BATTLE OF THE BRIDGEHEAD
June to August 1944
‘After that raid, I went over about ten yards away to the next gun because I couldn’t see anything moving and there were my mates on the bottom of the trench. They had been cannon-shelled, mostly through the head.’
ON the night of June 13, headquarters and A Troop of 317, now camped at Rowland’s Castle outside Portsmouth, boarded a US tank landing ship. After anchoring for 36 hours in the Solent, they sailed for Normandy on the morning of June 15, arriving off Jig Beach opposite Le Hamel near Arromanches the same evening.
Next day, as German aircraft attacked the beachhead, the battery disembarked and linked up with its B and C Troops, which had sailed earlier in tank landing craft. The newcomers were immediately deployed on the high ground at Periers-sur-le-Dan, west of the Orne, in defence of 3rd Division field guns. HQ was established at Hermanville. Ironically, a marching party of reinforcements for C Troop under the command of Jack Prior had arrived in advance of the whole battery, landing on Juno Beach at La Valette in the Canadian sector on June 11.
After helping out with traffic duty in the severely congested beachhead, Jack made his way to Benouville, where F Troop was still valiantly holding the line against repeated German attempts to destroy the bridges. On June 14, he temporarily joined F Troop as a replacement for Lieutenant A J Hands of 318, who was wounded during shelling.
Two days later, three enemy aircraft – two JU 88s and a DO 217 – were shot down as they targeted the bridges, but Gunner Golbourne was wounded. On the 18th, there was a concerted attack by ME 109s, coming in waves of three and two.
Jack Prior finally linked up with C Troop at Periers-sur-le-Dan on June 20, the same day that the troop scored its first Category One in Normandy by shooting down an FW 190, capturing its pilot after he baled out. Over the following fortnight, shelling intensified, inflicting casualties throughout the regiment.
At the Plumetot airstrip, the F Troop men were allowed a little respite after their nine days of action around the bridges and troop headquarters was set up in a series of slit trenches under a big hedge on the outskirts of the village. Nearby was a stone-built, shed-like building littered with red-tipped German blank cartridges, possibly left by troops on an exercise. While there, F Troop was to receive replacement guns which had been fitted with drum rangefinders to help when taking part in the now-frequent ground shoots.
The 92nd LAA men were also assigned to protect the little Auster planes which were sent into the air each day from Plumetot to spot targets for the battleship Rodney. The huge warship lay off the coast near Sword Beach, waiting to receive information radioed by the Austers. Its 16in guns would then open fire – sending one-ton shells up to 20 miles inland to break up German troop and tank formations.
Jim Holder-Vale recalled: ‘Most mornings Jack Taylor and I would be off with the gun protecting the Austers. What with that and line maintenance, it was a busy place for us.’
It could also be a hazardous place. ‘At one time, we were having our evening meal there when a large gun at Le Havre fired a shell which went over with the noise of an express train. The shell was said to have landed in Plumetot village – it made one hell of an explosion.’
But, thanks to some impressive improvisation, Jim got the chance of something most of the men were by now longing for ... a good wash. ‘Soon after we arrived there, someone turned up with a German field kitchen, which was very efficient at heating water. So I filled it and lit the fire and then took a large canvas bag, which was issued to waterproof our wireless sets, and put it into a shell hole supported by four upright stakes. I then poured the hot water into this.
‘As it was my idea and my bag, I had the first bath. By this time I had quite an audience, which included Lieutenant Dizzy Marsh. Jack Taylor followed me. I can’t recall if anyone else did, but Dizzy wanted a bag if there was one spare. I gave him one, but I believe someone pinched it before he left.’
As men and vehicles poured into the still-narrow beachhead, space was at a premium and tanks regularly broke the telephone cables laid by the driver-ops. ‘So Jack Taylor and I were out most days doing repairs,’ Jim recalled. ‘It was not easy, as sometimes there would be a whole bundle of cables mangled together, and there were only a limited number of colours.’
To ensure they joined the correct ends of each cable, the driver-ops resorted to old-fashioned but trusted technology – the safety pin.
‘We used a pin in a length of cable attached to a field telephone,’ said Jim. ‘The pin was inserted into a damaged cable and the phone handle turned to ring the phone at the other end. By discreet questioning, we soon found which unit the cable belonged to and the necessary join was made.
‘It was time-consuming, as the cable was made up of a number of steel wires and one copper conductor. These were joined with a reef knot and taped. It could be a very scary job at night, particularly as we never knew the password if challenged.’ It was doing cable repairs that led to Jim’s fellow driver-op Ken Nash smashing his ankle while riding his motorcycle and being sent back to the UK.
Despite being temporarily out of the front line, nerves still jangled. ‘There was a sergeant there who had nightmares,’ said Jim. ‘It was quite spooky to hear him shouting in the night!
‘Captain Reid used to join us most evenings for a meal when we would sit round and chat. He told us the latest intelligence, which was mainly concerned with the build-up of the German forces facing us. He had a young infantry officer join him one evening. Afterwards Captain Reid told us the poor man was shattered at the fierce fighting and didn’t expect to live much longer.’
‘Because of the mounting opposition we had 100 per cent stand-to every evening and morning with me on the Piat!’
Tragically, it was at Plumetot that the gunners lost one of their most valued comrades. Len Harvey recalled: ‘Sergeant Fletcher called the F3 gun team together with Harry Pryer and Johnny Thompson, the two layer replacements for the men we had lost on Horsa Bridge. There was a shout from the far end of the field. It was our driver, Ike Parry, to tell us he had arrived with our new gun. Sergeant Fletcher set off across the field.
‘Eric Sheriff and I followed about six to eight feet behind when, suddenly, there was a shush and a very loud bang. An 88mm shell had landed in the field about 25 yards to the side of us. Sergeant Fletcher hit the ground, Eric and I hit the ground, and we lay there while more shells landed close by.
‘An 88mm gun fires at very high velocity and the shell travels faster than sound. So if you hear 88mm shells coming, they will land to your right or left, or have already passed over your head. The 88mm shell that is aimed for you, you will not hear until it explodes. When the shelling stopped, Eric and I stood up, but Sergeant Fletcher lay motionless. We looked at the path of shrapnel through the grass and saw it went straight towards him.’
Eric shook the sergeant by the shoulder, saying, ‘Are you OK, sarge?’ But he only groaned with pain. Len said: ‘We called Arthur Greaves, our troop medic, and he came running with Sergeant Connor. They rolled Sergeant Fletcher over and loosened his jacket and trousers. He was seriously wounded in his stomach and we did not think he would make it. He was taken away on a stretcher and we never saw him again.’
Philip Parks was preparing breakfast for himself and his fellow gunners when the shell struck. ‘Dad knew it would only be eight seconds before the next shell landed and he managed to get to Sergeant Fletcher, applying first aid and getting him away to a field dressing station,’ said Gunner Parks’s son, Philip.
Thanks to the quick action of his comrades, Sergeant Fletcher survived his terrible injuires. ‘Years later, our family met the Fletcher family by chance in Carlisle Station and Sergeant Fletcher told us how Dad had saved his life in Normandy and how grateful he was,’ said Philip Parks.
Len and Eric realised they had had another narrow escape. Len recalled: ‘For the second time, Eric said to me, “We’re going to come through this war.” The first time was when we should have died in that slit trench during the mortar attack on the bridge. They’d missed us again.’
Sergeant Fletcher’s replacement was Sergeant Billy Hewitt – promoted from bombardier – who would remain with F3 to the end of the war.
Protecting the Auster spotter planes was an important task for F Troop, because the small Air Observation Post light aircraft were unarmed and had a maximum speed of only around 130mph. To guard them from shellfire while on the airfield, they were dug into trenches with only their wings exposed.
Once in the air, they were extremely vulnerable. So F Troop would send out one of its Bofors and a radio truck to where an Auster was flying and site the gun so that it could open fire on any enemy aircraft that might try to shoot down the Auster. It was a job close to the heart of the 92nd’s CO, Colonel Bazeley, who had put his gunners up for the task because he had earned his DSO while serving with Austers in North Africa.
Jim Holder-Vale particularly enjoyed being the F Troop wireless operator on these assignments. Enthralled, he would listen in on the radio net to the precise, clinical exchange of messages between the Rodney and the observer in the Auster, which brought death raining down from afar on the Germans.
‘It was really interesting,’ said Jim. ‘The observer would say something like, “Target One” and the Rodney would acknowledge and say, “One gun ranging.” Then you could hear the whoomph of the shell being fired.
‘The observer would then say something like, “500-12.” I think that meant the shot was at 12 o’clock and 500 yards too far. So they would fire another ranging shot. They never said, “Fire,” they always said “Shot.” Then the observer would say, “On target,” and the Rodney would say, “All guns shoot.”
‘Next minute, the observer would say, “Hit ... hit ... hit ... hit. Target destroyed.” Then there would be a pause and the observer would say, “Target Two ... one gun ranging.” And it would start all over again. This would go on and on for hours. I never knew what the targets were, but I know from reading books subsequently that the Germans hated it, particularly the armour.’
However, one such assignment ended with Jim and Jack Taylor becoming targets of the Germans. As they drove one morning to rendezvous with their gun, their lorry came under small arms fire.
‘Somebody had spotted us,’ said Jim. ‘We got out of the truck and jumped into a slit trench. I don’t know how they knew we were there, but every time we stuck our head up, they had another go. It went on for ages. Then some Dakotas flew over dropping supplies by parachute for the Airborne. But Jack, being so short-sighted, thought at first they were German paratroopers. We were in a panic there for a moment!’
It was on an Auster protection assignment that Lieutenant Dizzy Marsh lost one of his most prized possessions – an American Colt automatic pistol, which he wore in a holster slung low on his right thigh. ‘He was the officer in charge and occupied a slit trench in front of mine where I had the wireless,’ Jim recalled.
‘I saw him take off his belt and lay it at the side of his trench. But what I didn’t see was the going of his gun. We were with an infantry mob who were constantly passing our position. Our lads were on the gun, so when Dizzy found his prized weapon had gone, he gave vent to his feelings, which I thought was directed at me. After all, I had also been there when his waterproof bag disappeared!’
June 24 saw tragedy strike C Troop as it took its guns across the road junction at Mathieu under mortar fire. Sergeant John Hesford, standing up as he attempted to force his men’s heads behind the armour plating of the guns, was killed and Lieutenant John ‘Robbie’ Roberts was wounded.
‘Lieutenant Johnny Kitchin and I managed to reach a trench just in time to be missed by the mortar shell,’ Jack Prior recalled. ‘But it took Robbie a few seconds longer to get off his motorbike and throw himself on top of us, by which time he had been hit in the hand.’ The body of Sergeant Hesford was taken aboard his gun and carried to the field regiment area.
There were more mortar attacks next day. But on June 26, the British artillery unleashed a devastating bombardment on the German positions north of Caen, with one thousand guns each firing 250 rounds. The following day, Gunner Newcomen of C Troop was seriously injured by mortar shrapnel as he raced for the cover of a trench. At Colomby-sur-Thaon and Anisey-le-Mesnil, B and F troops gave anti-aircraft protection to observer planes.
Following the Sambut disaster, the survivors of RHQ and the two troops of 318 had by now been re-equipped at Blenheim Barracks, Aldershot. On June 28, they moved to a camp at Silvertown in the East End of London, prior to embarkation. Here, by an amazing but happy coincidence, there was an encounter between Major George Williams, CO of 318 Battery, and the father of Len Harvey.
Len’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was working as a stonemason for Stepney Council on bombed buildings near the docks. Seeing the 92nd LAA convoy passing, he noticed that the men wore the same uniform markings and badges as Len, but he had no idea of what had happened to Len since before D-Day. Len’s father approached Major Williams and told him that he thought his son may be part of his unit. To his delight, Major Williams told him he knew Len and that he was already in France, and – as far as he knew – was well.
Next day, the 92nd RHQ contingent embarked from Southend in convoy aboard the liberty ship SS Samark, the same day that 319 Battery and some Canadian units sailed from Tilbury aboard the transport ship Coombe Hill. The Channel crossing in the Samark was mercifully uneventful following the tragedy of the Sambut. However, there was a moment of high drama when explosions reverberated around the ship as depth charges were dropped after a submarine was reported in the vicinity.
On July 2, the Samark berthed near Courseulles-sur-Mer on Juno Beach – close to the constantly firing guns of the battleship Warspite – and the Coombe Hill arrived in the same vicinity. Once the troops, guns and vehicles were unloaded from both ships, they set off to join up with their comrades inland in Normandy. At last, the whole of 92nd LAA was reunited.
318 was deployed in the Hermanville area to protect a gun and vehicle concentration, while 319 moved to the Anguernay area of the Periers Ridge, joining 317. Soon after, 319 almost achieved a Category One which might have changed the course of world history.
Ronald Prince, the former corporal from the 7th Loyals who was now a bombardier, recalled how G Troop was on alert one day when one of the air sentries spotted a Fiesler Storch flying over. The Storch (Stork, in English) was a German short take-off and landing light plane similar to the British Lysander. ‘It’s a bloody Fiesler Storch,’ said the excited spotter as he told the Bofors gunners to range in on it.
The crews confirmed the sighting and got the slow-moving, low-flying plane in their sights. It would have no chance. Then, as they were preparing to fire, Bombardier Prince suddenly recalled that one of the Allied top brass, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, head of Fighter Command, was known to be using a captured Storch for his sorties over the battlefield. ‘It’s not a German – it’s one of ours,’ Bombardier Prince frantically told the gun crews.
But they did not believe him. Aircraft recognition had been drummed into the gunners from day one, and – although in Allied markings – this was definitely an enemy plane. And to an AA artilleryman, an enemy plane had only one purpose … to be shot down. However, Bombardier Prince pleaded desperately with the gunners to spare the little aircraft, pending confirmation, and it moved safely out of range.
It was a close-run thing. For during this period, Broadhurst was regularly using the Storch – which he had captured during the Western Desert campaign – to take visiting VIPs on a tour of the battlefield. And his distinguished passengers included the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, a future U.S. President. The loss of either would have given 92nd LAA a very unwelcome place in history. As for the quick-thinking Bombardier Prince, his possible saving of one or two of the most important figures of the 20th century has gone unrecorded until now.
Heavy shelling, strafing and low-level bombing continued to inflict casualties on the gunners as the Germans tried to drive the invaders back into the sea. Bill Wills at one stage found himself near a dressing station that was being shelled and dived into what he thought was the safety of a trench – only to realise to his horror when he finally emerged that he had taken refuge in a pit full of explosives, which were being stored there.
But on July 4, Maida Day – marking one of The Loyal Regiment’s main battle honours – was remembered, as was the fourth anniversary of the raising of the 7th Loyals. Later that day, as the guns again engaged enemy planes, the 92nd’s beach ammunition dump was shelled, the resulting blaze attracting salvoes of enemy artillery fire.
Two days later, there was drama off the beachhead when a flotilla of German ‘human torpedo’ one-man midget submarines infiltrated between the Allied ships and sank three. Fifty Germans were reported to have landed. ‘Prisoners to be taken alive,’ was the order.
On July 7, men of the 92nd watched in awe as 450 bombers pounded much of Caen to rubble in an attempt to force a way into the city for the ground forces. ‘They flew directly overhead, quite low, straight into the flak from Epron and round Caen and dropped phosphorus and high explosive bombs,’ said Jack Prior.
‘The raid was very concentrated and a cloud of dust, ashes and burnt paper spread over our area, so that it was impossible to see more than a few yards. The raid lasted for half an hour, after which we felt it fairly safe to assume that the German Army on the rear slope of the ridge before Caen had had it, for we too were affected by the phosphorus fumes.’
Next day, A, B and C Troops moved forward with the advance, but the attack stalled. As the Allied bridgehead was consolidated and the battle to capture Caen continued, the 92nd remained static with its HQ at Colleville, suffering many casualties. On July 9, Captain Reid was wounded when a shell exploded nearby and buried him along with two other officers. The three men were dug out and the two other officers were found to be unhurt, but suffering from shock.
However, Captain Reid was badly wounded in both hands and was evacuated back to England the following day. On July 11, the men of F Troop – who had been in the line since D-Day – and those of 317 were given priority to move to rest areas in La Delivrande for a brief respite from the battle.
As the Luftwaffe tried to recover its balance, its planes made frequent bombing and strafing sorties. At St Aubin on July 12, a bombing raid by a JU 88 left a crater 50ft wide and 20ft deep, but no casualties. Two days later, the Germans made a concerted attack on the forward field gun areas with waves of between nine and 15 ME 109s and FW 190s. Seven Category One claims were submitted.
On the 17th, D and E Troops of 318 moved east of the Orne to protect an airstrip. The following night, the men of 318 came under devastating attack by a JU 88 dropping anti-personnel bombs. Sergeant Alfred Penrose, Lance-Bombardier Cyril Guest and Gunners Gordon Bone and Frederick Kemp were killed and Lieutenant Russell and two other men were wounded. At noon next day, the fallen were buried.
The terrible danger from the air was graphically illustrated in an incident recalled by Tom Cribb in an interview in 1994. He told how he and his comrades would fill empty ammunition boxes with earth and pull them across the top of their slit trenches as extra anti-aircraft protection.
‘One night, Jerry came over and was machine-gunning and cannon-shelling up and down the field. We could feel all these shells and things coming though the wheat and spattering across the top of the slit trench into the boxes filled with earth and stuff. It holed them, but it saved us.
‘After that raid, I went over about ten yards away to the next gun because I couldn’t see anything moving and there were my mates on the bottom of the trench. They had been cannon-shelled, mostly through the head. If only they had been told to pull the ammo boxes across and fill them with earth, they would probably have been all right.’
It was bombing and shelling by an unseen enemy that ground away at many men’s nerves. Bill Wills recalled: ‘Going over to Normandy, I had no apprehension at all. What I had expected was that it would be something like we had learned about the First World War – sitting about in shell holes. I didn’t start to feel apprehensive until we started getting shelled and mortared. It was terrifying.’
The 18th saw the start of Operation Goodwood, Montgomery’s mass armoured attack out of the Airborne bridgehead to try to capture the Bourgebus Ridge south-east of Caen. 3rd Division, now commanded by Major-General Lashmer ‘Bolo’ Whistler after Major-General Rennie was wounded on June 13, protected the left flank, fighting forward to Toffreville, Manneville and Troarn.
On July 19, Major Crane and three other officers of the 92nd equipped themselves with Jeeps and a wireless and moved forward to set up a counter-mortar observation post, hoping to strike back at the German weapon which was causing so many casualties. Next day, amid torrential rainfall, two posts were established on the ridge of the Butte de la Hogue with a radio link to divisional artillery headquarters.
‘They met with fair success, although the methods at that time were somewhat experimental,’ wrote Captain Almond. ‘Their equipment was a compass, a watch and a map. Despite initial lack of skill, many accurate fixes were made and a number of mortars were knocked out or otherwise silenced.’
Lieutenant Johnny Kitchin of C Troop, 317, wrote: ‘All busy junctions could expect to receive showers of mortar bombs several times a day, as we found out when trying to move our guns forward. I was the first officer sent from our battery and I had with me Sergeants Allen and Kendrick (great chaps) and a wireless operator. We approached our vantage point at night and called in at 318 Battery HQ.
‘They gave us a cuppa before we went on over the ridge. We found an old German dugout, which was useful, except that the entrance faced the Germans, but it was big enough for four of us and we built a wall in front of the entrance. There were other similar small units like mine spaced out along the ridge overlooking the Germans, and when a shower of mortars fell, we had to take the time of flight, then get an angle on the small crater in order to pinpoint the position of the minenwerfer (mortar projectors), which were mobile and as soon as they had discharged their 20 barrels moved away smartly.
‘All the units such as mine were in radio contact with brigade or Army HQ and from the information sent immediately by us, they could put down a concentration of artillery at once and hopefully catch the Germans before they could move. When the mortars were not falling, we had the nasty experience of being shelled by 88mm guns – with their flat trajectory and high muzzle velocity.
‘It was not pleasant, especially as we had a pile of German mortars a little distance from our dugout. They were probably booby-trapped, so we dared not try to move them. However, we survived, and I believe relieved the infantry casualties from mortar attacks.’
Jack Prior recalled how the counter-mortar system, though seemingly makeshift, worked remarkably well right from the beginning, especially because of the radio link-up. ‘It had, of course, to be practised before it worked every time. But within a few hours, the German mortar crews suddenly found themselves being bombed or strafed by our Typhoons or Spitfires.
‘Naturally, the mortar crews speeded up their delivery and then tried to hide in nearby woods, but the RAF pilots were not easily fooled and it was very rewarding for us when we sent in a target and saw within seconds that the enemy was under severe attack from the air as a result of our efforts.’
As the counter-mortar units became more experienced and successful, they formed a vital element of the division and were eventually afforded the status of a distinct unit. Later, in Holland, they also targeted V2 launch sites along the Maas and Rhine, helping alleviate some of the destruction the rockets were wreaking on London and the South East of England.
On July 21, as Goodwood developed, more elements of 92nd LAA – including F Troop, back from its rest area – crossed the Orne and deployed in the neighbourhood of Ranville and Herouvillete, with RHQ at Escoville. Two days later, 317 took up positions at Escoville, 318 at Le Mariquet and Herouvillette and 319 at Cuverville. Units also deployed on the Butte de la Hogue.
Bombing attacks continued and on July 25, Sergeant Connor and Gunner Arthur Greaves were killed and four men wounded when four 500lb bombs were dropped on F Troop area, collapsing their dugout on top of them. Among the wounded were Gunner Gerry Connor – the sergeant’s brother – Gunners Hardwick and Furniss and Corporal Wright. Gerry Connor was buried in the blast, but managed to get out. The bombs also destroyed all F Troop stores and several vehicles, including a water carrier.
Sergeant Connor, aged 32, died shortly after being promoted to Warrant Officer Class II, becoming Battery Sergeant Major. A regular soldier, he had joined the Cheshire Regiment in 1933 and was one of eight brothers from the same Liverpool family who saw service during the Second World War.
He had originally been away from front line service, training officer cadets. But after the death of his wife, he asked his brother to ‘claim’ him into 92nd LAA. Another Connor brother, 24-year-old Anthony, serving with the East Lancashire Regiment, would die two months later near Eindhoven in Holland.
After the July 25 deaths, tragedy continued to strike 92nd LAA. Just two days later, Signalman John Henderson was killed and three other men wounded in heavy bombing during which three 1,000-pounders fell around 317 headquarters. But an FW 190 was shot down and 318 and 319 took part in a night barrage on the Hermanville Ridge under the control of 40th LAA Regiment.
This period was ‘singularly unpleasant,’ Captain Almond noted. Bedevilled by lone JU 88s which dropped anti-personnel and high explosive bombs – as well as propaganda leaflets advising the British to surrender – the regiment countered by starting night barrages.
‘All ranks enjoyed these barrages, which were fired along likely bomber run-ins,’ the captain recalled. ‘At first sight, they appeared a trifle chancy, as early warning consisted largely of the whistle of the first bomb. But they worked very well and there was an appreciable slackening of the enemy’s air effort.’
The night barrages were controlled by a command post back near the beaches, with orders transmitted by radio. Each gun had a set bearing and elevation for a particular ‘box’ – or sector – of the sky, which was named or numbered.
‘The command centre gave its orders over the radio and operators such as myself would relay them to someone who shouted the details to the gun,’ said Jim Holder-Vale. ‘The area was plagued with mosquitoes, which we tried to keep away by continuously smoking – as we were in a tarpaulin-covered hole, we could scarcely breathe. We were also issued with anti-mosquito cream, a pleasant-smelling, green Vaseline-like stuff.’
Another experiment by the 92nd around this time proved to have its share of hazards – instant excavation of gun pits. ‘We soon cottoned on to the fact that there was a quicker way of producing a large deep hole than by merely using a pick and shovel,’ recalled Jack Prior. ‘This was to get hold of some anti-tank mines and set one of them off in the desired location. We tried this several times and it worked a treat, so long, of course, as one took ample cover while the debris was being flung to the four corners.
‘Of course, there is always one idiot in any group of people, and when one chap suggested it would save us even more digging if we used two mines one on top of the other, we decided to give it a go. A brave “volunteer” dug a suitable small hole, put the mines in, fitted a detonator, tamped down and withdrew to join the rest of us before winding the handle.
‘Unfortunately, we had all overlooked the synergetic effect, and on this occasion one plus one certainly equalled more than two. First, the world went up into the sky. Then, as is its wont, it all came down again. But, in addition to going higher, it also spread itself wider and we were bombarded with mud and stones for what seemed ages.
‘Fortunately, the gun was well away, but even that was hit. There were questions by neighbouring troops as to the origin of the exceptional bang, but that was all – except, so far as I know, the experiment was not repeated.’
A hazard which bedevilled the driver-ops was tanks tearing up the phone lines they had carefully laid. Bill Wills and his colleagues had been dismayed to find themselves laying numerous phone cables when they got to Normandy, because their training had been focused on wireless communication.
But, shortly before the invasion, the top brass apparently decided that radio links were not needed between individual troops and batteries, and phones would suffice. ‘I often used to chase tanks in a Jeep trying to untangle my phone lines,’ said Bill. ‘It got so bad I decided I would go out at night and repair them. It meant I was able to sleep during the day.’
However, the phone lines brought a bonus for the 92nd LAA men. ‘I used to get the BBC news on a radio and I found a way of connecting it to the phone circuit,’ said Bill. ‘I would put the news on every night and a battery could pick up the phone and listen to it.’
After holding the Goodwood flank for almost three weeks, 3rd Division moved back west of the Orne on July 31 and next day 92nd LAA occupied St Aubin and Beuville, with 319 Battery at Cresserons. The division’s next task was to join Eight Corps in a southward drive out of the beachhead towards Vire. The aim was to intercept German forces falling back under the onslaught of the Americans, who were now breaking eastwards in Operation Cobra.
By August 2, the 92nd was on the move, with 318 based in an orchard near Caumont and 317 at Quesney-Guerson. August 3 saw 319 drive forward to St Martin des Besaces on the main Caen-Avranches road, defending divisional HQ administrative area, while 318 protected field gun areas.
That same day, Major Williams was killed in a road accident near Reviers as he travelled back to Cresserons to be a member of a court martial. He was stepping out of his Jeep when he was struck by another vehicle. Major Williams’s brother, Lieutenant Ronnie Williams, had been killed in France in 1940.
On the 4th, a gun of G Troop was blown up by a mine, but only one man was injured. Next day, the regiment went three miles further down the Caen-Avranches road to Foret L’Eveque, with 318 established at Le Beny Bocage – where Major J Wilkinson, commander of A Troop, took command of 318. 317 deployed at Mazieres and 319 at Le Bas Mougard, still defending divisional HQ. Here, Lieutenant Richard Forbes of 319 died of wounds and was buried in the cemetery at St Jean des Essartiers by the padre, Captain L J Birch.
On August 7, the regiment was deployed in front of Vire, with RHQ at La Viellere. At this stage of the campaign, with the Allies in complete command of the air, the need for anti-aircraft cover was not as pressing as it had been in early June – since July 31, the 92nd had fired only ten rounds against fleeting German targets. But in the protracted fighting for Caen, British infantry casualties had been unexpectedly high. So on August 8, came an order which was ‘a bitter blow’ to everybody, Captain Almond wrote.
The regiment’s strength was halved, with three of the 40mm troops – C, E and H – and the three 20mm troops, X, Y and Z, being disbanded. Each 40mm battery was reduced to two troops, each having one towed and one self-propelled Bofors detachment. The personnel thus released were sent back to England for redeployment as infantry, or as artillery specialists. Some were dispersed to other units in the division.
The regimental make-up was now 317 (A and B), 318 (D and F), 319 (G and I). Each battery retained a mobile counter-mortar observation team consisting of a sergeant, a bombardier and four gunners, equipped with wireless, Jeep and a 15cwt truck. The divisional anti-tank regiment furnished the plotting centre and an armoured observation post and 92 LAA provided HQ.
‘It was hard to say goodbye to so many old friends in the 40mm troops and to the 20mm troops who, although they had been in the regiment a comparatively short time, had by their work firmly established themselves as part of the regiment,’ wrote Captain Almond.
One of those transferred out of the regiment was Tom Mason, who was sent back to England for six weeks of infantry training. However, he was dismayed to find that tactics had been slow to adapt to the realities of modern warfare. The emphasis was still on rifle drill and bayonet practice, whereas on the battlefield most soldiers preferred to be armed with sub-machine guns. Tom ended the war serving with the Highland Light Infantry.
Another old hand who left 92nd LAA was Peter Connelly, who was transferred to 1st Battalion, the East Lancashire Regiment. In January 1945, the 34-year-old Liverpudlian was killed in action in Belgium, leaving a widow and a three-month- old son.
The regimental reorganisation was barely sinking in when there was fresh drama. On August 9, the gunners nearly became victims of their own side when three American Thunderbolts wheeled over the 92nd’s area and dropped six bombs around 318 and 319 headquarters. As the explosions reverberated, recognition flares in the colour of the day were desperately sent skyward to warn off the pilots. There were no casualties, but the incident was immediately reported to divisional headquarters.
By this time, the American air force had become notorious for bombing shortfalls, which had killed hundreds of troops from their own side. Recalling the 92nd’s narrow escape, Jack Prior ruefully quoted the battlefield maxim: ‘When the British start bombing, the Germans take cover. When the Germans start bombing, the British take cover. But when the Americans start bombing, everyone takes cover.’
Next day, 319 moved to La Groudiere, two miles north-east of Vire. On the 12th, 318 moved forward to La Diabline, encountering many mines and booby traps – one detachment of F Troop neutralised more than a dozen Teller mines. The local people were ‘very friendly’ and were allowed to listen to the news in French on 318’s radio.
Indirect firing, using radioed or telephoned co-ordinates to bombard an unseen ground target, was becoming a larger part of Bofors operations as the threat of German aircraft temporarily receded. Because the 40mm shells self-destructed after a few thousand feet, they could be used in open country for low-level airbursts against enemy positions – sending out a fierce hail of shrapnel. Fired into buildings or wooded areas, the shells would explode against walls or trees, with similar devastating anti-personnel effects.
‘By the time we left the Caen sector we were confident that we could shoot along the ground and shoot with success,’ wrote Captain Almond. ‘A salvaged steel pipe sawn into cross- sections, tinned and engraved by REME personnel, provided our sight drums and officers and NCOs trained hard in the new method of firing whilst keeping watch on the skies.’ The first major indirect fire shoot took place in support of Operation Wallup, a divisional artillery barrage, on August 11. Some 1,200 rounds were fired at a crossroads, but the Germans had pulled out of the target area.
However, when the enemy were caught in a bombardment, the impact of concentrated 40mm fire was awesome. ‘A Bofors could fire 120 shells a minute and with six guns in a troop, that meant more than 700 shells a minute landing on a target,’ said Len Harvey. ‘It must have been terrible to be on the end of that. The infantry told us that prisoners they took after a shoot were bomb-happy, immobile with shock.’
On August 13 the regiment moved to La Graverie and three days later to La Saliere, with 319 HQ at Landisacq and 317 in the Tinchebray area. The battle was moving very quickly, with frequent actions against enemy aircraft. At one point, 318 engaged six FW 190s which carried black and white striped Allied markings under the wings. The regiment moved to St Quentin les Chardonnets before concentrating on August 20 near La Chapelle Biche, south-west of Flers.
The regiment was strung out along the edge of the ‘great dark’ Halouze Forest. After looking at it ‘apprehensively’ for a day or two, it was decided to comb it for German stragglers – ‘Boches, booby-traps, booty and any suspicious persons or materiel.’
By now, the German armies in Normandy were being wiped out as the great Allied pincer closed around Falaise – the Americans swinging north from their eastward drive, the British and Canadians pushing south out of the Caen bridgehead. Trapped in what became known as the Falaise Pocket, where they were relentlessly bombed, strafed and shelled, 10,000 enemy troops died and 50,000 were taken prisoner.
The sight – and smell – of the German columns of men, machines and horses strung out in smoking devastation along the roads where they had vainly tried to flee from the Allied onslaught etched itself into the minds of those men of the 92nd who saw it. ‘It was a terrible thing to see,’ recalled George Baker. ‘There were bodies everywhere, men and animals. It was slaughter, sickening. We were glad when we left that place.’
Jim Holder-Vale and a comrade passed through the Falaise area in the aftermath of the German rout and were shocked into silence. ‘It was one of the most breathtaking scenes we ever saw,’ Jim recalled. ‘It was beautiful sunny day, but we never said a word to one another – we just drove. The sides of the road and the fields were just littered for mile after mile with burned-out vehicles and equipment.
‘I even saw a massive steam engine red with rust, lying on its side like a child’s toy, as well as tanks and dead horses. I think most of the dead soldiers had been removed, but it was a very hot day and the smell was still terrible.’
After capturing Flers, 3rd Division was ordered to halt for ten days of rest and refitting. This started for the 92nd around La Chapelle Biche, where on August 24 a gymkhana and sports day was held in ‘perfect’ weather. Recreation was interspersed with training, including a night bridge-crossing exercise and Piat anti-tank shooting.
At the start of September, 3rd Division began moving north-east to a concentration area near Les Andelys, south of Rouen, to prepare for its next assignment – the thrust into Holland and Germany as part of Operation Market Garden.
The 92nd crossed the Seine at 2am on September 3, and deployed around the village of Vatismesnil near Etrepagny, with 318 basing itself in an old brickworks. The success of the Allied breakout was causing severe problems as the armies outran their supply lines, so petrol was temporarily rationed to 18 gallons per battery. For the 92nd, there followed a fortnight of training, maintenance, PT and route marches.
F Troop practised indirect firing at Les Andelys and A and B troops practised at Beauvais. On September 8, 319 personnel searched woods at Provemont for enemy troops. After the bitterly-fought battles of the beachhead, there was a temporary respite and a chance to reflect. ‘The magnificent sight of the chateau at Les Andelys in moonlight will always remain with me as a contrast to the unpleasantness of the previous weeks,’ said Jack Prior.
‘Another enduring memory is of theunlimited masses of mosquitoes, which prevented sleep almost as effectively as the enemy. Sleep was also difficult in the bocage area, when we had to be alert for “friendly” tanks turning off the roads through the hedges where we were trying to sleep. The safest places at that time were close to the field guns, but of course their noise inhibited sleep much of the time.’
Jim Holder-Vale was also enthralled by the sight of the chateau. ‘It was the Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lionheart, and it was lit up by bright moonlight above us on the cliffs as we crossed the Seine by pontoon bridge,’ he recalled. ‘Although I had only ever seen a picture of it as a schoolboy, I knew instinctively what it was – if not its name – and I am still thrilled by the thought of it.’
Sightseeing trips were arranged to Paris, which – since its liberation – had seen few British troops. Ten men from each 3rd Division regiment were chosen to enjoy this wonderful bonus after their Army numbers were pulled at random out of a bucket. To his delight, Len Harvey’s ticket came up.
‘We arrived at the Arc de Triomphe at about 9am,’ he recalled. ‘Word must have gone round very fast that British troops had arrived. The people came out in hundreds. We were kissed, cuddled, photographed and cheered every step we took. It was liberation all over again and they really showed their gratitude.
‘We were given a tour of the city in troop carriers. At Notre Dame, a nun pinned a St Christopher on my uniform. “It will bring you luck, Tommy,” she said. Paris was a beautiful city. We stopped at the Eiffel Tower, but were not allowed to go up because the French police thought the Germans might have booby-trapped it and it was yet to be checked for explosives. What a beautiful tower – I vowed that one day I would return and go to the top. I have since kept that promise.’
Another 92nd LAA man who went to Paris was Philip Parks. However, he and Len were among the lucky few. Further trips were cancelled as the war moved on.