2300: ‘I wish to God it were safely over’

The Final Embarkation: Four 'stick' commanders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division,
The Final Embarkation: Four ‘stick’ commanders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division, Four of the first Britsih troops to depart synchronising their watches in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle of No 38 Group, Royal Air Force, at about 11 pm on 5 June, just prior to take off from RAF Harwell, Oxfordshire.

These men from 22nd Independent Parachute Company pathfinder unit parachuted into Normandy in advance of the rest of the division in order to mark out the landing zones, and these officers, From left to right, – Lieutenants, Bobby de la Tour, Don Wells, John Vischer, Bob Midwood, were among the first Allied troops to land in France.

For a long time Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had been led to believe that he would be in command of Overlord. As a professional soldier it was a deeply held aspiration to lead the Allied forces back into France, from where he had been evacuated in 1940.

Eventually, as the US participation in Allied operations grew, Churchill had to tell him, in 1943, that it had become inevitable that an American commander would be appointed. He had nevertheless remained closely involved in the central Allied decision making.

His diary for the 5th June was not particularly optimistic:

A long Cabinet at which we were explained how troublesome de Gaulle is being now that he had been fetched back from Algiers! He is now refusing to broadcast unless Eisenhower alters the wording of his own broadcastll I knew he would be a pest and recommended strongly that he should be left in Africa, but Anthony Eden would insist on bringing him over!

It is very hard to believe that in a few hours the cross Channel invasion starts! I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At the best it will fall so very very far short of the expectation of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing of its difficulties. At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.

See Alanbrooke War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke

Get a full illustrated history of D-Day and the Normandy campaign, explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke at his desk at the War Office in London, 1942.

2030: Eisenhower meets the men of the 101st

1st Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel, who survived the night and subsequent week of fighting without injury. He died in 1999. The 502nd jumped into Normandy with 792 men. After six days of desperate fighting, only 129 were still standing and able to make the roadmarch back to St. Come-du-Mount.
1st Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel, who survived the night and subsequent week of fighting without injury. He died in 1999. The 502nd jumped into Normandy with 792 men. After six days of desperate fighting, only 129 were still standing and able to make the roadmarch back to St. Come-du-Mount. Strobel later recalled: He (Eisenhower) asked my name and which state I was from,” Strobel related. “I gave him my name and that I was from Michigan. He then said, “Oh yes, Michigan, great fishing there. Been there several times and like it.

The decision having been made to go, there was little left for the Supreme Commander to do but wait and watch the whole elaborate scheme unfold. At around 1800 he left his temporary headquarters at Portsmouth and travelled to Greenham Common airfield near Newbury. Here he mingled with the men of the 101st Airborne Division who were just a few hours away from departure. He was accompanied by his Naval Aide, Harry C. Butcher:

We saw hundreds of paratroopers, with blackened and grotesque faces, packing up for the big hop and jump.

Ike wandered through them, stepping over packs, guns, and a variety of equipment such as only paratroop people can devise, chinning with this and that one. All were put at ease.

He was promised a job after the war by a Texan who said he roped, not dallied, his cows, and at least there was enough to eat in the work. Ike has developed or disclosed an informality and friendliness with troopers that almost amazed me, I not having been on many of his inspection trips in England.

We concluded the tour with C-47s growling off the runway, carrying the jumpers and their Major General, Maxwell Taylor, to their uncertain mission — one that Leigh-Mallory went on record against as being too dangerous and costly, and to which Ike also went on record, ordering the deed to be done, as it was necessary to help the foot soldiers get ashore.

We returned to camp about 1:15, sat around the nickel-plated office caravan in courteous silence, each with his own thoughts and trying to borrow by psychological osmosis those of the Supreme Commander, until I became the first to say to hell with it and excused myself to bed.

See Three Years with Eisenhower. The personal diary of Captain H. C. Butcher … Naval Aide to General Eisenhower, 1942 to 1945..

Strobel later wrote this account of the photograph:

The picture was taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944. My 22nd birthday.

It was shortly before we were to leave the tented assembly area to which , for security reasons, we had been confined for about 5 days. We had darkened our faces and hands with burned cork, cocoa and cooking oil to be able to blend into the darkness and prevent reflection from the moon. We were all very well prepared emotionally for the operation.

The drop packs, that were to be attached to the planes and contained our machine guns, mortars and ammunition, had been prepared earlier, marked with our plane numbers and delivered to the plane. Our plane number was 23 and I was the jumpmaster of that plane. This fact accounts for the sign around my neck in the picture which carries the number 23. The planes and jump sticks were so numbered for ease in locating the planes and crews as well as the attachment of the drop bundles to the correct planes.

We were waiting for orders to leave for the planes when the word was passed, “Eisenhower is in the area.” At that point in time this did not cause a great deal of excitement because all of us had seen him before when he had visited the division and, in addition, we were all pretty well preoccupied with our thoughts of our equipment and the operation ahead.

A short time later we heard some noise and we all went into the streets between the tents to see what was going on. Down the street came the General, surrounded by his staff and a large number of photographers, both still and movie. As he came toward our group we straightened up and suddenly he came directly toward me and stopped in front of me. He asked my name and which state I was from. I gave him my name and that I was from Michigan. He then said, “Oh yes, Michigan great fishing there – been there several times and like it.”

He then asked if I felt we were ready for the operation, did I feel we had been well briefed and were we all ready for the drop. I replied we were all set and didn’t think we would have too much of a problem. He seemed in good spirits. He chatted a little more, which I believe was intended to relax us and I think that all of us being keyed up and ready to go buoyed him somewhat.

You must remember that the men of the 101st and the 502nd Parachute Infantry especially were exceptionally well trained. We all felt we had outstanding senior and field grade officers. We had the best arms and equipment available and we had been very well briefed for the operation. We were at a peak physically and emotionally. We were ready to go and to do our job.

While I think the General thought his visit would boost the morale of our men, I honestly think it was his morale that was improved by being such a remarkably “high” group of troops. The General’s later writings confirmed this.

Within minutes of his visit we gathered our equipment and walked to our planes. I especially remember that as our plane took off at dusk and as I stood in the open doorway of the plane I could see a group of men watching and waving at the planes and I understood later that it was General Eisenhower and his staff.

I forgot about the incident because of our activity during the next few weeks. Later when we were in a rear area I happened to look at a copy of a “Pony” edition of Time Magazine and I saw a very poorly printed copy of the picture. I couldn’t make out the faces but I saw the 23 sign around the next of one of the men and I realized it was the picture taken the night before D-Day when we were ready to take off.

See History Addict for the full account.

For the full illustrated story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign explore hundreds of contemporary images in the iPad App Overlord. The free iBook US Forces on D-Day provides a sample.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with Commander 502nd Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Lt. Col. Robert Cole. Eisenhower's  naval aide Harry Butcher stands behind him .
General Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with Commander 502nd Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, Lt. Col. Robert Cole. Eisenhower’s naval aide Harry Butcher stands behind him .

British 6th Airborne are ready for Normandy

The Queen and Princess Elizabeth talk to paratroopers in front of a Halifax aircraft during a tour of airborne forces preparing for D-Day, 19 May 1944.
The Queen and Princess Elizabeth talk to paratroopers in front of a Halifax aircraft during a tour of airborne forces preparing for D-Day, 19 May 1944.
King George VI inspects paratroops of 6th Airborne Division, 16 March 1944.
King George VI inspects paratroops of 6th Airborne Division, 16 March 1944.(original caption – but see comments below)

Preparations for the launch of the ‘Second Front’ were now well advanced and most units were as ready as they would ever be. A programme of visits to all of the troops involved, by senior officers and dignitaries, had been underway all year. Eisenhower and Montgomery had been a the forefront of such visits but the Royal Family and Prime Minister Churchill were also very busy.

The 19th May 1944 was a proud day for Major General Richard ‘Windy’ Gale, who had taken charge of the newly formed 6th Airborne Division only a year before. Since then they had had to develop a wide range of new military techniques for their role in both parachute and glider landings behind enemy lines. Their objectives for ‘Overlord’ had only been learnt a couple of months before and they had been engaged in intensive planning and more applied training ever since. The opportunity now came to show the Royal Family how ready they were:

I think the King and Queen and the Princess enjoyed their day with us. To us all it was a great occasion, one that I am sure none of us will ever forget. Their Majesties had tea at the Royal Air Force station at Netheravon, Air Vice-Marshal Hollinghurst’s headquarters. The whole occasion was so happily informal and gay. This, too, at the end of a long day of inspections and endless walking along lines of troops which, in spite of all the interest that there undoubtedly was, must have been tiring to the Queen.

I remember one incident. We were demonstrating to them a new method of unloading guns from the Horsa glider. Something had evidently gone wrong inside and the gunner concerned, unaware that all he said could easily be heard outside, made one or two colourful remarks about the gun lashings with which he was having difficulty.

Eventually the job was done, really much quicker than it had seemed to me, who was so anxiously waiting. The Queen congratulated the gunners on their work, saying with her gracious smile, she could well guess how difficult it had been.

We landed the giant Hamilcar glider with the lorry tractor and seventeen-pounder gun inside. It was a grand sight to see this huge glider roll in and pull up just where it was intended to. Then up went the nose and, with the King looking on, out trundled its mammoth load.

How can I recapture these moments? How can I con- vey to you the thrills, the excitements and the grand joy of it all? Let me, for example, try to picture to you the sight of the hundred gliders we landed on this day: all landing in the confines of one old-fashioned and not too large airfield. Think of one hundred bomber aircraft overhead, each with a great glider in tow: gliders with a wingspan as great as the heavy bombers.

Then they cast off: you could see the tug aircraft rising and flying away, the drone of their great engines lessening, whilst round in enormous spirals sail the gliders. The sky seems thick with them. Then you hear the swish as, engineless, they come in to land. First one then another, then half a dozen at a time, and the sky still full of them. How are they all going to get in? They touch down at between seventy and eighty miles an hour. Swish they roar across the ground. How is it that they do not crash into one another?

As they come in to land they do so in a very steep dive; far steeper than looks safe; their great black flaps down; they suddenly flatten out and bowl along the ground, each glider to its allotted place. Their hydraulic brakes are put on and with a screech as, in a great curve, they swing round to their appointed spot. I know of no sight that I have ever seen as thrilling as this.

Such skill these pilots have; such courage, and such daring. They have no power unit to turn on, no engine to rev up if things go wrong, no reverse gear to get into, once they have used their hydraulic brakes nothing to stop a crash. Sometimes one would hit another and you would hear the rending of timber frames. The sound is fright- ening, but little damage is done.

To-day they are doing it in daylight: the next time it will be at night, in France with hateful flak spitting up and the sky alight with searchlights and flares. On the ground will be the Germans, their machine guns manned and their minefields waiting. No, there can be few bands of men to whom we are more indebted, and we owe a lot to many, than the pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment.

See R N Gale: With the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy.

HRH Princess Elizabeth watching parachutists dropping during a visit to airborne forces in England in the run-up to D-Day.
HRH Princess Elizabeth watching parachutists dropping during a visit to airborne forces in England in the run-up to D-Day.
The Queen and Princess Elizabeth talk to a camouflaged sniper during a tour of Airborne forces, 19 May 1944.
The Queen and Princess Elizabeth talk to a camouflaged sniper during a tour of Airborne forces, 19 May 1944.

Merrill’s Marauders capture Japanese Airfield in Burma

American troops of Merrill's Marauders and the Chinese march side by side down the Ledo Road. February 1944
American troops of Merrill’s Marauders and the Chinese march side by side down the Ledo Road. February 1944

In February 1944 the 2,750 men of the U.S. 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) marched into the Burmese jungle. They were also known as ‘Galahad Unit’ and are better known today as Merrill’s Marauders, after their commanding officer. They were a deep penetration force travelling across country, like the Chindits they were dependent on air drops for resupply.

After their 1000 mile long trek over the outskirts of the Himalayas and the Chinese Kumon mountain range, the Marauders were in bad shape. The standard K ration had insufficient calories to sustain them on the prolonged, arduous march.

Captain Fred O. Lyons described the condition they were in when they came across Japanese in the jungle during the march:

By now my dysentery was so violent I was draining blood. Every one of the men was sick from one cause or another. My shoulders were worn raw from the pack straps, and I left the pack behind… The boys with me weren’t in much better shape… A scout moving ahead suddenly held his rifle high in the air.

Enemy sighted… Then at last we saw them, coming down the railroad four abreast… The gunner crouched low over his tommy-gun and tightened down. Then the gun spoke. Down flopped a half-dozen Japs, then another half dozen. The [Japanese] column spewed from their marching formation into the bush.

We grabbed up the gun and slid back into the jungle. Sometimes staggering, sometimes running, sometimes dragging, I made it back to camp. I was so sick I didn’t care whether the Japs broke through or not; so sick I didn’t worry any more about letting the colonel down. All I wanted was unconsciousness.

Interview with Paul Wilder quoted on Wikipedia.

In a surprise attack the remainder of the Force captured the former British airfield at Myitkyina on the 17th May. The Marauders sent the message “Merchant of Venice” – the airfield was secured, engineers were not needed to repair the runway and the resupply planes could land.

The 879th Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion were despatched anyway. The men on the ground were not pleased, they desperately needed resupply, including ammunition.

The Engineers describe their day:

17 May 44

Company “A” started on their airborne mission. The first glider towed by (Troop Carrier commander) General Olds’ plane landed at Myitkyina at 1630 hours on 17 May 1944, followed at five minute intervals by the other nine gliders. The first glider landed from South to North on the strip utilizing the entire runway. The other gliders landed from West to East (cross-field).

All of them crashed into revetments, other gliders, or brush at the edge of the field. Two of the gliders landed in Japanese territory; but the men and equipment were brought back safely to the airstrip. The gliders landed at speeds ranging from 80 to 110 miles per hour. Personnel participating in the glider operation included two officers, one Medic, and 27 enlisted men, all volunteers.

Equipment carried on gliders included two Clark tractors, two Case tractors, one jeep, one trailer, two carryalls, two mine detectors, one carpenter chest, rations, gas and oil, and drinking water. Four enlisted men were injured in landing, none seriously.

Upon landing all men started unloading gliders and towed the gliders off the field so that planes could land. More men came in by C-47 so that within twenty-four hours of the start of the air operation, four officers and fifty-two enlisted men, exclusive of injured, of Company “A”, were on the field.

As soon as gliders had been unloaded and cleared from the runway, men started unloading C-47’s. Crawler type Clark tractors were unloaded with regular plane ramps without being reinforced, under blackout conditions. Company CP was set up in a wrecked glider on the west side of the field.

See Burma Star

The men of Company A were to make themselves useful. The airfield was about to come under counter-attack. It would not be until August that the town of Myitkyina was captured.

See Life Magazine images and story.

The exploits of the Marauders gained public attention from the 1962 Warner Brothers film.
The exploits of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) gained public attention from the 1962 Warner Brothers film.

Building a jungle airstrip for the Chindits

Operation 'Thursday' - March 1944: Engineers prepare a runway at the airstrip code-named 'Broadway'.
Operation ‘Thursday’ – March 1944: Engineers prepare a runway at the airstrip code-named ‘Broadway’.
 The completed landing strip at the airstrip code-named 'Broadway'. An American Sentinel L5 liaison aircraft is on the runway.
The completed landing strip at the airstrip code-named ‘Broadway’. An American Sentinel L5 liaison aircraft is on the runway.

The Chindit Operations in Burma continued, over 18,000 men were now engaged in the deep penetration of Japanese occupied territory. They were operating from a number of strongpoints in the jungle which were fortified against attack. Each contained an airstrip by which they could be supplied and from where casualties were evacuated. Now another base was being established, forcing the Japanese to spread their efforts even further.

The US 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company were responsible for building the airstrips that allowed the resupply of the Chindits. It was hazardous work. The men on the ground had to build a rudimentary airstrip with the tools at hand, sufficient for the Engineers to land in gliders, bringing with them the heavy equipment necessary to build a landing ground good enough for transport planes.

1st Lieutenant Andrulonis was one of the engineers despatched to build the last of the airstrips, codenamed Blackpool, originally designated ‘Clydeside’:

Two C-47’s of the First Air commando Group landed at [Lalaghat], bringing news of “CLYDESIDE” mission. We immediately loaded one bulldozer, one Case tractor, one grader, and one carry-all, and took off. S/Sgt. Tierney, Cpl. Jones, T/5 Hybarger, and Pfc’s Lovelace and Fisher together with myself comprised the engineering personnel. My ‘dozer loaded glider was the first to take off for what proved to be a smooth uneventful flight, arriving over the site at 0615 [9 May] in broad daylight.

We had difficulty in locating the strip, no expected support ground troops were to be seen even after one pass up the valley. During our search for the strip the second glider had arrived, and spotting the field he cut loose. Still on our approach we sweated out his landing – everything seemed under control until he was about 100 feet up – then we watched as he stalled out and nosed straight down! A second later my pilot [FO Marlyn O. Satrom] cut loose. We settled back and braced ourselves for the initial shock – we hit with a bump, raced along for a second or two, then came to a screeching stop.

British troops rushed out of the jungle to give us a hand – landing gear washed out, wing collapsed, we had overrun the field knocking out a few bunds. No casualties – all ropes held, the dozer never moved an inch. The next gliders landed in adjoining paddy fields – washing out their landing gear – and never touching the “strip”! The glider that nosed in, killing both pilots [1LT Donald A. Lefevre and FO Hadley D. Baldwin], contained Pfc’s Fisher and Lovelace – both injured – and the grader, completely demolished.

The site for the C-47 strip was laid out in paddy-land nearest the hills approximating the British stronghold, with miles of clear approach on one end. The other end was obstructed by 30 yds of tall trees so it was decided that a one-way approach would suffice. From this end ran terraced paddy land with 6” to 1’ variation in elevation which after 2500’ ended in an abrupt 5’ drop – to continue in terraced paddy land for 1400’.

The first day Cpl. Jones and I alternated on the ‘dozer, assisted by 50 British with pick and shovels. By noon we had a rough liaison strip ready, expecting light planes which never arrived.

At 0200 hrs on May 10th, S/Sgt. Tierney and T/5 Hybarger whose glider had failed to take-off, crash landed with the carry-all. Since they were not expected only air-drop fires were lit – their only landing target! Tierney slightly wounded, and Hybarger shaken up, the carry-all arrived in good condition.

By 1900 hrs 2400 ft had been roughly graded, and that night three C-47’s arrived – all good landings. At 0400 hrs a First Air Commando C-47 landed on a 3600’ rain soaked field, rolling over the graded depression (done with only bulldozer and carry-all) so our worries were over. That day the newly arrived grader did wonders smoothing the entire runway, while the dozer and carry-all continued to fill in the depression, minimizing the grade.

That afternoon we were grading the last paddies on the end of the field, when we heard shells dropping a short distance away beyond the woods. My men continued work. After five or six exploded, each closer and closer, a British runner told us to hit for cover – it was a Jap 75 mm!

The barrage lasted about an hour – we inspected the results after dark. The C-47, apparently their target, had been riddled with shrapnel, the dispersal area suffered 15 craters. Shrapnel also put our Case tractor, carry-all, and ‘dozer out of commission.

That night I sent Lovelace out on a C-47, he had performed admirably after bruising and shock, in the landing which had killed both pilots and by now appeared fatigued. Twenty transports landed that night without mishap – and inspection of the runway the following morning showed it to be in perfect condition – hardly a trace of indentation where tires had touched in initial impact on landing.

The next day, May 13th, we continued smoothing the field pulling the grader with the jeep. … Transports began landing about 2100 hrs that night. About 2115 hrs Jap ground troops attacked the rear of our stronghold position. In the midst of a pitched battle we were ordered out at 2230 hrs taking off in a C-47 to return to base.

See Burma Star for much more on the US 900th Airborne Engineer Aviation Company. Chindit Files has a collection of Chindit photographs

Wing Commander J Burbury DFC AFC RAF who commanded one of the squadrons supplying the Chindits in the jungle.
Wing Commander J Burbury DFC AFC RAF who commanded one of the squadrons supplying the Chindits in the jungle.
A reluctant mule is coaxed into a transport aircraft in India. Mules were used extensively to carry supplies for the Chindits while behind enemy lines in the jungle.
A reluctant mule is coaxed into a transport aircraft in India. Mules were used extensively to carry supplies for the Chindits while behind enemy lines in the jungle.

German paratroopers attack island of Leros

German bombs falling on the island of Leros
German bombs falling on the island of Leros

Following the Italian surrender the Germans moved swiftly to occupy the Greek islands that had been previously garrisoned by the Italians. They were to show extraordinary barbarity to their former former allies, after Hitler ordered Italian officers to be shot for treason.

The British sought to intervene on the outermost Greek islands, the Dodecanese, joining the remaining Italians forces in an attempt to prevent the Germans occupying them. They suffered from a lack of air cover, which seriously handicapped the Naval support of the occupation. After the Germans retook Kos they subjected the next major island, Leros, to sustained bombing. Then on 12th November they mounted an invasion led by paratroopers.

William Moss was amongst the men of the King’s Own Royal Regiment who suddenly found themselves facing German parachute troops that day. His account gives a good sense of the confusion of battle on a day when he lost a number of his comrades, was taken prisoner and escaped:

(Our section) While on the way to attack an enemy position, we had to go in forward, suddenly our Section came under small arms fire, which I presumed to be snipers. Para-troops had descended by now, and were getting organised, at about 14 50 hours this attack got more severe. We took up firing positions. Our weapons were hand grenades, one Bren Gun, one Boyes Anti-Tank Rifle and Tommy Guns and Lee Enfield Rifles. With us, at the time was Lieutenant Tiplady, I often wonder if he recovered – he ran into the fire and was wounded, he fell like a log.

After a while, all was quite eerie, it was ‘take cover’ and ‘keep a sharp look-out!’ It must have been 100 yards away when in the sky were blobs of men falling, many were hit. We decided to make an attempt on this position, which we had previously been briefed on. It was a small hill, rising sharply. So we moved on slowly, and cautiously, when suddenly out of the blue came shots, from, I am not certain, a sniper, who was able to pick us off one by one.

I was moving on steadily when our Corporal, named, ‘Hicklin’, got shot in his leg; that left myself to take Command of the remainder of my section. We took up our positions again, for any attack, while doing so Private J Woodward, of Salford, was mortally wounded in his forehead, there was little we could do. So I gave the orders to the remainder of my section to stay with me for orders. At that moment Private Vines was wounded, he was a South Wales Borderer originally.

Now I was left with Private D Hibbert, of Hyde, Cheshire, who was a South Lancashire soldier, a very brave man indeed, Private McDougal from Warrington, Cheshire, [and] Private H Acton (Motor Transport platoon). In the distance was Private Robinson of Bradford, near Belle Vue, Manchester, [who] spotted a transport on the ground which was off-loading supplies and men, it seemed to be in difficulty. So I gave the order to my Bren gunner to fire a few bursts of automatic fire, while the remainder of my Section returned to their own trenches on Mount Clidi under this covering fire.

It was like an ambush, but luckily we got back safe and sound after losing some very brave pals of my section.

The next time I escaped was after Major Tilly gave an order to counter attack to the forward positions on ‘Fortress’. Our positions had now changed hands, but we took it back again. Sergeant Lea was capable now of turning the enemy’s weapons on them. This man had a first class training on weaponry. Staff Sergeant Johnson, of the South Wales Borderers, was now getting worried with all the Stuka Dive Bombers, he was surprised to see us back and we reinforced his section, capturing a few prisoners.

I was given an order to take my section around the perimeter of Mount Clidi; we had no sooner got dug in when the enemy attacked in force. We were taken prisoners, and searched, and our steel helmets were snatched from our heads. Then we got escorted back to the German positions, where my section was put in a pigsty on a lonely road running through the village.

Time went by, when we had to form up in single file, and were made to carry mortar bombs for the enemy and now we were being treated as ‘human shields’ amidst the fire of our own Troops.

We had now gone about a couple of miles, stopping for a breath, and trying to delay the action of the enemy. There was rifle fire, small arms and Bren now being fired on us. Going down a small path we came across a house, it seemed to be unoccupied, so in we all went, including the escort who also was now getting worried by all this action around.

We placed a red cloth, which draped the mantelpiece, and took a white table cloth, to give the impression of a first aid post. No sooner had we got in this house, our young sentry, or escort, called us out to carry on down the track. This narrow track was very familiar to me now, I knew we were heading towards the Bay and we were only a few minutes away to our relief. When we got to our destination, I found that the building we were going to be taken in now, was a base hospital, and it was surrounded with armed German troops.

Inside this hospital in the Bay of Alinda, we sheltered for a while tending to the wounded, and a Surgeon was operating on a casualty on a table. A War Correspondent came up to me in a suit of brand new khaki, he looked like he had just come out of a tailor’s shop. We were weary now, no food or drink. I decided to go to the door of this building, it was getting dark and very windy, in the near distance I could vaguely see the silhouettes of a few British Tommies, they were rushing towards the caves. I believe the War Correspondent was none other, but Marland Jander, he wrote a book I am told, and then was killed later in another war zone.

It must have been very near 2100 hours, when all at once, without any warning, a huge loud explosion occurred. It was a naval shell, which came from one of our ships in the Bay. Private Viner, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, then said to me, “The next salvo and I’m away, how about you?” I answered, “Yes, I’m off too.”

The first salvo had scored a direct hit – it left a gaping hole in the side of this building. This is where the two of us made our dramatic escape once again. After a moment, we had gone just 50 to 100 yards, when a voice in the darkness shouted “Halt! Who goes there?” A great relief seemed to come over me. “Go to the front of the column!” When we reached the front we were escorted to a cave, where a Lieutenant Colonel, or maybe a higher ranking officer, gave us a good interrogation.

“What have you two been up to”, he said, but before I could speak he said, “Stand to attention when you speak to me.” I was now the appointed spokesman, so I said, in a good military-like fashion, “You will excuse me Sir, but we have just escaped, we were taken POW. Your patrol, or reinforcements, have just passed about 500 Germans.”

“Quartermaster,” he shouted, “Give these men two blankets and some soup and put them up for the night.”

We didn’t get much sleep, but the rest did a world of good, thanks to this Officer.

The whole of his account was originally available at King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster) Museum.

'Fallschirmjäger für Legos!' German paratroopers on Crete about to embark for the attack on Leros.
‘Fallschirmjäger für Legos!’ German paratroopers on Crete about to embark for the attack on Leros.
German paratroopers climbing onto their Ju 52 transport planes on Crete.
German paratroopers climbing onto their Ju 52 transport planes on Crete.

German newsreel of their attack:

US 503rd PIR in the Big Fire Fight of Gabsohnkie

A part of the briefing for the Operation, showing the principal Jump Fields.
A part of the briefing for the Operation, showing the principal Jump Fields.

In the Pacific the Americans and the Australians continued with the re-occupation of New Guinea. The final goal was the port of Lae. Approaching the objective indirectly were an Australian seaborne force and an American airborne infiltration.

In Europe, following the losses encountered during the Sicily invasion, the fate of parachute and glider operations lay in the balance. Senior commanders, including Eisenhower, began to see them as very risky and potentially very costly operations. Whilst a detailed review was underway, the first major airborne operation in the Pacific theatre got underway. The success of the 503rd’s drop on the 5th September was one of the factors that helped keep airborne operations within the planning for Overlord.

The operation in New Guinea was onto unoccupied territory. Nevertheless there was confusion as troops were dispersed during the drop and took time to rendezvous together and gather up their equipment. There was also uncertainty as to whether the area genuinely was free of Japanese.

Allied Parachute jump in the Markham Valley under the cover of a smoke screen on 5 September 1943. General MacArthur accompanied the raid in a high flying B-17.
Allied Parachute jump in the Markham Valley under the cover of a smoke screen on 5 September 1943. General MacArthur accompanied the raid in a high flying B-17.

Louis G. Aiken, Sr., who was with Company “B” 503 PIR was one of those who jumped that night and became a witness to what they subsequently called the ‘Big Fire Fight’:

I had become, by virtue of the fact that I found the assembly point, a member of the group who were to eventually witness and survive the Big Fire Fight of 5-6 Sept at a place called Gabsohnkie.

The Lt. kept looking at his watch and eventually realized that his troops were not going to find the assembly point in time for him to move out at the assigned time. Actually I can remember he delayed departure for approximately one hour hoping that most of them would show up. Finally he counted heads and had about eight of those originally assigned and approximately four of us who had been assigned to other tasks, bundle humping etc. We departed, twelve good men and a determined young officer.

I was younger, much younger, than him but thoroughly dedicated, moved out toward the great adventure, sweating profusely — our Jump Suits which were especially designed to cause weight loss in the tropics, gear hanging and banging all over our bodies, as we approached the general direction of the 2nd Bn CP we encountered a number of coconut trees that evidently put up quite a resistance. One actually had been blown down and a number of others had the marks of what appeared to be Primer Cord. We considered shooting the wounded trees in the lower trunk area to put them out of their misery but realized we might antagonize some of the healthy trees that appeared to be guarding their wounded comrades. We could see the evidence of them having lost a good many coconut fruit in their encounter with someone or something that had access to Primer Cord and small blocks of explosives. We paid our respects and moved on toward the CP.

When we arrived it was rather late in the day (5 Sept 1943) and everybody was dug in and had made preparations for whatever might occur on this our first night in a Combat Zone. We assumed that inasmuch as we were only going to be in the CP area overnight and then move on early the next morning, that we would be allowed to bed down inside the perimeter — not so stated the powers that be, thank goodness. We were instructed to move outside the perimeter, dig in staggered along both sides of a small road that approached the 2nd Bn CP from the general direction from which we had come, good thinking because this would give some rear coverage for the CP just in case they received a frontal attack at the same time the Japanese decided to flank and hit the rear defenses they would encounter US and we was ready!

Well we dug in staggered individual sitting type foxholes about five to ten feet between positions and prepared to defend to the last man. We knew we couldn’t retreat for to do so would throw us in conflict with the CP perimeter and possibly shot as suspected hostiles. I got that word from watching John Wayne movies of the Old West, so Alamo here we stand, no quarter given or expected. “Hooray for George, Mac and Frank” was our battle cry.

This was a saying immortalized by “B” Co’s own “Snuffy” Garrett who was ejected, kindly but nevertheless ejected, from the cinema in Gordonvale, Australia when he got patriotically carried away as per usual: before each showing of a Film of Flicker, the Pictures of King George, General MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were flashed across the screen. Snuffy was slightly inebriated and being very patriotic, he arose and saluted and shouted so all could hear “Hurray for George, Mac, and Frank!” He never got to see the main feature. However on special occasions we used this immortal phrase as our Battle Cry and of course we considered this, our first night in a Combat Zone situation, as a special occasion – little did we know how special it was to be.

This was the first and last time I ever dug in as an individual, without someone else to keep me company during the long nights of expected combat conditions. I dug in a bunch of times after that from New Guinea to Negros, three years and four days from date of departure to return in October 1945, all in Co. “B” ‘503” PIR (RCT). I was so young I think folks thought I was born overseas and therefore desired to remain in my place of birth. Nightfall and all is quiet and then sometime, to the best of my knowledge, between ten and twelve midnight all hell broke loose in the 2nd Bn C.P.

I figured we are in one hell of a fix and no place to go! I sat there in my foxhole and dug a little deeper trying to figure out what was going on. You know them birds that make funny noises at night, some sound like they are knocking pipes together and other sound like they are knocking blocks of wood together? I figured they were Japs sending code signals to each other, telling each other where twelve men and their officer were located outside of the CP perimeter.

I began to study my immediate front and about twenty yards to my front in a small opening with just enough moonlight or light showing through I detected a movement and then another and another and I guess I counted about 20 Japs moving past the small clearing; however like a good soldier I held my fire and decided against trying to alert the position to my left. Oh yeah, I was the furthest out on that twelve man line defense with the next position approximately 6 feet to my left and to attempt alerting him might alert the Japanese and jeopardize mine and his position. I was playing it cool and scared shitless and things were getting crowded as the Fire Fight picked behind me in the 2nd Bn.

Man, I figured this was it. Japs were everywhere and the continuous firing and explosion of hand grenades convinced me I was absolutely right. Before daylight came I had about 20 clips of M-1 ammo stacked on the lip of my foxhole, a machete, a knuckle type trench knife for hand to hand combat, a bayonet and several hand grenades all in position in front of me and I was ready and scared as hell!

It would have been nice if we had been assigned a newsman or cameraman to record this fireworks spectacle so we could at some later date show our children and grandchildren what it was like on our first night of combat at a place called “Gabsohnkie”, British New Guinea 5-6 Sept 1943.

The whole account can be read at the History of the 2/503rd PIR. Attempts to find the numerous Japanese casualties that they believed they had inflicted were in vain when morning light came, apart from more wounded coconut trees.

James P Lowe wrote his Thesis on the whole operation.

A map that formed part of the Operation Order for the 503rd PIR for 5th September 1943.
A map that formed part of the Operation Order for the 503rd PIR for 5th September 1943.

Parachute assault on the Primasole Bridge

Planning and Preparations January - July 1943: Royal Air Force glider pilots and pilots of towing aircraft are briefed before the airborne invasion.
Planning and Preparations January – July 1943: Royal Air Force glider pilots and pilots of towing aircraft are briefed before the airborne invasion.
Planning and Preparations January - July 1943: A jeep is loaded onto an American WACO CG-4A glider.
Planning and Preparations January – July 1943: A jeep is loaded onto an American WACO CG-4A glider.

The Airborne Operations on Sicily were to be costly exercises. ‘Friendly fire’ from the Allied Naval force and shore based positions caused unnecessary casualties to U.S. airborne forces and caused much upset.

The British 1st Parachute Brigade was assigned the task of capturing the Primasole Bridge intact. It was classic airborne objective – preventing the destruction of the bridge would give the main British force access to the Catania Plain and hopefully a swift advance. It was dependent on the relatively lightly armed parachute troops being able to hold out until relieved by stronger British forces moving up from the coast.

The operation also demonstrated the classic weaknesses of a parachute assault. The force that dropped by parachute and glider became widely dispersed following sustained ‘friendly’ and enemy fire. Of the 1856 men in the assault force less than 300 were to assemble at the bridge. They were still able to seize it from the Italians.

This depleted force then had to face the German 1st Parachute Regiment, which had just landed at nearby Catania Airfield, and the heavy weapons that the Germans already had in the area. Meanwhile the Durham Light Infantry, who were assigned to relieve them, had little transport. After three days of fighting since landing at the coast they were expected to make a 24 mile forced march in less than 24 hours. Many of their men were already suffering from heat exhaustion.

The Primasole Bridge which was successfully captured intact.
The Primasole Bridge which was successfully captured intact.

Peter Stainforth was one of the men who successfully dropped by parachute within range of the bridge. Before dawn he had removed the demolition charges from the bridge itself. He and his men dug in for the expected counter-attack and came under heavy artillery fire. Then a deep trench prepared earlier by the Italian was discovered and they all dropped into that:

A moment later the barrage came down on us in earnest. Every flak gun around Catania airfield opened fire, and the air over our heads boiled, shrieked and roared. The incessant crash of shells and roar of guns intermingled, so that sound had no further meaning; the noise pulsated, swelled and erupted and then fell back to the roll of a thousand drums before building up to another sickening peak, tearing the world apart. We sat huddled and dazed. Wisps of pungent yellow smoke seeped into the trench. Somebody coughed and relieved the tension. Then, suddenly as it had come, the barrage lifted.

For a moment my numbed brain could not comprehend the sudden silence. One had got so used to the raging thunder of noise that this new emptiness almost hurt. A rifle shot and then a burst of Bren brought me to my senses. ‘They’re coming through!’ I found myself shouting. ‘Back to your positions. Bren gunners come with me!’

We swarmed out of the trench, scrambled down the ditch and found our old holes. I pulled my two grenades out of my pouch and laid them beside me – just in case.

Battle was joined on the opposite side of the river, but it remained invisible behind the thick screen of vineyards except for the occasional tracer ricochet. The Bren gun rattled out three more short bursts, and then a German machine-gun roared into life unexpectedly close.

Rifle shots were cracking away all round our bridgehead. A Vickers gun started up and chattered out a long five-second burst, very comforting to hear. Then the noise of the battle became too confused to distinguish individual sounds, and rippled in waves round the northern perimeter. Tracer flickered through the vines and threw up long welts of dust.

My section passed their Bren magazines up to the gunner. He held the gun into his shoulder and peered intently at the undergrowth downstream.

Gradually the fire slackened and then died away into another lull. We strained our ears and listened anxiously, wondering what it might mean. Suddenly the barrage came down again. As there was no point in remaining on top we crawled back to the shelter of our trench and waited for the lift.

In my dazed state I became fascinated by the different sound effects produced by the rain of shrapnel. Some uttered an almost human cry, a plaintive wail like a child. Others sobbed and howled, curdling the blood. Some whirred like a partridge, a heavy, ugly sound. Some droned and buzzed like bees. The air throbbed as red- hot slivers of steel flew in every direction; and, as a finale, the telegraph wires parted with a twang, and the copper wire rustled down with a hushed singing noise.

To supplement the barrage of airburst from the massed 88-mm flak-guns two large-calibre coastal guns of the 14-inch variety joined in and pounded away at the bridge. The shells came whining over, the noise changing pitch with terrifying speed.

Fortunately, every one passed overhead to land with heavy concussions from two to four hundred yards away. The gunners never succeeded in getting the range; probably they had no direct observation and could not bracket for fear of hitting their own positions. But they were sufficiently close to rock the walls of our trench. Chunks of earth flaked off, and soil trickled down our backs.

After a quarter of an hour the barrage lifted again and fighting flared up, growing in intensity as before. After another unsuccessful attack the enemy desisted, and the storm of shells came down again. They employed quite a novel signal to request the renewal of the barrage – a stream of red tracer red nearly vertically into the air. When we learned what this meant we dived for our trench as soon as it was spotted.

The day passed slowly. Sometimes the enemy held off to draw breath, giving us a respite of an hour or so before battle opened once more. But they always came on again as fiercely as before, crawling down the avenues of grapevines and working closer and closer towards the bridge. As the afternoon wore on their attacks gained weight as reinforcements arrived and heavier and heavier support-weapons were brought into play.

See Peter Stainforth: Wings Of The Wind

Paradata has more pictures and maps. Durham Light Infantry has more on their role.

British airborne troops check their equipment before boarding their gliders.
British airborne troops check their equipment before boarding their gliders.