Cold, wet, sea-sick, shot at, blown up, hurled into the sea to fire upon an invisible enemy desperate to kill you. Can we imagine it?
When Ronald White collected his Honorary Master of Arts Degree at Portsmouth university for book-binding, it was he says, “The proudest day of my life.” At Ninety years old, this extraordinary man, worked from the front room of the family home. Portsmouth university granted Ron the Master of Arts Degree for his contribution and commitment to the university and its research students. For over thirty years Ron bound the theses of the students towards their degrees using the skills he originally acquired as an apprentice bookbinder some sixty years previous. A great honour indeed. But when I got this man to talk about D-day and his role played in it, another side of him appeared – unassuming and reflective.
175,00 men, 5,333 ships and landing crafts, 5,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes set sail on the 5th of June 1944 across a hundred miles of English Channel. After five years of war and with news of the atrocities in the concentration camps, England and German occupied countries were wilting under the strain and deprivations of war. By 1943, Hitler understood that an invasion would come. Fortification of the coastal defences in France was already underway.
Under the command of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Hitler envisaged the Atlantic Wall, stretching along 3,000 miles of Belgium, Dutch and Danish coastline and the entire coast of Normandy, to be an unbreakable barrier fortified with enough artillery to foil even a massive invasion attempt. Thirty thousand German troops defended the area that included fifteen thousand concrete bunkers ranging from small pill boxes to great fortresses. Rommel ordered the placement of deadly mined beach obstacles all along the French coast. Hitler knew the invasion would determine the war`s outcome.
Operation Overlord, the code-name for the invasion of Normandy, was four years in the planning, two years in the organizing and one in the undertaking. The plan entailed the landings of nine divisions of sea and airborne troops along a fifty-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline in just 24 hours.
Ron and I reflect on his time in the war at the Golden Lion pub in Southwick, nr Portsmouth. The pub General Eisenhower and General Montgomery frequented having secret meetings of the planning of Operation Overlord.
But all did not go to plan. The invasion was originally planned for the 5th June, but the weather, during the three preceding days of the landings, dealt the planners a vicious mix of gale force winds and driving rain. General Eisenhower had no choice but to postpone the invasion for 24 hours. The allied troops were already aboard their designated ships and landing crafts, but because of security and the impossibility of disembarking and embarking again, the troops had to spend three days and nights aboard the ships living in terrible cramped conditions, their morales also starting to take a nose-dive.
General Eisenhower and his commanders, locked in deep conference at Southwick House near Portsmouth, spent a dismal twenty-four hours pacing the floor and watching the skies. But then Group Captain Stagg, a senior meteorologist suddenly entered the room. “Gentlemen there have been some rapid and unexpected developments in the situation.” Stagg forecast a window in the weather, lasting just a little over 24 hours, even though it still fell short of the minimum requirements.
General Eisenhower, sitting with hands clasped tightly, his face locked in deep concentration painfully announced. “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don`t like it gentlemen – but there it is. I don`t see how we can do anything else.”
At the 4am conference, General Eisenhower confirmed his decision with the words, “Ok – le`s go!” The fuse had been lit. Operation Overlord, the invasion of Hitler`s fortress was about to begin.
General Eisenhower`s message to the allied troops
During the early hours of 5th and 6th June, allied paratroopers and glider troops silently landed behind enemy lines securing roads and bridges that were vital for the success of the landings. Just after midnight the aerial bombardment of the Normandy coastline began. Formation after formation of B-26 bombers and RAF Lancaster’s roared overhead pounding the enemy mercilessly.
At 5am the first of the heavy warships swept up from behind the convoy. The firing power of the fleet was colossal. Continuous shells tore above the armada exploding on the shore. An orange horizon of crawling black smoke obscured the view from the ships. As dawn broke the vastness of the fleet was apparent. The sea was black with ships. The Germans had taken a pounding. Deep in their gun batteries they quivered with fear as the walls and ceilings of their tombs reverberated around them. The allies were told not to fear a heavy defence from their enemy. They would be destroyed before they even set foot on French soil. But the weather, although improved, was still a formidable opponent for the air and sea bombardment. With landing zones obscured with poor visibility, the shells and bombs overshot to the maze of fields and hamlets inland. The Germans emerged from their bunkers shocked, with the fight knocked out of them, but never the will power or desire – they were waiting for the allies.
Out in the channel, the ships and landing crafts were fast approaching the coast. Troops began assembling in landing crafts whilst twenty-foot waves soaked them as they struggled to stay afloat in the treacherous sea.
“Everyone was being sick,” explained Ron. “Over the sides, in their helmets, on their boots. It was terrible. The landing craft was awash with it. Some of the men felt so bad I don`t think they were bothered if they got shot. They just wanted to get out of those boats.”
The boats ploughed on as German shells landed amongst them. “The Germans threw everything at us,” Ron told me. “As the bullets zipped around you, you just thought, God, how am I going to survive this.”
As the order, “Ramps down!” was given, the troops perilously stumbled waist deep into the sea. Many drowned as the sheer weight they were carrying dragged them down into the murky depths of the water. Many died before they even got a foot out of the craft, mowed down as the enemy guns tore into them. Landing crafts became entangled on the mined obstacles that littered the shoreline snaring them into a catalyst of hell before blowing them sky-high, torn flesh showering the living.
“Much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Winston Churchill.
At 7.25am on the 6th June 1944, Sergeant Ronald White, with his regiment now known as the Royal Hampshire Regiment, led the British assault storming Gold Beach in Normandy France. The 3rd British Infantry Division along with the Canadians on Juno Beach and the Americans on Omaha and Utah, began the invasion of France. despite the murderous gunfire, many falling, dying, but never taken prisoner, the Hampshire forged forward finally taking the German strongpoints that had killed so many.
Ron reflects on the loss of his comrades on `Jig Green` a sector of Gold Beach, where the Hampshire Regiment came ashore on D-day
“I look back now and I don`t know how I came through it. Many of my friends didn`t. I was just lucky, really lucky The Germans threw everything at us and as the bullets zipped around us, you just thought God, how am I going to survive this. If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help. People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we had to keep going forward.”
Ron with Madam Gondre outside the Cafe Gondre at Pegasus Bridge captured by the British 6th Airborne in the early hours of D-day – the first building to be liberated by the allies on the 6th June. Madam Gondre was just a child on D-day and she keeps the cafe as a shrine to the Normandy landings. The taking of the bridges was crucial to the success of the landings.
Beneath the quiet dignity that Ron exuded, he spoke very modestly about his role on D-day. When asked about how he coped with the death and horror he saw, he quietly contemplated. “I know it sounds harsh, but you got hardened to it. I saw men with heads blown off, limbs torn from their bodies, stomachs hanging out. You just thought, hard luck mate and carried on. You had to – or how else would you have coped.” A shadow shifted across Ron`s face. “If anyone was wounded, we couldn`t help. People were screaming for help but you had to leave them for the medics, we just had to keep going forward or we would have copped it too.
“By nightfall of the 6th June, some 175,000 troops had come ashore at a cost of 4900 casualties. The beaches were relatively secure, but the fight was not yet over.
The Hampshire Regiment tentatively fought their way through the laborious terrain of Normandy countryside through the bocage country, a formidable labyrinth of numerous winding roads and maze of sunken lanes with a density of impenetrable high hedges bounded on both sides that hid the enemy. Taking more casualties, they fought onto the Eastern Netherlands where Ron was wounded and he returned home to England. After four years away – his war finally over.
It took many months for the allies to fight their way through the heavily defended Normandy countryside with the loss of many more men. It took almost another year to reach and defeat Germany during the spring of 1945.
Ron and I on a visit to Falais
“Losing the war was never an option. England is the best country in the world, there was no way we were ever going to give it up to the Germans. I don`t have nightmares about the war, but it does all come back to me whenever I meet some of my old comrades of my regiment. I think I am very lucky to have survived. Many of my friends didn`t. People often ask me how did you do it? You did it because you were trained and disciplined. If you were given an order, you didn`t argue, you just did it.”
After the war, Ron went back to his trade has bookbinder at the Printers Coasbys. After another twenty-eight years he joined Holbrooks printers and five years later in 1975, Ron had saved enough money to become self-employed as a master craftsman. Many a student visited Ron and was rewarded by a kind and courteous man who bound their theses with the skill of a master of his trade.
Ron stands by the grave of his best friend Tommy who was killed by a sniper in front of him.
Here was a man who had dedicated his life to books. On the wall of his workshop was a very poignant souvenir plaque that read, “It`s nice to be important, but it`s important to be nice.” Having met Ron, one quickly became aware that this quiet unassuming man had much in his life to be proud.
Sadly, my friend has now passed away. But the memories stay with me. The memory of escorting him to Normandy to visit his friend`s grave – Tommy, who was shot by a sniper in front of him, memories of him staying with us, meeting his family and laughing so much he made me cry.
He and thousands like him, travelled hundreds of miles to the shores of Normandy, sixty-nine years ago, to risk and give their lives to a cause that rid our world of nazi tyranny. Ron never wavered in his beliefs and he never expected to live through the war. He went on to not only be honoured for his bravery in the war, but also for his exemplary work in the art of bookbinding.
In Ron`s own words, “It`s a job well done.”
An excerpt from my novel:
But now in the landing craft, the Normandy coast fast approaching, fear took on a resounding truthfulness. Saliva negligible, blinking eyes refusing the onset of the fast approaching inconceivable terror. Hearts beating against a breathless panic, a bladder refusing to remain intact surging unwelcome warmth upon khaki cloth already sodden from wild seas. The word fear had not been defined to Jack – his previous definitions of the word were now devoid – depleted – misguided. Sam cowered, head held low, a German`s bullet maybe a welcome relief from this misery. The water, a fathom of it, a few inches beneath him, would choke him, eyes bulging, tongue protruding, lungs exploding. The assault crafts of the flotilla dipped and rolled the undulating waves that crashed over the gunwales. Vomiting was continuous and unrelenting. Sea spray soaked the young men who, after months of hard training, transporting them from adolescence to manhood now unashamed, desperately required the embrace of their mothers. The stink of engine oil, the landing craft like matchboxes 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 onward, lines and lines of ships, destroyers, battleships, landing craft, a magnitude of power carrying youth too young for death, for life, for fear – just babes trying to be men.
My novel is dedicated to Sergeant Ronald White (Blanco) who mentored me throughout my struggle to `get things right`. I hope I have done him proud.
May his memory and countless thousands of others who died in this campaign, live on in my work.