Go to it Gunners

Normandy in June 1944

  

by James Corbett

12th Battalion (Airborne) The Devonshire Regiment

 

 

I was barely 19 years old, when, on that momentous day in June 1944, I first set foot on Normandy soil. As I had never been in action before, I was understandably frightened and fearful for my personal safety; at the same time, I was also apprehensive I wouldn’t be able to deal with the rigors and horrors of total war. As I lay shivering in a hole in the ground, the realisation dawned that the people out there opposite were going to do their utmost to kill me.

 

It was the first days of the invasion and both sides were going hammer-and-tongs to obliterate each other. The enemy had finally realised that ormandy was, indeed, the designated target for the biggest invasion force that had ever set sail in the history of the world.

 

I was privileged to be a member of the famous 6th Airborne Division whose main task, in the early days, was to hold the east flank of the bridgehead in front of the Orne River and Caen Canal.

 

Field Marshall Rommel’s plan was simple. If he could destroy those troops on the east side of the bridgehead, it would provide an opportunity for his panzer armies to roll up the whole invasion force before they had a chance to establish a secure foothold: as a consequence, we were faced with huge forces of artillery, tanks, flak guns, together with the dreaded 88’s.  
  

Those first days and nights were horrendous. 

 

In those early days, standing against the formidable German 21st Army Group, was a mere handful of Infantry Divisions; without much support in the way of artillery or armour. They included No 1 Commando, who held the beaches and coastal areas; 51st Highland Division on the right flank, south of Caen; and the 6th Airborne Division (who were the first troops to land on “D” Day) holding the central position.

 

I was No.1 Sniper, 19th Platoon, “D” Company, 12th Devons, 6th Air Landing Brigade. We were the Glider Boys, who travelled to war in reasonable comfort . . . unless we crash-landed somewhere, and not on our designated landing zones!

 

“D” Company of our sister Regiment, The Ox. & Bucks, had done a marvellous job in securing the two vital bridges over the Orne and Caen Canal (their code names for this operation were Ham & Jam), I well remember the first time I marched across the bridge, now named for immortality, “Pegasus Bridge”, after our Divisional Sign. I looked across at the three smashed gliders, which had landed perilously close to the riverbank. At that time, not knowing the true story, I naively thought how lucky the crew and troops were not to have crash-landed in the water and drown. It was only much later that I heard the full story. The wonderful feat of navigation to bring in the precious cargo, right on target and in total darkness. In doing so, they caught the enemy by complete surprise, securing this vital bridge, which was so important to the success of the invasion. The bridge itself was fully prepared for demolition, and if blown, a high proportion of our Division would have found themselves on the wrong side of the river, and unable to rejoin the main invasion force.

 

For the first few days, as wave after wave of attacks came in, the battle for the Bridgehead was fought in earnest. All through the night, as they softened us up for their dawn attacks, we were mortared and shelled mercilessly. When these were repelled, they shelled us all day and then attacked again at dusk with their huge Tiger Tanks and Panzer troops. There was hardly time to grab food or drink, and we were thankful for the ‘hard tack’ we had brought; tinned bully and army biscuits. Every man jack stood in his trench for two hours at dawn and again at dusk, prepared to throw back any attack. In between, it was two hours on stand-by and two hours off. Sleep was out of the question, as every precious hour was taken up with improving one’s slit trench, which might possibly save your life. We had only small trenching tools, and being the middle of June, the ground was hard. It was much later, when the rains came in July, that we were able to construct massive trenches; some of them comparable with the standard of World War One. We covered these trenches with corrugated-iron sheeting commandeered from local farms and used tree branches plus two feet of soil. We could rest more comfortably, knowing that only a direct hit could finish one off.

 

The first week was touch-and-go; although, at the time, we didn’t fully realise this. I think we all felt that if we could hold on for a couple of weeks, until sufficient reinforcements were landed on the beaches, then we had done our job. At the back of our minds, we recalled the words of “Monty” who had addressed the whole Division just before “D” Day.

 

“You are my front line attack-force” – he said, “therefore you will be fully committed for the first 48 hours of the invasion. Land forces will then relieve you. But it may well be, that depending on the overall situation, you may have to stay committed for up to72 hours.” 

These may not be his exact words, but the figures 48 and 72, stayed with me for the next three months, as we remained fully committed in the front line until we reached the Seine Estuary on August 25th.

 

But, back to the first week of the invasion; I believe the key to the whole battle for supremacy came around the 13th June. About that time, a huge storm virtually destroyed the artificial MulberryPort, just outside Arrowmanches. These two piers of floating ramps ran for miles out to sea. Here, in deep water, the large cargo-boats unloaded the armour and artillery needed to hold the bridgehead. Forty block-ships had been deliberately sunk to form a protective harbour; but it was not enough to save the MulberryPort altogether. Unloading was delayed for two or three days, whilst the storm abated and the piers were repaired.

 

Rommel had realised that the vile weather had played into his hands. He seized this chance and in a last desperate attempt to drive us back into the sea, attacked all along the east-flank of the Bridgehead. In our sector, the main thrust of the attack focussed on a village called Breville, because it was directly in line with PegasusBridge only a few miles to our rear. This small French village had changed hands many times since “D” Day, and by the 13th of June, Breville had virtually become “No Man’s Land”. The enemy attacked with armour and field-troops, but by this time, we had many more anti-tank guns forward and were able to stand firm for most of the day. 

 

However, towards 5p.m., the enemy committed more armour and troops and the position deteriorated rapidly. My Company, along with various other units were ordered to counter-attack to try to save the day. For most of us, this was the most serious fighting of the war, as hand-to-hand fighting took place. Our Company Commander had his head blown off very early in the battle, and we lost most of the other officers, including the Second-in-Command. We suffered huge casualties and direct command was completely lost.  Those left, managed to achieve the objective, which was to capture Breville, but at what terrible price!

 

Dedication of Airborne Avenue, 2004

  

If you visit the site today, you will find an inscribed monument sited on the crossroads, just outside the village, which was the focal point of the battle.  Whenever I visit Normandy (which is quite often), I never fail to pause for a few moments at that Memorial; in silent memory of those who fell that epic day.

 

We bypassed the village of Breville, and every building was burning, even the Norman Church. There were no instructions to stop and consolidate, because no-one was left up front to issue orders. A group of us continued until eventually we came across a small wood and realised we had lost touch with the main force. There were about fifteen of us, made up from different units, in this small copse. Some had slight wounds, but could still walk.

 

Whilst determining what to do, both sides decided to open up with a creeping artillery barrage. This means you start dropping shells in front of your own troops and work forwards towards the enemy’s  lines. Generally speaking, this is a sound strategy. Unfortunately, no one knew where the front lines were, and with both sides blazing away, we were caught like rats in a trap. We found the deepest ditch under a hedge, hugged the ground and prayed. It was the most devastating and intense barrage I had ever experienced, before or since. Eventually, the shelling stopped and, amazingly, we found that none of our group was seriously injured.

 

By now, darkness had arrived, but we still had the blazing village of Breville on our left, which indicated the route back to our own lines. Fortunately, the blaze also lit up the signs that were hanging from the trip wires guarding the open fields we had to cross. The signs bore the unmistakeable skull and crossbones, together with the dreaded words – “Mines Verboden”. It seemed like our escape was cut off, and several NCO’s in our little group, decided that the best thing to do was dig in and wait until the next morning. For the majority, this appeared to be the most sensible solution, but I strongly disagreed.

 

There was a good chance the enemy would attack again at dawn, and we would be sitting ducks in the middle of “No Man’s Land.” After a lot of heated discussion, nothing was decided; but my mind was made up.

 

Telling the rest I was going to try to rejoin my unit, I carefully stepped over the safety wire and, expecting to be blown to pieces at every step, threaded my way very slowly across the minefield. There was still sufficient light from the blazing village of Breville, for me to see any signs of freshly turned earth, but it all seemed perfectly flat and undisturbed. I was beginning to hope that it was a dummy minefield, which was probably the case. The rest of our group must have come to the same conclusion, because when I looked back, all fifteen men were following my example. As I neared our battle lines, I heard a rifle-bolt click, and quickly shouted out the password in case our lads were trigger-happy. I also shouted “6th Airborne . . . 6th Airborne” to reinforce my identity, and the wearer of a green beret of No 1. Commando jumped out of a trench in front of me, and said, “”Bloody hell, mate, you were lucky, you’ve just walked across a minefield.” As it turned out, the enemy did put in a small attack at dawn, but it was mainly exploratory, just to check on the position of the new front-line and to recover their dead.

 

In the days that followed, as we both licked our wounds, the front-line became static. More armour and anti-tank weapons poured off the ships and into our section, and we became much stronger defensively. After Breville, our front line was never breached again. Both sides sent out fighting-patrols to try to secure a prisoner for identification purposes. I hated these patrols and saw no purpose in sacrificing men’s lives just to find out what troops we were facing. What did it matter if they were SS troops or from what Panzer Regiment. To us, they were ALL enemy.

 

However, there was one important recognisance patrol I do remember . . . it consisted of one Officer, a Sergeant and yours truly!

 

To locate the enemy’s machine-gun-posts and, if possible, grab a prisoner, we had to crawl across an orchard at night. We applied the old Cherry Blossom boot polish on hands and faces and set off at 11p.m. The C.O, who saw us off, gave us his last orders. He said, “I want you back by 4a.m. as the artillery are going to lay down a barrage on this orchard, in case you are followed in. I’ll leave this bottle of whiskey here for you in this trench, then come and wake me up with your report”.

 

We set off in single file, Officer leading, Sergeant and then me. Hugging the ground and moving forward just inches at a time as we felt for mines. We took all of four hours to cross a 200-yard field. Then we stayed another half-an-hour listening to the Germans talking in their machine-gun dug-out (not that any of us understood the language). Then, we went left and right to pinpoint any other outposts.  At 3-30 a.m., I was pointing to my watch and making frantic signs to our Officer. Being a bit ‘Gung Ho’, I think he wanted to grab a prisoner, but there was no time left. He finally gave the signal to leave, and I was back in our own trench in 25 minutes . . . opening the whiskey . . . before the other two arrived, just in time before the artillery barrage came down. The Officer was later awarded a nice ‘Gong’ for his efforts, but the Serge and I had most of the whiskey! We were also excused the dawn Stand-to, so we had a refreshing eight-hour sleep, which, at that time, seemed more rewarding than a medal.

 

The shelling continued day and night to the end of June and into July. As the front lines were so close together, along with the shelling the enemy used their 3-inch mortars. You could always hear the pop pop pop of the mortars being discharged, and one usually had time to find cover. However, if the big guns were discharged at the same moment, one tended to miss the sound of the mortars going off. One Sunday morning, I recall four of my very closest mates (we had joined the army at the same time) being caught in the open when a shower of mortar bombs fell right between them. I’ll never know how we managed to pick up the remains that were left; a terrible memory for those of us who had to complete this gruesome task.

 

As, in some places, both front lines were only a field apart, I was often sent out into “No Man’s Land” on ‘sniping’ duties. We ourselves were sustaining the odd sniper casualty, so we went out in retaliation. Most of the connecting hedgerows, at right angles to the front line, were wide and one could crawl down the centre of the hedge with good cover.

We were on our own, in a very vulnerable position, and I was never comfortable with this assignment, which lasted up to four hours. One never knew if a German sniper would be crawling the other way. I always kept a German Luger pistol close at hand, with one up the spout, in case I couldn’t get my heavy rifle with it’s telescopic sights, on to the target quick enough.

 

The other danger was falling asleep which could prove fatal. Of course, the big advantage in our position out in “No Man’s Land” was that we were providing an advanced warning-signal in case a silent fighting-patrol was about to attack our positions. This meant the lads behind us could relax a little, knowing we were out in front performing our sniping/sentry duties. We kept up this dangerous hazard for some weeks, until it was suddenly cancelled. Apparently, we must have shot a ranking German Officer one day, poking his head over the parapet.

 

The retaliation was frightening. 

 

Shells, mortars, and machine-guns blazed away, and we were forced to ‘Stand –To’ for a number of hours, expecting a big frontal attack. They must have been really annoyed.

However, we still suffered casualties from the shelling, as there are always some direct hits. So, our forays into “No Man’s Land” ceased, much to my relief and the rest of our Company. I suppose the C.O. thought that the success of one sniper, plus the advanced protection, was not worth the casualties we suffered in retaliation. At our level, when both sides were content just to hold the line, we knew it was not a good idea to stir things up unnecessarily; I don’t suppose this line of thought would have occurred to the Top Brass.

 

In July, the rains came and all the trenches were flooded. It was still the safest place to eat and sleep and no one moved out, even though we were up to our waists in water for most days. With no break in the weather, I didn’t see my feet for a week. When I eventually had a chance to remove my boots, my feet were coal black with white lines running down to my toes. It made one think of the foot rot suffered by the men in the 1914-18 War.

 

Plaque Presentation, Honfleur

 

As the front line had become so static, the C.O. agreed to let a few men go back near the beach area for a 24-hour break. Many of the troops had become shell shocked and a bit punchy. In today’s Middle-East wars, they have another collective name for this illness, as the systems are more accurately diagnosed. My number came up for one of these welcome breaks, so I took advantage of it and travelled back to the reserve-area where the nine-mile snipers (our name for the artillery boys) hung out.

 

Imagine the joy of being able to get away from two months of constant shelling, with the stink of death in your nostrils all the time. (We never, from Day 1, got a chance to remove all the dead cows from the fields).  Again, just imagine being able to sleep for up to twelve hours in relative peace. It was wonderful. Sleep-deprivation was, undoubtedly, one of the biggest problems the troops had to deal with, and the Top Brass, who probably got their heads down every night, never recognized this. No wonder it is used in torture-interrogations.

 

On this particular 24-hour break, they woke me from deep slumber to attend a local cinema (of all things). The Army Film Unit wanted to do their morale-building bit and show the latest film. I remember a little of the film to this day. It was called, “The Way Ahead” starring David Niven, and was about recruits joining the army. Just what the doctor ordered!  I couldn’t tell you any more than that, as needless to say, I slept all through it. I might have stayed awake a little longer had they showed a Betty Grable film; she being the Marilyn Monroe of her day.

 

Two incidents, which seriously affected our morale, took place in late July. First, the high point, when we received news on the 20th that Hitler had been assassinated by his Generals in East Prussia: naturally, one’s thoughts turned to the possibility that the German High Command had taken over, and a termination of the war was imminent. This might have taken place and many lives saved if the assassination attempt had been successful. However, it was not to be, and this terrible war was to continue for almost another year.

 

Just after that, our low point in morale was the arrival of the “Doodle Bugs”. The Pilot-less planes. We had noted these robots flying over our lines during the night. Not only did they have a distinctive sound, but also the exhaust flames that boosted their flight gave the appearance of being some kind of rocket. We were not left in any doubt for long, as Jerry, instead of shells, soon fired over a salvo of leaflets informing us about his new secret weapon that was going to win him the war. The leaflets said, “Go to the hills and look across at your towns and cities burning. All your families are being destroyed. Surrender now and walk across to our lines with your hands in the air, etc.” They even used a tannoy system and a Lord Haw Haw type, to broadcast the same message.

 

This disturbed the troops, as we had all experienced the blitz in the early war-years, and we wondered if our families were going to suffer a similar attack of terror from the air. Much later, we were assured that it was all propaganda and that the mighty R.A.F. had it under control – which was not quite true.

 

Towards the end of July, (or was it early August, dates had very little relevance in those days), the order came to leave our comfortable trenches and drop back half-a-mile to the south of Caen. This large City was still in enemy hands, despite several attempts to take or outflank it, and was causing many casualties. This was ironic, as we knew several units of our Parachute Regiment had entered Caen on “D Day”, but were too weak in numbers to hold on to the City. So, the powers that be decided to flatten it, and thus save more Allied casualties.

 

And so, it came to pass that, at 5p.m., we sat on top of our new trenches and were able to witness first-hand, the first thousand-bomber raid. The bombers came from behind us in three columns, with the American 8th Air Force in their B47’s, and Flying Fortresses on the right, with the RAF in Lancasters and Halifaxes on the left. The Pathfinders led the way, and soon dropped their markers in the centre of the City. The bombers followed, remorselessly dropping their loads of death and destruction. One could clearly see the bombs leaving the aircraft. As one looked back towards the coast, it was an awe-inspiring sight to see the never-ending columns of planes heading towards their targets. Hour after hour they came, flying very low over our heads. The combined roar of the four-engine bombers was deafening. Very soon, this fine summer evening was plunged in smoke and darkness as the historic City of Caen burned from end to end. At the very beginning of the raid, a few flak guns opened up in token defence and I saw three of the bombers shot down, with no parachutes in sight. But, the rest of the planes banked sharply to left or right over the City and flew back the way they had come.

 

When the raid was over, you may have thought there would be a great feeling of exhilaration amongst the front-line troops on seeing the enemy getting ‘tanked’ in such a fashion, but you would be mistaken. There was a universal feeling of sadness at the carnage we had just witnessed from most of us. 

 

Prior to “D” Day, I am sure we all cheered at home when the news of those 1,000 Bomber raids on Hamburg and Berlin came on the News. But, these were German Cities and were pay-back for London, Coventry and Bristol, where, earlier in the war, our population suffered horrendous casualties. But, this was France, and it was French citizens — whom we had come to liberate — being killed.

 

One wonders whose decision it was to destroy this fine City, and in military terms, what exactly this raid achieved. I doubt very much if the figures of German enemy dead matched the French population figure of 127,000 (unconfirmed) as the bulk of the enemy were outside the City, protecting it from attack.   The huge death roll of the French population in Caen, coupled with the total destruction of the historic buildings and infrastructure, must have made the French nation wonder why, if this was the ultimate price to be paid, we had bothered to invade in the first place. To make matters worse, the beautiful City of Caen was not really of strategic importance, as our later advances, probably because of all the blitzed rubble in the streets making it impassable for military purposes, duly bypassed it.

 

Just after the Caen raid, we heard the welcome news that the Americans had broken out of the Bridgehead at St. Lo. and Patton’s tanks were roaring across the Cherbourg Peninsular.  Although we had no definite information, one could sense that we, ourselves, were gearing up to advance. The order came one bright morning towards the end of August. After three months living in trenches and being shelled every day, we were on the move at last, meeting little resistance. Our sister Regiment, the good old Ox & Bucks, were in front of us, but were held up at the town of Touques where the river bridges had been blown. We crossed the river by the Bailey Bridge the Engineers had thrown across, and entered Touques. Being Airborne troops we had no transport of our own, and once landed, we either had to commandeer local civilian transport, or walk. To tell the truth, we had walked a long way across France since the breakout, and all of us hoped for a bit of a rest at Touques. But, it was not to be. Word had come through that the small port of Honfleur on the Seine Estuary some 25 km away was our next target. Although the enemy was in full retreat by now, it was thought that the harbour facilities, vital for further advancement, would be destroyed.

 

Our Brigadier decided to send, through the fleeing enemy lines, one platoon forward in an attempt to liberate Honfleur and protect the port facilities if possible. Just why our platoon was selected, I’ll never know, but that’s why half an hour later, twelve of us were standing in the back of a baker’s lorry, and the other half of the platoon were sitting on the Touque Fire Engine . . . with our officer wearing the Chief Fireman’s helmet. It was late afternoon when we set off . . . with no time for any food. We kept to the quiet country roads, well away from the main coastal route, which we were sure would be used by the retreating German army. Suddenly, as we were passing through a wood, there was a rapid burst of gunfire.  We left our civilian vehicles pretty smartly and dived into the wood. Gunfire and grenades were coming from both sides in this ambush. I knew we were miles in front of our Division and any assistance was out of the question. Suddenly…But that’s another story.
      With my Platoon Sgt Wally Edgar

 

Copyright: James Corbett.