John Stevenson's Personal Account of fighting in North West Europe during the Second World War.

The 2nd Bucks was a very smart regiment, and there was an air of seriousness everywhere and everyone seemed under pressure all the time. RSM East was killed in a grenade accident in 1943 whilst we were in Pipers Wood, nr Chesham, Bucks. There were also exercises at Castledawson, N. Ireland.

I was promoted to Acting Regt Sgt Major of the 2nd Bucks in May 1943. It was a difficult job, especially as I was only 25 years of age and had just no experience of the job. However I managed quite well it seems and a big parade inspected by the Colonel-in-Chief Princess Marina of Kent went very well. (RSM of this Bn had been changed quite often.) 1943 came to a close - I was at Broadstairs, Kent. After that the Bomber Command Battle School job was so different - I was personally training young NCOs of the Royal Air Force in ground tactics in an aggressive role. They were quite good and took an awful pasting by the Instructors.

Suddenly I found myself posted to the 1st Bucks Bn (of the Oxf & Bucks Lt Infty) and despatched to join them in Petworth House in Sussex. This was all so sudden. It appears that a CSM of this Bn had to be replaced quickly on the eve of D Day and the Bn was one of the first to be in Normandy that day. They were in fact there on the ground well before the gliders of the 6th Airlanding Brigade flew in. I remember that moment so clearly, "it was about 9pm on 6 June 44 and the Bucks had already established themselves on Queen Red and White opposite La Breche. This beach was on the extreme left of the landing and to the East. Riva Bella and of course, the well known Ouistreham (now used as a port by Brittany ferries).

Now, back to the 1st Bucks - I had no idea what was required of me - no doubt my predecessor had practiced for some four years for this day. Commander of one of the 2 Beach groups was killed on landing. Beach maintenance area could not be developed because strong-point at Lion-Sur-Mer held by enemy. Lt Col Sale assumed command of the 2 Beach groups (some 7000 strong).

I saw the dead bodies, (many of them) collected up and placed ready covered for moving somewhere. A lot of them were East Yorks and S. Lancs Regt. As for me, I was first off the Landing Ship. I was carrying a Sten and ammo, a life belt, a flame thrower and much more. On stepping off the ramp I landed on the sea floor (it seemed to me I had sunk quickly). Apparently I was dragged back on board by a Pte Jones of A Coy and then the craft reversed, went in again and those on board hardly had their boots wet. I had lost my helmet and wore a cap GS (a kind of beret). I soon found a helmet somewhere because of the excessive shelling that went on for the next 5 weeks. There were air raids too, usually late at night and early morning. The first dead body I saw was the top half of a red headed man - floating in the water.

Lots of enemy prisoners. Late June 6 it was decided both beach groups would double up. There was also much sniping from the close by houses - I thought all along the beach - in due course I was sent with a party of some 30 men to clear these houses under the command of a Capt Hope - later killed with the 51st Highland Division. Sniping continued throughout the night. At the end of the night a destroyer was firing into the houses.

It was for us an uneasy night on 6 June. Parties were collected together and we awaited orders for early next day. I was still wet through and it was late in July before I changed those trousers at Chateau St Come, when I had got back to D Coy of the 52nd {52nd Regiment of Foot - the old name for the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry}. Rumours were a plenty. We were of course told that the situation was quite serious, that Caen had not been taken and that enemy tanks were expected soon, if the Airborne Division was overrun and so on. Some German troops were discovered alive in a dug out used by our people!

(D+1) D Coy 1 Bucks relieved the Marines and covered the right flank of the beaches area. Single aircraft chased by Spitfire dropped a bomb in the petrol and ammo dump. Explosions followed, some 400 tons ammo, 60,000 galls of petrol lost. And of course the inferno was awful. Shelling of the beaches area continued for some 6-7 weeks. Many more instances of shelling or catastrophes. There was also a 4-5 day storm in mid June which caused everything to stop as far as unloading was concerned.

The defence of Ouistreham locks - Regt task 3 Rifle companies were placed in and around, plus a company in reserve in Riva Bella. Searches of all houses between Lion Sur Mer and Riva Bella. Many of these houses surrounded by old French mines laid by the Germans and considered very dangerous to lift. Beach group - establishment of dumps, reserve vehicles, ammo and other supplies, policing, unloading control - of course the War Chronicles explain it all.

Bn 800 strong - Caen captured 8/7/44. It is worthwhile to record that until Caen was captured on 8 July, fire was directed at us from two places - Lebisey Wood and the high ground at Houlgate. It is said that some 40 guns were firing at us on the beaches and it is a miracle that they did not kill more of us.

Bucks soldiers - they were kept very busy unloading boats/barges etc in organized parties of platoons. Eventually posted by platoons/companies as reinforcements to other Regts engaged in fighting - many to the 51st Highland Division.

Left Bn on 13 July 1944. I was so pleased. Having been offered the chance of volunteering to go to the 52nd, I did so, and after an interview with Lt Col Case, I was on my way - down the road towards Ranville and up to the 52nd at Chateau St Come, South of Breville. Lt Col Case, having been wounded early August 1944, at the entrance to the Caen Canal was evacuated to the UK. Later, as a Major (his sub rank), volunteered for the 1st S. Lancs in Feb 1945 (in 3 Inf Div) and very shortly afterwards was killed in the Reichswald battle - and so another very good leader passed on.

Now back to 13 July 1944, I was back home, so to speak, and welcomed by many old friends of 1940 days. It was great. This was the day I became aware of the enormous casualties that had occurred - mention a few - Lt James (my RSM at Oxford in 1940, and CSM in India), CSM Flexen, who had been my CSM in 1940 at Oxford. Pte Brendan Smyth who had enlisted in Nov 1935 at Belfast and a good friend and of course many others. The total Regt casualties in Normandy and wounded amounted to almost half of the Bn.

I was initially posted for the day and a night to the Heavy Weapons Company. Early next day I was sent to D Coy - Major Howard - who had no officers or CSM. This was at the rear of the Chateau. It was a very good company, at about half strength but with some very good NCOs, especially the Corporals. There was only one Sergeant - other platoon sergeants job were carried out by corporals. The last was Smith who was with me until well after the 24th March battle in 1945. That same day I was ordered to report to the Adjutant - then Capt JMA Tillett for patrol briefing - I did so and that night or early morning about 2am together with I think 6 men in the patrol I was off into the darkness to try and find the German positions. There was a great danger of 'S' mines and Alsatian dogs. It was also possible that German patrols were also out on the prowl. After a few hundred yards I left all except Pte Gray and myself behind as a firm base as the two of us went on a good deal further, maybe 200 yards - it seemed more. We found nothing and returned.

For the next few days it was all new to me - a company with only a company commander, 1 CQMS, 1 Sergeant and some 60 soldiers. Lt White, a recent arrival, had been hit during a shelling and evacuated. His Platoon A/Sgt (Godbold) said that Lt White grabbed the full bottle of whiskey before leaving - that full bottle belonged to Godbold - so he said - and the half full one to Lt White. We had quite a bit of shelling and mortaring and so we kept in our own slits {trenches} except for the odd 'O' Gp {orders group} or visits to the company latrine - quite a good one, deep and sealed at the top with 2 compo ration boxes! News of other units and companies came via the Coy Comd and the water car driver.

...accidents with weapons, and one soldier shot another with a 9mm pistol by deliberately pointing it as a joke and it went off. On the whole D Coy seemed very good and alert at all times. Our large packs arrived and we had a change of socks, shirt etc. I did find a nicely creased clean pair of trousers on a dead Royal Marine, so I acquired them and gave him mine. There were some 9 weak Para/gliderborne battalions in the Division plus a Royal Marine brigade of Commandos and a normal Commando Brigade - all in our Division - hence the Royal Marines.

Life consisted of a little eating, sleeping, weapon cleaning, patrolling - moves to and from Breville, Amfreville, St Come, Le Mesnil - shelling by guns, mortars, bombing of the Orne River and Canal bridge and of course the large bomber raid of about 20 July {Operation Goodwood} - I think it was some 1000 bombers - the earth around our slits certainly did shake.

Head cover was the in thing - there were many - a constant drain of casualties, from mortars, guns etc. Some slits became wet - they dried out again. Evans, the company commander's servant made tea on occasions - I think he used the dirty water that ran off the roof of an outhouse at St Come. I preferred my own tea. Fresh rations were on issue in July 44 - however we preferred the compo - I think with its hard bits.

Eventually in mid August we received orders to advance towards the Seine and we did so. It appears that the Germans opposite to us had retired. I understand that they were a mixture of Russians, Ukrainians and many others of Eastern types under tough German officers and NCOs. Few of them deserted without first fighting us off and they did not easily give up (I understand that each company had a German officer and sergeant). Our advance was 'towards' Troarn and up towards Brucourt and then east towards the R. Touques. Our route had taken us to Gonneville and Merville and Descanneville. Our march route was described then - as "patted, kissed, given drink usually apple cider and then shot at". A Belgian group was advancing along the seaside roads towards the Seine and on the right was 49 Div.

About the end of August we crossed the R. Touques, had some casualties from shelling. This river was about 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep where we crossed. It is on record that D Coy swam the river - I cannot remember that. I do remember seeing a dead couple in bed near there. I know not why - perhaps it was the custom, or were they murdered as if they had been pro-German? The advance continued to Malhortie via St Philibert, La Correspondence and Petreville and the village of Manneville la Raoult was reported held by the enemy (A Belgian armd car had been knocked out). The 52nd was deployed for an attack to seize the village and D Coy was launched through B Coy to seize the village. I was despatched by Major Howard to go forward to take command of the recce platoon and anyone else in trouble and sort it out. I did so and found the recce platoon on a side of the main road in possession of the village, but under very heavy fire and held down. Lt Bulford had been killed - he was the recce platoon commander. Mortar and artillery fire came down but by nightfall we were in possession and had a number of prisoners and some horse drawn transport. It was all quite frightening - seeing so much tracer firing at night - just as if from hose pipes. In the end the company commander came up and joined us.

It was about 26 August that we arrived at Foulbec (on the R. Risle) short of the Seine. After handing in all of our non British arms and equipment we were warned to return to the UK and did so about 2/3 Sept (from a transit camp at Ryes - south of Arromanches) via the Mulberry Harbour. At Bulford I was given a bunk in the block of S Company. It was a pretty cold and damp place. (It remained mine until we left for Palestine in late 1945). I had a table, chair and bed - little else. There was little time to use it except at night. D Coy was kept busy and Major Howard was still in command, but not for long. He had a terrible motoring accident - his jeep being hit just about head on by a large American vehicle. I was in the jeep behind with Major Styles when it happened. The next commander of D Company became Capt JMA Tillett (as a Major). The Company seemed to run quite well. It was just around then that I heard the news of the award of the DSO to Major Howard, for his part in the capture of the Benouville Bridge on D-Day.

Suddenly, just before Christmas Day, the 52nd was rushed off by sea and land to Givet on the river Maas, (South of Namur) to defend the town and bridgehead. The Rundstedt offensive had almost reached there. We arrived there on Christmas Day 1944 (and in a very hungry condition). The Regtl ration truck was miles behind or lost. It appears that the German armour ran out of petrol about 20 odd miles from the Givet Bridge.

After a period in the Ardennes in places like Custinne, Chateau de Walzin, Rastligne, Nassagne, Rochefort, and in very cold weather, we moved up to Holland to Grubbenvorst, near Venlo, on the River Maas. It was very very cold and much snow! There were many patrols here, near and over the river. A German sentry in a little hut could be seen through the glasses and one day when he appeared to do his usual daily walk to what was maybe a wc/earth closet, he was shelled and his position hit first time. A surprise for him!

From there we moved back to UK at the end of Feb 45, to prepare for the next airborne assault. We were sure it was to be the Rhine Crossing. Most of the 52nd were in Birch camp, Essex for the glider landing and take off. It was to be early on the 24th March 1945, at about 6.30am and we were due at Hamminkeln, Germany at 10.00 hrs. The whole of 6 Airborne Division and 17 American Airborne Division were to be in by air. The Americans flying from Brussels area.

I saw the anti aircraft barrage. The sky was full of aircraft. The parachutists dropped first and then the gliders went in to land, right in the east side of the battle. There were many planes and gliders on fire and smoke all over the area. The air seemed to be just red brick dust and it was difficult to see the ground, except that the unfinished autobahn was clearly visible. For a moment it seemed as if every glider had been wrecked.

On landing we were soon out of the glider which carried "D" Coy HQ. We lay around it, but not too close, until Major Tillett marked out where we were. After a dash across the road, to a house to secure it, we were soon on our way - near Hamminkeln station. I gave Lt Fox the company rum bottle - it saved me carrying it - I think it was a gallon.

Eventually, we moved to take over positions near C Coy, close to a rail bridge, which carried the railway over the Issel river. We were told the river was deep, which it was, but not in water - it was only a couple of feet after one got down the banks, which were steep.

D Coy had a platoon over the river, in a house close to the autobahn and Ringenburg and I was placed in command. Not many men were left there to fight - about 12. The others were lying wounded or dead downstairs. Upstairs I had men firing at the many German attacks. I could see the infantry, but only hear the tanks. We managed to break up all the attacks and when I was withdrawn from the house, it was being demolished by a tank. My next task was to take a platoon forward and again only 12 men and try to capture a farm, but just as we were about to attack we were stopped. Capt Scott the company second-in-command ordered the raid to be cancelled. It was just as well, as we would have had to move over open ground and we could only see one big door to the farm house. We did have a projector infantry anti tank (PIAT) to blow down the door. As the CSM I was sent all over the place to visit platoons of the company. For a while, at midday on the 24th the day of our landing, all was suddenly quiet for a few minutes. The CQMS and I manned a PIAT to shoot and stop tanks that were approaching.

There were 103 killed and 350+ wounded in the Battalion (Ox & Bucks) up to early 26th March and the doctors had few instruments. There was little help to be had, until the main army relieved us, in the early hours of the 26th. It was not a quiet relief - they made such a noise - we tended to be very quiet, so as to catch and wipe out any enemy. I saw the dead men hanging in trees by their parachutes. Throughout the battle we did not wear our steel helmets - threw them away - in case our own troops thought we were Germans. Every effort was made to get the ammunition and weapons out of the gliders not destroyed. It was pitiful to hear men trapped and alive. An anti tank gun platoon of C Coy disappeared on the night of 24th / 25th. A German patrol must have taken them in the darkness - perhaps their sentries had been knifed. Personally, I kept awake 2 nights as did all of "D" Coy. We had been issued with Benzedrine tablets to keep us awake, but the lack of sleep was awful. There was much to be remembered and to revisit it caused - all or most of the events to come back. I can remember the awful shelling near the Issel bridge and considered myself to be lucky to survive.

On the morning of the 26th March 1945 the battle of the landing area was over and the surprise was to come. The Division was told that as fresh troops, it would lead the advance and did so in a big way. Day after day and with or without the help of the Guards Tanks great gains were made, mostly on foot. I well remember fighting over the Dortmund Ems Canal - suffered much shelling after crossing the canal. Towards Osnabruck - on to the R. Weser. An Assault was made over the Weser during which the 52nd was bombarded by heavy flak guns.

After an attack on Frillerbank and Heinrichsteich we discovered the enemy had flown - and on 8th April (I think) we started on a long march (on foot of course as almost always) towards Winzlar. We moved on transport from Winzlar to Heitlingen and at this stage we were in the Corps Reserve. The 15th Scottish Division (and a very good Division too - always well spoken of) were up in front.

About 14th April we motored through Celle and then spent a night in the woods near there. I left my pipe and tobacco there. (I remember looking for a railway signal box there in 1958 in case the pipe was still there - I did not find the signal box or the pipe!). The column was bombed by Jet planes. Kahlstorf, near Emern had to be attacked (there were some self-propelled guns and troops nearby). A company undertook a set piece attack, there was much use of Artillery and Mortars. Kahlstorf was set on fire. The whole of the 52nd was subjected to bomb attacks. It was pretty awful and I can still see poor Sgt Howard running along for a few yards minus his head.

So far I still see clearly the very large (thousands) parties of Germans on the sides of the road near Hamminkeln awaiting movement to POW camps. I remember the awful fighting over the D-Ems Canal and the capture of the German guns. The times we were all so stupefied from lack of sleep - the first real rest was at Ebstorf, for almost a week. All had happened so quickly since the advance started on the 26th March. Stocks of food in German farm cellars. Russians and Poles wild and ill disciplined. The staff of camps liberated standing inside the wire guarded by their former prisoners. Liberated slave workers or POWs walking along - fainting and not getting up again.

The Regt as part of 6 Airborne Division went on to Bad Kleinen to help secure the line Wismar - Schweriner See and to meet the Russian Army (link up with Russian Army on 3/5/45). 7th May - the 52nd was selected to provide a Guard of Honour at Wismar for the meeting between Field Marshal Montgomery and Marshal Rokossovsky of the Russian Northern Group of Armies. I was the CSM and stood on the right - you could say I was the first man of the 52nd to look at a Russian Marshal that day. It was a first class parade (our commander was Major RAA Smith MC). Many congratulations were received re the turnout and drill.

Thousands and yet more thousands of Germans arrived at Bad Kleinen to surrender and the Regt was kept busy. End of hostilities - Major Styles fired pistol at the ceiling of the Officers Mess. Whilst at Bad Kleinen there were several visits to the Russian Army. I went with Major Tillett to a house to meet some Russian Officers and it was quite an experience. Their vehicles looked very impressive with large radio sets, their soldiers on the whole looked quite murderous, wild and very Asiatic. Their Officers seemed to wear medals made out of lemonade bottle tops and their uniforms either boiler suits or blue denim with leather Jackboots - so it seems now.

A perfectly good table cloth and glasses were gathered up and thrown through the window by the Russian Waiter - he said he was a POW and expected to be repatriated to Russia and shot or sent to Siberia - so our Interpreter said. The table was covered in Newspapers and we had Vodka, water, raw eggs and Jam. I had some Vodka and water - but not much, and as we left, all the Russians were on the floor quite drunk and snoring. We were glad to leave. I am told our soldiers really enjoyed their visits to the Russian units and took part in horse riding. Some (Russian soldiers) did drink the aircraft fuel from the tanks on a train in the rail sidings. These Russians were armed and had to be shoved off.

It was in Bad Kleinen that I met a "civilian" who winked and grinned at me. It was Pte Roach of D Company who had acquired a suit from a clothing factory in Hagen, near Osnabruck and carried it until Bad Kleinen. I was thinking of shooting at him when he disclosed his identity - I enjoyed the joke - he had quite improperly been out to break the non fraternization ban.

At the end of hostilities the Regt was very busy organizing the reception of thousands of POWs. They streamed back from the East (together with many many refugees) to surrender to the British Army. Road blocks were set up and of course many were too late and forced to stay in Russian hands. Gunners from 5 Division relieved us on the 17th May and soon we were back in the UK and at Bulford to prepare for service in the War against Japan. I returned to the same bunk in S Company block and retrieved my best trousers, which I had left under the mattress to be creased, together with a few other possessions. CSM Sheridan and I ordered a barrel of beer at the Oxford Depot and went there to help drink it, helped by many others - I think we spent a week there.

There had been many many casualties in the ops of 24 March to 8 May in Germany - most of them in the landing and in the two days afterwards. We had, of course, little time to think about it all.

Courtesy of Mark Stevenson

Read More

Related People


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