Gordon Duffin

A week or so before D-Day I was a 19¾ year old Bren Gunner in A Company (No 8 Platoon) of the 2nd Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, with 1½ years service. We moved from our sealed camp at Brockenhurst to Lymington, where we boarded our Landing Craft Infantry, and sailed to Southampton New Docks. There were so many craft filling the dock that we had to tie up seven or eight abreast throughout the whole length of the dock. From end to end of the dock were hundreds of landing craft of all types, waiting.

Once tied up we disembarked, which involved crossing the decks of other craft to get to the large warehouses where we could relax and stretch our legs. On the floor of the warehouses were hundreds of mattresses on which we could sleep until it was time to embark again for the OFF. As one can imagine, the whole dockside area and warehouses were packed with troops and admin types, handing out cigarettes, food and tea like there was no tomorrow. Canadian Sweet Caporal cigarettes in boxes of 100 were issued free, a gift of the people of Canada.

As everyone now knows, D-Day was postponed by 24 hours, which meant we loaded up twice before sailing on the night of 5 June. We embarked for the second time on the afternoon of 5 June. Touching the dockside as I embarked, I wondered if I should ever touch ‘English soil’ again.

Crossing the deck of other craft we reached ours and started the slow process of ‘racking up’. By this method 100 or so men could be crammed into this type of landing craft. The landing craft was divided up into a number of compartments, the walls of which were fitted with racks reaching from floor to ceiling. Each rack consisted of six hinged metal and canvas frames. As the distance between each frame was only about twenty inches, all equipment and weapons had to be left on the floor between the racks, which was also the main exit and entry, about three feet wide! The first soldier in would remove his equipment and place it on the floor, hinge down the bottom frame, and slide himself edgeways onto it. The next soldier would do the same with the next frame and so on, until all frames and racks were full.

Thus stowed we felt our craft moving down Southampton water and towards the Channel. Shortly the loudspeaker in our compartment announced that troops in small numbers could take turns to go up on deck for a few minutes each. I thought I would like to get a better look at this great event and went up first from our compartment. Up the steel steps and on deck, I was very surprised to see only one other soldier there, an officer of our unit, I have forgotten his name. On telling him mine, he remarked that on this great occasion he thought that the deck would be crowded, but not so.

We were still in Southampton water and moving at good speed, and we were near enough to wave back to hundreds of ‘civvies’ who lined the shore to cheer us on our way. Pointing to the stack of ‘compo’ ration boxes on deck, the officer told me that there were enough rations there for a week, so if I needed any extra, to help myself. I could not see how I could carry another ounce ashore as we were already loaded to the limit. However, I knew that some of the ‘compo’ boxes contained a 2 lb tin of peaches, so I opened one box and ‘bingo’ I was lucky first time. The officer looked on with amusement as I ate all the peaches and explained that, as I was the champion ‘sea sicker’ in the unit, they would slide up just as easily as they had slid down!

By now it was quite chilly, so I shook hands with the officer and we wished each other the best of luck tomorrow, and went below to the warm fugg of the ‘racking area’. With a good supply of ‘bags vomit’ in my possession, I slid onto my frame and went to sleep. Sometime in the night I woke up feeling terrible. The craft was rocking and rolling something awful, I saw my peaches again immediately and that was the start of sea sickness that lasted until long after we had landed on GOLD Beach. I did a sickly grin at the usual remarks about greasy bully sandwiches and fat pork chops, which the iron-gutted lads always made, but it showed that they were in good spirits.

When it was time to get ready to land, we ‘de-racked’ ourselves, put on our equipment, checked our weapons and stood waiting in the space made by folding up our frames. Our full ‘bags vomit’ were left behind, dozens of them. We always had a thought for the poor sailors who had to clean up behind us, but with luck this time it could be done by Jerry prisoners!

The craft ground onto the beach and threw us all forward, then we climbed the steel steps and out onto the deck where we got our first view of our landing. Not much time to look about, but as we moved forward to descend the narrow ramp, one each side of the bow, we could see the beach both sides of us crammed with landing craft and wreckage, and a rough see running which meant that we would get a very wet landing. Jumping off the end of the ramp the water was about chest deep, and when the waves came they went over the top of my head.

The noise going on all the time would have been more frightening, I think, had it not been for our extensive training previously, using live ammunition and having the navy fire their big guns over our heads, plus our own 25-pounders firing live ammo from Tank Landing Craft still at sea. I still do not know how they aimed with the Craft pitching and rolling.

I was still so seasick I did not care what happened to me, as long as I could get off that damn landing craft! Coming out of the deep water and reaching the shore, our waterproof anti-gas over trousers, which would have kept us dry in shallow water, were now full of water, about five gallons per leg I think. So those who wore them looked like Michelin Men when they reached dry land and could hardly move. I had prepared for this by having my very sharp sheath knife fixed to the top of my pack, so that I could reach it easily and slit the legs of my over trousers, and let the water out. This I did quickly, but several of my mates shouted for me to do the same for them. After releasing a few I thought, ‘I shall cop one stuck here doing this,’ so I made my way off the beach and up a sandy track, which had been cleared of mines by a flail tank and was our beach exit. Quite near the waterline, and dug in, were a number of men from 231 Brigade, mostly already wounded as they had landed before us. Some shouted good natured things to us, and some never moved!

Moving up the track towards a ridge about three-quarters of a mile inland, we could look back and see the mighty fleet stretching as far as the eye could see. We came to a halt about half a mile up this track and flopping down on the dusty bank, I was amazed to see in the branches of a very large hawthorn bush what I thought were three or four dummies in German uniform, thick with dust. Pointing this out to my mate Ernie Partridge, we concluded that a dummy German position had been hit by the bombardment, but on closer inspection it turned out that they were corpses from a German position that had been obliterated by the shelling.

On we moved until we stopped again alongside a stationary Bren gun carrier. Someone inside shouted, ‘Keep your heads down, a machine gun is firing across here!’ With that I heard a nearby machine gun making an odd noise, and a swishing sound above our heads. A lad the other side of the carrier shouted that he had been hit, and as we moved on we passed him and saw that he had a nasty leg wound, which had a lot of wooden splinters in it. Much later we were told that some Germans in the area, on an exercise at the time, had been issued with ‘bulleted blanks’, which could throw their wooden bullets a short distance, and this stuff could inflict a nasty wound at short range. This we had seen for ourselves.

At the top of the ridge we passed some knocked-out Sherman tanks still burning, and then up to where our track crossed another one. Immediately the Germans started shelling and mortaring this spot, so we hit the deck mighty quick. This stonking went on for some time and I wondered how we would cross here. Sergeant Archer was our Platoon Sergeant and he was with our group. The shelling stopped and he shouted to us to stay where we were until he said go, and then move like hell. Another stonk came over and we hugged the earth, but the second that it stopped we heard Sergeant Archer shout, ‘Now move yourselves.’ We got up and ran over the crossed tracks, still thick with smoke and dust, as fast as we could. He was a regular soldier of the old school and knew his stuff.

Further on we came to a lone cottage, and standing in the garden were two children, two middle-aged women and an old man, all looking frightened and bewildered. These were the first French people I had seen since we landed, and I thought I should somehow mark the occasion. I didn’t know how, but imagined that the French on the Yankee Sector would be showered with gifts of fags, nylons and chocolate, etc. That made me remember a small tin of sardines I had in my trouser pocket, which had been rubbing my thigh sore since we had landed, due to the abrasive mixture of sea water and sand which had soaked us through. The thought of oily sardines made me retch again, so I gave my sardines to the smallest child, and thinking I should say something, I said ‘Viva La France’, in my best Berkshire French. The child did not answer, but the old man stood to attention and gave me a marvellous salute – a First World War soldier, I expect.

Nearly dark by now, and we had advanced about six miles since landing, through intermittent shell, mortar, machine gun and sniper fire. We then came to one of the endless ditch, bank, hedgerow, ditch features for which this part of Normandy is famous. It was decided we would dig in here for the night and prepare for the German armoured counter-attack, which had not come during the day, so would probably come during the night.

I started to dig a slit trench for myself and my Bren gun when the section Corporal came to me and said, ‘Stop digging kid and come with me, I have orders for a special job for you.’ We broke our way through the hedgerow and moved into the centre of the field beyond, where there stood a large tree. By now it was quite dark. ‘Take up a position behind this tree, facing towards Jerry, and shoot anything that moves, ‘cos there is nobody in front of us except Jerry. The counter-attack might come in tonight so you are our forward post!’

When I asked him how long we had to stop here he answered, ‘We are not stopping here, you are!’ Whereupon he turned towards our hedgerow. I enquired how I would get word back in the event of an attack and he said, ‘Don’t worry kid, we will hear your Bren gun.’ So I spent a lonely night under my tree, still feeling sick, but a little better after eating a couple of hard tack biscuits and drinking a little water. Fortunately there were only a few hours of darkness those June nights, so I did not have to stay too long, but I lost count of the times I aimed at moving shadows only to find that it was a wandering cow, horse or pig, which had escaped because we had destroyed their fences, barns or shelters. Not one dead Norman animal is down to me!

‘Are you all right, kid?’ was the welcome greeting just before first light as my section leader came to collect me. ‘We are about to eat, Stand To, and then on to Bayeux.’ Almost back at our hedgerow there was a commotion from another hedgerow at right angles to ours, and with loud shouts of ‘KAMERAD’, three or four Germans tumbled out of the hedgerow with their hands up, very eager to surrender. In the hedgerow was hidden a very good Spandau position, complete with gun, grenades and plenty of ammo, not the wooden bullet kind. They had spent the night much closer to their enemy than I had and were much more frightened than I was.

Then we fought our way through the orchards, hedgerows and villages of Normandy, Tilly, Lingevres, Villers Bocage and many more, all of which were sadly destroyed. We crossed several rivers and had a very hard fight for Thury Harcourt, where I was wounded and spent a couple of weeks in hospital at Bayeux. Then I rejoined the Battalion, which by now had reached the bank of the river Seine. We then carried out an assault crossing and on the other side a forced march to the outskirts of Le Havre where we took a major part in the battle for its liberation 9-12 September 1944.

A few days’ rest followed, then we were rushed by motor transport up into Belgium. We fought our way across some canals near the Dutch border, then near a village called Poppel we dug in at a farm where I was wounded for the second time and flown back to England in a Dakota Red Cross plane in October. After two months in hospital, I was posted to 15 Infantry Holding Battalion in England where I remained until Demob in 1946.

Group photograph of members of No 8 Platoon, taken on 12 September 1944 after the capture of Le Havre. Left to right: Back Row – Private Deal, Private Patrick, Private Gordon Duffin, Private Button; Front Row – Private Harris, Sergeant Sweeny, Corporal Millington. Thirty-five men of the platoon had landed on D-Day and only these seven were still on active service by 12 September. Of the seven, only two were still on active service by VE-Day. Group photograph of members of No 8 Platoon, taken on 12 September 1944 after the capture of Le Havre. Left to right: Back Row – Private Deal, Private Patrick, Private Gordon Duffin, Private Button; Front Row – Private Harris, Sergeant Sweeny, Corporal Millington. Thirty-five men of the platoon had landed on D-Day and only these seven were still on active service by 12 September. Of the seven, only two were still on active service by VE-Day.

This is a poem inspired by my wartime experiences as an infantryman. I wrote it in 1999:


Cold wet and hungry, and trying to be brave
A hole in the ground is his home, or his grave
No shelter from weather, no place to sleep
Sleep is a luxury which has to keep.

His worldly possessions so few in his pack
All that he owns is strapped to his back
All that he carries, excluding some nosh
Is ‘specially designed for killing the Bosche!

Short of all his bodily needs
It seems like Christmas when he feeds
A tin of cold and greasy stew
Rock hard biscuits, just a few.

Pour petrol on a tin of earth
Find a match to give fire birth
Scrounge some water and Compo tea
I’ll make a brew for you and me.

Don’t make any smoke while you are brewing
An instant ‘STONK’ will be your undoing
One mug of tea, that’ll have to last
No more, until a full day has passed.

Night is for digging and doing patrols
A sure way of sending The Lord some new Souls
First light will bring a shower of shells
To kindle anew the horrible smells
Of death ridden ground where none can survive
Lady Luck says who’s staying alive!

And this is a poem I wrote in 1996 in tribute to Lieutenant (later Major) Ian Wakefield, who was my Platoon Commander on D-Day. It is followed by recollections of D-Day written by Major Wakefield, of which I have a copy in my files:


On parade all spick and span
Stood to Attention, every man
Now we’re going to get a gander
At our new Platoon Commander.

He looks quite different from the rest
Medal ribbons on his chest
Thin gold stripe on lower sleeve
Desert Rat, would you believe!

Wounded foot strapped to his shin
Piercing eyes, no nonsense chin
Can he march, with one foot sound?
Marches us into the ground!

Mortar, PIAT, picks and spades
Wire cutters, bombs and hand grenades
Bren guns, Sten guns, rifles, feet
Must with his approval meet.

He weighs a man in his Battle Kit
It’s far too heavy, he knows that it
Will slow him down, reduce his grit
With load now trimmed, he’s fighting fit!

Though we didn’t know it then
His thoughts were firstly for his men
To beat the Bosche we all must strive
But do it and remain alive!

Fighting hard ever sine D-Day
8 Platoon’s been slogging away
Lost our Officer, I’m sad to say
He’s now OC of Company A.

At Thury Harcourt’s burning town
Our attack has failed, and there shot down
With one strapped leg, the other bleeding
Swift medical treatment he was needing!

With thoughts still only for his men
Said, ‘Well done Duffin and your Bren
I’ll leave when I know the last man’s back’
A sergeant helped him up the track.

Later on, behind a nice thick bank
I learn he rode back on a tank
Our battle was not in vain that day
When it was dark, Jerry crept away!

Months later, I’m wounded, and back in Blighty
On parade, and God Almighty
With double limp, and confident air
My Platoon Commander, with Croix de Guerre.

He gives me advice I’m quick to heed
Go for promotion, you’ll succeed
Do you’re best, and do it right
Go for the top, and hold on tight!

I’m retired now, and satisfied
It’s down to him, I really tried
A nice way up my little heap
Not at the bottom, like a sheep
And as we near our Journey’s End
My Platoon Commander is still my FRIEND!!

Memories of D-Day written by Major Ian Wakefield, Officer Commanding No 8 Platoon and subsequently A Company of the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment:

D-DAY – 6 JUNE 1944

We embarked on 4 June but were to spend 24 hours on board before the fateful, and fortunate, decision was taken by Eisenhower – to go – on 5 June. However, we had heard on the radio on board that the Allies had entered Rome. Down Southampton water the armada was unbelievable – the one thousand ships stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a heartening sight and a massive display of strength – not untinged by the thought that the enemy could scarcely fail to see it too. One was aware too that this was an historic moment – a Norman Conquest in reverse – and that, as at Alamein, this time we were not coming back.

The crossing was distinctly choppy and below decks it was stuffy and confined, with a number of soldiers seasick. I went up on deck at about 4.00am and, although normally a reasonable sailor, puked discreetly over the side and felt better – probably just apprehension. The air and naval bombardment was going on and the assault troops were about to go in. We were due at Le Hamel to the west of Arromanches at 8.00am, but we heard that the Hampshires were pinned down at the head of the beach by mortar and machine gun fire, so very sensibly the young naval Lieutenant commanding our LCI put us ashore a mile or so to the west near Asnelles-sur-mer in the sand dunes. I was the first off and jumped into four foot of water; as I did so my gas trousers split. However, we got ashore with no trouble and were formed up and en route for Bayeux by midday.

It is said of a parachutist that he is at his most effective at the time when he hits the ground (intact) and I think this may also be true of the soldier carrying out a seaborne assault. There is no doubt that with land under our feet and having removed our beastly gas trousers, we all felt very much better. The sun shone and the enemy were few and far between. We soon came across the bodies of two German soldiers lying in the road who had been killed by the bombing in the early hours. There was a little mortaring on the road but we suffered no casualties and were beginning to pick up prisoners. However, towards evening I came across my horse. In fact, we did rather better than that. In an apple orchard we found the deserted transport of a local gun battery with the horses standing in their traces, and from then on for the next three weeks our ‘platoon truck’ consisted of two splendid Norman horses pulling a German cart driven by Private Deeley. He was a countryman and fully conversant with the needs and behaviour of horses. From then on our packs and any other bits of heavy equipment were carried in this way and we were a much more effective fighting unit.

‘B’ Company were equipped with folding bicycles and I think that this is the Company that was actually first into Bayeux, although we got there on foot on D+1 and received a rapturous welcome from the inhabitants. That evening, however, we dug in just outside Bayeux.

I have been asked to say what I thought of our troops, the great majority of whom had not previously been in action. There is no doubt that they were well trained and well armed, if overloaded. Once they had settled down, and a few (including officers) had been weeded out, they soon became really effective fighting soldiers. What did I think of them? Like the Duke of Wellington in Spain in 1809, I didn’t know what effect they would have on the enemy, but, by God, they terrified me.