23 D Day

When we was getting near France and I realised this was it, I was like a jelly – nerves.  I wasn’t no hero

Brodick Farmer, Isle of Arran   The commandos trained here.

His Sister, House Owner, Brodick, Isle of Arran   By jove yes, and the damage they did.  I didn’t know until afterwards that I could have claimed compensation.  Oh, they smashed everything.  Some of them were just like wild animals, wetting their beds.  The place was almost practically new and the mess they made!  Some of the hotels closed down and went away.  They cleared out.  But me –   the authorities came to me and said I had to take these commandos.  I said I couldn’t take them – I was all alone.  Oh they insisted!  I had to.  There was no escape.

Brodick Farmer, Isle of Arran  The commandos, the first time they arrived here, I think it was a January afternoon, a cold blustery afternoon it was.  There was a dozen places on Brodick beach they could have landed them quite sensibly, and the Navy were bound to know, because Brodick is probably one of the best examples of a sloping beach in Britain, and there was no difficulty in getting them to land their landing craft on Strabane beach – right up.  But of course, Commander So and So, whoever was in charge, landed them out in the damn sandbanks, and the poor fellers had to get into the water, and make a human chain and load all their stuff across, some of them standing up to their shoulders.  And believe me, that water is cold!  We were absolutely sweating, watching them.  There was a score of places on the beach they could have run the landing craft right up and landed them and run their stuff ashore.  They learnt that later on, but this was the first lot that came in.  I said “My God, look at the Navy!”  Some of the fellers must have been in a devil of a state because they were standing for a long time, and they were handing their gear from one to another, and on to the shore.

And then there were a lot of young “brilliant” officers – hard fellers – they were in it for the money, and straight away they’d take them for these fearful route marches and then walk them straight down into the sea with all their kit on.  On one occasion one fellow put them right over the end of the pier and they struggled their way ashore – to make them tough.

I remember poor old Charlie, he was the Brodick Hall keeper.  He and John MacBride were two of the greatest assets Brodick ever had.  Charlie was having a dance in the hall. It was full of the commandos.  He put down his jacket to sweep something up, and when he went to get his jacket they had rifled his pockets.  Charlie was a great philosopher.   He said “Isn’t it a terrible thing to think that anyone would be low enough to rob the pocket of a working man.”

Fusilier   During the pre-D Day landing exercises at places like Inveraray and Rothesay guys were throwing their weapons overboard.   I can assure you this was no just a matter of them larking about.  The real reason for throwing phosphorous grenades and dumping their bullets and bombs overboard was that they just didnae want to know.  They didnae want to get their faces burned or a bullet through the bloody head.  It’s as blunt as that.  The whole area must be loaded up with enough weapons and gear to start another bloody war!

Leeds Man   We had a particularly nasty bully in the ——— Infantry.  When they went abroad on D Day  I went to a holding battalion, and then on to another holding battalion and bumped  into two or three of the old ———- Infantry men there.  One night we were talking and I asked “What happened to Captain So and So?”  “He was dead before his feet reached the sand.”  “What?  They got him so quickly?”  “No, they didn’t get him.  We got him.”  His own troops shot him.  They shot him in the back as they landed on D Day.

Wanstead, East London Woman   We knew when it was going to be D Day because they were on the Flats, all the soldiers, getting ready.  My mate lived in Sydney Road.  We used to talk to them from her upstairs window.  They told us something was going to happen.  They said they didn’t know exactly when they were going.  They weren’t allowed out at all.  That’s why we talked to them from the window.  You couldn’t talk to them otherwise.

Winscombe Girl  We served the Americans in the shop and delivered papers to the Headquarters, for the Commanding Officer.  He had heard that my Father had died and came into the shop to say how sorry he was, and to cancel the papers and pay up because they were all leaving for France.  They were supply troops.  This was a week after D Day.

East London Boy  I had a marvellous experience at work.  I was supposed to have studied French at school and I had a vague knowledge of it, about enough to say Hallo to somebody.  I worked as an apprentice making radios.   I got one of these radios going and they announced the D Day landings – in French.  It hadn’t been announced in English.  The bloke I was working for had been a pilot in the Spanish Civil war, on the Republican side, and I called him down.  It kept giving out these reports, and he could understand.  I ran out into the street and I told everyone the army had landed, and nobody would believe me!  I was really upset as I knew the armies had landed.

Fusilier  At the height of the Normandy landings almost every police station and detention camp in Britain was jam-packed full.  In Glasgow alone, at places like Blythswood Police Station, deserters were twelve to a cell.  Maryhill Barracks was like the Black Hole of Calcutta – Edinburgh Castle likewise, and that story was repeated up and down the country.

Sketch:  Walter Morrison

Sketch: Walter Morrison

I was in the first wave on D Day.  It was supposed to be half past six in the morning, but we was late again!

Royal Engineer  The British Army was late again!  8 o’ clock we got there.  We went from Gosport.  We was kept up there for six weeks in the “cages” – a bit white camp, all under canvas.  You couldn’t get outside the perimeter wire.  They had guards on it – Redcaps and dogs.  We had all our last minute secret training in there, but no-one knew when it was going to be.  They was all over England, these camps.  You kept doing the same thing over and over again.

Once a week we had to all put on our battle order.  We had special assault jackets, different to the army uniform.  They put us on lorries and took us to Gosport harbour.  We embarked on tank landing craft and they took you out into the Channel.  Maybe four hours.  The next week you thought: Hallo?  What’s going on here?  We were away, so we thought.  But they brought you back.  Back to the routine.  We didn’t know when we were going out whether it was training or for real.  Of course, the last time they took us out I thought to myself:  we’re out here a fucking long time.  And the blokes are saying “What the fucking hell’s going on today?  We want to get back!”  Then the Captain who’s driving this fucking boat came round and gave you the word – that this was the real thing.  The old padre came at us, and you’re going “Cor, fucking hell!  I wish I’d known this!  They wouldn’t have got me out!”  But up to that time you were in the routine.  You was taking orders.  The preparation was so strict and intense, from the time we got to Gosport.

You was all split up into your little groups.  They split everybody up into small groups so that in  case of casualties – in case a whole lot got wiped out – you still had a unit.  There was only me and a mate of mine – us two engineers on that one boat.  Then we had anti-aircraft gun, bren carrier, few infantrymen, few ambulance men – all mixed, so that whoever got there, you had something of each.

You had your map reference when you landed, where to go.  If you were interested.  Course, some went that way, and some went the other way!  But where could you desert to?

You took a chance whatever way you went.  You didn’t know what you was going into.  When we were getting near France and I realised this was it, I was like a jelly – nerves.  I wasn’t no hero.  I don’t think nobody was.  I was a coward.  I admit that.  It’s a sensation you can’t explain.  It’s a gradual process.  It’s like indoctrination.  After a couple of days you’re getting used to it.  Someone’s slinging shells at you and it goes Bang! bang! – and you’re diving in ‘oles.  It becomes a matter of – like a rabbit – you come out to feed and do something, and every time the noise goes – you’re down your ‘ole.  I was the fastest of the lot!

You see some weird things in war.  Once you get involved in war, I don’t care who you are, if you’re up in the forward area, where there’s any action at all, I say every man turned into an animal.  The conversion was gradual.  From the time you got there you started living like an animal.  You got involved in casualties.  In dead bodies and living in ‘oles in the ground for a while and in old bombed houses.  You gradually changed.  Didn’t matter how timid or what sort of person you was, you became an animal.  You didn’t notice it.  When you first arrived after D Day and you see a couple of bodies blown to bits, it turns you up, and you’re looking to see if you could do anything. Three weeks, a month later, they’re still lying there.  You just walk past them.

John thorpe005

When you landed on the beach you was like a load of – how can I say? – a load of kids on an outing

We landed on Bénouville beach, though no one tried to tell you what your objective was.  Ours was Bénouville Bridge.  We had to meet up with the 6th Airborne who’d landed in front of us and captured the bridge.  But we didn’t know whether they had captured it or not!  We had to walk there.  Find our own way there.

When you landed you had all your colours – gold, red – and your boats went for that.  We were getting shells.  The Beachmasters landed first – blokes on the beach with flags, waving them in.  They were fucking heroes – all them blokes.  Them and the M.Ps I think.  They talk about M.Ps being bastards – the Corps of M.Ps might have been,  but your own M.Ps that was attached to your unit, they was alright.  They’d stand on point duty if they was putting an attack in, and the transport had to move up.  They’d be standing on point duty on a branch road in the country and they’d be getting knocked out right, left and centre.  About six in one day we got killed.  As soon as one got killed, they’d say to another one “You – point duty” and as they were going up there – Bang!

You got so it was your last day.  Do what you could today – it didn’t matter about tomorrow.  Anything could happen.

When you landed on the beach you was like a load of – how can I say? – a load of kids on an outing.  Everyone’s wandering around, once you got there.  As soon as they realised the first attack had gone in and it was serious they started slinging a few shells back.  Where we landed was only a narrow beach, about fifty yards wide, and the tide had started going out.  We were supposed to have got in on a full tide, but as we were late it was on its way out.  We was about fifty yards out but the Captain of the boat said “You’ll be alright, I’ll run you right up the beach”, which he did.  They was all doing that – banging them right up onto the beach.

I hung on the barrel of this anti-aircraft gun, so I wouldn’t get my arse wet.  I wasn’t going in the water for no fucker – I’d have sooner gone back.  Everybody was on the beach.  It was jammed up.  They had a casualty clearing station up one end, dug in some cliffs.  They were taking the casualties in there.  There was a little stone wall – a parapet wall along the front and we was up behind that, crouching.  All of us.  No fucker would move.  They was all piling up behind there.  No one knew how to get to where they were supposed to go.  You’d say “Where you going mate?”  You walked, run or got a lift up there.  They was all going to the same place – Bénouville.

It was everyone for himself when you got there.  There was a bit of an opening where the road came down to the beach and they was all making for that.  And the first thing I see, laying in the middle of the road was a green beret and a blown up bike.  All smoking.  Bits of rag.  He got a direct hit with a mortar, this commando.  They landed with them folding bikes.  That was the first one I saw.  I thought: Oh no.  I didn’t want to know much, so me and my mate Tosh thought:  Let’s fuck off and get out of it.  We shot up the road into a churchyard.  We sat in there for a couple of hours.  Had a fag.  Thought: fuck it, what are we going to do now?  We gradually worked our way up.  As we were going up they came over and dropped another load of airborne troops.  The 6th Airborne went in first – the old Flying Horse Pegasus.  They called it Pegasus Bridge afterwards.

I was in the forward area all the time.  It was a three mile area, which wasn’t very nice because you was getting the short distance shells, and you went up with the infantry

Some of the Infantry wouldn’t move without us, and we wouldn’t move without the Infantry – that’s how you used to argue!  It’s unbelievable.  If they had to go out on a night patrol and they came up against a minefield they’d send back for us.  “Fuck you”, we’d say “we’re not going up there to get shot” – and you’d be standing there arguing.  That’s how the army was running!  The officers would sort it out.  A sapper in the RE’s was equal to an Infantry lieutenant.  When the poor Infantry used to shake in their boots at a lieutenant, we used to tell them to fuck off.

After a couple of days at D Day the next wave landed and they went up to take over from our division, but they ran into a counter attack, and got knocked back.  Our division, our infantry had to hold on where they were.  It was six weeks before we got a break, we got a rest.  We got stuck at Bénouville Bridge, on the River Orne.  Our objective was the town of Caen.  Our infantry got there, but they got knocked back, so we were stuck where we was.  First thing we had to do was lay two thousand mines, right across our own area.  This was all night work.  Couldn’t do it by day – they’d see you.  You had no time that was your own. You lived from day to night, day to night.  Working and sleeping, working and sleeping.  By this time you was doing things automatically.

You’d be lying in your ‘ole, clothes on with your boots on.  You could never take your boots off.  You were never allowed to.  I suppose the idea was if you got caught and you tried to run with no boots on rough ground….  – Anyway, you’d be lying in your ‘ole and a Corporal or one of your mates would come and say “Come on Spot, we’ve got a job to do.”  They called me ‘Spot’ because my name was Thorpe – from the poem “Under the thorpe, there’s a little town, Half a Hundred Bridges” – Tennyson’s Brook.  “By thirty hills I hurry down, Or slip between the ridges, By twenty thorpes, a little town, And half a hundred bridges.”

They’d say “We’ve got a minefield to lay.”  You’d go and get your box of mines and put ’em on the lorry and take ’em as near as you could.  Then you’d have to hump them across fields – two thousand of them, in the middle of the night!

Months afterwards, when everything has moved forwards, you was the only ones who had a map of the mines, so you had to go back and clear ’em.  You had to leave the forward area and clear your own minefield.  We lost one once!  We lost one of our own minefields!

I was a nervous wreck on mine clearing

You had to keep your wits about you.  Our own mines were bad enough, but the conditions when you was clearing German mines…  We didn’t use the mine-detector for the simple reason that they was useless.  Once you’d put those earphones on you couldn’t hear the shells, so we slung them round our necks.  They were cumbersome and they were too big, so they issued us with a long steel knitting needle, three foot long.  That’s what we had – probes, they called them.  With an ordinary landmine it wasn’t heavy enough to set it off.  But they surrounded them with little shoe-mines – little wooden box shoe-mines.  If you touched those  – they was away.  But you could, if you was clever, get your points in ’em and throw ’em up in the air, and they’d go off!  That’s how you got – you couldn’t care – “Get out the fucking way!” – and we’d sling ’em, and Bang!, off they’d go.

They was catching quite a few, with them.  A half-track or small vehicle would pull up in a field and a bloke would jump out and step on one of these little shoe-mines.  Bang!  It used to split your bone up your shin.  They was all losing ankles, so they used to issue us out with wellies.  Wellington boots  and a three foot knitting needle to stop ’em!

All the time I was there, right through to Germany and 1945, I only came across one journalist in the forward area.  The rest were well behind.  They took the army handout.

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