|Comrades In Arms|
Geoff Turner had tasted defeat at Dunkirk and had also lost a brother by the time that June 1944 arrived, so the Normandy landings offered him the opportunity to see the balance start to be redressed and see some results of the years of training.
'I didn't go in with the first waves of landings on June 6 1944, I was a little while later. We went in with an American ship from Tilbury. I remember the captain of the ship promising all of us that we would get a dry landing. He kept his word.'
'We landed on the beaches at Arrornanches. It was a little less hectic when we arrived because of the hard graft that the other blokes had done. Still, it was quite an experience.'
'We were directly involved in the battle for Caen. I remember when the RAF bombers carried out their mass bombing of the town. I stood on top of a 30 cwt. truck and watched them go in. The sky went dark as the Lancasters dropped their loads of bombs. Some of the planes went back in because they had missed their original targets.'
'The Germans had really dug in at Caen so that despite the huge number of bombs which were dropped, they still came out afterwards and continued to fight. It became necessary to go in and flush them out in hand to hand fighting, street by street.'
'Caen was a very important strategic point and without it being taken, the whole invasion would have stalled. It was that important.'
Ron Picken had been involved in special training during the months leading up to the invasion. He had been attached to the Marine Commandos and was therefore prepared for the earliest period of the landings.
'I went out into the estuary with the other members of No. 47 Commando in the barges. We went along the coast during June 5th and joined up with the rest of the invasion force at Portsmouth, ready for the 6th.'
'When we were about half way to the Normandy beaches, an officer came up to me and told me that I would have to go in with the first wave of the Special Service Commando as they needed a bren gunner. This meant that I would be one of the first on the beach. He told me to get myself prepared.'
'I moved down to the front of the barge. I don't think I have ever been so frightened. I was not in the least bit prepared for anything like it. The strange thing is that once I was on the beach, it wasn't so bad. The front of the barge was dropped and we were out.'
'The Sergeant, who was an old sweat, told me not to look down when I hit the beaches but to keep firing downwards. He also told me to head for one point ahead of me and not to waver from it. I couldn't understand the advice until I was on the beach. Once on the beaches I realised it was to help you detect the land mines which had been laid on the beach.'
'Anyway, we managed to reach the top of the beaches where there was a small wall. There were buildings on the other side of the road that ran along the sea front. What we had to do was to take out the machine gun nests which were located in those buildings. We managed to do it because the bren gun was a pretty formidable weapon.'
'This was all taking place on Sword Beach near Lion Sur Mer and Ouistreham. Once those nests were cleared the rest of the landing craft could start moving in. They came in droves.'
'We soon reached Caen with the River Orne running through it. We had to cross the Orne on Pegasus Bridge.'
Like Ron Picken, Bob Stokes had also been undergoing some special training with the 6th Airborne. His arrival in Normandy would not be by sea and landing craft, he was going in by glider.
'We had been studying those maps for the week before the landings and we expected to land in a field with a hedge around it. We did, but the farmer had ploughed the field the day before so the landing was hard. The terrible thing of course was that the glider pilot, as so often happened, was killed on landing, especially as we landed nose down.'
'The glider was towed by a Halifax bomber. The bomber took off from an airfield in Oxfordshire with us in tow. We were released about a mile from the target area. The tow rope was a connecting tube through which the pilots could speak to each other. It wasn't an intercom. There was no option once you were released and it was all determined by the bomber pilot. As soon as it was released it all went quiet and your ears started to pop. We were taught to shout to keep our ears open. I'm sure some of the shouting would have frightened the Germans to death. They probably thought we were mad. Perhaps we were.'
'Glider pilots must rank amongst the bravest of all the blokes of the last war because for so many of them it was almost certain death, either because of the nose first landing or the intense fire from the ground that they had to fly into.'
'We landed nose down and slap bang in the middle of tracer bullets. Most of the fire was coming from an Ack Ack gun. Anyway, it was put out of action and we got the stuff out of the glider and the tail off. I had to get the jeep and trailer out because I was on a Vickers machine gun. As luck would have it, the primed hand grenades which we all had strapped to our belts did not go off, despite all the buffeting of the landing.'
'We were ordered out of the field by Sergeant Major Crewe and set off for our rendezvous point. It still had something of the training manoeuvre about it until we came across a pile of Commando bodies. They must have died when they landed. It was then that we realised this was not Salisbury Plain! Anyway, we reached the rendezvous point.'
'We were supposed to take a small village called Ampreville but we never made it. It was about two hours after we arrived that we discovered that Sergeant Major Crewe had been killed, and so had the Company Commander. By the end of the day we had had three different Company Commanders as a result of the fighting.'
'We reached our position late afternoon on the 6th. We were about a mile and a half from Pegasus Bridge. The local cafe owner had dug a hole some time before the landings and buried his champagne. The cafe became the First Aid post and I think we all must have had something wrong with us, some were genuine, just to taste the wine. Georges, his wife and his daughter Ariette, made us all very welcome. In fact, Ariette is the patron of the Birmingham Branch of the NVA and she still attends many of the branch functions.'
'We dug in our positions and could hear the German tanks, the Panzers, rumbling up. It was as soon as night fell that they really began their bombardment of us. We were to stay there on the left flank for eleven weeks. We were originally meant to be there for two days to create a bridgehead and then we would be back in Britain. It didn't turn out that way. Even the glider pilots who had survived had to stay and wear our red berets. Most of them were marvellous soldiers.'
'We stayed there until the heavy bombing of Caen. A week later it was decided to advance, this meant we would be doing something at last. It was mined every inch of the way. We had to keep stopping and feeling our way ahead. We actually finished up on the Seine.'
Geoff Ensor's view of the D Day landings would be slightly different from the other three NVA members since he was not to actually land on the beaches himself but to stay off shore, landing much needed supplies.
'About two weeks before D Day we went onto an old French liner moored at Tilbury. There were mainly landing craft crews on board the old ship. We actually sailed on D Day + 1, although I was convinced it was D day itself.'
'We sailed around the coast from Tilbury and were shelled going through the Straits of Dover. We arrived at Piccadilly, as it was known, off the Isle of Wight. We arrived at Sword Beach on D Day + 2.'
'My reception when I met the Major of my landing craft flotilla was somewhat chilly. He said 'Where the hell have you been? You were supposed to come over with us." Fortunately I managed to secure my own records of those events and found that I should have joined the flotilla two days before D Day but because I was already on the Depot ship then, I couldn't possibly have been with them.'
'We stayed for about three weeks off Sword Beach. We used to do forty eight hours on the landing craft and forty eight hours on the Depot ship. This was because on the smaller landing craft, the LCMs there was no sleeping facilities, except on deck.'
'We used to ferry stuff from the coasters or any of the other merchant vessels which were in the area. This would include shells, petrol in jerry cans, you name it and it was moved. Sometimes we took prisoners to homeward bound ships.'
'One Saturday morning during our period off the Beach we awoke to find that the destroyer on the one side of us was sinking and the merchant ship on the other side was on fire. The destroyer was HMS Swift and the merchant vessel was the Derry Cunihy which was supposed to be moving to Gold Beach because Sword was still under fire.'
'The Derry Cunihy had hit a mine as it was moving to Gold Beach. We had all the casualties on board and the next day the casualties were to be transferred to a Hospital ship which was alongside. 180 men had been killed and 150 wounded. We were hit by a shell that night and two of my mates who had been below deck moments before, writing letters, were killed because they had finished the letters and gone up on deck. The Sub Lieutenant, who was one of the two men, had an arm shot off and he had given himself morphia from the phials which we all carried. He died later.'
'That night in the ward room there was silence. It was the first casualties we had experienced. Over the tannoy I can remember hearing Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing Pistol Packin' Momma.'
'About two days later they closed Sword beach down and we went down to Gold Beach, where they had got the Mulberry Harbour. It had been towed across by tugs and then sunk. It's almost unbelievable to consider what it involved, just like the PLUTO idea. When we arrived it was almost working full out and after another fortnight they sent us back to England.'
'One little story I might add, although it does not directly involve me, was that one flotilla of LCMs (601 flotilla) returned to England with just five out of sixteen left. It had been on Juno Beach and the eleven landing craft lost had sunk in the storm.'
'If we think about it now, it's almost beyond belief how they could bring so many ships and men together at one point like the Piccadilly Circus off the Isle of Wight and get it across to Normandy without any collisions.'