Embarkation and Disembarkation

 

Embarkation and Disembarkation


We moved to an Embarkation Area near Brighton. All leave had been stopped and no civilians were allowed within the area. Whilst there, we heard the news of the initial landings in the early hours of the morning of the 6th June in Normandy, preceded by the airborne attack. The whole show was American and British (the latter including Canadian forces) and stretched from very near Cherbourg across the beaches of Normandy north of Caen.

We were due to embark from Tilbury docks, London. The days seemed to go by very slowly as the news from the invasion front came back and we were still twiddling our thumbs, waiting. The weather deteriorated very badly and held up any movement so that we were delayed, moving up to Tilbury docks on 16th June. The march through the London suburbs to Tilbury was very moving and emotional. There was no hiding the fact we were off to Normandy, with the Regiment in full war paint and guns all ready. I was leading my Troop in a Carrier with the pennant flying from the aerial. The guns are the Colours so all guards (including the Household Cavalry) presented arms as the guns went by.

The Infantry of the Division embarked at Newhaven and Southampton on LSIs (Landing Ships Infantry) and cross channel steamers. The majority of them landed on the open beaches near Courseulles-sur-Mer involving a long wade, chest deep through the shallows.

The Divisional Artillery arrived at the docks as the first of the flying bombs appeared over London and it was eerie to hear their engines cut out followed by the loud explosions of the one ton warhead landing somewhere on London. This haphazard bombardment became worse for the Londoners as the V1 bombs, travelling faster than sound, arrived at such speed they were not heard until the devastating explosion. Six thousand Londoners were killed by the flying bombs followed later by the V2 version which caused a further three thousand fatalities.

We eventually embarked on the 17th June in the SS Sam Houston, a US-built Liberty Ship, from which, on our arrival in France, we would be dropped over the side onto Jumbos/Rhinos. These were large, flat rafts with motors at the two rear corners capable of carrying the whole of the 25-pounder troop of guns: my vehicle, the four guns and trailers and their ammunition limbers.

A heavy storm battered the beaches from about the 17th to 22nd June resulting in seasickness amongst most of the chaps so it was quite a relief to be put over the side and to be heading for the shore. The first serious casualty suffered by the Division was the loss of almost the entire Reconnaissance Regiment of the Division when the MT (Motor Transport) Derry Cunihy exploded and split in two, with nearly all the men and officers either below decks or in cabins beneath the bridge. She sank rapidly and, in a matter of seconds, number 5 hold - with the majority of the men - was under water. The Reconnaissance Regiment suffered 180 missing and 150 wounded. However, the landings proceeded over open beaches and our vehicles and guns were trans-shipped off Sword beach very successfully, so much so that I don’t recall any one of my vehicles failing to get through the surf, a tribute to the waterproofing carried out by their drivers.

The Provo Company (the Division’s Military Police), worked well and the familiar Wyvern sign with black arrows on a white background marked the route to the Division’s concentration area north of Bayeux. The Guns were in action almost immediately having the ammunition readily available from their own trailers and great dumps of ammunition had become visible almost by magic, evidence of the far-sighted planning of the admin staff. Some farm buildings and villages had been completely obliterated and there were numerous signs - DANGER MINES - and evidence everywhere of the initial fighting: mess tins, helmets with holes in and still more nasty signs of the hard fighting.

It was sunset on 24th by the time the whole Division was concentrated. The Infantry was once more linked up with their transport, their kit packs had been landed and blankets were handed out and unrolled. It was a perfect midsummer night, clear and cool, so that despite the dislocation caused by the recent drastic storm, the 43rd Division was at last ready to advance into the battle for which it had so long been preparing. The guns and the gun position staff were already hard at it and the whole beachhead seemed to be bristling with Artillery.
When the initial landings had taken place the Germans, with Rommel in command, had committed all their armoured reserves available locally - the 21st Panzer Division, the 12th SS Division and the Panzer Lehr - in a series of fierce but rather disjointed counter attacks. These failed and he changed his tactics, deciding to cordon off the bridgehead so as to gain time to stage a really powerful armoured counter-offensive.

The role of the Division for which we had been trained was that of a Breakout Division, to secure the beachhead and break out inland, against strong defensive positions and we were now about to experience what that actually meant. The Division consisted of three Infantry Brigades, 129 Brigade, 130 Brigade and 214 Brigade, each having a Field Regiment of Artillery in direct support. Our own 179 Field Regiment was in direct support of 214 Brigade consisting of the 7th Somerset Light Infantry, 1st Worcestershire’s and the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s. My own Battery, 173 Battery, was in support of the DCLI (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry), with our own Battery Commander being “in the pocket” of the Battalion commander, Colonel Atherton, and the Forward Observation Officers’ (i.e. the troop commanders’) artillery were with the leading Companies of the Battalion. In my case, I was with Major John Fry, Commander of D Company, the Cornwall’s.

The task of the Division was to leapfrog the 15th Scottish Division (my brother Ken was serving with an Artillery unit in that Division) taking over each objective as soon as possible after capture and continuing the advance. An endless stream of traffic in both directions choked the battered roads and the dust was in thick clouds with sickly fumes of petrol and hot rubber so that, in the intense heat, some of the men felt quite strange. It was their first encounter with real action.

Peasants, apparently indifferent to the war, were still working and cutting hay in the fields. They had been occupied by Germans for four years. The country in many ways was very similar to the richer parts of Devon: fields of standing corn alternating with pastures surrounded by high hedges and old dry ditches. The roads were mostly tracks, sunken and offering perfect cover to resolute defenders. Viewpoints, particularly from the point of view of the Artillery, were few in number and very limited in their range. The small villages were strongly built with narrow passages between the farms and houses set amidst the orchards. Many of the older manors and farms were of great age, having massive stone walls and heavy timbers, ideal as defensive localities.

I was moving forward with D Company of the DCLI in my Bren Carrier marked RF (Roger Fox), meaning the OP vehicle for Fox Troop. We moved across country, skirting the village of Le Mesnil-Patry on our right and to our left the village of Norrey-en-Bessin, each village having been battered into rubble by incessant mortar fire from the German multi-barrelled mortars. It was an extremely hot June day and, moving through the cornfield cross country downwards towards a stream called La Mue which we crossed without any great difficulty, we started to climb up a slight slope toward a contour marked 100 on the map, just south of the village of Cheux.

There was continuous fire from our own Divisional Artillery and an appalling stench from cattle killed, their legs now pointing skywards, not to mention the bodies of both German and our own troops lying amidst the corn. Our own Colonel Pethick was severely wounded whilst accompanying the Brigade Commander on a reconnaissance and was flown back to England. Our second-in-command Major Sir John Backhouse assumed command of 179 Field Regiment.

 

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