B Company, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada
In late 1942 the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was picked to take part in the allied invasion of Normandy and began a period of intensive commando-type assault training. During all of 1943 and into the spring of ’44, we spent a lot of time at sea on various types of landing craft – from what we called mother ships (where we were comfortably housed in mess decks with hammocks to sleep in, all the way down to small L.C.A. assault boats that could take just 30 men and their gear). This training was mostly done off the south coast of England except for one period when we went up to Scotland to Locke Fyne on the Duke of Argyle’s estate at Invenary. Here we spent four weeks of more assault training mostly in wet weather. We were never dry.
During this same period, Hitler had ordered Field Marshall Erwin Rommel “The Desert Fox” of the North African campaign, to erect an Atlantic Wall on the Normandy coast. He did a bang up job building huge steel reinforced concrete bunkers, pill boxes, laid barbwire, mines, artillery, machine gun nests and mortar pits. He also had deadly beach obstacles built such as steel girders and old railway track raised in a pyramid and hung with mines that would easily blowup an assault craft. Rommel moved new units into position including first-rate Panzer divisions and SS troops whose moral and fighting determination had become legendary. They also had superior weapons such as Panther and Tiger tanks and deadly 88mm anti-tank guns. All of this went to guarantee us a hostile reception. When Rommel addressed his generals he coined the phrase – “when they come and they will come – it will be the longest day.”
In May of 1944 we went into security camps surrounded with barbwire and guards to keep us in and as we moved from camp to camp toward Southampton it became known as the sausage machine. We studied aerial photos of the beaches taken by low flying Spitfires but they still did not tell us where we were going. Then came a pay parade and we finally knew – we had been paid in brand new French francs. Eventually we arrived in Southampton and boarded our mother ship the “SS Monowai” on the morning of June 4th and steamed off to rendezvous with the other ships. We played cards, crown & anchor or shot craps to while away the time.
Nobody seemed nervous or anxious. Tomorrow we would land in France but weather was so bad in the channel that the operation was postponed 24 hours until the 6th of June. Apparently the Navy was operating in a kind of tide timeframe and if there were anymore delays the operation would have to be cancelled. Finally General Eisenhower gave the go ahead and we steamed out of Southampton, around the Isle of Wight and out into the channel headed south for Normandy. Some 7000 ships of all shapes and sizes. We went into our hammocks early because we were told it would be a very early reveille. It was – we were called around 3:30am and two men from every section were sent to the galley to get our breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee, bread and jam. It was to be my last meal for four days.
At about 4:30 we were ordered to go on deck where sailor guides took us to our appointed stations. Our landing craft were at deck level and we could just climb in. The first section was #1 of “B” Company on the port side. They sat facing in. The next group was on the starboard side consisting of odds and sods – our platoon Sergeant – Freddy Harris who had given up a commission to be with us, the Company Sergent Major Bill Wallace and company staff such as runners, stretcher bearers, combat engineers who were to somehow breach the 9 ft wall in front of us, blow up pillboxes and gun positions.Next, came my section – #2 of “B” company. We climbed in and sat on a low bench running down the centre facing forward. I was at the very back. It was not a good position for us – last group in – first group out. The waves were pretty high and as we were lowered into the water (and) the high seas met us with a vengeance. The marine crew had a rough time unhooking the winch lines – and so off we went to rendezvous with the rest of the L.C.A. group.
Perhaps I should stop here and try to explain the makeup of the first wave. Some of you may be saying what is he talking about – what is a division, a regiment, a company or a platoon section. A division of infantry is made up of about 15,000 men. A regiment is made up of 800 men and there are 9 regiments to a division. These are broken up into three brigades of three regiments each. Each regiment has 18 platoons. The first 6 are support, consisting of a 3″ mortar platoon, a bren gun carrier platoon and an anti-tank platoon. Stretcher-bearers (the band), cooks and an engineer platoon and so on. The other 12 platoons are infantry, 3 to each company of about 120 men – each platoon has bout 35 men in 3 sections plus a platoon sargent, an officer and a 2″ motor section of 2 men.The navy finally sorted themselves out and we started to move toward the beach five miles away. At this point I must tell you how the army works. the generals always like to have reserves so they hold back one full brigade of three regiments totaling 2400 men who would come in about three-quarters to one hour later. So now we are down to two brigades of 6 regiments or 3200 going in. Now the Brigadiers of the two brigades want to hold back one regiment each for his reserve or 1600 men, so we are down to only 4 regiments to going in.Next the Regimental colonel decides to hold back “C” and “D” company for twenty minutes as his reserve or 480 men. So who the hell is going to make the first assault? Two companies out of 4 regiments – “A” and “B” companies of the North Shore Regiment, “A” and “B” of the Queens Own Rifles, “A” and “B” from the Winnipeg Rifles and “A” and “B” from the Regina Rifles and one company from the Highland Light Infantry. Nine companies in all, plus assorted extras like engineers, medics, signallers, etc. each company has 5 boats so the total was 45 boats consisting of about 30 men each or a total of 1350 men who are to be in the first wave assault on Juno beach. We started out with 15,000 – where the hell was the other 13,850??
Oh they will be along shortly – as soon as you clear the beach of pillboxes and machine gun nests. Oh yes we’re going to get some help from a squadron of the 1st Hussars tank regiment. They’re going to land before us and take out the pillboxes and machine gun nests – it didn’t happen.The 45 boats start in – at about 1500 yards we can see the wall in back of the beach. It looks to be maybe 8 feet high. We are told to stand up. Beside us was a ship that fires L.C.R. rockets. The forward deck is cleared and pointing up are maybe a dozen tubes or mortars at a 45 degree angle. All of a sudden they fire a salvo – great clouds of smoke and flame engulf the boat. Ten minutes later they fire again. You can follow the rockets by eye as they curve upward. We watched one salvo go high over the beach just as a Spitfire came along. He flew right into it and blew up. That pilot never had a chance and was probably the first casualty on Juno Beach. Overhead we can hear the roar of large shells from battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Beside us is a boat with pom poms (anti-aircraft) guns shooting away at church steeples and other high buildings which had observers who were spotting for the German ground troops.
Soon we are only 500 yards from the beach and are ordered to get down. Minutes later the boat stops and begins to toss in the waves. the ramp goes down and without hesitation my section leader, Cpl. John Gibson, jumps out well over his waist in water. He only makes a few yards and is killed. We have landed dead on into a pillbox with a machine gun blazing away at us. We didn’t hesitate and jumped into the water one after the other – I was last of the first row. Where was everybody? My section is only half there – some were just floating on their Mae West’s.
My Bren gun team of Tommy Dalrymple and Kenny Scott are just in front of me when something hit my left magazine pouch and stops me up short for a moment. The round had gone right through two magazines, entered my left side and came out my back. Kenny keeps yelling come on, come on – I’m coming, I’m coming I yell to him. We are now up to our knees in water and you can hear a kind of buzzing sound all around as well as the sound of the machine gun itself. All of a sudden something slapped the side of my right leg and then a round caught me dead centre up high on my right leg causing a compound fracture. By this time I was flat on my face in the water – I’ve lost my rifle, my helmet is gone and Kenny is still yelling at me to come on. He is also shot in the upper leg but has no broken bones. I yell back, I can’t, my leg is broken – get the hell out of here – away he goes and catches up to Tommy. Poor Tom, I’ve got ten of his Bren gun magazines and they’re pulling me under. I soon get rid of them and flop over onto my back and start to float to shore where I meet five other riflemen all in very bad shape. The man beside me is dead within minutes. All the while we are looking up at the machine gun firing just over our heads at the rest of our platoon and company and then our platoon Sargent and friend of mine, who had given up a commission to be with us was killed right in front of me.
Finally I decided that this is not a good place to be and managed to slip off my pack and webbing and start to crawl backward on my back at an angle away from the gun towards the wall about 150 ft away. I finally made it and lay my back against it. In front of me I can see bodies washing back and forth in the surf. Soon, one of my friends, Willis Gambrel, a walking wounded, showed up and we each had one of my cigarettes which surprisingly were fairly dry. Then he left to find a first aid centre. A medic came along and put a bandage on my leg. I had forgotten all about the hole in my side. Then two English beach party soldiers came along carrying a 5-gallon pot of tea. “Cup of tea Canada?” yes sir – and they gave me tea in a tin mug. It was hot and mixed 50/50 with rum. It was really good.
In the meantime “A” Company had gotten ashore with their share of casualties and started to take out the various gun implacements and so did the rest of “B” Company. Presently there were 4 or 5 fellows with me. Then at last a Sherman tank from the First Hussars finally showed up. They had come in too late to help us. All of a sudden he stopped just a few feet past us, turned toward the wall, ambles up to within ten feet of the wall and commenced to fire over the wall. There are things at the end of these gun barrels called recoil deflectors so that the muzzle blast comes out sideways. The muzzle blast came directly down where we were lying. The man beside me had a bandage around his head and eyes and he screamed every time they fired. My leg didn’t like it either. Finally after much arm waving at the crew commander he finally got the message that we didn’t appreciate his presence.
I had already got a shot of morphine from a medic and dozed a little. Soon the tide was almost at my boots and at long last two English stretcher-bearers came and started to evacuate us from the beach. They carried me in water up to their ankles. The fellow at my head lost his grip and said to his pal – put him down for a second. Just then a good wave came in right over me and on the way out picked up my broken leg and through it at a right angle to the stretcher. I said “Would you mind putting my leg back on the stretcher?” “Sorry Canada”, one said and grabbed my boot and put my leg back. I got back at him when they lifted me over the wall to some fellows on the top at almost 45-degree angle – all the water in the stretcher came gushing out right into his face.I was put with a group of other wounded and eventually a doctor came along and asked where I was hit. My leg is broken I said and with that he took a look and said you’ll be okay son.
Two German POW’s picked me up and carried me to a concrete air raid shelter – probably for the German defence troops – and placed me on a low bunk. Very quickly the bunks were full and people were put on the floor. A German boy was on the floor right beside me and he was in bad shape. Just before it got dark a German mortar came over and landed just outside the door, blew it off and filled the bunker with dirt, smoke and chunks of gravel. Eventually a medic came in and gave the German boy a shot of morphine. I said I’ll take one of those if you don’t mind. Okay he said and as darkness fell on June 6th. I was soon asleep.
By this time all that was left of my platoon of 35 men was one Lance Sergeant, one wounded Lance Corporal and six riflemen. All the rest were dead or wounded. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had been right – it had been and will always be the longest day. Altogether The Queen’s Own Rifles lost 143 men killed or wounded. By August when the Normandy battle was over the regiment had 640 casualties including 209 killed. By May of 1945 the regiment suffered over 1000 wounded and 462 riflemen were dead.
Jim died on 3 December 2014 at the age of 92.