WW II, a British focus  



Memories of Mr Edwin Booth, Army no. 14404722


The day selected was June 5th but bad weather forced a postponement of 24hrs to June 6th. It was at different times that we dropped. The advance party going in at 00.20hrs and the main body coming in At 00.50hrs.

I was in the advance party, my job was to help to clear a pillbox on the corner of the dropping zone then join up with C Company of the Canadians who had also dropped on the same dropping zone at the same time. Their task was to attack a German headquarters at Varaville that was about one mile from the dropping zone. The rest of their Battalion coming in at 00.50hrs. The rest of their Battalion had to blow bridges from Cabourg on the coast down to Varaville then take control of the roads and approaches to deny the Germans getting through. Meanwhile the 8th Battalion had a different dropping zone near to Troarn, their job was to blow the rest of the bridges. All these bridges were on the river Dives. Thus by holding the high ground between the two rivers Dives and the Orne safe guarded the bridges over the Orne and the Caen Canal.

That was when things started to go wrong, the ground was like a moon landing and a large cloud of dust was floating over the area. The Germans had also flooded the area of the river Dives. Thus when we dropped a lot of men landed in it and drowned or lost a lot of time with men trying to get out of it. Also the planes had missed the drop zone, and at night in darkness and unfamiliar surrounds it put extra strain trying to find your bearings. When the 9th Battalion moved off to their objective they could only muster about 160 men instead of a complement of about 700 men. Lt Col. Otway the Commanding Officer knew that it was vital for the troops coming into land on the Sword Beach that the guns at Merville Battery were out of action. The early party who had landed with the advance party had moved off to reconnoitre the route to the gun battery. They had cut a passage through the wire and as no engineers turned up, they cleared a way through the minefield by feeling with their bayonets and marking a road through with their heels. Equipment that was vital for the destruction of the guns was missing. But the Colonel who had reorganised the parties into squads to fulfil what was to be done said "Let's go", and off we went.

At the given time they charged into the battery which was defended by about 250men and after fierce fighting the guns were reached and blown with anything that was available, by using ammunition from the guns and plastic that we carried for this purpose.

The signal was given to retire and the walking wounded to make there own way back, the dead and seriously wounded had to be left as we had to fight to get the high ground to block any roads to the rivers Orne and Canal Orne. Out of the 160men about 65men came out. The first stop was at a Monument called Calvary to re group. The Commandos who where landing on Sword Beach and doing their best to by pass opposition and get through to us thus joining us to the army. They had a difficult task and they reached the Orne river but had a long way to go to reach us, they made it in the evening, we managed to link up.

We had a lot of skirmish and aggressive patrolling to do for the rest of the day and night. At the same time some of our men were getting through to us. Fighting and dodging the Germans, we managed to get our wounded away to the Field Hospital during the night, but we could not get our dead away at that time as we had to get dug in and gun positions in place. The Canadians were the same as us, struggling out of the water and loosing a lot of equipment. They did their tasks in blowing their bridges from Carboug to Varaville. Then settled down to block all roads to Ranville and the Bridges.

The 8th Battalion was further down the river Dives near to Caen and they had to blow the bridges from Varaville to a place called Troarn then deny all roads from Caen up to Ranville, then doing the same as us, keeping the upper hand.

Mean while the fifth Brigade, had a different drop zone from us and had other tasks to do. One Battalion I believe was the 7th Battalion A Company. This Battalion had to rush post haste to help the Glider company that had stormed the Bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal. They landed at the same time as the advance parties. The rest of the Battalion supporting them to hold Germans. One of their tasks was also to blow the poles that were erected in the fields to stop Gliders landing. This they did and our Glider Brigade came in with their heavier weapons thus making a solid base on the British Flank. The Company of Gliders that attacked the Bridges was from the Oxford and Bucks under the command of Major John Howard. He had extra men from another platoon and some engineers to clear the Bridges of any explosives. This company, D Company, had six Gliders in all. They landed close to the bridges, a feat at night that's not been equaled.

Thus the Fifth Brigade had the two sides of the waterways holding Ranville on the north side and Benouville on the other side, this was the side that the heaviest fighting came from on the bridges. The landings were coming in on Sword Beach at 07.30.hrs. The Commandos and the 3rd British Division, the Commandos under Lord Lovatt a distinguished highland gentleman who had the task to by pass where possible to get to the bridges as soon as possible thus giving us a firm base with the land forces. It was reported by troops coming ashore late on that when the follow units were landing, there were shells landing on the beach and that they was coming from the Merville battery. This was later denied by the German Commanding Officer of the Gun Battery who said that there was no gun fired from his battery that day. This caused an attack to be put in by the Commandos on the Battery where they came across a member of our Battalion lying more dead than alive. It turned out to be a Pte. Mowatt who had 50 odd wounds from shrapnel in him and they brought him out and as far as I know he his alive to this day.

A few days later we where relieved by a Battalion of the Black Watch from the 51st Highland Division and we moved back around Brigade Headquarters at Le-Mesnil for a rest. While moving back we were strafed by our aeroplanes and suffered some causalities, some fatal.

We started to dig in as we were just off the front line and get some rest as we had very little since 24hrs before D-Day. It was later the next day that we were rushed back up to our old positions. The Black Watch had decided to take out Breville, a small place on the front that could cause trouble. They ran into Germans who were also putting in a attack and their B Company had a lot of causalities. We also had two troops of engineers and a company of the Canadian Battalion with us for support. I had been detailed to act as escort to Brigadier Hill of the third brigade with other men, seven in all. I carried the bren gun. He wanted to see for himself what the situation was like up there. When things settled down we returned to headquarters but left the Battalion and the other units up there. They then pulled the Black Watch out to regroup and left us up there.

The following night the strongest Battalion of the 5th Brigade 6th airborne took over to take the village that was the cause of the trouble. This Battalion was about 270 men strong which they took after fierce fighting the rest of the 5th Brigade took over from us the 3rd Brigade we moved back to the rivers for a well earned rest.

After that we moved up to the Bos-de-bavant; a wooded area of large size that covered the main road from Cherbourg to Troarn and onto Caen. This covered the north flank of the British sector. It was at this time that I rejoined the Battalion and went into 9th platoon of B company under Major George Smith, the commanding officer. It was there we stayed until we British broke out of the Beaches. When the word came to move out we set off down a track then crossed the river Dives at a mill by walking along the top of a weir onto a road that lead towards Dozulle. Instead of going on the road we took a unused railway track and left the battalion to go up the road making for a village about 5 miles away. In the village we lost a few men and during the night the Canadian Battalion passed through and got to the railway bridge,but it was blown.

That night we moved off, A Company leading then C Company then us B Company. After fording the river in line of advance still following the disused rail track the leading company reached the road that crossed the track and took up their Defence positions, no bother. Meanwhile C company passed through and took the railway station with no bother. Us being the last company we went through and our objective was a cross road about two miles down the track. The track at this time had rails, not being lifted, we had no trouble going down the track. When we got onto our objective, the Major gave me an order to take Gregory and to go back to Battalion headquarters and report that we were consolidating, that we can't get through as our wireless was not working as the batteries were wet through. So we set off and had no bother going back. First we went into C company, asking if they knew where headquarters was, they said no. So on to A company, they said they believed it was at the back of them down the road a bit. So we went down the road and found the headquarters and reported what we were told. They were pleased as they were starting to get worried. We were told to hang about, we will see if we can get some dry batteries to take back.

After a while they told us that the company had got through so we could go back. First through A company then C compan. As we left them to go down this track, I said it would be better if we went in single file as we did not know what to expect. so he followed about five yards behind walking on the outside of the track and I walked down the middle. We were still wet through from fording the river. This was about one o'clock in the morning we had covered about a half a mile when I saw movement to my left and a little in front. I whispered get down they were still coming our way, I said make up over the bank on the right hand side where there was a piece of hedge I will cover you. It was about this time I heard the voices and knew they were Germans. As I saw him crawl through the hedge I followed and as they were still coming our way I said go back towards C company, I will cover you then you cover me and we will leap frog one another.

He set off along the ditch which was on the field side from the rail track and as I looked to see where they were, they were coming closer, I opened fire with the sten gun and the flames that shot out was enough to light up the night sky. I slid down the bank into the ditch as a burst of fire came and cut through the hedge above me; it was a blessing in disguise that the ditch was there. I then threw a grenade in their direction and beat a hasty retreat to join my friend but I could not see him. Working my way back through the bomb craters I joined up with C company and asked if they had seen my partner. They said he had gone through about a quarter of a hour ago, but get off the platform as sparks were flying off it. The corporal in charge asked if I would like to give them a hand, but being a good soldier I declined and made my way back to Battalion headquarters to report, there I met my partner. The second in command told us to hang about and he would let our company know where we were.

As the light was coming in the Germans started to attack on A company so we were told to go and give them a hand as all companies were under strength and needed help if at all possible. We moved forward to the cross road where the railway crossed the road and I got into a house on the corner. It was at this time that the Germans were doing a lot of mortar fire on the position and there was some boxes of ammunition lying out side the door. I was needing a refill, as I reached out to get a box, a bomb hit the ground in front of me. I was on my knees at the time so I just ducked back but felt a blow on my hand, the thumb started to swell. It was at this time that I lost my partner. After things quieted down I went back to headquarters and I went and saw the Doctor in the first-aid post. He opened it and said I was very lucky as there was nothing but dirt in it. I asked if he had seen my partner and he said I just put him away to the field hospital. The Adjutant asked me to take some hot drinks back with me as the company had nothing all day. This being late in the afternoon we tried a different route, so I loaded his jeep with a Jerry can of tea which is about four or five gallons and a box of biscuits we set off but after about a mile we could not take the jeep any further. He said if you leave them here and get somebody to give you a hand to fetch them, but I didn't fancy to walk that distance then come back and walk back again so I struggled with them myself and managed to arrived weary but happy with the lot which was very much appreciated. I reported what had happened but our company had also lost some of our lads as well. The fifth brigade went through us so we got a good nights sleep ready for the morning.

We now set off in the morning to follow the other units as we were in reserve. We came back to the road where A company had been, now we were the lead company making along the road to Dozule the village about two miles away when we were stopped and trucks of the service corps, they came and took us back the road we had come. Then they took us off towards the coast, then dropped us off and we set off for Villers and Deauville where we crossed a small river and went along a road towards Honfleur then took a road towards Pont-Audemer on the way we had to remove some Germans from a small town called Beuzeville. We formed up at a large country house on the outskirts of the village and I noticed that the young girls who lived there were married or engaged to the German soldiers who had been stationed in that area. We moved off with the other platoon in the lead as the company had only two platoons left and they were down to eighteen men each. There are normally three platoons to a company and they consist of thirty men each.

Having got into the outskirts of the place we found that the Germans had pulled out and that the other units had taken Pont-Audemer so we stopped there and dug in but the Germans had crossed the River Seine and making for home. Now that the rest of our army was going as fast as it could to get over the river we had time to look around, it was then that I noticed that the Frenchmen were cutting off the hair of the young girls because they had gone out with the Germans. You could not blame them as they had been the only troops and young men in the areas. Two or three days after that we were transported back to Arromanches and the next day transported back to England landing at the port of Southampton then on to our camp at Bulford were we had a kit check and proceeded on leave for fourteen days. Our leave been over and reporting back to camp I found out that I had been promoted to full corporal back dated to D-Day. As our reinforcements started to arrive I was sent on a course at Warminster for senior N.C.O's but on the last week of the course we was called back to our units as the Germans had broken through the Americans in the Ardennes and we were rushed out there and used to fill a gap giving the Americans time to re-organise for their counter attack. We went to a place called Nurmur that had a river crossing that was vital we held. So we moved up to the high ground and woods and set out our defence positions. We could not dig in as the ground was rock solid there was about two feet of snow and on the edge of the wood in a ditch we made our gun positions the only way for concealment we took branches and straw and made shelters then covering with snow. The shelters were made to hold four men that let four men inside sleeping and two men in the gun position. We divided the night into three, from 4pm to 8am giving us 16hrs divided between three groups of 5 and a half hours each so you got a good rest without disturbing the others unless some thing happened.

We had standing patrols out that went about two miles down a valley and you took it in turns through the company. If you were on the day patrol you left in the dark to be there before it was day light and the other patrol could get back before day light thus keeping the positions secret.

It was very difficult to get food up from headquarters as it had to be brought up on a sledge for about two miles up the hill; when it arrived it was mostly cold, a mug of tea, a stiff sausage a noggin of butter and a pack of biscuits. Supper times were tea and a mess tin of soup and biscuits. If you did the patrols you carried your own rations plus chocolate and when you got back you went down to headquarters and got into a barn to sleep in the straw plus a ration of rum about two table spoons enough to cover the bottom of a mug.

We spent a few weeks there then started to reclaim the ground that had been lost we moved forward to take a small town I can't remember it's name but before we got within striking distance we had lost our tanks, but carried on. The leading company got in then got cut off from us so we had a desperate attack to get linked up with them. When the battle had died down and we got the chance to have a look around on the outskirts of the town we found a room in a house full of bodies that the Germans had executed for helping the allies. They were betrayed by the own people. During this time the Americans were advancing so we moved back to a village for a rest in this large barn full of straw, lovely.

It was there that our Canadian Battalion organised a competition with skis and sleds, the runs was about a mile long down a hill through a hedge and as far up the next hill a possible the winner was the one that went the farthest up the hill. The lads that won it used a piece of corrugated iron bent up at the front and held back with a piece of string beating all others the fancy ones as well.