- Contributed by
- People in story:
- V B W Hiscock
- Location of story:
- Southern England and France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 June 2004
Hiscock hand written during World War 11 - from just before D-Day PART 1
At the outbreak of war we all expected hundreds of enemy bombers to attempt to bash Britain into submission, and because they did not do so at once, we assumed that they were merely ‘biding th eir time’. The ‘Phoney War’ dragged along with the RAF dropping leaflets and the U Boats sinking our ships, until Dunkirk, after which we joined the LDV and daily expected airborne invasion. Came the blitzes, and still Britain ‘remained’, and refused even to give the impression that we expected defeat.
At last the army recognised my application as a volunteer in 1938 in February 1941. I was called in for pre-army technical training, and on June16th of the same year, became a soldier at S.T.C. Ruabon. Most of our training was comprised of anti-invasion tactics: we still expected ‘em. By the following summer I was in a Survey Corps and about that time, the outlook began to change, and we thought of our invasion. We commenced ‘Benson’ which was to be the foundation for the invasion of Europe, comprising maps at 1/25,000 made from photographs taken by the RAF. Many were the doubts regarding these maps, few believed that they would ever be used, but we plodded along, the sameness of the work constituting a good reason for ‘moaning’. Military training was now all for assault, landings, in short for our invasion. So Benson continued until the early months of 1944. In February of this year I became part of a detachment at 2nd. Army HQ in Ashley Gardens London and helped with maps from which models of the French coast were made, and with special task maps that showed the state of the ground near rivers, marshes etc. Wall maps for the brass hats to lecture upon. In May we moved to Purbrook near Cosham, Portsmouth. All men who had anything at all to do with the planning were ‘Bigot’ men, that is, their past record and antecedents were looked into. All the work was ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Neptune’.
On the day I arrived in Pompey I went by truck to Fort Southwick, taking the top road on the side of the Downs, which road had only known me, and many others when we were all pleasure bent, cycling, motoring, in the charabanc, but now the tracks streamed with military traffic of all kinds, from trucks to tanks. Glorious weather, Portsmouth down below, barrage balloons above her, and on her waters many barges of all types. Hosts of RAF planes flew low over us on their pre-invasion shoot-ups, tying up the German communications. As we left the tarmac and bumped our way down the chalk track by the fort, clouds of dust billowed up, white chalk dust reminding me of the dust of Africa where our men had achieved that wonderful series of victories, but overhead, not the vultures of the desert, but an English skylark, flying up into the blue, over its nest on the springy downland turf.
So into the fort itself after much checking of AB64 and special passes. Down into the many steps of the subway into a secret room well below the ground to prepare wall maps for the 83 Group, of landing strips D1 to D+7 and so on, and so now I knew exactly where the landings would be. Bencon maps were very largely used in all the planning and indeed one of these was the first map I handled in London. At night the Hun sent over aeroplanes, I had experienced my first London raid in February but under canvas in Portsmouth it was rather different, because of the danger of flak coming into the tents. Sometimes I could get home to Southampton for the night, and I found all the roadsides full of equipment, including the roads near, and outside my home, all waiting for D Day. I had guessed that the 8th June would be the day. I was ‘duty clerk’ during the night of Sunday the 4th and I had an unusual message “MT 12 leaving Victoria Docks tomorrow at 7am 13 units with no maps aboard” so I knew that the time was getting close.
Eventually, on the morning of the 6th, a Tuesday, we heard the unit open air transmitters, giving out German report that Allied troops had landed from the sea and air on the French coast. Beyond listening to every radio bulletin that we could, there was little visible reaction, in fact the place seemed quieter than usual because we had expected a continuous alert with extensive air raids, but no planes came, not even an alert. At about 8.30pm some hundred or so gliders flew over us en route for Normandy, and made a very impressive sight, and I wondered whether any of the Americans, whom I met at Chelsea, were up there, such as Dave, who ‘sure could march’ and Joe, who had handed in his stripes since, because he did not like his officer: no cheering crowds for them, and probably all they could see, would be their opposite companions in the plane. At 10.15 the ‘machine’ towing planes returned. HQ Recci partner were off to the marshalling areas troop carriers, crowded with men, all of whom carried their lifebelts, went down the hill to the docks, and I was anxious to get back to my own Corp which I did, a couple of days afterwards, and found them already packed up and waiting.
On Tuesday 13of June we left Ampthill, the main party in our own transport by road, we of the marching party by rail to S.Pancras. From Fenchurch St. Station to Barking and by bus to Wanstead Flats. We saw very few troops in London, which place such a little while before, had been crowded with uniforms. Here we were in our transit area, under canvas, Lt. Thomas in charge, who gave us the ‘gen’ as he learned of it, and impressed upon us the sense of urgency and how we must attend all parades without fail, in case we were whipped away ‘sharpish’. Troops arrived at all hours, and departed, usually at short notice, at any time. Loudspeakers in the camp continually gave orders for commanders, and we listened for our call “Attention please, attention please, commanding officers of Serial Number S for Sugar, eight, zero, report to movement control immediately, that is all.”
Such messages came frequently. Our last day on English soil was spent by the majority of the drawing section on fatigues in the large NAAFI marquee until 11pm. (There was a cinema in the camp). No sooner had we got to bed than the sirens sounded, and we were surprised to see that the attacking planes carried a light and made a straight bee-line across the sky, taking no evading action from the flak at all, and the alert was almost continuous until 7am next morning, and one helluva burst of flak from our rocket guns exploded over our tents, though we could no longer hear the engines of the plane, and we were peppered with pieces of shrapnel. We learnt later, how these things were the first of the German pilot-less rocket bombs.
Next day, the 16th we left the camp and assembled in troop carrying buses in the road where one woman and her daughter brought out bottles of beer from a seemingly limitless supply, but we were at the front of the convoy and they were at the back! As we left, a happy omen, the all clear, but as we entered the docks, the alert again sounded, and I did not like it! No cheering crowds en route, just one or two waving hands, and I expect their thoughts were occupied with last nights’ raids, damage caused by the bombs was apparent along the route, and some people still carried their steel helmets.
In London docks came several periods of waiting in a large warehouse, outside on the docks, and then again by the ships side. A number of mobile canteens selling indifferent tea, nothing free, and at last came the slow job of embarkation, when the dockers had returned from their luncheon hours. My feelings were neutral, though I realised that I was leaving England for the first time, and I was more concerned about getting up there myself to grab a fairly comfortable billet. The view of the hold allotted to us, gave me a jolt as I saw the small space and realise how many men must sleep there, but I grabbed a hammock, dumped my kit in it and got on deck again. By 6pm we were all above, and when I went below again I found that many more hammocks had been slung up, and that ropes went off at all angles round my position, as well as men lying on the floor under the hammocks. Our ship, the Marwarri of about 8,000tons, had about 370 men, other ranks sleeping in the two after holds, as well as a great deal of motor transport and artillery communications. At last we were under way towed by a tug, Victoria Docks gradually faded into the distance: everybody crowded onto the small portion of the after deck allocated to us, although we saw very few people, those whom we did see, received a rousing cheer, particularly if they wore skirts. We waved to everything animate and inanimate, including craft that had evidently just returned from the place where we were going, and an American voice from a ship yelled, “Go get ‘em boy!” We flew the red duster of the of the Merchant Navy, and the majority of the crew were Lascars, and their dark gentlemen used to wash in a minimum of water stooping down as they did so, on their haunches, cleaning their teeth with their fingers. It seemed that if one man did a job, there was usually another behind him to hold the tool, such as the hose pipe. Later on, when food was not so popular with me, I tried to avoid going near their quarters and cookhouse, because of the smell of garlic and other queer aromas about their persons.
Tea was soon brewed after we left the docks, just to show, I suppose, that we were on an English do. We retired to our black hold at 10.30pm with the ship steaming under her own power; there was soup for supper, which I avoided. Down below in our hammocks, we lay close, too close, to our companions, and I wondered whether I should be sick onto those men sleeping on the floor under me, and on getting to sleep, or rising, one bumped against and squeezed by our companions.
As the ship gently rolled, so we all rolled with it, to the tune of various creakings, and I smiled as I thought of the sound effects of sea films and radio stories, and by dint of much concentration, banished all thought from my mind that I was aboard ship, though some fellows soon made quick rushes upstairs to be sick, but apart from the rather tight feeling of my lifebelt over my battledress, I felt pretty good. We were now battened down and our only illumination came through the thick red glass of a few electric lamps; my three paper ‘bags for vomit’ were ready to hand.
When we arose on Saturday morning we found ourselves at anchor in the Thames Estuary, where the convoy was to assemble and where lighters brought a barrage balloon to each ship. All day until 9pm we lay at anchor somewhere off Southend, and noticed some wrecks with masts above water, and the boom across the estuary. We did not look forward to the passage through the Straits, and various confidential stories regarding the best time to pass through ‘Bomb Alley’ went the rounds of the ship. “Too many E boats at night, so they go through by day, and then all you get is the shelling.” Well we went through by night but we were all asleep. I awoke at 2am but all was quiet except for a few muffled ship noises, and I judged that by this time we were through, so went to sleep again, and next thing I knew was that we were somewhere off Beachy Head. It was a glorious morning and we appeared to be 4th in a convoy, that, to us, seemed a big one. One or two spitfires flying up and down the line; a destroyer leading us and various smaller craft, mostly on our port side. We were ordered to always wear a lifebelt, a special ‘invasion model’ of rubber, that one blew up with the aid of a long tube attached. Also we must carry a tin hat. One man lost his over board, and when taken to task by an officer, explained where it was, but the fool of a captain RASC, still berated him, saying, “You should wear it at all times and don’t argue.”
A battleship and escort lay off the Isle of Wight; the only wreckage that we saw, consisted of empty campo packs. Except for the cramped quarters, that Sunday was like a pleasure cruise, vivid blue sky, greenery and blue water and hot sunshine, so that one was hardly conscious of the ship’s rolling. Meals consist largely of ‘Prem bully beef and biscuits, marg and a neutral tasting gooseberry jam. Also, very pink salmon, which is F campo pack, each bar for fourteen man, and at first, apart from the tea that tasted horrible, the sea air and change made them palatable, but after a few days the novelty wore off, and the only break in the diet came when we had two slices of bread each, and another when we had two potatoes each and a piece of tough steak after queuing an hour for it. Most days we received a free ration of 7 cigarettes, bar of chocolate and 6 sweets and matches.
As we approached France, the sea appeared to be covered with ships of all sorts, going and coming, with not so much as an alert or a depth charge, and all we saw of the Hun was a flying bomb go over in the direction of Eastbourne. During the evening we hove to in Seine Bay, which Bay was crowded with vessels of all kinds, and France was a grey smear, no firing, no explosions or nothing. Though the sea was still very calm, we were not taken off. These occurrences on the land that many thought to be explosions, were in all probability clouds of dust, caused by our planes as they took off from the landing strips. When we awoke on Monday morning the weather was violently rough, as it was to remain for another four days, which trick of nature put many landings behind time. For the first time I felt unwell, and though not actually sick, I was very nearly so. The following days were uncomfortable; for a day or so we were not allowed below decks except for sleep etc, and on deck it was cold and wet and windy, and all we wanted was to get off the ship at any cost.
At last the sea quietened and on Friday 23 an American landing craft came alongside, and we were more than pleased, because for one thing, a series of noisy nights had culminated last night in a raid when a bomb with much noise near our ship, between us and the Rodney, which ship fired everything that she had. Some men panicked and attempted to get on deck, but they were not our chaps. Also we had had enough of the naval ships firing onto the land most of the day, but we wondered why the Hun never retaliated with shell fire. After dinner all the transports, guns etc. had been loaded, so we climbed down a rope ladder onto a tank landing craft, and soon we were speeding thankfully towards land, though we still had to wait for another period.
When we had the chance to look at the beaches, we discerned the ‘Mines’ signs of the Germans and saw the damaged buildings on the waterfront and noted the smashed church spires. At 5pm our craft was driven ashore onto the sands in about 5 foot of water, so we waited a little until the tide had receded and finally were able to walk ashore only getting the soles of our boots wet. Some old cargo vessels lay in a semi-circle; they were filled with cement and acted as a breakwater. One or two damaged barges were thrown up on the beach and near us was a demolished pillbox. The usual method of landing equipment was for ships to drive onto the sand at high tide, leaving anchors out some way, there to remain when the tide went out, and re-floated when the tide came in again, by pulling on their anchors and sometimes were helped by a bulldozer. Trucks shot off the barges at a good lick, up the beaches and on to a de-waterproofing area, CMPs directing them if need be. One truck had a mishap, but in less time than it takes to tell, a break down wagon had it dragged away.
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