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- Raymond Eaglen
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- 20 February 2004
NORMANDY LANDING BY RAYMOND EAGLEN
E Mail: rayamATtiscali.co.uk
We arrived at the Normandy Beachhead on the morning of D+1, having set sail from Tilbury on the evening of D Day. Hundreds of soldiers were packed into the Liberty Ships like sardines. There was scarcely room to sleep, sanitary arrangements were primitive and there was little in the way of food. At one stage we were issued with army biscuits and cans of self-heating soup. One lighted a touch paper in the top of the can and after a while a hot can of soup was produced, at least that was the theory. From time to time unfortunately, we had cans which exploded, showering hot soup on anyone within range.
In addition to these discomforts, I was suffering from a swollen asrm brought about by a vaccination that had “gone wrong”. The unfortunate MO and his assistant were crammed into a cabin about 6 feet square, the only medical center on board. They covered my arm with liberal coatings of a mauve coloured mixture.
By the afternoon we were due to go ashore, but in the meantime a British Cruiser (probably the “Belfast”) decided to take on some ground targets in the bridgehead.
We saw the huge guns swiveling round well elevated but pointing directly over our ship. We heard orders to fire on the loudspeakers on the cruiser, and an earsplitting noise followed as the guns opened up.
We were now preparing to go ‘over the side’ on the scrambling nets to reach the landing craft which were banging against the side of the ship below. The drill was to go down with full kit except kit bags, but with Sten Guns and ammunition. This was a frightening prospect at the best of times, but with one arm almost out of action it was a nightmare
A 3 ton army truck had been hoisted over the side and was in the landing craft ready to take us ashore. Our first sight of the landing craft was not reassuring, as there was a gaping hole caused by a mine in the front of the craft which formed the ramp which was let down to allow the vehicles ashore. We climbed on to the lorry which had been waterproofed beforehand in preparation for going ashore and we steadily drove down into the water.
After only a few yards we sank into a bomb crater that was hidden under the water. In spite of every effort of the driver we were stuck. Eventually we were winched out by the Royal Navy’s Beach Landing Unit, after much cheerful banter on both sides.
As time went by the rest of the Survey Party came ashore, and as it was getting dark we set off for our rendezvous with the Second in Command who had selected the site for RHQ ‘somewhere in the bridgehead’.
As we traveled in a 15 cwt towards our destination we were alarmed by the sound of an intense battle going on around us. At one stage we were sure we had strayed into the front line, with the sound of machine guns close by. At last we arrived at a pleasant looking field that had been selected. After a long and eventful day we were glad to get our heads down in a ditch in readiness for what was to follow.
We had been issued with a 24 hours ration pack. This consisted of a small strong cardboard box that had some wax treatment against dampness. The contents comprised a small metal folding ‘stove’ with a couple of ‘Meta’ type solid fuel tablets, two blocks of biscuit like material which could be broken down into porridge, another block of oxo cube like substance which could be turned into stew, a small block of chocolate, some matches, a few cigarettes and a couple of sheets of ‘army form blank’! Fortunately the cookhouse arrived and saved us from using the unappetizing handout.
As the guns had not yet arrived for action, the first two or three days were relatively pleasant, as the weather was good and the enemy obviously had not been informed of our presence.
This suddenly came to an end when the army radio informed us that a German ‘Tiger’ tank had broken through and was heading in our direction. Somebody quickly found a ‘Piat’ hand held anti~tank weapon, and I was sent off to protect RHQ together with one of the cooks who was even more nervous than I was. Fortunately it was a false alarm and we saw and heard nothing of this dangerous monster. In spite of our fears we had a good laugh at the absurdity of desperately trying to understand the instruction book in preparation for having to fire the weapon should the occasion arise.
It was not long before the guns arrived and were in action. We moved our location into an orchard.
The farmer who owned it was soon handing out glasses of Calvados, a very lethal drink, and the reason why the locals had blackened teeth. We also had the opportunity to try the famous Normandy cheese, Camembert. Some thought it smelled like dead cow, of which there many examples in the area.
There was little surveying necessary at this stage as the guns were static and divisional surveyors had brought in the necessary bearings and coodinates.
In spite of the battle raging, it was still possible to travel into Bayeaux for a shower and a walk round the town that had not been affected by the fighting.
The Gunners had some casualties from Prematures — shells exploding in the gun barrels — a supply of faulty fuses was thought to be the cause. One day we were standing near our cookhouse tent when there was a tremendous explosion from a nearby gun, and a huge piece of gun barrel came flying through the air, and sliced through a tree branch which fell between us. No one was hurt, but the cookhouse was not quite so popular for a few days!
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