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HomeFeaturesA D-Day story: Part Three – The battle

A D-Day story: Part Three – The battle

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This is the concluding part of an account of the Royal Artillery unit of which my late father was a member during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. He and his comrades were only one tiny piece of the vast and complex Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. But I offer their story as a tribute to all who served in what the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, called ‘this great and noble undertaking’. You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here and yesterday’s Part 2 here.

AFTER disembarking from LCT 405, Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor made their way in their truck along the main coast road, then turned inland along a lane.

‘On its corner was a large unexploded shell – I think it was a 16-inch shell from one of our warships,’ said Jim. ‘We found ourselves entirely alone, driving very carefully and slowly up the lane. On the right was a hedge and on the verge lay the bodies of a number of Tommies. One was very young and looked asleep. His face still haunts me.

‘To the left, the ground was open and I could see troops advancing in the distance. Suddenly on the right looking out from a ditch was a German officer, steel helmet on his head and binoculars round his neck. I was just about to do something with my Sten gun when I realised the German was dead, and so were a few more behind him.’

Eventually, all six guns of Fox Troop and their lorries were reunited in Colleville-sur-Orne (renamed Colleville Montgomery after the war in honour of Field Marshal Montgomery), where they joined up with infantrymen of the Suffolk Regiment. Now the whole troop began an agonisingly slow trek through the late afternoon to try to cover the final three hazardous miles to the bridges at Benouville and Ranville.

Tom Mason told how at one point a German Tiger tank was reported to be up ahead and they were ordered to prepare to fire against it. But the men were well aware that two-pounder Bofors shells would probably bounce off the 56-ton panzer’s armour, which was four inches thick.

‘We thought, “How can this thing kill a Tiger?”’ said Tom. ‘An officer, I think it was Lieutenant Coombs, said, “Just fire a couple of rounds and then get the hell out of there”. Luckily, a paratrooper up the road had a Piat anti-tank gun and he knocked a track off the Tiger. He saved our bacon.’

Near Colleville, all traffic was halted because the road ahead was under accurate enemy fire from nearby woods. ‘From somewhere came the order that, “We shall have to go and clear the buggers out”, and we were told to fetch our small arms and any grenades,’ said Jim. ‘I don’t know how they thought we were going to clear them out. Almost at the same time, deliverance arrived.’

This ‘deliverance’ came from the skies – the follow-up waves of the British Airborne attack. At a few minutes before 9pm, the men of Fox Troop watched as the sky suddenly started to fill with Dakotas and Halifaxes towing 250 Horsa and Hamilcar gliders, bringing reinforcements of 6th Airlanding Brigade into the bridgehead.

Minutes later, the gliders cast off from their towplanes and began sweeping in to land, crashing and tearing across fields and through hedges, straight across the line of advance of the six Bofors. Nothing, it seemed, was going to stop them.

‘The Germans had planted the fields with huge poles which ripped the wings off as the gliders landed,’ George Baker recalled. ‘But the Airborne poured out, firing at anything – including us.’ As the glider troops opened up with their machine guns, several Suffolk Regiment men were hit and fell wounded by the roadside. The Bofors crews also had to take cover, having possibly been mistaken for Germans.

‘The reason, I am sure, was because of our helmets,’ said Len Harvey. ‘Just before we left England, we had been issued with the new-style helmet, which had a rim curving slightly downwards towards the back. In profile, and from a distance, it could have looked to the Airborne troops like a German helmet. But their arrival threw everything into confusion, creating chaos and havoc.’

With the column of vehicles temporarily stalled by the Airborne landings, German snipers took advantage, leading to a remarkable brush with death for one man of the 92nd. Bill Husband, another driver-radio operator, tells the story: ‘I was standing up in the cab of our lorry and two or three trucks in front, a gun mechanic was also standing up. Suddenly, he disappeared. I crawled down to a ditch to find out what had happened to him. He was okay. When I asked what had happened, he showed me his tin hat. A sniper, probably in the wood, had taken a shot at him. The bullet had gone into one side of his hat, parted his hair and come out the other side – luck!’

Driver-Radio Operator Bill Husband

That evening, finally reaching the outskirts of Benouville at the hamlet of Le Port, the Bofors crews found buildings still occupied by snipers. One was targeting the British from the belfry of the church tower and when the Fox Troop convoy arrived, it came under fire from him, with Jim Holder-Vale having a narrow escape.

‘We had stopped in Le Port to await further instructions,’ Jim recalled. ‘I thought it might be a good idea to put the camouflage nets over our truck. I went to the side of the truck and started unstrapping the nets, when suddenly I heard this thump just by my head. I knew instantly that it was a bullet that had just missed me. I moved like greased lightning to the other side of the truck and the shout went up from somewhere, “Sniper in the church tower!” All hell broke loose.’

Jack Taylor took a Bren from the truck, placed it in the road, aimed at the church tower and squeezed the trigger – but it failed to fire. ‘An officer from the Paras then suggested the simplest way of dealing with the situation was to use one of the Bofors Guns,’ said Jim. ‘So Sergeant Clements with Number One gun gave it a blast. This resulted in the taking prisoner of a young German soldier, who came out with his hands up.’

But, because of the disruption caused by the Airborne landings, it was decided to dig in for the night on the approaches to the bridges, rather than attempt a direct deployment in the gathering darkness.

Jim and his comrades stopped alongside a large ditch on the corner of the road opposite Benouville town hall. As the light faded, they looked back in the direction of Sword Beach, where the sky was spectacularly lit by an anti-aircraft barrage from hundreds of Allied ships. ‘We just sat and watched the fireworks,’ said Jim.

The soldiers kept a tense vigil until dawn, around 4am. As the skies lightened, Fox Troop finally deployed its six guns – two on either bank of the canal bridge, two on either bank of the river bridge, and two in between. Len Harvey and his comrades, including my father, were among those assigned to protect the river bridge.

Len recalled how every member of the gun crew mucked in to dig frantically, excavating a pit for Gun F3 and slit trenches for the men to shelter in. By 7am, everything was ready for action. Half an hour later, the first enemy aircraft – a squadron of 30 to 40 ME 109s – came roaring in and were engaged by the Bofors. ‘It was our first action and it was exciting,’ said Len.

So intense was the rate of fire that the gun loaders, who had to constantly unpack shells from boxes and insert them into clips before they could be fed into the Bofors, could hardly keep up with demand. ‘You would see smoke coming from planes and then see them go down,’ said Len. ‘But we didn’t know at that stage if our gun had been responsible for hitting them. It wasn’t until later that our tally was officially confirmed.’

Throughout the next nine days, as the Germans tried to retake the narrow bridgehead east of the Orne, the Fox Troop men endured a baptism of fire, including 11 attacks by formations of up to 30 aircraft. At the same time, persistent German shelling, sniping and mortaring of the gun positions started inflicting casualties.

On June 8, waves of FW 190s came in at treetop height to attack both crossings, and time after time were repulsed by the Bofors. During a lull in the fighting, Tom Mason had a novel experience in the Gondree Café near Pegasus Bridge – drinking wine for the first time. ‘I was from Liverpool – we didn’t drink wine, we drank beer,’ he recalled with a smile. ‘But this old Frenchman gave me a glass of wine and I enjoyed it.’

Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor also enjoyed a drink, courtesy of a French family living in a house opposite their trench. The family had buried their valuables in the garden during the German occupation and when they dug them up, they asked the 92nd LAA men over.

‘A bottle of wine was produced and we were invited to drink to General De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, King George and the British liberators,’ Jim recalled. ‘The father of the family told me he had been wounded in the First World War and nursed by English nurses, so he was very pleased to see us.’

On June 10, more enemy aircraft were engaged and at midday the river bridge came under a ferocious mortar barrage, lasting half an hour.  ‘We could see the mortar blasts starting on the opposite bank of the river and they began to get closer,’ said Len Harvey. ‘Sergeant Fletcher ordered us to take cover.’

Len dived into a slit trench with his comrades Sammy Davies and Eric Sheriff, while Leo McCarthy took cover with two other gunners in a second slit trench. ‘The screams of the mortars and the explosions went on and on,’ said Len. ‘Then a mortar shell landed right on the lip of our trench. We should have died.’

But all three survived. However, in the second trench, Leo had not been so lucky. Len hurried across and found his old comrade crawling around, bleeding and in pain. ‘Are you all right, mate?’ he asked Leo. ‘No,’ came the memorable reply. ‘I’ve got a lump of shrapnel in my arse.’

Len got hold of the Airborne medics, who sent over a Jeep fitted with stretchers. Leo was placed face down on a stretcher and driven down to the beach to be evacuated back to England. He recovered from his wounds, but would not return to the battlefield until September, by which time the regiment was in Holland.

During one particularly fierce mortar attack near Pegasus Bridge, when most men were huddled in slit trenches, George Baker glanced across from the gulley where he had taken refuge and was stunned to see a padre from the Airborne calmly conducting divine service. Another gunner, doubtless trusting to the greater protection of the Almighty, left his own refuge and ran across to join in the prayers. Men reacted in various ways to their first experience of war, George recalled. ‘Some took to it like ducks to water, others couldn’t stand it.’

The first four days around the bridges saw desperately intense action, with Fox Troop firing 5,000 rounds at German raiders and shooting down 17 – but it paid off. ‘The German planes would come in at such low level that they were like sitting ducks,’ said George. ‘Finally, they got wise to it.’

From his radio position just east of the bridges, Jim Holder-Vale looked on in admiration as the gunners repelled attack after attack by the Luftwaffe. ‘It was marvellous to watch,’ he recalled. ‘I had a ringside seat. You could see the Fox Troop shells hitting the planes as they flew over – sometimes more than one shell would hit a plane. The gunners were brilliant, they were red-hot. Not one plane was able to peel off to make a dive and drop a bomb on the bridges – they never got near enough.’

 Having found their treetop tactics too costly, enemy aircraft continued their attacks over the next two days, but at higher level. As Len Harvey recalled one Airborne corporal remarking to the weary Fox Troop men: ‘It looks like your guns have won Round One.’

Finally, on June 15, the troop was relieved and sent to defend the airstrip at Plumetot, five miles west of Benouville. Captain Reid was later awarded the Military Cross for leading the defence of the bridges.

After the Battle of Normandy, the 92nd would continue to see action across France, Belgium and Holland, ending the war on VE-Day, May 8, 1945, in Bremen on the River Weser in northern Germany. Its final tally of enemy aircraft destroyed was 48, plus 21 probables. During the campaign, two officers and 18 men were killed and four officers and 42 men wounded. After serving with the British Army of the Rhine, the regiment was disbanded on February 24, 1946.

Footnote: On D-Day 2008, veterans Len Harvey (left), George Baker (centre) and Jim Holder-Vale enjoyed a tot of rum on Sword Beach to make up for the ones they were too sick to have on the 1944 crossing.

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Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy
Tom McCarthy is a writer with an interest in military history

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