Comrades In Arms

Towards D Day

Geoff Turner had experienced one of the country's greatest defeats and greatest achievements in 1940 when he, like another 328,000 men of the B.E.F., managed to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk and get back home to England. In 1941 Geoff found himself in Northern Ireland.

'Even in those days we were having trouble with the IRA. They broke into the camp one night and stole several bren guns, hand grenades, rifles and quantities of ammunition. Another strange incident involved the batman to the Roman Catholic padre. His name was Cusack and he was Irish. Anyway, one night he up and left and we never saw him again. It turned out that he had gone back down into Southern Ireland and that he was actually an IRA member himself.'

'The nature of the training in Ulster was intensive to say the least. It appears that the countryside in the area, especially around the Mountains of Mourne, was thought to be just right for the nature of training which was considered necessary for the planned Normandy landings.'

Geoff Turner and Howard Vincent at Sheffield, in 1940, after Dunkirk.

'We did a series of route marches, during which we were checked for speed. It was quite a novel experience for most of us because very few of us had done much long distance marching. It was awful on our feet and every morning after the marches there would be a long queue outside the MO's. As time went on the queues got shorter as we got more used to the marches.'

'We were taught to drive a 15cwt. truck. This usually involved a load of us piling in the back of the truck and taking turns to have a go in the driver's seat.'

'Late in 1943 we came back from Ireland and we were sent to Canterbury for a stint. We went to the Small Arms School at Hythe and were given fairly extensive weapon training. It was at Hythe that we were made back up to full battle strength.'

'From Hythe we were moved to Dover and based at Dover Castle. It's interesting that the castle had been condemned for regular use some years earlier but it was deemed to be suitable for us. Mind you, any port in a storm, and that time Dover was involved in a storm.'

'While at Dover Castle we had to become used to the system which prevailed at the time. This involved a daily round of artillery barrage from Dover across the Channel at the Germans based at Cap Gris Nez. This was always followed by a barrage from the Germans aimed at the castle and therefore, at us. Dover and Folkestone were the most popular targets, if that's the right way to put it.'

'No-one ever knew exactly where the shells were going to fall, so it was quite a chancey thing. Whenever the barrage was about to start the gunners would let us know and we had to go and take shelter in the caves in the cliffs. It was an offence not to go and you'd be on a charge if you stayed in bed and didn't take cover.'

'When we reached the caves the Sergeant would always come along and demand silence. A good few of the blokes would use the time in the caves for a smoke. The CQMS of the unit at the time was my brother. It was around this time that I went home for my last leave before Normandy. I will always remember that leave because the one night I came in to find both of my parents still up. That was unusual, but it was because they had received the news that my brother had been killed. Apparently, during the barrage a shell had killed him. It was the first time I could remember the shells falling short, they invariably flew over your head.'

'It's weird that my brother should have died like that in this country and not overseas, which he, like all of us, had been training for. It's fate, I suppose.'

Ron Picken had gone to Fulford in Yorkshire, fully intending on joining the Royal Navy. That would have been quite difficult at Fulford since it was a barracks for the Rifle Brigade and some distance from the sea.

'As I said earlier I'd finished up in the Rifle Brigade and that's where I stayed. I was sent down to Wallingford in Berkshire for an Intelligence course where I was taught some basic French to get me through when I was sent to France, although at that time none of us knew we would be going to France.'

'I was next transferred to Combined Operations and had to go and train with No.3 Commando in Scotland. We were sent on manoeuvres here, there and everywhere or so it seemed. Those were really hard. I was taught a host of things which would prove indispensable a few months later. Then I was sent down to Lympstone in Devon to the Royal Marine Commando Training Base for specialist training with the Royal Marines. That was even harder.'

'When we were in the final days of preparations, I went from the holding base at Borden in Hampshire back to Lympstone to join up with No.47 Commando and wait for the final orders.'

Bob Stokes had opted to do something a little bit 'different' - glider training.

'Those of us who had volunteered were sent to Bulford. When we got there we suddenly realised just what we had volunteered for. From the very first day everything was done at the double and after the first week there was only about half of the original number left. It was that hard and punishing a regime.'

'The really extensive training started after that first week. We were sent over Salisbury Plain to train, to Ilfracombe, Lincoln, Woodhall Spa and all the aerodromes around Oxfordshire like Larkhill and Brize Norton. We didn't really mind the constant moving around because we were young feelers and we were treated that little bit special, although not when we had to march all the way back from Ilfracombe to Bulford, all 120 miles of it. One bloke died on that march back.'

Bob Stokes and others loading up a Horsa glider, D Day -1.

'Any new equipment which came out, we had it first. That even included things like blankets and anoraks, not just weapons. As we got the new stuff given to us we were sent out to try it out. We would be taken out and dropped off from a lorry in the middle of nowhere, with no money or identification (to make absolutely sure that you were not carrying anything you were searched, even internally) and made to make our own way back. All the signposts had disappeared and all we had was a small compass.'

'We pulled some right stunts to get back though. Most of them would land you in jail in civvy street. We stole any sort of transport, car, motorbike, push bike, you name it. The trouble was many of us behaved in a similar way when it wasn't a manoeuvre. I can remember pinching jeeps off the Yanks, although after a while they got wise to it and chained up the steering wheel so we had to resort to metal cutters.'

'When we got up at six in a morning for our run, the whole place was full of jeeps. One of those jeeps we kept for about six months. It was hidden in a copse and we used it for weekends off the base.'

'As D Day got nearer, the training intensified but we only actually went up in a glider once before the actual invasion. We went through a lot of mock ups on the ground. The reason for this was that most gliders were usually smashed when they landed, so there was very little point in ruining a load of gliders just for training purposes. They might as well wait for the actual invasion.'

'We would go up in a light one which landed on an aerodrome, but we had absolutely no experience of landing in water before D Day. We were taught to get the tail off, or at least the others were taught to get the tail off, I wasn't listening and so I never could do that.'

'The week before the actual invasion we were moved to security camps close to the airfields in Oxfordshire. We stayed there for about five or six days. No-one was allowed off the camp during that time. We got to work on some really amazing maps of the drop zone in Normandy. We were given 3D glasses which made the maps stand out. You could pick out the hedgerows in the fields, and that included the actual hedge we were going to land in.'

Geoff Ensor had become a Midshipman In the Royal Navy and was detailed to landing craft training on the South Coast. Such craft were to prove extremely important during the Normandy landings.

'At HMS Heider we were taught to handle the different types of landing craft and the various formations and signals which were supposed to control them. From Brightlingsea I went to Brighton and other South Coast locations where the 'concrete' ships were, because at that stage the Navy had not got the numbers of craft which were needed.'

'We were mainly holding flotillas, although I did spend some time at Littlehampton. The drivers were obviously quite nervous, so the moment the front wheels went off some of them would stall the engines. So we would go astern and let the back wheels drop off and leave them there to be recovered. Of course they had their own recovery vehicle which would fetch them in.'

'From there I went to a number of locations along the coast, including HMS Westcliff. I went back up to Scotland for navigational training, ready for D Day. Everything we did there was at night. This meant that we had to read the charts in the day, working out courses and timings etc. One of the beaches we had to reach involved getting a tree and a steeple in line for the run in. You can imagine the nature of the difficulties at night. It was very much down to luck.'

'On the entrance to one beach there was a rock. This meant that we had to get the sounding pole out. You heard a voice calling 'No bottom at six feet, no bottom at six feet. Oh, Christ we've hit the rock'.'

'The end of the course involved an infra-red run. The RAF had their dots and dashes to keep them on beam, we had a chap on the beach and we had to head for him. According to the nature of the beam, we knew whether we had to steer to port or starboard. After that, I was convinced that I would be in on the Normandy landings.'

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