Allen Hall

Alan Hall

I was a captain in the British 3rd Infantry Division and was proud to have been selected to take in the first troops and vehicles from the Divisional Royal Army Service Corps. I was to command a detachment of sixty men and twenty vehicles. Eight vehicles were loaded with mines as protection against an enemy tank counter- attack. The others were loaded with ammunition, other than artillery shells, with each three vehicles loaded with the same mix so that the loss of one would not be too serious. The twelve vehicles were an Assault Ammunition Point to give as close support to the infantry as possible. The vehicles were to be spread between LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks) to minimise risk.

I returned to my unit from my final pre-invasion exercise. It had lasted three days and I was feeling very tired and rather scruffy. I was met by the Major who said ‘its on’. He meant, of course, the invasion and told me that I had to have my convoy on the road at 0800 hours the next day. I protested at the short notice but the Major told me, ‘Don’t worry, you are going to a hotel camp, everything will be laid on for you. You will have plenty of time to rest and brief your men.’ With a lot of help from the Major and the other officers I did get the show on the road at the required time.

The journey to the south coast in convoy took three or four days. We eventually arrived at the correct map reference and found ourselves at the entrance to a wood near Waterlooville. By now I was really looking forward to the hotel camp to get a little rest and start my preparations. I still had no idea on how long I had got before D-Day. I drove into the camp and found two wooden buildings in splendid isolation. The only sign of life was a little smoke coming from one of the buildings. I was, of course, hopping mad but when I found the officer-in-charge – all he could tell me was that ‘the tents had not arrived.’

One of the vehicles took me to Headquarters. I went in and told the sergeant clerk that I wanted to see the officer-in-charge immediately. He used the phone and asked me to wait. I did so for about two minutes, lost my patience, knocked on the door of the OC and went in. I found myself facing Major Wyatt (now, I believe, Lord Wyatt). We were known to one another and I had hardly got started with my tale of woe when he interrupted me saying, ‘Thank God you have come. Will you take over transport?’ It soon became apparent that the officer-in-charge had not appreciated that the vehicles to do the move were pre-loaded and, therefore, not available to move anything.

I set off to find the necessary transport. I got most help from the Canadians. The Canadian unit was in a small wood. I went in and was shaken to find a lot of men sitting or lying round a campfire like a cowboy encampment. I approached and asked if I could speak to their officer. Someone called out John (not his name) and one of the men, equally informally dressed as the others, stood up and came over to me. He greeted me in a very friendly manner, listened to my problems and told me he would be pleased to assist. I was a little worried at the apparent lack of discipline but I needn’t have worried. They responded immediately to their officer, were efficient and worked very hard for us. I still remember them with appreciation.

When the hotel camp was in operation, mainly due to our own efforts, things took on some semblance of normality. I gave a lot of thought to what it would be like for a driver landing on his own. He would have the landing, what to do on entering the water, crossing the beach, the beach signs, the exits and the first stages of de-waterproofing of his vehicle, which had to be done very soon after landing. All this to be done under shell fire and some fear of the unknown. I decided it was essential to have a card on the windscreen, within easy sight, detailing clearly each item of the required action in numerical order. This proved to be very successful. No driver failed through lack of knowledge of what was required of him at each stage.

I had one big surprise. With very little notice all my vehicles were replaced with new four-wheel drive Bedfords, all pre-loaded. They were excellent and did a fine job. I was allowed one practice landing outside the massive staging area. The exercise went well until, on returning with my vehicles, I found that a bridge, on the only route I could take to join the complicated road system, was below the load-carrying requirement of my vehicles. As I had no alternative, the second drivers walked and the vehicles crossed slowly one at a time. I didn’t think there was any real risk, but we made it.

Our greatest worry in the camp was boredom. We had no information and could give none to the men. There was no NAAFI and the watery beer in the local pub was on ration, when we could get it. Suddenly our boredom changed to excitement. We got orders to prepare to move to our embarkation point. We still had no idea where the landing would take place or when and, of course, I was worried whether we were fully prepared or had I missed something. And, of course, we were worried about the overall plans. Would we get there and would the bridgehead hold, but we had trained hard, had prepared ourselves well and, God willing, we would give a good account of ourselves.

The Captain of our LCT, Lieutenant Colin Kyle, commanded the craft. I commanded all the troops on board. The LCT took twelve vehicles. All were ‘soft’ vehicles, (i.e. supply, service, etc) and all were needed immediately after the landing.

We took up our positions on the landing craft, still not knowing where we were going, and the craft anchored out in the bay. Colin got orders to prepare to sail and later received a signal informing him that D-Day had been postponed for 24 hours. Sitting at anchor in a flat-bottomed boat in bad weather is not to be recommended. Next day the weather did not seem to have improved to any great extent, but Colin received a signal saying get ready – ‘its on’. Soon after Colin came to me very concerned that he could not find one of his men. We searched the craft and, only minutes before we had to sail, we found him slumped against the side of the craft doubled up in pain. He had appendicitis. Had we sailed with him, I do not think he would have survived.

We sailed in the evening and Colin then received orders to open the safe and he gave me my papers. I found that we were to land in Normandy, France on SWORD beach near Ouistreham, on the extreme left flank of the invading forces. I sorted out my maps in my map case. Unfortunately it took four maps to cover the area and joining maps together in a map case is never easy to give the degree of accuracy so important in action. From the aids given I would be able to recognise the place we landed and know where I was on the map. I managed to get to sleep but was awakened by Colin informing me that we were meeting mines in the channel marked as clear and had to move into uncleared water as the safest course. I also believed that the fleet had veered slightly to port and that we were, to some extent, pushed out of the cleared channel. I realised that there was little I could do if we did meet a mine so I went back to sleep.

The next morning (D-Day) I stood the men to as soon as it was light enough and checked that everything was in order. The men who had been sick during the night sorted themselves out and, those who wanted to, ate some of the rations they had brought with them. Later when they had sufficient time to get prepared, I called them together and checked individually to make certain that there no problems. I then briefed them, passing on to them the information I had received, and then read to them the message from General Montgomery, that I had received with my papers. We then said the Lord’s Prayer – there are no atheists when going into action.

I would now like to describe to you the majesty of this enormous fleet as it performed its mammoth task of protecting our troops by straffing the enemy all across the whole landing area. Unfortunately, this I cannot do. We were more or less at the edge of the fleet and low in the water. We heard the enormous cacophony of sound and we saw shells landing inland beyond the beaches and enemy shells landing on the beaches and in the water. We saw plenty of the debris of war as we went in to land. We moved in more or less line abreast but met heavy shellfire. One of the craft was hit and we pulled out and reformed. We then went in again with, I think, greater determination.

At about this time Colin found me and handed me a tumbler of scotch saying, ‘You’ll need this.’ I poured a lot of it over the side but the tot left helped a lot. I had intended to walk ashore when the ramp went down to make sure there were no hidden obstacles but the craft’s No 1 insisted on doing this, telling me that he could come back on board and get dry.

Colin did a great job for us. We hit the beach and made a good landing in about three or four feet of water. This is bit misleading as there was a swell and some smaller vehicles such as jeeps were swept away. I was glad I had arranged for cards on the drivers’ windscreens telling them what to do, signs to follow, etc, as there was no chance of forming up on the beach where things were fairly chaotic. There were damaged and waterlogged vehicles, wounded being attended to and shells exploding. There were dead floating face down at the edge of the water and knocked out vehicles on the beach, but I had no time to take in what was really happening. The Military Police did a great job with the signs and wanted us off the beach as soon as possible.

As we approached the beach exit I saw one of my vehicles ahead and signalled the driver to lead the way out through the signed exit. As we came into the exit a shell hit the offside front of the leading vehicle. I jumped down and found the corporal, who was in the passenger’s seat, badly shaken but otherwise OK. The driver of the lead vehicle was obviously in a bad way. He had been thrown from the vehicle and his right leg was badly damaged. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible but he was unconscious. I heard later that sadly he had lost his leg. A section of infantry was passing as the shell struck and all were wounded. I could not stay but the corporal had a motorcycle in the back of the damaged vehicle. I sent him back to the beach to get medical assistance. He could catch us up on the motorcycle.

I had to press on. The damaged vehicle had almost blocked the cleared exit and we had to take our chance and drive round it. We then passed through the beach exit and turned right on to the first parallel (the road running parallel to the beach). I had a man in the back of the vehicle with a bren gun that he used to make snipers keep their heads down. I gathered my vehicles together and, while the drivers were de-waterproofing, we came under sustained shell fire. I dived for a trench (dug by fritz or by us, I did not enquire). As I went in someone was just a bit quicker and I landed on top of him. When we sorted ourselves out I found that the chap who had broken my fall was a Sergeant Vlissidis who was at school with me. We had no time to chat. I was pleased to have my remaining vehicles with me and proceeded along the first parallel.

My report centre was in a courtyard surrounded by a thick wall, similar to those surrounding castles in this country. I walked round the wall towards a large studded gate when I heard mortars passing overhead. I ducked down behind the wall and heard them exploding in the courtyard. The mortaring went on for some time and, as soon as it had stopped, I went through the gate to 9th Infantry Brigade HQ and found that the mortars had wounded the brigadier (Brigadier Cunningham) and a number of his staff.

It took a little time to re-organise and then the Brigade HQ moved forward. We followed, and when passing through a village, we came under fire from snipers. We engaged them with brens from the back of our vehicles and I alerted some infantrymen with a 6-pounder. They blew the top off a church spire and sniping from that direction stopped.

We followed the HQ and opened an Assault Ammunition Point at Colleville-sur-Orne in pitch dark in what appeared to be the courtyard of a large farm. A little humour then crept in. A sniper kept taking shots at us from one of the buildings. His aim was rotten, his shots were well off target. To make the situation more ridiculous, I saw him for a fraction of a second, pointed my revolver at him and pressed the trigger – it just went click, the firing pin had dropped off, obviously due to over-enthusiastic cleaning by my batman. We soon flushed him out and he looked a rather pathetic figure. Feeling sorry for him I let the men give him a cup of tea. I sent him down to the prisoner-of-war cage and a large rocket came back from the MP officer whose language could not be repeated when he heard how we had ‘molly-coddled’ the bugger. He preferred to receive his prisoners scared stiff and ready to talk.

The drawings from the ammunition point were not particularly heavy during the night. During the day the Brigade’s infantry battalions were obviously heavily engaged but we managed to get a little rest. At the end of the day as it became dark we were informed that RURs (Royal Ulster Rifles) and the KOSBs (King’s Own Scottish Borderers) had been heavily engaged, were running short of ammunition and were afraid of being cut off. I was given the task of getting ammunition to them. It was dark and we did not know what we might meet so we were given troops that, if the need arose, would help us get through with the ammunition. In the absence of regular infantrymen, the troops were drawn from clerks, signals staff, etc. They sat on the ammunition in the backs of trucks and I have never seen an unhappier set of men.

We moved off making as little noise as possible into no man’s land. Not the no man’s land of the First World War but land which had been fought over during the day with the probability that both sides had drawn back to ‘lick their wounds.’ There can be no doubt that the enemy knew something was going on but decided the wisest thing was to keep quiet. We came in sight of a village. I stopped the vehicles and waited and listened. I crept forward with a rifle and as I came to the far edge of the village the silence was broken by the sound of a vehicle coming towards me. As it came nearer I recognised the sound as that of a motorcycle, which was rather less worrying. I was ready to deal with the driver but quickly recognised him as British. He was a RUR officer who told me they had a lot of wounded and that he was going back to search for ambulances and medics.

We went back to my vehicles and it was quickly decided that my Sergeant, who had a motorcycle in the back of one of the vehicles and who was more at home in the rear areas, should go back and bring ambulances to rendezvous with the officer at the village. The officer would then lead us back the way he had come to get the urgent supplies of ammunition to the unit.

When we got into the battalion’s area. I could well see that they had been through a rough time. I went into what appeared to be sunken road due to high hedges on either side. It was bocage country. There were dead and wounded lying on either side of the road and smashed bicycles and equipment lying all around. We off-loaded the ammunition they wanted, which was a large proportion of what we carried and headed back to HQ. It was getting a little lighter and we came under some fire but we went as fast as we could and got back safely. My Sergeant confirmed that he had been successful in getting ambulances to the rendezvous point.

The battalions obviously wanted us much nearer to them and we moved to a position behind the reserve infantry and in front of our guns – a nice sandwich. If the enemy air burst shells meant for the infantry were inaccurate or the heavy shells meant for our artillery fell short we were nicely placed to receive them. I had two visitors to the ammunition point. Two majors came to see us. They had no sooner arrived than we were shelled. They did not stay long and were the only visitors I had.

One last occurrence which may be of interest. On D + 2, I was on my way to the beachhead to search the dumps for 4.2 mortar, which were in short supply, when I saw a dog fight overhead. A plane was shot down and the pilot baled out landing in a field not far from the road. I dashed off with my rifle and as I reached him a voice said, ‘Wotcher know.’ (I cannot describe an American accent.) It was an American pilot. All he wanted was to get on a ship back to Britain to get another plane – he was quite miffed at being shot down. I took him as near to the beach as I could and explained to him what to do. On the way I bought his pistol. It was a colt, a nice flattish weapon. It was with me for the remainder of my service.

For the actions described above I was awarded a King’s Commendation.