Personal account of Brig James Hill's experiences in Normandy

I was somehow in the right place at the right time and early in 1943 I was given command of the 3rd Parachute Brigade which was then in its infancy. I was still having my wounds dressed from my injuries in North Africa and to obtain an A1 certificate I had to agree that I would not get a pension for the wounds I had received up till then. This suited me, because I hadn't joined the army to get a pension.

One day I was summoned to Divisional Headquarters by Richard Gale, who said, 'James, we have been given the one and only Canadian Parachute Battalion to join this division, and I want it to go in your brigade, so you have got to get rid of one of your battalions.' I went home absolutely delighted at the thought of having the Canadians, but sad to have to send my senior battalion, the 7th, to play a leading role in the formation of the 5th Parachute Brigade.

The arrival of the Canadians brought a new lease of life to the brigade. They were very similar to the 1st Parachute Battalion in as much as they were formed from soldiers who wanted to fight and the sooner the better, soldiers of fortune really. They didn't want to sit in Canada and miss the war, so they'd joined the newly formed Canadian Parachute Battalion. As one parachute battalion is no good to anybody they were very wisely given to us.

Some were very hard men and just what you would expect to come from the Canadian outback. There were 49 Red Indians, and about the same number of French-speaking Canadians. I went up to hospital to visit one Red Indian whose parachute hadn't opened. Almost every bone in his body was broken, yet he lived to tell the tale and fathered 14 children. They could be a bit boisterous and on one occasion, while returning from leave, one of them had crawled along the outside of the train and dropped a hand grenade down the funnel of the engine. I was hopping mad at that because it immobilized our leave train for a month.

I knew it was going to be tough in Normandy so I insisted on everyone being 250 per cent fit, and they were. I made sure that every officer could do two jobs and this proved absolutely invaluable. Every battalion and company had an A and B Headquarters, so that if one was knocked out, the other could take over. All the soldiers were trained to use other people's weapons and to drive Bren carriers — anything that kept the battle going. My four rules of battle I rammed home: number one, speed; we had to get across country faster than anyone else; two, control — no good commanding unless you have discipline and control; three, simplicity (in thought and action); and four, effective fire power or fire effect.

Well, the great day was arriving and all my battalions were penned in their camps, which they weren't allowed to leave. This period was very interesting to me. All day long the Canadians, with whom I'd pitched my tent, were playing games — baseball, throwing balls about — and I thought what tremendous vitality these Canadians had got. Then in the afternoon I would visit my English battalions and find half a dozen chaps desultorily kicking a football, and the rest asleep. I thought to myself, here is the difference between the Old World and the New; the elan and joie de vivre of the New World of the Canadian, and the maturity and the not worrying, not bothering and having a good nap while you can, of the British.

Attached to my Brigade HQ was my Commando liaison officer, David Haig-Thomas [Editor's Note - name corrected, in the original interview Brig Hill mistakenly refers to Peter, David's father], who before the war had been stroke of the Cambridge boat and the British boat in the Berlin Olympic Games. He was a very great naturalist who had gone to live with the Eskimos for two years in Greenland in order to study the Greater Snow Goose. I went out for a walk with him and we found three quarter-grown hares running about. He said he could talk to them so he left me and walked up very close to them, squatted down, and talked to them. As he walked back I had an intuition that I shouldn't see him again after D-Day. He was one of the most remarkable characters I'd met in my life. And, of course, shortly after the sun rose on that first morning in Normandy, he was dead — what a loss!

The evening before D-Day arrived and I went round to brief all the officers in every battalion and a lot of the chaps as well. My final words to them were, 'Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and your splendid briefing, you must not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will!' Chaos certainly did reign, and what I had said stuck in so many people's minds that they were not daunted.

The 3rd Brigade had three tasks: the first was to capture and put out of action the Merville battery, which commanded the beach defences, before the D-Day landings, and the second was to destroy five bridges over the River Dives (spread over some seven miles of waterlogged country). After that we were to hold a vital ridge which overlooked the whole of the Orne valley, exclusive of the village of Breville, in the north, down to the west side of Troam in the south. This was a fairly wooded ridge which entirely overlooked Caen and the Orne bridges. The third task we were given was to harry the enemy by strong fighting patrols to the south of Troarn, to make the intercommunicating roads unsafe for them.

On D-Day I was jumping No. 1, which gave me a problem. In camp, to keep the Canadians amused, I'd had a football with Hitler's face on it in luminous paint. Everyone knew I was proposing to drop this, along with three bricks, which they gave me with some rather vulgar wording painted on them, onto the beach to astonish the enemy. So there I was, as brigade commander, standing in the door of the aeroplane with a football and three bricks! As we got over the beaches, out went the football and the bricks and myself. As I orientated myself it appeared that I had been dropped with my stick bang in the middle of the River Dives. However, what the Germans had done in anticipation was to flood the valley of the Dives. On either side of the river were water meadows with very deep irrigation ditches. The Germans had wired this area before they flooded it so it was really a very impenetrable barrier.

I had tea-bags sewn into the top of my battledress trousers, so while I was trying to get out of this lake I was just making cold tea! The way we got out was that we each had six-foot ropes with a wooden handle at each end for tying things up. As we met up with others we linked up with these toggle ropes because if you went into a deep ditch and you weren't tied to someone, you drowned, and there were many drowned that night. After a four-hour struggle we got out, more or less on the edge of our DZ. The Canadians reported that they had captured the DZ and the German command post, so as far as I could tell, all was going well.

I realised I had to get back to my Brigade Headquarters as soon as I could, but I thought the vital thing was to find out what success the 9th Battalion had had with the battery. By now I had collected 42 very wet stragglers, and we set off down a track. It was a very mixed party from different battalions, including two naval ratings and an Alsatian messenger dog. It was about twenty to seven in the morning, when all hell broke loose! The naval bombardment of the beaches had started; it was worth a guinea a minute – unbelievable. Then suddenly I heard a noise and I shouted to the chaps to get down. Unfortunately our little lane had high hedges on both sides and no ditches. I threw myself on top of Lieutenant Peters, and realised that we'd been caught in pattern bombing from low-flying aircraft, and it was horrible. When, thank God, they'd gone, I raised myself on my arms and looked around. This little lane was clouded with dust and dirt and stank of cordite and death. Then I saw a leg in the middle of the road. I knew I had been hit, but when I took another look I saw it had a brown boot on, and I knew it wasn't mine. The only chap in the brigade who got away with wearing brown boots was the mortar officer of the 9th Battalion, Lieutenant Peters, and I was lying right on top of him and he was dead. His leg had been severed from his body, yet I was alive. I had been saved because I had a towel and a spare pair of pants in the bottom of my jumping smock, but my water bottle had shattered and I had lost most of my left backside.

From that column the only two people who could get on their feet were my brigade defence platoon commander and myself. I then had a problem as a commander. There I was surrounded by 30 or so dying or very badly wounded men. Should I stay with them or what? The answer was, of course, no. We were fighting a battle and we had to get on. We gave jabs to all of them with their own morphia. Then we collected the morphia from the dead and distributed it amongst the living. As we moved off those men, who were all to die, gave us a cheer. That moment will stay with me forever.

We went on and caught up with the 9th Battalion at the foot of the slope of the Sallenelles feature which they had been ordered to capture. I was reassured to hear that they had stormed the Merville battery with 150 men and had taken it. I was then put in the clutches of their medical officer Doc Watts, who patched me up. When he'd finished he told me that I should get further treatment and not go back to my brigade because I looked bad for morale! To which I replied, `If you'd been four hours in the water, brewing cold tea, and had lost most of your left backside, you wouldn't look very good for morale either.' But he was very good and got me a lady's bicycle. I decided I would find Richard Gale, the divisional commander, and tell him what I'd seen and knew.

I sat somewhat gingerly on this bicycle, being pushed by a parachute soldier! It was a two-mile trip, fortunately downhill. Sometimes we saw Germans running across the road, sometimes British parachute chaps, but we just carried on until about midday when we arrived at Richard Gale's Divisional Headquarters. He did me the power of good because he said, `Well, James, I am very pleased to be able to tell you that your battalions have all captured their objectives.' I was delighted. I told him my little story and was then seized by the ADMS who was a great divisional character, known as 'Old Technicolour'. He had fought throughout World War I and was covered in decorations. He told me I had to have an operation. I told him I would agree to this only if he would guarantee that I would be taken back to my Brigade HQ after it was over. He agreed. As I was passing out under the chloroform the first of the counter-attacks by 21 Panzer Division on our division came in. Three hours later I came to and the doctor collected me and put me in the back of his jeep, where I had to sit on my right side. I must have looked rather a mess because I had lost most of my trousers, and had bandages hanging out and, to add to the misery, I had a bottle of penicillin strapped to my side with little pipes going in.

We were driving out of Ranville when suddenly six Germans ran across the road. To my astonishment, Old Technicolour ordered his driver to stop. Then he pulled out a revolver and told his driver to follow him and off they went in hot pursuit, leaving their brigade commander sitting on his backside in solitary state in the back of a jeep! After about two or three minutes, and looking very sheepish, he came back because he hadn't captured the Germans. He'd wanted to get another addition to his string of gongs — all he got was a severe reprimand. We continued and at four o'clock I arrived at my Brigade Headquarters, where I found Alistair Pearson had taken over from me in my absence. He had been wounded through the hand, which was very painful, but was in good form. It would have taken more than a bullet in his hand to stop Alistair when his blood was up!

I took stock that evening. Alistair's 8th Battalion was about 280 strong; the Canadian battalion was in very good order and had captured their two bridges, and were now digging in at the Le Mesnil crossroads, about 300 men in all. The 9th Battalion, consisting of 90 good chaps, was still on the Sallenelles feature and was to be a day late in taking over the Chateau St Come between the Canadians and Breville. But my Brigade Headquarters was depleted. I had no DAA & QMG, no brigade major and no padre, no Commando liaison officer and no sailors.

We got through the first night and the next morning who should be coming down the drive but my brigade major, Bill Collingwood, with his right leg stuck out at right angles, so that he walked in a most peculiar way. He'd been standing over the exit hole of his Albemarle when it had been hit. The blast had knocked him out of the hole and wrapped his static line round his leg as he fell into the night. He was spinning around under the aircraft with his 60 pound kit bag strapped to his leg. The plane had no option but to limp back across the Channel with the brigade major attached to it. The crew gradually winched him in before they finally got across the Channel to Odiham. Collingwood was pretty clued-up so with others he got hold of a jeep and went to the air-landing aerodrome and he came over in the wave of gliders that I had seen arriving the night before. I thought, 'This is the stuff that good brigade majors are made of’ – an amazing feat of endurance and pain. But of course, with his injured leg, he couldn't really do his job, so with great regret he was carried off by the Field Ambulance and had his leg reset in the UK.

I was still concerned about having Alec Pope, my DAA & QMG missing. I was to find out later that he had been dropped on the wrong side of the Dives, had collected about half a dozen or more men and died fighting it out with the Germans. He was one of the finest men I ever met, my first brigade major at the age of 23 and every time I go to Normandy, if I can, I go to see his grave in a little tucked-away churchyard, at St Vaast-en-Auge, miles from anywhere. And, of course, Peter Haig Thomas, my Commando liaison officer, had also been killed shortly after landing. My Roman Catholic padre, Padre McVay, to whom I had given an Irish blackthorn shillelagh, was missing. He'd been captured by the Germans, and after a bit he got fed up with them and set about them with it, and escaped. They caught him and stripped him of his dog collar and sent him to one of the toughest PoW camps on the Baltic. He was a great fighting Roman Catholic padre and much missed in the brigade.

The two sailors who were to direct the guns of the Arethusa had been killed in the early bombing raid. We did have one 22 radio set and one very bedraggled naval rating, who didn't know anything about firing guns, but could work the 22 set. I now had to find somebody who could direct the guns of the Arethusa. I went across to Lieutenant Colonel Bradbrook's Canadians and I saw their very smart RSM, Clark. I thought, 'By God, he's the chap to fire the guns of the Arethusa.' Unbelievably, in a short space of time, RSM Clark was bringing down the shells within 400 yards of our front line and we had restored contact. It was marvellous, an RSM who had never heard of the Arethusa, and a wet sailor with no training. That just shows what initiative can do. Sad to tell, within 48 hours RSM Clark was dead. The next six days saw the toughest fighting I experienced throughout six long years of war – it was no picnic. From 2,000 fighting men during the first eight days my brigade lost some 50 officers and 1,000 other ranks. My Brigade HQ lost eight officers and 30 other ranks.

The fighting on our ridge became particularly fierce – Alistair Pearson and the 8th Battalion were separated from us by some two miles, denying the enemy the approaches to the ridge from the south. Their success was a remarkable feat and vital of course to our success. The 9th Battalion, whose numbers fluctuated during the battle from 90 to 270 to 190, held the wooded area and road adjoining the Chateau St Come. Brigade HQ and their defence platoon were in the middle. The Canadians held the Mesnil crossroads area immediately to the south. My Brigade HQ with their strong defence platoon, numbering some 150, and the Canadians with some 300 men were concentrated over a front of about one mile, astride the Breville—Troam road, running north to south on the top of the ridge.

Enemy probing attacks first concentrated on the Canadian battalion at Le Mesnil then swung against the 9th Battalion after the Germans had occupied Breville on D+2. It was then that I realized we were up against a first-class German infantry division — 346 Grenadier Division — supported by tanks and SP (self-propelled) guns. During this period some six attacks were launched against the 9th Battalion from Breville and the east — three of which were co-ordinated with attacks on the Canadian positions at Le Mesnil. There was constant patrolling activity and on one occasion my defence platoon accounted for 19 Germans. Unfortunately my intelligence officer, Major Wilkinson, was lost in the action.

My room was on the top floor of a barn with access only from the outside staircase. I sat on the top step with my left backside overhanging the steps, which was good as I smelt of gangrene poisoning. Imagine my delight at receiving a new pair of battledress trousers, with supporting underwear, on D+2. From my position I had a bird's-eye view of the German break-out from Breville on D+4 and their attack on Peter Luard's 13th Battalion holding the north-east perimeter of Ranville. The 13th held their fire to the last moment and then mowed them down. For the next two days they filtered back through the rear of our positions. I knew it was irregular to see Germans creeping about but we had neither the time nor resources to chase them.

It was about this time that we were strafed by our own Typhoons — it happened twice. Unfortunately on one occasion the pregnant lady of the chateau, walking in the garden with her husband, was hit and died. Our doctors tried to save the baby, to no avail, and we buried her in a shroud in her garden with what dignity we could muster under such difficult circumstances. Soon after that the husband and housekeeper left and my Brigade HQ occupied the chateau.

Sitting on my steps looking down on the bank below I saw the adjutant of the 9th Battalion, Hal Hudson, lying on the bank looking like shrivelled parchment, waiting to be operated on by my Field Ambulance unit in the adjoining building. His story was unusual. He received some 18 shrapnel wounds in his stomach during the capture of the Merville battery. He thought 'I must kill one German before I die.' He imagined he saw a figure looming up and shot it with his Sten gun. It was in fact his foot! The pain was such that it took his mind off his much more severe wounds and thanks to that, and the treatment he received from the Field Ambulance and thereafter, he lived to tell the tale. He later became Chairman of Lloyds of London.

The 5th Battalion of the Black Watch was put under my command to capture Breville. The attack went on in the early hours of D+5 and was repulsed by the Germans with heavy losses. I then told them to hold the Chateau St Come itself and co-ordinate their defence with the 9th Battalion. At this juncture the German Divisional Commander decided that our positions at St Come and Le Mesnil must be liquidated once and for all and a major attack was launched on D+6 on both the 9th Battalion and Black Watch positions and the Canadians. This attack was in strength, preceded by a heavy bombardment lasting some three hours, and it went in supported by tanks and SP guns at 1500 hours. The Black Watch was driven back and came back through the 9th Battalion and my defence platoon positions.

At this point at 1600 hours I received a message from Terence Otway commanding the 9th Battalion to say he was doubtful if he could hold out much longer. His position had already been penetrated on the previous day but the Germans had been driven out. I knew he would not send me this signal unless things were urgent and that something must be done about it. I had no spare bodies so I went to Colonel Bradbrook whose HQ was 200 yards away at the end of our drive and asked him to help. At that moment German tanks had overrun the road to his right and were shooting up his Company HQ at close range. To his eternal credit he decided that he could deal with this problem and he gave me what was left of his reserve company under Major Hanson, a very hard and excellent commander, together with cooks and any spare men and we set off to the 9th Battalion area.

A young Red Indian aged 18, called Private Anderson, informed me that he was going to be my bodyguard. As we entered the wood between the road and the chateau I saw Padre Nicol of the Black Watch calmly walking up and down steadying his young soldiers. I understand that he later became Moderator of the Church of Scotland — a great man for all seasons. On entering the wood there were both Germans and Black Watch. We moved up to the far end of the wood near the chateau and I remember seeing a German tank cruising up and down at close range but we had no means of dealing with it. At this stage my bodyguard had been shot through the arm but insisted on carrying on. However, by this time, the attack on both the Canadians and the 9th Battalion was petering out. The German losses in both men and material were great and it would be said that we had won a great defensive victory.

Sadly, at 2100 hours a heavy concentration of shells fell on the 9th Battalion HQ and the CO was stunned and blown across the drive. Captain Greenaway and Lieutenant Pond were knocked out and Lieutenant Christie killed. This was a very sad end for brave men who had survived some eight days of concentrated fighting. That evening General Richard Gale mounted his counter-attack on Breville, with the 12th Para Battalion, a company of the 1st Devons and a squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, preceded by a monumental artillery bombardment which did considerable havoc to both the Germans and our own troops. Breville was recaptured, the ridge was held, 346 German Division withdrew and did not contest the ridge again.

This article is reproduced from Max Arthur ‘Men of the Red Beret’(1990), Hutchison (ISBN 0-09-173931-4), by kind permission of the author.

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