From W Company 2nd BN KSLI
Source: This article by Major R.R. Rylands appeared in The KSLI Regimental Journal. My copy is from the Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shrewsbury England.
“W” Coy. 2nd Bn. K.S.L.I. in Normandy.
By Major R.R. Rylands
NOTE: — This and subsequent instalments, relating “W” Coy’s. adventures in N.W. Europe must be prefaced with the conventional but necessary comment that the correctness of dates, proper and place names cannot be vouched for: the writer kept no sort of diary during active operations, and so has had to rely on memory.
Insignia of the KSLI and the British 3rd Division.
IT was just like an exercise: there had been the false start, due to the postponement; there was the usual uncomfortable packing on to the LCI’s; rather more than the usual sea-sickness; as usual we marvelled at the absence of enemy air activity, blessed the R.A.F., and appreciated the friendly consideration of the Naval personnel manning our craft (they had even had the Div. sign painted nobly on the superstructure); all was as usual. But when we were well out to sea on the night of June 5th. something new happened—we were issued with sets of maps of that bit of Normandy which we were to get to know so well. They confirmed the guesses (secret!) of many of us that Caen was the main objective; but there was sadly little time to get the details of “our” area imprinted on our minds—and an unfamiliar map in a poor light at dead of night, on a tossing craft, looked widely different from a sand table model seen once in a Nisson hut in peaceful Sussex surroundings. However, those of us who were not seasick, resigned ourselves to sleep easily enough, not without an uncomfortable suspicion that we might be awakened by air or sea opposition in mid-channel.
But early morning arrived, and we breakfasted, blackened our faces, and checked equipment uninterrupted. We wallowed on, past warships spitting fire furiously at the coast, past ominous flotsam and assault boats, awash and derelict, nearer and nearer to that low line of coast, dunes and villas becoming distinct, all lit up by fires and explosions: the landing was imminent.
“W” had been the unluckiest of the Coys. in the allotment of craft space, with one platoon landing with each of the other Coys. Coy. H.Q. got ashore in deeper water than we had expected and Pte. Bennion and his bicycle (“useless clobber”) was nearly engulfed. Our long waders, worn for the first time, proved exceedingly dangerous, because they filled in the deep water, and made controlled movement of the legs very difficult, encumbered as we were with immensely weighty assault jerkins. But nearly all the Coy. reached the R.V. only 7 platoon having suffered much from enemy fire: their 2 inch mortar team “caught it” in the act of landing, though L Cpl. Wilmott cheerfully fought on, through that day and the next, with a steel splinter in his foot.
It continued like an exercise—in the streets of Lion-sur-mer we met a grinning Capt. Dawe, who had landed with 8 Bde., and dutifully signed our routes for us; we met a comfortingly calm C.O. who bid us good morning, as if he were coining to watch us practise a little battle drill on an English moor—and we passed a few commandos, who looked impressively pugnacious, and were dodging round corners and firing bursts, as if they sensed a newsreel camera-man on their trail. But of Jerry we saw nothing—merely heard spasmodic small arms fire, and his shells bursting on the beach we had just quitted.
The R.V. was in an orchard west of the road, running south out of Lion-sur-mer. Shells were landing seawards, but we warmed ourselves with self-heating cocoa, quite undisturbed. It was pleasant, too, to discover we were just “off” our first map, and could discard it with a sense that territory had already been conquered. We learnt later that there were a good many enemy snipers concealed in the area, but they apparently had not the courage to molest so many of us. We awaited the order to mount the Sherman’s of the Staffs. Yeomanry, but at this point all parallel with exercises broke down, and from that moment on, the operation became a rather impromptu affair.
As our tanks did not appear, we headed south, down the road into Hermanville-sur-Mer on foot, in the wake of “X” Coy. Nervousness had vanished and our progress through the streets of Hermanville, crowded with excited French people, was almost triumphal, especially as surly German prisoners in parachute blue passed us in the opposite direction. At the crossroads, south of the village, there was a check, but we soon pushed on up the long slope towards spot height 61, 9 Platoon leading. Fearing mines, we stuck rather vulnerably to the road, strung out in single file on both sides of it. During this advance we came under fire from M.Gs., and ahead bombs and shells were bursting. “X” Coy. were fighting further up the hill. and we had our first fatal casualty, when Pte. Hind, an S.B., blew up, apparently on a mine. The Coy. was a little uneasy, halted uncertainly on this straight road completely dominated by the summit of the ridge, but we failed to locate the enemy. So it was with relief that we got moving again, when Major Slatter ordered us to deploy into the corn on our right, and advanced towards the summit. He seemed so calm that many of us failed to realize that, in fact, W’s first attack was going in. As we neared the top, we were treated to considerable shell or mortar fire, some of which seemed to come from our own side, though that may have been a delusion. Anyway, we advanced through it, increasingly delighted to find no one appeared much the worse for it.
Then suddenly we found we had literally walked over an enemy position, held by parachutists possessed of several M.Gs. and sub-M.Gs. The honours belonged to 9 Platoon, led by Lt Les. Wright, and particularly to his leading section, commanded by Cpl. Millward (later commissioned) who won an M.M. for this action. All the enemy were killed or captured, and “W” had no casualties despite our assault uphill and in the open. C.S.M. Knox’s swift treatment of the insolent behaviour of the German W.O. who surrendered, amused the beholders considerably.
But we vaguely remembered that the summit of a hill recently held by the enemy was reputed to become unhealthy very rapidly, so we moved swiftly on down the forward slope of the ridge still on the west of the road. Almost immediately small arm’s fire opened up on us, but this time there were few pauses, and we pushed downhill towards the church of Periers-sur-le-dan, thickly backed by trees, which seemed to be the source of the opposition. We were cheerfully unaware of the strongly defended enemy battery on our right, which was so brilliantly captured that afternoon by “Z” Coy., and we reached the church just in time to hear the sound of trucks, as the enemy retreated down the road. Our only bag was an abandoned half-tracked vehicle.
Above: KSLI soldiers march German prisoners through Hermanville on D-Day. (Imperial War Museum)
Right: KSLI veteran Norman Millward
Beyond the church, was a lane leading south, back to the Bn. axis, the main road, and we followed it until we joined the road just behind a feature called Le Homme (bad French ? but so it was). We arrived in time to fit in closely behind “X” Coy. and immediately ahead of “Y”, who were coming up under Major Steel. So once again we were strung out, with little power of manoeuvre, along the axis. There was, however, no very obvious alternative. Ahead, “X” Coy. were meeting serious trouble from snipers in the north end of the village of Beuville. This consisted of strong stone buildings, interspersed with walled orchards—a paradise for determined marksmen fighting a delaying action. And delay us they did, so Major Slatter, impatient because “X” Coy seemed held up, walked up the road to the centre of the bother. Here he fought a private battle with some snipers, and was seriously wounded in the arm. Nevertheless, he managed to give us a picture of the situation before he collapsed and was evacuated, protesting. Capt. Rylands took over, and went forward to Major Thornycroft for a palaver, which was joined by the C.O. Direct progress down the middle of the village looked like being a slow and costly affair; the civilians refused to evacuate themselves, and at that early stage we were too soft-hearted to shell their homes—a proceeding which might have facilitated our advance considerably.
So the C.O. decided to advance with two Coys. up. “X” Coy. going round the back of the street on the east, “W” similarly on the west. We set off, after a little immediate house-clearing, with 8 Platoon now leading, under the command of Lt. Murray. We were already under shell fire from our right, one missile striking a wall above Coy. H.Q. and wounding both signalers and Pte. Spragg, a renowned “W” character, amongst others. This shelling intensified as we rounded the houses and gained the open fields. It was open country away to the S.W., and we were being fired on directly from the area of Le Landel, which evidently was as yet unengaged by any flank formation of ours. Some German infantry were also scuttling about. By this time 8 Platoon was momentarily pinned down. having suffered severe casualties, the Pl. Sgt. included. Pte. Jones was killed—as, curiously enough, he had told his friends he was going to be.
We were without wireless contact, but a runner, Pte. Attwood, got back to a tank in the village behind—I believe the F.O.O’s—and the enemy guns were engaged The Coy. meanwhile supported by a few Sherman’s, got forward in the face of some M.G. fire, and 8 and 9 Pls. rather perfunctorily cleared the chateau of Bieville and its walled grounds. We knew it to have been a Bde. H.Q. but it was almost deserted, though we collected the odd prisoner and an abandoned staff car. Meanwhile 7 Pl. had been sent forward to an orchard on the south side of the village, to cover this operation. Lt. Bellamy, its commander, had been ordered to send a recce, patrol down to “Port”, the large wooded natural tank obstacle which was some 200 yds. to the south of the orchard. He however, went himself, and was shot in the knee and arm whilst attempting to engage an M.G. post with his sten. His Pl. Sgt., Sgt. Jordan, managed to get him back to the shelter of the orchard, and he was able to give useful information to Col. Maurice, who came up soon afterwards, before gallantly walking back, knee wound notwithstanding.
It was now evening: “X” Coy. were roughly level with us to the east; “Z” were capturing the battery at Periers-sur-le-Dan, and “Y” had gone through down the axis on to the dominating feature ahead—Lebisey. This place was reputedly weakly held, but in fact was strongly defended by Panzer Grenadiers, and “Y”‘ had a difficult tussle, in which the Coy. comd. was killed, and Lt. Gwilliam badly wounded. So Capt. Dane withdrew the Coy. under orders after dark, and they came into a position to our left rear. “W” meanwhile had been expecting to advance, but the information about “Y” showed that that was not to be, and we consolidated in the orchard reached by 7 Pl. “X” moved into a position immediately to our rear.
Our orchard was on a forward slope, had covered approaches into it from the enemy side, and was far too small—a square of less than 100 yds.—but there was nowhere else to go; and the orchard possessed a stout hedge, interspersed with trees on all sides, except the front: which fact we had the temerity to hope made us practically tank-proof, for we had no A/Tk. weapons available after our Sherman’s withdrew. There we dug in for the night, with 9 Pl. holding the front face, 8 the left flank, and 7 the right. “X” made our rear secure. We patrolled forward, and with somewhat pitiful optimism laid out strings of Hawkin’s grenades at crucial points. Capt. Dickie Tooth, our South African. F.O.O. from the 7th Field Regt.. who were always regarded by the whole of “W” as a sort of guardian angel, came forward to arrange rough treatment in emergency for the dead ground in front of us—and “D” Day was over.
We were a little apprehensive about a possible armoured counter-attack, but were not unpleased with ourselves: we had penetrated about six miles as the crow flies; our casualties were slighter than expected: and we were further south than any other Coy. in the Division, possibly than any in the invading forces.
Part Two: In the Beachhead
THE night of “D” Day passed quietly—more quietly than we had anticipated. In the early morning of June 7th, we heard tracks from the enemy side, and the writer seems to remember calling for help from the gunners, in some panic. Later in the morning “W”‘ had a grandstand view from our forward slope of the 2nd Warwick’s attack going in on Lebisey, just across the valley, and of their subsequent withdrawal, covered by the 1st Norfolks. That left us once again the most forward troops on our front.
Throughout that day, and the succeeding ones in that position, we were bothered by snipers, firing peculiarly silenced weapons, apparently in our very midst. Some were in fit trees and scrub that lay in the middle of the triangle formed by “W”, “X” and “Y” Coys., and some, I feel sure, operated from houses in the village. Certainly Ptes. Bennion and Luscott grew to hate the trip back to Bn H.Q. with messages. But though we organised many “beats” during dull moments, we never wholly eliminated the problem, which remained rather mysterious. The writer found for instance that he was always “potted at” along a line through a gap in our rear hedge to a small window in a farm house—yet this house could be found to contain only a typical peasant family, with a bevy of children eager for our ration of sweets.
We also learnt during these first days how to distinguish between the various kinds of “Jerry” guns and mortars, and knew just when to duck. We had a slow but steady drain of casualties, because the enemy shelled the edges of our orchard with regularity and accuracy. Some reinforcements were sent up under Cpl. Ellis, unfortunately by day, and we were shelled immediately, with fatal casualties. This almost unheralded arrival of reinforcements during daylight happened too often in the early period.
That night, June 7th, Major David. Stancombe (O.B.L.I.) arrived to take over the Coy. from Capt. Rylands. It was a confused night, with many false alarms, during which Cpl. Ball was accidently wounded. Sgt. Jordan reported enemy A.F.V. movement on our right flank just as it got too dark to see clearly. Our helpful gunners bombarded the area, to make sure, and indeed the movement must have been part of that panzer counter attack between 3rd Br. and 3rd Canadian Divs., which took place on June 7th.
The next night was a grim one; we were shelled with great intensity, and had more casualties than our SB.’s could deal with. The Carrier Platoon nobly came up to our rear, to assist evacuation, and suffered losses themselves. Fatal casualties included the Coy. Commander, who died of wounds, and Ptes. Richardson and Roberts. Our gunner O.P. was also completely knocked out. It must be confessed that many of us “had the jitters” that night, and the arrival of Col. Maurice, calm but understanding, to see how things were, was a relief; he promised to arrange as much retaliation by our gunners as possible. For the rest of this period the Coy. had only two officers, Capt. Rylands and Lt. Wright, as Lt. Murray had been evacuated earlier.
On the night of the 11th we handed over to a Coy. of the Warwicks. This was done copy book fashion in the position, but-the movement back down the road to Beuville was terrifyingly noisy, partly because uncertainty about mines made cross-country travel by night too dangerous. We stayed in a compact position round a farm house in Beuville until June l5th. where we cleaned up, shaved (water had been desperately short in the first position), and wrote letters. We could not relax completely, because much of our position was under observation from Lebisey, still less than two miles away. We were busy almost every night with large scale mine laying on our open right flank. The writer, Pte. Luscott and some Pioneers also had to recce and chart an enemy minefield to our right, which was reached by a precarious route through one of our own minefields. In Beuville, Major Brooke Smith took over the Coy., and Lt. Tamplin (D.C.L.I.) joined us.
On June 17th we moved up to Bieville again, this time as right rear Coy. of the Bn., largely protected by the stout wall of the Chateux gardens. Here we saw our first “V one”, were accidentally machine-gunned (without damage) by some Thunderbolts, and were comparatively peaceful, apart from the demands of patrolling. Our largest patrol was one to “Square Wood” of evil memory. There the writer and Lt. Tamplin led a patrol of 30 by night, intending to stay till the following night, after gaining certain information. All the details of the affair are still vivid, but suffice it to say that the wood was far too dense for us to prevent infiltration, in its northern half, and too exposed for occupation by day in its southern. A position was taken up in the dense part, and the writer, Cpl. Edwards and Pte. Giblin reconnoitered forward towards Lebisey and gained the information required. We were subjected increasingly to mortar and shell fire which burst unpleasantly in the trees, the more so since we could not dig in. A sudden uproar of Schmeisser fire and grenades revealed that the enemy had infiltrated literally into our midst— how many I still do not know, so dense was the undergrowth. We drove them off, killing one at least, and withdrew in broad daylight across the open ground between the Lebisey ridge and the Bieville. Amazingly, we escaped shelling by the enemy, but fire from our own side called for by “X” Coy. was cancelled just in time.
When the Warwicks relieved us again on June 22nd. and the Bn. moved back to Beuville, “W” stayed under command of the forward Bn., and occupied a position round a small school house, covering the left rear and flank of the Warwicks. From here we got a good view of the famous factory chimneys of Colombelles, and they presumably of us, anyway, we were shelled often and accurately though not only from in front, for one night a large naval shell arrived in 7 Platoon area. Although it was known that German patrols had penetrated as far as this position earlier, we were not troubled, and ourselves patrolled over a mile eastwards to contact the Norfolks. C.S.M. Knox, on one of these patrols, narrowly missed damage from the attentions of some snipers. But the period was quite restful, and we were even able to assemble a considerable congregation in the school for a service conducted by the Padre the Rev. A. Goodman. Our only serious loss was the chance of a visit to the mobile bath unit, which was patronized by the rest of the Bn.
The last period in Bieville started about the night of June 27th. “W” took over the left forward position—originally occupied by “Y” Coy. on the night of “D” Day. During this time we were shelled more fiercely than ever before, I think, and casualties were frequent, even in the well-dug positions and strong stone buildings. We were on the alert all the time, particularly as our front was marked by an avenue of trees, and as the road from Lebisey and Caen led into our position. Life was also made unpleasant by the number of dead cows rotting in the yard outside Coy. H.Q. These were eventually disposed of by the resourceful P.S.M. Aldridge (later Lieut.) and his Pioneers. Our patrols included another to Square Wood led by Lt. Wright, and one to the “Causeway.” where the road crossed the ditch called Port, led by Capt. Rylands. At the beginning of July we were rejoined by Lt. Broadfoot, whom we had left in Scotland with appendicitis. He took over his old platoon. No. 7. Incidentally, 7 platoon H.Q. had been very unlucky in this area: it received several direct hits, though it moved more than once. . On the last occasion, “Lucky” Sgt. Jordan, then commanding, was the only untouched survivor.
One cannot record all the casualties in this position, but they .included such familiar figures as Sgt. “Jessie” Matthews. Cpl. Edwards, L/Cpl. Clay and Pte. Powis.
About July 5th we moved back to Beuville, as part of the final arrangements of the Bde. for the assault on Lebisey and Caen. Here we were rejoined by Major Slatter, scarcely recovered from the wound he had received at the very spot when he came back to us.
Just at this time, as we got ready for the great assault, came the awful news that Col. Maurice had been killed at Bn. H.Q., just down the road. The Bn.—”the house that Jack built,” as I heard it described by another C.O. in the Div.—found the loss scarcely credible, he seemed so vital a part of us. I have always remembered the comment that morning of one other rank member of “W” Coy., “He was a toff—and a gentleman.”
On Friday evening, July 7th, “W” moved up into the fields north of Bieville, with 7 platoon joining a party under Capt. Aitken (Carrier Pln.), to hold Square Wood for the night, to allow the assaulting Bns. to form up unmolested. With great excitement we watched the enormous force of bombers “softening up” Caen, the smoke and dust rose in the air almost to the height of the planes. Next day the attack went in successfully, and the K.S.L.I, went through the rest of the Bde. on to the bitterly defended open country south of Lebisey, fighting towards Caen. The enemy held on grimly, and casualties were severe. Amongst others, Cpl. Brown was killed and Lt. Broadfoot wounded in Square Wood, and Cpls. Worrall and Ellis and L/Cpl. Grey killed in the “Hill 60” area. The Coy. was magnificently led by Major Slatter, and the C.S.M. did yeoman service, for which he was awarded the M.C. He exploited the PIAT as an anti-infantry weapon with great effect, and was a great rallier of the more faint-hearted.
Despite our losses, the Bn. went on with 9 Bde. into Caen, and eventually “W” Coy. came to a weary halt amidst the shattered streets east of the cathedral, along the north bank of the canal. The chief menace here was from close range mortaring, and we got used to flopping into cellars at lightning speed. Nine Pln. Commander, Lt. Wright, the last surviving rifle coy. subaltern in the Bn. who had landed on “D” Day, was wounded in the leg by a bomb, but was loathe to be evacuated.
And so once again at the end of a major operation “W” was “in at the kill,” and very much in the forefront of the battle.