- Contributed by
- Don Aiken
- People in story:
- Alfred Donald Aiken
- Location of story:
- England and Normandy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 September 2005
Humber Light Armoured Car. The type used by 61st Reconnaissance Regiment. 50th Division.
My Bit in WW2 — Chapter Two
The Reconnaissance Corps and D-Day
1943 April 15th.
Having just turned 18 I was called up for the Army and reported to the Green Howards Barracks in Richmond (Yorkshire).
From there I was sent to begin Primary Training in Catterick Training Camp; near Richmond.
Almost all the recruits were of my age and some were even more raw than myself. On the first day we were given strict instructions to appear on parade, clean shaven, the next morning. No account was made to the fact that some young men had had little or no experience of shaving before and to the use of new army razors, cold water and semi-darkness. The result of this, next morning, was pitiful to see; especially with one young lad whose whole face was a bleeding, raw, mess.
The training consisted mainly of squad drill, marching up and down and learning how to handle a rifle. We were also given some target practice using small-bore .22 rifles. Some interest in this was created by an organised competition into which we all donated a small sum of money. One member of our squad was a gypsy who had finally been located in his encampment and called to arms. He proved to be a wonderful marksman and easily won the final of the competition; being then presented with the prize money. He promptly disappeared and was never seen by us again.
After 6 weeks Preliminary training, I was posted to 63 Reconnaissance Training Unit in Scarborough on 27th May 1943. We were housed in several totally empty (bare boards - no furniture) hotels near the sea front, and trained by a motley selection of instructors (Officers and NCOs) from a multitude of different Infantry regiments.
Each one was trying to prove that his Regiment was the best by being the biggest b . . . . . . of them all. There were so many 'Quarters' to guard and so many extra duties to do, because of the splintered nature of the unit, that life was almost an endless roundabout of training, guard duties and fatigues. As if that wasn't enough of a test, for green young lads, the physical training was extremely arduous. It typically would consist of, on reveille, a 6 mile run or else a charge into the sea. In the afternoon there would be a 2 hour session of Physical Training (usually culminating in another cross country run). As I was never any good at long distance running, and as the final few to return from a run were charged with 'malingering' , and as the automatic sentence was extra physical training,; it became something of a nightmare. Indeed what seemed to be the last straw was imposed on us at varying intervals, a real nightmare - Night route marches! Starting around 11 p.m. we would be marched off, in full 'field service marching order' to 10 mile route marches. These had the effect, largely due to the unyielding nature of new army boots, of creating huge blisters on large areas of both my feet and I was compelled to report to the Medical Officer for treatment. The M.O. was an 'old sweat' of a Major who sported a curly black moustache. I was marched in front him and he asked what was wrong with me. His response to my complaint was - " You know what's the best treatment for blisters lad ? Bloodywell walk on 'em!" So that's what I did.
Thankfully, after a few weeks of this, we were sent on home leave; which gave me chance to recover, under the concerned ministrations of my Mum; and shortly afterwards, on 12th August 1943, the unit was broken up and we were sent to the new No. 1 Reconnaissance Training Centre which consisted of an amalgamation of the other ex training unit from Scotland and ourselves.
This was situated in a large Camp in Catterick, near to where I had done my Primary training. Catterick had the reputation of being sheer Hell, as you might expect. But after our experiences in Scarborough I found it to be comparatively cushy. Apart from the occasional guard duty, the odd fatigue, and the unavoidable occasional 'Jankers', there was much more opportunity to enjoy the camaraderie of army life.
The training here was much more inclined to teaching, rather than physical punishment and, although general training as an all-round soldier still continued, my training as a 'Driver / Radio Operator' reached it's successful conclusion.
1944 January 6th
From Catterick I was posted to the 61st.Reconnaissance Regt. who were encamped in Shornecliffe Camp, near Folkestone.
They had been doing duty in Northern Ireland for the previous part of the war, but had now been split from their Division (the 61st. Infantry Div.) to become the Reconnaissance Regt. for the 50th. Infantry Division.
The 50th. (Northumberland) Division was recently returned from North Africa and were renowned as 'The Desert Rats'. The sign (or flash) which was worn on the side of the shoulder was TT , which represented Tyne and Tees.
As my new regiment had been left undisturbed for a very unusual length of time, the troops had become very accustomed to each other and had grown into a close, even clannish, relationship. This made it very difficult for newcomers to be an accepted part of their lives, especially if the interloper was a young 'new recruit'.
Although I was accepted quite readily as a member of the Troop to which I was assigned, and was never given any sort of hard time, it seemed a long time before I too became part of the clan.
We didn't stay in any location for very long. Just a few weeks at a time before we moved on from one Nissen hutted camp to another. Whittlesford, near Cambridge, and Brandon, Norfolk, came next.
Finally we moved to a tented camp, in ‘Nightingale Wood’, close to a small village named Romsey, about 10 miles from Southampton.
It soon became obvious that everything was being assembled and prepared for the invasion of Europe; the long awaited Second Front.
All around us were similar camps containing troops of all persuasions. British, American, Canadian and smaller units of many other nations were all crowded into encampments that seemed to be everywhere in the fields and woods around the borders of the New Forest.
A news blackout was enforced on everyone and all leave was stopped. All mail was strictly censored.
I had received news from my brother Arthur that he had been stationed just on the outskirts of Southampton - his section of the Corps of Signals was engaged in running telephone lines between all the multitude of units which were moving in. We both managed to get a few hours of compassionate leave, and we met in Southampton one afternoon. He took me back up to his section quarters where we had a cup of tea and a chat before we bade each other farewell.
After a few weeks of the total monotony of being incarcerated in the frugal surroundings of a tented camp, which had only briefly been relieved by separate 'pep-talk' visits by the King and Field Marshal Montgomery, and by the occasional false alarm; it was good news to be told that "This is it !"
June 1944 (my Army Records say "Embarked Southampton - LST- June 1st. 1944” )
We packed up our gear and loaded up the armoured cars, and other means of transport, and rolled out of the camp. We snaked along down country roads which were lined on either side by other army vehicles waiting for their turn to move out. Eventually we arrived in Southampton and I was surprised to see how many of the local people seemed to realise that this was for real, which was evidenced by the unusually warm waves we were given. The embarkation organisation was wonderfully efficient, and it didn't take very long for us to be installed on a U.S.A. Landing Ship Tank (LST).
The assault units of the invasion Army were in fact only at half their normal strength - the troops that were to land on 'D' Day were now being loaded, and the 'build-up' of the remainder would take place as soon as possible after the invasion. It was anticipated to be completed about 6 days afterwards. - In fact it took about 16 days because of the inclement weather that followed 'D' Day.
The entire docking facility as far as the eye could see was jam-packed with shipping of all shapes and sizes, and as most of them sported their own anti-aircraft barrage balloon, I foolishly felt a kind of festive air about it all. We bedded down wherever we could find a convenient spot, our Troop elected for the open deck (we had been issued on board with a personal burial bag which helped to keep us warm) , and our ship slipped out of harbour to make way for more boats to load up. We threaded our way past the Needles rocks which skirt the western side of the Isle of Wight and headed out into the English Channel.
The LST which we had been assigned had, we were told, been on several previous landings at various stages of it's history; and as a consequence the bottom of the ship was deemed to be too thin to attempt another crash landing. The plan was to drop anchor about half a mile from the shore and then transfer the vehicles onto flat decked ferry type rafts, called Rhinos, which would deliver us into the shallow waters.
Two of these Rhinos were being taken over with us, one being towed astern and the other being lashed alongside. The one being towed was manned by two Army Engineers. The one alongside seemed to be intent on crashing it's way through the side of the ship as we rolled about in the choppy seas.
6th. June 1944
When dawn broke we were met by the unforgettable sight of hundreds of ships spread out as far as the eye could see. All plodding on in the same direction, towards the Normandy coast. All of them, except for the few large supply ships, were pitching and rolling to an alarming degree. Many of our men were somewhat sea-sick but luckily I have a strong stomach for such things and wasn't troubled by it.
Halfway across the channel we were astonished to see the towed Rhino suddenly become untowed! The line with which it had been attached had somehow parted, and away it went. Our ship never slackened it's pace and we watched as the Rhino disappeared into the distance. I don't know what it's fate was - or whether it's crew were pleased or sorry.
We arrived off the shore of Normandy in the late morning. 'Gold' Beach near the village of Arromanches, which was our first destination, had already been captured by the assault troops of the Hampshire Regiment, and it was now possible for vehicles to be disembarked on to the beach and directed to designated areas for the purpose of de-waterproofing the vehicles and preparing to advance into the bridgehead.
The LST dropped anchor and the remaining Rhino was untied from the side of the ship and made it's way round the bows, ready to be attached to the gangway which projected forwards when the bow doors opened.
It was then discovered that the coupling gear had been smashed and this sparked off a frenzied burst of activity to try to tie the units together with ropes. However, ropes are flexible by necessity, and the choppy seas made it almost impossible to hold both units in line; but with the aid of a couple of small motor-boats, pushing away like tug boats, they became near enough to go for it and our Troop made the transfer across. Soon we were running in to the beach and the Rhino bottomed out. The light armoured car (Recce Car) in which I was a crew member was the first to drive off, and in my elevated position in the turret I felt like a submarine commander, especially when we suddenly dropped into a bomb hole which was concealed beneath the water and only the turret was left exposed.
The Beach Party had been well trained for this situation and had the de-waterproofing area completely organised and running smoothly. Although I almost threw a spanner in the works !
My armoured car had been fitted with a device, which I had contrived, to allow me to operate the smoke canister gun without having to lean outside the turret. Basically, it was a bike brake mechanism which was attached at one end to the gun and, at the other end, the brake grip was attached to my seat support.
Whilst the driver was removing the waterproofing from the engine, the Officer went to a quick 'O' Group (Officers briefing) and the radio-operators tuned in their radio transmitters to the H.Q. transmitter . This was quite a delicate operation and it was at it's finest point when my elbow touched against the trigger . Bang! went the smoke discharger - and as I quickly bobbed my head out I could see the smoke bomb heading straight into the middle of a wired off field, with dozens of painted notices showing the sign of a skull and cross-bones and the words "Achtung Minen". Which didn't take a genius to recognize that my bomb was landing in a German mine-field, and the mines were too close for comfort.
I ducked down inside my turret and held my breath........
Nothing - oh good! Then Bang! Bang! Bang! ..... I realised it was someone banging on the turret. When I popped my head back out I was confronted with the angry face of the Beach Officer - a Major - whose features reminded me strongly of the Medical Officer with whom I had been acquainted in Scarborough; complete with black curly moustache, but perhaps even stronger on the language !
Soon the various sections of our Regiment were ready to move off to try to reach their pre-arranged target locations. Ours was a wooded hill about 15 miles inland, and our role was to 'seize and hold' it, until the main body of troops could relieve us. It was soon quite obvious that, because of our delayed landing, there was no possibility of us reaching our target that day.
As we drove off the beach, through a pathway made through the minefield and on to a narrow road which ran in a southerly direction, a huge anti-aircraft barrage opened up from the multitude of ships which lay offshore. As the barrage drew nearer I spotted a German plane flying very fast and very low as it fled southwards directly over our heads. I quickly joined the fading barrage and emptied my Bren gun magazine in the direction of the speeding ‘hornet’ as it disappeared out of sight. Despite my effort being in vain I felt great satisfaction in at last being able to throw things back at the Germans.
I remember nothing about our advance during the remainder of the day, only that we eventually had to give way to the coming of the night.
My only memories of that first night were that we had to remain standing in the pitch blackness, not daring to make a sound as we had no idea of how close we were to the Germans. We were fortified by a tiny drop of rum, which barely covered the bottom of our tin mugs, and a 'keep awake pill'. Nothing happened all night but we were all relieved when dawn broke and we were able to start off again.
We made some progress on the following day, passing through Bayeux which had already been liberated by our infantry. The German opposition was stronger than we had anticipated but we advanced some distance towards Villers Bocage before we were eventually given the order to 'harbour' down for the night and we drove into a tree-lined field, concealing the vehicles around the perimeter.
I had no idea what our position was, and what the situation was around us. We got news that our Colonel, a typical Cavalry Officer, had been riding in a Bren-carrier (a small tracked vehicle with no turret). He had been standing up, in a 'tally-ho !' type of manner, when a German sniper, who was concealed in the ditch alongside the road, shot him up the bum. We never saw or heard of him again.
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