May 44 The weather was improving now and Three of us from HQ troop were detailed for a Four day course of driving at Yarmouth; Brian Crossland, Ted Edwards and myself, plus several chaps from RHQ. We had Three days of hell on the sands of Yarmouth, driving trucks onto landing crafts; kindly provided by the RN, driving them through great tanks of water (and getting very wet in the process, it was cold here) and driving still more trucks down into great holes dug in the ground and up the other side. At night we provided the antidote “wine women and song.” Yarmouth is a very dismal place and it reeks of Victorianism, so we were glad to get back to Dedham only to find the troop away on manoeuvres somewhere. The Three of us made whoopee, but not for long, as the RSM found us. The troop returned very shortly afterwards. The weather at this time was delightful, and we tried our first water proofed trucks through the River Stour. They were O.K; some of them. I had some more leave at this juncture, it was hard to get then, as nearly all of the original 8th Army were now back in England apart from the Colonial divisions; the 7th Armoured (The Desert Rats); 30 Corps; 50th division (Tyne Tees) who came out in 1941; and the late comers but nevertheless welcome 51st Highland division. The 4th Indian division; the New Zealand division and the South African division were in Italy, while the Aussies were in the Pacific. Towards the Second week in May we made our first move in relation to the Second Front. We moved to that famous and oft maligned seaside resort, (butt of the music hall jokes) Clacton-on-Sea, which was looking very War weary; its windows boarded up, its Woolworths burnt out, its Proms and Pier wired and barricaded, its hotels all requisitioned by the War Office, its Villas deserted, its beaches mined, and its pubs woefully short of beer. We were stationed at the top end of Clacton towards Holland and the famous pub “The Roaring Donkey,” and we were in what the Estate Agent would call modern semi-detached villas. They were ideal for billets, but as homes for the modern couples not up to my standards. We parked our transport on the grass verges next to the signs saying keep off the grass; but this is 1944. So passed the days here by the sea with survey schemes etc. We took trips to the one Odeon that survived the blitz, and also to the Town Hall (rather a fine building) to see some first class shows, or else to the “Roaring Donkey” to talk shop over a glass of wallop, or better still “Cherchez la Femme.” Towards the end of May I went down to Larkhill with some equipment for a party of ours down there on experimental work. The weather was growing hotter, and the trip down to Larkhill via London and Salisbury was a pleasant one.
June 44 About the 4th of June we realised that something big was in the air, then on the Morning of the 6th….
Invasion of France June the 6th 1944
Zero Hour 01-06
On the morning of the 6th, I was returning to Larkhill from the Northern part of the plain, when I heard a deep roar above the noise of the truck, and saw the sky filled with Dakotas; and behind them at the end of the towing lines were swarms of gliders all heading towards France. This was no practice. I then heard the great news come through that we had landed in France and had formed a continuous bridgehead from the mouth of the Orne to the tip of the Cherbourg Peninsular; airborne troops having been dropped during the night of the 5th in the areas of the Caen and Orne Canals. Under a mighty bombardment from the combined British and American warships, and a devastating aerial attack from the combined air forces; the much vaunted and impregnable West wall of Rommel (now in charge) was much more than weakend, and the first troops ashore did not quite meet the desperate opposition they had anticipated; nevertheless it was no picnic and casualties (though far below what was expected by the service chiefs) were heavy, especially in the American sector. Our troops were to form a rear party in this country; (suited us while the rest of the regiment were at the port of embarkation so we were told, and indeed some of them were on the beaches at 11-55 hrs. I returned with Ted Edwards to Clacton by rail, as my Fordson had given up the Ghost and we found Clacton almost deserted as all the troops had left either for France or for the many staging areas throughout the South of England. After Three days of clearing up we left for Alconquin Camp near the Farnham cross roads not far from Guildford in Surrey where the rest of the troop and RHQ were. The news was still good, but there was no breakthrough, and bad weather had hindered us from getting reinforcements ashore in time, and the first golden opportunities were lost; c’est la guerre. The Yanks were pushing up the Cherbourg Peninsular; the 1st Airborne and the 51st were holding the Orne-Caen Canal (our pivot) the armour was trying to force a passage through to Falaise via Caen, but a screen of German 88’s held them at bay. Bitter fighting was taking place in the Tilly Hotot area around Caumont and in the American sector around Saint Lo. The British divisions taking part were the 1st Airborne; 51st Highland; 15th Scottish; the 49th (the Polar bears from Iceland) 59th; 43rd (Wessex); 3rd Monties own Div); 7th Armoured (Desert Rats); 8th Armoured (ex 8th Armoured Brigade of the desert); 11th Armoured; The Guards Armoured; Two AGRAS (Army Groups Royal Artillery) comprising 25 pounders, medium regiments, 155 and heavies (7•2); and also the very necessary Sappers, RAMC; RASC; RACC; REME; all cogs in the very intricate machinery of a modern Army.
Towards the end of June I landed myself in hospital again, having turned over a truck, and escaped with a badly bruised ankle and shock. I returned to the troop via a holding unit, first at Oxford and then Guilford. The first flying bombs were coming over and London faced her Second great ordeal. I was on guard the first night of this new menace, and I was puzzled by the flashes in the sky and the distant thumps. The next morning we knew. I am now a surveyor Class 2, which means more pay.
July 44 About the 7th we received orders to move off to the docks. The flying bomb, or doodlebug menace was at its height. The position in France had changed little in the past three weeks, as the bridgehead was steadily reinforced and slowly extended, and we had at last breathing room. All efforts to break through to Caen and the Falaise gap have so far failed, and similar efforts in the direction of Tilly, Caumont and Saint Lo have also met with failure. The enemy seems determined to keep us within the present bridgehead, and then at the right moment to sweep us back into the sea, but he has left it too late for that. The Yanks close in on Cherbourg, at least on the perimeter defences and there is bitter fighting on all fronts. The Germans are holding the high ground to the South of our line, first the high ridge on which stands the nodal point of Villers Bocage, and secondly the higher ground further South in the area of Point 207 and Mount Pincon. In this way he is able to command a view of lines in many places. Along the line which now runs from the coast at the mouth of the Orne to North of Caen, then West to Tilly and Saint Lo, then across the base of the Cherbourg Peninsular, there are many salients; both German and ours. We leave camp about 05-00 hrs in the morning, and passing through London along the North by-pass we are more than conscious of the flying bombs. George falls asleep over the wheel of the jeep, and we mount the pavement at Ilford, scattering would be well-wishers. I take over and George is soon fast asleep. We arrive at the staging camp around Noon in the area of the main Southend road, and camp under canvas for Two days, and then onto the docks at Tilbury some few miles away, where we board an American Liberty Ship named Jackson Hardy or something. We pass the night in Tilbury docks and till 01-00 hrs we sit on deck watching the flying bomb attacks on the city of London and its suburbs. It was like the watching of some animal writhing in agony; we all seemed so helpless. It was uncanny to watch these robot machines of destruction fly remorselessly on, their flames streaking from their sterns like so many devils incarnate; the pale searchlights sweeping the skies as if in helpless confusion, the staccato beat of the AA guns and the Orange flashes in the sky; the silence when the motors cut out, and the flash that lit up the sky as they created their havoc and destruction; and for the sinister incidental music, the symphony of the wailing sirens, heard faintly above the noise of the action. We went to bed, but did not sleep, and then one came directly in our direction flying some 100 feet above the masts, and we went up to watch. “Keep going you Bastards” we cried, and it did, and crashed in the direction of Brentwood; we were selfish. The next morning we sailed as far as the estuary, and for 24 Hours swung at anchor off Southend Pier. On the afternoon of the 9th we sailed for “La Belle France.” We had expected trouble in the straits, but the guns at Cap Griz Nez were silent; touch wood. We then went on past the Isle of Wight, turning due South towards Arromanches, where we arrived on the morning of the 10th. The scene was amazing, for as far as the eye could reach ships stretched in never ending lines along the margin of the bay(with due apologies to Wordsworth) big ships, small ships, every conceivable type of craft that would float when placed in the water, and between the large ships and the shore, the small craft plied their shuttle service looking like so many beetles, loading up with transport, men and equipment and dumping their precious cargoes on the beaches. Margate in peace time had nothing compared to this. The beaches were Black with men, trucks, AA guns and all the impedimenta of war. Overhead the barrage balloons danced at the end of their slim cables, looking like so many Silver flying fish, and above them again, fighter planes striped like so many Zebras, zoomed on their never ending patrol. We moved our anchorage on instructions of a passing destroyer, because of the danger of mines, which the Hun had dropped the night before. All that night we lay off Arromanches, while overhead the Luftwaffe did its best to litter the bay with seeds of destruction. The next morning we were moved again and all ordered to the bows of the ship because of the danger of mines; attracted by the vibrations of the screw; they usually explode under the stern, but nothing happened. In the afternoon; about 15-00 hrs the landing craft hove alongside, and soon the derricks were busy loading our transport into them. We followed, climbing down the sides of the Liberty Ship by means of rope ladders; a very tricky performance, as one usually finds that on reaching the bottom, the landing craft has edged away from the side of the ship, leaving a yawning gap of Green water, but no one slipped. At 16-00 hrs we landed on the sandy beaches, without even wetting our feet; and to think with what care we had water-proofed our trucks. There was no time to waste on the beaches, as crowds on CMP’s kept traffic moving at the maximum of speed over the sand dunes; (lots of shell holes) through a gap in the minefield; (part of the West wall) with little notices of wood hanging from the wire marked in German “Achtung Minen.” We then went onto the road and through the first de-proofing area; only Ten minutes were allowed; and off to the staging area, (each command or corps were allotted a special area) and there was no question of a regiment or troop moving in its own convoy, there was too much traffic for that; instead each man has a card with the name of his staging area written on it and its location. The roads were well signposted, and so we hurried on; at one point passing one of our own Jeeps going in the other direction; most confusing. After a ten minute run we made it and pulled off into a Wheat field where the troop was gradually gathering, and there we de-waterproofed; a messy job; almost as bad as putting it on. All the extensions and waste were thrown onto a special dump which had been provided. We looked around whilst a meal was being prepared. To the North some Five miles distant could be seen the sea, the beaches themselves were hidden, but the balloons above them indicated their position. Right behind us the French farmers were working in their fields, and some few hundred yards in front of us was one of our landing fields, and a constant stream of Typhoons were landing and taking off, throwing great clouds of dust in the air. About 18-00 hrs; Webb, a DR from RHQ came to meet us, and guide us back to there position at Nonant some Ten miles away. The country was very much like that of Surrey. About midnight we moved off in inky Blackness and no lights were allowed. The French secondary roads are bad; still we made it apart from a few anxious moments when we got mixed up with some tanks; you feel so small in a jeep. At 02-00 hrs on the 11th we arrived in the fields of Nonant; fell asleep by the jeep and was wakened at dawn by some heavy shells falling some miles away. After breakfast we took up positions in two fields and tried to make ourselves invisible from the air. George and I made ourselves a masterpiece with the net and green bushes, and it was so good we couldn’t get near the Jeep when we wanted anything off it. For two days we rested and organised; at night the Luftwaffe raided the airfields some miles away, which was very noisy. The regiment were in action, and had been for some Three weeks. My old friends “R” and “A” troops were in action in the Hotot and Caumont areas, while “S” and “B” troops were in action to the left of their positions. It was hot in places, especially the Hotot area; (aptly named.) A Four-pen recorder (for locating mortars) was also in action and this was a suicide job as far as survey was concerned. On the 14th; (Bastille day) we commenced work, and several pairs went off to survey and man some FS Posts, relieving some very tired flash spotters. We did some survey for a new SR Base in the Caumont area and about the 18th I and Three others were detailed to join the Four-pen of “S” troop. (Bdr Nutter, Russel Lowes, Frank Gardner and myself.) We didn’t feel at all pleased and found the Four-pen in action at the village of Raurai; (there was a German salient here.) We went into action on the advance post; a very charming spot indeed; a slit trench near the tracks edge, along whose surface , tanks in never ending columns passed, throwing great clouds of dust over us, our equipment, our food, water and bedding; yes a charming spot. In front of us some 100 yards away was a wood, and the front line; this was too near for me; as a mortar crew were busy some 100 yards to the left and right, and the German 88’s were busy too as well as his own mortars; a very charming spot. Behind us a regiment of our 25 pounders blasted away day and night, and shell waves are the most painful of all vibrations. We lay there for Three days and nights, but we got some good locations, and I got Three myself during the still watches of a very cold morning. We got little sleep and were we glad to be relieved on the fourth day, and did we shake the dust off our feet. A couple of days later the boys’ who relieved us were visited by a couple of Tiger tanks which popped out of the woods; a very charming place, but not for me. On returning to Nonant we carried out some more survey for “R” troop in the Balleroi area; a very charming town with avenues of Beeches and oaks. We then moved from Nonant to an old position of “Y” troop at the village of Foliot not far from the Jerusalem Cross roads, the date was somewhere about the 22nd of July. The position in the bridgehead had changed but little, and a great scale attack supported by 5,000 Tons of bombs at Caen had failed; we couldn’t get past the anti-tank screen. At Foliot we were living in a great farm house and the orchard outside; very comfortable and quiet apart from a few 170mm shells which visited the area by night. We were now surveying in battle positions for the 50th division in the Hotot area and I spent a very hectic day doing a traverse up a long narrow country lane very near to the front. Apart from a few shells which whizzed over the top to land in the valley below, it was quiet; it was the atmosphere of the place which got us; we were always expecting something and nothing came, sometimes we wished it would; and to make the picture complete the stink of dead cattle pervaded the atmosphere every where we went. At the end of the last leg we came into open country and obtained a fine view of Caumont hill with its water tower and the wooded country around Balleroi, and to the North some burnt out Sherman tanks lay nearby and some Four graves. We returned to Foliot. Towards the end of July the Americans began their great break through towards the Brittany Peninsular and the River Loire, and so far it was going well, but their supply corridor was dangerously narrow in the region of Mortain. We moved soon after to another camp on the Tilly road and continued doing survey along the main Caumont road. We had launched a series of local attacks along the whole front and had gained valuable high ground in the region of Saint Germain Decoit. The 15th Scottish who had taken over from the Americans were pushing out from the direction of Caumont, and had gained some Eight miles, and we also had salients in the Orne valley and beyond Hotot. It was a grim slogging match; the Germans hurled their forces Westwards against the American supply corridor but were held after several days of hard fighting, and after receiving gruelling treatment at the hands of rocket firing typhoons. The Yanks continued to advance into Brittany towards St. Malo, and had also swung East along the River Loire in their great encircling movement, but the British still held the bulk of German armour in the Caen area. The weather was very hot, making the roads very dusty indeed. The Luftwaffe interfered but little during the day. We now had a great salient in the Orne area and the Germans were complaining of the pressure. In the Caen area a final attack was being got ready for a smash through to reach the Falaise area and the great plains stretching towards the Seine, and to contact the Yanks when they reached Argentan in the South; the jaws of the trap. The Germans seemed unawares of it as they still hammered against the American corridor to the West; Bloody stupid we said; and so July came to an end.