The three sections of No 3 Platoon A Company, 8th Para Bn, crossed the Normandy coast in separate Dakota aircraft each dropping a clutch of fifty pounders to suggest that they were on a bombing mission. After that the aircraft became separated, partly because of the weather, partly because of taking avoiding action from anti-aircraft fire.
At approximately 23.40 on 5 June 1944 No 1 Section dropped into an orchard and startled a small herd of steers which stampeded around for some time scaring the life out of us. However, during the next half-hour we managed to find each other and set off down a narrow road southwards, away from the firing and bombing which was still going on over Le Havre. From somewhere to the north we heard a dog barking and then a motorcycle started up but went away in the direction of Le Havre.
We came to a solitary cottage and awoke the occupants, hoping to locate ourselves more exactly and to discover the likelihood of walking into the enemy. Father, mother and grown up daughter let us enter, looking more surprised than frightened. None of us spoke French so we showed them a letter we had been issued for such an eventuality. They hugged us and kissed us and literally wept for joy. I realised it was up to me to quieten things down and move on quickly. From questions like ‘Nazis?’, ‘Bosch?’, ‘Danger?’ volunteered from us all in quick succession and accompanied by pointing in various directions they soon managed to put our minds to rest. There was no village nearby and enemy soldiers rarely came this way. As we left they made us take pieces of soap and, seemingly, anything else they could lay their hands on; though they could ill afford to spare them.
The platoon’s task was to defend a sapper party as it prepared the main bridge over the River Dives at Bures for demolition; then to join the battalion at Le Mesnil on the west side of the Bois de Bavent. We made our way uphill along the road for a while. At the top we decided to move back into the fields – just in case! Visibility was about ten yards. It was difficult to read a map. I felt we should move north-west and asked Staff Sgt Snow what he thought. He was quite sure that if we went due west we would be making straight for Troarn; that we should turn north only when we reached the Dives just east of the town. His was the better plan.
The eleven of us walked as fast as we could through the early hours of D Day, in the hope that we might reach the Bures Bridge before first light, but to no avail. For miles the ground was soggy, boggy or flooded and every few hundred yards we had to ford a dyke some five feet deep and ten feet wide. As dawn broke we were still sloshing through ‘Bocage’ country with not a building in sight. Then D Day started with a vengeance! The coast to our right exploded into what looked like a terrible thunder storm as the Navy pounded the coastal defences. We thought of the landings that must be starting and felt thankful to be where we were.
We came to a hamlet of a few scattered houses. One or two workmen were about. They were surprised to see us although they must have realised that something unusual had started. A shot rang out from a house about fifty yards to our left. We all fell flat, including the workmen. One of them said ‘Quisling’ and pointed at the house. We surrounded it and searched it but could find nobody. We would have to watch our backs now.
At about 13.00 hours we sighted Troarn. We split up and cautiously approached the bridge on the main road about three hundred yards from the outskirts of the town. It was completely destroyed. A dead German soldier was sitting propped against a boulder by the road; very smartly dressed, rolled cape across his shoulders and not a mark on him. We decided to cut up to the Troarn to Escoville road and thus to Le Mesnil crossroads at the end of the Bois de Bavent. We had to skirt round a farm en route to the fields. The house and outbuilding were surrounded by a high stone wall. As we passed the main entrance we found the farmer and his wife waiting for us with a large jug of cider and some mugs. We enjoyed a drink, thanked them and hurried on uphill. We reached a tree-lined bank and lay down to plan the next move from behind it. It was about half a mile uphill to the fringe of the Bavent woods.
The bridge was now well below us and obscured from view by the farm outbuildings and surrounding wall. We heard a motor vehicle, almost certainly a jeep, speeding towards the bridge apparently from the centre of Troarn. It stopped near the bridge for several minutes then turned round and raced back the way it had come. An MG42 (Spandau) opened a long, shattering burst of fire. There was a screeching of tyres and a crash, and we heard no more.
S/Sgt Snow* stood up to take a compass bearing and was immediately shot through the heart from somewhere about a hundred yards behind us. The shock was horrible and numbing. He was a fine, able person who had already helped to instil confidence in all of us. One of us took his few belongings (a family photograph, emergency money and escape kit) from his smock pocket and we left him where he had fallen. The commanding officer’s orders were to join the battalion as soon as possible and not to be drawn into any fighting. We would move as fast as possible up the hill until about 75 yards from the woods, and then send two scouts forward to check that the woods and the road beyond were clear. We scattered and ‘pepper-potted’ (each man in his own time falling, rolling sideways, jumping up and running obliquely to left or right – and so on) up the hill. Two or three more shots rang out but nobody was hit.
The road to Le Mesnil was lined by tall trees with overhanging, leafy branches through which the afternoon sunlight filtered. It was very quiet. Shadows kept us alert and nervous and we frequently stopped and listened in case anything should be coming along the road behind us from Troarn. After some three miles we came upon a dead German soldier lying on the grass verge at a point where a track led off from the road. Again we were struck by the neatness of his uniform and absence of blood or marks to show how he had died. But then, sixty yards further on we saw an enemy half-track standing at the side of the road. We approached it carefully but had not got to within 5 yards of it when cheers rang out on both sides of the road and a group of laughing, joking members of the PIAT Section came out of the trees and surrounded us. They had been watching us for some time! “Just as well we’re on your side!” and “Bloody awful field craft!”
We found thirteen more of No 3 Platoon, including Sgts Durham and Mayhew. This left Sgt Hiscock and 7 of his section still to be accounted for. Sadly, they remained missing during the time I was with the platoon and I was never able to trace them.
Our task for the next 48 hours was to ambush any enemy tanks or other vehicles which came down the road from the north. We dug slit trenches amongst the trees flanking the road and laid a necklace of some ten anti-tank mines which we covered with dead leaves on the other side of the road. The mine nearest to the road was attached by a strong wire across the road to our northernmost slit trench. The necklace of mines was to be pulled across the road once a tank had lumbered too close to be able to see it. The PIAT Section remained posted about fifty yards south of us. We made some tea and opened a box of ‘Compo’ rations, which boasted treacle pudding amongst its other delicacies. It started to rain before dark and we hurriedly erected covers over our slit trenches with gas capes. Sgt Durham arranged a sentry rota and after a final smoke we settled down for what proved to be a good night’s sleep. The next morning was dry and sunny and those of us not on guard ‘took it easy’.
About midday No 3 Platoon was ordered to leave a skeleton guard and to prepare for an attack on a machine gun post to the west of Bures, but after rather a feverish half hour the order was cancelled. Major Stephen Terrell, Officer Commanding A Company, had since early that morning become increasingly irritated by shrapnel shells from a self propelled gun visible in the valley about 2 miles away, NE of Escoville. Typically, he took out a small patrol that afternoon which destroyed the gun and its crew and brought back a small truck laden with petrol and oil!
The battalion spent the next four days and nights consolidating its positions and patrolling a large area around Le Mesnil crossroads. This included the Bois de Bavent Bois de Dures, Touffreville, Escoville and the outskirts of Troarn.
On D+4 two sections of us were threading our way carefully beside one of our minefields which was laid into the surface of the Troarn road, when an armoured car with five men on top came racing towards us from the battalion direction, north of us. We were sure they were wearing American helmets and, as they drew near, we hailed them as friends. To our great consternation they sprayed us with their sub-machine guns and dashed off through the trees to the west of us. We never managed to find out who they were; but never mind, nobody was hit!
On our return we learnt that our sentries and the PIAT section had been suddenly alerted by the sound of a tracked vehicle approaching fast from the north. They recognised it for what it was, a British Army troop carrier. They did, at some risk to themselves, jump into the road and wave at it to stop. The driver must have taken them for the enemy, for he accelerated towards them, perhaps realising that he would not be able to turn off the road and escape through the wood, which was too dense at this point. The wire caught in his tracks and drew the necklace of 75s under his vehicle immediately, with devastating effect. The driver (the sole occupant) was blown upwards and forwards clear of the carrier and landed on the road as the vehicle slewed off into the trees. He landed, still in the sitting position, with a sickening thud on the tarmac; then sat there crying and calling for his mother in a terrible state of shock. The ‘medics’ soon took him away and, from what we could learn, his chances of recovery were good; but it had been a distressing experience for all concerned.
That afternoon B Coy was moved to guard the northernmost part of the east flank of the battalion positions. A Coy was moved to a 4 acre field just south of them. No 3 Platoon dug in amongst the hedgerows and scattered trees on the northern and half of the eastern side of the field. Lt ‘Dusty’ Miller’s No 2 Platoon came next, so completing the defence of the eastern flank but also part of the southern flank. Lt Bernard Ridings' No 1 Platoon dug in west of No 2 Platoon so as to defend the remainder of the battalion’s southern flank. This flank was to prove the most difficult to defend because it lined one side of the narrow avenue leading to Bures. The other side was the densely wooded northern edge of the Bois de Bavent. The detailed layout of each and every one of the slit trenches of the whole company was supervised in person by Major Terrell. On 16 June (D+10) we were to realise how much we owed to this experienced, self effacing man!
On the evening of D+5 No 3 Platoon less a guard left behind under Sgt Rattigan (S/Sgt replacement for S/Sgt Hiscock), and orders to move as quickly as possible to Touffreville. Major Terrell took charge. Our task was to knock-up the inhabitants of this small village and try to warn them of possible heavy shelling. We were then to continue south to the outskirts of Sannerville where we were to ‘tape’ and guard a ‘star line’ for an attack by a battalion of the 51st Highland Division.
Understandably, the villagers of Touffreville found it difficult to understand us! So few, if any, left their houses. Fortunately, the village was not shelled that evening. They were friendly but frightened. We never discovered the truth behind one unsavoury incident. Inside the small, empty village hall we found a ring of about eight, upright wooden chairs, facing inwards. The centre was coated in a thick layer of congealed blood.
We were sniped at from a house on the outskirts of Sannerville. A section under Sgt Durham made a thorough search of the house within two or three minutes but, as with the Quisling, the sniper got away in time. Almost immediately after this we came under Spandau fire from Sannerville. It was our first experience of being machine- gunned. We were amongst some trees at the time and, though finding it incredibly difficult to raise our heads from the ground and look around, we were all fascinated by the rain of shredded leaves which fell on us. We had been reminded of what we had been told in training – machine-gun fire, especially of bullets from the fast-firing MG42, is often too high to do you any harm.
We spilt up into three sub-sections so as to cover the intended start line for the attack by the Highlanders. They had to attack across about 200 yards of open field which sloped gently downhill to the village. Some of us had to search a little church and its graveyard. This was surrounded by a very high stone wall at the eastern end of the start line. As we were doing so we heard the Highlanders being ordered to advance, followed immediately by machine-gun and rifle fire in every direction. Then two tanks could be heard coming up from Sannerville, machine-gunning as they came. We could see nothing, of course, but it sounded as though the Highlanders were having a very hard time. The tanks came to a halt on the other side graveyard wall and we heard the crews talking to each other in German. It was a dull, miserable Sunday evening. There were two fresh graves with small wooden crosses and a German helmet on each. We heard people digging, in somewhere in the field. We never knew the outcome of the battle. On our return to base we found that two men had been killed by shrapnel.
D+6 began with another piece of very nasty news. Three men had been posted look out during the night across the road in Company HQ, at the corner of the coy position. They had occupied a prepared trench in a clearing just inside of the wood. The next morning they were found with their throats cut. The enemy were capable of getting very close, very quietly!
D+7 was another relatively restful day for No 3 Platoon, with time to write a letter home, have a bath in a nearby pond, a chance to visit friends in neighbouring companies. It was from a friend in another company that we learnt that a corporal had decided to take grim revenge for the loss of his friend whose throat had been cut. He had returned to his slit trench before first light with one enemy scalp. On the next two mornings the corporal had repeated his self imposed task successfully, but after the evening meal of D+9 he was not seen again. That day we heard also that our battalion padre (Padre Kay) had been killed by machine-gun fire whilst driving out to collect wounded personnel. The jeep was marked with red crosses and flying a Red Cross flag. We had all revered that wonderful man.
On D+8 Captain John Shoppee, 2i/c A Coy, led a patrol consisting of two sections of No 3 Platoon to thwart enemy attempts to repair the Bures Bridge. Unfortunately, we were surprised by a sentry and had to shoot him in one leg in order to catch him. The working party got away but they had not improved the state of the bridge enough to worry about. That afternoon Lt Ridings took out a recce patrol. He and three of his men were missing for some 36 hours after the rest had returned. It was a great relief to see them back. They had been particularly successful and daring at patrolling and had done more of this nerve wracking work than any of us.
About 3pm next day Lt Miller crept over from his position in a state of great excitement. His platoon had been watching an enemy patrol approaching up the lane and crawling out along the hedge parallel to our own, across the field on our eastern front. It was agreed that Sgt Reg Mayhew would attack them without delay. No 2 Platoon would provide covering fire if needed. We pepper-potted across the field and slung ourselves into a ditch which we found between a double hedge. We crawled along to a ditch towards the lane killing three enemy as we went, and entered the lane to see two enemy dive behind some bushes about 5 yards east of us. We shouted to them in German to come out with their hands up but they had disappeared. They left an MG42 and P38 revolver behind. An hour later three men (a Pole, a Russian and a German medical orderly came down the lane carrying a white flag. They were purposely not challenged until they reached the SW corner of the field. Subsequent events suggested that they had been sent in order for observers to locate our positions more exactly. That evening No 1 Section Bren team, who were positioned at a hedge junction that allowed an arc of fire to the north as well as to the east of us, watched as a group of high ranking enemy officers and their guards emerged into the field ahead and held council together. The temptation to disobey orders not to fire must have been immense!
At first light the next morning (D+10) we were shelled heavily for what seemed an eternity; although the heaviest barrage fell on B Coy who were positioned to the rear (west) and north of our Bren gun positions, mentioned above. There followed a period of complete silence. Then the hedge in front of our forward sections (east flank) came under systematic fire from a self propelled gun. Once again, however, the thick hedgerows of the ‘Bocage’ country favoured those in defence. It continued to camouflage our positions. People were hurt though and one early casualty was Private Benson whose right foot, in some inexplicable way, was twisted back to front on the end of his leg. (There was another stalwart named Pte Benson in No 3 Platoon whose personal number ended with the figures 35.) Those two forward sections seemed more irritated than alarmed by the self propelled (SP) gun. The attempt to blast away the hedge was eventually abandoned and enemy troops moved forward towards our hedge and began digging in. Frustration was voiced (in whispers of course) at not being allowed through to attack them. It was no fun not talking, not smoking and not eating for hours on end! But it was better to stay behind the hedge.
About mid-morning another barrage descended and it seemed that an all out attack was imminent. But it did not come our way. Instead it came from the land and roads along the southern flank, and it continued until nightfall. It was here that most of the casualties (which included many fatalities) occurred. Enemy snipers began to command a view across the field from the trees in the Bois de Bavent and remained a menace to everyone. The enemy positions ahead (east) of us were still a source of worry as the company commander asked for 3 inch mortar help. Lt Thompson soon appeared and radio controlled a bombardment onto the field ahead of us bringing it in stages to within 25 yards of our trenches. However, again in the afternoon our positions were heavily shelled and we expected a move ahead of us. I think this was the worst part of the day.
The sniping from the trees across the lane had increased and movement everywhere was reduced to belly-crawling; not even dashing between available cover. Everybody remained calm though and remembered the golden rule ‘stick to your trench when an attack is imminent or actually coming in’. By some miracle, no trench of 3 Platoon received a direct shell hit. Perhaps in the nick of time, according to CSM Cook’s report at 16:15 hours, five Sherman tanks came to the rescue and frustrated further enemy action that day, destroying one dug in SP gun.
We were relieved by 7th Para Bn the next morning and marched to Hérouvillette. Here we spent 24 hours in a beautiful house with racing stables – but all very deserted. Later we moved to an area near Pegasus Bridge by the River Orne for a couple of days.
About D+14 we returned to Le Mesnil cross-road area and No 3 Platoon was held back in the reserve position. Nothing much happened for the next few days except for the regular (breakfast, lunch and supper) bombardments by ‘Moaning Minnies’. These mortar type projectiles screamed and wailed as they came but, in fact, only wounded one member of the platoon – Pte Miller was hit by shrapnel in the leg one evening as he was talking to me. He was, and I hope still is, a man who did everything cheerfully and bravely.
It was during this period that many of us enjoyed a laugh at Sgt Mayhew’s expense. Latrines were positioned in the NW corner of our field, and Reg Mayhew’s section was dug in at the SW corner, some 200 yards distant. Reg had slightly miscalculated ‘relief time’ and was caught literally with his pants down by the breakfast sextet of ‘Moaning Minnies’. True to form he decided that he must support his section in person during its impending ordeal and imagining he had a firm hold of his trousers began to sprint for ‘home’. Alas, he must have lost his grip! His trousers bundled about his legs and feet and he fell sprawling about the middle of his run. The laughter and cheers from all trenches more or less neutralised the moaning of the Minnies!
27 June (D+20) started wet but uneventful for No 3 Platoon. After lunch the company commander called for an ‘O’ Group and we were briefed for an attack on a building some half mile away. The route to follow was across the field which the enemy had occupied on D+10, east along the hedgerows of the two following fields and into the corner of an L shaped spinney. The right limb of the spinney should be avoided as it was wired off and possibly mined. At its far side (inner angle of the L) there was a barbed wire fence and then a cutting running between a field to the left and the edge of the spinney to the right. By moving along this cutting we should avoid being seen from the field and from the house. Also it would allow us to reach the corner of a ten foot high stone wall about a hundred yards distant, at the far end of the cutting. At this point we should await zero hour and then climb from the cutting into the field and make for a gap in the wall about 75 yards up on our right. The house was about 25 yards inside.
There were probably two main danger points: an MG 42 could be positioned to fire up the cutting from the corner of the wall; and the entrance to the garden might be covered by fire from the house. Our task was to collect prisoners, unharmed if possible. B and C Companies would be attacking different targets on our left and right flanks, respectively, with the same objective. Zero hour would be 21:15 hours.
At 20:45 hours we moved out, leaving one section in defence. The route was easy to follow. We found the barbed wire barrier within the spinney; formidable and totally uninviting as there was a large latrine area inside it, let alone possible mines. The cutting lay ahead of us. The Bren team set a line of fire directly onto the corner of the high wall at the far end of the cutting. We would keep as much to our left as possible. If the Spandau opened fire we would have to fall flat and hope the Bren could provide enough fire for us to crawl back into the spinney. I wish I could remember who it was that insisted on being first through the wire fence; one does not meet many of his sort!
The next minutes were frightful. We presented a perfect enfilade to the Spandau, if it was there. But there was no return fire. Indeed it was very quiet. We reached the corner of the wall and spread out under cover of the cutting.
At 21:15 hours we climbed over the bank and made a dash for the gap in the wall, but we didn’t get very far before being machine-gunned and mortar bombed. Sgt Durham, Ptes Reid and Nolan, and I were hit. Staff Sgt Mayhew and the rest of the party made the entrance and searched the house. Once again though, the enemy had disappeared!
Whether any prisoners were taken that evening I never discovered. There were quite a lot of casualties, I believe. My friend Ronny Ellen in C Coy lost a leg.
As for myself, I remember crawling between a conveniently stacked pile of logs and the wall and applying field dressings. I did not at all like seeing my own blood but my leg only felt as though it had been slapped hard. Suddenly all had become completely silent again. I began to worry about how I could get back. The enemy could not be far way. The idea of being taken prisoner was appalling – not least because of that awkward period when the enemy was deciding whether or not to actually take you prisoner! In the twilight I could only hear approaching footsteps and began to wonder whether I should call ‘Kamerad’ or keep quiet. But I need not have worried; in the next second Stephen Terrell, Reg Mayhew and Pete Oxley were grinning down at me. They put me on a stretcher and took me back to the battalion medical centre, which was receiving a severe shelling and taking very little notice of it!
[*Editor's Note: So far we have not been able to trace a Sgt Snow in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records.]
By Richard FryRead More