We were making good progress with just under ten minutes until we hit Caen. I was nearly as nervous as the beach landings. It was definitely tenser though; more tense than Gold Beach.
I glanced across to the others and they looked scared as well.
“Let’s go boys. Prepare to face your darkest fears”. I hoped that was metaphoric coming from Captain Rhys. The least I wanted was to come face to face with a bloody dentist.
We could see Caen, already in partial ruins as we came over the horizon. The Germans had not outnumbered us as we were joined by more Canadian and British troops. Our signal was when the first air strike hit. We waited for Mallory to give the order. When it was in action, the Germans suddenly dived backwards.
We piled over a great hill, down towards the motorway entrance into Caen. We also had to avoid our own air strikes, hitting down at us constantly. It was intimidating as groups of Battalions started to line up the fire. Our equipment was better as well as the lack of German air support.
We were the better side as we pushed through the centre of Caen within forty five minutes. Our airstrikes were paying off to be a treat. A great building fell down into pieces as remains of struggling Nazis came rushing out.
We were ordered to keep Caen in living conditions. We needed to be based there for a few days and it was no good for us if it was all rubble and ashes. Commander Leigh-Mallory was now alongside us, pulling out of his truck with Jacobsen.
I was on the front line with Gaz and Mark, firing all we had left. Bullets were flying everywhere, missing us by inches… but Gaz had been hit. He fell to the floor as Mark yelled, “Medic!” We took him behind cover.
I encouraged Gaz to stay strong, “Come on, you can’t die…it’s just not you…you’re as tough as old boots mate,” I began to cheer him up as I shouted, “And you’re not going to let a pussy Nazi bullet bring you down! Are you?!”
“No Sir!” he let out a scream
“Good” I patted him on the back as the medic arrived.
Gaz was a main man and had been in the army for three years. We were soon joined by Ethan, fighting for his life as Gaz was taken away to the hospital in a truck which said ‘Medic’ on it.
As we continued to fire, Thomas came to our cover.
“Lads…as soon as I stick my head up to shoot, you need to return fire to that scum immediately. Got that?”
He stuck his head up, preparing to shoot. But he was down with no chance of survival. It was a clear headshot.
“Holy…” Ethan was shocked and could not finish his sentence.
“Let’s not just sit here, I know we didn’t like him but the least we can do is honour his final orders; 1…2…3!”
On my count, I, Mark and Ethan all came up shooting, devastating many of the Germans. We were heading for the remaining Nazis, who were circled but still fighting. We were winning. It was our destiny.
At last a final shot let out and men threw hats up into the air, cheering. We had won, we had won Caen. It was absolutely essential due to the size and it also helped us progress towards the German border.
Within a week we had sustained the health of Caen. Extra reinforcements and supplies had been called in and delivered. Again, I was made Platoon Leader due to Thomas’s death. Mark was made the Sergeant as Thomas’s body was sent back to England. I was ordered to write a report on Caen.
Later on in the night, we set out for Le Havre, which took us just over an hour to reach. We were led over a bridge and into the harbour. There were already British and Canadian soldiers there. I was glad that there was no more fighting in that day.
1st September 1944
It was early in the morning when Captain Rhys woke us all up, shouting at us and throwing our blankets to the floor.
“Boss, it’s five in the morning” Jordan complained about the inconvenience.
“To the meeting centre…NOW!” He ordered us to be dressed and ready at the meeting area, which was near the port, in five minutes.
There was a whole regiment packed into a great hall. All of the captains, generals and lieutenants were at the front with a large instruction board.
General Dempsey finally showed up. I suspect he was sending other officers instructions from another place.
He started out loud “We have received news that allied troops are close to defeat with less numbers and increasing deaths in Brussels. 1st Battalion are coming with me whilst 2nd and 3rd are to remain here and infiltrate the border as soon as we are out of Brussels. 1st, we leave on Sunday.”
There had been a change from our original plans but we still had to progress through Amiens, past the Nazi soldiers. We were 1st Battalion so we were heading to Belgium on the 3rd. We had already secured the Belgium border, so that would not be a problem. We then planned to make our way into Brussels to give a helping hand to the allies there, defeat the Nazis and push to the west of the German border. We were to follow the River Meuse North West.
The next day was all about preparation. It was a four hour journey to Belgium from Le Havre. Plus we had to fight our way through Amiens against the Germans. We all knew it would be tough. God knows how I managed to find confidence and optimism on days like those.
It was vital that we had everything we needed. We would be under the command of Dempsey. He was our main general and finally on foot with us; the second army was complete again. He was hardly with us most of the time.
The roads were quiet near Amiens; this was obviously due to the war. Although France is genuinely quiet all round, regardless of what is going on in the ‘Political World of Adventures’. Ethan and I came up with that name one rainy morning.
The Second Army was, in effect, the army. It consisted of 135,000 men. We never referred to our post as, ‘The Second Army’. We usually just represented our platoon or company.
We took up our usual tactic of leaving the vehicle and taking a slow, calm entry. We took to the side roads, deep in the bushes. We were camouflaged. Then we heard a ringing bell. Captain Rhys ran over to the turn in the road and poked his head round the corner. He looked at me, where I was a far distance away. I then heard his voice on the radio. “It’s a school,” he breathed, “but it looks like its lunch break.”
I paused, “Sir?”
He panicked, “Well…don’t you see?! They could see us!” he was whispering but in a worried and outraged tone.
I was confused why he was so worried. I could not see the school from my position, so if it was infested with man eating spiders then yes I would have been concerned. “Sir, why not take the other side of the road and stay low in cover?” I suggested.
He considered arguing, “Oh ok then” he finally said.
We did that without any fuss as we headed into the centre of Amiens. We stopped on the edge of a main road as we saw passing Germans in Jeeps. Mallory walked up to Dempsey, who was just metres away from me. They exchanged words before the commander pulled out his radio and muttered down the speaker.
We were told to stay low, silent and motionless in the bushes. After approximately ten minutes, a formation of several RAF aircrafts swooped in and dropped shells down in Amiens. This was our cue. I was also informed that we were attempting to free French resistance from prisons. I received the order from Rhys and passed it back to my men. Our whole Battalion was there.
In battle formation, we charged through the flames which devoured Amiens. We were firing our weapons at Nazis, who had emerged from buildings around us. Amiens was already destroyed before we got here, but we had just made it worse.
We were progressing well through Amiens by taking cover alone. Of course the shooting helped but it was all down to cover. We came face to face with a large group of Nazis, fighting our way across a nearly destroyed bridge, which towered over a railway. We held our cover for a few minutes as our men set explosives on the side of the bridge.
We took better cover as Nazis started to retreat but they were too late. The bridge had been destroyed, taking them with it. We also lost a few men. Then I ran with Ethan and Ray by my side. We leapt behind a building as we were followed by the rest of us.
Captain Rhys sat down struggling to keep his hat on over the tumbling explosions going on behind us. ‘Lucky’ Dempsey made his way over to Rhys. We were all sat with the rest of our company. “Rhys, we head East around the bridge!” He shouted, waving a map to us. He soon departed.
Captain Rhys then looked up at us and screeched, “Well. You heard him! Go, go, and go!” We did as we were ordered as I pointed my part of the platoon east. It was a long road on the side of the railway track. We turned the corner with our company but men were hit. We scooped down to the floor.
We were still under fire as I looked over to Captain Rhys who nodded to me. I knew what this meant. I let a little whisper into Gaz’s ear and he looked up with a faint smile, “You’re bloody mad Marsh.” He soon departed backwards as I let out a small chuckle.
Five minutes later he returned with two other men and a Bazooka. My two squads stopped and looked over to us. Ricky, mouth agape asked, “Boss, who exactly will be firing that?”
I looked from him to Ray before they both looked at each other and simultaneously laughed, “No…way?!”
The twins proved an ideal team as they took out sniper men and machine gunners in 5 shots, assistance. Then we made our way around the road, still firing in directions of the enemy.
It took us over fifteen minutes before we reached a large cathedral. We slowly made our way in. We heard echoing screams. From every direction we saw Nazi soldiers ambushing us. Everyone else prepared to surrender but I started shooting. The company looked at me before doing the same. I was reloading quicker than I thought I could. I shot down every last remaining Nazi.
We stayed within the cathedral, with men lumping dead bodies outside. General Dempsey strolled in then with a huge smile across his face. He walked over to me, “Congratulations,” he paused so I told him my name; “Lieutenant Jackson, you showed true courage there” he smiled and walked over to Captain Rhys. “Rhys, it’s getting dark. We are going to stay here for the night and then tomorrow we leave dead on seven thirty. Got it?” he asked as Rhys nodded until he left.
It was a cold cathedral and was already heavily damaged, but it was ok for the night. We did not get to sleep until late at night. Before that we had a short game of Black Jack and had a talk with each other. It was a long night but yet we exchanged smiles.
It was a long journey to the Belgium border, but we finally got there at 9:30am. We were welcomed by four officers, who showed us round the corner to temporarily placed cabins which we acquired. Without time to settle in, we were called into a meeting.
Dempsey hosted the meeting and talked us through our goals. It seemed simple enough and we had a brief idea of the Belgium aftermath. It was not as simple as it sounded. It never was.
There were twelve cabins which accommodated no more than eight each. Each company were to take it in turns every night where the others took up sleeping bags and either squeezed into a cabin or switched to the meeting hall, which was not even a hall. There were similar set ups like that.
That night, I alone was called back to the hall. General Dempsey, Captain Rhys, Captain Bates (who was captain of B Company) and lots of other sergeants stood there. I was welcomed in, “Come in Sergeant.”
I walked over to where they were huddled round a tall, standing board. Dempsey begun, “We’re leaving for Brussels on the 6th. It is approximately an hour’s journey. Therefore, it is best for us to leave early in the morning to get there early and avoid traffic.” Captain Rhys held up his hand to intervene.
“Permission to make a suggestion Sir?” Rhys asked.
“Granted” Dempsey nodded.
“I suggest an early start of 6.00 am to get the men ship shape and ready for the task ahead.”
Dempsey looked up to the towering board then turned back to Captain Rhys, “Make it seven” he smiled as Captain Rhys wiped the sweat off his brow. As we were dismissed, I made a decision to stay behind and study the plan.
I have to say, it looked a bit ominous. It seemed too easy; it was never that easy, even if you had an army twice the size. It was a mistake. On past occasions, we took the outer route to get in but we were heading straight through the centre. It was a death trap.
We managed to leave a day later than expected as the required equipment and vehicles had not been acquired. It took longer than an hour too. Only a few amount of jeeps could go at a time to avoid possible ambushes.
Brussels was not pretty. It was half destroyed and had been bombed heavily, more than it could have coped with in my opinion. It was not an adequate habitat, even if it was temporarily. Our bunker was safe and secure though which was most important.
It was a tiny underground base and a few rats as I may recall correctly. There was a battalion cramped down into three separate, grand bunkers in total. It was not hygienic and the stench was overwhelming.
It was 3:00 am the following morning when bombs started to target our area. It was even more damaged as I threw myself under an old wooden table. As earth fell to our heads, I scurried over to Ethan, who was stretched across the ground underneath tons of mud and gravel. I managed most of it as I reached for my army knife to dispatch a branch. But then I blacked out. I lost total control of my body and fell to the ground.
It was bright and blurry as two men stood over me. I could not make out their faces but I could just make sense of their voices.
“You took quite a blow to your head my friend,” it was an Irish man.
“Never mind that, we still have work to do, regroup!” it was the voice of an American; probably an officer too.
He helped me up where I saw Ethan anxious on his feet, looking over the horizon. The American charged off. I looked to Ethan, shaking my head, “Yanks, they’re crazy for blood”. Maybe they were just patriotic.
We marched deeper into the forest after regrouping. Then we heard bombs, gunfire and cries of despair. Captain Rhys stopped us with his hand, “Slowly men, follow me” we did as ordered as we entered through a cloud of smoke.
We hunkered down, approaching the source of troubles. It was a more quiet area. Rhys halted us again before calling; “Volunteer!” nobody came forward, “Now!”
Danny stepped forward from cover and ran to Captain Rhys. He was stopped half way in his tracks and went down, shot to the ground.
“Take cover! Fire at will!” We dived out of the way and threw our best at them. That was when I realised that the shot to Danny was a direct head shot. He had been murdered.
We were pushed back as the Nazis advanced on us from the smoke. “They are flanking us!” Sergeant Jordan Robinson called (he was squad 2’s sergeant). Nobody stopped.
I leapt off the ground, pulled my rifle from my back and brought the flanking Nazis down with help from my squad. We began to push forward again and before we knew it, we were through the thick cloud of smoke.
From the mountain it was worse. Dead bodies were packed together on the ground, blood spluttered and smeared across everything the eye could see. It was no longer a city, let alone a capital. The war had gotten a lot more serious.