TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF “D” DAY

Irvin J. “Pic” Albertson was a longtime and very highly respected employee at RMCC. He started in the late 1940s and retired in the mid – 1980s. Many Ex Cadets through that time-period would recognize him as the gentleman who provided first class customer friendly service day in and day out in the Supply Clothing Stores.

A few years, prior to his death, August 10, 2014 in his 95th year, he summarized from his Second World War diary, his personal account of ‘D Day’ – June 6th – 1944.

Following are his personal recollections from those 24 hours – 71 years ago.

TWENTY-FOUR HOURS OF “D” DAY

From original papers of I. J. “Pic” Albertson

It’s midnight and we have just crossed the threshold of the 6th of June. We have been sailing for about 10 hours. We should be grabbing some shut-eye but sleep just won’t come! I have spent the last hour or so on the after-deck of the LCT trying to help one of the guys. He has been seasick ever since we left England, and it looks as though he will stay that way until we hit France. We now know that that is where we are heading. This is not a false run by any shake of the imagination.

It is quite dark out here and though it is very hard to see the other craft in the flotilla, one has the feeling that there are many other vessels close by. Time is irrelevant, all the gunners and infanteers aboard are aware that dawn will be the start of the big scheme, the one what will not end on the whimsy of some faceless General in the distant headquarters.

I go down the ladder to the cargo deck and join my buddy Bob Breathet and our carrier crew. They are all like me – sleep is not on their minds. The gunners of “A” Troop and the Infantry from the Queens’s Own Rifles and Cameron Highlanders are all sitting around their vehicles and talking in low voices. It’s funny, even though our LCT is creaking and groaning and crashing into the choppy sea, everyone is almost whispering.

MORE…

I have been asked many times what we talked about while we were waiting for “H” hour. Sure, we told each other about our fears and misgivings, but I am certain that our main concern was that we should stand up to the test that we were about to undergo without showing fear. There was another aspect of which many historians will not be aware. All our preparations had been made before we loaded our craft on the 1st of June. Radios had been netted by wavemeter to keep wireless silence, batteries charged, sights tested, waterproofing completed, vehicles serviced, stores and equipment checked and rechecked, firing mechanisms proven, and instruments calibrated. Each officer and man carried a mental checklist of concerns. Would all these functions be available, respond accurately and be serviceable when called upon? These were the things that we talked about. However, I will say that we were all concerned about our own mortality, and I can report that everyone I talked to was at peace within themselves. Our Chaplains had done a good job.

As the night slowly passed, fatigue took its toll and most of the guys dozed fitfully. Periodically someone would waken, stretch, move to the rail and check the sky. Just before dawn the ship came to life – there was no need for a wake-up call! Breakfast was a snacking thing. You ate if you chose. There was hard tack (biscuits), cheese, bacon and a brew of tea. There were also self-heating tins of chocolate. It would be a long time before we lined up for prepared chow again. There is not much space allotted for toilet facilities on an LCT, so there was a steady use of the heads that were available. I guess nobody wanted to get caught with their pants down on this day!

With the coming of dawn we expected to see a multitude of ships, but we were awed by the panorama of naval might surrounding us, and stretching as far as the eye could see. Overhead the Air Force sent flight after flight towards the coast of France and we were much heartened by their great numbers. Some of the craft were flying barrage balloons to keep enemy planes high, preventing low-level strafing of the convoy.

We could see the French coast now. Any other day it would have looked very peaceful in the early light, but to us it was very menacing. A casual observer would notice that this vast armada of ships was now changing; one could see that the LCTs carrying the 14th and 19th Field Regiments were forming a straight line and commenced advancing towards the coast in formation. Suddenly on our right flank a destroyer appeared, running close into the shore. A quick left turn and it was streaking across our bows. I have heard that these ships going full speed are comparable to a streaking greyhound. Belching a smokescreen it blotted out that shoreline in short order.

It is now 0715 and it is time to go to work! Radios turned on, gun covers off, we are now at “take post”. At 0730 the guns of the Regiment open up, firing on a fixed line, range and angle of sight, on the line of the beach. At timed intervals they will repeat this firing as they move forward, thus pouring a creeping curtain of fire on the enemy-held beach area. Off to our flanks, LCTs carrying hundreds of high-explosive rockets poured blankets of shrapnel on the enemy. Meanwhile, the naval ships engaged targets on the shore, the sound of their shells roaring like fast freight trains as they screamed overhead.

Now the assault troops are moving in to the beach. As they land we can tell they are bumping trouble, because those flashes coming from the buildings behind the beach wall are not fireworks. We cannot watch this for too long as we must clear our craft for disembarking. Loose equipment must be loaded up and secured, unused ammo from the 105 howitzers must be jettisoned, cables that secured the vehicles slackened off. We are well on our way to the beach when sporadic mortar fire starts to land among the advancing LCTs. Bob Breathet and I hunkered down beside the bulkhead, just in case. Suddenly we both started to laugh. If one tracer or incendiary bullet or hot piece of metal hit our craft, we would have been blown to smithereens. For each one of our SPs was a rolling ammunition dump. There was just no place to hide.

We are standing to our vehicles ready to disembark. We were told that the Captain of our LCT was going to give us a dry landing, and he sure kept his word. The loading ramp went down and there was a three-foot strip of water to cross. Through the opening we could see a short width of beach with barbed wire topping the famed Atlantic wall. Our carrier was a little slow to start, but with Gnr. Deveau, our driver, coaxing the ignition and four husky machine-gunners from the CH of 0 pushing (thanks to Sgt. Nolan!) we went down the ramp after the SPs. To our immediate left an infantry carrier hit a land mine and was blown upside down. A piece of one of the bogey wheels flew through the air, hit me with a glancing blow on the edge of my helmet, and dropped between the driver and myself. It was sizzling hot and we had to use leather gloves to throw it out. We wanted to see if we could help any of the guys in the overturned carrier, but the beachmaster ordered us off. Instead he had four of us move a large log which was blocking the exit path. (Note: Some of us returned to the beach some weeks later and could not budge this log.) I was very impressed by the beachmaster. His job was to get the people off the beach, and he was doing it regardless of the furor around him. He seemed to know exactly what his priorities were and how to enforce them.

Along the beach wall a platoon of Chauds were getting ready to move out. They were sobered, as were we, by the sight of some wounded QORs and Chauds sheltering there. There were also some very still forms under ground sheets. These casualties would be evacuated as soon as the crafts were available. There were two big Gorman POWs being guarded by diminutive Cockney provost. Apparently they had been giving him some problems for all of a sudden Shorty hauled off and kicked one of these big guys right on the shin. Man, that must have hurt. But it worked, for as I looked back they were hustling down the beach hands over their heads.

We exited the beach and joined a line of traffic moving into the town of Berniere Sur Mer. It was a miracle that the Germans did not choose at this time to shell this are. As we were entering the town I was surprised to see the number of civilians in the streets. A woman dashed across the road and handed me a bottle of wine and a lovely red rose. The wine quickly disappeared quickly and the rose took a place of honour on the carrier. Down the street a member of the Chaudieres had tossed a grenade into a house. An old lady was giving him real hell. Apparently there were only more civilians hiding in the cellar, no Jerries. It sure is a small world. It was here that I ran into an old friend of the family, Capt. Charlie Thom of the S.D. & G. Highlanders. He was ashore with the advance guard of his regiment. He kidded me about the rose and the wine and laughingly told me to stay away from Les French girls. This was the last time I would ever see him.

As we approached the town limits, Sgt. Beresford informed us that our CPO, Lt. Belyea was going to deploy our guns in a field around the corner to our right. We were to stand by, ready to link our two troops when they were both in action. Our carrier crew would normally set up a telephone exchange. This would progress to connections to the other two batteries and eventually to RHQ if everything went as planned. We saw GA tank and two “A” troop SPs followed by two66 Bty. SPs disappear around the corner. Since they were mixing the guns we thought that this would be a quick action, and then we would be moving on. How wrong we were. It seemed that all hell broke loose. An infantryman came around the courner shouting “they got the guns – they got the guns”. Just then an armour piercing round slammed into the wall beside us, filling the carrier with stone. I was afraid to look at Sgt. Beresford who had been standing between the wall and our carrier. Miraculously the splinters did not harm him or our crew. A regimental signaller from the Chauds took a bad wound in his eye. We quickly applied a shell dressing and sent him back towards the beach. By now we could hear loud explosions and realized that the ammunition carried by the SPs was exploding and that the gun position was now untenable. We wanted to help but personnel coming from the area told us to stay put. Three SPs had gone up in smoke and the G tank was grooved by an AP shot. We had no way of knowing the number of casualties until the stretchers started to come around the corner. Good God! These were our own pals. We grew up in one big hurry. What had been three fighting vehicles and their crews were now three sets of charred bogey wheels surrounded by flaming debris. They tell me that the infantry silenced the 88 ATK gun and crew that caused this carnage.

It was evident now that there would not be any standard telephone link as the guns and troops were mixed, so they put our crew on standby. We were positioned in a small orchard where we had good vision and could observe the terrain behind the beach defences. To our right was a series of bunkers. We were moving around quite a bit to get the lay of the land and see if there were any mines in the area. All of a sudden, one of our SPs and a G tank started to fire on the bunkers with open sights. I think our regimental 2 i/c was directing the fire. A patrol from the QOR moved in and were soon marching a group of German prisoners from the area.

As we were not required to lay line, our crew was detailed as perimeter picket. They moved us to the left flank of our guns and told us to stay on guard and report any enemy activity in the area. There was a continuous flow of traffic along the road that bordered our sector. Tanks and infantry were moving up to break out of the beach area. Suddenly the morning air was filled with the sound of bagpipes. It was the Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders advancing to contact. Colonel Christianson was out in front carrying a walking stick and wearing a Glengarry on his head. The piper was immediately behind him and then came the troops swinging along. A lot of these guys were kids with whom I grew up – George Davis, Clarence Howie, the Northmores and Pontings and many others. These men were on their way to Germany. Starting out on that long road Maple Leaf up. Some of them would not come back. The 7th and 8th Brigades of the 2rd Division had hit the beach, the 9th was ashore and poised to break through to Caen.

We had no immediate commitments so we took advantage of the lull to grab something to eat. Self-heating soup and chocolate were great, and as we had not eaten since leaving the craft, even the hard tack and spam tasted good! We didn’t have to touch our emergency rations. Yes, the powers that be had thought of everything to sustain us. We even had a chocolate bar which would nurish us for twenty-four hours if need be.

As the day progressed, the weather became quite warm. So far we had been reacting on trained impulses; now the reality that we were ashore and operational really sunk in. Taking stock of our whereabouts we found quite a few dead Jerries lying around, and I noticed that most, if not all, were missing their jackboots. Also in evidence were small piles of discarded, bloody web equipment – grim reminders of what had happened to our troops as they advanced inland. We were just getting a good fix on our situation then a Company of British Engineers came A.A. file down the road and some snipers off to our left kept us pinned down in a ditch for about an hour. We had not yet been able to dig any slit trenches.

The guns of our Regiment engaged many targets during the course of the day and we were told that our FOOs had taken some casualties. It was inevitable that we would get the order “prepare to move.” The recce parties took off and we moved forward and occupied a new position. There were snipers active in the area and anti-tank rounds were whipping over our heads. No one had to be told to dig in and we were thankful that French farmers had sewn wheat in our field. It made camouflage so easy! As darkness fell there were enemy aircraft attacks on the beach area. They were much bolder now that our Airforce fighters were not around. However, our forces had landed lots of anti-aircraft guns and the naval ships near the beach were heavily armed. We were treated to a display of real fireworks as a curtain of tracers screamed skyward throughout the night.

It would have been wonderful to curl up in a bedroll and go to sleep, but pickets had to be posted, command posts manned, gun crews split into shifts and all made ready to answer any calls for fire support. All this, coupled with the fact that every shadow, ever noise, every fencepost was an enemy soldier, made sleep impossible. So we thought thoughts about what tomorrow would bring – what was around the next corner – what was over the next hill.

Thus our tweny-four hours of “D” Day passed into history.

5 Comments

  • Chris Chance

    June 1, 2015 at 10:56 am

    This account is extremely well-written. If eVeritas has access to further material from Mr. Albertson’s diary, I personally would be very interested in being able to read it. Presumably he was a Gunner. What was his specific unit and responsibility?

  • Mike Kennedy

    June 1, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    For anyone interested in a recounting of the Canadians’ experience on D-Day, I highly recommend the book “Juno” by Ted Barris. It is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable read, as are Ted’s other books on various aspects of Canadian military history.

  • Tom Albertson

    June 2, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Thank You for your comments.Dad was with the 14th Field Regiment, 34th Battery ,9th Brigade, 3rd Division RCA. Understandably Dad did not talk too much about the war until his later years. His wit and memory was very sharp right up to the end. More information would probably be available from the 14th Field Regiment Association.