Go to it Gunners

Brief Account of my Army Service in Normandy

 

by David "Dai" King

F Troop, 212 Battery, 53rd Worcestershire Yeomanry Airlanding Light Regiment R.A. 

and 2nd Forward Observer Unit (Airborne) R.A.

 

(written in June 1999)

 

 

After 18 months deferment, Christmas 1942, I went to Gloucester and tried to volunteer, but was turned down when they saw my registration card. I crossed the road to RAF recruiting centre, and volunteered for Air Crew. I had to forego my visit to Oxford, where one had to take tests etc to qualify for flying, owing to been laid up in Lydney Hospital having a hernia operation. A few days after recovering from the operation I had to go to Gloucester for my Army medical. I passed AI.

 

I was very pleased to discover that Eric Gerrish from Ailburton Common had to report to Colchester Barracks the same day as me, April 15 1943. We set off from Lydney station on the mail train, crossed London to Liverpool St and arrived at Colchester station early on April 15. Much to our surprise we were allocated different Barracks. Eric I believe to Hydrabad Barracks, and me to Googerat Barracks, we never say each other again until we were demobbed, and back in Aylburton!

 

Private D King 14590302 was given a bed next to Private K Lamzed. We became friends until October 1995 when sadly Ken died.

 

My memories of those six weeks doing my initial training, is the awful food, after two years of Mrs Bayliss’ wonderful cooking. And the bullying of Privates Hunt and Kent, by the Platoon Sergeant.

 

Ken and me went out a couple of times, but by the time you were considered smart enough to get passed the Regimental Police on the gate you began to think, is it worth it. If they found one speck of dust on your boots, back to your Barrack room to remove it!

 

After six weeks I was posted to 35 Signal Training Regiment R.A. at Rhyl in North Wales. Luckily Ken and a few more of my mates were posted there also. Ken shared a chalet with me. The Regiment was situated in a holiday camp, very nice. So Private King now became Gunner King.

          David "Dai" King, 2007

 

After seven weeks I went home on leave, by then I had learned the Morse Code and how to operate a 21 set. On going back from leave I started learning Royal Artillery radio procedure, also had 4 weeks learning to drive 4 wheel vehicles and 1 week on motorbikes, plus maintenance. Plenty of square bashing PT, and guard duty. I felt very proud the day I was passed as a Signaller R.A. and extra ninepence a day and crossed flags to wear on your sleeve.

 

My time spent at 35 Signal Regt R.A. was very enjoyable, good food, good billets, and very nice to be beside the seaside, I was fortunate to be there during the summer, I think the chalets would be very cold in winter.

 

About mid October 1943, several of us were told that we had been posted to a very special Regiment, but were told nothing else. Off we went by rail with a Bombardier as an escort. After passing through Salisbury Station we arrived at Bulford Halt. We were met by a soldier wearing a red beret, the three ton truck we boarded had a Pegasus division sign displayed, we realised then that we had become AIRBORNE.

 

Our Regiment was the 53 (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regt R.A. Before they joined 6 Airborne Division, they were Anti-Tank, becoming Field, quite a lot more signallers were needed to bring the Regt up to strength, we were the boys to do it!

 

Ken and I were put in F Troop 212 Battery. We were billeted in warm brick Barracks Bulford Camp, about 9 miles from Salisbury. We were pleased to exchange our forage cape to “cherry berets” and sew a Pegasus and “Airborne” on our sleeves, plus an extra shilling a day, and a weekend pass every fortnight.

 

It was good for us young soldiers being billeted with old wears, most of them had been with the B.E.F. and evacuated from Dunkirk.

 

Training hard but enjoyable. It was a great feeling to be part of 6 Airborne knowing that we would be in the forefront of the invasion that everyone was expecting.

 

Sometime in December 1943 a notice was displayed, asking for volunteers to take a parachute course, to become forward observation Officers signallers. Ken and me had already decided to try and be Paratroopers, he put my name down and I put his!

 

We weren’t allowed to go all together on a parachute course, owing to the Division being on standby. Ken went on his course before me, and was enjoying his jumping leave when I left for my course, mid January 1944.

 

The first part of a parachute course was spent in Derbyshire, at Hardwick Hall. This entailed toughening you up, in readiness for parachute jumping. Everything was done at the double, even during the morning NAAFI break you were kept doubling up in the queue! Every morning it was a 7 mile run before breakfast, then assault courses, rock climbing, rope climbing etc. There was a series of tests you had to pass, all in full equipment. E.g. 14ft long jump, run a mile in 6 minutes, and a ten mile forced march in two hours. That wouldn’t have been too bad, but each Platoon Sergeant tried to get his squad home first, we completed our march in 1 hour and 50 minutes.

 

When we left Hardwick Hall for Ringway, which is now Manchester Airport, it entailed marching to Chesterfield Station, about 9 miles. It was no problem to me, our little gang had twice walked back from Chesterfield, having missed the last bus! In a quarry at Hardwick which was drained years after the way, 600 bikes were discovered, having been ridden back from either Chesterfield or Mansfield!

 

Life at Ringway was quite a contrast from Hardwick – good barracks, top class food, and no early morning runs! We learnt how to land properly, forward and backward rolls, side rolls, feet and knees together at all times. We jumped from a tower about 40 feet high, in parachute harness, an attached fan slowed your descent, landing at about the same speed as you would from a real jump.

 

After four or five days we were ready for our first jump proper. This was to be done from a cage under a barrage balloon, about 800 feet in the air. Tatton Park was the venue, 4 of us ascended, plus our Sergeant instructor. The ground looked a long way down, there was a round cut out of the bottom of the cage, the same size as the hole in a Witley bomber.

 

Our instructor tapped us on the shoulder and shouted GO! It was such a feeling of relief lookind up and seeing your canopy was open. You soon came back to reality though - an instructor on the ground was shouting “watch your lines, keep your feet together”.

 

A parachute course in those days consisted of 8 jumps, 2 from a balloon and 6 from a Witley, one being a night jump. When you landed you rolled up your chute, had a cup of tea from the very kind W.V.S. ladies, who must have been fed up with tales of parachute jumps! The ride back from Tatton Park to Ringway was the dangerous bit – the RAF bus drivers had bets with each other as to who could be back in camp first!

 

What a proud moment it was when the C.O. Ringway presented up with our winds. I felt on top of the world as I made my way to Dingestow on my 7 day leave. The extra shilling a day would be handy too! 

 

Back at Bulford training was very intense. I was attached to the Third Para Brigade, taking part in exercises with First Canadian Para Battalion, Ninth Para Battalion and Eighth Para Battalion – The 3 Battalions that formed the Third Para Brigade.

 

I did 5 or 6 jumps with one or other of the Battalions, carrying a Radio set in a kitbag attached to your right leg. When your chute opened you pulled a quick release pin and lowered the kitbag on a twenty foot rope.

 

These exercises included schemes called Buzz 1, and Buzz 2. These were full Divisional exervises. On one night drop we landed miles from our D.Z. I came down to earth and found I had landed in the garden of a pub somewhere in Southern England! After a lot of shouting we all found each other and spent and enjoyable hour or two at the bar. Eventually we were picked up and taken back to Bulford.

 

Operation Overlord

 

On May 25 1944, we were taking in closed trucks to our transit camp, under canvass, surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. (After the war – 1953 in fact – when we were living at Coln St Aldwyns, I recognised the site as I was passing. The field was adjoining a CO-OP Dairy, a mile or so out of Cricklode.) The first few days were spent playing football and softball with some of the Canadians we were sharing the camp with. The weather was glorious. Ken and myself were the signallers accompanying Lt Ayrton (who I was pleased to meet on our 1990 reunion). We were to be the FOO party to accompany the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. On June 3rd we were given our briefing. We were told our DZ was partly flooded and that only fools would try to land there! The Battalion’s task was to clear the DZ and proceed via Varaville to Le Mesnil, however, this was not to be for me. 24 hours before Zero hour the powers that be decided to split Ken and me up: Ken stopped with Lt Ayrton, I was replaced with Blondie Webster, I was to go with Capt. Harrington and Frank McGinley, dropping in with 3rd Parachute Brigate HQ. Company. Our DZ and objective were the same, Le Mesnil Chateau.

 

We left the transit camp during the evening of June 5th in closed trucks and headed for RAF Down Ampney, picked up our parachutes and boarded a Dakota aircraft, taking off about ten. After a considerable time getting into formation we headed for the coast of Normandy.

 

We were met with a barrage of anti aircraft fire, must have been an easy target flying at such a low altitude, several planes were shot down. We stood up and hooked our static lines to the overhead strong point. I found it very difficult to stand owing to turbulence, etc. On went the red light, then green and out I went in a very disorderly fashion, nothing like the smooth exits of practice jumps! Shuffling up to the door was like going up a 2 in 1 gradient, as I hit the slipstream up in the air went my right leg and off flew my kitbag complete with radio and small pack.

 

I landed in about a foot of water. On trying to get out of my parachute harness and keeping my head above water I lost my Sten Gun, which was under my harness. I tried to feel for it but was being dragged along by the canopy. I was getting accustomed to the light by now, and managed to wade to dry land. There I was well behind enemy lines, soaked to the skin, eight magazines of Sten Gun ammunition in my pouches, no gun, no radio, no small pack (which would have contained my shaving gear, mess tines and two packs of 24 hour rations) and not a soul in sight!

 

I could hear gunfire which I presumed was coming from the coastal area the 9th Para Battalion would have been attacking, so I began to head south west which I hoped would take me to Le Mesnil where 3rd Parachute Brigade HQ were to be entrenched.

 

After what seemed like hours to me, but was probably only minutes, I saw a figure approaching. I was so relieved when I heard “PUNCH”, I quickly replied “JUDY” – that was our password. The man I encountered was an officer, either from Brigade HQ or 3 Para Squadron RW. He was carrying a Sten gun and a revolver so he kindly gave me his Sten. After a while we met more Paras. They were mostly from 1st Canadian Para Battalion, also making for Le Mesnil. Another bit of luck I had was finding a small pack. It was lying by more water, nobody anywhere to be seen, so I gratefully slung it on my back! When I opened it later I discovered it had belonged to a Sapper, whose name has escaped me. It contained all the correct articles, 2 x 24 hour ration packs, mess tines, knife and fork, shaving kit, and a spare pair of socks. Weeks late, after the Normandy campaign was over, I tried to find him but failed, so I never knew whether he was alive or dead.

 

When I arrived at 3rd Para Brigade HQ first light was approaching, just a handful of chaps were there. No sign of Captain Harrington or Frank McGinley. I was put as a number 2 on a Bren Gun., positioned covering the approach road to the Chateau. Early afternoon I was very pleased to see Captain Harrington arrive, and a few hours later on Frank McGinley, He wasn’t too pleased to hear that I’d lost the radio, he poor chap had been carrying the 2 accumulators for well over 12 hours! However, a supply drop on the evening of D-Day replaced the radio, and by June 7th we were directing gunfire from our own Regiment and Sea Landing Regiments, as soon as they got into position. Brigadier Hill had been injured by our own bombs, I was led to believe. He turned up on June 7th badly wounded by refusing to go to Hospital. We dug ourselves a slit trench, and one close by for Capt. Harrington (that was to be our home for the next 10 weeks)! All the water we had was a mess tin full and had to wash and shave in that. We also managed to get enough to brew our dried tea. To go to the latrines we had a white tape to follow to a small wood. At first we had to balance over a thin plank of wood, but after a few days when a few 14-man ration packs had been emptied, some ingenious fellow cut holes in the bottom of them and placed them over the trench. However, it didn’t pay to linger too long chatting to your neighbour, owing to regular mortar fire!

 

Frank and myself did 2 hours on and two hours off every night. That was on top of daylight, when we worked continuous at various O.P.S. After we had been doing this for 2 or 3 weeks we were sent to a rest camp at Leon-Sur-Mer. We slept the whole 36 hours we were there, apart from a couple of meals.

 

A couple of days after D-Day, Capt. Harrington and me were called to go to Chateau St. Come where the 9th Battalion were doing battle (at that time I had no idea where we were but discovered it was St. Come on one of the pilgrimages). When we first arrived we were lying in a ditch, landing our shells only a couple of hundred yards ahead of us, but were forced to withdraw to a house a short distance to our rear. There were two or three Paras and four dead Germans on the floor of the room we were in. We were still trying to pick targets through the window when a Tiger tank passed by only a few yards away. Either it was an anti-tank gun firing at the tank or the 88mm gun on the tank firing. Whatever it was it blew valves in my radio!

 

We were ordered out of the house and took shelter in a ditch with a lot more Paras. We were being shelled continuously, at this point Brigadier Hill walked the length of the ditch saying, “don’t worry chaps, tanks are on the way to help us”. Such courage certainly made me feel better. A short while later a few Shermans arrived and we were able to return to Le Mesnil. At this point I realised what war was all about!  

 

Life after this consisted of firing at troop movements, mainly in the direction of Troan. Every morning Frank or myself had to ride a 125cc motorbike to Div HQ at Ranville to pick up the days frequencies and call signs. There was an open spot of about 100 yards where you put your head down and rode like hell. Jerry was constantly sniping on that stretch of road, although the frequencies were changed daily, every morning – which times were also changed when Div HQ called us to report signal strength, there was always a Jerry who came on air!

 

On about August 18th we started to advance. What happened to Capt. Harrington at this point is a mystery to me, but Frank and myself found ourselves with Capt. Peter Jones and Reg Silverton, with a Jeep to boot. Our Jeep broke down after crossing a Bailey bridge, but eventually we made it to Deaauville and found a place to bed down in a luxury hotel. What a treat to have a bath after all that time, and to be able to undress and sleep in a comfortable bed, after all those weeks in a slit trench, not even being able to take one’s boots off, and constantly under mortar shelling. After “roughing” it for a day or two Frank and I hitch hiked back and found a R.E.M.E. depot. They “lent” us a Jeep. When we caught up with 3rd Para Brigade HQ in Honfleur we were told that was as far as 6th Airborne were going, so it was back over Pegasus Bridge (first time for me) and home to England.

 

Summary of the Normandy Campaign and my thoughts of the Battle 55 years later.

 


I was extremely disappointed when I was told that Ken and me were to be in different O.P. parties, but I wonder if I would be writing this story if I had jumped with Ken and Lt. Ayrton. Their plane somehow was miles off course - they were dropped at least 20 miles East from our D.Z. The whole stick of 20 men located each other, and they managed to get within 10 miles of their true destination when they were ambushed by a troop of Germans who had been tipped off by a French farmer. Several of the Canadians were killed, Ken had half his ankle missing and was taken to a German hospital near Paris. Lt. Ayrton and Blondie Webster were taken prisoner along with the rest of the Canadians. We heard in a few days that Lt. Ayrton and Blondie were safe, but it was August before Mr and Mrs Lamzed heard that Ken was still alive. I dread to think how Mother would have been if she had found herself in Mrs Lamzed’s position.

 Original battledress insignia  

One of my closest friends, Bombardier “Nobby” Hall, is buried in Ranville Churchyard. The date on his Tombstone is June 5th 1944. I have tried to find out how he was killed on 5th. As far as I know, nobody was dropped before midnight. I also consider myself very fortunate to have come through the battle without a scratch. Out of a divisional strength of 6500 to 7000 nearly 4500 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The official figures are as follows:

  

Killed820
Wounded2709
Missing902
Total4431

    

The majority of the ‘Missing’ column were taken prisoner, but a few were never accounted for. 

 

At our briefing before D-Day, Brigadier Hill told us that chaos would rule the day, how he was right. Out of the four FOO parties to go with 3rd Para Brigade, only our little party was intact. Ken Ayrton’s party I’ve told you about. Captain Whitney and his two signallers were taken prisoner. Captain Hastings was wounded and got a blighty. I don’t know what was the fate of his two signallers.

 

Of the chaps referred to in my story, Capt “Badger” Harrington was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the St. Come affair. He died in the eighties. Lt Ken Ayrton I was pleased to see at one of our reunions.

 

Unfortunately, I’ve never met or heard of Frank McGinley. I saw Blondie Webster in Palestine Sept 1946. I’ve neither heard of nor seen Capt. Whitney. Capt. Peter Jones is also a regular member at our reunions, also his wife Betty. Reg Silverton is also a regular attender at our gatherings, also his wife Jackie. Captain Pat Hastings – poor chap, suffered a mental breakdown when we were in Java. I heard that he made a complete recovery but died quite a while back.

 

My best army pal of all, Ken Lamzed, made a good recovery, forcing himself to play rugby and golf, etc. His ankle bone was half missing, and he always had a limp. We met on lots of occasions, either in his home town of Exeter or when he visited us. Sadly he died in the autumn of 1996.

 

  

While I was in Normandy, 2nd Forward Observer Unit R.A. was formed. I was given a choice of stopping in 53rd Light Regiment R.A. or joining 2 F.O.U. as we were known. Freddie Barker, Frank, Reg and myself and all of the F.O.O. Officers who survived Normandy decided that 2nd Forward Observer Unit was the best bet, if we wished to remain forward observation bods.

 

2nd Forward Observer Unit was probably the most unusual mob in the British army H.Q. and 3 section were British. 5 and 6 section were Canadian. Major Rice was C.O. 18 officers, each holding the rank of Captain and 60 or so other ranks. Each O.P. party now consisted of 4 men, a captain, 2 signallers R.A. and a Jeep driver/come signaller if needed. And both signallers had to be able to drive if required. Number 3 section to provide O.P. parties for 3rd Parachute Brigade. Number 5 section for 5th Parachute Brigade , and 6 section to do likewise with 6th Air Landing Brigade (the Glider section). Once again I would be attached to 3 Para also having Capt. Harrington as boss, Frank as my fellow signaller and Freddie Barker as our driver. Captain Harrington being the senior Captain meant that we would still go along with 3 Brigade H.Q. company.

 

What a different time I had compared with barrack days pre-Normandy. No guard duties, cookhouse fatigues, or fire watch. We were billeted in “Spider” huts at Winterbourne Gunner 4 miles from Salisbury. We spent a considerable time on schemes on Salisbury plain. A couple of parachute jumps with kitbags from Netheravon.

 

Christmas 1944 we had been told was to be spent on leave, but no such luck, On December 23rd we found ourselves at Tilbury Docks bound for Ostend!

 

Copyright: David "Dai" King.