70 years ago today, at about the young 9.00 am on June 6th 1944, the young man with a “Tommy” gun on the right of the photograph above was feeling sea sick and very scared. He could see the flash of gunfire on the beach ahead, and there were shells landing among and striking some of the flotilla of landing craft which were heading for what was code named Sword Beach. The assault had begun at about 03:00 with an aerial bombardment of the German coastal defences and artillery sites. The naval bombardment began a few hours later. At 07:30, the first units had reached the beach. These were the amphibious DD tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars; they were followed closely by the infantry of the 8th Infantry Brigade. They had taken many casualties from gunfire, shells and mines.
The young man in the photograph was a second lieutenant in 45 (Royal Marines) Commando, which was part of the somewhat sinisterly named 1st Special Service Brigade under the command of the debonair, handsome and highly dangerous Brigadier Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat and 4th Baron Lovat. The young man was only 19, but he was a gifted athlete and been hardened at the famous, or notorious, Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry near Spean Bridge.
The Brigade was part of a second wave to assault the beach. Its job was not to take and hold the beach itself, but at all costs to cross the beach and reach and destroy some powerful gun batteries which threatened the landings. 45 Commando was given the specific task of taking and destroying the battery at Merville. There was still fighting going on at the beach as they landed and waded ashore carrying kit weighing up to eighty pounds. This is a well known picture of the landing, with the formidable Lovat to the right of the troops wading ashore.
Lovat, a fighting highlander, was to go on to lead his troops to the sound of the pipes played by his personal piper, Bill Millin, shown in the immediate foreground of the photograph. There were bodies in the surf and fire from the Germans, but the Commandos pushed on and across the beach, and moved forward to their objectives. The young man’s unit reached their battery objectives only to find that the guns had been removed. Leaving the mopping-up to the infantry, the Commandos withdrew to join other units in their brigade, moving inland to join-up with the 6th Airborne Division.
Lovat himself advanced with parts of his brigade from Sword Beach to Pegasus Bridge, which had been obstinately defended by men of the 6th Airborne Division who had landed in the early hours. The Commandos arrived almost exactly on time, (late by about two minutes), for which Lord Lovat apologised to Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, of 7th Parachute Battalion. The commandos ran across Pegasus Bridge, to the sound of Bill Millin’s bagpipes. Despite rushing across in small groups, twelve men were killed by sniper fire, mostly shot in the head. They went on to establish defensive positions around Ranville, east of the River Orne. The bridges were relieved later in the day by elements of the British 3rd Infantry Division.
The young man in the picture was to go on to experience fighting in France and Holland, including going hand to hand with units of the SS, being in the forefront of the crossing of the Rhine, only to be blown up and wounded by a German “panzerfaust” or anti tank weapon not too long after the picture above was taken.
The young man with the Tommy gun is my father. I am pleased to report that he is still relatively hale and hearty, still getting about, though he is a bit deaf, probably due to the sound of shell fire. He is also a few ounces heavier than he should be because of the shrapnel in his leg.
He never really talks to anyone about it. He doesn’t even do the regimental reunion scene very much, although he kept in touch with a few close comrades. Most of what I know has come second hand, from tales he occasionally told my mother, or from some books such as “Commando Men” by Bryan Samain, a wartime “biography” of 45 Commando from the unit’s medical officer, which features the picture on the cover.
Samain records one incident in which in the course of chaotic night fighting in Germany my father fell into what appears to have been a pit full of what can best be described as pig effluent. He had to dive in again to retrieve his weapon, before stripping naked and being wrapped in a blanket before new kit could be found. Samain recounts the anecdote in rather jocular terms, but my father did not find it particularly amusing. What he remembers is being cold, wet and conscious of being in danger, which can be said of most of his experience of war.
On this day, I simply ask that we do not forget those who gave and risked their lives in that venture. Indeed, even reflect on those who died in the service of an evil regime – many, if not most, had no choice in the matter. It was not a long time ago; it was a blink of an eye. It left its mark, and a mark which echoes down to this day. So today, pause and reflect.
Gildas the Monk