D-Day plus one to D-Day plus ninety
Benouville was as far inland as the British seaborne units got on D-Day. The original plan had been to drive the armour coming in over the beaches right through Benouville, along the canal. road, straight into Caen. But the fierceness of the opposition at Benouville and Le Port and Ranville convinced the British high command that prudence required going over to the defensive. And that was what they did for the next seven weeks, attempting only once - late in July, in Operation Goodwood - to breakout.
D Company's role in this defensive phase of the battle was unspectacular. It had none of the excitement, or satisfaction that was inherent in the coup de main operation, but produced far higher casualties. D Company, in short, became an ordinary infantry company.
The process began just after midnight, in the first minutes of June 7. The company marched away from the bridges, pulling the cart loaded with the implements of war behind it. But the cart continually ran off the road, and the swearing. Jack Bailey says, was the most spectacular he ever heard. (And he became a regimental sergeant major in the post-war army, so he heard a lot.) Eventually, D Company gave up on the cart. Every man shouldered what he could, some of the equipment was left behind in the hated cart, and off they marched.
It was a depleted company that marched along towards Ranville. Howard had landed in Normandy twenty-four hours earlier with 181 officers and men. His battle casualties, considering that he had been in continuous action, were remarkably small - two men killed and fourteen wounded. One platoon remained unaccounted for.
His administrative losses, however, had been heavy. After unloading their gliders, and after the Commandos had opened a road, the glider pilots were under orders to go down to the beaches and use their special orders from Montgomery to get themselves back to England. In the afternoon, the pilots had done as ordered, depriving Howard of another ten men. As communications improved between Benouville and the coast, his sappers were taken from him, to rejoin their parent units. That cost almost two dozen men. And as soon as the march ended, he would have to turn over Fox's and Smith's platoons to B Company - another forty men gone. His reinforced company in the early hours of June 6 had numbered 181; in the early hours of June 7 it numbered 76. And when Fox and Smith returned to B Company, Howard's only officer fit for duty was Sweeney. All the others were either dead, wounded, or missing. ---  At the beach, Oliver Boland was interviewed by a newspaper reporter and gave a brief account of what happened at the canal bridge. The Times ran the article the next day, giving D Company its first publicity. There would be a great deal to follow.
D Company marched around Ranville. It was dark, there were numerous bends in the roads and a profusion of crossroads, and paratroopers scurrying in every direction. D Company got lost. Howard called for a break, then talked to Sweeney. He was worried that they had not met the regiment yet, and he did want to take the company down the road. 'Will you go ahead with a couple of chaps and see if you can make contact with the regiment, then come back here and report?'
Sweeney set off with Corporal Porter and one private. 'Herouvillette,' Sweeney reports, 'was a very eerie place. There were pigeons going in and out, and parachutists still dangling from buildings, dead bodies.' Sweeney was supposed to turn in Herouvillette, but he missed the turn, wandered about for an hour, finally found the right road, and set off for Ranville and the regiment.
One hundred yards down the road, he saw a dark shape ahead. Motioning for a quiet, careful advance, he moved towards it. There was a clang of a steel door, indicating a German armoured vehicle ahead. Sweeney and his men had practised for exactly this situation during the years at Bulford. Sweeney pulled a grenade, threw it, and started running back towards Herouvillette, while Corporal Porter provided covering fire with his Bren gun.
Sweeney says, 'now the other chap was a big, slow farm lad who couldn't really run at all. He had never done anything athletic and as we were going down the road, he passed me, which I felt very upset about, this chap passing me. I said, "Here, private, wait for me". It seemed to me to be quite wrong that he should be racing past me down the road.'
The Germans, meanwhile, had sprung to life. Tracer bullets were whizzing past Sweeney and the private. Porter kept blazing away with his Bren. Sweeney and the private ducked behind a building to wait for Porter, but the fire-fight continued and Sweeney decided he had to report back to Howard, with or without Porter. Howard confessed to Sweeney that as he had listened to the fire-fight, his thought had been 'My God, there goes the last of my subalterns'.
Sweeney told Howard that there was no point in heading down the road. 'Wherever the regiment had got to it hasn't gone down the road towards Herouvillette and I've just run into an armoured car and lost Corporal Porter.' Howard agreed, saying that they would go back the other way and find the regiment. They did, and discovered that they had never been lost: the regiment had camped for the night in a different location from the one Howard had been told about. He had marched near it twice in the last two hours. It was 0300 hours.
When Howard reported to battalion headquarters, to his great delight he saw Brian Friday and Tony Hooper. They told him of how they had realised they were at the wrong bridge, how Hooper had become a prisoner and was then freed as Friday killed his captors with his Sten gun. They had set off cross-country, through swamps and over bogs, hiding in barns, engaging in fire-fights with German patrols, joining up with paratroopers, finally making it to Ranville. D Company now had twenty-two more men, and two more officers, including his second-in-command. Howard reorganised the company into three platoons, under the three remaining officers.
By 0400, the platoon commanders had put their men into German bunks, then found beds in a chateau for themselves. After two hours of sleep they were on the road by 0630. When it came to the road junction and the left turn towards Escoville, there was Corporal Porter sitting on the side of the road with his Bren gun. He looked at Sweeney and said, 'Where did you get to, sir?' Sweeney apologised but explained that he really had to get back and report.
D Company moved on towards Escoville when they suddenly came under very heavy fire. They took some casualties before setting out cross-country, and finally got to the farm Howard had picked as his company headquarters. He put his three platoons into position and they immediately came under mortar, SPV, tank, sniper and artillery fire. They were being attacked by the 2nd Panzer Grenadiers of von Luck's 125th Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division. 'And these people', Sweeney is frank to say, 'were a different kettle of fish to the people we had been fighting at the bridges'. Casualties were heavy, but D Company held its position.
About 1100 hours, Howard started to make another round of his platoons. Sweeney's was the first stop. Howard began studying the enemy with his German binoculars, 'then there was a zip and I was knocked out'. He had a hole right through his helmet, and there was enough blood to convince the men that he was mortally wounded. ---  Howard's helmet, complete with bullet-holes front and back, is now in the museum at Pegasus Bridge. He still bears the scar.
When that word went around in Sweeney's platoon, the men's reaction was to start organising patrols to find and kill the sniper who had shot their Major. In relating this incident, Tappenden commented: 'Every man in the company admired Major Howard more than almost anyone alive. He was a man who knew that if he couldn't do it, you couldn't do it, and you weren't asked to do it. We worshipped him and we wanted revenge'. Fortunately, Howard regained consciousness within a half hour - he had only been creased - and told the men to hold their positions.
By mid-afternoon, the Germans had pushed forward their attack, to the point that there were German tanks between Hooper's platoon and the other two. Orders came down from battalion to withdraw to Herouvillette. The retreat was carried out in fairly good order, considering the pressure and considering that Howard had lost nearly half his fighting strength in half a day.
Parr and Bailey covered the retreat. When they pulled back behind a chateau, Parr gasped out to the Padre standing there with the wounded, 'Let's get going. They are right behind us.' The Padre replied that he was going to stay with the wounded, be taken prisoner with them, so that he could be with them in their POW camp. Bailey and Parr organised some of the men, found some improvised stretchers, and carried the wounded back to Herouvillette. 'It wasn't far'. Parr says, 'only three-quarters of a mile'.
When they got there, the rest of the men were lined up in the ditch all facing the direction from which the Germans would be attacking. 'And the sergeant major, almost with tears in his eyes, was striding up and down and saying in a great booming voice, "Well done, lads. Well done. Wait till the bastards come at us this time. We'll mow 'em down. I'm proud of you. Well done." ' It was a scene more reminiscent of World War I than World War II.
When the Germans did come, D Company mowed them down as if it was the Battle ofMons all over again. But that only highlighted the transformation that had taken place in D Company's role. On June 6 it had been at the cutting edge of tactical innovation and technological possibilities. On June 7 it was fighting with the same tactics ordinary infantry companies used throughout the First World War.
Howard set up headquarters in Herouvillette, and the company stayed there for four days. They were always under attack by mortar and artillery fire, sometimes having to fight off tanks and infantry. By the end of four days, they were down to less than fifty fighting men.
The company moved twice more, then settled down into defensive positions it was to hold for almost two months. 'The only thing we could do was to send out fighting patrols every night to bring back prisoners', Howard says. On one patrol he took with Wally Parr, they found themselves in the area where the Battle of Breville had just been fought. In the moonlight they could see the scattered corpses of men who had been killed by an artillery concentration. Howard and Parr found one group of six men, sitting in a circle in their half -completed slit-trench, playing cards. They were still sitting up, holding their cards, and they had no bullet or shrapnel wounds. But they were all dead, killed by concussion.
During this period, Howard says, 'the biggest problem I had was keeping up the morale of the troops because we had always got the impression that we would soon be withdrawn from Normandy to come back and refit in the UK for another airborne operation'. After all, the glider pilots had been withdrawn and were already in England.
Another morale problem came from the constant shelling. 'Chaps began to go bomb -happy', Howard says.
At first many of us tended to regard it as a form of cowardice and we were highly critical. I remember that I tended to take a very tough and almost unfeeling line about it. But after a time, when we began to see some of our best and most courageous comrades going under, we soon changed our minds. We could see that it was a real sickness. Men would hide away and go berserk during bombardments, and they became petrified during attacks. They could not be used for patrols, or even sentry duty, and the only answer was to hand them over to the Medical Officer, who, once he was satisfied it was a genuine case, had the man evacuated as a casualty. It was pathetic to see good men go down.
Howard himself almost went under. By D-Day plus four, he had gone for five days with almost no sleep, and his losses in Escoville and Herouvillette were heartrending. 'I felt terribly depressed and pessimistic', Howard admits, 'feeling quite sure that the Allied bridgehead was going to collapse on our vulnerable left flank. However, once the CO and the MO persuaded me what was wrong, with quiet threats of evacuation, I luckily shook myself out of it. It was an awful experience.'
Howard learned a lesson from the experience. He got regular, if short, periods of sleep for himself, and he saw to it that the platoon leaders arranged regular rest periods for everyone in turn, especially after attack or shell fire. Another manifestation of the pressure was some self-inflicted wounds, shots through the leg or foot 'usually said to have occurred when cleaning weapons. They were very difficult to prove.' Howard found that keeping up morale when casualties are heavy is always difficult and he did what he could. 'Good discipline and esprit de corps goes a long way towards overcoming it, but I found keeping the men well occupied was as good a cure as any. Active aggressive patrolling, sniping parties, marches behind the line and above all keep everyone in the picture. Glean all you can from HQ by way of information about how the battle is going and have regular meetings with the men to pass it on.'
Howard went to HQ not only to find out what was going on, but to do all those little things a good company commander does. He made certain there were plenty of cigarettes, for example, with an extra supply after a battle or a shelling. He also ensured the prompt arrival and distribution of the mail ('Essential for maintaining good morale'), sending runners back to HQ for the mail if he thought he could save a few minutes. Getting fresh bread was another morale-booster, though the first shipment did not arrive until about D plus 25. 'I was astounded over how much we longed for it.'
Cleaning weapons became almost an obsession. First thing in the morning, after the dawn stand to and breakfast, everything came out - rifles, machine-guns, Piats, mortars, grenades, ammunition - and everything was cleaned, oiled and inspected. Many of the men had a Schmeisser by this time.
During this period, Howard says, 'one thing I could never get used to were the smells of battle. Worst of these was dead and putrefying bodies. The men, friend and foe, were buried, but there was dead livestock everywhere just rotting away. In the middle of summer it was hell. At one chateau a stable full of wonderful racehorses was caught in a burning building. The appalling smell from that place spread over a very wide area, and it was sickening. We eventually dealt with it by loads of lime, but you can imagine the flies that pyre attracted.'
But the biggest morale problem of all was a nagging question in every man's mind: 'Why are we being wasted like this? Surely there must be other bridges between here and Berlin that will have to be captured intact.'
It is indeed a mystery why the War Office squandered D Company, a unique group in the British army. Huge sums had been spent on its training, and its combination of training, skills, and hand-picked officers was unsurpassed.
Despite all this, the War Office sacrificed D Company to the German guns. Sweeney was wounded, Friday was wounded, Hooper was wounded - by August none of D Company's original officers were left, save Howard himself. All the sergeants and the sergeant-major were gone. Thornton had a leg wound and had been evacuated; so had Parr.
On D plus 11, Howard was wounded again, receiving shrapnel in his back. His driver took him back to an aid post where a surgeon removed it, and when he finished, the doctor told Howard to lie there for a while. Mortar rounds started coming in, and everybody ran for cover. Howard looked around. He was alone in the farmhouse operating-room. He jumped off the table, put on his shirt and battle smock, and went outside. Finding his driver taking shelter under the jeep, he told him, 'Let's get back to the company. It's quieter there than it is here.'
Howard's return to the front lines was followed by some confusion as to his whereabouts. All the documentation at the aid post showed that he had been evacuated to England, and as a result his mail was diverted to hospital there. The daily letters he had been getting from Joy suddenly stopped coming. This was the period when Vis and V2s were raining down on England and he was tortured with thoughts other death and the loss of his children. That experience, Howard says, 'nearly sent me round the bend'.
It was worse for Joy. She got a telegram from the War Office which was supposed to read, 'Your husband has suffered a mortar wound and is in hospital'. In fact it read, 'Your husband has suffered a mortal wound and is in hospital'. A frantic Joy was told that he was in such-and-such hospital. She called there and was told he never arrived. No one knew where he was. For two weeks before the matter was worked out, and they started receiving letters from each other again, John and Joy suffered terribly.
Sergeant Hickman was fighting across from D Company once again. He gives a description of what it was like from the German point of view:
There was man-to-man fighting, fighting in the rubble along the streets. You didn't know who was running in front of you and who was running behind you, you couldn't recognise anything and everybody ran. In the daytime we took position, and night we moved either to the left, to the right, back. I had a map case in my belt. The map made no difference to me because I didn't know where I was. So you were moved two kilometres to the left, two kilometres to the right, three kilometres forwards, or back again. Every day you counted your men, one section had two men left, another three. I was a platoon commander with five men to command.
On September 2, while trying to swim the Orne River, Hickman was wounded, captured, interrogated, and sent on to a POW camp in England.
Von Luck was also having a bad time. Every two or three days he would launch armoured attacks, but every time his tanks moved, observers in balloons would spot him, radio to the big ships offshore and the planes overhead, and down would come naval gunfire and strafing Spitfires.
On July 18, there was the biggest bombardment von Luck ever experienced, from bombers, naval warships, and artillery. This was part of operation Goodwood, designed to break through the German lines, capture Caen, and drive on towards Paris. As the barrage moved past him, von Luck set out for the front on his motorcycle. He arrived at a battery of smoking 88mm guns pointing skyward, commanded by a Luftwaffe major. Off to his right, less than a kilometre away, von Luck could see twenty-five British tanks moving forward. He pointed them out to the battery commander and said, 'Major, depress your guns and kill those tanks'. The major refused. He said he was a Luftwaffe officer, and his target was bombers, not tanks. Von Luck repeated his order. Same response.
Von Luck pulled his pistol, pointed it between the major's eyes at a six-inch range, and said, 'Major, in one minute you are either a dead man or you will have won a medal'. The major depressed his guns, started shooting, and within minutes had crippled twenty-five British tanks. Shortly thereafter, Monty called off operation Goodwood.
In late August, 21st Panzer Division was pulled out of the Normandy battle. Von Luck and his men were sent over to the Rhone Valley to meet the threat of the invading forces in southern France.
At the end of August the British broke through and had the Germans on the run. D Company was part of the pursuit. It reached a village near the Seine, where Howard established his headquarters in a school and received the schoolmaster. The Frenchman said he wanted to show some appreciation for being liberated. 'But I've got nothing of any value that I can give you', he confessed to Howard. 'The Germans took everything of value before they left, in prams and God knows what, but the one thing I can give you is my daughter.'
And bringing out his eighteen-year-old daughter, he offered her to Howard. 'It was so pathetic', Howard remembers. He declined, but he also thinks the schoolmaster passed his daughter on down to the other ranks - and that they accepted the gift.
The following day, on the Seine itself, Howard came into a village 'where we saw all these girls with all their hair cut off and tied to a lamp post. It was a gruesome sight, really.' He wondered if that kind of humiliation was being handed out to the prostitutes back in Benouville, who had been as eager to please the British troops as they had the Germans. Or to the young mothers in the maternity hospital. Whose babies could those be, anyway, with all able -bodied Frenchmen off in slave labour or POW camps?
Howard thought it unfair of the French to take out all their frustrations on a single segment of society. Almost everyone in France had got through the German occupation by doing whatever it was that he or she did quietly and without a fuss. One of the things young girls do is establish romantic attachments with young boys, and there were only young German boys around. The girls had no choice, but to Howard's dismay they had to bear the brunt of the first release of pent-up outrage following the liberation celebration. Those Frenchmen with guilty consciences did most of the hair cutting.
On September 5, after three months of continuous combat, D Company was withdrawn from the lines. It travelled by truck to Arromanches, was driven out to Mulberry Harbour, climbed up scramble nets aboard ships, and set sail for Portsmouth. Then by truck to Bulford, where the members of the company moved back into their old rooms and took stock of their losses. Howard was the only officer still with them. All the sergeants and most of the corporals were gone. D Company had fallen from its D-Day strength of 181 to 40.