Military Parachuting History
This is James Hill's Account of his D-Day Experiences - Continued!
On the night of D-Day we landed in four and a half feet of water in a flooded valley. It was an inaccurate landing, but it could have been worse, as the valley is criss-crossed by irrigation ditches, some of them 14 feet deep. With 60 pounds of equipment, falling into a ditch like that would have meant going down.
The landing was inaccurate because the pilots who flew us over to Normandy had been bomber pilots until about six weeks before D-Day. They had been used to bombing cities from 10,000 feet, now they had to drop paratroops from 700 feet onto a drop zone about 1,000 meters square. I had suspected that the drops might be inaccurate, and had said to my men some weeks before, "Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and very clear orders, don't be daunted if chaos reigns - because it certainly will.."
After the landing we gathered about 42 chaps, and tied ourselves together with our toggle ropes. It meant we were all in control, and if we came across wire under water, we were all there to deal with it.
Attacked from the Air
After about 45 minutes marching along a narrow path with bog on both sides, I suddenly heard a horrid noise. I had seen a lot of fighting and knew it was an attack by low-flying aircraft dropping anti-personnel bombs, so I shouted to the chaps to get down. I threw myself down on top of a chap called Lieutenant Peters.
The aircraft passed over and there was the horrible smell of cordite and death hanging in the air. I knew I'd been hit. I saw a leg lying in the middle of the path and I thought, by God that's mine. Then I noticed it had a brown boot on. I didn't allow brown boots in my brigade, and the only person who broke that rule was my friend Lieutenant Peters. I was lying on top of him. He was dead, I wasn't - but I'd been hit and a large chunk of my left backside was gone.
Only two of us were able to get up. The dead and injured were all around us. I was faced with the choice: do I stay and look after the injured, or do I press on? As brigade commander I had a great responsibility, so I had to press on. Before leaving we took the morphine from the dead, and gave it to the living. We set off and the injured chaps gave us a cheer. That memory is as vivid today as it ever was. It was a ghastly sight.
My mother was a soldier's wife, and at the outbreak of war she said to me, "Darling, if you're going to survive this war, you've got to learn to harden your heart." That was good advice. You could have a hard heart and still have compassion, and I was full of compassion for the people I left there. But as commander, I had to go where my most important task lay.
The Germans threw the bodies of those chaps into a big shell hole, but a few days later we captured the area and unearthed them, and gave them each a proper burial.
Finding the 9th Battalion
It took us four and a half hours to get to the drop zone where we were meant to have landed in the first place. There I found out my Canadian battalion had achieved their objective to destroy or capture a nearby enemy headquarters.
From there we set off to the battery which Terence Ottway and the men of the 9th Battalion were meant to be capturing before 5.30pm. As we were walking along, dawn was breaking and we saw the most amazing display of fireworks, and heard the thunderous noise of guns as the troops and ships started attacking the shoreline. It was a remarkable sight to see from behind the front line, and it was very encouraging because we knew then that we weren't alone.
As I was approaching the ridge where the 9th Battalion was fighting I passed the field dressing station. The doctor there took one look at me and said, "James, you look bad for morale."
I said, "If you had been in four and a half feet of cold water for hours and then had your left backside shot off, you wouldn't feel good for morale either."
The doctor told me that Colonel Ottway had taken the battery with just 70 men. Their average age was 22, they'd never seen a shot fired before and all their plans had gone awry - but they achieved their objective.
The doctor said he would give me an injection that would help me, but in fact it knocked me out for about two hours. In this time he patched up my behind. When I came to again they had a ladies' bicycle for me, and a chap who could push it. I very gingerly sat on the back of this bicycle and was pushed down the road to the divisional headquarters. Sometimes we saw Germans running across the road, sometimes Brits, but they were all too busy to worry about a shabby-looking brigade commander on a ladies' bicycle.
At the divisional headquarters at Ranville I met our divisional commander, and the first thing he said to me was, "James, you'll be delighted to know that your brigade has taken all its objectives."
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