THE FIFTY SECOND LIGHT INFANTRY PREPARATION FOR D DAY
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL3 1942-1944
FROM 1ST JANUARY TO 31ST MAY, 1944 Contributed by MAJOR R. J. HOWARD, D.S.O.
1944 - IN the middle of January orders were received that the Regiment was to be mobilized by the 1st February. Company commanders therefore unearthed the mobilization scheme, details of which had caused the adjutant and quartermaster so many headaches a few months before. All but essential training gave place to kit and ammunition checks and many inspections. In the meantime it was officially announced that General Montgomery was to command 21st Army Group.
The value of the airborne smock was fully appreciated at all times, for its camouflage was excellent, both from the ground and air, and it was warm for night work an surprisingly rainproof.
On the 26th February all officers and selected N.C.Os. attended a divisional lecture by the corps commander, Lieutenant-General F. A. M. Browning. He outlined the organization for the second front, the air aspect being particularly interesting. Thus ended February, 1944, with the Regiment exceedingly fit and well trained. The many Regimental exercises held during the month had successfully co-ordinated the battle procedure of all companies and specialists and the conferences afterwards provided opportunities to discuss many points at length. One obvious feature was the marching fitness of rifle companies; the recent emphasis on physical efficiency tests was clearly justified; there was hardly an officer or man who could not cover ten miles in full fighting order in under two hours.
Exercise “Me” was carried out by all companies at different times during these early months of 1944. It consisted of troops being put down from closed transport in pairs or small parties over a wide area, with instructions to report to a point two or three counties away as soon as possible. Before starting out they were all searched and relieved of money or food and in some cases the police and Home Guard were asked to carry out security exercises and try to arrest them. Much ingenuity was displayed and very few failed to get through to the appointed rendezvous, many making amazingly quick time. These exercises proved very popular.
On the 10th March the commanding officer inspected all Regimental transport, which consisted mainly of jeeps and trailers. Each rifle company had three jeeps and six trailers, the distribution being one trailer to each of the four rifle platoons and two for company headquarters. These last carried the 3-inch mortar detachment’s weapons and ammunition—a very considerable item.
From the 25th to the 27th March the Regiment took part in a divisional flying exercise known as“Bizz II.” It involved the use of the ‘greatest number of planes and gliders ever used in an exercise in this country. The whole airlanding brigade, less D Company, 52nd, was lifted in Horsas, with either Albemarles or Stirlings as tugs, while at the same time the 3rd Parachute Brigade was lifted in Dakotas. The objects of the exercise were to test the air planning and the division in a typical operational role.
The north coast of France was represented by the line of the road running south from Banbury—all west of this line was considered to be Northern France. Typical enemy dispositions were laid out and very full intelligence summaries were produced which conformed almost entirely to the latest information available about German dispositions in areas over which the division might be expected to operate when the invasion actually began. The bridgehead was to be formed by V Corps occupying the area Banbury—Lechlade-Shifford, the initial seaborne landings taking place at 0630 hrs on D day (the 26th March). The coast south of the projected bridgehead was to be attacked by a special service brigade to neutralize coastal defences, etc., while the 6th Airborne Division landed in area Faringdon, with the 6th Airlanding Brigade north and the 3rd Parachute Brigade south. The particular tasks were the seizing and holding intact, until relieved by V Corps troops, the bridges at 7319 and holding area Aston Pill—Littleworth—Faringdon by the 6th Airlanding Brigade, while the 3rd Parachute Brigade seized and held the high ground Badbury Hill and destroyed the medium battery at 7312 before first light on D day. The airborne division was to land during the evening of D minus 1 day. The Regiment was allotted thirty-seven Horsas and took off from airfields at Keevil, Fairford and Brize Norton at 1630 hrs.
All landed at Brize Norton at approximately 1900 hrs. Route—south over the coast at Bournemouth—east over the sea to Lulworth—back northeast to the landing area. Three gliders had slight mishaps and had to make forced landings, one of them in the sea, where a very valuable cargo was lost, although all on board were rescued. This glider made a very good landing and all the occupants climbed out on to the wings and remained there until picked up by a Walrus air-sea rescue plane, which taxied them to a naval launch. The passengers included the adjutant, medical officer, padre, regimental serjeant-major and two privates from the Regiment, together with a wing commander, R.A.F., two glider pilots, two driver-operators, Royal Signals, and one R.A.M.C. orderly. Although they all suffered from shock and were rather badly shaken and bruised, none was seriously hurt. The other two gliders made forced landings some distance from the landing zone. This was a good experience for commanders, as it showed how things can go wrong in action and made them modify their plans as the result of being short of troops and supplies.
After landing, the Regiment made its way to the rendezvous by individual glider. Before the Regiment landed at Brize Norton D Company had crash-landed (by troop-carrying vehicles) on the objective with the task of capturing the bridges and holding them until the Regiment arrived. The reconnaissance platoon was meanwhile moving ahead and feeling its way towards the bridges in an endeavour to discover D Company’s position. When contact was made it found that the enemy had been driven off, but that a counter-attack was expected. The Regiment moved up towards the bridges, and B Company was able to beat off the company counter-attack that was put in by the enemy at 2330 hrs. The Regiment then took up a defensive position at the bridges, digging in to give all-round defence, and prepared to await V Corps force.
At 1530 hrs. V Corps advance guard arrived and the Regiment moved to a recently evacuated enemy position at Coleshill.
The Regiment again dug in and continued an offensive patrolling policy throughout the night Patrols gained much information of enemy movements and strength and the Regiment was prepared for the strong attack that developed later in the morning. Using tanks, the enemy overran part of the Regimental area and several counter-attacks met with no success. ‘The enemy eventually retired and our position was restored. We still held the same ground, though we were very depleted in strength. Thus ended the first full dress rehearsal for the invasion which was to come nine weeks later, though few realized the full significance at the time. Valuable lessons were learnt, especially by D Company in its assault on the bridges where the points brought out by the exercise were to prove invaluable during later planning
On the 1st April the two airborne divisions changed billets, the 6th moving to Lincoinshire and the 1st to the Bulford quarters. Regimental headquarters was at Woodball Spa. Everyone seemed to enjoy the change from barrack life to private billets. The country was very different, being very flat and traversed by innumerable waterways. The whole Regiment, less D Company, was accommodated at Woodhall Spa. D Company was billeted in Bardney, nine miles away.
The first definite information that the second front was in sight was received on the 9th April (Easter Sunday), when all leave was cancelled. On that day the post-mortem on divisional Exercise “Bizz II” was carried out by the divisional commander, Major-General R. N. Gale, O.B.E., M.C. High praise was given to D Company for its speed and dash in capturing the bridges.
The official censoring of letters started at about this time.
After an exercise between the two airborne divisions from the 19th to the 23rd April, the 6th Division returned to Bulford.
The Regiment was glad to return to Wing Barracks and soon settled down to normal routine. But the atmosphere was rather strained: “It won’t be long now” and “The sooner the better.” The commanding officer had by this time been briefed for D day and was already working out his plan and orders. The 6th Airborne planning house was a well-protected country house on Salisbury Plain known by the code name “Broadmoor.”
On the 2nd May Major R. J; Howard, commanding D Company, was briefed and received orders a “Broadmoor” for a coup de main on certain bridges on the Continent and was instructed to work out a plan. Lessons learnt during recent exercises were of inestimable value to the commanding officer and Major Howard in their planning.
By way of a relief from last-minute training and general tuning-up, on the 14th May the Regiment sent a representative company of 120 officers and men to take part in the procession for the “Salute the Soldier” savings campaign which took place in Oxford. The commanding officer decided to send Oxford men. It was a welcome break, for it gave everyone in the party two days at home. For security reasons this visit of representatives of the Regiment could not be advertised, but when the people of Oxford saw the detachment wearing the red beret of airborne troops together with the badge of the county Regiment, they gave the parade a rousing welcome.
The company was perfectly turned out and its marching through the city was faultless. This, together with the obvious stamp of supreme physical fitness, gained the admiration of everyone who saw the parade.
The divisional commander addressed all officers in the garrison theatre on the 18th. The day afterwards the division was inspected by His Majesty the King, accompanied by Her Majesty The Queen and Princess Elizabeth.
D Company and two platoons of B Company were by now attacking bridges all over the South of England. Every pair of bridges which in any way resembled those to be captured during the opening stages of the invasion was attacked in every conceivable way and from every direction. Speed and dash were to be essential during this important operation. They became the foundations of every phase of training, from the taped rehearsals in a large field near Wing Barracks at Bulford right up to the final piece of training that was done on the Countess Wear bridges near Exeter. These bridges were a good replica of the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne in Normandy.
The Exeter bridges were only 100 yards apart, whereas those in Normandy were 500 yards, but from the training point of view the shorter distance was an advantage, as the attacks were easier to control. By order of the brigadier (Brigadier The Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley, O.B.E., M.C.) the party for the coup de main was given every facility and priority for training, e.g., transport was “on tap.”As it was known that 5-cm. anti-tank guns were part of the German defences, captured 5-cm. guns were therefore made available and everyone in the party was trained to use them. Each platoon had a complete team of five with reserves ready to take over one of the guns on the other side. Every advantage was taken of these past few weeks’ training. Nothing was left to chance.
On the 25th/26th May the Regiment moved to transit camps in two parties: (a) The Regiment, less D Company, to Harwell airfield under command of Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Roberts.
(b) The coup de main party, comprising six platoons, to Tarrant Rushton airfield under command of Major R. J. Howard.
Once in these camps all ranks were sealed and, except for essential training and exercises, never left the barbed-wire perimeter until the 5th/6th June.
General briefing began two days after moving to the camps. Large aerial photographs and detailed sand models were available, the model of the bridges area being particularly well done. With such aids commanders were able to brief troops to the finest degree. A striking air of determination prevailed in both camps and complete confidence was shown in all planning and orders.1
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 3: July 1942 - May 1944 Pages 275 - 281