591 History Part 4 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
The Squadron Takes Stock
By 0500 hours the Squadron, having completed the clearing task, moved into the Bas-de-Ranville to dig themselves in, to defend the position. A party remained to salvage containers from the DZ [Drop Zone], for which task a pony and trap was commandeered from the local French. The strength of the Squadron at the time was disheartening to say the least of it. Nothing was known of the fate of 2 Troop, the O.C. [Commanding Officer Major Wood] and the whole of his plane were missing, as were the second in command, Captain Davidson, and several of the men from 1 and 3 Troop who had been dropped wide of the DZ. Lieutenant Thomas had been shot in the shoulder on the DZ and several sappers had been injured when they landed.
Later that day, Captain Dvidson and two sappers arrived in the Squadron area. Dropped near the village of Amfreville, they had been cornered in a ditch by a section of Germans as they were trying with two infantrymen to establish their bearings. One of the infantrymen was killed by a grenade almost immediately and another badly wounded. Completely surrounded, they held out for almost an hour before the serious condition of the wounded man caused them to surrender. For three harrowing hours they were forced to lie with a heap of wounded in the centre of the village square while a fierce fight raged around them between the Germans and the attacking Commandos. When the Commandos finally won the day they were set free.
Unfortunately, however, there was to be no sign of Major Wood and his plane load. Forced by flak and the weather many miles from the dropping zone, their plane was hit by shellfire shortly after crossing the coast. Losing height rapidly, the pilot flashed the red light and the first of the stick baled out. Of these, Major Wood, Sapper Law, Sapper Bartlett and Lieutenant Oliveira, whose chutes had barely opened as they hit the ground, were later taken prisoner. Fire was raging through the plane as the next man jumped to his death, his parachute pack ablaze on his back, while behind men struggled frantically to free themselves from burning necklaces of explosive they carried as the plane dived and hurtled to earth. Four men managed to extricate themselves from the wreckage, including Lieutenant Shinner, who, finding himself hanging upside down by his harness, cut himself free with his fighting knife. From the blazing wreckage came the screams of the other nine sappers trapped and wounded. As Lieutenant Shinner, [Click on Shinner's name for his account of events; He was the Intelligence Officer for Head Quarters Royal Engineers - normally with 3rd Parachute Squadron]with one arm shattered, struggled to help them, the Germans now swarming towards the wreckage, sprayed it again and again with machine gun fire until one by one the screams died out as the sappers died a ghastly death.
During the afternoon of D day, 1 and 3 Troop completed their briefed tasks by laying an anti-personnel minefield in the forward defences of Ranville. Late that night during the checking of these fields two more sappers were wounded by shellfire.
The Germans Counter Attack
Meanwhile, fierce fighting developed in the area to the south of Ranville as, in the late afternoon, the enemy launched the expected counter attack, supported by tanks, armoured vehicles and self propelled guns; an attack preceded by heavy mortaring and shelling of the whole Ranville area. The attack was beaten off by the 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions who had been fighting magnificently since 0100 hours, although neither was able to muster more than half its strength from the widely scattered drop. That evening, exactly to the planned minute, the gliders bearing the 1st Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles flew in to land in text book fashion on the landing zone, now adequately cleared of obstructions, and to occupy Longueval.
In spite of the desperately weakened strength of the Division during the first few hours of D-day, the general picture as darkness fell was a heartening one. The bridges across the River Orne and Caen Canal had been seized and held, the battery at Merville had been silenced, the demolition belt along the line of the River Dives as part of the defence of the Divisions left flank had been most successfully completed and the villages to the south completing the Division's perimeter were firmly held.
The following day the enemy launched another counter attack and the 13th Battalion, in particular, were desperately engaged in the village of Herouvillette. For a time the position was critical and the Germans succeeded in forcing their way into Ranville, but they were driven back and the position was once more restored. On the left of the small perimeter now held by the Division east of the Orne, the 5th Parachute Brigade, supported by Commandos, were also involved in bitter fighting. The Germans had succeeded in holding in strength the village of Breville, and it was from here, in conjunction with a further attack towards Ranville from the south, that they launched on 11th June their all-out offensive to reach the banks of the Orne. A captured operation order revealed later that their object was "to liquidate all British forces east of the Orne". The "British forces", however, refused to be liquidated. German forces once again reached the outskirts of Ranville and their tanks and infantry even debouched from Breville on to the landing zone, a mile from the Orne, but again they were driven back, never again to attempt seriously to dislodge the Division from its bridgehead.
During this hectic period, the Squadron, reinforced by the remnants of 2 Troop from Varaville, remained in the fringe of the fighting at Ranville. Shelling of the Squadron area was heavy throughout and on the 9th June Sapper Kerry, Sapper Whale and Sapper Hart were killed and three other sappers wounded within an hour. The following day Sapper Palin was killed and Lieutenant Fish and three sappers were wounded, again from shellfire. After another spell of shelling a little later, while checking up on casualties, an NCO noticed that the slit trench of Sapper Wylie had been blown in by a shell landing nearby. All that could be seen of Sapper Wylie was the soles of his boots pointing out from the debris. Deciding that he had most certainly "had it", the NCO went on to attend to other casualties. Some time later he was amazed to see Sapper Wylie unscathed and unshaken going about his work. Though buried alive, he had managed to dig his way out. About this time, too, the Squadron lost their Sergeant Major when "Beefer" Peden was evacuated back across the river with shell shock.
Among the many tasks that fell to the Squadron the main one was the laying of minefields as part of the defence of the Ranville area. In salvaging containers from a German minefield, another sapper was killed by an "S" mine [Schu mine] and in 2 Troop Sapper W Hobson and Sapper Grant were wounded while laying anti personnel mines in a German minefield at Salenelles. On the 17th June the Squadron were to lose two more badly needed officers when Lieutenant Wharton was killed and Lieutenant Little seriously injured while trying to salvage equipment from a German minefield near Ouistreham.
Other tasks included the fortification of Divisional Headquarters, a large house at Ranville which early became the main target of the German gunners and the digging in of tanks to defend the village. A few days later Divisional Headquarters moved to a line of quarries further north, about a mile from the River Orne, where, with millions of sandbags, the Divisional sappers constructed formidable shelters against the cliff faces to shelter the sorely tried "brains" of the Division.
During the following weeks the bridgehead was reinforced from across the Orne and the Divisional front closed in to hold the left flank from the coast, through Breville and Le Mesnil to just north of Troarn. This line was held though at the cost of many casualties, until the order for a general advance on 17th August. Most of the casualties were from sniping and from shelling and mortaring which was heaviest in the area of Le Mesnil.
On 21st June, 3 Troop moved up to this area in support of 5th Parachute Brigade and, before they had time to get organized or to dig in, found themselves in the thick of a mortar "stonk".
Shortly afterwards, Private Norris, the Troop cook, was to distinguish himself. He set up his cookhouse in one of the buildings of a pottery which, just as the meal he had prepared was ready to serve, received a direct hit from a shell. The building collapsed, but after a few minutes Norris emerged from the debris unscathed. Telling Captain Beaumont that he was afraid the lunch had been spoilt, he immediately set about improvising another and was soon serving food to an appreciative troop.
Three nights later, during another period of heavy shelling, a private staggered into the Troop position badly shocked and injured in the thigh, shouting that he was being followed by a German sniper. Although mortars were still bursting all around, Sapper Farrell left his trench and went out in search of the sniper. Though unsuccessful, he did much to restore the spirits of the Troop on his return by going the round of trenches with hot tea though mortars were still falling and the only sane place to be was below ground.
These and other incidents were typical of the spirit in which the sappers of 3 Troop, and later of 1 Troop, reacted to a period of acute discomfort and constant danger in the forward area. There, work was chiefly the building of shellproof "Command Posts" for the Brigade, a more or less standard pattern for which was finally evolved a framework of stout round timber supporting two to three feet of earth and stone covering an excavation four feet deep and about ten feet by six in size, the whole being thoroughly bolstered with sandbagging. Other tasks of the troops while in this area were the laying of small anti personnel minefields and trip flares around the forward defences, and, occasionally, the disposal of bombs.
There were some casualties and 1 Troop were unfortunate in losing Captain HARBORD early on when he was wounded in the chest by a shell splinter. Two days later Lance Sergeant FOSTER was also evacuated after being shot by a sniper while making a reconnaissance for a machine gun post to deal with the sniper in question.
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