- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Walter Scott
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- Contributed on:
- 26 June 2004
This account was written by my father, who adds: “And I still don’t like bikes!”
BICYCLES AND BANDAGES: ONE MAN'S D-DAY
by WALTER SCOTT, RAMC
I had been sleeping on a duckboard next to a tank, which when I first saw it was threatening to break loose and finish my war.
Beside me was a collapsible bicycle, its panniers full of medical supplies. I hated bikes (that’s another story) and told my superiors so, but they did not believe me.
Dawn had just broken but I was instantly awake. As far as the eye could see the Channel was full of ships, and they were not quiet. The noise was tremendous as the navy blasted the German defences on the coast of France. I was not then afraid — after all, they were on our side. Fear would come later. I knew that history was being made and I was part of it.
It was about 5am on June 6th 1944. Goodness knew what the day would bring.
I was born in December 1915, so was nicely aged for service in the Second World War as Private 7383985 Scott. An audit clerk in civilian life, I did object to His Majesty about being called up in July 1940, but he would have none of it. We compromised on the RAMC. It turned out to be for over five years, but I can think of nothing else but ‘D’ day.
After four years of being moved about the country drilling and polishing kit, I had eventually ended up in a camp in Newhaven, handy for the docks. The whole army was there - we could guess why. We played football and had visits from entertainers, including Jack Warner (later “Dixon of Dock Green”). Other entertainers told some of the bluest jokes I’d ever heard. When they’d finished a Salvation Army cornetist got up and played “Silent Night”. There was a moment’s silence, then the hall exploded into thunderous applause. That was what we wanted to send us off. We were about to risk our lives; we were worth more than blue jokes, and we knew it.
In late May of 1944 the camp was sealed, no-one allowed in or out. We all knew the invasion was on. We were assembled and told to memorise maps and photographs of the Normandy coast, displayed in a nissen hut, showing our landing and assembly points in case we were split up. I took very good care to memorise them — I knew my life might depend on it.
Then, on June 3rd, we were taken to the docks. The local population waved to us from inside their houses, but we were not allowed to talk to them. We were issued with 48-hour ration packs, including 50 cigarettes and some chocolate. A non-smoker, I traded my cigs for more chocolate and did rather well. I can’t remember what else was in the packs but the armed forces always got the best of whatever food there was. Getting time to eat it was another matter.
But there was a holdup. The weather was too rough to sail, so we were taken ashore again and given showers and meals. Then, on the evening of June 5th, we finally sailed under cover of darkness.
Our craft was a small boat with one tank. Our Field Ambulance was split up, with the 150 men spread all over the 223 Infantry Brigade 3rd Division. We were to be held in reserve.
We slowly moved ahead. I noticed one or two sunken craft and then my first sight of France and Sword beach. It was about 10.30 am. The front of the boat went down and I walked out with my bike onto dry land. I had never been abroad in my life before — this was not to be the last time by a long way, but I didn’t know that then.
Several bodies lay about but nothing like the numbers I had expected. Another thought came into my mind: “This is not right; something’s wrong”. I can date the first ‘D’ Day change in my life to the sight. From being a Christian, I started to think, and to doubt.
But not for a while. I had to get my bike up to my unit’s meeting place on the promenade. The bike proved horribly awkward. Eventually it packed up altogether and fell over, blocking the progress of the tank which was disembarking behind me. The Beachmaster exploded — his language consisted of F…. s and B.… s. But getting out of the tank’s way meant crossing the blue tapes which marked the cleared path through a minefield, and I was not having that! He wanted his tank off; I wanted my life. Then a tank chappie (bless all tank men) jumped down, picked up the bike and threw it — and me — on top of the tank. So we drove up to the promenade.
Meanwhile the war carried on: dog-fights above us, shelling around us, and small arms fire at the bike.
On the prom a few of my comrades in arms awaited. I thanked the crew of my new-found transport profusely and wished them luck as they went on their way. I like to think they survived — but Caen awaited them.
My colleagues set about trying to repair the bike - which was now immobile with one wheel seized up completely - but each had a different solution. Suddenly there was a “whoosh” and instantly we all dropped to the ground. A couple of seconds or so later, we sheepishly rose — the “shell” had been the sound of somebody letting a tyre down. At the same time the call came to move off — which my comrades had to do, leaving me with a bike with one wheel now separated from it. I didn’t hang about but put the packs of medical supplies on my back, and lifting up the bike on one wheel, joined the convoy — who, as they passed me struggling along, must have thought the wheel had been shot off. Their comments showed they had not lost their sense of humour. But lo and behold, another tank gave me (and my bike) a lift and life was a lot easier — for a while.
Very glad I’d memorised the maps, I arrived at the spot where our ‘B’ Company was to set up an Advance Dressing Station. The map folk had done a marvellous job, everything accurate. I decided that enough was enough so I dumped the bike and, carrying the medical supplies, proceeded to our HQ. I went to report to the C.O. “Where’s the bike?” the Major asked — and on hearing my reply, snapped: “You’re on a court martial!” “Don’t be daft!” I replied — then froze, having visions of being shot. But he never mentioned it again, and I certainly didn’t.
We started to dig trenches. After a couple of inches I struck rock. Just my luck. Others were more fortunate and capable.
Our company was supposed to be in reserve, but odd casualties wandered in, if they could. Our first was a German R.S.M. who almost demanded a cigarette. He got it. Then a loaded stretcher with a badly wounded Jerry. Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose as shells exploded all around us. The stretcher was dropped, the bearers leaped into the trenches. I jumped out of the “digs” and dropped my helmet over the casualty’s head. “What the hell did you do that for?” was my comrades’ reaction. “He’s only a Jerry.” Which made me think later — it was not bravery but instant reaction. Bravery is going forward into battle, knowing somebody will be killed. I have always had quick reactions, but brave — not really.
Casualties were coming in fast now so the O.C. decided to open our A.D.S. a short distance away, with the stirring call of “Get the Red Cross out!” It was always the first thing we did at every location, and I can never recall it being violated by either side.
I just could not believe I was in France, and at war. Did the folk back home know where we were, I wondered. French folk from a local farm gave us drinks. They seemed relieved and pleased to see us but not wildly excited.
We at H.Q. had moved on to a new location 300 yards away. Our ‘B’ Company had gone up the line and set up a dressing station and had our first casualty of “friendly fire” when a British tank came through a hedge and killed a doctor. I never knew him; he had just been posted to us. There was a lot more action at the new H.Q. The constant rattle of machine guns, dogfights in the air and we could actually see the shells from the warships going steadily overhead in the direction of Caen. In the middle of all this, we heard the dramatic six o’clock radio news revealing the invasion to the folk back home. The French seemed most unconcerned and some were having a picnic in a nearby field. But the casualties came rolling in.
My job was Orderly Room Corporal, but our orderly room was now a tent. Doctors came and went, the O.C. did likewise trying to keep up with the state of things on the medical front. The routine was that casualties were brought into the Advance Dressing Stations manned by ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies, then the severely wounded were sent to us at H.Q. The job of the orderlies was to collect name, rank and serial number from our casualties, but ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies usually did this and passed on the details via a note pinned to the stretcher. We had to fill in a lengthy army form before passing the casualties for treatment, but I told the men under me to just write down name, rank, serial number and nature of injury, in order to process them more quickly, and nobody complained. For quite a lot of the time I was on the field telephone, passing messages between various units and orders from GHQ.
As the day drew on the shelling eased off a bit and the O.C. said some of us could get down for an hour’s sleep, being relieved by mates.
So my first day was over and I had survived, but many others had died. Other days lay ahead and memories stand out: our sleeping tent being shredded by shrapnel, fortunately when we were not in it; driving through the ruins of Caen with not a building left standing; hitching a lift up the line to visit my brother Ben, who was in a gun battery. Ten minutes’ talk with him then I had to go back. The line of dead outside the hospital tent in Belgium and the local priest who blessed only the two Catholics among them, until our C.O. threatened to tear him apart unless he did all of them. Dead animals lining the roads and a cow which gave birth at the roadside. Making camp in a muddy German field and the farmer’s wife crying as we dragged her furniture from the house and smashed it up for hard standing for the lorries. But all that was to come.
In any case, my life would never be the same again. Many things would change in my life, both here and back home — but for now there was a job to be done.
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