Then overnight came a development. The Allied forces attacking the Normandy town of Caen had been unable to make much headway, and it was proposed to drop airborne forces behind the town to demoralise resisting German troops. We were confined to camp, maps were studied, and detailed plans were made as to what each company, even each platoon, had to do. Although I spoke French with ease, I had never been to France. Now that I was going, I felt that I would be a very useful fellow to have around. We were all of us keyed up to a fine tension when word came that the whole scheme was cancelled and we could all stand down.
We cursed, and large quantities of wallop were consumed to calm jangled nerves. Subsequently we learned that German anti-aircraft defences around Caen were considerable, and had we gone, the chances were that our slow-moving transport aircraft and ponderous, heavily loaded gliders towed two or three in a line would have been blown out of the sky.
The next place we were to attack was Rambouillet, a small town south west of Paris, but once again the operation was called off. American armor, racing forward, reached the town the evening before we were due to drop.
Plans for operations now came thick and fast. Every other day we were due somewhere else, every other day the project was cancelled. One day we were issued with French money, the next it was withdrawn. One day a party would go out and load jeeps into gliders, the next they would sally forth and take them out again. Now we could go into the village, now we were confined to camp. All the time aircraft were waiting at aerodromes, ready to take off, and the parachutes with which we were to jump over occupied Europe were packed for us to put on. What the hell were our smart-alec brigadiers and generals playing at? It really began to get rather nerve wracking.
Then one morning at about ten o’clock, three RASC lorries whined down the drive, and instead of carrying out our usual task of cleaning the camp, we found ourselves packing up spare boots, shirts, battledress into sleeping bags and loading them on to the lorries. The lorries coughed and moaned away. Jeeps were stacked with equipment. The next morning, at 4 a.m., we were queuing up for breakfast, the cookhouse serving-hatch throwing a cheerful light into the cold, chatter-filled yard where the troops jostled each other. Then the parachute party boarded three trucks, bound for a transit camp some hundred and thirty miles away. The support force would follow later. We were bent double beneath our equipment. We carried lifebelts (in case our plane crashed into the sea), rations (two twenty-four hour packs), small valises (on the hip), rifles, grenades, Bren magazines, bandoliers, and all the accoutrements to delight the heart of a Chicago gangster. Additionally the trucks, which were bulging with sweat-uncomfortable men, carried containers of cable, parachute kit-bags, and a light weight para-motor cycle in a protective frame. Our journey was to last nine hours, and we were most uncomfortable.
The glider party was travelling to a different airfield later, in jeeps, and we rather envied them. Still, in spite of our discomfort, we of the parachute party were glad to crowd to the back of trucks and wave to the townspeople as we passed through populated areas. I guess, when they saw us in our green smocks and great heavy ammo pouches, and noticed the sinister, well-scrimmed steel helmets swinging from the lorry framework they thought (especially the old ladies): “Ah, our boys. Our boys off to France.” And they weren’t so far wrong.
The talk was unusually animated, excited and silly. Everyone felt it was his duty to grin. Corporal K related how he had been winning pounds at cards in the NAAFI, and would now be unable to spend them. Someone else was bemoaning the fact that he had missed out on the issue of his cigarette ration coupon.
“What do you want that for?” queries the sergeant. “You won’t see the canteen for a long time now.”
“We haven’t got any French money yet,” murmurs someone.
“No,” says the sergeant. “Still, you’ve got some francs left from the last scare, ain’t you, Bill? We can sponge on you.”
“Francs?” says Bill. “No, francs very much.” The sally is greeted with gales of laughter.
”Kill that man,” a voice is heard to demand somewhere from the jumble of blue and white cylindrical “Signals” parachute equipment containers and a heap of camouflage netting.
“I shall defend myself,” warns Bill.
“Christ,” ejaculates the sergeant. “You ain’t got no bayonet.”
“Never mind about my bayonet, says Bill. “I’ll tie me table knife on the end of me gun and look daggers at everybody.”
Eventually we reached the transit camp, a huge field littered with tents and marquees. Stocks of blankets and paillasses awaited us on the grass. We each drew our share, staggered away to our respective tents, and dumped our stuff in a suitable spot before anyone else got there. I slept next to the door of a big marquee. I liked the open air, with just a bit of canvass to keep off the rain and the dew.
Meal times were a problem at the transit camp. There were three serving tables outside the cookhouse, and food was prepared in bulk by the bathtubful. Breakfast consisted of porridge, bacon and bread which was already partially stale, because it had been cut in such large quantities. For dinner we invariably had gritty potatoes boiled in their jackets, greens and meat, all soggy and becoming rapidly cold in the open air. The sweet consisted of rice and dough masquerading as pudding and soaked in a suspicious yellow liquid called “custard”. The queues for meals were often a hundred yards long and several persons deep. There were many thousands of men in the camp, and it took two hours to serve dinner, which for us was the midday meal and the biggest one of the day.
The worst meal was tea. This invariably consisted of bread and jam – cheese if you were lucky. The tea was brewed in huge tin canisters half the size of a man, which were normally used as swill bins in the army. We had this drink with every meal of the day, and if one sank one’s scruples it was not too bad. It was welcome, anyway, for the weather was torrid.
Despite the lack of frills, and remembering that it was wartime, and our seaborne supply routes were constantly under threat, we were fed well in the British army, and I suspect that we did considerably better than the strictly rationed civilian population.
On the day after our arrival at the camp, the lorries took us to an airfield some miles away, where we drew parachutes from a store, fitted them, sweating afresh beneath the weight of our equipment, and then drove to the runway, where our aircraft “P” for Peter was waiting. She was a Stirling, with a hole in the floor like a Whitley’s aperture, only bigger and rectangular instead of circular. Furthermore, you could stand up in a Stirling, so when the time came to get the hell out of there, you just did a conga towards the tail and fell into space, one after the other. We had a lightweight motorbike with us, but it was rather troublesome to throw it through the hole, so we decided to leave it. We could get a bike from other sources if necessary.
The Stirling was what in those days was considered to be a huge kite, and had four engines. Indeed, it seemed to be all body and engines with just a couple of stubby wings added as an afterthought. It always amazed me how Stirlings flew at all, and I never failed to be astonished when I saw one leap into the air at take-off. Actually, Stirlings could not fly at speeds much less than a hundred and thirty miles an hour, so parachutists had to waste no time getting out of them when the green light flashed. Stirlings carried twenty men, and with an interval of a hundred yards between each one, the final result would have been a stick spread out over two thousand yards. On the ground they might have been strung out across fields, rivers, roads and woods, but for mutual safety and effectiveness would have had to get together in very short order. Speed of exit became the essence of the exercise.
We loaded equipment containers into bomb racks, took out our bike, and stacked our ‘chutes in readiness. We did a little “synthetic”, for none of us had jumped from a Stirling before. Then we returned to the transit camp.
This was the moment we had awaited so long. We had subjugated our fears. We were all keyed up to go. Tomorrow we proposed to clamber into the kites, roar into the air, and leap out over German occupied France. As the lorries made their way back, we sang raucously and profanely. This is it, boys.
On va en finir! Hooray!
The OC called us together after we had dismounted and spoke to us. Laughing faces suddenly changed. Savage ejaculations broke out and argument was general.
The operation was cancelled. But it can’t be. After all this preparation it can’t be. It is not amusing to be put on and off the rack like this.
No argument, boys. The thing is definitely cancelled. This evening we go back home. Oh, hell. Hell, hell, hell!
That night we piled our kit on to the lorries and they took us back to our own camp. This was just one of the sixteen operations which were planned and cancelled between the invasion of Europe and the time, just over three months later, when we finally took off for the continent.
One day in September 1944, we were told that we were to drop in Holland. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the operation would come off or not, and in the long run we were given four days leave, with strict injunctions to keep our tongues between our teeth about military matters.
The security seemed to be lousy, but four days leave was not to be sneezed at, and I was out of camp the moment I received my pass and hitch hiking to London.
I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to see my girl friend of that moment in time. Unfortunately the meeting was not a particularly happy one. She told me that she had just got herself engaged to a merchant seaman and that in these circumstances the passionate sonata for two which we had been playing would have to wind itself down to pianissimo, with me on a solo instrument. I was somewhat shattered. Chagrin d’amour! I took gloomy leave of my family and returned to the First Airborne Divisional Signals unit.
Back in camp we learned that the operation to Holland was still to take place and that we were to drop to the north of a town called Arnhem, on the lower Rhine. At that time the British Second Army, pushing up through Belgium, had invaded Holland. It was now proposed that the American 101st Airborne Division was to make a corridor north of the advancing Second Army between the Dutch towns of Eindhoven and Grave. The 82nd American Airborne Division should continue this corridor still further north from Grave to Nijmegen between the River Maas and the River Waal, while the British First Airborne Division was to drop north of the American 82nd Division and seize the bridge to Arnhem across the Dutch part of the River Rhine. The Second Army would then be able to advance rapidly, crossing the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine without difficulty, swerve east and pour into Germany.
It was a daring plan which would shorten the war by many months if it succeeded, but it was perfectly obvious to us of the First Airborne Division that unless we were relieved quickly we should be in a hell of a mess. We were to be the extreme tip of a finger, pointing north up through Belgium and Holland, and we were given two days to hold out. Unless the advancing allied forces reached us in that time we should be cut off, surrounded by Germans and annihilated. Yet nobody worried.
We were issued with Dutch money, twenty-four hour ration packs, bombs and ammunition, but still nobody worried. It had all happened before and nothing had come of it. This would be another false alarm – another cancelled operation. At any moment now we would receive the order to take everything off and return to camp. It was only when aero engines thundered into life and the ground sped away that we realised that this time we were flying to meet our destiny.
As our aeroplane roared onwards through the sky, I could see opposite one of the C47’s keeping us company. It rolled a little like an obese and slightly drunk goldfish. I found it hard to believe that it was racing neck and neck with us through space at nearly two hundred miles an hour. By twisting my head I could look over the parachute strapped to my back and out of the window behind me. There I could see part of the wing of our own kite. How fragile it seemed; how incapable of lifting our immense weight. Beyond that was the tail of another aircraft in our formation. This was all that was visible to me of the armada, which was carrying thousands of men to Holland.