John Ireland

I was a member of HQ Platoon, 69 Field Company, Royal Engineers, which came under 30 Corps (GOLD beach) for the assault phase of OVERLORD. I was a driver/radio operator. I am going to begin with the transcript of a letter I wrote to my wife on 11 June 1944. I have the original, written in pencil, probably from a hole in the ground. Because of security and the Censor, whose signature is on the letter, it was necessary to avoid elaboration and worrying those at home. My letter reads as follows:

“I know you will be waiting to hear from me and I hope it won’t be too long before you receive this. No doubt, in common with thousands of others, you have been worried, but up to the time of going to press I am quite fit and well.

So much has happened to me since I last saw you, and I’ve been ‘busting’ to tell you all about it, but I’m afraid Security will necessitate caution on my part in describing it all, but what I tell is already old news and will probably be aged by the time you receive this.

My last letter was written whilst we were in very close confinement. After a few days of this we moved out silently one night and boarded ship. This was to be our home for a further few days. There seemed to be thousands of ships around us. At last came the fateful word. We sailed out, and then as you know, the weather turned against us and this meant another night as a sailor.

However the next day we took off and this time it was the real thing. The Broadcast description could never give a complete picture of that scene. The sea as far as the eye could see all round was carpeted with ships, ships of all types and not camouflaged as one would imagine, but painted defiantly in Red, White and Blue. If Drake could only have seen this Armada I doubt whether he would have been so completely stunned and absorbed as I was.

The further we sailed so we seemed to add to our already formidable appearance and then, when our Escorts joined us, they were a picture that can only be described as Majestic. They sailed Port and Starboard of us. It was a magnificent sight; one could not help feeling confident sailing in such company. You have heard all the names of Battleships, Cruisers etc. that took us over, and of the Air Force that circled over all through the journey. There was so much to marvel at that the fact that I was to land in almost the first wave did not appear to trouble me in the least.

However came the dawn and we eventually stood off shore whilst the Navy and Air force carried out their next assignment and what a job they made of it. Jerry must have thought the world was coming to an end and then it was the turn of the Army and the job was carried out equally well. Of the few casualties in ships that we did incur, the craft on which I sailed had to be one of them. It was only a very small ship. I’m afraid we were sunk, but again the Navy came to the rescue and in the nick of time took us ashore. That was the only time I had any real qualms about the whole operation. Don’t think I’m glorifying war, Darling, I don’t think I’ll ever make an aggressive soldier, but I was honestly proud that the job I was given made me part of that first Landing.

I did say that it was the proudest moment of my life, but, as someone pointed out that, as I was married with two children, it was probably the fourth time I’d said that. Anyhow, if this is going to mean a speedy return to our own lives it will all be worth it.

Well Darling, of what we are doing here etc. will have to be a later story perhaps, but the countryside here is as different from our own, in fact, the more one sees, the more comparisons one can make.

How are you all at home?

It seems years since I saw you all. Dates and days mean nothing to me at this moment. This will all mean a lot of hard work for everyone, but the spirit of confidence that prevails all round is rather wonderful and I’m sure it won’t be long before we give this bloke Adolph his marching orders.

Tell mother that I’m perfectly O.K. and Pa that one of these days I’ll be writing to him. There’ll be plenty to interest him about this job. His old Unit are already doing good work.

Well Darling, I could go on for a long time but even the Censor is busy and won’t thank me for adding to his tasks. So keep your chin up and don’t be worried. Just keep thinking of what it all means to us. Soon things will get ship-shape and I’ll resume my regular service of letters, so kiss the children for me and all my love to you Darling.”

As I mention in the letter, on D-Day we were in an LCT that was sunk by a shore battery. Being a small flat-bottomed boat designed to run onto the beach, she settled on the seabed, with all our possessions, my radio and our means of transport – a half-track. The CO, Recce Officer, driver and myself were left sitting on deck. Eventually the navy took us off, in very choppy seas, and dropped us fairly near the shore, but what I imagined to be knee-deep water was actually up to our armpits. As we waded to shore, we were surrounded by dead and wounded bodies and the noise of gunfire was indescribable. I confess I shouted to God to help but it was doubtful if even He could hear me! As we got to the beach the driver and I ran like mad to the top, avoiding casualties littering the sand, mostly from the Hampshire Regiment.

The CO and Recce went to rendezvous with our Sappers further up the beach. The driver and I took shelter under one of our tanks that had been destroyed and from there I watched the Beach Master doing an amazing job organising everybody. I saw some remarkable vehicles coming ashore and DUKWs for the first time, racing up and down the beach, in and out of the water, bringing in huge amounts of stores from our supply ships off-shore.

By this time the first German prisoners were being brought down. The tide had receded and the driver was able to wade out to the landing craft and bring off our vehicle. The CO and Recce joined us and we set off to get on with our assignment. As we left the beach, we drove through a field full of vehicles, cows and one VERY nonplussed French farmer.

I never returned to the beach and we were always close to the advance. Removing obstacles and building bridges was our main task. We built bridges over the Seine, at Nijmegen and across the Rhine, and finished close to the Elbe where the surrender took place.