By Lieutenant P.R. (Bob) Rae
All was still and quiet; the little ships, riding quietly on a rolling sea, were moving very slowly. On the bridge, Lt. Col. Spragge, our Commanding Officer and Commander Ryder, V.e. senior naval officer, and the ship’s captain were calmly chatting as they had done on many previous schemes.
It was not difficult to discern our specific assault objective. Bernieres-sur-Mer, nestling in a frame of trees with a high church tower dominating the scene, was easily recognized. Off to the right was a flat, sandy basis which was flooded by the tide; to the left was higher ground and the town of St. Aubin objective of the North Shore Regiment. The town possessed the usual church tower as a landmark but there was no fringe of trees as at Bernieres.
Landing Craft Assault now dotted the sea and more were being lowered over the sides of mother ships. They came to heel swiftly behind their flotilla leaders and at a signal from command ships, started on the shoreward journey. They carried the assault infantry, arduous months of training behind them now; expert soldiers prepared to the utmost degree for the battle of the Atlantic Wall. They went in, each company equipped with ladders, bungalores and other explosives for blasting their way through enemy wire and concrete defences. The assault companies of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada moved toward the beaches of Bernieres; B Company, commanded by Major C.O. Dalton on the left and A Company under Major H.E. Dalton, on the right.
Lieutenant Colonel Spragge sent a signal for the two reserve companies to go in and then we completed final preparations for our part of the expedition. An LCA (Landing Craft Assault) was in readiness for us, rising and falling on the rolling water by the side of the HQ ship. Previous practice came in handy now as we gently lowered radio sets and their operators into the LCA. A final look around to make sure nothing had been forgotten then we climbed down the rope ladders to our ferry to the beaches. We descended into the shallow depths of our craft and it severed its bonds and our long relationship with the Headquarters ship was ended.
The trip was quiet and uneventful for us; even the ‘bags vomit’ found no customers. It was crowded on the open deck with our equipment and with that of a section of the beach party which had sailed with us. The outer world was cut off from our vision, and for all that we could see or hear the battle could have been ended and we might be on our way back to the shores of England. Then came the sound of steel grating on sand and we knew that our destination had been reached. I stood behind the Commanding Officer as the assault deck was lowered and the twin doors swung open. Over his shoulder I caught my first close-up view of France and for the first time that day the sense of unreality was swept away from my thoughts and the grim picture of war on the beaches unfolded.
All this was taken in during a split second glance at the scene and then I was running through ankle deep surf, heading for the breakwall. As I raced across the gleaming sand I was conscious of a dry pounding in my throat. I was almost up to the abandoned tank by the sea wall when I ran into Captain W.J. Weir, our Adjutant, and a member of advance Battalion Headquarters which had come ashore with the reserve companies. He pointed the way to our selected rendezvous but by that time the Commanding Officer had arrived and together we looked for a way forward. At this point one of the crouching soldiers called my attention to an object on which I was standing. Looking down I found that the toes of my boots were resting on an old French ’75’ shell which had been pressed into use as a German mine. I quickly withdrew my feet.
We investigated gaps in the wire around the shattered, shuttered house but it was clearly foolhardy to press forward across this bleak, open ground. There would be more menacing objects there similar to that on which I had trod. Sergeant S.B. Roberts of the Intelligence Section, who had also landed with advance headquarters, now appeared and we held a consultation as to the best way of moving into town. With Sergeant Roberts and myself acting as scouts, the regimental staff team moved further east along the sand. We came to the first street exit at the mouth of which lay a shattered tank, its tracks blasted away by a hidden mine. Using the tank as a buffer we edged a few yards up the deserted street Without incident we reached the corner of the first inland cross street, or lateral as we call it, off to the right we could hear the sounds of battles as the men of C Company and the survivors of A Company were rooting out some cornered enemies.
Here we encountered Major S.M. Lett, Second-In-Command, and learned of the progress being made by our troops. The town was practically in our hands although there was fighting going on in the outskirts and isolated German snipers were still offering resistance. Regimental Provost had taken up posts and order and communications were coming into effect. To check our present location I made a cautious tour down the narrow winding street. At the next corner a three-storey wooden house was on fire but in its light I met Captain RA Cottrill who was in command of Support Company. I pointed Battalion Headquarters out to him and then watched the first of our carriers roll up from the beaches. As I turned toward the centre of the town I found, to my surprise, that members of the civilian population were appearing in the streets. One had never thought of finding anyone but soldiers in this town but by the time I reached the main square, men, women, and children were emerging from the flimsy shelter afforded by kitchens and cellars. One old gentleman appeared on the scene clutching a bottle of wine which he had saved for this occasion. The day had arrived, and now he offered refreshment to all who could pause to partake. He even carried neat little wine glasses for service. All this time buildings crackled and flamed, shells and bullets whistled overhead and German snipers lurked in hidden places to pick off unwary soldiers of the invading force.
I was on the point of returning to headquarters when a runner came by and informed me that the regimental staff had now moved to the outskirts of town, as planned during the days of preparation. As I moved uptown, section files of the Regiment de la Chaudiere began to pass through the street. They were the ‘followup’ battalion in our Brigade. Our task was to seize the beach and the town and then they would pass through us to the interior. The French Canadien Infantrymen were exchanging cheery greetings to the citizens of Bernieres – in their own language.
At this point Stan, a member of the Intelligence Section, appeared with his shattered elbow supported by a sling. He had been one of the “I” Section detailed to come ashore with the assault companies. He had received his wound just after the landing. He brought sad tidings of other representatives with the first wave of The Queen’s Own Rifles. Rifleman H.J. Coates had been killed at the outset of the attack and other “I” Section men had also met death on the beaches.
A call came over the wireless for the CO. but when I looked for him he was not in the vicinity of our little caravan. Someone said that he had gone for a visit to the forward companies. Sergeant Roberts and I decided we had better go and look for Lieutenant Colonel Spragge.
Positions previously prepared by the enemy lay about one thousand yards to our front. There were few visible signs of The Queen’s Own Rifles, but closer regard brought into our vision the deep, narrow slits and their occupants. We found Sergeant-Major T.J. Chivers at C Company HQ’s and learned that the CO. was on his way back to our orchard. Hugging a garden wall, we chose to retire by way of the backyards rather than by the open road. Plunging through another hole in the wall we found ourselves in the streets of town and shortly after we were back at the caravan.
Time had held no meaning for us since early morning. Now we discovered, with surprise, that it was early afternoon. Soon after this been realized, we were arranging ourselves for the move forward. The two leading companies were on their way and now our little caravan got into motion.
Captain W.J. Weir, Adjutant, and I rode in style; tightly wedged into the rear compartment of the half-track signal vehicle. Captain Weir had the earphones on listening to the flow of battle information as we jolted along the dirt road. We were none too happy as we frequently jarred to a halt and felt very conspicuous in our peculiar transport to enemy eyes.
Reaching the flat topped crest of the ascent, we turned sharply left and plunged into the shadow of the small wood that marked the outskirts of Beny-sur-Mer. It was a welcome change from the open country we had just passed through. Along the road we began to pass units of the Highland Brigade (the 9th) in our Division who were to exploit our bridgehead and drive on toward Caen and Carpiquet.
A sunken road led into the next village, Basly, and we were very happy to duck into it; losing the ‘shooting gallery’ target feeling that had been ours while racing across the open ridge. With better coverage we kept moving forward toward our objective. The Carrier Platoon occupied a height of land – our destination for this first day. This slight prominence became known to us as Big Two Hill. Battalion Headquarters paused beside the brick walls until the tanks came back. Then we moved into a small orchard on the edge of the village. The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada had reached its D-Day objective and a defensive perimeter to hold it had been established.
It was dark now and most of the sounds of battle came from behind us as mopping up operations were under way. Captain Weir was on listening duty on the half truck wireless; we took turns on this duty watch – I lay down beside the vehicle and quickly fell asleep. I was roused almost immediately by a runner reporting that a truckload of ‘Jerries’ had driven into the village and had been captured. I went with him and briefly interrogated the prisoners then sent them on their way, under secret, to the military police P.O.W. cages.
I turned to return to the orchard about 300 yards up the side road. Suddenly I realized that I was all alone on a dark road, after midnight in recently held enemy territory. It was a long walk back to Regimental Headquarters. The long, long day was ended and I fell asleep again as soon as I lay down.
Re-printed from 1983 “The Rifleman”