Comrades In Arms

Other Recollections of Those Days and Since

The previous recollections were made by each of the four members of the NVA about their own personal experiences and were in chronological sequence. The next set of recollections were the result of a general conversation about the happenings of the campaign during the weeks and months immediately following the Normandy landings up to the latter part of the war in Europe and beyond. The memories are not ascribed to individuals, although in some cases it is probably quite easy to determine the source.

An example of an LCM (Landing Craft Mechanised). It was designed to land single tanks or mechanised vehicles onto the beaches.

'Small landing craft like the LCAS, the LCMs or the LCVPs were crewed by two or three Royal Marine personnel. They all carried a limited number or weight, for instance the LCM could carry one rnedium sized lorry or small tank. At Normandy we personally carried stores, no vehicles. Major landing craft like the LCIs (for infantry) and the LCTs (for tanks) had sleeping accommodation, both for troops and crew. The LST (landing ship tank) had bows which opened and doors which dropped down. Most of the landing craft were manufactured by the Americans and were part of Lease Lend.'

'A gooseberry was a breakwater formed by sunken block ships. The sunken ships allowed us to land even though the weather was a bit rough. If we had not had the gooseberries we would not have lasted out. There was only one Mulberry Harbour, the other was blown away in the great storm. On Sword Beach they sank the old French battleship, the Courbet. The French flag with the Cross of Lorraine which was on the mast head had a shell hole right through it.'

'Shortly after Caen we went into this one village and we really had to fight for the village, street by street. I set the bren gun up on the corner and was firing across the square, when an officer came and told me to set up on the opposite corner of the square. I turned around to my left and there was a Salvation Army truck in the middle of the village. He'd come in from the road to the left where the 3rd Division was coming up and somehow he'd got in front of them. He set up and started to dole out cups of tea. If I hadn't seen it I would not have believed it.'

'The smell around Caen racecourse was terrible. It was the rotting flesh of the horses. They had all been killed. Some of them were all swollen up and when the fellers fired at them, they just burst and the smell was something I will never forget. It was the same with the dead cows in the fields.'

'We had one officer, he was ever such a small chap and he'd come up to you while you were on guard duty and say that he was going to be away for a couple of days. He'd be back after a couple of days with a couple of prisoners in tow. God knows where he got them from. Mind you, that's typical of so many of the officers. They had guts. We used to think of them as so well groomed, almost effeminate in a way but they were bloody courageous.'

'Often you'd be in one village or another and a hand would suddenly appear to the side of you and a voice saying 'Anglais or Americano?" and next thing you'd be handed a bottle of wine. There were examples where the French were not so friendly, although I could never work out why. Some of the French farmers seemed to blame us for spoiling the harvest of 1944.'

'I was attached to the French Resistance for some time and I don't think I ever came across braver fighters in all my time with the forces. That was particularly the case with the girls, even the young kids. They could kill a German in cold blood without turning a hair, but they were fighting for their country and to get rid of the Germans, or the Bosh as they called them.'

A French Resistance Group (light relief).

'Some of the farmers were probably doing quite well under the Germans so when the British and the others came along and stole their chickens or the eggs they were not very happy. The blokes who went in early had to steal to stay alive because a lot of the supplies were lost in that great storm.'

'That storm went on for a few days and it set things back some time. It meant many of the much needed supplies were laid up in the ships which were riding out the storm at sea.'

'When that storm was on there were no landings for four days. I was on the landing craft so all we could do was kip down on the six inch shells we were carrying. The only food we could get was from a landing barge kitchen. It was a former Thames barge which had been converted. All they had though was sardines from Portugal and biscuits. That's what we lived on during that storm. I haven't touched sardines since.'

'You know the whole thing could have gone the other way. To give you an example, when we reached Ampreville we came face to face with our first Tiger tank and we ran away from it's guns which were incredibly powerful. As a result we never took Ampreville.'

'As we left the village our jeep was bouncing like mad on the very narrow German trenches in the fields and the gun trailer was going up and down like crazy. One of the officers decided we needed to dig in. We couldn't use the German trenches in case they were booby trapped. We had to dig new trenches.'

'When we came up to relieve them at Pegasus Bridge, it was mid-day. Lord Lovat went in front with his walking stick and his piper. The Paras were still fighting at the other end of the bridge.'

'When we heard that piper we thought it was all over. We had already reached the other side of the bridge so it was easier for the others. There were bullets flying everywhere. There was a load of sniping.'

'Quite a few Commandos were cut down trying to take the Ramville batteries. It was because the Germans had moved the big guns out about a week before and moved machine guns in. As a result many of the Commandos were doomed.'

'We had to cross Pegasus and move left and not right towards Caen. We had to go into the Merville batteries to relieve them. The Germans never expected us to come from inland and hit the batteries as we did. The Merville batteries were solid though.'

''Medical centres sprang up everywhere, even at Pegasus Bridge. Our casualties went straight in and the MOs were marvellous. Both the doctors and the nurses were really brave people, not enough is made of their part in the whole thing.'

Captured German Officers, D Day + 2, who had been rounded up outside a French Chateau.

'Some of the padres must have suffered with the constant round of burials. In some cases they seemed to go a bit funny. We used to dig a long trench, fill it with bodies in sacks and cover them over. The padre would carry out the service, while we just moved on. The intention was for the bodies to be sent home later. One thing which is never talked about is the incredible number of bodies which had to be dealt with. It's the same in any war.'

'Falaise Gap made us feel certain that the Germans were a spent force. They lost men, equipment and most important, they lost the spirit and the will to fight. They were squeezed into a gap or a corridor by the Canadians, along with British and American assistance. I consider Falaise Gap as the beginning of the end of the war in Europe for the Germans, certainly in France. It was absolute carnage. They now faced a race to the Rhine and the defence of the fatherland.'

'We were asked to escort some of our chaps who were suffering from shell shock and battle fatigue. They were just like zombies. Within a week or so most of those blokes were back in the thick of things. They were probably never fit enough for active service but needs must.'

'The Navy had their biggest fight at Walcheren on the Scheidt where they lost a tremendous number of sailors, marines and ships trying to open the river to Ostend. We'd taken Ostend but couldn't use the river to reach Antwerp because of the big guns at Walcheren. It was one fight I was quite lucky to miss, although one of my best mates died there.'

'We were taken back to Arromanches and the sea was really rough. We went out in some sort of barge with big nets on the side. We had to scramble up these nets and we had to carry everything. I was on a Vickers machine gun so we split it up between the team. It was still very difficult to get up those nets. When you were half way up the net, the boat would move this way and then that way and make it even more difficult. We had two killed who got caught between the nets and the sides of the ship. It was worse than going over in a glider.'

Rest camp; Manor du Mensil-de-Breville.

'Even though there was a war on, there were still opportunities to have some fun. One feller named Blackhouse fancied a drink and we weren't on for a couple of hours. We'd dug a trench, filled it with curtains from a local house and covered it with a net because of the huge mosquitoes which were about. The frogs were also making such a racket, anyway we hitched a lift from a Yank and got into Ouistreham. We went into a cafe and had a steak with salt. All of a sudden there was a hell of a commotion as General Richard Gale came past in his jeep with the pennant flying. We realised we had better get back as there was obviously something on. We got back so far thanks to another Yank. The mud was incredibly deep. We would have been put on a charge but it was all forgotten.'

'Christmas '44 was pretty miserable because we had little in the way of food, just apples from local Belgians. The Americans had coffee and were eating with the Germans. There was no fighting to speak of, just the weather to contend with. They even thought of sending us snow suits, but that was after the snow had gone. This was in the Ardennes, a complete farce.'

'I went over in the Rhine crossings which I consider to have been much worse than Normandy. They pulled us out of the Ardennes about six weeks into 1945 to get ready for the Rhine crossing. They were waiting for us. We landed at Haminkeln and took our objectives but lost half the Regiment during that crossing.'

'We started to move on once we were over the Rhine because they did not make the same mistake which had been made at Arnhem when they had sent the Airborne in first. This time they sent the troops over to gain a foothold. We landed eight miles in front of them. This time the troops could reach us, not like at Arnhem. That truly was a bridge too far.'

'The next objective was the Elbe, but this time all the bridges had been blown and we had to make our own way across. I remember one bloke swimming across with a rope towing a raft to get some guns over. After that it was just a race to the Baltic to try and beat the Russians.'

'We met some Russians on the Baltic coast and discovered that quite a few of their troops were actually women. We only realised that when it came to the toilet provision. Soon after I came home and was sent to Palestine for another eighteen months.'

Bob behind a captured German Ack-Ack gun.

'I was over in Europe until September 1945. 1 got wounded quite badly in Ghent when a German bayoneted me during a fierce battle. It was hand to hand fighting. It was my second wound, the first had been in the 'wrong' shoulder because I was still able to use the bren gun and was sent back into service. Remember we were a relatively small army so we were short of men.'

'I was hospitalised in Brussels but was sent out on a ship from Ostend, along with three other casualties. We went out to the Far East.'

'The Staffords were broken up and provided reinforcements for other units. I went into Germany to a place called Badoeyenhausen because I had been posted to 21 Army Group and one of their units called Technical Intelligence. We used to go out and inspect any captured weapons and do a write up on them and photograph them. The reports went direct to Monty and a copy went to the War Office. It was really interesting. I was over there until the end of March 1946 and then I came home to be demobbed.'

'I burnt everything when I got home. I told my mother that I had killed people and didn't want to be surrounded by the memories. I gave the kids my medals. I had them re-ribboned and they were returned to me on joining the NVA.'

'I found the name of one of those two chaps killed on the Memorial in Portsmouth but not the other, the Captain. I wrote to the authorities and was told that only those with no known grave are remembered on the Memorial. Captain Thomas was buried in France.'

'Most of our chaps are buried at Ranville. It's a huge graveyard. The last time I was there I found one or two of my mates. The bloke in charge helped me to find them. There are still a lot of our blokes buried in graveyards in small French villages. I remember that during my time over there we came across many of the World War I cemeteries and found a lot of South Staffs blokes buried in them.'

'I've not seen a more impressive cemetery than the one at Omaha Beach. It is in the shape of the American Eagle. The first grave you see is that of General Theodore Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. The graves all come down to a point.'

'It isn't until you go to those cemeteries that you realise how many Jewish soldiers died in those battles because of the large number of Stars of David you see.'

'I remember on one visit to Normandy I asked the coach driver to stop at one cemetery. It was a German War Cemetery. Some of the others in the party couldn't understand me wanting to go there. I explained that I could have been responsible for some of those buried there and they were some mother's son just like us and deserved to be treated with respect. I bore them no real malice and probably they bore me no malice, it was just a job that had to be done.'

Ron Picken at Ranville Cemetery in 1995.

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