- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Arthur Berry
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 February 2004
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Chris Comer of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Arthur Berry and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Berry fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
‘I was a wireless operator/signaller with the 127 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, 51st Highland Division.
I joined the Regiment on the invasion of Sicily from North Africa. The Regiment also covered the landings on Reggio di Calabria, Italy, on 3 September 1943, after which the 51st Division returned home Christmas 1943 in preparation for the Normandy landings.
A holiday atmosphere
The Regiment moved into tents, put up in Leytonstone Park, London, where all the troops were ‘sealed in’ approximately two weeks before the actual landings took place. The atmosphere was unusual - it was something akin to a holiday event. To occupy the time everybody joined in games of football, cricket, quoits etc. Gifts of a couple of bottles of beer and cigarettes were handed out.
All of this suddenly came to an end when we were moved in closed lorries to the East India Docks, London, where we boarded the HMS Cheshire, a troop ship. We were on board this ship about five days. We were told on the ship that we would eventually go ashore at Bernieres sur Mer, Normandy, assuming the assault landings had been successful. The 51st Highland Division was to be used as follow up troops and not in the initial assault landings.
Down the Thames
We sailed down the Thames early one morning and nearing the Thames estuary we passed a naval destroyer, which had previously been in action, in a blackened condition. The ‘matelots’ shouted out, ‘It’s your turn now. Good luck!’ All on board now knew D-Day had arrived.
We were not allowed on the open decks until arrival off the beaches at Bernieres sur Mer, and what a sight it was with all the ships large and small manoeuvring about through the smoke screens and intermittent shellfire. Scramble nets were flung over the side of the Cheshire and we scrambled down to the pitching and tossing American landing craft.
The landing craft which I was on ran aground on a sand bank and after much cursing and swearing broke free with the tide coming in and dropped us all off into over five feet of water. We had been issued with ‘waders’ made of the same flimsy material as the army gas capes and as soon as one stepped off the landing craft they ripped apart and filled up with water.
The Canadians had done a good job in the initial landings at Bernieres and all the evidence was there to see on the beach as we filed through.
The first morning after our arrival in Normandy I tried out the 24-hour food packs we had been issued with. While lying in a hedge still in wet clothes I attempted to light the ‘hexamine’ tablet, which was a kind of fuel made from solidified spirit. It took some patience to eventually light it and I dropped a concentrated tablet of oatmeal into my new mess tin and continued to stir.
While engrossed in this activity, out of the blue came three Messerschmitts; they dived down on us strafing all along the hedgerows. It was heads down for all of us, then there was a terrific explosion and looking up we saw one of the German planes exploding in mid air and several Spitfires chasing the others. What a cheer went up, and surprisingly enough I had lost none of the oatmeal which had not yet dissolved. When it did dissolve it made a huge mess tin of glutinous porridge that, although rather tasteless, filled up a small hole for I was hungry and ready to eat a ‘scabby horse’ as the saying goes.
Action at Breville
The first main battle in which the Regimental guns were in action was at Breville just outside Ranville, which the 6th Airborne Division had taken on D-Day. The Paras of the 6th Airborne Division, Commandos and the Black Watch of the 51st Highland Division suffered many casualties in taking and holding this particular high ground position. Unfortunately our Battery Observation Post was overrun at Ranville and the observation post officer, Captain Pullin was killed. He now lies in Hermanville military cemetery which is close to the beaches. The Battery commander, Major Aitken MC, was also killed later in Normandy and he is buried close by in the Ranville military cemetery with the airborne lads. Both these fine officers had fought all the way from El Alamein, Sicily and the landings in Italy. After the Breville action a new OP party was formed, which I joined along with a replacement Captain for the gallant Captain Pullin.
We occupied many OP positions usually in church towers with the obvious advantages for observation, but just as obvious to ‘Jerry’ who had previously used them himself. One of the worst places we found ourselves in was at St Honorine, South of Ranville. It was an awful place to be and the smell of death hung everywhere. Any movement in St Honorine brought intense mortar fire from Jerry down upon us. They were using Nebelwerfers or ‘Moaning Minnies’ as we called them. It was a devastating weapon.
Foraging for food we entered a farmyard which had been at the receiving end sometime previously and is was a ghastly sight to see blood and feathers of fowl plastered against the walls. The dead stock animals all lay about bloated and stinking. We managed to find three rabbits that the French seem to like breeding over there. They were immediately named Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin and returned with us to the gun position as pets. They were well received by the gunners.
One night at St Honorine some infantry reinforcements arrived. It was pouring down and the poor lads were looking for the company they had been allocated to. They made a little bit of noise and the usual retribution followed. I thought to myself what a place for them to learn the trade. Fortunately the OP party did return to the gun position at intervals and get a respite from the constant and unremitting mortar fire but the infantry were not so fortunate and they suffered.
On one such occasion when we had returned to the gun position an incident occurred, which although not amusing at the time is perhaps worth mentioning in retrospection. We had a good night's kip during what was left of the night by the time we had got back to the lines. I woke up and got a good fire going to make a brew when to my amazement I saw an RAF sergeant in his blue uniform, collar, tie and all bearing down on me carrying a mill board. He asked me what I was doing and I politely told him. He then asked me where I had got the wood from to make the fire and I told him it was from the wing of the smashed glider right behind him. He went into hysterics and remonstrated with me for further damaging the glider that presumably was going to be used again in the future. As my future was more uncertain and insecure at that present time I was just about to tell him to get stuffed with his own mill board when Jerry who had no doubt been alerted to the blue presence fired a few shells onto us. When I emerged from my slit trench the RAF sergeant had hastily departed.
Around this time we had another RAF visitor to the gun position but in rather tragic circumstances. A Spitfire came in from seawards, obviously in trouble, and trying to make a forced landing behind us. There was already a Spitfire in this field that had previously made a successful landing but had badly damaged its undercarriage and had been left there. This no doubt had attracted the pilot of the Spitfire now coming in to attempt a similar landing.
He came in very low and was almost safely down when his left wing tip dipped and touched the ground. The plane catapulted and burst into flames. I was the first to reach the pilot who was a young fair haired officer. He had been thrown clear of the plane about 20 yards away. He was unconscious and blood was coming from his mouth although there was no sign of external injuries. I managed to free him of his flying helmet and parachute before the stretcher bearers rendered first aid and hurried him away. I hope he survived.
The field guns had been sited in the glider field for about 4 weeks and the position must have been very obvious to Jerry by now. It was not surprising therefore that one night Jerry decided to wipe out the battery once and for all. A land mine was dropped by parachute and fortunately it must have floated by and landed about two fields away. There was a terrific explosion that shook the whole gun position and scared the lights out of everyone.
Next morning we saw the crater it had made. The whole area looked like a lunar landscape. A row of three-storey houses could have been dropped into the crash site quite easily. It was the only occasion I was glad to go back to the OP.
However, unknown to me then, any trials and tribulations I may have suffered paled into insignificance by the subsequent events that followed. On the night of July 10/11, a brigade attack was sent in to occupy a steelworks factory at Colombelles east of Caen. It was considered that the tall chimneys of the factory were being used by Jerry as observation posts. It was decided that the Royal Engineers would blow them up and then withdraw. The RAF had previously plastered the factory but the chimneys were still standing afterwards as they still are today. The factory was heavily defended and although entry into the factory was made, Jerry counter attacked and pushed us out with heavy casualties on both sides.
Unfortunately our observation post was overrun and my Captain wounded, and he and I both finished up prisoners of war. Luckily for him the hospital where the Captain was being treated was liberated on the break out from Caen. I finished up working in a coal mine in Saxony until 13 April 1945 when I along with three other British lads made a successful run for it when the Germans were in retreat. But that is another story.’
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