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- J.E. Davies
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- 25 July 2005
It was July 17th when we entered the cavernous belly of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the FAP (Forward Aid Post) half-track driven by Piper Laurie, along with a half-track crewed by Jimmy Hill and Hammy Kerr, two of the battalion fitters. I had recently arrived at the battalion from the Training Wing and not as yet been crewed, so I was travelling as a passenger. We were confined to our vehicles until we sailed and as soon as we cast off, I was off up to the deck like a shot, full of the spirit of adventure.
An awe-inspiring sight greeted me, for in all directions ships of all shapes and sizes steamed in convoy heading for the French coast. Many had barrage balloons tethered above that soared skywards, then dropped out of sight as the flat bottomed LST rolled and pitched over the waves. Soon the gyrating motion took its toll and an epidemic of seasickness broke out that even affected some of the ship's crew.
Because of this, a few of us with sturdier stomachs downed a huge breakfast of unwanted sausages, fried potatoes and baked beans, but I paid for it by being grabbed for fatigues in the galley. At a sink full of greasy cooking trays from breakfast I braced myself against the ship's motion, rolled up my sleeves and turned on what I thought was the hot water tap. But it was the cold and as I watched melted fat in the trays congeal to a white greasy slime, queasiness arose that developed into the feeling of having been kicked in the stomach by a mule. I rushed up on deck and joined others at the rails to dispose of my mammoth breakfast in large chunks.
It was late at night when we beached and with great relief drove down the ramp ashore, and we all felt so ill that if there had been just one solitary German soldier in sight, we would all have surrendered to him without a fight.
However, a few hours sleep restored rude health and I awoke to find the Echelon due to limited space, sharing a field with Bren gun carriers and transport of an infantry regiment. The weather was hot and I was elated at being on foreign soil with a wad of Liberation francs to prove it, plus the bonus of free issue cigarettes into the indefinable future. For the first time in my life money was of no consequence, and I felt like wealthy tourist.
Having no immediate superior to rein me in, I decided to explore my surroundings. Circular holes dug close to the hedges caught my attention, and was told these were German weapon pits. The next field was a charnel house of dead cattle and sheep, and a few adjacent fields around it were a graveyard for scores of burnt out Sherman tanks with neat holes surgically drilled through their scorched hides. I looked down the hatches of a few, and on the turret floor of one was a mound of molten stuff that puzzled me. However looking at it from a different angle, I was able to make out the shape of two fire black skulls and ribs partially covered by charred clothing. The burial parties had missed these two, but not for a single moment did it occur to me that this could be my fate. I just hoped that the AP (Armour Piercing) rounds that hit them had killed them outright, and not the fire.
I thought I'd take a look at the front line, which in my imagination would be vintage WW1 with trenches, shell holes and barbed wire. I passed a line of infantry lying in a ditch who eyed me with curiosity, and came to a pasture on a small hill on whose flank lay a dead Coldstream Guardsman. Near him a more mature Coldstreamer was digging a grave. I recognised his type, a long serving soldier with no promotional prospects nor home or family other than the army, performing his 'dug in job' of Dan Dan the sanitary man. He dug his unit's latrine pits when in harbour and graves for KIA's (killed in action). Every battalion had a Dan.
I looked at the dead Coalie; he was sprawled on his back with arms flung out and knees slightly bent, his webbing straps biting into him as his corpse distended under the hot sun.
His chin was missing and a beard of blowflies buzzed there instead, his upper teeth startling white against the busy dark background. Dan the sanitary man paused in his labours to watch me go by, removing his steel helmet to wipe the sweat off his brow. We nodded to each other without speaking, as a customary comment about the weather seemed inappropriate here. Over the crest I came face to face with a German 88mm AA gun, its long barrel levelled in the anti-tank mode. The gunner sat on his seat with eyes to the sights and a smile on his face, as dead as a doornail. Whatever he had seen through his sights that had given him pleasure wasn't there any more. I looked around at the unspoilt countryside shimmering in the heat, and instinct told me I was probably standing in what could be perceived as No Man's Land.
I retraced my steps in wonder at the peaceful nature of war. No shots, no shells, no bombs, no bullets, just the humming of bees and the twitter of birds going about their business. Dan's hole was now about 3 foot deep and adequate for a temporary grave, and again he paused in his labours to watch me as I drew near. I felt he was going to ask for help in burying the Coalie and on glancing at the corpse, it looked more swollen than ever. My thoughts were it wouldn't fit in but Dan didn't ask for any help, so I offered none and went on my way.
Back at the field I found I hadn't been missed, so I dined on the 24-hour pack of dehydrated food I'd been issued with. I didn't bother to reconstitute the dried blocks of oatmeal and minced meat, but crunched them like biscuits and washed them down with water. And was reclining for a nap whilst belching a storm as my stomach filled with wind and struggling to cope with this latest assault, when three sharp cracks jerked me to a sitting position. Looking around I could see men scrambling for cover but I knew not what from. Another three cracks and the sound of objects hitting the ground around me caused me to look up. Directly overhead were three ugly black clouds. Christ Almighty! Airbursts!
I was up in a flash and dived for cover under a nearby Bren gun carrier. The airbursts must have been ranging shots as mortar bombs and artillery shells shrieked down on the field sending shrapnel flying in all directions. I was instantly scared and appealed to God that if He got me out of this alive, there would be no more disbelieving in Him from me as I was now a fervent convert. His answer came in a salvo of near misses that rocked the carrier and something hit the backs of my legs like a cricket bat wielded by Don Bradman.
The bombardment eased off and the 'Old Bill' syndrome got under way. This was superbly illustrated in a WW1 cartoon by Bruce Bairnsfather, depicting Old Bill taking his clay pipe out of his mouth to advise his young companion who is terrified by the close proximity of shells falling around their dug-out, with. 'Well if you knows of a better 'ole - go to it!'
It was like watching musical chairs as figures popped in and out of holes or traded places under different vehicles. I thought after such a concentration of ground fire that a hole would be safer and headed for a weapon pit being vacated by an unsatisfied tenant. As I dived in, I saw Jimmy Hill skid under my carrier and wondered if I'd done the right thing in forsaking overhead cover. My former refuge suddenly became a highly desirable habitat and I was on the point of rushing back to reclaim it and join Jimmy, when the stonk resumed its former fury and I curled up at the bottom of my inadequate hole and prayed once again for deliverance.
When it finally ended the silence was deafening. I popped up for a look and saw smoke rising from the carrier from a round landing in it, the blast punching through the thin steel floor and killing Jimmy Hill. Around the field vehicles billowed black smoke and cries for help from casualties began to be heard. Hammy Kerr came steaming up asking if I'd seen his pal, I pointed to the carrier and he ran over and bent to look, and was distraught with what he saw. 'Ah telt him tae stay put,' he wailed, 'but he wudna listen.'
I helped Hammy to carry Hill's body to the FAP half-track, where attention was drawn to the bloody state of the backs of my legs. I twisted around to look, and suddenly they hurt.
Whilst the Captain MacKnight the Medical Office attended to the more seriously wounded, I stood with dropped trousers in front of the Medical Sergeant who, seated on a camp stool, gouged bits of metal out of my legs with cruel tweezers. 'Lucky you've no bone damage,' he said. 'Or you'd be off to back Blighty along with this lot.' Nodding towards a half a dozen stretchers containing wan faced but contented casualties who had evacuation labels tied to them, their tickets home and an extension to life.
I thought how convenient it must be to experience just a taste of war, then end it with a non-incapacitating wound as a memento of having seen action. This had had happened to my elder brother Arthur in another field somewhere close by. He was serving with a Light AA unit and his war ended manning twin Bofors AA guns in a duel with a strafing German fighter, and the fighter had won. A cannon shell ripped most of the muscle out of his upper right arm and his body was riddled with shrapnel, which popped out of out of his skin for many years after. But luckily being naturally left handed, he was still able to earn a living after being medically discharged as unfit for further service.
We buried Jimmy Hill's body in the corner of the field and the padre said a prayer, and Piper Laurie played a lament. As I helped to lower the limp blanket shrouded body down into the grave, I wondered where that spark of energy of his we call the soul had fled? Did it linger close to the husk of its recent host, or make its way to an assembly point for onward transit to God knows where. Daft thoughts!
I had been under a false impression that first day ashore about the peaceful atmosphere. The reason being we'd arrived in the wake of a terrific battle to break out of the steel ring around the beachhead, which had caused terrible casualties on both sides and in a moment of calm, both sides had been busily regrouping. Things hotted up as the Luftwaffe resumed bombing and strafing that in this confined area, every ball won a prize. The RAF launched a 500-plane raid and followed up with swarms of Typhoons to hammer the howling nebelwerfers. Around us batteries of 25 pounders barked incessantly and 16 inch shells from battleships rumbled overhead. And those scourges of front line troops the American fighter-bombers, attacked friend and foe alike with commendable impartiality, being absolutely myopic regarding recognition flares and stone deaf to all radio calls to desist. It was a lively time.
The next day A1 echelon moved closer to the front to support the battle tanks assembling for an attack. A convoy of six half-tracks and four 3 ton Bedford trucks loaded with rations petrol and ammunition formed up behind RSM Buster Brown's scout car, and I was worried by the baffled way he and SSM Craggs studied a map. However he tossed the map into the scout car and climbed aboard and with a flourish of the hand, gave the signal to advance.
We came to a junction and after some deliberation, took the right fork and drove down a narrow metalled road leading into a sun-baked valley, obeying the sign that read 'SLOW! DUST MEANS DEATH!' Our half-track followed on the heels of Buster's scout car and on passing infantry crouched in ditches behind hedgerows running at right angles to the road, I became afflicted with déjà vu as having seen this sight before, I had an idea of what might lay ahead in the shape of a deadly 88. The infantry as always, silently watched us go by and I powerless to do anything, as I feared Buster Brown more than I did the Germans.
'Get ready to bail out.' I warned Piper Laurie who was driving.
'Whit ye havering aboot laddie?' He wished to know.
We came to a defile with a copse-studded hill to our left and on the right another slope that was the graveyard of a small chapel sitting on its crest. An ideal place for an ambush and no sooner thought about, than it happened.
With a scream an incandescent billet of steel from a copse on the left flew past the nose of the scout car, hit the slope of the graveyard and bounced over the church roof. The scout car driver tried to turn and go back but in panic, toppled sideways into a ditch and bailed out, as did Piper Laurie and myself. Mortar bombs exploded along the length of the column and Spandaus added their wicked chatter. Stupidly, I threw myself down behind the kerb, its five-inch depth proving no protection at all for a 42-inch chest and a similar sized rump.
I quailed as red tracer bullets ricocheted off the road close by and knew that if I tarried here, the next burst must surely hit me. Then I saw figures from the convoy running up through the graveyard, ducking for cover behind headstones when the tracer homed in on them. And when a truck full of petrol filled jerricans exploded nearby, sending sheets of liquid flame to fuel the inferno and making my position even more untenable, I shot to my feet and ran for dear life for the dubious refuge of the graveyard.
Tracer bullets skipped alongside as I spotted a newly dug grave and hurled myself into it, and was nearly tossed out again by a heaving cursing mass of muscular flesh. I had landed on top of RSM Brown and SSM Craggs.
Craggs at the bottom of the heap, declared the grave a warrant officer's enclave and ordered me out, but Buster overruled him, probably thinking I would provide more protection for him against the steel shards zipping around outside. But a German spotter must have seen my disappearing act and for minutes the area around the grave was plastered with moaning minnies. The blasts blew earth from the heap of excavated soil over me and in between screaming silently for God to mount another rescue mission, I wondered how soldiers in the first war had withstood this mind shattering experience day in and day out for years on end.
The mortaring suddenly stopped and I risked a quick look out. Dust from the mortar bombs and smoke from the burning vehicles must have obscured their vision, and were holding off until it cleared. I was up and out and scuttled for the safety of the reverse slope behind the church, with Buster and Craggs panting like steam engines close behind.
Once out of immediate danger the adrenalin rush collapsed and so did I. My tiredness was monumental and I just wanted to sleep, but my legs hurt and suddenly I remembered why, and rolled up my trouser legs to inspect for further damage. The field dressings were intact and had acquired no new perforations. I reflected that war was a hell of a one sided affair and not a bit like the one scripted by Hollywood and enacted by Errol Flynn and other celluloid heroes. My role in this and yesterday's action had been akin to that of a terrified ant scuttling frantically about, dodging blows from invisible giants wielding very large hammers.
My next recollection was after footing it back to a friendly field where other escapees had gathered, looking at a dejected German prisoner cowering under the combined glares of an irate Buster and Craggs. The prisoner was a slight ferrety individual wearing an oversized helmet and ill-fitting uniform. So this is the master race who had overrun most of Europe? I mused. And thought if they're all like this, then I'd nothing much to worry about. When a thundering order from Buster to take the prisoner to the rear interrupted my thoughts.
'And then what?' I wished to know, a bit thrown by the order.
'And then what!' Mimicked Buster. 'Shoot him! That's what and then what!' He roared.
I unshipped my revolver and walked towards the prisoner, motioning with my gun for him to stand up and walk. 'Nicht shiessen!' He begged as I herded him off and giving me an idea. When still within shouting distance of the field I stopped, pointed the gun at his head. 'NICHT SHIESSEN!' He screamed again and collapsed. I fired a round into the air and after a pause, another.
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