Interview by Peter John, November 1999.
Bookmarks The landing: 1 / The landing: 2 / Lebisey ridge / Wounded / D-Day night / Sgt-Maj. Roberts / Memories / Armored action / KSLI officers / Leading from front / Regulars and Territorials / Trust / Civilians / Plan to take Caen / "It was a terrible business..."
Norman Millward. Photos by Chuck Solomon, 2000.
Q: What do you remember of the landing itself?
Mr. Millward: It was a muck-up. We should have landed on 5 June, but we were delayed. A lot of people got killed on the beaches. We fought our way inland, and the 2/KSLI had nearly reached the position they should have done by 9 o’clock at night. The thing which had stopped us was our tanks: they had got snarled up on the beach....
Q: The Staffs Yeomanry?
Mr. Millward: Yes, without them we couldn’t go any further, and across the top of Lebisey Ridge was a line of kind of concrete turrets. We couldn’t get past these without the tanks, so we had to retreat a little bit down. We stayed down there doing patrols, fighting patrols, all that sort of thing, to keep the Jerry occupied.
There was the Norfolks and the Warwicks with us in 185 Brigade: they lined them up, lined them up under fire, and marched them forward [on 7 June]. Around midnight all hell broke loose: they came back cut to pieces. They were crying, didn’t know what to do, where to go, we had to stop them going back to the beaches. Eventually the powers that be got them all under control, but I think a lot of men had to be sent back to England and be replaced.
Eventually we did take Lebisey Ridge, but by that time I was back here in Nottingham Hospital with bits of shrapnel in my [left] leg from an airburst. I spent two months in England while the war was still on, and next time I went out I went up into Holland straight away. That wasn’t exactly cushy, but it was easier than it had been in Normandy. You’d be going forward, then dig in for the night, but by the morning Jerry could be anything up to 50 miles away.
Q: Where were you when you were wounded?
Mr. Millward: I was at the bottom of the Lebisey Ridge: it was one of those that used to come over, an airburst.
Mr. Duddell: You could always tell them, they used to burst in a big cloud of black smoke.
Mr. Millward: They used to fire them to burst above the trees, and you never knew whether they’d hit you.
Q: When you came off the landing craft, how far off the beach were you?
Mr. Millward: We had these big trousers that came up to our chests: as soon as the ramp on the landing-craft came down, two sailors jumped out with ropes, one on either side, and made for the beach. They pulled on the ropes to hold them tight, to help those who couldn’t swim—they could go along the ropes hand-over-hand. But then, the swell on the water was filling up the waders straight away, and men were being dragged under—we lost a lot like that. You just imagine the weight of those waders, full of water up to your chest: you not only had the weight of that, you had all the other equipment. There was panic if they couldn’t swim.
And then there were the big guns behind of us, when they started up they were firing broadsides, and of course the recoil from the guns made the ships move up and down in the water, and this made the swell much bigger. When the shells left the guns, the battleships went up in the water, and took about two or three minutes before they settled down again steady enough to aim and fire.
We had orders not to try and save anybody, and anyway, we didn’t have time. I was all right, because I could swim.
I reckon the man who was the bravest man I’ve ever seen—I don’t know if he was a Company Sergeant-Major or what, he was a Scotsman, he had an Alsatian dog. Well, he was patrolling up and down the beach, and he was shouting (in Army language!), “Come on, get inland!”. He never ducked down when anything came over, him and his dog, never ducked down at all. I don’t think I can tell you any more.
Q: After you got off the beach, your assembly-place was in an orchard?
Mr. Millward: Yes, it was.
Q: You were waiting for the tanks, which never came, then Col. Maurice decided that that you should head off without them?
Mr. Millward: Yes. We went off up the road, it seemed to go up and up. We passed this big chateau, and went on towards the Lebisey Ridge.
After we’d got dug in, one of those big German guns that look like a tank without the top of the tank—a self-propelled gun, that’s right—well, it came towards where we were, and it didn’t seem as if he knew we were there.
The order came out to everyone, “Let it go, let it go through”, we weren’t to touch it at all. One of our young soldiers who was on guard, he can’t have heard, and he just got up, and put his hand up to say “Stop!”. Well, you can imagine. Jerry just opened up on him, and that was the end of him.
About 9 o’clock that night, we could see all these planes coming over, gliders and all, Jerry was having a good go at them, they were easy targets. They were the airborne lot coming to reinforce the Paras.
Q: Your old CSM tells me he remembers that, too. What do you remember about CSM Roberts?
Mr. Millward: If he told you to do a thing he expected it to be done, and if you didn’t do it you were for trouble! You’d be on guard, or on ‘jankers’. He had to be like that. But if we were under fire, well, he was like a father to us. “Go on lads, get your heads down.”
We had one lad in my section, he just got up when we were on Lebisey Ridge, with a Sten gun in his hand, and said to us “No one is going any further.” Well, we tried to coax him out of it, but he meant it. So while we kept him talking, a couple of the chaps worked round behind him, either side, and just jumped on him. That was the only way we could have stopped him—he’d have let fly at us otherwise. Well, he was taken away a bit quick, and we never saw him again. He’d just gone up here [taps head]. We had a few like that.
One of the things I remember is when we were going forward we’d have to be careful for mines. If you stepped on one and were quick, you might hear a click: if you heard that you dared not move, because if you moved your foot the thing would go off and split you right up the leg. So you shout to somebody, and they could put their bayonet on the mine and hold it down while you took your foot away, and the man who was holding it down would shout “Drop!” then let go of his rifle. If you’d got down quick enough you were all right, because the blast would just go straight up. The Germans were terrors at attaching things to mines—they’d even tie them to the tails of dogs and cats. They trapped everything.
Another thing I remember is later on, in Holland, Monty came up one day in his jeep. He stood up on the bonnet, making a speech, and was throwing these ‘Victory’ fags and blokes were grinding them under their boots.
One of our blokes went over to his Sergeant and said, “Sergeant, I need to go to the toilet.”
“Off you go then”, says the Sergeant, “but whatever you do, don’t pull the bloody chain!”
“I won’t Sergeant” he says, and goes off.
Next thing was, of course, the bloke pulls the chain, there was a hell of a bang and he was blown to pieces—they’d booby-trapped the cistern. You dared not touch anything: they’d leave revolvers and that around, all mined and waiting for some lad to try and pick them up.
Mr. Duddell: We landed about D+3, we had 4th Armoured Brigade with us to start with, our Brigade was 29th Armoured Brigade, and we fought our first action with them, I think it was for Hill 112. We had a hard time there, we were being shelled from three sides.
Q: Tell me a bit about your first few days in Normandy.
Mr. Duddell: We were at Aldershot prior to D-Day, and went under escort to docks on the Thames, we left on the tide, then sailed round Kent, had to wait while the cross-Channel guns were firing from Dover, had to wait quite a while there. We went on to the Isle of Wight, then turned left, and the weather got a bit nasty. We were in flat-bottomed boats, and they stared going side-to-side, but we got over to the Normandy shore about 8 o’clock at night. It was still summer, so we could see a lot. There were these two dreadnoughts and the “Warspite” behind firing, there was a lot of activity from aircraft, particularly British aircraft. We had a grandstand view, really, as they were still only a couple of miles inland.
When we got the order to go ashore, it was about 5 o’clock in the morning, and I was on the top deck in my vehicle. They dropped the ramp and started to go off. We were under fire from these 88’s from the left of Ouistreham: we found out later that that land was all flooded, so that no-one had been able to get these 88’s, and I think the Navy dealt with them in the end. There were 3 boats landing, there was the KSLI, the Monmouths, and the Herefords. Our boat was hit, I think a couple of the Yankee sailors were hit. I know that on the Monmouths’ boat there were several Americans hit. On the top deck, we had to keep waiting until those on the bottom had got clear. As all the vehicles were water-proofed we had a bit of a problem as all the batteries were sealed, and the distributors and everything, and we had to stop on the beach and rip these seals off. However, we got off the beach, and went inland into an orchard and I think we stopped there a couple of days.
Q: Can you remember the name of the village where this was?
Mr. Duddell: It wasn’t in a village, we used to avoid those, and the towns later. When you’ve got an armoured division, you don’t go into towns, we left those for the foot-sloggers. Our first action was to the right of Caen, we went down south of Caen.
We had quite a baptism there: they were on the tops above us and must have had a marvelous view. We’ve been back since and wondered how the hell we ever got forward at all!
After a few days we had to pull back, and were relieved by 15th Scottish Div. We came back round Caen, and came through our 2nd. Battalion—of course he [indicates Mr. Millward] wouldn’t have been there then, as he’d been wounded.
We went to the left of Caen later and got as far as Troarn and then we were held up again, as they had two or three divisions of Panzers in the Caen area—it was very very difficult. As we were out-gunned, they had more powerful tanks, Panthers and Tigers, they could out-gun us quite a bit. We pulled back again and went across to the Bayeux area, and after that through Flers and towards the Falaise Gap.
Eventually we got clear of there, and got across the Seine by a pontoon bridge. We were held up there by an 88 on top of a ridge, so had to call up the ‘Tiffies’—you know, the Typhoons. They sorted him out. After we got up on to the ridge, we were told “Right-oh, let’s go”. We kept going, and after all day and the next night got to Amiens in the morning. We had a short rest in Amiens, then crossed the Belgian border, and kept on via Brugges, and got to Antwerp.
It had taken us 5 days, and was about 600 kilometres. We just drove past any strong-points. The Guards Armoured were on our right, of course, doing the same thing, though they were heading for Brussels. We needed Antwerp for a port, as everything was still coming over by the beaches. We had to fight for Antwerp, and then were sent over the Albert Canal, and had a bad time there as well.
Q: I must bring you back to Normandy for a minute. What did you see of the local civilian population? They must have come out of hiding by then?
Mr. Duddell: We were very good with the civilians, and made friends eventually, but at the start they were very afraid we’d be pushed back into the sea.
Mr. Millward: At Beuville, the French population were very glad to see us and glad to see the Germans go.
Q: What do you remember of some of the officers?
Mr. Millward: I soldiered with Major Thorneycroft: he came to the battalion in Pembroke Dock as a second lieutenant.
Major Slatter was promoted from a Sergeant before the war: he was a very good man.
Major Steele got killed on D-Day: we were going up, and there was a Jerry machine-gun hidden by some bushes. Major Steele just rushed at it with this revolver, he never said anything to anybody else, he just rushed at it on his own, and was shot of course. I don’t know whether he was after a medal, but as a Major he should not have done a thing like that. As a Major, he was in control of men, and he should have come back and said “Right, So-and-so and So-and-so, and you Corporal This, and you, I want you to work round behind them and sort them out.”
I don’t know Lt. Harry Jones, I think he must have got there after I’d been wounded, or perhaps in another company. Col. Maurice got killed later, he caught it from a sky-burst..
Q: You’d been with the battalion a long time, and must have known the pre-war officers particularly very well: can you describe the relations between officers and men?
Mr. Millward: We were regular soldiers, so the officers never spoke to you in a familiar way. Some of the war-time officers we could be more familiar with, but not the Regulars.
Mr. Duddell: I’ll give you an instance of that. When we were Holland, my wife was at the local railway station, and she saw this Major with KSLI badges, and she went up to him and asked, “Do you know my husband?” “Oh yes, he’s a Signals Sergeant.” “When I write to him, who shall I say I was speaking to?” He was Major Thornbird, but he said to her “Just tell her you met Ned”. We always knew him as Ned: I think we had one of the greatest set of officers it was possible.
Q: Were they people who’d been in the TA with you before the war?
Mr. Duddell: A lot of them were, but some were regular soldiers.
Mr. Millward: When we’d been training on Salisbury Plain and places like that, the junior officers, lieutenants and second lieutenants, they would always lead you, would insist on going in front, and they did the same thing during the war. We lost a lot of officers because they would insist on being the first up and the last out of anywhere. They just couldn’t muck in with the men they had under them: it would always be, “Private Millward, you do this; Private Owen, you go there”.
Mr. Duddell: The big difference, I think, between the Territorial officers and the Regulars, the Territorials had worked before the war. For example Major Davies had worked for the Sun Alliance in Shrewsbury; Colonel Corbett was from Wellington: I worked for his father. I knew him as Stanley.
Mr. Millward: Our Regular officers, they had all been at Sandhurst, and they’d had drilled into them that they were “It”. We hadn’t been in action before D-Day, and they thought they must show their men they were “It”. But as it went on, and we lost more and more officers, we got officers you could call by their first name: they got the idea that we really were all in this together and had to trust one another.
Going back to these civilians, when we were in Bieville and Beuville [Mr. Millward explained that they were pronounced by the soldiers as “Bee-“ and “Bo-“], I remember that when Jerry had sent a stonk over, you know, shelling, the civilians would rush off into the fields and come back with grins all over their faces and fresh meat from cattle that had been killed. They were pleased that Jerry hadn’t hit them, but had made their day by providing fresh meat!
Q: Were there any French men about?
Mr. Millward: No, it was mainly women and children. Something I do remember, we were just coming up off the beach, and I was passing a house when I saw a little girl by the side of the road. I was in the middle of the road, and the Jerries were firing pretty hard, and I thought “If that little girl doesn’t move she’s going to get killed”. I got up and took a jump at her, and pulled her back under the garden wall. I could see somebody looking out of the house—I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman—and made a sign at them. They must have understood what I meant, because they ran out and got her.
By this time, my section and I had started off up the road again. When we went back years after, I recognised the house, and tried to find out if there was anybody living there: if that little girl was still alive, I would have liked to have met her. I found most of the population were most helpful: they’d tell you where the Germans were.
Q: Did you have any knowledge of the language?
Mr. Millward: No, I picked up a bit of German, but no French. We weren’t there long enough. The only French town we were in was Caen: after that we used to go round the outside. We were supposed to have taken Caen on the first day, you know. Whoever thought that up must have been a bit soft in the head, I reckon.
Q: Had you had much training for town fighting?
Mr. Millward: We did a bit in Scotland: I think we went to some slums in Glasgow, but we didn’t do much. We didn’t need it until we got to Germany, but by then we’d learnt a thing or two.
Mr. Duddell: We in the 4th Battalion had been in Aldershot, and we’d had training on some of the bomb sites in South London. I couldn’t tell you where, but I remember passing through Croydon on the way. There were big areas wired off, and we’d rush straight upstairs in these damaged buildings. They were usually knocked through one to another, because Jerry used to do that. We’d go in at one end of a row, and out at the other. Straight in, straight up the stairs, and on into the next house—no time for being polite!
Q: Thinking back on it all, how do you remember it, and think about what you had to do?
Mr. Millward: It was a terrible business...all those young lives...for me, it was self-preservation above all else. You had to be ruthless, or some so-and-so would take the chance to shoot you. In fact, blokes that were thought cowards would likely be shot by their own men! Everyone was scared. It was being scared of showing your pals that you were scared that kept us going a lot of the time. We had to do it, though, or we’d be saying “Sieg Heil!” even today, I reckon.