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15 October 2014
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IV. Getting Ready for D-Day - 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards

by Cecil Newton

Contributed by 
Cecil Newton
People in story: 
Cecil Newton
Location of story: 
Heveningham Park, Fort George, Chippenham Park and Stanswood Bay, Southahpton
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 November 2003

IV. Getting Ready for D-Day
Heveningham Camp, Fort George, Chippenham Park and Stanswood Bay, Southampton

The first intimation we had that we were earmarked for something special was when Freddy, a member of 3rd Troop ‘’B’ Squadron mentioned that they were going on a special course. It was a secret and they could not at that stage give details. (Freddy was killed in August at Jurques). They were in fact going to Fritton, Norfolk where the DD tanks were undergoing trials on the lakes. Also at Fritton was the school for training crews to escape from tanks after they had sunk. At first crews were issued with the standard ‘Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus’ issued to submarine crews but then a modified ATE - Apparatus Tank Escape - was issued. The crews trained in a water tank at the bottom of which was a tank turret. When the crews were in position, the water tank was flooded and they had to surface with the escape apparatus. The last thing anyone thought about was whether anybody could swim even though they were amphibious operations.
There were casualties. During trials a wading tank’s vertical vent from the engine was knocked off going down a decline and the driver was drowned. The DD tanks were launched in very rough weather in an exercise called ‘Smash 1’ in April 1944; six tanks sank and six crewmembers were drowned. Naval destroyers picked up survivors who returned to barracks in naval kit that had been lent to them to replace the wet uniforms.
Crews were issued with heavy black oilskins, equally heavy sea boots and a hammock. The ‘Rat’ had an enjoyable time doubling the crews up and down the ‘hards’ - loading areas next to the sea - when they paraded in their new gear.
The ‘Valentine’ which was the first DD tank we trained with took part in exercises in the Solent. The Squadron was stationed at Fort Monkton, Gosport. The tanks sailed from Gosport and landed on the Isle of Wight. There were also night exercises when the ‘Port’ and ‘Starboard’ lights on the mast came in useful for direction finding.
The Regiment moved to Fort George on the East Coast of Scotland, a grim barracks worthy of a setting for a film of the French Foreign Legion. It was understood to be the headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It was rumoured that a mirror was positioned in front of the guard commanders table and those going on leave were inspected to see if they were wearing anything under their kilts, which was strictly forbidden. I nearly had the opportunity of visiting the guard room and verifying the story about the mirror, as on a parade the blanco fell off my gaiters and gave me brown boots which fascinated the inspecting General and mystified the Regimental Sergeant Major.
Amphibious exercises took place on the Tain. It was found that the tanks coming on to the L.C.T’S - Landing Craft Tank - grounded the craft by their weight and it was not possible to reverse off. It was decided to reverse the L.C.T. slightly and ease it off the ‘hard’ during each loading. We had loaded and were watching the next tank of the Troop come up the ramp when the L.C.T. shot away from the ‘hard’. The crew looked astonished as the tank gave a backward flip into the water. Fortunately the crew were saved.
In February 1944 we moved to Chippenham Park near Newmarket, where the 8th Armoured Brigade were assembling.
Waiting for the Sherman tanks to arrive the Sergeant took us for map reading walks to keep us occupied.
When we received the tanks the highlight of the training was mine removal. A petrol tin was placed on the road, which the Sherman approached within a hundred yards. A member of the crew dismounted, crawled towards the petrol tin, bayonet in hand probing the tarmac road. When he reached the petrol tin he ran back to the tank, fetched the towing hawser, a massive affair, and attached it with string to the tin, and ran back to the tank. The Sherman then reversed pulling the tin along the road. This exercise mystified the watching locals.
The camp at Fawley Wood was sealed off and guarded by the Manchester Regiment. This was the place from which we were to embark for the invasion and liberation of Europe. Fawley is south east of Southampton on Solent Way; loading was to be from ‘hards’ at Stanswood Bay. First World War bell tents were ranged in precise rows in a sloping field, the mess huts and NAAFI hut in the wood at the rear of the field. Operational DD ‘Shermans’ had been delivered and were parked in a wood near the sea and concealed under the tree canopy. The components for the tanks arrived in stout wooden packing cases from America. The parts were oiled and wrapped in greaseproof paper. In one packing case the girl who had packed it had left a letter of good wishes hoping that the recipient would write to her. The parts had to be washed in petrol and assembled. Beds were made out of the packing cases. On the grapevine the news came that the camp was to be sealed off and nobody allowed out so three of us decided to go AWOL (Absent without leave). We walked to Southampton from Fawley after lights out, leaving kit bags in our beds in case someone of authority looked into the tent. I went home and had a reunion with my brother. Catching the train for the return trip was however difficult as Military Police were present on the departure platform. We circumnavigated them by going through an adjoining train which was alongside, stumbling through a first class compartment occupied by naval officers to reach a door in my train which was opposite. At the other end there was more evading Military Police but we arrived back at the camp without trouble.
After the camp had been sealed off, briefing took place for the landing in a large tent erected in the centre of the camp. In the tent, which was guarded, an exhibition had been mounted with photographs of the beach we were to land on and the defences, with reports from frogmen who had landed to reconnoitre. Each tank was given specific instructions, the route they were to take and the tasks to perform. We were to attack the blockhouse situated on the beach. This was on the far right flank of ‘King Green’ sector of ‘Gold Beach’. Photographs did not give details of its function or how it operated but they did show the sea defences which were metal stanchions with shells or mines fixed to the top. After the tanks had swum ashore, they were to attack the blockhouse after the collapsible screens had been lowered. Then the Troop was to leave the beach and go inland as soon as possible. Lessons had been learnt during the landings in Italy when the beach had not been evacuated immediately and the troops had been pinned down by enemy fire.

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