Mortar Platoon in the the front line in Normandy

Men of the 5/7th Gordon Highlanders occupy a defensive position in a hedgerow, Normandy, 17 June 1944.

Men of the 5/7th Gordon Highlanders occupy a defensive position in a hedgerow, Normandy, 17 June 1944.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division preparing to fire a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. A Universal Carrier with its deep wading screens still attached can be seen in the background. Note the Mk III helmets.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division preparing to fire a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. A Universal Carrier with its deep wading screens still attached can be seen in the background. Note the Mk III helmets.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division preparing to fire a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. A Universal Carrier with its deep wading screens still attached can be seen in the background. Note the Mk III helmets.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division preparing to fire a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. A Universal Carrier with its deep wading screens still attached can be seen in the background. Note the Mk III helmets.

In Normandy the progress of the Allies was beginning to slow up. The German defences were being organised in greater depth and Montgomery knew that he needed substantial reserves before he could begin his breakout battles. The ‘Great Gale’ was to put back the build up of munitions and supplies by about a week and the next Allied attacks had to be postponed.

Geoffrey Picot was young Lieutenant, soon to be Captain, with the 1st Hampshires. They had been in the thick of the action on D-Day. Picot joined them as a replacement on the 8th June and was immediately posted to command a Mortar Platoon, in place of a wounded officer. Now they found themselves in the Normandy slogging match, in largely static positions:

My timetable on a typical day in this area was:

0530 hours Roll reluctantly out of bed. Put jacket and boots over the clothes I had been sleeping in and supervise dawn stand-to.

0600 Take off boots, wrap a blanket around me, and sleep.

0730 Get up and wash.

0830 Breakfast of spam, beans, biscuits and margarine, with tea to drink.

0945 Organize a harassing shoot on to enemy positions for ten minutes.

1015 Polish boots (yes, I swear that’s correct), pick up Sten gun, and report with map to commanding officer for conference. Nine times out of ten the Germans would mortar the area while the conference was taking place. We would all rush for the few available slit trenches. Howie would usually lose the race and be the last man under cover. While everybody else grabbed steel helmets Frank Waters, seemingly carefree, would content himself with placing a thin wooden mapboard over his head muttering: ‘Bastards!’

1100 Visit all mortar crews and tell them any news I had learned at the conference. Have a cup of tea with them.

1200 Answer urgent call for fire, forward troops having seen movement in front of them. Enemy withdraws and fighting does not develop.

1245 Time for tiffin, a light meal of biscuits, margarine, cheese, jam and tea. Sometimes chocolates and sweets as well.

1300 onwards: Laze in the sun. Wash socks. Read letters. Write letters. Think. Argue.

1900 Supper, main meal of the day, Irish stew, peaches and tea, with any biscuits and jam left over from previous meals.

2100 Stand-to.

2130 Meditate and chat.

2330 Stand by to cover night patrol. Patrol is success- ful and mortar support is not required.

0030 Wrap blanket around me, lie down, say a prayer for a quiet night, and sleep.

For the private soldier this was a very trying period. Most of the day he spent sitting in a slit trench. He did his turn on guard, he ate his meals fairly regularly, slept when he could, disliked the prospect of being sent on a fighting patrol, and occasionally changed trenches with another soldier in a different field.

He wrote quite a number of letters, and was greatly joyed when there was some mail for him. Those who have not fought abroad will never be able to understand what a letter from home means to a soldier’s morale. All those devoted wives who daily wrote to their man did more good than they could have imagined.

But sitting in a trench, being shelled and having nothing to do except think of the next shell, played havoc with men’s nerves. The strain was not so bad for officers, and in a lesser degree for NCOs, for they had various things to organize and that gave them something to think about. For the private soldier who had nothing to think about, it was a hard time.

See Geoffrey Picot: Accidental Warrior

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division firing a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. Note the Mk III helmets.

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division firing a 4.2in mortar, Bieville, 15 June 1944. Note the Mk III helmets.

A British 4.2-inch mortar of the 2nd Cheshires supporting an attack by units of 231st Brigade, 50th Division, on the village of Hottot, south-west of Tilly-sur-Seulles, 11 July 1944.

A British 4.2-inch mortar of the 2nd Cheshires supporting an attack by units of 231st Brigade, 50th Division, on the village of Hottot, south-west of Tilly-sur-Seulles, 11 July 1944.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Andrew Shakespeare June 21, 2014 at 9:17 am

I’d almost forgotten how, in the British army, tea is served regularly throughout the day. Tea with every meal: breakfast, lunch dinner, and at various times in between. I swear the British soldier drinks far more tea than any civilian ever does. The mess halls always smelt of tea, by virtue of the multiple four-foot-high urns of the stuff, steaming in a prominent location. We’d always take our water-bottle cups in with us, which could hold a whole pint, and fill them to the brim. We’d probably have a refill too.

And then, the day’s work over, the cooks would knock off for the day, but the mess hall would remain unlocked, and anybody could enter, and sure enough! MORE TEA!!!!!! Filled from the urns still steaming away, freshly filled. Then back to the billet block, where a kettle was a standard piece of equipment, for yet another brew before bed.

I wish I’d actually taken the time to calculate how much tea we actually got through throughout a typical day. A couple of gallons, I should think.

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