The Essex Yeomanry and Preparations for D-Day
History - EY HistoryPreparations for D-Day. A personal account.
The Essex Yeomanry, like all Yeomanry regiments, had a long tradition dating back to the 18th century; when landowners were expected to provide support for the government by having always ready a force of their yeoman farmers, who provided their own horse to form a troop of Yeoman cavalry. By the beginning of this century, this had developed into a system of regiments of Yeomanry, local volunteers, ready to go further - the Boar War for instance. By the twenties and Thirties, they were part of the Territorial Army, local volunteers, much more highly trained, attending a Drill hall training once a week, and a yearly fortnights summer camp. The result was that when war came, it did not require much extra training to bring them up to regular army standards. Because they were all volunteers, their standards of motivation and education were high, and their willingness and enthusiasm, and good humour was something not always found in the troops. They came from Colchester and Chelmsford and the surrounding villages and farms, and a lot of them were related.
The officers were Essex landowners, solicitors, and professionals of various sorts. They had all known each other for years, not only in the TA, but also socially, in business and in the hunting field. This, when off duty, led to a cheerful and genial atmosphere in the Mess.
When I joined the Essex Yeomanry, they were stationed at Frome. So, about six weeks after my 19th birthday, I arrived at Frome station, expecting to have to find a Taxi and seek them out. So I was gratified to find myself met by a bombardier or a gunner, who saluted me smartly and ran me swiftly to the regimental headquarters in a signals truck. I was still such a new officer that to be saluted by an NCO, after a year of their shouting at me, really took a bit of getting used to. Regimental Headquarters (RHQ) was billetted in a very nice country house and its grounds, just outside Frome. The first thing I had to do was to report to the Adjutant, Capt. Patrick Green, who allocated me a bedroom, a batman and a job - I was to be Assistant Adjutant for about six months, working in RHQ, until a vacancy could be found for me in one of the gun batteries. Absorbing this information, I went off to find my room and my new batman and at 7pm, presented myself rather nervously to the Mess Ante-room to wait for dinner. This was indeed daunting; the ante-room ( the Officers' Mess "sitting room") contained several languid officers, deep in armchairs reading the newspaper; and others, engrossed in their own conversations. I was, as it were, invisible. It must be remembered that I was the first new officer that the regiment had had since the were all in the TA together. They were all older than me by at least four years or more, and probably wondered what they had been sent. Still, I put up with being invisible for a day or two, until the very nature of my job introduced me to them.
I must explain that the Adjutant though only a Captain, act as the Commanding Officer's chief executive and spokesman, and is in a position of some power. He organises the details of regimental activity and movement; he is the business manager; and in action, he sits like a spider in the midst of a web of communication, dealing with problems as they occur, coordinating regimental fire and generally doing the donkey work. As the CO's mouthpiece, he could if necessary give orders to the majors commanding the batteries, or overrule them. In Patrick Gee's case, at the age of 39, he had a natural ability to handle all this with a pleasant authority, helped by the fact he was a former hunting companion of all three battery commanders. Therefore, to find myself as Assistant Adjutant to this man was a considerable experience. On the many exercises we did in the summer of 1943, I sat in the back of a three-ton truck with Patrick; we both had radio headsets and old fashioned microphones with pressle switches. He was on the regimental net, which included the battery command posts, the battery commanders and many others; he could if necessary, switch to a further net which included the gun positions, and every tank or signaller in the regiment. I was on the less busy net that included Divisional Headquarters and the other RA regiments involved. Sometimes, of course, things would get hectic on my net, when I would give Patrick a nudge and he would cope with it.
But as time went on, I learned by repetition and overhearing Patrick, a very great deal about how the whole machine worked so efficiently. So much so, that I sometimes found myself alone in the truck while Patrick went off to visit a battery or something. Once I knew the ropes as well as that, everyone responded to the RHQ call-sign, even though it was a different voice. This had an added, social bonus, in that willy nilly my voice became recognised throughout the regiment and people I'd never met would say at meetings that they knew me because of that - always a friendly opening. Of course, one got to know everyone’s voice - the excitable, the casual, the drawling Etonian voice of an enormous chap called Tiny Munro - it was like a large family communicating on the air.
In all these ways, I soon began to feeling I was becoming a true member of the Regiment. We did divisional exercises all over the place, Tilshead, Corfe Castle, Sennybridge in S.Wales, Dartmoor, laways retiring after a day or two to Frome. The more domestic side of my job was the command of all the RHQ personnel, a mixed bunch which included drivers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, signallers and one sign writer. Also included were the RSM and RQMs, two very superior gentlemen whom everyone from high to low addressed as 'Mr'. The RSM was the most senior NCO in the regiment; the RQM, he next most senior, who sat in his quartermasters stores, surrounded by ammunition, food and equipment of all sorts. They both had responsibilities and experience far in excess of mine, and so I treated them with the respect they deserved. And when the RSM, smart as paint, would greet me in the morning with a crashing of boots and a stylish salute, saying "Good morning, SIR", I would feel quite unnerved. This mixed bunch of troops I commanded with growing confidence, parading them, inspecting them and their vehicles, holding pay parades, and generally acting as martinet and nursemaid. They were a cheerful and intelligent lot, who knew their various trades. The only exceptions were a pair of twin brothers who drove the water cart, a sort of small tanker. These two were dark and narrowfaced, with black moustaches and expressionless faces, like the men that do the Egyptian sand-dance. And they were dim beyond belief, always getting lost because they didn’t listen to orders and couldn’t read a map. On many an exercise, at the end of the day, some-one had to go out on a motor-bike and search for them, to find them sitting in a gateway waiting to be rescued. However, it was decided that we could not get rid of this maddening pair of lame ducks, because they played the saxophone in beautiful close harmony in the Regimental Dance band.
The Regiment continued to train throughout 1943, working itself up to a pitch of considerable efficiency, on these many exercises, sometimes sleeping out in all weathers for several nights at a time. At the end of the year we were about to hand over from the conventional field gun to a Self-Propelled 25 pounder (SP), in preparation for the invasion of France that everyone knew to be due in the next few months. The SP consisted of a 25 pounder gun mounted in a tank chassis not unlike a Sherman tank; they were highly maneuverable and mobile, they would go anywhere and through anything, and so across rough country they were greatly superior to the conventional gun and trailer. In October, I was one of a group of officers and NCOs sent to Rhyll on a two week course, to learn all about these new SPs. We learned how their massive radial aircraft engines worked, tucked up underneath the rear of the vehicle. I actually understood it all at the time, but I think much of the knowledge faded. We learned to keep these engines spotlessly clean. More importantly for us, we learned to drive these monsters, with their foot pedals like plates, their massive gear box and their two steering levers, one to go right and one to go left. We churned happily round N.Wales in the pouring rain and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
At the end of the course, we reported back to the regiment, which was now re-equipped with SPs and stationed at Cambuslang near Glasgow. To my great pleasure, waiting for me was my promotion to full lieutenant and a posting to one of the batteries - 413 Battery - commanded by Major Chris Sidgewick - a cheerful friendly character aged 31. Now I felt that I was getting some proper action - RHQ had provided much knowledge and experience, but the batteries provided the action with the guns. Each battery (a Major’s command) consisted of two troops of four guns ( a Captain’s command). In a troop, there was a Gun Position Officer, whose job it was to control the guns in action, and a Troop leader, who led the guns to the gun position the GPO had chosen and thereafter was general dogsbody. The Troop Commander (Captain) was invariably out in front somewhere at an Observation Post. There were three Batteries in a Regiment and so 24 guns.
All this explanation, which I will not weary you with again, is needed to easily understand the rest. Of all the jobs a young officer treasured it was that of Gun Position Officer. It had all the elements of responsibility and command we’d been trained for. One had under one’s command four guns and their crew of six, each controlled by a sergeant; a command post vehicle with a crew of five or six; various fitters, signallers and two Don-Rs (dispatch riders). All in all, about 45 men. One had the job of choosing a suitable gun position in the area one was given, and deploying the guns well spaced out; then of lining them up on the same magnetic bearing, to an exactitude of 5 minutes or less (60 minutes to a degree). After that, ensuring in your command post that all fire-orders from the OPs were passed to the guns swiftly and after double checking, in an exact, accurate and unmistakable way. When you consider that this all had to be done, often in the pouring rain, without any risk of inaccuracy, it was really quite a demanding job. It culminated in shouting a fire-order to the guns at the top of one’s voice, or with a megaphone, in a certain predictable order of angle and range, until the moment when one finally shouted "FIRE", and the whole lot exploded into action. Incidentally, it was taken for granted that all requests for fire from the OP must be answered, whatever the conditions on the gun-position were, and that being shelled yourself was no reason to stop working the guns. " the last man and the last gun" was the tradition that had been followed on many occasions in the past.
Anyway, I was delighted to find that due to a temporary officer shortage, I was made GPO of A Troop, 413 battery. Soon after this we moved to Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. The point of this was the beginning of our preparation for D-day ( a phrase that wasn’t yet thought of at our level). We started combined operations with the Navy, loading our guns and all the rest on to their LCTs, and practicing a "run-in" shoot down the Kyles of Bute - even in deeply cold winter, a lovely area, a wide strip of sea between the Island and the mainland.
The point of a run-in shoot was to fire the guns from the LCTs as we ran in to the beaches. It took a lot of practice at first, lining the guns up with the line of the boat, co-ordinating the entire regiment on a simultaneous diminishing range. This was complicated by the fact that in rough weather, a big sea hitting the flat bow of an LCT would make the whole craft shake so much at a twenty ton SP would clean out of line in spite of its anchoring chains. But we gradually got the hang of it, and did the same thing again for two weeks in the Moray Firth, even colder. While we were there, we had delivered our Vickers clock - only one. With all the expenditure of our exercises, fuel, ammunition, and so on, it might be thought that it was less then generous to allocate us only one clock. This clock could tell you how far you had travelled at a certain speed, and what the range was to your present target. So it was felt that use should be made of the unique, brassy instrument, big as a football. It was decided that A Troop should have it, and co-ordinate the regiment by it, from our purely alphabetical position on the right of the line. So during the run in, the LCTs skipper and I spent our time glued to this clock to make sure his speed stayed steady at six knots, and I to make sure that my orders to the guns of a 200 drop in range was right. As the hand came up to the minute, he’d steady the LCT on the correct bearing and say "Ready". I’d shout fore on the regimental net and have the satisfaction of seeing the whole line on my left blaze away. I quite enjoyed that.
My satisfaction in my job as GPO was short-lived after that. My 20th birthday found me in a slow regimental convoy down to Thetford in Suffolk, where we had a rest and a refit of the guns and vehicles. At Thetford, we were joined by a quiet, modest and very pleasant Lieutenant called Tony Gregson. He had become a POW of the Germans in the Italian campaign, and had escaped after several efforts; he had then made his way on foot to an established escape route and after several months of this life he was back home. For his exploits he was awarded the MBE and wore the ribbon with complete modesty. He was made GPO of A Troop and I was relegated to serving him as Troop Leader; I felt my nose was put out of joint, but couldn’t complain because he was such a nice chap and obviously had more experience.
At Thetford, we had a two week pause for rest, maintenance of vehicles, & a complete replacement of the SPs. Our first lot were American made, with complete machinery & gun sights calibrated in mils instead of degrees; the two systems did not sit well together, and entailed conversion tables. So it was with relief that we got 24 new British-made 25pdr SPs, the ones we had first trained on at Rhyll.
From Thetford we moved in early March 1944 to Bournemouth. My Troop were parked all along the cliff top road on East Cliff, right in front of the East Cliff Hotel which RHQ was using. We were billetted in lesser hotels along the East Cliff. These hotels were of course requisitioned by the War Office, and when the owners departed, they made sure they left nothing behind and certainly not carpets. So that the prevailing impression of these once plushy and hushed hotels was one of bang and clatter of hobnailed boots on bare wood floors. If the RSM were to greet an officer in the foyer of the Hotel, with one of his great stamping salutes, the very files jumped on their shelves; the RHQ clerks were the only ones to wear shoes, and in contrast they scuttled about like mice.
Once settled in Bournemouth - a very much quieter town than today - we were involved over the next few weeks in three more practice run-in shoots. We loaded the guns onto LCTs at the Royal Marine slipway at Poole (where at a much later date, The Mitchell family collected for charter the ill-fated Bootlegger). Once loaded on the LCTs, we left Poole Harbour in line ahead - a fleet of long, low craft, bristling with guns, in a colour mixture of battle ship grey and black and brown army camouflage - a purposeful, menacing air about them all. As I gazed with interest at the funny little 10 car chain ferry and the long beaches and few bungalows on Sandbanks, I did not know what a source of future family happiness it would all become; my mind was far more concerned with the increasing reality of war. These exercises, Smash 1, 2 and 3 entailed reaching out towards the Needles, turning and then doing an exact replica of the invasion attack on to Studland beach - the only difference being that we lifted the range to clear the Studland road. Under our barrage, the infantry, the 1st Dorsets were going to land on Studland Beach, accompanied by our Observation Post (OP) officers, whose job it would be to direct our fire as soon as we landed. For the purpose of the exercise the guns did not actually land, but turned for home. These three exercises ironed out a whole lot of problems about coordination of Navy & Army, currently known as Combined Ops, problems with communication etc. Our OPs had a signaller with an 18 set on his back - the best that was currently available. It was a heavy thing to carry, was covered in knobs & dials and had be retuned "on net" quite frequently. On land it could be consistent & reliable in the hands of a good signaller but in a small infantry landing craft in a roughish sea, it could be very unsatisfactory. The larger sets, carried by tanks & signal trucks, were of course much more steady & trustworthy.
At the end of these three exercises, we were at a high pitch of training for the invasion itself. By now it was the end of April & everything was hotting up. The whole nation, and the Germans, knew that we were coming, but nobody knew when or where. It is quite astounding that such an enormous secret was kept but of course it is now in history that such a vast game of bluff was being played. So at this stage the whole of Southern England became sealed off with checks on all incoming & outgoing traffic & information. We moved from the comforts of Bournemouth to a campsite on the edge of the New Forest near Beaulieu, & lived in tents under the umbrella of fresh green springtime foliage. Very soon, the whole area filled up with troops & weaponry and one found oneself chatting to some very interesting characters. In camp, next to us, was a Royal Marine Commando Unit and there was one particularly aggressive Lieutenant who spent his evenings sharpening a foot long commando knife with serrated edges and finding how many hand grenades he could festoon about his body. I only hope he survived.
During May our main job was to waterproof the vehicles, every one of which had to be able to go through six feet deep water. This meant that all exhausts & air intakes had to be led up to that height - in the case of the SPs, by heavy chimney casings; with lower vehicles, lighter tubing. Nobody had really thought how to deal with jeeps. All this clumsy grafting was carried out using Bostic, which was a tarry muck rather that sticky plasticine. The Bostic formed an efficient sealant at the joints, but it took us nearly three weeks. But strangely enough it was a happy month, although we knew what faced us.
The weather was good, the open air life suited us and all were in good spirits. You could always tell if all was well with a troop, doing a filthy job like waterproofing, because of their singing. They were great singers of preferably slow mournful songs in close harmony, with some clever fellow doing Bing Crosby warbles. "Don't get around much any more", several Crosby numbers & Nelly Dean were the favourites. If you heard these, you knew that all was well and work was proceeding apace. As we were now in a completely sealed camp now, all letters were censored, the mens' by the officers and the officers by themselves. There was no feeling of invasion of privacy & sometimes I was touched by their inability to express their deepest feelings. One read them with respect, blue pencilled any inadvertent information & sealed them, careful to preserve the message frequently found in capitals on the outside of the envelope. SWALK, "Sealed with a loving kiss"; HOLLAND, "Hope our love lives and never dies"; or occasionally blatant POWICH, "Pants off when I come home".
By now, the end of May, we were ready. So it seems were the Germans, judging by their increasing night bombing of Southampton Docks. But the vast concentration of troops, hidden in various ways from Dover to Falmouth, still had not been noticed. About a week before D Day, all officers were called to a meeting at a big country house and we were given the details of what faced us. We were given beautifully detailed large scale maps showing our particular stretch of beach, with all beach defences, gun positions and strong points shown in detail - detail gathered by aerial photography, pre war postcards: and gathered by daring men of Naval Commando who had crept ashore from canoes at dead of night to measure and assess beach defences and take sand samples. At this meeting we were told to expect anything up to 70% casualties, a very sobering thought. This fact, it was emphasized, was not to be passed on to the men. As I returned to camp from that meeting I finally realised the grim risk that we were all undertaking, the (unlikely) possibility of failure and disaster. But in war, all is possible, and things can go mightily wrong. As far as my own chances were concerned, I felt guardedly optimistic. I'll be OK, I thought, with the unreasoning buoyancy of youth: and if the worst happened - well I'd had a good life. These sentiments, at the age of 20, were so far off the mark as to be laughable. I really had hardly started living.
About the 2nd of June things got going. We loaded the vehicles: petrol, diesel, ammunition, food, water, personal kit etc. We were ready to drive off. Two last minute things occurred: we were issued with rimless steel helmets the same as the parachute troops wore, which were to replace the old pre-war tin hat shaped like a soup bowl, which was far from satisfactory. The new helmets were more protective, stayed firmly on and had no rim to catch on things when working in a tank. The other last minute incident was that a regimental clerk had omitted to get everyone to make their wills. So we had an hilarious hour, sitting round a table in the Mess tent, signing our wills and handing it to the man on our right to witness. I left my all to my parents, which consisted of my service-dress, uniform, cap and Sam Browne which I'd sent home for safe keeping.
At midnight on the 2nd of June the regiment sat down to a substantial meal in camp and then departed, unit by unit, on a carefully timed journey to the embarkation point. When my turn came, I led my troop, Able Troop, Essex Yeomanry, off into the dark lanes. We were a fully stocked up, fully trained, fighting unit ready for war as we trundled through the dark countryside towards Lepe Beach, our embarkation point. About halfway into our slow journey a soldier stepped out of the hedge with his arm raised to halt us. " Are you A Troop Essex Yeomanry, Sir?", he asked. "Yes", I said "Get your lads to get their mugs out then", he said," We've got some tea for them". And out of the darkness appeared six more soldiers bearing enormous enamel jugs full of steaming tea which they carried up the column to the grateful gunners. After this illustration of efficient planning, I really began to feel that our invasion was bound to succeed. We arrived at Lepe Beach as the sun rose and loaded our guns and vehicles onto the waiting LCTs, backing them up the ramp and into the well deck, in the right order with by now familiar ease. The whole lot was then covered with camouflage netting and off we went to sit in Southampton Water, and wait.
Copyright © 1999 Peter Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.