- Contributed by
- Eric Patience
- People in story:
- Eric Patience
- Location of story:
- D-Day Landings
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 June 2003
Rifleman Eric Patience 6923784, The Rifle Brigade 1941-1946
I joined the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade, part of the 11th Armoured Division, in May 1942. After over a year’s training I was expecting to be sent to the Middle East to support Monty’s 8th Army. Instead, the 11th Armoured Division was kept back for the invasion of Normandy. In this excerpt, I describes my part in the D-Day Landings on Juno Beach and being wounded in action.
A few days later we were on our way. Little did we all know that we were to go through parts of London where we lived. One of my mates who joined up with me and who was our piano player, saw his mum in Leytonstone. We all looked a sorry sight by now because the fumes of the engines were coming through into our vehicles and it was making, us all look as if we were crying. We came down the A12 through Wanstead, Gants Hill, Whalebone Lane and then there I was passing the fields that, as kids, I used to play on. I could see the ponds that we used to go fishing for newts and tadpoles. Next came Mawney Road roundabout, only a few yards from home. I could see the barber shop where my brother George and I used to have our hair cut and then there was the Marlborough Arms with the fish and chip shop next door. Then, to my surprise I saw my sister Kath standing by the Post Box only a few yards away. I am sorry to say that she didn't see me, maybe it was for the best though. We then passed North Street, Pettits Lane, Gallows Corner and then all of a sudden it was gone. I remember thinking to myself, will I ever see this again, maybe I will or maybe I won't. One thing we all knew was that a lot of us would not be coming home.
Tilbury was our port. We went along the A128, where today I still travel to see my eldest son, Stephen. We arrived just outside Tilbury and stayed in a transit camp for the night while our vehicles were loaded onto the ships. One thing that really annoyed us was that the dockers were on strike and they refused to load our transport. Our own engineers and the ships cranes had to do the job. The names we called those dockers, well they are unrepeatable. As we went to board the ships the people of Tilbury lined the streets to bid us farewell. They did all right because we all threw all our spare change to the children. The ship we were on was really dirty. It was an old yankee ship called Samsit. We don't know what it was used for before but the holds stunk of everything. We had hammocks to sleep in and it was also the start of many months of not removing our clothes.
We set sail from Tilbury, what time of day or night it was I hadn't a clue. We moored off Southend to wait for the other ships coming out of Tilbury and London. We woke next morning to find we were on the move. We were not allowed on deck but by standing on ladders we were able to look out and we could then see the huge convoy of ships being escorted by the Royal Navy Destroyers. We sailed through the Straits of Dover and laid off the Isle of Wight to wait for the arrival of more ships from the south coast. We were told these ships held the rest of our Division. We were soon on our way again.
When we dropped anchor off the Normandy beaches we were at last allowed out of the hold onto the deck. The fresh air did us all good. What we were then to see I will never forget. It was unbelievable. There were hundreds of landing craft, large transporters, large and small warships. I have never seen so many. The landing craft were buzzing around like hornets carrying troops and supplies to the beach. The warships, including H.M.S. Warspite, a 15inch battleship, were sending salvo after salvo of shells in land. All of a sudden it was our turn to go over the side.
First our half tracks and bren gun carriers were lowered into the landing, craft followed by their crews. The scramble nets were then slung over the side then we had to go down the nets with all our gear on our back and our rifle around our neck. The little landing craft were rising and falling with the swell and I remember thinking, one slip old son and it's goodbye life, but I'm glad to say we all made it. Once we were all into the landing craft we were away towards the beach which was about six hundred yards away. Once we hit the bottom the ramps went down and we were away onto the beach as fast as possible. We had landed on Juno beach.
The first thing we did was to remove the water proofing from the engines and then to make contact with the rest of our Battalion. I remember the terrible smell. The stench of cordite burning buildings but most of all was the stench of dead animals. There were hundreds of them laying dead on their backs. It was a hot day and the smell was terrible, never have I seen such terrible slaughter of animals. It made you feel sick. We pulled into a orchard for a rest for a few hours and have a meal. We hadn't eaten since we left Tilbury. We had a chance to write home and we here able to have a church service. I remember that the apples on the trees looked really inviting so I tried one, Ugh, they were cider apples, should have known.
Next day saw us in action amongst the villages and farm houses around the big air base just outside Caen. There were quite a few machine gun nests to deal with. If anyone had told me years earlier that I would be taking part in the greatest invasion this world had seen I would have laughed. Still here I was, just goes to show that you can never foresee the future. We were in action all along the front line and sadly we were slowly losing our men sometimes having to bury some of our mates just were they fell. The Germans fought hard and gave us a hard time. I often wonder what would have happened if we had been defeated in that bridgehead and been driven back into the sea. We had a very bad storm one day which did a lot of damage to our harbour but things turned out O.K. as everyone knows.
On or about 3 weeks after D day we, that’s is the 11th Armoured Div., plus 2 infantry divisions were given orders to capture bridges across the Oder and Oden rivers. There was to be a heavy artillery barrage of over a thousand guns, this was Monty's trademark just like El Alamein a couple of years before. The noise was very loud and we had no ear protection like today. The guns started in the early morning and the noise was shattering, it went on and on, it seemed like hours. As we waited for the order to move forward, please don't ask how I felt because I could not tell you. All I did know was that I was glad I was not on the receiving end of this barrage. As we moved forward so did the shells, this is called a creeping barrage. The infantry divisions went first and the barrage stopped at last. As it did out came the Germans from the cellars in the villages and from their holes in the ground. They were shaken but still full of fight. We managed. to capture the bridges across the rivers but with heavy loss. The Germans lost more and the prisoners we took were all ages. Some of them were only 15 or 16 years old but they were the worse. We soon learnt not to trust them or turn our back on them.
More and more animals were being killed, towns and villages were being destroyed and hundreds of men were being killed or wounded but we still had to carry on. We had to eat and sleep when we could, washing was a thing of the past and eating was rare. Every section, which consisted of nine men, had their own rations which we had to cook and eat when we could. By now I had been in action for about 3 weeks and at no time had any of us taken our clothes off or had a decent meal. You slept when and where you could. We lost a lot of our tanks by anti-tank guns, one being the 88mm. The Shermans we had were called Tommy cookers because after being hit they would blow up. Sometimes the crew were able to get out and sometimes they were killed or wounded but the very worse was when a crew member was wounded and couldn't get out their screams were terrible and it was terrible to listen to, knowing we couldn't do anything to help. I remember when one of our carriers hit a mine the driver lost both his legs and it was terrible but thankfully over quick. We buried him in his carrier which was a wreck. He was only 21. We had two brothers in our company. The elder one was badly wounded and sent back via the mobile hospital. He was put on a landing craft which was to carry him and the other wounded soldiers to the hospital ship laying off shore. We later heard that the landing craft hit a mine and no one survived. The younger brother was devastated but he had to go on. I'm pleased to say that I met him last year and we had our photo taken together.
The city of Caen was being bombed and shelled all the time but the Germans still fought on. We came across Hill 112 (this later became famous). We had to take this hill and we did twice but lost it both times. The third time we held it and the villages below it. It was hell in one village, Gavrus, we took it but there were machine gun nests at one end which we had to capture. We lost one officer by the name of Lane. His family was a well known jockey family from Newmarket. We lost our platoon Sgt. and plenty of others were wounded. My section under Cpl. Peter Bisset was told to attack across a field. We got within about a hundred yards when we were spotted. The spandau, it could file about a thousand rounds a minute, opened up and Peter who was next to me but about 6 yards away, just dropped down on his face. We knew he was dead. I myself hit the ground and lay there for a few minutes. I looked around and realized that I was alone apart from Peter. I knew if I moved they would get me but I knew I couldn't stay there. There was a ditch either side of me about 25 yards away that's where the other lads had gone. I remember choosing the ditch on my left. I gathered my thoughts and moved as fast as I could. I got up and ran. The machine guns were behind me and to my right. I was, as far as I can recall, about half way when they opened fire on me. The bullets went over my shoulders one went through the side of my beret, then there was a burst about the size of a tennis ball which hit the hedge in front of me. I landed in the ditch and lay still for a while. Someone then spoke to me, it was Butch our Lance Cpl. He asked if I was all right and I was, but just a few seconds later there was a huge explosion on the edge of the ditch and just above my head. It was a mortar bomb. Three times I had been close to death in a very short time and to this day I still believe that I should have died in that field near the village of Gavrus.
After the bomb went off I turned around to see if Butch was O.K. and all I saw was Butch staring at me with his mouth wide open. I think he thought I'd had it. My back was killing me and I had a piece of shrapnel about 2 inches long in my neck and I had to get back to the medical tent. Next thing I knew I was being flown back to England with some other lads who had also been injured. We landed at Swindon's Air Force Base and after we had been given a meal we were put on a hospital train. It was the early hours of the morning but what day or date it was I had no idea. We soon found ourselves in the Midlands. Half of us went to a hospital in Birmingham and the other half to a hospital in Wolverhampton. I remember being put to bed by some lovely nurses and Red Cross workers. I had nothing only the dirty clothes I was in and I hadn't washed for days, I must have looked a right sight and I know I felt it. I woke up, which seemed like hours later, to find 2 nurses giving me a blanket bath never had I had one of those before. When they saw I was awake they said "Hello how are you feeling"? All I could say was that I was so sorry for the trouble I was putting them to and I was sorry that I was so dirty. They didn't mind one bit they just smiled and said that they were only to pleased to help me. They were wonderful. I will always remember one. Her name was Staff Nurse White but I used to call her Chalky. She was usually our Staff Nurse on nights and if I couldn't sleep and she saw me she would always come and talk to me. Lovely Chalky, she was only about my age. The first visitors I had were from the Salvation Army. They asked us if there was anything we needed and within hours we had cigarettes, matches, writing paper and stamps. They also brought us fruit and sweets. Lovely people. We also had young girls from the W.V.S. come in to see us to see if they could help us and to talk to us to make sure we were O.K. They used to bring our newspapers and books. A couple of the girls took to myself and my mate from the Middlesex Regt. I would really love to meet them again just to say thank you for everything they did but we were discharged before we had a chance to say our farewells. My sister in law, Mary, and her sister came to see us three or four times. I had written to Mary and to my family at home. They were the first letters I wrote since leaving England. It was lovely to see Mary and heir sister, Kate. Mary also told my ex girlfriend where I was and what had happened and it was a nice surprise when she came to visit. I had X rays on my back and they had to remove small fragments of metal and also the shrapnel from my neck. We went out into town one day and what a welcome we got. We didn't have to pay for anything, not even the haircuts that we went out for. There is one thing that I will always remember, we were walking along the road looking for the barber shop when all of a sudden this middle aged lady came across the road and gave us a two shilling coin. All she said was God Bless and she was gone before we could even say thank you. Lovely people in that part of the country.
We were both discharged after a month in hospital and my mate returned to his Regt. and I had to report to the training battalion in Nottingham. When I arrived I met about 6 of my mates and one of my platoon sergeants. We were given all new gear and had orders to report to a transit camp near Southampton.
I returned to the front line and went on to see action in France, Belgium, Holland, the Ardennes and Germany and participated in the liberation of Belsen. I was demobbed in September 1946.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.