On the night of D-Day, we found ourselves four and a half feet under water, left stranded in a flooded valley. Things could have been worse on account of the 60 pounds of equipment we lugged on our backs. In fact, our pilots weren’t even trained to drop paratroops. Just weeks before they were assigned to do so, after years training as bomber pilots. They had been accustomed to dropping bombs from 10,000 feet, but today found themselves dropping us from 700 feet into a drop zone covering 1,000 square meters.
You could say were lucky enough though, the inaccuracy of our landing could have been much worse since the valley had irrigation ditches up to 14 feet deep. A sudden flashback came to mind of me saying to my men, “Gentleman, in spite of our excellent training and very clear orders, don’t be daunted if chaos reigns – because it certainly will.” After landing in unfamiliar territory, we gathered about 42 of our men, tied ourselves together, and started marching along a narrow path through the valley.
The Brown Boot
All of a sudden, I heard the horrid noise of low-flying aircraft dropping anti-personnel bombs. As the poignant smell of cordite and death hung in the air, I cried “Get down!” as I threw myself on top of my friend, Lieutenant Peters. I knew I had been hit and as I peered open my eyes, I saw a leg hanging in the middle of the path that was surely my own. However, I noticed a brown boot on the leg and knew that no one in my brigade was allowed to wear anything but black boots. I knew who it was because the only person to break that rule was Lieutenant Peters. There I was, lying on top of his dead body. As for me, I had a chunk of my left backside blown off.
My Duty, My Compassion
Myself and one other were the only ones able to get up. I saw the dead and injured lying on the floor and had to make the decision, “Do I stay or do I go?” My objective training as brigade commander left me no choice but to go on. To this day, the memory of that ghastly sight is as vivid as it ever was. I recall my mother, a soldier’s wife, telling me before the war, “Darling, if you’re going to survive this war, you’ve got to learn to harden your heart.” Oh, I did alright, but I was not going to abandon my compassion. I still have compassion for all the people I left that day. In fact, the Germans had taken their bodies into a big shell hole, but a few days later we captured the area and I gave each of them a proper burial.
It took us four and half hours to get to the drop zone where we were supposed to land. When we arrived, I was informed that my Canadian battalion had achieved their objective in destroying nearby enemy headquarters. We carried forward to meet Terence Otway and his men of the 9th Battalion, whose mission was to capture the battery. At the crack of dawn, we witnessed the most amazing display of fireworks, heard the thunderous roar of gunfire and saw troops and ships attacking the shoreline. For my men and I behind the front line, it was a sign that we were not alone.
Not Good for Morale
As I approached the ridge where we were to meet the 9th Battalion, I passed a doctor who said: “James, you look bad for morale.” I looked him the eye and said, “If you had been in four and a half feet of cold water for hours and had your left backside shot off, you wouldn’t feel good for morale either.” The doctor went on to inform me that Colonel Otway had taken the battery with just 70 men with an average age of 22, who had never before seen a shot fired. Nonetheless, the deed was done and they achieved their objective.
The doctor told me he was going to give me an injection to help with my injury. Little did I know, it would knock me out for about two hours. Nonetheless, I woke up with my back patched up. The first thing I saw was a ladies’ bicycle that they intended for me to get on. So I very gingerly sat up and saddled myself onto the bike as one of the men pushed me down the road to divisional headquarters.
As I arrived at divisional headquarters at Ranville, I met with our division commander. The very first thing to come out of his mouth was, “James, you’ll be delighted to know that your brigade has taken all its objectives.” For a man like me, it was a great thing to hear.