A Sappers D-Day Memories...

The birth of the 1st Assault Brigade — Royal Engineers
And its contribution to the success of the D.Day landings.

A new breed of Royal Engineers was to be born and reared in this part of the English countryside, a vast and sparsely populated area of central Suffolk was cleared of all civilians and this became the training area for the newly formed Assault Brigade. For the first time in the history of the Corps, Sappers were to become Armoured Engineers, there was to be three Assault Regiments, each with four Assault Squadrons. There was also one Assault Park Squadron to handle the supply and repair of all the specialised equipment that was still to come. We were supplied with specially adapted Churchill tanks that were designed, along with the specialised equipment, to break through most enemy front line fortifications whilst offering the protection of the armour to the operators.
It soon became evident that a few hundred of the ex ‘Boy’ soldiers of my era had been drafted into this new Armoured Brigade possibly because of their youth, their fitness and they were all regular soldiers. My own personal story from here on is typical of the experience of all these ‘Boys’ until the end of World War 2 in Europe, many of whom lost their lives in the actions that followed.
I was drafted into 149 Assault Park Squadron and after a very short period I was sent away to be trained to operate an armoured D 8 Bulldozer. On returning to my unit I found that the training schedule for all the new units was both thorough and very intensive. This was so much so that it was obvious that it was the build up for a big operation not too far into the future, although at the time we had no idea when and where.
In March 1944 I, along with other bulldozer crews, was sent to Brancaster on the north Norfolk coast for what we understood was to be an exercise, and on arrival there we were attached to a party of Royal Navy Commando Divers. The beach had been set up with many rows of various obstacles and the training that we had to undertake was the removal of these obstacles as quickly and as safely as possible. Many of them had explosives attached to the base and these were underwater at high tide. It was the task of the divers to make the explosives safe and for the bulldozer operators to remove the obstacles; it was only then that we were able to make a positive guess as to what may lay ahead.
After about one week I returned to my unit at Brandeston and was looking forward to proceeding on leave early in April, however, only a few days before my leave was due to start all leave was cancelled, no explanation or reason was given. About two weeks later we were moved south to a wooded area just north of Portsmouth. The area was overcrowded with troops from a whole variety of regiments and once inside we were confined to camp, no one was allowed out and the perimeter was guarded by armed patrols. It was now obvious that we were about to embark on a serious operation, this was no exercise, but where and when it was to happen was pure guesswork.
We were contained in this camp for a period of about five weeks during which time we were issued with clothing that was impregnated with DDT powder, a disinfectant that smelt horrible but would prevent lice from breeding. We were not allowed to wash any of our underwear and hang it out to dry so as not to give away our position to German aircraft crews who were constantly surveying the countryside looking for the concentration of troops and equipment.
On the 3rd June 1944 we were instructed to dress in full battle order and ordered to move with our machines to an embarkation area at Portsmouth. On arrival there I joined up with 81 Assault Engineer Squadron and was given immediate instructions to waterproof my bulldozer. Later in the day we embarked onto a Tank Landing Craft (LCT), a small craft that takes only five tanks, once it was fully loaded we moved out into Southampton waters and joined a convoy that was assembling in the Solent. The only information we were given at that time was that we would be moving off on the following evening, the 4th June. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated and the move was postponed for 24 hours, it was a most uncomfortable period because there was no accommodation for the troops on these craft and very little shelter. They were flat bottomed and bouncing about like corks in the heavy seas, it was extremely cold and miserable and as for food it was composed of composite rations, mostly from tins and with dry biscuits.
It was not until late in the afternoon of the 5th June we were informed that we would be moving off later that evening. However, early in the evening we did move out of the Solent to the open sea where we took up our position in the vast convoy that was assembling outside of Southampton Waters. Once we had established our position in the convoy, all the troops were briefed about the operation that we were about to embark on, it was referred to as ‘Operation Overload’ and we were heading for the Normandy coast. Shortly after, we were issued with a sum of French currency, truly confirming our destination. It was then about 10pm when the ship’s engines came to life and the whole convoy started to move slowly forward.
As darkness overcame the convoy it was very eerie, as far as I could see we were surrounded by ships of all sizes, including warships, and yet it was so quiet except for the noise of the engines and the waves lapping the sides of the craft. The sea was still quite rough and the small craft was riding up and down with the high waves causing many of the troops to be seasick, even though we had been on board for three days. The nights were cold and due to the uncomfortable conditions it was almost impossible to get a descent sleep, it was a case of having short periods of dozing.
As daylight broke it was an incredible sight to be able to view the vastness of the convoy and I was very happy to see that there were plenty of craft to the front of us, I was very much hoping it would remain that way. It was still very quiet, therefore obvious the Germans had not yet detected the convoy on their radar, nor were there any spotter planes active at that time of the morning, so obviously they were not expecting an invasion force in such bad weather, maybe this was to our advantage. At this time we were all assembled for a final briefing and at the same time we each received a double measure of 100% Navy Rum. The reason given was to warm us up, but I think it was also a case of building up a little ‘Dutch courage’, whichever, it was very welcome and I reckon it served both purposes! During the briefing we learned that British forces were to land on two beaches, ‘Sword’ and ‘Gold’, the Canadians on one beach, ‘Juno’, which was located between the two British beaches and the Americans were to land on two beaches. The craft I was on was part of the force to land on ‘Gold’ Beach; this was to the extreme right of the British and Canadian beaches.
As I gazed ahead of the convoy and daylight was increasing it soon became possible to see the French coast on the distant horizon. Shortly after, all the craft to our front started to disperse to the left and to the right and at the same time the heavy guns of our warship escorts all opened fire as if from a given signal. The noise was tremendous and it appeared to be only a few minutes before the Germans retaliated with their heavy coastal batteries. The battle had now really begun as German shells began to fall amongst the convoy causing many casualties due to the number of the craft that received direct hits. Suddenly there was the additional roar of aircraft engines and on looking up I could see what appeared to be hundreds of Lancaster bombers passing overhead and making for the beaches to bomb, and we all hoped, to destroy the German defences.
As we approached closer to land all the landing craft had dispersed to form lanes for each of their respective beach and the only ships to be seen in front of us were now only the minesweepers and the rocket ships. There was much devastation, many craft had received direct hits from enemy shells and there were many men in the water but no craft was allowed to slow down and offer help. As we approached nearer to the shore the minesweepers dispersed and the rocket ships turned parallel to the coast to enable them to fire their rockets at the German defences, by this time the Lancasters had completed their job and turned for home
As the rocket ships moved away to the right and the landing craft were approaching the beach, the barrage from our own warships was lifted and moved inland to target the German heavy guns. Just as we were about to hit ground the winchman at the front of our craft was already lowering the ramp to allow the tanks to disembark. My bulldozer was the last vehicle to leave the craft and as I crawled out of the water onto the dry beach, two of the Engineer tanks off my craft and immediately to my front were both hit by enemy shells. They instantly caught fire and in less than a minute both exploded and were blown apart, I saw only two members of one crew that managed to climb out of one of the tanks before it exploded. These Engineer tanks were heavily armed, not only with ammunition but also with high explosives for the purpose of carrying out demolition work.
I very quickly contacted the Royal Navy divers who arrived on the beach at about the same time and we immediately started to dismantle the obstacles and to make lanes through to the beach for the reinforcements who were following immediately behind. We had landed at low tide so that we could tackle to obstacles before they became submerged, but it was not very long before I was sitting in my bulldozer with water up to my waist. The Royal Navy divers then had the difficult task of working under water to deal with the mines and explosives. As we continued to clear the obstacles the infantry and the commandos were pouring ashore and were taking many casualties mostly from small arms and mortar fire.
At the top of the beach, the Engineer tanks with their bridging equipment, fascines, and Petard mortars, which were capable of destroying a German gun position, were rapidly breaking through the German defences, they were strongly supported by the Flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons. Once the defences at the top of the beach had been overcome and the tanks and infantry were moving inland, small arms fire ceased but we continued to receive shell and mortar fire. A number of craft were hit at the waters edge and the wreckage was causing problems for other craft arriving to unload, on occasions it was necessary for me to attach my bulldozer winch rope to the wreckage and tow it clear of the beach.
The worst job that I was asked to undertake was on the following day when a Padre approached me and asked if I would help to recover a number of bodies that were floating in the sea just off shore. I cannot remember precisely how many, but I do recall it was somewhere between 25 and 30, the sad thing was, that most of these soldiers had died, not directly from enemy action, but from drowning due to the heavy equipment they were carrying.
I remained working on Gold beach for five days, mainly helping to keep the lanes open for the constant stream of troops that were arriving and also the vast amount of supplies of food, petrol and ammunition that was required for the success of operation Overlord. When I left the beach area I rejoined my Engineer unit and after the break out from Normandy we were attached to the 3rd Canadian Division. They had been allotted the task of clearing the Channel ports and the cross Channel coastal batteries at Cap Gris Nez that were constantly shelling the port of Dover. The Assault Engineers played an important part in breaking through the German defences at each of these ports.
There is no doubt that the lives of many Sappers’ were saved with having the protection of armour whilst carrying out their various hazardous front line tasks, our D.Day casualties can be favourably compared with the heavy American casualties on Omaha beach where similar equipment was not used.
I end my story by paying tribute to the ‘Sappers’ of the 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers and particularly to all those ex ‘Boys’ of my generation who played such a big part within this unit, many of whom did not survive the battles to liberate Europe.

Ralph Rayner January 2006.
bravo Gundulph
Anyone else at the unveiling of the Royal Engineers D-Day memorial/cenotaph thing in Normandy last week? I was the half-cut numpty on the end of the parade who failed to right turn and salute.
I wasn't, but the guy who's doing our patio went over as his dad was a Sapper at D-Day. He went with his father-in-law who was ex-RAF but had spent most of his service attached to RE units and they both attended the unveiling. He spent most of Tuesday telling us about it!
Gundolph , i remember when you were happy digging holes and bashing in 6ft pickets !!!!

Now you have become a literary genious, good effort fella
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