Normandy, A Soldier’s View

May 1, 2002 by Legion Magazine

by Ken Huxtable

Soldiers take a few moments to relax with some music amid the destroyed and very dusty city of Caen, France.

After rushing through breakfast on the morning of June 6, 1944, members of our unit—the 203 Canadian Infantry Ordnance Sub Park—left the military base at Arbourfield, just outside Reading, England, and drove in a long convoy to Hardway near the city of Portsmouth. We parked our vehicles along the village’s narrow back streets, and then waited our turn to board the landing barges that would presumably take us to Europe.

The 203 Cdn. Inf. Ordnance Sub Park in the 3rd Cdn. Inf. Division assault force carried all the spare parts for any mechanical wheeled vehicle, plus about 100 complete vehicles. Prior to leaving Arbourfield, we were told that we would be part of a force that would land somewhere on the coast of Europe and that our landing would occur two days after the landing of the initial assault force.

All day and all night, barges came and went in a steady stream from Hardway. The weather was superb and we had no trouble sleeping in our trucks or eating from a mobile kitchen. The civilians we met were fantastic, and a lot of them used up their ration coupons by making us endless cups of tea and sandwiches. But while we enjoyed their warm hospitality, we were also keyed up and quite anxious to get going. The last thing we wanted to do was sit and wait for orders to leave.

But wait we did. June 7th, June 8th, June 9th, June 10th, until finally—on June 11th—the order was given to our unit to load the landing barge and head out onto the English Channel. Our destination would be Juno Beach, near the towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer and St-Aubin-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast.

Very few of us slept that night. And as we moved closer to the French coast, the sound of war grew louder. Aircraft roared overhead and there were continuous broadsides of cannon from Allied battleships. The enemy, meanwhile, was busy firing shells from various land-based positions, and some of these landed perilously close to our barge, causing huge fountains of white water to tear up into the night sky.

Daylight revealed a fantastic sight as the huge barge carefully picked its way between boats and ships of every size and description. These vessels were everywhere—as far as the eye could see—and the tremendous noise we had experienced the night before had not let up. In fact, it became more and more deafening. As I looked around I could see that nothing was sitting still. Everything on the water or in the air was moving, and the beaches were moving too, with men, materiel, tanks and trucks. As I stood there on the barge—in awe of what I was witnessing—I was more aware of the noise and the tremendous movement than I was of the danger that surrounded me.

I remember being shaken from my trance-like mood by the sudden and noisy grounding of our landing barge near the beach. Right away we rushed to man our vehicles, but the sailors told us we would have to wait for the tide to go out. Eventually, lights flashed from our ship and the beach master waved his flag on shore. Down the landing ramp we drove, into the salty water of the English Channel and on into one of the greatest battles the world has ever known.

I remember how the water washed up over the hood of our vehicle and then splashed against the windshield. It also leaked through the floor and came in around the doors, but the engine of our waterproofed truck didn’t let us down. Slowly but surely we inched our way up onto the beach where we stopped, got out and ripped off pieces of waterproofing. From there we proceeded over the dunes and then into the villages and the fields beyond.

All day and night we moved—from one unfamiliar place to another. And it seemed that every time we tried to stop we were told we couldn’t park there because the space was reserved for ammunition.

On June 13, several men from one of the forward units arrived at our semicircle of trucks without so much as a ration between them. By the time they left, we had fed them and supplied them with new Bren-gun carriers, four armoured cars and two trucks. With that we had completed our first assignment in what would become a long list of assignments; work we had spent two years training for back in England.

Soon we set about moving our unit in order to stay close to the forward troops. But while we moved forward, we also moved back—every day—to the beaches to pick up materiel and vehicles which were either delivered to the troops or picked up by the troops.

When we weren’t on the move we usually lived in or under our trucks. Seldom did we bother to dig a slit trench, although that was what we were supposed to have done.

We survived on K-rations and had lots of freshwater which was delivered to us in huge water trucks. Rations included cans of soup that had a small cap the size of a quarter which was recessed in the top. When pried off, it revealed a wick that when lit would create a swishing sound. Within seconds you had hot soup.

We also carried small discs that fit into little stands. With these you could heat up a meal, and if you had a co-driver, he could do this while you were driving. In fact, many cups of tea were brewed this way.

Whenever I think of Normandy, I also remember the dust and the bees. The dust got into and onto everything, including our bodies, our clothes, our food, our rifles and the vehicles. We literally ate and breathed dust every day and night. And the bees were everywhere, too. Their nesting places had been destroyed or stirred up by all the movement, and the amount of uncovered food made the insects a greater nuisance. The bees also loved to attack our food while it was on its short journey from the mess tin to our mouths.

The heat that June was tremendous and our steel helmets absorbed it like sponges. Our uniforms were also heavy and hot and we often wished for the same type of uniform that was supplied to the soldiers of the North African Campaign.

The French civilians, meanwhile, were a pleasant diversion from the war. They were extremely helpful and often told us what roads could be used and what buildings to avoid. Often they helped us fix anything or everything. In the midst of such terrible destruction and loss of life, I found these people to be a credit to their country and a blessing to us.

Only once during the entire battle of Normandy was our unit ever attacked in daylight by an enemy aircraft. It happened about two weeks after we landed while we were delivering a convoy of trucks and Bren-gun carriers to the forward troops. The fighter plane appeared out of nowhere and within seconds bullets were flying everywhere—and so were we. A number of us ended up in the ditches—some with our trucks and some without. Others jumped out of their vehicles before they had come to a complete stop.

Amid this chaos we watched as the German fighter—hotly pursued by a Spitfire—pulled straight up. A few seconds later we heard a couple of bursts of machine-gun fire and then saw the German plane catch fire. The pilot somehow managed to bail out and as he began his slow parachute descent, the Allied fighter rolled out of his climb, made a low pass over our heads and then completed a victory roll. Within seconds the plane had disappeared over the horizon. I don’t know if he ever saw our frantic waves of thanks.

We survived the attack, but our dispatch driver had shrapnel in a place that prevented him from sitting down for quite some time.

The engineers did a fantastic job of clearing mines, building Bailey bridges and installing steel-mesh roads through fields. As a matter of interest, some of us took pieces of this steel mesh and draped it over our trucks. At night we would set it up on the ground like an igloo and then cover it with tarps or other material. For sleeping bags we used padded radiator covers found on some of our trucks.

Overall, June was a most eventful month in the history of the sub park. The unit’s war diary contains a summary of our activities during that month, and notes that the unit was the first Canadian sub park to land in France and that it did not experience any casualties during that period.

“The spirit in the unit as a whole is good with the officers and men now satisfied that the war has really begun,” the diary records. “We have been extremely busy due to the fact that we have been called upon to service all Canadian vehicles in the 1st British Corps as well as our own division. Fortunately, our good provisioning while in the United Kingdom has enabled us to give excellent service and meet practically all of the units’ demands fully.”

About a month after our arrival in France we were pleased to receive a nice supply of bread and beer. We were also fortunate to be able to swim off the beaches in areas cleared of mines, and enjoy showers and clean clothes thanks to a mobile bath and laundry unit. These few amenities helped bring a little comfort to our lives on the road.

The artificial harbours or ports—codenamed Mulberries—were great because they enabled us to drive right out to the ships to pick up our stores and vehicles. One of these harbours was located at St-Laurent for the Americans and the other—for the Canadians and British—was situated at Arromanches. Both were nearing completion when, on June 19, a gale drove hundreds of craft ashore and caused such extensive damage to the one at St-Laurent that it was decided to abandon it. From then on, all supplies—up to 11,000 tons a day—were channelled through the mulberry at Arromanches.

Parts for these engineering marvels were built at locations throughout the United Kingdom and then towed to the south coast of England where they were submerged to avoid detection by enemy air reconnaissance. Following the Normandy landings, the pieces were towed across the Channel and assembled. It was an operation that involved 10,000 men and 132 tugs.

On the evening of July 7, while we were operating our field sub park south of Courseulles-sur-Mer, the Allies launched a massive bombing offensive against the Germans in the city of Caen, approximately 12 miles to the south of us. I learned afterwards that Bomber Command employed 467 bombers to drop 2,562 tons of bombs on the enemy in the city, and we heard that this use of massive air power was certainly welcomed by the Allied soldiers on the ground who were given the monumental task of capturing the city.

However, the bombing also had a very tragic side for the people of Caen. The destruction of their homes and of their city was widespread. Fortunately, inhabitants had been partly evacuated from the areas most heavily targeted, but French casualties still numbered between 300 and 400. History also records that the effect upon the German troops, and particularly upon the Luftwaffe division, was considerable. By July 9-10, Caen was in Allied hands.

Looking back, one of the hardest things for me to accept from the war—besides the obvious loss of human life—was the terrible destruction of the French towns and villages in Normandy. Just about every one of them resembled a pile of dust. The beautiful city of Caen was, indeed, pulverized. When we got there we could barely identify the parts of buildings that were still standing. Most of the rubble was in the streets and getting through was a huge challenge. Bulldozers and other heavy machines were used to push the debris away and create narrow lanes, but the dust was so thick it was like driving through a London fog. The one big difference was that this “fog” covered everything and got into your eyes, ears, mouth and nose. We literally ate the stuff.

When I revisited Caen in 1995 with my wife, I saw first-hand how the city had been rebuilt. Indeed, out of the dust and destruction, a new city has been established—one that is full of trees, grass, flowers, lovely parks and pleasant streets. It is a place—I hope—that will help erase the horror of its past.

We who survived the Normandy Campaign still pray for our comrades who are buried over there, and for all those whose graves mark the long and costly journey that ended with the liberation of Europe in the spring of 1945. Indeed, the back of the German army in the west was broken in Normandy, and Canadians played a huge role in that Allied achievement. The enemy lost approximately 300,000 men and much of its equipment in Normandy, including more than 2,000 tanks.

Canadian casualties in the Battle of Normandy numbered 18,444, including more than 5,000 dead.

Our unit—the 203 Cdn. Inf. Ordnance Sub Park—played an important role by delivering the much-needed vehicles and spare parts to the forward troops who fought the battle and endured the day-to-day horrors of all-out warfare.

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