Wales

The South Wales Borderers and D-Day

D-Day, 6 June 1944. Shortly before dawn, the greatest sea-borne armada in the history of the world anchored off northern France preparing to disembark thousands of American, British and Commonwealth troops onto five pre-ordained invasion beaches.

What followed, in what has since been termed 'the longest day', determined the course of the whole campaign against Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was perhaps the most pivotal moment of the war and thousands of soldiers and civilians lost their lives in one of the bloodiest and most gruesome episodes of the conflict.

2nd Battalion at Southampton, 5 June 1944. Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh, Brecon

Among the soldiers packed into the assault ships wallowing in the waves off Normandy, all waiting for Operation Overlord to begin, were undoubtedly many Welshmen - hundreds of them, in fact. They were infantrymen, tank drivers, artillery gunners and the like, all spread over a dozen different units. However, only one specific Welsh regiment had been detailed to take part in the invasion, the redoubtable South Wales Borderers.

The Borderers had come into existence in 1689, originally known as the 24th Regiment of Foot. A renowned and distinguished unit, their most famous moment had been during the Zulu War of the 1870s when, during the defence of Rorke's Drift, 11 Victoria Crosses were won in a single day. Most of them were won by members of the 24th Foot, but despite popular belief, it was only in 1881, after the Zulu War, that the regiment adopted the name South Wales Borderers.

The 2nd Battalion of the Borderers already had the distinction of being the first Welsh regiment to see action during World War Two. In 1940 they had been part of the ill-fated Norway campaign. This time, everyone hoped, there would be a better result.

Now, in 1944, the Borderers were part of the 50th Infantry Division. They had been allotted their role as recently as March and had spent two months in feverish and hectic training, in preparation for the operation. In May, along with thousands of other Allied troops, they moved into the assembly area ready for the assault.

The South Wales Borderers' task on D-Day was to wait until the first waves had gone ashore on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, the British and Commonwealth invasion areas. Then they would land near Arromanches and push inland from the beachhead to high ground north of Bayeaux.

On their way inland the Borderers were expected to capture a radar station as well as the guns and bridge at Vaux-sur-Aure. Finally, they were to link up with American troops coming from their right. It was an ambitious plan.

During the long morning of 6 June the South Wales Borderers sat waiting in their assault craft as the smoke from the battle rose into the air and the sound of explosions echoed across the water. Then, just before midday, came the order to land.

Two men were drowned in the landing – the same fate nearly befell the CO, so eager was he to get ashore. Glad to be out of the rocking landing craft, the Borderers met little resistance at the beachhead and pushed quickly forward. D Company drove the defending Germans out of the radar station and by nightfall on that first day the bridge at Vaux-sur-Aure was in their hands.

At the end of D-Day itself the South Wales Borderers had captured more ground than any other unit involved in the invasion. Their job was not over, however, and 11 months of hard fighting were to follow, with the South Wales Borderers in the van of the Allied drive through France into Germany.

Their war ended only in May 1945 when Germany surrendered. By then the Borderers had reached Hamburg in northern Germany, a long way from those invasion beaches in Normandy. They were to stay on in Germany as part of the Allied occupying force until 1948.

The South Wales Borderers were absorbed into the Royal Regiment of Wales in 1969 but their history is a proud and distinguished one. The American Revolutionary War, the Zulu War, the Boer War and World War One – the regiment took part in them all.

Their proudest boast, however, has to come from the second great conflict of the 20th century when they were the only Welsh regiment to see action on D-Day and to take part in the mighty Overlord landings.

Learn more about D-Day at 70 on the BBC: download a free interactive book, listen to first-hand accounts and find out about coverage of the 70th anniversary commemorations.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Noreen

    on 13 Jun 2014 14:17

    Thanks Raymondo. I'll start searching for a copy. It might take some time but, if it's as good as you say it is, it's going to be worth it.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by raymondo

    on 7 Jun 2014 18:29

    Many years back, I made several trips to Normandy (looking for fossils in clay pits - not that that's anything to do with anything) and at leisure times, spent many hours walking the beaches between Arromanches and Ouistreham. Knowing that here were the three British and Commonwealth invasion beaches, made just walking on them an eerie and moving experience. On misty days, along with the sounds of the sea, the wind, the gulls and disembodied voices, it was easy to almost sense the echoes of the D-Day conflict. (Or maybe drinking calvados at lunchtime wasn't such a good idea,)

    Now, for Noreen, there is a splendid volume entitled " A History of The Royal Regiment of Wales (24th/41st Foot) 1689-1989" by J .M. Brereton published by the Regiment in 1989. No dry-as-dust history book this, but an eminently readable mine of information and comprehensive account of the SWB and The Welch Regiment and their antecedent units. It contains lots of pictures, maps and other illustrations. At 500 pages and a 190mm x 250mm format, it's quite weighty. Not sure where you'd get one these days- mine came from a charity shop- but it's sure to be available through the public library service.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 5 Jun 2014 05:39

    A few years ago I visited the beach at Arromanches. Walking on the golden sand on a sparkling blue, calm autumn day, it was hard to imagine the noise and mayhem of that invasion of a hostile shore in 1944. But on the shore, and out to sea, are reminders of that day in the form of the remains of the Mulberry Harbours. Looking at photographs in local cafes, taken on D Day gave some impression of what a massive operation it was. After Arromanches I went to the D Day cemetery near Bayeux where row upon row of graves of the fallen lie. A very sobering experience, and it was moving to see on many of the graves, notes from descendants of the fallen, some with photos of the brave men who gave their lives. Once a year, local schoolchildren visit the cemetery and put flowers on the graves of the young men from the Army, Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and Royal Air Force, in memory of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice to release their country from occupation.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Phil

    on 4 Jun 2014 10:04

    Since writing the article I've received comments about other Welsh regiments involved in the battle for Europe in 1944. I was certainly not trying to denigrate other units but was writing solely about regiments landing on the beaches on 6th June. To the best of my knowledge the South Wales Borderers were the only regiment to pass over those beaches on D Day itself. I could be wrong and would be happy to acknowledge it if that is in fact the case.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Phil

    on 3 Jun 2014 08:44

    Noreen, I suppose there must be a regimental history. You could try a book by Jack Adams called "The South Wales Borderers" or get in touch with their museum at Brecon - well worth a visit for anyone interested in military history.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Noreen

    on 2 Jun 2014 14:56

    That's a succinct and readable account of one Regiment's role in the D Day landings. It makes me want to learn more. Is there a published Regimental History of the South Wales Borderers? If so, I'd love to read it.

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