Eric Heathcote – a handwritten account of D-Day
A handwritten account by Corporal Eric John Heathcote, 1920-90, and typed by his son, David
(RAF Corporal Eric Heathcote 1264340 was one of a team who operated a mobile radar unit. Although British, his team landed on Omaha Beach. Eric was born in Wembley, London, on 9th July, 1920, then lived in Hatch End before moving to Rochford, Essex. He died in April, 1990, leaving a widow, Moyna, and two children, David and Janice).
The first Echelon of 21 B.D. Sector embarked in five LCTs on June 2nd 1944 at Portland where they remained in harbour till Sunday, June 4th 1944.
At approx 0400 hrs the armada left port and set sail for the English coast but before reaching Poole, the whole fleet turned round and was back in port again by 0700 hrs, where it remained until 0430 hrs on the following morning. This time the armada set sail for the invasion of the Continent and the rendezvous off the coast of Normandy was reached soon after dawn on 6th June 1944. The sea voyage was completely without any enemy interference. Enemy aircraft were conspicuous by their absence, none being seen at all during the whole voyage. The sea was rough with a south-west wind blowing.
The first attempt at landing was made at 1130 hrs on 6th June 1944, the convoy moved towards the beach, the vehicles all with the engines running ready to disembark when the ramps were lowered, but as the convoy approached the beach it was discovered that this beach was still under machine gun fire as well as heavy shell fire, and it was obviously impracticable to land the convoy then, so without warning it withdrew till 1700 hrs.
During this time considerable shelling of the cliffs was being done by the Navy to try and silence the shore batteries that were established in the cliffs, continually shelling the beach. This went on right up to the time of landing. At 1700 hrs the convoy again headed for the beach, an order having been given to land.
As the convoy drew close to the shore, it was observed that this beach, which was St Laurent, about one mile to the west of Colleville beach, where it was supposed to land, was under heavy shell fire from 88 mm guns; these guns had got the range of the beach and were consistently shelling the American vehicles which were lined up at the head of the beach, and unable to get away as both exits were blocked, but nevertheless, in spite of this, it was apparently decided suitable to land 21 B.D. Sector. Most of the craft were landed in over 4 feet of water so that immediately they struck a hole they were drowned. In all 27 vehicles were landed but out of this lot, only 8 were driven off the beach, although a number were salvaged later in varying stages of disrepair.
LCT 649 was landed considerably further out to sea than the other craft, on a sandbank with about 4 feet of water, but the vehicles were soon dropped in water 6 feet deep and were drowned, the men having to scramble onto the tops of the vehicles to avoid also being drowned.
All the vehicles from this craft were lost except one, which never got off the craft, as there was difficulty in starting the engine and the skipper refused to wait. There was a considerable distance to swim and so there was great difficulty in getting the men from this craft ashore, but they were all got safely ashore in the end and nobody was drowned.
Very soon after the vehicles were landed, they came under further shell fire from an 88 and a number of them were destroyed in this manner, as it was impossible to move them off the beach, both exits being completely blocked. This beach was more or less deserted except for many American dead and wounded who had been lying there since the first assault and the crews of American vehicles that were jammed on the beach. It was reported that in view of the fact that the emergency Medical Services were almost completely wiped out and the fact that the beach was still under heavy shell fire, that it was decided not to land the elaborate beach organization that was to be set up to deal with the disembarkation of the “follow-up” units.
The whole unit came under heavy shell fire whilst they were on the beach and the men were got to the top of the beach as soon as possible and dug foxholes in the shingle and there they remained until the situation could be reviewed and a place found for the Unit to be moved to, it being obvious that the front line was about a mile off the beach.
The Padre, S/Ldr Harding, gallantly reconnoitred the little village of Les Moulins, which is situated at the westerly end of the beach. He came back and reported that this village was not under fire and also gave some cover. S/Ldr Trollope then went over the beach and ordered everybody to move to this western end of the beach, the men at this time being very scattered in craft loads. For the next two hours, all personnel who were not wounded, were employed at the exit of the beach, helping either to pull out some of the vehicles from the sea with a bulldozer that had since arrived on the scene, or with carrying wounded, both our own and the Americans, off the beach. The Doctor, F/Lt Ryecroft, with the aid of the Padre – a lot of the time under fire – were continuously employed rendering wonderful medical aid to the wounded under the worst possible working conditions from the time of landing until late the following afternoon, when all the wounded were got to the American First Aid Post, overlooking the next beach. All the serious cases were evacuated to theU.K.that night, except W/Cdr Anderson, who remained until the following day to have his arm X-rayed and to see what was going to happen to the Unit.
When this work at the beachhead was completed, the unit moved up the road to this small hamlet of Les Moulins; some of the wounded were taken to a courtyard of a house in this village, the rest being taken to a convenient crater on the beach, above high water mark, and were made as comfortable as possible under these conditions for the night. The rest of the unit spent the night lying on the edge of the road at the entrance to the village, which was situated between two thickly wooded hills and in most places there was a low wall on the side of the road which rendered some shelter from the continuous sniping that went on all through the night. These cliffs were full of snipers that had underground passages like rabbit warrens, honeycombing the whole area.
Soon after dark, 6 Ju. 88s, the only enemy aircraft so far seen or heard, came over and dropped some bombs on the beach; one of these aircraft was shot down by the Navy. At intervals, throughout the night, there were odd bursts of fire, from the 88s, bursting just above us.
At 0500 hrs S/Ldr Trollope went up the road to see if it was possible to move the Unit farther inland, as it was obviously in a very dangerous position where it was, apart from the fact that it was blocking the road should further transport be disembarked. Actually nothing was disembarked on this beach after 21 B.D. Sector till late the following afternoon. The result of the reconnaissance showed that it appeared possible to move a mile or so up the road but just before this move took place F/Lt Efinberger, who was sent up this road to find a position to park the convoy, came back and reported that the road was now under cross machine-gun fire, and that he had been fired at a number of times, on one occasion having his steel helmet knocked off. From later experiences it is considered that this fire might have come from the Americans, who mistook the R.A.F. blue for the enemy.
At about 1100 hrs the 88 mm guns opened up on the beach with greater determination, so the Unit, after a further reconnaissance, moved up the road and pulled into a field about ¾ mile up, as Transit Area No. 3 was still not open. This field was full of American snipers, who were firing over our heads into the wooded hill at random. There was also a certain amount of return fire from enemy snipers, but nobody was seen to be hit. At approx. 1400 hrs, Major Kolakos, Intelligence Officer, 49th A.A. Brigade, contacted us in the field and told us that Gen. Timberlake suggested that the unit pulled into Transit Area No. 2 at the top of the hill and adjacent to his headquarters. This was the first official contact of any sort that had been made with the Americans since landing. The convoy moved out of this field almost immediately through the village of St Laurent(where terrific rifle fire was taking place) and went to Transit Area No. 2 where it settled for the night. This place was pretty crowded but the men managed to find room to dig foxholes for themselves to sleep in. It was an extremely noisy position, as there was cross shell fire going on overhead between the Navy and the 88 mm guns, which were again shelling both beaches.
The Military position during the whole of this period was extremely precarious, the bridgehead reported not to be anywhere more than 2 to 3 miles deep. W/Cdr Anderson, who had been wounded in the wrist, and S/Ldr Trollope contacted Gen. Timberlake in the evening and the position was reviewed. It was decided to move the convoy next morning, June 8th, to a field nearby so that the equipment could be examined to see if it were possible to get any of it operational. By that time S/Ldr Best and the other technical officers (who had worked unceasingly salvaging equipment of all sorts from the beaches, ranging from vehicles down to small items of serviceable equipment from derelict vehicles) considered that it would be possible to set up and become operational if a site was selected, the original site still being in the hands of the enemy. S/Ldr Trollope again saw Gen. Timberlake, and a site was selected overlooking the cliff. The convoy moved there in the afternoon, and the equipment was set up ready to become operational on the following night.
By the afternoon of the 9th, the military position in this sector had improved to such an extent, the bridgehead now being 7 to 8 miles deep, that a signal was received, ordering G.C.I. 15082 to prepare to move. The work of packing up was started on immediately, hence the Unit did not operate on the night of 9th June, but moved to the new site on June 10th, where it set up and operated that night and claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed and one enemy aircraft damaged.
Up to and including 9th June there were large numbers of snipers in the area, all around St Laurent, and sniping was going on almost incessantly day and night. There was also a terrific barrage at intervals every night, from heavy and light ack-ack when enemy aircraft were over the area.
The snipers were firmly established, some in underground tunnels, others in thick woods surrounding the village. It is reported that some of these had secured themselves in trees by the aid of nets and were firing smokeless ammunition and hence almost impossible to find until they gave themselves up when their ammunition had run out.
The total casualties of the Unit were 1 officer and 9 other ranks killed; 1 missing; 5 officers and 31 other ranks wounded (one of the wounded has since died of his injuries).