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My D-Day: With the Royal Engineersicon for Recommended story

by Researcher Reg A Clarke

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Researcher Reg A Clarke
People in story: 
Reg A Clarke
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D-Day Normandy
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13 August 2003

My D-Day
by Reg. A. Clarke - Regimental No. 1878188
The Royal Engineers

To Begin

I was a L/Cpl with the advance party of 176 Workshop and Park Company. Royal Engineers. Our mission was to land on 'JUNO' beach in Normandy France with the 3rd Canadians Infantry Division and recce for a site to receive and store bridging equipment for the Caen Canals and any other engineer equipment which would be landing later the next day by DUKW's. We had arrived at the beaches on board the "Clan Lamont", a Cargo ship that had been quickly converted to a trooper with landing craft in the davits instead of lifeboats. We had been on board for two days, having been called back to Southampton waters on the night of the 4th of June 1944 because of bad weather.

The "Clan Lamont" was commanded by a Canadian Navy Captain Angus Campbell O.B.E. and it was crammed full of French Canadian troops, they spent most of their time on board queuing up to sharpen their commando knives on the 'one and only' grindstone in the galley and playing 'Crown and Anchor' on the mess deck, using the invasion money we had been paid. I befriended a Cpl. of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment who was running the Crown and Anchor Board and became his cashier, collecting all the cash and paying out the winnings. I stuffed all the cash in my battledress blouse for safe keeping, I still had the full blouse of money when I landed, as he said on leaving for the landing, which was before ours, that it was no good to him. A great set of guys.

I had been detailed off to be the O.C.'s bodyguard and runner for the landing. I have taken the liberty of trying to describe the scenes around me as well as the actions of others associated with the landing. I have depended and inspection of documents relating to 176 W and P Coy RE and on historical writings of others to get more details, particularly Ted Mill's book called "NAN RED" (we were together in boy service and also on the landings). I tell it how it happened.

The Landing

It was 6th June 1944, the time 0930hrs.

Our landing craft was now speeding through the black cloud of acrid smoke. Plumes of waterspouts were shooting up left; right and centre as the mortars and shells came down. I felt a sharp veer to the right probably to avoid an underwater obstacle and for the first time we heard the bark of small arms fire overhead as we came into shore very fast. The O.C. and I had now positioned ourselves to observe the beach coming into view to identify the coloured beach marker flag. Beachmasters had landed with the first wave assault carrying their colour standards. These were small flags on poles that were implanted in the sandy beach to signify its colour code (i.e. NAN RED, QUEEN WHITE, MIKE GREEN etc.)

It was very difficult to see anything now for all the sea spray and smoke. There was a terrific jarring, grating sound underneath, as though the whole bottom of the craft was being torn out. We all lurched forward with the impact. I gripped my rifle hard. The stench of spilled diesel oil and cordite stung my nose and made my eyes water. Two explosions occurred just about fifty yards to our left and water spurted up and showered down onto our craft in an absolute deluge. The assault craft surged back a bit from the beach then moved forward again, dug in and held, 'bottomed'. Crash! down went the armoured plated front and we had our first, but very brief, view of the beach. The O.C. yelled "Clarke, look for the marker flag what's its colour?" It was green! we had landed on MIKE GREEN, right off our target, we were supposed to be on NAN RED. I ran up the beach and dived for cover behind a sand dune, to my right were some of the first wave troops in the same location, I saw the Cpl. I had befriended laying in the prone position if to fire his weapon, called to him but there was no response, he was dead.

An assault craft, broadside onto the beach, lay on its side next to us. It was shattered; not a single Canadian soldier or the crew had made it. It was a bloody mess two bodies were actually hanging from the side, where they had been blown by the force of the explosion. The clothing on the lower parts of their bodies, which were badly mutilated, were missing and large streaks of red ran down the side of the assault craft to the sea where their life blood had drained away.

Obstacles were everywhere; one vicious looking pronged object with heavy explosive devices hung around the prongs was to our right. Quite a number of damaged assault craft, some on fire, were beached. There were armoured assault vehicles damaged and shattered by gunfire were lying inert, not clear of the water as the tide was still coming in.

At the uppermost part of the beach I saw firing coming from a bombed house, just beyond the formidable sea wall of concrete. A nasty wire fence just in front of the concrete wall was decorated with the sprawled bodies of about twenty Canadians; one was headless, God only knows what had hit him. But the most ironic was one young infantryman being supported by the fence in a kneeling and praying position!

The only thing in my mind now was to GO! and get to the beach. I was so tense, like a coiled spring ready to move like mad when I was told. I felt a bit numb and scared, and not ashamed to admit it.

A Beach master Major was standing right out on the open beach at the water's edge bellowing his instructions to the incoming assault through a megaphone held to his mouth. He was a very brave man ignoring his dangerous surroundings.

Short, sharp, blasts on infantry whistles. No time to think now. Out at the double into about four feet of water, just about up to my chest. I touched bottom and forced myself forward. The water seemed to be holding me back, but at last I was on the beach and running like hell for cover. The O.C. and I, being first out, were well ahead with the troop fanning out close behind. There was a large number of dead on the beach staining it red with their blood. I hurled myself down behind a sand dune by the side of a Canadian soldier, who I had met on "Clan Lamont" he appeared to me to have taken up a firing position, I spoke to him, but there was no reply, he was dead. Looking round quickly; I saw that we were a bit spread out now but I was glad to see we had suffered no casualties. All my mates were with me and my confidence returned somewhat although I was out of breath and my heart was thumping.

There was an enormous crash behind us as I felt the blast in my back. The assault craft, which had brought us in, had caught a packet even before she had had a chance to back off. Mortars had straddled her, even though she had cleared the beach, was listing badly and on fire. Peering through all the black smoke I could see that only some of the crew had survived.

Another LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) came tearing in at that moment and it had its underbelly ripped right open by an obstacle and was almost upended. It had a huge gash underneath and the troops aboard had to leave from the rear and swim for it. They must have been glad of their life jackets. There were a number of dead bodies floating at the water's edge they were being pushed out of the way by the swimmers coming in.

The heavy Naval shells continued to pass overhead and further waves of tiffies (Typhoons) roared in letting off rockets into the defences over the sea wall out of our sight. Two things are stamped on my mind forever. The first was the sound of those sixteen-inch Naval shells passing overhead continuously. But the most important and overpowering other thing, was the obnoxious stench of spilled diesel oil from the damaged armoured vehicles. The beaches, as far as the eye could see, were littered with these vehicles all with diesel in their tanks. The whole atmosphere absolutely reeked of it and to this day memories come flooding back to my mind when my nostrils detect the smell of diesel oil.

The O.C. looked concerned and well he may be. We were slightly right of our target; this was apparently when our craft had veered sharply to the right to avoid a hedgehog obstacle when approaching the shore. This was NAN GREEN beach, but glancing to my left along the beach, in the distance the blood red flag of NAN RED was flying at its standard.

The first waves in had been very gallant, storming up the beaches by sheer brute force; it had been costly to them. They had been delayed by ten minutes to allow the tide to come in further to allow their assault craft more water free board and the delay had helped the Germans no end, giving them time to cover the beaches with cross fire. Many of the casualties lying everywhere were caused by the mines sown on this stretch of beach.

The Queen's own Rifles of Canada had landed to our right with no D.D. tank support and that one company of the battalion had lost half its men, cut down in the cross fire, in only a few minutes. But they had now come to grips with the enemy and were advancing off the beach. They also landed in the wrong position; 200 yards east of, near to the strong point of Berniers and for a while were in a lot of trouble that delayed them considerably. The toughest and hardest fighting however took place on NAN RED where the Naval and air strikes were devastating and effective. The North Shores were even now fighting on the esplanade and advancing inland. However, they were not having it all their own way, the Germans were not giving an inch.

The O.C. "Charlie Wade" (his name was Cyril really) and I, after seeing all were under reasonable cover, left the party, going along the beach towards NAN RED our nominated landing beach.

As we scrambled along the beach we both kept a wary eye open for both anti-tank and anti-personnel mines or other obstacles. When, any of these were located I would mark them with the small triangular white mine markers carried by sapper N.C.O.'s.

The first waves had caught a packet, I felt dismayed and thoroughly dejected as I shifted my position to take a good look around. The beach was carnage with the dead soaking the sand red with fine Canadian blood. They had been mown down by German defensive machine gun fire as they left their assault craft. Some had managed, by the grace of God, to get over that concrete bastion in front of us and were fighting in the houses just beyond it.

Four Typhoons screamed in low letting off their rockets into the enemy positions. This gave us a lot of assurance when glancing towards the sky; we could see hundreds of our aircraft completely in control for the time being. They were easily recognisable by their white stripes on the fuselage and wing.

Our Navy was now really giving the enemy grief, the Capital ships were bombarding the coast with shells. The mortaring of the beach seemed to be getting a lot worse as the Germans hit back and we became a little uncomfortable about making a move to get off this beach.

The O.C. and I had scouted along the beach for a suitable breach in the wall, and a route inland, and had found one on "Nan Red". It was about half a mile east of our position and we would have to proceed along the beach, which at that time had not been effectively cleared of mines and was still under constant mortar and sniper fire. The O.C. sent me back down the beach to bring the section up to the breach in the wall, the party was assembled in file, and we moved off hurriedly going east along the beach, with Fred Page and Ted Mills (both ex Boys) bringing up the rear with the LMG. The Beachmaster, still out in the open, I'm sure he was glad to see us go as he was continuously urging the troops, through his loud hailer, to keep moving to make way for more troops, tanks and equipment still coming in.

Having brought them to a position near the breach in the wall and taken cover behind the sea wall an 'O' group was held whilst Sergeant Dixon, the admin Sgt., collected our 'parcel label' nametags before we left. It may seem odd, but the Army's administration must carry on, even under battle conditions. It was his task, when possible, to return these labels of the twenty-one personnel of H.Q. Troop, which formed the advance party, to GHQ 2nd Echelon, London, to show we had all disembarked with the British Liberation Army (BLA).

We saw our first French civilian shortly after this. He was standing on the Western Wall, quite a way from us out in the open ignoring all the missiles whizzing around him. He was mighty pleased to see us! However, between us was a most comprehensive set of obstacles thought up by the Germans, the same that had hampered the first assault waves who had been forced, like us, to move east along the beach to penetrate its defences. The Frenchman looked typical with his black beret and light blue overalls. He was gesticulating and shouting, I presumed, greetings to all of us and we waved back. He certainly looked elated - I wish we felt the same.

The March Inland

The O.C. quickly issued his orders and once more we left to try and locate the C. R. E. (Commander Royal Engineers) and look for a suitable site near to the village of Teilleville to use as a collection depot for the RE stores.

We climbed through breach in the sea wall and had to dive for cover as soon as we hit the road above, there were snipers about, we were told they were firing from the Church Tower in St Aubin sur Mere. We looked around and saw many more people doing the same thing, taking cover, and a number of Sappers of an Armoured Assault Squadron who had been responsible for making the breach in the wall.

We were told that if we went to our right, we could avoid the sniper fire by advancing along a single railway line link between Courselles and St. Aubin sur Mer that was shielded from the field of fire by houses, we checked it on the map, then we went that way, but we still experienced small arms fire. Diving into a ditch at the side of the railway line for cover when the fire became too hot, we found it occupied by a dead German Officer and some French people also dead; I admired the binoculars and Mauser pistol attached to the Officer's belt and was about to take them when Charlie ordered me to leave them alone, "they might be booby trapped". I remember, I was leading and Charlie Wade the O.C. was about 10 yards behind, urging me to keep an eye open for mines on the track, at every crack of rifle shot he dived to the ground an yelled at me to take cover. I also remembered that I had been told that if you hear a rifle crack then it's 'missed', so I did not keep diving to the ground. Eventually the O.C. did the same so we advanced at a much faster pace.

Our objective, I was told, was to find the CRE who was supposed to have landed before us and locate a spot for digging in for the night.

Seeing a bren-gun carrier in the middle of the field behind a haystack we approached it with caution, there were three Canadians one a young Lieutenant who was screaming and he had tears in his eyes, his men were firing a mortar to the front and towards Teilleville, 'our objective for that day'. Charlie reluctantly approached the Lieutenant and asked him if he knew where the CRE was, he exploded and turned on Charlie "who the Bloody Hell is that" and many other choice words. We took cover with them behind the carrier and found out that the Lieutenant had lost 15 of his troop and they were the only ones left. As they were getting some return fire we left them to it and proceeded back along the hedgerow towards Teilleville. Still in the lead I had to pass a gap in the hedge, and was fired on as I crossed the gap, fortunately they missed, Charlie also traversed the gap whilst I kept cover on the other side, again a shot rang out as he crossed the gap, but this time I saw the flash in a tree about fifty yards ahead. I responded instantly, firing back at the tree from behind cover, Charlie said "again Clarke", this time I took a little longer over my aim, and a body fell out of the tree, whether it was fright or he was actually hit, I do not know, but it did clear the way for us to proceed. That was my first shot in anger and I didn't even think about it, it came naturally, so all the training must have paid off.

We arrived in a copse (small wooded area) near to the Chateau Teilleville, which had not been cleared of Germans, and we started looking for a clearing where the troop could dig in for the night. Having found a suitable site the O.C. told me to get off down to the beach to bring the others up to the place we had selected, whilst he made a more detailed recce.

Return to the Beach

This wasn't as easy as it sounds, after crouching and crawling back down the road towards the landing beach, I had to stop and take cover in the ditch by the side of the road, as it was being mortared, I jumped in along side two Canadians from the North Shore Regiment who were organising some German prisoners on the road. They all seemed very young, and were lined up on the road with their hands on their heads, I was invited to help get them down to the pen on the beach; as I had to go that way I said OK. We moved them out of cover into the centre of the road, the mortaring stopped, we then marched them down to the beach and handed them over to Military Police at the pen. Interesting, one of the prisoners at the rear and near to me turned and smiled, he said in good English, "I go to England to drink your beer and you stay here and fight the battle".

Having got down to the beach I now had to find the rest of the advanced party to lead them back the way I had just come. Remember, I wasn't travelling light, I had full pack and rolled blanket bound to the pack with ammunition, rifle and packed rations also on my back, I was sweating somewhat. I eventually found the rest, more or less where we had left them but dug in a little more deeply. After a de-brief by Lt. Hingley and the Sergeant Major, they were eager to get away from the beach.

The Second March Inland

I was once more on the move, in the lead, on the road to Teilleville, 'follow me men!!!', thank god the sniper in the church had been disposed of and we could use the road through St. Aubin sur Mer rather than going along the railway line again. The advance along the road was uneventful, most of the resistance had been silenced, it was now just after midday.

We arrived at the wood where the O.C. had been lying in cover waiting for us, he immediately ordered everyone to take cover and start digging, sentries were posted at the perimeter of the site and we started to feel a little surer of the situation and the usual banter started. We suffered a few emergencies with in-coming fire, from where, we never found out, but we suspected that it was friendly fire from 48 Commando who had to clear the Chateaux at Teilleville 120yds up the road.

Having settled in to rest, eat some battle rations and await the arrival of stores from the beach ready for the ongoing assault, 'some wishful thinking', a dispatch rider arrived with urgent message for us to return to the beach area as an assault by panzers was imminent from the East, the part of the beach assault where we had landed, Juno, had not joined with Sword beach so there was a undefended path to the beach for the Germans.

A Second Return to the Beach

So I was up once again to retrace my steps back to St Aubin for the second time in a day, this time I was accompanied by the whole of the advance party, it was more comforting to have some company, I could rest from the high alertness of guiding the troop, thank God someone else was ordered to scout ahead. We were once again in the front defending the beach against Panzers, what we were going to do when they arrived I will never know, thankfully they did not arrive at our part of the beach.

When we arrived back at the beach we were ordered to dig in once again and standby. After lookouts had been positioned in front of our position from where we expected the Germans to come, I was so shattered; I decided to flop down under the nearest hedgerow, I pulled my gas cape over my head and tried to sleep. I had travelled that road to Teilleville four times that D—Day, in full kit, weapons with extras strapped to my pack, no way could I face the prospect of having to wield a shovel to dig in again. And I was supposed to be battle fit! After all the training we had had. I was thankful for some good mates they did all the work whilst I rested.

I managed to get some fitful sleep but it was more like rest from exhaustion, often being disturbed by gunfire from the Navy and exploding shells from an ammunition dump, which was on fire nearby. I survived the night, at the breaking of dawn I was prodded awake by the Sergeant Major giving me a kick in the backside and a ballocking for not having dug in as ordered, he did however tell me to get my mess tin out and he filled it with steaming hot tea. Within ten minutes we were once again on the move up the same bloody road to Teilleville that I had traversed many times before.

Praise be

I had survived D-Day, and vowed that I would never again march on my feet with all my gear on my back, this is not what Sappers do, the very next day Freddie Page, another ex-boy, and I relieved a group of German soldiers of their 'Opel' car as they were trying to retreat (get away) and it became our transport for the next few weeks. That is another story which needs telling, one day!

Things you remember and many you forget, others may be exaggerated, but these are the things that stand out in my memory of D-Day.

Appendix 1 (My D-Day)

Composition of H.Q. Troop 176 Workshop and Park Coy Royal Engineers and Advanced Park Troops who landed on 6th June 1944:
H.Q. Troop (Nan Red)
O.C. Major C. T Wade R. E
Troop OFF Lt. C.E. Hingley R.E
C.S.M. WO. 11 Saxton R.E
CQMS S/Sgt. J. Nicole R.E.
Troop Sgt Sgt. C.W Lester R.E
Ord.Rm Serjeant L/Sgt. G.E. Dixon R.E
Cpl, D. Tromans R.E.
Cpl. J.R. Lambert R.E.
L/Cpl. R.A. Clarke RE
Sapper J. Cook
Sapper H.P Allerton
Sapper J. Eldridge
Sapper G. W Dale
Sapper O. W Humphreys
Sapper E Hill
Sapper EH. Page
Sapper E.L. Mills
Sapper E Warren
Sapper H.V Parker
Private E.A, Motley ACC
Driver B.C. Warren
1 Advanced Park Troop (Part) 2 Advanced Park Troop (Part)
Lt. S.C. Goolden R,E Lt. A. Roberts R.E.
L/Cpl. TR. Dick R.E S/Sgt. Beal R.E
Sapper H.L. Allingham Cpl. A. Penny R.E
Driver D. McGrant Sapper W Robertson

176 W and P Coy RE Total Formation (most landed on D+1 and 2) HQ Troop
1 Advanced Park Troop
2 Advanced Park Troop
3 Advanced Park Troop
4 Aadvanced park troop
1 Workshop troop (mobile)
M.T REME Element Troop

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