COUNTDOWN TO OVERLORD
March 1943 to April 1944
‘I reckon by 1944 we were the fittest men in the whole of the British Army with the training that we’d had. We were ready. The adrenaline was high and the feeling was, “Let’s get on with it and get it over with. The war won and get back home” – that was the feeling.’
THE demonstration of the 92nd’s growing skill was timely. For now a momentous undertaking was at hand. Early in 1943, 3rd Division was ordered to start training for the invasion of Sicily, only to see the assignment switched – mainly for political reasons – to a Canadian division.
But soon after, 3rd Division was given the task that would test its skill and courage to the limit and assure its place in history. It was to be one of only two British divisions which would spearhead the D-Day assault in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.
Being chosen to lead the liberation of Europe was a tribute to the military prowess of the ‘Iron Division’, whose proud history stretched back to the Napoleonic Wars, and which Montgomery had commanded during the fighting retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.
But it was also an awesome responsibility. Everything depended on troops getting ashore and establishing a beachhead in strength before the Germans could recover from the initial shock and hurl them back into the sea. If the Allies failed to gain a foothold in Europe, it would be catastrophic for the whole course of the war.
So in the early spring of 1943, all units of 3rd Division were ordered to concentrate in the west of Scotland to start the intensive programme of training that would make them ready for their crucial mission.
Between March 12 and 14, amid exceptionally fine weather, 92nd LAA moved north in convoy from Kent, staging at Stevenage and Doncaster, where the gunners bivouacked under the racecourse grandstand. The regiment’s destination was the small towns of Castle Douglas and Dalbeattie, north of the Solway Firth in Kircudbrightshire. Here, amid the hills, woods, rivers and lochs of the beautiful Southern Uplands of Scotland, the men started honing themselves and their equipment to a peak of fighting fitness.
The regiment deployed at various locations around the two towns. In Castle Douglas. regimental headquarters was established in a large house at the eastern end of the main road, King Street. Much of the unit’s activities centred around Carlingwark Loch at the western edge of Castle Douglas, where Nissen huts were set up to house the troops. Other billets included a church and a bowling clubhouse.
The routine at Castle Douglas was constant training – PT, route marches, cross-country running, sport and, most of all, gun drill. ‘Castle Douglas seemed a peaceful haven after the mayhem of the Liverpool Blitz,’ wrote Michael Cullen. ‘It was also a pleasant surprise to find that we had a bed at last.
‘The camp consisted of a number of Nissen huts, one troop to each hut. Our gun crew were sergeant – Jack Smith. Layer for line – myself. Layer for elevation – Harry Woodall. Two ammo numbers – Bob Harris and Ginger Smith, “Smithy.” Also Cecil Willis, a wee lance bombardier who strutted about like a hen with bunions. He also, at times, let off a rather peculiar odour. I could only put this down to the fact that we had, of late, had quite a large amount of Spam and American Navy beans in our diet. I think the answer was blowing in the wind.
‘The following two months were taken up mostly with gun drill and lectures on aircraft recognition, a subject I took a great deal of interest in. It was, of course, a sitting-down job that gave the foot blisters a chance to heal!
‘The food had gone off a bit and they had developed the bad habit of putting curry powder in the stew, and even in the rice pudding – I think it had been left over from the time of the British Raj in India! This had given us a constant attack of the “trots!” This was rather inconvenient as our toilets consisted of a slit trench dug into the ground, with a rope stretched across. To vacate the bowels, one had to stoop over the trench and hang on to the rope for dear life!
‘Another item of food that seemed to be rather plentiful was a Japanese tinned salmon called Acky Bono. God knows where they had got this from, but when the tins had been opened, the smell was enough to send all the moggies in the town crazy to embark for foreign parts. In hindsight, I wondered if it was some preconceived plan the Nips had to exterminate as many Britons as possible before entering the war.’
Third Division was initially earmarked not for the invasion of Normandy, but for the attack on Sicily. The men of 92nd LAA had some inkling of the Sicily mission and one day early in 1943, the news went round the regiment that hot weather equipment had now arrived in the quartermaster’s stores in preparation for the operation.
But it was not to be. In late April, at the insistence of Canadian Military Headquarters in Britain, a Canadian division – the 1st Infantry – was instead given the Sicily invasion task, displacing the British division.
Len Harvey, a 19-year-old Londoner in F Troop, 318 Battery, recalled that he and his comrades were disappointed at this news. ‘We did feel let down because our adrenaline was high – we were hyped up and ready to go.’
But soon after, the CO of 318, Captain Robert Tennant Reid, called the men together to read them a letter that had arrived from the top brass, telling them that they would instead now be training for the invasion of North West Europe.From then on, each Bofors crew was boosted from seven men to nine men. This was when Leo McCarthy was transferred to Gun F3 of F Troop, a tight-knit team under the auspices of Sergeant Bill Fletcher.
‘Sergeant Fletcher always said he needed a regular, good No 2 layer for line and we certainly got one in Leo,’ said Len. ‘He oozed confidence and Gun F3 was now complete. Leo became a very good friend – he was 11 years older than me and was almost a father figure.’
Len also admired Sergeant Fletcher, who came from Little Hulton, near Bolton. ‘He was a good sergeant, a good leader,’ he said. ‘He was a very special man.’
In 92nd LAA, Len was a Cockney surrounded by Scousers – but he got on famously with them. Born in Limehouse, East London, he had volunteered for the Army after working as a page boy at the Langham Hotel in the West End and later as a fitter’s mate in Barking power station.
Following training as an artilleryman, he found himself in a quiet posting near Edinburgh. Wishing to see more action, he put himself forward for service overseas. Instead, he was sent to join 92nd LAA in Castle Douglas.
Now the countdown to Overlord had begun, life got ever harder for the 92nd LAA men. ‘If we thought previous training was tough, we soon learned it was mild compared to the regime we were now put under,’ said Len. ‘There were physical exercises every morning at 6am, route marches up to 20 miles, cross-country running in ten-mile stints. We were woken from sleep, put into troop-carrying lorries, dropped 15 miles away at 6.30am and told to make our own way back to camp, with breakfast being served at 8am. If we were late back, we missed breakfast.’
Because Len looked so young, Sergeant Fletcher used to send him across to farms to ask for eggs when the troop was out on manoeuvres. Len recalled that the Scots were kind and generous. ‘The people were wonderful. I think they took pity on me – I only looked about 16 or 17. It is said that Scottish people are thrifty, but on every farm I went to, the farmers gave me eggs willingly and never asked for a penny or anything in exchange, though I would have been prepared to pay them if they had asked.
‘The Women’s Institute could not do enough to help us, at times laundering and sewing and in Dalbeattie a WI lady would make sure that the men on guard duty got a hot beverage. In helping us, they must have felt they were helping their husbands and sons, because they too were in the Forces. My time in Scotland left me with a feeling of immense respect for the people and the way they welcomed us.’
By contrast, the French farmers would turn out not to be so generous after the regiment landed in Normandy the following year. On the evening of D-Day, as the troop was dug in near Benouville, Sergeant Fletcher sent Len to a nearby farm to ask for eggs. Len recalled: ‘In broken English, the farmer asked, “What have you got for the eggs? Money no good. You got soap, cigarettes, chocolates?”’ Eventually, Len swopped three bars of soap for a dozen eggs.
The 92nd’s initial invasion exercises started with combined operations at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Then at the end of March, 318 moved to Inverary, Argyllshire – 40 miles north- west of Glasgow – for a fortnight of training with 8 Infantry Brigade and naval units. By day and night on the waters of Loch Fyne, the 92nd practised beach landing, disembarking guns and supply vehicles from landing craft and deploying them to their allotted area.
Meanwhile, a series of week-long trips, made by each battery in turn, started to 9 LAA Practice Camp at Cark-in-Cartmel, near Grange over Sands on the edge of the Lake District, overlooking Morecambe Bay. First to go was 319, followed by 317 and 318.
At Cark, Michael Cullen recalled, the guns would be pointed out to sea. ‘A plane would fly across pulling a sock or a drogue, as they called it. We would then take a sighting under the directions of the commanding officer. As it was a moving target, it was quite difficult to hit. We did, of course have to aim at the drogue, and not the plane – a fact that one or two of the crews had failed to digest. As you can guess, there were one or two near-misses – at one point, the pilot had refused to take off. Who could blame him – I think he deserved the VC!’
Back in Castle Douglas, classes in aircraft recognition, a vital skill for Bofors gunners, were held three times a week. The men had to know instantaneously if a plane they spotted was a friend or an enemy. ‘By the time we actually got to Normandy and went into action, we could tell every plane that was in the sky,’ said Len Harvey.
‘We had a class with models and charts. A little fellow would teach us and try and catch us out. He’d show you a silhouette and say, “What’s that?” or he’d show you a model and say, “What’s that?” But you got to know the aircraft from all different angles. I could tell every plane later on in the war and it was all because of the training we got there.’
As May opened, the emphasis was on endurance work, including day-long hill walking and river crossing. But there was an unexpected off-duty spree for a few of the men – a night on the town in Castle Douglas.
It came courtesy of Joe Lavender, the second gunlayer on F3. Joe, who came from Chester, was also the unit’s unofficial barber, earning sixpence or so a time for cutting the men’s hair. This money steadily accumulated and one day in early May he placed a £10 bet on a horse called Herringbone in the 1,000 Guineas – and it won.
With his windfall, Joe took his fellow gunlayer Leo McCarthy and two other friends out for the evening, and the drink flowed. The four returned to their billets extremely late and the worse for wear, making a lot of noise. Needless to say, their comrades took a dim view of being so rudely awakened by the revellers.
Throughout May and into June, there were full divisional exercises, during which tracer fire from a Bofors was used to indicate the width of an infantry advance, a technique that later came into its own on the battlefield. There was also practice on the anti-tank range at Cummertrees near Annan, wireless exercises, night deployment and digging-in practice.
For the gun crews, digging-in was vital. When a Bofors was deployed, a pit was excavated for it to give as much protection as possible from counter-battery fire and marauding aircraft. However, some of the 92nd’s more muscular members found their small infantry spades were not up to the job of digging a gun pit in anything like a reasonable time and nicknamed the spades ‘Fifth Column Shovels’. After digging trials, Captain Reid agreed and told his men they could have heavy-duty navvy shovels instead.
On June 11, it was the turn of 317 to journey north to Inverary, where it joined 185 Infantry Brigade for combined operations training. Meanwhile, the rest of the regiment was suddenly ordered south to Kent for a month of ADGB duties. Sending gunners 450 miles from Scotland to the South Coast when presumably there were already adequate anti-aircraft units in Kent seems at first glance a trifle odd. However, the surprise operation was designed by the top brass to test the 92nd’s battle-readiness and its ability to mobilise swiftly.
Travelling in convoy via Catterick, Doncaster and Stevenage, the gunners reached their new locations on June 17. Guns were deployed at Birchington, Finglesham, Lympne RAF aerodrome, Richborough, Cheriton and Hawkinge aerodrome. Another task was apparently to protect slipways that were earmarked for invasion craft from possible German bombing raids. Nine days later, 317 rejoined the regiment, deploying at Minster, Snowdown Colliery and Sandwich. On July 9, the battery’s guns opened fire on a DO 217 raider.
However, one unit of the regiment managed to combine the move to Kent with a little unofficial recreation. When the order came to go south, the 92nd’s group of driver-radio operators were 70 miles north of Castle Douglas in Stewarton, between Kilmarnock and Glasgow. They had been sent there to meet up with their Canadian counterparts, who were now earmarked for Sicily, in order to train them on their new wireless sets.
‘It was a very pleasant experience with the young Canadians – and we also learned to drink coffee instead of tea and smoke Sweet Caporal cigarettes,’ recalled Driver-Op Jim Holder-Vale, from Walthamstow in North East London, who had joined the regiment in December 1942 at the age of 18. ‘We said goodbye to them as they left in their trucks. The windshields were painted green to prevent reflection of the Mediterranean sun, with just vision slots for the driver and passenger.’
Arriving back at Castle Douglas, the driver-ops found the rest of 92nd LAA had already left for Kent. They were given food and supplies and told to follow. ‘But we decided we would make our own way there,’ said Jim. ‘We would not use the Army camps en route and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to call in and see my Mum and Dad in London. So off we went and we eventually turned up in our four trucks outside my parents’ house.’
Jim picked up his girlfriend Joan, who lived nearby, and they all went back to his parents’ house. ‘We had a marvellous evening,’ he recalled. ‘Mum and Dad made us as welcome as possible with rationed grub.’
The driver-ops parked for the night in nearby Epping Forest, sleeping in their trucks, and returned to Jim’s house for breakfast before finally continuing their journey to Kent. It had been a welcome interlude of normality.
The regiment was in Kent until July 14, when it was ordered back to Scotland, arriving at Castle Douglas on July 19. By now, new Mark V self-propelled Bofors Guns had been delivered and one troop in each battery started training with them.
In August, further exercises were held with 185 Brigade and there were two complete divisional exercises, lasting into September. Trips to Cark for firing practice resumed and there was anti-tank training at Craignair, south of Castle Douglas. On 21st September, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Loder-Symonds assumed command of the 92nd when Lieutenant-Colonel Hollwey was posted to take over 124 LAA.
Throughout October training went on, with regimental deployment exercises, wire-cutting and night attack by patrols. In November, there was an interlude of entertainment and recreation in the form of a visit by the band of The Loyal Regiment, plus inter-regiment rugby and boxing matches.
Among the regiment’s boxing enthusiasts was Philip Parks, a Liverpudlian who had volunteered for the Army on the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was 19. On one occasion, he had three fights in Castle Douglas town hall, winning two. While in Scotland, he also won the heart of a girl who was working in the Naafi and they were married.
Another soldier who found asweetheart in Castle Douglas was the Regimental Sergeant Major, Len Nott. One day, he saw a girl called Eileen Maloney crossing the road in the townand it was ‘love at first sight’. Eileen, from Glasgow, was stationed in Castle Douglas with the Land Army. They married in February 1944, witnessed by his best man, Robert Wright – a fellow NCO from 92nd LAA. Len and Eileen remained devoted to each other and were married for 38 years until his death in 1982.
At least three other 92nd LAA men, Lieutenant Johnny Kitchin, Sergeant Bill Fletcher and Gunner Billy Baker, also wed local girls.
Philip Parks, meanwhile, was promoted to bombardier, but things did not go smoothly. ‘His duty one particular day was to deliver military mail around Castle Douglas, which entailed meeting officers all day long and, of course, saluting them,’ his son Philip recalled.
‘Dad got a bit fed up with all this and on one occasion, seeing an officer, he pretended to be sorting his mail and did not salute, which resulted in him being on a charge, i.e. failing to salute. This led to him being reduced back to a gunner. While on this charge, he was confined to regimental headquarters, which was Craig Royston House. But at night, the sergeant in charge suggested that as Dad was a married soldier living in Castle Douglas, he could go home – but be back by 6am.’
At the end of January, the final phase of 3rd Division’s assault training started when units moved 100 miles north-west to the area around Nairn and Inverness on the Moray Firth. There, they linked up with the ships of Naval Task Force S (for Sword), which was to carry the division to the Normandy beaches.
Farms as far as eight miles inland were evacuated to make way for the thousands of soldiers pouring into the coastal area. On November 28, 318 journeyed to Brackla airfield near Nairn, a few miles from Inverness. Billetted in a Nissen hut inside one of the hangars, the gunners spent the next two months taking part in a series of full-scale invasion exercises along the Moray Firth. Often amid appalling weather, the men refined their loading and assault techniques in tank landing craft, with 92nd LAA concentrating on the stretch of water between Chanonry Point and Fort George.
‘The Highlands of Scotland were a sight we had only seen on picture postcards,’ said Michael Cullen. ‘Although winter was setting in, the beauty of this place really was something to us city lads. We arrived at Inverness and pitched camp in a wood. The weather was pretty damp and consisted of a perpetual drizzle they called Scotch mist.
‘We asked one of the locals if it ever stopped raining. “Well, laddie,” he answered, “Can you see those hills over yonder? Well, when you can see them, you can be sure it’s going to rain and when you can’t see them, it’s pissing down!” (Please excuse the descriptive language).
‘The camp was a quagmire of mud, but that didn’t stop the Major from the bullshit. We still had to Blanco our webbing! I’m pretty sure the Tory brasshats had shares in the Blanco and Brasso factories! Despite the weather, we continued loading and unloading trucks, setting up and dismantling the gun and they timed us to the clock until we had become proficient and could unhitch and jack up the gun in the space of one minute. We were like drowned rats at the end of each day!
‘Loch Ness was a huge expanse of water, but the only monsters we saw were wearing three stripes! After a month of this, it was back to base at Castle Douglas. On the way back, we witnessed a nasty accident. One of the three Hurricanes that had been practising the dive-bombing of our convoy had failed to notice the power lines that stretched across the road, and had gone through the overhead wires. There was a terrific blue flash and the plane dived into the ground. It had corkscrewed into an adjacent field.
‘The whole convoy had stopped at this point and we had all gone across to offer assistance, but sadly the pilot was beyond any help. This had brought home to us all the stupidity of all this, and how easy it was to depart this life. This accident had highlighted our resolve to get this lot over as soon as possible, and get back home in one piece, if possible. It was only a “barmstick” who wanted to die for his country – we wanted to live for ours.’
As the historic year of 1944 opened, the rest of the regiment was training apace, especially with vehicle waterproofing, which was vital to prevent engines becoming stalled in the surf of the invasion beaches. The 92nd REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) workshop smothered vulnerable parts of the motors in a greasy paste and attached breather tubes to be used for air intakes and long pipes to take the exhaust gases clear of the water. In one waterproofing trial on January 15, a convoy drove into the River Dee near New Galloway, north of Castle Douglas. Three-tonner lorries fared well, but the strong current submerged 15cwt trucks and jeeps.
Fast-flowing water was not the only hazard. Although the SP Bofors were strong and solidly-based, they could become bogged down, especially in the swampier parts of the Scottish countryside. On these occasions, their built-in winches proved very useful, pulling the gun free by fastening the winch cable to trees or to other vehicles and slowly winding it in. Even so, it could sometimes be a close-run thing.
‘One of our guns once became so deeply swamped in a bog that it took two others as well as its own winch to drag it to hard ground,’ recalled Lieutenant John (Jack) Prior of 92nd LAA. ‘The gun had sunk to its axles and we seriously wondered if we would lose it altogether. I could almost hear the court of inquiry being turned into a court martial, with yours truly committed to repaying the loss from his pay – spread over several hundred years!’
Jack had joined the Home Guard on leaving school in 1940 before going on to officer training and receiving a commission. After service with ADGB units on the hazardous Dover Command, he joined the 92nd in December 1943 and later became the regimental Intelligence Officer.
On January 17, 317 moved up to Brackla for its two months of intensive invasion exercises with Task Force S and the rest of 3rd Division. The south shores of the Moray Firth were substituted for the Normandy beaches as, amid swirling snowstorms, the gunners practised assault landings in Burghead Bay. During one of these exercises, tragedy struck. A brigadier, waiting on the dunes to observe the landings, was hit and killed by a tank which had failed to spot him as it crested the rise.
Early in March, 317 travelled further north to Tain on the Dornoch Firth, where destroyers and a cruiser demonstrated a naval artillery bombardment on the headland of Tarbat Ness. This dramatically showed the men the weight of firepower that would be supporting them during the Normandy landings and gave them some idea of the hellish noise of it all. On the 27th, the battery moved south again to concentrate at Munlochy near Inverness for further exercises, which took the men into the hills around Culloden.
On January 26, the CO of the 92nd, Lieutenant-Colonel Loder-Symonds, left to take over as artillery commander of British 1st Airborne Division. He would be in charge of artillery during Operation Market Garden at Arnhem in September 1944. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Charles Bazeley DSO RA assumed command of the 92nd.
February started for 318, now back from Brackla, with anti-tank training at Cummertrees. The regiment practised telephone silence, communicating by radio only. On the 6th, a detachment left for a 3rd Division conference at Langholm, north of Carlisle, to be addressed by Montgomery, who was Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group and the land commander for Overlord. Gunner Philip Parks was among the men chosen for the Langholm detachment – but, because he was at his in-laws’ home in New Galloway, it meant he had first to pedal 12 miles by bicycle to join the trucks going there.
The rest of the month – amid snow – saw telephone silence exercises, casualty evacuation and mine practice, assault training, lectures and further waterproofing trials. A new troop of eight 20mm guns was attached to each battery.
Throughout March, there were further lectures, instructional films and organised recreational training, including forced marching competitions. RHQ personnel practised on Craignair range with Sten guns and Piat anti-tank weapons. But, as always, the main thrust of training was on deploying the guns for swift action.
‘Above all, the guns had to be at instant readiness in case of sudden enemy aircraft attack,’ recalled Jack Prior. ‘This was emphasised and practised ad nauseam, but the work paid off when we reached Normandy and I cannot recall any gun getting stuck or caught on the hop by a 350mph ME 109 or FW 190.
‘Other specialised training included taking cover on the gun, nearby, or under other shelter against shelling and mortaring, which were the main fire to be avoided. In fact of course, there was little chance of this, because the shelling was often accompanied by bombing or strafing, for which we had to be prepared and ready for action.
‘Knowledge of the gun mechanism had been gathered years before and we had been handling the guns until it had become second nature. But we had to ensure that in doing our own specified jobs we did not get in each other’s way in a very confined space, albeit in the open air.’
As winter slowly gave way to spring, the men of 92nd LAA, along with the rest of 3rd Division, were reaching a peak of fighting fitness and perfecting their Overlord tasks. Now enthusiasm began to be tinged with impatience. ‘We knew we were to be part of the invasion,’ said George Baker. ‘We just didn’t know where or when. The men were all for getting on with the job. The feeling was, “Why don’t we go and get it over with?”’
Len Harvey said: ‘I reckon by 1944 we were the fittest men in the whole of the British Army with the training that we’d had. We were ready. The adrenaline was high and the feeling was, “Let’s get on with it and get it over with. The war won and get back home” – that was the feeling.’
But as April opened, the years of waiting were finally drawing to a close. From all parts of Britain, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and gigantic quantities of tanks, guns and equipment began streaming south by road and rail to assembly areas ready for the great cross-Channel operation.
On April 5, 1944, 92nd LAA started its own journey, with RHQ and 318 in the vanguard. ‘It was supposed to be a secret, but the people knew that we were going south to take part in the invasion,’ said Len Harvey. ‘Every hamlet, village and town we passed through, they lined the pavements waving and cheering as we drove by, some throwing flowers into the vehicles. Our two gunlayers, Leo McCarthy and Joe Lavender, must have had sore backs because everyone was patting them as they went by, saying: “Go on, lads – give it to them.”’