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15 October 2014
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D-Day Memories: 12th Devons

by vincew

Contributed by 
vincew
People in story: 
Vince Walker
Location of story: 
Normandy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2304794
Contributed on: 
17 February 2004

I am very proud to have been a member of the 6th Air Landing Brigade, 6th Airborne Division. The Brigade was formed in 1943 of three battalions, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles; The 2nd Battalion, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry — both regular battalions — and The 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment known as the Swedebashers, commanded by a regular soldier, but nearly all of the officers and men had enlisted for the duration of the war only. Our Divisional Commander was General Sir Richard Gale, later to become Field Marshall and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The Brigade Commander was Brigadier Lord Kindersley who was to be seriously wounded on D + 3.
I was Intelligence Officer of 12th Devons and this resulted in my becoming involved in the planning of the role of 6th Airlanding Brigade from the beginning of April 1944 and an early briefing of the precise location of our landing area in France. The amount of information available from Aircraft Reconnaissance and French underground sources was amazing. Apart from German troop disposition, we were given the names and addresses of French citizens who we could trust. Briefing sessions took place in a large house between Netheravon and Bulford on Salisbury Plain — and was codenamed “Broadmoor”.
Our general training placed great emphasis on physical fitness and initiative, and culminated in the whole Division landing (or rather crash landing) in fields around the village of Southrop in Gloucestershire, as a dress rehearsal for “D” Day. The bridges over the Thames and tributaries at Lechiade were not dissimilar to those over the River Orne in Normandy.
Having trained so hard to master the tactics of going to war by Glider and landing behind enemy lines, I was surprised to be informed at a briefing meeting at the beginning of May that the Aircraft Resources of 38 and 46 Group of Troop Carrier Command were insufficient to permit the transport of the whole division in one Airlift and so the Devonshires, the junior Battalion were required to go by sea, although we had no experience or training involving the sea or landing on beaches, and so I found myself in a sealed camp at Grays in Essex, prior to embarking in an LCI (L) at Tilbury for quite a long sea journey to our designated landing spot at Lyon—sur—Mer on Sword Beach.
It is quite impossible for me to do justice to the subject of “The Longest Day”. Thousands of words and hundreds of books have been, and are still being written, about it but I would like to tell you a little about the first 20 — 30 minutes only, as conveyed to me by my comrades in the Air Landing Brigade and my own recollections.
As an introduction I can’t do better than repeat Montgomery’s words, read Out to all troops on 5th June 1944.
“To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history and in better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and righteous cause...
And as we enter battle, let us recall the words of a famous soldier spoken many years ago:— He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all”
At midnight, on 5th June 1944, two groups of 3 Halifax Bombers each towing a Horsa Glider were flying at 7000 feet over the Channel and approaching the Normandy coast. They were the rather lonely spearhead of the greatest invasion force ever assembled. In each glider were 30 soldiers from “D” Company of the 2nd Ox. and Bucks. The planes had taken off from Tarrant Rushton at one minute intervals, commencing at 22.56 hours.
Glider No. 1, piloted by Staff Sergeant Jim Waliwork of the Glider Pilot Regiment was ready to cast off at any moment — as soon as the Navigator in the Halifax gave him the signal — Co—pilot Staff Sergeant John Ainsworth was concentrating on his stopwatch with the aid of a flashlight. In the fuselage seated on benches running the full length on each side of the glider were 28 soldiers, Major John Howard the Commander of HDU Company and of the whole operation, and U. Dennis Brotherton commanding the platoon who were to lead the assault.
It was quite noisy, everyone was singing, laughing, joking — some were smoking, it was just like a training flight and then — at seven minutes past midnight Wallwork cast off, Ainsworth started his stopwatch and the Invasion had begun — there could be no turning back.
Everyone felt the sudden jerk, then absolute silence, no engine roar, the singing and laughing stopped, the only sound was the faint swishing of the air over the glider’s wings. Each glider was entirely on its own, could not see the other gliders and cloud had obscured the ground — everyone felt very isolated.
The Bomber had roared on to drop a small bomb load on Caen, as a diversion more than a bombing raid.
John Howard’s orders were to seize intact the bridges over the River Orne and the Orne Canal between the villages of Benoville and Ranville — and hold them at all costs until relief arrived. That relief would come from the 7th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment whose C.O. had the rather unfortunate name of Pine—Coffin. (He was a very brave soldier). They were not expected to arrive until about 3 a.m.
The Bridgehead formed by the 6th Airborne Division on the East Bank of the River Orne was of vital importance to the whole invasion, enabling Caen to become the hinge on which the successful breakout from Normandy was eventually achieved.
As soon as the glider had released, the door was opened, and then everyone strapped in and waited.
The Glider pilot was flying by stopwatch, compass, airspeed indicator and altimeter. 3 minutes 40 seconds into the descent, the pilot made a full right turn, they searched the darkness for landmarks but cloud still obscured the ground — they continued on the new course for a further 3 minutes and made another full turn to starboard and as they broke through the cloud there were the twin silver ribbons of the river and the canal. The glider had descended from 7000 feet to 500 feet and by using the very large wing flaps had reduced the airspeed from 160 miles per hour to about 90 m.p.h.
The time was 12.15 and there immediately in front was the bridge over the canal, on the left were trees and around the bridge abutment, masses of barbed wire but the speed was much too high. The pilot shouted a warning, and everyone linked arms and lifted their feet off the floor.
Jim Wallwork struggled to keep the massive glider in the air until the exact moment, and with the aid of a parachute in the tail of the glider, speed was reduced to about 70 m.p.h. The parachute was to be used as a last resort. It was feared that the effect would be to pull the tail up and the glider would nosedive into the ground. The Horsa hit the ground, the undercarriage was ripped off, bounced, hit the ground again, and then crashed into the barbed wire.
The final impact caused the cockpit to crumple and sent the two pilots, still strapped to their seats which had broken loose, out of the glider and on to the ground inside the barbed wire. They were the first allied troops to touch French soil on “D” Day — both however were unconscious.
Jim Wallwork was later to say that it was not bravery that spurred him to land the glider so close to the bridge, but fear of being rear—rammed by Nos. 2 and 3 gliders coming in behind within 60 seconds.
Every single occupant of the Glider was knocked out by the impact. Major Howard came round — but couldn’t see, everything was black and he was sure that he had been blinded — but the crash had broken his harness and he’d hit the roof with such force that his helmet had been wedged over his eyes. As they struggled to regain consciousness, their training and fitness paid off. Each person knew the job he had to do and within minutes, they cut their way out of the wreckage, the pillboxes defending the bridge were quickly put out of action with grenades, defended trenches were cleared and Lt. Brotherton led a section across the bridge to take up a defensive position on the other side — unfortunately he was shot and killed before he could make it, but the rest carried on.
Gliders 2 and 3 landed behind the first all within 200 metres of each other. The time was 18 minutes past midnight, complete surprise had been achieved, the gliders had landed exactly where they were supposed to be.
Air Chief Marshall Leigh—Mallory called it the greatest feat of flying of World War 2.
How the other 3 Gliders fared, who were due to land on the River Bridge (later named “Horsa Bridge”) is another story but by 26 minutes past midnight, 19 minutes after the 1st Glider had cast off, both bridges had been secured, examined for explosives and firing mechanisms removed. The explosive charges which should have been in position, were found later in a store on the canal bank.
During the actual landing, 1 soldier was killed, but during the attack on the bridge, casualties began to rise rapidly and by 12.30 all the officers and senior N.C.O.s had been killed or wounded, except Major Howard. The Germans defending the bridge had been wiped out or taken prisoner.
What happened between 12.30 and the 1st relief arriving is a very long story, but by this time Pathfinder parachutists had dropped to mark out the dropping zones for the main airborne landings n much further West the same thing was happening for the landing of the United States 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions on the Cherbourg Peninsula.
Perhaps I can now tell you briefly how eventually I came to Pegasus Bridge. As I have already explained the 12th Battalion, the Devons (less 1 Company) were due to travel by sea — and so in the very early hours of “D” Day I was somewhere in the Thames Estuary having embarked on an LCI (L) at Tilbury on the evening of the 4th June and we were all bored, fed up and sea—sick.
We passed through the straits on the morning of “D” Day, and came under fire from Cape Gris Nez. We were not very concerned; large guns taking pot shots at little ships didn’t frighten us — but then a Tank Landing Ship about 500 yards astern received a direct hit, there was quite a firework display before it sank and after that we were not quite so nonchalant. However, we arrived safely at our assembly area to the South of the Isle of Wight and in the evening we had a grandstand view of the rest of the 6th Airlanding Brigade as they flew overhead on their way to their landing zone near Ranville. The Halifax Bombers and Horsa and Hamilcar Gliders made an impressive sight (260 aircraft towing 228 Horsa and 32 Hamilcars) and as we cheered them on we really were very envious, as their journey time was about one and a half hours whereas we had already been at sea for nearly 48 hours.
That night we had a great sing song until we got underway for France and then everyone tried without much success to get some sleep. The sea was choppy and many were sea—sick.
At first light we approached Sword Beach, and we began to see the debris of war everywhere.
There was isolated shelling, but no small arms fire, but we were very anxious to get off the Landing Craft and off the beach where we felt very exposed and vulnerable. We were particularly concerned about air attack — but little was seen of the German Air Force — The Royal Air Force ruled supreme.
There was quite a heavy swell and in dropping the gangways one was lost overboard and the other tilted at an alarming angle. We also discovered that the gangway did not reach bottom and in jumping off we were in about 5 feet of water one minute and out of our depth the next. It might have been alright for sailors, but we didn’t think much of it as we struggled ashore like drowned rats.
The Beach Master (a Naval Officer) was superb (true to tradition) — cool, calm, and collected, we were rapidly directed off the beach to the sand dunes, and heavily damaged bungalows and beach huts where we could find some shelter while we regrouped. The dry sand clung to our wet clothes and made movement very difficult and very uncomfortable — but we soon had other problems to occupy our minds.
Our orders were to avoid combat if possible and make for the village of Ranville as quickly as possible where we were to relieve the 12th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. After a few detours and minor skirmishes, we finally crossed Pegasus Bridge at about 4 p.m. and arrived in Ranville at 4.30 to be warmly greeted by an exhausted and sadly depleted Parachute Battalion — who were so glad to see us. I wasn’t to know at that time but our real war was about to begin.
It is important to remember this is a mere fragment of the many experiences lived through, minute by minute, by those troops who landed on “D” Day. Nearly 160,000 men landed and nearly 11,000 became casualties, killed, missing and wounded, many of the latter bear the scars to this day. By far the heaviest casualties were suffered by the Americans on Omaha Beach, and by the American and British Airborne Forces. It is for them that we commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, and to the disabled and those families who were bereaved. Time has softened the edges of fear and horror which affected the events of that day, and we are grateful for nature which blanks out the worst memories.
“D” Day itself was but the beginning of a long slog across Europe, with many battles still to come before total Victory in Europe was achieved in May 1945 —that anniversary will rightly couple celebration with commemoration.
I conclude with the words by Laurence Binyon which aptly reflect the nostalgic thoughts of most veterans:
“They went with songs to the battle
They were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted
They fell with their faces to the foe
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again
They sit no more at familiar tables of Home
They have no lot in our labour of the day—time
They sleep beyond England’s foam.”

Vince Walker — entered by Petersfield Library

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