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'Get this hellish ordeal over with'

by Genevieve

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Archive List > World > France

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Donald King
Location of story: 
Normandy, France
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 September 2005

Today my subject is about my experiences as a Royal Marine Commando aged 23 on D-day 6th June 1944: The invasion of Normandy.

After two years service aboard the old ‘R-Class’ battle ship HMS resolution, I joined a small intelligence unit called 30th assault unit. Our job was to get naval scientists and experts into places of importance to gain secrete information about weapons radar stations, torpedoes, midget submarines, secret files, codes and documents.

The chief or boss of my unit was Commander Ian Fleming Royal Naval Reserve. Later on in his life he wrote the James Bond novels. I only met Ian three times in France. He was based in London acting as Deputy Director of naval intelligence. We trained for D-Day in Sussex in the Littlehampton area: we became fighting fit.

I was aboard the battle ship for two years sailing around Africa and India; even touching Australia,

In 1942 when we were tied up in Mombasa, Kenya, I received a poem from my Mother in Glasgow which read:

‘God, from tomorrow, through the next day and the next, watch o’er the sea.
Let starlit nights prevail, I ask of thee.
Be master of the waves that toss the ship upon the deep,
And safely guard our little boy I used to rock to sleep.’

At the age of 21 I was extremely embarrassed to get such a mushy sentimental card from my Mother and I hid it quickly from the eyes of my marine mess mates who’d have teased me no end if they’d had the chance to read it. 63 years later I still possess that poem written in the familiar handwriting of my Mother.

I must tell you about my experiences on D-Day 6th June 1944: the longest day of my life. On the morning of Sunday 4th June we left the troop concentration area near Southampton and went aboard a large landing craft. We sailed into the Solent and dropped anchor. We set off that afternoon but quickly got a signal to put back to our anchorage. The landing had been delayed because of bad weather.

The Solent was full of ships small and big: like currants in a bun. BBC reporters describing the D-Day fleet “setting sail there was a tenseness and a sense of good humour and good fellowship that were impossible of translation into words.”

‘Get this hellish ordeal over with’ was the thought uppermost in my mind as I sat and cleaned then re-cleaned my Tommy-gun on the upper deck. The landing craft was described by my mates as a floating kipper box. We set off on the Monday. Early next morning as dawn was breaking, I spied a long stretch of land on the horizon: France. My heart missed a beat. I was soon, like it or not, going to be plunged into the thick of things.

We headed for the coast at top speed. Rum was issued to all who wanted it. I had four tots of the warming courage giving liquid and felt fighting fit and ready for anything. I glimpsed a large white ensign with a solitary figure wearing a duffle-coat and cap, seemingly standing on the water (like the good Lord) pointing and unruffled. I shook my head and wondered if it was the rum I had just drunk or a figment of my imagination. Later when my thoughts returned to sanity, I realised that it was one of our one-man midget ex-craft submarines paving our entrance through a cleared mine area. When we were a hundred yards from the shore a terrific crash and a huge fountain of water grabbed our attention. The landing craft on our right had received a direct shell hit on her bows. It quickly slowed up and I could see men jumping or falling over the side. It sank very quickly. “Don’t stop to help anyone get ashore!” That was our order. The scene was unnerving but we had little or no time to dwell on it.

Mortars were throwing bombs all around us and it was a blessing that we were not hit. We grounded in the sand, down the landing ramps we ran, up to our waists in water; holding our weapons above our heads to keep them dry. The beach was indescribable - flail tanks moved about detonating mines with deafening explosions. Bodies everywhere, some dead, some wounded, and others just shattered with it all. Equipment was thrown around. Yells, shouts and orders added to the melee. When we glanced behind us we could see men trying to swim ashore from sinking crafts, struggling for their lives. Weighed down, hampered, handicapped and hindered by heavy soaked uniforms. Empty landing craft abandoned but still afloat bobbed about at odd angles to the beach colliding with each other in the choppy waters. Some being ripped open and sunk by underwater obstacles with deadly Teller-mines attached. A sight I shall never forget. Many bodies were washing limply backwards and forwards in the breakers. I felt very frightened. The noise of battle was really awful. Most of the houses along the shore were ablaze, but they still contained enemy guns and men who continued to fire at us with deadly accuracy.

Rockets from our assault ships were ripping into the top storeys of these houses. It must have been absolute hell. Big battle ships were firing 16 inch shells: each weighing more than a ton. Over our heads away they hurtled into the interior, hopefully to fall on the German defenders. I came down the ramp that morning full of courage and spirit (rum) a one-man wave of liberation. It was welcome to hell and France.

After dashing up the beach taking cover below a high beach wall to get my breath back and taking stock, I then entered the little town of St Aubin Sur Mer. All at once a pretty French lady dressed in a long white night-gown grabbed hold of me and gave me a warm kiss of welcome.

The enemy opened up on us with mortars and machine guns and in the remaining hours of D-day we were pinned down, although we managed to capture several prisoners who raised a white flag.

My first night was spent in a slit trench (fox hole) in my wet battle dress uniform. No blankets, cold damp earth, two hours on, two hours off. We were continuously bombed and strafed by enemy planes. A stick of bombs fell mighty near — too close for comfort. All night long from the ships in the beach head — the anti-aircraft guns which had been landed were firing. Then came one of the finest fireworks displays I’d ever seen. Illuminated tracer bullets and shells being mainly fired into the sky at the aircraft.

I’m proud to have struggled ashore on that historic morning and played my small role in the Normandy invasion aged 23 years old. D-Day was one of those rare happening which did and will forever stir the hearts of men.

This story was submitted to the People's War Website by Becky Barugh of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Donald King and has added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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