Archie Ratcliffe’s account of D-Day (transcribed)
Omaha – The Real Story
as told by A C Ratcliffe – Service Number 1037824
This should’ve been written many years ago, so I shall have to try, rely upon and test my memory after so many years, as to what really happened on that momentous day and the months that followed, especially in the Ardennes and Operation Market Garden.
Supply and Transport Column (Editor: Archie mis-remembered this: on the facsimile page, he refers to STC as Special Tactical Co. Not so!)
15802 GCI, Special Signals
I suppose it started when I was posted from “16MU” Stafford 1943, to “RAF Kirton Lindsey” which was where we were to be formed as a completely new unit, called “313 STC”.
At that time, it wasn’t known what the unit was to be and of what service we were to be used for as all the personnel was all DMTs. From Kirton Lindsey, we moved to “Scawby Woods” near Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire. We all lived under canvas during our stay there. Apart from the rain most days and nights, which made things very uncomfortable, especially as the Bell Tents leaked like sieves, so everything got soaked. We also got our first issue of battle dress, very smart. Everybody was very “chuffed”. We enjoyed our trips into Scunthorpe, especially to one of the pubs to listen to a girl that sang with the band most evenings. She had one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard. She was tremendous; that’s when I first heard the song “Amapola”, so it’s remained one of my favourite songs ever since. I thought it might be of some interest of that particular period of life at that time.
From Scawby Woods we departed to Gerard’s Cross. It was there that we received our new vehicles. From that time, we were extremely busy; in fact we were constantly in use, moving Fighter Squadrons from all over the country, always moving them down south.
Earlier, in March 1944, eight of us were told to report to the adjadant (sic – adjutant); we were informed that we were to travel to Inverness (hand-corrected to Inverie) in Scotland. We wondered why just the eight of us were sent there. On arriving at the said establishment, we found, to our surprise, that it was a training camp for Commando units. We were to be given intensive assault training and, believe me they really gave us the works. I never realised just how unfit I was and I was glad when it was finished. There, a month was a long time. We then moved to Troon in Ayrshire where we did landing, for 2 weeks, arriving off and on LCTs in various depths of water. It was then we realised that we had training with Sten guns and hand grenades. We were practising for the invasion, which gave much discussion and food for thought.
We then returned to Gerard’s Cross to do a few jobs. One particularly interesting job was at the Denham Film Studios who were into camouflage in a big way, with various and amazing items as well as very ingenious models.
Just a few days into May, once again, I was called into the adjadant’s office where we were told to go to a depot, somewhere near London, but I forget where. We were loaded with a variety of items; some were loaded with radio equipment, some with very long drums of heavy cable, which must have weighed 3 tonnes apiece. I was loaded with line poles from floor to roof apart from a bed space, of which all vehicles of the Unit were allocated by the C/o Group Captain McQueen. We had to report to the Armoury to collect our Sten Guns and “ammo” and nine magazines. We journeyed to “Old Sarum” to have our vehicles waterproofed. That’s when we realised it wouldn’t be long before the invasion. We were then encamped somewhere in the New Forest for 2 weeks. You couldn’t write any letters or get out of this so-called camp.
We happened to be with a Canadian Regiment, I should say French-Canadian Regiment. What a crazy drunken lot! Goodness knows where they got all the booze from. They were a very dangerous lot of blokes; quite a few were killed in drunken brawls.
On the evening of June 4th, we were told to move out of the camp. I guessed that the time must have been about 21:30 – 22:00hrs. We picked up an Army chap of the 16th Air Formation Signals who was a King’s corporal with a military medal, who was to travel with me. Bill Pilling had his oppo, another signal bod. Embarked as light was fading. I could just make out the Isle of Wight on our left. It was very wet and rainy and blowing like the devil. Once on the channel, it was getting very rough and very stormy. Vehicles shifting about made it some of the lads sea sick, including the sailors. Suddenly, we were told we were returning back to land; I think it was Gosport. We sailed about the same time on the evening of June 5th, 1944. Still rough and stormy. LCT really thumping about. I haven’t mentioned the names of the others. I shall have to rely upon my memory. Bill Pilling, two Sandersons (Dad Sanderson from Blackburn, Curly Sanderson from Manchester), A Sullivan from Brighton, Tubby Rowberry, George Forshaw. Sea running very rough; tried to sleep on top of the load, but I did this unsuccessfully. I managed to get a little in the cab. A lot of apprehensive talk, some silly jokes from Dad Sanderson, but very funny all the same. Underneath all the joking, was a lot of serious thinking, nerves and apprehension, not to say some of what would lie ahead.
The Commander of the LCT called us together and told us that we to go to a beach under the name of OMAHA, and that we would be landing in the American sector, at H2 hours. Had a couple of scares that there were some E-boats about and possibly a submarine. The sea was still running high and some of the lads were still feeling sea sick, and would be glad to get ashore. As it turned out, there would be a change of mind later. We had been at sea for 9 hours or so. As it was getting towards dawn we could hear lots of aircraft again, having previously heard a large number during the night. An hour later, we could hear a lot of either bombing or heavy gunfire.
As it got lighter, we could see nothing but ships and boats of all sizes; battleships, destroyers, LSTs, LCTs, LCIs, and hundreds of them. What an incredible sight.
As we came in sight of Omaha beach, the noise was tremendous. We could see the American lads in LCIs and LCTs going ashore. The scene was terrible. We could see there must have been a lot of trouble on the beach. There was heavy shelling and mortar fire, plus very heavy machine gun firing.
The Commander of our LCT told us that we were to delay going ashore as there was quite some trouble for us getting ashore with the Yanky infantry through Jerry shelling and mortar fire, very heavily at all sea craft that were trying to get in. Now everybody aboard our own LCT were getting more than a little anxious now. We had had several near misses already as we had been under fire for a few hours. We had been very close to an American battleship for most of the time,
I think it was the noise of its guns that was so deafening. Also, there was a couple of LCRs (Rocket ships) close by that kept up an unholy noise.
I think the time was getting on for about 11:00-11:30. (Hand-written note added: PROBABLY LATER) We had been hanging about for several hours now, when we were told that we had to go now, or we would miss the tide and have to be dropped too far out. I happened to be the first one in line that was to go ashore. As we got nearer to the beach, we could see the mayhem. There were bodies everywhere in the sea, in burning LCTs and LCIs. We were dropped about 100 yards from the shore.
As I came off the LCT, the sea filled my cab almost to the top of the steering wheel. The Corporal CPL with me said “Don’t you dare take your “so and so” feet off that “so and so” accelerator.” My mind was in quite a whirl during the run in. The mortaring and shelling was getting heavy again. The Corporal CPL said he could see and hear shrapnel and bullets hitting all around. With my load of line poles, I was concerned that we might lose traction, and float, so being a sitting duck. Eventually, we arrived on the beach at last. The beach master was going potty signalling to come on, so I did through a large lake of water that was on the beach, which was either an old shell hole or a hole left by a mine as there was a lot of debris and bodies scattered about. My 2 front wheels of the lorry went in and stopped very abruptly. As I was trying to get out, an ambulance cut in front of me he unfortunately hit a mine, and brewed (sic – blew) up, also taking some others at the same time. I never realised just how deep the beach was, I reckon it must have been between 400-600 yards deep.
There was utter carnage all around. I didn’t know where the other lads were; I didn’t know if they’d even got off the LCT. The noise was terrible, very smoky and smelly. The Corporal said he could see a large Yanky recce vehicle up near the bluffs to his left and suggested we make for it. I can’t remember having said anything all the time from leaving the LCT. We managed to get to the recce vehicle but he said I was swearing and shouting all the time, and that none of the Germans had no mothers and fathers… We dug in, in between the recce vehicle and my Crossley. Somebody must have been looking out for us as we all survived the landings; Bill Pilling was dug in about 30 yards away. We were at various parts of the beach, but had managed to get up under the bluffs. Most had lost their vehicles during the mortor (sic) fire and shelling as the morning went on. Only mine and Bill’s were serviceable, but both had received plenty of shrapnel attention. Several times during that morning we went out to get the wounded under these bluffs for attention by the medics.
Things had quietened down for a while, but there was still plenty of activity about. It seemed to be bad a bit further along the beach, about 600 yards or so. We could see more LCTs trying to get ashore. They were getting a hell of a beating. We could see that they were in battle dress, so we knew that it was the RAF Special Signals Unit that we were to join at the same map reference that we were given. It was 15082 GCI Unit. We had been with them for a couple of days before we sailed, so we knew all of them. There was nothing we could do to help them. We could see them trying to get off the beach with their vehicles, but were getting heavily mortored and machined gunned. We knew they were getting casualties and losing vehicles; that’s how it went on for most of the day. Grateful that our lads had survived without any really serious injuries or wounds. Most of us had a few cuts and bruises. I had something stuck in my knee, a cut on my arm plus a bloody nose and very sore eyes. Most had very similar cuts etc.
15082 were not so fortunate.
They lost 8 killed and several wounded, some seriously. I think most of 313 lads were resigned that we wouldn’t survive the day. We were mostly in a state of shock during the first few hours. We didn’t get off the beach until about 10:00 hours when the Padre got us off to a concentration area on top of the beach. That is where the American Cemetery is now, at St.Laurent sur-Mer. Having got to the concentration area, we found we only had 3 of our vehicles that were able to get there.
We had settled down for the night RAF personnel and the Americans altogether. The Americans had managed to get a few half-tracks and tanks ashore. They were all very concentrated; blokes with vehicles were sleeping under their wagons, others were lying beside the half tracks or in hastily dug slip trenches. I don’t know what time it was, but sometime in the very early hours, Jerry decided to give us a call by way of the Luftwaffe who started bombing and straffing The noise was incredible, not only from Jerry but from all the half tracks, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns that the Yanks had got ashore. All the boats at sea were joining in as well. The amount of shrapnel that was falling was unbelievable. It just showered down. Some spectacle after crawling out from under my lorry. Dick Sullivan called me to the back of my truck to show me that a cannon shell was embedded in the iron stay of my tailboard.
The first thing in the morning was to bury our dead. Not a very pleasant job. The worst of the wounded had been taken to the casualty clearing station. The rest of that day was spent trying to sort things out. Our unit had lost six out of 8 vehicles. 15082 GCI had only 1 signals van and 1 recce vehicle. News had reached us that 2 of our lads had been taken prisoner by the Americans because like us, they were wearing gas impregnated airforce blue plus all the muck and dust that the uniforms had picked up during the fighting on the beach. They were thought to be Germans infiltrating. One was Tubby Dyer and the other was Titch ? – I forget his surname. Apparently they were sent back to England. After that episode the eight of us with other members of 15082 were sent to the Yanky HQ where we were kitted out with American uniforms – i.e. shirts, vests, jackets, pigskin boots and blankets. We were also supplied with full cases of their commpacts, cigarettes, chocolate etc. They were very generous towards us, especially when they knew what our job was, that the unit was calling in airstrikes to cover their infantry.
The shelling was still a problem, but no way near on the same scale as it had been. Progress was quite slow in our sector. Jerry had now brought in his Panzers, and was giving the Yanks a hard time of it, until our (Typhoon Fighter Bombers) got to work. By now both units were kept very busy, in fact there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I was detailed to a signals officer, a certain flying officer Pine. I was to be his personal driver. Where he went, I went. We worked with the forward American infantry, calling in the Typhoons, Spitfires and sometimes American Thunderbolt Fighter Bombers to bomb and rocket the German Armour where you could see the Panzers and Tiger Tanks no more than 300-400 metres away. It was quite an experience, especially when the Typhoons got to work. They was absolutely devastating. That is how things went for us during that episode most days of the campaign once we got through Isigney, Carantan. St. Lo was a problem for the Yanks in that sector, but we pushed on up thorough Caratan and over the Mederat. The floods through St. Mereglise, Monterborg, Valognes, then on to St. Piereglice. That was our main base. That was where we operated from until Cherbourg was taken. We then moved to Toqueville, where our headquarters were situated in the local Chateau. That was only the second time we could have a bath, as water had been strictly rationed whereas we could use the American mobile baths unit. That episode of our war with the Americans ended after the breakthrough from St. Lo.
I was later to be associated with them later during the European campaign, such as the Ardennes campaign. The Normandy campaign was some initiation for lads that had never seen action before. To be thrown into the deep end, I suppose there were many more incidents that happened during those months with the Yanks, but are too numerous to put down now. One thing I will say is how well the Americans looked after us. They were absolutely great; generous to a fault.
We were constantly under attack (this relates to D-Day itself) for most of the day, but the Americans were much worse than we were. For the majority of them, there was nowhere to go. We were under the bluffs, with some sort of protection, apart from the threat of Jerry lobbing down his Potato Mashers (Grenades) at us. The Americans were getting slaughtered by the hundreds, possibly thousands. I suppose it is one thing that’ll remain with me for the rest of my life. The shouts for the medics that seemed to go on forever, the wounded screaming, bodies everywhere, limbs scattered all around us, total and utter carnage. Jerry was having a field day. The first half of the day he had complete control of Omaha Beach, from his position on top of the bluffs, and from his bunkers. They must’ve been firing from open sites; he could hardly miss. We heard later if they couldn’t get Jerry off his perch by that evening, they wouldn’t be sending in any more troops. What a thought. But with tremendous courage and a lot of sacrifice, here we are. We have such a lot to thank the Americans for. I salute them all.
During all that was happening during the day, the RAF Padre was walking about the whole of the time, comforting the wounded and giving the last rights to the wounded and the dead, to both RAF and Americans. I heard later that he had received the Military Cross (the Padre). Also our own medic received the Military Medal.