9 August 1944: Canadian infantry attack into the bocageWe covered about a mile and a bit and stopped around eight hundred yards from the woods. We knew they were in there — you could see the activity, although the targets were well hidden by the heavy trees and bush. Each company, left of the road and right of the road, had a real challenge. Both areas were divided into fields, marked by typical hedgerows of stone and dirt two to three feet high, with growth on top of that of another seven feet or so.
The British and Canadian Operation Totalise continued, an attempt to push south to link up the US focus and complete the encirclement of the Germans in Normandy. But just as the US forces had made slow progress in the bocage country at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, they were also held up in this natural defensive territory.
Charles Martin was the Company Sergeant Major of A Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. Here he describes the attack on Quesnay Wood, an objective which would have pushed the British and Canadian forces much deeper into the German lines towards Falaise.
The battle was preceded by a time of great quiet. Silence seemed to lie over the whole area. I’m not certain that we knew at the time just how signiﬁcant our assignment was and how much was expected of it. There’s no doubt the support of the Polish tanks would have made an enormous difference to us. We had some artillery support, but one look at those woods ahead foretold how difﬁcult finding a target would be.
The idea was that B Company on the left and ourselves on the right should advance, capture a strong point and then have the two remaining companies move through us and take the high ground a few miles farther. This would put them in a position overlooking Falaise. In retrospect, the plan seems, well, ambitious.
We covered about a mile and a bit and stopped around eight hundred yards from the woods. We knew they were in there — you could see the activity, although the targets were well hidden by the heavy trees and bush. Each company, left of the road and right of the road, had a real challenge. Both areas were divided into fields, marked by typical hedgerows of stone and dirt two to three feet high, with growth on top of that of another seven feet or so.
These contained plenty of enemy positions that had to be cleared out one by one. Then, in every other field or so, there’d be a double hedgerow with a sunken lane between. Once these lanes were cleared and made secure, our carrier used them to bring up more ammo, which we were going through at a tremen- dous rate.
Because the hedgerows offered such good defence to the enemy, our Bren-gunners were pouring it on, covering the riﬂe-men as they advanced. Often we’d be right on the enemy position before the defenders – pinned down by the Bren ﬁre – realized it. Then they’d give up rather easily, surprised to be overrun.
In their defence, it should be said they had a poor ﬁeld of ﬁre in those hedgerows; as long as our ammo held out we could pin hem down and pretty well get right up to them. We usually told the survivors to discard their weapons, put their hands on their heads and move back to our lines.
In this way on our side of the road, we slowly moved up, field by ﬁeld, hedgerow by hedgerow, using our Brens and some mortars with good effect. We had no way of knowing how the other company on the left of the road was proceeding, though we could hear the ﬁre.
By late afternoon we’d covered maybe six hundred yards, or three-quarters of the distance to the woods. We were troops fairly well battlewise at this point and did not get too upset about the troubles we’d gone through to get this far. We had some wounded, and the continuing need for ammunition supplies was always a concern.
About this time, 9 Platoon made a move and got up to the last hedgerow before the woods. We knew by now that the woods contained dug-in 88s and heavy machine guns. In fact, they had us targeted very well. About 250 yards from the woods and 100 feet from the road was exactly where 80 percent of their fire was landing.
I had spent the afternoon moving from section to section, back to HQ and Boss Medland, then forward again with new instructions, and always checking to make sure the carrier was available with the ammunition supply.
So when I got up to 9 Platoon, there was some decision to be made. Should we dig in? Should we wait for the tanks? By this time several runners had gone back as each new piece of informa- tion was obtained. But we had no way of knowing, either at our forward point or back at A Company HQ, that on the other side of the road B Company had run into real trouble.
[A few men eventually reached the edge of the wood where the enemy was positioned – but they were out of ammunition]
First of all we spotted three heavies dug in at the edge of the woods and firing out. Being up close to a tank is not so bad; they can’t see what’s under them, only what’s fairly far in front.
We were in sort of a low area, swampy in the spring but dry now, with small shrubs around — a good hiding place. We sent Charlie Bloomfield and Ernie Hackett back with all the information we could assemble — number of tanks, location, estimate of the number of troops, etc. — with a request for ammunition, and a Piat gun that would help us (not by much — that armour plate was too much) against the tanks.
We were prepared to hold on, depending on HQ instructions and whatever tank, artillery or air support they might plan. Otherwise, we said, we’d pull out around midnight, when things generally seem to quiet down, and get back to HQ about dawn.
Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, they had made good progress but were now in danger of being outflanked.
30 July 1944: Operation Bluecoat – the final push in Normandy beginsI wondered what the pilot thinks of the infantryman. Several bomber pilots have told me subsequently that their most interesting missions were in direct support of land ﬁghting and usually on those occasions they came away with light losses. One pilot has told me that from the sky the explosion of bombs looks the least terrible part of a battle. ‘Your artillery,’ he said, ‘looks as if it is creating great havoc. It gives a continuous line of ﬂashes and it looks to us as if nothing could live down below.’
As the US First Army in the west suddenly emerged as the crisis point for the Germans in the Normandy bridgehead, they began to transfer Panzer troops across from the east where they had been facing the British and Canadians. Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat to exploit the transfer of 2nd SS Panzer Division away to the west and to keep the remaining German divisions in the east fully engaged.
The British sector in the west was now very congested. Geoffrey Picot, commanding a mortar platoon, describes how they they fitted into the greater plan that day:
On our right in the St Lo sector, we were told, the Americans had achieved a breakthrough which had great possibilities; the 15th Scottish Division, containing nine battalions, had been switched to an important area near the junction of the British and American armies, and they were going to make a strong attack to support the American effort.
Our job, with sixteen other battalions all working to a coherent plan, was to push forward in the general direction of Villers Bocage and beyond, and there were hopes that we would ﬁnd it easier attacking there, through Ectot Woods, than we had done at Hottot.
While it was still dark on the morning of 30 July sentries went around to all the trenches, calling the occupants. We rolled up our blankets (covered with the eternal dust and ground), put them on the carriers, and made ready to move off in the battalion convoy to our ﬁring position. As this was to be a major offensive the roads would be clogged with trafﬁc for several hours before the start.
So all unit moves had been planned and timed in advance. A battalion would be told to leave point A at time X and arrive at point B at time Y and it was not allowed to have any vehicles on the road except at those times and places. So in this case the commanding ofﬁcer was moving his battalion in convoy at 5.30 a.m. and the mortar platoon had to fall in behind battalion headquarters.
Some people do not like getting up at ﬁve o’clock, and it took some shouting and bullying on my part to get the carriers marshalled in time. At the last moment I counted only six carriers — one missing! Two of the chaps had slept on in their trench, and the driver was waiting for them. We raked these fellows out and half pushed, half threw, them and their equipment and blankets on the last carrier. I loathed the thought of being out of place in a convoy because that would show sheer inefﬁciency.
However, we occupied our correct position and, as daylight was beginning to break through, moved to the area of the start line. I set up the six mortars behind some farm buildings which offered good protection. I had arranged for Sergeant Wetherick to bring up an extra supply of ammunition, but when zero hour came his ﬁfteen-hundredweight truck had not arrived.
We had an ambitious ﬁre programme to carry out in support of the attacking riﬂemen, so we started at once and kept going strongly. Soon Sergeant Wetherick arrived, having been delayed by the narrow tracks and trafﬁc jams. I was not surprised.
We had a good weight of artillery support and, although the Germans retaliated, life in our immediate area remained fairly comfortable. During a quiet spell the chaps brewed up some tea and prepared breakfast of bacon and biscuits, but they were fearful lest in the middle of their preparations I should need to order ‘Move forward now’.
Their luck held, for although the attacking infantry made progress, they did so slowly, and we were able to stay in our initial position for some hours. This new colonel, I discovered, was not like Howie; he did not want the mortars close to the front. As long as I could reach 500 or 600 yards in front of our troops he was content for me to be in what I judged the best ﬁring position. We had good communication with the commanders of the leading formations and we energeti- cally fulﬁlled their requirements.
This time the air support worked correctly. About 9.30 a.m. little black dots appeared in the sky behind us; they came nearer; we recognized them as aircraft; ﬂight after ﬂight of aircraft. They were Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers ﬂying in loose formation and, with a magniﬁcent and impressive disregard of German ﬁghter and anti-aircraft artillery defences, were only about 500 feet above the ground.
Scores of bombers came overhead; the scores grew into hundreds; and we had to stop our ﬁring so as not to endanger them. Their targets were not far away, for we felt the earth rumble as their bombs exploded. This air support gave our morale a great boost and it must also have had a substantial material effect. For half an hour the attack continued and I did not see one bomber come to grief.
I wondered what the pilot thinks of the infantryman. Several bomber pilots have told me subsequently that their most interesting missions were in direct support of land ﬁghting and usually on those occasions they came away with light losses. One pilot has told me that from the sky the explosion of bombs looks the least terrible part of a battle. ‘Your artillery,’ he said, ‘looks as if it is creating great havoc. It gives a continuous line of ﬂashes and it looks to us as if nothing could live down below.’
16 July 1944: The bloody battle for Hill 112If single German infantrymen can pop in and out of ditches within fifty yards of our tank, single German infantrymen may be crawling through the hedges alongside us or through the long grass behind us. And some of those infantrymen carry the notorious Panzerfaust, a simple, throwaway bomb-projector, known to us as a Bazooka and looking something like an outsize bassoon, an innocuous-looking instrument but one which, at ﬁfty yards range, can blow our turret to smithereens.
On the 16th July the British put in another attack to try to break the deadlock that had emerged around Hill 112 outside Caen. Sergeants Laing, Mapham, Midgley and Walter of No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit were present to record various aspects of the day – and we have a reasonably complete photographic history of different units of the British Army as they prepare to make an assault.
In Normandy the bloody battle for Hill 112 had begun on the 10th July, with British troops gripped in a bitter struggle with the SS Panzer Divisions to seize the high ground on the battlefield outside Caen. Casualties were high on both sides. For the British commanders there was the knowledge that their losses were replaceable, whereas the German losses were not.
For those locked into this struggle there would have been little consolation that they were fulfilling their of role of grinding down the enemy and preventing the transfer of Panzer forces to the west, where the Americans were preparing to breakout of the bridgehead. These are accounts from men of the 7th Somersets:
We had reached the farm buildings around Chateau de Fontaine, dug in positions in the meadows. Mortar and shell fire was devastating. Col. Lance [who had won a DSO in Africa] was killed by a shell from an 88mm while sitting in his jeep, the Gunner BC Major Mapp was killed, the Adjutant A. Scannell wounded and evacuated. A steady stream of wounded was arriving at the RAP. Maj. Young and Maj. Chalmers shared command of the Battalion with that of their own coys[Companys]. Snipers were at their worst.
Shortly after Col. Lance was killed, Maj. Young’s Coy was clearing some farm buildings. A shot whistled unpleasantly close. Maj. Y. turned to Pte. Lace (Battalion sniper) with ‘That’s the fifth shot that basket has fired at me, we must get him.’
They found him hidden in a junk—heap in the middle of a duck pond! They found another not more than seventeen years old, who had buried himself in the mud of a wet ditch — only his head, arms and riﬂe were free, even these covered with slime and weeds. Another was burned out from a hayrick set on fire by a German shell.
Several days after the occupation of Chateau de Fontaine, snipers were still being found. One had barricaded himself in a room on the first ﬂoor of a barn while a platoon of ‘D’ Coy occupied the ground floor. They got him with a Bren gun burst fired through the closed door when he refused to come out.
The enemy trenches in the area were full of German dead, passed over by the leading troops, and the usual scene of mutilated farm animals all around. Air was rancid with the smell of dead animals and ﬂies.
Our officers were dwindling through death and wounding and it was rumoured that we only had one or two officers left in the [‘S’] Company. Our own ofﬁcer had been killed and it was left to our sergeants to look after us. The toll of dead from the German shelling and attacks had risen considerably and our graveyard increased in the same measure.
We had lost all our top ofﬁcers and it was a case of stick it, and stick it, until someone made a breakthrough or retreated. Our cemetery/or graveyard was shelled by the Germans out of hatred or their morale breaking… We did take only a few SS prisoners, that explains what a terriﬁc defence that they had put up.
It wasn’t only in defence that these merchants excelled. They attacked and knew how to attack and die when they faced our guns, tanks and defenders. They seemed to have the best equipment as well.
Pte. Len Stokes, ‘B’ Company:
The German tanks were lined up to our front and took periodic shots at our 17-pounder unmanned gun which two German planes had just attacked, knocking all the crew out. I had to get out of my trench to see to ‘bodily functions’. They probably thought I was a gun crew member and fired a shell which hit a tree branch above me. The blast blew my steel helmet back, the chin strap nearly breaking my neck.
I was then ordered to take a verbal message to Battalion HQ as radio contact had been lost. [It was] in an outer farmhouse — they had just been very heavily shelled with many casualties. The ﬁrst person dying from chest Wounds said ‘Don’t worry about me, see to the badly wounded.’ Capt. Goldy found me, said he had assumed command of the Bn. Our CO had been killed, also the CO and 2 i/c of the Regiment relieving us.
Ken Tout was a gunner in one of the British tanks joining the attack on the 16th. He gives an excellent account from the perspective of a tank in the bocage:
’Driver, advance!’ The Sherman climbs up the bank. I get a view of the tree-tops above the hedge. We level off and stay perched on the bank. This is the evil moment when the Sherman shows its thinly plated bottom to any gunner or bazooka man sitting out in the ﬁeld beyond. It is a naked, unprotected feeling. Hickey revs the engine a little, we begin to topple, a giant hand seems to rip the hedge aside, we crash down to earth, and are through!
We come looking for guns, for ﬂame, for smoke, for the frantic sudden movement of mechanical monsters behind hedges. Or the solitary field-grey hero nursing a bazooka and challenging us to move our big gun more swiftly than his modest iron tube. But this is an empty ﬁeld. A tiny ﬁeld. Not big enough to kick a football in. Certainly not the space for a game of cricket. A tiny grazing area defended by high ramparts of hedgerow. And nothing to see. Another tiny private world of our own. Conquered by us. And nobody the wiser.
We roll up to the opposite hedge, merely a couple of rotations of our tracks and we are again pressing into the greenery. The commander must be able to see something from up above.
I return to my botany studies. I should end this campaign an expert on privet, hawthorn, bramble and such. Troop Corporal reports to Troop Leader. I sit and wonder whether the end of our barrel is projecting through the hedge to the amusement of a crew of German anti-tank gunners the other side. My continued existence suggests that this is a fallacy.
We get the word to move again. Presumably 3 and 3 Able and 3 Charlie are also forsaking their little conquered ﬁelds to brave another hedge. We crawl towards the sky, tip, balance, wait for the crash of anti-tank shots through our exposed bottom plates, then crash down frontwards into a new green world — as tiny as the previous one. Behind us the infantry will be moving up and peeping through the horrendous hole we have just made in a farmer s hedge.
Across the ﬁeld. This farthest hedge is not so high. Not so thick. We nuzzle into the hedge and the gun prods through. ‘Can you see yet, gunner?’ The leaves fall away from the periscope and I can see. Germans! By the next hedge. But dead. Lying in a group face downwards as though thrown there by some mighty blast. I point my guns at them, then traverse away towards more ominous areas.
As we begin to cross this further field, Rex calls ‘Those Jerries aren’t dead!’ I swing the guns, see the Germans, leaping to their feet, hands held high and empty, mouths expressing the desperate words ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ and trembling into incontinence as my gun almost grazes their faces in its onward swing.
Corporal Snowdon, up above, and Rex, opening up his lower hatch cover, by dint of much waving and kameradly grinning, manage to persuade our petriﬁed enemies to work their nether limbs back towards our Staffordshire cousins in the hedgerow behind us.
Again we probe through a hedge. This time the opposite hedge is penetrated by a wide gateway — which causes me to wonder how the farmer obtains access to those previous ﬁelds where I did not notice gates! A German hops across the gate space like a scared rabbit. I am too astonished to react.
Another German runs across the space, left to right. I douse the right-hand hedge with machine-gun bullets. A third German takes the leap. Again I press the floor button, and tracer spits into the hedge on the right of the gate. I am waiting for the fourth German, with his basin-shaped helmet, his wide, neat tunic, his sloppy, baggy trousers, his carbine in hand. As he sprints across the gate, I fire into the hedge, his destination. He keeps running, I am totally perplexed.
’Gunner, there’s obviously a trench behind that hedge! Or a deep ditch to give them cover. Operator, reload with HE. Gunner, ﬁre three rounds of HE in your own time!’
Obvious! But not to me. Tommy slaps my leg. I tread hard. The flame at the gun and the flame at the hedge are almost simultaneous. The hedge is so near that the tempestuous concussion against the hedge rebounds and slams the turret whilst the gun is still recoiling from its own discharge. For a moment we have the sensation of a small ship hitting a big rock in stormy seas. A hurricane of noise, ﬂame, smoke, sods, leaves, burning air, wraps us round. The gate space is twice the size it was. Tommy slaps. I tread?’
Another tornado. Slap. Tread. Blast. The hedge, what is left of it, begins to burn. No more Germans leap the gap. Until now my main fear has been the elephantine shape of a heavy German tank, a Tiger, Panther, Royal Tiger or Self-Propelled Gun (SP) suddenly appearing downwind of us, its all-destroying gun pointing at us and its armour plate impervious to our 75mm shot. Now a new peril is evident.
If single German infantrymen can pop in and out of ditches within fifty yards of our tank, single German infantrymen may be crawling through the hedges alongside us or through the long grass behind us. And some of those infantrymen carry the notorious Panzerfaust, a simple, throwaway bomb-projector, known to us as a Bazooka and looking something like an outsize bassoon, an innocuous-looking instrument but one which, at ﬁfty yards range, can blow our turret to smithereens.
The cosy little ﬁelds darken into a tight, ugly death-trap, as though a vast, black cloud had come over the summer sun. We sit and watch the burning of the hedge and wonder about Panzerfausts.
11 July 1944: A desperate Japanese breakout on New GuineaThe dense jungle terrain greatly restricted vision and movement, and he endeavored to penetrate down the trail toward an open clearing of Kunai grass. As he advanced, he detected the enemy, supported by at least 6 light and 2 heavy machineguns, attempting an enveloping movement around both flanks. His commanding officer sent a second platoon to move up on the left flank of the position, but the enemy closed in rapidly, placing our force in imminent danger of being isolated and annihilated.
On the night of 10th/11th July the trapped Japanese 18th Army attempted to break through US lines. In what became known as the Battle of Driniumor River they attacked in a solid mass of around 10,000 men in a suicidal frontal assault. This was an attempt to ensure that some men would successfully break through – which they did – but it was achieved at appalling cost.
The Japanese were now aware of how strongly defended the US positions were. US machine gunners cut down hundreds of the Japanese, with some reports of so many bodies piled up in front of US positions that that they blocked the field of fire and men had to go forward to clear them away.
Shortly before midnight, after a short artillery preparation, which came as a surprise because no enemy artillery had been identified within range of the Driniumor, [10,000] enemy infantry in screaming waves began charging across the river against Companies E and G 128TH Infantry, in the south part of the sector of the 2D Battalion, 128TH Infantry.
The attack in the Company G sector was stopped, but another attack which hit Company E shortly after the first assault was more successful largely because of the physical impossibility of holding a position in the dark against an attacking force believed to have a ten to one superiority over the defenders. By dawn the Japanese held a good-sized area of wooded high ground to the left rear of Company G
Blakeley, H. W., Major General, Retired. The 32D Infantry Division in World War II.
The battle was fought in some of the most inhospitable conditions, as described by Bill Garbo, who was a member of a dog Platoon:
When first viewed from the ocean, you marvel at the beauty of this tropical paradise, the vegetation intermixed with coconut palms swaying in the breeze looks beautiful and inviting however after landing there this image changes.
The jungle is characterized by giant hardwoods, which tower two hundred feet into the air with trunks six and eight feet in diameter, flared out at the base by great buttress roots. Among and beneath the trees thrive a fantastic tangle of vines, creepers, ferns and brush, impenetrable even to the eye for more than a few feet. Kunei grass 6 to 10 feet tall grows in a thick maze along the open sand bars of the rivers with its host of mites (carriers of scrub typhus), lice and giant spiders; the blades of grass are sharp enough to slice your arms and legs if you try to walk through without using a machete to cut an opening.
Exotic birds inhabit the upper stories of the jungle growth while the Dodo bird walks the jungle floor and never flies because of useless wings, the result of an evolutionary change; its legs are powerful enough to kick a man to death when provoked; the insect world permeates the sluggish whole scene in extraordinary sizes and varieties: ants whose bite feels like a live cigarette against the flesh, improbable spiders, wasps three inches long, scorpions and centipedes that sting thrive in the undergrowth.
Insects fill the evening air just before dark with a chorus of sounds so loud you can hear nothing else. When darkness falls the noise of the insects continues for awhile then stops abruptly as though ordered by some hidden authority bringing on an eerie silence.
The animal kingdom is less numerous, represented by species of large marsupial rats, a distant relative of the opossum, giant frogs, snakes and lizards ranging in length from three inches to three feet and a few much larger snakes of the constrictor type. Leeches fill the streams and must be removed from your legs after wading through any water and some varieties are peculiar in that they live in trees and drop upon the unwary passerby from above sticking to the flesh, extracting blood in an instant. Anyone who has not experienced it. After a rain shower steam rises from every man’s wet mud [hole?].
No air stirs-here, and the hot humidity is beyond the imagination of soaked clothing as though you are on fire. Rot lies everywhere just under the exotic lushness and it’s foul smell fills your nostrils. The ground is porous with decaying vegetation, emitting a sour, unpleasant odor. Substantial-looking trees, rotten to the core, are likely to topple over when leaned against, and great giants crash down unpredictably in every rainstorm.
Freshly-killed flesh begins to decompose in a matter of a few hours with the aid of ever present maggots. Dampness, thick and heavy is everywhere the result of regular rains which give the forest its name; rain that is unbelievably torrential at times, never ceasing altogether for more than a few hours at a time.
Amongst the many actions that day was the outstanding example of Staff Sergeant Gerald L. Endl of the 32nd Infantry Division, whose citation for the Medal of Honor records:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty near Anamo, New Guinea, on 11 July 1944.
S/Sgt. Endl was at the head of the leading platoon of his company advancing along a jungle trail when enemy troops were encountered and a fire fight developed. The enemy attacked in force under heavy rifle, machinegun, and grenade fire. His platoon leader wounded, S/Sgt. Endl immediately assumed command and deployed his platoon on a firing line at the fork in the trail toward which the enemy attack was directed.
The dense jungle terrain greatly restricted vision and movement, and he endeavored to penetrate down the trail toward an open clearing of Kunai grass. As he advanced, he detected the enemy, supported by at least 6 light and 2 heavy machineguns, attempting an enveloping movement around both flanks. His commanding officer sent a second platoon to move up on the left flank of the position, but the enemy closed in rapidly, placing our force in imminent danger of being isolated and annihilated.
Twelve members of his platoon were wounded, 7 being cut off by the enemy. Realizing that if his platoon were forced farther back, these 7 men would be hopelessly trapped and at the mercy of a vicious enemy, he resolved to advance at all cost, knowing it meant almost certain death, in an effort to rescue his comrades. In the face of extremely heavy fire he went forward alone and for a period of approximately 10 minutes engaged the enemy in a heroic close-range fight, holding them off while his men crawled forward under cover to evacuate the wounded and to withdraw.
Courageously refusing to abandon 4 more wounded men who were lying along the trail, 1 by 1 he brought them back to safety. As he was carrying the last man in his arms he was struck by a heavy burst of automatic fire and was killed.
By his persistent and daring self-sacrifice and on behalf of his comrades, S/Sgt. Endl made possible the successful evacuation of all but 1 man, and enabled the 2 platoons to withdraw with their wounded and to reorganize with the rest of the company.
8 July 1944: Charnwood: British launch another attack on CaenIt was some time in the afternoon that we emerged from the Wood, and pressed on over the open ground to a small hill marked on the map as Point 64. As we advanced to the hill we came under intense ground and air-burst shelling. There was no cover to escape the deadly effects of the air-bursts, and as I was urging my platoon forward toward CAEN now only a mile or two away, I felt a dull thud in my left arm just below the elbow. I looked down and saw blood oozing through battle-dress tunic. There was a knocked-out tank on the side of the road, so I crawled underneath it to assess the damage to my arm.
Caen had been an objective for D-Day itself. Now, over a month later Montgomery launched one more large scale attack to take the town, which lay at the centre of German defences on the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead. Already the town had suffered terribly from Allied bombing, and would suffer still further before it was taken.
On the approaches to Caen the Germans had well prepared defences and it would take more than two days of fighting before the town was finally taken.
Lieutenant Harry Jones led 10 Platoon, X Company, 2nd Battalion The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry from the D-Day landings through to the night of the 7th July:
The operation was further complicated by the nature of the Normandy ‘bocage’ countryside—thick over-grown hedgerows, deep, narrow country lanes, and clumps of trees. That night we attacked three or four machine-gun posts, and, although there was silence from them for some time afterwards, we could not be sure that we had completely knocked them out. The remainder of the night was spent in probing their positions, with the occasional crossfire breaking the silence, and from the enemy a barrage of hand grenades. At one point I took the Bren machine-gun from the gunner, and, stupidly standing up, I fired bursts of machine-gun fire into the enemy positions, at the same time firing words of abuse in German at the enemy, challenging then to “come out and fight”. Thankfully, the challenge was not accepted!
At sunrise [on the 8th] we covered the cross-roads with fire, but even in daylight it was almost impossible to locate the enemy positions which were well camouflaged and well dug-in.
Suddenly, a German soldier, hands raised in the air in surrender, walked to our scrapes in the ground which had stood in for properly dug trenches. My sergeant went towards him to search him, and to our horror, the German suddenly produced a hand-grenade and threw it at the sergeant. Fortunately it missed and exploded harmlessly a few feet away from any of my men. The immediate impulse of some of my soldiers was to shoot the German but I ordered them not to shoot, although I must confess my immediate reaction was much the same as theirs. (It is understandable in the heat of battle to lose one’s sense of morality, and vent one’s spleen on the enemy. However, one realises that, in the future, one must live with one’s conscience.)
I told one of my toughest soldiers to fix his bayonet and force the German to advance with us to the battle for CAEN, since he was a threat to any of our own troops in the vicinity. He ‘accompanied’ us as far as LEBISEY WOOD and there we handed him over to troops returning to the beachhead.
At about 0430 hours on the 8th July 1944 the battle for CAEN began with a massive artillery bombardment on LEBISEY WOOD. The wood itself and the hill on which it stood seemed to rise physically feet into the air. The noise of the shelling was horrendous, and I wondered how anyone could possibly survive such a bombardment. I and my platoon stayed covering the crossroads, wondering when the Division which was to advance through the crossroads on their way to the West of CAEN would arrive. It was an unpleasant situation. The Division probably did not know exactly where we were, nor even if we were there at all, and I wondered whether they might mistake us for the enemy. When their forward troops appeared on the skyline behind us, advancing in our direction, I stood up and waved my arms in the direction of the crossroads. They must have understood, because they did not fire in our direction.
To avoid any casualties, I withdrew my platoon from the area, and we advanced in open formation across the fields back to LEBISEY WOOD. On the way we were shelled by German 88mm anti-aircraft artillery, firing in the ground role. The 88mm was an extremely accurate weapon, and luckily none of my men sustained any injuries. We moved up to through, LEBISEY WOOD. The scene was one of utter devastation. The ground was cratered with innumerable shell holes, and the trees looked like those of the scarred and shattered woods in the First World War. There were mangled bodies lying around, and I remembered looking at a pair of German army boots with the feet separated from the rest of the body. On my right rose the dreaded water tower, still intact although looking rather battle-scarred!
It was some time in the afternoon that we emerged from the Wood, and pressed on over the open ground to a small hill marked on the map as Point 64. As we advanced to the hill we came under intense ground and air-burst shelling. There was no cover to escape the deadly effects of the air-bursts, and as I was urging my platoon forward toward CAEN now only a mile or two away, I felt a dull thud in my left arm just below the elbow. I looked down and saw blood oozing through battle-dress tunic. There was a knocked-out tank on the side of the road, so I crawled underneath it to assess the damage to my arm.
A couple of seconds later one of my soldiers threw himself under the tank alongside myself, and enquired if I was all right. Before could reply, a shell landed alongside us, and he was hit in the buttocks by a piece of shrapnel. He was in pain, and my arm was becoming useless, so I helped him to the side of the road and managed to obtain a lift in an army vehicle leaving the battlefield. We made our way to the Regimental Aid Post where I met our friendly doctor who examined me and the soldier, and told me I would be evacuated to Field Hospital situated near the coast. I was slightly surprised because I thought that the shrapnel could be quickly removed from arm, and I could return to my platoon.
We were transferred to the tented hospital, and as we topped the rise just to the North of BEUVILLE, I could see the guns of the Royal Artillery pouring round after round into the CAEN area; tanks moving South to join the battle, and, off the beaches, all types of landing craft, some crippled, others moving up supplies etc to the beach-head, protect overhead by barrage balloons.
On arriving at the Field Hospital, my wound was cleaned and a new dressing applied. I then collapsed onto a camp bed and fell fast asleep. I had not appreciated that I was still suffering from shock and lack of sleep and exhaustion after the past 48 hours. When I awoke I was informed that I was to be returned to England — I just could not believe my ears! I was put on a DUKW—a small amphibious vehicle—and we sailed through beach obstacles now rendered safe, and sunken landing craft.
Looking ahead I was amazed to see a hospital ship to which we were making our way. I had expected to be transferred to England on some type of landing craft, but this was absolute luxury! Once on board I went to the Ward Room where, sitting around a table were about a half-dozen nursing staff. I then sat down to the only decent meal I had had in over a month— roast chicken, roast potatoes, fresh peas and a sweet. After the meal I went on deck just as the ship was weighing anchor. I watched the Normandy coast slowly slipping away, and thought of the Battalion, and especially my platoon who by this time had helped successfully to capture CAEN.
My battle for NORMANDY was over.
Read the whole of Jones’ account from 4th June right through to this final day in France at War Chronicle. He fails to mention that he was awarded the Military Cross for this action. The Royal Ulster Rifles were also involved in the attack on Lebisey Wood, and some of their accounts give a contrasting perspective on event.
The men were dropping like skittles but we were advancing and that meant we were winning. The medics just couldn’t cope; the walking wounded had to make their own way back to the transport; the more serious wounded had to be left there after the medics had treated them.
The diary of Jim Wisewell of the Royal Army Medical Corps is even more graphic about the true nature of battle:
At 4 a.m. the barrage began … it seemed that every gun in the neighbourhood was hurling shells at Lebisey … Then the infantry went in. At 5 a.m. the first wounded came back, cheerful, optimistic. We splinted fractures, covered wounds with sterile dressings and relieved each other for breakfast at 6.30 a.m.
As the day wore on, sunny and scorching hot, the tide of casualties rose. Dozens and dozens were carried in. Our treatment centre always had 3 upon the trestles being attended to and soon the approaches were lined with a queue. Hour after hour we worked and evacuated and still the ﬂow continued.
Ghastly wounds there were, of every type and state of severity. Heads with skulls so badly smashed that bone and brain and pillow were almost indivisible; faces with horrible lacerations; jaws blown completely away leaving only two
sad eyes to plead for relief from pain. Chests pierced through with shrapnel and lungs that spouted blood from gushing holes. Arms were mangled into shapeless masses left hanging by muscle alone and waiting the amputation knife.
There were abdomens perforated by shell splinters and displaying coils of intestine, deadly wounds. Buttocks were torn and in some cases spinal injury had followed bringing paralysis.
But the leg wounds! Thigh—bones splintered; knees without knee caps; legs without feet; red, mangled ﬂesh and blood ﬂooding the stretcher.
And others trembling uncontrollably, sobbing like children, strapped to the stretcher and struggling to be free; screaming and, when a shell landed near the ADS, shouting, ‘They’re coming again! O God, they’re coming again.’ Not heroes, but sufferers nonetheless.
We ate our lunch of biscuit and corned beef with bloody fingers and when relieved by 9th Field Ambulance at 6 p.m. we had treated 466 British soldiers and 40 Germans.
1 July 1944: Normandy – Canadian night patrol to snatch a prisonerSo the actual practice requires that number two moves silently and quickly, knife in hand, on the soldier leaving the trench. The slightest sound will mean death to the patrol. A knife to the man’s kidney instantly paralyzes his vocal cords; number two’s other hand will catch soundlessly the falling rifle. Then a quick slash across the throat. Number three man, in the same moment, is in the trench guaranteeing a prisoner who will live by the quick use of the garrotte. The enemy soldier loses consciousness with- out a gasp. Then a ﬁreman’s lift and back to the start point. Prisoner delivered; objective achieved
Charles Martin was the Company Sergeant Major of A Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada, a unit that had been together since 1940. They had landed on D-Day and had been in action several times since. The end of June and beginning of July found them dug in, prepared to receive German counter attacks.
At this point in his memoirs Martin devotes a chapter to describing in detail the business of the infantryman in the field, not merely the existence in foxholes and slit trenches but the active pursuit of the enemy by going out on patrol. These might either be “for information” – the snatching of a prisoner or they they might be intended to draw the enemy’s fire so as to reveal his positions. For each Martin would be careful in his selection of the small team of men who were best suited to the task.
An “information patrol” was best conducted at night:
Leaving the start point, we’d roll out the white tape as we advanced and pull it back as we returned. This meant if we found our way through the mines on the way out, we’d have the same safe trail coming back. If the enemy opened ﬁre, real problems could develop in darkness. You could easily lose direction. So the tape was our lifeline.
In darkness, time and distance become difficult to read. You could have gone right through the enemy line; they were excellent in deception, camouflage and a whole variety of defensive tricks.
Trip wires, for example, could set off a ﬂare. Then there was the danger of panic. It was necessary to train our men to “freeze.” Only movement can be seen. A man frozen motionless, particularly if next to a tree, is virtually invisible. Don’t flop — unless the enemy opens up. Frozen silent in the ghostly ﬂare, black face, muffled weapon, no helmet — a helmet looks just like a helmet and can cause a rattle – there’s every chance a man will not be spotted or will even look to the enemy like a stump or part of the terrain.
In such events, you’d be very glad of the time in daylight that had been spent studying the situation. It was always wise to impress upon your mind, in advance, how the general area appeared in daylight, and to remember it well during the black- ness.
A prisoner patrol demanded other skills from our men. In some types of action prisoners might give themselves up fairly easily. But in Normandy the enemy had orders to defend and maintain their position. That meant hard resistance, especially in this type of face-to-face or hand-to-hand combat.
So if we were out to capture a prisoner it meant ﬁrst of all penetrating the enemy line. We had to take great care in our preparation: running shoes, no loose clothing to catch on anything, dark faces, no identiﬁcation papers, just dog tags, Sten guns, knives, garrotte and grenades. Our weapons would be wrapped in cloth – no accidental noises.
Eventually, as the patrol progressed, you’d locate your target — say, two men in a slit trench. Then perfect, patient and silent teamwork is required. All three of us would freeze and wait. As time passes, maybe hours, one of the enemy will move out of the trench — maybe for a stretch, maybe a latrine call. Number two takes him out. At the same time number three moves on the other, still in the trench. Number one man is ready with his Sten gun to cover the situation overall.
It was at this stage that our training back in England became so important to us. Courses in judo, knife ﬁghting and the garrotte proved to be vital to us. Patrols are not for the faint-hearted; a split second and a wrong move can mean death. We were trained to live.
So the actual practice requires that number two moves silently and quickly, knife in hand, on the soldier leaving the trench. The slightest sound will mean death to the patrol. A knife to the man’s kidney instantly paralyzes his vocal cords; number two’s other hand will catch soundlessly the falling rifle. Then a quick slash across the throat. Number three man, in the same moment, is in the trench guaranteeing a prisoner who will live by the quick use of the garrotte. The enemy soldier loses consciousness with- out a gasp. Then a ﬁreman’s lift and back to the start point. Prisoner delivered; objective achieved.
If all has gone well, number one has done nothing except stand around with his Sten gun. That’s a perfect result because shooting is the last thing we want. This is why a prisoner patrol is the toughest of all, and why a shoot-’em-up draw-fire patrol with Brens, Piats and grenades is something of a contrast…
26 June 1944: ‘Epsom’ – Scottish troops v 12th SS Panzer ‘Hitlerjugend’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.
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:
21 June 1944: Mortar Platoon in the the front line in Normandy Polish boots (yes, I swear that’s correct), pick up Sten gun, and report with map to command- ing 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!’
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.
1 June 1944: Anzio battlefield after the breakoutWe found a lot of our own boys, killed earlier on, lying where they had fallen, unburied, in corn that is waist-high. The odd German grave with ‘UNBEK. SOLDAT’ on the cross. A ruined house, smashed to rubble, with a child’s pram, painted white, spick and span in the middle of it. A dug-out that had been scooped out under a knocked out tank. All most entertaining and instructive.
In Italy the Allied breakout from Cassino and Anzio was gathering momentum. Some units joined the pursuit, others found themselves paused before rejoining the battle.
Lieutenant Harold Mitchell had been commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry but had found himself posted as a Liaison Officer with the Free French. Feeling that he should be more closely involved with the war he sought a transfer and in May 1944 joined the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry in the Anzio bridgehead.
On the 18th May he had written home:
This is a grand life and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Please don’t think I am saying this just to make you happier. It really is so. I’ve not been so happy since my early days with the Legion, and I wouldn’t go back to liaising on a Div. level for anything under the sun. I had almost forgotten what a terriﬁc satisfaction Platoon commanding is. There is no job in the Army to touch it. You are the link between the idea of the C.O., Brigadier or Army Commander, and the men who carry that idea out.
He and his men were involved in the breakout battle from Anzio but found himself able to examine their defences after they had retreated.
On the 1st June he wrote:
The glorious ﬁrst of June, and lovely weather with it! I’ve actually had a bathe today – took the company down to the beach. Nice to get a bit of fresh food — even though the meat is stringy and the potatoes taste of soap (‘I do like my food clean’, says TW, ‘But that is taking cleanliness a bit too far.’).
In the line one gets rather tired of the tins. Actually my Platoon had a bit of luck, as a shell hit the reserve dump of compo boxes, and scattered tins of every variety all over the wadi. I had a search-party out scavenging for tit-bits — salmon, marmalade, pudding, steak-and-kidney, and so on. The stores were written off as ‘destroyed by enemy action’, but we had them as buckshees and kept dark about what we had found.
I suppose the censor will let me say (what is in all the newspapers) that Jerry has been retreating. It was quite a novelty, being able to stand up in broad daylight in positions where previously one wrig- gled, crawled or crouched, to be able to stroll over and see where those posts actually were, which had been so annoying, to see what sort of ﬁeld of ﬁre his spandau had, to see just how near one had got when on patrol, and so on; to be able to stroll with impunity round landmarks which had been notorious hot spots, all of them nick- named with English names, some reminiscent of home . . .
We found a lot of our own boys, killed earlier on, lying where they had fallen, unburied, in corn that is waist-high. The odd German grave with ‘UNBEK. SOLDAT’ on the cross. A ruined house, smashed to rubble, with a child’s pram, painted white, spick and span in the middle of it. A dug-out that had been scooped out under a knocked out tank. All most entertaining and instructive.
Tailpiece: After a particularly heavy stonk, the guns quieten down. Dust and smoke are still in the air. Figures emerge tentatively from trenches and dug-outs. A voice, querulously: ‘To think my mother wouldn’t let me play Rugger because she said it was too dangerous!’
Love to all. Roll on that second front. It can’t be long now, and I dare say you’ll be glad when the tension of waiting is over.
22 May 1944: Chindit jungle strongpoint faces third Japanese attackWith a heavy heart I sent a Most Immediate signal to Joe asking for permission to abandon the block at my discretion. The direction of the new Japanese attack would prevent night supply drops on the airﬁeld, and, with the A.A. guns, only night drops were now possible. Night drops on the block, or on the jungle to the west, could never keep us supplied with ammunition in heavy battle. It would take too many men, too long, to ﬁnd and bring in the boxes.
The Chindit operations in the depths of the Burmese jungle were an experiment in unconventional warfare. Sending large forces deep behind Japanese lines and then supplying them by air was an inherently risky business. Through audacity they had caused a serious disruption to the Japanese forces in Burma, although at considerable cost.
But the Chindit tactics were finely balanced. They had established strong bases in the jungle which the Japanese would attack, and in making such attacks the Japanese would be vulnerable to ambush. If there were no Chindit forces available to mount such ambushes and counter-attacks, then the isolated outposts became a liability, a danger to themselves.
Such were the considerations facing John Masters, commanding 111 Brigade at the “Blackpool block”. He could send out a large force to meet the attack, weakening his main defences, or he could compromise. The situation was compounded by the difficulty in communicating with his commanders and the inflexibility of his orders which required him seek permission before moving the base. Ultimately the decision had to be made by the US General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, a man not noted for his sympathies towards the British:
On May 22 enemy forces began to push forward from the southeast. Four artillery pieces, from the same direction, shelled the airﬁeld. Two light planes and a C-47, which were on it, took off immediately. The third phase of the Blackpool battle began.
I sent the Cameronians out towards the enemy, to delay his advance. I debated long and anxiously whether I should send out another battalion to lie in wait on the hill feature to the south (adjoining our boar’s tail), where they would be on the ﬂank of the Japanese advance-if it continued in the direction it seemed to be taking. I decided against it, and I think I was wrong.
The grim, set-teeth, bulldog struggle to hold the Deep had had its effect on me, and I was incapable of repeating the stroke (bold to the point of rashness), which had stripped the defences of Blackpool to concentrate on the vital area. I should have done it again, trusting to my knowledge of the Japanese in battle, but there was a purposeful and professional air about this new assault which I did not like.
He was pushing in my patrols and outposts; he was shelling the ﬁeld; he was not coming on like a mad dog, and I did not think I could trust him to do the obvious. I held everyone, except the slowly retreating, overpowered Cameronians, inside the block. But, oh God, let 14. Brigade come! The greatest opportunity of the entire Chindit campaign lay there, then, before my eyes. I sent out signals which passed from urgency to frenzy. Hurry, hurry, kill yourselves, but come!
Late in the afternoon C-47s came for a daylight supply drop, escorted by P—38s. From down the valley, behind the advancing Japanese, above the intermittent pop and crackle of small arms ﬁre, I heard the one sound I had been expecting, and fearing, the sharp double crack of heavy anti-aircraft guns. Puffs of yellow-black smoke appeared behind one of the C-47s. They turned for home. The P-38s searched and dived, but the A.A. guns did not ﬁre again.
With a heavy heart I sent a Most Immediate signal to Joe asking for permission to abandon the block at my discretion. The direction of the new Japanese attack would prevent night supply drops on the airﬁeld, and, with the A.A. guns, only night drops were now possible. Night drops on the block, or on the jungle to the west, could never keep us supplied with ammunition in heavy battle. It would take too many men, too long, to ﬁnd and bring in the boxes.
The prospects were grim. Had my orders been more ﬂexible I would have moved the brigade out of the block then and there, withdrawn a short distance into the jungle, and hung about there, ready to emerge and establish a new block when 14 Brigade and the West Africans appeared. But I had no discretion, and when my request reached Joe Lentaigne he had to take it to Stilwell.
It couldn’t have come at a worse moment, for the attacks on Myitkyina had failed, the Marauders had reported their condition, and Stilwell’s misanthropy was at its strongest.
He told Joe Lentaigne we were a bunch of lily-livered Limey popinjays. Joe replied hotly. Every minute of argument, accusation, and counter-accusation at Shaduzup cost my men more lives, saw the expenditure of more irreplaceable ammunition, and locked us more closely into an action which could only have one end, and from which, minute by minute, it became more difﬁcult for me to extricate my brigade if permission eventually were granted.