A Memory for D-Day: The terror and the pity

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Edward was 25, a husband and a father when he was called to play his part in Operation Overlord. He had no enthusiasm for soldiering; his father died on the Somme. A captain in a tank regiment, he had formed a close bond with a brother officer, Adam - 'Facing this bloody business, if you had someone close to you it was a great help,' he remembers. At first their part in the campaign was dull and frustrating, but Edward's first taste

of action left him traumatised and grieving. Throughout those weeks he kept a diary, a vivid and deeply personal document of war - so personal that he prefers not to give his full name. This is an edited extract:

6 June. Aldershot. D-Day. The day passed like any other except for the CO's address at teatime. After reading personal messages from Eisenhower and Monty, he said: 'Get as much rest as you can. You'll need all your energy.' Adam and I watched gliders being towed south. One man shouted: 'Go on, lads. Give 'em hell]' Most kept their thoughts to themselves.

7 June. Aldershot. Montgomery says the Germans will be out of the war by 31 December and the Japs six months later. I wonder. The Adjutant, in an afterthought, said: 'By the way, you'll be leaving with the advance party tomorrow - probably crossing the day after.' My water bottle has three large holes in it. How did they get there?

8 June. Gosport. Journey to marshalling area slow and uncomfortable. Precious little room in the half-track and the heaviest rain for weeks. Have I brought too much kit? Roads blocked with traffic. Sky black with planes.

9 June. Gosport. We are sealed in behind wire in embarkation 'stalag'. Quartermaster's store giving stuff away like it was Christmas. Due to sail at 17:05, but weather delaying

everything.

11 June. Gosport. Getting very bored. The Colonel and main body of the regiment arrived this evening. CO astonished to find his advance party still in England.

12 June. Off Spithead. Miserable night crawling our way to embarkation point. Embarked at 07:00. Now at anchor among small armada, each with balloon aloft, writhing in the breeze. Landing ship comfortable - h&c, loo, bath, wardroom. Skipper says we go tomorrow.

13 June. Mid-Channel. Weighed anchor 20:30. Hundreds of small craft in company with the battleship Rodney. Channel like a millpond - 'bags, vomit, mark I' not required. On rising had splendid bath and then stroll topsides. At 03:00 a solitary plane passed overhead, then a sudden flash and blue flame, followed by a big spout of water to starboard. Loud explosion. Many flashes ahead and distant thunder. Can't be far now.

04:00: We appear to have stopped. Glad it's still dark. Feel safer on the move. Henry V came into my head - 'all those Englishmen now abed will think themselves accurst they were not here'.

14 June. South of Bayeux. Waded ashore at 21:00 hrs yesterday. Before leaving the ship two officers came alongside and hailed us: 'Are you 55 Armoured Brigade?' 'How many tanks aboard?' 'None.' 'Bugger. When are they coming?' 'Don't know.' 'We need you badly. Plenty of good shooting. . .' Pompous ass.

Reached concentration area just before dark. Fine statue in Creully of a French soldier blazoned with tricolours, Union Jacks, Stars and Stripes. Saw a few graves, but no prisoners. Unrolled my fleabag and clambered in fully clothed. Woken from nightmare by immense explosion. Very confused in the pitch dark. Wander about in terror until properly awake and recall where I am. I don't like this]

At first light ordered to concentrate south of Bayeux and here we are, waiting. Bayeux charming. Beautiful cathedral with magnificent bell tower. Signpost says 'Paris 247k'.

16 June. Last night watched fighter bombers strafing area ahead of us. US Thunderbolt crashed close by. Pilot ejected, but had left it too late. Still waiting to be called by 7th Armoured. There's a lot of noise at night - flak bursting overhead - but the days are quiet and sunny.

17 June. Went within five miles of the front. Saw German half-track and two burnt-out Pz. Kw IV's (tanks). Bought road map in Bayeux.

20 June. West of Rucqueville. CO's briefing 14:00. Information required regarding route for impending attack, so patrol to penetrate about half a mile behind enemy line. I get a peculiar feeling in my stomach. So this is it. CO wishes us good luck and says we're not to be discouraged by pessimism 'up front'.

We go forward to Infantry Brigade HQ where we meet officers in direct touch with the line. Conversation as follows: 'Well, I'm glad it's you and not me, chum.' 'Only a bloody fool would try to get into Briquessard tonight. It's definitely not on, in my opinion.' 'You'll be a complete write-off.' Wonderful for morale. The patrol was due to start at 23:00. At 19:30 the phone rang from Division cancelling the 'party'. Huge sighs of relief.

24 June. Trungy. Eleven days now and not a shot fired. My French improves slowly. I ask M Richard for water from his pump and don't get it until I've drunk a tasse de cidre - Calvados, they call it. Mme Richard was frying wheat pancakes over an open fire - delicious. They are very grateful for soap, cigs, chocolate, etc.

30 June. Martragny. Entered this, our seventh 'harbour', last night in pouring rain. Went on recce this morning. Heart-rending to see beautiful villages reduced to rubble and not a sign of life. Swollen carcasses and fearful smell of dead cattle. Also burnt-out Shermans, German half-

tracks, a few Canadian graves . . . a trail of havoc. Sixteen days and still no action. The crews are restless.

3 July. Martragny. Tedium relieved by sudden appearance of (Edward's brother) Jack] A real tonic. Gave me a bottle of Benedictine.

5 July. Between River Orne and Caen Canal. A very noisy area, both sides exchanging mortar and artillery fire throughout the 24 hours. The Hun is trying to hit the bridges which are our only supply route to the main Beachhead. We sleep under the tanks. The men do nothing but talk about England - their homes, pubs, wives, the places they've been stationed in, what they'll do when they get home, the medals they'll be able to clink.

7 July. Shelling and mortaring continues. At 22:30 hrs yesterday we settled down to celebrate my birthday with Jack's Benedictine. Thunderous explosions made us dive for cover and by the time we'd finished leaping in and out of foxholes the neck of the Benedictine bottle had snapped and it had been more spilt than drunk.

On 11 July Edward's unit finally saw action, supporting a night attack in the battle for Caen. Later, after he had recovered, he added to his diary this account of the day's events:

At 01:45 I received a message to send the tanks forward. Adam led the column in line ahead, accompanied by his infantry. There was little enemy activity other than an occasional burst of machine-gun fire. At 02:15 Adam and Jo reported that they had reached their objective. At 03:30 the Hun started lobbing shells over - some uncomfortably close - but we continued to dig in.

Daylight revealed that the command post had been located in open ground with next to no cover. When the shelling was at its worst I was crouched in a very shallow slit-trench with Trooper Jackson, a Black Watch officer and a young Black Watch private. The private kept up a persistent whimpering, gripping my arm and murmuring 'Don't leave me, sir'. The effect was disturbing - the thought flashed through my mind that this sort of thing only happened in films. Finally I slapped his face (more film]) and told him to keep his rifle cocked and ready. This shocked him into silence.

During a lull I crawled over to the scout car with the intention of finding better cover for it. As I was trying to disentangle the camouflage netting there was a sudden crescendo of shelling and I was joined by four Black Watch privates trying to find shelter, one crouching to my right and three to my left.

There was an immense explosion, a shower of sparks, dirt and rubble and an overwhelming smell of cordite. I felt myself being blown to the ground and had difficulty getting to my feet because I was entangled with the netting. I managed to extricate myself and flung myself down beside the soldier who had been on my right. I murmured: 'That was bloody close,' and got no reply. He had a jaundiced look but otherwise he was unmarked. I shook him and realised he was dead. I heard groaning noises and turned to look for the others who had been on my left. They were about 15 yards from the scout car, lying in a fearfully wounded heap. Some had no arms, others had jagged stumps for legs, and there was blood everywhere. As I approached they pleaded with low moaning cries for help.

I rushed back to my trench to find their officer, and jabbered somewhat incoherently about his wounded needing medical assistance. He replied that I should 'calm down and get down'. My nose, mouth and throat were parched and I remembered my hip flask, which helped me to relax. I had dropped my steel helmet and went back for it. Once again the wounded cried for help and the thought occurred that I might be able to ferry them in the scout car to the regimental aid post. I started, gingerly, to move the first. He began to scream with pain.

I stood numbly confused, my mind distracted by fear, frustration and anger. I started to crawl but shelling pinned me down. It was while movement was temporarily impossible that some sense returned. The Black Watch wounded were none of my responsibility; my place was by the command post. I met some Black Watch stragglers. One of them yelled 'Look]' and pointed to a group running back across the ground to our right. For a moment I too felt the impulse to run. The stragglers felt the same and one shouted 'Come on, I'm getting out]'

This seemed to clear my mind and I shouted at them to 'stay bloody put', telling them that the group they'd seen running were tank crews who'd been KO'ed and had no means of defence, whereas they had their rifles, that they 'ought to bloody use them' and get in a 'bloody slit-trench and stay there'. This stopped the rot.

Another Black Watch private turned up and said all the tanks had been knocked out. I asked how he knew this and he replied that he'd heard it from forward infantry.

I returned to the scout car and once again I was faced with the wounded, now more dead than alive. It was a desolating decision but I couldn't bear the thought of raising their screams for a second time. If I got back all in one piece I could at least alert the aid post.

I proceeded to crawl several hundred yards across a field of stubble, dropping down every few seconds as the shelling continued, my mouth choked with dust. Finally I got to our regimental HQ. When I said there were wounded urgently needing attention the CO replied that they were not my responsibility and that we all had to get back and rest up.

Back in our old 'harbour' a hot cup of tea went a long way in restoring morale. I noticed that I was rather deaf, and that my right arm was aching. I tested my ears and found that my right one was ringing furiously. I then inspected my arm and found three small pieces of shrapnel in the skin. These I removed without discomfort. I found a fourth piece lodged in my pocket book.

It was then that I began to appreciate what a miraculous escape I had had. The high-explosive burst which killed and wounded the men on either side of me had left me comparatively unscathed. One pace either to my left or right would have been fatal. As it was, the blast had brushed my right side, killing the soldier beside me, while the shrapnel had passed my left side and caused terrible mutilations of the other three soldiers. How many times has one heard of the 'bullet with one's name on it'? And how many times does one dismiss that as something which happens to other people?

During the morning, tired tank crews reassembled in groups of two or three. I could find none of my own crew and I enquired anxiously. Apparently my tank had been the first to have been hit. Nevertheless the whole crew was seen to evacuate. They could tell me nothing more.

Soon after I met Adam's driver. He didn't say anything. He looked at me in misery and waited for my question. He said: 'The tank was hit and immediately burst into flames. Mr Amos (Adam) told us to get out quick and run for it. I was told later that he was seen standing on the turret pulling Matthews out when the tank was hit again. I think he's dead, sir.' I couldn't reply. He said: 'I'm sorry, sir.'

Edward, now in shock, poured forth his feelings into his diary. Most of what he writes is addressed to his dead friend Adam.

11 July. Noon. It's been reported that you're dead. I refuse to believe it. You cannot be dead, Adam. You have been wounded perhaps but NOT . . . I refuse to write it or think it. It's a monstrous lie.

Midnight. Still a garbled story. You were standing on your tank after it had been hit . . ? You had already got out . . . your crew had baled out . . . were baling out? You were seen helping Matthews to get out when you were hit again. If you had jumped straightaway, then . . ? But you waited] You would, wouldn't you, you waited when you should have moved . . . it was those seconds with Matthews . . . and you waited . . . WAITED] Dear God, one gunner the less, maybe . . . forgive me, I can't think for blind rage and hate] The waste, the waste of you of all people] The gods, how could they help loving you, but I failed their bloody test, didn't I? I thought of number one so I got back, while you thought of Matthews.

12 July. 3am. I cannot sleep, I can't write because my eyes stream and your voice echoes on and on. You cannot possibly be dead, Adam, you cannot. WHY didn't you JUMP? If only I had been with you, I would've shouted, I would've wrenched you down.

14 July. 3am. The nights are unbearable. Writing is the only salve, and it doesn't matter what. It's hot and there's no wind, but if I take off my clothes I start to shiver and I don't have you. I cry for you; I am ragged with shame. Tell me it's a nightmare, tell me anything but don't leave me.

The Colonel pulled me out when he heard about my eardrum, back to B echelon. Pathetic, isn't it. You, your life; me, my eardrum. The Colonel knew, I'm certain he knew, that's why he's put me where I can nurse my anger, shout the pain aloud; the ear's given him an excuse. I have to struggle to make my mind reason. If I don't, God help me. And my own crew, they're all missing.

15 July. 5.30am. It's the waking in the mornings, the sudden cold douche of loneliness, uncontrollable shivering sets in. I curl up in a tight ring and wrap myself in the blanket but it's no use. I shake and shake until a blissful weakness comes and tears flow.

19 July. I am suffering officially from deafness, so the banalities of army routine pass me by. Your mother is bound to write. What then? White lies? From now till Doomsday? I dread the sight of a Birmingham postmark.

27 July. I've been back to that awful place and have found you. They've covered you with earth and I laid my hand on it. In time they will lay you among flowers and trees. I will come and find you. When I got back, the dreaded letter (from Adam's mother) had arrived.

'Dear Edward, forgive me, but we had a telegram from the War Office on Sunday telling us that Adam had been missing since 11 July. They said a letter would follow. In the meantime have you any idea what has actually happened to Adam? We should so appreciate . . . '

I can't read any more and I can't see either, my eyes just flood and flood. How and where do I begin? How do I save your father, and your mother? How do I spare them the pain, the anguish?

How many times did you tell me that bad news might destroy your father? Your mother must be very strong, Adam. Can you imagine what it must have cost her to wait and wait for the promised post and then to bring herself to write to me for what in this dreadful world is the very last thing she is hoping to hear? How do I spare her?

Edward finally collected himself and wrote to Adam's mother. A few days later he was back with his unit, remaining with the campaign until the following April. He was demobilised in 1946 and returned to his family. It took him many years to recover from Adam's death.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments