This follows on from yesterday’s Part One of my Grandad Sid Marfleet’s memoirs about the Second World War, which should be read first.
Into the Line of Fire
I had better say something about that ship. It was one of the many ‘Liberty Ships’ built at very great speed in America. It was named Fort Livingstone. The worst thing about it was the sanitary arrangements which for OR’s consisted of temporary wooden huts on the decks, containing bucket latrines, which by the end of the first day were overflowing, and no one seemed to have been detailed to empty them. The other problem was the compo-rations issued to us. There should have been a different variety for each day. Ours were all the same, comprising mainly hard biscuits, tinned sardines and tinned potato salad. Many of the blokes had been sea-sick, and the sight of potato mayonnaise did nothing to enhance our appetites. When eventually an American landing ship came alongside to off-load us we managed to con them into believing that our rations were better than theirs, and they agreed to swap a couple of boxes. Later that day we had a good chuckle at their expense as we tucked into their tins of chicken!
On a more sombre note, as we waited on our ship we saw in the water around us a dozen or more corpses of American servicemen, wearing small life-jackets, all floating face downwards. These were no doubt casualties from Omaha beach, on our right flank, where a few days earlier their landing had gone disastrously wrong, although their comrades at Utah beach had almost a walk-over. We also watched as one of our own aircraft was shot down over the beaches by anti-aircraft fire.
Then it was our turn to go down the scrambling nets at the side of the ship on to the landing craft and away to the beach where it was high tide and we went ashore through four feet of water. A couple of hundred yards inland we were directed by Redcaps to a stretch of unmade road where we paused to remove all the water-proofing from our vehicles. Apart from the flexible hoses to the air intake and from the exhausts, there was a doughy sort of stuff around the electrics, largely asbestos fibre mixed with some sort of gunge. This was dumped on to a long stretch of road where it served a useful purpose in suppressing dust. We were continually warned that ‘Dust is Dangerous’.
A mile or two further on we arrived at our first location for an overnight stay, a pleasant little orchard. Close at hand was a lovely little stream, about the size of Hilden Brook, running between steep banks. This was sufficiently tempting for another NCO to agree with me that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, but on the boat it had been next to impossible. So we grabbed our ablution kit, and a change of underwear, and took ourselves off to the stream. It was neither a bath nor a shower, but a sort of mutual chuck-over, but so very welcome. As we stood there congratulating ourselves that we were probably the two cleanest soldiers in 21 Army Group, we heard a whine and a ping as rifle bullets started thudding into the bank above our heads. The Germans might have retreated but they had left a sniper in the area. We hastily found a safer corner where we could get into our clothes, and rejoined the rest of the company, and reported the presence of the sniper and the general direction he was firing from. Our platoon commander took note of it and was able to tell us later that the culprit had been located and appropriately dealt with. There was no more small arms fire, but the noise from the artillery was non-stop, day and night, some of it from our large battleships firing 15 inch shells over our heads towards Caen, about 8 miles away. Not far from there we noticed the bodies of four German soldiers lying on a bank. It was more than 24 hrs later that I saw a padre conducting a burial service there.
It would have been bad for morale to leave any British corpses unburied, but there were quite a number of roadside graves where the fallen had been hastily buried in shallow graves. Each had an improvised cross, with one of the soldier’s two identity discs nailed to it. Some had green commando berets on the top of the crosses. The German dead had been buried in a similar way. Whereas our identity discs, one green and one red, supposedly fireproof and waterproof respectively, were made of a hard fibre-like material, the German equivalent was an oval aluminium token perforated in the middle so that one portion could be nailed to the cross and the other retained for the record. After the war all these temporary burials were disinterred, and the bodies given a more dignified burial in one of the vast war cemeteries.
We were soon on the move again, to the outskirts of the village of Cheux, which had been re-taken by the enemy in a counter attack, but had just been recaptured. On our way there we drove down the long straight road which runs between Bayeux and Caen. Somehow we missed the turning on the right which we should have taken and were surprised to find that we were well within sight of Caen. We were quite unaware at the time of the strong German defences screening Caen and its surroundings on a 15-mile front on that side, including the 12th SS Panzer Division whose armoured regiment was under the command of the legendary 33-year-old Colonel Kurt Meyer, a charismatic and ruthless leader, and a fanatical Nazi. He was supported by other Panzer units and had 158 88mm guns and 228 tanks. Even had we known all this we could not have produced a faster three-point turn in the road and departure at full throttle as the shells were bursting on the road behind us.
On arrival near Cheux we took occupation of another small orchard, and were given instructions to dig slit trenches in case of a further break-through. My location was at the edge of the orchard, beside the small road leading to the village. Artillery fire continued during the night, mostly directed towards the Germans. Some time after midnight the Germans hit back, and landed a shell on the other side of the orchard about 50 or 60 yards from me, but right where our HQ section were positioned. There were several casualties, the worst being a member of that section who was hit in the lower abdomen by a very large piece of shrapnel, causing horrific injuries. We could not help feeling relieved in the morning when we learned that he had not survived the night. Our OC caught much of the blast, and became very deaf, certainly for some days.
In the morning we moved into the village, which was already badly damaged. Our job was to add to the damage by demolishing a house on the corner of the narrow main street, where it was considered to be an obstruction to the field of view, and an obstacle to the tanks of the 11th Armoured Division, now being brought into action in the area. A pound or two of plastic explosive, a big bang and all we had was a heap of rubble to shovel into trucks. As we did so our divisional commander passed through, and paused to congratulate us on doing a good job in keeping the road clear. He had no idea that we were responsible for just blocking it. A little later at the same location we were alarmed by hearing machine-gun fire close at hand. A moment or two later a Canadian soldier appeared from one of the nearby cottages, holding a Sten gun and two very scrawny and very dead chickens, which had vainly sought refuge behind a settee!
Later that day a large group of infantry soldiers from the 15th Scottish Division passed through the village in single file. They had obviously just come out of action, and were all traumatised. We tried to engage them in conversation, but they did not respond, and simply walked on staring ahead of them like zombies. This must have been about 28th June, halfway through Operation Epsom, Montgomery’s ill fated attempt to penetrate and hold territory across the little river Odon, later described by some as a bloody stream. That operation cost VIII Corps 4020 men, 2331 from 15th Scottish Division, and 1256 from 11th Armoured Division and 43rd Wessex Division.
Something which will always be remembered by anyone who saw action in that part of France is the large number of cattle that were killed by artillery fire. Their bloated carcasses, legs in the air, lay around in the hot sun, polluting the atmosphere with the small of decaying flesh. Fortunately, as Engineers, we had access to mechanical equipment, and at times were able to call in a section of Sappers with a D4 Bulldozer to cover up any that were too close to us.
Day by day we were gradually being moved south- eastwards into the salient from which Montgomery had hoped for a complete breakthrough, led by the 15th Scottish, 11th Armoured and the 43rd Wessex Divisions. The tanks had managed to force a crossing of the little river Odon, but the infantry of the 43rd, especially the Dorsets and the Somerset Light Infantry had paid a very heavy price in the battle for Hill 112 which changed hands several times in the course of a few days. In the 15th Scottish Division casualties were running at 50%. The River Odon in one place was blocked by corpses. This was a price too high, even for Monty and on 30th June he ordered an end to Epsom.
As we edged our way forwards towards Mouen we were very much aware of the fierce battle still raging around us. The Germans still held the little airfield at Carpiquet, 5 miles west of Caen, in spite of attacks by rocket-firing Typhoons, which we witnessed from close quarters, and the Canadian infantry were repulsed several times after bitter hand-to-hand fighting with fanatical SS troops. We were halted within sight of Mouen, on a stretch of open road running between two large fields of ripe corn, containing masses of poppies. Believing the village to have been cleared of the enemy, a small group of us entered the outskirts but very soon came under mortar fire, so beat it back as fast as I dare drive the truck to ‘Banana Ridge’, where we found the rest of our platoon, also under fire. We hastily poured out of the truck and dived for the nearest slit trenches. The one I jumped into was already occupied by two men, one bleeding profusely from a shrapnel wound in the neck, the other trying to control the bleeding with a single wound dressing in his muddy hand. I gave him my own personal wound dressing, which we all carried, and left them to find another hole. By now a few Sherman tanks had arrived on the scene, and from my slit trench I watched with envy as they took shelter in their tank when the firing started again. My envy turned to horror as the tank just 50 yards from me took a direct hit and immediately burst into flames. Two of the crew managed to get out and rolled themselves on the ground to extinguish the flames from their clothing. The others must have died.
Final part to follow tomorrow.