D-Day and Fighting in Normandy

We waited while, as is well known now, Eisenhower made his agonising decision about the weather: but the decision was made and by the afternoon of the 5th we were on our way, clear of the Needles and proceeding across the channel at a slow and steady pace. As we went, we became part of a converging mass of craft - an enormous fleet , arriving from the East and West, of landing craft of all sizes, infantry landing crafts (LCIs), tank landing craft (LCTs) and bigger ships whose job it was to drop off the LCIs off the beaches; others were really big landing craft designed to come in after the first assault. All these were added to by Naval ships, destroyers, motor torpedo boats and coming up behind major battle ships. This vast fleet covered the sea as far as the eye could see and was immensely impressive. It moved purposefully and threateningly maintaining radio silence so that wherever you looked morse lamps flickered and signal flags changed. Again, it was a miracle that all through that approach the Germans never knew. Night fell and we went to bed early.

I woke in the early dawn and went out onto the bridge deck. We were stopped, lolloping gently in slight swell: apparently a mine had been seen floating nearby. It was a still, misty summer morning and all was silent and peaceful. The mine problem was dealt with and off we went again at a steady, slow pace keeping station with the LCTs around us. Meanwhile the troop woke up, shaved (the British Army always shave if at all possible: its good for morale, like keeping your rifle clean, bright and slightly oiled!) had a big breakfast and got kitted up in full battle order - steel helmets, full webbing belt and braces to hold all manner of weaponry and kit. My kit included revolver, compass, watch, whistle, notebook and a large bar of chocolate. The tank crews were armed with revolvers as well and in the SPs and other vehicles small arms (rifles, stens, Bren guns and so on) were clamped in appointed places, leaving the gunners hands free to serve the guns. Next, off came the camouflage netting, baring all our guns to the rising sun and we were ready, moving steadily and silently towards the shore.

H-hour, the moment when the first infantry landed, was at 008.00. At H-35 mins the silence was broken by the whole invasion fleet opening fire simultaneously. The morning was shattered by the overwhelming sound of every sort of gun - we ourselves were steadily firing four rounds a minute: on either side of us as far as the eye could see there were all sorts of craft who could fire 100 rockets simultaneously. In the background long low naval ships were adding a deeper note still and the battleship Rodney, one of pre war Grand Fleet, sent immense broad sides from her 18" guns with a roar that surpassed all the other sound. Amidst all this we in our LCT were well into our run in shoot. Tony Gregson was up on the bridge with the LCT Commander, and as R hand LCT he was not only shouting the changing range to our Troop but also coordinating the fire of the whole regiment. I was down in the well deck amongst the guns, checking and dealing with any hitches. It was a busy and noisy place - the guns fired every 15 seconds, dropping the range by 200 yards each minute The gunners slaves and sweated at their work and the clang and rattle of the gun drill, together with the all enveloping noise, prevented any real feeling of fear.

At H-hour the first infantry landed on the beaches. Soon after that our run in shoot finished and we had about quarter of an hour to replenish the SPs with boxes of ammunition, and get ourselves on board our vehicles ready for our own landing. By this time it was possible to see the coast more closely. It was already a clutter of infantry landing craft, lying all anyhow on the beach, with others pushing their way in. Shells were falling amongst them, sending up great spouts of water and we were steadily approaching through an increasing mass of sinking LCIs, struggling and drowning men. We ploughed on and finally reached the beach ourselves: the LCT ground to a halt two hundred yards out from the beach in a strong side-ways going tide about 5 foot deep.

At this point , I was in the half-track and Tony was due to lead us off in the Sherman in front of us. But as the ramp went down there was some difficulty with it and Tony went forward to find out what was wrong. At that moment we were hit by two shells; one hit the bows , killed a sailor and wounded Tony badly in the side. The other hit the bridge and luckily failed to explode. After a quick word with poor Tony (he survived his wounds) I took over command as GPO and led the troop ashore in the Sherman. This was indeed a hairy business. I was OK, high up in the tank, but the half track and lesser vehicles had a sopping wet time of it, driving in water to their waist and hoping against hope that the waterproofing wouldn't fail. In the event, all got ashore safely, except the poor MOs jeep, which just disappeared completely though the MO and his driver waded bravely ashore, carrying much of their medical supplies.

And so we emerged, dripping, onto the beach. It was in the exact spot that we were supposed to be in, which was a credit to the LCT commander. Others were not so lucky and got swept sideways by the tide well away from their appointed place. It was a flat beach, half tide, with the tide rising. I led the guns right up to the sea wall, as planned, the only hitch being that there was an enormous crater which forced one gun off to the right on its own. There was a lot of small arms fire flying about from the infantry fighting ahead and at some stage Sgt. Wilbey, No 1 on that particular gun, was badly wounded in the chest and the gun was taken over by Bdr O'Gorman, of whom there is more to tell later. The sea wall was a solid stone structure rising 4ft vertically from the sand, then rising at 45% to a parapet at the top with a sandy lane behind. My first job was to get up on top of this parapet with my Artillery Director (not unlike a theodolite) and pass accurate angles to the guns to get them parallel. I felt very exposed up there; the Dorsets were fighting only a few hundred yards in land and there was a lot of lead whistling about. The lane under the parapet was already full of our dead and wounded and our MO was at work among them. We then settled to a firing programme on pre planned targets but soon we were getting fire orders from out Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) up in front with the Infantry on targets more appropriate. All this time the beach was being shelled but most of it was falling among the landing craft coming in behind us; we were close up under the sea wall and in comparative shelter.

Meanwhile, the tide came in and we were axle deep in water with all manner of debris and bodies floating in. As the tide went out again it left behind a mess that was indescribable - such a waste of human life, effort and equipment. It is the sheer wastefulness of war that strikes one at such a time - one dead man represents each a terrible waste of twenty odd years of nurturing, love, education and experience, all poured into him by a loving family; to say nothing of his military training, brought to a sudden and useless end. But there was no time to dwell on such things. By now all sorts of heavy equipment was coming ashore including massive armoured bulldozers powerful enough to push aside a wrecked tank. These chaps soon cleared a way up and down the littered beach and I was able to lead A Troop, having been ordered o move off the beach, left handed towards a gap in the mine field. Unfortunately Bdr O'Gorman and his SP were stuck on the other side of this large deep water filled crater and couldn’t follow, so I ordered him to follow on when he could and A Troop trundled away up through a lot of notices saying Achtung Minen, until we emerged onto the main coast road.

As the initial fighting died down towards D-Day evening there was a comparative lull over the next twenty four hours. Troops poured in to an area which was far from stable or established, nor very large and at one stage it was thought, apparently, by the powers that be, that there was still a risk of failure. But the enemy were certainly taking time off to recover the initial shock and also to wait for their reserve troops to arrive. During this lull, the Essex Yeomanry became part of 8th Armoured Brigade. This Brigade consisted of a mobile force with a battalion of infantry, a regiment of tanks (The Sherwood Foresters) and a regiment of Artillery - ourselves. On the 8th June the Brigade advanced forward across open country to Hill 103 - seven miles in advance of the whole invasion. The idea was that we should hold Hill 103 until the 7th Armoured Division advanced on our right and used us as a pivot to advance further. In the event 7th Armoured Division met such heavy opposition that they never reached us.

Hill 103, not very high, was approached from the North up a gentle slope over open country side full of growing crops. The top of the hill was planted with orchards and the south side sloped down sharply to a little town called Tilly-sur-Seulles about three miles away. Tilly was an important strategic cross roads and was bitterly fought over in the ensuing weeks. From 103 one approached Tilly through a narrow, winding village called St. Pierre. We arrived without incident at this pleasant rural scene; the rest of the Brigade disappeared into the orchards and I was ordered to find a gun position at the back of it all. So I set out the guns, well spread out, on the southern slope, with the rest of the Brigade in front of us, out of sight in position amongst the trees. Richard Motion, GPO of B Troop, had his guns about 300 yards away on my left flank. We had arrived through open country, a solitary force, and so we were theoretically surrounded. Meanwhile, the enemy by now had brought up their Panzer Troops and on the afternoon of the 8th our forward troops ran into serious opposition against fresh infantry and Tiger tanks. From then on, for the next four days, we found ourselves in a battle which became increasingly severe. The Panzer squadrons increased in strength and our infantry and tanks were engaged in fierce fighting on the far side of the hill. Our gun positions came under increasing fire from three sides and we were firing over a wide area which took in the main targets in St. Pierre and Tilly to our front. These were in answer to increasingly urgent calls for fire support from our FOOs. In between we were firing at infantry and snipers in the copses on our flanks only a thousand yards away; we could see them for ourselves, no need for an FOO, and we fired practically over open sights. In A Troop, we were extremely lucky to have no casualties, but there were many elsewhere. A friend of mine from Alton Towers, Betram Sayer, was killed in his tank in St. Pierre. (Incidentally, his body was only found in 1993 in a shallow grave in someone's garden). Chris Sidgewick, our Battery Commander, was badly wounded when his tank was shot up and there were many others in the Regiment, lost in the battle.

Behind us was a wide swathe of open country, of rolling cropland, which the enemy never ventured into. This was our line of communication to the rear and our ammunition and supplies were brought up by RASC drivers who braved the battle in three ton lorries laden with high explosive shells. And along this route, on the evening of the 8th, there appeared my fourth gun, which we'd left behind on the beach. Bdr O'Gorman had spent the time doggedly finding his way through the traffic-jam of the bridge-head and had then headed south, knowing that the regiment was up there somewhere. The SP rumbled up to the gun position, O'Gorman climbed down, came up to me with a smart salute and said, "No 4 Gun reporting, Sir". I shook him warmly by the hand.

The pressure from the Panzers and their infantry increased as they concentrated more and more troops in the Tilly area and it was becoming evident that we were fighting a losing battle. At one stage we were re-inforced by a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry and I saw them disappear into the orchards ahead, a steady line of little khaki figures way out to our left. Twenty four hours later their walking wounded came limping back in twos and threes; two of them rested on my gun position, semi conscious and exhausted after hand to hand fighting in the villages below. On the 12th of June matters reached crisis point. German tanks began an attack in force on Hill 103 itself and by late afternoon they were advancing steadily towards the Brigade Headquarters at the top. It was at this stage that all "soft" vehicles were ordered to retreat, "soft" meaning all the signal trucks, headquarters vehicles, jeeps and so on.

Now, my gun position, A Troop, was sitting well spread out alongside the track to the rear. We were well settled, well organised and I had a lovely system of Tannoy wires from myself to the guns. We were ordered, in the face of all this turmoil, to stay put and stay put we did. Unfortunately, this crowd of retreating trucks paid no attention to the tracks; they came hurtling through the gun position, bouncing along with men hanging on all anyhow and they cut my Tannoy to pieces. I was left with nothing but my own power to shout loudly. This sudden retreat through our position was certainly disconcerting, but all at once there was one of those lulls that occur in a battle; nerves were on edge, but the majority relieved the tension by swearing or making silly jokes - laughter, slightly hysterical, is a common enough reaction. But into this tense atmosphere, we suddenly realised that a young gunner was crouched in a slit trench, whimpering with fear; you could feel a frisson of fear go round the troop, such a thing is so contagious. So a sergeant and I dragged the lad out of the trench, used a torrent of curses on him until he came back to his senses and delivered him to his gun-crew who treated him like kindly uncles.

Meanwhile, the lull was over and the firing up ahead was increasing tremendously. At this stage we got the order, "Prepare for tanks and infantry" - definitely not a Gunners favourite pastime. This meant passing the order to the guns ,"Prepare for tank attack - AP, load". An AP shell (Armour Piercing) being a 25lb slug of a lead and steel. As far as preparing for infantry attack was concerned I lined all the spare signallers, cooks and extra gun numbers along a shallow trench on our right flank, under the command of a bombardier. It was at this stage that my lack of Tannoy became a sad loss, as there was no chance in the next hour of the human voice being heard in the overwhelming noise; so I found myself running from gun to gun, clambering up the side to look in at a crouching crew, re-directing fire if necessary and sometimes even having time to say something encouraging. It was this need to keep the whole thing co-ordinated, this being so almighty busy, having something to concentrate on, that saw me through. I was literally too busy to be really afraid; scared, yes, but that word means ducking , or jumping six inches off the ground when something goes bang rather too close. It is not the same as real fear. I always felt sorry for the ordinary gunner or signaller who had no real responsibility to help him, but just had to sit and sweat it out.

The tanks came and luckily the infantry did not. We could see the tanks. Tiger tanks with tracks like paving stones as dark shapes milling about in the orchards a few hundred yards away. Both sides opened fire at the same time, but they were silhouetted on the crest of the hill, whereas my gun position was in a slight dip on the reverse slope of the hill. This seemed to make it difficult to depress their guns enough, with the result that for nearly an hour their shells and machine gun fire went over our heads, clipping the branches off trees and rustling in a deadly sound through the leaves. Through all this , I was trotting busily from gun to gun and finding that they were doing well. They were firing at the ominous dark shapes over open sights, gun-barrels level, with increasing confidence. Whether we disabled any one of the Germans tanks we never knew, but after about half an hour, to everyone’s intense relief, they withdrew and left us alone. Throughout this action, despite some very near misses, by some miracle we did not have one single casualty. We were all extremely tired; we'd been in action with very little sleep for four days. Our last orders on Hill 103 were to fire a regimental salvo of six rounds rapid at midnight and then to steal away the way we'd come, back to the rest of the Invasion forces.

Our place was taken by large reinforcements from an infantry division, who came to hold a strong position on Hill 103. Our Brigade may have been out numbered, but our final stand had stopped the advance of a crack Panzer Lehr division that was sent to dislodge us. So we retreated undefeated. A near thing, though

From Hill 103, we retired to a relatively peaceful position in the main body of invasion force and settled into the regular life of a gun-position. Slit-trenches, 4ft deep and 2ft wide, were dug round each vehicle and gun, enough to shelter the various crews and when the demands of the fire-orders allowed, an almost domestic routine took over. Each gun and each vehicle did its own catering, and it soon became obvious who the best cook in your crew was. Our supplies came in Compo Packs - a tightly packed box of food and supplies, including cigarettes and loo-paper - enough for 10 men for one day, or one man for 10 days. The food was really pretty good, all in tins, including hard oatmeal biscuits which broke down into delicious porridge, and of course the inevitable stew. One got to know one’s own crew pretty well. In my case, my half-track had a crew of more then weight; it was a big, high armoured vehicle and on board were Gnr. Jay, the signaller; Bdr Clements, my GPO Ack (Assistant); Gnr Forsyth, second signaller; Gnr Bland, my batman; Gnr ?, second GPO Ack; Gnr Thomas, general dogsbody; the driver., a nonchalant chap whose name I forget, but he’d take that half-track anywhere I wanted; two dispatch riders, hairy pirates who sat by their motor-bikes ready to go anywhere, but who always miraculously appeared at meal times. All these characters, humourous, gloomy, calm or excitable lived in close quarters with me, and I got to know them well. Gnr. Bland, my batman, stands out in my memory because whatever the turmoil, however busy I was, he’d turn up regularly with a mess tin of hot food and sit there until I’d eaten it.

This domestic organisation was the background to some very steady shooting. Our troops were moving forward towards Caen, and we were firing barrages over their heads. One day we started a barrage at 4am and continued until sundown. It was a long hot summer’s day and very hard work for everyone. The gunners were stripped to the waist, but the officers still wore collar and tie. Its hard to believe now, but an officer always wore a khaki wool tie, properly done up, through the landing and fighting. When I got home, wounded, and the nurses undressed me, with my sunburnt face and white body I must have looked like a match-stick.

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Peter Mitchell’s Memoirs


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Early Years

Clifton College

Outbreak of War



Essex Yeomanry