- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Campbell Gray
- Location of story:
- Normandy, France
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 November 2003
It was one o'clock in the morning, and I was 500ft over Normandy waiting to jump from a Stirling bomber. I was one of the vast numbers of airborne forces involved in Operation Overlord.
During WW2 all members of the Parachute Regiment were volunteers recruited from the many regiments throughout the army. I was with the 7th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. We had had a visit from General ‘Boy’ Browning, who had given us a talk on the role of the Parachute Regiment and asked for volunteers to form the 5th Battalion (Scottish) Parachute Regiment.
A rigorous training
About 400 volunteered, and we were posted for training to Hardwick Hall, near Chesterfield, which was the training school for the Parachute Regiment. The big attraction in volunteering was the 2/- (10p) a day extra pay, which doubled our regular pay as we were only on 2/- a day.
The training was very tough, and quite a number of volunteers were returned to their former units as unsuitable. Those who survived the initial training were committed to very intensive training to ensure full fitness.
Training day started at 8am and ended at 6.30pm every day. The training staff bawled and shouted at us all day long, and after a few days we were doing things instinctively despite the shouts of ‘Go, go, go’.
Learning to jump and land
We practised dispatch from aircraft on dummy fuselages of floor- and door-exit aircraft, which were mounted about 12ft from the ground.
For the next stage of our training we moved to Ringway Airport in Manchester. There, RAF instructors took us in hand to help us land properly.
The normal physical training continued at Ringway. That regime kept us up to peak fitness.
Seven descents to qualify
Learning how to descent from aircraft was the next stage in our training. To qualify as a parachutist, we had to do seven descents, two from a static balloon and five from aircraft. Tatton Park in Manchester was the drop zone, and this was where the balloons were located.
Slung from the balloon was a basket roughly eight-feet square with a hole in the base, big enough for a body and parachute to pass through, with a bar above the aperture to hook the static line to. The static line was the means of releasing the parachute from the containing bag to allow it to develop.
Up to 800ft
Four men at a time with an instructor (RAF) went up to a height of 800ft. My turn eventually came round, and it was then that I began to doubt the wisdom of having volunteered for this branch of the services.
It was quite an eerie feeling as we stood, one man in each corner of the basket, watching the ground get further and further away. The silence was only broken by the whistle of the wind and the instructor’s voice pronouncing, ‘800ft, lads, get ready no. 1.’
A terrifying yet exhilarating sensation
No time was wasted in dispatching us. We sat at the edge of the hole in turn, and the instructor did the hook-up to the bar then ‘Action Station’ — hands on edge of aperture, sitting with legs in hole, head back and ‘Go.’
The sensation of falling was terrifying, with a drop of some 180ft before the chute developed. An instructor on the ground with a loud hailer talked us down. There was a tremendous feeling of exhilaration once we were back on the ground, and we couldn't wait to do a repeat performance.
Learning to drop from an aircraft
The next stage was dropping from an actual aircraft, in our case Whitley bombers, stripped to carry a stick of ten men. There wasn't a lot of space in this plane, with the round aperture in the floor located about halfway up the fuselage. Five men sat each side of the aperture alternately facing each other. There was little or no headroom, and it was extremely uncomfortable, to say the least.
When the red light above the aperture came on, no. 1 swung his legs into the aperture and awaited the green light that came on in a matter of seconds. Off he went, followed by no. 2, on the other side of the aperture, and the remainder followed in turn.
After finishing the required number of descents, we attended the ceremony for presenting the coveted wings, by which we became qualified parachutists. Once we had completed the course and qualified, refusal to continue was a court-martial offence with imprisonment of normally 56 days.
From Larkhill to north Africa
Our home base was at Larkhill on Salisbury Plains, where we completed our training, being dropped from aircraft, at night and in daytime. The planes were Whitleys, Albemarles, Dakotas and Stirlings.
Around March 1943, the 5th Battalion (Scottish) was scheduled for north Africa, but I had a bout of pleurisy and was sent instead to hospital. When I came out, the 5th was gone, and I was posted to the depot at Chesterfield to join a draft for north Africa to rejoin my battalion.
Reposted to join a new battalion
A few days before embarkation, however, I and a number of others, mostly signallers and mortar men, were taken off the draft and posted back to Larkhill to join a new battalion that was being formed, the 12th Battalion (Yorks), Parachute Regiment.
The endless exercises continued as before in preparation for the invasion of Europe. When, in May 1944, we took off for a transit camp near Keevil, we knew this time it was for real.
A camp ringed by armed soldiers
The camp was ringed with armed soldiers (not airborne), and no one was allowed in or out. The first morning saw my company marched to a hut and seated for a first briefing.
There was a large map mounted at the end of the hut and covered with a cloth. After a few words of introduction, the briefing offer removed the cloth and revealed a map of the Normandy region of France that showed the German troop positions in the area. In another hut, there was a large sand model of the area that indicated the drop zone, rendezvous point and our objective.
The village of Le Bas de Ranville was our objective. While that of the 6th Division was to secure the bridges of the River Orne and Orne Canal, the waterways running close to each other, and the ground east of the river, and take out the gun battery at Merville. Such action would cover the beaches where the sea landing was to take place. We were scheduled to go in a few hours before the landing.
A hefty loads and a wireless set
Briefing took place every morning, and any changes in enemy-troop movements were noted. We were informed that Overlord would take place on 5 June. Adverse weather conditions initially cancelled this, though by evening it was confirmed that we would indeed be going.
At this stage of the war the parachute soldier carried a fairly hefty load, each with a special kit bag strapped to the leg with a 20ft length of rope attached and tied to a waist belt. This we released during our descent. It was quite handy in letting us know in the dark when we were about to hit the ground. In my case I carried a wireless set too, which was wrapped in foam rubber.
Start of the great adventure
We arrived at the airfield near Keevil around 10pm on 5 June and made our way to the enplaning area after drawing chutes. My battalion was being transported by Stirling bombers with Canadian crews. Exit from the bomber was through a rectangular floor aperture at the tail end of the aircraft. Very few of the men had experienced action before, and we were all in good spirits — the great adventure was about to begin.
The signal corporal who was in the next plane to mine came over and shook my hand saying, ‘I'll see you over there, Jock.’ I never saw him again. He disappeared after being dropped in the wrong area with a number of others, all of whom, except him and the signals officer, managed to rejoin us.
‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’
It would be around 11pm when we got on our way and taxied to the runway for take-off. I must say that no one felt like talking after take-off, and the noise of the engines made it almost impossible anyway. We were scheduled to be dropped around 1am, our drop zone being a few miles inland.
There was some light anti-aircraft fire as we crossed the French coast. At last we got the order to ‘Hook-up’ and ‘Stand To’. I was no. 2 to go. We had to rely on the guy behind us handing us the end of our static line, making sure it was free of entanglement prior to hook-up. All eyes were then glued to the lights above the aperture.
Parachuted into France
When the dispatcher (RAF) bawled ‘Red On’ followed by ‘Green On’, then ‘Go, go, go,’ we went through the aperture as fast as possible. We were going in about 500ft, and it was essential to have a fast dispatch to ensure that we would be closer together on the ground.
It was a moonlit night with some light cloud. I had quite a good descent, landing a bit heavily but safely in a corn field with stalks up to my waist. There was a real danger for us at this point of being shot at by one of our mates, so a simple code system had been devised, the first day being ‘Ham’ to be answered by ‘Egg’, the next day ‘Bread’ and ‘Butter’.
‘Ham’ and ‘Egg’
After releasing my harness and dumping the jump jacket — put on over our outer equipment so that our lines on dispatch couldn't snag on anything — I gathered myself together. I had to get myself to the rendezvous point, a quarry just on the approaches to Ranville.
As I proceeded, I heard movement just ahead of me. I went to ground immediately and gave the code sign ‘Ham’ and got the ‘Egg’. It happened to be a signaller of my own platoon, who had injured his back in the drop. We got to a hedgerow at the side of the field, but he couldn't go any further so I had to leave him there and carry on.
We had been told at the briefing not to stop to help wounded or injured men under any circumstances. The objective was top priority and required the maximum number of men to achieve it.
The CO’s signaller
I eventually reached the quarry, guided by the flashing red light of my battalion. Other battalions were guided by a hunting horn or a whistle to their different rendezvous points. The drop zone was coming under fire by this time, but most of us were clear of it by then.
I was the commanding officer’s, the CO’s, signaller and reported to him on arrival. By around 3am we were still at about only half-strength. It turned out that many of my battalion had been dropped in the wrong area, and in some cases it took a few days before they got to us.
In any case, the CO decided to move on to secure Le Bas de Ranville. Resistance was fairly light, the Germans having withdrawn to a wood to the south. By 4am we were well dug in. Things were remarkably quiet for a short time, and then we heard the naval barrage starting and knew that the seaborne landings were about to take place.
Forward position under heavy fire
Come daybreak our forward position reported enemy-troop movement in our direction, supported by two SP or self-propelled guns. With this forward position were a naval officer and a rating who had parachuted in with us and had established a radio link with a cruiser off the coast. Unfortunately, they were killed in the first assault on the forward position, as was a mate of mine on radio contact with HQ.
The forward position, consisting of an officer and 12 men, came under heavy fire and suffered casualties, though the officer and three of the men managed to escape and pull back to the company position. The two SP guns were destroyed by six-pounder guns of one of the other companies.
Heavy mortar and SP gunfire
Another section reoccupied the forward position along a hedgerow. Later that day a further attack was launched on our position. We came under heavy mortaring and SP gunfire, and our casualties were fairly heavy.
That evening we witnessed the remarkable sight of around 500 tug-aircraft and gliders streaming in over the coast to land astride the Orne river and canal. It looked like we were well and truly there to stay.
By this time, after having come ashore at Sword Beach and suffered heavy casualties, the commandos had arrived at our position. Our division had secured all objectives and were holding firm despite being under almost continuous heavy fire, which, of course, meant more casualties.
‘Breville must be taken’
We were pinned down in a small bridgehead and awaiting the fall of Caen before the breakout could take place. My battalion was well under strength. We were moved back and forward along the line, exchanging position with other units.
On D+6 my battalion — what was left of it — were chosen to take the village of Breville, which was heavily defended. We were down to around eight officers and 350 men by this time. We proceeded to a place called Amfreville, where we trooped into the local church for our briefing. The order was that ‘Breville must be taken.’
The Black Watch had tried to take it and had suffered heavily in their attempt. The commandos were holding position on the outskirts of Amfreville, facing towards Breville, and we took up position for the attack on the road alongside them.
Preparing to take Breville
The attack, preceded by a barrage at 9.45pm and supported by a few tanks, would be launched at around 10pm. Unfortunately, the first salvo fell short and landed on the road in which we were assembled. Our CO and several HQ personnel were killed and several others wounded.
Just as the attack company moved off, the Germans laid down a counter barrage, and they were cut to pieces in the open ground approaching Breville. I went in with the second company and had to pass through the dead and wounded. The company commander, although lying wounded, waved us on to keep going.
A village on fire end to end
I reached the edge of the village with a number of others, and we got pinned down in a ditch. After taking our bearings we moved out to reach Breville crossroads, exchanging fire as we went. I still had the wireless set on my back but had lost the aerial. The village was virtually on fire from end to end. Things were a bit uncertain, to say least.
At the crossroads we came under very heavy bombardment and again had to shelter in a ditch for what seemed like hours till, eventually, except for some spasmodic small arms fire, we had secured our positions. We lay all night expecting the usual counter-attack, but at dawn patrols sent out reported that no enemy was contacted. Breville had been taken at last, and our bridgehead was complete.
Burying the dead
The cost was very heavy indeed, with all our officers killed or wounded. There were 168 dead from all companies and only around 100 of the original battalion left.
The following day was spent burying the dead, British and German. I assisted in burying one guy who had been killed alongside the burning church. He was buried where he had fallen.
His grave remains untouched
When I returned to Normandy at the 40th anniversary, I went to Breville. That grave was still there alongside the ruins of the church. Apparently, the people of Breville had asked that it should remain there rather than being removed to Ranville War Cemetery.
I could write a few pages on the battle for Breville, but I've given brief highlights of my own experience. Later, Breville became a battle honour for the Division, such was its importance for the Normandy campaign.
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