The Devons on D-Day
From the history of the Devonshire Regiment 1685 – 1945
Source: Jeremy Taylor, The Devons: A History of the Devonshire Regiment 1685-1945. Bristol: The White Swan Press, 1951. (Courtesy of Regimental Headquarters, The Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, Wyvern Barracks, Exeter.)
Note: The shoulder patch above is of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The two T’s stand for the county’s Tyne and Tees Rivers.
The 6th of June.
An early hour in the morning, when breakfasts were cooking back in snug kitchens in England.
An English breakfast was well out of sight and mind. The point on the beaches where the C.O. and his Intelligence Officer, Captain Wood, had scrambled ashore was obviously more to the east of Le Hamel than it should have been.
There was no sign of either of the leading companies of the Devons. This bit of beach, in fact, was so far east as to be in the Dorsets’ area: whereas the battalion was planned to land behind the Hampshires. Colonel Nevill and the I.O. consequently turned right and picked a way along the beach towards the centre of firing at Le Hamel.
They were not alone. Off shore, stretched from the lapping edge of the rising tide to as far out as one could see, was a drunken regatta of assault craft and ships-more drunken in the shallow water, where many of the landing craft were strewn abandoned or holed by the mines fixed to the defensive stakes.
Cap badge of the Devons
The air overhead was alive with the whistle of shells, mostly travelling inland but some coming the other way and exploding with great fountains of water among the ships. The higher strata’s of air belonged to the R.A.F, flight after flight of bombers and Spitfires, so many of them that it scarcely occurred to the imagination to wonder over the absence of the Luftwaffe. The beach itself had the first appearance of a shambles of soaked men and equipment, broken-down and knocked-out tanks one flail tank, twenty yards inside a minefield, stood stranded with a broken track. The beach was still under fire. The work of collecting men and marching them off was interrupted by the need to take cover. Dead and wounded lay dotted over the sand. Amid the noise of rifle tire from Le Hamel came the more ominous cracks of anti-tank guns.
No sign of the Devons that way along the beach. So they turned back eastward and ran into the Brigadier, who had just landed. Colonel Nevill confirmed with the Brigadier, ‘If I can find any of our chaps, I’ll bypass Asnelles and go straight for Ryes. Anything to get away from this beach.’
With Le Hamel not yet taken, Asnelles, behind it, must still be in enemy hands. Soon after leaving the Brigadier, they began to meet bits of the battalion, and could sort out what had happened.
However the large plan of the five-divisional assault on the Normandy coast had gone, the detailed plan for the battalions of 231 Brigade of 50 Division had not, at this first stage, worked out entirely to schedule.
The brigade plan had placed the 2nd Devons behind the Hampshires and the Dorsets in the order of assault. 50 Division were in the centre of the operation, storming Gold Beach, with the Americans landing on Omaha and Utah beaches to the west, and with the Canadians tackling Juno Beach immediately on the left flank. Beyond the Canadians, the 3rd British Division was landing on Sword Beach. The extreme left flank was to be held by the 6th Airborne, coming down to the east of the river Orne, and holding the bridges there. The right flank of the invasion was similarly the responsibility of American airborne forces, dropped in the neck of the Cherbourg peninsular.
Gold Beach centred on Arromanches, though the first landings were aimed a little to the east of the town.
Large map from Victory in the West showing British and Canadian positions at the end of D-Day
231 Brigade, the right leading brigade, was to touch down between Le Hamel and Les Roquettes, and then swing right for Arromanches, and inland and right for the village of Ryes, then further west to reduce a coastal battery at Longues.
Ryes and the Longues battery were tasks given to the 2nd Devons. Landing behind the Hampshires, they were to assemble in Asnelles village, about a mile straight inland from Le Hamel, and make immediately for Ryes up the valley of a stream over-named La Grande Rivičre. The capture of Ryes and the Longues battery was vital to the success of the subsequent landings on Gold Beach. The forward elements of the 7th Armoured Division were due in three hours after the Devons. On the next day, work was to start on assembling the prefabricated Mulberry harbour–the main means by which the bridgehead was to be filled with sufficient troops and equipment to beat off the counter-attacks certain to come quickly. Unless the bridgehead expanded to schedule, the whole operation of the build-up would lie threatened by German thrusts at the beaches. And it was against this east and south-east flank of the bridgehead that the first heavy counter-attacks would come. The 2nd Devons, in short, had a key job.
Things didn’t go wrong for the battalion until the last minute as the assault landing craft bucketted their way from the comparative stability of the Glenroy towards the unbelievable actuality of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall–unbelievable because the shore from a distance, in the grey light of early morning, had about it no sign of being any sort of Atlantic Wall.
The whole affair, indeed, to that moment, had been unbelievable in its peaceful progress from the previous evening.
As the Glenroy, among the ships of the fleet bearing 50 Division, rounded the Needles, the setting sun had fallen on the quiet green fields of the Isle of Wight. The heavy seas, that had kept the evasion tossing off-shore for the twenty-four hours of the postponement, had now subsided into a choppy swell.
No cheering crowds, not even the hoot of a siren, had made memorable the moment of weighing anchor and steaming west down the Solent. In circumstance, it might have been another exercise except for one or two gathering and unmistakable arguments that it was not. Squadron after squadron of planes overhead roared and droned and vanished off to sea. Also out to sea were to be distinguished two more immense divisional fleets, linking up for the assault But the surest indication of D-Day for those embarked on the venture was the tension and excitement within themselves. The light began to fade, and England had dissolved into the darkness for the watchers on deck. The men settled down to sleep fitfully on the steel floor of their quarters below. For the more imaginative, it was difficult to sleep away such a moment m history. At one o’clock in the morning, news was that the fleet was altering course from a line aimed at Le Havre, to bear directly at the Normandy beaches.
At 3 a.m., from the bridge, beyond the outlines of the ships, away to the right and left, could be seen in the distance the first flickering of the battle into which they were going—star shells and irregular flashings in the sky, but so far away as yet to be without noise. Presumably the airborne landings. The sea seemed to be getting rougher, but it might have been the night shadows on the water.
At 4.30, in the grey seepings of dawn, the men were roused and given breakfast of bacon and beans. About an hour later, the engines stopped. Word went round that they were seven miles off shore. The men were ordered to get into their equipment. Then the climb up the iron ladders, and across the slippery deck to where the landing craft swung, ready for lowering.
In the water, the LCAs rode like corks, but occasionally not quite riding the top of a wave, when spray would rise in a drenching cloud and smother the tight-packed mass of men and their equipment. The men squatted, according to orders, and could see little of what was going on. Many of them, from the change from the big ship to the bucking assault craft, were being very sick, despite the infallible pills. The noise and excitement grew. Against the background of the bombardment from the sea, a terrific noise from rocket ships split from somewhere level with the assault craft.
The landmark was the spire of Asnelles church, now clearly visible as the LCAs neared to within a few hundred yards of the beach. At the same time became clearly visible the stake defences, sticking out of the water, each topped with a mine. The tide was now so far up, there was no question of grounding below them. The assault craft reduced speed to manoeuvre round the obstacles, and immediately began to be carried eastward off course.
At last they were there. ‘This is as far as I can get you in, chaps,’ sang out the Navy. ‘Get ready.’ The thing first to be faced was four and a half feet of icy water. Once in that, came the struggle ashore over the uneven sand-bottom, full of dips and holes into which men vanished, with the water closing over their heads. Laughter here was one odd reaction, until the Devons began gradually to drag themselves out onto the beach. Here there was nothing much to laugh about. Instead of a beach already captured and cleared by the Hampshires, with signs set up pointing to the assembly area, was a chaotic scene, with swarms of men lying flat on their faces to offer the minimum of target. A little up the beach, stood a German pill-box, the gun crew lying dead around it.
Instead of landing near Le Hamel, all but ‘C’ Company of the battalion had fetched up well to the east, opposite Les Roquettes.
From the Real Counties of Britain by Russell Grant. Oxford: Lennard Publishing, 1989
The battalion plan, after the landing, had envisaged assembly in the village of Asnelles, which now was far off to the right and anyway in no likely state to permit assembly. Colonel Nevill was temporarily without ‘C’ Company, which had touched down at the right spot near Le Hamel and had gone straight into the fighting there under Major Duke. But Ryes remained the battalion objective, and the scheme to reach it up La Grande Rivičre could still be tried by looping round Asnelles and cutting into the valley beyond the village.
The battalion set off from the beach in single file. ‘A’ Company led, followed by Advanced H.Q., then ‘D’ Company, then ‘B’ Company minus its company commander, Major Howard, already injured and out of it.
So, in single file, because of the narrowness of the footpath, flanked by mines, the Devons left behind the still-contested beaches and prodded further into Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The immediate bit of it promising trouble was the high ground to the left, over- looking La Grande Rivičre. Even the original route, from the Le Hamel beach through Asnelles and thence up the valley, had given cause for concern about this high ground. The maps showing the enemy positions in detail had placed machine-guns thickly on the hill. Now, starting from Les Roquettes, the companies would have to pass much nearer to the marked positions. Nor was there any cover.
The lines of men moved forward at a good speed, clothes drying on them, first along the lane running south from the village, then cutting west to hit the valley south of Asnelles. They were shaking off the chaotic conditions of the beaches. But the country round was manifestly alive with the invasion. Men were being sniped, and at intervals a concentration of mortar fire on the column showed the manoeuvre was not entirely escaping the enemy. One piece of luck was that nothing came from the machine-gun positions on the hill.
When the three companies were eventually gathered in the new assembly area they had come through with no serious reduction of efficiency except the loss of another company commander, Major Parlby, of ‘D’ Company, wounded in the leg.
There were hopes now of being through the enemy crust. ‘A’ Company was to lead the attack on Ryes, and to begin with the advance up the cover of the valley went unhindered. A new sort of excitement had replaced the dramatic confusion of the landings. The adventure became personal among these comparatively quiet fields and thick-hedged lanes. This was the Devons’ own D-Day. They forged on, with still no opposition, until the village lay little more than half a mile ahead, and it seemed the long-trained-for task was to be a walk-over….
The staccato rattle of a spandau, lost straightway in a chorus of small-arms fire.
The German fire had been held to the last minute, and ‘A’ Company found itself thoroughly involved in close-quarter fighting—too close for the only artillery support, available from the destroyer on direction from the Forward Observation Officer. The battalion’s own mortar platoon (with the carriers and anti-tank guns) was not yet ashore.
‘A’ Company, under Major Sadlier, advanced on the enemy positions, cleverly sited in the hedges and among the trees. But the fields of fire were too well laid for any quick advance, and the company’s 2-inch mortars alone gave inadequate cover. ‘A’ Company, thrusting forward in despite of these handicaps, started to take casualties.
Colonel Nevill decided to disengage ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies. Leaving ‘A’ Company to hold the Germans along the river, he tried a new push up the main road further to the west. Now the Devons managed to get through, and fought to the fringe of the village. More fighting awaited them in the streets. But, by four o’clock in the afternoon, Ryes was captured and consolidated.
On the other hand, all three companies had been committed and would have to be reorganised, and in places disengaged, before the battalion could set off for its next objective, the battery at Longues.
The arrival in good shape, however, of ‘C’ Company from the beaches, where they had fought in the battle for Le Hamel most of the day, gave Colonel Nevill a chance to move towards the Longues battery. ‘C’ Company joined up at Ryes about seven in the evening, and were sent straight on to see if they could make good the intervening high ground, mapped as the Masse de Credaille.
They had brought details of the saddest loss so far sustained by the battalion. The greatness of the adventure had been seen by no one in clearer perspective than by the commander of ‘C’ Company. Finding that he and his men were the first to land at that particular spot, and that the landing plan had gone astray, Major Duke immediately went forward to reconnoitre how best the company could help the local situation. The sniper who killed him couldn’t know what a blow he struck at the battalion in the death of this 25-year-old officer, whose buoyant spirit had been an integral part of it since Malta. But a high price had been allowed for the success of this vital first act of invasion. So far as concerned the 2nd Devons, that night they counted their casualties as two officers * and twenty other ranks killed; six officers and sixty other ranks wounded.
* Note: The other officer was Lieutenant Smith, who fell in the fighting before Ryes.
‘C’ Company wasn’t after all able to take the Masse de Credaille, being held up at La Rosičre, a mile short of it. But nightfall brought the safe arrival of the mortar, anti-tank and carrier platoons; thus it could be a properly organised and equipped battalion to face the fighting of the next day. At least, the first part of the job was done, after the disconcerting start. Rumour said the 7th Armoured were landing rapidly. The Devons got little rest that night as the companies were sorted and disposed for continued operations at dawn.
So D-Day, that had bulked so enormous and endless for its tasks to be accomplished, finally slipped off unnoticed amid the urgent roar of the bombers overhead, the continuous battering of the guns, and the private speculations—staunch, apprehensive, trustful, according to character—that hovered briefly before a blessed hour of sleep on the hard ground of Normandy.