Days to remember – or forget?
James W Irvine recalls his part in D-Day – one of the most significant moments of the Second World War
When I switched on the TV one night recently I saw a programme devoted to D-Day, the big event of 65 years ago. The veterans on parade who had been there on that day looked a bit long in the tooth, and not surprisingly for they were all in their eighties. I wasn’t on parade, but I was one of them, perhaps two or three years older than most, and I can’t help thinking that those who remain must be dwindling rapidly.
I have two lasting memories: We came in on a half tide on a 250-man troop carrier, and had a long way to platch through the far from glassy water. With the water which filed our packs, ammunition pouches, etc. in addition to their material contents, I reckon we were each dragging something like 80-90lb through the water, which for some way was up to our necks. Try it sometime – it’s not like a day in the Pool of Virkie at all, though the sand is the same.
As we were finally emerging from the water on to dry sand, in the midst of quite a cacophany of sound, the company joker, next but one to me, shouted, “Let’s all meet here on this sand in 50 years from now!” Sadly, as he shouted, the boy between us slowly collapsed on his face in the laebrack. We took an arm each and dragged him on to dry sand, trying to turn him on his back – an almost impossible task with the size of pack we all carried on our back. It was immediately apparent that there would be no reunion for him, for he was our first casualty, to a sniper’s bullet. We had got off very lightly, for the ship behind us, the same type as our own, had taken a direct hit, though most of the German fire seemed to go over our heads. However, it was only a couple of days later that, when unloading ammunition and lorrying it up to a dump which we had established about a mile inland, a faulty shell triggered a massive explosion and our 13 boys unloading the lorry were blown to bits. They included our joker.
My second lasting memory was the smell, created by decomposing flesh, animal and human. I swear it was still with us by the time we reached Holland after the break-out. I suppose a lot of us had mixed feelings about the French. They had been our first allies in the Great War, though sadly their will to fight and resist this time had not shown the same resilience as that of the British. Now we had come to liberate them, but as we crossed the Seine and ploughed on up through northern France and Belgium, I couldn’t help feeling that liberation had cost them a heavy price. Before we landed, our air forces, much superior now to those of the Germans, had inflicted heavy damage on numerous areas in and around Normandy, and always that kind of damage was accompanied by casualties. Our warships had kept up a steady bombardment from the sea, and dead cows lay in their dozens, as well as numerous civilians. Tens of thousands of British, Canadian and American troops had dug a slit trench for themselves every night, and the orchards of Normandy must have been in some mess when we finally left them to it.
I remember reading an article someone had written about me in which I was supposed to have said that the only time I was afraid was when a German shell exploded 50 yards away from me. I remember smiling to myself when I read that – if I had 50p for every shell that exploded as far away as that our whole company could have had a night out. The slit trench ensured that, when asleep, you were below ground level, and a shell exploding as near as 15 yards left you reasonably safe, for the explosion’s debris passed over – unless a large lump dropped on the wrong spot. In any case you must never allow fear to show.
We had been supposed to capture Caen either on D-Day or D+1. We didn’t, nor did we for several days. There were quite a few heavy German tanks – Tigers and Panthers – dug in around that town, and all our efforts had been in vain. The powers-that-be decided that an air-raid was the answer. I must say that there were quite a few of us who had misgivings as we lay on a knoll one evening and from nearly a mile away watched the British heavy bombers coming in to drop their loads on this not very big and undistinguished provincial French town. At least that is how I had seen it in my mind’s eye ever since we landed, though recourse to my encyclopaedia today tells me that in 2000 it had an estimated population of 118,000 people, an airport, railway station and the tomb of the Duke of Normandy. It was also badly damaged in World War II. Well, maybe, but somehow I don’t think there were as many people in 1944.
But back to the planes. They came in a steady stream, in twos and threes, and we could see the massive bombs as they fell inexorably slap bang into the town. It was broad daylight, I didn’t see a single hampering Messerschmidt, and the ack-ack fire didn’t seem to be worrying anyone for the planes seemed to be flying unusually low. I can’t vouch for it, but I think we counted something like 250 planes. We lay there hardly saying a word as the raid went on, and when the last plane had dropped its load and turned for home, we, too, turned to each other, though little was said. I don’t think we knew what to say. It was clear tremendous damage had been done. It was clear many lives had been lost. In our minds, I think, was the thought that most of them were French. We had all been sceptical of the numbers of Germans claimed to be in the town itself.
When the time came for our tanks and transport to make their way through the town, the bulldozers had quite a task to clear a way for us. I was anxious to hear the death toll as a result of the raid, but to obtain anything in the nature of accuracy was very difficult. The most credible I could get was 5,000. I think that was conservative. An estimate of French civilian casualties in the Normandy fighting was 72,000. Nobody thought liberation would come without its quota of grief, but I do sometimes think back to that night of the air-raid, and I wonder, “Should we have done that?” From the morning of D-day itself Normandy was suffering damage. The big ships were keeping up a continuous bombardment, our aircraft, so much superior and more numerous now than those of Germany, were bombing at will; every night tens of thousands of British, Canadian and American soldiers were digging slit trenches in the orchards and fields of the French country-side, doing untold damage. And yet, in my many sallies to the farms as “scrounger in chief”, I never met with a nasty reception. War is a many-faced business.
James W Irvine’s new book, Four Score and Ten, has just been published, and is available at £11.40 from The Shetland Times Bookshop.