Finally the government decided that they could acknowledge that the risk of Britain being invaded had disappeared. The Home Guard were now ‘stood down’, although they were not completely disbanded until after the war ended.
First formed as the ‘Local Defence Volunteers’, they were an emergency measure to help organise the civilian population’s response to the apparently imminent threat of invasion in 1940. They were swiftly renamed the ‘Home Guard’ at the insistence of Winston Churchill and gradually received better training, equipment and a recognised role within the military establishment.
The risk of invasion had become negligible even by 1942 but the Home Guard had continued to be a very active organisation. The possibility of German parachutists mounting disruptive raids had been contemplated during the D-Day planning, and the Home Guard were recognised as a useful first response and means of alerting the regular Army.
Richard Brown, living in Ipswich, was just one of tens of thousands of men who spent almost the entire war engaged in a second life, alongside their ordinary work, committed to both the Home Guard and the Air Raid Precaution service. They were justifiably proud of what they did:
3 December 1944
It’s been a rather impressive day I suppose. Wasn’t aware of it at first, merely went along to parade as I’ve done many times but by now I’ve come to the conclusion we must have been appreciated by somebody.
We paraded at 0845 hr and marched to the Regent Cinema, the whole battalion, where the miniature shooting cup was presented to the winning team, B Company, and the shield for the stretcher-bearing competition to the sector winners, our platoon.
Major Howes, our CO addressed us and so did Gen Deeds. I was pleased they spoke plainly and appreciatively but with no fuss and without ladling out absurd compliments. The 9th Battalion went to the Odeon.
Following that we marched to the park and formed up as a Battalion on the grass before the Mansion, eventually marching away following the 9th to the march past at the Cornhill where Gen Deeds took the salute. We went along Crown Street to Hyde Park Corner, along Westgate Street, Carr Street and so up St Helen’s. Five bands played us along at various points.
Can’t say much of what I saw at the saluting base. Like the others, I suppose, I was concentrating on marching, listening to orders and keeping position.
In London representatives from all units in the country, 7,000 of them, marched past the King. We sent Foster, a good bloke.
I suppose we did do a job of work. We were ready if needed for active service and in a negative sort of way we did it when, around invasion time, we did those pickets and guards. They released a great many full-time soldiers who would have had to do the job in our place and enabled the Army to concentrate wholly on their part of the war.
So now it’s all over, although only being stood down we are not disbanded and are liable to recall at any moment.
There are 1,631 on the strength of our battalion, in addition 245 went to the Forces, and I suppose the 9th had similar strength, and I also guess that our platoon wasn’t far off being the keenest and most conscientious of the lot. We turned out at almost full strength today, thirty-five out of under forty.
Now we concentrate wholly on ARP duties. We started the one-night-in- six rota on Thursday. Six nights will seem a helluva gap but I guess we won’t complain. We all turn out at trouble.
While some amongst the Allies started to worry that their advance was not going as swiftly as expected, the situation within the German High Command was a great deal worse. At the beginning of July Field Marshal von Rundstedt had told Fuhrer HQ that it was ‘time to make peace’. He had promptly been relieved of his command.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had seen his predictions come true – Allied air power had severely curtailed German freedom of movement around the battlefield. While the Allies were able to make good their losses the Germans were not. He felt that an Allied breakout was imminent – but he was more circumspect about his recommendations than von Rundstedt “so the end of this unequal battle is in sight. In my view we should learn a lesson from this situation.”
This was the report that he sent to Hitler:
ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION, JULY 15, 1944
The position on the Normandy front is becoming daily increasingly difﬁcult, and it is rapidly approaching its crisis. Owing to the fierceness of the ﬁghting, the enormous amount of material in the enemy’s possession, especially their artillery and armour, and the undisputed mastery of the air obtained by the enemy air forces, our losses are so great that the battle potential of our divisions is rapidly deteriorating.
Reinforcements from home come in very small quantities, and take weeks in arriving because of the bad transport situation. We have lost about 97,000 men, including 2,360 officers — which means an average loss of 2,500 to 3,000 men per day — and we have received until now 10,000 men as replacements, of which 6,000 have already been sent to the front.
Also the losses in supplies for the troops have been extraordinarily high, and it has not been possible to provide more than very meagre replacements, as for example 17 tanks up till now to replace about 225.
The divisions which have been newly brought in are not used to battle conditions and with their small consignments of artillery, anti-tank weapons, and means of engaging tanks in close combat they are not able to offer effective resistance to enemy large-scale attacks for any length of time, after being subjected to concentrated artillery ﬁre and heavy air raids for hours on end. It has been proved in the fighting that even the bravest unit is gradually shattered by the well-equipped enemy and loses men, weapons and territory.
The destruction of the railroad network, and the great danger of enemy air attacks on all the roads and paths for 150 kilometres behind the front has made the supply position so diﬁicult that only the absolutely essential things could be brought up, and above all artillery and mortar ammunition was at a premium.
These conditions are not likely to improve, as convoy vehicles are decreasing as a result of enemy action, and with the enemy capturing airﬁelds in the bridgehead it can be expected that their air activities will increase.
No forces worth mentioning can be brought in to the Nor- mandy front without weakening the 15th Army on the English Channel, or the Mediterranean front in southern France. The 7th Army front alone requires most urgently 2 fresh divisions, as the forces there are worn out.
The enemy are daily providing new forces and masses of materials for the front; the enemy supply lanes are not chal- lenged by the Luftwaffe and enemy pressure is continually increasing.
In these circumstances it must be expected that the enemy will shortly be able to break through our thinly-held front, especially in the 7th Army sector, and push far into France. I should like to draw attention to the attached reports from the 7th Army and II Parachute Corps.
Apart from local reserves of Panzer Group West, which are about to be sent to the Panzer Group’s sector, and which in the face of the enemy air forces can only march during the night, there are no mobile reserves at all at our disposal to counter any breakthrough on the 7th Army front.
Our own air force has hardly entered the battle at all as yet.
Our troops are ﬁghting heroically, but even so the end of this unequal battle is in sight. In my view we should learn a lesson from this situation. I feel it is my duty as C. in C. of the Army Group to point this matter out.
Whatever Hitler felt about the report he did not have to trouble himself about replacing Rommel. On the 17th July Rommel was badly injured when his staff car was attacked by an Allied fighter. He was flown back to Germany for treatment and never returned.
In Normandy the projected timetable for the Allied advance was starting to fall behind. The weather was a key factor, not just the Great Storm which had destroyed the US Mulberry harbour, but the unseasonal rain and low cloud which had negated the Allied aerial advantage on many occasions. The bridgehead remained on a narrower depth than expected and this created difficulties for the deployment of fighter bombers from airfields in France.
Yet even though the maps showed limited progress the Germans had been forced to concentrate their armour around Caen. They were taking losses which could not be replaced, whereas the Allies still had plenty of reserves yet to arrive in France. For the man in command of the Ground Forces, Sir Bernard Montgomery, it was still going to plan, even though slower than expected.
Myles Hildyard was a tank officer attached to Allied intelligence. His diary entry for the day gives a real insight in the briefings given by Montgomery and a general overview of the battle so far:
3rd July 1944
American attack from Brittany opened today with three Divisions. Poured all morning. Draughtsman made a fine map for Monty yesterday, got it set up with some difficulty in big marquee up the road.
Tony Pepys went to 1 US Division who said they were miserable because my summary had stopped arriving and they were crazy about my sense of humour! Apparently, they rave about them to everybody, and get hell from their generals for being such bores themselves.
Monty’s conference. I slipped in. Arrived in grey Rolls wearing grey pullover with Legion d’Honneur pinned on. Talked very simply, not so flamboyant as he used to be, and very interesting. Spoke first of the battle to date — the five separate landings which had to be joined up — which was completed by 10th June.
His second preoccupation had been to keep the initiative, his third that there should be no reverse anywhere on the front. 5 US Corps the first day only made 100 yards, which looked bad. He went to watch from a destroyer, but next day they broke through. Essential to penetrate inland, but cleaning up not completed and many casualties resulted behind [the front].
Tempo of battle had to be reduced while we built up, but at the same time initiative had to be retained. Not too strong in the first days and short of ammunition. Now we have 26 divisions and 3,000 tanks. After the landing the next thing was the building up which had to be pressed at all costs. This was a failure on account of weather, never been such a June in history. Ten days behind now and only 60 per cent up to planned scale.
Result — third phase of battle (8 Corps) delayed a week. Next, enemy build-up had to be delayed. Here greater success even than hoped — enemy has had great difficulties from air, deception etc. and even when the head of his new divisions gets here, their tail is still in Germany. It took five days for 2 Pz Corps to reach Eastern France from Russia, 14 days to reach battle area from eastern France. Object of British army was to draw enemy and free US forces to west. Succeeded almost too well.
East of the Orne is our only tender spot but the enemy thinks it is his too. We are making the Germans think we’re out for Paris while in fact we want Brittany. So tomorrow’s attack on Caen opens from West, next day from north-west. Task of Second Army is to keep Germans busy, to avoid a setback, and to get Caen.
German POW now 50,000 of which 60 per cent are non-Germans. But they are fighting very well, fantastic allegiance to Fuhrer. Two stories – wounded German in hospital preferred to die rather than take a transfusion of British blood, and a dying German who was offered a priest, said ‘The Fuhrer is my priest.’
Big picture — Hitler taken charge. Monty doesn’t think he’s decided whether to try and annihilate Allies in West and face losses in East, or to try and hold Russians. If he decides to concentrate on us, no bridges over Seine below Paris or on Loire between Orleans and the sea leaves a bottleneck. Hitler would probably go for writing us off here and with effect of buzz-bombs on England, try for peace. Monty says a successful German offensive is impossible against superior air forces.
We were all introduced to Monty. The most memorable thing about his conference was really my map. It was very large and placed so that the only light fell on it. Monty came in with two small map boards which he propped against my map board and spoke from them. When he came to the Big Picture he regretted that Paris, the Loire, the Seine etc. were off his board but pointed to where they would be — Paris here he said pointing to within six inches of PARIS in letters six inches high on my map, the Loire there. I was jumping up and down with rage.
On 26th June Montgomery launched Operation Epsom, a major attack aimed at the town of Caen, the major obstacle to British expansion in the east of the Normandy battlefield. The attack was led by the 44th (Lowland) Infantry Brigade and the 46th (Highland) Infantry Brigade of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division with a number of famous regiments taking part including the Royal Scots, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Cameronians, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders.
Robert Woollcombe was a platoon commander with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (K.O.S.B.). This was to be their first day in action in Normandy – and Woollcombe had an ‘indelible memory’ of the day which he recalls in some detail in his memoir. They arrived at their forming up point at 3am in drizzling rain and scraped pits in the ground before trying to get some sleep before breakfast at 5.30am – porridge, tinned sausages, biscuits, tinned margarine and lots of tea. Then at 7.30 the opening barrage:
The minute hand touched 7.30. … On the second, nine hundred guns of all calibres, topped by the fifteen-inch broadsides from the distant battleships lying off the beaches, vomited their inferno.
Concealed guns opened from fields, hedges and farms in every direction around us, almost as if arranged in tiers. During short pauses between salvoes more guns could be heard, and right away, further guns, filling and reverberating the very atmosphere with a sustained, muffled hammering.
It was like rolls of thunder, only it never slackened. Then the guns near by battered out again with loud, vicious, strangely mournful repercussions. The thunder angry, violent and death-dealing. Hurling itself over strong-points, enemy gun areas, forming-up places, tank laagers, and above all concentrated into the creeping mass of shells that raked ahead of our own infantrymen, as thousands of gunners bent to their task.
Little rashes of goose-flesh ran over the skin. One was hot and cold, and very moved. All this “stuff” in support of us! Every single gun at maximum effort to kill; to help us.
The thin rain and fog were to mix with the smoke and dust from the barrage to create a fog bank in places. Aircraft in Britain were kept grounded by poor visibility so British forces were without one of their major advantages. As the barrage fell they moved forward to their start line, ahead of them the Royal Scots Fusiliers had begun the attack:
The field rose gently to a low skyline, that was the start line running on the left into the orchard where we had made our reconnaissance. Neatly above Norrey a number of swirling black puffs of smoke appeared, to the sound of cruel, heavy detonations.
“Get down – stop walking about!” I was being yelled at by Gavin [the Company Commander], having been strolling around the platoon while they scraped their pits, determined to remain casual.
We lay for about ten minutes, watching the air-bursts over some tall trees in the orchard. More appeared over Norrey.
Then stray figures in battle-dress materialized out of the mist, coming back from the battle. Each with levelled bayonet prodding two or three helmetless and sullen, bewildered- looking youths in grimy camouflage smocks and trousers. They held their hands in a resigned, tired way above their blond heads.
A miracle anything could have lived through the stunning they had taken, and a testimony to the efficacy of the slit- trench.
We stared after them: trying to comprehend the actuality of our enemies. A Regimental Provost corporal, taking charge of one, flicked him contemptuously across the shoulders with his driving-gauntlets, rearwards. And morale soared. Prisoners already! Things must be going well. The sight did a world of good to the younger ones among us, upon whom the strain of composure had been beginning to tell.
Then Colonel Ben’s word came over the wireless. Gavin relayed us the signal… “The Battalion will Advance …”
We arose and moved up the field in extended line of sections. There was a lull in the air-bursts. We came level with the orchard. The wide fields of ripening corn rolled away before us, the mist already lifting to an overcast sky of low cloud.
Then past the Canadian outposts and stray incoming parties of Canadians who had been out, gate-crashing the battle, helping to bring home the wounded.
“Rifles at the hip — safety catches off!” you shouted.
Two motionless figures were sprawled near by. A glimpse of twisted legs in SS canvas, a crooked arm, a swollen belly – and you looked away again, ahead. We were past the start line, and moving forward through the corn.
It was the 25th of June 1944 and I was standing in a large field in Normandy, some six miles inland from the coast of France. My reason for this is that I was a soldier, an infantryman in a Scottish Regiment, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who were part of the 44th Brigade of the 15th Scottish Division. Around me in the field on that balmy June evening were the rest of the Battalion, about 700 young men, in groups, talking, sitting, standing, others laying sprawled out on the grass.
We had landed in Normandy 13 days earlier. Since landing we had been gradually moving up to the front line and now we were close to the enemy. The division had completed its gruelling training on the Yorkshire Moors several months in the bitter winter months, which was the prelude as to why we were all congregated in the field. That evening, we were to learn why we had trained so long, it was to break out from the static bridgehead the British Army had established, since landing in Normandy. I was a Bren gunner, a light machine gun which I could strip and reassemble in minutes to clean and oil for any action.
Suddenly, activity, men were moving to the top of the field and we were now being told that we were to be addressed by the Commanding Officer. He was standing on the bonnet, surrounded by other officers of the Battalion. We stood in silence and the CO started his address:
” Men we are on the eve of what we have been training for these part years, tomorrow starting at 7.30am we are going into action. We will be facing the ‘cream ‘of the German Army the 12th SS ‘Hitler Jugend’ Division, full of 17 year old fanatical Adolph Hitler worshippers. Not to worry though, for you are the pick of the British Army and soon now we will be in a very interesting party, now off you go and get some rest”.
As he finished his little speech pandemonium broke out, and to me Sassenach, and English man amongst the Scots, I could not believe what I was witnessing, bagpipes were being played, men were singing and dancing in groups all over the field, just hours to go and their celebrating and all are sober.
As it became darker we silently moved forward, keeping as quit as possible to reach the starts line which was another field outside the village of Norrey-En-Bessin. There in the drizzling rain we stood around close to the enemy, in groups, each with our thoughts, and I guess some praying, whispering to each other, smoking in cupped hands passing away the interminable hours. A never to be forgotten night, for many of us knew our lives would never be the same again.
At precisely 7.30am all hell broke out. Dante infernos as 800 guns of various calibres were sending their shells over our heads, landing hundreds of yards ahead. Battleships offshore were firing their 16 inch shells, the RAF were also due to add to this inferno, but due to the poor weather conditions their contributions was cancelled.
We moved out of the field immediately the shelling commenced and in file we walked through the little village, passing a church where a piper was playing bagpipes, standing on the raised steps. Due to the tremendous deafening noise, we could not hear what he was playing, the symbol was enough, and we just raised a hand in acknowledgement. We were next in a cornfield, the corn was waist high, and in a line left and right, we started to move across the field to meet the ‘Cream’.
Our shelling is exploding juts a hundred yards ahead of us, we are to advance a hundred yards every three minutes. Of course this brilliant plan failed as shells where falling short and we sustained our first casualties. Holding our weapons over our heads we walked to meet the enemy. They were everywhere popping up behind us and we were in one hell none of us could have possibly imagined. The fanatical young German SS men were certainly proving to be a force to reckon with force. Nevertheless, due to tremendous barrage of gunfire pouring on them, we made progress to reach our target the village of St-Mauvieu.
We are then inside the village at about 11.00am and house-to-house fighting starts, this continues until about 4.00pm. Now, due to our casualties, we are glad to be relieved by another Regiment of our Brigade, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, because we are now a spent force.
I was standing with a few of our men around the village church which was badly damaged, when Major Agnew, a young 25 year old handsome Officer approached me. In a raised voice he asked me “Have you seen Major Korts” who was his brother-in-law. Someone in the group said in reply “Sir he was killed this morning.” Where”? Was the next request and my comrade pointed up the road. Immediately Major Agnew started to move quickly in that direction. We shouted to him to stop saying the SS were just 500 yards ahead. He ignored the warning and walked to his death.
The enemy was counter-attacking to retake the village. Finally we are moved back into the comparative safety. We collect our dead, in a large truck, who number 30. We are have also lost 120 others wounded, so our ‘party’ with the ‘Cream’ has cost us dearly. We have lots 25% of our strength of the Battalion. The dead are buried in shallow graves with their rifles stuck in the ground over them, with helmet placed on the rifle top.
It is about 9.00pm we have our first cold meal and snatch a few hours noisy sleep lying down in the village street. At daylight with re-enforcements, we move up to commence battle again. We attack and then are counter attacked all day, but we are advancing against a very stubborn, brave enemy. Night arrives and we have advanced three miles, to be surrounded by the Germans on three sides. I dig with another comrade a small shallow slit trench that we can sit in and grab forty winks with the racket still going on around us.
Day breaks and we are attacking again and our Division is taking a pounding, yet we are still advancing. This day and night is a repetition of the first day in activity. We have now advanced eight bloody miles into the guts of the enemy.
Hitler now issues his orders to his Army.” No retreat, throw the British back into the sea.” We are now fighting four German Divisions at the tip of the wedge and on both sides. We halt repeated counter attacks, it is the 29th of June, and we have been fighting no-stop for three days.
This battle is now know as the battle of the ‘Scottish Corridor ‘and streets in that area are named after us. At 6.00pm I think my number is coming up, we are in a gulley in a hedgerow, we are being counter attacked again, we are disorganized, and men are running back in retreat. A brave unknown officer is behind us, revolver in hand shouting” No one retreats”: the words are ominous, if anyone attempts to do so they will finish up with a bullet in the head.
The situation is grim, 25 pounder guns are brought up alongside us, firing point blank into the enemy in the field in front of us. With this help the day is saved and we are finally relieved by a fresh Division, to rest and are reinforced.
We have had our baptism of fire. The Division continues the battle and finally it is relieved, it has lost 800 killed and 2300 wounded in the battle of the ‘Scottish Corridor’. The 12th SS Division took a terrible mauling; they had to be the toughest Division in the German Army.
Today the 15th Scottish Division’s dead lie buried in cemeteries all over Northern Europe. I was lucky to survive, to fight on for another nine months, to go into my last battle, the assault across the River Rhine, finally my number came up. I was in the first wave of the assault to cross the river. Once ashore I stepped on a small mine and have part of my left foot removed, my army days are ended.
Five weeks later the war is over, cost for my battalion over 1000 casualties, cost to the Division over 11,000.
Contemporary Pathe Newsreel footage of the early days in Normandy that was now being shown in British cinemas:
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.
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.
In building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ the Germans had anticipated that any landing on the continent of Europe would have to quickly capture a port. Only a full sized port could sustain the level of supplies that an invasion force needed. So naturally the most concentrated Atlantic wall defences had been built around the ports of northern France and Belgium.
The Allies had neatly side stepped this problem by taking the ‘Mulberry harbours’ with them. Two ports, one in the American sector and one in the British, were brought across the Channel. The fully functioning ports, capable of berthing large supply ships and providing direct road access along piers to the beaches, had been established on the 17th June. Then disaster struck on the 19th.
The unprecedented Great Gale of 19th-21st June nearly wrecked this advantage. The American Mulberry ‘A’ was damaged so badly that it never operated fully again. Bits of it were used to repair the less badly damaged British Mulberry B. It was to become critical to the Allied success in Normandy. The nearest port, Cherbourg, was not captured until the end of the month, and had been so badly sabotaged that it provided little support during the Normandy campaign.
War Correspondent W. F. Hartin was caught on a boat in mid Channel on the 19th:
For two nights, as vessels dragged their anchors, plunged into one another with a sickening grinding sound and were swept by 8-ft. waves, the situation to us who were in the midst of this fury seemed touch and go. We were in mid-Channel when the full force of the north-east wind, meeting the tide, piled up a mountainous beam sea. I was in one of the Navy’s motor-launches, a sturdy patrol vessel used to most hazards of these treacherous waters.
Suddenly, three times in succession, we were nearly capsized. As every man clung to the nearest hand-hold, the water hissed along the deck, burying the starboard half in boiling foam. We looked at teach other without attempting to speak, because the same thought was in all our minds – “This is the end. She is not going to right herself.” Each time the vessel swung back crazily to port it was if she were bracing herself for the final plunge, when she would roll over completely to starboard.
Then the captain, Lieut. G. S. Parsons, R.N.V.R., saw his chance, snapped out an order to put the helm hard over, and the little ship bravely dug into the sea head-on. She shivered as she hit one wave after another, but we were comparatively safe. The story of the next 12 hours is one of relentless fight, zig-zagging across these seas, when each turn might have been fatal.
Hour after hour we tried to edge nearer our part of the French coast. and after 12 hours’ passage we managed to get an anchorage in the lee of some big ships miles from where we were scheduled to arrive. We soon realized our troubles had barely begun. In the eerie twilight of this, the shortest night of the year, we could hear above the hiss of the waves and the shrieking wind the yet more ominous sound of ships grinding together.
Landing craft out of control pounded against us. Our anchors dragged, and we lost one. We, too, were drifting, and before we could tackle the situation the ship was flung heavily on a sandy bottom and pounded by a terrifying surf. In another second we would have been rolled over, a plaything of the storm, but just in time we managed to get our engines going and headed for deeper water. The appalling sight of the beach in the dreary grey of the morning told its own tale of craft that had piled together and been ground to matchwood. Feverish salvage work was going on all round, and most remarkable of all, when we reached our appointed anchorage next afternoon, the laborious process of keeping the Army supplied had not been brought to a standstill.
Still, angry seas were flinging the small craft up and down the sides of the big ships from which they were taking cargoes in slings. It was a feat of seamanship to get these small fellows alongside without getting them smashed. It was another to get them loaded, and yet another to get the cargoes ashore. But despite the combined heroism of thousands of men, the supplies came ashore all too slowly. The tonnage landed that day was small.
It was decided that the next day – whether the weather abated or not – our giant landing ships would go in “taking all risks”, and land direct on to the storm-swept and wreck-cluttered beaches. It was realized that this would probably mean a dead loss of these ships, for it was doubtful if they could ever be refloated in a seaworthy condition after the pounding they would receive.
Fortunately, the wind died down after 3½ days, and on Thursday morning our whole invasion coast lay lapped in a glassy sea. Unloading went on apace, though not all the damage could be put right at once. The serious aspect was the 3½ days’ delay in passing cargoes to France. It took several days of intense activity to make good the depleted dumps ashore. A north-easterly gale of such ferocity – it blew in 70 m.p.h. gusts – is not recalled within the memory of the most experienced Channel pilots, and blowing, as it did, straight into the Baie de la Seine, it piled up such a sea that all calculations of tides were confounded.
This account first appeared in The War Illustrated, July 21, 1944.
In Normandy the US First army had pushed across the base of the Cotentin peninsula and were moving on Cherbourg where it was hoped the Allies would gain the advantage of a major sea port.
The terrain was dominated by the French ‘bocage’ or box country. Here the small fields and narrow country lanes were surrounded by dense hedges built on earthen banks. This was ideal defensive territory, especially in the thick summer foliage, and the Germans exploited it fully.
Sergeant Bob Slaughter had survived the carnage of Omaha but he and the men of the 116th Infantry had plenty more horrors to face up to. They were still in the thick of the action. On 14th June they captured Couvain and this was just one episode amongst many that Slaughter describes:
The sight of another terrible death that occurred at this time haunts my dreams to this day. My squad and I were digging a machine gun emplacement behind a scrubby hedgerow. We had just finished fixing the camouﬂage when I happened to see a junior officer with field glasses scanning the front. I could tell he was a newly arrived replacement. His uniform and equipment were relatively new and unworn.
The sharp report of an 88mm fired from nearby sent me diving. At the same time, the high explosive missile hit the lieutenant’s upper torso. The 2nd Squad and I were splattered with gore as the spotter was blown backward, minus his head. Number two gunner Private First Class Sal Augeri vomited, and I nearly did, too.
The dreaded German sniper was almost as highly respected as the 88. Sharpshooters gave no warning, taking careful aim with sniper-scoped Mausers. The receiving end would hear the sharp crack and instantaneous whine of the bullet. If you heard the report of the bullet leaving the muzzle, it wasn’t for you.
German snipers nearly always aimed for the head if it was visible and in range. Most infantrymen never removed their helmets except when they shaved. I confess that I slept in mine. The 8mm bullet could easily pass through the helmet, through the head, and out the other side with enough energy left to do more damage.
I saw men get hit between the eyes or just above the ears, which killed them instantly. If the bullet missed the helmet, the entry hole was usually neat and showed only a small trickle of blood. But after the steel-jacket bullet hit the helmet or skull, the bullet ﬂattened, causing the exit wound to shatter the other side of the head away.
The 1st Battalion advanced toward Couvains from the west, double file, marching cautiously down a sunken dirt road just wide enough for a horse cart. We were ﬂanked by hedgerows four to five eet high, and covered with a canopy of overhanging foliage.
Intermittent mortar and artillery rounds were coming in ahead, which kept us on our toes. German communication trenches two feet wide and three feet deep were dug along on both sides of the road. These shallow ditches protected enemy communication wire from being cut by artillery.
As we moved closer to town, the foliage overhead thinned enough to reveal the steeple of the Catholic church, the first edifice we saw as we approached. The closer we got to the steeple, the more accurate the 88mm and mortar fire. Suddenly, the banshee scream of an 88mm shell sounded as if it had my number written all over it. Sh-boom!
I dove headfirst into the left ditch, losing my helmet and almost my neck. Somehow the exploding shell missed hitting anyone; we were keeping a space between men.
Picking myself up to brush off my uniform, I saw a strange and shocking sight. On the edge of the ditch lay a German forearm. Part of the uniform sleeve was there, with the elbow, arm, hand, and all fingers intact. I wondered what had happened to the rest of that poor bastard. I never did find out.
I climbed back on the path, shaken but unscathed. Within minutes, I had another surprise. As I approached an opening on the right side of the hedgerow, I heard someone moaning.
Crawling carefully through the opening, I came face-to-face with a young German paratrooper, who had been hit by a large chunk of shrapnel. He had a very serious upper thigh wound, and his left trouser leg was bloody and torn.
This was my first encounter with the enemy up close. The German paratrooper is a fierce and fanatical warrior, easily distinguishable by his round helmet and baggy smock. My first reaction was to put him out of his misery and keep going.
In fact Slaughter responded to the pleas of the young German , who he realised was about the same age of him, and applied a tourniquet and first aid.
Winston Churchill had wanted to accompany the invasion forces on D-Day itself, and had to be dissuaded by the King. He would not allow the visit to be delayed much longer.
On the 12th june the bridgehead in Normandy was still only a matter of a few miles deep and still under intermittent shellfire, and occasional air attack. Inland the clashes with the Panzer units were becoming more serious. Less than a week after the invasion the commanders in the field might be presumed to be fairly busy.
None of this deterred Churchill. He was accompanied by Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff who recorded the day in his diary:
[The Prime Minister’s party left the train at] 7.30 am to catch the destroyer Kelvin and leave Portsmouth at 8 am. The Americans had already started in a separate party. We had a very comfortable journey over and most interesting. We continually passed convoys of landing craft, minesweepers, bits of floating breakwater (Phoenix) being towed out, parts of the floating piers (Whales) etc. And overhead, a continuous flow of planes going to and coming from France.
About 11 am we approached the French coast and the scene was beyond description. Everywhere the sea was covered with ships of all sizes and shapes, and a scene of continuous activity. We passed through rows of anchored LSTs and finally came to a ‘Gooseberry’, namely a row of ships sunk in a half crescent to form a sort of harbour and to provide protection from the sea.
Here we were met by Admiral Vian (of Mediterranean fame) who took us in his Admiral’s barge from which we changed into a DUKW (amphibious lorry). This ran us straight onto the beach and up onto the road.
It was a wonderful moment to find myself re-entering France almost exactly 4 years after being thrown out for the second time, at St Nazaire. Floods of mem- ories came back of my last trip of despair, and those long four years of work and anxiety at last crowned by the success of a reentry into France.
Monty met us on the beach with a team of jeeps which we got into and drove off on the Courseulles-Bayeux road, to about 1/2 way to the latter place. There we found Monty’s HQ and he gave us an explanation on the map of his dispositions and plans. All as usual wonderfully clear and concise.
We then had lunch with him and my thoughts wandered off to 4 years ago when I was at Le Mans and Laval waiting for Monty and his 3rd Division to join me. I knew then that it would not be long before I was kicked out of France if I was not killed or taken prisoner, but if anybody had told me then that in 4 years time I should return with Winston and Smuts to lunch with Monty commanding a new invasion force I should have found it hard to believe it.
After lunch we drove round to Bimbo Dempsey’s HQ. I was astonished at how little affected the country had been by the German occupation and 5 years of war. All the crops were good, the country fairly clear of weeds, and plenty of fat cattle, horses, chickens etc. (As usual Winston described the situation in his inimitable way when driving with me. He said, ‘We are surrounded by fat cattle lying in luscious pastures with their paws crossed!’ This is just the impression they gave one.)
And the French population did not seem in any way pleased to see us arrive as a victorious country to liberate France. They had been quite content as they were, and we were bringing war and desolation to the country. We then returned to Courseulles, having watched a raid by Hun bombers on the harbour which did no harm.
We re-embarked on Vian’s Admiral’s Barge and did a trip right along the sea front watching the various activities. We saw ‘Landing Crafts Tank’ unloading lorries, tanks, guns etc onto the beaches in a remarkably short time.
We then went to the new harbour being prepared west of Hamel.
There we saw some of the large Phoenixes being sunk into place and working admirably. Also ‘bombadores’ to damp down waves, ‘Whales’ representing wonderful floating piers, all growing up fast.
Close by was a monitor with a 14″ gun firing away into France. Winston said he had never been on one of His Majesty’s ships engaging the enemy and insisted on going aboard. Luckily we could not climb up as it would have been a very risky entertainment had we succeeded.
Then we returned to our destroyer and went right back to the east end of the beach where several ships were bombarding the Germans. Winston wanted to take part in the war, and was longing to draw some retaliation. However the Boche refused to take any notice of any of the rounds we fired. We therefore started back about 6.15 and by 9.15 were back at Portsmouth after having spent a wonderfully interesting day.
We got on board the PM’s train where we found Marshall and King. We dined on the way back to London where we arrived shortly after 1 am dog tired and very sleepy!
At the beginning of January General Montgomery had arrived back in England and had reviewed the Overlord plans for the invasion of Europe. He immediately insisted that they be expanded – and the Omaha and Utah landing areas were added to the plan. After approval by Eisenhower, SHAEF’s (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) Initial Joint Plan had gone out to the two allied Armies for development at the beginning of February.
Omar Bradley headed the US First Army and during this period he oversaw some intensive staff work. Meanwhile Operation Bolero was accelerating. The build up of US troops in Britain had begun very modestly in 1942. Now there were over a million US service men and women in the UK, and over half a million more would join them before June.
There were still many issues to be resolved, not least a shortage of landing craft to take the invasion force across the Channel. Nevertheless Bradley was confident that the plan was taking shape:
Of all the invasion plans, and there were plans for each echelon in the chain of command, none were more intricate, more detailed, and weightier than those of the assault Armies. When on February 25, 1944, we completed the First Army plan for OVERLORD and called for the corps to come into the picture, we stitched together a huge mimeographed volume with more words than Gone with the Wind. In all, 324 complete copies of this limited edition were published by First Army.
On D day alone, First Army was to put ashore the equivalent of more than 200 trainloads of troops. By D plus 14 the U.S. build-up would more than double the strength of the U. S. Army at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Within two weeks after crashing the wall we would have landed enough vehicles to form a double column from Pittsburgh to Chicago.
The more than 55,000 men who were to assault the American beaches on D day came from approximately 200 individual units – ranging from a division of 14,000 men to a photographic team of two. Every individual, every vehicle, had become part of a monstrous jigsaw puzzle that was to be disassembled for ferrying across the Channel and then reassembled on the far shore.
The equipment we were to carry varied from 120-foot steel span bridges to sulpha pills. It even included fresh drinking water: 300,500 gallons of it for the first three days ashore.
To Thorson, our G-8, and Wilson, G-4, there fell the onerous task of monitoring priorities on this lift. Thorson controlled the allocation of combat vehicles and personnel while Wilson controlled the supply and service units. Within a month they had become harassed men. For rare was the individual who did not believe that unless he were landed on D day, OVERLORD could not succeed.
To make room for troops, services, and weapons supporting the assault units it became necessary to prune from every command all but its most essential transportation. As a result, even the 1st Division was pared down from its normal complement to fewer than half its vehicles. When an officer of the division complained, Tubby simply growled back, “Look, my friend, you’re not going very far on D day. If you find yourself stumped because you’re short on trucks, just call for me and I’ll piggyback you to Paris.”