Interview by Peter John, 3 November 1999.
J.R. Roberts entered the service in 1934 and served his country in peacetime and war through the Korean conflict. He retired with the rank of colonel.
Bookmarks Joining up / Sgt.-Maj. Roberts / Maj. Thorneycroft and as leader / Crossing / Landing / Advance inland / All right 'till Biéville / Lebisey Ridge / The attack / Friendly fire / Shelled from both sides / Reinforcing Paras / Square Wood / Attack on Caen / Colombelles / Troarn / Leadership / KSLI officers / Reflecting on loss / Communication / Platoon sergeants / Col. Maurice as officer / German defense / Section leaders / Fighting snipers / Failing to take Caen / The Staffs
Col. John Roberts (all photos by Chuck Solomon, 2000)
Right John Roberts WWII commendations.
John R. Roberts
Q: You had been in the Army for 10 years by June 1944?
Col. Roberts: I had joined the KSLI at the age of 18 in 1934, and I did the usual sort of service, and became a junior NCO. In 1939 we were posted to the West Indies station. I was a Sergeant at the time, and was in charge of the mechanical transport. I remained in this post for the rest of our stay: we were stationed in Jamaica.
After the invasion of the Low Lands in 1940, we were sent to Curacao in the Dutch west Indies, to look after the oil refineries. In February 1942 we were relieved by the Americans, and came back to the UK via the United States and Canada, arriving in the UK in early March. The battalion was reorganised, and we went down to the South Coast for a few months, before being sent to Yorkshire to join the 79th (Armoured) Division.
Very shortly after that we were posted to the (re-formed) 3rd Division in Scotland, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. At that time I was promoted from Sergeant to a Company Sergeant-Major: I had expressed the wish that I wanted to ‘get on’. I was then with Z Company. At a later stage of the training in Scotland, the Commanding Officer decided he wanted a change-around of the Sergeant-Majors and some of the Company Commanders, and I was transferred to X Company, where I was S-M to Major Guy Thorneycroft.
Q: Had Major Thorneycroft been with X Company previously?
Col. Roberts: Yes. He’d expressed a wish that he wanted me as his CSM. We continued with our training in the Scottish mountains: not mountain training, rather trudging over terrain such as Cairngorm. We were all very fit: it was quite an enjoyable time. We did the course at, I think, Auchtnacarrie [?], the Marine course—we did the final stages of our training there. There was then a great series of exercises on beaches which had been decided were similar to those on which we would land on D-Day. For many of these we used the lighter assault craft which carried about a platoon each. These called for some endurance, because we’d be at sea for some hours before the landings, and we had to get accustomed to this. After all this we were moved down to the J-Camps, which were the Assembly Camps down on the South Coast. Our point of departure and embarkation was Newhaven.
The journey across was pretty uneventful: we had a reasonably calm sea. I suppose our soldiering in Scotland had hardened us up to the task. I’m usually one of those who feel sea-sick in the first 24 hours, but I recover very quickly. Rather than being on the assault craft, we had been put on to a Landing Craft (Infantry), which is a larger ship. The idea was that we would drop down the nets on the side. We were equipped with a special jacket-type of equipment for the landings, the assault troops.
Q: You had the equipment of assault troops even though you weren’t in the first wave?
Col. Roberts: Yes. I think the whole Division had this, the three waves. This meant that every man was carrying a great deal of kit, including an anti-tank grenade, which was in a pouch at the back (the 75 Grenade). We were the means of getting things ashore. As we were approaching the land, when we could se the land, we received information that the two bridges across the Orne had been secured by the Paras.
Q: News received with a great cheer?
Col. Roberts: Yes, that’s right. There were two Brigades, if I remember correctly, in the Assault Group to take the beaches, capture Ouistreham, and up to the Hermanville Ridge.
I think it was somewhere about 11 o’clock that we actually landed. Our craft dropped us somewhere about 150 yards from the beach: there was quite a swell on, and we also carried with us our portable bicycles, with the intention that if the tanks didn’t arrive for some reason or other, we would be able to cycle up. We were in waist to neck height of water, 4 to 5 feet, but we soon got ashore. The Engineers had cleared many of the obstacles on the beaches, and had marked out the approaches.
We moved on then: there was some spasmodic mortaring, and some shelling from batteries which were over on the Le Havre side. We got into Ouistreham, and from there to our assembly area in Hermanville, in an orchard there, where we discarded some of our equipment, including gas-masks, and we dumped our portable bicycles, waiting for the Staffs Yeomanry to come. We were going to ride up on their tanks. However, there was some delay, and the Commanding Officer decided we had to get ahead.
The Brigadier [Lt-Col. Maurice] had decided that the Hermanville Ridge had been taken. There were three ridges - Hermanville, Beuville, and Lebisey - on the approaches to Caen. We’d been able to see the outline of Caen from the landing ship, as it was a nice calm morning at sea, so we knew really what we were going to face. It was decided anyway to push forward the Company, not to wait for the tanks, some tanks had been drowned, there had been other delays, I think one ship had been sunk, there were other problems there.
Q: Do you think this was Col. Maurice’s own decision?
Col. Roberts: The Brigadier had decided that we were to press on, and decided we were to move forward. If memory serves right, there was a nasty battery at Le Perier, I think, to the right flank, which was giving us trouble.
X Company was the lead company, and we followed the road for Bieville, Beuville, and Lebisey. It was pretty uneventful—the odd shot, and the odd German soldier giving himself up. It appeared that there were Russians there who had been conscripted into the German Army.
We were all right until we came to Bieville, as we went round the bend in the road there was a good deal of opposition from what we assumed was the church spire. The odd snipers had been left around, and while we were waiting for this there was one little man in X Co, by the name of Owen, and I remember him saying “Oh, I’ve got one.” He’d knocked one off. But shortly afterwards, he was crouched behind a stone wall, when a German hopped a grenade over the wall and blew him up. Before we could do anything, this man had just disappeared amongst the houses. That was just one little incident.
At this stage we found that of our lead platoon, we’d lost about 4 or 5, caught by snipers. They were young men, 22 or 23, junior NCOs, very capable, intelligent, able to adapt themselves to situations.
The battery on the right, the CO put in (I think it was ) W Company. You’ll have seen Major Rylands’ account of that. We went on then, to Beuville: the CO decided that this had been enough for X Company, and pushed Y through down towards the Lebisey Ridge.
[NOTE: Major Rylands' account can be read by clicking here.]
This was a very sticky situation. At about 4 o’clock the Company Commander got the information that we were about to be counter-attacked. We thought at first this would be someone coming round between us and the Paras on the left, but in fact it turned out to be part of 21st Panzer Division who attacked on the right hand side, where the ground fell away. This, really, was a line between us and the Canadians on our right flank.
Q: Were they able to approach in dead ground?
Col. Roberts: Yes. There was a wood, which became known as Square Wood, in the bottom of this dead ground, a very nasty situation. An anti-tank gun was brought up to out right-hand platoon...
Q: Your own anti-tank gun?
Col. Roberts: Yes. It received a hit, but I think they had a satisfactory shoot. The Sergeant in charge was badly mauled, I think he lost an arm, but the others continued to fire. The attack was repulsed during the day. We then settled down here for the night. My own impression as we settled down was that we would be attacked again, and I wondered whether we should survive. I imagined there would be terrible hand-to-hand conflict, but it was not so. In fact, the attack which had come in had been repulsed quite easily.
Q: As you’d come up the road from Hermanville, were you actually with the Company Commander?
Col. Roberts: The Company Commander was a little ahead of me with his Tac HQ, his wireless operator and his batman. I was a little behind with the balance of Co. HQ, perhaps 20 to 50 yards behind. I had a good deal of contact with him: there had to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have known the situation.
In the first village, Beuville, a fairly compact little village, there was a chateau on the left hand side which we went into, and we found all the lunch meal all prepared there, their stew: they’d obviously had to bale out in a hurry. I think the enemy dispositions were pretty sparse: I think that probably about one battalion was covering a divisional front. It would seem like that. Of course, he had his reinforcements behind: we knew that 21st [Panzer Div.] had been moved up into the Caen area before the landing.
Q: You already had that information?
Col. Roberts: Yes. Intelligence had this a day or two before the landings, so we were on our guard, and it was no surprise we had this attack on our right-hand side.
The night was rather unfortunate in one way: we dug our little slit trenches as far as we could before darkness, and a patrol was sent out from our right-hand platoon, No. 10 or 12 I think, Sergeant Davies and Mr. Rees, and on their return there was an unfortunate incident. I can’t remember whether there was no password, or whether the password hadn’t been given to the individuals, but both were killed on their return—you know, “friendly fire”. The situation was obviously very tense, as we’d already had the counter-attack from that side. I can vividly remember Mr. Rees calling out his name, “Don’t shoot! Mr. Rees!” but then the fire went.
It was a very unfortunate incident: my Company Commander was very upset, very upset. My Company Commander was a very great gentleman: he had this very uncanny knack of being able to get people to do things for him in a very easy manner. This doesn’t come easily to people—he was highly respected, and people would have done anything for him.
We had good platoon Sergeants, too: people were not on familiar terms, but there was much respect, both ways. One other man who was quite outstanding was the NCO that I used to have with Co. HQ, the Corporal in charge of the stretcher-bearers. Every time anyone was wounded, there was a great cry of “Stretcher-bearers!”, and he received an MM if memory serves, Dennis was the name.
The next morning, Jerry had really sized us up, and his artillery opened up, both mortars and long-range artillery, and there was constant shelling. Likewise, of course, there was considerable shelling from the Fleet, from our own artillery, from Corps artillery, there was pounding going on all the time, all the noise....You’d hear these things roaring up like a train going up a tunnel, shells from the Naval batteries, so I think they were pretty uncomfortable, the other side.
The other thing that was taking place on D-Day at the time of the counter-attack was the reinforcement of the Airborne Division. This was a terrific sight: all the paratroops in their planes, Dakotas, and the long-haul gliders, all coming in. There was colossal artillery, flak, against them, and one felt rather concerned, but apparently they all landed rather well. It was a wonderful sight to see.
We stayed where we were really, for about three weeks until the end of June, in these positions, as things had got rather bogged down. We were being shelled and mortared, and every day platoons would be sent out to this Square Wood, and it was very rare that people returned. It was terrible.
I remember when we moved back, to Bieville, into rest, one of the other regiments having moved up into our place, Mr. Higgins came up to me and said to me, “I’m going up to Square Wood tomorrow, Sergeant-Major; I shan’t be coming back to see you.” He didn’t come back. It was terrible, Square Wood, but it had got to be held: it was at the top end of this low ground, and it was vital. Of course, we pounded the wood, day in and day out. The carrier vehicles used to take the men up there, and bring back anyone left, and recover the wounded—it was terrible.
When we were back at Beuville, we were shelled there and the C.O. [Lt-Col. Maurice] was killed. There was then the attack on Caen proper, which was preceded by something like a 1,000-bomber raid. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon planes started to fly over, at fairly low altitude, and soon what had been a very clear sky and air was covered in a mass of dust, and Major Wilson, who was then commanding the battalion, decided that we should push on.
Our company was to attack the ground to the West of Lebisey, and round to Caen. This battle took place over one day, and the very outskirts of Caen were reached, by which time the German, who had evacuated his troops as soon as the air-raid had started, he had this habit of pushing his troops back, so it was a fairly bitter struggle.
We were taken back from that, and then did an attack on a place called Colombelles, the factory district on the east side of Caen. I hadn’t lost many men in that operation—I think I had one missing in the attack on Caen itself. I’d had one man near my rear HQ with my rear as we moved up from Lebisey, he was hit on the side of the head, and there was a hole through which one could see his brain. We looked after him, and I finally got him back, and caught up with the Company Commander. Later. I asked the MO about this man later, and he said “Oh yes, he’d be perfectly all right.” He said they’d put a plate on him, grafted it over. I’d been very concerned for him, he was a Corporal, a very good man. There were no other serious casualties in the Colombelles operation, but it was a pretty hectic place, with shelling and mortaring. We were relieved then by the 9th Durhams. Following that we did the operation round Manneville, Troarn, Bourguebus Ridge, the tank battle. These were really all part of the Caen battle.
With X Co. we captured a place called Troarn, to guard the left flank, while three armoured divisions were pushed through to take the Ridge. It was a dreadful day in some ways, because the weather turned sour in the afternoon, and it rained heavily. We lost some people from the battalion that day, I think three company commander and Sergeant-Majors. Only Major Thorneycroft and myself were left that day.
We had some reinforcements up that night during the dark, I think about 8 o’clock, and one of these men, a Major Griffiths, and he came from Llandudno. I got them all down into slit trenches, as there was a lot of shelling going on, and after a while I said to Major Thorneycroft, a lot of times I used to share a slit trench with him, I said “I think I’d better go and see Major Griffiths, I’m not very happy about him.” I thought at the time he was dead, but actually he died shortly afterwards. That man, he didn’t have a chance.
After this operation, we were taken into reserve, and did the follow-up for the break-out through St. Lô, which is where I was wounded. Le Bray was the place, and we were just about to go on.
Q: If you can put yourself back into the mental attitude you had as CSM, how did you see the duties of the position?
Col. Roberts: I saw myself as the main man, after the Company Commander, for the cohesion in the Company. I was responsible for all the junior NCOs, up to the Sergeants. I expected the best from them. I was responsible for the ammunition and seeing to things.
I suppose I regarded myself as very much a king-pin, I really was very responsible for the discipline. I found that this came very easily, too. As I told you earlier, there was a good deal of respect, and this was pretty mutual.
Looking back, I can remember that a lot of the men always looked to me, I found that out, there’d be comments like “Oh, it’s all right, the Sergeant-Major’s here now.” That was often heard. That was very good for me because everybody is frightened: if you’ve got a position where you’re by yourself, you’ve got to do something about it, I mustn’t show the man that I’m frightened, even though I might be doing it in my pants, but I’ve got to show him that all is well. I think it comes from that: it builds up your self-confidence, which is important otherwise there’s no holding the thing together.
I’d been with them nearly a couple of years, they were all people I knew well. They weren’t all regular soldiers: some were from drafts we’d received in the West Indies, war-time soldiers; some had been in the TA. They were all excellent men.
Q: Most of your junior NCOs were pre-war regulars?
Col. Roberts: Not all: I had two Sergeants who came out from UK, were in the TA battalions. One was a regular, and my Colour-Sergeant was a Regular, but he was down with the echelons. He brought the rations up; he was the administrative man.
Q: How many Company Officers were there with you in Normandy?
Col. Roberts: Three platoon commanders, the company second-in-command who was back with the echelons; the Company Commander; and myself. All the platoon officers were 2/Lts.
Q: As the campaign wore on, were there always replacements for second lieutenants or were there times when Sergeants led platoons?
Col. Roberts: No, there were always enough junior officers. We had one who was Canadian—apparently, the Canadians had a spare officers, and they were drafted in. George Boulevance was one of these, a very good chap, in fact I think he came in when Mr. Rees was killed.
Mr. Jones left us on D-Day, and he had an MC on D-Day. A very fine man: he was a war-time officer, as were Rylands and Heatley. Major Rylands had been a schoolmaster, and joined us in Curacao, as did Bill Heatley. Major Thorneycroft and the other senior officers were all regular soldiers. I’m not sure about Guy Ratcliffe, but I think he was a war-time officer as well. He was an exceptional Adjutant, a very studious man, very demanding, very good, every thing had to be right.
Q: What was the battalion strength when you landed in Normandy?
Col. Roberts: Just about war-time strength, pushing up to a thousand men. We also had available the ‘first reinforcements’. This would have been the only time in the campaign that we would have been at full war strength. Each platoon about 30, and then all the other administrative support, communications, etc.
In reflection, as I get older, I think I have a sort of sense of guilt. You begin to wonder, fine men were killed, exceptionally good men were taken away from us. I think about them a lot. Next week I hope to go up to Westminster, to the regimental plot. It’s very noticeable now that the there are a lot fewer of us left.
Q: Back to the mechanics of the chain of command: Company Commanders, would get their orders from battalion…
Col. Roberts: Yes, on their 31 Sets. These often were out of use; if they weren’t out of use they were screened by the trees. In the bocage country that was an advantage for both the enemy and ourselves, the trees. He’d have a 31 set, with two signallers allotted to us from the company signallers.
We also had with us the FOO, he was a South African, Dickie Tooth, from the battery that was in direct support. He had his own signals set-up. A lot of times, from my experience, we found that it was on his set that we got the orders over. He had a 19 set, a better set.
Q: Were they all on one net?
Col. Roberts: No, all on different nets. He was on a net to his own artillery batteries. He was able to get the orders passed through from our own battalion. Of course, for all the “stonks”, the SOS calls to bring down defensive fire, he was the men who did that with the Company Commander. The tasks were allotted, and the areas to fire on, by code names.
Q: You were still using maps with code-names?
Col. Roberts: Yes. The maps were exceptionally good, and had a lot of detail. I gave mine to a chap while I was at Shrewsbury after the war who was writing the regimental history, and I never got them back.
Q: There was a separate net again for the armour?
Col. Roberts: Yes. The Company Commander didn’t have any direct communication with the armour: it was done through Battalion HQ.
There were occasions when they were in very close support, but never under command. There’s a subtle difference between being in support and being under command. Some of the tanks had telephones on the backs, but there was good liaison between us: when they were in close support we would have an officer with us, a captain or lieutenant as liaison. It was all very good.
Q: Were platoon sergeants expected to be able to be act independently should circumstances demand?
Col. Roberts: Oh yes, if he lost his platoon commander, as one or two of them did. Ginger Banks was one who did. He was one of my Sergeants when I was with Z Co. I was very happy to move to X Co. as I adored Major Guy Thorneycroft.
Q: Everyone obviously had great respect for Col. Maurice, what were your relations like with him?
Col. Roberts: I should say they were fairly formal: he was a man who did not familiarise at all, but there was something about his presence—he had a very commanding presence without being austere. There was a great dependency there, let’s put it like that, whatever it was.
He was much admired, he was a very calm man, very clear-thinking. As Sgt.-Major I would be brought into some of his order-groups. His last order-group I was on, when he was plotting the attack on Caen, with the Company Commanders, the IO, the Signals Officer, and he was going into the detail of the positions we would have to go round in the attack on Caen. This was about 6 o’clock at night, and he was killed that evening. About 10 o’clock a shell landed on the house where he was. He was very unfortunate in this. He had a great influence on the battalion and was a splendid officer.
Q: On D-Day itself the opposition apart from the armour, snipers, and the battery, were you aware of the enemy directly?
Col. Roberts: No, his defence was very sparse indeed. They were restricted of course, by orders from Berlin. They weren’t allowed to use their own initiative, that’s always fatal. They were very good soldiers, however, and prisoners were treated properly—that was the difference with the Korean war.
Q: What was the role of the Corporal?
Col. Roberts: Section-leader. He could be a Corporal or a Lance-Corporal, depending on the establishment
Originally there would be a Corporal, a Lance-Corporal and 6 men in a section. Three of these, with the Platoon Commander and his batman, a couple of cooks, that knocks it up to about 30 for the platoon. If the Sergeant went, of course, one of the Corporals would be whipped up to be platoon sergeant, and the section would be left under the Lance-Corporal.
Q: What was the routine when you encountered snipers early in the campaign?
Col. Roberts: It actually came as quite a surprise. We’d only done a limited amount of street-fighting, and house-clearing, in Brighton when we were down in the J-camps. There were terraces of houses which had been taken over, and I think we had two or three sets of training.
In Bieville, we feared it came from the steeple, and Col. Maurice brought up one of the 6-pdr. anti-tank guns and shot at it with this. But otherwise, I think we just pushed on, the emphasis was really to push on.
Our objective was Caen, although how they ever expected us to get there...It would have been great to get there. Had we been able to go on on the tanks as intended, we’d have lost some to snipers on the tanks, and I think chaps would have been dropping off, if we had gone on, I think we’d have got into very sticky positions in front of Lebisey and in front of Caen itself. I think what happened was for the best really...when Col. Maurice decided to pull one Company back from Lebisey for the night, I think it would have been too difficult. It was too difficult the next day. We could hear them coming up during the night.
Q: When did your own armour actually catch up with you? The plan had been for you to ride forward on the tanks, but this clearly didn’t happen?
Col. Roberts: I can’t recall that it ever caught up with us! They were pulled back and used for whatever was necessary, you see.
For Operation Goodwood we were actually on the tanks, the same tanks, Staffs Yeomanry. It’s no fun being on them when 17-pounder guns are going off, I can tell you. I’ve got some of the results, with this tinnitus.
Q: In training in the UK, how closely had you been worked with the Staffs Yeomanry and Westminsters?
Col. Roberts: Very little. I think there were two or three exercises from Burghead Bay. We used to move up there from marshalling areas at Fort George, and we’d get on our craft ….I think there were two of these exercises, no more.
Q: In retrospect, do you think you’d have benefited from closer training with them?
Col. Roberts: Not really. The difficulty was principally with the country. The tanks would be in one situation, while we’d be in another, they weren’t often up with us there.