- Contributed by
- Don Aiken
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- Alfred Donald Aiken
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- 17 September 2005
A page from my Troop Sergeant's notebook. Listing the Challenges and Replies for D-Day and several days following the invasion of Normandy.
My Bit in WW2 — Chapter Three
Establishing a foothold in Normandy
We laid out the large waterproof cover from a Bren-carrier and a couple of Troops bedded down underneath it. I assume that every-one else did the same. Sentries were posted at various intervals, armed with Bren machine guns. A foot patrol consisting of Sergeant Robert Black (a Scotsman), a Corporal and 5 men was sent out to reconnoitre the surrounding area.
We were jolted awake in the pitch black of the night by the sharp rattle of a nearby Bren gun and loud, frantic shouting. Everyone grabbed their weapons and made for the commotion. What had occurred was this:
Whilst we were on board the LST we had been given a Password with which to challenge anyone in the expected confusion of the situation. The Password was 'Handle' and the Response was 'With Care'.
This seemed quite sensible although we had never used such a method before. The sentry who had been posted near to us was a Yorkshireman from Leeds. He had been sat behind his gun, on his own, in the dead blackness, scared stiff (as we would all have been) when he heard the stealthy scuffling noise of someone creeping up. Panic must have set in because, instead of the password, he shouted out the normal challenge of 'Who goes there! ' This threw the approaching Glaswegian Sergeant of our recce patrol (now returning to us) right off his stride. He responded the best way he could - "Onnle (handle)wi' kearr!(with care)- Onnle wi' kearr " ! he shouted in his broad Scottish accent.
The guttural strange sounding cry must have sounded like Adolf Hitler himself to the panic stricken sentry, so his fingers jerked at the trigger - killing the Sergeant and wounding the Corporal in the foot.
The following days were almost as chaotic as we tried to tie everything up together. We seemed to be tearing around the countryside without much particular purpose; although I suppose it all had some plan behind it. We were making forward patrols along country roads which were lined with trees, hedges, ditches, or raised banks; all of which were ideal cover for the enemy guns. Every now and again we would make some contact with the enemy and a skirmish would ensue. Then there would be a push forward, with our troops moving through the cornfields amongst which I remember the sight of dozens of our Self-propelled 25 pounder guns blazing away to soften up an unseen enemy.
7th June - Break out to Tessel Bretville.
9th June - Recce Jerusalem
10th June — Tilly-sur-Seulles
13th June - Villers Bocage
One event still comes back to me. We were ‘harbouring’ in a large field which belonged to a typical large chateau. Our armoured cars had occupied dug-out emplacements which had previously been occupied by German tanks. Most of the cattle in the pasture had been killed and the accustomed stench of dead animals pervaded the air. Adjoining the field was a large wooded area in which was positioned a heavy artillery battery which had been engaged in shelling enemy positions for a considerable time. Suddenly I heard the rumbling drone of a German heavy bomber which was seeking out the artillery position and immediately dropped a bomb very close to our vicinity. Taking cover, along with my companion, I dived under the armoured car and waited there until the bomber had dropped all its bombs and the sound of its engine died away in the distance.
As we crawled out from under our cover I felt a trickle running down my knee. Clutching at my ominously sticky pants I said to the other Trooper; “ I think I’ve been hit!”. We both closely investigated the area of the ‘wound’ until - the smell hit us — I had dived into a cow-pat.
We continued to probe along the byways making contact with the enemy and reporting to base. On the morning of 15th June, when my car had been leading the patrol along a particularly nasty stretch of road for a long stretch of time, it was decided to pass the job over to a Bren-Carrier Troop. We pulled in to the side of the road to let them pass through us. The leading Carrier had gone less than a hundred yards when, as I understood at the time, it blew up on a land-mine. Now, 60 years after the event, I am informed by our Troop Sergeant Charlie Wells that in fact the explosion was due to a string of our own mines, being carried in the Carrier, exploding accidentally when a German prisoner lost his balance and fell onto them. All the crew and the prisoner were killed.
We then diverted onto another road which led up to a cross roads near Lingevres, where there had been a tank battle during the previous day. As we moved cautiously along this narrow country road, sensing danger, we came across a knocked out tank which was blocking our path. Charlie Wells decided to scout on foot along the ditch, with the commander of my car Corporal Sam Benson. They had crept along for a hundred yards or so when they ran into a machine-gun ambush hidden behind the hedgerow. After a short exchange of fire Sam Benson was badly wounded, his stomach having been ripped open by a stream of machine gun bullets. We decided to pull back out of the situation, and I gave covering fire from my Bren gun while Sam was brought out and carried back to safety on the front of a Bren carrier.
As my armoured car now had no commander, I was sent back to Squadron H.Q. and given the job of 'shotgun' on the 3 ton truck which was used to bring ammunition from the dump near the invasion beach.
On 20th June we set off on our first journey. The truck was driven by a Trooper Docherty and the passenger seat was occupied by a Corporal.
I was sat in the back of the soft-topped lorry; armed with a rifle.
Now that the weather had improved to become quite hot and dry there were signs nailed to posts along the road-side saying DUST MEANS DEATH; indicating that rapid movement by vehicles along the roads would create swirls of dust which would immediately attract the enemy guns and mortars.
We picked up our full load of ammunition without problem, the other members of the crew being obviously used to the procedure, and we set off to return to our H.Q. Now I was sat on 3 tons of ammunition.
It wasn't long however before I realised that our Corporal had lost his way, as we did a couple of reverses in cul de sacs etc.. Then the surroundings began to change from rural roads to rubbled streets, and we did the sharpest reverse of all when we found ourselves in the middle of a street fighting scene, which was no place for a lorry-load of ammo. We had arrived in the besieged town of Caen - a long way off our course.
Eventually we recovered our direction and as we bowled along through a little village I suddenly heard a loud bang and our truck came to a sudden halt. A detachment of infantry was positioned in the village, and there were loud shouts and frantic gesticulations in my direction. I hesitated, not knowing what could be wrong. I didn't hesitate for a second longer however when my Corporal appeared, running rapidly past me and wildly waving for me to follow.
After we had sorted ourselves out, and the Corporal had told me what he knew, we went back to our truck to arrange the next move.
What had happened was this: A lone German fighter plane had spotted us making our way down the road, had turned round facing towards us and fired off a single cannon or rocket. This had hit the truck immediately in front of the driver and had blown a hole in his middle, killing him instantly. The ammunition, with me atop, had been separated from the driver by a thin wooden partition.
I was then returned to my Squadron, as a new Corporal had been found to command my armoured car. He was a Welshman named Evans, a reticent type, who never became very friendly or communicative.
The next few days continued to be quite eventful, although I have forgotten most of the detail and the sequential order of events. Some of the village names still spring to mind; although they lack any substance. - Tilly, Hottot, Caumont, Grainville.
The forward movement of the invading troops all along the front gradually ground to a halt as German resistance increased and the planned occupation of Caen was thwarted again and again. The front line became almost static as both sides dug in to take up defensive positions.
16th July - Hottot les Bagues and Evrecy
17th July - Livry (Briquessard)
Our Regiment was detailed to defend a very long, narrow wood, named Le Bois de Briquesard. We took over at night-time from an American Regiment and took up positions in fox-holes and ditches on the leading edge of the wood, facing across a field to a hedgerow which was occupied by the enemy. Our Assault Troop sent out foot patrols at night, but there were very few incidents arising from them. The main problem was that we were a good target for the German NebelWerfers ( this multi-barrelled launcher fired mortars whose bombs made a horrible wailing, or howling sound as they made their way through the air before exploding with a loud crunch somewhere in the wood) . Our Regimental Field H.Q. had been set up in the middle of the wood. This received a direct hit one night and quite a number of casualties ensued.
After a week or two in this position we were relieved by an Infantry Regt.
Apparently Lieut.General Horrocks, the Commander of XXX Corps, had noticed that we had been placed in this defensive position and ordered that we be withdrawn. He was a very experienced General, who knew how important it was to prevent his future spear-head troops from developing a defensive attitude to the war .
We were then used on small Reconnaissance foot patrols; and during one of these night patrols we were sent to try to make contact with the Germans who were thought to have infiltrated into the grounds of the nearby churchyard. The night turned out to be extremely misty and crawling through the gravestones was, in itself, a creepy business. The thought that, at any moment, a German machine gun could rattle away into your face was even more disturbing. However, we completed our search of the area without contacting any Germans, although we found a dugout which they had recently vacated. You could always tell where Germans had been by the smell; it wasn't a .repulsive smell, just strongly different - probably due to the food that they ate; German sausage perhaps.
Then we pulled back to take up defensive positions. Along with another young Trooper, I was positioned in an old German slit-trench in a hedgerow alongside a path, armed with a Bren machine-gun. We alternately manned the gun and rested.
During my rest period I was suddenly 'brought up sharp' by a burst of fire from my companion's gun. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he had seen something move across the path. I looked for a long time (trying to suppress my fear) and then realised that the 'something' was a twig on the hedge, a few inches away, which had been disturbed by a sudden breeze in this otherwise still, dark and misty night.
30th July — Caumont
There then began a gradual crumbling in the German defences as more and more pressure was exerted.
We began probing again and one day as we approached the small town of Villers Bocage, on a broad front, we drew to a halt as we approached an obvious ambush point between the hedge-rows. This was a sharp bend in the road which was dominated by a farmhouse facing straight up the road. At this moment the Assault Troop, which had been making it's way through the fields and hedgerows on our right, came under fire from German infantry and sustained some casualties.
My car was leading the patrol on the road, and every nerve was tensed for any eventuality. I was astounded when a small wicket gate, in a garden wall at the side of the house, suddenly opened and six big German S.S. troops emerged and ran across the front of the house. It was exactly like a shooting gallery at the Fairground with the ducks bobbing along from one side to the other. However, I didn't get a prize off the top shelf because I couldn't turn my turret fast enough, probably due to the turret ring having been invaded by sea water, sand and dust, and my bullets merely splattered the brickwork behind them before they disappeared round the corner.
We sat there on the road, about 50 yards in front of the house, for about an hour. My light-armoured car was in the lead, and the Troop officer’s armoured car was sat about 20 yards further back. I don’t know to this day what we hoped to gain by standing there, but I felt terribly exposed in my open fronted, open topped turret, with the enemy lying in wait ahead. The feeling was later justified as a phosphorus grenade landed on the road a few feet to the left of my car, spitting and fizzling spitefully as it lay there. As it happened the unit of S.S. troops up ahead must have been merely an outpost, without any heavy weapons, or we would otherwise have paid dearly for such senseless tactics.
On the 11th August we moved into an apple orchard close to a cross-roads, at Aunay-sur-Odon, which was under shell-fire. The Troop H.Q. armoured car had positioned itself in the corner of the orchard and they had dug a trench underneath it, filling in the gap below the car with a sheet of corrugated iron that they had found. The driver, down in the slit trench, had then begun to brew up tea for the troop. We were given the signal that it was ready and I climbed out and crossed over towards the H.Q. car, along with a lad from another car, when suddenly a German shell fell short of it's target and made a direct hit on the corrugated iron sheet. The blast blew us both underneath another car and we lay there with hearts in our mouths. Then I said. I'm going to dash for it, and as I stood up and took a couple of steps I heard another shell whistling it's way towards us. The next thing that I remember is being reseated in the turret of my car.
A member of another crew, who had been watching through his periscope, swore that I had leapt from the ground, straight into the top of the turret (a height of almost 6 ft.) without touching the sides!
The tragedy was that Henry Ansell, a popular young man, had caught the full blast of the explosion which had blown the corrugated iron into large pieces which had torn him apart. Corporal Mulchay lost an arm and Tpr Alan Penn was wounded in the head.
1st August - Return to Villers Bocage
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