JUNE 6th 1944
It had been slick, quick and bloody for the Germans. Major John Howard`s D company 2nd battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry had attacked the two bridges, one over the Orne Canal – codename Pegasus, and one over the Orne four hundred yards away – codename Horsa. The bridges provided a crucial link between the invasion beaches and the airborne landings and needed to be in British hands before the landings took place preventing any counter attack from the Germans. John Howard`s men comprising of six platoons, plus thirty sappers form 249 Company Royal Engineers, in total, one hundred and eighty men, plus pilots in six gliders, had attacked the bridges at one minute past midnight.
“Christ there`s the bridge!” The pilot, Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork had shouted from the cockpit. The nose of the glider dove steeply. “Where do you want to finish up sir?” He asked, in jocular fashion, as he fought with the controls of the glider having to deploy the arrestor parachute – the glider coming in way too high.
Major Howard, never one to turn down a challenge, albeit his answer rather droll knowing the likelihood of pinpointing a precise landing in the engine-less Horsa gliders nigh impossible, told him,” Ideally Jim, right through the wire defences of the bridge!”
“Right oh sir.”
Daft old sod, Major Howard smiled wryly. But the skill of the pilot was paramount to the success of the operation. Too short and the glider would end up in the pond – too long and they would land on the Germans heads! Complete surprise was what was needed. The great wooden bird, swooping silently alongside the canal bounced on the ground – became airborne – bounced again – hit the ground – bounced again – rose up briefly – the ground whizzing past – flint flashing. Were they German bullets? Were the Germans ready and waiting? Luckily it was just the skids hitting the ground.The glider hurtled in frenzied speed on uneven ground then – crashed, hitting the ground for the final time.
John Howard was thrown to the ground – the cockpit disintegrating. There was no time to check the condition of the pilots or the fate of the other gliders. The rest of the platoon was out, some thrown out, some tumbling out. Major Howard collected his men. They knew exactly what was expected of them. He led his platoon towards the road which led to the bridge. Phosphorous bombs were lobbed at the pillbox across the road. Waking Germans, confused and unsure of what was happening, screamed as thirty-six grenades – dumped through slits of the pillbox, dropped at their feet. Panic, screams, explosions, ripped flesh – and then silence. Any survivors were finished with bursts of machine gun fire. Then they were on to the next target. Miraculously, there was no firing from the Germans. John Howard`s men moved swiftly and with deadly earnest attacking without mercy pillboxes, gun nests and trenches.
The Germans tried in the confusion to man their positions and fire back – but it was too late.
“Ham and Jam,” were the magic words that came from the 38 radio set carried by Major Howard`s batman, indicating that the mission was a success. The whole thing had taken just fifteen minutes – the bridge secure and intact.
For the young men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne, things had not gone quite so well. Thick banks of cloud had encumbered the pilots in finding the correct drop zones and the Germans had opened the sluice gates flooding the valleys and turning the whole area into a quagmire. As hundreds dropped from planes hopelessly off target, many inexperienced parachutists were swallowed by glupes of mud, dragged down with heavy equipment, arms flaying, mouths filled with rancid water. Or they dropped into the sea or became entangled in trees or hit roofs. Many were shot down by heavy fire before they even hit the ground.
For private Sherman Oyler, this was not the glorious first entrance into Normandy he had hoped for. He had lost his leg strap as soon as he had jumped, plus his webbing with most of his ammunition. But this was worse! He couldn’t release himself from his harness as he hit the mud. He squealed with panic when he could feel nothing beneath him. He flayed at the mud as he was slowly sucked down. If only he could release his harness! But he couldn’t reach the knife in his jacket. His hands fought the straps – the parachute sprawled in front of him but was not attached to anything solid and would not hold his grip. Frantically pulling at it as it lay on dry land just yards in front of him, he panicked further as the parachute collected in a great white mass before him. In his panic, he had discarded his sub machine gun – his mouth filling with black gunk, his screams becoming garbled – sickly – his nose the only organ taking in air – then that too began to fill – his ears could still hear the frantic throes in his throat – they too became muffled in silence shutting out the sensory of his world. His head became heavy and pounding, even more terrifying – his brain was still very much alert – his eyes the only thing visible – wide with terror – then blackness – stinging thick slime – his world dark and suffocating – a huge bubble of mud entombing him – grappling hands slowing – then stopping, both hands laying flat upon the surface of the swamp – they too then disappeared.
A gift General Eisenhower had given him just before take off, a small plate, was the only thing visible. The inscription on the plate read:
Heaven Can Wait
Major Danvers sat at the small desk aboard the Empire Battleaxe and opened his diary for what would be his last entry:
6th June 1944 04.45 hrs.
What a gigantic effort each man now has to make – to face up to something like this. Men who may have had only a little of life – men with little education and little knowledge – men with ailing estranged or poor families. Men who have never been loved – men who had high ambitions. Yet we are all here – we`re going as ordered – willingly into battle.
Putting down his pen, he slowly closed the page, wondering if any other entry would ever be made. Picking up the photograph of his family, he kissed them, replaced it on the desk, placed the diary in his top pocket and went to spend the last few hours on board – with his men.
The minesweepers stealthily forged ahead flanked by the great destroyers escorting them on their hazardous task. Sweeping away the thousands of mines laid by the Germans in the English channel, the crew of the minesweepers did not deviate from the enormity of their mission, facing death and destruction at every turn. The ten channels – within the English channel of which the fleet was divided – two per force and beach sector, had to precede the flotilla`s advance. Marking the lanes with lighted dan buoys, they then moved in to sweep the waters of the invasion beaches. Behind the minesweepers came the floating nerve centre of the operation, the Command ships. Equipped with radio antennae and radar, these floating Command posts would formulate the network of communication directing the fleet through the perilous waters.
Jack sighed a long laborious sigh and muttered under his breath. He was cold, wet and wondered what the hell he was doing here. He should, if he were at home, be just starting his shift at Winterbottoms. It was almost light, dawn had broken, a realization that chilled his heart. He pushed through the lines of soldiers standing on the deck of the Empire Battleaxe to where his mate Sam was standing. Sam was staring out to sea. The early morning mist lamenting across the grey foreboding channel was slowly lifting. As it did so, it was uncovering its prize, one it had cleverly concealed in the darkness. Nothing – absolutely nothing could have prepared Jack for the sight before him. He gulped, mesmerised at what his eyes were telling him and what was bearing down on Hitler`s fortress Europe. As far as Jack could see, across each side of the Empire Battleaxe – were ships – hundreds and hundreds of ships – of every description.
Squashing himself smaller so he could fit between the troops, Jack was trying to take in the inconceivable sight. Gracing the waters, paramount amongst the lesser vessels were the warships of Bombardment Force D, gigantic predators majestically stalking the waters. H.M.S Warspite and Ramilies, cut through the water like knives cutting paper, almost shunning the rust scarred freighters that parried astride them. Then came the British cruisers Mauritius, Arethusa, Frobisher, Danae, all equipped with powerful naval guns. Hospital ships, weather beaten tankers, ocean liners and channel steamers with columns of smoke trumpeting, had taken their place in the vast fleet.
Jack looked right – left – in front of him- behind him – pushed himself right up to the rails. “Here watch it mate!” Great vessels carried numerous smaller landing craft, neatly aligned in rows, soon to be lowered into the water. Little tugs parried around the huge vessels, hordes of them, jostling for power. LSI`s like the Empire Battleaxe – H.M.S Glenearn, Cutlass, Broadsword, Astrid, Maid of Orleans, Goathland and the Locust were advancing in order packed to the brim with troops. Endless columns of larger landing craft, full of glistening helmets below the LSI`s bobbed and bounced. Ahead of the convoy were minesweepers and dozens and dozens of motor launches. Leading this awesome procession of the Eastern Task Force was the cruiser H.M.S Scylla – the flagship of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian. Again, as always, hundreds of silver barrage balloons, almost invisible as they merged with the dawn mist, bowed and curtsied high above the fleet.
Jack looked upward, the sky imitating the frenzied activity of the sea. Roaring and buzzing were Spitfires and Thunderbolts weaving in and out of the clouds and then came the long drawn out pulsating roar of more B26 bombers, and then, droning and thundering along came the magnificent heavies – the Lancaster bombers, wing to tip – cumbersome, laborious – beautiful. All of the aircraft had the three invasion stripes on their wings, which struck joy to the heart.
Sam slapped Jack`s back. “Hitler`s fucked!”
Suddenly, without warning, a great thunderous BOOM, although a good distance away from the Empire Battleaxe had Jack and the troops instinctively ducking, hands curled around helmets. Another BOOM – billows of smoke – a huge flash – BOOM – the warships covering Gold Beach had begun firing onto the Normandy coastline. From their position on the ship they could see, screaming from the LCT(R`s) (landing craft rocket) salvoes of rockets streaking towards the coast like devils with tails alight thwarting the grey dawn`s arrival.
The lads cheered and whistled. “We’ll have nothing to do,” Sam shouted. “They’ll have flattened the bastards!”
The naval bombardment of the Normandy coastline had now begun; In the distance warships and destroyers were pulverising the coastline. Fighters and bombers were bombing the headline of the coast with the ferocity of a wolf snapping up its prey.
The assault convoy had now arrived at the lowering position, heaving to and anchoring eight miles off the French coast. Admiral Ramsey`s Operation Neptune, the first stage of Operation Overlord, was now in full swing. It was Jack, Gary`s, Captain John Hamilton`s and thousands of troops – last stop.
The next stop – the Normandy beaches.
The ships were now a hive of activity, seething with noise, chains rattling in the divits as assault crafts swung down the side of the mother ships. Navy coxswain positioned in the crafts as they were lowered away. When the crafts hit the water, the coxswain thrust the engines into life and roared off, did a semi-circle and brought the assault craft back in line with the mother ships.
This was something they had practised time and time again during the months of rehearsals, so the climb down the scramble net was not deterring, but the sea below was. The LCA was bouncing and bobbing with each huge swell. Jack`s heavy boots felt their way down each ridge of rope. Loaded down with his seventy-pound pack on his back, the large bulge of his May-West under his armpit, it was a laborious decent, the sea rolling and swelling towards him waiting to snatch him away.
The assault crafts of the flotilla dipped and rolled the undulating waves that crashed over the gunwales. Vomiting was continuous and relentless. The stink of engine oil, the landing crafts rolling this way, rolling that way, lifted up, smashed back down again. Darting eyes, thumping hearts, tears and rosaries held in white knuckles. A mighty fleet forging onwards. Lines and lines of ships, destroyers, battleships, landing crafts, a magnitude of power carrying youth too young for death, for life, for fear, just babes trying to be men. Thousands of ships, waves crashing against bows, white surf. This great flotilla facing the tyranny that will no longer destroy, will no longer rule, a swirling mass of power, breaking the dawn, breaking the waves, breaking hearts. The sea covered with the hope of the world.
The bombardment ceases – the big guns are silent. Jack`s landing craft weaves in between grotesque iron rails and pickets. He eyes the deadly teller mines strapped on top and as the craft blindly passes the calling of death – in the midst of his minds eye – he can see other craft all around strike the obstacles and explode upwards.
The landing craft beaches some thirty yards from the shore. They crouch – diesel engines in reverse, they stand – zip – zip – bullets like someone sucking on their teeth – BOOM – BOOM – mortars explode.
“RAMPS DOWN!” They surge – visitors to hell.
Jack is in the water. Someone screams. “JACK – JACK!” Sam`s lungs are filling. “JACK – JACK.”
Jack tries to run, water waist high, the weight on his back pulling him down. The man in front falls – he`s going under. Gulping, swallowing, pink flesh lodges onto Jack“s face, he grapples. Coming up – he sucks the air – zip-zip-zip. Bulging eyes. An arm floats. A landing mine swerves – hits the teller mines – disintegrates – no survivors.
“JACK – JACK!” Sam disappears.
Another body floats past, blackened face – no face, sea turned red. Jack pushes a severed head away with his chest. The head bobs as the waves taunt it – mouth gaping, blood red eyes staring. Jack has Sam in his grasp, his friend, his mate, his brother in arms. Zip-zip-zip. So many men running. Smoke, screams, bullets, explosions, shouts, crazy, horror.
At precisely, 7.25am on Gold Beach, the 1st battalion of the Hampshire Regiment hit the right of the beach – Jig Green – the right of the line, the traditional post of honour. It was an honour duty bound and bestowed upon the Hampshires for unrivalled accomplishments – but was not replenished by any added heroics – not this day. This day was about staying alive. The Dorset Regiment were on the Hampshire`s left, but from this position, no-one could tell how they were fairing.
Private Charlie Hewson, the driver of the Bren Gun Carrier was struggling to get the carrier out of the water and onto the beach.
“Which way? Which way?” Charlie yelled from his seat. Despite her extra side extensions specially fitted for the event, sea water poured over the carriers side, the extensions blocking Charlie`s view.
“RIGHT – LEFT – RIGHT – LEFT.” Gary stood on the back of the carrier, a precarious position, trying to avoid the angle irons that were loaded with teller mines protruding out of the water like some barbaric torture mechanisms. Out of the haze of the morning mist and smoke, the underwater obstacles loomed up. About 250 yards from the shoreline were the high ramps and posts tipped with mines. Sited closer to the high-water mark, eight foot by ten foot steel girders bolted together at their centres with wooden ramparts and barbed wire, guarded the beach against any foolhardy invasion. The obstacles towering above them and sown a few feet apart, the choppy waves threatened to draw them toward then, the carrier swaying, tilting with each wave, the angle irons just a hairs breath away. Any slight collision would have brought their Dday to a short conclusion, as already had for so many. The deep water obstacles, revealed by the tide, had still managed to achieve their intentions the steel spikes ripping along the hulls of craft rendering them useless before teller mines on top exploded. Dug deep into the beach the Germans had developed a complex of over two thousand five hundred mined obstacles, the four foot high wooden posts and six foot high iron built rails laden with explosives – had taken their prize.
Many landing craft were blown hopelessly off course, caught by the sudden swell turning sideways, men ready to disembark – mines and explosives detonated, sending a circus of chaos upward. Splinters of wood encased flesh, bodies blown high into the air like rag dolls, limbs departing, the screaming just a whisper amongst the pandemonium. Boat after boat hung on the obstacles.
With each instruction Gary yelled, Charlie yanked the steering wheel right-left, water soaking his feet, the torrent of water, like a waterfall, pouring over the carriers sides. Must keep the engine going at full revs! As she lifted upward, the tracks snug on dryer land, Gary, privates Robert Smith and Christopher Knight, jumped into the water, wading through waist high. The sea was teeming with soldiers all making their affront onto Gold Beach. They were greeted by withering machine gun fire.
Nine miles west of Gold Beach, Captain John Hamilton was ignoring the murderous machine gun fire. A soldiers gut was spilling into his hand. He was trying to administer sulphonamide powder to the wound pulling the packet open with his teeth, whilst trying to plug the hole in the soldier`s stomach with his fist. And he needed morphine. German fire was coming from all angles on Omaha Beach. All along the six-mile stretch of flat beach – from five gullies embedded in the cliffs, artillery positions plunged into disgorging GI`s. Grazing fire swept the sand like a spreading fire, from all types of weapons. The cliff-like ridges concealed many German foxholes and bunkers from which, not one inch of that beach was not pre-sited for devastating and enfilade fire.
John had already treated so many soldiers. It had been a slaughter – a blood-bath. From their artillery positions all along the cliffs at either end of the crescent shaped beach, Omaha had been like a turkey shoot. Fingers on triggers of machine guns and rifles, mortars held back until the landing crafts hit the sand bar. As was on Sword and Gold beaches, the air bombardment, because of the cloud cover, caused the B-17s to drop their bombs five miles inland. Not one bomb had dropped on the beach or bluff. The naval bombardment too had failed to clear the German strong-points at the top of the bluff and at either end of the beach. From the moment the ramps came down as the landing crafts hit Omaha Beach, they were mown down – droves of them.
John was weary with the dead, his medicine mostly obsolete in this theatre of death. The padre constantly made the invisible sign of the cross above the dead and the dying, muttered his prayers or predominantly, the last rights, whilst holding bloody hands.The padre questioned his own faith. In the odd moment, he took refuge behind the wreckage – so much wreckage. “God, why are you allowing this?” He wiped his brow. The blood of America transferred to his skin. He shed a quiet tear. Then,his bible clutched to his heart, tried to instil some faith back into his soul.
John did save lives, but they were so few they seemed almost insignificant. And still the landing crafts came – spilling more youth to their slaughter.
It had to be a quick recovery. The allies bombardment had immobilised their brains, desensitised every thinking pattern. First it had been the heavy bombers, their payload whistling and crashing down. Then something unseen, unexpected, had unleashed a mighty fury upon them. They had taken refuge from the bombardment in the casement that housed the big 88mm gun on the beach at Hermanville-la-Breche. The beach Heinrich would later learn the Tommies called – Queen Red – Sword Beach. They had withstood everything the allies could throw at them. Though only God would know how they had survived. Heinrich had expected that at any moment they would be blown to Kingdom Come, blown into the sand. Dust that covered every morsel of their skin had seeped into lungs, clogging the throat making breathing almost impossible.
When the lull had finally come, their ears thick with a silent terror and worse, what terror their eyes fell upon when they dared look beyond the confines of their concrete tomb. Thousands upon thousands of ships were upon them. A dark mass of incomprehensible power. Boats, landing crafts and soldiers – so many soldiers – running straight towards them!
“This is the BBC news at midnight. Reports of operations show our forces have succeeded in their landings. After four years, the allies have finally returned to the northern shore of occupied France.”
A note from the author.
Dday the 6th of June was just the beginning. The allies would take another three months to break out of Normandy. There were many more deaths and wounded on both sides – and not forgetting the many casualties the French civilians endured for the liberation of their country, of which my novel also covers. This is a story of hellish proportions of misery, bravery and loss taken from many accounts and from many veterans who became my friends. My great friend Sergeant Ronald White of the Hampshire Regiment who landed on Gold Beach at 7.25am on Dday told me, “You can`t put it into words really. You had to be there.” These posts are only short extracts from my novel and I have posted them for the 70th Anniversary of Dday. Many of my Veteran friends are no longer with us, including my wonderful friend and mentor Ron. My only answer to Ron`s statement is:
We, the generation who now benefit from your sacrifice were not there, but I can only hope that through the words of my novel, I may have just portrayed a little of what it was like for you. I can only say, with your help, I have tried my very best.