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Battalion | Marking the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Written in Germany just after VE Day, Alastair Borthwick's Battalion captures the immediate memories of 51st (Highland) Infantry Division which served in the North Africa campaign, the conquest of Sicily and the invasion of Northern Europe. Widely acclaimed, the book is notable for extensive accounts from the front-line and the minute detail in which the planning and execution of battles is described. Below is a first-hand account of the D-Day landings, which took place seventy-five years ago today.   

The morning was dull and grey. We edged down the river past Thameshaven and Southend, past the anti-aircraft platforms rising on stilts from the estuary, and out into the North Sea. Once the boom was passed the convoy took shape, stringing fore and aft from horizon to horizon. England lay grey and low to starboard.

We were all excited, but our excitement had nothing fresh on which to feed. The radio reports which were coming hourly to our people at home did not reach us, because the enemy U-boats had devices which enabled them to detect not only transmitting sets but receiving sets. After the one brief announcement we had heard before sailing, wireless silence had been imposed, so that even after we had landed in Normandy we knew a good deal less about the war than anyone in Britain with a penny to spend on a newspaper.

Briefing was carried out as we approached Dover, but we heard little we did not know already. The only novelties were maps which showed that the big town mentioned at the original briefing was Caen, and that our landing-place was to be Courseulles-sur-Mer. However, this morsel was sufficient to set the armchair strategists talking, and arguments were still raging when someone rushed in and said we were being shelled by the French coastal batteries.

This was the only excitement of the voyage and was a minor one. Our destroyers were charging up and down laying a smoke-screen, but we felt they need hardly have bothered because the only signs of life from the much-vaunted German Long Toms, at any rate in our convoy, were a few small splashes not less than two miles from the nearest ship. We soon grew tired of watching, and went below again to win the war on paper. By evening the housie-housie schools were in full cry, the canteen was open, and card games were going on in corners. It was not at all the kind of invasion we had expected.

We had to disembark next morning at 0700 hours, so reveille was at 0430. As was customary on such occasions, we did in fact disembark at 1430, after hanging about on crowded decks for hours; but for once no one grumbled. It was not a day for boredom. No one who saw the Normandy beaches that morning will ever forget them. It was an even more impressive sight than the Sicilian landing. We came gently in to landfall and dropped anchor four miles offshore. Ahead was a low ridge with a small town below it, fat farming country, neat and peaceful, like the coast of Devon before the war. Only on the sea did the picture fit our preconceived ideas of D-Day. Ships were everywhere. None of us had ever seen so many ships. The whole sea crawled. There were battleships and tiny landing craft, channel packets and ocean-going liners, ducks and hippos and all the other contrivances designed for this day, some going, some coming, some anchored; and this monstrous regatta, this mass of some five hundred vessels, was spread over only seven miles of a bridgehead already more than fifty miles long. Beyond, out of sight, were thousands more. As close as the next bay, a bare five miles away, was a tangle of masts and funnels which must have represented a fleet as great as the one we could see spread out before Courseulles; and astern of us the sky was black with the smoke of more and still more convoys creeping over the horizon.

We transferred into a tank landing ship which was acting as a ferry, and at last we were off, threading our way in the sunshine through the maze of shipping towards ‘Nan’ beach at Courseulles. Half-an-hour later we grounded in three feet of water thirty yards off-shore. We put on our waders.

The Jock, as he prepared to go ashore, was a sadly burdened creature. First, as a basis, he wore boots, battledress, and a steel helmet. Next came his web equipment with ammunition pouches, two waterbottles, a small bulging haversack slung at the side, a bayonet, and an enormous pack round which a blanket had been bound with pieces of string. Next, on top of all that had gone before, were a respirator and a lifebelt. If he were lucky, he carried a rifle; if unlucky, a bren gun, a two-inch mortar, or a load of two-inch mortar bombs done up in sacking and worn round his neck like a horse-collar. If any man had gone overboard he would have sunk like a brick, lifebelt and all. And to all this was added the invasion wader, a garment of repulsive design and doubtful utility, elephant-waisted and duck-footed, made of green oiled cotton, and (we found) extremely liable to split. As the seat was so cut as to admit the small haversack and the two waterbottles as well as other necessary portions of the wearer, the invasion wader must go down as the least becoming garment in history.

We struggled ashore through the fast-receding tide and dropped our waders and lifebelts on the beach, which, again contrary to expectations, was a reasonably leisurely place. There was no confusion, no shellfire, and no great hurry, despite the fact that the first landings had been made only thirty-six hours before. A few wrecked landing-craft lay about, but there was no real sign of warfare except some buildings which the navy had shelled at dawn to evict snipers. Our landing could not have been more peaceful; which fact, bearing in mind the waders and the amount of gear we were carrying, was a very good thing. We sorted ourselves out, marched up the beach past a line of German prisoners, set our pipers at our head, and trudged inland to the assembly area at Rivières, woefully overloaded, very hot, but still far from the battle.

During the following two days the rest of the battalion came ashore in varying degrees of comfort and joined the others at Rivières, where we were complete with all men and vehicles by 9 June. Rivières was a quiet little backwater untouched by the war, and as the weather was sunny and warm it was no hardship to sleep in the fields round the village. We dug ourselves in, opened our twenty-four-hour packs, and made ourselves at home.

To buy a copy of Battalion, click HERE.

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