The stories behind the story
FTFDTH WW2 podcast 3, D-Day 1944
This is episode 3 in the ww2 podcast series
Every second was vital; let’s get out of this coffin! Our landing craft was getting so near now and we felt so helpless, Enemy shells were now landing on the shoreline and machine gun bullets were raking the sand. Then, at the top of his voice, the helmsman shouted: ‘Hundred to go, seventy-five to go, all ready, fifty to go!
Bill Cheall, Lance Corporal, 6th Battalion, Green Howards
A burst of automatic fire crackled in, just over our heads. No one was hit. With a yell, 2nd Loot White sprung to his feet and jumped out into the knee-deep water. To our surprise, he disappeared from sight! He had fallen into a shell hole, obscured by the water.
Brian Moss, Sergeant,
233 Field Company, Royal Engineers / 5EY
Hello again. I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall whose WW2 memoirs have been published in hardback by pen and Sword – in FTFDTH, available from Pen and Sword direct or from Amazon and all good bookshops, plus Kindle and ibook.
This is the third podcast in the ww2 podcast series Fighting Through from Dunkirk etc.
The aim of the podcasts is to give you snippets from the book as well as some fascinating updates on his so-called British Band of brothers, some of whom wrote their own memoirs too. So you’ll be hearing quite a lot of great previously unpublished history.
This episode, I want to share with you some of Dad’s D-Day experience
Two versions of the same episode in the war. By two soldiers from connected regiments in the 50 div. Two memoirs overlapping after some 70 years later.
6 June anniversary 70th anniv 2014 WW2 podcast
Bill Cheall, Lance Corporal, 6th Battalion, Green Howards
Brian Moss, Sergeant,
233 Field Company, Royal Engineers / 5EY – Tell us about his book
Really chuffed to be delivering this material to you.
Absolutely gripping drama
Over 130k troops landed on beaches on 6 June
6,000 vehicles, 900 tanks
4,270 small ships and Landing craft
14,000 sorties by bombers
Over 10,000 troops killed on first day
The battle needs no further introduction beyond saying … D-Day was the day for revenge for so many pals and comrades killed in previous battles – it was payback time – judgement day
Dad WW2 podcast story
The extract starts with the foreboding lead up to the big event, when troops were being brought South from all over England to encampments .....
“The first week in April 1944 found us at a new campsite, in bell tents which had been erected in a field of short grass. It was Bushfield Camp, two miles outside of Winchester. We certainly got around in the army. I recall we were under canvas and luckily it was good weather. The battalion field kitchen was set up in the middle of the field and at meal times the bugle would blow and the lads would grab their mess tins and eating irons and join long queues in order to be served with their meal, which was usually plentiful. But I don’t know why the army could not have provided waitress service for its infantry!
In the field adjoining ours, there were some American soldiers who appeared to be from a different planet. Their attitude seemed to be so easy-going and casual. No bell tents for them, but good square tents with three-feet walls holding about a dozen soldiers. We had six to a tent. The smell from their kitchens was fantastic; they even had doughnuts for afters. We had rice pudding most times. I didn’t think they looked as fit as we were and they appeared to be casual in their movements. But they were very well equipped and I was sure that they would give a good account of themselves when the time for action came. They were our allies and it was hoped that we could learn from one another. They were very good-natured and always greeted us as friends. Being the first US soldiers we had come across, we were certain to get along well – they were OK.
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It was the second week of May 1944 were on the move again and we were three miles from Romsey, on the Winchester Road, which passed about twenty yards from our tent.
It was drizzling with rain much of the time and weapon cleaning was a nightmare, not exactly a tonic to put us in high spirits.
Around 23 May, outgoing mail was suddenly stopped and we were confined to camp. Yet I can recall that the camp was not guarded to keep us in; it was only a verbal order which was obeyed without any questions being asked. Anyway, who would want to go to the nearest pub and talk his head off and perhaps jeopardize the whole thing? In any case, all bus and railway stations would be watched by the Red Caps and they stood no nonsense; they would be on the look-out all over the south of England for any soldiers going AWOL.
Significant events were taking place. During this period we had not been enlightened about any plans but we did not have to wait long. Our officers obviously knew more about the goings on than we did and they were not saying.
A large tent had been erected among the trees and each platoon, in turn, surrounded a sand table and looked eagerly on while a senior officer with a long cane demonstrated. The display was about the size of a table tennis table and covered with about two inches of sand with miniature tanks and buildings of all kinds. This was the first time we had seen a sand table and it showed every possible detail which we had to recognise when we landed. The way in which it had been set up was fantastic and we had looks of bewilderment and a genuine attitude of interest on our faces. Naturally, we were not given any details about when or where in the world we would be landing; we were well aware of the need for paramount security.
The planning was on an incredible scale. Officers explained everything we needed to know about our area. Considering the variety of training and exercises we had been undergoing during the past few weeks, it was obvious that we would be playing a significant role in any invasion, whenever it came. All kinds of questions were encouraged except about where it was going to be. It was a miracle how everything was kept so secret. Our lives would certainly depend upon security.
We also received an hour-long pep talk from our commanding officer about what was expected of us and the general state of the war situation, the intention being to boost our morale. However, there was no cause for concern. Our spirits were never better. The Green Howards were a grand bunch of lads from the North Riding of Yorkshire and no square head was going to have it all his own way when we were finally confronted with him.
We had to avenge Dunkirk and the enemy was going to find out what a fighter the British soldier was!
As we were undergoing all this enlightenment around the sand table, other things were taking place on the road just about fifteen or so yards away from us. Heavy vehicle noise made any further talks impossible, so we went to investigate.
Overhanging trees forming an archway covered the road, which ran a matter of fifteen yards from our tent, and there was a six-foot grass verge. As far as the eye could see, armoured vehicles, trucks and guns of all sizes were parking on the grass verge, nose-to-tail on both sides of the road. It was a most incredible sight and we had never seen anything like it. There were hundreds of fifteen-hundredweight trucks, three-tonners, twenty-five pounders, anti-tank guns and many other weapons of war.
But the most impressive sight was the tanks – tanks we never knew existed – and at that time we did not know what their role in war would be. We soon found out. They were to be known as ‘Hobart’s Armour’, named after the warfare expert Percy Hobart, who invented them. Today, all these new ideas are common knowledge but in 1944 the lads couldn’t stop talking about what we were seeing. It was something we would never see again. The armour continued to build up and there were tanks with flame throwers on the front of them; tanks with revolving chains (flails) on a drum on the front to beat the ground and explode mines; tanks which could lay a matting in front of them to go over soft sand and over soft banks. They looked so incongruous, having their exhausts high in the air and the engines waterproofed so they could travel through water. All these vehicles were to land on the first day and needed to be so equipped until we had a port. This must have been a monumental task.
It was the first day of a not-so-flaming June 1944; army transport arrived and we were taken to Southampton docks
In the spearhead of the invasion there were young men from all over the British Isles. I knew that the brave Canadians wanted to avenge Dieppe and that the American boys needed to see that the war with Germany came to a conclusion so that they could settle their outstanding account with Japan over Pearl Harbour. They would give their all, every one of them, and whilst sharing such dangerous experiences, would create an enormous bond of comradeship. I can’t really explain the feeling I had when I saw just a fraction of the massive power that was going to back us up when we invaded; I felt proud to be British. I say ‘British’, because although I am a Yorkshireman, I came into contact with some tremendous characters among the Welsh, Irish and of course the Scots, who were very often fighting alongside. It was an education to meet such lads.
My ship was called Empire Lance. We were very crowded, but didn’t expect to be aboard for very long. But when we were allocated sleeping quarters, we decided we could not be going just across the Channel; We had tiered bunks and after we had stowed all our gear we sat around chatting, putting the war situation into perspective.
As far as I can recall, our gear consisted of our 303 Lee Enfield rifle or, in my case, a two-inch mortar and six bombs. We all carried, in our equipment pouches, two filled Bren gun magazines (twenty-eight rounds in each) in case there was a hold up in the supply chain, three hand grenades, a bandoleer of fifty rounds of 303 ammunition, an entrenching tool, a filled water bottle, a gas cape and groundsheet, gas mask, a full small pack and our webbing equipment, plus bayonet and steel helmet. Section leaders carried a Sten gun. We never travelled far without our small pack on our back; it contained a change of clothes and personal things. If anybody had spare capacity, more ammunition was carried because nobody was certain how things would go once we had landed and we were moving into uncharted waters against a formidable enemy.
Then, after three days of almost claustrophobic conditions, the tannoy system came to life, telling us to pay utmost attention. Our commanding officer then proceeded to speak. You could have heard a pin drop; no longer were we going to be kept in the dark. It was to be France. That moment made the deepest impression in my mind. Our battalion would be landing on a three-mile stretch of beach between Le Hamel and La Riviere, having the code name King on the coast of Normandy, on a sixty mile front. At last we knew. The whole attack from the sea would run from west to east, with the Americans on ‘Omaha’ beach, on our immediate right, and ‘Utah’ on our far right. The British were on ‘Gold’ beach, the Canadians on ‘Juno’, and the British again on ‘Sword’. Then we knew we would be the first and it all began to come together; what we had been training for.
Then, after we had reached a critical point in our thoughts, the tannoy again came to life to inform us that the invasion was postponed because of the weather conditions – it was very windy and drizzling with rain. It now had to be 6 June.
On the afternoon of 5 June our officers walked amongst us, giving the lads confidence, but there was always the boy who didn’t give a damn. They cleared the air a lot with their wisecracks and later on made Jerry sit up. They were the tough lads of nineteen, some of whom were awarded the Military Medal for their exploits.
Then another request, not an order as such, came over the tannoy. The Padre, Captain Lovegrove, wanted to say a few words to us. After the Padre was finished, our battalion commander began to speak and gave us a message from Monty, saying what he was expecting of us, knowing he could rely on our ability to put up a good show.
21 ARMY GROUP
PERSONAL MESSAGE FROM THE C-IN-C (To be read out to all Troops)
The time has come to deal the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe. The blow will be struck by the combined sea, land, and air forces of the Allies – together constituting one great Allied team, under the supreme command of General Eisenhower . On the eve of this great adventure I send my best wishes to every soldier in the Allied team. To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and righteous cause. Let us pray that ‘The Lord Mighty in Battle’ will go forth with our armies, and that his special providence will aid us in the struggle.
I want every soldier to know that I have complete confidence in the successful outcome of the operations that we are about to begin. With stout hearts and with enthusiasm for the contest let us go forward to victory.
And, as we enter the battle, let us recall the words of a famous soldier spoken many years ago:
‘He either fears his fate too much, Or his deserts are small,
Who dare not put it to the touch, To win or lose it all’
Good luck to each one of you. And good hunting on the mainland of Europe. B L Montgomery
I believe that any soldier, no matter what control he has over his feelings, would feel a little thoughtful about the outcome of what we were about to undertake. Beneath the surface, I am certain that he is aware of the fact that he might be killed. If so, how would he die? But once the attack goes in, that strange, natural feeling changes to one of grim determination. Death does not enter into the mind of a soldier in action; his mind is on what he has been trained to do – kill, or be killed. Fear does not come into the equation as he is alongside thousands of boys just like him and will not let them down no matter what.
Few of us slept on the night of 5 June. Our thoughts were completely monopolised by what was going on around us and the thought of what tomorrow might bring.
Many lads wrote letters to be posted after the invasion had started. Others went to their hammocks early and turned their backs to the rest, to be with their thoughts – alone – thinking about the loved ones they had back home, saying a silent prayer that God would keep them safe. The weather in the Channel was the worst for twenty years and, to our cost, we soon found out for ourselves.
On the morning of D-Day, reveille was about 0330 hrs. The tannoy came to life to order us aloft. It was becoming a bit claustrophobic in our quarters and we needed the fresh, salty air. We were breathing the dawn of a new day into our lungs.
Many of us had been on deck for a few hours already, watching the flashes coming from the French coast. The paratroops had been about their fighting for three hours, holding the left and the right sides of the proposed beachhead, and the bombers were engaging the coastal batteries, though not very effectively as the early morning was misty.
At 0500 hrs, the ship heaved to. It was just starting to become light. We were now standing waiting for further orders, almost weighed down with equipment, ready for the fray. Suddenly, ‘Come on lads, let’s go!’ from our officer reminded me very quickly why I was there; it was time.
... I found myself with my leg over the side of the ship, trying to get a footing onto the scrambling net. I had fastened the mortars and bombs onto my equipment and my Number Two on the mortar was alongside me. The practice we had done for this day was nothing like the real thing and endeavouring to get a foot onto the landing craft was beset with danger.
The sea was very rough and there was a three-foot rise and fall of the craft against the side of the ship. It was a hair-raising experience but, luckily, nobody suffered any injuries. Somehow, we made it and pulled away from Empire Lance and then waited until all assault craft were in line abreast. There were fourteen assault craft to land on Gold beach, with thirty men in each.
As soon as we were all settled on the bench seat, the order came, ‘Craft away’. We were only seven miles from our objective.
The whole operation was fantastic; the sea seemed to be covered with ships of every description. The run in was to take two hours and our H-hour was 0725 hrs, with the Americans on our right and because of the differences in the tide they had started their invasion at 0630 hrs.
God help us, lads!”
LOOKING AROUND us, we could see other assault craft taking station at each side of us. The sea was very choppy but as the mist began to clear and the light was improving, the whole mighty operation became visible to us. And what a sight it was – something nobody had ever seen before. The mind could not absorb the enormity of it all. There were thousands of ships of all sizes and, standing out like huge sentinels, the mighty war ships (in fact, almost seven thousand in all). The extent of what we were taking part in is difficult to describe in great detail. It was such a vast undertaking that nobody, not even the participants who were part of it, could describe the invasion adequately enough and as vividly as we saw it happen. It would never be seen again in our lifetime. So many ships in one place at one time.
If the British people could have seen it they would have been very proud. The sky seemed to be full of planes – bombers, Hurricanes, Spitfires and others I did not recognise; hundreds of them going towards our target for the day. With the continuous barrage of the battleships’ huge guns and the drone of never ending streams of aircraft, the noise was deafening. Nobody would ever be able to paint a really true picture of what our eyes were seeing, and what it was like to be actually there would never be believed. If it wasn’t for the tragedy of it all, the scene was magnificent.
Shells started coming towards us but the enemy seemed to be going for the ships, not us, and they created great spouts of water when they hit the sea. The gunners had not found their range. Now we could see bombs falling from our planes and fighters, skimming low above the enemy defenders.
The continuous thundering was never ending. We were about two miles from the coastline, Rommel’s Atlantic Wall, when on our port side we saw something which we had never seen before. It was a rocket ship, about half-a-mile away from us, and it was firing a massive, continuous barrage of missiles, screeching simultaneously dead straight towards the coast. We could hear – almost feel – the heat generated by the displaced air. ‘Hell’, we said. ‘Fancy being on the end of that lot!’
It was fantastic and the bombardment was something the enemy could not have imagined it was possible to be on the receiving end of. We could hear the rumble of war as the planes dropped their bombs. Warships were shelling the fortifications and the sound of the shells flying above us was uncanny. Great flashes were coming from the gun barrels and lit the morning sky. The battleships were firing their salvoes of shells, which we could hear screaming above our heads. And above them, the planes, a never-ending stream of planes of all sorts was going to bomb the communications inland so the Germans could not send for reinforcements.
It seemed to be a hell of a long way to the beach, then I saw a landing craft next to ours slow down. A bullet must have hit the helmsman. Swiftly, somebody took over control but the boat was now a little out of line with the other assault craft and in the blinking of an eye, the front of the boat had been hit by a shell or a mortar, or probably a mine. The explosion lifted bodies and parts of bodies into the air and the stern of the craft just ploughed into the sea. All those boys, laden with kit as they were, didn’t stand a chance of survival.
There was so much happening now and so swiftly. Every second was vital; let’s get out of this coffin! We were getting so near now and felt so helpless, just waiting for our fate one way or another and at that time we were keeping our heads down. Enemy shells were now landing on the shoreline and machine gun bullets were raking the sand. Then, at the top of his voice, the helmsman shouted: ‘Hundred to go, seventy-five to go, all ready, fifty to go!’ He was now fighting hard to control the craft, avoiding mined obstacles showing above the water, as well as the ones just beneath the surface. One boat had already met disaster on the approach. ‘Twenty five yards’, and suddenly, ‘Ramp going down – now!’ And the craft stopped almost dead in three feet of water and our own platoon commander shouted, ‘Come on, lads,’ and we got cracking.
That was no place to be messing about. Get the hell out of it. Jumping off the ramp we went into waist-deep water, struggling to keep our feet. We waded through the water looking for mined obstacles, holding rifles above our heads. I was trying to keep a very cumbersome two-inch mortar and bombs dry as well as making certain I didn’t drop it. Some of the lads were shot as they jumped. Two of the lads were a bit unfortunate because as they jumped into the boiling water the craft surged forward on a wave and they fell into the sea. I dare say they would fight like hell and recover but we were not hanging about, that had been our instructions from the start; we must not linger.
Our adrenaline was now at its peak and every one of us was aware of what he had to do. At the moment there was no actual fighting to be done as there was no visible enemy, but we had to get off the beach and forward in order to come into contact because they were hidden in their positions. Our primary concern was to get out of the sea. Onto the soft sand and the boys in front and behind of me went down. Hell, get moving!
Halfway up the beach, about ten yards from the sand dunes, I saw an amphibious Sherman flail tank at a standstill, its chains hanging helpless like some monster, one track was off its sprockets. It had gone into the assault on the beach before us to make a path through the minefield which ran along behind the beaches. The crew had bailed out and had continued, under fire, to make a path across the minefield and had taped it.
On the beach, lads were falling all over the place. Resting with his back against the tank was our new company commander, Captain Linn, who had been wounded. He was waving his arm for us to get off the beach. Tragically, while he was in that position, he was hit again and killed. He was such a good gentle man, an excellent commanding officer and only twenty-seven years of age.
Our platoon commander, Captain Chambers, now took over and he, too, was wounded but was able to carry on his duties. He was shouting and waving his arms: ‘Get off the beach – off the beach, off the bloody beach. Get forward lads and give the buggers hell!’ That was the natural leadership coming to the surface, though we did not need any urging because we knew that enemy machine guns and mortars would have previously been set up on fixed lines to cover the beach and were now playing havoc with us. It was difficult to make too much haste in the soft sand but, by a supreme effort, we ran up the slope towards the sand banks in face of heavy enemy fire.
Dead and wounded lads lay all over the beach, the worst of whom were shouting for the stretcher bearers, who were always close at hand to take care of them. They were bricks, those medics. At this time, we lost Sergeant Burns but I never did get to know how many others were actually killed on the day.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, can even simply imagine the horror of war unless he actually experiences it. Take my word for it, it is awful seeing living boys killed before your eyes, heads and arms blown off. I could go on. Our company had suffered fairly heavy casualties; one platoon alone had lost twelve men, killed.
But I had made it. It was beginning.
Brian Moss, Sergeant,
233 Field Company, Royal Engineers
His path often crossed with the Green Howards during the war but on this occasion he was attached to the 5EY
We left Weymouth in early May, and moved into our final location before the invasion, the woods known as South Holme Copse, on either side of the road from Romsey to Ampfield.
Suddenly, we were moved into Broadlands, Mountbatten's home, where we were to stay less than 24 hours. This was different. This was it!
From Broadlands, we were taken to the Public Park in Southampton, only yards from the Docks. Here we squatted behind iron railings, like monkeys in the zoo, while the townsfolk stood and stared at us. The people did not shout encouragement or laugh about what their men would do to Hitler. They looked upon us as if with compassion. Like Churchill himself, they probably viewed the prospect with foreboding.
Embarking for D-Day
Then we were off. Up on our feet, battle order adjusted, and marching out of the Park. It was only a few hundred yards to the Docks where the Empire Rapier lay. Thousands of people came out of their houses to stand on either side of the marching men, watching us go in silence. They came to see us off but did not make a sound.
Our ship was loaded quickly. We had done it so many times before. We pulled away from the quayside and headed off down the fairway, where we anchored in our appointed position among the mass of shipping.
That afternoon, we were treated to a fly-past of captured enemy aircraft, so that we would know what to shoot at. It may seem like a good idea but I thought it was a pointless exercise. I had come to realise that aircraft identification was a matter that some learned and others never would. So if you had not learned this by the fourth year of the war, you never would.
Later that day, a rumour went around the fleet that everything had been postponed for twenty-four hours. Then we learned this was true. D-Day would be the 6th of June and not the 5th, as originally intended.
The following day, the 5th, was spent quietly on board. I sat in the sun on the upper deck with Johnny Halliday,
That night, below decks, the lighting was a dim reddish glow, to preserve our night vision. The lights garishly illuminated the steel bed frames let down on chains. Many of us would become infected with scabies from these beds
I must have slept soundly that night, because I remember being awakened by the sounds of reveille over the tannoy system. The ship was moving fast, and there was a heavy swell out there. ww2 podcast
In the canteen, breakfast was served on large trays of steel plate, pressed to form dishes and plates of different sizes into which our food was greasily ladled. Having eaten and shaved, I took a quick look outside. It was still dark but I could see long lines of ships in the gloom, closely stationed and driving on towards the enemy coast. I got the feeling that I must be part of the most enormous undertaking ever attempted. In our quarters, everyone was giving his equipment a last look over. I checked the magazines of my Sten.
There was a distant and gigantic rumbling clearly heard over the noises of the ship. Thousands of aircraft were unloading their bombs on the coastal defences. We had been assured that all defensive positions would be obliterated before we landed, and this message had been received with a derisive cheer, since we knew all about promises of this kind.
Salvoes from the heavy guns of the Royal Navy had now joined in and, at least, we knew these ww2 podcast contd
would be on target. “Good old Navy!” we said to each other. The iron voice ordered us to
board our assault craft, and we went to take our places on those hard bench seats as we had done many times in practice.
My platoon then consisted of sixty-seven men. Allowing for those men held back on transport to land at a later date, only about forty men would actually land at H hours. It was decided that I would go with twenty of these men distributed among the left hand infantry companies of 5 EY, while Lt. Garrett would go with the other twenty, spread among the right hand companies of 5 EY. The reason for distributing the sappers among the infantry was on the basis of ‘not all in one basket’. ww2 history podcast series
Every one of us knew then exactly which LCA was the one he would travel in. I believe mine was number 2479 but I cannot be certain now. Anyway, I knew where to find my craft and my EY lads, so I hurried to board and take my place.
Two Ford V8 engines powered the LCA, we had been told. These were started up and the falls were lowered away rapidly. Immediately we struck the water, the falls had to be cast off; otherwise there was a danger that the boat could be suspended from one end only as the waves fell away beneath us.
On top of all our gear, we each wore a lifebelt that resembled a length of inner tubing wound around the waist. I had grave doubts about this device. It could float a man just as easily inverted as right way up!
The first arrival on our beach was an AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) at 07:30. This was a sapper-operated vehicle of a weird design. I think the idea was to make the enemy wonder what the hell it was. I had strapped 100 lb of explosive 808 on the back of it, following instruction by Lt. Garrett. The AVRE would carry it in for us. I landed at 07:40 hours. By this time, those of the left-hand assault Company just landed had almost ceased to exist.
The men carried rifles or Stens. Four men carried Brens. Each man carried a small pack on his back in addition to the gear in his hands. We sappers were heavily loaded. In addition to our weapons, we carried among us: prodders, wire cutters, detectors, mine markers, lane markers, tape reels, mine pullers, side-cutting pliers, hand axes, picks, shovels, spare loaded Bren
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magazines and made-up charges of 808 explosive. I was also given a folding bicycle to carry up the beach!
Our objective, La Riviere, had been intimately described to us over the past few weeks. All place names were coded, of course. We had been shown photographs of the place, but had no idea where it was. However, one day, one of our lads had suddenly said that he knew exactly where it was; he had once been on holiday there. He was immediately led away, and we never saw him again.
Behind the very end of the sea wall, the enemy had constructed an immense concrete casemate. It was designed to fire along the beach to the west, thus catching anyone attempting to advance up the beach anywhere up to a mile away. We had been told that it held an 88, a 50mm and automatic weapons. It was practically invisible from the sea; neither could it be accurately fired upon by our Navy, nor could the casemate’s guns fire towards the sea.
My personal plan was rather different to the Brigade plan. I could not see how men could be put across the beach in view of the enfilading fire from the casemate. I personally intended to make straight for the casemate, approaching it directly from the sea. In this way, I would only have to dodge all the other automatic weapons firing at me from trenches and so on. I would be reducing the odds, so to speak.
5 EY were also on our ship and I knew their CSM. After thinking about the casemate, I had visited him during the afternoon of June 5th.
“Got any spare grenades?” I asked. He gave me two boxes of the 36 (Mills type) grenade. They were thickly varnished and bore paint splotches in red.
“They’re fused, mind you, set for four seconds,” he warned.
I made an unofficial issue of grenades to all my men who wished to carry them. I kept four for myself, carrying two in each trouser pocket.
Our leaders had spoken glibly of the 88 position. They assured us it would be put out of action long before we got there but we, had heard this sort of thing before and did not believe it.
ww2 history podcast series
Assault on Gold beach
Our marines cast off the falls and we were free of our mother ship. Goodbye, Empire Rapier. We shall never see you again, I thought. Sitting uncomfortably upon my folding bicycle, I stared across at the EY on the port side bench. Between us, in the middle, the men in the centre row sat facing forwards, straddling their bench. 2nd Lt. White sat at the head of the central row, alongside me. He looked young.
The sea was quite lumpy, with waves running about four feet high. One moment you could see a ship, and the next moment it disappeared from sight. Very soon, vomit bags were in heavy use.
The LCA had a double frame filled with foam concrete which, it was said, would float. The sides of the craft were about two feet in thickness and, it was onto this flat upper surface that a man would spring, had he neglected to visit the heads before embarking. Squatting upon his bucket, he became the target of many jibes from our little flotilla.
Our heavy ships fired at the beach, with the sound of scores of express trains hurtling overhead. We could not see over the side from our seats. Now and then, I stood up to take a quick look. 2nd Loot White dared not scold me but he had plenty to say to his own men if they tried to do this. One marine was stationed directly in front of me in an armoured steel box with vision slits. He steered the craft and would let the ramp down when we beached. The other two marines were at the stern, managing the engines.
Our little group of LCAs was drawing away from the mass of shipping and was steadily plugging away for the land, now visible some five miles away. Several other small groups of LCAs could be seen to port and starboard but not many, it seemed. Not nearly as many as I would have liked to see!
A destroyer moved in very near to us and cut loose with its main armament. It blasted salvoes at the 88 position and hit the houses beyond. They collapsed in smoke and flames. Other craft and rocket ships were pouring a drenching fire upon the beach defences which lay under a heavy pall of smoke. The rumble of explosions never ceased and was getting louder and louder as we approached.
To my right, I was surprised to see a marine taking cover behind the stern of an LCA. He was hanging oddly over the stern, so that only the upper part of his body was clear of the water. Many months later, I read of a marine (Cpl. George Tandy) who had been decorated with the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) for having steered his craft all the way into the beach with his feet. The steering gear of his LCA had apparently been damaged as the craft was released from the ship. He was dubbed the “human rudder”. And I had thought he was taking cover!
Now I could see our AVRE starting to crawl up the sand, about 800 yards in front of us. Tooze and his two sappers would have landed with it. I was never happy about the plan to send Tooze out in front. What on earth were they supposed to do? A single boat landing at the start of it all would obviously attract the fire of every gun in range. I thought it was a suicide job and I could see that Tooze thought so too, when I had to detail him for it.
The EY were getting excited and many stood to look over the side. 2nd Loot White said nothing about this now. A shell exploded 50 yards off our port side. I ducked as splinters thumped our craft and we were drenched with drifting spray.
Suddenly, there was a most awful explosion on the beach. A direct hit on our AVRE! It flowered into a gigantic spray of pyrotechnics and an enormous smoke ring. The 88 in the casemate must have hit it and ignited the attached explosives. This was the clearest evidence that all the suppressive fire on the casemate had done nothing to put it out of action. Then the heavy roar of the explosion reached us, across the water. Later, we formed the opinion that Tooze and his two sappers must have been killed while sheltering behind the vehicle when it exploded.
Our LCA travelled those last few yards in a space of time that seemed immeasurable, almost in slow motion.
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Small calibre shells or mortars were constantly exploding in the water, and splinters were thumping on the sides of our craft. I watched the marine in his armoured box in front of me. From his activity, I judged that we were getting close. The thunderous noise drowned voices and the firing of individual weapons. The engines slowed and, suddenly, the craft bumped on the sand. We had arrived! Down went the ramp with a crash, and the armoured doors flew open.
Immediately, a burst of automatic fire crackled in, just over our heads. No one was hit. With a yell, 2nd Loot White sprung to his feet and jumped out into the knee-deep water. To our surprise, he disappeared from sight! He had fallen into a shell hole, obscured by the water. Two stalwarts reached down, seized his shoulder straps and threw him up on to the beach, after which the centre row of men charged out.
When I saw that the port side row of men had also got out, I jumped up, threw the silly folding bicycle away over the side and set off down the ramp at high speed, shouting to my fellow sapper to follow me. On reaching the sand, I turned half left, and aimed directly for the end of the sea wall.
I glanced behind me. The bulk of EY troops were beginning to arrive and these men were running straight up the beach. The machine guns tore into them. Above the crackling in the air, I could hear the dull thuds of bullets striking bodies, reminding me of the noise made by a carpet beater hitting a damp carpet hung out on a clothes line. I ran as fast as possible, threading my way between the beach obstacles.
I had about five hundred yards to go to reach the head of the beach. My slanting course was also taking me four hundred yards to the left, to the end of the seawall. As I flew along, I felt no fear. I must have been burning up all my nervous juices as fast as they were being secreted. In front of me, a bundle of old rags raised its weary head from the sand. It was Johnny Halliday! Landing just before me, Johnny had been hit. Contrary to orders that said that we must stop for nothing, I did stop and bent down to look at him. There was a small wound in the top of his left shoulder. It could have been a superficial wound but if it were a bullet obtained when he was lying down, facing the enemy headlong, then it would likely have penetrated his whole body and there would be no hope for him. All I could do was give him an encouraging word before I raced on, quickly getting into top gear again. I never saw Johnny again and my attempts after the war to trace his fate were unsuccessful.
Within a few yards, I was surprised to meet two screaming, naked men making for the water at high speed. They were hairless, burned bright blue, and wore only smoking boots. I assume they were a tank crew. We passed on opposite courses with never a second glance.
I then picked my way through a zone where many bodies lay. These were evidently machine gun victims, in numbers approaching an entire Company.
This would have been the left-hand assault Company; men who had landed just before us and had felt the full fury of the enemy defence.
I sped along, dodging and ducking, the grenades swinging madly in my pockets. There was no sign of 2 Platoon at all. I wondered if they were sheltering behind the beach obstacles somewhere. Steel helmet bouncing on my nose, I covered the last few yards and collapsed on the sand next to figures in khaki under the sea wall. Panting like a dog, I was shocked to see only half a dozen men there: just the Yorkie CSM and a handful of his men. Where had our invasion gone? Where was 2 Platoon? Where was our officer?
Glancing along the beach, I could see no one else on their feet, only the dead and the dying. There were a few figures scuttling about in the distance, but that was all. The CSM threw what I realised was his last grenade over the wall, so I pulled out a couple more from my pockets and handed them to him.
“Good lad,” gasped the CSM, “let’s give them some more of these buggers!” and he sent them over the wall. I hurled my other two grenades to join them. I also gave the housetops a squirt from my Sten gun, not because I saw any particular target there, but because it seemed the right thing to do.
Enemy fire from the casemate was still pasting the beach. Despite our grenades, its machine guns were firing continuously while the 88 slammed out round after round. Neither we eight men at the seawall nor the enemy in the casemate could fire directly at each other. If we were to peek around the end of the wall, we would surely get our heads blown off. The grenade was the only weapon that stood a chance of penetrating a doorway or other access point.
The few EY lads were tight up against the bottom of the wall. I moved a few yards back, trying to see over the top. Heavy calibre stuff was now dropping on the beach to the west. I turned to look towards where the shells were dropping, and was suddenly felled by an almighty blow on the left shin. I found myself kneeling on my left knee and remembered having seen a mortar burst not far away. I knew that I had collected a mortar fragment. There was no immediate pain but it gradually built up to the kind of feeling you would expect to experience if someone hammered a six-inch nail into your shinbone.
More EY men were joining us now, as well as various members of 2 platoon. I wanted to get Boucher and his No.4 Section to ensure the road was not mined, while my plan was to move inland with the other Sections and the Yorkies. Figures began to appear beside me, George Thorpe for one. He was a member of No. 3 Section, evidence that some others of the leading wave had also survived. The lads came and grouped rapidly around me; they must have guessed why I was kneeling.
We heard a shout that Albert Lowson was down near the water's edge. Thorpe dashed off and, with assistance from Andy Thomas, dragged him up to us. Lowson had no obvious wound and yet appeared on the point of death. The lads raced back down into the bullet swept zone to pick up another lad, Mills, who had also also dropped at the tideline. Mills had taken a bullet through the chest. Two men picked him up between them and, as they did, Mills got another bullet through the chest, so they put him down again. I am certain my lads deserved a few decorations that morning but, as no officer was present to witness their efforts, they went unrecognised.
Lowson was limp and unconscious, and we could do nothing for him. The EY CSM was still trying to get men around the corner of the blockhouse but each time, they were blasted back. Other members of 2 platoon sent their grenades over the wall, and the machine gun fire ceased. Half a dozen EY dashed around the corner, and the battle for the casemate was finally over!
Much later, I would learn that a cluster of 8 or 9 quarter-inch fragments had penetrated about an inch into my tibia. The pain made me retch.
That’s the end of that ww2 podcast extract
Buy Bill Cheall’s book to read more – read about the awful accident which killed many troops as they journeyed from Scotland to the South coast in preparation for D-Day.
Read about the tragic death of Rufty Hill and many others on 6 June. Read about the savage fighting which took place for the weeks following the invasion and how Bill Cheall is wounded.
FTFDTH is available via FT.co.uk, Pen and Sword, Amazon, all good bookshops, also Kindle and Apple ibook versions are available.
Anyone wanting to read more of Brian Moss’ story can look out for the publication of his book at some point in the future – Son, Michael Moss, is looking for a publisher for his Dad’s memoirs if so if there are any budding publishers out there please get in touch.
If you enjoyed this podcast please please either leave feedback via itunes or answer the questionnaire available on the FT web site – just click on the podcast link.
For now, this is me, Paul Cheall, saying Bye Bye now!
This was episode 9 in the ww2 history podcast series
Bill Cheall's published WW2 memoirs, which depict his Dunkirk exploits and much more Click for more information. Hear about his comrades expolits in the podcast.