I suppose you might imagine the invasion like it’s shown in the films – ramps down, a dash up the beach, all guns blazing. Reality was far from it. Just sea-sickness, utter fear and confusion, seeking our rendezvous to carry out our pre-arranged duties. These included clearing mines and making exits through the sand dunes. I came in with my company – 84 Field Company, RE, No 6 Beach Group – on Sword beach. Our section corporal was Bob Shaw, a ‘demon barber’ from Edinburgh. We finally made it off the beach to Hermanville-sur-Mer, to the Mare Saint Pierre church. At this small place, not far from the beach, I found comradeship, courage and dedication, and saw pain and suffering.
Across the road from the church was a small orchard and to the left ran a lane alongside the orchard that led to a field at the top, adjoining a small wood. In the field a Field Dressing Station (the 21st) was dug in. The tents, etc, were dug in three to four feet deep.
Our task was to set up a water supply unit, as pure water was so important at this stage. A passing tank obliged by flattening the concrete posts and fencing round the orchard. Fox holes were dug and our water filtering unit trailer was moved into position. A scaffold tower was erected to carry three large canvas water tanks at three levels. The top of the well was blown and we were in business. Very soon we had water trucks queuing as one would queue for petrol.
We were in contact with the Medical Station for our supplies of filtering chemicals, etc, and for them to check the supply of water. Up the adjoining lane there was the almost constant flow of field ambulances, jeeps and trucks – the trucks carrying those who had given their all.
It was strange that this unit was called a Field Dressing Station, and yet operations were being carried out as if in a London hospital. At one time, while at the Field Dressing Station, I had a raging toothache and asked a corporal I knew if he had something for the pain, feeling rather small in the midst of so much suffering. He directed me to a small tent that was dug in like the others. Thinking I could get a tablet or something as a relief, I opened the flaps of the tent and behold – a dentist’s chair and a dental officer behind a table lit by a gas lamp. In a few moments the offending molar was out. What organisation!
On passing back through the lines to my own, it was brew-up time and I noticed a queue had formed, including some German soldiers. I learned that a German medical unit had been captured and had volunteered to stay and assist. The German officers worked alongside the British officers, carrying out endless operations until they passed eventually to POW camps. Penicillin was being used, which was hailed as magic.
Outside the tents the lines of blanket shrouds grew (this was the true cost of war), and were being carried almost continuously by the medics and pioneers to a clearing in the small wood where they were laid to rest.
At our water unit we continued to pump and supply water. Occasionally we came under shellfire from Le Havre. On one occasion we heard the whine of a shell and immediately dived to the ground (several of us in one heap). On looking around when we got up, it was found that our truck driver was beyond help, and at that moment one of our chaps emerged from the shattered latrine, doing his belt up and saying thankfully, ‘They missed me, they missed me!’ The toilet was made up of hessian sackcloth and stakes, which were in pieces and shreds.
As the front began to move on after Caen was captured, we moved on and on, to bridge and cross many rivers – the Seine, the Maas, the Wesel and the Rhine, and then on to Hanover. Along the way we often saw the 21 Field Dressing Station sign, by now occupying buildings and hospitals.
In Normandy our small orchard is still there. The field is cultivated and the little wood is now Hermanville cemetery, neat and quiet, with rows of headstones, more than a thousand of them.