- Contributed by
- Eric Patience
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 October 2003
I joined the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade, part of the 11th Armoured Division, in May 1942. After training for over a year, I expected to be sent to the Middle East to support Monty’s 8th Army. Instead, the 11th Armoured Division was kept back for the invasion of Normandy. In this excerpt, I describe my part in the D-Day landings on Juno Beach when I was wounded in action.
We were on our way — but little did we all know that we were to go through parts of London where we lived. One of my mates, who joined up with me and who was our piano player, saw his mum in Leytonstone. We all looked a sorry sight by now because the fumes of the engines were coming into our vehicles, making us look as if we were crying. We came down the A12 through Wanstead, Gants Hill and Whalebone Lane, and then there I was, passing the fields that, as a kid, I used to play on. I could see the ponds that we used to fish for newts and tadpoles.
Next came Mawney Road roundabout, only a few yards from home. I could see the barber shop where my brother George and I used to have our hair cut, and then there was the Marlborough Arms with the fish and chip shop next door. To my surprise, I saw my sister Kath standing by the post box only a few yards away. I am sorry to say that she didn't see me - maybe it was for the best though. We then passed North Street, Pettits Lane, Gallows Corner and all of a sudden it was gone.
I remember thinking to myself 'Will I ever see this again? Maybe I will or maybe I won't.' One thing we all knew was that a lot of us would not be coming home.
Tilbury was our port. We went along the A128, where today I still travel to see my eldest son, Stephen. We arrived just outside Tilbury and stayed in a transit camp for the night while our vehicles were loaded onto the ships. We were really annoyed that the dockers were on strike and refused to load our transport. Our own engineers and the ship's cranes had to do the job. The names we called those dockers… well they are unrepeatable. As we went to board the ships the people of Tilbury lined the streets to bid us farewell. They did all right because we threw all our spare change to the children. The ship, an old yankee ship called Samsit, was really dirty. We didn't know what it had been used for before, but the holds stank of all sorts. We had hammocks to sleep in and it was also the start of many months of not removing our clothes.
Seeing Action in Normandy
We woke next morning to find we were on the move. We were not allowed on deck but by standing on ladders we were able to look out and we could see the huge convoy of ships being escorted by the Royal Navy destroyers. We sailed through the Straits of Dover and laid off the Isle of Wight to wait for the arrival of more ships from the south coast. We were told these ships held the rest of our Division. We were soon on our way again.
When we dropped anchor off the Normandy beaches we were at last allowed out of the hold onto the deck. The fresh air did us all good. I will never forget the next thing we saw - it was unbelievable. There were hundreds of landing craft, large transporters, large and small warships. I have never seen so many boats. The landing craft were buzzing around like hornets carrying troops and supplies to the beach. The warships, including HMS Warspite, a 15-inch battleship, were sending salvo after salvo of shells inland.
All of a sudden it was our turn to go over the side. First our half tracks and bren gun carriers were lowered into the landing, craft followed by their crews. The scramble nets were then slung over the side then we had to go down the nets with all our gear on our back and our rifles around our necks. The little landing craft were rising and falling with the swell and I remember thinking 'One slip, old son, and it's goodbye life', but I'm glad to say we all made it. Once we were all into the landing craft we were heading for the beach, about six hundred yards away. We landed on Juno beach.
The first thing we did was to remove the water proofing from the engines. Then we made contact with the rest of our Battalion. I remember the terrible smell - the stench of cordite burning buildings but most of all the stench of dead animals, hundreds of them laying dead on their backs. It was a hot day and the smell was terrible - never have I seen such terrible slaughter of animals. I felt sick. We pulled into an orchard to rest for a few hours and have a meal as we hadn't eaten since we left Tilbury. We had a chance to write home and we here able to have a church service. I remember that the apples on the trees looked really inviting so I tried one. Ugh, they were cider apples - should have guessed.
Next day saw us in action amongst the villages and farm houses around the big air base just outside Caen. There were quite a few machine gun nests to deal with. If anyone had told me years earlier that I would be taking part in the greatest invasion this world had seen I would have laughed, but there I was - just goes to show that you can never foresee the future. We were in action all along the front line and sadly we were slowly losing our men, sometimes having to bury some of our mates where they fell. The Germans fought hard and gave us a hard time. What would have happened if we had been defeated in that bridgehead and been driven back into the sea?
Capturing Bridges Across the Oder and Oden Rivers
On or about three weeks after D-Day we, that’s the 11th Armoured Division plus two infantry divisions, were given orders to capture bridges across the Oder and Oden rivers. There was to be a heavy artillery barrage of over a thousand guns, this was Monty's trademark just like El Alamein a couple of years before. The noise was very loud and we had no ear protection. The guns started in the early morning and the noise was shattering - it went on and on and seemed like hours. Please don't ask how I felt as we waited for the order to move forward because I could not tell you. All I did know was that I was glad I was not on the receiving end of this barrage.
As we moved forward so did the shells (this is called a creeping barrage). The infantry divisions went first and at last the barrage stopped. As it did, out came the Germans from the cellars in the villages and from their holes in the ground. They were shaken but still ready to fight. We managed to capture the bridges across the rivers but with heavy loss, although the Germans lost more and we took prisoners of all ages, some only 15 or 16 years old. We soon learnt not to trust them or turn our back on them.
More and more animals were being killed. Towns and villages were being destroyed and hundreds of men were being killed or wounded but we still had to carry on. We had to eat and sleep when we could, washing was a thing of the past and eating was rare. Every section, which consisted of nine men, had its own rations. We had to cook and eat when we could. By now I had been in action for about three weeks and at no time had any of us taken off our clothes or eaten a decent meal.
We lost a lot of our tanks to anti-tank guns, one being the 88mm. We used Sherman tanks, which were called Tommy Cookers because, fuelled by petrol, they would blow up after being hit, killing the crew inside. Sometimes they were able to get out and sometimes they were killed or wounded — if a crew member was wounded and couldn't get out, their screams were terrible and really terrible to listen to, knowing we couldn't do anything to help. I remember another terrible event - one of our carriers hit a mine and the driver lost both his legs. It was terrible but thankfully over quickly. We buried him in his carrier, which was a wreck. He was only 21.
We also had two brothers in our company. The elder one was badly wounded and sent back via the mobile hospital. He was put on a landing craft which was to carry him and the other wounded soldiers to the hospital ship laying off shore. We later heard that the landing craft hit a mine and no one survived. The younger brother was devastated but he had to go on. I'm pleased to say that I met him last year and we had our photo taken together.
Surviving Hill 112
The city of Caen was being bombed and shelled all the time but the Germans still fought on. We came across Hill 112 (this later became famous). We had to take this hill and we did twice but lost it both times. The third time we held it and the villages below it. It was hell in one village called Gavrus - we took it but there were machine gun nests at one end that we had to capture. We lost one officer by the name of Lane. His family was a well known jockey family from Newmarket. We also lost our platoon Sgt., and plenty of others were wounded.
My section under Cpl. Peter Bisset was told to attack across a field. We got within about a hundred yards when we were spotted. The Spandau, which could file about a thousand rounds a minute, opened up and Peter who was next about 6 yards away, just dropped down on his face. I knew he was dead. I myself hit the ground and lay there for a few minutes. I looked around and realized that I was alone apart from Peter. If I moved they would get me, but I couldn't stay there.
There was a ditch either side of me about 25 yards away that's where the other lads had gone. I remember choosing the ditch on my left. I gathered my thoughts and moved as fast as I could. I got up and ran. The machine guns were behind me and to my right. I was, as far as I can recall, about half way when they opened fire on me. The bullets went over my shoulders one went through the side of my beret, then there was a burst about the size of a tennis ball which hit the hedge in front of me. I landed in the ditch and lay still for a while. Someone then spoke to me, it was Butch, our Lance Cpl. He asked if I was all right and I was, but just a few seconds later there was a huge explosion on the edge of the ditch and just above my head. It was a mortar bomb. Three times I had been close to death in a very short time and to this day I still believe that I should have died in that field near the village of Gavrus.
After the bomb went off I turned around to see if Butch was OK and all I saw was Butch staring at me with his mouth wide open. I think he thought I'd had it. My back was killing me and I had a piece of shrapnel about 2 inches long in my neck and I had to get back to the medical tent. Next thing I knew I was being flown back to England with some other lads who had also been injured. We landed at Swindon's Air Force base and after we had been given a meal we were put on a hospital train. It was the early hours of the morning but I had no idea of the day or date.
Half of us went to a hospital in Birmingham and the other half to a hospital in Wolverhampton. I remember being put to bed by some lovely nurses and Red Cross workers. I had nothing, only the dirty clothes I was in and I hadn't washed for days - I must have looked a right sight and I know I felt it. I woke up, which seemed like hours later, to find two nurses giving me a blanket bath - never had I had one of those before! When they saw I was awake they said 'Hello! How are you feeling?' All I could say was that I was so sorry for the trouble I was putting them to and I was sorry I was so dirty. They didn't mind one bit - they just smiled and said that they were only too pleased to help me. They were wonderful. I will always remember one. Her name was Staff Nurse White but I used to call her Chalky. She was usually our Staff Nurse on nights and if I couldn't sleep and she saw me she would always come and talk to me. Lovely Chalky was only about my age.
My first visitors were from the Salvation Army. They asked us if there was anything we needed and within hours we had cigarettes, matches, writing paper and stamps. They also brought us fruit and sweets. Lovely people. We also had young girls from the WVS come in to see if they could help us and to talk to us and make sure we were OK. They used to bring us newspapers and books. A couple of the girls took to me and my mate from the Middlesex Regt. I would really love to meet them again just to say thank you for everything they did, but we were discharged before we had a chance to say our farewells.
My sister-in-law, Mary, and her sister came to see us three or four times. I had written to Mary and to my family at home. They were the first letters I'd written since leaving England. It was lovely to see Mary and heir sister, Kate. Mary also told my ex-girlfriend where I was and what had happened and it was a nice surprise when she came to visit. I had X-rays of my back and they had to remove small fragments of metal and also the shrapnel from my neck.
We went out into town one day and what a welcome we got. We didn't have to pay for anything, not even the haircuts that we went out for. I will always remember walking along the road looking for the barber shop when a middle aged lady suddenly came across the road and gave us two shillings. All she said was 'God Bless!' and she was gone before we could even say thank you. Lovely people in that part of the country.
We were both discharged after a month in hospital and my mate returned to his Regt. and I had to report to the training battalion in Nottingham. When I arrived I met about six of my mates and one of my platoon sergeants. We were given new gear and had orders to report to a transit camp near Southampton.
I returned to the front line and went on to see action in France, Belgium, Holland, the Ardennes and Germany and participated in the liberation of Belsen. I was demobbed in September 1946.
Rifleman Eric Patience 6923784, The Rifle Brigade 1941- 46
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.