THE COUP DE MAIN ATTACK ON PEGASUS & HORSA BRIDGES BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL4 1944-1945 1
THE PLAN AND ORDERS FOR D DAY
On the 24th February, 1944. the 6th Airborne Divison was placed under command of I Corps for the operation. The I Corps plan was to land two assault divisions (3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 3rd British Infantry Division) between Crayesur-Mer and Ouistreham, and the task given to the 6th Airborne Division was as follows: (a) PRIMARY TASKS (i) The capture of the bridges (intact if possible) at Benouville and Ranville and the establishment of bridgeheads on each side of the obstacle. (ii) The destruction or neutralizing of the battery position south of Merville by civil twilight minus 30 minutes.
(b) SECONDARY TASKS As soon as resources permitted, but without prejudice to the success of the primary task, to develop the operation east of the River Orne in order to: (i) Mop up and secure the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives, north of the road Troarn— Sannerville——Colombelles. (ii) Having secured a firm base east of the River Orne, operate offensively to delay any reserves attempting to move towards the covering position from the east and south-east.
In order to assist the division in carrying out this task, the 1st Special Service Brigade was to be placed under command of the 6th Airborne Division after it had landed by sea.
Initially the task of seizing the bridges at Benouville (over the Caen Canal) and at Ranville (over the River Orne), which required a rapid concentration of effort if the were to be seized intact, was allotted to the 6th Airlanding Brigade; moreover, the defensive nature of the task of holding the bridgehead would be better carried out by airlanding battalions with their heavier armament, whilst the more dispersed tasks towards the east were allotted to the 3rd Parachute Brigade.
The 5th Parachute Brigade was to be brought in on a second lift of aircraft. Air photographs received in mid-April, however, disclosed that the Germans were obstructing all available glider-landing areas with poles. The plan had therefore to be adjusted and parachute troops landed before the main glider force in order to remove sufficient of the obstructions to make the landing of gliders a reasonably safe proposition. The assault on the bridges was allotted to the 5th Parachute Brigade, under whose command a small glider-borne coup-de-main force was placed for this purpose. This coup-de-main force was composed of D Company and two platoons of B Company of the 52nd, with a detachment of Royal Engineers.
Besides the capture of these two bridges the 5th Parachute Brigade was ordered to: (a) Secure and hold the area Benouville—Ranville—Le Bas de Ranville. (b) Capture or neutralize the battery east of St. Aubind’Arquenay. (c) Clear obstructions from the glider-landing zones north of Ranville.
The 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to: (a) Silence the enemy battery south of Merville one and a half hours before the first landing craft was due to beach. (b) Demolish a series of bridges from Troarn to Varaville. (c) On completion of the above, to take up a position on the high ground north of Troarn to Le Plein to deny the enemy the use of the roads from the east to the Ranville area.
The 6th Airlanding Brigade (less the 12th Devons and the coup-de-main party) were to land at 2100 hrs on the 6th June in landing zones N (north of Ranville) and W (east of the Caen Canal north of Benouville) with the task of occupying and holding the area Longueval—Ste Honorine—Escoville—Le Bas de Ranville, in order to deny to the enemy the southern and eastern approaches to the river and canal crossings at Ranville and Benouville and to provide a firm base from which the 6th Airborne Division could operate offensively in the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives. In order to carry out this task the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles were to land on landing zone N, concentrate and on orders from brigade headquarters to seize and hold the area Longueval—Ste Honorine. One parachute battalion of the 5th Parachute Brigade in the area south of Le Bas de Ranville to come under command of the 6th Airlanding Brigade until relieved by the 12th Devons (by sea) on D plus 1. The 52nd were to land on landing zone W, concentrate and then move forward on orders from brigade headquarters via Benouville and Ranville to occupy Escoville, the coup-de-main party having rejoined in the concentration area.
The divisional air plan was as follows: (a) 0020 HRS. 6th JUNE Pathflnders on all dropping zones. Coup-de-main party (three gliders on each bridge). Advance parties of parachute brigades.
(b) 0050 HRS. 6TH JUNE 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades.
(c) 0320 HRS.6TH JUNE Divisional headquarters. 4th Anti-Tank Battery, R.A.
(d) 0430 HRS. 6th JUNE Three gliders to land on battery south of Merville. (e) 2100 HRS. 6TH JUNE Headquarters, 6th Airlanding Brigade. 52nd (less coup-de-main party). 1st Royal Ulster Rifles. 211th Light Battery, R.A. Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment.
The 52nd orders for this operation and the orders given by the commander of the 5th Parachute Brigade to the officer commanding the coup-de-main party will be found in Appendices l and II
PLANNING AND PREPARATION FOR THE OPERATION
The canal bridge at Benouville was thought to be held by a garrison of about one platoon occupying well sited and constructed positions which included at least one pillbox, a flak tower, entrenchments, wire and possibly mines. The improvement of these defences progressed rapidly as the date of D Day approached and it was possible to watch the various improvements through the frequent and excellent photographic cover. Included in the improvements was the clearance of fields of fire; a Nissen-type hut was removed from the south side of the road early in May and a two-storeyed cottage overlooking the canal north of the road vanished two weeks before D Day. It appeared also that the wire was being thickened. The bridge over the river appeared to be defended by entrenchments only, and from the lack of activity visible in the photographs it was thought that this would not be defended in strength.
In spite of these preparations there could be no doubt that with the forces available the bridges could be secured. The prob1cm was to prevent their destruction during the capture. It was known that both bridges were prepared for demolition.
The ground west of the canal and east of the river was very suitable for parachute landings. It would also have been suitable for glider landings but for the obstructing poles—Rommel’s asparagus—which had been put up to prevent such an attempt.
The ground between the river and the canal consisted of grass fields surrounded by hedges and usually marshy. There were only two possible glider landing places in this area: an oblong field close to the river bridge, and a triangular patch leading up to the canal. Both these landing places were extremely small and only adequate for three or four gliders.
The German forces likely to be engaged consisted of the 736th Infantry Regiment; miscellaneous troops were thought to garrison Ranville, but there was little information about their strength. Various posts on the northern outskirts of the village were known to be in use and thought to be garrisoned from the 736th Regiment. The 21st Panzer Division moved to the neighbourhood of Caen during May, and this city in addition had a miscellaneous garrison of local defence troops estimated at two battalions.
In addition to the troops in static defences in the neighbourhood of the bridges and in Ranville it was thought that counterattack would first develop from the reserve battalion of the 736th Regiment. Counter-attacks were to be expected on the scale of battle groups consisting of one company of infantry with perhaps a few tanks and self-propelled guns. It was thought that the 736th Regiment was too much committed to its coast defence role to counter-attack on a larger scale. Strong fighting patrols were all that the Caen garrison were thought likely to send north.
It was estimated that no appreciable force would be committed from the 21st Panzer Division until reconnaissance had taken place and the general situation in the Caen sector clarified. An armoured attack was therefore not expected until three hours after first light at the earliest.
If the bridges already prepared for demolition were to be secured intact, speed in the assault must obviously be a vital feature of the plan. This could best be achieved by landing glider-borne troops close beside the bridges and to rush the bridges in the form of a coup de main.
The force considered necessary to secure the bridges in this manner was two platoons for each bridge. A further two platoons would provide insurance against non-arrival of or other mishap to any of the gliders. It was agreed by the air officer commanding No.38 Group, R.A.F that this number of gliders could safely be landed in the space available and without previously placed ground navigational aids.
Although six platoons referred to above would be sufficient to secure the bridges. it was clear that they would not be able to hold their own against determined counter-attack. It was important, therefore, to land the main force as soon as possible afterwards. This force had to be a parachute force because of the anti-airlanding poles.
Navigational aids would be required to bring them in, and the independent parachute company would need a minimum of half an hour to set them up. If, therefore, its detachments came down at the same time as the coup-de-main party the main force could be brought in half an hour later.
As has been stated, armoured counter-attack was expected three hours after first light. It was essential, therefore, that gliders carrying the anti-tank guns should arrive before first light. To allow the safe landing of these gliders, strips would have to be cleared of poles by the parachute troops. The gliders thought necessary numbered seventy-two, which carried, in addition to the anti-tank guns, wireless sets and jeeps for the brigade. Advanced divisional headquarters was also included. It was estimated that two hours would be needed for the clearing of these landing strips.
Contemporary account by MAJOR R. J. HOWARD, D.S.O.
The coup-de-main force for the capture of the two bridges was divided into six glider loads, each of twenty-five 52nd Light Infantrymen and five sappers.
Every glider-load was prepared to land first and do any job connected with the plan for the capture of the bridges. The whole plan had to be extremely flexible to allow for gliders landing in the wrong place or at the wrong time or even not at all. The success of the whole operation depended entirely on speed and dash on the part of the attacking troops and on keeping up the momentum of the surprise gained by the glider landings.
It was essential that the bridges should be captured intact, for it was known that they were prepared for demolition, and this went to increase the importance of speed—or as their divisional commander said, verve.
Training was thorough, and every possible commutation of glider landings and every possible move by the enemy was allowed for and an answer found. From intelligence reports Benouville (canal) bridge was the more heavily defended bridge of the two, also the more important from the nearness of known enemy mobile reserves. The hostile garrison of the two bridges consisted of fifty men.
All six gliders were to land between the canal and the River Orne, three under command of Major R. J. Howard to touch down within seventy-five yards of Benouville bridge, the other three to land within seventy-five yards of Ranville bridge under command of Captain B. C. E. Priday.
At 2256 hrs. on the 5th June (D minus 1) the six gliders took off from an airfield in Southern England (Tarrant Rushton) and crossed the Channel in company with an enormous fleet of heavy bombers on one of their usual raids. The tug aircraft of the gliders (Halifaxes) actually went on to bomb an objective after casting off. It was not a good night from the weather point of view. There were both wind and cloud and full advantage could not, therefore, be taken of the full moon. But this weather factor is a doubleedged weapon; it also lulled the Hun into a sense of false security. Very little flak was encountered. Cast-off was 0015 hrs. and the glider pilots took full command. They came down from 5,000 feet to about 1,500 feet, and the passengers opened the doors ready for a quick exit. Through the open doors could be seen the fields of France. It was all very still and quiet, almost unreal. Soon the river and canal could be seen and everyone knew the pilots had their bearings. In a few moments was to be tested all the special training that had been carried out. Everything was very tense. “Hold tight,” yelled the co-pilot; “landing now,” and bump, bump, bump. Sparks flew from the wheels and skids.
Everyone thought it was tracer from the bridge defences. Then-a sickening crash and all was quiet and still. Many were dazed, but some realized that there was no firing from the bridge (Benouville). Those realizing this moved immediately. The nearness to the bridge astounded everyone. The pilots had indeed excelled all expectations. The leading glider had crashed through the very wire fence and at the exact spot indicated on the model during Major Howard’s briefing, the second fifteen yards in rear had hit a ditch, swivelled round and broken in half, and the third, fifteen yards behind the second, finished with its nose in a small pond.
All three were smashed on the uneven ground, but casualties from landing were very slight, apart from bruises: one killed and two injured.
Realizing that there was no fire from the bridge, everyone started forming up and moving forward to assault. A burst of machine-gun fire from the inner defences told us that the enemy were beginning to recover from the surprise of the glider landing. The first platoon was held up slightly in getting out of the glider, as the nose had telescoped and covered the door with debris. Everyone had to smash his way out at the front.
Lieutenant H. D. Brotheridge, commanding the first platoon,(No 25 Platoon, D Company) assembled his first section and led it straight through the inner defences across the bridge, firing furiously from the hip with Stens, Brens and rifles. The rest of his platoon followed when free from the glider and a battle ensued on the other side of the bridge. Fire from an enemy light machine gun caught Lieutenant Brotheridge in the neck as he dashed forward, and he died anhour or so later from wounds received. His action was a brilliant example of leadership.
The second platoon (No 24 Platoon, D Company) was committed by Major Howard to clear the enemy’s inner defences. These consisted of a network of trenches and gun positions. Much firing took place in that area and within ten minutes both the platoon commander (Lieutenant D. J. Wood) and platoon serjeant had been hit, leaving Corporal Godbold in command of the platoon. It was afterwards found that these trenches were to have been mined and booby-trapped by the use of live Teller mines. The man responsible for laying these mines was wounded in the early stages alongside his box of primed mines. He was obviously on his way to the trenches. The surprise landing forestalled this welcome.
The situation on the other side of the bridge was obscure. The third platoon, (No 14 Platoon, B Company) led by Lieutenant R. A. A. Smith, was therefore sent to reinforce the first over the bridge, Lieutenant Smith being instructed to co-ordinate the mopping-up by both platoons.
Meanwhile nothing had been heard of Captain Priday (Second in Command, D Company) on Ranville bridge (500 yards away) either by wireless or runner, but one of the Ranville bridge platoons was eventually picked up on the air and it was learnt that it had landed safely and was approaching its objective. This was Lieutenant D. B. Fox’s platoon,(No 17 Platoon, B Company) which soon reported that it had taken the bridge without opposition. Evidence was found that the enemy had run away and left their guns in their pits. Lieutenant H. J. Sweeney’s platoon (No 23 Platoon, D Company) next came on the air, explaining that it had landed 400 or 500 yards from Ranville bridge, but was approaching at the double. It eventually reinforced Lieutenant Fox’s platoon.
Consolidation was ordered and all platoons went to their allotted areas to prepare for the Boche counter-attack which might come at any time. Lieutenant Fox’s platoon was brought over from Ranville bridge to form a fighting patrol out beyond the western end of Benouville bridge, on which an immediate counter-attack was expected.
The Sappers. commanded by Captain Neilson and Lieutenant Bence, having made sure that the bridges could not be blown, removed all explosives and mechanism, and took up a defensive position on Benouvillebridge. Corporal Godbold’s platoon,(No 24 Platoon, D Company) after successfully clearing inner trenches, crossed the bridge to clear the houses in front of Lieutenant Smith’s platoon. While this was happening large formations of planes flew east of us and the air became full of paratroops. This was thirty minutes after the glider landing. Ground flares laid by the paratroops lit up paratroops very clearly against the dark sky and it could be seen that the enemy were taking pot-shots at our men as they sailed to earth. That episode over, the glider troops sat down to wait for an enemy counter-attack from the west and relief paratroops from the east.
Enemy movement came first. Lieutenant Sweeney’s platoon on Ranville bridge heard a patrol approaching the bridge from the direction of Caen along a tow-path. The patrol was challenged by the scout section commander and an exclamation “Engleesh!”in what appeared to be German was heard. The patrol then started firing, wounding one of our snipers. The scout section replied and annihilated the patrol of four. They were Germans. Five minutes later a staff car and motor-cycle approached Ranville bridge from the direction of Ranville. They were engaged by Bren fire. The motor-cyclist crashed and was killed. The car carried on, crossed the bridge and was fired on by the rear section, which punctured the tyres and it skidded to a standstill. The three occupants jumped out and engaged the rear section, but were soon rounded up. One of the three turned out to be the officer in charge of the bridge garrison, who was badly wounded. Next tanks were heard moving from a small village a mile north-west of Benouville bridge. The glider pilots, though wounded and at the best badly shaken, carried out their previous orders of salving gliders of necessary stores. Piats had been given a high priority and Lieutenant Fox’s platoon was therefore able to get a Piat quickly. When the first tank approached the bridge it received a well-aimed bomb which put it completely out of action. It eventually burnt out, the ammunition causing a fire-work display which could be seen for miles around. The other tanks turned tail.
The first visitor on the bridge was the brigade commander of the 5th Parachute Brigade, the brigade to which the glider troops were attached for the coup-de-main operation, who had dropped early in a special stick and had made straight or the bridges. Next the paratroop liaison officer, Lieutenant McDonald, who had landed in a glider, returned to say he could not find the 7th Parachute Battalion, which was to relieve the glider troops. It was then realized that the weather had caused the paratroops to be dropped away from their planned dropping zone. Success signals had been given out from the bridges and over the air since twenty minutes after landing. These were supplemented by a Victory “V” on a shrill whistle. It was later learnt that the whistle was an excellent guide to stranded paratroops.
The medical officer, Captain Jacob (Vaughan), received a knock on landing and was thrown into a pond. As a result of this he was dazed for some twenty minutes after landing, but when he came to he did very good work assisted by two company medical orderlies and the platoon stretcher-bearers. An enemy sniper hit several men in the company clearing post just after first light. Lieutenant Sweeney’s platoon went to look for him, but he was not caught.
The 7th Parachute Battalion arrived at 0300 hrs, having been dropped all over the place. They immediately moved out to positions west of Benouville bridge and reduced the counter-attack threat to the bridges.
Just after first light an enemy gunboat moved up the canal from the direction of the sea and shelled battalion headquarters of the 7th Parachute Battalion. Corporal Godbold’s platoon put this out of action by one bomb from the Piat and captured the crew. Thereafter glider troops protected the immediate area of the bridges and acted as a reserve for the 7th Parachute Battalion.
You can imagine how impressed everyone was when, soon after first light, the bridges were visited by the commander of the 6th Airborne Division accompanied by the commanders of the 6th Airlanding Brigade and the 5th Parachute Brigade. Casualties on the actual coup-de-main operation were one officer killed and two wounded, and one soldier killed and twelve wounded.
Captain Priday, with Lieutenant Hooper’s platoon,(No 22 Platoon, D Company) landed west of the River Dives instead of the River Orne and had to fight their way back through enemy-occupied territory to the bridgehead. They picked up odd paratroops on the way and reached the Regiment at Ranville at 0230 hrs on the 7th, having been on the move through swamps, etc., for over twenty-four hours. They lost four men not included in the above casualties.
CAPTAIN B. C. E. PRIDAY’S ACCOUNT
On the 5th June, 1944, six Horsa gliders were assembled at the end of the main runway at Tarrant Rushton airfield. There was a good deal of activity, but no outward excitement or loud farewells, for although these men were to form the spearhead of the Allied invasion of France, and would be the first to land, absolute secrecy had to be enforced to ensure the success of the coup-de-main task they had to perform. Five of the six gliders landed on the target, and the success they made of the operation is told elsewhere. However, the other aircraft, No. 4 in the flight plan, with Captain B. C. E. Priday in command was, owing to a navigational error, put down in the wrong place. The story of this party as told by the commander is recounted below.
“My glider was No.4 in the flight plan and we carried No. 22 Platoon with Lieutenant Hooper in command, five sappers, my runner and myself, apart from the two pilots. The first pair of aircraft took off. at 2256 hrs and I followed at 2300 hrs. We got into the air safely and although I spent all my time until it was dark looking out of the cockpit I saw nothing of the others. I allowed smoking, since most of us were in a state of intense excitement.
At 2350 hrs., thirty minutes before we were due to land, I stopped smoking and had the lights put out for fear of enemy fighters. We checked on our equipment and weapons, and I wondered whether our grenades would explode if we had a heavy landing. I said nothing of this. I stressed the importance of shouting as we came in to land, since I did not want deaf men to deal with when we reached the ground. I again went into the cockpit and kept a running commentary going of all I saw. I didn’t see very much, for it was a dark, cloudy night. We were flying at 6,000 feet, but I had managed to discern the sea as we crossed the coast, and now I could make out the French coast by the flak coming up to our right. We escaped it ourselves.
At this stage, about 0005 hrs, 6th June, 1944, I ordered safety belts to be put on and gave a reminder about holding on to one another and lifting the legs clear of the floor for the landing. I gave an extra reminder to Lieutenant Hooper and to Private Johnson, who were sitting on my right and left about this, because I wanted the door open for a quick exit on landing, a job which had to be done after cast-off, and which in turn had meant that I should not have time to strap my safety belt on, and and I was going to rely on these two to hold me firmly in my seat. They did their job well. We cast off and I opened the door, I looked out into the darkness and saw nothing. Then I made whit my way to my seat opposite the door and sat down to await the landing. Hooper and Johnson held me very tightly, but I shall always remember the odd feeling I had as we went into a steep our left-hand turn, losing height rapidly, and finding myself looking and straight out and down through the doorway into the darkness and the clouds below. I shouted as loudly at least as the others, we c for I did not want to be temporarily deaf when I reached the but ground owing to the increase in atmospheric pressure as we lost height. We soon straightened out, still losing height, and rather more quickly than I expected we hit the ground. We hit it very hard, for it was extremely dark, and the pilots could hardly done and bounced up into the air again. We seemed to poise for a minute with our nose in the air, and then we came crashing to from earth once more, tearing along the ground at a terrific else The wheels must have come off, for the floor of the glider broke up and the seats came adrift. We came to a standstill, the people on my side almost lying on their backs. With difficulty we got the out of the wreckage. Instead of recognizing my surroundings they were completely strange to me. We were in the wrong place. We were all out by 0022 hrs. It is true that we landed by a waterway and by a bridge, but they were not the ones I had have learnt to recognize so well over the weeks beforehand from photographs and models.
I afterwards worked it out, and not only assume that owing to a navigational error on the part of the tug aircraft we were cast off in the wrong place. The glider pilots could not have glided the distance of error in the short free flying time they had after cast-off. Indeed they had made a first-class job of the landing as I well appreciated now that I could see for myself how dark it really was on the ground. The glider was right alongside a river and close up to a bridge. They had seen these as they came down to land and made for them. Not until it was too late did they realize that they were not the Orne and Caen Canal bridges, our objectives. The fuselage was resting in a ditch that ran parallel with the waterway, the right wing tilted down until it nearly touched the water. As the men had got out they, too, realized that we were at the wrong place. and they took up all-round protection of the machine. I moved them away in case the enemy decided to open up on us from anywhere, when they would surely aim at the aircraft with its white stripes showing up in the darkness.
I sent Lieutenant Hooper off to have a look at the bridge, and after another look round the men, where I found Serjeant Barwick looking after our rear, I joined Hooper. There was a swampy bit of ground and a fairly wide ditch with high banks, then an embankment leading up to the road and the bridge. When we reached the road we could see a German steel helmet on the walls of the bridge, but no enemy. I decided not to break the silence for fear of spoiling the element of surprise for the others, who I hoped would be at the correct place. Withdrawing, I left the road, hoping the enemy would think us a crashed bomber as they had done at Syracuse, and made off to work out my position. I remembered to collect my maps, binoculars and a signal pistol from the aircraft, for we were wearing light assault order, all else being left in the glider for collection afterwards. I wasn’t able to do much salvaging, for the enemy on the bridge had gathered their-senses and had returned to put a few bursts into the machine.
During our withdrawal across the fields an aircraft roared low overhead and a stick of parachutists floated to earth. They were approached. Serjeant Lucas was in charge, and he and five others joined my party. The remainder of the stick must have landed on the other side of the river. We later found another parachutist, who was suffering from concussion and did not even know his own name. He, too, joined the party. We came to a deep, dry ditch and I decided to take up an all-round defence in it. Patrols were sent off after a brief 0 group with instructions to go off so many hundreds of yards in certain directions, to look out for landmarks, and I settled down to question the pilots on what they had seen as we came in to land. Gradually I pieced things together and decided we were at a point southeast of Cabourg by a road running east from Varaville where it crosses the River Dives and another waterway. The two bridges were ciose together and in the darkness from the air could easily look like the Orne and Caen Canal bridges. We were on the east bank of the most easterly waterway. The pilots were again most profuse in their apologies, and although the error I meant that I should not see the fruits of my labours of the last few months and the careful planning of the last weeks, for I had been privileged to take a full share in it, I knew it wasn’t their fault and gave them what consolation I could. I now made two main decisions. One was to have a little battle at this bridge, for I thought a few live rounds in this area would add to the deception plan which up to now was silent, and the second was to get back to my Regiment as strong as possible. The Regiment had a task to perform and I knew we should need all the men we had to carry it out. I gave orders to this effect. After sufficient time had elapsed to allow the proper bridge party to get going, I again moved towards my bridge. I sent Lieutenant Hooper on a small patrol forward to have a look round and I followed him closely.
Two enemy sentries must have heard us and they came over to see what was happening. With a ‘Comment ca va,’ Hooper opened up and as they ran away one went down. We closed to the edge of the road and the others came up. A machine gun opened up on us from across the road and a few stick grenades were thrown. We returned with small-arms fire and threw grenades, including No. 77’s, and their fire did us no harm. I was in a slit trench at the side of the road by now with the senior glider pilot and unfortunately a No.77 landed in our trench. It burned our clothes a bit and I smiled to see his luminous feet running across the bridge. I gave the enemy a final burst from my Sten and then I brought up the rear. I was told afterwards by Lance-Corporal Lambley, who was watching from a different angle, that this last long burst of mine had fetched down a couple of enemy who were moving towards the machine gun. Presumably they were going to replace the original crew who must surely have been knocked out by the weight of our fire. It was sheer luck. I couldn’t see for myself because of the smoking No. 77 in my pit, but I was very gratified to hear it. We got down at the side of the road as planned to check up, and I now discovered that about ten or twelve of the party had failed to cross. I sent someone to the bank to tell them to cross under cover of our fire and the necessary guns were placed to cover them. They failed to cross. This wasted a good deal of time and I sent Lieutenant Hooper and two men to have a look at a little wood I wanted to get to. I then went down to the river bank to try to make touch with the other party. No answer came to my shouts. They must have withdrawn from the bridge, but I had confidence in Serjeant Barwick, who was with them. The next thing that happened was when the men from the wood came back to report that the wood was clear and that Lieutenant Hooper was waiting for me there. Before we could move we heard voices coming out of the darkness and footsteps down the middle of the road. Very soon I recognized Lieutenant Hooper’s voice. He was talking very loudly and I soon knew why. He was being marched along with his hands in the air and a Boche escorted him. I was wondering what to do when Hooper edged over towards the spot where only a few minutes before he had left me. This gave me a view of the German against the skyline. I had my Sten ready and with a shout ‘Jump, Tony!’ (Hooper’s Christian name) I fired a big burst at the Hun. He went down and didn’t move again. Unfortunately as he fell he pressed his trigger and Lance-Serjeant Raynor, who was lying next to me was hit in the shoulder. Another round hit my map case. My chinagraph pencils were ruined, but I got Hooper back. Apparently a few minutes after dispatching the two men to report to me a party had moved into the wood and he walked up to them, thinking it was I. They were, in fact, a party from the other bridge coming along to see what the fuss was about. The issue was obviously confused to them because of the lone escort being sent to the bridge from which all the firing had come. Guns from the enemy in the wood now opened up, and very obligingly the gun from the bridge we had just crossed fired back at them. Hoping they would fight each other, I thought it a good time to get out. Lining up on the side of the road, I gave the order ‘Go’ and we dashed across the road. Unfortunately, Private Everett, my wireless operator, was killed at my side and we had to leave him behind. We now moved off the road into the floods, dykes, ditches and rivers of the Dives valley. For about two hours we swam and waded, going south. In places we had to get the non-swimmers across on toggle ropes. Then we came to a farm. It was isolated on a piece of high ground in the middle of the swamps, just what I wanted. There had been some heavy bombing going on and we saw a plane crash to earth in flames. The next day I found the pilot and brought him back with me. Leaving the platoon a little way off, I went forward with a couple of men to have a look at the farm.
On rounding a corner I almost shot at a head sticking out of a window, but it spoke quickly to me in French and I held my fire. The platoon was called up and I went inside. The Frenchman, his sister and his daughter were up and about because of the bombs. They were pleased to see us. and I had to explain how we had arrived. They asked many questions at me and I’m afraid my French was rather overtaxed. I pulled out my cigarettes, but they were wringing wet and useless.
The farmer asked for them ‘pour manger.’ He was welcome. One of my men had kept a packet dry by carrying them in his helmet, so we had a smoke. With the aid of my maps, which although soaked were serviceable, I confirmed my position, and I learned of enemy garrisons in the neighbourhood. I was told that the two bridges we had just left were guarded by fifty men. They were Russians and had German officers. Hooper came and joined forces with me. The Frenchman obviously coveted our fusils automatiques. He picked one up that had been put down on the table. I must confess I covered him with mine which I was still holding, but he meant no harm and merely stood it up on its butt on the table. Before we could make him understand he had put a burst through his ceiling. No one was upstairs in bed and no damage was done. The night was cold and a wind blew. We were soaked to the skin up to our necks and some of us who had been finding the way had stepped into deep water without being ready for it and had gone right under. I decided to rest a while. I was shown to a loft which contained hay. We moved into it and pulled the ladder up behind us. Settling into the hay we got gradually warmer and the water was soaked up out of our clothing. Lookouts were posted.
“In the morning the bombing on the coast whilst the seaborne force came in brought us scrambling for a look. The blast from the heavy explosions shook our rather dilapidated loft until I thought it would collapse. We were only a few miles inland and it lasted for about two hours. We saw no enemy. Water surrounded us on all sides and the trees round the farm spoilt our field of view. The Frenchman brought us some milk. It was very welcome, for we had no rations or water-bottles. They, too, werein the glider. A bit later on another sister of the Frenchman arrived from somewhere, and reported that there were a jeep and gun about three-quarters of a mile away. He knew the place and offered to row me over in his boat. I accepted and Lance-Corporal Hunt and I went off, leaving Hooper in charge. We had an uneventful journey lying in the bottom of the boat for cover, and found nothing at the end of it. I had arranged a signal with Hooper in case I wanted him, and I now called him up to a little barn I had found. I also had a guide for this party, the Frenchman’s niece, and very soon they arrived. At this stage the four twenty-four-hour ration packs that the two glider pilots were carrying were shared out. We each had a biscuit, a piece of chocolate and either a couple of sweets or a piece of chewing gum. Look-outs had been posted, but they saw nothing. Dry cigarettes were handed round and we made ready to move up a small track. We were going southwards and climbing a gradual slope. Very soon we were on dry ground and speed increased. Where necessary I had a gun on the ground to cover us across open spaces, and farms and buildings were inspected by me before we passed them. Hooper brought up the rear. At Robehomme we came across some of the Canadian Parachute Battalion and an odd collection of others who wanted to go to Ranville, where I was going. It was agreed that they should come with me: I also found the men I had lost at the bridge. Apparently they had not moved fast enough, had come under fire and had to withdraw from the road. They had had three men killed. However, one of their number could speak French and they had come to hear of the Canadians and had made their way to them. I was invited to join in an attack on Bavent. We could muster only about 150 including the Canadians, half of whom would have to remain to hold Robehomme.
There was not much point in attacking Bavent, especially without support and with so few men, and in any case I wanted to get back to my Regiment as strong as possible for the further tasks that we had. I declined the offer, and after collecting all the information I could and making reconnaissances from the high ground I moved on. It was necessary to go farther south because of the layout of the enemy disposition around Robehomme and Bavent, so I decided to make for the Bois de Bavent. As we moved off the high ground we again had to traverse the floods and a good deal of wading and swimming ensued. I was now about forty-five strong and I organize three sections, myself in the front with the fire section and Hooper and a captain from the Parachute Brigade forming the two assault sections. It was very tiring wading and swimming with weapons and ammunition and I rested twice. During our second rest we saw the Ulsters and the Regiment flying in to land in the distance. The fighter escort flying up above made it look very assured. It was a grand sight and a cheer went up from my party. We now turned westwards and after crossing three very long, straight, wide and deep dykes, a difficult business, we again came upon higher ground as we approached the main road across which was the Bois de Bavent. I halted here and went forward myself to have a look at the road. Coming down the middle of the road were three people. As they approached I could see that the centre man was a R.A.F. pilot. The other two looked as though they were escorting him under arrest. I waited with my Sten ready, but as they came nearer I could see that they were unarmed civilians, so I went out to them. The pilot was the one I have already mentioned, the others were one Pole and one Frenchman. The R.A.F. man was lost and he said good-bye to the civilians and joined me. I called up my party and we crossed the road into the wood without any trouble. As map reading was difficult in the heavily wooded and broken country, I gave Hooper my compass and map and made him guide the party. His weapons, instruments, etc., had all been removed when he had been captured at the bridge, so, having no metal on him, he was the ideal man for the job. However, the country was very thick, it began to get dark and we had to make several detours round obstacles, and somehow an error occurred and we almost walked into Breville before we found our mistake. Here I saw an old Frenchman coming very unsteadily towards us down the road. I went up to him. He was drunk and in tears. I could get no sense out of him until I took him by the shoulders and gave him a shaking. He pulled himself together and I learned that his house had been burnt down and that he had got drunk to drown his sorrows. What is more to the point is that I also learnt that the village was Breville and that it was occupied by the enemy. We retraced our steps, going south, then turned west on another road, and after a while we ran into a road-block near Le Mesnil.
I could see that it was occupied by our men, but I did not know what they would think of us. So, leaving my party behind, I went forward with my hands in the air and accosted them. Having explained who I was and so on, I checked my party through and we made our way for the rest of the journey without further incident.
On arrival at Ranville we rejoined our various units, the parachutists to their regiment, my R.E. party to their company, the R.A.F. pilot to brigade headquarters, the glider pilots to their headquarters, and we to our Regiment.
We had been reported missing, but I soon dispelled that when I reported. I was unable to give much information, for we had seen very little of the enemy. I fixed the men up in a house with German bunks, the remainder of the rations were shared out, and we had our first cup of tea, Lance-Serjeant Raynor had his arm properly dressed and was sent off to hospital, Hooper and I found a bed in the chateau, and in spite of our wringing-wet clothes we slept like logs for two hours.
We were then called, the men were collected, and we formed up again, with our company as advanced guard company in the approach and forward company in the attack on Escoville. Our clothes were still wet, but our weapons had been cleaned and we were in good shape.” 1
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 53-71
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