Tuesday, 6 June, 1944. D Day.
Bénouville Beach & Bénouville (Pegasus) Bridge.
Posted on 6 June, 2019, the 75th Anniversary of D Day.
British Army Royal Engineer:
I was in the first wave on D Day. It was supposed to be half past six in the morning, but we was late again! The British Army was late again! Eight o’ clock we got there.
We went from Gosport. We was kept up there for six weeks in the “cages” – a big white camp, all under canvas, and you had all your last minute secret training in there, but no-one knew when it was going to be. They was all over England these camps. The preparation was so strict, and intense, from the time we got to Gosport. You kept doing the same thing over and over again. Once a week we had to all put on our battle order – we had special assault jackets, different to the Army uniform, and we got on the lorries, took us to Gosport harbour. We embarked on our tank landing craft and they took you out into the Channel. Maybe four hours. The next week you thought: hello, what’s going on here. We were away, so we thought. But they brought you back. Back to the routine.
In the camp we couldn’t get to the pub. We couldn’t get out because of the perimeter wire – they had guards on it, Redcaps and dogs. As I say, they brought you back, back to the routine. Of course the last time they took us out I thought to myself “We’re out here a fucking long while”. And the blokes are saying “What the hell’s going on today? We want to get back”. Course they came round, the Captain, this naval officer, whatever he was, who was driving the fucking boat, he came round and gave you the word, that this was the real thing. The old Padre came at us – cor fucking hell. “I wish I’d known this, they wouldn’t have got me out”, but you were in the routine, you was taking orders all the time.
On the boat you was all split up into your little groups. They split everybody up into small groups so that in case of casualties – in case a whole lot got wiped out – you still had a unit. There was only me and a Tosh, a mate of mine – us two engineers on that one boat. Then we had an anti-aircraft gun, bren carrier, few infantrymen, few ambulance men – all mixed, so whoever got there, you had something of each.
When we were getting near France and I realised this was it I was like a jelly – nerves. I wasn’t no hero. I don’t think nobody was. Well, some were.
Where we landed was a narrow beach and the tide had started to go out. We were supposed to have got the full tide, but as we were late it was on its way out. We were about fifty yards out, but the Captain of the boat said “You’ll be alright, I’ll run you right up to the beach”, which he did. They were all doing that – banging them right up onto the beach. I hung on the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun so I wouldn’t get a wet arse. I wasn’t going into the water for no fucker.
When you landed you had all your colours – gold, red – and your boats went for that. We were getting shells. The Beachmasters landed first – blokes on the beach with flags, waving them in. They were fucking heroes – all them blokes. Them and the MPs I think. They talk about the MPs being bastards, well the Corps of MPs might have been, because they was a different branch, but you had your own MPs attached to your unit, they was alright. They’d stand on point duty, if they was putting in an attack, and the transport had to move up. They’d be standing on point duty on a branch road in the country, and they’d be getting knocked out right, left and centre. About six in one day we got killed. As soon as one got killed, they’d say to another one: You – point duty, and as they were going up there: Bang!
You had a map reference when you landed, where to go. If you were interested. Course, some went that way, and some went the other way! But where could you desert to? You took a chance whatever way you went. Everybody was on the beach. It was jammed up. They had a casualty clearing station up one end, dug in some cliffs, they was taking the casualties in there. There was a little stone wall – a parapet wall along the front and we was behind that, crouching. All of us. No fucker would move. They was all piling up behind there. It was Bénouville beach we’d landed on. Our objective was Bénouville Bridge. We had to meet up with the 6th Airborne who’d landed in front of us and captured the bridge. But we didn’t know whether they’d captured it or not! No one knew how to get to where they were supposed to go. You’d say “Where you going mate?” You walked, run or got a lift up there. We were like a load of kids on an outing.
As soon as they realised the first attack had gone in and it was serious they started slinging a few shells back. It was everyman for himself.
There was a bit of an opening where the road came down to the beach and they were all making for that. And the first thing I see, laying in the middle of the road was a green beret and a blown up bike. All smoking. Bits of rag. He got a direct hit with a mortar, this commando. They landed with them folding bikes. That was the first one I saw. I thought: Oh no. I didn’t want to know much, so me and my mate Tosh thought: Let’s fuck off and get out of it. We shot up the road into a churchyard. We sat there for a couple of hours. Had a fag. Thought: Fuck it, what are we going to do now? We gradually worked our way up.
As we were going up they came over and dropped another load of airborne troops. The 6th Airborne went in first – the old Flying Horse Pegasus. They called it Pegasus Bridge afterwards.
I was in the forward area all the time. It was a three mile area, which wasn’t very nice because you was getting the short distance shells, and you went up with the infantry.
Some of the infantry wouldn’t move without us, and we wouldn’t move without the infantry – that’s how you used to argue. It’s unbelievable. If they had to go out on a night patrol and they came up against a minefield they’d send back for us. “Fuck you”, we’d say, “We’re not going up there to get shot” – and you’re standing there arguing. That’s how the army was running. The officers would sort it out. A sapper in the RE’s was equal to an infantry lieutenant. When the poor infantry used to quake in their shoes at a lieutenant, we used to tell them to fuck off.
After a couple of days at D Day the next wave landed and they went up to take over from our division, but they ran into a counter-attack. They got there but got knocked back again. They got knocked back to where we were, on the Bénouville Bridge, River Orme, it was. We was stuck there. Our division, our infantry, had to hold on where they were. It was six weeks before we got a break, we got a rest. Our objective was Caen. First thing we had to do was to lay 2000 mines, right across our area. This was all night work. Couldn’t do it by day – they’d see you.
When we did move forwards, you had no time that was your own. You lived from day to night, day to night. Working and sleeping, working and sleeping. Sleeping in holes. I’d be sleeping in my hole and a Corporal or one of your mates would say “Come on Spot, we’ve got a job to do”. They called me “Spot” from the poem, because my name was Thorpe: “Under the Thorpe, There’s a little Town, Half a Hundred Bridges” – Tennyson’s Brook.
They’d say, we’ve got a job to do, a minefield to lay. You’d go back and get your boxes of mines on your lorry – take them as near as you could, then you’d hump them across the fields in the middle of the night. But the thing was, months afterwards, when everyone had moved forwards, you was the only who had a map of the mines, so you had to leave the forward area to come back and clear your minefields. We lost one!
I was a nervous wreck on mine clearing. You had to keep your wits about you. We didn’t use the mine detector for the simple reason that they were useless. For the simple reason, once you put those earphones on you couldn’t hear the shells, so we slung them around our necks. They was cumbersome too, they was big. They issued us with a three foot long steel knitting needle. That’s what we had. Probes they called them. With an ordinary mine you wouldn’t set it off, wouldn’t be enough weight. But they surrounded them with little shoe mines, little wooden box shoe mines. If you touched those – they was away. But you could, if you was clever, get your point in ’em and throw ’em up in the air, and they’d go off! That’s how you got, how we all got. “Get out of the fucking way!”, and they’d sling them and bang, off they’d go. They was catching quite a few with them. A half track or a small vehicle would pull up in a field, the bloke would jump out and step on one of these little shoe mines – Bang! They was all losing ankles, and it used to split your bone up your shin. They used to issue us with wellies! Wellington boots to stop ’em – wellington boots and a long bit of wire. When you found a standard mine, you didn’t know whether to lift it or to drag it. To drag it you had a grappling hook and rope and you’d hook it on the handle and drag ’em.
I didn’t get any leave until we was well in Germany, at the Dormund-Ems canal. We were supposed to put a bridge across there, but we was under fire from the other side. It was a rota system – getting leave – one at a time, two weeks. I got to see my wife and kiddies. A lot of blokes on active service was glad to get away from London when they were on leave, they couldn’t stand it, because they hadn’t experienced air-raids, being on army service, and they were getting the doodle-bugs in London. They’d say “I don’t want to know this, I want to get back to my unit”. Same as our infantry used to say to us, if they came back for a rest, they weren’t comfortable, they used to say “We don’t like it here. We want to get back to the front. All we we got to face up there is rifle and machine gun bullets”, they used to say “Back here you get shells and mortars. Up there we can keep our head down, we can dodge them little bullets”.
You see some weird things in a war. Once you get involved in a war, I don’t care who you are, if you’re up in the forward area, where there’s any action, I say everyman turned into an animal. The conversion was gradual. From the time you got there you started living like an animal, you got involved in casualties, in dead bodies and living in holes in the ground , or old bombed houses – you gradually changed, didn’t matter how timid, or what sort of person you was, you became an animal. When you first arrived at D day and you see a couple of bodies blown to bits , it turns you up, and you’re looking to see if you can do anything. Three weeks later bodies are lying there, and you just walk past them. It’s a sensation I can’t explain. After a couple of days you’re starting to get used to it. Someone’s slinging shells at you and it goes Bang, Bang, and you’re diving in holes, it becomes a matter of – like a rabbit, you come out to feed and do something, Every time the noise starts you’re down your hole. I was the fastest one of the lot!
In memory of John Thorpe, workmate in 1973 at Plashet Park, East Ham, London.
John’s experiences are recorded in You, You & You! The People out of Step with World Two. London, 1981. Print copies are usually available on Abebooks and on Amazon.
The extended online version is at youyouandyourestored.wordpress.com