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Archive - Thursday, 3 June 2004
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In the footsteps of the fallen
'You have to remember that this road is appreciably wider than it was 60 years ago," says Major Ian English.
He stands with his back against a tall, impenetrable hedge and looks across the lane to a stone wall, 8ft high and topped with shrubs.
He continues: "While the attack was going on, the second-in-command of C Company, Captain John Wheatley, came back across the orchard to about here." Maj English's legs may be 84-years-old, but he takes a youthfully large stride towards the middle of the lane.
"His company had been over-run and he was reporting back to HQ for further orders, and I was standing against the wall there." He waves his hand at the stern stone wall less than 6ft away. "He was here and a mortar bomb landed between us. I don't know how it happened - he got the great majority of it. In fact, he got all of it, and he crumpled down here.
"I was quite unhurt. All I could do was get the stretcher-bearers, but he was dead by the time he reached the Regimental Aid Post a couple of hundred yards down there." He waves his hand back down the little Normandy lane, Rue de Cristot.
With that, he's off, motoring along Rue de Cristot at a rapid pace. It's as if he's got new batteries in his legs, and people half his age struggle to keep up.
"He thinks we're his company," says one. "He's just told us to hold back."
"He's seeing different things to us with both his eyes and his mind," says another.
Ian English's father, a mining engineer from Heworth, Gateshead, had fought in France with the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry during the First World War. When Ian joined up in 1938, he followed his father's footsteps into the DLI.
They took him to France at the outset of the Second World War and then back to England in the boats from Dunkirk. No rest, out to the Middle East, through Palestine and Iraq, but then withdrawn. Victory at El Alamein and the push through Egypt into Tunisia where, at the Battle of Mareth in March 1943, he was injured and taken prisoner. Held near Parma for six months but when the Italians capitulated, he was released and made it back to Gateshead where, despite the offer of a training job, he resolved to rejoin his battalion, the 8th.
"It was a desperate disappointment for my parents," he says. "They thought they had got me home."
Within weeks, he was being shown cloth models of a foreign landscape with false names attached to the towns. As June 1944 began, he learned that the towns called Luton and Tipperary on the model were in fact Caen and Bayeux in Normandy, and on D-Day they were going to land on the beaches just in front of them.
For most of the DLI, D-Day was no more dangerous than any other day. "The night was uneventful, although the sea got choppier and choppier," he recalls. "We were all issued with a sea sick pill and I felt really queasy, but a lot of fellows were desperately sick."
There were about 220 men crammed in that airless, tossing landing craft, so one man's nausea must have been sickenly catching.
The DLI landed at about 11.30am. They were supposed to be on King Beach which was part of Gold, although obstacles prevented Maj English's landing craft reaching the sand. "We jumped in and were out of our depth," he says. "We had been given these waders, up to our chest, but the water was running in over the top of them and they became absolute death traps." Ironically, the Army top brass had only handed out the waterproof anti-gas trousers after a training exercise in which the DLI had landed in the waves near Southampton and route-marched ashore, ending up with their sodden trousers causing severe chafing. Come D-Day, the trousers proved more dangerous than the German fire and Maj English ordered that his men take them off before they drowned.
"There was quite a lot of debris on the beach, knocked out landing craft and the odd tank," he remembers, "but it was by no means littered because of the beach organisation. The beachmaster had a megaphone and told us to move inland as far as we could."
He was in command of D Company, a cycle-borne company, which was another of the Army top brass's ideas to get the invasion moving quickly. This, though, rather overlooked the fact that rural Normandy is not ideal biking country. There are either tiny cornfields full of shoulder-high wheat, or small orchards full of lush, waist-high vegetation. Both are surrounded by dense hedges and precipitous inclines on to sunken roads.
As D Company pushed inland, the bikes were quietly forgotten.
The 8th saw its first French action three days after D-Day. They had reached the village of St Pierre, which is 12 miles inland and occupies high ground above the slightly larger village of Tilly-sur-Seulles.
Sustaining their first casualties, the DLI forced the Germans to retreat into Tilly.
"We came up to this crossroads, and we should have got astride this road but there was a Spandau in the hedge over there," says Maj English, oblivious to the tractors and traffic currently using the crossroads as he relives the events of 60 years ago. "That's when it brought home to me the differences between the desert and Normandy. As you can see, the fields of fire here are short and you can easily mop up men - this chap was firing at anything that moved from across the road, and you couldn't see the blighter."
Early the following morning, the Germans fought back. Today, in the peace of the tight streets, with the hedges trim and tidy on either side and the vegetation beneath the prettily flowering fruit trees kept short by sheep and shaggy ponies, it is impossible to imagine the noise and violence. The whizz of the shells, the boom of the mortars, the cries of the men.
"All hell broke loose," says Maj English.
C Company was over-run, bringing Capt Wheatley running back - fatally - for further instructions.
"The position here became very sticky indeed and after an hour or so I ordered 18 platoon to move back a bit," says Maj English, and he sets off along Rue de Cristot, beckoning his tourist company follow him, leaving the spot where Capt Wheatley fell and regrouping at the entrance of a farmyard.
Maj English assumes a position in the middle of the lane, looking quizzically, head to one side, down the couple of hundred yards that he's just marched his company.
"We could just see some of their guys milling about round the corner," he says, pointing back down Rue de Cristot. "Then three tanks appeared driving five or six cows in front of them. The Piat man got down here to see if he could hit the tank. The Piat was a good weapon and if it hit the tank it penetrated the armour and burnt the inside. But it had a fault which, in my experience, occurred only twice. Once was in England in training. And the other was here, at this moment. The baseplate of the projectile came back and hit this chap on the head and killed him."
Maj English straightens up and retreats to the farmyard. History doesn't remember the name of the Durham who died on this spot, although his remains will lie in one of the numerous cemeteries in the district. Another man - Sergeant Stephen Wallbanks from Chester-le-Street - took his place at the Piat, firing three shots "which rather startled the cows". One skidded beneath the leading tank's tracks and ended the Germans' advance.
"Things quietened off," says Maj English. "Then there was some firing, and I saw a German officer being carried along by two of his men, pouring blood.
"Three Germans lay dead along with one DLI man, Private Cropper, who had obviously shot up these Germans but had been killed at the same time."
Pte David Cropper is buried down the hill in Tilly-sur-Seulles. He was aged 32. No next of kin, no "additional information" is listed.
Maj English turns around. Over the five-bar farm gate, the following day's events unfold be fore his eyes.
"This time the Germans attacked with tanks across this ground," he says. "My batman and I tried to make it across this orchard. It was bad, with shelling and mortaring. We got to the hedge and found one of our anti-tank guns without a crew, but I suddenly released that we didn't have any idea how to work the blessed thing.
"I came crashing back through this orchard to get some help, and I must confess I thought to myself what am I doing here when I could have had a training job."
Eventually they got the anti-tank gun going. "There were three or four Panzer tanks over there, and we certainly did some damage to them."
The following day, the Battle of St Pierre was over. It had cost the DLI five officers and 31 other ranks with another 130 wounded. The battle finished with the order to withdraw.
"After all the effort we had put into this place we were very disappointed to give it up," he says, "and to this day I'm not sure why.
"The Battle of Mareth was the worst battle I was in, but St Pierre was fairly bad.
"But then when we got mobile through France doing 20 or 30 miles a day, rounding up Germans, that was great. It's funny how things can change quickly in war."
Having been awarded the Military Cross - his second - for his actions in Normandy, Maj English's combat ended three months later when he was wounded at Gheel in Belgium. After recovering, he went to Cambridge University and became an agricultural adviser. He now lives near Leyburn.
"I really do believe that I had a guardian angel somewhere," he says. "There were two or three occasions when I could have been shot: when I was captured, I fired at them, but instead of shooting me on the spot they took me prisoner.
"Quite honestly, I don't think there was any skill about it. It happened as it happened."
A LITTLE later that day, Major Ian English is in Jerusalem Cemetery, near Tilly-sur-Seulles. To him, "it's the most evocative place in Normandy".
Jerusalem is one of the smallest of the United Kingdom's war cemeteries, with 48 graves - 23 of them belong to members of the Durham Light Infantry. Three of them are of its padres and one is of Jack Banks, who was only 16.
By June 1944, the DLI was so short of men that its policy of recruiting solely from County Durham was in pieces. The men beneath the immaculately tended turf came from all over the UK - 16-year-old Pte Banks was from Darwen, Lancashire.
But still the North-East is disproportionately represented: there's Pte John Cook, 25, from Trimdon; Sgt Charles Macklam, 38, from Hartlepool, and Lance Sgt William Williams, 26, of Spennymoor. By coincidence, lying alongside them is 23-year-old Cpl Stanley Richard Wood, a member of the Royal Corps of Signals who was the son of Bertram and Frances Wood, of Darlington.
Maj English is standing in front of Grave A13 which belongs to Capt John Wheatley who was blown up only yards from him.
"I'll show you the chap who was my driver from December 1939 to June 1942," he says. He moves slowly past Wheatley and Banks to B14 where lies Pte Kenneth Stanger, who has no next of kin listed, no "additional information".
A few hours earlier, Maj English's eyes had been bright and youthful as he had picked out spots on the road and gun emplacements in the hedges. Now they are rheumy and watery.
He sighs hugely and gasps: "I knew just about half of them."
MAJOR Ian English is giving a talk on the DLI and D-Day at the regiment's museum in Durham City on Saturday. Many of the other veterans featured on this page will also be present Military author and historian Harry Moses, from Aycliffe, will also be taking part. The talk begins at 2pm. Tickets are £4 for adults. Contact the museum on 0191-384 2214.
The Northern Echo would like to thank DLI Association members Bill Hall and Clive Bowery. They organised the visit to Normandy on behalf of the Consett and Stanley branch of the DLI Association, and have helped enormously with these articles.