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- 02 June 2004
So what did the Assault Squadrons get up to?
They were very busy, certainly. They did have free time occasionally, and some would go into Woodbridge or Ipswich. But they had a busy time in Suffolk. Many of the Squadrons had a timetable of activities. One example was 82 Squadron. For each week of the month there was a timetable for each of the 4 Troops that made up the Squadron. For example, from 10.15-1300 and 1400-1600 the various Troops could be involved in crossing a ditch and clearing a minefield using combinations of snake and fascine; or practicing drill with the General Wade explosive; or training with the Besa machine guns fitted to the Churchill; or bomb throwing and small arms training, and so on. On Sunday it was Church, and the Sappers were allowed rest on Saturday afternoon. All the time experimentation and innovation was encouraged, and there was much trial and error. The Squadrons had to make up their own training manuals.
Of course many things went wrong occasionally. On the 3rd January 1944, 617 Squadron gave a demonstration for some ‘top brass’, but it did not go well as an AVRE slipped off the side of the fascine it had dropped. On the 27th there was another demonstration for General Eisenhower, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alanbrooke, in the afternoon. One of the Troops dropped a bridge successfully, but then the tank that went across it fell off. However to make up for that another Troop successfully demonstrated the use of General Wade explosives, and then put a Snake down in a live minefield and went through. (Much of this took place in the Fazeboons area of the Orford training ground).
Another Squadron also found that things could go wrong at the worst moment. One manoeuvre involved a bridge being laid against a wall, and an AVRE carrying a fascine on the front would climb up the bridge, drop the fascine over the other side of the wall and advance over it. One Troop commander did a “demonstration in front of the Divisional Commander. The fascine rolled away; we slid down the far side of the wall with a bang, broke a track, and immobilised the tank! I do not think the General was very impressed!”.
Numerous exercises were carried out with names like ‘Exercise Kangaroo I’ or ‘Exercise Gobetter II’. These could be just the Brigade on its own, or it would also exercise with other units, practicing the procedures that would be used on D-Day. Thus from the 6th to the 8th March Exercise ‘Gobetter 1’ took place west of Aldeburgh to practice battle procedures. This was based around the idea of a supposed landing on the coast south of Aldeburgh and a move inland against various obstacles. Flail tanks (Sherman tanks with a rotating drum in front, which held chains that flailed the ground to explode mines — from another unit in the 79th Armoured) joined with the Churchill AVREs. (The results of this exercise were discussed at a conference in the Aldeburgh cinema on 10th). On March 10th and 11th 617 Squadron took part in Exercise ‘Kangaroo IV’, a simulated seaborne attack against a strongpoint in the Orford battle area nicknamed ‘Adolf’. The exercise was watched by General Montgomery. At the end of the exercise Monty inspected and addressed the whole of 42 Regiment at Sudbourne. Training went ahead in all weathers. Exercise Kanagroo 1 was carried out under Lt General Dempsey’s eye (the commander of 2nd British Army) in bad snow in February 1944.
The rivers and ponds of Suffolk also were used by the Brigade. Squadrons practiced training on rafts at Bawdsey (this would come in useful when crossing the rivers of Europe, especially the Rhine). Butley Mills pond was used for trials of the waterproofing for the tanks and other vehicles. For instance on April 17 a Ford 3 tonner was waterproofed and waded at Butley Mill. “All went through without drowning”’ commented the Squadron diarist! On the 18th four AVREs were waded at Butley Mill, after having been waterproofed.
Suffolk features fondly in the memories of many of the former crewmen of the Brigade. Many enduring relationships were forged. Ron Payne even met his soon-to-be wife there. Her father had a smallholding near the Butley Oyster pub. “There was a river near our camp at ‘The Clumps’. I asked this woman in a house which way to the river — and that’s how I met my wife. We got married on May 14th 1944 in the little church at Butley, on the Sunday by special licence. We were just enjoying tea when the village bobby knocked on the door and asked for me. I had to report back ‘straightaway’, but he told me that as long as I was at Woodbridge station in the morning nothing would be said! I was down at Woodbridge the next morning”.
In March and April those units of the Brigade that were going to support the landings on D-Day moved from Suffolk to the south coast. Here they were to complete their training, finish equipping, waterproof their vehicles and board their landing craft for D-Day.
Many left from Woodbridge station. The tanks were loaded on to flat cars, from a concrete platform. Ron Payne remembers “The flats were level with the platform, but it was a tricky job as there was only 4” or 5” of the tank overlapping on each side. A couple of tanks had fallen off when I was at Catterick, and a couple did later in Europe, but none that day”.
Suffolk provided the training ground for these tanks and their peculiar devices. Suffolk companies also provided some of the equipment. For example Cocksedge and Company supplied some of the kits to enable the ordinary Churchill tank to be converted into the AVRE. They also supplied some of the bridges the tanks carried, and many of the bobbins (to carry the matting for soft sand) that were used on D-Day. Ransomes & Rapier, and Ransomes, Simms and Jefferies were also involved. For example, they supplied many of the ploughs that were attached to the tanks to see if they would be of use in exploding mines.
Of the units that made up the Brigade, the 5th Assault Regiment was due to support the British assault on Sword Beach, the 6th the British and Canadians at Gold and Juno. The 42nd Regiment were going to support the Americans at Omaha and Utah. However this offer was turned down, although the Americans did take up the offer of DD tanks. Some historians have wondered if the use of specialised armour like the AVREs would have helped prevent the very heavy losses the Americans suffered on Omaha beach on D-Day. Because 42 Regiment were not need for D-Day, they would cross to France two months later. They left Suffolk in July. Many of the tanks were loaded on to flat cars at Saxmundham, and arrived on the south coast the next day. Other tanks left from Wickham Market.
On D-Day itself the AVRE Churchills of the 1st Assault Brigade provided invaluable support to the British and Canadian troops on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. They dealt with many obstacles on and behind the beach, they destroyed pillboxes and other fortified positions, and created many gaps in the seawall and dunes to enable the troops to get off the beach. Their presence certainly save many lives on D-Day. Six Squadrons of the Brigade landed on D-Day, about 800 men and 120 vehicles. 22 vehicles were lost, nearly 30 men were killed, and a number wounded. The deaths included the commanding officer of 5 Regiment, Colonel Cocks, and one of the Squadron commanders. On D-Day alone the men of the Brigade won 5 Military Crosses (one posthumously), 5 Military Medals, 5 Distinguished Service Orders and 3 Distinguished Conduct Medals, as well as soldiers mentioned in despatches.
The Brigade was to go on to distinguish itself in many actions in the subsequent campaign in Europe. But it was in Suffolk where the Brigade came together, and trained for its most vital task on D-Day. For the men of the Brigade it was where thet came together as a tank crew. Six men would spend the rest of the war together in a tin box. They would live, eat and sleep together, survive dangers together — and sometimes die together. It is not surprising that in this close community strong bonds of friendship were formed that would last until the day they died.
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