Seventy years ago my Grandad Sid Marfleet arrived in Normandy shortly after D Day, just a few weeks after his wedding.
I am utterly proud of and immeasurably grateful for what he and his generation did for those of us who follow. A few years before he died Sid wrote his memoirs and included a chapter on Normandy. He had always been reticent about talking about the war; he had not been involved very long before he was injured and returned to the UK, but his four sons, 12 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren (at last count) are very glad that he did. So many others did not return to wives and family.
So, here is part one of Sid’s Normandy account. Hastings and Beyond…
I have related in the early pages of these memoirs how is came about that I was transferred from a comparatively safe job as an instructor at the training battalion to join a unit whose function as part of the 43rd Wessex Division was to spearhead the breakout from the few square miles which had been painfully seized behind the landing beaches.
But first of all I must say something about my new base on the south-east coast. Hastings is now a rather run-down resort, and even in 1944 its former glory had departed. It was part of a 10 mile area around much of the south coast where entry was restricted to residents, and the boundaries were monitored by police, for example checking rail passengers at Robertsbridge. The beaches were mined and fenced off with barbed wire. The only consolation which I noticed was that the weather that spring was an improvement on Clitheroe.
At 1 TBRE we had a whole battalion accommodated in a large multi-storey stone cotton mill, about 200 years old, but the straw-filled palliases on which we slept were mainly two-tier bunks, although NCOs has singles. But we did have hot and cold water, and adequate showers. At Hastings, 553 Field Company were accommodated in various vacated boarding-houses around the appropriately named Warrior Square. No hot water was available, our palliases were laid out on the bare boards, and our kit anywhere alongside us. This was an arrangement which I found helpful a couple of weeks or so after I was married and Pat came to stay in the town, and for that period I was sleeping out without a permit, although my platoon Sgt turned a kindly eye on it. I simply rolled up my bed and stuffed it with all my kit into one of the many empty cupboards, on the presumption that the orderly officer was more likely to be alerted by an empty bed than by an empty few square feet of floor, because at least as far as NCOs were concerned no room had more than two or three occupants. This worked out well for me, except on one occasion when I forgot to read Company Orders, to learn next morning that I had been scheduled for duty as Orderly Corporal. This could have been very serious had the Sergeant Major not decided to cover the whole thing up.
Some of the NCOs there had also served with me at Clitheroe, and I began to make a few new friends. But in the town centre was a shop turned into a rest room and café, run by an Army Scripture Reader and his wife, and regularly supported by the Baptist minister, Norman Day. I spent many evenings there, writing my letters and making friends with some of the infantry lads mainly Dorsets, and one or two ATS girls. Pat’s brief stay there, shortly after we were married was possible through the kindness of an elderly couple from the very small Brethren chapel, who lived in a large house in a prominent position at the top of West Hill, overlooking the Old Town. Each morning at the end of first parade, the Platoon Sgt would allocate various duties to small groups mainly to keep them occupied. As he came towards my end of the line he would invariably say ‘Hang on, Cpl Marfleet, I’ve got something for you.’ Then when all the others had gone he would say, ‘Is your wife still here?’ ‘Yes, Sarge’ I would reply. ‘Then b***** off, but make sure you are here in the morning. After breakfast Pat would be making her way down into the town to meet me, but in doing so she had to run the daily gauntlet of small groups of Royal Marine Commandos, billeted in that part of West Hill.
One day shortly before the end of May I was unable to go to meet her. We had just received a delivery of a consignment of White Scout cars, one per platoon. These were American partially armoured half-track vehicles and needed urgent modifications to be carried out on them for our purposes. Not many days after that, without warning the whole company was loaded up into our respective three tonners and driven a few miles out of the town and assembled in the middle of a large field, out of earshot of all except the rabbits. There we were addressed by the O.C. who said that he was aware that a number of us had brought our wives to the town, but instructed us that all wives must leave within 48 hrs. So it was that I had once again had to say goodbye to Pat at the station, expecting that it would be a very long time before we met again.
Shortly after that, ‘D day’ came, and immediately we were shown maps of the area in Normandy to which we were going. There were three series of maps, one like a normal tourist map, another, called a going map showing the features affecting visibility in this ‘bocage’ region where the hedges grown on high banks presented real problems. The other map gave remarkable detail of the enemy defences, based on information provided by the French Resistance, even showing small strong points and their armaments
A couple of days later we departed from Hastings at 5am, each section loaded into our respective three-ton trucks, together with all our kit, seated along each side on storage compartments containing a very considerable amount of ammunition and an even greater amount of explosives. The number of vehicles for our company comprised a very long queue, but very soon we joined other units all travelling north up the A21 forming a continuous line of vehicles for miles. It must have been the whole Brigade on the move, if not the entire 43rd Division. Our own motor-cycle outriders shepherded us slowly until we reached the London boundary, where the Metropolitan Police took over. No doubt we passed through Tonbridge, but I have no recollection of doing so. The town was probably all fast asleep anyway.
By the time we reached the Old Kent Road the population was very wide awake and lining the streets about four deep on each side of the road, and cheering us on our way. We were travelling so slowly that they were able to ply us with tea and stay alongside until we had drunk it and returned the containers. All this tea presented us with a problem, so we asked them to provide it in non-returnable jam jars, which we discretely made use of and disposed of them later.
After crossing Tower Bridge we continued northwards for about three miles before passing through Dalston and picking up the Clapton end of Lea Bridge Road. I was back on home ground. By coincidence the convoy made one of its many halts with my truck right opposite the Gas Works. I looked across the road and saw there a man who I knew from the Home Guard platoon up a ladder painting the side of a gas-holder which was adjacent to the road. I shouted ‘Tom’ in my best parade-ground voice and he recognised me at once, came down the ladder and dashed off into the office. A few seconds later out came my former boss, Percy Bushell with the Industrial Sales Manager, Jock Stokes. They came across to the back of the truck and I disembarked and was able to chat with them for several minutes. Before we had to move on they wished me luck, and Percy pushed into my hand a ten-shilling note.
There was yet a further coincidence. We passed through Woodford, and I realised we were going to join the A127 Southend Road, which before it became part of the M11 years later, crossed Maybank Road within 150 yards of my home. I hastily scribbled a note and put my mother’s name and address on it in the hope of getting it to her. Fortunately my truck slowed right down at that junction, and I happened to see a man that I knew slightly, having at times as a child patronised his little sweet shop along the road. I called to him by name and he was only too happy to take my message to my mother, so thereby she and the family knew that I was on my way.
We continued eastwards, picking up the A13 and eventually reaching a large transit camp at Orsett, just north of Grays. We stayed there I think for 24hrs under rather spartan conditions. The next day we each received a printed letter from King George V1, likewise one from Winston Churchill and from General Eisenhower and General Montgomery. We also received an army issue of condoms, one per man which in very many cases were put to good use within a week or so as water-proof containers for our watches when wading ashore in four feet of water! We were also given some pay in newly printed French francs. While we were there we saw one of the first of the V1 flying bombs. We didn’t know what to make of it, as it sounded unusual and looked like a small aeroplane flying at low level with its backside on fire. Then suddenly the engine cut out and it hit the ground with a very large explosion.
It was assumed by many of us that from that location we were likely to be embarked at Tilbury, but it was not to be. They drove us back into London and embarked us at London docks.
There we had to stand around and watch as our vehicles were loaded. This was done by placing a wire-mesh hammock sling under each wheel and hoisting it up by crane. Inevitably they managed to drop one of the three-tonners several feet, but within a few minutes produced an identical replacement vehicle. When we embarked we were directed to our accommodation, which was in the cargo holds, and issued with a hammock each, and realised we were to be more or less shoulder to shoulder in a space like the Black Hole of Calcutta. I rejected this idea and decided to sleep in the open on the deck. So, as we set off around dusk down the Thames I laid down and went to sleep. I awoke about dawn feeling as if we had just crossed the Arctic Circle. In fact we had just cast anchor a mile or so off Southend.
The rest of that day was spent off Southend, as the number of ships joining the convoy was built up to about forty, and each ship was provided with a barrage balloon, as a precaution against possible dive-bombers. In the early evening we set off down the Channel, and as we passed through the Straits of Dover we came under shell-fire from the enemy coast. One of the ships was hit, causing some casualties and a fire, but it was able to continue with the convoy. We continued through the Channel and round to the Isle of Wight, where we joined up with about fifty more ships, and this united convoy then headed south towards Normandy, escorted by a single corvette. About ten miles from the French coast we were met by a line of British destoyers flashing signals to direct our ships into the lanes which had been cleared of mines, and to put our ships into the direction of Gold Beach, while about half of the ships were headed eastwards, probably carrying the 15th Scottish Division and the 3rd Canadian Division to their landing beaches at Juno and Sword. We dropped anchor half a mile or more from the shore, there to await the landing craft which were to put us ashore. We had spent about six days aboard the ship.
More to follow tomorrow.