With the 75th Anniversary D-Day Landing celebrations happening across the country last week, we thought you might be interested to hear from some OWs who wrote to the Old Wycliffian Society at the time. The following excerpts are taken from the College’s old publication ‘ The Wycliffe Star ’ – May 1944 – December 1944 (no. 178).
WITH THE BRITISH ARMY OF LIBERATION IN WESTERN EUROPE THE INVASION OF NORMANDY Lieut. Denis Cox (Prep & Springfield 1931-34), known as Denis Allen when at school, gives a vivid account of the earliest operations in France:—
“At last I have a little time to let you know all that has happened to me. For security reasons we are forbidden to tell the details of any event until at least fourteen days have elapsed. We have now been in the front line for seventeen days, so I can give you some idea of the early stages. I’m very fortunate in that I’m completely whole! A lot of chaps have been lost, mostly wounded.
The invasion took place as you know, on the morning of Tuesday, June 6th. A small party of 180 men and officers, of which my platoon and I were part, were ordered to land, or rather ‘ crash-land,’ and capture two important bridges. This was to take place the night before D-day. We had practised this in England for about a month previously, and at last, at one minute to eleven on Monday night, our six gliders took off for France. We were to be the very first troops to start the invasion. It was an uneventful flight as far as opposition was concerned, though the nervous strain was terrific. The gliders released over the coast of France, and we started to glide them down to our objectives. My glider was caught in a flare and shot at, but by amazing luck was not hit. We crash-landed (with emphasis on the crash) in a small field some 50 yards from the bridge I was to take. The glider was in pieces, the wheels off, the woodwork smashed, but again, as though Providence was looking after us, none of my chaps were badly hurt. I must explain here that three glide loads were supposed to land and take this bridge, but ours was the only one to get there. It was very difficult to make yourself realise that this was enemy territory, that we had come here to kill or be killed when only an hour and a half ago we were all at a film in the camp in England. I attacked the bridge with my chaps. A machine gun opened up on us. We charged, throwing bombs, firing in what I imagined, with a sickening sort of feeling, was rather a desperate assault. The enemy, taken by surprise, fled. We chased them across the bridge, captured it before they could blow it up (we had been told that it would be charged for demolition). Again—how can I say it—not a single one of my men was hit!
Now came the worst time of all. Here we were, a very small party alone, seeming indeed so terribly alone, in enemy country, with the might of the German Army against us. We were attacked, my Sergeant wrecked a tank, we killed and captured a number of Germans, two or three of them horribly wounded—the one in the tank had both legs off.
At long last, it seemed years, a body of parachutists arrived to help us hold the bridges. We held on until about 12 o’clock on D Day, when, after continual attacks by the Germans, and very depleted in strength ourselves (except my platoon, which was still intact!) just preparing to lose everything as the Germans in such superior strength were pushing us back, we heard the bagpipes of the sea-borne forces, and very shortly afterwards they came through in all their glory! It would be impossible for me to describe our reactions to these chaps coming through, and to know that for a while our job was over, and that we had done it successfully. You must just imagine us giving vent to our feelings from shouting and jumping in the air by some to almost weeping by others and sincere prayers by not a few. And still not a man in my platoon was hurt! I can’t account for this at all, as we had done more than our share, but the fact remained.
And so I seem to have been the first, or possibly the second or third, officer to land in France, so starting the invasion of the entire Allied Expeditionary Force! I say ‘ second or third ‘ as the party at the other bridge were scheduled to land at the same time as us, which they did.
Since then we have had a pretty rough time, little sleep, little food to begin with, though once the administration got going it was very good. Very little water, for cooking purposes only, so that we neither washed nor shaved for ten days. Plenty of fighting. I no longer have all my platoon with me; we are sadly depleted, but they were great fellows!
At first it was exciting, then you begin to sicken of it; lack of sleep, continual anxiety tell on your nerves, and you hate wars and all they stand for, you wonder why they are necessary, what’s the use of them, you feel the stupidity of it all.
Here we are, a civilized nation, living in holes in the ground, unkempt and unshaven, going out periodically to kill or be slaughtered, constantly shelled and mortared, watching with a callous sort of feeling fellows whom you know dying, or crying out with pain. It’s all so fantastic. And yet during a lull, with Jerry across the field, not a hundred yards away, we watch each other, sometimes in an almost friendly way. We get used to it, but often we long for home, and for news of home. We get comparatively little news out here. You must know more of how the war is going than we do.
I spent a few days in a German canteen. We found bottles of wine and beer and thought ourselves very comfortably off, but a well-aimed shell crashed into the room, blew up, and caught a number of my fellows. The countryside is so extraordinarily like England that it is sometimes very difficult to realize we are on foreign soil. The French are part friendly, part hostile; the majority are rather pathetic. But we lost a number of chaps sniped by the French, and yet many will do anything to help us.”
(According to information from Allied Headquarters it was afterwards discovered that some German snipers had dressed themselves as French civilians.—ED.).
“One of the most satisfying personal achievements is the knowledge that, after all my fears beforehand, I am capable of leading a body of men into action without letting them down. There is every chance of our coming home in the near future. What a day that will be, and how much more I shall appreciate everything! ”
(A little later Denis was seriously wounded).
Lieut. David Paine (Springfield 1925-32) of the Gloucesters, who stepped down from his Captaincy on joining his last unit of the Gloucesters, wrote from Normandy in July :—
“We came over here on D-Day, and from a few miles out I witnessed the initial landings. Quite honestly I was, in company with most others, too seasick to be interested, but I suppose it was really a wonderful and awe-inspiring sight. When we were called in there was no further opposition immediately in front, but plenty of fighting on our flanks.
From the start the French peasants were jubilant and delighted to see us, in spite of the destruction wrought to their homes and death to their cattle. While there are doubtless still some collaborators, I am sure that the heart of France beats as strong and true as ever in the bodies of the ordinary folk. The history of the following weeks bore out the old dictum of war, ‘ 99% boredom, 1% sheer hell.’ We have had our share of the latter, and what I have seen makes me marvel at the calculating wantonness of national rulers who follow a policy aimed at fermenting and producing wars. But it also leaves me in humble amazement at the courage, patience and good humour of our fellows. If only the Archbishop could pray hard enough to send us fine weather, I do not think the end would be long delayed. We have had awful stuff so far, heavy clouds and persistent drizzle, so never again will I speak slightingly of an English summer or of Stonehouse rainfall. When it is fine the R.A.F. comes over in swarms. I have not seen a score of planes belonging to the Luftwaffe since we came.
I am getting a bit tired of living in holes in the ground, but that is the obvious place for an infantryman, and it will make me appreciate my bed more in days to come. In fact I am sure that I shall appreciate life more in all its phases and particularly the simple homely things.”
At the time it was written: The end of the story is not so happy, though it might be worse, for David Paine had his right foot blown off by a German mine in a before dawn attack at Caumont. After a few ghastly hours, and nine blood transfusions, he found himself in hospital in England, having been flown across the Channel.
However, David Paine’s story did not end there. During the war W. A. Sibly (Wycliffe College Head 1912 – 1947) had previously written to David hoping that he would return to assist in the building up of the College when war was over – to concentrate on PE and Rugby, with a little teaching of French and German. In this David was well qualified as, after leaving Wycliffe, he had read Modern History and /or Modern Languages at St John’s College Cambridge and thereafter went to Carnegie Physical Training College in Leeds in 1937. Despite injury, David fulfilled Sibly’s hopes and went on to dedicate the next 30 years of his life to Wycliffe, working at the College from 1945 – 1975. He became Master in charge of PE and Rugby, was Housemaster School House 1948 – 1964 and then Senior Master 1965 – 1975. He was editor and compiler of ‘The Wycliffe Star’ from some ten years and was Secretary of Old Wycliffian Society. He retired in 1975.
David Paine (Springfield 1925-32) who returned to Wycliffe to teach from 1945 – 1975 and was there on D-Day.
THE EXPERIENCES OF A DENTAL OFFICER Sq./Ldr. Edgar Venning (S.H. 1925-28) writes a vivid account of his life with the Army of Liberation, in which he serves in an unusual capacity:
“After two and half years in your beloved Gloucestershire, and a year as a nomadic dentist in Southern England, I am now in Belgium, where life is full of interest and excitement, for to the people of France and Belgium even a Dental Officer is a liberator.
My dental surgery is a 3-ton motor ambulance very neatly and compactly fitted up with complete equipment and stores, and I drive it myself, with a dental orderly who is also my reserve driver, I also have a dental laboratory—another fitted 6-wheeler van, with a couple of dental mechanics who do the mechanical dentistry for three or four other mobile surgeries as well as mine.
We, as a dental unit, are based on the headquarters of the Group and visit various units for a week or two at a time, so our life is generally a roving one. We have reduced the packing up and setting up of our vehicles to a fine art now, and we can unpack, get tents pitched and become fully operational within an hour or so of our arrival.
As Senior Dental Officer I am able to vary the routine of chairside practice by running round in a Jeep visiting the dozen or so other dental units of the Group in the various airfields at which they are situated, and making sure the dental services are running smoothly. This is a very enjoyable part of my job and has enabled me to see 23 a lot more of France and Belgium, and of the Air Force’s part in this great straggle, than I could otherwise have done.
At the beginning of this overseas adventure, all our dental units were scheduled to come over together, and we foregathered at a camp in Surrey whence the dental convoy moved to the concentration area where we hung about for a week, were briefed, and our vehicles waterproofed. This was a very thorough sealing of every part of the engine and chassis with a plasticine-like compound to enable the vehicle to run in two or three feet of water if necessary. In addition all our damageable stores and equipment inside had to be wrapped and sealed in waterproof canvas or oiled silk, or stowed above the possible wave-line. Thence we travelled in convoy again to the marshalling area where we waited another week, collected emergency rations, lifebelts, maps and so on, and finally to the embarkation area where all the vehicles were loaded by crane into the hold of an M.T. ship, on which we sailed through the Straits of Dover to the Normandy beaches. I shall never forget the sight of the vast concourse of shipping in the bay as we approached the coast of France that fine summer’s evening, while the sun sank below the Atlantic horizon, touching with gold the myriads of silver balloons, flying sentinels above the beaches and the landing craft. But next day it was stormy and owing to the heavy swell some of our vehicles got such a battering as they were lifted by crane from the hold on to the smaller landing craft, that unloading had to be postponed. When we finally landed, on those beaches which had already made history, those who had gone before had done their job so well that we splashed through less than a foot of water on to firm sand.
During our two months in Normandy the nights were often very noisy, mostly from our own ‘ ack-ack ‘ fire, but the days were peaceful and we were pleasantly encamped in the grounds of a fine old chateau There were swims in the river, bathing expeditions to the beaches and I got up a concert party which performed on an open-air stage in a lovely setting on the terrace of the old chateau. There were even dances, to which the Army nurses were invited. So life was very English and very static, and the people of Normandy did not seem very interested in us.
And then we began to move, and we seem to have been packing and unpacking ever since. Through the ruined towns and villages of Normandy, along the dusty bumpy roads, across the Seine, pitching and setting up shop for a few days, and then on again. And from the Seine onwards, in every village on the route the enthusiasm and the welcome were terrific. The Tricolour flew from windows and roof-tops everywhere, the children waved and shouted and ran alongside throwing apples and tomatoes and pears into the driving cab, the girls, many in red, white and blue dresses, blew kisses and the men gave the ‘ V ‘ sign. It was an exhilarating experience, and their happiness was infectious. We had ‘Dentiste pour le RAF’ chalked on the side of the van, and they would laugh and point to their teeth.
I had a memorable afternoon in Paris, about ten days after its liberation; there were lots of Americans about but quite a number of people came up and shook us warmly by the hand, saying we were the first English troops they had seen. Paris was delighted and delightful,—the Champs Elysees in the sunshine full of bicycling Parisiennes (I remembered my last visit with you in 1928 when it was we who were bicycling), the people, still smart and colourful and very happy, the parfumerie where they were so glad to see us that we came out with our battledresses sprayed with perfume— it was all unforgettable.
But if Paris was enthusiastic, here in Belgium our welcome has been overwhelming. I can’t mention names, but when we arrived at this place six days after the Germans had fled in great haste the Belgians were still celebrating their new freedom. The crowds were terrific, we were among the vanguard of the R.A.F., and I’ve never signed so many autographs or shaken so many hands as I did that first afternoon. The people are wonderfully friendly. Their generosity and hospitality have endeared them to us all. Wherever we go there have been smiling faces, and everyone is eager to help one find the way, to have a chat, or to invite you to their homes. Their joy and thankfulness is so sincere, and their generosity comes so straight from the heart, that it left us all a bit breathless at first. We have been invited out to celebration parties in their homes, to tea or supper with their families, and the very excellent meals they have managed to devise, when the food situation is so very bad, have amazed us all. Many families have saved up stocks of food and wine for ‘the liberation’, and we have been privileged to share in their festivities. The shops are amazingly well-stocked—with many luxury goods which make us, who are accustomed only to utility goods, stare wide-eyed. Much of this is stock which has been hidden from the Germans and only recently displayed. Food and clothes, however, are scarce and very expensive. The black market has been everyone’s shop and now that we are suppressing it they are finding living conditions very difficult. But throughout the country the stock of les Anglais is so high, and the entente cardiale so firm, that the chances of real understanding and co-operation with this close neighbour of ours in the post-war world are very high. Whether the same can be said of France I am not sure, as one gets the impression that that country is so much more divided by internal factions, and perhaps not so unanimous in the desire to embrace British friendship.”
Edgar Venning (SH 1925 – 1928)
REFLECTIONS FROM A FIELD SERVICE UNIT Major Rex Binning (Springfield 1922-28), of the R.A.M.C. having seen service in a Base Hospital during 1939-40 in France and then in a Field Service Unit in the Western Desert and Sicily, is now doing similar work in France. He writes :—
“We were due to land on D-Day, but the night was so black and the sea so rough by the time we were off the beach that we had to hang about until daybreak. The scene was an amazing one. There were hundreds of landing craft, which are very difficult to manoeuvre in adverse weather conditions, all trying to find a place to land. Many of them were broached too and grounded, blocking the way for the others. Eventually we found a place and got ashore without getting the trucks more than axle deep in water. Many others were up well above the tailboard, and many more had to be pulled up by bulldozers. We were lucky in that we were behind a veteran formation and by the time we arrived the line in front of us—apart from odd pockets of resistance—was several miles inland.
We set up the operating theatre, and have been busy ever since. Here we get the London papers either the day on which they are published or 48 hours after—how different from the Middle East, where we never saw an English paper that was not at least three months old.
Now that the much-vaunted West Wall has been broken one detects a note of impatience with the rate of progress so far made (Major Binning was writing on July 30th). There are two factors which all commentators have failed to stress sufficiently. The first is the weather. This has been appalling, and entirely different from the similar period I spent in Rennes in 1940. At first it seriously affected the unloading, and the advance inland was held up by a shortage of ammunition. It has also grounded the R.A.F. for so many days that the enemy were able to bring up to the front divisions that would never have got here intact, if at all, if only our planes had been able to patrol the roads as they have done during the last few days.
The second factor is the necessity of going slowly at first with troops who are in action for the first time. A Division must have a limited objective well within its power for the first few actions, or morale will go down steadily instead of up and up. The way Montgomery nursed the Highland Division when it first came to the Desert until it became one of the best Divisions in the British Army was an excellent example of how this policy pays in the long run.” Later he writes from Holland :—
” We saw a good deal of the airborne operation leading up to Arnhem, and were in Nijmegen soon after the airborne troops, staying there for nearly two months. The cost was heavy, but when one sees the huge bridge at Grave and at Nijmegen which we got intact, and thinks of all the bridges over the Canals which would have been blown by the Germans if they had made an orderly retreat, it cannot be said that the cost was excessive, or that lives were thrown away needlessly. I think that many who are missing will be found to be wounded or prisoners.
It is curious how many things such as cameras are found in occupied countries, but are so difficult to obtain in England. I got plenty of film in Brussels and even in Nijmegen. By contrast they are desperately short of essentials like food and shoes. Like you I feel I shall deserve a holiday after the war, but instead I suppose I’ll have to start building up my practice again from the beginning, without anything to put on the credit side for the last five years save some unforgettable experiences, and the pleasure of visiting many countries which I would rather have seen with, my wife and children.”