It is a long time ago, fifty eight years and five months. So much has happened, so many things have changed, some good, some bad. So many things you would have liked to change, so much you would have liked to do. So much you have forgotten, but some things are imprinted on your mind, you will never forget. A sudden glimpse of a photograph, a voice with an accent, a face that reminds you of other times and other folks.
I have just seen a picture of part of my life many years ago, a proud ship flying U.S. colours, “LST 293” she was my home for only a short time, a few days that’s all, but she and the men who sailed her will be forever in my thoughts and my heart. We had spent months on the south coast, training, doing a dozen times a day, exactly what we had been doing since the start of hostilities, winding up bandages, fastening splints, making “figure of eight tension straps”, assembling the well known “Thomas Splint” – invented to assist the transport of badly wounded comrades, to keep shattered leg bones from grating together. Very simply made with metal rods and so many have derived benefit from this “contraption” as it was often described as.
The only exciting part of training came with the transfer of individual stretcher parties to train going out to sea in assault craft, in my case LST 293. We used to load mock wounded, 9 stretchers plus 2 walking wounded, 7 across the sides of the DUKW, plus 2 on the floor and 2 crouching below. I say exciting because sometimes you beached, that was fine but sometimes you gained access into LST 293 by revving up to full speed, half way up the bow ramp, and quickly changed to road wheels. Those RASC boys were good, but sometimes they misjudged it, and the DUKW slipped back into the briny sea, and everyone got soaked AND scared out of your lives. I have never met anyone who enjoyed it yet, but there must be some idiot that liked it?
The south coast was teeming with lorries, tanks, ships, men and don’t forget women too, a great many of them were there, doctors, nurses, telecommunications, drivers, “back up people”. It was not just the military personnel, it was everyone doing their part that made it a success, and don’t forget all the people at home, mothers and fathers, sweethearts and wives, kiddies too. They all played their part and played it well, so when we look back don’t just think of the “medal adorned personnel”, there were thousands of unsung heroes and heroines in the background, it must have been the most ambitious exercise ever undertaken in the whole of history.
We had been on the other side of hostilities e.g. Dunkirk, the terrible retreats we experienced in Africa, this one must be a success, it must be, and I feel that most people did a wonderful job and under terrible starin, families separated, kiddies without their mums and dads, the whole atmosphere was alien, but we should feel proud of the sacrifices that were made and all with a smile.
We realised that June 4th came and went, June 5th just the same. Weather was atrocious. June 6th 1944 we are off, so many many months of waiting, dreaming of what it would be like, invasion on blackboards, on exercises, will we drown? Or just get wet? Would a shell hit us before we land? Would there be few of the enemy or would there be thousands of them? Would we cope with the battle casualties we won’t have sterile dressing rooms, we will be on battle scarred sandy beaches. The training we had, years of it, would it be able to cope with what we will meet? All these questions became a reality as we approached the French coast, we knew it would be very different with what we had been used to, blue marking on pretend wounds, here we would have gaping shrapnel wounds, anywhere on the body, loss of limbs, loss of sight, chest wounds, stomach wounds, all these had been bad dreams in the past, now they were only a few hours from reality. I’m sure each and every one of us as we neared the French coast, had similar thoughts would we make it?
The spirit on board “293” was good no matter what the inner fears were. The skipper thought up some special date and ordered a meal, turkey, plum pudding plus ice cream. I remember vividly a black cook in white shouting “Hot stuff” carrying a tray of ice cream! he created a laugh, just what was needed.
The sea was rough, I felt sorry for my comrades in the smaller craft of which you could see hundreds, LCT’s, LCP’s LCDD’s, naval launches aircraft overhead, the sound of the shelling ahead of us, and it was onlt 4-5 am. I remember seeing the land as flashes lightened the sky. At approximately 7am we were told to hold fast as we were going to ram the beach, and so we did I didn’t even get my feet wet! – thanks to the US Navy.
I was in charge of a stretcher party I told them to wait for a flail tank (one with winding chains to blow mines up) and follow it onto the beach. We followed one and Jerry hit it! We scattered, two went one way, Sid and Roy. Unfortunately they were killed. Bert and I made our way to the lea of the cliffs, and with the help of other teams rigged up a rough dressing station with tarpaulin and two wrecks of tanks conveniently burnt out near the cliff, and so we set up business.
Most of the casualties I’ve tried to forget, most were unpleasant to administer aid to, God knows how the wounded coped, but I hope some of the work we did was helpful. It wasn’t easy, with occasional strafing from aircraft and “mortar bombs” coming fairly regularly. When our lads moved them out of range it made our little dressing station more pleasant. And yet, do you know? The tarpaulin cover gave some comfort and a feeling of security.
It must have been nearly mid day, we had had possibly 50, 60 wounded in our station and once we did what we could, enabling them to be transferred to an LST that returned to Blighty. I was one of the lucky ones, I travelled with the early ones. Conditions were easier, we had an M.O. who gave instructions and we finally discharged the wounded at Gosport, loaded up and turned around in a couple of hours! Things were not too bad by that time on the beach.
One more trip, this time just to unload the tanks, wagons of all descriptions, collect wounded and back this time to Poole, and then I was recalled to my unit, 24th British General Hospital, in a few days time, once mustered to strength, we proceeded as a unit field hospital with equipment for 1200 beds, to outside Caen, again only for a short period and acting mainly as an ADS (Advanced Dressing Station). Things were moving very quickly, we then set up near Bayeaux, remaining a few weeks doing more static hospital work, holding wounded longer to enable better survival during transit to the UK.
Back to Blighty! Seven days overseas leave in Manchester - great!