Sergeant G. H. Heaton
Unit : "C" Squadron, No.2 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Sergeant Heaton flew a Hamilcar glider to DZ-N during Operation Mallard, his co-pilot was Staff-Sergeant Charles Channell.
I was with C Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment, flying Hamilcar gliders from Tarrant Rushton, Dorset, and took part in the landing on the evening of D Day, 6th June, at about 9 pm.
As far as I can remember, thirty Hamilcars took off, most of them carrying Tetrarch tanks, with their crews, of the Light Reconnaissance Squadron. Four Hamilcars, however, of which mine was one, carried petrol and ammunition for supplying the tanks. The pilots of these four gliders were issued with parachutes, unlike all the other glider pilots who did not enjoy this privilege, as they usually carried troops; the theory of this was presumably that as the troops did not have parachutes it would have been bad for morale if the pilots were seen to have them! I must say that we did wonder at the time what earthly use the parachutes would have been if we had been hit, in view of the nature of the loads we were carrying.
My memory is of an uneventful trip, and I was greatly impressed by the swarms of Mustang fighters escorting us across the Channel and by the sight of the Royal Navy firing broadsides into the German defences on the cost of Normandy.
Our landing was, however, more tricky; there was a certain amount of small arms fire, including tracers, coming up at us, and the field in which we landed near Ranville had got telegraph poles erected in it to hinder the landings. We came in rather fast with our wings hitting the odd telegraph pole, which proved to be no obstruction, but just as I thought we were going too fast and would end up in an orchard at the end of the field, a Tetrarch which had just driven out of the Hamilcar landing before we did, proceeded at right angles across our landing path. The tank commander [Sergeant Steve Tomkinson], who was standing in his little turret, took one look, mouthed imprecations and leaped from the tank a second or two before we hit it at a speed of 90 to 100 mph. My first pilot, Charles Channell and I jumped from our cockpit, forgetting in the heat of the moment:
(a) That my flying helmet with its intercom was still plugged into its socket, thus wrenching my neck; and
(b) That the Hamilcar cockpit was situated on the top of the glider, some 15 to 20 feet above the ground.
After looking around we found the tank upside down underneath our load, with grenades and cannon shells dropping like ripe plums from their containers into the field, and a strong smell of petrol. It was somewhat discouraging to see one or two gliders nearby burning fiercely as they had been mortared by the Germans. Staff Sergeant Channel and I managed to get the unfortunate tank driver and gunner out of the tank; I am glad to say they were still alive, but not very pleased and somewhat shaken. We then adjourned to the nearby orchard, which otherwise we would have landed in the middle of, and proceeded to dig a hole where we spent a rather disturbed night with a number of other glider pilots who had landed more uneventfully.
The following morning while we were brewing up some disgusting small blocks of porridge and beef cubes, and watching the Germans near Caen, who were sporadically mortaring us, I was somewhat surprised to see the burly and battleworn figures with blackened faces of the Royal Marine Commandos coming up to join us and immediately digging far deeper holes than we had scraped out. One Commando then sat on the edge and cut another notch in his fighting knife; they had fought their way up from the beaches.
After breakfast we proceeded to walk, in our red berets and with our rifles slung over our shoulders, through a cornfield with poppies and other wild flowers growing in it, a few of which I picked as a souvenir. We crossed the famous bridge over the Orne canal and river, seeing where our comrade Horsa gliders had landed in the small hours of 6th June and captured what is now known as Pegasus Bridge. The bodies of dead German soldiers were lying about and on the bridge was a German staff car with the occupants dead in it, and the back seat full of silks, perfume and drink; they had obviously been on the way back from an enjoyable short leave when they were unfortunately caught up in the invasion. We walked back to the beaches, some three or four miles away, meeting as we did so British Troops, either on foot or on bicycles, who looked somewhat askance at us as we appeared to be going the wrong way. We then boarded a landing craft to take us back to England to prepare for the next operation.
By this time we were somewhat tired, as the Benzedrine which had been issued and taken before setting out the previous evening had worn off, but I recall that we were dive bombed by an odd German aircraft which had escaped the clutches of the RAF; we were however too tired to care. The following morning two or three of us were brewing up our little camp stoves for another dose of the emergency rations, when a member of the Royal Navy crew of the landing craft pointed out that our lighted stoves were on the lid of their flare box, so we enjoyed an interrupted meal.
We reached Newhaven and were greeted by the good ladies of the WVS, who gave us free copies of the Daily Mirror, which turned out to be that of the previous day and had on the front page the usual map with ‘Dad’s Army’ arrows showing where the invasion was taking place. I was somewhat upset that we could not have had an up-to-date newspaper given to us.
Anyway, having hit a British tank when landing, going at 90 mph, with several tons of petrol and ammunition aboard, and surviving without a scratch, I have felt ever since that each day I have lived is a bonus. Incidentally we did hear later that the tank had been recovered and was back in action within 24 hours, with the crew safe and well. If they survived that they deserved to survive the further fighting they undoubtedly took part in.
Heaton was later promoted to Staff-Sergeant. My thanks to Sue Wilson for this account.
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