D-Day: 0600 to 1200 hours
Georges Gondree, in his cellar, welcomed 'the wonderful air of dawn coming up over the land'. Through a hole in the cellar he could see figures moving about. 'I could hear no guttural orders, which I always associated with a German working-party', Gondree later wrote, so he asked Therese to listen to the soldiers talk and determine whether they were speaking German or not. She did so and presently reported that she could not understand what they were saying. Then Georges listened again, 'and my heart began to beat quicker for I thought I heard the words "all right".'
Members of the 7th Battalion began knocking at the door. Gondree decided to go up and open it before it was battered down. He admitted two men in battle smocks, with smoking Sten guns and coal-black faces. They asked, in French, whether there were any Germans in the house. He replied that there were not, took them into the bar and thence, with some reluctance on their part, which he overcame with smiles and body language, to the cellar. There he pointed to his wife and two children.
'For a moment there was silence. Then one soldier turned to the other and said, "It's all right, chum". At last I knew that they were English and burst into tears.' Therese began hugging and kissing the paratroopers, laughing and crying at the same time. As she kissed all the later arrivals, too, by mid-day her face was completely black. Howard remembers that 'she remained like that for two or three days afterwards, refusing to clear it off, telling everybody that this was from the British soldiers and she was terribly proud of it'.
Forty years later, Madame Gondree remains the number-one fan of the British 6th Airborne Division. No man who was there on D-Day has ever had to pay for a drink at her cafe since, and many of the participants have been back often. The Gondrees were the first family to be liberated in France, and they have been generous in expressing their gratitude.
Free drinks for the British airborne chaps began immediately upon liberation, as Georges went out into his garden and dug up 98 bottles of champagne that he had buried in June 1940, just before the Germans arrived. Howard describes the scene: 'There was a helluva lot of cork-popping went on, enough so that it was heard on the other side of the canal'. Howard was on the cafe side of the bridge, consulting with Pine Coffin. The cafe had by then been turned into the regimental aid post. So, Howard says, 'by the time I got back to D Company I was told that everybody wanted to report sick. We stopped that lark, of course.' Then Howard confesses, 'Well, I didn't go back until I had had a sip, of course, of this wonderful champagne'. A bit embarrassed, he explains: 'It really was something to celebrate'.
Shortly after dawn, the seaborne invasion began. The largest armada ever assembled, nearly 6,000 ships of all types, lay off the Norman coast. As the big guns from the warships pounded the beaches, landing craft moved forward towards the coastline, carrying the first of the 127,000 soldiers who would cross the beach that day. Overhead, the largest air force ever assembled, nearly 5,000 planes, provided cover. It was a truly awesome display of the productivity of American, British and Canadian factories, its like probably never to be seen again. Ten years later, when he was President of the United States, Elsenhower said that another Overlord was impossible, because such a buildup of military strength on such a narrow front would be far too risky in the nuclear age - one or two atomic bombs would have wiped out the entire force.
The invasion stretched for some sixty miles, from Sword Beach on the left to Utah Beach on the right. German resistance was spotty, almost nonexistent at Utah Beach, quite effective and indeed almost decisive at Omaha Beach, determined but not irresistible at the British and Canadian beaches, where unusually high tides compressed the landings into narrow strips and added greatly to the problems of German artillery and small-arms fire. Whatever the problems, the invading forces overcame the initial opposition, and made a firm lodgement everywhere except at Omaha. On the far left, in the fighting closest to Howard and D Company, a bitter battle was underway in Ouistreham. Progress towards Caen was delayed.
Howard describes the landings from D Company's point of view:
The barrage coming in was quite terrific. It was as though you could feel the whole of the ground shaking towards the coast, and this was going on like Hell. Soon afterwards it seemed to get nearer. Well, they were obviously lifting the barrage further inland as our boats and craft came in, and it was very easy standing there and hearing all this going on and seeing all the smoke over in that direction, to realise what exactly was happening and keeping our fingers crossed for those poor buggers coming by sea. I was very pleased to be where I was, not with the seaborne chaps.
He quickly stopped indulging in sympathy for his seaborne comrades, because with full light sniper activity picked up dramatically, and movement over the bridge became highly dangerous. The general direction of the fire was from the west bank, towards Caen, where there was a heavily-wooded area and two dominant buildings, the chateau that was used as a maternity hospital, and the water tower. Where any specific sniper was located, D Company could not tell. But the snipers had the bridge under a tight control, if not a complete grip, and they were beginning to fire on the first-aid post, in its trench beside the road, where Vaughan and his aides were wearing Red Cross bands and obviously tending wounded.
David Wood, who was laying on a stretcher, three bullets in his leg, recalls that the first sniper bullet struck the ground near him and he thought he was going to be hit next. 'Then a shot which was far too close for comfort thudded into the ground right next to my head, and I looked up to see that my medical orderly had drawn his pistol to protect his patient, and had accidentally discharged it and very nearly finished me off.'
Smith was having his wrist bandaged by another orderly. He tells of how the orderly stood up and was shot 'straight through the chest, knocked absolutely miles backwards. He went hurtling across the road and landed on his back, screaming, "take my grenades out, take my grenades out". He was frightened of being shot again, with grenades in his pouches.' Someone got the grenades out, and he survived, but Smith remembers the incident as 'a very low point in my life. I remember also, I thought the next bullet was going to come for me. I felt terrible.' Vaughan, bending over a patient, looked up in the direction of the sniper, shook his fist, and declared, 'This isn't cricket'.
Later that morning. Wood and Smith were evacuated to a divisional aid post in Ranville, where they were also shot at and had to be moved again.
Parr, Gardner, Gray, and Bailey were in the gun pit, trying to figure out how the anti-tank gun worked. Howard had trained them on German small-arms, mortars, machine guns, and grenades, but not on artillery. 'We started figuring it out', Parr recalls, 'and we got the breech out, all the ammo you want downstairs, brought one shell up, put it in, closed the breech. Now', they wondered, 'how do you fire it?'
The four soldiers were standing in the gun pit. Because of its roof, the snipers could not get at them. They talked it over, trying to locate the firing mechanism. Finally Gardner asked, 'What's this?', and pressed a push button. 'There was the biggest explosion, the shell screamed off in the general direction of Caen and, of course, the case shot out of the back and if anybody had stood there it would have caved their ribs in. That's how we learned to fire the gun.'
After that. Parr gleefully admits, 'I had the time of my life firing that gun'. He and his mates were certain that the sniping was coming from the roof of the chateau. Parr began putting shells through the top floor of the building, spacing them along. There was no discernible decrease in the volume of sniper fire, however, and the location of the snipers remained a mystery. In any case, the snipers were very good shots and highly professional soldiers.
Parr kept shooting, but Jack Bailey tired of the sport and went below, to brew up his first cup of tea of the day. Every time Parr fired, the chamber filled with dust, smoke, and loose sand came shaking down. Bailey called up, 'Now, Wally, no firing now, just give me three minutes'. Bailey took out his Tommy cooker, lit it, watched as the water came to a boil, shivered with pleasure as he thought how good that tea was going to taste, had his sugar ready to pop into it, when suddenly, 'Blam'. Wally had fired again. Dust, soot, and sand filled Bailey's mug of tea, and his Tommy cooker was out.
Bailey, certain Wally had timed it deliberately, came tearing up, looking - according to Parr - 'like a bloody lunatic'. Bailey threatened Parr with immediate dismemberment, but at heart Bailey is a gentle man, and by keeping the gun between himself and Bailey, Parr survived.
Howard dashed across the road, bending low, to find out what Parr was doing. When he realised that Parr was shooting at the chateau, he was horrified. Howard ordered Parr to cease fire immediately, then explained to him that the chateau was a maternity hospital. Parr says today, with a touch of chagrin, 'that was the first and only time I've ever shelled pregnant women and newborn babies'. After the war, reading a magazine article on German atrocities in occupied Europe, Parr came across a prime example: it seemed, according to the article, that before withdrawing from Benouville, the Germans had decided to give the village a lesson and methodically shelled the maternity hospital and ancient chateau!
Howard never did convince Parr that the Germans were not using the roof for sniping. As Howard returned to his CP, he called out, 'Now you keep that bloody so-and-so quiet. Parr, just keep it quiet. Only fire when necessary, and that doesn't mean at imaginary snipers.'
Soon Parr was shooting into the trees. Howard yelled, 'For Christ's sake. Parr, will you shut up! Keep that bloody gun quiet! I can't think over it.' Parr thought to himself, 'Nobody told me it was going to be a quiet war'. But he and his mates stopped firing and started cleaning up the shell casings scattered through the gun pit. It had suddenly occurred to them that if someone slipped on a case while he was carrying a shell, and if the shell fell point downwards into the brim-full ammunition room, they and their gun and the bridge itself would all go sky high.
By 0700, the British 3rd Division was landing at Sword Beach, and the big naval gunfire had lifted to start pounding both Caen and behind the beaches, en route passing over D Company's position. 'They sounded so big', Howard says, 'and being poor bloody infantry, we had never been under naval fire before and these damn great shells came sailing over, such a size that you automatically ducked, even in the pillbox, as one went over and my radio operator was standing next to me, very perturbed about this and finally Corporal Tappenden said, "Blimey, sir, they're firing jeeps".'
Someone brought in two prisoners, described by Howard as 'miserable little men, in civilian clothes, scantily dressed, very hungry'. They turned out to be Italians, slave labourers in the Todt Organization. Long, complicated sign -language communication finally revealed that they were the labourers designated to put the anti-glider poles in place. They had been doing their job, on Wallwork's LZ, and appeared quite harmless to Howard. He gave them some dry biscuits from his forty-eight-hour ration pack, then let them loose. The Italians, Howard relates, 'immediately went off towards the LZ where they proceeded in putting up the poles. You can just imagine the laughter that was caused all the way around to see these silly buggers putting up the poles.'
More questioning then revealed that the Italians were under the strictest orders to have those poles in the ground by twilight, June 6. They were sure the Germans would be back to check on their work, and if it were not done, 'they were for the bloody high jump, so they'd better get on with it, and surrounded by our laughter, they got on with it, putting in the poles'.
At about 0800, Spitfires flew over, very high, at 6,000 or 7,000 feet. Howard put out ground-to-air signals, using silk scarves and parachutes spread over the ground, that meant, 'We're in charge here and everything's all right'. Three Spitfires - wearing, like all the other Allied aircraft that participated in the invasion, three white bars on each wing -peeled off, dived to 1,000 feet, circled the bridges doing victory roll after victory roll.
As they pulled away, one of them dropped an object. Howard thought the pilot had jettisoned his reserve petrol tank, but he sent a reconnaissance patrol to find out what it was. The patrol came back, 'and to our great surprise and amusement, it was the early editions from Fleet St. There was a scramble for them amongst all the troops, especially for the Daily Mirror, which had a cartoon strip called "Jane", and they were all scuffling for Jane. There were one or two moans about there being no mention of the invasion or of D Company at all.'
Throughout the morning, all movement in D Company's area was done crouched over, at a full sprint. Then, shortly after 0900, Howard experienced
... the wonderful sight of three tall figures walking down the road. Now, between the bridges you v/ere generally out of line of the snipers, because of the trees along this side of the canal, and these three tall figures came marching down very smartly and they turned out to be General Gale, about six foot five inches, flanked by two six-foot brigadiers - Kindersley on one side, our own Air Landing Brigade commander, and Nigel Poett, commanding the 5th Para Brigade, on the other. And it really was a wonderful sight because they were turned out very, very smartly, wearing berets and in battle dress, and marching in step down the road. Richard Todd said that 'for sheer bravado and bravery it was one of the most memorable sights I've ever seen', and all the other men agreed.
Gale had come down by glider, about 0300, and established his headquarters in Ranville. He and his brigadiers were on their way to consult with Pine Coffin, whose 7th Battalion was hotly engaged with enemy patrols in Benouville and Le Port. Gale called out to D Company, as he marched along, 'Good show, chaps'. After a briefing from Howard, Gale and his companions marched across the bridge. They were shot at but not hit, and they never flinched.
As they disappeared into Pine Coffin's headquarters, two gun-boats suddenly appeared, coming up from the coast headed towards Caen. They were coming from the small harbour in Ouistreham, which was under attack by elements of Lord Lovat's Commando brigade. The gun-boats were obviously aware that the bridge was in unfriendly hands, because the lead boat came on at a steady speed, firing its 20mm cannon at the bridge. Parr could not shoot back with the anti-tank gun because the bridge and its superstructure blocked his field of fire. Corporal Godbold, commanding no. 2 platoon, was on the bank with a Piat. Howard ordered his men to hold their fire until the gun-boat was in Godbold's range. Then some of 7 Para on the other side started firing at the boat. Godbold let go, at maximum range, and to his amazement he saw the Piat bomb explode inside the wheelhouse. The gunboat turned sideways, the bow plunged into the para bank, the stern jammed against D Company's side.
Germans started running off the stern, hands high, shouting 'Kamerad, Kamerad'. The captain, dazed but defiant, had to be forced off the boat. Howard remembers him as being eighteen or nineteen; very tall, and speaking good English. 'He was ranting on in English about what a stupid thing it was for us to think of invading the continent, and when his Flihrer got to hear about it we would be driven back into the sea. He was making the most insulting remarks and I had the greatest difficulty stopping my chaps from getting hold and lynching that bastard on the spot.' But Howard knew that intelligence would want to see the young officer immediately, so he had the prisoner marched off towards the POW cage in Ranville. 'And he had to be frog-marched back because he was so truculent and shouting away all the time.'
The sappers looked around the boat, examining equipment, searching for ammunition and guns. One ofthem^a 19-year-old named Ramsey, found a bottle of brandy and stuck it in his battle smock. His commander, Jock Neilson, noticed the bulge and asked what it was. The sapper showed him and Neilson took it, saying, 'You are not old enough for that'. The sapper complains, 'I never saw a drop of that bloody brandy'.
Near Caen, von Luck was close to despair. The naval bombardment raining down on Caen was the most tremendous he had seen in all his years at war. Although his assembly point was camouflaged and so far untouched, he knew that when he started to move - when he finally got the order to go - he would be spotted immediately by the Allied reconnaissance aircraft overhead, his position reported to the big ships out in the Channel, and a torrent of shells would come down on his head.
Under the circumstances, he doubted that he could get through the 6th Airborne and recapture the bridges. His superiors agreed with him, and they decided that they would destroy the bridges and thus isolate the 6th Airborne. They began to organise a gun-boat packed with infantry, meanwhile sending out frogmen and a fighter-bomber from Caen to destroy the bridge.
At about 1000, the German fighter-bomber came flying directly out of the sun, over the river bridge, skimming along just above the trees lining the road, obviously headed for the canal bridge. Howard dived into his pillbox; his men dived into trenches. They poked their heads out to watch as the pilot dropped his bomb. It was a direct hit on the bridge tower, but it did not explode. Instead it clanged onto the bridge and then dropped into the canal. It was a dud.
Howard comments, 'What a bit of luck that was... and what a wonderful shot by that German pilot'. The dent is there on the bridge to this day.
The two frogmen were easily disposed of by riflemen along the banks of the canal. On the ground, however, the Germans were pushing the British back. Nigel Taylor's was the only company of 7th Battalion in Benouville. It was desperately understrength and very hard pressed by the increasingly powerful German counter -attacks. The two companies in Le Port were similarly situated and, like Taylor, were having to give up some ground.
As the Germans moved forward, they began putting some of their SPVs into action. These vehicles belonged to von Luck's regiment, but were attached to forward companies that were expected to act on their own initiative rather than report back to the regimental assembly area. The British called the rocket launchers on the SPVs 'Moaning Minnies'. What they remember most about them, Howard says, 'apart from the frightful noise, was the tremendous accuracy'. He was sure the Germans were directing their fire from the top of the chateau, but he could do nothing about it.
Between explosions, Wally Parr dashed across the road to see Howard. 'I got a feeling', he panted, 'that there is somebody up there on that water tower, spotting for the Minnies'. He explained that the water tower, located near the maternity hospital, had a ladder up to the top, and that he could see something up there. Wouldn't Howard please give him permission to have a go at it? Howard agreed. 'And you couldn't see Wally's arse for dust', as Parr dashed back across the road to his gun.
Parr bellowed out, 'NUMBER ONE GUN!' As he did so, there was one of those strange lulls that occur in so many battles. In the silence Parr's booming voice carried across the battlefield, from Le Port to Benouville, from the canal to the river. Now, as Howard points out, there only was one gun; as Parr rejoins, it was the only substantial gun they had around the bridges at the time, so it really was the number one gun. Parr then put his crew through a drill that constituted a proper artilleryman's fire order. '700, One Round. Right 5 degrees', and so on, all orders proceeded by 'NUMBER ONE GUN'. Finally, 'PREPARE TO FIRE.' All around him, the soldiers -German as well as British - were fascinated spectators. 'FIRE!'
The gun roared, the shell hurtled off. It hit the water tower head-on. Great cheers went up, all around, berets and helmets were tossed into the air, men shook hands joyfully. The only trouble was, the shell was armour-piercing. It went in one side and came out the other without exploding. Streams of water began running out the holes, but the structure was still solid. Parr blasted away again, and again, until he had the tower spurting out water in every direction. Howard finally ordered him to quit.
When Gale, Kindersley, and Poett returned from their conference with Pine Coffin, they told Howard that one of his platoons would have to move up into Benouville and take a position in the line beside Taylor's company. Howard chose no. 1 platoon. He also sent Sweeney and Fox with their platoons over to the west side, to take a position across from the Gondree cafe, where they should hold themselves ready to counter-attack in the event of a German breakthrough. 'And we thought', Sweeney says, 'that this was a little bit unfair. We'd had our battle throughout the night. Para had come in and taken over the position and we rather felt that we should be left alone for a little bit and that the 7th should not be calling on our platoons to come help it out.'
Sweeney and Fox settled down by a hedge. Back at Tarrant Rushton, a week earlier, Sweeney and Richard Todd had met, because of a confusion in their names - in the British army all Sweeney s were nicknamed Tod, and all Todds were known as Sweeney, after the famous barber in London, Sweeney Todd. On the occasion of their meeting, Sweeney and Todd laughed about the coincidence. Todd's parting words had been, 'See you on D-Day'. On the outskirts of Le Port, at 1100 hours on D-Day, as Sweeney rested against the hedge, 'a face appeared through the bushes and Richard Todd said to me, "I said I'd see you on D-Day", and disappeared again'.
Over in Benouville, no. 1 platoon was hotly engaged in street fighting. The platoon had gone through endless hours of practice in street fighting, in London, Southampton, and elsewhere, and had gained experience during the night, in the fighting around the cafe. Now it gave Taylor's company a much-needed boost, as it started driving Germans out of buildings they had recaptured.
Corporal Joe Caine was in command. 'He was a phlegmatic sort of a character'. Bailey remembers; 'nothing seemed to perturb him'. They saw an outhouse in a small field. 'Cover me', Caine said to Bailey. 'I'm going to have a crap.'
He dashed off to the outhouse. A minute later he dashed back. 'I can't face that', Caine confessed. There was no hole in the ground, only a bucket, and nothing to sit on. The bucket looked as if it had not been emptied in weeks. It was overflowing. 'I can't face that', Caine repeated.
By about mid-day, most of the 7th Battalion had reported in for duty, some coming singly, some in small groups. Enough arrived so that Pine Coffin could release Howard's platoons. Howard brought them back to the area between the bridges. The snipers remained active, sporadically the Moaning Minnies showered down, battles were raging in Benouville, Le Port, and to the east ofRanville. D Company was shooting back at the snipers, but as Billy Gray confesses, 'We couldn't see them, we were just guessing'.
But limited though D Company's control was, it held the bridges.