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- James Hill
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- 15 April 2004
This is James Hill's account of his D-Day experiences:
I was born in 1911 and went to Sandhurst in 1929. After a spell as an army officer I went into the family business, but I was called up for duty when war broke out in 1939.
In the run-up to D-Day I was commanding the 3rd Parachute Brigade in the 6th Airborne Division. The brigade had been formed in the beginning of 1943 with the sole purpose of taking part in the Normandy landings. The brigade was made up of three county battalions. These battalions were invited to join the parachute brigade, and being good chaps they volunteered to a man.
These chaps were the salt of the earth, prepared to give their lives without arguing the toss. They hadn't joined the army to parachute, but we said, 'Please parachute,' and they said, 'We'll try.'
Training for D-Day
During the physical training we focused on four objectives: speed, control, simplicity and fire effect.
As parachutists we didn't carry much equipment, and we had to make use of this advantage to achieve great speed. If you could give orders twice as fast as anyone else you could gain ten minutes on the enemy.
Coupled with speed was control - it was no good having expensive paratroops if they weren't under control. Simplicity was vital - the simpler things were, the fewer mistakes were made. Fire effect was essential because we didn't carry much ammunition, so every shot had to count.
In order to achieve these four objectives we had to become amazingly fit. The initial training was extremely hard, and many of the volunteers left - they simply couldn't stand the pace of the training.
We knew we would have to fight at night so we spent a great deal of time doing night-time training. For one week every month my brigade used to operate at night, sleeping during the daytime. Of course that was marvellous for all the chaps, but the poor brigade commander still had to spend the day doing administrative work!
I was always keen for my brigade headquarters to do just as well as the chaps of the battalions, so on one occasion I took them for a two-hour march carrying 60 pounds of equipment. This of course included the clerks and the telephone operators! As we were staggering into the town of Bulford I was cheering them on, as you do, so that they would get to the end within the two hours.
On the following Monday I received a notice saying that a deputation from the local Women's Institute wanted to see the brigade commander. They had come to complain about the way I had shouted at the chaps to finish - they thought it had been cruel and brutal. That rather amused me!
It's a dog's life
From January 1943 until D-Day in June 1944, we had to keep the chaps interested and on top form. One of the things I introduced in order to do that was parachuting dogs. A team of paratroops were trained in handling Alsatian messenger dogs. The dogs were given bicycle parachutes, as they were roughly the same weight as bicycles. The first time we took one of the dogs up he didn't want to jump, so we shoved him out. It turns out he enjoyed himself so much that the next time he couldn't wait to go! The dogs were trained to be messengers, but they were really just a sideshow to keep the men amused.
Carrots for night vision
At that time there were two fighter pilots who became known for being highly successful at shooting the enemy down at night - Cat's Eyes Cunningham and a chap called White Boycott, who had been at school with me. Rumour was that they were so good at night fighting because they ate a lot of carrots, and so we also ate carrots until we were quite sick of the things.
I was lucky enough to have lunch with Cat's Eyes Cunningham recently, just before he died, and he told me that their success had nothing to do with eating carrots. The carrot story was just a ruse to prevent the enemy from finding out that they were equipped with the very latest form of radar.
Getting the men to church
I wanted all of my brigade to go to church at least once a month, but some of the chaps didn't like this very much. So to motivate them I would make them carry 60 pounds of equipment to church, which they stacked up outside under guard before going inside. After the service I would take them for a 20-mile march. I thought that might motivate them to enjoy their time at church a bit more!
The interesting thing is that, after D-Day, a number of people told me what a difference those church visits had made. When we were crossing the North Sea on D-Day it was a pretty rough night, and sitting in those planes were men of 22 who had never seen a shot fired in anger and were now flying into enemy territory. Up against something like that, even an atheist wants to pray.
Napoleon said that 'the moral is to the physical as two is to one'. I found that if you are very fit, your morale is automatically good, and I put an awful lot of effort into getting the chaps extremely fit. It's amazing what a fit young body can take in the way of wounds and survive.
The other thing that is important for morale is to be fighting a noble cause. I could not have fought for six years if I hadn't believed our cause to be completely right. I was asking those chaps to possibly die for the cause, I had to believe the cause to be true.
I loved the men of my brigade, and if you love people they'll love you too, they'll follow you, and they'll have respect for you.
Landing in France
On the night of D-Day we landed in four and a half feet of water in a flooded valley. It was an inaccurate landing, but it could have been worse, as the valley is criss-crossed by irrigation ditches, some of them 14 feet deep. With 60 pounds of equipment, falling into a ditch like that would have meant going down.
The landing was inaccurate because the pilots who flew us over to Normandy had been bomber pilots until about six weeks before D-Day. They had been used to bombing cities from 10,000 feet, now they had to drop paratroops from 700 feet onto a drop zone about 1,000 metres square. I had suspected that the drops might be inaccurate, and had said to my men some weeks before, 'Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and very clear orders, don't be daunted if chaos reigns - because it certainly will.'
After the landing we gathered about 42 chaps, and tied ourselves together with our toggle ropes. It meant we were all in control, and if we came across wire under water, we were all there to deal with it.
Attacked from the air
After about 45 minutes marching along a narrow path with bog on both sides, I suddenly heard a horrid noise. I had seen a lot of fighting and knew it was an attack by low-flying aircraft dropping anti-personnel bombs, so I shouted to the chaps to get down. I threw myself down on top of a chap called Lieutenant Peters.
The aircraft passed over and there was the horrible smell of cordite and death hanging in the air. I knew I'd been hit. I saw a leg lying in the middle of the path and I thought, by God that's mine. Then I noticed it had a brown boot on. I didn't allow brown boots in my brigade, and the only person who broke that rule was my friend Lieutenant Peters. I was lying on top of him. He was dead, I wasn't - but I'd been hit and a large chunk of my left backside was gone.
Only two of us were able to get up. The dead and injured were all around us. I was faced with the choice: do I stay and look after the injured, or do I press on? As brigade commander I had a great responsibility, so I had to press on. Before leaving we took the morphine from the dead, and gave it to the living. We set off and the injured chaps gave us a cheer. That memory is as vivid today as it ever was. It was a ghastly sight.
My mother was a soldier's wife, and at the outbreak of war she said to me, 'Darling, if you're going to survive this war, you've got to learn to harden your heart.' That was good advice. You could have a hard heart and still have compassion, and I was full of compassion for the people I left there. But as commander, I had to go where my most important task lay.
The Germans threw the bodies of those chaps into a big shell hole, but a few days later we captured the area and unearthed them, and gave them each a proper burial.
Finding the 9th Battalion
It took us four and a half hours to get to the drop zone where we were meant to have landed in the first place. There I found out my Canadian battalion had achieved their objective to destroy or capture a nearby enemy headquarters.
From there we set off to the battery which Terence Ottway and the men of the 9th Battalion were meant to be capturing before 5.30pm. As we were walking along, dawn was breaking and we saw the most amazing display of fireworks, and heard the thunderous noise of guns as the troops and ships started attacking the shoreline. It was a remarkable sight to see from behind the front line, and it was very encouraging because we knew then that we weren't alone.
As I was approaching the ridge where the 9th Battalion was fighting I passed the field dressing station. The doctor there took one look at me and said, 'James, you look bad for morale.'
I said, 'If you had been in four and a half feet of cold water for hours and then had your left backside shot off, you wouldn't feel good for morale either.'
The doctor told me that Colonel Ottway had taken the battery with just 70 men. Their average age was 22, they'd never seen a shot fired before and all their plans had gone awry - but they achieved their objective.
The doctor said he would give me an injection that would help me, but in fact it knocked me out for about two hours. In this time he patched up my behind. When I came to again they had a ladies' bicycle for me, and a chap who could push it. I very gingerly sat on the back of this bicycle and was pushed down the road to the divisional headquarters. Sometimes we saw Germans running across the road, sometimes Brits, but they were all too busy to worry about a shabby-looking brigade commander on a ladies' bicycle.
At the divisional headquarters at Ranville I met our divisional commander, and the first thing he said to me was, 'James, you'll be delighted to know that your brigade has taken all its objectives.'
A field operation
Just then the ADMS, who is the head doctor in the division, turned up and seized me by the collar, saying, 'I'm taking you off to the main dressing station to have an operation.' I was very unwilling to go, but he promised that he would personally take me back to the brigade headquarters.
As I lay there waiting for my operation at about 1pm, I heard a dense shelling, and thought to myself, 'I hope that the Brits will still be here when I come to, and not a lot of Germans.'
When I came to at about 3pm I was told that I was the first person to be given penicillin, which had just been invented. I had a bottle strapped to my side, and attached to it were tubes that carried penicillin dripping into my wounds. It was rather undignified - half my backside and my trousers shot away, and as brigade commander I usually liked to keep up a bit of style.
We got into a jeep to drive to brigade headquarters, with me balancing myself on my right side. We got there at about 4pm. Alistair Pearson, one of the greatest fighting battalion commanders of the war, had taken command of the brigade in my absence. He was OK apart from having been shot through the hand.
Go, guts and gumption
Communication was obviously difficult on the day. My signaller had been dropped away from me, so until I got to brigade headquarters, my only means of communication was verbal. From headquarters I could keep an eye on the Canadians, and Terrence Ottway was just half a mile away. It was more difficult to communicate with Alistair Pearson of the 8th Battalion, who was about two miles down the road.
But that was the parachuting game - it was part of our training to expect the unexpected. You knew exactly where you had to be and what you had to do, and if things went wrong you had to put them right personally. Our chaps showed great individuality and got themselves out of the most surprising predicaments, like being dropped behind enemy lines.
On the ridge we were fighting a top-ranking German division, 346 Panzer Grenadier Division. They had their own tanks, their own ak-ak guns - everything. But our chaps were tough. We started off with 2,200 men and ended up with about 700 at the most. We were able to see off a fresh infantry division with limited equipment, and the only reason we could do that was through sheer guts.
As a brigade commander going into battle, you have a beautiful map case and sharp pencils, but there I was, minus half my backside, minus a pair of trousers, and all our chaps were in exactly the same boat. It was go, guts and gumption.
The end of the beginning
At the end of D-Day I was sitting at what I called my command post, on the steps leading up to a barn where I had my sleeping bag. Then, away to the south west, I suddenly saw hundreds of gliders coming in. It was the second wave of the 6th Airborne Division, gliding into battle.
It was a wonderful sight. I knew they were carrying supplies, and the sight of them coming in to land made me feel less lonely, just as the sounds of the dawn battle had that morning. I said to myself, 'Remember all these things, because you're never going to see a sight like this again.'
It was a great relief to know that we'd got to France, we had captured our objectives, and we were exactly where we were supposed to be. We knew we still had a fight on our hands, but we had landed. We had a little bit of France and those gliders coming in to land were following us. The battle started from there. Not with beautiful clean clothes and a nice map case, but worn out, wet, dirty and smelly.
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