April to June 1944
'The order came to prepare the guns and vehicles for action. Was this it? It certainly sounded like it. But so many times before, we had thought it was the real thing only to find ourselves landing in England. This time, somehow, it felt different.'
AFTER leaving Castle Douglas, 318 stopped overnight at Preston – bivouacking on straw-filled palliases in the stand at Preston North End FC, Deepdale, a stone’s throw from Fulwood Barracks – and under canvas at Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
Finally, on the 8th, the battery reached Camp A4 south of Horndean, near Portsmouth, one of hundreds of vast tented towns that had sprung up in the Hampshire countryside to accommodate the invasion forces. 317, still in the Inverness area, travelled via Carlisle, Doncaster and Lutterworth to reach Horndean on April 11. 319 did not start its journey until the 20th, transferring from Castle Douglas via Preston, Wellington and Cirencester to a holding camp at Tournay Barracks, Aldershot.
‘We were very well looked after at Horndean,’ Len Harvey recalled. ‘They must have been preparing the camp for months, as it had everything – dining rooms, a cinema, a theatre, recreation huts for indoor sports and bingo sessions. There was everything in that camp for the troops’ entertainment. Card games and coin-toss games could be seen everywhere. The order of the day was rest and enjoyment.
‘It was here that we were given printed cards to send home to our families to say that we were in good health. However, the cards did not say where we were. After posting these cards, we were all confined to camp so that there was no contact whatsoever with civilians. Secrecy was top priority. We all knew what might happen if the Germans found out about the invasion and were ready and waiting.’
Jim Holder-Vale recalled how most of the men on arrival in their bell tents at Horndean set about building themselves beds. ‘Instead of sleeping on the ground, we went into the woods and cut down trees and branches to make ourselves something more comfortable.’
The 92nd was to be split into four detachments for the invasion. The major task fell to F Troop of 318 Battery, which had undergone special training for a crucial mission. Accompanied by a signals section, it would be the only unit of the regiment to land on D-Day itself, scheduled to come ashore on Queen Red sector of Sword Beach.
Its assignment was right at the sharp end of Overlord – protecting the vitally important bridges across the Caen Canal near Benouville and the River Orne near Ranville, on the eastern flank of the invasion area, which were to be seized in an assault by glider-borne troops. At that time, the bridges were known only by their codenames of Rugger and Cricket, but would go down in history as Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge.
However, only senior officers knew the precise location and nature of the F Troop task. The rest of the men would not be told until they were actually in the Channel en route to Normandy.
On the day after D-Day, D and E Troops of 318 would land in France with RHQ to reinforce F Troop. At the same time, a marching party of 318 men would land separately and make its way to the bridges. Six days after D-Day, 317 would make its crossing to Normandy, followed by 319 just over a fortnight later.
With these schedules in mind, RHQ and D and E Troops left Portsmouth at the end of April for Aldershot, from where they would travel to their disembarkation point in East London. F Troop, under the command of Captain Reid, stayed at Horndean, with 317 based nearby. In the following days, unit censorship was imposed and the regiment’s operational codes for Overlord were handed out.
For the men sealed in the camps, there was little else to do but play endless games of cards, bingo and pitch-and-toss, to re-check equipment – and to wait. They were cut off from the outside world and the perimeter was constantly patrolled by Military Police.
As the build-up to D-Day intensified, F Troop and its vehicles were moved out of the camp for three days while other units of the assault forces were given their briefings. The nearby roadside became the gunners’ temporary home and they bedded down each night under their SP Bofors and lorries. During this lull, waterproofing of vehicles was carried out and the soldiers each received an inflatable lifebelt, 24-hour ration packs and self-heating soup and cocoa. French francs were issued, along with a booklet telling the soldiers about France and the French.
Bright yellow pennants were also distributed, which were to be used to identify themselves to other troops and planes when in battle. All personal letters and papers were ordered to be burned and a string of miniature bonfires could soon be seen along the road. Some men erased their home addresses from their Army paybooks, in case of capture by the Germans, who might use such details in propaganda broadcasts.
For Jim Holder-Vale and his comrade Bombardier Jack Taylor, there came an unexpected bonus as they waited at the roadside. A local doctor got talking to them and asked them if they would like a hot bath at his nearby home. They accepted the offer with alacrity. ‘He made us very welcome,’ said Jim. ‘It was a luxury.’
Finally, the soldiers of F Troop were transferred back inside the camp and briefed on their mission, but still without being given any specific geographical information. They knew their task would be protecting something, but did not know what that something would be.
In the confines of the camp, things could understandably become a little heated. Philip Parks found he could not get on with a particular sergeant and it led to a flashpoint. ‘Whether it was because of tension on Dad’s part or not, one evening he chased the sergeant with a baseball bat,’ said Gunner Parks’s son, Philip. ‘Needless to say, the sergeant made a hasty retreat! I asked my Dad, “Were you not afraid of getting into trouble?” To which he replied, “What could they do to me, as we were very likely to be killed anyway!”’
Between May 1 and May 5, the battle-ready troop and the rest of 3rd Division took part in Exercise Fabius, a final large-scale rehearsal for Overlord. All along the South Coast, the invasion forces were assigned to beaches corresponding to those they would attack in Normandy. Loaded on to landing craft, the division was carried the equivalent distance it would cover when it finally crossed the Channel.
The 3rd disembarked near Littlehampton, with the objective of ‘capturing’ the town of Arundel – unknown to most of the soldiers, the equivalent of Caen in Normandy, the D-Day target for the Iron Division.
This was one of several occasions when the men, still not knowing when D-Day would be, believed the operation was going ahead for real. ‘We thought, “This is it – we must be going,”’ George Baker recalled. ‘We would get into the landing craft, go so far out into the Channel, then come back again. You had to always be on the alert.’
Len Harvey remembered a sailor guiding them on to the landing craft, saying: ‘Come on boys, this is the real thing.’ The men laughed – they had heard that one before. All went well during the exercise, but Sergeant Fletcher told the men of Gun F3: ‘Don’t think, when we go into action, that it is going to be as easy as this practice run. We will be going to fight in a war and I am confident that you will all put up a good show.’
Back at Horndean, the soldiers were given a good meal followed by a show in the theatre with guest performers, including the famous jazz trumpeter Nat Gonella. Regular concerts became a feature of the gunners’ time in the camp. However, the intention of raising morale was not always achieved, particularly by one emotional female entertainer who gave a show in a marquee. Jim Holder-Vale recalled: ‘She was singing to us and then she suddenly broke down in tears as the occasion got to her, saying, “Oh, you poor boys!” We gave her a great cheer.’
During Exercise Fabius, 317 was transferred from Horndean to Camp 60 at Brookwood near Aldershot.
On Saturday May 13, in the village of Denmead outside Portsmouth, 50 men of 92nd LAA paraded for a visit to 3rd Division by General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion forces.
The American moved among the troops, speaking to several, then addressed them all on their forthcoming mission, promising that once they had crossed the Rhine, he would stand them a party. One of the lucky soldiers who exchanged a few words with Eisenhower was Gunner Philip Parks of F Troop. ‘It was good to see your division looking so fit and in such good spirits,’ the Supreme Commander later wrote to the divisional commander, Major-General Tom Rennie.
In Denmead on the 22nd, the men of F Troop and others from the regiment were called to join another parade and told to smarten up and put on their best uniforms. ‘We marched out of camp and lined up along the road that leads to Portsmouth – the whole of 3rd Division, plus the men of 79th Armoured Division,’ said Len Harvey. ‘The rumour went round that Winston Churchill was to inspect us. When the NCOs came along the lines of paraded men and cleaned our boots with dusters, we knew it was going to be someone special.’
And it really was someone special. ‘As the inspection party drew closer, we could see it was King George VI, accompanied by Field Marshal Alan Brooke. The King stuttered and had difficulty getting his words out, but he spoke to a few of the men in the front rank. After the inspection, we marched back to the camp at Horndean.’
The King’s visit gave the men a strong hint that they would very soon be going into action. Another indication was the issue of unlimited arms and ammunition. ‘It became obvious that things were getting close,’ said Jim Holder-Vale. ‘Ammunition boxes were brought in and we were told to take what we wanted. I must have taken about eight magazines for my Sten gun, which I stored in pouches round my waist.’
And now, with D-Day fixed for June 5, all sections of the great assault army began dispersing to final assembly areas. From Aldershot, D and E Troops of 318 and RHQ transferred to Camp T7 at Wanstead Flats, an open area of East London, where they carried out final waterproofing trials and prepared vehicles and guns for embarkation.
On June 3, at Tilbury, the marching party of two officers and 58 men from 318 went aboard tank landing ship 3203, which would carry them to Normandy. At the same time, D and E Troops and their equipment, plus RHQ, were loaded aboard the liberty ship Sambut at Victoria Dock on the Thames and steamed to Southend. From there, they were due to leave in convoy for Normandy on D-Day, landing the following morning to reinforce F Troop at the bridges.
On the evening of June 2, the waiting also finally ended for F Troop, which was scheduled to embark from Stokes Bay, near Gosport, just west of Portsmouth. Len Harvey recalled: ‘The order came to prepare the guns and vehicles for action and put personal items in the 15cwt truck. Was this IT? It certainly sounded like it. But so many times before, we had thought it was the real thing only to find ourselves landing in England. This time, somehow, it felt different.
‘We took our positions on the gun, drove out of the camp and parked along the verge of the road to Gosport. Along with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery guns of all sorts and sizes, we slept that night by the side of our gun, as did hundreds of men in other units. Come the morning, food was brought out to us and we prepared to move on to Gosport.’
At 9am on June 3, the men of F Troop set out along roads crowded with soldiers and vehicles to make the painfully slow 20-mile journey through the Hampshire countryside to the southern end of Stokes Bay near Gilkicker Point. There, they found the flat, curving shoreline of the bay filled with scores of landing craft berthed on ‘hards’ – specially-laid concrete loading ramps.
Awaiting F Troop were two tank landing craft, known as LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank), the workhorses of the invasion armada. LCTs had no names, but were simply designated by their numbers. One was LCT 627, which for Overlord had been given the fleet number 405. The second LCT, whose original number is not known, had the fleet number 408. For clarity, they will from here on be called LCT 405 and LCT 408.
By 9.30pm that evening, all the 92nd LAA soldiers – a total of 64 men – had boarded the two tank landing craft along with their guns, lorries and motor cycles. Guns F1, F2 and F3 went aboard LCT 408, while Guns F4, F5 and F6 went aboard LCT 405. Men and vehicles from various other units, such as the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Service Corps, were also transported on both landing craft.
Clutching their myriad personal equipment – including rifle and pack, ‘inspiring’ leaflets from Eisenhower and Montgomery, and a supply of vomit bags – the men saw their vehicles safely chained to the decks, then slipped into the spaces in between the mobile guns, trying to get some rest and to clear their minds of growing apprehension. Once all was secure, the two LCTs moved out of harbour as part of Flotilla 47 to link up with the rest of the gigantic fleet.
But, agonisingly, the waiting continued. With summer storms lashing the Channel, Eisenhower was forced to postpone the invasion for 24 hours. Confined in their swaying, bobbing ships, the troops could only try to quell their growing seasickness and hope that the misery would soon end.
During the night of June 4, the two F Troop LCTs lay off Ryde, in the shelter of the Isle of Wight. But even that was not much help as the weather became rougher. ‘A lot of the lads started to feel seasick and were a variety of colours – some were blue, some green, some ashen white and all looked ghastly,’ said Len Harvey.
Time dragged by with painful slowness, testing nerves to the limit. By now, many a man was fervently praying to get to the far shore despite all its dangers. The prospect of facing the shot and shell of the enemy seemed nothing compared with the terrible nausea brought on by the heaving seas.
‘Luckily, I was not affected with seasickness and I think I was the only one to have breakfast the next morning,’ said Len. ‘All the lads wanted to do was go and get the job done and get off that bloody ship.’
Aboard LCT 405, Jim Holder-Vale settled down in the back of his truck with his pal Ken Nash, another driver-op. ‘As usual, I slept like a log, a habit learned during the Blitz,’ he recalled. ‘The next morning, apart from being reminded by Lieutenant Desmond “Dizzy” Marsh that the Army frowned upon soldiers sharing their sleeping area, it was obvious there had been a storm in the night. An adjacent LCT had managed to get its anchor cable under our boat and there was much shouting and manoeuvring. There were hundreds of LCTs all around us.
‘The only area set aside for the troops on our landing craft was a recess at the back of the loading deck beneath the bridge. It looked like a bus shelter with a seat all round the sides. So we slept in our trucks and our hot food was prepared by our cooks in a bulkhead near the ramp at the bow.
‘We were wearing battle dresses that stank of chlorine and the new large “assault” helmets, which were heavy and not well balanced. They had been painted with gas detector paint.
‘We had two 24-hour ration packs, which included boiled sweets and lavatory paper, and as many extra self-heating cans of soup and cocoa as we could lay our hands on, and finally an inflatable lifebelt. Because I was carrying a Sten gun with a large number of filled magazines in my pouches, I would have sunk like a stone if I had gone overboard.’
Despite their discomfort, the thousands of fed-up, fearful and frustrated soldiers being buffeted by the wild waters of the English Channel could do nothing but wait until a decision was made about the invasion. Theirs not to reason why.
Then, almost miraculously, Eisenhower’s meteorological experts told him there would be a temporary improvement in the weather around June 6. Conditions would be far from perfect, but it was the only chance on offer. Any further delay could mean Overlord being aborted, with unimaginable consequences.
After a conference with his senior officers near Portsmouth on the evening of June 4, after studying all the maps, hearing all the reports, canvassing all the opinions, after considering all the facts and all the eventualities, the grim-faced Supreme Commander finally made his decision – one of the most momentous in history.
Eisenhower’s decision was: ‘We go.’
As the order went out to the task force, the bearded skipper of the 92nd’s lead LCT, number 405, Lieutenant John Francis ‘Jack’ Pointon – a New Zealander known as Kiwi – assembled the gunners for a briefing. He grimly assured them that when they reached the coast of France, he would get them as far up the beach as possible, particularly if the Germans set the sea on fire.
He ended his address by reciting to the men the prayer that Nelson had written before the Battle of Trafalgar: ‘May the Great God whom I worship grant to my country and to the benefit of Europe in general a great and glorious victory! And may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it! And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself individually, I commit my life to Him who made me – and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.’
With such stirring sentiments, the men of F Troop set sail at 6pm on the evening of June 5. And this time, there would be no turning back. From the coves of Cornwall to the Thames estuary, the great grey armada of the invasion fleet got under way. Off the coasts of Hampshire and Dorset, the vessels of Task Force S slipped their moorings and steamed slowly towards their assembly areas below the Isle of Wight.
Then, in the gathering darkness, they turned south for the Normandy beaches.