This is the third and final part of my Grandad’s memoirs on his experiences landing in Normandy 70 years ago. See Part One and Part Two first.
Pleased and Blest
A few days later we had passed through the village and took up a new position adjacent to the River Odon. Our function there was to repair a slight amount of damage to a small road bridge, and to stay on hand if it was further damaged, including building a replacement bridge if necessary. On the morning of our arrival the OC decided he wanted a reconnaissance patrol sent out across the river to try to detect the position and activities of the enemy.
My platoon commander, Lt Bob Martin at the age of 40 was the oldest officer in the company, and for some reason seemed to want to prove himself by volunteering personally or on behalf of his platoon for anything which was a bit dodgy. So it was that a corporal who I disliked greatly was detailed to lead this patrol. He reacted by producing an attack of hay fever, which if genuine would certainly have precluded him for the job, which had to be carried out with stealth and in complete silence. A substitute had to be found, and guess who drew the short straw!
So, having smudged our faces, put on our woolly hats and plimsolls, tied down the shackles of our rifle slings with string and synchronised our watches, off we went to spy out the land. We did not come across anything of great significance, although we did hear activity and some movement of vehicles and equipment, but it would not have been worth the risk of exposure to have ventured closer. So we returned at the appointed time and place and I duly reported.
Once again our quarters for the night were slit trenches in an orchard, this time adjacent to the bridge. Fortunately some excellent slit trenches had been left for us by the Canadians. They even had a partial sawn log roof across the centre portion. But there was little enough room for two men, with one hunched up at each end. The next day we were instructed to dig more slit trenches on the bank across the river. This was easier said than done. At the spot where I was digging I struck rock at about 12 inches, and there was no hope of getting deeper, except perhaps with a couple of gun-cotton primers! I gave up at lunch time, deposited my small kit in the shallow hole, returned to the bridge site and consumed a cooked lunch. It was a Thursday, 7th July. What happened next is something I will always remember.
We were standing on the bridge, myself and two other NCO’s, Jimmy and Bill. Suddenly we heard the noise of mortar bombs coming in our direction, and these were not the ordinary single mortar bombs, but the dreaded ‘Nebelwerfers’, from multi-barrelled projectors, whose bombs were fitted with a brilliantly conceived siren causing them to wail as they flew through the air, with a terrifying effect.
These Nebelwerfers came in three sizes, and could deliver bombs weighing 75lbs, 248lbs and 277lbs respectively. I didn’t wait to see which size had been selected for us but as the hedge between the road and the orchard where we had spent the night had conveniently been cut back close to the embankment I took a running jump and cleared it, forgetting the 2m drop on the other side! The bomb blast caught me in mid-air and I landed in a crumpled heap on the lower slope of the embankment. My left leg was very painfully bent, inwards from the knee, at a right angle! I was unable to move, so as soon as the firing had stopped I called out for help. Cpl Jimmy was first on the scene, soon to be joined by some men from my section, two of whom we sent off to get a stretcher. I sent another man to fetch my small-kit from the partially dug slit trench where I had left it. He quickly returned, holding the mangled remains of my mess tin, all that was left of my small-kit. It seems that one of the mortar bombs had scored a direct hit on my little excavation.
Then a second salvo was on its way to us. I ordered my Sappers to get back under cover, but Jimmy refused to leave me, and I was not in a position to pull rank on him anyway. As the bombs started to land around us Jimmy crouched over me on all fours, a noble and brave action to try to protect me from further injury.
The firing stopped again, and it was only much later that I learned that the other Cpl, Bill, had been killed when a large fragment of one of that second salvo had decapitated him. He was the guy who had been married just ten weeks earlier, on the same day as me.
The lads arrived back with a stretcher, and together with Jimmy and my platoon officer, Bob Martin, they carried me shoulder high to a first aid post a couple of hundred yards away. There an MO and a couple of orderlies had set up a tent to cope with anything at the front line. When they had removed my gaiter and boot he ran his scissors the length of my trouser leg to reveal a knee that was beginning to swell like a football. They applied a wooden splint behind the knee, and waited for an ambulance to pass me further back up the line. I had to say good-bye and thanks to my comrades from 553, and they left me.
The next stop for me was a casualty clearing station set up in an empty house, still very much within range of the battle, and we could hear shell-fire, some distant, some close. One of the casualties was a soldier suffering from severe battle fatigue, who became hysterical at every loud explosion. Eventually, after at least a couple of hours an ambulance was available to move us on. There was only room for one more stretcher case in the back, so I was asked by the MO if I could sit on a chair and in the absence of the orderly whose presence was needed by the driver, to restrain the shell-shock patient if he became alarmed by explosions on the way. This proved to be necessary when we drove along Banana Ridge where I had seen the Sherman tank knocked out. Once again the Germans seemed to have that area in there sights. I cannot remember whether or not we made another stop before reaching Bayeux, where at the south-west outskirts of the town the RAMC had set up the only hospital available within the area cleared of the enemy. This was a MASH-type of hospital entirely under canvas, including canvas flooring. It must have been about midnight when we arrived. All casualties were seen quickly by an MO, I think we were given a hot drink and then laid out on our stretchers on the floor, almost shoulder to shoulder and told to get to sleep.
I don’t think I managed any sleep that night. My knee was continuing to swell and the bandage became too tight. One of the nursing sisters kindly loosened the bandage for me. But the main problem was that it happened to be the night of the 900 bomber raid on Caen, and as they crossed the coast the Germans put a a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft fire, and I lay there waiting for jagged chunks of red-hot shrapnel to come through the canvas roof. From my experience of the Blitz in London I knew these were usually a little larger than one’s middle finger, very jagged and very hot. The saddest thing about that raid was, as we learned later, the Germans had by then almost evacuated from the centre of Caen, and the main people to suffer from that enormous air-raid were the French civilians.
The next morning at 6am the MO was round again, and after taking a quick look at my knee told me to my astonishment, ‘We’ll send you home today’.
After a good breakfast, which included some excellent French white crusty bread, we were moved outside to make room for the next lot, and to lie in the sunshine to await the arrival of the hospital ship. It was a long wait, and the sun was very hot. Eventually the ship arrived, and we were taken the short way down to the little port of Port-en-Bessin, transferred to launches which conveyed us to the hospital ship a mile or so off shore.
This ship turned out to be one of the former Northern Ireland ferries, the ‘Duke of Lancaster’ with the passenger lounges converted to hospital wards, and cot beds screwed down to the floor. I was put into one of these and instructed by the orderly to get some sleep. I had been deprived of most of my sleep for at least three weeks, but in spite of the luxury of clean sheets and a pillow I could not fall asleep. The orderly came round again, and asked me if I had any pain. I most certainly had, so he went away and came back with a hypodermic needle, and administered a large dose of morphine. Oh my word, I could get hooked on that stuff! Within next to no time I was free of pain, and drifting away into a state of euphoria and sound sleep.
I woke up, still very drowsy, as the ship was being unloaded under arc-lights at Southampton, ignoring the black-out regulations. Then we were transferred to a hospital train, a converted Royal Mail sorting train for a fairly short journey to Haslemere, Surrey. It was dawn on the Saturday morning as we were off-loaded at Haslemere and handed over to the RCAMC, who drove us at high speed up into the surrounding woods to the 22nd Canadian General Hospital, a 1600 bed fully equipped hospital, all in large wooden huts scattered around the site. Once again a quick look over by the MO, and tucked up into a real bed with white sheets and pillows, but still filthy and unwashed. But after another injection of euphoria I couldn’t care less, and I slept.
It was the hymn-singing that woke me up. At first I wasn’t sure where I was or when it was. But soon I realised it was Sunday morning, and the morning service was on the radio. The hymn being sung was an old Isaac Watts hymn, ‘How pleased and blest was I’. I had been asleep for more than 24 hours. Soon an orderly came round, handing out Christian tracts as it happened. After introducing myself as a fellow Christian I asked him to procure for me some ablution kit so that I could wash and shave at last and begin to feel like a civilised human being again. After I had done that, he brought me some writing materials so that I could write to Pat.
As I lay there, reflecting on the past few weeks, it came home to me that I was a survivor, and was unlikely to have any further part in Operation Overlord. I felt grateful to God for having brought me through it almost unscathed, at the same time I felt glad and proud to have been involved in this tremendous event. We felt even at the time that we were making history.
A week later a train load of us were sent up to Wakefield, where I spent the next eleven weeks in Pinderfields Hospital. My treatment there included manipulation of the knee under anaesthetic, followed by two weeks in traction in a Thomas’s splint. I was discharged and posted to the RE Depot at Halifax at the end of September.