Yesterday I went for a pub lunch with my ancient father and George, a pal he’d known since prep school – I’m justified in using the adjective ‘ancient’ because both are nonagenarians.
George, who is a D-Day veteran and had a ‘good’ WW2, told a fuller version of his hilarious tale of his part in the Normandy landings than I had previously heard. He had been a young officer in an armoured group stationed on the coast ‘somewhere in southern England’ in readiness to go in as part of the second wave of troops.
At one point his commanding officer let George off to go and see his parents who lived in Sutton. He was, of course, sworn to secrecy as to where he was based at the time (“Had I mentioned our location to my mother, the whole of southern England – and quite possibly Adolf Hitler – would have known within 24 hours!”) and so, for their consumption, hinted that it somewhere down towards Winchester.
He was subsequently horrified on his way back to his base to disembark at Clapham Junction, in order to switch trains, only to bump into two female friends of his mother’s on the platform. Taking the bull by the horns, he pulled them into an empty waiting room and told them ‘in the utmost secrecy’ exactly where he was located (then revealing that he’d told his mother something quite different) and urged – on pain of death – that they must now never tell his mother he had lied to her. This they immediately agreed to do. And never did. Decades later, long after his mother had died, one of the ladies confirmed to him that she had never breathed a word about their ‘secret’ conversation to anyone.
The mood amongst all the units in southern England waiting for D-Day to happen was tense but expectant. Nobody quite knew when anything was going to begin (other than it was soon) – and we know now, of course, that the Landings had to be delayed by 24 hours because of the poor weather conditions on 5th June, which left hundreds of landing craft filled with troops bobbing about in the Channel getting extremely sea-sick … and several warships receiving orders to steam out into the Atlantic for 12 hours and then steam back again for another 12 hours, in order to ‘kill time’. Quite how the German defenders in northern France didn’t get wind of exactly what was going on remains one of the mysteries of WW2.
One night George decided on a whim to ‘turn out’ his men (an unpopular daily process whereby they had to go from off-duty sleep to ‘total readiness’) at 4.00am, rather than the normal 11.00pm or 6.00am which times at least allowed them to get a decent night’s sleep.
Shortly after said 4.00am turn-out, George popped up onto the roof of his digs, situated next door to the regimental HQ, and suddenly saw the awe-inspiring sight of hundreds of gliders being towed overhead, plainly on their way to Normandy.
D-Day was on.
He dashed next door and banged on the HQ door. After a while the adjutant came down as asked what the ‘effing hell’ was the matter. George pulled him outside into the road and pointed to the sky. Consternation and excitement all round. The adjutant dashed back inside and woke the Colonel, who immediately called the entire unit out in a state of full readiness to move off at a moment’s notice.
Eight tedious hours later it became obvious that orders from above were not going to arrive anytime soon. The Colonel ordered everyone to ‘stand down’ again, saying that – if they weren’t moving off immediately – they may as well get a good night’s sleep. Which they did.
The next day, mid-morning, their orders finally came. Not to proceed to their designated landing craft and set sail, or anything so exciting, but to travel to Dartford!
Four days later, as George put it yesterday, “We set off in our landing craft, filled with troops and armoured vehicles, down the Thames estuary and then turned right …”
The weather was foul, the Channel waters choppy and unpleasant. Progress was slowed by landing craft frequently breaking down and/or losing power. For George’s unit, primed and ready to go, the ‘wait’ was boring in the extreme not least because they expected to be in heavy action within minutes of hitting the beaches.
At one point, after hours and hours of nothing, George went up on the deck level where the US skipper of the landing craft was operating from.
“Don’t worry, Bud …” said the skipper, as they exchanged passing conversation, “I’ll have you guys there soon enough …”
“Not necessarily …” responded George, pointing toward the English coast on their right as they chugged westward down the Channel “I was at school at Eastbourne, and if I’m not mistaken that’s Beachy Head …”
“Christ, you’re not wrong!” exclaimed his Yankee companion after a few moment’s contemplation.
By now the Colonel was hopping mad and desperate to get going. Their armoured vehicles ideally needed the water depth to be four foot six inches or less to get away safely, but when the skipper expressed doubts that he could take the landing craft in much further, the Colonel – despite one or two officers being a little concerned when looking out over the side – ordered the ramp to be lowered so that the armoured cars could go ashore.
Down it went. Shortly afterwards the lead armoured vehicle rumbled down the ramp into the water … and kept going down … coming to rest in a vertical position, stuck rammed against the ramp. Shortly afterwards the three men inside came up through the turret at high speed, narrowly avoiding being drowned.
George’s unit was thus marooned on the beach, unable to move forward or backwards for about another three hours until the tide had gone out far enough for them to extricate themselves from the unfortunate situation. They finally got onto the beach, and up beyond the cliffs of Normandy some six and a half days after D-Day …