Captain MacMillan's report on the activities of the 317 (Airborne) Field Security Section, Normandy 1944.

The following excerpts are from Captain MacMillan's report, written in 1968, on the activities of the 317 (Airborne) Field Security Section, which he commanded:

I assumed Command of 317 Field Security (FS) Section (Airborne), 6th Airborne Div at Bulford Camp about mid-April 1944. My predecessor in Command was Capt. Donald Louden who went to 21st Army Group as General Staff Officer (GSO) 3 I(b). I had previously commanded 301 FS Sec (HQ Sn Comd) from early February 1944; and after taking command of 317 FS Sec I still continue to fulfil a number of lecturing engagements which I had previously undertaken for Sn Comd.

When I took command of 317 Sec, plans for the invasion were far advanced. I had already had a general idea of some of the special measures involved in the assault (PLUTO, swimming tanks, etc). However it was only after joining 6th Airborne Division (Div) that I was informed of the Div's target area and its relevance to the invasion as a whole.

I was given this information at the Planning HQ of the Div on my first day of duty. I was also given the name of the Operation, OVERLORD, which was Most Secret; and the actual meaning of the Codeword was Top Secret. During the Planning Phase my duties as Field Security Officer (FSO) were:

(a) to take my tour of duty at Planning HQ (a secluded house near Bulford);

(b) to train my Section in general military readiness - map-reading by day and night, range-practice etc, etc;

(c) to write an Appreciation of the Situation from BULFORD;

(d) to lecture on Security to all ranks of the Div and also of the Div NAAFI; as well as to all the top brass of Sn Comd area - Navy, Army, RAF, Police, Fire Service, WVS etc, etc, etc; in fact, all the major static formations in the Sn Comd area.

One of my duties during the planning phase - especially just before the move into the concentration areas - was to destroy by fire (assisted by senior NCOs of the Planning HQ staff) all drafts and documents relating to the planning of the invasion. We did this in the garden of the Planning HQ; that is to say, I personally stood by the fire and supervised the entire burn-up.

As a further security precaution I stationed my Field Security Non Commissioned Officers (FS NCOs) around the general area surrounding the Planning HQ in order to pick up and reduce to powder any fragments which might float away from the fire. In theory they should have done this without reading such fragments of paper/ashes.

In fact, as I was told much later, they did pick up sufficient fragments to give them a pretty accurate picture about the Div's target area. D-Day was 6th June 1944.

 

H-Hour was when the sea-borne assault was to hit the beaches, roughly 6am on 6th June. The first elements of 6th Airborne Div to land were the coup de main (glider-borne) parties which assaulted the bridges over the Orne Canal and river at approximately 00.30 hrs on 6th June; and the Independent Para Company. No Field Security Personnel (FSP) were attached to these Units (though it should be recorded that the Second in Command (2i/c) of the Independent Parachute Company was a former Offr of the Int Corps).

The first FSP in Normandy were attached to the Para Bdes which jumped shortly after the coup de main parties. FSO and Div HQ FSP landed at approx 03.30 hrs.

The Sec lost 2 NCOs on the drop; both were taken PW and survived the war. These losses were due to aircraft missing their course; which is very understandable, given that their DZs were determined mainly by prompt sighting of river courses within seconds of crossing the French coast in darkness.

We were lucky not to lose more FSP on the drop. However, in my view, this is a risk which has to be accepted. The fact is that the presence of FSP with the assault formations enhances the prestige of FSP with the fighting formations and troops.

However, it cannot be denied that this entails a pretty high degree of risk - as is inevitable with all Airborne personnel. One major factor to be considered is the replacement of Airborne FSP. They are pretty hard to come by; and they are generally extremely gifted linguists, whose usefulness to the Div and its formations and Units is very great.

The risks involved are high indeed. Major Jerry Lacoste G2(I) was seriously hurt on the drop; Capt Max, G3(I), was in a glider which missed the proper LZ and, according to what we heard later, landed in the grounds of an enemy HQ where Capt Max and others were killed in the first minutes of the invasion, doubtless having destroyed the various documents relating to the invasion; Capt Freddie Scholes Div IO, who took over from Major Lacoste, was killed some 10 days after we landed (his baby daughter was born while we were in concentration areas and he never saw the child); Capt McBride, the API Offr, was killed during July. 

 

As is known, the Proclamation that the Allied Armies had made the long-awaited assault for ‘la liberation’ - and that this was the "real thing" was issued in the name of General Eisenhower. However, in view of the special situation involved in an Airborne Op, especially involving re-supply and jettison drops we decided in BULFORD to renew a special Proclamation to tell the French in our area that this was ‘la liberation’ - and give instructions re leaving alone any material which might be dropped. Capt Max, Capt. Scholes and myself composed this document, which the Div distributed in the name and under the authority of Gen. Gale. Some copies of this document may exist still in NORMANDY; in any event, our proclamation was certainly in circulation earlier than those of Gen. Eisenhower and/or Gen. De Gaulle.

 

 It is important to emphasise how "untypical" this battle was from the accepted doctrine of the use of Airborne forces (the quick assault, the speedy reinforcement by sea-borne troops, the quick withdrawal from the line and re-forming for subsequent ops). However, from the security aspect this was almost an ideal op. The assault and bridgehead phases were an almost clinically-perfect "security seal".

Since the Div, by and large, was able to secure its main objectives, viz, the bridges over the ORNE river and the Canal de CAEN, we (ie the FS Sec) had the ideal security set-up, via:

(a) our left flank was on the sea; our rear was secured by the ORNE and the Canal; our front was held by our troops (however loosely at the start); and within our area we had to deal with a completely friendly population, which had seen very few Germans (and though these were mostly well behaved the French we glad to be rid of them).

(b) we were able to give our own troops a completely certain security guarantee in respect of every civilian in the area we held. This was done by a very simple device planned by my predecessor, Capt Louden. We called in the entire population of our bridgehead (only a few hundreds) and over stamped their French Identity Cards with a British Id stamp, over stamping this with the official stamp of 317 FS Sec, countersigned by the FSO.

  

As we were in a very rural area which rarely saw many Germans (apart from HEROUVILLETTE where the local Commander did his best to minimise the impact of the Occupation on the French) there wasn't much of a Resistance organisation locally. The main usefulness to us of the CAEN Resistance was in giving us news of any of our POW whom they could identify and what had happened to them - eg, they were sometimes harboured by the Resistance; or, if wounded, smuggled into hospital and treated there.

This information was communicated to Div HQ; I gathered that such information was handled very gingerly in further communications, (eg, as regards informing anxious relatives of those reported missing) so as not to compromise sources.

Sometime later FSO was informed from Corps and higher HQ that the Resistance was going to try to pass an agent into our lines who would give the code-word ‘Je viens de la part de Napoleon-Cesar’. This agent did not get through. After the war I learned from the Commander of the Resistance at BEUZEVILLE, M. Le Docteur (Veterinaire) Renoult, that it was their Unit which had attempted this penetration. The object was to inform us that a perfectly enormous piece of enemy artillery which used to stonk us every night - though with no great success - was a railway gun which hid by day in the long railway tunnel at BEUZEVILLE; its recoil merely took it back to its "hide" in the tunnel. We should have been glad to know about this, as our fighter-bombers were searching for it pretty industriously, with understandable lack of success.

 

 The greatest security asset the Div possessed in every aspect, but especially that of morale, was Gen Gale. He must have been one of the very few Generals who was awarded the DSO for (apart from magnificent leadership) actually being in the very front line and shooting it out against the enemy in probably our most critical action in the early days. Apart from that battle (fought by the Devons), Gen Gale had an infallible "nose" for where the next engagement was likely to take place. Because wherever I turned up to visit a Unit I could be certain that Gen Gale's jeep, with its Div Comdr's pennant was there ahead of me. And that always meant that trouble was breaking out right there and then.

I may add that I never saw the Gen in his jeep at such times; he and his ADC were always somewhere among the troops; and, I suspect, doing a lot of front-line shooting.

 

Somewhere in the publications concerning the 6th Div's Op in NORMANDY there occurs a story which made newspaper headlines when it was published after the war from official sources. It concerned an Exercise carried out by 9th Para Bn in a rehearsal for their attack on the MERVILLE battery. Naturally the troops, the subalterns of the 9th Bn, and even FSP were still unaware of the relevance of the Exercise to Op OVERLORD. It was decided to stage a "security exercise" in connection with the Bn Exercise (partly to make those engaged in the "rehearsal" imagine that security was possibly the major reason for the Exercise).

The Offrs and troops (and FSP) were told that a number of attractive young women from the various Services would be "infiltrated" into their area and would attempt to gain information of a security nature - isolated trivialities which, gathered by an enemy I-Staff, could give a fairly accurate picture of the objectives of the Exercise. The post-war newspaper stories (following the official account which was released) gave great praise to the security mindedness of all ranks of the 9th Bn, who divulged not one item of information to these glamorous Mata Haris. This wasn't because they weren't glamorous enough - they were! Unhappily, the troops- which had been laid on to take the girls to the Exercise area didn't turn up - so the lassies never got into action at all.

However, no doubt they were glad enough to get into civvies officially (for once in a while); and doubtless the Offrs and men of the Bn had some amusement watching out for glamorous "enemy agents".

 

 Another example which I used in my lectures was aimed at giving confidence to sentries to challenge anyone approaching their post, and scrutinise their identification intelligently, no matter what their (apparent) rank. I used to illustrate this as follows:

"No matter how short a time you have been in the Service, you all know that a Padre has always three pips up; so if you run across a "Padre" with only two pips up you put him straight in the guard-house."

This generally raised a smirk from the soldiery - and the point of the illustration went home. Excellent lecturing technique! However, one hot day in RANVILLE, NORMANDY, I was hailed with a very large "hello" by a friend of mine of University days. He was in the 51st HD. He was wearing two pips - and a dog collar!

I enquired of him about this interesting innovation in military attire. It emerged that he had been recognised by the Church of Scotland as a Padre, since he had done some years of theological training for the Ministry before the war (which I knew); but as he had also been in the OTC he had had the choice of continuing his theological studies or opting to take a Commission as a combat Offr. He had opted for the latter and had been with the 51st HD for a long time, but now he had switched to his chosen career in the Ministry - since the Church of Scotland had now decided that people in his position could do so. All that was required to regularise his position as regards rank was for the War Office to amend his status and transfer him to the Chaplain-General's department.

Simple when you come to think about it. That's the way life goes.

 

 In conclusion, and with particular reference to the above example - in FSP work, never be sure of anything.

 Extracts supplied by Marie-Claire Dibbern.

Read More

Related People

Donate

Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces