- Contributed by
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- Paul Riley
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- 22 March 2004
Recollections of Dr Paul Riley, a retired GP and former captain in the RAMC, as told to his son.
Operation 'Overlord' postponed
On 4 June 1944, just over four years after escaping from Dunkirk, I moved from our camp near Droxford to Portsmouth. I was now a captain in the RAMC. We were marching towards our landing craft at Stokes Bay when I was disappointed to be told that Operation 'Overlord' had been postponed.
We were shut in at a local school where we spent the night. On 5 June we finally made our way to our landing craft and sailed for France in the evening with the plan to land at Sword Beach the next day. There was no room for sleeping, so I played bridge with three other officers all night. On the boat I had about 20 of my company of the 9th Field ambulance with me along with the HQ Company and CO of the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB). We beached at about midday. We had practised this many times before, always getting very wet, but for the first time ever it was a dry landing. The beach was under heavy shell fire and I saw many dead soldiers and damaged landing craft.
First off the boat was the KOSB piper, lustily playing his bagpipes, which must have scared the Germans. I followed shortly with my men, who had been issued with folding bicycles. These were rather unpopular and some people had threatened to throw them overboard, but this didn’t happen. I had a heavy pack on my back and an ordinary bicycle laden with a lot of medical equipment; it wasn’t the easiest thing to push across the sand.
We hastily got off the beach into Lion-sur-Mer and then our job was to cycle into Caen, but sadly we were held up by confusion as 9th Brigade HQ was wiped out by enemy fire and Brigadier Cunningham badly wounded. This was followed by the advance to the coast between us and the Canadians by the 21st Panzer Division, so our move to Caen was halted.
During the evening hundreds of planes came in, towing gliders and dropping ammo' and other supplies. Sadly, they were routed over our ships, which were being attacked by German planes, so some of our planes were shot down by mistake.
I and my men spent the night searching the area where the Norfolk regiment had suffered 150 casualties from a German strongpoint called Hillman, which was not captured until the next day. In a cornfield, we found a few wounded who had not been found earlier.
In the morning of 7 June my jeep and motorcycle arrived, and I rejoined the KOSB. They were advancing towards Anisy where the 21st Panzer Regiment were located. We soon cleared the town. I was very concerned that no provision had been made for dealing with wounded civilians during the invasion and I made a point of looking out for them. In Anisy I found a 15-year-old girl in one of the houses who had lost most of her left arm. I bandaged her up, not helped by a KOSB soldier firing through the window. Luckily he missed us.
Madeleine, a very brave girl, and her parents asked me what I could do. She needed hospital treatment but the nearest hospital was in Caen and still in German hands. In those days I could speak very good French and I said I thought I could get her to England.
They agreed and my driver and I loaded her on the jeep, which had room for two stretchers. We then set off to the coast. Madeleine told me that she knew the best route, via Plumetot, so we followed her instructions. As we got near Plumetot the road was being heavily shelled by both sides, and I realised that we had crossed the allied lines and were now in no-man's-land.
Surviving German-held territory
We drove into the town, which appeared to be deserted but was being shelled (probably by our 25 pounders). We had probably now crossed over into German-held territory. Leaving the town going round a corner I saw a German staff car parked on the road with a German officer sitting in the passenger seat apparently looking at his map. It seemed very odd. He must have heard us, but was sitting quite still in the car. We parked the jeep and I got out and walked up to the car, only to find that he was dead, but still sitting quite upright. I thought it would be a good idea to bring the dead officer and his maps back with us, but I needed to work out a way to get back across the German lines into no-man's-land and back to allied territory without being shot by the Germans or our own side.
I then realised what to do: I climbed into the German car next to the dead officer but found that it wouldn’t start. Luckily we had a tow rope. My driver with Madeleine in the jeep led the way, towing the German car. I sat beside the German captain, who from a short distance still looked alive, and I steered his car. Shortly before we reached the coast I met our front line, greatly to the surprise of the British Officer in Command who was wondering what to do with a British jeep towing a German staff car being steered by a British officer with a German officer sitting next to him! The Germans must have been equally confused and they also didn’t fire at us.
Promise of evacuation
We reached the coast and found Captain Stevenson of the 9th Field Ambulance and he promised me that he would evacuate Madeleine to England.
The German car and officer were left, and my driver and I rejoined the KOSB. They were in a wood near Cambes, which was being heavily mortared, the shells bursting in the trees causing casualties. It wasn’t helped by one of our tanks thinking we were the enemy. Later on, the 7th Divisional Commander General Rennie (sadly killed while crossing the Rhine) sent for me to thank me for bringing in the maps and reporting that Plumetot was clear of Germans. A KOSB motor-cyclist also told me that he had met and killed the German officer and his driver, who was lying in a ditch at the side of the road unnoticed by me.
In the evening the RVR attacked towards Combes with tanks but failed mainly because our tanks blew up at once after being hit by German 88 guns. After dark my driver and I went out but were only able to find one wounded man. The next day, 8 June, after three nights of no sleep, I was relieved and slept for 24 hours, non-stop.
My driver was excellent and I put him up for decoration and he received the Military Medal.
Madeleine reached England and was fitted with an artificial arm and was sent to a school in the Lake District until it was safe for her to return to France. I later moved on through Holland and Germany, finishing the war in Luebeck on the Baltic coast.
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