We Crossed the Beach Under Fire and Climbed the Cliff
“It was the summer of 1938. My twin brother Leonard and myself aged 17 ½ decided to volunteer for service rather then wait for conscription at 18, we understood that as a volunteer we would be able to join the service of our choice … we landed up where we wanted to be in the army R.A.O.C. Later I think it changed (it’s name) to R.E.M.E.” – Douglas Smith June 2004
What follows is an extract of my Father’s Second World War memories which were recorded by a family friend in the summer of 2004, he passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on December 14th of that year.
“Towards D-day we were taken to a camp near Dover. There were thousands of men living in tents and not enough toilets. Soon dysentery broke out and we were co-opted to empty the latrine buckets. I soon caught the bug and was out of action for a few days. Later feeling rather better we made our way to the local cinema, it was full of men from the camp. Unfortunately many of them of them, including myself, still had a problem. The queue for the toilets stretched right up the aisle. We couldn’t wait any longer so a good number of us rushed though the emergency exits and into the night looking for a quiet place to relieve ourselves. The inhabitants of the area might wonder what happened that night and probably every other night of the week!
The night before we left this camp we were all assembled for a briefing and invited to ask questions. Someone asked what we would do for toilets on the beach. Use the ‘cat method’ he was told.
We were all bored stiff at being holed up in the camp and eager to be off on the invasion. Unfortunately, right at the end of the briefing, an officer of high rank appeared who said very little but his last words we all remembered clearly “take a look at the man next to you” he said “take a good look, because one of you will not be coming back.”
So much for our enthusiasm and morale.
The next day we were on our way to Portsmouth where most of my mates, weighted down with full kit were marched to the docks. A few of us little ones were spared the march and given a lift in a lorry. At the docks, hundreds of us boarded a huge black and white Canadian boat. We were herded down into the bowels of the ship and each allocated a hammock, packed like Sardines.
We cast off some hours later and expected to be at sea for 3 or 4 hours, how wrong we were. After 24 hours in a rough sea most of us, but not me, were sick and in a dreadful state. The toilet facilities were inadequate and there was a shortage of drinking water.
I was awoken the second night by an almighty explosion, the ship was under attack, even over the stink in the hold we could smell the burning but being in the hold we thought we were safe. Later in the morning we collided heavily with something in the water, the ship ‘staggered’ and again we thought we had ‘ had it’ but we carried on and breathed a sigh of relief.
We hadn’t had any food whatsoever for almost two days, and our water bottles, which were meant for the beachhead, were emptied long ago. Our lips and eyes were swelling, the stench was appalling, it was impossible to walk across the slippery floor, men were moaning, praying and calling out for their mothers. It was a hell hole and a terrible experience. When we eventually emerged on the third day, the boat’s super-structure was badly damaged and much of it burned out almost to deck level.
The beach we were to disembark on was some distance away when we were ordered to go over the side. The men were sent over loaded up with full kit. The tallest ones just managed to keep their heads above water while others sank, kit and all, never to be seen again. We held back hoping the boat would move nearer to the beach but we were under attack and the captain was reluctant to risk being beached. Just about everyone had gone, only about 20 of us smaller men were left, we refused to jump, for my twin brother and myself at 5’1″ tall it would have been suicide.
The officer giving the orders was a nasty little Scot wearing a kilt, he was not much taller then me but as broad as he was long, red in the face and furious with us. He again ordered us to jump, this time when we refused he pointed pistol at us and said he would shoot every tenth man who refused to leave. At this point the ships Canadian Captain took charge, pointing out that whilst at sea he was in command. After separate discussions with men and officer the captain announced that none of the men would go overboard until the Officer himself had jumped. He said that if the Officer would lead the way he would personally see to it that the men followed. It didn’t happen!
In no time the Captain had arranged for empty drums with a rope attached to be floated between boat and beach. We all crossed safely hand over hand. The last to cross was the Scottish Officer who was killed on the beach, undoubtedly shot by his own men. It was well know that the opportunity was taken to settle a few old scores that day. Most of us were too busy to settle old scores, even if we had wanted to,
We crossed the beach under fire and climbed the cliff at the other side. This year 2004, the D. Day anniversary programmes on TV I saw the queen standing on top of the very cliff that we had scaled.
The noise and devastation all around us was dreadful. Shells flying both direction above and bullets spitting everywhere. There was a young lad with us who was terrified and crying for his mother. Leonard and I kept him between us but he got his head blown off with a shell as we climbed the cliff.
Once at the top we collapsed, exhausted. It was blazing hot and we had not eaten properly for over 48 hours. Our emergency meals, mainly tablets or cubes, were available but we had consumed our drink long ago. We were on the verge of passing out. The river was not far away so a man was sent to fill a couple of bottles. On the way he was shot by a sniper. A second man was sent, he was also shot dead. A party was sent out to get the sniper, they did, it was two French women, mother and daughter, who had been killing our men.
That night I have a memory of the ground around us being covered with thousands of strands of tinsel, gleaming in the moonlight. At first we thought it might be one of Hitler’s much talked about secret weapons, but it turned out to be anti radar aluminium tape dropped by our own aircraft.
In the morning a Frenchman appeared and asked if we would like some eggs, I understood him and thanked him, he must have seen the terrible state we were in. He asked to borrow my beret to carry them in. I thought it a strange request but handed it to him. He disappeared, never to return.
In the town of Caen, American bulldozers ‘as big as houses’ were converting the building ruins into piles of rubbles ‘miles’ long. Only half the church steeple still stood in the centre of what had been the town. The bloated bodies of cattle and horses littered the fields and highways. One of our men fired at a bloated horse, it exploded like a gas bomb and the smell was unbearable for hours.
We were camped not far from Bayeux. One evening Leonard was lifted off his feet by and exploding enemy shell and landed in the camp toilet pit, fortunately he remained conscious and was able, with assistance, to climb out and go to the river for a bath. He smelt abominable for days afterwards but fortunately suffered no other after effects. His clothing was left in the pit.
It was about this period when food, that is real food, was again in desperately short supply. We lived on hard tack biscuits! To remedy this we were assured that ‘ top Chefs’ from England would be arriving shortly to manage the cookhouse. They did arrive and brought real food with them. They ground up our hard tack biscuits to make flour for the bread, things looked promising and we could see we were in for a treat.
In the meantime the pioneer corps were busy building a large oven in the middle of the field, we thought this strange as most activities took place at the field edges where we could dive for cover when we were bombed. The oven, built using old steel ammunition boxes, was soon completed, the fire was lit and we all cheered. There was a really good blaze, we just couldn’t wait for some good hot food. Unfortunately we never did get our meal, someone had forgotten to empty one of the ammunition boxes. There was a tremendous explosion. Bricks, boxes, sticks and bits of stew were scattered all over the field. We didn’t need German bombs, we were apparently quite capable of blowing up our own cookhouse. Thank goodness the oven had been sited in the middle of the field.
I think it was at this camp that we were entertained by George Formby and his wife Beryl, they were great, a real tonic. Prior to them coming, a toilet unit something like a telephone box, arrived for their exclusive use, it was very posh and all freshly camouflaged.
When I got back to my tent that night, Leonard showed me his latest acquisition, a large shiny galvanised bucket, to get bathed in he beamed. This was an improvement in our usual arrangement of two sawn off jerry cans with one foot in each. He had pinched the Formby’s toilet can out of the ‘telephone box’ what luxury!
Sometime over his period I was in Bayeux and saw the famous tapestry in the Cathedral, it was a wonderful experience.
As we advanced the Belgians and Dutch were very good to us and couldn’t do enough for us. One Belgian lad, I’ve forgotten his name, really took to us, he would bring us a little hard black loaf his mother had made each day, you had to have good teeth to eat it! In return we would occasionally give him a sweet or a piece of chocolate if we had any. We were in that place several weeks and he brought us our loaf just about every morning. The lad cried when we had to move on.”
I want to add a word of thanks here not just to my Dad and his twin brother my Uncle Leonard, but to all those who served and sacrificed that we might have the freedom to express our revulsion of war, those who make wars and those who manufacture weapons of war for their own profit.
I am proud that my Dad (like many others), was willing to suffer the indignities of war, with his sense of humor in tact, not only after but during the war too. The German’s he worked with in the army of occupation after the war gave him a name like “Dances With Wolves” and “Stands With Fists” they called my Dad “Immer Nur Lacheln” literally “Always Only Laughing (Smiling).”