[page last updated 14 May 2015]
MEMOIRS - Lieutenant P.G.L. Mitchley (Pip Mitchley) :
591 Antrim Parachute Squadron
Recollections by Major P.G.L. Mitchley
I joined 591 Squadron, on first commission in June 1943, at Woodbridge, Suffolk. The Squadron was then part of JP Division, but had been nominated as a parachute squadron for the 6th Airborne Division, and men who wanted to volunteer for parachuting could do so and stay with the squadron.
Major P.A. Wood was OC (Officer Commanding) and the other officers, Fergie Semple, Frank Harbord , Gussie Bridgeford, Tommy Thomas and maybe others whom I do not recollect.
Hughie Peden was SSM (Squadron Serjeant Major).
Shortly after joining, the Squadron moved to Chesterfield (Hardwick Hall) for initial parachute training, marching to the station at Woodbridge which drew a large crowd of local people to say goodbye, as the squadron had been in the town for some time. The training at Chesterfield was tough, but I think in all members of the Squadron got through and we moved on to (RAF) Ringway for final parachute training. I myself was very frightened of parachuting to start with, and can especially remember the strain of the night balloon drop. Again the majority of the squadron got through, and celebrated getting their wings by an all ranks party at a local pub which ended up with a gymnastic display on the lawn outside after closing time.
The squadron then moved to Beacon Barracks, Bulford to join the 6th Airborne Division . Our 2i/c (Second in Command) Davidson was there to meet us and we got down to basic military training, fitness training and more parachute training. Each morning everyone ran to Amesbury and back or tried to do so, and after a month or two everyone could. Once a week there was a squadron route march, and periodically the chance of a jump. Parachuting was more enjoyable now and there was great competition amongst all ranks to get as many jumps as possible. Exercises took place all round the Salisbury area, and normally involved a march back to Bulford, so the countryside became very familiar. Engineer training was mainly confined to demolitions, watermanship, mine warfare and some improvised bridging. A lot of sport was played and I recollect football, rugger, athletics, cross country running and boxing teams being provided by the squadron. Recreation usually took the form of visits to Salisbury in a 15cwt (pick up truck.)
During this period the squadron was being brought up to strength. Each Troop had three Sticks of 10 men, made up of 3 sections; of a Subaltern and eight men; the Troop Commander; Troop Serjeant and Runner. I was in 3 Troop commanded by Fergie Semple. The other officers were Tommy Thomas and Arthur Little, and the Troop Serjeant Sammy McCullough. My own section No.9- consisted of Corporal Haynes, l Corporal Stoner, Sapper Arnold, Sapper Whale, Sapper Farley, Sapper Withey, Sapper Kerry and Sapper Hart.
At the end of 1943 the American 101 Airborne Divison arrived in the UK and exchanges were arranged between this Division and the 6th Airborne. I spent a fortnight with an engineer unit and for the first time did a door jump from a Dakota. The American procedure was rather different from ours, they already had two (para)chutes and were assisted out by a 'jump master'. We did most of our jumping from Whitleys and occasionally from Albemarles. Both these were designed as bombers and converted for parachuting when they became too out of date for bombing. Each carried ten parachutists.
Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley.
Douglas C47 Dakota.
Early 1944 the squadron was deployed on to building transit camps at airfields in Oxfordshire, 3 Troop being sent to Brize Norton, and it was realised that the second front was approaching. After this, Division Exercises became more frequent and were based on our future tasks. In April I broke a collar bone playing rugger and was very worried that I might miss the invasion and had to participate in the Exercises on the ground only- in fact I didnt jump again until D-day.
The plans for D-day were now being finalised and the Troop was very disgusted to learn that it was to go in gliders to capture bridges and Exercises in this, took place with the 2nd Battalion Ox and Bucks, who were in the Airlanding Brigade.
Nearer D-day the plan was changed, as obstructions were noticed on the areas in Normandy chosen for DZ (drop zones), and the Troop was given the task of clearing paths for the gliders on the main LZ (landing zones) at Ranville.
A platoon from 249 Airlanding Company RE. took over the bridge task which turned out to be the capture of the bridges over the Orne river and Caen canal.
The obstacles were tree trunks erected vertically in the ground with, in some cases, wires running fanwise from the top to the ground. It was rumoured that there might be mines or shells atop of the poles and that the wires were trap wires to activate the explosives. Replicas of these obstacles were set up on Salisbury plain and drills worked out for demolishing them. This was done with a 'sausage' of plastic explosive made up in rubber tubes similar to a bicycle tube with a pull igniter system to initiate it. A length of strong cord ran through the sausage and protruded a few feet from each end. A shallow trench was first dug round the base of the pole and the 'sausage' tied round the pole as low down as possible. The igniter was pulled and the explosive in the tube was sufficient to cut the pole cleanly at the base. A party of men then carried the pole clear of the runway.
The drill consisted of first marking out the extent of the runway with tracing tape, after this a party of men ran down each line of poles digging the trench at the base. The explosive party then places the charges and when they were clear the firing party went down the line pulling out the pull switch pins. Finally a carrying party removed the fallen logs. The troop became very adept at this and could clear a lane in about half an hour.
A major problem was carrying the sausages. Each man jumped with at least two tied round him and additional ones were carried in kit bags which the parachutist jumped with, strapped to his legs and in containers carried in the bomb racks of the aircraft and dropped at the end of the drop zone. My section's particular task was to mark out the two runways which the Troop had to clear, and for this carried reels of tracing tape mounted on carriers which were carried on the back. The man carrying the tape ran off in the required direction, while his mate ran behind him pegging down the tape. Every man in the section had to know the bearings of the two runways, the dimensions and where they started from, and had to be able to carry on with the setting out by himself. All this was be done in the dark in a strange country, so a high level of skill , compass work and map reading was required.
The section was to drop in two groups from two different aircraft, to ensure that some of them arrived half an hour before 'P' hour, with the pathfinders and battalion reconnaissance party. The section had a secondary task of locating the Troop rendezvous on the ground and from 'P' hour sending out the Troop identifiation signal - a rubber horn. Each unit had its own signal, bugel, whistle etc.
About a week before D-day the squadron moved into sealed transit camps close to the transport airfields of Oxfordshire, and final briefing took place. Kit was finally checked, weapons cleaned and hair cropped very short. Sapper Arnold in my section developed ear trouble and much to his distress was found unfit to take part in the assault. A day or so before D-day my section was moved to Brize Norton the camp we had previously built, and from which all the pre 'P' hour planes were leaving and for the first time we met our pilots. We were going in Albermarles and were all carrying kitbags with tracing tape.
Kitbag jumping had been introduced since I had broken my collar bone and so I had not practiced it at all, and this led to difficulties.
//[a page is missing- and annoyingly and suspiciously it is the critical one for the D-day drop. Looks like someone snaffled it. ]
I next met up with Sapper Withey of my section and together we went off in the direction of the church tower of Ranville which was in the direction of our rendezvous. We were moving through a cornfield which was quite high, and soon hit a road, which confused me as there should not have been one on our route. It was evident that we had been dropped a bit out and were too far West.
Shortly afterwards while still a fair distance from the rendezvous an Anti-Aircraft gun opened up nearby and the main assault started to come in. Our route took us past a farm in whose yard the gun was sited, and I can remember looking over the wall at them and debating on whether to drop a grenade on the gun crew. Our orders had been however explicit about not getting engaged. By the time we reached the Rendezvous some of the main body of the Troop had arrived. Some other members of my section had come earlier and started to set out the strips to be cleared and parties were being formed up to start clearing. Due to the dispersion of the drop, it was not possible to conform exactly to the drill practised. Some men didn't get in for three or four hours and some never did.
One plane with the squadron OC (Officer Commanding) caught fire in the air and the four who managed to get out in time ended up as prisoners. Also a lot of the explosives could not be recovered from the containers. However the obstructions were not as formidable as expected and could be pulled down. Both strips were cleared in time for the gliders to land. With the Troop's task completed it took up a defensive position in Bas-de- Ranville, in an orchard and started to dig in. The day was fairly quiet, but during the next few days the enemy started to react violently, and we were subjected to heavy mortaring and shelling.
Our orchard was on the top of a slight rise and seemed to get more than its share, and within two or three weeks my section had been reduced to myself and Corporal Stoner.
Kerry, Hart and Whale were killed and Corporal Haynes, Withey and Farley wounded. The Troop was engaged during this time with laying anti-tank and anti-personnel mine fields, water supply, construction of command posts for Divisional Head Quarters and Brigade Headquarters, field defences and continued road maintenance- mainly filling in shell holes in roads. The Division was holding on precariously to its position, and one attack nearly reached the Orne bridges. As the reinforcements built up, more troops came over into the bridge head, and talk was of when the Division would be relieved and sent back to England for another operation, but we still remained in the line.
Breakout attempts were made- notably Operation Goodwood, but came to nothing. When we did finally move out the bridge head, we did our own breaking out on foot. The Squadron moved first to Troarn, where the Troop was engaged on building a ford over the Dives river at the site of the massive masonry bridge which 3 Squadron had partially blown up on D-day and which the Germans had thoroughly destroyed. The ford made use of the masonry from the bridge, and rubble from the ruins of the town and with the help of a Canadian (bull)dozer was completed in a day. Attempts to supplement the rations by blowing up fish were not successful.
The Germans were pulling out fast now and the 6th Airborne Division was following up along the coast. The final objective was Pont-l'Évêque, which was also the objective of 49 Division. 6th Airborne Division got there first, despite having to walk all the way. Our tasks were mostly reconnaissance at this stage. One memorable night I and one Sapper took an infantry patrol across a river in an assault boat prior to an assault across the next day. The river was I suspect the Rule [probably Risle aka Rille?]. There was a long carry down to the river, so the infantry were rather tired and careless by the time they got there and there was far too much noise for my liking. The boat was launched and before the crew had time to settle down, was swept away in a very fast current. However the river was not wide and we made the far bank not too far down stream and disembarked the infantry. The bren gunner let off a round by accident getting out!
The patrol then set off leaving me and the sapper by the boat and returned after an hour without seeing anything and we all went back. When the assault went in next day however, there were plenty of enemy about and it was beaten back.
After reaching Pont-l'Évêque the Division went into reserve and we were able to see a bit of the country side. The country people of Normandy were in the whole a dour and unfriendly lot, but in the towns they were a lot more hospitable and we made good friends with some of the coffee proprietors. It was a great relief to be able to sleep in buildings again without fear of shelling. Rumours of returning to England were eventually correct and the Squadron found itself back in Bulford and after some welcome leave, retraining.
Many of the reinforcements received in France had not been parachutists and they had to be retrained.
Major Andy Wood was taken prisoner of war on D-day, and the 2i/c Davidson had taken over, with
Fergie Sempleas 2i/c. No.3 Troop was then commanded by Bobby Beaumont from 3 Parachute Squadron. When back in England, Davidson left and was replaced by Major Jack, also from 3 Squadron.
We were alerted for a number of operations but none of which came off and were preparing to spend X-mas at Bulford when a day or two before, the Division was ordered to Belgium in a ground role. I was put in charge of the Squadron transport which I had to take in a Divisional Convoy to Tilbury (Docks)- across to Belgium in a LST and then cross country to the Divisional concentration area. I was travelling in an open Jeep, and my memories of this journey are of getting extreemly cold. X-mas was spent on board the LST which was by no means dry.
(LST=Landing Ship Tank - a roll on/roll off ferry that could pick up and drop off on beaches).
The most impressive thing about the drive through Belgium was the hospitality of the local people- which was a complete contrast with that of the French. The roads through villages were lined with people with jugs of hot coffee and whenever a vehicle stopped, the occupants mugs were quickly filled up. At halts, the soldiers were invited into houses to thaw out and drink more coffee. The coffee was made from acorns, but could not have been bettered.
I joined the squadron bivouaced in a school with all the vehicles- though the motorcycles had to be carried in the vehicles as they were death traps on the frozen cobbles. We soon moved further forward and took up residence in a large Chateau and from here caught up with the war again. The Germans were pulling back leaving mines and booby traps in profusion and 6th Airborne Division was preparing to move forward.
On the night of 8th January I was sent on a reconnaissance of a river line for one of our battalion positions, which I carried out with a Sapper Gammon. We had to go out through one company position and return several hours later through another. The reconnaissance took longer than expected and it was nearly day-light when we were returned and I was horrified to find that the infantry had not been warned that we were out. It took quite a time to convince them that we were friendly. As we were very late we had come through a small village down the main road instead of skirting the village, and the infantry couldn't understand how we could have done this as it was meant to be held by the enemy. At this time there was two or three inches of snow on the ground and it was very cold, so the enemy if they were there, were no doubt trying to keep warm inside the houses.
On 9th January I went forward to clear some booby trips with a section, and on the way met a transporter carrying a D4 which had been to blow up a mine. I therefore decided to clear the road of mines before proceeding. This was not easy to do as the road was covered with frozen snow. We had mine detectors, but as the Germans were using a non-metalic mine, a top and mine made from glass fibre- we could not trust them. To start with I tried using the D4 to clear the snow off the road, without success, and finally resorted to shovels. Having found the mines,a further problem arose- how to remove them? They were firmly frozen into the ground and pulling- even with the D4 was impossible. Either the wire broke or the handle came off. The only method possible was digging them out with a pick axe.
(D4 was a light weight tractor/bull dozer with caterpillar tracks not tyres)
We had lifted a number of mines and stacked them in the side of the road, when one being carried off exploded. The sapper carrying the mine got killed and I and another were wounded. I had a broken leg and finger and four other wounds. At this time the Squadron Commander Major Jack arrived and said that a Divisional order had just come out to the effect that all mines were to be blown in situ. I was removed by ambulance to the Divisional Field Dressing Station and after being patched up, evacuated via Brussels to UK, where I ended up in the Gleneagles Hotel, which was being used as a hospital.
I did not go back to 591 Squadron, as on getting fit again, the Squadron was in Germany, and I was posted to 9th Airborne Squadron, which was preparing to go to Norway. However Tommy Thomas and Stan Adamson from No.3 Troop, 591 Squadron were already with 9 Squadron, so I was amongst friends. Stan had been a Serjeant in 591 and was posted to 9 Squadron on getting a commission. He was later killed by a Jewish mine in Palestine. I am afraid I have a bad memory for dates, names and places so have had to be pretty general.
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