David Hunter's Recollections of D-Day

D-Day had arrived at last. After 2 1/2 years in the army I was going into action for the first time. As a platoon Commander in the 7th Parachute Battalion of the 6th Airborne Division I was to be in the spearhead of what turned out to be the largest invasion force ever. We were to drop 3 miles inland in Normandy at about 1 am ahead of the Seaborne Forces who were to land at 6.30 am.

I had joined the army from St Andrews University in January 1942. As I had obtained Certificate A in the OTC at George Watsons, Edinburgh and Certificate Bin the OTC at St Andrews I went straight to OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) at Barmouth, Wales and in June 1942 I was commissioned in the Royal Scots. I was still only 19 and a very inexperienced and immature Officer. However, I began to learn the job and three months as an Instructor at the Division Battle School gave me some confidence. In December 1943 I had a rush of blood to the head and volunteered for the Parachute Regiment. I suspect my main motive was to impress the girls.

After 2 weeks hard physical training and 2 weeks parachute training, including 8 jumps, I found myself at the end of January 1944 with the 7th Parachute Battalion at Bulford Camp in Salisbury Plain. I had transferred from the oldest Regiment in the British Army to the newest. The 6th Airborne Division had only been formed in 1943. After the Royal Scots it was like a breath of fresh air. The Royal Scots method of dealing with a new Officer was to ignore him (with a few honourable exceptions). I found the mainly English Officers of the 7th Paras very friendly and welcoming. There were 2 other Scots Officers "Mac" Macdonald and "Haggis" Fleming and I became known as "Jock". I was put in a reserve company, but shortly after I arrived poor "Haggis" was injured in a grenade accident. As his platoon contained a number of Scotsmen, the CO asked me to take it over in preference to several other English Officers who had been in the reserve company longer than me. Had it not been for this accident I would have missed D-Day.

I think a lot of people have the impression that paratroopers nowadays are thugs in uniform. This generally was not the case with us, both Officers and men. My room mate at Bulford was the gentle Bill Bowyers who played the trumpet in the battalion dance band and knelt by his bedside every night to say his prayers. There was Bertie Mills our Academic Intelligence Officer who was to become Rector of Edinburgh Academy and Richard Todd, a repertory actor who was to become a famous film star. There was old Eatonian Nick Archdale, barrister Bernard Braithwaite, now a Judge, London Solicitor Nigel Taylor and my old friend Stephen Theobald, a great all round sportsman, a schoolboy international rugby stand-off and after the war British Olympic Hockey player. There was one tough guy who joined my company after D-Day. He was Jack Simpson, a Grimsby Fisherman who had been a Sergeant Major in the Guards with the 8th Army in Africa. He didn't trouble to wear socks under his boots.

We had no idea when D-Day would be or where we would be going. It was, however, a clear indication that action was imminent when we were inspected by King George and Queen Elizabeth accompanied by 17 year old Princess Elizabeth and shortly thereafter, addressed by General Montgomery. It was nice to have it confirmed by him, what we already knew, that we were his elite troops.

Towards the end of May 1944 the battalion proceeded to Exeter: We encamped beside the River Exe where it ran parallel with the Exeter Canal and spent a day or two crossing both waterways in rubber dinghies. At about the beginning of June we were taken to a sealed camp, the location of which I am unaware to this day. No one got out of this camp and no one got in. Our Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Pine-Coffin a professional soldier with a distinguished record with the 8th Army and a man of considerable personal charm told the Officers that the destination was Normandy. The 6th Airborne Division was to secure the Eastern flank of the Bridge head in the vicinity of the River Orne near Caen. The 7th Battalion's task was to secure the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen Canal between Ranville and Benouville. So we now understood the reason for the rehearsals at Exeter. Three gliders were to land alongside each of the bridges half an hour before the paratroopers dropped. The Glider borne troops were to capture the bridges before they could be blown up. A Company (my company) was to take up position to the south of Benouville. B Company would be at the hamlet of Le Port at the north end of Benouville. C Company would be in between in reserve.

Eventually, I had to brief my platoon, no. 3 of A Company. After crossing the bridges we had to clear up the main street of Benouville then turn right at the top of the village and get dug in in a field in front of a farm at the south end of Benouville. It all sounded very straightforward, but I warned them that it wouldn't be like that. They had to be prepared for the unexpected and all sorts of disasters. I was to be proved right about that.

After about a week in the sealed camp the day came when we had to proceed to the airfield. I had no idea which airfield but I learned from a book recently that the 6th Airborne Division took off from a number of airfields, namely Brize Norton, Blakehill Farm, Down Ampney, Broadwell in Gloucestershire and Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. The men were all in high spirits. They had been ordered to have their hair cut very short and some had got the barber to shave out a V for victory sign on the back of their heads. One of my Sergeants was more sober. He was a veteran of the African Campaign and knew we were not going on a picnic. I now understand that General Eisenhower was told to expect 50% casualties in the Airborne Forces on D-Day. For my platoon the statistics were going to be worse than that.

We arrived at the airfield in the evening of 5th June. We then filed past the WAAF parachute packers who handed us our parachutes. "I hope that's not your dirty washing in there", I said to the attractive girl who handed over my bag. Then it was out to the waiting aircraft, lined up in rows in the darkness like large black silent birds of prey. Before enplaning we blackened our faces. I think we used boot polish but I read somewhere recently that the Americans used cocoa. My platoon was divided between two planes with 18 men in each. In the plane, which was a Stirling bomber converted for our purposes, the first job was to hook up our parachutes to the static lines which were fixed to the inside of the plane. This meant that when we jumped out the bag containing the parachute was ripped off and the parachutes opened automatically without us having to worry about it. We did worry of course, but we didn't have to do anything like pulling a rip cord. We took off just before midnight and in about an hour we were over the DZ (drop zone). Anti aircraft flak exploded around us causing the plane to shudder. The red light went on in the plane. This was the signal to get ready to jump. Each man had to check the man in front was properly hooked up to the static line. We had to be dropped at 500 ft so that we didn't drift off the DZ and we landed fairly close together. It must have been a daunting task for the pilot to fly slowly at such a low height through the anti aircraft fire (on the Rhine operation I was dropped at well over 1000 ft and landed nearly a mile off the DZ. As it so happened that was to save my life, but that's another story). Six planes carrying our brigade, the 5th Parachute Brigade, were in fact shot down, at least one of them was with our battalion and these men were all lost.

Finally the green light came on and one after another we plunged through the large hole in the floor of the plane. The RAF despatcher was at hand to urge us on and get us out as quickly as possible after each other. As I jumped I felt the sudden swish of the plane's slipstream and, before I had time to panic, the sudden tug on my shoulders as my chute opened. It wasn't the WAAF's underwear after all.

As I floated down I could briefly admire the view and quite dramatic it was as lines of red tracer bullets shot through the darkness criss-crossing in different directions. Beautiful it was too - if you could forget these were bullets fired with deadly intent and you were one of the targets. I landed in a ploughed field without mishap. I was on foreign soil for the first time in my life. (There were no package holidays before the war. Our family travelled 17 miles from Cumnock to Prestwick every year for our holidays). This could now be a difficult phase of the operation. In the darkness I could see none of my men near me. Until we got to the battalion rendezvous (RV) we were on our own. However, there was, fortunately, no evidence of enemy troops in the immediate vicinity, but you couldn't be sure.

One half hour before us a group of pathfinders had been dropped. Their task was to locate the various battalion RVs and signal the men in with an Aldis lamp. The 7th Battalion pathfinder was Lieutenant John Rogers. I saw his green lamp flashing and eventually made contact with him. He told me that he was in the wrong place but he was able to direct me to the RV, a small wood in a gully. Colonel Pine-Coffin and my company Commander Major Nigel Taylor were already there. By 2.30 am less than 40% of the battalion had turned up. The other half of my platoon had not turned up (they had been dropped some miles away and turned up some days later). The CO had received the signal from the bridges that the assault by the glider coup de main force had been successful and the bridges were held intact. The inflatable rubber dinghies which had been carried by some of the men to the RV were discarded with relief. The CO decided he could not delay further. He left his second in command Major Steete-Baume (where do the English get these names?) to pick up any stragglers.

A Company was sent over the bridges. One was later to be called "Pegasus Bridge" after the insignia of the Airborne Forces. I went first, leading my depleted platoon. It was still dark. There were a few bodies lying on the bridges. I couldn't make out whether they were ours or theirs. It was my very first experience of death. I was still only 21. A tank was burning on one of the bridges and ammunition was exploding from it. I dashed past this in some trepidation. I was rushing into the unknown. I didn't know where the enemy was or when we were going to encounter them. I turned left into the village of Benouville. I knocked on a door. Two frightened ladies appeared. "Nous sommes parachutistes Anglais". I couldn't think of the word for British. I then rather absurdly said "moi, Ecossais". Who the hell cared at this time of high drama, but I had some idea that the French preferred the Scots to the English. Something to do with the Entente Cordiale. "Ou se trouve les Boches?" (Paddy McLean my French Master at Watsons would have been proud of my idiomatic French). Asking the question was one thing. Understanding the answer was quite another. I did however get the word "Chateau". I knew where that was from the aerial photos. It was on the outskirts of the village to the South East. We proceeded up through the village to the South End and turned to the right (Westwards) along a track which was hidden from the open field to the South by a high hedge. I suddenly heard German voices from somewhere beyond the hedge. I asked Lance Corporal McAra who was a very small man if he could see anything through the hedge. Dawn's early light was just on its way. Before I could stop him he squeezed through a small gap in the hedge. There was a burst of fire and he was killed. Oh God! I'd sent the brave wee man to his death. I've had to live with that on my conscience for the last 50 years.

The delay at the RV was going to prove disastrous for us. We should have got to our positions in the dark and got dug in before the Germans knew where we were and then be able to repulse the expected counter attack. When we got beyond the hedge and to the front of a detached house, we had arrived at the place where we were to dig in. I then saw to my dismay that a long line of German infantry was advancing towards us over the field. They were not much more than 200 yards away. Could we get cover in the house? I hoped it was empty. No such luck. A man within shouted "J'ai peur j'ai trois enfants" Oh Hell! Why do civilians have to get in the way of battles. In front of the house was a small wall no more than one foot high. I ordered my men to get down there and not to open fire until I gave the order. Before that order could be carried out all hell was let loose. Grenades exploded among us, thrown by Germans from the corner of an orchard a few yards away. One of my men was killed. I got hit in the ear, but it didn't seem too bad. "Get the hell out of here!" I shouted and led them up a track leading back Northwards to the back of a farm. We then took up a position in the corner of the field at the Northwest corner of the farm. This unfortunately allowed the Germans to come through the farm under cover. I thought we were very vulnerable but we couldn't retreat any further.

I spotted a German up a tree about 50 yards away trying to get a better view of us. I grabbed private Pembury's rifle and shot the German who fell from the tree. I had a Sten gun which was only effective at very short range - about 3 feet in my case. The last occasion in which I had aimed a rifle at a living thing, it was a rabbit. I couldn't bear to press the trigger. How is that for a macho paratrooper!

I was now very near company HQ at the cross-roads. I quickly nipped over and found Major Nigel Taylor lying at the bottom of a large zig-zag trench which had been provided by the Germans. He had a large gash in his thigh. I reported where my platoon was now located and what had happened. He told me both the other platoon Commanders had been killed and Captain Jim Webber was trying to make contact with battalion HQ. There was no radio contact. It was terrible news about dear Bill Bowyer and Bill Temple. I said to Nigel, "if this is war, quite frankly, I don't like it one little bit". He asked me to try and get in front of the farmhouse. I knew this was a hopeless proposition, but I said I would see what I could do. I didn't feel like arguing with him in his present condition. It transpired later that I had made quite an impression on Nigel. I was quite unaware that blood was pouring from the wound in my ear and I was really quite a bloody sight.

I was sorry to leave the safety of the trench. Back with my platoon things were hotting up. We were at the receiving end of mortar bombs. I told Sergeant Newman that the Company Commander wanted us to try and get back in front of the farm. He agreed it was out of the question. We were down to about a dozen men and we were really pinned down. Private Pembury who was beside me was badly wounded with a shattered leg. He lay on the roadway which ran alongside the wall of the farm. I took out his two large field dressings (paratroopers were provided with these as it was anticipated they would be out of reach of medics as was the case here. We also had morphine) and bandaged him up, as best I could. I also gave him a shot of morphine. While I was doing this I put my Sten gun down.

Suddenly the door in the wall was flung open. I looked up and was confronted by a German no more than a yard away with his Schmeisser submachine gun pointing right at me. I was a press on the trigger away from oblivion. He hesitated long enough to enable one of my men to send him to oblivion. I sometimes wondered if the poor chap hesitated to kill a soldier who was attending to the wounds of a comrade. It all of course happened in a flash and my man just reacted quicker. In the chaos of the day I never found out who had saved my life. I am sorry to say that he possibly lost his own life.

German stick grenades were now being thrown over the wall. When they landed at your feet, you had a second or two to move like hell away from danger. That is the course I took, but I was amazed to see my men picking them up and throwing them back over the wall! These men were terrific. They had been brought up in the depression in humble homes when there was minimum welfare. They owed their country very little but they gave their country everything. I don't mind admitting I was terrified out of my skin, but I could not show it - not to these men. I remember thinking at the time, "It's just as well I'm an Officer. If I wasn't I would probably run like hell".

I attempted to throw one of my grenades over the wall which was 10 - 12 feet high. As I mentioned before I was unaware that blood had been pouring out of my ear all day and I didn't realise how weak I was. The grenade didn't make the top of the wall and fell back on our side exploding on the roadway adding to poor Pembury's problems. I also didn't have the energy to use my entrenching tool to dig a hole for myself.

The Germans tried to attack us through the orchard on our right flank but were repulsed. There was a burst of German machine gun fire. Private Smith, a Bren Gunner, lying beside me gave a mortal scream and was dead. Simultaneously a bullet went through my right armpit. I was very lucky. It went right through without hitting the bone. It did catch the nerve however and my arm went numb. Later on a tank arrived at the cross-roads. This was the 21st Panzer Division who we knew were in the area. The tanks 75mm canon swivelled round towards us and the walls all around us were smashed to bits. The tank was later put out of action. I subsequently learned that Corporal Killeen, a popular extroverted and brave Irishman from one of the other platoons, had stood in front of the tank firing his Bren gun. When the tank stopped other paratroopers attacked it with gammon bombs. Corporal Killeen was killed.

For some time I had become very dopey and not capable of taking any significant part in the proceedings. Things quietened down. Perhaps my prayers had been answered. I am not religious but I do recollect earlier on praying quietly to God - if there was one - to get me out of this and I would be a good boy for ever after. It came to about 1300 hours. We have been in action in that hellish place since before 0300 hours more than ten hours. What had happened to the Seaborne invasion? It was then I heard the bagpipes in the distance. This was to let us know that Lord Lovat's Commandos were on their way. It was like a Hollywood film, The Cavalry was coming! It was a bit late for us. Half my men had been killed and the other half wounded.

Two Officers in the company had been killed and the remaining three wounded. Sometime later I found myself being lifted up and carried between two men. It was then that I realised that I was covered in my blood right down to my boots. I was taken to the Cafe near the bridges. This was the Battalion First Aid Post. I remember telling the orderly there that all I needed was a blood transfusion and then I would be okay. I didn't feel there was much wrong with me. I never dreamed I would be sent back to the UK But that was what happened. The next morning I was on the beaches being checked over by a Medical Officer. I felt ashamed that my wounds now seemed pretty minimal. My arm was a bit numb and I was very weak from loss of blood but I would have preferred a dirty big gash for a bit of show.

Along with other wounded I was loaded on to an amphibious vehicle called a DUKW to be taken out to a ship lying offshore. This had brought over tanks and was now transformed into an ambulance ship. While we were crossing the sand, a German plane came from nowhere and the DUKW was hit by its cannon. One man was killed. The rest of us were transferred to another DUKW. I felt something had struck my chin. I asked the man next to me what damage I had suffered, almost hoping that half my chin had been blown off and I'd feel more at home among all these badly wounded men. He said "You've just cut yourself shaving".

That night after a long journey in an ambulance I found myself in North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary in Stoke on Trent. The ward was full of D-Day casualties who had been fit to travel North leaving the hospitals in the South of England to cope with the more seriously wounded. The battle axe of a Matron had given strict instructions to the nurses to call us only by our surnames with not even a "Mr". This gave a considerable advantage to the one other chap from my brigade who was a Major Darling. He and I were soon able to be out and about. We went out for meals in hotels and became quite friendly. He was a regular soldier in the Montgomery mould. He would be in his mid thirties. When he returned to Normandy he took over his battalion and when we went out to the Far East he was my Brigadier. After the war he was a General in charge of the campaign against EOKA in Cyprus. He ended up GOC Army of the Rhine. You will excuse me a little name dropping.

The Scottish doctor in the hospital thought the nerve in my right arm had been cut and I would not be able to return to active service. However it had in fact only been grazed and it responded to physiotherapy. After about two weeks I was back at Bulford Camp and I managed to get a weekend home to Cumnock. When I was there I was told I had featured in the "Sunday Pictorial". I couldn't believe it. I got the paper and under the headline "Give these men a VC now", there were several stories of D-Day incidents. One referred to Corporal Killeen and there was one about me tying up Private Pembury's wounded leg while under heavy fire and suffering from a burst eardrum. It certainly was a bit over the top. When I was back at Bulford I was given a motorbike and sent round the hospitals in the South of England where there were wounded men from the 7th Battalion. At Portsmouth I found Private Pembury and asked him if he had anything to do with the story in the "Sunday Pictorial". He said reporters had come to the hospital asking for stories and "I thought I would do you a good turn Sir". "That was very kind of you" I said, considering that I nearly killed you with my grenade.

I re-joined the battalion in Normandy and the war went on. After the Division returned to the U.K. we were rushed out to the Ardennes where we were involved in the Battle of the Bulge. Thereafter there was the drop over the Rhine and on to link up with the Russians near Wismar. More adventures, more terror, more fun. I consider war a terrible madness and yet I must admit that that was the time of my life. We could not contemplate a fixture, but we had a present and we valued it. We lived and it was a privilege to live in such wonderful company.

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