D-Day, The First 24 Hours!
After refering to a 1944 calendar (on line), it transpired B Coy disembarked on Friday 23rd June and not as given in the Middlesex History the 25th. What makes me certain of this is because the attack on Cheux went in on a Sunday, and as the Sunday was the 25th that makes sense. It seems odd now but it appeared that all major attacks by the 15th(S) Div were always made on a Sunday, I suppose because we must all have been considered Barbarians, its too late to ask Monty now why he did this, after all he was a bit of a bible puncher himself, oh well one of lifes little mysteries.
I personally recall disembarking in the afternoon, although we were fully waterproofed vehicle wise we just about got out tracks wet when we came ashore, the first thing that greeted us was a sign Actung Minen very welcoming. We milled about the beach in the general chaos eventually parked in a field removed all our waterproof plates, lumps of bostic etc, then thought about a quick brew, which was wishful thinking, as we were all summoned to hear about what we were about to do by the Coy 2/ic one Joe Cummins a nice man. It transpired that Joe by adept map reading was going to take us to a village some miles inland named Secquville en Bessain there we had the Divisional Assembly area, and we had to join it. The Coy Commander with his small retinue of cooks, and other bods were going on independently. But Joe would lead the main body himself, so away we go on the first leg of our Cooks Tour.
Firstly we had to drive on the right, keep off the verges keep an eye open for enemy aircraft (never saw one) and above all keep up with Joe. We drove on past knocked out German and British Tanks, Spiked guns, temporary cemeteries, all the usual impedia of advancing and retreating armies. We never heard a shot fired all the time we spent on the road, and apart from the choking dust which got everywhere we thought this is a cushy old war. After about three hours we did halt for a brew, and Joe drives off in his Jeep. We thought we must be there, but no, we found out later Joe drove off to find out where the hell we were. Anyway he must have found somebody who knew as he returned beaming like a chief stoker, and cheerfully gave orders for the entire convoy to turn around rapidly as we must have been heading for the recruitment centre for the wehrmacht this was confirmed by a great deal of small arms fire not too far away. It is not too difficult to turn a carrier around in a narrow country lane but it is for the larger soft skinned vehicles, but after a great deal of reversing, shouting, and damaged paintwork we eventually were facing the right way, and away we went once more. After another couple hours I remember passing an Advanced 2nd TAF airstrip on our left hand side. Give an hour or so we passed this airstrip again this time on our right hand side, on seeing this the whole Companies's faith in Joes map reading ability fell to zero. The convoy halted it was getting near dusk by this time, but we were saved by the appearance of one of our Company Don R's who was out looking for us, without the benefit of map reading but just by common sense he led us unerringly to a large orchard where we were told to get our mess tins and mugs for a hot meal. Thank God the cooks hadn't got lost like we did. Apparently it had taken the HQ party roughly an hour to get there! Good old Joe. After the meal we were told to bivvy down for the night where we were, it was a nice night so under the stars we lay thinking about tomorrow.
So we were woken up at the first light on Saturday 25th of June 1944 in the orchard of a farm in the Normandy Village of Secquville en Bassain, had breakfast of soya link sausages, hot tea, and then spent the rest of the morning on machine gun and carrier maintainance until lunch time. Then we were called for a briefing by Frank Waite our platoon Sergeant, one of the old school of NCOs, it was always Frank who seemed to make the decisions of whatever we seemed to do and we all thanked God for his presence many times. So there we are looking at a large map with chinagraphed arrows Allied forces in red and the German fittingly in black! So the plan was we would move out about 2200hrs that night advance across corn fields and take the village of Cheux, thereafter we would take Caen, and then a direct route to Paris, it looked and sounded so simple on the map, and the way Frank put it across, it sounded like a case of applying for a week end pass to spend in Paris after we got there! Well we never did get Paris, and nobody seemed to consider the German Army's lack of co-operation on this plan.
After the briefing we were told to get our heads down for a few hours, so naturally our nap school got under way again this had been an ongoing game since our arrival in Brighton some months before, and continued right up until the end of hostilities in 1945 albeit with a changing cast of players.
After a couple of hours armour started to come through our orchard, flail tanks,crocodiles, Hobarts funnies, and then the fighting tanks, in the main Shermans and Churchills, this procession seemed endless and done wonders for our morale, through the village they proceeded across the cornfields slightly to our left. Here I digress a moment, I was in Secquville in Bessain in August 2001 and the path the tanks, and subsequently ourselves with the rest of the 15th Scottish Div took is very obvious even to this day.
Around about ten pm we were told to mount carriers, and prepare to move, there were farewells to our mates in other platoons, I said mine amongst others to Barney Walden a fellow nap player, and who for years was convinced The Second Front was just paper talk to appease our Russian Allies, I remarked on this fact to Barney then, and got some rude derisive remark back from him. So we set off across the fields following all the others and driving with no lights obviously guided by two lanes of white tape which meant as long as you kept in the centre of these tapes you were not going to hit a mine,apart from the fact that in places parts of the tape were missing probably chewed up by the tanks tracks,and other parts obliterated by mud again thrown up by tanks, anyway we all made it to the start line, where we all lined up abreast guns were loaded, and we peered through the night to see what perils were out there, apart from sporadic bursts of German Spandau fire which sounded like the ripping of cloth there were no perils to speak of.
At the break of dawn everything opened up, we were told it was the heaviest barrage since El Alemein. There were naval guns from the warships anchored off shore, Corps, Divisonal Artillery it was really scary, and they were on our side. We pictured advancing to our objective through a sea of mangled German corpses, but not a one did we see, the Lord above knows where they went, but wherever it was they were safe, and they were there challenging our advance to prove it with their Tigers, mortars, artillery and spandaus.
We started our advance and proceeded slowly with armour on our left and right, and to our consternation quite a lot of this armour was coming to grief through mines, and anti tank guns the notorious 88mm the Germans seemed to use for everything. Eventually we cut across a tarred road the Bayeux to Caen road, there under a tree we saw our Company Comander Major D Ellis being attended to by stretcher bearers apparently a shell had blown the bough off a tree and it had fallen right on him, so that was Desmond out of it.
Just after we had crossed the road we arrived via a sunken road to the outskirts of Cheux, there we halted. The barrage still thundering away it started to rain, nobody knew what the hell was happening, and so the speculation was still going on when Frank Waite popped his head over the carrier and handed us a mug of tea, and he also gave us the sad news that 7 platoon had just buried Barney Walden who was killed outright by a shell splinter. Barney is to day buried in the St. Manviue War Cemetry within a hundred yards of the spot where he was killed
Shortly after receiving that sad news we moved out of the sunken road, each of us with their own thoughts, about one's vulnerability and who would be the next to go, we drove into a small wooded area just in Cheux, were told to get dug in, and get the guns into position, just then we heard the approach of tanks, PIATS were grabbed, shelter was taken behind trees there being nothing else at the time we had merely broken the top soil of our digging in, when the tanks turned out to be Shermans ours!
No sooner had we recovered from that shock when we were told to load up the carriers we were moving again. This time we went through to Cheux passed a cross roads, and stopped again, the rain was coming down, ruined buildings falling round our ears, the barrage still banging away like nobodys business, the 9th Cameronians which we we were supporting going past us, then coming back, then more of them going forward, none of them saying a word, just looking like all of us, scared witless. Nobody seemed to know what was happening, what had happened or what was going to happen. So amidst this chaos I lowered my seat and went to sleep, a bad mistake that, I was jolted back to earth with the sound of a machine gun firing over my head, it was our machine gun on my carrier! I opened my eyes and could see nothing but dense white smoke. What had happened was a German armoured car had driven right into our convoy, realised his mistake and not being green like his enemy had fired off a smoke grenade which bounced off the front of my carrier, and reversed out of their at a fair rate of knots. The machine gun was fired by Ted Harding and he let literally half a belt of 303 off, most of it went into my pack which I had stowed just under the gun mounting ruining my blankets, and greatcoat, thank God I had lowered my seat. The maddening part of it was if I had not dropped off, all I had to do was slew the carrier around and I could have rammed the armoured car, and stopped him getting away, but thats life I suppose with the benefit of hindsight.
Shortly after this incident we moved off once more right through Cheux and pulled into a farm called le haut de Bosche a very sinister sounding name, and a likewise sinister place, it was very quiet there and it kept quiet long enough for us to get the carriers parked under a huge open barn out of the rain at last, the gun crews unloded the gung, and required paraphernalia, and then all hell broke lose, all of it German inspired we were mortared quite heavily, the bombs landing and exploding on the cobblestone of the courtyard, not good that, a spandau opening up the other side of the orchard through a five barred gate. We could not dig in so dived back into the carriers at least they offered a slight protection. Eventually this welcome ceased and we are able to get the guns into position the other side of the orchard, this meant going through the five barred gate, this problem was solved by approaching the gate along a wall which ran parallel with the gate, waiting until Jerry fired his systematical burst every minute or so then rushing through immediately turning right out of his fixed line he was obviously firing on, skirt right round the orchard and onto the gunline, once the guns were in position the blokes were able to dig in alongside a Company of the Cameronians, drivers and other odds and sods had to go back to the cobbled farm with no chance of digging in, just seeking the sanctity of our carriers or later on that night a stout out building.
So we were Platoon HQ and started to get organised, when our Platoon Commander Lt. John Soward in all his wisdom calls out Dyer, Love "Clear the place of snipers" I looked at Lovey, Lovey looked at me, had we heard right? We had indeed, now nobody had ever taught me in all my years in the Army to clear the place of snipers and Lovey was a Lance Corporal and he knew as much as I did, so we arm ourselves with some grenades and our rifles each with one up the spout, and off we go. We sorted out all the out buildings of the farm made out approach to the farmhouse a two storey building that would be a bit more dodgey, as we approached this house there was a rustle in a great bed of nettles we both spun round rifles ready to fire, and out of the nettles trooped six or seven chickens, that was a near one Lovey! So then comes the big one, we go to the front door and it has a big padlock and hasp on it obviously locked from the outside, we look at all the windows up and down, all shuttered, so obviously there was no one in there, so back we go to Lt. Soward and tell him the place is clear of snipers, but all we got from him was a blank look it was obvious he did not remember telling us to clear the place.
So then another little O Group from Frank Waite right he said "The Password to night is Hither Thither" some bright intelligence officer had reasoned that a German could not pronounce this, so if we heard Hizzer Zizzer we were to fire first, and ask questions afterwards, but what this officer had not thought about was we were a cockney battalion and from the majority of us he would hear Hivver Vivver, so began a rapid course in elocution on how to pronounce these words. It helped while away the time I suppose.
Then up pops Lt. Soward once again "Dyer there is a wounded Jock out on the line go with the stretcher bearer and bring him in". So Pte Waller and I wait by the side of the gate until Gerry has fired his systematical burst and then dive into the orchard around the edge and up to the line there we see this Jock, and he was badly wounded a shell splinter had pierced his steel helmet at the back and opened up inside a wound in his skull, so it was practically welded to his head. Pte Waller adjusted his chinstrap so it would not move about, then we discovered it was not practicable to put him on the stretcher, so I said to Waller "Take my rifle." (against Geneva Conventions), and I managed to get him across my back in a Firemans Lift, so around the orchard until we get to the gate wait for Gerry to fire his burst, which he duly did. We go through the gate, and my bloody trousers fall down right in the gate admitted they were only oilskin over trousers worn because of the rain, but have you ever tried to run with a bloke on your back and your trousers around your ankle? It can't be done! Pte Waller seeing this came back and hoisted my fallen trousers, and I was off, but I could never figure out why Gerry did not fire, maybe he was laughing himself stupid, or perhaps was firing from the bottom of his slit trench, and not seeing a thing just firing every so often on his fixed lines, I know our guns were fired like that at times. Anyway I take this Jock to his RAP which is in an outbuilding in the farm, and I shall always remember, there was another Jock there with a Ghurka Gukri telling this chap I had brought in that his Gukri was safe. I heard later that my patient had recovered, and it would be very interesting to hear all about him, all I know he was a Private soldier in the 9th Cameronians.
And so the day faded into night, the mortar bombs continued to land on the cobblestones, bullets continued to fly across the farmyard, and there was nothing we could do about it in retaliation, our machine guns had not fired a single round in their positions. In fact now that the barrage had long ceased it seemed that this war was a real one sided affair, and it wasn't on our side, and now a new faction came into being, streams of tracer bullets where whipping by the main gate of the farm to wards Cheux, and they were white obviously German, and we learnt later were coming from Tiger tanks. Then in the opposite direction came a return of red tracer British and that was British tanks responding, occasionally this white tracer was punctuated by the shriek of an 88mm shell on its way to Cheux, and then a British shell in response what all this firing was supposed to achieve God only knows, apart from making everybody keep their heads down, and chipping away at the granite pillars of the farm entrance, still at least somebody was doing something. Incidentally the result of the damage inflicted on these pillars can still be seen to day.
So we eventually decide it was time for getting the head down somewhere we found a reasonably stout barn with a relatively undamaged roof and thick walls, utilised the straw provided for the cattle(long since gone), nobody bothered with blankets we were just thankful for what we had got, I suppose there were about ten of us in there, the gun crews in their slit trenches, another barn housed Platoon HQ with Lt. Soward,Sgt Waite, the signallers, etc.
It did not take me long to get to sleep, in fact we were all dead tired and I dont think anybody suffered from insomnia that night, however it must have been some hours later when we were rudely awakened by Frank Waite kicking the soles of our boots with the words "Jerrie's here". Sgt Micky Head was told to take a patrol of six men out to the orchard and see what was happening. I was one of those six, and grabbing my rifle closed up on Mickey as we went into the orchard very cautiously. We had made a couple of hundred yards or so when out of the darkness came the challenge "Halt" in a Scottish brogue obviously Cameronians. Then came "Password" now Mickey had a slight impediment in his speech and stammered some meaningless sounds, that was enough for the Jocks the leader opened fire with a Sten and got Mickey fair and square, I actually felt the bullets flying past my ear, we were all petrified, and spun round and ran like hell, one of us shouted out "For Christ's sake Jock we're Middlesex", there was no response to this and from the noise we heard in the orchard the Jocks were in the same frame of mind as we were and were also running like hell in the direction they had come from.
So poor Mickey Head got killed by what is to-day known as friendly fire, simply because he could not get his tongue around that bloody password. This is the reason that I shall remember that particular password until my dying day. He was a lovely man a regular soldier posted to us from a regular Battalion.
At first light I met up with one of the Jocks who had been on that patrol, and he confirmed that after their NCO had fired his Sten, they had done the same as us and got the hell out of it. He also told me the name of the NCO which I have never or ever will divulge, I believe he himself was killed shortly after. Our headlong retreat was never ever questioned, and unless we were to stand fast and shoot it out with the Jocks it was the obvious conclusion.
At daybreak we were told we were pulling out of that hellhole of a farm, I dont know why despite the panic in the night we hadn't seen a German, a few grenades were pitched over the wall. The machine gun covering the gate to the orchard had long gone, and here we were withdrawing. Anyway the gun crews brought in all their gear they had not fired one round all the time they had been in position.
With all our gear stowed away on the carriers we were ready to move off, when all of a sudden the two way tracer display at the main gate started up again, so this meant we had to go though the side wall. So with the lead carrier punching a hole in the wall all the carriers made it out, but the 15cwt truck could not get over the rubble or the 3foot drop the other side so had to be abandoned (Later recovered). It contained all the cookhouse stores and Mickey Heads body, once through the wall we off loaded most of the stores, and Mickey Head, and lifted them all onto the carriers I helped with the body and rembember thinking how heavy a dead body was, we manhandled the DRs motorcycle through the wall and moved off for about 100 yards, and we came into a traffic jam which would make the M25 at rush hour seem a picnic. Officers running around in circles screaming their heads off, then came a stonk of 88s right on the mixed up convoy. Within minutes of that happening that convoy not only moved but it moved at a fair rate of knots all the way through Cheux, in a meadow just past Cheux we found Company HQ, and all our carriers joined them there.
The cooks rustled up a Compo pack breakfast we swilled Compo tea by the gallon washed and shaved ourselves, and once again began to feel human, and feeling very superior to Co HQ blokes who were hanging on to our every word. Lt Soward was then called for an O group, all the carriers topping up with petrol gun crews cleaning their unfired guns, when back came Lt Soward told us nothing except "On Carriers,start up move off". Away we went once more through Cheux, past Le Haut de Bosch, for about five miles, to a village named Colville over a level crossing and into another bloody orchard, the guns placed into position, and before very long they were making up for lack of work earlier, the place was alive with snipers and very soon all badges of rank were removed. Lt Soward became John to us all and this remained so until the wars end. We found out here that the 15th(S) were in a salient at the start of the Scottish Corridor, which meant we were getting fired on, and attacked on three sides not very nice that.
slightly over 24 hours,but who cares ?