” My father hardly ever spoke about his experiences in the war”. How often this phrase occurs in the comments section of World War II Today, associated with so many relatives whose experiences of the war that have now passed away irretrievably. When Nicholas Young opens his 2019 book Escaping with His Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond with the phrase ” My father, Leslie Young , hardly ever spoke about his experiences in the war” he is in good company.
But Young has sought to address the fact that “a mind that must have teemed with memories and stories” has now gone. In an extraordinary work of research he has pieced together the whole story of his father’s wartime career, not just a collection of dates and facts but a realistic representation of what experiences would have been like. It is a remarkable story, encompassing as it does the whole war, from the BEF in France in 1939 through to Dunkirk, with the Commandos at Lofoten, with the Desert rats in Tunisia, life as a POW and escaping from Italy, rejoining the regular Army in November 1943 and on to Normandy and beyond. In many ways these were the experiences of many regular soldiers in the war.
His account of Leslie Young’s arrival in Normandy paints a picture of what the front looked like at this time:
On 30 June, D+23, his name was finally called, and he boarded a requisitioned ferry and crossed the Channel, escorted by a small protective naval convoy and preceded by a minesweeper. They were heading for the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, newly—constructed from concrete prefabricated sections towed across the Channel in the wake of the invasion fleet, and he went ashore there the following day, to join a million Allied troops already fighting in France.
The scene as he landed was awe-inspiring. At sea, dozens of warships patrolled the Channel and the Normandy coast and approach routes, maintaining a regular bombardment on enemy positions inland; closer in, dozens of block ships had been sunk, their funnels and masts protruding from the sea, whilst scores of cargo ships lay offshore, protected by barrage balloons, awaiting their turn to tie up and unload at the encircling concrete arms of the Mulberry Harbour, or to disgorge their cargo of supplies, weapons, tanks and ammunition on to the countless landing craft that scuttled to and from the beaches.
The rapidly-growing Allied army required more than 20,000 tons per day just to keep it in action, and the pace could not be allowed to flag. From troopships, mostly commandeered ferries, more landing craft brought hundreds of men ashore by the hour, day and night, returning to the UK filled with wounded soldiers by the score, or with file upon file of dejected German prisoners.
On land, hundreds of lorries rattled gingerly along the piers or across the beaches, following directions to one of the massive dumps of fuel, supplies or ammunition; new tanks, troop carriers or field guns lumbered along to find space to park amongst the massed ranks of fighting equipment awaiting deployment to the battle front.
The pretty Normandy countryside near the coast became a chaotic mess of tank tracks, cables and wires, Army signposts, crashed aircraft and broken-down vehicles — interspersed with idyllic scenes of normal country life as French farmers continued to work their fields.
Leslie was posted to join the 842 men and 38 officers of the 1/6th Battalion, Queen’s Royal Regiment, which formed part the 131st Queen’s Infantry Brigade under Brigadier E. C. (‘Peter’) Pepper, his commander in the Bedfords when he rejoined in 1941 after his time with the Commandos. The Queen’s Brigade formed part of the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats), who had fought so hard in North Africa.
His job, as an infantryman, was to support the tanks as they pushed and probed forward at the tip of the advance, clearing anti—tank guns or ditches in the way of the advance, spotting and removing snipers, mopping up enemy formations as the tanks rumbled ahead, and maintaining an all-round defence at night.
By this stage, having landed on the beaches at 0630 hrs on 9 June, the Desert Rats were being held in reserve, resting and training (particularly in the art of fighting in the bocage) near the tiny ruined crossroads hamlet of Jerusalem, near Bayeux. They had taken part in Operation Epsom and, at the end of June, had found themselves forming part of the defensive line around Livry, two miles west of Villers-Bocage. As the Regimental History relates:
[This was] a trying period, living in slit trenches mostly in the rain in the very close and woody bocage country. The enemy held a series of outposts, frequently altering his positions, and there was constant patrolling by both sides. Regular shelling, mortaring and sniping brought a trickle of casualties . . . the trees and tall hedges caused many airbursts against which the slit trenches were ineffective and three inches of head cover had to be provided.