Thanks for introduction. Originally suggested review of OVERLORD. Broad coverage of the operation is not feasible in a talk of this sort so I won’t attempt it, except to quote something that was said at the time of the 40th. Anniversary.
“On this the anniversary of the assembly of the largest amphibious force in history, there can surely be no forgetting in the minds of those who survived that this was probably the most significant, complex and ambitious of all military operations ever undertaken”
You remember the graffiti on the bombsite hoarding? WELL… It wasn’t the graffiti on the bomb site hoardings “2nd front now” that spurred on the plans for a landing in Europe, but the realisation that the war could only be won on land.
The RAF had won the Battle of Britain and the navy and airforce did wonders in the battle of the atlantic but in spite of saturation bombing the sub pens were largely untouched and in Germany aircraft production was still adequate. There was no real alternative to landing in France.
To break the Atlantic wall needed the combined efforts of all the services, the railways and a large proportion of the civilian population too.
I led a team that made one of the lanes through and it is that effort I will enlarge on. But we were all very aware of how much we depended on other people.
I was an engineer in the special division- 79th Armoured Division which was formed to break through the obstacles of the atlantic wall.
In command was General Sir Percy Hobart, a cavalry officer who had been side lined in the thirties for criticising the cavalry’s preference for horses. He was a real dynamo with a sense of urgency.
He was given a mixed bag of cavalry units, an Engineer Brigade and various signal units and so on. We engineers were given Churchill tanks which were specially armed for engineer use, we called them AVREs Assault vehicles Royal Engineers.
Engineers are expected to deal with all and every obstacle. and Rommel, who masterminded the defences had provided something of everything to stop the invasion on the beaches.
What were we to expect? First MINES.
These were to be dealt with primarily by the flail tanks. The flail attachment was a rotating drum with chains which hit the ground and set off the mines. It had been proved in the desert. The Sherman tanks of the cavalry were fitted with this. Back up was by minedetectors and prodders.
DITCHES:- Ayres could be fitted with 8ft. diam.fascines (bundles of sticks used since time immemorial in siege warfare) to drop into ditches and 30ft bridges to drop across them.
SAND DUNES:-These can be real tank stoppers and we developed a BOASE BANGALORE TORPEDO device, pipes full of explosive carried in front of the tank. You stuck them into the dune and when they exploded they made the sand manageable. They also severed banks of barbed wire.
PILL BOXES:- If you’ve been to the Channel Islands you will have seen the sort of thing the germans built.
AVREs were fitted with a large petard mortar firing a 401b shaped charge of explosive which we called a Dustbin. Range only about 80 yards as I remember. We also carried special charges of explosive to be placed by hand against a wall or an obstacle.
Some of these devices came from World War I, some from research boffins, some we developed or at least made practical.
Training went hand in hand with developing new ideas and gadgets. We were usually in out of the way places at unseasonable times. The Moray Firth in January with a gale blowing is not the nicest place to be. However in later days when we were in the snow of the Ardennes my driver said that while it was colder than the Moray firth at least he wasn’t seasick.
General Hobart set up assault teams of AVREs, Flails and gun tanks and ruled that the teams were to be led by the RE officer. This caused some heartburning in the cavalry,who were very conscious that they were the senior regiment. But it was only for the breaching of the wall.
Teams were to be landed by LCTs which would carry 6 or 7
tanks. Tanks were waterproofed to land in 8ft. of water which meant sealing all opening except the turret hatches and putting sheet metal extension ducts on the air intakes and exhausts. You hoped that the driver could see something out of his periscope.
Landing places were fixed for 24 assault teams. For those of you who are interested in army organisation the attack was mounted by three divisions, 50 Div (Tyne & Tees) on the right, 3rd.Canadian in the centre and 3rd British on the left. Each div. had 2 brigades forward. Each Engineer squadron was to cut four lanes for a brigade.
There was a lateral road running parallel to the beach with various roads going inland. Our left flank was the R.Orne and the paratroops and gliders went in during the night to hold it.The lateral road was our target. We studied the air photos, a panorama of seaside houses, until we could see them in our sleep. We also decided what devices we needed.
For my lane I had two flail tanks, an AVRE with a 30ft. bridge, one with Bangalore torpedoes and two plain AVRE. My 5th & 6th AVRE one with a fascine, were with my troop sergeant on a different landing craft with some artillery tanks coming in later. We never put all our command into one vessel and the fascine was brought for possible use later. We loaded on the morning of the 4th. June at Portsmouth docks. We were quite expert at backing tanks with a 30 ft. bridge or other devices onto the Tank Landing Craft. We were due to sail at 4pm. We were always last to sail and just as we were about to leave the operation was postponed for 24 hours because of the weather. This was a nerve racking time for everyone and to add to the tension that evening our LCT skipper slipped down a companionway and broke a leg.Of course in Portsmouth there was no shortage of RN officers who were keen to get on the invasion. Rank won and we got a Captain RN who was just out of hospital.Someone remarked when he read himself in that he hoped the already fully loaded LCT would stand the weight of all the gold rings.
My flail officer and I went over the panorama photos of the beaches with him and explained what we intended to do.
The weather next day the 5th was ruled to be improving and we sailed at about 4pm. HMS Victory was fully dressed if that is the correct term for ratings manning every yard arm and they cheered like mad as we sailed past and saluted her. The jetties were crammed with dock workers who cheered too. It was obvious what was afoot or rather afloat but not a word leaked out.
It was a rough night and many of my tank crews were violently sea sick. We were used to kipping on deck on tarpaulins and ships blankets but we were taking heavy seas and we had to use the mess room which was cramped and smelt of diesel. The ships galley kept up a continuous supply of tea and the Captain ordered a rum ration. I was lucky to be able to rest on the deck of the bridge. Before first light the ships which were in line ahead deployed into line abreast. We were tail end charlie and we had to swing out to the left of the line. Usually it was a job to get enough speed for this manoevre but that morning with a following wind and our 30ft. bridge acting as a sail we had no problem. In fact the skipper had battled all night to keep station at the rear of the line. We raced ahead of the line and we got lots of signals from the guide boat to drop back. But the skipper said it was the first time in a career at sea that he need not acknowledge, because his orders said “No lights to be shown forrard. The guide boat was commanded by Walter Mears whom you may remember. He was president of the Naval Officers Association here.
At first light on a very grey morning we could make out the rest of the fleet on our starboard aft quarter, I suppose we were a quarter of a mile ahead of the line. Every one was going flat out now.We now had a clearview of the beach obstacles below highwatermark and could see that the many gaps existing when our photos were taken about a week before hand were now closed. Then it struck us all on the bridge”How did they get on the beach?”The skipper had eyesight like a hawk and with enormous binocs searched and spotted tyre tracks above highwater mark close to what we knew must be a pillbox.
I decided that we must change our landing point. The Captain agreed and” put left hand down a bit”.
This wasn’t an easy decision to make for our orders were not very flexible and we made ourselves a plainer target and in planning, landing too close to pill boxes had been frowned on. More signals from the big boss this time on a cruiser behind us about going off course. We quickly marked photos showing the new place for the tank crews. Then all hell let loose as the opening barrage from navy and airforce came down on a 200 yard strip of coast for as far as we could see and all we could see of our target was thick black smoke and flame. This seemed to be a signal for the german guns to open up too. However the skipper had fixed his line on the beach obstacles which weren’t obscured. We were all in our tanks by this time and I could hear my driver retching into his vomit bag. The ramp went down and the two flails were off and weaved through the obstacles I could see they were almost awash but would soon be in shallower water.I was positioning my Avre with its l8ft pipes of HE sticking out in front on the ramp when an extra swell carried us suddenly up to the obstacles. These were large steel joists and had mines and shells as an extra. This was a contingency that we had practiced because 2001bs of High Explosive going of on the ramp would have probably sunk the LCT. But the b’sun knew the drill and gave a signal from the ramp to the bridge. We checked momentarily and we shot down the ramp. What the crew in the tank thought I never knew but we had a two foot drop before the tracks hit bottom. It seemed like 200. Remember that the driver and co-driver gunner could only see through their periscopes and could only see muddy water, whereas I could see it lapping over the top of the turret.
I saw my first flail brew up and some of the crew were trying to get out into the sea to put out their burning overalls, but the second was heading up to the top of the beach.The bridge signalled me that the flail was off course a bit for our new lane and my wireless op passed the signal. We were off after the flail as fast as we could manage I could see that 2 of my other Ayres were safely off and 1 of them went as arranged to the front of the pillbox to edge round it and put some dustbins into it. The flail tank also judged it nicely as he got into the line of fire and let off some quick rounds and then we saw enemy coming out with their hand up so we hoped not to worry about that one. But we were still being shelled by the next emplacement on our right and by mortars from inland somewhere. And there were nebelwerfer a multiple mortar which were demoralising. They all had the range of the beach to a nicety The flail started to flail and almost at once the flail mechanism was hit so it was minedetectors for us. My lance Sgt and I nipped out into a shell hole to tune the detector, they always went out of tune in the tank, and while tuning we were hit by a mortar.The detector had had it.Sgt Willis was badly wounded but I managed to carry on. My radio Op could see what was happening and called the bridge tank for the spare detector. The bridge tank had had problems getting through the obstacles and couldn’t open turrets or doors and was off the air. This is where training comes in, you can’t stop, you have to keep going at once,which my sappers did.A team formed of sappers from my other AVRE,s with one or two on each side of me and we prodded our way forward clearing about a 12ft wide lane. It was a sandy track and full of shell holes. More of my sappers put out marking tapes and we made a lane until we got to the “Achtung minen” signs that were facing landward. The mortar fire eased for us,
they were ranged on the beach perhaps or because my flail was enjoying himself belting off laying his own carpet of fire and the RAF were still bombing with fighter bombers at anything they could spot. We had .a routine. I called up 2 Ayres to test the going and act as guards one at the head of the lane and to be ready to tow anything that got hit or stuck and one to the lateral road further on. We always had tow rope and shackles ready fixed. They had no trouble on the sandy soil actually flattening shell holes as they went.I checked the rest of the lane on foot and then went back to the beach to report to the beachmaster. The Infantry carriers were already lining up and raring to go and I waved them on. The 3 Div.brigadier was waiting with the beach master and one of his staff gave me a tin of self heating soup and took off my rough field dressings and made a decentjob of dressing my legs. They also cut off one leg of my tank suit so when I went back to my lane my troop thought it a been for a paddle skipper? great joke./ Sitting there in a small crater drinking my soup I had a chance to study the beaches. It was a hive of activity compared with our first view of it that morning , when nothing moved except the breakers. Ships were piling in,bren carriers racing off and infantry coming down the steps of the LSI,s and a forest of ack ack balloons. Some of these were coloured to mark landing lanes and we later anchored (unsung heroes)these because all these first balloons were one man jobs, and let the erk get in the Avre.
Altogether it was organised chaos. Of course the tide was coming in steadily, we landed at low tide, and the beach area was getting smaller and there was still plenty of mortar fire coming down but the relief provided by our lane was taking effect at our end of the beach.
I had lost all count of time, I suppose all this only took less than an hour, my wireless op said he signalled lane clear before 8 oclock, we were supposed to land at 7.25 I think and were a few minutes early.
What it would have been like if we had had to lift a pile of mines I don’t know. The two lanes on my right had big trouble with heavy casualties.There were a couple of heavily defended houses which hadn’t been detected.I think that was the first time we learned about Panzerfaust a hand held anti tank weapon. Both (8″ of armour at 30 yards) troop commanders were killed and most of their flails and AVREs disabled,but sappers cleared the lanes eventually. Traffic for those lanes was directed to us and we widened our lane to take the load. We did have mines to clear for that but the pressure wasn’t on in the same way. About midday I handed over to 3rd. div. RE and we moved in to a pre-arranged lager area where I took on the job of preparing a scratch troop ready for action. We had no set tasks ahead of us, the planners had assumed the worst.We found a German tent, some camp chairs and table so we had a field office and first aid post. Redmond Cunningham the other surviving troop commander took on the job of whipping in our stray Ayres if they were runners. In the afternoon our Squadron Commander arrived, his landing craft had had trouble, but he had been in contact with 3 Div and they were crying for support for the commando attacking Ouistreham at the mouth of the R.Orne. My troop Sgt had also landed so we had 10 runners, we started with 26, which John Hanson and Redmond took to Ouistreham. My turret gunner commanded my Avre. They surprised the defences at the lock gate but were too late to stop one span of the bridge over the canal being blown. They captured 6 officers and 51 other ranks.
That was my D day. Later that evening when we’d sorted out our casualties and got the Ayres ready again Redmond brought in our first real trophy a german army truck full of genuine DOM liqueur. Our squadron Sgt.major and quarter master landed at about the same time so we had bed rolls and rum. We rationed our tankcrews to 1 bottle of Dom per tank with the proviso that guard tanks on watch before midnight could only open theirs when they came off watch. The SSM and QM took charge of guard duties. I have to admit that I had a bottle to myself but 2 or 3 tots put me to sleep. I suspect that my batman who came with the SSM had a few tots too for the bottle was suspiciously low next morning.
Ten years ago Evelyn and I were staying with our children and grand children in Normandy. We visited my beach but of course in 40 years it had changed out of all recognition. However I knew there was a cemetery in the orchard where we had lagered. So we visited that. Beautifully kept at all times it probably had extra flowers for the 40th Anniversary as we saw some school kids changing flowers. All our D-day casualties were there except for those who died in hospital in England.
I won’t attempt to comment on whether it was worth it or what could have been done differently, should we have had an 88 gun, why didn’t the Yanks use tanks in the assault, for regimental dinners go on for hours discussing just such matters.
I will give the last word to our daughter in law who visited the cemetery shortly after us.
“But Dad they were all so young”.
Speech given by the late father of a good friend of mine. I think it reflects the true reality of D Day.
Armitage Shanks 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file