Friday, June 6, 2014
Seventy years ago today (Friday), an armada of more than 5,500 Allied ships made the crossing across the English Channel and towards the beaches of Normandy.
The subsequent landings would prove to be a turning point in the war, as Allied troops gained a vital foothold in mainland Europe – forcing Hitler to fight on two fronts as Russian forces continued to push from the east.
Among the 160,000 men ferried across the Channel on June 6, 1944, was Sidmothian Bill Maeer, who was part of the 12th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.
The 12th was an Airborne unit, and the men had been specially trained as glider troops – a completely new concept for the British military.
The 12th Devons would later become part of the much larger 6th Air Landing Brigade in the run up to the invasion.
“They just handed us our red [Airborne] berets one day and told us ‘you’re Airborne now’,” said Bill, 95. “But we got paid two shillings extra a day, so we didn’t complain.”
Bill’s place in the reserve company meant he was tasked with ensuring the battalion’s vehicles and supplies were quickly delivered to the front line troops.
“During training flights I’d sit in the rear gunner’s seat of the glider, and we’d be carrying two 1500 jeeps,” he said. “The floor was made of metal, but the rest was made of balsa wood and cardboard - you could push your hand through the side of them.”
However, because of shortages in supplies, there were not enough aircraft for the whole of the 12th Battalion to make the D-Day assault by glider.
In fact, despite being an Airborne unit, the bulk of the 12th Battalion made the journey to France by sea – with just one out of the unit’s four companies taking part in the night-time glider landings.
Bill said the hours building up to D-Day involved waterproofing vehicles to make sure they could be taken ashore safely.
He left from Tilbury, Essex and landed as part of the nearly 30,000 strong British force at Sword beach.
“The boats didn’t go all the way in so we had to drive the vehicles in,” he said. “We were chest high in the water and you weren’t allowed to touch the pedals because the throttle was all by hand.”
And although he landed after the bulk of the fighting, the beaches had been pre-targeted by German artillery and were shelled throughout the day from guns hidden inland.
“You’d get the odd round flying overhead,” he remembered. “The beaches certainly weren’t safe – we were still under fire.
“You had to be a bit careful what you did, because you never knew what you were going to run in to.”
Bill would serve in France for a further four months, then go on to the Ardennes and later join up with Russian forces on the Baltic Coast.