Lieutenant Michael Aston
Unit : Defence Platoon, 6th Airlanding Brigade.
Lieutenant Michael Aston commanded No.15 Platoon of the 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. His son, Mark Aston, has written the following based on his father's stories and the letters that he wrote to his mother Rita.
Michael joined the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry when he left Repton in May 1942. He did his initial military training at Cowley Barracks in Oxford, where he found the food "plentiful and good" and army blankets "very, very prickly." Having been in the Combined Cadet Force at Repton, and being a keen athlete, Michael found the training pretty easy. He managed to find time to play cricket, join the gramophone club and see several Gilbert and Sullivan performances in the city on his evenings off.
He was selected after six weeks for officer training. One of those at the same Officer Cadet Training Unit was Roger Wetherby, with whom Michael had gone on exeat at Horris Hill Prep School ten years earlier. Having acted together in the school play seven years earlier, they had joined the battalion on the same day. At the end of the course, aged just nineteen, Michael joined the fourth battalion to take command of a platoon of twenty-five soldiers. They were stationed at Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, where for the first time he was given a batman to clean his kit. Officers had to supply their own bed-linen, so his first letter home asked Rita to send him some. They slept in Nissen huts, and there was a "nice, clean bucket lavatory for OFFICERS ONLY." He felt "very proud of being classed as an officer, however junior."
On 16 May 1943, the second battalion of the Oxford & Bucks began training to be taken into battle in Horsa gliders as part of the newly formed 6th Airborne Division under Major-General Richard Gale. The Germans had successfully taken Crete in an airborne landing in 1941, and the British were determined to build an equally effective airborne force to help with the invasion of Europe. The Airspeed Horsa was built of wood covered in fabric, and had windows all down both sides. It could be smashed to smithereens if it hit a tree on landing, which happened quite often because many of the glider pilots had failed their flying training with the Royal Air Force, so casualties from accidents were not uncommon.
The second battalion called for volunteers to join them in this hazardous enterprise. Michael took up the offer, and he was transferred from Woodhall Spa to Bulford, where the second battalion had taken over a Royal Artillery mess for the duration. When he arrived, they were expecting to be sent to Tunisia to take part in the allied landings there, but this did not materialise. Michael described his new colleagues as "a very smart and pleasant crowd of fellows," and was pleased with his choice.
Apparently undeterred by the risks of going into battle in a flimsy wooden aircraft, Michael also did a parachute jump. He wore his red beret, his winged Pegasus and the glider badge on his right sleeve with pride.
The light infantry's trademark was the speed at which they marched, and for years afterwards none of us could keep up with Michael when he walked around town. His battalion commander was determined to have the fittest troops in the army and he marched them the length and breadth of the country on exercises during 1943 and 1944. These exercises were known as “schemes,” and this is how Michael refers to them in his letters. They did live firing in Studland Bay, after which he wrote home about how quickly one gets used to being shot at. On one occasion they marched in full kit all the way to Ilfracombe and back from their base on Salisbury Plain. A story is told of one of the men emerging on his knees from his tent the day after this march just as his commanding officer walked past. "On your feet, soldier," said the Major. "Can’t, sir," replied the soldier, "I walked them off yesterday." As a result of all this fresh air and exercise, Michael was soon very fit.
His main recreation at this time seems to have been reading. Beeches' bookshop in Salisbury was a short journey from Bulford camp where the battalion was based for much of the time, and he spent a good deal of his army pay there. He consumed both the great English novels and poetry at a great rate. In his father’s absence, he also did whatever he could to look after his mother and his younger brother. His letters home show him offering her his army issue soap ration: "Palmolive, the schoolgirl complexion stuff – I hear it is rather hard to get now and I don’t want it specially – write and tell me and I’ll send it." What he wanted in return was cigarettes and pipe tobacco.
In May 1944, he tried for the second time to grow a toothbrush moustache, just as his father, both his grandfathers and uncle Herbert had done before him. "A bit bigger this time, but you will probably never see it, as public opinion is already strongly against it," he wrote to Rita. "As a matter of fact I don’t like it, but it gives me some amusement, especially as Johnny doesn’t like it." But he would retain that moustache until he died.
Bulford life involved more than just endless training. At the end of that month, B Company hosted a dance to which several Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officers were invited. Michael described it as "a very gay binge. Usually these types of party become a bit rowdy, and this was no exception. But the five WAAF’s stuck it out nobly, and enjoyed it so much that some of them are coming to the mess dance, under the impression that it is the same sort of thing. So we ought to get quite a good time tonight."
Both the "schemes" and the "binges" ended a week later. On D-Day, 6th June 1944, six platoons from Michael's battalion became the first allied soldiers to land in France. Under the command of Major John Howard they landed by glider in the middle of the night and captured the bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal that ran next to it. The Gondree family who ran the café by the bridges were the first French citizens to be liberated, and the canal bridge became known from then on as Pegasus Bridge. The bridges were to play a key role in establishing the south-eastern boundary of the allied invasion and in preventing the arrival of German reinforcements.
Michael and his platoon took off from Keevil airfield in Dorset along with the rest of the battalion later the same day. He was one of the 7,500 men of the 6th Airborne Division, some of which had to be delivered by sea on 7 June because of a shortage of transport aircraft. The glider-borne troops were well-rehearsed, having done a practice drop shortly beforehand alongside the River Avon. Michael even had an aerial photograph of the position 15 Platoon was supposed to occupy.
Operation Mallard involved towing 250 gliders across the channel. At 9 p.m., the distant rumbling of the slow, low-flying transport aircraft could be heard approaching the landing zones in Normandy. It was still daylight at this time, which made navigation straightforward, so most of the aircraft remained in formation. As they neared the landing zones they were greeted by sporadic but accurate flak and machine-gun fire. Although several aircraft were brought down, most of the damage proved to be superficial. Due to various problems, mostly tow-rope malfunctions, several gliders did not reach their correct landing zones, but Michael's and the great majority of the others did.
The Oxford & Bucks came down on landing zone W, one and a half miles to the north of Bénouville, on the western side of the Caen Canal. The battalion's instructions were to reinforce the bridgehead and to secure the villages of Escoville and Hérouvillette to the east of the River Orne. When they arrived at Escoville, they faced Major Hans von Luck's panzer grenadier regiment and its 88mm antitank guns. The airborne troops had little artillery of their own, but allied fighter-bombers and naval guns on battleships and cruisers in the channel were plastering the German positions without pause.
Michael was wounded in the grounds of the Chateau by a German sniper on 7th June, taking a bullet through his right wrist which chipped the bone, and he was evacuated back to Odstock hospital near Salisbury. Battalion war diary lists casualties after the entry for 10th June. He convalesced in Lichfield and was back with his platoon just over a month later. When Michael returned to the battalion on 30th July 1944, they were still in Normandy, and he discovered to his horror that his fellow subaltern and best friend Johnny Pankhurst had been killed on a patrol on 14 June. It was Johnny who had disliked the new moustache. Michael was very shaken by the way his brother officers were already inured to the death around them after only a few weeks of combat.
In 1973, we had a family holiday in Normandy, and my father and I went exploring. We located Johnny Pankhurst's grave in a military cemetery nearby, and drank a toast to him at the Café Gondree, which still welcomes all British airborne soldiers. Madame Gondree gave us a signed postcard of the bridge and brought out a bottle with the words "pour les liberateurs!" She refused to accept any payment, and sat down at the table to drink it with us as we tried in our schoolboy French to explain my father's part in the invasion. This was my first encounter with Calvados, which the soldiers themselves discovered to their cost in 1944. Michael’s letters home describe it as "an apple liqueur of appalling strength."
The 6th Airlanding Brigade had taken the village of Breville two miles east of the bridges on 11th June 1944, and was unable to advance beyond this for over two months, so it was to Breville that Michael returned after his wound had healed. On our visit in 1973 we drove there and managed to locate the slit-trenches Michael's platoon had dug on the edge of a wood to protect themselves from enemy artillery and machine gun fire. I reached down through a thick layer of fallen leaves into the hole which he thought was his, and up came a large piece of parachute silk, which many of the airborne soldiers had brought with them from the landing site to line their trenches and help to keep them dry.
Michael wrote of his time in Breville: "We used to have a pretty unpleasant time there, as the enemy knew exactly where we were, and could shell and mortar us pretty accurately. However, we had our dugouts, and it took something pretty big to disturb us. The trouble was when we had to come up for anything - fetching meals, getting orders etc. Even so it was usually possible to hear the shells coming, and dive."
He was the only man in B Company willing to use his schoolboy French, so they soon came to rely on him to supplement their army rations with local Normandy produce. He wrote home of the local Camembert cheese that he wished he could "share it with you tonight! A bit better than Canadian Cheddar." This was all that was available in rationed Britain at the time.
Michael describes how he and one of his soldiers used to go out on patrol every other night with one other man to protect him to check that the Germans were still holding the ridge in front of their position. Early on the morning of 17th August, he discovered that the enemy had abandoned their trenches. "“So 15 Platoon had the dubious honour of being in the vanguard of our advance." They occupied the German trenches at 3.30 a.m., and by 10 a.m. the whole battalion was on the move.
"After that we just marched and marched, usually catching up with Jerry about nightfall. We would then pretend to put in an attack, he would pull out under cover of darkness, and the next day would repeat the process." As they approached Deauville, wary of the many snipers and booby traps the Germans had left behind, several members of the French Resistance arrived and reported that the Germans had abandoned the town, but a defence had been established on the far bank of the River Touques.
It was here that Michael had his first bath for several weeks, which made him feel like a new man. After a "hectic day," they were "compensated by ending up in a perfect billet - a stud farm - where the owners had left all the crockery etc. and plenty of cider. The Hun had damaged some of it, and the RAF still more, but there was enough left for us all to have meals off china again." Michael wrote this letter home on paper left behind by the retreating Germans. Because of casualties, he was now acting second-in-command, which meant he had to organise supplies for the whole of B Company as well as leading his own platoon, "a very hard life." He took part in the battle for Malhortie on 25th August. He is mentioned in both Appendix D and Annexure W.
One of Michael's most enduring memories was of the way the allied tanks destroyed the cobbled roads of northern France. Steering round corners in a tank is done by braking one track and accelerating with the other. The effect on village streets was to lift cobblestones from the outside of the corner and hurl them into the air with considerable momentum. The allied soldiers soon learned to give tanks a wide berth on corners.
Michael wrote a long letter home from Foulbec, where he had dinner in the farm and slept in a real feather bed, which made a welcome change from sharing barns with his soldiers. His towels were now "a nice grey colour, and I don’t believe any soap on earth would get them white." He was out of shirts, having ruined one and lost another. During the advance, he had discovered Johnny Pankhurst’s grave, and he wrote to Rita that "his loss is very hard to realise fully. It seems impossible to visualise anyone so vital and young as Johnny as dead and never again to move. However, I suppose it must be fate, and I must be thankful it wasn’t me."
The brigade was withdrawn to England on 1st September to re-form, and on his return from leave Michael found himself seconded to Brigade Headquarters. His new job would involve guarding the Brigadier and his staff. They missed the Arnhem debacle, but they were rushed back to Belgium in late December to help counter the massive German breakthrough known as the Battle of the Bulge, which was intended to drive a wedge between the British and American armies. The brigade was transported by rail to Dover where they crossed the channel on the first ship to enter Calais harbour since its liberation. Michael spent Christmas Day being driven towards the battle in a canvas-covered truck, and his Christmas lunch consisted of cold bully beef eaten straight from the tin and small cheese sandwiches. After extremely hard fighting in very cold weather, the German advance was repelled when the British and American troops closed the neck of the bulge. Unlike the early part of the Normandy campaign, there was no digging in. This was a campaign of frequent advances, clearing villages and occupying them, then moving on to the next one. The brigade reached the River Meuse and stayed there until the third week of February 1945, when they returned to Bulford the same way as they had come.
On 24th March, the Brigade took part in its second airborne operation, the crossing of the Rhine. Flying in tight formation, 540 Dakota aircraft took off from airfields in East Anglia carrying 12 parachute battalions and accompanied by 1,300 gliders packed with troops from the 6th Airborne Division. The aerial convoy was over twenty miles long, and if all of the supporting bombers and fighters are included, there were over six thousand allied aircraft in the air. General Eisenhower, Field Marshall Montgomery and Prime Minister Winston Churchill watched the attack from behind the allied lines.
Brigade Headquarters took off from Earls Colne airfield in Essex. Michael wrote that "as far as the Rhine we have never had a better and less bumpy flight." But the Germans expected the invasion, and fighting on the drop zones was heavy. On that day 50 aircraft and 11 gliders were shot down. Michael's letters record their arrival in Germany: "There was a good deal of flak, especially the 20mm stuff. Luckily we were not hit, and got down to earth safely, though not in the right place, as that smoke screen of Monty's was covering the place, and we couldn’t see where we were. There were a great many crashes on landing as those 20mm guns could hardly miss the gliders. We lost a good few of our people on the landing, which was certainly no picnic."
One of those who died was Roger Wetherby, Michael's friend from prep school and his early days in the army. "I gather he crashed in flames so had very little chance. A crying shame - as usual, the best go and the worst remain." In fact, one hundred and three of the Oxford & Bucks' best were killed that day, and a further three hundred were wounded. When the war was over, the regimental casualty list would show that of those members of Michael’s battalion who landed in France on D-Day nine out of ten had been either killed or wounded.
In spite of these appalling losses, the brigade captured all of its objectives. The bridge across the Rhine at Hamminkeln was taken by bayonet charge, and determined counter attacks by German infantry and tanks were held off by six-pounder anti-tank guns. Their shells simply bounced off the German Tiger tanks, but these were held off long enough for rocket-firing Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to be called up to finish them off.
The brigade then led the advance in a two hundred and eighty mile dash across Germany. Much of the advance was on foot, and it included an opposed assault crossing of the River Weser.
Michael's main memory of that advance was of very long days: "Normally we start at about 0600 hours and move until 1900 hours. Then from 1900-2100 I am organising the men, from 2100-2300 getting tomorrow’s orders. Bed at about midnight and up again at 0300 organising the move off." Delete this sentence: Due to the death and injury of eleven senior officers in the battalion in the Rhine landing, he was now temporarily commanding B Company. During the first part of the advance he spent a good deal of time riding from end to end of the column on a 350cc BSA motorcycle to make sure that all his men were keeping up.
Part of Michael's platoon's job was looking after prisoners, which all of them found frustrating. But they were eating well. Most of the land they passed through was agricultural, and he told Rita: "The Germans are revoltingly well fed and horsed. We have about five eggs a day all the time, and there are vast great hams hanging up. In the cellars there is bottled fruit that would put even you to shame!! So we are giving them a hand to get it all finished up. My record so far is six meals in one day." Another compensation was that he was able to exchange his motorcycle for a staff car, which was a much more comfortable way to travel, but: "we seem to drive miles and miles every day in 1st gear, and never arrive anywhere in time for more than 3 hours sleep. Sleep, in fact, is the permanent cry of everyone, and we shall only recover our tempers when that comes along. At the moment I am so fed up with my platoon that I hardly dare speak to them."
On 3rd May they reached Bad Kleinen, where the victorious British and Russian armies met. What they drank this time was vodka. Few units of the British Army fought longer and harder than the Oxford & Bucks in the great campaign from Normandy to the Baltic. The battalion was selected to provide the guard of honour for the meeting of Field Marshal Montgomery with his Russian counterpart, Marshal Rokossovsky on 7th May at Wismar, and on the 17th they flew home from Luneburg to Bulford.
Michael Aston died in 1982.
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