Saturday, 1 August 2015
Dad recounted something of his experiences in Normandy to Marshall Pugh in an article entitled "No Trouble Brewing" (you'll understand why by the end), published in the Daily Mail on the 3rd April 1958. It lacks Dad's fluency, but I can just about hear his voice, and I recognise it as a story. Note the "not all that healthy" - the only suggestion that perhaps there was an enemy intent on violence. I think this stands as a good example of how well a Welshman can pull off English understatement. On the following day Dad's actions earned him the Military Cross, but of that none of us ever heard anything. To his father he wrote that it was "a shameful thing", which perhaps was taking modesty too far.
"In one of 250 gliders escorted by a cloud of fighters we were coming in on France. But nothing, absolutely nothing, about D-Day was turning out as I'd expected. There was no fierce fighter opposition, no signs of flak, no wrecked gliders in the fields below.
In our glider some of the "Red Devils" about to penetrate the Atlantic Wall were sucking jujubes. Or they looked like jujubes... Looking again I saw that they had taken the barley sugars from the special airborne rations which were supposed to last for three days. "Put them away," I said sharply, before they devoured the compound cakes or porridge. "Want to live on grass?" "But, Sor," said one Irish rifleman, "they're very good them sweets."
We weren't gliding in the accepted sense of the word. As always, it was as if we were in a very old railway carriage being yanked across the sky. As always... for weeks and months we had rehearsed for this, landing on fields and roads and hills. Once we'd even turned over in the air, and, sitting upside-down, strapped into his seat, the platoon sergeant, famed for his ferocity, had recited the Lords Prayer seven times without pause or punctuation.
Now this, this very strange business was it. From the moment we crossed the French coastline sweat began to run down the back of the glider pilot's neck. There were two little runs of it, like bacon fat. He was working overtime. "We're casting off," he said, and I turned round to strap myself into my seat. At first I couldn't believe it, but Mullins, the company runner, was asleep. Mullins was a magnificent character, later to become a sergeant. He had been very good company all the way, and had now apparently decided to have a quiet nap just before the towing plane discarded us. "Come on, Mullins." I said, "We're invading Europe." Groaning, he scratched at his eyes and, looking bored, he began to buckle up.
Released by the tow-plane the glider came down with all the grace of an empty can. We made a perfectly smooth landing in a soft field on a glorious summer's night. Other gliders, quite undamaged, did the same. France. But it was pretty difficult to believe it.
We had been warned and trained, trained and warned, that the dangerous time for us was the moment immediately after landing, when we would be disorganised and defenceless, relaxing in the relief of being down. Like everybody else I had to leap out of this cardboard aeroplane, for I became part of an organised unit round the Bren gun. Well, I leaped out and the grass smelled fine and sweet. All around there was action and machine-guns were hiccupping, but nobody seemed to be firing at us.
After two hours in the glider I wanted to relieve myself first; certain that the others would gather round the machine-gun. When I looked round to make sure that they were in what we were pleased to call all-round defences, I saw that all of them - all of them - were following my example. Despite the rifles and the ammunition, despite the camouflaged smocks and parachute helmets, despite the blackened faces, they looked like small boys on a Sunday school treat. I think the absurdity of it dawned on all of us at once, and we were down behind the Bren gun as if our lives depended on it.
Our next job was to leave this area, which was not all that healthy, and rendezvous with the rest of "C" Company, 1st Bn. Royal Ulster Rifles, in a wood. Thereafter "C" Company as a whole would go to the battalion start line for the attack.
When we reached this little wood one of the riflemen from another glider was waiting for us at the edge. As we crouched to talk I noticed that he was feeling like the rest of us. He had this dreamy, slightly mystified, let's-try-to-take-it-seriously look. "Captain Wheldon, sor," he whispered to me "it's a miracle. Not a casualty. Not a single Anglo-Saxon man. Every Anglo-Saxon man's arrived unharmed. The whole Anglo-Saxon company's here. It's an Anglo-Saxon miracle."
While we were cowering there Company Sergeant-Major McCutcheon came out from the wood. He was the bravest man I ever knew, sometimes I think the best man I ever knew. "Sir, come into H.Q.," he said, "Let's get on." I said "We don't have to go into Company H.Q. Got to get on." "Sir," he said, and there was determination in his voice "I would like you to come into Company H.Q." Through nettles and brambles we plunged into the wood. Right in the centre of the wood there was a lean-to hut and a small fire. I had been 15 minutes on the soil of France and the men in that hut had been ten minutes at the most. Nodding like a chummy Naafi girl, Rifleman Rimmer handed me a cup of tea."
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