JUNE 6, 2010
On June 6, 1944, I along with about 60,000 other soldiers, air men and navy personnel, crossed the English Channel from England to Normandy, France and started what is known as the invasion of Normandy. We did this in an all out effort to free France and the Free World from the clutches of Adolph Hitler and his government of Germany and Germany’s partners. Today, in my home in Glentworth, Saskatchewan, I want to write a little about that day of June 6, 1944.
In October of 1942, I left my small ranch in southern Saskatchewan and enlisted in the Canadian Army in Regina Saskatchewan, I took my basic training in Regina and then went to Fort Benning, Georgia for parachute training. From Fort Benning, I along with 600 or more paratroopers returned to Camp Shilo, Manitoba for further training. We then were shipped over to England in the Queen Elizabeth and here we became part of the British Sixth Airborne Division.
On Salisbury Plains in southern England, we had heavy training for 10 months and we were declared to be ready to take part in the invasion of France in early June of 1944. Our battalion, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, was now ready to fly into France whenever the decision was made by the generals that the weather was right for the invasion to take place; weather conditions being the deciding factor.
On the morning of June 5, the decision was made to go. Late that afternoon, my battalion was driven by truck to an airport called Down Ampney. It was at dusk when we were loaded into various aircraft and we took off to fly over the English Channel to parachute into France at various locations on the coast of Normandy, France. Our departure from England went well and the flight was smooth and peaceful for sometime. We had an aircrew of five with one extra air man who would help us at the airplane exit to get out. As paratroopers, we were carrying a lot of supplies such as ammunition, guns, grenades and two days of food. It was very quiet in the DC3 Dakota aircraft. Twenty soldiers sat quietly with 10 on each side of the Dakota, facing each other. We had trained together for sometime and a few I had been with, for two years.
That night it was so quiet in the airplane because I suppose each of us was immersed in our own thoughts. We knew we were in a serious and dangerous situation. We were all volunteers and were doing it because we felt our country and the free world needed to put Hitler down. We were well trained and committed to what we were doing.
After some flying, I could see out a window and I thought I could see some land. I asked the air force man if there was land in sight and he said yes and that we could see the coastal French city of Le Havre. Shortly after, all hell broke loose. We were bombarded with flak. The Germans were shooting at us with guns and flak was breaking all around. Our pilot was taking some defensive flying measures. I thought the plane was going to go into the ocean. Our pilot took us out of the shooting range safely and soon we were over land.
Then, the red light came on telling us to get ready. We buckled up our parachutes, stood up and crowded towards the door. Very soon, the red light changed to green and we jumped out into the air, one after the other. The air force jump master yelled out “Good luck boys and God bless you”.
My descent to the ground seemed to go smoothly enough and I was on the ground, quite fast. The descent was good but I had a hard landing. I was slammed down on a backward oscillation and landed on my back. I had 30 pounds of Bren gun shells on my chest and because I landed on my back, I had the wind knocked out of me.
However painful it was, I had to keep on going. I pulled my rifle over to me, removed it from its case and got out of the parachute harness. I crawled over to a tree and rested a little to get my chest area to be restored and to function properly.
It was very quiet. I was in a pasture and I was sitting in trees and grass and I thought I could sense the presence of some cattle. The quietness surprised me. I thought we should be landing in the midst of gunfire, bombing and the presence of men. I later found out that we were over 25 miles away from the actual invasion.
I heard a noise and sensed that someone was coming. I released the safety catch on my rifle and in a very short time I could see a man. I challenged him with the sign. He answered with the proper words and added “How are you doing Andy?” He had recognized my voice. He was private Ellefson and he was my Bren gunner.
He like me had not seen or heard anyone except he had heard some isolated firing and had seen some cows. We did not have any idea where we were. After being told in the airplane that we had passed over Le Havre and with neither of us hearing any noise, we knew we had to be somewhere north and east of the invasion area. So, we decided to walk south west.
We walked until daylight still not hearing or seeing any noise. At daylight, we stopped in some trees which were on a high hill and from there we could see out. We were only in the trees a few minutes when we heard some noise. We looked out and less than 100 yards away we could see a German infantry patrol with about 10 soldiers and perhaps more over the hill. We remained silent with our guns ready should the patrol come our way. They did not come towards us, but now we knew that the Germans were in that area.
I climbed a tall tree hoping I would see more. It looked like there was a ship on the ocean away in the distance, but still there was no sound. We stayed quiet and had a little lunch. In the middle of the afternoon, we decided to look for a farmer to try and find out where we were. We had maps but we had to have our location.
There were some cultivated farmlands to the east of us so we walked in that direction. After a mile or so, we found a farmyard. We watched the yard for sometime. We did not see any Germans and so we eventually walked into the yard. A family lived there; a man, a woman and two preschool children. They seemed friendly. By pointing on the map, we found out that we were well over 20 miles from our drop zone and now, we realized that we could not join up with our battalion that day. The sun was going down and we were very tired.
Using our French book, we conversed with the man. He said we could sleep in his barn. We lay down in a stall and covered ourselves over with freshly cut wheat sheaves. During the night, I awoke with a start. I had been dreaming that German soldiers had come and were spearing through the wheat sheaves trying to find us.
At daylight, the French farmer woke us up and said that German soldiers were nearby and that they had captured some of our people and had shot them. Ellefson and I got going right away and started going west. We were not even out of the yard when we saw some soldiers coming on the run. They were some of our platoon and with them were some British soldiers who were medical people. They were conscientious objectors and did not carry a rifle. After a brief talk with a British Sergeant Major, I told him that my plan was to hide in the day and travel by night and to try to get back to our own troop.
We soon found a well-sheltered apple orchard. We dispersed our group to all sides and everyone settled down for a rest and for a little food. Ellefson and I were both hungry and tired. I was on the south side with five other soldiers. Soon, the men around me were asleep. I was uneasy and I was nervous that now with 20 soldiers together, we would be too easily seen. We could hear the German vehicles going by on the highway and yet we could do nothing except lay low and wait for the safety of darkness.
Suddenly, I heard one single gunshot coming from the far side of the orchard. Then, I saw a German soldier about 200 yards away. Almost immediately, I saw one of our men, Conneghan, stand up and shoot the German down and then, I saw Conneghan topple over forward from several shots.
About that time, all hell broke loose. German soldiers seemed to appear in numbers. I was standing up behind a hedgerow and just as I was going to pull the trigger, a searing hot shot went through the underside of my rifle and ripped the two knuckles off of my right hand. At the same time, a mortar bomb exploded behind me and a piece of sharp metal hit the lower part of my leg. I glanced to the left and saw Pledger, Broadbent and Ellefson had all got hit and had died instantly. There was shooting all over the place and I could not see anyone. I dropped to the ground and put a field dressing on my right hand. I checked my rifle and discovered that the bullet had jammed the mechanism somehow. I could see no one.
Nearby was a farmer’s barn. I crawled to it, went inside and here I found one of my own men, Jim McKenzie, from North Bay, Ontario. We could hear Germans coming in the distance. On one side of the barn, there were several large cider barrels lying on their side. There was a small opening at the bottom. Like two rats running for cover, we took off our packs and rifles and put them inside a barrel and crawled in ourselves. We sat sideways inside.
The Germans were coming down and the building shook. They had tossed in a grenade and then, they riddled the inside of the barn with machine-gun fire. They did not hit our barrel. They came inside and stood and talked for a while. When they finally left, we were in the barrel, shaken up, but still alive.
All at once things quieted down. There was no more shooting and we did not hear any voices. The only noise was traffic on the highway, which was east of us. We crawled out of the barrel, stretched our legs, had a drink of cider from the barrel and thought about how lucky we had been.
Now, we had to face reality. I had seen four of my best buddies and best soldiers shot down and laying only a few feet from me. I also thought “What about Corporal MacWilliams and his section?” What had happened to them? Were they all dead like my section was? Also, there were the British soldiers (conscientious objectors). We did not think that the Germans would shoot the medical people, but really who actually knew? We did not even know for sure if the Germans would take us prisoners if they did find us. After stretching our legs and having a drink of cider, we crawled back into the barrel.
We stretched out in the barrel but I could not sleep. About midnight, I crawled out again. Everything was quiet except for some traffic on the highway where German tanks and trucks were all heading for the front. This time out, I crawled along the ditch, slowly and steadily. I went halfway around the apple orchard and then back and around the other way. This was the ditch that my men had been killed in, but I found nothing but an English cookie, which I ate.
When I got back to the barn and inside the barrel, I felt better. The exercise was good for me. The next day the Germans were still around. We stayed in the barrel another night and then on the third night crawled out. We crawled for a quarter of a mile and by that time, we thought we were out of their encampment and also past the Frenchman’s yard. We were also on the east side of the highway. That night, we may have gone about a mile. We were now in pasture land and bush. Our plan was to go south and west, get away from the heavily fortified coast and to try and reach our troops from the south. We kept this up for five days and our only food was new potatoes that we took from the farmers’ gardens. We had several close calls with German soldiers.
On the fifth day, it was raining. We were wet and hungry. We spotted a nice-looking farmhouse, a barn and some cattle. We decided to check out this farmer for some food. We had watched the house for several hours and no one had come into the yard. We knocked on the door. A young lady came to the door and with a French- English phrase book, we asked for food. She called a young boy. She motioned for us to follow the boy. He led us across the yard, into the barn, up some stairs and pointed for us to rest in some hay. He indicated that we should stay there and then he left.
Now, we had a decision to make. Could we trust this woman and the boy or would they turn us in to the Germans? We decided to trust them. A few hours later, a man came from the house. He could speak a little English. He brought us some food; bread, cheese and some sausage. He said two German officers were staying in his house. He also said for us not to worry and that the next day after school (he was a teacher) he would come and take us to a camp in the trees. I asked him how the war was going. His only reply was “very difficult.”
He was true to his word. The next afternoon, he came again and led us about five miles through heavy bush and pasture to where about 10 British soldiers were living in a house. It was okay, but there was no food and no senior officers to take command.
The next day, I went with two British soldiers to see if we could find some food. I had seen a small flock of sheep and I said we would go there at dark, catch a lamb, butcher it and have some food. We walked about three miles to the pasture. The sun was down and dark was setting in. I was just about ready to enter the pasture to catch a lamb, when the British soldier behind me said “We’ve had it mate”. I looked back over my shoulder and there was a section of German soldiers. They were on bicycles and had got the drop on us. In my mind, I thought this was the end. They all had weapons and I felt they would shoot.
They motioned for me to go forward. I thought they were taking us further into the bush. I was wrong. They turned on to a better road and now I had some confidence that they were taking us alive. They marched us a few miles and we came to a sort of a jail. They took all of our possessions from us and marched us about two miles further and put us in a stone building where about 30 or 40 of our allied soldiers were being held. I recognized several from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. For me, the war was over.
I had been shut off from any news for 12 days and I was very anxious to find out how the war was going. I soon found out that our soldiers at the beach were bogged down and fighting desperately to hang on to the beach head landings. There were about 40 men in this stone building and we were a rough-looking group. We were unshaven, not washed and had no change of clothes. In a few days, we were loaded in trucks and started on our journey to Germany. We travelled to Paris by truck and from Paris to Frankfurt, Germany by train. With many stops and delays, it took us over a month to finally get to a prisoner of war camp at Muhlburg (south of Berlin). This prisoner of war camp had over 20,000 prisoners of allied nationalities. Here, we had showers, our clothes went through a delousing machine and we were assigned to bunks with crude beds.
Here at IVB, I got a very pleasant surprise. I met up with several of my platoon who had been with me at the battle in the orchard. Several of them, whom I had thought had been killed, had instead survived and had been taken prisoner at that time. Jim McPherson and I had hid in the big cider barrel. With the discovery of these men, the losses at the pasture were not as bad as I had thought. There had been seven killed. Eleven were taken prisoner (seven of whom were wounded).
Jim McPherson, the man with me in the barrel, escaped and lived with the French farmers for 30 days and then returned to England. He rejoined the battalion and went right through to Germany. We had one soldier, Private McIness from Cape Breton, who jumped out of the plane and was never seen or heard of again. After two years, the Canadian Army declared him as dead; killed in action.
Did we do any good? We were out of action after two days. However, it is believed by the military and other people that planeloads like ours and others confused the Germans so much that several divisions were held back from the front and thus our bridgehead at Normandy was made secure.
BoydAndersonisamostlyretiredrancher fromGlentworth,Sask.andhasbeena columnistforGrainewsformanyyears.