. "I'm sure no one could get him in this light.""


"One of the medium batteries was by this time ashore, and their Forward Observation Officer got it on call and we decided to give Breville Wood a pasting. When all was ready the signal was given, and a good concentration of fire hit Breville Wood. Shortly afterwards, a figure was seen running up the road towards our lines: he was a sergeant in the Parachute Regiment and he explained that he had been dropped the night before and had landed in Breville Wood almost on top of the Germans... The last artillery concentration, he said, had shaken up the Germans a lot and he thought that if we acted quickly we might take advantage of this. I got John Thompson's and Ryan Price's troops and two mortars, and arrange a quick-fire plan. The medium battery was to give the wood a good beating up, our 3-inch mortars were to trim the forward edge of the wood and the assault was to come in from the right and capture the battery... It was a great success. The two troops went through the wood... like men possessed and captured the four field guns, two 20-mm. guns and five machine-guns in record time. The total casualties on our side was one man killed. Apart from the guns we had taken over fifteen prisoners, and we hauled the guns back into our own position by means of two jeeps."


"As long as we remained on the ridge any enemy attempts to occupy it could be dealt with. We had not got a continuous defensive line in the ordinary accepted sense, nor were our defensive localities so closely supporting one another that we could prevent enemy infiltration by night. Nevertheless, any German infiltration by day could be sealed off and dealt with before it became too formidable. By night it had to be accepted. Before long we expected a determined German attempt to capture the village of Le Plein... If the enemy were going to attack us from the direction we suspected, they would come up from Breville on the axis of the road and attack the farm area from the front edge of the orchard. If this happened, we were not worried; our preparations were complete. In this close country we could not extend our defences on every flank till we had a perfect field of fire. We had to accept that we had not sufficient men to hold the closely wooded area on the right flank. This was a perfect approach for the enemy. We watched this flank carefully and had prepared against an attack from this quarter, but we hoped that the Germans would go for us frontally."


"On the morning of "D" plus four, 10th June, we expected a large-scale enemy attack... There was complete silence while we waited for the expected attack. None of the artillery concentrations were to be fired until the Germans had committed themselves on their line of advance. Eventually our standing patrols at the forward edge of the orchard signalled that the Germans were approaching, and the standing patrols fell back into the main defensive position, according to plan. The forward edge of the orchard resounded with the crash of enemy mortar and shell fire - they probably thought this was the edge of our main defensive position and they gave it a good fifteen minutes' pasting. A wait of this kind is a trying business and imposes a great strain on everyone. Only well-disciplined troops can hold their fire properly and make no noise - much of the strength of our position depended on this... I had a quick walk round and chatted to the men... One weapon pit contained three men - a veteran of Africa flanked by a couple of new boys. They had had a few days of mortaring and shelling with no positive action, which is not a good way to start one's active service. The man in the middle was one of those people who are never surprised. He came from Lancashire. "I'm telling these lads, sir," he said, as we chatted, "that this is proper cushy after Africa." Whether it was or not was irrelevant. The man in question, faced by the Golden Gates of Heaven, would not have been at a loss to make some disparaging comparisons. It was, of course, good for morale - the younger men would not give him the satisfaction of getting any change out of them."


"After the shelling, on came the German infantry. When they reached the edge of the orchard they hesitated and came through looking rather puzzled - surely this place should have been manned by us. Where were we? They entered our defensive rectangle, two sides of which bristled with rifles and light machine-guns. Not a shot was fired. They were well through the hedge and some sixty yards through the orchard towards us before the Bren guns opened up. There was chaos in the orchard. The killed and wounded lay still, those who were unwounded came on, but gradually the advance of the first wave of Germans lost its impetus. Simultaneously our artillery was pasting the German forming-up position in Breville, and the battleships were hammering the road beyond, where further enemy reserves were probably being moved up. One most important feature of our defensive position was that the Germans could not see what was happening in the orchard till they came up a slight rise to the first hedge. Almost immediately a second wave of enemy came through the hedge into the orchard without realising properly what had befallen their comrades. We opened up again and once more our rifles and Brens caused terrible casualties. Now, however, the Germans knew where our positions were and we came under the most intense mortar and shell fire. Some shells exploded in the trees and splinters rained down."


"The German reinforcements had now got down along the line of the far hedge and were shooting us up with light automatics... It was pretty obvious that they were only waiting until their mortars and artillery had knocked us about sufficiently before they made their assault from there... It was not long before a party of Germans worked round to the right and started sniping us from there... Sergeant Wakefield was two weapon pits away on our right. He shouted for a "K" gun rather like a golfer shouts for a particular club - this quickly reached him. Lying down close behind his weapon he braved the temporary insult of accurate sniping and soon got to work on the best bedroom of a large house away to the right where the enemy appeared to be."


"Apart from the enemy to the right the attack in front of us had not died down. The Germans no doubt considered that after the pounding they had given our defences it was now time to make the assault. Suddenly, after one long burst of automatics, a wave of Germans got up and came forward. Moving targets of this kind require technique and concentration, and once, as I was about to fire, Paul Loraine, my Intelligence Officer, fired before me and brought down the man I had been aiming at. In the midst of all this racket and turmoil he turned to me, with a worried and apologetic look on his face, and said, "I'm extremely sorry, sir." "Don't worry," I said, "we're not on some gentleman's shoot. This is war. Apologies are unnecessary." The German fire slackened - those who could pulled back to the line of the hedge. It was now a deadlock - they had made no ground and we in turn had sacrificed none."


"We could deal with what lay in front of us but the trouble that was starting on the right had to be stopped at once. We laid on a counter-attack. Our reserve troop pushed across the road and shot up and cleared the house from which the Germans withdrew. The Germans had made a grave mistake in not putting their main effort into their flank attack - they had done what we hoped they would do and put their main effort into attacking the orchard. The battle had started at 8.15 a.m. and it was now nearly 11.30 a.m. Now once more we were mercilessly shelled and mortared and suffered casualties. More gaps appeared in our defensive line along the hedge in the orchard but still our fire never slackened. After a time the attack on 6 Commando died down and soon we heard by wireless that the enemy were concentrating on 4 Commando. The shelling and mortaring had done less damage to our defences than might have been expected, as we were all well dug in, but some of our weapon pits had received direct hits from German artillery fire, killing the occupants."


"There was a conference at Brigade Headquarters in half an hour which I had to go to and I took Paul Loraine and Corporal Smith with me: there we got further details of the battle for the ridge which had raged all day... Shortly before we left for our own headquarters Lovat said "You'd better look out, a German self-propelled gun is working its way up between 6 Commando and the area here." We took a short cut back through the gardens on the right of the village street. There was one open place to cross before reaching the farm and this was covered by spasmodic fire from the self-propelled gun. I said to Paul Loraine, "Wait till he fires and then we'll nip across before he has time to load again." We had a run of about forty-five yards across a road and a village green. We were almost across when I felt as if my feet had been kicked from under me and fell with a bang on the road. I shouted to Paul and Corporal Smith to keep clear and, picking myself up, completed the remaining yard or so to the farmyard gate."


"I went to the dressing station. I had a shell fragment in my left leg and a smaller one had cut my nose and cheek and wedged itself in the bone of my right eye-socket. The only likely trouble with normal flesh wounds is infection and when I had been give the routine tetanus injection there was no more to be done. David Powell walked in. "We've got the gun, sir," he said. I went and had a look at it - the usual version on caterpillar tracks. The crew were dead. It takes courage to drive a self-propelled gun into an enemy area without infantry protection. We buried them in the field where we had buried our own dead. The cemetery stretched over halfway down the hill now. I started reading the names again as I walked up the hill - it was very depressing."


"On Monday morning the Divisional Commander decided that he was going to mop up the area of the Breville Wood. Early that day Colonel Black, the A.D.M.S. {Assistant Director Medical Services}, told me that my leg was starting to develop gas gangrene and that I would have to have an intra-muscular injection and remain still for some hours after it had been done, or else go back to hospital for treatment... Corporal Smith suddenly appeared and told me that Lord Lovat and Brigadier Kindersley had both been badly wounded. "The Brigadier wants to see you immediately, sir," he said. I got out of the cider press feeling rather sick and drowsy and went up and into the stable where Lovat was lying. He was in a frightful mess... He was very calm. "Take over the Brigade," he said. "And whatever happens... not a foot back." He repeated this several times."


"I was now no longer commanding 6 Commando, and as acting Brigadier had to get on with the wider battle which was reaching round the whole area. I handed over 6 Commando to Tony Lewis... I took the Brigadier's jeep back to Brigade Headquarters: the road was under heavy shell fire. As we went in the back way a clump of mortar bombs landed in the garden of Brigade Headquarters: Corporal Smith and I flung ourselves into the nearest pits. I landed on top of an Airborne driver and Smith on top of one of the signallers just as several more bombs landed, and we were covered in dirt and debris."


"That afternoon I went into the whole situation with Harry Blissett, who was now my Brigade Major, and Tony Smith, the Brigade Intelligence Officer... The Germans had temporarily lost the initiative and the position was a deadlock. It was now necessary to take the offensive ourselves and pin the Germans back in their own positions. This had to be done relentlessly, systematically, but also economically. We had no men to spare. In any case I detest badly tied-up expeditions where fighting patrols suffer casualties unnecessarily - it is the worst type of shoddy soldiering. We had a fair amount of information about the enemy and mounted several raids. 3 Commando and 6 Commando both brought off successful operations at night in which three prisoners were taken... We organised many raids like this. During the day we kept the enemy fully employed by sniping. Our sniping programme covered the whole of the brigade front. There were many experts at this game. The procedure was for snipers to work their way up in front of the enemy positions, with another man acting as spotter. The chief attributes of this business were marksmanship and patience. Two of the best and most successful shots were Guardsman McGonigle of 3 Commando and Marine Cakebread of 45 R.M. Commando, who accounted for over thirty Germans by sniping in the Le Plein area."


"For the past week I had been commanding the brigade as a lieutenant-colonel and I wondered what the permanent position was going to be. I had not heard of the arrival of any replacement for Lovat, and there was even a chance that I would be given the job myself. From a purely personal point of view I was not keen. I had brought 6 Commando to a fair state of efficiency and I preferred to go back and command them rather than to take over the brigade permanently. Lovat was a great loss. Apart from his personal power of leadership and courage he also possessed great moral courage. He could stand up to generals when necessary, and in any commander of an independent brigade this is essential. A brigadier who gets pushed around would be of little use and the units he commanded would get pushed around too."


"The Corps Commander who visited us asked me about the dispositions and strength of the enemy in front of us at that moment. We had got the necessary information and the correct deductions had been drawn from this, which I then explained. "That doesn't tie up with the German's order of battle we have at Corps Headquarters," he said - with some irritation. The information on which the corps intelligence on our front was based had, of course, come from our patrols and the only difference could be one of deduction. Presumably some nitwit at Corps Headquarters had not taken the trouble to read our exhaustive patrol reports properly. Here was a chance to show my merit as a diplomat - I did not take it but argued as forcibly as I was able. I could see that Harry Blissett thought I had been tactless - how bold we can all be when we have nothing to lose by it. Not long afterwards General Dempsey came in and also asked about the German dispositions. I gave him the answer, also in great detail. "I think you must, indeed, be right," he said, and left after a few enquiries about the brigade. Three days later I was promoted to the rank of Brigadier with effect from 13th June, the day I had taken over when Lovat had been wounded."


"Attached to Brigade Headquarters as a Liaison Officer was Major The Vicomte Arthur de Jonghe of the Guides Cavalry of Belgium... One day he came into my headquarters and announced that we were faced with a great problem. A man had come into the area with a number of women and had suggested to Arthur that he should run a brothel for the 1st Commando Brigade. As Arthur laughingly pointed out to me, "He tells me many men may be dealt with most quickly by these ladies provided the Military Police are there to see there is no messing about." Even despite this valuable reassurance I told Arthur that I was afraid public opinion on England was against such things. "Of course," he said, "nor do I approve. And I think I will go and chase these women out of the area." Later that day he told me of two embarrassing incidents which had occurred. He had gone down to a place near the Benouville bridges and the General, seeing his car, asked, "Where is Major de Jonghe?" Arthur's driver unwittingly replied, "He's upstairs, sir, with the three prostitutes." Then when Arthur had ejected them and was taking them in his car away from the Airborne and Commando area altogether he had the misfortune to come face to face with the General. This time the ladies were not behaving in a very decorous way. "I am much worried," said Arthur. "I expect the General may think that I do have them for my own use..." Later that night when I saw General Gale I told him the whole story which amused him greatly, and he agreed to pull Arthur's leg when he next saw him. Some time later Arthur came to me, obviously irritated and upset. He told me what the General had said and ended on a plaintive note, "Now I know the General does think that I do have them for my own use. It is too bad!""


In mid-August... "I suddenly received orders to go to Divisional Headquarters and General Gale ordered a continued advance to the eastward - the natural strong defensive line of hills was the next place where the Germans were making a stand. The 1st Commando Brigade was ordered to attack and seize a section of this high ground during the night. The approach to the foot of the hills lay across 2,500 yards of open marshy country. Movement by day - except by small patrols - was out of the question... As I drove back in the jeep I was trying to think of some method to adopt here other than an attack with artillery support. I knew that it was not possible to move a large force successfully across country at night unless there was some road or track available. Looking up at the hills in front of us, a parallel that came to my mind was General Woolf's storming of the Heights of Abraham, which had been an operation by stealth - the same sort of thing was required here."


"I got hold of Peter Young {OC No.3 Commando}, who was the most experienced of the commanding officers, and outlined my plan. In the rush I had managed to get three miles of thick white tape four inches wide, and my plan was that 3 Commando should advance, with a strong fighting formation at its head, laying a temporary marked route of tape as it went... The rest of the brigade could follow in their footsteps... The great advantage of deciding on your own route instead of using one that is already in existence is that you have a chance of advancing across ground where the enemy is not likely to be. At night it is the usual practice in war for defenders to close in from the more open positions, occupied by day, and concentrate chiefly on roads and tracks - these can be avoided as far as possible in a cross-country advance of the type we envisaged."


"Small patrols can move at night with ease, but large bodies of men can normally only move across country if there is a road or track to guide them. Our line of white tape lying on the ground would show the way the route lay. The various Commandos could move along this cross-country route fast, but taking proper precautions to look after their flanks. The tape-laying party carried their rolls of tape on sticks: they had their own protection and would be preceded by three strong fighting patrols forming at arrowhead. The patrols would cut a gap in the enemy forward positions, after which the tape-laying party would move through: eventually followed by the whole force. All this took time to organise and from 7 p.m. to 11.30 p.m. it was one concentrated rush getting everything fixed."


"I remember coming out of a platelayer's hut near the railway line and being temporarily blinded after leaving the light inside. I moved a pace or two to the right and let myself go. Suddenly there was a strangled moan as one of the signallers roused himself from his sleep. "Some bugger's pee'd on my face!" he groaned. I walked self-consciously away before the unfortunate fellow was fully awake or knew the name of his benefactor. In the distance I heard the Regimental Sergeant-Major of 3 Commando, who was a Coldstream Guardsman and extremely regimental, saying to him, "Now then, lad, don't say some bugger's pee'd on your face. It was the Brigade Commander who's mistakenly relieved himself on your face. You want to wake up and not be so dozy.""


"At last all was ready. 3 Commando started off along the railway track; they moved at a good speed... As we went along the railway the road to our right - only seventy yards away - was taking a desperate beating from German gunfire: the enemy knew something was afoot, but they had not the imagination to realise that the railway line might be used as a line of advance as well as a road... 3 Commando's patrols were now probing their way forward across the road running at the bottom of the hill. This we suspected was the line of the German forward defence positions. Two fighting patrols moved silently to left and right. On the left was a pill-box - time was of the greatest importance, but the patrol could afford to make no mistake: at last the two sentries were silenced in a noiseless scuffle and the rest of the Germans captured as they slept. Away to the right another German post was surrounded and carefully watched. From where they were the Germans could not see in the dark the line of advance the brigade would take which was close to the captured post - one move and they would be rubbed out, but we wanted no more noise than was necessary."


"Silently the long column rose from the mist-covered ground, where it had been lying during this time, and pushed on once more. The leading elements of the brigade were now through the forward German picquet line. The next enemy defences would probably be somewhere on the hill itself. There was no time to lose - there were signs of daylight already. The Germans would accept the fact that small fighting patrols could infiltrate through their positions by night - it would be impossible for them to prevent this unless they had a continuous line of defences. They would never expect, however, that a force of brigade strength could infiltrate their positions by advancing quickly across country by night."


"We were winding up the side of a hill: on our right lay a broad valley and here 4 Commando branched off: their objective was a similar hill to the right of the main brigade objective. 3 Commando pressed on. The whole of the brigade was moving across the shoulder of the highest hill which lay behind the first line of German defences. Once we were on the hill we would try to get the three Commandos into a strong defensive blob... The plan was that we should capture the hill as quickly as possible and then stay there. It was up to the Germans to drive us off it if they could."


"It was just daylight and the forward troop of 3 Commando had now reached a house. A German soldier carrying a tray walked from an outhouse across the yard and into the front door: looking round he suddenly spotted us and panicked - he was shot as he tried to make a bolt for it. 6 Commando then moved through 3 Commando and surged up the road towards the top of the hill... At the top of the hill was another small hamlet and patrols of 6 Commando quickly searched the houses and then pushed on over the crest of the hill. Here they ran into trouble at once, the enemy were alert and fought back strongly, but No.6 had sufficient impetus to clear the hamlet of Germans and then started to dig in on either side of the road on top of the hill... Over to 6 Commando's left 45 R.M. Commando were attacking a house from which a German light machine-gun was firing. One German shouted that they were preparing to surrender, but when the Marines of No.45 moved in to take prisoners the gun opened up again, killing two men and wounding several more. Then 45 went in and cleared the place up thoroughly. I got a wireless message that 4 Commando had got on top of their hill across the valley all right after a sharp encounter."


"At times like this there is a natural feeling of optimism and a tendency to ease up. This had to be nipped in the bud. It was important to try and see a thing of this kind through German eyes - they had plenty of mortars and guns and also reserves. This hill was to them a most important feature: once the British forces were firmly on it they could move through to the close country beyond where the Germans would have great difficulty in holding up the main advance. The enemy had suffered casualties on top of the hill, their positions had been wiped out and prisoners taken - few had escaped with a true account of what was happening. The German forward positions at the bottom of the hill would have admitted our infiltration during the night but they would refuse to believe that 1,600 men had passed through. The incident would have been stated to be patrol activity only... I imagined that an irate German general might be asking his subordinates in strong terms what had happened to the positions on the hill. He would order that the insolent patrol which had done the damage should not be allowed to escape... The longer the patrol waited away from its own lines the more precarious would its position be - there was no real hurry. So much for theory. In actual fact, though the Germans did not apparently know it, the boot was on the other foot. We had a strong defensive ring on two hills... and the longer the Germans delayed in collecting together a really powerful counter-attacking force the better pleased we were."


"I went down the road to where our Headquarters were on the side of the hill and received two messages there. One was from 6 Commando to say that one of their troops was being attacked by an enemy fighting patrol: this was very interesting, they knew that the Germans had to be lured on and if possible the patrol destroyed intact. It would probably be about twenty strong and if No.6's troop held their fire they might do it - if they could do so it would keep the Germans without information for just that much longer... Then the news eventually came through: No.6 had got them all right, killed, wounded and prisoners, but two Germans had got clear. I doubted if their information would be of much value when they got back to their own formation."


"I got a message from No.6: "Digging in as fast as we can. Being heavily shelled. Casualties." I left at once with Corporal Smith. The day was just beginning to get hot as we toiled up the hill. We passed through 3 Commando's locality - they had cleared their area and were now digging in. As the road topped the rise Bill Coade came forward. "I'm glad I got them digging at once," he said. "Look out! Here's another lot coming." In front of us four shells landed on either side of the road - but did no damage. A second salvo straddled two half-dug weapon pits and several men were wounded. The German guns and mortars opened up once more, again causing casualties. As we stood on top of the hill we could see a self-propelled gun on another hill farther away to our left: it was shooting at 6 Commando over open sights. It was then that the counter-battery fire from our own British artillery came down. Our Gunner Forward Observation Officer gave the self-propelled gun a pasting and it backed out of sight."


"Soon there was another message: a further counter-attack against No.6. Two hundred and fifty Germans attacked from their forming-up point in a wood... Only one troop of 6 Commando at first engaged them - though the troop on the right held its fire to open up later. The Germans checked a hundred yards from No.6, and a fierce fire fight ensued... At last the Germans withdrew leaving their dead behind them. This last effort must have made it plain that the British force on the hill was in some strength. The German guns and mortars opened up and gave the hilltop all they had got: the British guns retaliated, which gave our men great heart. All the same there was a steady stream of stretchers down the road from 6 Commando towards the dressing station - the shelling and mortaring was taking its toll. Down on the side of the hill in a house close to Brigade Headquarters a dressing station had been opened; it was now nearly full. I had looked at the door when we originally forced it open. There was a notice saying: "The owner of this house is fighting for Germany in the French Legion. This house is not to be damaged or entered by anyone. By order."... Here the Parachute Field Ambulance was doing wonderful work for our wounded. Our own R.A.M.C. were getting casualties away from the battle to the dressing station, but, of course, as we were cut off they could not be evacuated back."


"We now had over a hundred prisoners. They were sitting disarmed in a wide ditch near Brigade Headquarters and we had very few men to spare to look after them. I noticed that one German was wearing the ribbon of the Iron Cross and the Eastern Medal for service in Russia - he was a sergeant. I gave him a packet of cigarettes and put him in charge of the prisoners, as far as general discipline was concerned: he watched them like a tyrant and quelled any signs of disorder. The German's mentality is such that he does not always seem to hanker after a break for freedom - he has been beaten in a game of chess and accepts the fact. I asked the sergeant about his Iron Cross, and he told me that he had won it in Russia in the fighting at Stalingrad. He said that he had seen little service in Normandy but that the fighting on the hill was very like the fighting in Russia; he added that our shooting was better than that of the Russians. His whole attitude was that of any well-trained professional discussing his work and that of others."


"I asked the R.A.M.C. Parachute Officer how many men there were in the dressing station who needed immediate surgical attention to live. He told me that there were four... I got one of our best jeep drivers and the four stretchers were loaded aboard the jeep, with a medical orderly to go with them. I thought that if we put a powerful smoke concentration down beyond the road in the valley the jeep had a four-to-one chance of making it. The four men were goners anyway if it did not come off. Just as this was being laid on a message came from Divisional Headquarters that we were not to risk passing vehicles over the valley. Peter Young came up. "Are you going to obey the order?" he asked. "The four stretcher cases are in the jeep," I said, "and they're going across." The concentration of smoke came down, mixed with a little high explosive to keep the Germans quiet. The driver was told to go steady at the first bend, and then like hell across the valley... The enemy shells came too late: the jeep was safely across. The morale in the dressing station was high - and it is of interest to know that the four men in question did in fact survive their operations and recovered."


"Another message came from 6 Commando: the enemy was forming up for another counter-attack... There had already been three attempts to drive us off the hill, apart from the continuous mortaring and shelling: two against 6 Commando and one against No.45, but none of them had been in sufficient numbers. The Germans had possibly even now failed to realise the strength of our position. The more powerful attack we had expected was now materialising. It was getting late and if this counter-attack could be successfully held the Germans would have no time to launch another before night fell. On they came once again towards No.6. This was a big attack by a much larger force. They came up the side of the hill wearing greatcoats under their equipment - imagining no doubt that their stay would be a permanent one."


"Down came the German shells on 6 Commando again and again. Wounded men sagged in their weapon puts. Then suddenly the enemy came forward: they reached the edge of the wood and our own artillery gave them a pasting and checked their progress. There was complete silence now; suddenly No.6 opened up with rifles and Brens and the top of the hill rang with the noise of musketry fire. Up from their pits jumped John Clapton and his troop and tore across the intervening space. It was a gallant bit of work but they nearly got caught by our own artillery. Paying no heed to the bursting shells, Clapton seized the leading German company commander and took him prisoner with several of his men - the troop then dashed back. The battle was now a steady slogging match between 6 Commando and the Germans and the German artillery and our own. It was a stalemate which suited us all right - we were playing for time - and once it became dark the German guns would not worry us so much and we could open the route further back. The German attack had lost its impetus: as night came on the firing died down."


"Once darkness fell we were the undisputed owners of the hill and I felt that the climax of the battle for the Angoville Heights had passed. It had finally gone our way but it might so easily have been a lot stickier if the Germans had made a quicker appreciation of the facts and laid on a really big counter-attack early on. During the night the Airlanding Brigade came through and we were united with the 6th Airborne Division. Once more our supplies of ammunition and our batteries were replenished."


The 1st Special Service Brigade continued to play its part in the 6th Airborne Division's advance to the Seine, and in the first days of September they too were withdrawn to England after almost three months in the field. Renamed the 1st Commando Brigade, Brigadier Mills-Roberts returned to Europe with his men in December 1944. After several actions in Holland, the Brigade played a leading role in the Rhine Crossing in March 1945, and thereafter they came under the command of VIII Corps and participated fully in the advance into Germany.


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