I Was There! - I Went With the First Glider-borne Troops
How went the first hours of D-Day? In these personal stories glimpses are give of some of the actions and incidents that made June 6, 1944, memorable as the actual commencement of the greatest combined operation known to mankind – the mighty assault on Hitler's fabled fortress in the West to free the enslaved peoples of Europe.
I Landed with the first glider forces in the invasion. It was dark, it was deadly, and we landed in a country of stinking swamps and hidden snipers. Almost the whole time I was there I had to take evasive action from the enemy. I crawled as I have never crawled before. When I left the fighting area I left behind me my face-print in the mud of Normandy's ditches.
I went over with the first glider group from Britain before dawn on D-Day. Never before had I been in a glider, and my own experience has shown me that the men who fly in gliders are among the world's toughest. They risk a crash landing, to start with, and are usually given a hot reception because the enemy has been put on the alert by the prior arrival of paratroops. We took off in the dark with scores of large transport planes hauling the heavily loaded gliders off the aerodrome at intervals of about 20 seconds.
We headed into heavy weather towards France. The glider heaved and pitched. Soldiers on either side of me were sick. I chewed gum vigorously, according to directions, swallowed some seasick pills and tried to think of something funny. I couldn't. The aerial procession was a sight I shall never forget. They sky looked like a giant Christmas tree, aglow with heaving clusters of red and green lights. In a little over two hours we reached the French coast, which was ablaze with light. We approached by an indirect route. Then it began. Flak started ripping through the fabric sides of our glider, but no one was hit despite our slow pace and low altitude.
Suddenly we went into a sickening dive as we dropped our tow-line. “Hold tight. We're going down!” yelled the pilot. Great balls of fire started to stream through our glider as we circled to land. I loosened my safety-belt to remove my Mae West and could not get it fastened in the excitement. I was thrown to the floor as our glider smashed and jarred on the earth, slid across a field and crashed into a ditch. For a moment I lay half-stunned, but the red-hot zip of machine-gun bullets an inch or two above my head revived me in a hurry. I took a wild dive out of the emergency door and fell into a ditch, waist-deep in stinking water overlaid with scum.
It was 4.15 a.m. Mortars and machine-guns chattered. I was in a panic. My one desire was to get back home. Suddenly: “Push ahead, and for God's sake keep flat!” came a voice, that of a captain who had come over in my glider. Chin-deep in filth I slid along, feeling very weak. I drew myself forward with my hands, which were cut and pierced and stung by nettles. I parted some reeds, and the rustle brought bursts of machine-gun fire and bullets from a sniper across the field. I continued to inch along the ditch, getting wetter, colder and more hungry.
At 4 p.m. the ditch was still my shelter. I was still face down, flatter than a worn rug. In my crawling I met Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Schellhammer, of New York. He had been in my glider and I felt a little better. We were able to get out of the ditch and start new tactics of hedge crawling. There were still plenty of snipers around and they began to practise on us, following us all along the hedge. At one place there was a 7 ft. gap which had to be cleared in a leap. Lieutenant-Colonel Shellhammer made it and beckoned to me. Weak and dispirited, I started across like an Olympic champion, but slipped right in the middle. All records for picking oneself up and proceeding were broken then and there.
I had lost my tin hat. Lieutenant-Colonel Schellhammer ordered me to go back for it. I suddenly hated him with a black venom – but I dived back and got it. The tactics baffled the sniper so much that he didn't shoot! However, things improved, and by 5.30 that afternoon the area was cleared of snipers and we reached a little town which had just been captured by Americans. An old French woman came with a bottle of cognac which I gulped. “The Boche has gone. The war is over”, she said. Ten minutes later the Germans counter-attacked and the war started all over again. Eager to keep out of trouble I hiked for the woods and spent a miserable night with an American colonel and a very dolorous cow in a clump of super-sharp raspberry bushes.
I wandered all next day and reached a temporary Command Post. That was Wednesday, and in the evening a platoon of Germans raided us as we were digging in.
I was getting shock-proof. I flopped into my hole and slept. Then I proceeded to the H.Q. establishment. A sergeant who watched me from a distance introduced me to his friends as the “best in the hedge-crawling business”. It is an honour I am proud to accept. I calculate the Germans used about 5,000 rounds of ammunition on me that first day.
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