On D-Day, Harry Jones was a lieutenant, leader of 10 Platoon, X Company, the 2KSLI. He later served in Korea, and retired with as a major. See Jones' obituary.
The narrative presented here is an excerpt of Jones' unpublished memoir, 2nd Battalion The King's Shropshire Light Infantry: D-Day, 6th June 1944 - 9 July 1944 Normandy, A Personal Account by Major (retd) H.G. Jones, MC, BA. Copies of the full account may be obtained through the Shropshire Regimental Museum.
On the morning of 4th June 1944, my Platoon, consisting of myself and thirty-six soldiers, climbed into lorries and began the long-awaited journey to the South Coast. It was a warm, sunny, day, and I was amazed at the sight of hundreds of tanks, guns, ammunition stacks and stores lining the roads, nose-to-tail. The whole countryside appeared to be one massive depot. As we approached NEWHAVEN harbour, I was again taken aback at the sight of so many landing craft all at anchor. We dismounted from the lorries at the edge of the quay, and embarked on an assault landing craft, known as Landing Ship Infantry. We were scheduled to sail that night across the English Channel to land somewhere on the French occupied coast, but due to adverse weather conditions, the landing was postponed for 24 hours. In the early evening I heard a rifle shot below decks, and, on going down to investigate found that one of my soldiers had shot off the little finger of his right hand with his own rifle. No one knew how this had happened—one could only speculate that this was a self-inflicted wound to avoid the oncoming battle. He was rushed immediately to hospital and I never saw him again. This meant that may Platoon was now a vital man short. Later that evening we vacated the landing craft and were billeted for the night in a requisitioned house on the edge of the harbour. We slept, or rather tried to sleep, on bare boards, and the conditions were primitive, to say the least.
The following day, the 5th of June 1944, the day we learned that ROME had been liberated, we re-embarked on the landing craft, carefully cleaned and oiled our weapons, double-checked our equipment and tried to catch up with some much-needed sleep. Later that evening we slipped out of NEWHAVEN harbour heading South-West. We still had no idea of our destination except that we had ascertained from previous briefings that it was somewhere on the Northern coast of France.
The night crossing was choppy, but I did manage to get a couple of hours sleep. I rolled out of my bunk the following morning at about six o clock, tried to stand up on the roiling deck, washed and shaved and swallowed a couple of anti-seasickness pills which, together with a ‘bags, vomit one', had thoughtfully been issued to us! When I went up on deck it was daylight and I could hardly believe my eyes—the Channel was filled with ships or all descriptions—battleships cruisers, destroyers, mine-sweepers and hundreds of all types of landing craft, many of them flying barrage balloons. Overhead were hundreds of aircraft all heading for the French coast—American Flying Fortress bombers, Lightning and Mustang fighters, RAF Lancaster bombers, Spitfire, Hurricane and Typhoon fighters. It was a sight I shall never forget. I remembered reading Shakespeare's "HENRY V" in school:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed,
Below deck again, I opened a sealed envelope and took out the map of the coastal area in northern France upon which we were to land. It was in NORMANDY, and the beach were to assault was code-named SWORD, the most easterly of all the landing beaches, and therefore closest to the main German Tank Divisions. Our sector of SWORD beach was QUEEN beach, with the French town of HERMANVILLE a mile or two inland. 3rd British Infantry Division's objectives ran from the coast to CAEN. As we approached the coast, the air was filled with the sounds of intense bombardment, 16-inch shells from the battleships sounding like express trains roaring overhead, shells from close-in destroyers including HMS AJAX famous for the crippling of the ‘Graf Spee’, multi-launched rockets fired from landing craft, and the thunder of bombs from heavy bomber aircraft. There were also the sounds and sights of exploding enemy shells and mortar bombs all around us. My feelings at this point were that first and foremost I wanted to get off the ship and feel terra firma beneath my feet again I had no conscious fears about the inevitable battle to come—my main anxiety was that the Germans may have poured oil onto the sea and and would set it alight. The thought that I might end up like so many fighter pilots with badly burned scarred faces really did worry me. Thank God this did not happen. As we got closer to the beach a landing craft carrying tanks, which was following close behind received a direct hit from a German shell. The ship burst into flames and began to sink. There was nothing we could do to help the crew diving over the side of the blazing ship to escape the flames and exploding ammunition. Our landing craft ground to a halt on the sloping sandy beach, and I gave orders to my Platoon to disembark. The beach by this time was covered with knocked out vehicles personal equipment and some dead bodies. The time was ten minuses past ten o'clock, the 6th of June 1944. The sea was still choppy, the waves rising above four feet high. We had been issued with waterproof trousers which, at the time, we thought was a good idea, but when I leapt off the landing craft, being only five feet and a half tall, the tide swamped my trousers and I had one hell of a struggle to get to the waterline. I waddled on to the wet sands, and my first action on Fortress Europe was not to fight German soldiers but tear off those blasted trousers! My battle-dress trousers, underpants, socks and boots were thoroughly soaked. About one hundred yards ahead of me there was a knocked-out tank. I made for its shelter and grouped around me my small HQ of three soldiers. German shells and mortar bombs were still exploding all along the beach. Overhead, RAF fighters continued to strafe targets close inland. I checked that all the men of my Platoon were safely ashore, and then gave the order to move South in the direction of CAEN.
We passed through the village of La Breche and after an advance of about a mile, were soon in the town of HERMANVILLE. As we marched in single file, with a gap of five yards between each man, French people came out of doors to welcome us, some shouting "Vive les Anglais", to which I replied in my best Churchillian French "C'est la Liberation". One sight I shall never forget was that of the town's chief fireman in full regalia, wearing his large bright-brass helmet, rushing down the road to give me a great big hug!
I was suddenly surprised to see my Battalion Commanding Officer walking alongside me. He asked me how I was and I replied "Fine, thank you Sir". He then asked why I did not duck when enemy shells were continuously screaming over our heads. I replied that I had been a schoolboy in Swansea, South Wales, when the town was savagely blitzed for three days and three nights, and I said that I reckoned I knew which of the bombs, and now shells, were meant for me. He then dropped back to rejoin his HQ.
We reached the southern perimeter of Hermanville, and I turned into an orchard, with my Platoon, on the left-hand side of the road, where we hurriedly dug shallow slit trenches with our entrenching-tools, folding lightweight spades, to prevent casualties from enemy shell-fire. On previous briefings, we had been informed that Sherman tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry would join us in this Assembly Area, and the plan was that we should ride on these tanks and attempt to capture CAEN on D-Day. Unfortunately, the tanks had great difficulty getting off the very congested beaches, and some were knocked out by German 88mm anti-tank guns firing from a ridge about 800 yards to the south of us. This ridge became well known as PERIERS RIDGE. Enemy small arms and machine-gun fire was also coming at us from the direction of the ridge, but we still waited impatiently for the arrival of the Staffords' tanks. After what seemed an eternity, I received orders for my Platoon to move forward on foot without the Staffords. I must admit that the adrenalin was flowing, and I was keen to get in amongst the enemy on the ridge. The time was approximately 1230 hours. As we made our way up the road leading to the ridge, I heard a rustling sound coming from the tall, standing corn on my left, on the other side of a bank. Rather stupidly I stood up on top of the bank, with bullets flying all around, and was a little shocked to see a German soldier advancing towards me with his automatic pistol aimed in my direction. I fired a couple of shots at him with my revolver—they all missed! So much for the intensive weapon training I had undertaken in England!—it still does not cater for nervousness and tension in battle conditions. Fortunately, he threw down his weapon, raised his hands above his head and walked towards me. We lay in a ditch together to escape the bullets passing overhead, and I relieved him of his Record of Service booklet. I then pointed to the town behind me and ordered him to "Marsch Schnell", "Go quickly", and as he left he appeared to be quite happy to be my first prisoner-of-war. We continued our advance up the road when I was sickened to see one of my corporals lying still on the side of the road, shot through the head. He died instantly. He and I had served together for nearly two years and as a young, inexperienced officer I valued him as someone I could lean upon for advice, loyalty and friendship. (I was then 21 years of age). As we got near the top of the ridge, the Germans unexpectedly withdrew. I could see them, about 500 yards away, rapidly flinging themselves into the backs of lorries which had been parked on the other side of the ridge. I grabbed a Bren machine-gun, and liberally sprayed the vehicles as they rapidly drove off southwards. I rushed into a bunker which had just been vacated by the German soldiers, and was relieved to find that it was no longer occupied. The first thing I noticed was the very strong, acrid smell of German tobacco. The time was 1430 hours.
Our next objective was the village of BEUVILLE, and I was ordered to attack the village down the eastern side. This was typical 'bocage' country—thick hedgerows, high banks, and woods in which it was extremely difficult to locate the enemy. As we moved down the forward-facing slope of one of the fields, shots came from our front and two of my soldiers were wounded. Unable to pinpoint the enemy, I decided to return to the main road and attack down the road leading into the village. I called up my Company Commander on the radio to advise him of my whereabouts, and he informed me he was 'holed-up' by snipers, behind a wall just inside the village, and would I please get him out! I zig-zagged down the road with two of my men and they threw smoke grenades to cover the escape of the Major. As we rushed back to the Platoon, a sniper, whom I suspected was in the belfry of the village church, fired one shot and the soldier on my right was hit in the head. Within a second or two, the soldier on my left was also hit. To this day, I still cannot understand why I was not selected by the sniper as a target.
I had just rejoined my Platoon, when a self-propelled vehicle mounting a 105mm artillery gun, drove up alongside me. I rushed over to the commander of the vehicle and told him that there was a sniper in the church belfry holding up our advance, and would he be so kind as to do something about it! In a few seconds a shell smashed into the belfry and the bells suddenly rang out like the sounds of the bells in the 'Hunchback of Notre Dame'! The sniper, I feared, suffered from more than just deafness! I advanced into the village hugging a wall on the right hand side of the road. In front of me was a Major from another Company, and in front of him a private soldier. Suddenly there was an almighty bang and a puff of smoke rose about three yards in front of me. A German soldier had crept down the other side of the wall, out of sight, and lobbed a 'stick' grenade over the wall. The grenade landed between the legs of the soldier in front and he died instantly. The Major was wounded in the arm, so I rushed him across the road into a house where I sat him down on the floor, and called for a stretcher-bearer. I then rejoined my Platoon and as we continued down the road through the village. We were continually sniped at, but fortunately suffered no further casualties.
The village of BIEVILLE a mile or two ahead was our next objective. On the western outskirts of the village my Company Commander was giving orders to myself and the two other Lieutenants for the next phase of the advance on CAEN, now only two miles ahead of us. As we were studying our maps there was one hell of an explosion, and a German shell landed a few feet from us. Fortunately no one was wounded. As I looked toward the enemy I could not believe my eyes. There, advancing round the corner of a wood about five hundred yards away, were five or six German tanks! We hurriedly dispersed and I returned to my Platoon. Later that evening I found it hard to believe that despite all the training we had received in the UK, including a drill to keep well spread out at Company 'Orders Groups', here we were, closely grouped together and presenting an easy target.
I could still hear the sound of German tanks firing and was relieved to hear the sound of our own anti-tank guns and those of the Staffs Yeomanry tanks. Next I heard the sound of enemy tanks rumbling northwards on our right towards the Channel coast. My immediate thought was that this was a major counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division and that we were going to be cut off from the rest of the Battalion. At least four German tanks had been knocked out, and this was to be the only German armoured counter-attack during the whole of D-Day throughout the entire length and breadth of Normandy The time was about 1615 hours.
"Once over the Orne River, I drove North towards the coast. By this time the enemy, consisting of 3rd British and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions, had made astonishing progress and had already occupied a strip of high ground about ten kilometres from the sea. From here the excellent anti-tank fire of the Allies knocked out eleven of my tanks before I had barely started." (General Feuchtinger, Commander 21st Panzer Division).
Little did I know that Field Marshal Rommel had said, on hearing of the invasion, "My God, if the 21st Panzer Division can make it, we might just be able to drive them (the invasion forces) back.”
The village of BIEVILLE was captured, and I deployed my Platoon on the forward edge of the village, with a deep German anti-tank ditch between us and a feature on an opposite ridge known as LEBISEY WOOD. Later in the afternoon another KSLI Rifle Company attacked the Wood but were driven back with heavy losses, including the death of the Company commander, The Battalion Commanding Officer apparently decided it would be foolhardy to attempt another attack on the wood because of the stiff resistance of the newly arrived infantry of 21st Panzer Division, and the threat of German tanks to our West and rear. Later I was informed that the Panzers had advanced to within a short distance of the Channel coast, and had driven a wedge between our Division and the Canadian Division. This penetration was to prove a serious threat to the landings on the British and Canadian sectors in the next couple of days.
During a lull in the battle, I walked down a track alongside a farmhouse to check the layout of my Platoon positions, and saw one of our knocked-out anti-tank guns. Alongside the gun, lying on the track with its hand pointing toward the sky, was an arm severed just above the elbow. I had an irresistible urge to pick up the arm and shake the hand of the sergeant with whom, as it transpired, I had trained and got to know well. Had I done so, I think I would gone round the bend and become another shell-shocked statistic. As I walked past the farmhouse I noticed an attractive French woman in the garden, whose acquaintance I was to make during the next day or two. She had very bravely attended to our wounded and dying during the tank battle, and was, as I was to learn later, a trained nurse.
Within sight of the enemy consolidating in LEBISEY WOOD, we dug deep slit-trenches, about two feet wide, six feet long and six feet deep. We were completely overlooked, especially by a high water tower which was obviously a German artillery observation post. I deployed my Platoon in a defensive position, and thought of the night to come probably to be counter-attacked by tanks and infantry and almost certainly to be shelled and mortared. Fortunately, I think the Germans had had enough for one day and the attack did not materialise. Cornelius Ryan entitled his account of the D-Day landings 'The Longest Day'—what he omitted to include was the longest night!—which seemed endless, with very little sleep for anyone on either side.
"The main body of 185 Brigade was moving on CAEN. The 2nd Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry, with a squadron of tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, were in BEUVILLE and BIEVILLE. It must be said that the KSLI seemed to have had a real sense of the need to thrust forward on D-Day" (Brigadier Peter Young, Military Historian, "D-DAY").
As night closed around us, I thought of my soldiers who had been killed and wounded, and wondered if the night would bring further casualties. I heated up a tin of soup, part of the 24-hour ration pack we had brought ashore with us, which consisted of cubes of meat, biscuits, oatmeal, chocolates, tea, sugar, sweets, and, as a nice after-thought, toilet paper; plus a small 'Tommy' cooker and fuel tablets. I then went round the Platoon slit trenches, encouraging the men, telling those on guard to keep a special vigil throughout the long night which lay ahead. I then returned to my own slit trench and hoped that I would get some sleep to strengthen me for another long day ahead.
What were the gains made by the KSLI on D-Day? First, we had gained a firm foothold in occupied France. Secondly, we had advanced further inland than any other ground troops, including the Canadians and the Americans. We had pushed five miles inland from the coast, and were, at one point, less than three miles from CAEN. Finally, we had, with the Staffords, successfully beaten off the only German armoured counter-attack in the whole of Normandy.
What were our losses? Unfortunately, two officers had been killed and four wounded. One hundred and seven soldiers of the Battalion, of all ranks, had either been killed or wounded.
Territorially, the city of CAEN was still in German hands, and was to remain in their hands until the 8th of July 1944.
There was a dangerous gap, down to the Channel coast, between our Division, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on our right.
When you've landed on the beaches,
On the morning of the 7th June I was awakened just before first light by one of my soldiers. I lay on my back for a few minutes looking up at the stars through the rectangular hole which was the top of my slit-trench, recalling the events of the previous day, thankful that I had come through the ordeal safely. Shaking the dirt from my uniform, in which I had slept fully clothed complete with boots on, I climbed out of my slit-trench and went round every trench occupied by the soldiers of my Platoon. They too had a fitful night’s sleep but were generally in good spirits. The whole Platoon ‘stood to’, that is they stood up in their slit-trenches with their weapons held in the firing position, waiting to counter any attack. Unexpectedly, nothing happened for quite a long time and we were able to cook up a quick breakfast. My first breakfast on French soil consisted of oatmeal porridge blocks, biscuits, and a welcome cup of hot tea. We spent the rest of the time improving the safety of our slit-trenches, washing where possible, cleaning and testing our weapons. Just before mid-morning there were sounds of heavy fighting on our left, with continuous rifle, light and heavy machine gun fire, and we immediately stood to again. My appreciation was that the Germans were counter-attacking our left flank, but that the main attack, led by tanks, would come against our right flank around the Western edge of LEBISEY WOOD. The battle went on until about midday when there was a lull in the fighting. Then later in the afternoon there was a heavy artillery barrage from our own artillery and the sounds of battle started up again. We concentrated our attention on our right flank but again, mysteriously, there was no attack, although we received sporadic shelling and mortar fire. There was obviously very heavy fighting taking place on our left, but in the early evening everything became peaceful and the sound of battle subsided. That evening we managed to prepare a 'meal', and 'stood-to' again at dusk. I felt that the suspected German attack on our left flank had failed and that the enemy would put in a night attack on our Position. It was not until the following morning that I learned that the attacks on our left had been put in by battalions of Warwicks and Norfolks on to LEBISEY WOOD, but they had failed to take their objective. Information on the course of the fighting was, every day, passed down to myself and my two fellow officers by the Company Commander through what was termed an ‘O’ Group, or Orders Group. This information was then, in turn, passed down to the soldiers in my Platoon.
For the next couple of days life became one almost of routine. The Platoon would ‘stand-to’ in the morning, be subjected to shelling and mortaring during the day, followed by ‘stand-to’ at night. We still expected a strong counter-attack to be launched, but noticed that the sounds of a major battle had switched from our left to our far right. On one of our daily ‘O’ Groups we were informed that the dangerous gap that had separated our division from the Canadian Division on our right had been closed, which was comforting news. The skies were filled continually by our own fighter aircraft and there was little intervention by enemy aircraft except upon one occasion when four medium bombers flew down to the coast, and on their way back were attacked by Spitfires. One aircraft was shot down in a small wood to the West of LEBISEY WOOD. This wood became known as SQUARE WOOD and was to play an important, if not notorious, part in the weeks to come.
On the 10th June were we relieved by the 2nd Battallon the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. After briefing the officer to whom I handed over my Platoon position, we marched back down the road from BIEVILLE to BEUVILLE. There stood the church in BEUVILLE, the shell-hole still visible in the belfry tower. We took over positions vacated by the Royal Warwicks, and hoped for our first peaceful night. Far from it!
Although we were supposed to be ‘out of the line’ we were only two miles North of LEBISEY WOOD, well within range of enemy shelling and mortar fire—which they used to full advantage. The next couple of days were spent in getting ourselves and our clothing cleaned up. We were pleased when our large packs, which we had carefully packed in the UK, arrived at our position, and we were able to wear clean socks and underpants for the first time in over a week. By day we strengthened the defences on our right flank in expectancy of a renewed German tank attack aimed at again driving a wedge between ourselves and the Canadian Division. There was another unexpected cause for concern; German snipers, fully camouflaged, infiltrated our forward positions, and, knowing the area very well from the days of their occupation, would climb trees with heavy foliage, lash themselves to a firm bough and proceed to fire on any unwary soldier who might be wandering about. To counter this threat we would from time to time rake the trees with rifle and machine-gun fire, with occasional success.
One evening, taking rather a risk, I walked down to the centre of the village, which was in darkness with not a soul in sight, to the village cafe. There I quaffed a glass or two of red wine, and was just beginning to feel relaxed, when the Germans decided to spoil my evening and shelled the village. I grabbed the French waitress, raced down to the cellar and flung myself and her under a heavy table. The next thing I knew, I was laying on top of her—to save her from injury of course! - when I thought to myself "What a way to go!". Outside, the darkness was shattered by the bursting of shells, and the glare from houses on fire. The shelling eventually ceased and we made our way back to the bar. Fortunately the cafe had not been hit, and the proprietor celebrated our escape by giving those who were left a large glass of Calvados brandy. I had never tasted it before, and when I did I thought it would burn the roof off my mouth!
My other memory of my first 'out-of-the-line' visit to BEUVILLE was the number of dead cattle strewn around the area, their bellies bloated and their legs sticking straight up in the air. Occasionally, the bellies 'exploded' and the air was filled with a terrible stench that seemed to hang around for days.
On one occasion when there was a lull in shelling, I made my way to the village school-house which was deserted, and wrote my first letter home on the 11th June. I had just finished writing when I heard the sound of a fighter-bomber flying low overhead. The enemy pilot fired a couple of cannon shells into the area, but none hit the school. What with the stench of dead cattle, the risk of sniper fire, and strafing from the air, it was almost a relief to get back to our forward positions at BIEVILLE!
I suppose the events of the last week or two have somewhat shaken you, and I
am sorry that I could not have given you some indication of what was
transpiring. If you have seen the film "Next of Kin" you will perhaps
forgive my silence and realise it was of the utmost importance that strict
secrecy was kept about this operation.
The first reinforcements arrived from the UK on about the 16th June to replace the dead and wounded in my Platoon. My initial reaction was one of slight shock. I and my Platoon had trained together for nearly two years, and I knew the family backgrounds and the characters of my soldiers in some detail. Suddenly on the scene appeared soldiers whom I had never seen before, and whose standards of training, proficiency at arms, and family backgrounds were completely unknown to me. This information had to be gleaned from each soldier under battlefield conditions, i.e., in a slit-trench! The integration of reinforcements into platoons was an aspect of war that had never been practised.
On 17th June, we re-trod the road from BEUVILLE to BIEVILLE to relieve the Royal Warwicks. We reoccupied the same old slit-trenches, and made preparations for the expected German counter-attack. There was the sound of heavy fighting to the West, and this probably diverted attention from our location, although at the same time the enemy continued to bombard us with shells and mortar bombs. With devilish ingenuity they had fitted a type of siren to the tails of their mortar bombs causing an eerie moaning sound when flying through the air they became known as 'Moaning Minnies'. At night the sound was nerve-wracking.
This second period at BIEVILLE was conspicuous for the use of night-fighting patrols consisting of myself and a varying number of my soldiers. Our main objective was SQUARE WOOD on the West of LEBISEY WOOD. The aim of the patrol was to move silently to the Wood after darkness, to lie in scrapes in the ground all night, carrying out periodic forays into the Wood itself. Hopefully we would not be 'bounced' by one of their patrols, or be subjected to ground and/or air-burst shell fire.
On one occasion I was leading part of the patrol through the Wood when we were attacked by a German patrol. Rifle and machine-gun fire was exchanged, but the enemy turned tail and fled, leaving one of their comrades dead on the ground. I removed his badges of rank, and the identification of his Regiment, together with his .38 Walther pistol. My soldiers also collected some ammunition cartridges. On returning from the patrol early the following morning, I reported to Battalion HQ and was debriefed by the Battalion Intelligence Officer. I handed over the items taken from the dead German, except for the pistol; to the victor the spoils!
A couple of days later I was surprised to be informed that I was to report to Brigade HQ. I thought "What the hell have I done wrong now?" I was driven to Brigade HQ and, on arrival, was taken to see the Brigadier, who immediately put me at my ease and asked what life was like in the front line. He then questioned me about the night-fighting patrols I had carried out, and particularly the most recent one to SQUARE WOOD. I related what had taken place, and he said that he was very impressed with the conduct of my soldiers on the patrol. He also informed me that the dead German soldier had been identified as having been a member of the 21st Panzer-Grenadier Regiment, a crack infantry Regiment. This was apparently the first time that a positive identification had been made of the German infantry facing us. I was also impressed that a senior officer should take the time during a battle to congratulate one of his junior officers.
A little later I wrote:
Lying in a filthy trench,
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am very pleased to say that I have received another letter from you dated
14th June in which you realise that I am somewhere in France!
We here in France think not of war,
Just another quick note to let you know that I am still in the very best of
health, and, at the moment, indulging in a spot of rest back at the old
farmhouse. I hope that you too are best of spirits and not dealing too much
on the Black Market!
The period 21st to 26th June was again spent at BEUVILLE following much the same routine. One incident that rather changed the monotony was that one day I was standing by some houses in the village when I saw two soldiers who were not combatant soldiers emerging from a French house carrying a couple of trinkets, including a small silver model of the Eiffel Tower. I stopped them and asked what they were doing in the village, to which I received no convincing reply. I then called for the Battalion Regimental Police, and they escorted the men back to Battalion HQ. Some time later, I was ordered to attend a Field General Court Martial in Bayeux, passing through the mass of armour, artillery positions, stores and equipment until I arrived at the ancient city and was directed to the Court Martial Centre. Here I saw for the first time since the incident the two soldiers who had since been charged with looting. In the witness box, under cross-examination, I felt as though it was I who had committed a crime, and was relieved to leave the Court and return to 'the war'!
Back with my Platoon my thoughts returned to the past couple of weeks and I wrote:
TO THE FALLEN OF 10 PLATOON
On the 26th June we once again returned to BIEVILLE. The routine was much the same—repairing the defences, ‘standing-to’ at dusk and dawn, evacuating soldiers killed and wounded by the continuous shelling and mortaring, and existing day after day in the same dirty, uncomfortable slit-trench. One day I was preparing lunch in my trench—there was no question of doing it outside—and had planned to have heated-up tinned bully beef and peas. I had just opened the can of peas, when a large calibre enemy shell landed, without any warning, right on the lip of my trench. Everything shook, and the noise was deafening. The result was that the opened can of peas resting on a shelf behind me was blown over, and the contents poured down the back of my neck and over my shirt and battle-dress. I had not, up to that moment, felt any animosity toward the enemy, but after the shelling, both by guns and peas, I felt a temporary moment of dislike for ‘le sale Boche’!
One unforgettable, very unpleasant experience occurred during the night of, I believe, the 23rd June. I was asleep when I heard sounds of machine-gun fire. I struggled out of my trench to be told by one of my soldiers that one of my brother officers had been wounded. I rushed out into the pitch darkness to where he lay, and having ascertained that he had been hit by machine-gun bullets across his groin and was bleeding heavily, I injected him with a capsule of, I believe, morphine. I organised stretcher-bearers to take him as quickly as possible to the battalion Aid Post at BEUVILLE. He was alive when he left my platoon position. With nothing further that I could do, I returned to my trench. At 'stand-to' in the morning, I was informed that he had died shortly after leaving me.
He and I joined the Battalion at about the same time, and both being Welsh and great Welsh rugby union fans, we had immediately formed a close friendship. He was always bubbling over with enthusiasm and laughter, and was well liked and respected by his men. His death was a great shock to me, and I thought of his parents back home in South Wales. Many years later I revisited Normandy, and stood at his graveside in the military cemetery in HERMANVILLE. Every year the villagers paid homage to the fallen by visiting the graves on the anniversary of the 6th June 1944, and the local school children laid a rose on every one of the graves.
One afternoon, a few days later, I was alerted by the sound of people moving in the open ground between my position and SQUARE WOOD. When I rushed to the edge of the Platoon position, I could not believe what I saw. Advancing towards us was a body of men whom I could only take to be the enemy. But surely they would not attack on a summer's afternoon over open ground without artillery support! I had already alerted the platoon to take up defensive positions, when one of the platoon shouted "Sir, it is number 11 Platoon"—one of the other platoons in our Company. The men staggered into my platoon area and I asked the sergeant what on earth had happened. He replied that the Platoon had occupied Square Wood the night before and then the Germans had fired air-burst shells onto the Wood. The Officer, apparently the only casualty, had been badly wounded. The sergeant had decided, or had been ordered by the officer, to vacate the wood and return to his own lines. One medical orderly had been left with the officer. I immediately informed my Company Commander of the bad news and he came up to discuss the situation with me. I suggested that I should go out with two stretcher bearers and bring the officer back. This was considered to be too dangerous in broad daylight. I then suggested that a medical jeep with a stretcher lashed to the canopy be sent up to my position and I, knowing the Wood so well, should accompany the driver. Again the suggestion was turned down. At this time, of course, we did not know how badly the officer had been wounded. To my dismay, I was told the following day that he had died in the Wood. He and I had trained together for over two years, and become very good friends. He had an extremely pleasant personality, with an infectious laugh, and he was well respected and liked by his soldiers.
I now felt depressed, and not a little foreboding crept over me. Night patrolling still continued, and with the loss of my two friends, I wondered why officers were still being ordered to take out fighting patrols when they could equally have been commanded by senior NCOs.
The period from the 26th June until the 6th July was spent out of the line at BEUVILLE, and holding the front at BIEVILLE. One evening I was leading a fighting patrol to SQUARE WOOD, when enemy mortar bombs were heard flying over our heads, and were observed by the flashes in the night sky to land somewhere in the region of BEUVILLE in which Battalion HQ was located. On returning to base the following morning, I was distressed to hear that one of, the fatal casualties of the previous night's bombardment was the Battalion Commander. He had been an excellent commander, respected and liked by the whole Battalion, and his loss was felt by all ranks.
On the 7th July we were briefed that the attack on CAEN would take place in the early hours of the 8th July—the following morning. I was ordered to attack, possibly capture, and to hold and important cross-roads on the western end of SQUARE WOOD, through which the Division on our right would attack to the west of CAEN. In the evening of the 7th July, as we were preparing to move to SQUARE WOOD, there was the sound of the droning of heavy bombers approaching from the Channel. Looking up into the sky I was amazed to see wave after wave of bombers flying fairly low heading in the direction of CAEN. A short while later there was the thunderous roar of tons of bombs falling on the city. The noise was indescribable. Suddenly the sky was overcast and a vast white cloud was blown from the city toward our position. This dense cloud, made up of rubble, debris, and other unmentionable objects from the stricken city, suddenly enveloped us, and we were unable to see more than about five yards. After some time the cloud, blown by a wind from the South, eventually passed over us toward the English Channel.
As soon as dusk had fallen, I led my platoon, with some trepidation, to SQUARE WOOD. We encountered no opposition from the Wood itself, but as soon as we were clear of it we came under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire from the wooded cross-roads, our objective. It "as a pitch-black night and almost impossible to pick out any recognisable features. One could only locate targets by the flashes of enemy weapons. The operation was further complicated by the nature of the Normandy 'bocage' countryside—thick over-grown hedgerows, deep, narrow country lanes, and clumps of trees. That night we attacked three or four machine-gun posts, and, although there was silence from them for some time afterwards, we could not be sure that we had completely knocked them out. The remainder of the night was spent in probing their positions, with the occasional crossfire breaking the silence, and from the enemy a barrage of hand grenades. At one point I took the Bren machine-gun from the gunner, and, stupidly standing up, I fired bursts of machine-gun fire into the enemy positions, at the same time firing words of abuse in German at the enemy, challenging then to "come out and fight". Thankfully, the challenge was not accepted! At sunrise we covered the cross-roads with fire, but even in daylight it was almost impossible to locate the enemy positions which were well camouflaged and well dug-in.
Suddenly, a German soldier, hands raised in the air in surrender, walked to our scrapes in the ground which had stood in for properly dug trenches. My sergeant went towards him to search him, and to our horror, the German suddenly produced a hand-grenade and threw it at the sergeant. Fortunately it missed and exploded harmlessly a few feet away from any of my men. The immediate impulse of some of my soldiers was to shoot the German but I ordered them not to shoot, although I must confess my immediate reaction was much the same as theirs. (It is understandable in the heat of battle to lose one's sense of morality, and vent one's spleen on the enemy. However, one realises that, in the future, one must live with one's conscience.) I told one of my toughest soldiers to fix his bayonet and force the German to advance with us to the battle for CAEN, since he was a threat to any of our own troops in the vicinity. He 'accompanied' us as far as LEBISEY WOOD and there we handed him over to troops returning to the beachhead.
At about 0430 hours on the 8th July 1944 the battle for CAEN began with a massive artillery bombardment on LEBISEY WOOD. The wood itself and the hill on which it stood seemed to rise physically feet into the air. The noise of the shelling was horrendous, and I wondered how anyone could possibly survive such a bombardment. I and my platoon stayed covering the crossroads, wondering when the Division which was to advance through the crossroads on their way to the West of CAEN would arrive. It was an unpleasant situation. The Division probably did not know exactly where we were, nor even if we were there at all, and I wondered whether they might mistake us for the enemy. When their forward troops appeared on the skyline behind us, advancing in our direction, I stood up and waved my arms in the direction of the crossroads. They must have understood, because they did not fire in our direction.
To avoid any casualties, I withdrew my platoon from the area, and we advanced in open formation across the fields back to LEBISEY WOOD. On the way we were shelled by German 88mm anti-aircraft artillery, firing in the ground role. The 88mm was an extremely accurate weapon, and luckily none of my men sustained any injuries. We moved up to through, LEBISEY WOOD. The scene was one of utter devastation. The ground was cratered with innumerable shell holes, and the trees looked like those of the scarred and shattered woods in the First World War. There were mangled bodies lying around, and I remembered looking at a pair of German army boots with the feet separated from the rest of the body. On my right rose the dreaded water tower, still intact although looking rather battle-scarred!
It was some time in the afternoon that we emerged from the Wood, and pressed on over the open ground to a small hill marked on the map as Point 64. As we advanced to the hill we came under intense ground and air-burst shelling. There was no cover to escape the deadly effects of the air-bursts, and as I was urging my platoon forward toward CAEN now only a mile or two away, I felt a dull thud in my left arm just below the elbow. I looked down and saw blood oozing through battle-dress tunic. There was a knocked-out tank on the side of the road, so I crawled underneath it to assess the damage to my arm. A couple of seconds later one of my soldiers threw himself under the tank alongside myself, and enquired if I was all right. Before could reply, a shell landed alongside us, and he was hit in the buttocks by a piece of shrapnel. He was in pain, and my arm was becoming useless, so I helped him to the side of the road and managed to obtain a lift in an army vehicle leaving the battlefield. We made our way to the Regimental Aid Post where I met our friendly doctor who examined me and the soldier, and told me I would be evacuated to Field Hospital situated near the coast. I was slightly surprised because I thought that the shrapnel could be quickly removed from arm, and I could return to my platoon. We were transferred to the tented hospital, and as we topped the rise just to the North of BEUVILLE, I could see the guns of the Royal Artillery pouring round after round into the CAEN area; tanks moving South to join the battle, and, off the beaches, all types of landing craft, some crippled, others moving up supplies etc to the beach-head, protect overhead by barrage balloons.
On arriving at the Field Hospital, my wound was cleaned and a new dressing applied. I then collapsed onto a camp bed and fell fast asleep. I had not appreciated that I was still suffering from shock and lack of sleep and exhaustion after the past 48 hours. When I awoke I was informed that I was to be returned to England—I just could not believe my ears! I was put on a DUKW—a small amphibious vehicle—and we sailed through beach obstacles now rendered safe, and sunken landing craft. Looking ahead I was amazed to see a hospital ship to which we were making our way. I had expected to be transferred to England on some type of landing craft, but this was absolute luxury! Once on board I went to the Ward Room where, sitting around a table were about a half-dozen nursing staff. I then sat down to the only decent meal I had had in over a month— roast chicken, roast potatoes, fresh peas and a sweet. After the meal I went on deck just as the ship was weighing anchor. I watched the Normandy coast slowly slipping away, and thought of the Battalion, and especially my platoon who by this time had helped successfully to capture CAEN.
My battle for NORMANDY was over.