CHAPTER 11 – THE D-DAY LANDINGS

243 Company was back in England in early January 1944 and I was able to go on leave to Derby.  Olive and Doff were still living with Olive’s twin sister, Joyce.  I was also back in time for the birth of my son, David.

243 Company was now engaged in training for the forthcoming landings in France. Our task was going to be to ferry the tanks, guns, ammunition and vehicles from the big LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) the last few hundred yards to the beaches, on motorised rafts called `Rhinos’.

We took part in landing exercises and manoeuvres.. On one occasion we were attached to an American Navy LST, and we were struck by the contrast in conditions between the US and British forces. Compared to our rather basic but adequate food that on the US ships was unbelievable. In the US ship’s galley, coffee was available from a huge urn beside which were bowls full of sugar from which anyone could spoon unlimited amounts as often as they liked.  This when the sugar ration for the British population was a few ounces a week, and doled out as parsimoniously to the forces.  Mind you we missed out on the daily tot of rum we got when on Royal Navy ships!

Throughout the months prior to D-Day, training in amphibious operations took place all round the coast.  One exercise involved a combined force putting out from St Ives in Cornwall, rounding Land’s End, and sailing into the Channel for landing exercises on the Devon coast..  Our exercise went off smoothly but about the same time a similar exercise was attacked by German torpedo boats.  Many craft were sunk and heavy casualties were sustained. Hundreds of bodies, mainly American, were washed ashore on the Devon and Dorset coasts.  The disaster was hushed up until long after the war.

Towards the end of May 1944 all leave was stopped and all troops were confined to camp. On 4 June we embarked on LSTs and after a delay of 24 hours due to stormy weather we set out as part of the invasion armada during the night of 5-6 June.

What were the feelings and mood of the troops as they approached the shores of occupied Europe to take part in what everyone anticipated would be one of the most decisive and bloody battles of the war?

Morale, on the whole, was good.  My fellow soldiers seemed to accept the justice and necessity of the war and the need to chase Hitler out of the lands he had invaded.  This support for the war was made up of several distinct strands. There were some who were simply patriotic and uncritically loyal to `King and country’.  There were those, mainly of working class origin, who were hostile to the ruling class, but accepted that the settling of accounts would have wait till after the war was won.  Even the more politically radical and socialistically inclined saw the fight against Fascism as the overriding priority. The fact that we were fighting side by side with the Soviet Union was also a weighty factor, especially among Socialists and left wingers. There was absolutely no anti-war feeling.

 To say that the troops accepted the necessity for the war did not mean - as Hollywood and British war films tried to show - that everyone was eager to go into battle.  Far from it. Very few were volunteers, and the overwhelming majority were conscripts who would have preferred to be safely at home, but who, nevertheless, accepted the fairness of conscription. Someone had to do the fighting, and they stoically accepted that fate had decreed it should be them. The memories of the debacle of Dunkirk and of the defeats in the early days of the war had, by 1944, been overlaid by the experience of more recent victories in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Also, since Stalingrad the Red Army had been winning victory after victory. So the Allied armies were now in a more confident mood.

243 Company had come through the Sicilian campaign with few casualties. Unlike in Sicily, where we had landed well behind the forward troops, this time we were to land early in the assault, on beaches still being defended by the enemy. I guessed most of us gave ourselves a 50-50 chance of coming through unscathed.

The participation of the Pioneer Corps units in the battle is described in the History:

`With each beach group was a force of Pioneers on whom was to fall the task of clearing mines and underwater obstacles, unloading landing craft, constructing beach tracks to carry the guns, collecting and evacuating the wounded, burying  the dead, guarding prisoners of war, and if necessary joining the assault forces in the battle…

`Rough seas and heavy surf made the disembarkation a difficult task, and landing craft were hurled onto the beach by the waves, many being swamped and sunk… the underwater obstacles… were awash, making the work of clearance largely ineffective so that later waves of assault craft suffered many casualties… Numbers of troops were swept off their feet as they waded ashore…

 To the thunder of the naval bombardment…the scream of diving aircraft and the mortar and machine gun fire of the enemy defences the British assault opened with the landing of 50th division at 7.25 a.m.  At 7.45 a.m. the first Pioneers landed.’ (1)

Our company (243) and 267 Company were wholly engaged in crewing the `Rhino’  ferries, carrying  guns and ammo from the LSTs to the beaches.

Because of their size the LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) could not get near to the beaches.  They towed two or three Rhinos.  When an LST had got as near to the shore as its draught allowed, it anchored and the Rhinos were pulled up alongside.  Each Rhino had a crew of eight Pioneers.  We scrambled down the side of the LST on rope ladders on to the Rhinos.  We manoeuvred them to the opened bows of the LST for the tanks, guns and vehicles to be rolled on and then made for the beach.

The “Rhinos” were rafts about 180 feet long by 60 feet wide powered by two 250 h.p.engines.  They had no defensive armour and when fully loaded they were just inches high in the water.  The 250 h.p. engines were not very powerful and with only rudimentary steering the Rhinos were extremely difficult to manoeuvre in the rough seas.  Many were carried by the currents  to well away from their intended landing points.  One or more drifted onto German-held beaches.  Despite several being put out of action by enemy fire and mines, 243 Company  landed 22 Rhinos on Gold beach, at the cost of less than a dozen men killed or wounded – very light casualties compared to those of other units.

One of those wounded was Bert Gascoigne. He was with me at the front of our `Rhino’.  Our job was to lower the ramps as soon as we hit the beach. Before we got that far we hit one of the German underwater beach obstacles. These were rows of sharp pointed metal stakes to which mines were attached with barbed wire strung between them. As our `Rhino’ impaled itself Bert was wounded in the foot and caught in the barbed wire.   I jumped into the water, managed to disentangle him from the wire and pulled him clear and onto the beach. With his arm around my shoulders I half carried, half dragged him, up the beach to a hollow among the sand dunes where an Advanced Field Dressing Station had been established. Leaving Bert to have his wound dressed, I returned to the water’s edge to find that my `Rhino’ had been freed from the beach defences and was on its way back to the LST.

  My memories of the rest of the day are somewhat confused.  There was a Beachmaster on each sector of the beaches.  His task was oversee the landings, direct troops to their allotted positions, organise the collection of the wounded and the removal of wrecked tanks and landing craft that might impede the landings of the next wave. I reported to him that I was separated from my unit and asked for instructions.  He ordered me to join the sappers clearing lanes through the German obstacles and mines.  This was scary work as the mines were securely attached to stakes or barbed wire and we had to be careful not to set them off by sudden movement or jolts.

Later I managed to find my section corporal, Harry Forrest, who had, like me, got separated.  By then, the German batteries further inland had been put out of action and the beach was no longer under artillery fire. Later in the day we were machine-gunned by two low flying Messerschmidts ( the only two still operational)

. We dug ourselves a hollow in the sand dunes for the night. The next morning we rejoined the company which had dug in at Ver-sur-Mer, a mile inland. There I learnt that `Pippo’, another mate of mine from Derby, had been wounded.

We had one bit of luck.  The German regiment occupying Ver-sur-Mer had just slaughtered a cow and were preparing to butcher it for meat when our forces attacked.  The Germans pulled out leaving the carcass behind.  One of the lads in our company, Sam Plaskwa, had been a butcher in civvy street and he didn’t need asking twice to cut up the carcass to provide the company with a welcome change from their army rations!  There might have been a slight problem because Sam was Jewish and the cow had not been slaughtered the kosher way.  If Sam was worried he didn’t show it and enjoyed the beef steaks with the rest of us.

**********

Thirteen Pioneer Companies landed with the first tide on D-day and a further ten on the second.  The War Diaries kept by each company, many of them reprinted in the RPCA Newsletters  give a vivid picture of the experiences of these companies. (2)  Most of  those landing in the early stages came under heavy artillery and small arms fire and some became involved in the fighting before being able to start on their tasks on the beaches.  120 Company captured eighty-six German marines.  225 Company also captured twenty-even Germans, including one officer.

‘Pioneers coming ashore on the first tides landed “wetshod” which often meant a long wade in full equipment.  Some had to swin ashore from grounded craft and it must be assumed that most of the men reported missing at this stage were drowned….The conduct of Pte A. Moore, of HQ 41 Group, deserves mention.  Due to a sudden movement of the craft he, with two other soldiers, was thrown head first into the sea with eighty pounds of kit and equipment on their backs.  One of the men, L/Cpl Webb, could not swim and sank.  Pte Moore dived under the water for him and swam with him to the beach, a distance of about thirty yards.  His promptitude and bravery undoubtedly saved the life of his comrade, and it was a magnificent feat to swim fully loaded towing a non-swimmer. (3)

209, 293, and 303 Companies were specially trained for stretcher-bearing.  Much of it was done under intermittent fire and with the continual risk of setting off land mines.  Evacuating the wounded to the ships was a mad rush against the tides.  On one occasion, during rough seas, a chain was formed to load the last fifty wounded.  The stretchers were passed from hand to hand overhead.  The last man was put aboard as the water lapped the chins of those in the chain.  During the first 72 hours the stretcher-bearers had little or no sleep and snatched food when they could.

The following extracts from company war diaries illustrate the variety of tasks carried out by the Pioneers.(2)

 303 Company.

(Had previously served in the Faroes Islands)

6 Jun  Touched down on Queen Red Beach but craft hit by enemy shells. And so put to sea again. Lt Sneezum shot in both legs and evacuated.  Coy transferred to another craft and disembarked between 1100 and 1115 hrs.  1 Offr and 3 ORs wounded.  Task stretcher-bearing.

75 Company

(One of the last Coys to leave France in 1940, lost 40 men on HMT Lancastria)

6 Jun  0950 hrs 3 sections landed, weather stormy and sea rough, immediately  commenced laying track for exits – one casualty through a mine at sea.

1000 hrs HQ and 3 sections landed, one casualty through shrapnel.

1030 hrs 2 sections and transport landed.

1700 hrs 2 sections landed.  All laying track, clearing beach obstacles and salvaging.

85 Company

(Had previously worked in London during the Blitz)

6 Jun  Landed at Riva Bella, Ouisterham.  CQMS  and 3 Ptes injured on landing.

7 Jun  3 killed and 1 wounded by bomb while guarding POWS.  1 killed and 7 injured by mine.

144 Company

(One of the Coys returned from N. Africa)

6 Jun  1600 hrs, 5 sections land, 2 sections with Provost Coy and 3 sections with R. Berkshire regiment.  Remainder of the Coy under OC are approaching in an LCI when it strikes an underwater mine which blew the forward part of the LCI off.  39 casualties, 12 killed and drowned and 27 wounded.  Attempts made to land the survivors but unsuccessful due to the tide. Return to UK in LSI.

9 Jun  Survivors land at Tilbury and move to Oxford.  Remainder of Coy working on the beaches.

13 Jun  After being re-equipped the half Coy in the UK land in Normandy and report to 8 Beach Group.

170 Company

6 Jun  0825 hrs, first serials landed on Nan Sector, White and Red Beaches. LCI struck a submerged mine on landing which blew in the starboard side.  Some opposition, particularly heavy sniping on Red, some isolated pill boxes still holding out.  These were eventually silenced by guns from landing craft.

1330 hrs – remainder of Coy, including OC, land on White beach. Tasks: clearing Red, White and Green Beaches, laying lateral track and constructing wheeled and track exits and connecting up laterals between them.

292 Company

6 Jun  1100 hrs – commenced landing, handling difficult in a heavy swell, some men are up to their necks.  Landed on Queen White, 50 yds from the junction of Red and White Beaches.  Commenced clearing beaches and unloading craft.  Due to rendezvous at Benouville at H+12 hrs to ferry stores across Caen Canal for 6th Airborne Div and across River Orne, but rendezvous still in enemy hands. 1 killed and 11 wounded by mortar fire.

53 Company

(Left france 18 jun 40 and lost 50 men on HMT Lancastria)

6 Jun   Landed first wave, HQ established within 2 hrs of landing.  Under shell fire throughout the day, 1 OR killed, 11 wounded and 9 missing.

7 Jun  6 Sections on beaches with RE stores and maintaining beach exits, 1 Section collecting dead, 1 Section on miscellaneous duties and 2 Section at Beach Group HQs.

58 Company

(Left France 17 Jun 40)

6 Jun  Landed wetshod and marched to Aubin-sur-Mer and took up defensive position.

7 Jun  Moved to work sites

9 Jun  Unloading Bailey Bridges and RE stores.

12 Jun  3 killed and 24 wounded by anti-personnel bombs dropped on work site.

102 Company

(Left France May 40)

6 Jun  Landed wetshod at 10.30 hrs and 1130 hrs and commenced unloading beached craft.  1 Offr killed by shellfire.

7 Jun  1 OR killed and 8 wounded.  Issuing and receiving ammunition and stores on beach.

115 Company

(Left France 18 Jun 40)

6 Jun  Landed at Courseulles at 1700 hrs.

7 Jun  1 OR killed and 2 wounded unloading a landing craft.

135 Company

6 Jun  Convoy arrived in position off J Beach

7 Jun  LSTs attempted several times to beach but owing to rough seas unable to do so.  Also unable to use RHINOS.  Later beached and Coy went ashore dryshod at 1830 hrs, proceeded to Ver-sur-Mer and commenced work on airfield.

129 Company

(Served in Algeria from Nov 42 and remained in Med area until Nov 43)

6 Jun  0800 hrs disembarked at Red Beach under mortar fire…Whilst going through a partially cleared minefield 2 of our stretcher-bearers brought in 3 wounded Commandos who had been lying out in the open for 4 hrs.  Several enemy pockets were encountered and broken up by concentrated mortar fire.  Working on beach and road clearance.

7 Jun  5 Sections on road clearance, remainder digging in.  Fairly active night by enemy air force.

8 Jun  Direct hit on Coy lines by a bomb, 3 ORs killed, 8 wounded and 2 missing. 6 Sections working on beaches.

112 Company

(Left France May 40, worked in London during Blitz where a land mine landed on billet killing 13 men, served in Algiers, Malta, Sicily and Italy before returning to  UK in Jan 44)

6 Jun  Off French coast – recce party landed.  Main landing held up owing to Rhino service being unsatisfactory.

7 Jun  LSTs beached and dry landing made.  Suffered 4 casualties.  Immediately commenced setting out smoke screen.

225 Company

6 Jun  Landed H+6 and proceeded to POL and Ammunition Depots

7 Jun  0730 hrs – captured enemy party (1Offr and 26 Ors) 300 yds to rear of bivouac area.

73 Company

(Left France 17 Jun 40 losing 153 on HMT Lancastria, 41 worked in London during Blitz, Jul 43 landed Sicily D-day, Sep 43 landed Salerno, returned to UK Mar 44)

7 Jun  Landed wetshod at1600 hrs.

9 Jun  Clearing Bernieres of snipers and spies

10 Jun  Clearing Courcelles-sur-Mer of snipers and spies

11 Jun  Road repair and maintainance

222 Company

8 Jun  Landed in Normandy and were employed immediately on airfield construction.

13 Jun  Moved to Lantheuil for airfield construction.  Coy takes poor view of statements in the Press “Airfields in France are now being constructed in forward areas by highly trained commandos of the RAF Regiment.”

This last comment is a reminder of the almost complete absence in the media of any mention of the Pioneer Corps.

***********

After the initial success of the landings and the establishment of a bridgehead, the German resistance stiffened. It was not until 9 July, five weeks after the landings, that Caen was taken after prolonged and heavy fighting.  Not until August were the Allied armies able to break out of the bridgehead.  During this period 243 Company was engaged in a variety of tasks as part of the British 50th Division. We ferried supplies, ammunition and vehicles from the ships standing offshore, onto the beach and up to the front line. We helped construct Mulberry Harbour, that huge artificial harbour built off the Normandy beaches.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Two of our sections were attached to No 11 and No 3 Armoured Transport Workshops to help strip damaged tanks and salvage reusable parts. This was extremely unpleasant as the charred and mangled bodies of the tank crews were often still inside. There were also parties detailed for grave digging, repairing roads, and filling in bomb and shell craters on air landing strips.

On a number of occasions the Company provided patrols to deal with isolated pockets of the Wehrmacht.  Many of them were Ukrainians and Baltic Russians captured on the Eastern front and pressurised to join the Wehrmacht.  They were only too pleased to surrender to us.

My mates made use of my knowledge of French to send me out on `shopping expeditions’ to the nearby farms to barter our tinned rations for fresh meat, cheese and eggs. One day I was returning from one of these expeditions with about a dozen eggs, packed in the two inside breast pockets of my battle dress.  Suddenly there was a burst of machine gunfire.  I flung myself down on the ground, smashing all the eggs in the process.  I staggered back to our dug outs with eggs oozing down my chest.  Some of the lads burst out laughing while others complained about losing their eggs.  `It’s alright laughing’, I said, it might have been my blood , not egg yolks!’ I learnt later that the burst of machine-gun fire was from one of our units.

On the first day of the landings our company had taken up a position in an orchard at Ver-sur-Mer. Stubborn German resistance meant that the front in our sector remained almost static until the capture of Caen and the break out of the beach-head.  So we remained in that orchard for several weeks.  The first days and nights we were content to dig only rudimentary slit trenches and foxholes but as the days went on these slit trenches and foxholes became ever more elaborate and comfortable!  Trust any soldier to take every opportunity to make his life less uncomfortable.  Within a week the rudimentary trenches had been dug deeper and wider and roofs built over them.  These were made with doors taken from bombed houses and earth spread over them. We hoped they were proof against everything, even a direct hit by a shell or bomb.  By the second week, one enterprising group had extended their shelter to accommodate a double bed, “requisitioned” from a bombed house.  When the local civilians who had fled to nearby caves during the fighting returned to their homes they complained to our CO.  He took them on a tour of our lines to identify their missing furniture and I was roped in as interpreter.  “Look! There’s our bed.  And they’ve even got our piss pot under it!”

Notes

  1. WHRCP p.230
  2. RPCA Newsletter,  February 2004
  3. Ibid