Where and how did you spend your 21st birthday? Due to events in the autumn of 1922 it was predetermined that my 21st birthday should fall on the 1st June 1944 so were was I? We will start a little before that in May 44. I was a Lieut in the 25th LAA Regt RA 50 Div which we all know was an assault division in the Normandy landings. Due to the loss of a complete battery in the assault on Sicily it was decided that the unit would be split up into subsections of 3 guns per ship. I was leading as subsection due to land on the afternoon of D-Day. The regiment was stationed in Romsey (on Lord Louis Mountbatten's estateBroadlands) In the middle of May we started to move to other camps to form up into boat loads for loading onto Landing Ships Tank (LSTs) so with 3 self propelled Bofors 40 mm guns and two three ton lorries We set off on our journey meeting up with the rest of my boat load which was called a "Brick". We moved towards the coast from camp to camp as boats were loaded on the hards at Southampton finally in glorious sunny weather we moved block by block into Southampton.
Here I think I should tell you a bit about the gun crews. Most of them had served in the Middle East and in the assault on Sicily and were pretty battle hardened which means they were not new or very keen on this sort of lark. Among other things we had been issued with Liberation Francs although I don't quite know where we would spend them.
As we shuffled slowly forward with our "`Brick" we stopped in the middle of Southampton. Amongst our boat load was a War Correspondent whom I think was Bill Downs from Canada complete with his escorting officer. At each stop the gunners dismounted and started doing what gunners do, that is playing cards, writing letters etc.
At one stop a very agitated escorting officer came up to me and-said: "Do you know your blokes are playing cards". "So what?". "But they are sitting on the pavement and using francs". So I said: "I know they shouldn't really play cards for money but I don't suppose that it really matters". "But an enemy spy might see them" Then I pointed out that if an enemy spy was about with all performance that was going on in the area he probably wouldn't notice my gunners playing cards with francs. We duly arrived at the hard and backed on to a Landing Ship Tank (LST). Good I thought, we should be able to get a drink or two in the wardroom to celebrate my 21st.
After a problem with a large crane which finally had to go on last as its jib stuck out over the bow gates it was fairly late on 31st May. Having settled the troops in and the vehicles tied down we set off to the Wardroom to organise a drink. Horror of horrors we were on an American ship and as with all American ships it was DRY! So that didn't look too good for my 21st birthday party, fortunately as a consolation somebody found a bottle of whisky in their pack and six of us sat round in a cabin and finished it off, as you can guess it didn't go all that far. So that was the end of My 21st birthday party.
The Trip Across The Channel
Having boarded our Tank Landing Ship (LST) as I explained earlier was an American ship and DRY. I will explain a little about this type of ship, they were designed with Bow Doors which opened to allow a ramp to be lowered for loading and unloading tanks and vehicles.They had two vehicle decks lighter vehicles being carried to the top deck by a lift. Tanks and heavier vehicles were in the lower deck and were unloaded first. The LST was flat bottomed and designed to run up the beach, the vehicles then disembarked in about three feet of water or on an outgoing tide the ship could dry out and the vehicles would not have to "wade". They were fitted with a "Kedge" anchor which enabled them to winch off the beach if they didn't dry out. To speed unloading some LST's unloaded onto "Rhino" ferries which comprised a big floating platform driven by two or more large outboard motors at the rear.They could carry between 20 and 30 vehicles which allowed a quicker turnaround for the LST.
The "Rhino" ferries were pushed back into the sea after unloading by bulldozers. Back to the main part of the excitement, we pulled off the "Hard" and lay out in the Solent waiting to form up. There we stayed until the 4th of June, fortunately most of my Gunners were experienced in landing operations having been in Sicily so knew their way around LST's probably better than the sailors who hadn't been in action before. I was fortunate in having three experienced Gun Sergeants to keep me out of trouble. Meeting with the gunnery Officer on the ship I offered my help as he had 7 40 mm Bofors AA guns as well as several 20 mm Oelikon guns. He asked me to join him on the bridge in the event of the ship going to "Action Stations" to advise him on AA defence. The troops had now is settled down happily or should we say making the best of the circumstances, except for one or two cases of sea sickness. The gun sergeants approached me to see if our section could man the three forward Bofors as they didn't like having to go below when the ship went to "Action Stations". I managed to make a tactic arrangement with the Gunnery Officer that our gun crews could muster close to the forward armament when we went to battle stations.
I had received a package of orders that were not to be opened until I was on board, so, as you guessed I rapidly opened the package to get the story. They were detailed maps of our landing area and the route to our first deployment. Instructions on „de water proofing" and the position and route to the de water proofing park (all vehicles were waterproofed to drive in over three foot of water but had to have some parts removed immediately on landing). Very detailed instructions of the route to the deployment which was to defend the bridge at Creully about six in miles inland.The route was through Ryles then turn left down to Creully. We then had a very careful briefing so everybody knew exactly what was happening. One of the orders were that if a vehicle broke down it was to be pushed off the road and left, having seen what happens to any kit left unattended we fitted tow chains to the front of each vehicle so that we could hook up quickly to any breakdowns and take the offending vehicle with us. The weather deteriorated and we set sail but after a few hours we will back in the Solent. I then found that the Canadian war correspondent had interviewed a number of my gunners and the conducting officer brought me a copy for approval while not objecting to the remarks of bronzed experienced Eighth Army soldiers I coughed a bit at the „led by a tall handsome" anyway he probably found better things to say.
The sea lessened a bit and we were on our way again along with hundreds of others. After a reasonably easy journey over apart from the fact that LST's are flat bottomed and not very kind to non-sailors. We approached the beach head in the afternoon of D-Day and lay-off waiting to be called in. Then, of course, the fun started, we were at „Action Stations" the vehicles untied , engines tested guns loaded and ready for the off. Watching with interest the battle from a grandstand view. The LST had dropped its Kedge anchor to help hold position. Then a Tank Landing Craft (LCT) fouled our anchor rope swung round and holed us aft at the same time doing itself quite a bit of damage. The officer in charge of the LCT ordered the troops to abandon ship but he had a bit of a mutiny, as they didn't feel like losing all their kit, fortunately the rope broke and everybody was happy? As the LCT staggered towards the beach and successfully landed its load. But we had lost our anchor. No problem, there was a spare. In came the rope and the engineer officer was directing the lowering of spare anchor to deck and re-splicing it on, this caused quite a confusion until the cook came out of the galley and took over the job (well he had a cook's hat on).
So back to the forepart to watch the action on the beaches. There appeared to be some congestion in getting off the beaches which were still under shell fire and we could see occasional vehicles running over mines etc. To our right we could see a destroyer engaging beach defences on top of a cliff. After several shots he got a direct hit and the crew evacuated rapidly, unfortunately they ran in a bunch along the cliff, after three or four more shots the destroyer hit the gun crew. While we were standing off the beaches with numerous other ships, mine-sweepers were operating in the area, as we watched a sweep came past quite close (sweeps have a post sticking out of the water to indicate their position). A crew member saw it and shouted „SUBMARINE" and jumped onto an Oelikon 20 mm fortunately my gun sergeants managed to drag him off before he could fire. The thought of the consequences of numerous people shooting across the water I will leave to your imagination.
There was very little aircraft activity and certainly no reaction from the German air force which was a relief although we saw a Typhoon (which looks a bit like a Fokker-Wolfe 190) being fired at by German AA he turned across the beach head but received a bigger dose from friendly fire that he retreated back to the German side. A decision was then taken that unloading would stop for the night and we would go ashore at dawn. After a fairly quiet night the ship ran ashore at dawn and the captain decided to dry out and come off on the rising tide so bow doors open ramp down then two „bright sparks" stripped to the buff and waded ashore.
It struck me that if I did that it would be most embarrassing to step on a mine with nothing on fortunately they didn't. The crane with the long jib headed up the beach and then it was our turn. Having watched events for several hours the previous day I, hopefully, gave some firm orders to my gun crews. The guns were loaded and manned ready to fire. I would lead: the column and every vehicle would follow in my wheel tracks regardless of any orders to the contrary. We would commence de-water proofing whenever the vehicles came to a halt. And we would do everything to get off the beach PDQ . The instructions were to move into a de- waterproofing just inland from Le Hamil by the time we had got off the beach all vehicles were de-waterproofed. As we approached the area I saw an unfortunate walking towards his vehicle when he trod on a mine I made a rapid decision bypass that area and we drove off inland.
25th LAA Regiment RA
At this stage I will explain the make up of the 25th LAA Regt RA in the 50th Division. The Regt comprised three batteries each containing 18 guns in the three six gun troops. The Regt was equipped with 40 mm Bofors guns mounted on a 4 X 4 Morris chassis a total of 54 guns. The regiment's task was to defend the division against low-level air attack. The British Army was very sensitive to low-level aircraft attack due to experiences when the enemy had a high degree of air superiority. Possibly not quite so sensitive as the Royal Navy who believed everything with wings was hostile. Although in Normandy the allies had control of the air German fighter bombers carried out numerous daylight low-level attacks and regularly bombed the beach head.
The Regt mainly defended the gun lines and a certain amount of route protection in the divisional area. Up From The Beaches Our little convoy set off towards Ryes, it was a nice sunny day and there seemed very little activity going on as though the battle had flowed on ahead of us. Although the roads were pretty dusty, the country didn't look very fought over and everybody was moving forward. As we reached our turn off the inevitable happened, lorry number two broke down. Fortunately we rapidly backed the first lorry and hooked up the offender, this created a bit of a fuss from a passing Bren gun carrier (I think they saw some loot disappearing). We then moved down a long straight road towards the deployment area. As the road was straight and treeless I was a bit concerned about the possibility of air attack or shelling but all was quiet. My troops were not used to this type of country and I wasn't as battlewise otherwise I would've realised the danger of everything being quiet.
Fortunately we were lucky and reached our destination without any further trouble. We met the remainder of the troop, the guns deployed and we moved troop headquarters into a narrow sunken lane parallel to the road to the bridge about 200 yards away. The vehicles were turned round ready to move out and we started sorting out kit to distribute to the gun positions. Meantime I had set up a radio receiver on the bank looking towards the parallel road. I glanced up and to my horror I saw a company of German soldiers doubling down the road towards the bridge. Now I knew why it was quiet, we had driven through our own lines into enemy held territory. Discretion being a better part of valour and only a Sten gun my hand I decided not to dispute the Germans passage.
I rapidly organised all-round defence, at the same time gunfire from the beach area behind us slammed into the trees it was obviously tank and machine-gun fire. Weighing up the situation I decided all round defence and no offensive action unless we were actually bumped was the best option. The trouble was where were the Bren guns and anti-tank mortar? Buried under the kit of course. We fairly rapidly found them and got under cover Having got everybody into position I was walking towards the main road, with a view to putting a Bren gun facing towards the beach.
To my dismay there was a pair of Jack boots and field grey trousers sticking out of a bush, fortunately, I didn't fire but kicked one of the boots and made a noise like "surrender" in German. To my amazement out of the bush came a grey haired old Frenchman how near he was to a magazine of Sten he will never know. I told him in no uncertain terms to go home and change his boots and trousers I think he got the message as he was gone like a rocket. I crossed the road and carefully peered through the hedge Nothing in sight so collecting a Bren gun crew and got them settled down. Three Germans with a Spandau were doubling across the field, a couple of quick bursts from the Bren and they were down. At that moment over the brow of the hill came two Sherman tanks.
Carefully displaying our recognition colours (yellow triangles) we made contact. They then informed us that they had only to come as far as the road so the tanks took off back the way they had come. Turning to the three Germans, who were not too badly wounded we patched them up and moved them to the road to flag down an ambulance. I pointed out that if they were well treated and some other enemy saw that they wouldn't be so hesitant to surrender. Having liberated the Spandau and ammunition and checked that the Germans were un-armed we got them to the road. Where I managed to stop an ambulance heading back towards Ryes.
The driver reluctantly stopped and was hopping about while we loaded the wounded on. I enquired what the problem was his reply was „There are three bloody great Tiger Tanks half a mile back at the crossroads" time for more decisions. So stay where we are and hope for the best. The troop commander returned from getting the guns in position and agreed we would stay put and as it was getting late brew up and settle down for the night. As you can imagine no Tiger tanks appeared. But as you can guess we spent a rather nervous night with double sentries, fortunately all was quiet and next morning we moved off to a new area