‘The loss of a single life at war is a frightening and horrible thing. But to believe that nothing at all is worth fighting for is even more horrible.’ – Bert Childs – 1993
Operation Overlord, otherwise known as the D-Day Landings, was huge scale invasion of Northern France in 1944 by Allied Forces in order to rid that country, followed by the rest of Nazi occupied Europe, of totalitarian domination. Having taken the decision to counter invade, and to confront Hitler’s army on the ground, it was agreed that a combined force of parachute & glider troopers from the British 6th Airborne Division would lead the invasion of Normandy by landing at key inland locations, well behind the Nazi frontline. Their initial objective had two important elements.
The first would be for the parachute soldiers to set up a defensive perimeter, or bridge-head, which would prevent the enemy, waiting in reserve a little deeper into the French countryside, from reinforcing their own fortification at the Normandy beaches and subsequently mounting a counter attack on the exposed allied landing forces. In effect, the parachute regiment would be dropping behind the first line of German defence in order to isolate them. And this was critical. If the 6th Airborne soldiers failed to stop German Colonel Hans A. Von Luck and his 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, who were in a position just a few miles east of where the paras would be landing, from counter attacking then the entire operation would probably fail.
The second main objective was to secure vital river crossing points that would enable the much larger seaborne invasion force to push past the paratroopers and establish stronger, safer defensive positions away from the exposed beaches. The Allied plan was to enable a massive seaborne invasion force to attack the isolated German defences on the beaches and quickly push past to link up with the established British Airborne Division further inland. Other objectives for the airborne units were to attack and destroy the heavy German gun batteries that also threatened to inflict massive damage to the troops landing on the beaches. One of these was the feared Merville Battery. This central part of the invasion plan was code-named ‘Operation Deadstick.’
Prior to Overlord, preparation and repeated rehearsal had been going on all over Britain with men and women rehearsing and revising their roles. As new ideas were developed new units were created to carry out specific operations and one of these had been the 6th Airborne Division, formed on May 18th 1943 and under the command of General Richard Gale, otherwise known as ‘Windy.’ In a basic but effective piece subterfuge, the division was called the 6th Airborne simply to confuse enemy intelligence officers into believing Britain already had five others, when in fact there was only one other, the 1st Airborne, commanded by Major General F.A.M Browning. Within a year the new 6th Airborne would become one of the most acclaimed British infantry divisions of all time.
Operation Overlord was initially scheduled to commence on the 4th June 1944 but bad weather delayed the campaign by a single day. German commanders however, expecting the imminent allied attack, calculated the weather forecast for some days ahead to be too poor for the British and Americans to attempt any assault. Some of them even gave themselves a few days off and returned to their families. Their assumptions would be wrong because late in the evening of the 5th June 1944 a squadron of Dakota aircraft, filled with paratroopers and with six Horsa gliders on tow behind them, took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in the south of England. Ahead of them were the pathfinders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company who had been detailed to mark the drop zones with beacons for the pilots to locate.
Once on the ground individual units set about their prearranged tasks, some of which had very tight time limits with grave consequences should the para’s fail to achieve their own given objectives. For example the Merville Gun Battery, which had an awesome capacity and protected the beaches code-named Gold, Juno & Sword, was to be silenced by the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion. So critical was this part of the operation that if they failed to do so the British Navy cruiser HMS Arethusa would open fire on the position at 05:00 wiping out any paratroopers in the area. And they were all aware of that.
The four 75mm guns themselves were protected by a 10ft concrete shield and were thought to be capable of sinking any ship or landing-craft heading for the beaches they overlooked. The RAF had tried and failed several times to knock out the guns and so the job was now given to the men on the ground. Other elements of the eight-thousand strong 6th Airborne were to link up with Major John Howard of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry whose men of D-Company, on board the gliders, were expected to attack and seize three important bridges across the River Orne and the Caen Canal. They were to defend them until the more heavily armed paras arrived.
Whilst the men of 9 Para were tackling the Merville guns and 3 Para were destroying four vital bridges on the Dives, 5 Para were busy attacking, mine-clearing and preparing a landing zone for the glider-borne troops who were following. Later in the night over two-hundred more gliders arrived in the area in what was a vital part of the overall operation. They all landed in zones secured by the men of the 6th Airborne Division. Simply put, without the British 6th Airborne, and the men and women of its rank and file, the D-Day landings could not have been attempted, let alone successful, and Britain today would be a very different place to live in.
In September 1939 Albert Childs was a twenty-one year-old engineer working for the British Rail in London. He had recently married Kate Cooling and was settling into a happy family life, with their one-year-old daughter. At the same time events across Europe were taking a sinister turn, which led to a declaration of war, by Britain, on the German nation. Warned by the tales of world-war-one, relayed to him by his father and uncles, Albert decided the thought of being drafted into the armed forces and then ‘stuck in a trench somewhere in Europe,’ didn’t appeal to him at all. So, after thinking long and hard about his options, he took the brave step of volunteering for the British Army in the hope of securing a better deal for himself than the conscripted soldier would later on.
In the October of that year he packed his bags and, with a heavy heart, said his goodbyes, reported for duty at Plymouth’s Millbay Barracks and began his military training. Shortly afterwards Albert was posted to the Royal Military Police and was received training in all aspects of military law. Being awarded the coveted red-cap would mean a better war than that of the regular foot soldiers and volunteering had already proven to be a wise decision. He saw his first action after a posting to North Africa, where Italian & German forces had been building up and Albert became involved in the activities of the Long Range Desert Group, who used parachute soldiers for the first time.
Until 1940 Britain had adopted a defensive policy but in June of that year Winston Churchill announced a new approach that included striking directly at the enemy. On 22 June 1940, in a memo to the war office, Churchill wrote, ‘We ought to have a Corps of at least 5000 parachute troopers. I hear something is being done already to form such a Corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these forces who none-the-less can play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence. Pray let me have a note from the War Office on this subject.’
It had been the early successes of the Long Range Desert Group, and a five-hundred man Commando Battalion who also had a parachute wing, that persuaded Churchill to instruct Major General Browning to form the 1st Airborne Parachute Brigade Division. Once again Albert was towards the front of the volunteers and found himself selected for the brand new airborne division, which was to later become part of the 6th Airborne Division.
The 1st Airborne’s Provost Company (Military Police) was to be located at Bulford Army Camp on the edge of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, southern England. It is a bleak and wind-swept place that served as home to the Royal Artillery during the First World War and where Lord Kitchener himself had visited his troops. By the 1940’s it had hardly changed at all and became the location for all the early parachute regiment recruitment and instruction. Training at Bulford was designed to be a very tough test of strength and character and recruits were required to fight opponents, in a no rules and no holds barred contest, for a period of at least two minutes. These contests resembled nothing more than a pub brawl or a street fight, only without anyone stepping in to break them up. However, Albert had grown up in a rough London area as the son of a semi-professional bare knuckle boxer who wasn’t averse to plying his craft at home. This was an environment Albert was quite used to and he found it a lot easier to deal with than some of the other recruits.
Casualties were common, but never too serious. There was the odd broken nose or busted rib here and there and of course plenty of cuts and bruises, but there was a war going on and it was likely to be a fight to the death once these soldiers met the enemy proper. These men were not being trained to shoot from trenches, tanks or from the big guns the Royal Artillery had from miles behind the lines. These were front line soldiers who would be dropping from the sky in amongst the enemy and hand to hand combat was highly likely.
The overall view of this form of training was that a couple of hundred recruits out of action for a few weeks at a time with the odd broken bone was a small price to pay and most of the men readily agreed with that. Albert was one of the few there who had already seen action, with the LRDG, and had a good idea of what to expect. He knew that if these soldiers couldn’t handle the odd broken bone or a few field stitches without anaesthetic then the parachute regiment wasn’t the place for them to be. And it was better that was found out in training at Bulford and not in action in France when lives were at stake.
Some people have since claimed that the only thing achieved in Bulford was the creation of a ‘thuggish and bloody minded elite’ and there was some truth in that as fewer than half of the intake would meet the standards set during the recruitment process. At Bulford Camp the motto became ‘work hard, play hard’ and anybody who dropped below the required level of performance was immediately returned to his parent unit, regardless of his rank. It was the toughest basic course in the entire army and in the end the medical tests and reports for every soldier had to read A1 plus. Even as late as the final medical there were many who had made it through the initial basic training, who were returned as unfit.
The army would make use of this training on a regular basis by giving airborne soldiers security details at various sensitive locations around the country. Frequently members of the parachute regiment, particularly those with red-cap training, would be detailed to provide base security or become personal bodyguards. Shortly after being promoted to staff sergeant, Albert was assigned to divisional headquarters where he became a member of General Gale’s personal bodyguard detail for a six-week period.
The following months included a return to the parachute brigade’s headquarters in Chesterfield where the soldiers underwent special assault course training with the rest of the company. By the time they returned to Bulford Camp a high degree of confidence had spread amongst the rank and file. Each man, although many were still only youngsters, had developed into a highly professional soldier and everybody was completely confident in the abilities of each other, regardless of what they faced together in the months to follow. To the men of the regiment there didn’t appear to be a weakness anywhere and when Albert himself was asked the age-old question of ‘who would you want in the trenches next to you?’ he replied, ‘each and any one of them. Anybody you like, I trusted them all.’
And so began the final preparations for the D-Day Landings and this is the inside story of that famous assault on the now named Pegasus Bridge exactly as Albert Childs, my grandfather, told it to me. There are also tales of early 1st Airborne Division raids in North Africa, the Battle of the Bulge, the jump over the Rhine, peacekeeping in Norway and trouble in Palestine. All of the following events actually happened and these first hand recollections provide a fascinating insight into the situation at hand and of the mind of a man directly in the middle of it all. These notes were originally written during the early 1990’s and directly from the memory of an old soldier who was, by then, in his eighth decade and who had never spoken about any of it before then. Whilst great care has been taken in terms of accuracy there could, of course, be some events that are out of sequence. Memories do eventually fade.
Bangkok, June 5th 2015
The Greatest Generation: Diary of a 1st & 6th Airborne Paratrooper (1940-1950)
Albert Jack books available for download here