SWORD BEACH AND THE BENOUVILLE BRIDGES
Tuesday, June 6, 1944
‘We were told that if the enemy were to recapture those bridges, the whole invasion would be put in jeopardy. We were to defend to the last.’
ABOARD LCT 405, there was immediate drama. ‘A submarine had been detected and destroyers began racing up and down the convoy dropping depth-charges,’ George Baker recalled. ‘As they exploded, the landing craft almost jumped out of the water with the blast.’
In choppy seas, the massive convoy – in the 3rd Division assault flotilla alone, there were 350 vessels, including 132 tank landing craft – steamed through the short summer night.
On board, apprehension was growing. ‘But the main feeling was that we wanted to get on with it,’ said George. ‘We still didn’t realise what we were going into, but there was no turning back.’
As LCT 408 ploughed through the swell, the crew of Gun F3 made a pledge among themselves. When the traditional rum issue was handed out during the crossing, none of them drank it, most being too seasick to stomach it. Instead, Sergeant Fletcher suggested that they should pour each individual portion into one single jug and put the whole lot to one side aboard the gun for safe keeping. The rum would not be drunk, they vowed, until they could use it to toast the end of the war.
As the light faded, the landing craft were shepherded across the Channel amid a seemingly endless line of frigates, destroyers, cruisers and heavy warships, with motor torpedo boats swerving in and out of the fleet. ‘There were dozens of aircraft overhead – Spitfires, Hurricanes and Typhoons circling the fleet for protection, but soon it was dark and we could hear the noise of heavy bombers on their way to the Continent,’ said Len Harvey.
Late in the afternoon, the men finally learned what they would be facing when they landed in Normandy. ‘Our officer, Lieutenant Nigel Coombs, called all the boys together and told us where we were going and what our task was to be. He said we had to get through as quickly as possible to the two bridges to give support to the Airborne in holding them, even if it meant leaving the other half of the troop behind.
‘We were told that if the enemy were to recapture those bridges, the whole invasion would be put in jeopardy. We were to defend to the last.’
High above the darkened ships, men of the British 6th Airborne Division were also en route for France. At 16 minutes after midnight, a specially-trained reinforced company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry commanded by Major John Howard landed by glider almost on the Benouville bridges. In a swift and dramatic coup de main attack – easily the most successful operation of D-Day – they captured both crossings from German soldiers who were stunned by the unexpectedness of the assault.
The canal crossing was later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the winged horse symbol of the Airborne forces and the river crossing was dubbed Horsa Bridge, after the gliders which carried the men to war.
Control of the bridges, and keeping them intact, was vital to the success of the invasion. It meant the Germans could not use them for a flank attack on the seaborne assault troops, while Allied forces could cross them and form a defensive shield east of the Orne. F Troop’s D-Day mission was to race to the bridges, deploy its guns around them, and stop enemy planes destroying them or ground forces recapturing them.
As the grey dawn of June 6 broke in the Channel, a sight unfolded that would forever be imprinted on the memories of the men who saw it. More than 6,000 vessels covered the sea from horizon to horizon, the greatest seaborne force ever assembled, carrying 150,000 troops of the spearhead divisions to the beaches of France.
On LCT 405, George Baker watched awestruck. ‘It was incredible,’ he said. ‘You would never believe how it could have been done – the organisation it must have taken to land so many men and all their vehicles and equipment in such a short time.’
At 7.25am, preceded by amphibious Sherman tanks of the 13th / 18th Hussars, the assault infantry of 3rd Division’s 8 Brigade began landing on Sword Beach on a narrow front between the small seaside resorts of Colleville and La Breche d’Hermanville and started fighting their way inland. Meanwhile, a Commando force under Lord Lovat, memorably accompanied by Piper Bill Millin, headed for the Benouville bridges to reinforce Howard’s hard-pressed Airborne troops.
Next to land would be 185 Brigade, followed by 9 Brigade – to whose convoy the 92nd’s two LCTs were attached. However, the first men ashore from the regiment were the F Troop CO, Captain Reid, and Sergeant Francis Connor, both of whom went in with the first waves of the assault infantry.
They then accompanied Lord Lovat’s Commando force to reconnoitre towards Benouville by motorcycle. Their job was to find suitable locations around the bridges for the guns, mark them out, and to be ready to receive the main body of the troop.
On reaching the bridges, Captain Reid at one stage went forward alone and came under sniper fire as he checked out the area. But he and Sergeant Connor successfully completed their vital reconnaissance.
By 9.30am, the two F Troop landing craft were about three miles off the beaches. But they were not due to start their run-ins until 1pm, touching down at 1.25pm on Queen Red sector of Sword Beach near Colleville Plage.
Jim Holder-Vale, who was aboard LCT 405, recalled that it was a fine morning, with some sunshine. ‘I did a two-hour listening watch on the boat’s radio, for which the operator gave me a Navy blanket sleeping bag, which did good service over the next few months,’ he said. ‘Ken Nash and I spent most of the time on the port side of the craft under the bridge. Our skipper was the flotilla leader, so our LCT was leading a line of six with another line to our starboard. Accompanying us was a corvette.’
By an astonishing coincidence, one of the officers on the escorting corvette was Ken Nash’s father.
During the crossing, Philip Parks, on Gun F6, got into a game of cards – and won a sum of money which, after the landings, he sent home to his wife in a brown envelope. However, the sight of the envelope would initially fill her with dread rather than delight, because she feared it was an official letter saying he had been killed or wounded.
As LCT 405 got nearer to Normandy, those aboard strained to see the shoreline. ‘Eventually on the horizon we could see what looked like a film set, the dark line of the coast with plumes of dark smoke rising to the east,’ said Jim Holder-Vale. ‘About the same time, we saw our first body float by – a German airman in his pale blue flying suit.
‘Then, quite close, a horned sea mine wandered by, which Ken and I watched with some fascination. Kiwi, the skipper, came out on to the bridge and called down that a mine had been seen nearby and would we watch out for it. He was none too pleased when we told him it had already gone past – he thought we should have told him.
‘Soon, we were starting our run-in. Then Kiwi told us that Ken’s father had sent across a radio message from the corvette, sending his best wishes to Ken and to all of us.’
Jim recalled that his feeling at this time was one of apprehension, a little fatalism, but also faith in his training. ‘Just go along with what was happening – that seemed to be the way I reacted. We were doing this and, like it or not, this was our fate.’
But instead of continuing its run-in, the landing craft turned and proceeded to circle. ‘Kiwi came on to the bridge again and told us the beach was too crowded for us to land and we had to wait until it had cleared. However, some years after, I found that according to the ship’s log we were delayed because the beach was under heavy shellfire. I gather that the battleship HMS Rodney was sent to deal with a heavy gun at Le Havre.
‘After a while, we started again. Our craft, as the leader, was now at the east end of the line as we approached the beach. Suddenly, a large spout of water shot up on our port side and it sounded as if the bottom of the LCT had been struck by an enormous hammer.
‘Kiwi called out to us to go to the sides. There we found a number of wooden packing cases had been lined up – at least we would have something to cling on to if we got hit. There was another spout on the starboard side and a loud bang, and it occurred to me that we had just been bracketed – that’s the way they got the range, with the first two shots. The next one should be a hit. But I don’t know if there ever was a third shell, because we were suddenly told to mount up into our vehicles and start up our engines, not forgetting to release the fixing chains.’
LCT 405’s 19-year-old First Lieutenant, Arthur Walters, recalled: ‘The German guns had found our range during the first run-in. It was quite fascinating, not particularly scary, but I remember well the plumes of seawater coming up in between our craft. Fortunately, none of the shells hit and so we just ploughed on through it.’
It was 2.30pm by the time the landing craft approached Queen Red opposite the village of Colleville sur Orne (renamed Colleville Montgomery after the war in honour of Field Marshal Montgomery). Arthur Walters, wearing his anti-flash gear of protective gloves and balaclava, went forward to supervise the lowering of the ramp and the disembarkation of men and vehicles.
He said: ‘I can remember during this time seeing bodies floating past and wrecked landing craft drifting some way off the beach – in particular, an LCT of similar mark to my own, with an empty open tank space but with a vacant, flattened, smoking quarterdeck, where there used to be a wheelhouse, wardroom, and bridge superstructure – and no sign of life. The sight of such a familiar craft in such an unfamiliar, almost unrecognisable, state, I found quite uncanny.’
Ahead of Arthur went an Able Seaman, an Irishman named Breen. Wearing a lifebelt and attached to a lifeline, he had the unenviable task of checking the submerged beach for hidden shallows and mines before the vehicles began rolling off the LCT. He returned safely and was rewarded with an extra tot of rum.
Jim Holder-Vale recalled: ‘The landing craft came to a smooth stop and the ramp was lowered. The first vehicle off was one with a winch at the rear in case of any mishap and a vehicle needing help. But it drove straight into a large bomb crater in the sand and we had all disembarked by the time it was freed. It didn’t take long for us to disembark. We had been directed by a beachmaster to turn to the left and make our way to the nearest exit.’
As George Baker drove off the LCT in a 15cwt truck, he was painfully aware that the huge fleet of Allied warships off the beaches were constantly firing inland. ‘You could hear the 16-inch shells rifling over your head,’ he recalled. ‘My one thought was, “I hope they don’t fall short.”’
Tom Mason recalled: ‘I wasn’t seasick going over and I didn’t feel scared at all – I don’t know why. Once things get going, you just don’t feel scared. Someone on the landing craft was singing and I smoked constantly – I was smoking my brains out! Then as we neared the beach I saw the big warships blasting away with their heavy guns and a few corpses floating by.
‘As we left the landing craft, the first thing I saw were bulldozers digging big temporary graves for the lads who had fallen. They filled them in until the bodies could be taken away later for burial.’
Tom also told how he witnesseda horrifying incident. ‘I saw a line of about eight German prisoners in the charge of two Redcaps, military policemen. Then a Scotsman came along with a Luger pistol, pointed it at one of the Germans and shot him, saying: “That’s for my mate.” The Redcaps wouldn’t touch him. He may have shot them as well.’
Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor were last off the landing craft in their truck. ‘We were at the rear of the queue and stopped,’ said Jim. ‘I now had to jump out of the cab and get under the truck to remove the waterproofing sealant from the breather on the differential on the rear axle.
‘This gave me the chance to look round. The first thing I saw was a corpse rolling in the surf – that was pretty horrible. I came from under the truck and saw that the beach was very narrow and we were fairly close to the sea wall. Lying against the sea wall were dead bodies that had been collected, mostly covered with gas capes. There were quite a lot there. Looking further along the beach, I saw explosions from shell or mortar fire.
‘Back in the cab, Jack couldn’t get the engine to start. This was prone to happen – unfortunately, for the D-Day landing our original 15cwt Bedford wireless truck had been replaced by a four-wheel drive Canadian Ford. The Ford’s engine had the nasty habit of dying when the truck stopped. And that’s what happened on the beach. So Jack set off to get help while I admired the view.
‘We got a tow start from a Bren gun carrier and set off to catch up with everyone else. The exit was through some sand dunes and was marked by white tape only wide enough for one vehicle. Just as we turned into the exit, a truck in front was hit by a shell. From nowhere, medics arrived with a stretcher.
‘I then looked up to see three Junkers bombers overhead. One pulled away and dropped a stick of bombs – I thought they were intended for the landing craft. Almost immediately, some Spitfires turned up and in no time two of the Junkers had been shot down. I didn’t see what happened to number three.’
As Arthur Walters watched the guns and men safely disembark, he clutched thoughtfully at the Colt .45 pistol which had been issued to him before setting out. ‘I had orders to wear it and to use it against any unauthorised person who might attempt to board while we were beached,’ he recalled. ‘And it was made clear to me that this included friend or foe.’
At this hour of the invasion, the military planners had anticipated a counter-attack by the Germans being in progress, with the possibility that some British troops might be keen for a quick return to England. Thus came the uncompromising command to the landing craft officers. ‘I was relieved at not having to put this order into effect,’ said Arthur. ‘And at not causing myself any accidental damage, for which these Colt .45s were notorious!’
At 3pm the LCT, despite triggering a small beach mine, pulled back off the sand to return to England and pick up further troops for Normandy. In all, it would make 27 crossings. The vessel immediately on its starboard side, LCT 1023, was not so lucky. It suffered a direct hit from a German shell and was badly damaged, but later salvaged.
For the other F Troop men on LCT 408, there was equal drama and hazard. Approaching the beach, the landing craft was diverted at the last minute by a Tannoy call from a patrolling Navy motor launch – thought to have been the Crocus – possibly because of some unseen hazard, such as a mine.
‘At first light, we could see the coast being bombarded by 16-inch guns from the Ramilles and Warspite warships,’ said Len Harvey. ‘In between the two heavy craft were two LCTs firing salvo after salvo of rockets. I was certainly glad I was not on the other end of what was going inland. Just then, shells from the shore started landing in the water around our craft. The skipper on his Tannoy ordered all Army personnel to keep down and take cover. I never saw another thing until the ramp went down.’
But there was further drama before the shore could be reached. When the LCT finally started its run-in, a wave carried it on to an overturned landing craft, and the impact pierced the side of the vessel. The LCT became stuck fast on the wreck, with shells starting to land all around it. But, just as its prospects were starting to look bleak, a second wave came along – and, mercifully, pushed it off again. However, the peril was not over. As the landing craft came free, the hole in its side left it in danger of foundering.
The skipper urgently ordered everyone to move to the opposite side of the vessel, and the listing LCT 408 managed to complete its run-in on to the beach. Because of the diversion, it came ashore on Queen White beach about a quarter of a mile west of its designated sector, landing at La Breche d’Hermanville. By now, the rapidly rising tide was narrowing the strip of sand on Sword, which was a melee of men, guns, vehicles and wreckage under constant enemy fire.
As the ramp of LCT 408 went down, the same sailor who had called out to the men during the pre-invasion Fabius exercise appeared again to give them a final send-off, shouting: ‘Soldiers, you are about to find out this is the real thing.’ But as the guns splashed into 4ft of water, the crews had a more immediate worry. Would they come to a dangerous, perhaps fatal, halt in the shallows, or would the engine waterproofing work?
Seconds later, they had their answer as engines revved healthily and the three SP Bofors powered up out of the surf. Aboard F3, a spontaneous cheer went up for driver Ike Parry – who was responsible for the waterproofing – and Leo McCarthy reached forward to pat him gratefully on the back. The first test had been passed.
As they made their way ashore, a bizarre sight greeted the men straight ahead – a house that looked like a church, with a steeple-like tower to the right of the main building. Even at this most dangerous moment, humour came to the fore, with the soldiers asking: ‘Are we on church parade, then?’ Assured by Lieutenant Coombs that it was indeed a house, the gunners drove up the beach through taped-off lanes which had been cleared of mines and went straight through the garden of the property.
Having become separated from their comrades in LCT 405, the three guns from LCT 408 made all speed to catch up with them. Weaving through the chaos, carnage and confusion on the beach, they drove up on to the coastal road, past lines of infantry who were digging in and the tragic figures of soldiers who had fallen.
‘There was no fear at all,’ said Len. ‘When we got out of the water on to that beach, if you had said to any man, “You can get back on the landing craft and return to England”, no one would have gone. They wouldn’t go through that seasickness again.’
As the three guns made their way into Hermanville and then east towards Benouville, a truck behind them was blown up by a shell and a lump of shredded tyre struck F3 gunlayer Joe Lavender on the head, but he was not hurt. ‘That’s the one with your name on it, Joe,’ his comrades told him.
Meanwhile, the F Troop men who had disembarked from LCT 405 were getting their bearings before heading towards Benouville. After exiting the beach, Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor made their way along the main lateral coast road in their truck, then turned inland along a lane.
‘On its corner was a large unexploded shell – I think it was a 16-inch shell from one of our warships,’ said Jim. ‘We found ourselves entirely alone, driving very carefully and slowly up the lane. On the right was a hedge and on the verge lay the bodies of a number of Tommies. One was very young and looked asleep. His face still haunts me.
‘To the left, the ground was open and I could see troops advancing in the distance. Suddenly on the right looking out from a ditch was a German officer, steel helmet on his head and binoculars round his neck. Jack hadn’t seen him – he had terrible eyesight.
‘I was just about to do something with my Sten gun when I realised the German was dead, and so were a few more behind him. We then passed a group of British officers standing by a duplex-drive Sherman tank, the one that floated in a canvas screen and had propellers like a boat. We just looked at each other as we passed.’
Eventually, all six guns of F Troop and their lorries were reunited in Colleville, where they joined up with infantrymen of the Suffolk Regiment, one of the 3rd Division assault regiments. ‘On our arrival, I saw a cloud of black smoke and could hear a woman screaming,’ said Jim. ‘She was very distressed at the sight of a dead Tommy lying beside his flaming motorbike. I am not sure how long we stayed in this area, but I have vague memories of brewing tea outside a church. On the shutters of a nearby house, the V for Victory sign in a laurel wreath had been faintly painted out.’
Now the whole troop began an agonisingly slow trek through the late afternoon to try to cover the final three hazardous miles to Benouville.
Tom Mason recalled that at one point a German Tiger tank was reported to be up ahead and they were ordered to prepare to fire against it. But the men were well aware that two-pounder Bofors shells would simply bounce off the panzer’s armour, which was four inches thick.
‘We thought, “How can this thing kill a Tiger?”’ said Tom. ‘An officer, I think it was Lieutenant Coombs, said, “Just fire a couple of rounds and then get the hell out of there”. Luckily, a paratrooper up the road had a Piat anti-tank gun and he knocked a track off the Tiger. He saved our bacon.’
Near Colleville, all traffic was halted for a time because the road ahead was under accurate enemy fire from nearby woods and from Benouville itself. ‘From somewhere came the order that, “We shall have to go and clear the buggers out”, and we were told to fetch our small arms and any grenades,’ recalled Jim Holder-Vale. ‘I don’t know how they thought we were going to clear them out. Almost at the same time, deliverance arrived.’
This ‘deliverance’ came from the skies – the follow-up waves of the British Airborne attack. At a few minutes before 9pm, the men of F Troop watched in stunned amazement as the sky suddenly started to fill with Dakotas and Halifaxes towing 250 Horsa and Hamilcar gliders, bringing reinforcements of 6th Airlanding Brigade into the Benouville bridgehead.
Although the planes were obviously British, Lieutenant ‘Dizzy’ Marsh irritated the F Troop men by insisting on giving the alert, shouting: ‘Aircraft left!’ and making the guns swing round at them. ‘I think he said something like, “Well, you can’t assume they’re ours,”’ said Jim Holder-Vale. ‘But it soon became apparent that they were ours.’
Minutes later, the gliders cast off from their towplanes and began sweeping in to land, crashing and tearing across fields and through hedges, straight across the line of advance of the six Bofors. Nothing, it seemed, was going to stop them.
‘The Germans had planted the fields with huge poles which ripped the wings off as the gliders landed,’ George Baker recalled. ‘But the Airborne poured out, firing at anything – including us.’ As the glider troops sprayed machine gun fire, several Suffolk Regiment men were hit and fell wounded by the roadside. The Bofors crews also had to take cover, having possibly been mistaken for Germans.
‘The reason, I am sure, was because of our helmets,’ recalled Len Harvey. ‘Just before we left England, we had been issued with the new-style helmet which had a rim curving slightly downwards towards the back. In profile, and from a distance, it could have looked to the Airborne troops like a German helmet.
‘I found out later that they were just following their training – to get out of the aircraft as quickly as possible, firing all the time, until they could take cover by the wheels. That might have been good training if you had landed in enemy territory, but not when you were landing among your own troops. Their arrival threw everything into confusion, creating chaos and havoc.’
With the column of vehicles temporarily stalled by the Airborne landings, German snipers took advantage, leading to a remarkable brush with death for one man of the 92nd. Bill Husband, another driver-operator, tells the story: ‘I was standing up in the cab of our lorry and two or three trucks in front, a gun mechanic was also standing up. Suddenly, he disappeared. I crawled down to a ditch to find out what had happened to him. He was okay. When I asked what had happened, he showed me his tin hat. A sniper, probably in the wood, had taken a shot at him. The bullet had gone into one side of his hat, parted his hair and come out the other side – luck!’
That evening, finally reaching the outskirts of Benouville, the Bofors crews found buildings still occupied by snipers. One particularly troublesome German was targeting the British from the belfry of the church tower at the nearby hamlet of Le Port and when the F Troop convoy arrived, it came under fire from him, with Jim Holder-Vale having a narrow escape.
‘We had stopped in Le Port to await further instructions,’ Jim recalled. ‘I thought it might be a good idea to put the camouflage nets over our truck. I went to the side of the truck and started unstrapping the nets, when suddenly I heard this thump just by my head. I knew instantly that it was a bullet that had just missed me. I moved like greased lightning to the other side of the truck and the shout went up from somewhere, “Sniper in the church tower!” All hell broke loose.’
Jack Taylor took a Bren gun from the truck and carefully placed it in the road. He put his glasses on, got down behind the Bren and squeezed the trigger – but it failed to fire, probably because the magazine had been incorrectly loaded.
‘So he gave up and put the gun back in the truck,’ said Jim. ‘An officer from the Paras then suggested the simplest way of dealing with the situation was to use one of the Bofors guns. So Sergeant Clements with Number One Gun gave it a blast. This resulted in the taking prisoner of a young German soldier, who came out with his hands up.’
Snipers on both sides were sometimes shot out of hand, but this German was a young man and the compassion of his captors even in the heat of battle may possibly have saved him. Or it could simply have been the case that prisoners were more valuable alive than dead at this stage of the invasion, because they might provide vital intelligence.
According to the history of The Loyal Regiment by Captain C G T Dean, the guns were also fired at short range directly into windows and doorways and the troop took 12 prisoners.
But, because of the disruption caused by the Airborne landings, it was decided to dig in for the night on the approaches to the bridges, rather than attempt a direct deployment in the gathering darkness.
Jim Holder-Vale and his comrades stopped alongside a large ditch on the corner of the road opposite Benouville town hall. As the light faded, they looked back in the direction of Sword Beach, where the sky was spectacularly lit by an anti-aircraft barrage from hundreds of Allied ships. ‘We just sat and watched the fireworks,’ said Jim. ‘I subsequently learned that a German plane had flown the whole length of the beach and had survived. That pilot was a brave man.’
As they tried to settle into the ditch to sleep, the men were disturbed by a strange tapping noise. Was it the timer mechanism of a delayed-action bomb? A quick search revealed the culprit – an Airborne carrier pigeon inside a cardboard container, pecking away at its food. Huddled in their makeshift shelters, the soldiers kept a tense vigil until dawn, around 4am.
As the skies lightened, F Troop finally deployed its guns – two around the canal bridge, two around the river bridge, and two in between. Troop headquarters was set up on the edge of a field along the Le Port road, about a quarter of a mile from Benouville town hall and offering a good view of Pegasus Bridge and the Caen Canal. Today, that view is obscured because trees have grown along the canal bank.
Near the junction of the road down to the bridges was a burned-out German truck with a dead German nearby. ‘On the doors of the truck still remained an insignia of a palm tree,’ said Jim. ‘I believe this belonged to the unit that was to be our long-term enemy, the 21st Panzer. Near Pegasus Bridge on the left-hand side, propped up against a wall, was a dead Frenchman, dressed all in black. Cables had to be laid to the guns and I hated having to climb up to take them across roads to avoid damage by traffic, as snipers were much in evidence.’
Len Harvey and his comrades were among those assigned to protect the river bridge – an ornate swing bridge built in 1871 by Gustave Eiffel, who went on to build the Eiffel Tower in Paris. At one time, the bridge had carried a light railway across the River Orne.
Len recalled how every member of the gun crew mucked in to dig frantically, excavating a pit for Gun F3 and slit trenches for the men to shelter in. By 7am, everything was ready for action. Half an hour later, the first enemy aircraft a squadron of 30 to 40 ME 109s – came roaring in and were engaged by the Bofors. ‘It was our first action and it was exciting,’ said Len.
So intense was the rate of fire that the loaders, who had to constantly unpack shells from boxes and insert them into clips before they could be fed into the gun, could hardly keep up with demand. ‘You would see smoke coming from planes and then see them go down,’ said Len. ‘But we didn’t know at that stage if our gun had been responsible for hitting them. It wasn’t until later that our tally was officially confirmed.’
As the Bofors were deployed around the bridges, Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor helped run phone cables between the gunsites and troop HQ and repaired lines that had been cut by shelling. He and his comrades moved out of their ditch and took over slit trenches that had been vacated by the Airborne, who were now collecting their dead.
Next day, Jim accompanied Jack as the bombardier drove Captain Reid down to 3rd Division HQ, which had been established near the beach. ‘While they went into the building, I sat on the verge outside. Then down the road marched the pilots of the gliders we had seen land on our way to Benouville. They were taking with them a number of German prisoners. They were just as I imagined them to be – tall, arrogant and blond, many with cowhide packs and “Hermann Goering” embroidered on their sleeve.
‘One of the pilots asked if I would like his primed Mills grenades, as he had no further use for them. I have no idea why I agreed to take them. Others followed and I soon had quite a number of grenades. On the drive back, Jack put his foot down to avoid the snipers who now infested the orchards at the side of the road.
‘The road was badly shell-pocked and the grenades were bounced all over the place, so I had to lie on top of as many as I could to keep them still. I was terrified that sooner or later a pin was going to drop out. I don’t recall what happened to all the grenades, but we certainly had one in the box which contained our codes so they could be destroyed should the necessity arise.’
Throughout the next nine days, as the Germans tried to retake the narrow bridgehead east of the Orne, the F Troop men were to endure a true baptism of fire, including 11 attacks by formations of up to 30 aircraft. At the same time, persistent German shelling, sniping and mortaring of the gun positions started inflicting casualties.
‘We soon learned to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing shellfire and to respect the infamous German 88mm all-purpose field gun,’ said Jim. ‘Mortars made no noise until they arrived, except, of course, the much-hated nebelwerfer, or Moaning Minnie – which told you a very unhealthy stonk was on the way with its sobbing scream.
‘At times, it was not easy to tell if you were the target of a sniper or they were just stray rounds hitting the hedge behind. For the first couple of nights or so, Spandau machine guns could be heard firing from behind us from German troops still holding out in a nearby strongpoint.’
As the first day at the bridges wore on, with the Bofors constantly in action, it became apparent that the troop’s expected reinforcements would not be arriving. Unknown to the gunners around the bridges, the liberty ship Sambut, carrying the rest of 318 and RHQ to Normandy, had been sunk around noon on D-Day by shellfire near the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Strait. Eight men of the 92nd died and all guns and equipment were lost.
Despite this, the bridges had to be defended at all costs. On June 8, waves of FW 190s came in at treetop height to attack both crossings, and time after time were repulsed by the Bofors.
During lulls in the fighting, the gunners tried to get what rest they could, or to find some diversion to take their minds off the battle. Len Harvey and Leo McCarthy broke off pieces of shattered Perspex from the windscreens of Major Howard’s gliders – which lay nearby – and did a bit of carving to keep themselves occupied. Len whittled a swastika, while Leo produced a cross of Lorraine.
Over near Pegasus Bridge, Tom Mason had a novel experience in the Gondree Café – drinking wine for the first time in his life. ‘I was from Liverpool – we didn’t drink wine, we drank beer,’ he recalled with a smile. ‘But this old Frenchman gave me a glass of wine and I enjoyed it.’
Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor also enjoyed a drink, courtesy of a French family living in a house opposite their trench. The family had buried their valuables in the garden during the German occupation and when they dug them up, they asked the 92nd LAA men over.
‘A bottle of wine was produced and we were invited to drink to General De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, King George and the British liberators,’ Jim recalled. ‘The father of the family told me he had been wounded in the First World War and nursed by English nurses, so he was very pleased to see us.’
Despite such diverting interludes, the war was never far away. On June 10, more enemy aircraft were engaged and at midday the river bridge came under a ferocious mortar barrage, lasting half an hour. ‘I am sure that this attack was aimed personally at us and not at the bridge – no shells landed on the bridge,’ said Len Harvey. ‘We could see the mortar blasts starting on the opposite bank of the river and they began to get closer. Sergeant Fletcher ordered us to take cover.’
Len dived into a slit trench with his comrades Sammy Davies and Eric Sheriff, while Leo McCarthy took cover with two other gunners in a second slit trench. ‘The screams of the mortars and the explosions went on and on,’ said Len. ‘Then a mortar shell landed right on the lip of our trench. We should have died.’
But all three survived, with Eric unhurt, Len getting a shell splinter in his arm and Sammy only stunned by the blast. Barely able to believe their escape, Eric said to Len: ‘Len, that one had our name on it. We’re going to come through this war.’
But in the second trench, Leo had not been so lucky. Len hurried across and found his old comrade crawling around, bleeding and in pain. ‘Are you all right, mate?’ he asked Leo. ‘No,’ came the reply. ‘I’ve got a lump of shrapnel in my arse.’
Len got hold of the Airborne medics, who sent over a Jeep fitted with stretchers. Leo was placed face down on a stretcher and driven down to the beach to be evacuated back to England. He would not return to action until September. Leo’s fellow gunlayer Joe Lavender was also a casualty and he too was evacuated.
During the mortar bombardment, the breech of Gun F3 was set on fire when its oil ignited and Sergeant Clements risked his life by leaving his slit trench and courageously unloading the high-explosive shells from the Bofors, earning a Mention in Dispatches.
Over on Gun F5, George Baker and his comrades also found themselves regularly trapped by the constant bombardments. ‘The shelling and mortaring was terrible – it was really hell,’ he said.
There were some bizarre moments. During one particularly fierce mortar attack near Pegasus Bridge, when most men were huddled in slit trenches, George glanced across from the gulley where he had taken refuge and was stunned to see a padre from the Airborne calmly conducting divine service. Another gunner, doubtless trusting to the greater protection of the Almighty, left his own refuge and ran across to join in the prayers.
One stricken Messerschmitt crash-landed close to George’s gun. He watched as the pilot strutted Nazi-style out of the wreckage– to be helped into captivity by a push from the rifle butt of a Royal Ulster Rifles infantryman. Men reacted in various ways to their first experience of war, George recalled. ‘Some took to it like ducks to water, others couldn’t stand it.’
The first four days around the bridges saw desperately intense action, with F Troop firing 5,000 rounds of 40mm at German raiders and shooting down 17 – but it paid off. ‘The German planes would come in at such low level that they were like sitting ducks,’ said George. ‘Finally, they got wise to it.’
Having found their treetop tactics too costly, enemy aircraft continued their attacks over the next two days, but at higher level. As Len Harvey recalled one Airborne corporal remarking to the weary F Troop men: ‘It looks like your guns have won Round One.’
Because the Sambut reinforcements had failed to arrive, there was no regimental wireless net for Jim Holder-Vale to join, so for a while he found himself a virtual spectator. He looked on in growing admiration as the F Troop gunners steadfastly defended the bridges against attack after attack.
‘It was marvellous to watch,’ he recalled. ‘I had a ringside seat. You could see the shells from the F Troop guns hitting the planes as they flew over – sometimes more than one shell would hit a plane. The gunners were brilliant, they were red-hot. Not one plane was able to peel off to make a dive and drop a bomb on the bridges – they never got near enough.’
Seeing one aircraft downed near the bridges, the colourful Lieutenant ‘Dizzy’ Marsh of F Troop could not resist getting a memento and recovered a piece of its tailplane, complete with swastika, from the wreckage. Reluctantly, Jim and Jack Taylor agreed to keep it for him aboard their truck. But later, when they heard rumours that the Germans were shooting British troops found with German souvenirs, they dumped it. However, ‘Dizzy’ found it again and took it away with him.
Thwarted by day, the Germans instead launched night sorties, mainly dropping the hated anti-personnel bombs, capable of tearing a man apart.
On June 9, the marching party of 60 men from 318 Battery – which had landed in the Canadian sector, west of Sword Beach, having travelled separately from the Sambut contingent – reached Benouville, bringing some respite to their hard-pressed comrades at the bridges. A REME workshop detachment also arrived. But there was still no sign of the battery’s remaining guns.
Next day, the F Troop men finally heard news of the Sambut tragedy from the CO, Colonel Bazeley, who made his way into the bridgehead. Those who died from 92nd LAA on the liberty ship were Sergeant Frederick Blaker, Sergeant Percy Ring, Bombardier John Wolfe, Gunner Wilfred Lever and Gunner Walter Hartley – all of 318 Battery – Bombardier Sidney Crane and Gunner Herbert Davies, both of RHQ, and Corporal George Challinor, of the Royal Corps of Signals, attached RHQ.
For the F Troop men dug in at Benouville and Ranville, it was a tragic loss, both in comrades and much-needed reinforcements. But gradually, Luftwaffe raids against the bridges became sporadic and the gunners were able to lend more support to infantry operations with ground shoots.
On June 12 came a potentially more formidable task. A German counter-attack from the east by Tiger tanks was reported to be imminent, and the F Troop men were ordered by an Airborne officer to take their guns on to the bridges and load them with armour-piercing solid shot ready to meet the assault.
‘It was a stupid order really, as 2lb Bofors shells would not even make a dent in a Tiger tank – it would be like a peashooter hitting a wall,’ said Len Harvey. ‘But we were instructed to defend those bridges to the last. We took up position on the west end of the river bridge and I unloaded the high explosive shells from the gun and loaded it with armour-piercing shot.
‘Then we waited. Sergeant Fletcher brought over a bottle of whisky and gave each one of us a tot. In those days, I was not a drinking man. But, believe me, when I drank my tot I felt a lot better and more settled. I was still in a shaky state from the mortar shell that had landed on our slit trench.’
Meanwhile, Jim Holder-Vale and Jack Taylor set up their Bren Gun on a knoll near their slit trench. ‘We waited and prayed,’ Jim recalled.
For more than an hour, the 92nd LAA men kept a nerve-racking vigil, listening out for the rumbling of advancing German tanks. But, mercifully, the counter-attack never materialised. ‘The officer then came and told Sergeant Fletcher that the danger was now over and we could stand down,’ said Len. ‘I think a sigh of relief went through us all.
‘The more I think of that occasion, the more I am sure that a couple of men with Piat guns firing their bombs at the side of the Tigers’ tracks would have been more likely to stop the tank than the 2lb shells of a Bofors.’
The same officer noticed that Gun F3 was badly damaged following the mortar attack a few days earlier and ordered the crew to take it down to Pegasus Bridge and arrange for a replacement to be brought up.
At Pegasus Bridge, the F3 men were given a temporary site opposite the Gondree Café. They waited there a further two days, during which they got off one shot at an FW 190 which came roaring south along the canal from the direction of Ouistreham and plunged into the water further down towards Caen.
Finally, on June 15, F Troop was relieved by 123 (City of London Rifles) LAA Regiment – part of the Ist Corps forces – and sent to defend the airstrip at Plumetot, five miles west of Benouville. Captain Reid was later awarded the Military Cross for leading the defence of the bridges.