- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dennis M R Small - Peggy Small
- Location of story:
- England, Normandy, Germany, Ceylon
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 January 2006
This story has been written onto the BBC People’s War site by CSV story gatherer Ian Hollins on behalf of Dennis Small. The story has been added to the site with his permission and
Dennis Small fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.
The 1939-1945 War — A personal Experience (Part 3)
I kept going for maybe an hour, when suddenly the horizon was lit up by bright flashes, all the crew shouted at once it's there and I pointed the craft towards what was obviously the opening bombardment on the landing area. As dawn broke I at last began to see the black silhouettes of the armada of ships. There was no way I would find the flotilla and I felt the craft was in no fit state to risk taking on troops so reluctantly I decided to go for the beach. As we approached the beach, I sailed right under the broadside from HMS Warspite as she sent salvo after salvo into the French countryside. The noise was horrendous and it was hard to tell what was enemy fire, and what was our own. At this point I remember feeling pretty tense so pulled the steel door over my head, and tried to steer the craft by looking through the slits in the wheelhouse. This was my first reaction to the sound of war. This reaction did not last for long, for suddenly, my nerve settled down and I slid the door back and put my head through the thatch. This was an amazing sight, I could see the beach and a small village, which I later learned, was Arromanches. There was a plane flying low over the beach and amidst the rattle of machine gun fire and a sky full of tracer bullets I took the craft onto the beach. The tide was ebbing very fast, so we were beached back from the line of debris. We lowered the ramps and ran to the base of the sand dunes, at this point we did not know where we were in France until a bearded beach master approached us saying, “are you the craft that came in from there” and he pointed in the direction that we had come from. Yes I replied, and he said, “You must have had one hell of a trip” “but you were lucky because I reckon you could have come through unswept minefields, welcome to Gold Beach Normandy” I explained our situation and he proved to be most helpful as he said he would take the coxswain off and get him on board the hospital ship. As for you he said, the beach is now secure so make yourselves useful by checking out some of the 'German Bunker's and machine gun emplacements the commandos are well inland now. And I want your craft off the beach on the next tide. A repair barge will be in later so you can get the craft repaired. When you are shipshape again, you had better find your flotilla; they will probably be off Arromanches where the harbour is being formed. We spent the rest of the day checking bunker's, and went as far as a line of German 88mm field guns they all had their breaches blown, and the ground was littered with cordite and smashed shell cases. I suspected that the German gunner's had destroyed them, before they retreated, there were snipers in Arromanches and I saw one running from a house, he was shot before he reached the garden gate. Another sight was a German lying dead and still holding a grenade in his hand.
We also came across three machine gunner's still sat at their gun, also dead. Another big concrete blockhouse we checked had a huge gun, which was also disabled. None of these findings were any danger to us, thanks to the commandos, who had done a very good job. The evening tide came in, and I must admit I was glad to be back on our craft. We found the repair barge and moored up along side it they said they would have us back in service the next day. While we were on the beach we picked up lots of guns including four Lewis guns, which we loaded and left out to use. Darkness fell over the beach and the German Luftwaffe had a try at bombing the beach head. They came in for the most devastating anti-aircraft fire that I had ever seen shellfire, and a curtain of tracer bullets lighted up the sky. There was no way any aircraft could possibly fly through this curtain of fire. For me being in an open craft: with very little protection the greatest danger was from the shrapnel from our own guns, you could hear it splashing in the sea, we suspected that this was going to be a nightly occurrence so we shifted our kit from the engine room and stowed it under the canopy and we slept as well as we could under the deck. We were all very tired and hungry so we did get some sleep. Dawn came and we were wakened by heavy gunfire, and as we scrambled on deck we saw a German plane flying low and strafing the beach. We picked up our Lewis guns and joined in the shoot, as he made another run right over our heads. He was very low, so low in fact, that we could hardly miss him, but all we saw was our tracer bullets ricocheting off his fuselage. The last we saw of him he was being chased by a spitfire. After all this excitement our craft was repaired and we set off to find our flotilla in order to form a breakwater for what was to be the Mulberry Harbour. They had sunk old merchant ships stern to bow; and it was here that we found the flotilla moored up to these ships to our surprise there were only six craft there, we made it seven, so we had lost five craft. Not by enemy action, but by the raging sea. It was to be our headquarters, and it did not take us long to realize that we could live in the cabins that were above the water line, so this is what we did, and it made a lot of difference to us to have a bunk bed and to have some shelter from the flack at night. It was three days now that we had not eaten; we were very hungry so the Major arranged for us to go on board one of the American ships for a meal. The news coming back from ashore was not very good, it appeared that the American's were pinned down and the Canadians were being held at Caen the Germans were going to throw everything they could at the supply line and the beachhead.
The pressure was now on to work the ship to shore supply service and our craft were ideally suited for this job. We worked all the hours of daylight taking in troops, guns, food, ammunition and light transport. Sometimes we carried troops on our shoulders in order to get them ashore dry. This vital build up went on despite the air attacks at night, the weather very often getting rough, and the Germans constantly trying to attack us from the sea using “E” boats, midget submarines, and human torpedoes. To my knowledge only one ever got through to the beachhead. This was due to the many craft manned by Royal Marines who engaged them as they tried to attack the harbour. During this time we were called upon to do many things. On one occasion I remember being called with three other craft to a ship that was loading a Rhino in very heavy seas the Rhino had broken away from the ship so we had to try and get it onto the beach. I reached the rhino first and two of my crew jumped onto it took the lines, and tied three craft to three corners of the Rhino. The fourth craft was having difficulty trying to get alongside. As he got close to the Rhino a big wave caught him and pitched him right on top of the platform. We still managed to get it to the beach and as we guided it through the ships we were given rousing handclaps. I was told to pick up a Canadian officer and take him to Sword Beach. As I was approaching the beach I felt a jolt and the engine man shouted that we were holed. We had hit a submerged pontoon, which was not marked; the craft began to sink so we had to swim to the shore. We were taken to a survivor’s camp, which was under canvas. We were given a pair of navy overalls and a tent. It was not a very pleasant time. We were in this camp for three days. The nighttime was the worst as we tried to sleep in our tent there were shells whistling overhead. Each time we hoped they were from our naval ships.Our kit was salvaged and dried out, and the craft went for repair. While we were ashore we thought we would go inland to have a look around, mainly out of curiosity. We started to walk and an American stopped to give us a lift in his Jeep. We went as far as 'Bayeux' and were surprised to find it undamaged. We were told that the Germans had pulled out rather than have this very 'Ancient 'City' destroyed. Our craft now repaired and us back on board working as hard as ever, we were witness to a ‘one thousand bomber’ air attack on the Germans at Caen. There were planes as far as we could see, in every direction; this seemed to be the turning point in the invasion. From then on, the news started to get better, the Americans broke through, and the Canadians and British Armies were pushing the Germans back. As the armies advanced into France things began to get settled and with catering barges there, life was getting easier. German prisoners were now being brought back, and we had to take them off the beach and put them on a ship. As the Mulberry Harbour came into more use, and larger ships started to off load their cargo straight on the dock we were getting less work to do. One incident I think was rather funny was, a German High Ranking Officer: a typical monocle wearing Prussian Officer complete with batman, very tall and smart, was walking down the Mulberry dock to a waiting craft. As he passed a Marine Commando, he stopped, and losing all his dignity he spat at the Marine. The Marine just laughed at him. Two of my crew picked up a Sten gun, which was a bit of a novelty, and while they were fighting over the ownership of it the gun went off, the bullet passed so close to my ear, I felt the hot wind from it. My reaction was to take it and throw it over the side, another time I was walking up the beach with another Marine when I felt something hit my boot looking down I saw a piece taken out of the front sole of my boot. After working the beach for six weeks and more sea ports having been taken it was time for us to go. Everyone was hoping for good weather for the return trip across the Channel but it turned out, that we were going back on a floating dock ship. We sailed into the ship and when we were all loaded the water was pumped out. All the crews were so happy that we were being taken by ship that they sat on the craft and sang all the way back to Southampton. Once again, we moored our craft on the river Hamble, and went back to base. A lot of the crews that had not made the 'Channel' crossing were there to greet us, and to tell us, that they had been treated as survivors and had a really good time. For myself, I felt quite proud of what we had done. Our coxswain was not there, and we never found out what had happened to him. The flotilla was decorated and the Major was awarded the D.S.M. and a name was pulled out of a hat, for the member of the flotilla that would wear the 'Oak-Leaf' on his 'Normandy Campaign Medal. However we were told that, although it was thought that we would be heading for the Far East the war in Europe was not over yet, so we would be regrouping and formed into the 117th Brigade, and getting back into Europe as soon as possible. The flotilla was disbanded and we were sent to have two week's 'square bashing’ at Portsmouth Marine Barracks. From Portsmouth I was sent to Southend on Sea, promoted to corporal and then sent to an N.C.O. M.T training unit at Keswick in the Lake District. While I was there, I was changed from training on lorries and Jeeps, to track vehicles. After one months training I went back to a camp in Lancaster. I was given a Universal Bren Gun Carrier and told that I would be the Scout Carrier' for an Anti--Tank Platoon in the 32nd Battalion of the 117th Brigade Royal Marines. We went back to Merionethshire in North Wales, and part of my job was to teach the drivers how to handle their tracked Loyd Carriers with Anti-Tank Guns in tow. The other jobs were to take the Captain and let him scout the ground, for where he wanted to place his guns, as well as firing flares to try and light up the enemy tanks using a 2" mortar.
We trained for many weeks, and then once again we were off to Europe. We put the carriers on the train, went to Dover then back across the Channel to Ostende. From there we drove through Belgium and on into Holland past the Belsen Concentration Camp; and then on towards Germany. It was going to be a seven-day drive and we had to sleep in our carriers most of the time. Peace was declared and we were told to drive to Kiel and join up with the 116th Brigade R.M. We crossed the Rhine and into Germany passing through Hamburg and Lebeck I had never seen devastation like it. It was difficult to see a building standing in Hamburg, just streets of rubble on for mile after mile. We finally reached the Naval Port of Kiel and were given the German Kreigs Marine Headquarters’ as our station. Our role in Kiel was to support the 116th Brigade in the disarming of the German Fleet. The Germans had scuttled a lot of ships and submarines. As any ships came back from sea the crews were taken off. We had no trouble to speak of from the Germans, only when they were out after the curfew. As time went by our main job was to patrol and enforce the curfew and the no fraternisation ban. We did this for about seven weeks, and then once again we were given orders to return to our headquarters’. So we left our carriers in Germany and came back by train. Back in our camp in Merionethshire we were told that we would be split into two groups. One group would go to Australia and the other would go to Ceylon. I was told that if I volunteered for the longer time in Australia I could be made up to Sergeant. I chose not to do that so I was put into the Ceylon draft. I was given 14, day's embarkation leave. It was on this leave that I met 'Peg and after a whirlwind romance, and by the time I had to return to camp. We were engaged to be married with a promise from me, to Peg that we would be married within two weeks of my coming home. So off we went again boarding the Athlone Castle at Plymouth with a six-week voyage in front of us. We sailed to Gibraltar then to Malta, on to Port Said through the Suez Canal to the bitter lake and Aden across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon. The whole sea voyage was uneventful.
(Continued in part 4)
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