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Part Two – the Normandy Beach-head and into France – June 1944 

That which follows is taken from notes I wrote on the Normandy Beach-head, hence the “youthful” way it is written; I wrote it in lulls and periods of rest; I still have these notes; although I was trained as a predictor number there were obviously several detachments (for obvious reasons); on the beach-head I was site bren-gunner, later on we swapped over.

New from here on 24 February 2014:

We boarded our L.S.T. early morning and spent most of the time getting settled in and generally being useful. It was a lovely morning, the sun was shining, who would have thought that 200 miles away a fierce struggle for freedom was going on? I was bound for that scene, to take an active part, and my thoughts were many and varied.  

When at last all the loading was completed, the craft began to move slowly on her way, we all lined the sides, taking a good, long look at dear old England, which brought a lump to our throats. We watched until the shore faded into the distance, and here we were with only our thoughts to console us.  

I tried to sleep during the voyage in a lorry on the deck when I was awakened by a friend who said that everyone was to go below deck before dark. I obliged and on looking over the rail of the craft had my first glimpse of France, a long coastline stretching away to the horizon, the red sun slowly sinking in the west, looking down upon the piece of land upon which the eyes of the whole world were focused.  

I made my bed on the bottom floor of the L.S.T. and soon dozed off. My dreams were suddenly shattered some hours later (about midnight) by gunfire. The dull, sullen drone of the bombers I could just hear. The guns on board our ship opened up, together with many more (in fact all hell broke loose!).The dull crunch of bombs vibrated through the ship, contrasting with the more staccato sound of the gunfire, it all seemed unreal. I felt penned in, trapped in this great steel box, thinking what everyone else must have been thinking – of home, Mum and relatives and friends, and what would happen if a stray bomb hit our ship.  

Nothing happened however, and after several repeats of the fireworks during the early hours, dawn broke amid complete silence and peace – a total and strange contrast to the previous hours. As we were quite close to the shore I think that the bomb crunches we heard were probably on the beach-head, which was to be confirmed in a very short time by experience! – ie when we were later in action every night, the bombers seemed to come in from the sea direction.  

After breakfast, by which time our craft had reached the shore, we prepared to disembark. We watched the vehicles, ahead of us in the order of landing, driving off on the soft sand, over which a kind of steel mesh had been laid. I had a good view of the beach, it was strewn with the wrecks of boats, and I could see a shattered village just off the shore. It was a scene of activity now, men in jeeps, cars and lorries were everywhere, and the roar of bulldozers was deafening. The steel mesh road ran right over the beach, and here and there was an abandoned German gun, and other reminders of the price that some of the assault troops must have paid.  

Although our regiment had landed a few days earlier on D-Day on SWORD Beach at a place called Lion-Sur-Mer, the beach we were now about to land on was in the Canadian sector, at a place called Bernieres. Once ashore we would have to travel about 15-20 miles by devious roads to join them on the extreme left of the beach-head (Bernieres-Sur-Mer was situated on JUNO Beach, where we now were about to disembark).  

At last came the order for us to move, we perched ourselves in our allotted vehicle and my driver, Jim Pitt, from London, made a good job of it. We drove along the beach following signs and personnel directions. It was a hot morning and everywhere was as dry as a bone. Consequently the dust rose in columns, making it appear rather like a sand storm in the desert. Activity was intense.  

We passed through shattered sea-front houses on the shore, most of which seemed to be deserted save for a few French people who were sorting out their possessions amongst the rubble of their houses.  

All the roads were jammed with traffic and men and our speed was cut down to walking pace. Everywhere the eye could see, troops were dug in, utilising every means of doing this, by the roadsides, in the fields, everywhere, because we were well within shellfire range, the beach-head was only about 5-8 miles wide at this stage.  

We travelled along at an incredibly slow pace for about 20 miles, because we didn’t go direct, we had to detour around side roads etc, until we were on the extreme left of the beach-head, about 6 miles from Caen (which was still in German hands), but our gun-site, being on the extreme flank of the line, was only one and a half miles from the Germans.  

We had passed through La-Deliverande and Hermanville-Sur-Mer and arrived at our gun-site from the other side, actually heading towards the sea, owing to detours. It was in a field, outside the sea-front village of Lion-Sur Mer. Other places nearby were Luc-Sur-Mer, St Auban-Sur-Mer and Benouville.  

Ouistreham, at the mouth of the River Orne, was to our left (looking inland), and was our nearest point to the Germans, and remained so - the rest of the front running round as the advance came, but we were on the stationary pivot of the left flank.  

The lads were certainly pleased to see us, the gave a little cheer as our lorries wended their way off the road, into the gun-site field. They soon made us feel at home and after having got the “grif” from them and hearing their many illuminated “war stories” and of their many narrow escapes (they landed on D-Day) we were grateful to learn that as far as casualties were concerned, they had been lucky.  

We then got settled in. I was detailed as the site bren gunner (together with the other reliefs) and when on duty would be in a slit trench about six feet long, near the P.F. (Radar) in the middle of the field.  

The lads were all living in dug-outs, which they had made as comfortable as possible, and as safe as possible, by placing logs, tank irons, and anything else they could lay their hands on, over the top.  

Just over the thin dividing hedge (only yards from my off-duty dug-out which I shared with quite a few others) there was a BOFOR Battery (L.A.A.).Over the road from which we had just come into the site, was a field in which a Medium Field Artillery Battery was sited. To our right in another field (almost adjoining) was another Medium Field Unit.  

A very short distance down the road leading to Lion-Sur-Mer was a crossroad junction overlooking the sea shore. This was being continually shelled by Jerry, perhaps one every five or ten minutes. Apart from this, in the few hours I had been here it had been relatively quiet, I was soon to find out different.  

Although we had almost complete air supremacy over the Germans, they sent aircraft over every night and they were not high, and as we were in a vital position, it was bloody scary! – the beach-head at our point on the flank was not wide, and also we were almost in direct line from the sea to Caen (5-6 miles away). We were thankful for the numerous barrage balloons which did help to keep them up a bit.                                   

New from here on 10 March 2014:

Our rations were as well as could be expected under the circumstances – all tinned stuff, no bread, but plenty of hard biscuits and hard black chocolate. We were issued with one bar of chocolate a day, 7 cigarettes each day and 80 cigarettes (if our luck was in) NAAFI rations each week. We had one wireless for the troop, which we all used to crowd around at news time – yes, we were only one and a half miles from Jerry and had to listen to the news to find out how we were getting on!  

The rest of the day passed by with only the continuous shelling of the crossroads just down the road and the heavy “thud” of intermittent shelling of the German lines by a large Navy warship out to sea to disturb us.  

However, the same evening (my first in France) a group of us were sitting on the edge of the bren- gun pit, chattering away about different things, when there was a dull (not loud) thud in the distance. Almost simultaneously the scream of a shell whizzed by us and landed, we discovered afterwards, twenty yards away. Boy! Our reaction! – the next thing I recalled was four of us lying on the floor of our bren-gun slit trench, in most undignified positions, with grazed hands and knuckles. We looked at one another in deadly silence until someone said “I think that one dropped near Bombardier Thomas’ “bivvy” – Thud! – a short shrill whistle, and the ground shook when the shell landed. “That bugger was pretty close”, whispered one chap.  

We were now aware that Jerry was shelling us, or was after the field battery, and was overshooting. In these seconds I realised the horror of being shelled – you can’t do anything about it – you can’t hit back – all you can do is to keep down, pray, and wait and hope. One chap gingerly peered over the top of the pit, “They’ve got old Thomas, the jeep is taking him away now, it looks like a direct hit”.  

Several more shells came over and were bloody close, one scored a direct hit on our latrines about 30 yards to our right. After what seemed like an eternity, Jerry stopped and we came out into the open again. Bombardier Thomas’ bivvy had received a direct hit and was smashed up, we crowded around it, here and there, a picture of someone, a shattered kit-bag, was all that remained. Luckily only one person (Thomas) was in it. We found out later that he was critically injured, but couldn’t get any more details. How he escaped with his life amazed me.  

The thing that intrigued me afterwards was the fact that the “Thud” of the guns and the landing of the shells were almost simultaneous. I reasoned that the guns were probably 88mm, which were a dual role gun (ie field and ack-ack) like our 3.7inch’s, and thus would have a high muzzle velocity, therefore the shell would travel almost as fast as the sound, both arriving almost together.  

As I have said, although we had air supremacy over Jerry, their planes came every night and early morning. Although they weren’t mass raids (up to 40 or 50 estimated, more at times) when you are on a narrow beach-head, on the extreme left flank and 6 miles from Caen, which was still in Germans hands, it wasn’t something to look forward to.  

The nights that followed were deadly. The alarm bells went every night as soon as darkness settled in. “Take Post” was shouted, and the site was activated, with everyone running to their respective duties. In my position of bren-gunner, I was unfortunate in as much as I just had to watch – ie, if you are doing something, you are hitting back, and having to concentrate on that which you are doing, thereby releasing your adrenalin. Later on when I had my spell on both the guns and predictor, I found out it was much better when in action to be doing this than just watching.  

The planes seemed to come in from the sea direct and we would watch the red tracers of the BOFOR guns, and the flash of heavier guns in the area creeping nearer. Then “Target predictor control!” was shouted, followed by “On target” and other successive orders – the site was alive!   Within seconds the planes were over us, and the noise of the barrage of other guns in the area was terrific, as was the spectacle of the tracers and flashes and bursting AA shells. We watched and waited tense. Suddenly the order to fire was given. Our 3.7inch’s opened up together with the BOFORs in the next field (only yards way). The planes which were not all that high seemed to be twisting and turning (I thought this by their engine noise), obviously to try and dodge the fire. The dust nearly choked us, the concussive effect of all this was terrific, as was the acrid smell of cordite.  

The bombs were now thundering, luckily for us, up the road where it seemed the unfortunate field battery was getting it in the neck. The general feeling that all this imparted to me was that it was like being in the middle of a violent thunderstorm at night – the lightning flash of the guns – the thunder of the guns and bombs – plus the tremor of the ground and choking dust.  

Then it would stop! – the silence afterwards was uncanny in a way, my ears were “ringing” as you could hear men talking. After the order to cease-fire they went back to their dug-outs, several wandered over to have a natter and squat on the bren-gun trench. All we could see and hear now was the flash of distant occasional gunfire – a few distant tracers. Then, after perhaps an hour, back they came, and the proceedings started again. This was the pattern night after night. We were always glad when morning came and we could (hopefully) get some rest.  

We were in a situation where Jerry was waiting for our imminent big assault on Caen, and we were waiting for that as well. A kind of lull charged with tension, where both sides clouted the order to let each other know they were still there.  

We did get some time off now and again (as duties were duplicated), and Eddie (my London friend) and myself used to wander down to Lion-Sur-Mer , the small French village where the regiment came ashore. I expect it was also a kind of small resort in normal times – but it didn’t resemble one now, it looked as if a bulldozer had run amok in it.  

There didn’t seem to be many people there, but those that were, were quite friendly, and I found them very pleased to see us. They were ruddy-faced peasant-looking people, the kind you would see in any English country village, and all in all looked pretty healthy, owing to I suppose the fact that they were in a farming area where they could supplement their diet by eggs, vegetables etc. However, they couldn’t offer us anything, as they were worse off than us. It was obvious that a lot of people had moved out of the place and would not (or could not) return until the situation had altered. I did not see any children at all; I did not see any young men at all; I did not see any young women at all. They seemed to be in the main older to middle-aged stalwarts who were bonded with love to their homes, and who were holding the fort until their loved ones could return.

New from here on 25 March 2014:

On another off duty period we went a mile or so inland (towards CAEN) up the road to another place called La Deliveran, a smallish market type town, an old worldly type of place. On this occasion we found to our delight that an advanced based concert party (bless their hearts) were performing in the village hall. We were all engrossed in the welcome entertainment when, without warning, Jerry shelled the town. One landed close enough to almost stop the show, but the artistes stuck to their guns and so did we! Fortunately it was not a prolonged shelling and we saw the show through to its conclusion – Well Done E.N.S.A., or whoever the party was – Many Thanks!  

A couple of weeks or more passed by with the usual occasional shelling, the non-stop shelling of the cross roads, the non-stop shelling by our large Navy battleship (or cruiser) of the German lines just the other side of the River Orne, and the nightly fireworks which I have described.  

We fired FIELD nearly everyday (quite prolonged) – AIR-BURSTS – and we had been told earlier that these were very terrifying to those on the receiving end. Information was relayed by spotter planes and other methods back to our guns, the correct fuse was set on the shells (after the height, range and angle-bearing was computed) so that the shells burst just a few feet off the ground. Slit trenches offered no protection if one exploded near because A.A. shells are designed to fragment like grenades and therefore would be lethal if you were under a burst.  

During this period we were dive-bombed once by a lone plane, and by luck we are still here. No one was hurt and the plane, we learned afterwards, was shot down by F Troop – Well Done mates! This happened at dusk (a kind of half-light), the Jerries didn’t venture over in broad daylight.  

Then came the morning I shall never forget. I had just finished my bren-gun guard duty at six o’clock on this morning. It was a beautiful clear morning, which heralded another hot, sunny day, and I had just reached my dugout, when shouts from my mates who were outside the dugout made me run out. I was greeted by the most astounding sight. The first intimation that anything extraordinary was happening was the appearance of Lancaster bombers over the coast. They literally crossed over our site and to the east of us in almost a mass procession, a procession that seemed endless looking out to sea.  

Soon the ground was vibrating and the air filled with a continual noise like thunder – no break in its continuity. The Lancasters were crossing in their hundreds now, just as if they were going to a football match. The Germans were putting up a terrific barrage, the sky was a mass of A.A. bursts over and to the east of CAEN. The RAF never flinched, they went straight in, dropped their bombs, and then headed back to the west of us. From our position on our gun-site we could see the bombs and chandeliers falling. The terrific concussion was felt by us, and the dust (everywhere was bone dry) at times almost darkened the sky. I saw several of our Lancasters crash in flames with smoke billowing from them, one in the sea on the way back, the others in the area around CAEN.  

The ground on our site field and the road outside was covered with aluminium strips that were released from the Lancasters to deceive the German’s radar. Dense smoke rose in columns from the CAEN area and several exceptionally loud explosions followed by spiralling black smoke signalled that an ammunition dump had been hit, or some other highly combustible material.  

As the last of the Lancasters (and Halifax’s) were leaving, heading for home (some “limping” home on the engines they had that were still operative), the Americans took over.  

They were much higher up, we could see the sun glistening on them, as they came in from the coast. They were in formations and glistened like silver in the rising sun. They continued the bombardment and after they had dropped their load, they too headed back.  

The great artillery bombardment was in full swing as the planes were leaving. The whole front was aflame now, the concussion was terrific and the roar of the guns was so great (like continual thunder) that you could hardly distinguish separate shots, and a large proportion of this was Jerry’s return fire. The smoke rising from the German lines and ours told of the terrific toll and destruction it was causing. This barrage kept on for hours and hours, and then the infantry went in.  

We were not actually engaged in the assault, we were still on the extreme left flank, with the German’s line only about a mile or so to our east. We were in a vital area, should Jerry have launched an attack from there and broke through our line, he could have altered the whole course, not only of the CAEN battle, but of the war itself. So a few of us who were not on duty walked down the road towards La Deliveran until we came to a road junction (one of many obviously) from where troops, supplies etc were coming and going to and from the front line.  

The scene at this junction is one I also will never forget. We stood at this junction, and the road leading to the front area was filled with convoys taking supplies to the front. Ambulances were everywhere, coming and going, a grim reminder of the price that was being paid. MP’s were on duty on traffic control and they kept things moving. This was not a congested, slow moving line of traffic, but a fast moving one, with a great sense of urgency. It had obviously been well planned with military precision. The looks on the faces of the drivers, ambulances and others, told it all. They were all grim faced, red faced, with dirt and sweat and tension. To add to all this, the sun was now blaring down and the roads, which were dry and cracked, caused blinding dust as the traffic rushed by. We ourselves were now covered with dust.  

We somehow managed to reach La Deliveran and there was one public building, a church or similar, that seemed to be in use as a forward medical aid centre. We wouldn’t see inside but outside was enough. There were rows of wounded men lying on stretchers, many bandaged and bloody, who seemed to be waiting for attention. There were also nuns tending the wounded. This is another thing I will not forget.   We did not linger and made our way back to our gun-site, the din and noise of the barrage was still going on, added to by the noise of the incessant traffic.  

The attack and fighting went on for 3 days (from the 18th to the 20th July) when a sudden change of weather made the roads impassable. Everything came to a standstill amid blinding thunderstorms. The guns went quiet and we were once again in a “lull” situation.  

The result of the past 3 day’s battle, we learned afterwards, was that only half of CAEN had been liberated, and a gain of 3 to 6 miles made to the area east of the River Orne. Jerry had put up a terrific fight. Much later on we learned that the British and Canadians had suffered 7,502 casualties, almost double those inflicted on D-Day. Had it not been for the advances in medical science, and the excellent medical organisation, these casualties would have been much higher. There must have been hundreds of civilians in CAEN killed or injured, and God knows how many Germans!

New from here on 7 April 2014:

Our position in relation to the Germans remained unaltered, we were still only a mile or so away, Jerry was still just the other side of the River Orne, and remained so until at least August 16th.  

However, as I have stated, violent thunderstorms brought a halt to the fighting. The dug out and bivvies on our gun-site were flooded out, everything was damp with mildew, but we didn’t mind much at the time as it meant a rest for us, and I would think a blessed relief for the poor buggers who had been in the thick of it.  

The barrage balloons, which had been cut adrift on D-Day (after the commanding officers had realised that Jerry gunners were ranging on them, leading to accurate withering gunfire on Sword Beach where our lads landed at Lion-sur-Mer) had been re-erected, and during the violent storm we watched from our soaked bivvy as the lightning fetched nearly everyone down! They acted like lightning conductors and it was quite a sight to see the fork run down the retaining leads, the balloon catching fire, and floating down alight.  

It was during this spell of unsettled weather that Jerry used mortars, Moaning-Minnies-type, on the town, or near, of Quistreham. It was late night, or early morning, and I was off duty and asleep, when this bloody awful noise awakened us. We all went outside to see what it was. We waited, and then we saw a sheet of flame on the other side of the River Orne that seemed to illuminate the whole skyline, followed by a noise that is too weird to describe, followed by a series of staccato explosions in the neighbourhood of Quistreham that shook us up, even at our distance away.  

This was repeated for quite a long period. We heard afterwards over the grapevine that Jerry hadn’t caused much damage or casualties, but I’m bloody glad I wasn’t any nearer to them! I would say that they must have been a terrifying weapon to be on the receiving end of, something akin to the moral dampening effect of a Stuka dive-bomber’s shrill siren-like sound when he’s diving down towards you!  

After the rain stopped and visibility was once again good, activity on the front recommenced, and our spell of relative quiet was over. Again we fired field most days and were in action most nights. It was on a reduced scale however, and one plane in particular used to come along about dusk every evening, with the sole purpose (it seemed to us) of being a bloody nuisance. Once or twice he came over the site at tree-top height so that we barely had time to range on him. The BOFORs were quicker (being lighter) and he got a bit of stick from them. We all expected him to unload his eggs on us, but fortunately he didn’t, perhaps thanks to the BOFORs’ withering fire in the adjoining field. It was a relief when we heard and felt the crunch of his bombs just up the road, although we knew some poor devil was getting it. We learned afterwards that it was a Junkers 88.           

The damp passed, and though I haven’t mentioned it before (being pre-occupied with our own role), the field batteries in the field to the front of us and to the right of us, also fired everyday, and had done so since I had been here. Those small spotter planes (Lysanders & Austers) of ours were always about, hovering as close as they dare to the Jerry lines, no doubt relaying information to the guns I’ve just mentioned.  

This vital area was bristling with “hidden” guns, armour, troops etc, and Jerry knew this, that’s why he didn’t try an attack (thank goodness), if he had we would probably have won, but how many of us would be here now? I think that in a situation like that we would have finished up firing anti-tanks (as did our equivalent – the Jerry 88mm). They did say that the 88mm was a better all-round gun than our  3.7’s because it was lighter and more mobile, but with the same fire power. Perhaps it was no coincidence that our guns were also “sighted” on the crossroad junction to our left on the sea shore, which had been persistently shelled by Jerry.  

The Falaise Gap was the decisive battle which eventually forced Jerry to retreat. Falaise was a town about 30 miles south east of CAEN, and the “gap” was sealed on 20th August 1944. From then on the whole front swung round (while we still remained stationary) so that by 20th August we were now on the northern flank of the whole frontline stretching from north to south.  

Jerry was now beaten in Normandy!  

The whole front swung forward, with Jerry in full retreat. By the 19th August the Americans had reached PARIS, and the advance troops of our British 1st Corps had reached ROUEN. Our beach-head days were over, but more was to come later!  

Next – Through France!

New from here on 29 April 2014:

Through France

We got the order to move and, leaving an unforgettable part of our life behind, moved to Benouville, a place just a short distance away overlooking the River Orne and canal. This was the area where the men of the Parachute and Glider Division landed on the very first assault on D-Day, and was the scene of bitter fighting. We remained at this site for only a very short time. The gliders were still there, some broken, others nose-first facing in all directions, scattered about in ungainly positions.  

Looking around we found hastily dug slit trenches, and the most grim reminders – temporary graves! All in all, evidence of a bitter struggle, and also a reminder of the debt we owed to them. Had they failed we would have had a much rougher time of it. Praise to them chaps!  

I acquired a piece of windscreen from one of the gliders (made of Perspex?) and in off duty moments made a model of a Spitfire (from memory) out of it, plus a replica of the 21st Army Group shoulder flash and mount – rather a kind of “Trench Art” – I still have them. I don’t suppose they amount to much artistically, but they mean a lot to me!  

We had just one bit of action whilst we were here, but soon came the order to move on. Our destination was ROUEN. We moved in convoy through some delightful French countryside for about 60 miles until we reached the River Seine, over which we crossed, and secured a site overlooking this beautiful cathedral city. We were able to get a panoramic view of it. We were only here for two days, during which we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, especially after the previous month’s traumatic experience we had come through.  

We had hardly had time to erect our tents before the site was teaming with French people. Our site began to look more like a fairground than a gun position. French kids were running about (just like at Thurston’s Feast at Raunds) and the kids regarded us as Lords! We were kept busy answering questions by both grown-ups and kids, who all seemed to be able to know enough English to at least make us understand.

We had invitations galore to their homes, my mate Eddie and myself did in fact accept one, and this was especially rewarding. I remember thinking that what a difference 60 miles can make, and asked myself the question - “what sort of reception would we have got had we entered that devastated city of CAEN? – rumour had it that although when our troops entered that city they were received with good will by a lot of people, there were some French people who bitterly resented them, even talk that some were even killed by French snipers! Still, our reception here was kind in the extreme, perhaps they hadn’t suffered as much as those near CAEN.  

We thought this was too good to last, it was! After just two days the order to move came in the middle of the night. By morning everything was out of action and we were in convoy ready to move off.  

The French people had got the wind of our leaving and turned up in quite large numbers and gave us a good send off. We slowly snaked our way down the road leading to ROUEN and passed through the city. I caught a glimpse of the Cathedral, which had been damaged by bombing or other means, but otherwise the part of the city we went through didn’t appear to be badly affected. It appeared to be quite an old fashioned place, but rather nice and pleasant, and I wished we could have stayed longer. Quite a lot of our service personnel seemed to have struck it lucky as I saw numbers of them who were billeted in large hotels.  

We learned that our destination was DIEPPE, which was about 40 miles to the north of us, on the coast. We clambered aboard our lorry and once more we were on our way.  

We passed through quaint little villages and I must say I had cause to admire the scenery, lovely orchards, mostly cider apples, beautiful countryside, a rural atmosphere which I loved. The people all waved to us as we passed, there was no feeling of enmity here. As we neared to DIEPPE, war once again seemed to gradually creep in. Defences, pill-boxes, were along the road, and minefields were everywhere. These increased as we got nearer to the town.  

We first saw the docks, what a mess they were in, Jerry had certainly made it very bad for us to use them, although whether our bombing or fighting had been partly responsible I do not know. Troops and dockers, however, were already working on them, and I could see a ship being unloaded.  

The great warehouses were a mass of twisted metal, and the dock rail section was almost useless. Surprisingly enough, the big overhead cranes were intact, although I think it would be sometime before they would be safe to handle.  

DIEPPE itself was a typical dock town. Dirty little taverns here and there, plenty of “life” on the left side of the town (looking from the land towards England), while on the right of the docks it was rather quieter and more reserved. Our site was to the right of the docks, a mile or so out of the town, right on the edge of the cliffs, overlooking the whole town, docks, and sea area, in a panoramic view.  

It turned out to be an ex-German gun site, with concrete bunkers for living quarters, partly underground, but it was not a fixed coastal battery, the gun had obviously been mobile. We think it was a field artillery unit and was used to help repulse the DIEPPE raid earlier in the war where such a terrible slaughter of our men occurred. Never did I imagine that I would be eating, sleeping, doing guard duty viewing the same area, seeing everything as the Germans did from one of their own gun positions.  

We could see why the raid was such a terrible failure; our lads must have been “sitting ducks”. I must confess I spent a lot of time just imagining what it must have been like, both from the Germans’ and our side – Poor Devils!

New from here on 11 May 2014:

We were quick to realise that there was great danger here, both of booby-traps and “missed” mines etc. The place was literally strewn with all kinds of ammunition – grenades, shells, anti-tank shells, mines etc, and we had to wait for it to be swept before we could use it. The former objects remained, however, after this had been done and we were warned not to delve about. We were obviously the first in here after Jerry had withdrawn. 

There were hundreds of dum-dum bullets laying about, ie wooden bullets. They were a wicked thing, we were told that when they hit a bone, or other hard part of the body, they used to splinter, causing horrific wounds.  

The concrete bunkers were relatively comfortable and it seemed to be that part of my time here was to be spent on unloading ammunition and provisions in the docks, interspersed with a “refresher course” on the Vickers Predictor as I was now taking over from other detachments to do this duty. Also, I was to have a spell on the guns (actually firing out to sea). We all had to be able to duplicate our duties in case of casualties that might occur.  

Our work at the docks was bloody hard, unloading ammunition and provisions. Quite a few odd tins of Bully Beef and other items of food found their way in our bags to supplement our diet! – Shame on us! – but I don’t think it altered the course of the war! We “really” enjoyed the work, because although we were “shagged out” when our stint was finished, it was a welcome change of routine.  

We saw hundreds of German prisoners of war being marched under escort through the docks and a hard tough looking bunch of men they were, some were grinning at us, some were scowling, I got the impression that they were front line seasoned men, it was their hard faces!  

We left the gun-site one beautiful sunny morning and arrived at the docks to do our usual stint and had been working for about an hour when, above the chatter and din of the work, there was a terrific explosion that shook the ground. It came from the direction of our gun-site. We carried on until dinnertime, and having received no information about the explosion, assumed it was perhaps a mine being detonated.

On arrival at our gun-site we somehow sensed that something was wrong, it was so quiet. One or two or our mates met us as we clambered off the lorry and in a quiet voice told us that four of our friends had been killed instantly by a booby-trap. After the initial shock had gone we realised how lucky we were, it could have been any one of us. The explosion occurred where there was an assortment of objects lying scattered about under a kind of open sided built cover.  

Of the cover and objects, nothing remained except debris, which was scattered over a wide area. The force of the explosion, which we had heard (and felt) at the docks, was explained by the fact that the booby-trap had detonated the whole lot. We were spared what must have been a terrible sight, as the victims had been taken away. We knew them well, being a close-knit unit.  

A kind of cold sweat came over me as, along with the others, I had ignored warnings and had rummaged through this lethal mixture many times – just a movement of a hidden wire – Phew! It was a lesson I never forgot. A short service was held on the site overlooking the sea, then it was back to the job-in-hand, the war was still on.  

On off-duty periods, Eddie and myself usually managed to visit DIEPPE a few times, and found it to be a real, typical, French dock town as I had always imagined, with all the “old films” atmosphere. On one occasion we went to a place of notoriety (the talk of all the lads) which turned out on arrival to be a bawdy drinking place, rowdy, and an extremely thriving brothel!  

The place was crowded with our troops (not just our mob), filled with tobacco smoke, mixed with the aroma of cheap perfume, with one or two weather beaten old French men sitting about drawing on their pipes. Dusk had fallen and the lights were rather subdued. The “Pro’s” were scattered around, all painted thick with lipstick and make-up. But the centrepiece was an open staircase leading from almost the middle of this jostling crowd, so that any client was in full view of everybody.  

Every two or three minutes one of the lads would rather self-consciously follow one of the “birds” up this staircase, accompanied by rousing cheers, bawdy comments, and raucous laughter. Quite frankly, it was hilarious; it was the best laugh we had had since Normandy. We were (I am not ashamed to say) half-cut when we finally got back to our camp, singing on the back of our lorry – a bloody good “let go” for all of us!  

We spent the remainder of our time in DIEPPE doing refresher training on the Vickers Predictor (of which I was No.4), and a spell on the guns, and I can tell you that the crack of a 3.7” two feet from the gun is bloody loud, and my ears had all sorts of bells etc ringing in them afterwards. I wasn’t sorry when I had finished this part of my duties. Then came the order to move!

New from here on 28 May 2014:

This time we were bound for BOULOGNE, about 60 miles north of Dieppe. We arrived at this place after roughing it well and truly on the road. It was pouring with rain and was bitterly cold. We huddled in our great coats in the back of our open ended lorry. We arrived eventually at a barren, desolate spot, right in the wilds, which turned out to be a German Flying Bomb site, a permanent concrete built position, with thick concrete bunkers, most parts of which were underground.  

The place was again thick with mines (which had been marked out), barbed wire entanglements, pill boxes, and strong-points. Again, all sorts of bullets, weird looking objects, were scattered everywhere, both inside and outside of the pill boxes. After the unfortunate tragedy at Dieppe we were much more careful and I kept a bloody respectful distance between me and these invitingly enticing objects. However, we settled in once again and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We saw no action here.  

Eddie and myself managed to get on our “Liberty Wagon” to Boulogne one afternoon and quite frankly we didn’t think a great deal to it. We found it rather depressing although the weather didn’t help (any place looks better when the sun is shining). It seemed to be an oldish place, built on a steep hill. It had been knocked about terribly in parts, which perhaps accounted for the sullen, unsociability of some of the people there, even, I might say, resentful. We could kind of “feel” the atmosphere, so unlike Rouen or Dieppe. We found it quite drab and inhospitable.  

We weren’t sorry when we arrived back at our gun-site, which is saying a lot when you realise that the latter was anything but “home” – bleak, exposed, but at least we had our mates, no-one was miserable for long in this mob!  

And so to Part Three - Through Belgium >>>>