Coup de Main
by Denis Edwards
D Company, 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Towards the end of May 1944 we were loaded into large covered lorries. The rear canvas sheet was unrolled and firmly tied from the outside. (This was not an unusual event. If there were German spies in England they would certainly be interested in the activities of Allied Special Forces such as the Airborne or Commando so we were quite used to being concealed from public gaze as we were transported around England in a succession of field exercises and maneuvers).
After an hour or two the lorry stopped and we found ourselves in a tented camp, heavily guarded and surrounded by high wire fences. We soon realised that this camp was special when, the next day, we were roused from our 7-man Section tents, fallen in and marched the short distance into an internal protected area in the centre of the camp where we entered a large tent in which were stands displaying enlarged aerial photographs and, in the centre, a table upon which stood a very detailed landscaped ground model with two waterways crossed by bridges.
Our force commander, Major John Howard, told us that we had be selected as a special force of 180 men who were to spearhead the invasion of France. The two bridges spanned the Caen Canal and nearby Orne River a few miles inland from the Normandy coast. Our job was to travel in six 30-man wooden gliders which were to be concealed in the midst of a bomber force and released as we approached the French coast; then to dive down through the coastal flak, glide inland and capture these two vital bridges before they could be destroyed by the Germans. (Local intelligence had established that they had been prepared for destruction in the event of an invasion).
The raid was to occur around midnight of 5th/6th June 1944 and we would be the first Allied fighting unit to go into action on D-Day! We spent much of the next two or three days in that tent being briefed on the part that each of our six Infantry Platoons would play. The first three gliders would crash-land in darkness as close to the canal bridge as possible. The other three would land beside the river bridge. The glider in which I was to travel was scheduled to be the first to touch down by the canal bridge but, since, upon release, some gliders may be shot down or land away from the target area, during the few days before the raid we all had to acquaint ourselves with each of the six Platoon tasks – and even individual tasks to be carried out by some men; depending upon the order of landing.
Denis Edwards at the Chateau St Côme in late July, with Major John Howard and
"D" Company's snipers. Left to right: "Wackers" Waite, "Pete" Musty, "Nobby" Clarke,
John Howard, "Rocky" Bright, "Paddy" O'Donnell, and Denis Edwards. Corporal Wally Parr is
not amongst the group, having been wounded earlier in the fighting. Copyright: John Howard.
The day before we were due to take off we were told that Intelligence sources had discovered that both the fanatical 12th Hitler Youth SS and the battle-hardened 21st Panzer Division (who had served under Field Marshal Rommel in North Africa) had moved into the area around Caen just a few miles to the south of our target bridges! Since we had no meaningful anti-tank guns and these two elite German Divisions had around 400 tanks between them I think that most of us firmly believed that we were being sent on a hopeless suicide mission!
On the night of take-off, as I strapped myself into my hard wooden seat I felt like a convicted man who was shortly to be marched to the scaffold and meet the hangman’s rope. My teeth were chattering and I gripped my rifle firmly between my knees to stop them from knocking. To try and bolster what was, probably for many of us, our failing courage, we all began to sing at the top of our voices.
Then a strange thing happen to me. As the glider was pulled along the runway behind its towing Halifax bomber I, still a month short of my 20th birthday, was literally shaking with fright, yet at the very moment that the glider’s wheels parted company with the ground, quite inexplicably my fear vanished. This is something that I have never been able to explain but I believe that at that moment the thought came to me that each of us has a time to be born, a time to live, and a time to die.
This thought was to hold me in good stead during the three months spent in two-man trenches some 6ft long, shoulder width and chest deep as day-by-day friends and comrades were killed or wounded – if the wound was not too severe they were seen as the lucky ones - I just accepted that their time had come and that tomorrow it might well be my turn to die so it didn’t matter whether, under daily bombardment, one sheltered in the deepest trench, if the next bullet, shell or mortar bomb had your name on it there was no way that you could dodge your pre-ordained fate.
I found this a great comfort in times of considerable stress during the three-month long Normandy campaign, the two months in the snow-filled Ardennes during the so-called ‘Battle of the Bulge’ and the six weeks in Germany as we were involved in a 270-mile fighting advance across northern Germany to meet up with the Russians on the Baltic coast.
Roll of Honour - as of January 2006
List of Coup de Main members who have died since I took over as Correspondent in 1989
ALLEN, Doug 27.11.06 23 Pln. 'D' Coy
Copyright: Denis Edwards.