Wednesday, July 14, 2010

From the Pages - War Stories of D-Day

The German military, who had long expected the Allied invasion of France, were well aware of the threat posed by paratroopers and glider infantry. In the following excerpt from War Stories of D-Day: Operation Overlord: Jun 6, 1944, Clinton Riddle of the 325th Glider Infantry describes his first taste of battle aboard a U.S. glider on D-Day.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Our training in England was more or less routine—close-order drill, forced march, double timing, hand-to-hand combat training, firing ranges, glider rides, field problems both day and night, inspections, and parades. We became famous later on as the 82nd became the Honor Guard in Berlin.

On May 29, we packed up and moved by trucks to Leicester. From there, we went by train to near Ramsbury. June 2 was spent in studying sand tables and maps of the French coast. We were also shown the location of some of the gun emplacements. All of our movements were confined to camp. We couldn’t talk to anyone except our closest friends.

June 4 and 5 were days of just waiting in camp. The preparations had been made and everything was moving toward a departure in a few hours. My uniform for battle was combat jacket and pants, steel helmet with a first-aid kit tied in the front of the helmet, GI shoes and leggings with a trench knife strapped on my leg, combat pack with rations, shelter half, M1 rifle, ammunition belt, canteen, and a small American flag on the right shoulder of my jacket. I also carried some extra ammunition and a gas mask.

When we were studying the sand tables and making preparations, we were told that the invasion would have to be on June 6 or 7, and no later than June 8 because of the tides. The weather was so uncertain that we just had to wait from day to day.

The paratroopers went before us. Then fifty-two gliders carrying antitank weapons and heavy communication and other equipment went later in the day. The night of June 6 was the first of the light glider landings.

Early on June 7, the 325th Glider Infantry and 375 gliders began to cross the Channel. I was in Company B, 1st Battalion. We loaded in the gliders before daylight. I remember seeing the moon break through for just a moment. Then in a little while we moved off the runway and were in the air. We were using British plywood gliders that carried thirty-three men. This is a lot more than the CG-4As could carry. The British gliders had a three wheel landing gear rather than the two wheels and skids of the U.S. gliders. There were big white markings on the wings of each one.

Men from our headquarters platoon and the rest of our Company B made up the number in my glider. The pilot and co pilot were from Kentucky and West Virginia. I sat in the front seat near the pilot. The ride was not rough and I was sitting and taking it easy. From the very front seat I had a breathtaking view of the many boats and ships in the Channel.

I could see the C 47 tow plane before us traveling approximately 150 miles an hour and about 2,000 feet high. Every man had been coached on what to do in case we went down. We didn’t carry parachutes, only Mae West life preservers.

About halfway across the Channel, which was twenty-three miles wide where we were crossing, our tow plane began to miss and sputter, then finally just quit and began to lose altitude. The glider pilot tried to keep the glider riding as high as possible, and we were moving faster than the plane. In the process, the tow rope became slack and the glider overran the plane. The pilot of the plane continued to crank the engine until we were down within a hundred feet of the water. We could see the waves churning up to meet us. All we could hear was the rushing of the wind as it swept past the glider, and the groaning of the men in the glider. “Oooh, something’s wrong.” When the glider tilted up on one wing, almost in a half roll, we knew what was going on. The slack in the tow rope had become tangled in the landing gear. But the glider pilot was able to maneuver the glider enough to get the rope from around the landing wheel.

The order was given to stand by for a crash landing. Each man checked his life preserver and laid down his equipment and rifles. Six cases of tank mines were thrown out, also six GI cans of water and anything else that would lighten the glider before contact with the water. The sergeant was standing by with an axe ready to chop a hole in the top of the glider so we could get out on the wings, which were filled with thousands of Ping-Pong balls to keep the glider afloat.

When it looked like all hope was gone and prayers were said, at the last minute one of the motors fired up with a roar and a cloud of smoke. Then the other motor fired up. Boy, what a good thing it was to hear the roar of the airplane engines. When the plane’s motors began to operate, they tightened up the slack in the rope, although we had no way to tell the pilot of the plane what was happening. It was a miracle that our glider pilot was able to get the rope unfastened without having to hit the tow rope release lever. If he had hit the lever, we still would have gone down into the Channel, having been cut loose from the mother plane.

Soon we were flying again, and everything was all right until we got over the coast of Normandy. The fighter planes were three layers thick overhead, and the train of C 47s and gliders reached as far as I could see. Word had been received back from England after we left that we would not be able to land in the area we had planned. The pilot of the plane could pick up the news on the plane’s radio, but we did not know about it back in the glider. We were over the coast for approximately two and a half to three minutes before being released from the tow plane. We wanted to get down as quickly as possible because of the small-arms fire, yet we had to pick out a place big enough to land on the way down.

It didn’t take long to see that the Germans had dug holes in the field and set posts upright and placed mines on every post. The German forces had been cut off by the landing of the parachute units ahead of us, so the men who had been sent out to place posts in our landing zones had not yet received new orders to stop work, and some of them were still there digging when we were trying to land.

As I raised up to look out the front, the pilot pointed toward a small garden like spot completely enclosed by hedgerows, some with trees growing out of them. The pilot brought the glider in low over the first hedgerow, cutting the top out of some of the trees with the wing. The glider hit the ground, bounced a time or two, then rolled to a stop. The pilot had done a great job in bringing the glider down without crashing into the hedgerow.

We were the only glider in the company that landed without mishap. Others either crashed into a hedgerow, or the front wheel of the tri landing gear in the nose of the glider came up through the floor and cut many of the men’s legs.

We lost 11 percent of the men of the 325th on landing alone. One reason we were using the British-type gliders was that it was so hot in Africa that the sun warped the wings of the CG-4A gliders, and they were unfit to be used in the invasion. Another reason was that they carried more men than the American gliders.

Upon landing, we climbed out of the glider and assembled ourselves. Because we were not able to land in the planned spot, we started the long hike to our positions.

About that time, two German fighter planes came over with guns blazing and spraying us with machine gun fire. I was down on my knees, trying to put a makeshift antenna from a walkie-talkie radio onto the big field radio that I was carrying because all of the radios had been damaged in landing. The makeshift antennae worked. It was all we had to keep us in touch with the battalion until we got another radio.

A news reporter came along about that time and took my picture while I was down on my knees working with the radio. I saw the picture a little later in the Mightiest Army magazine.

There was very little ground fire in the area where we landed. But as I started through an apple orchard, a Frenchman was milking a cow, and that particular area was being shelled. Later, as we were slowly moving in single file on either side of the road, the old Frenchman came by with his bucket of milk. I stopped him and got me a canteen cup of warm milk for my breakfast. This was less than fifteen minutes after landing.

Our mission was to block all roads and blow the bridges so the Germans could not counterattack at once. We landed within sight of Ste. Mére Eglise, which was the first town taken in Normandy by the 505th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne. In this town, lying in a doorway along a street, was the first dead German I saw after landing.

I slept just a little the first night in a gully in a briar patch. We passed through Ste. Mére Eglise and to a holding position on June 8 and 9 before going on.

On June 10, we began our mission of attack soon after midnight. We went into attack in the early morning and ran into a trap. Many men of my company were killed, wounded, or lost. When B Company entered a small orchard where the Germans were dug in, the Germans waited until we were pretty close before they opened fire. The whole company was caught in the crossfire. I was battalion messenger at the time, and the battalion unit followed the line companies in the attack.

Before I knew it, we were caught under fire from a tank and pinned down. The captain and the major I was with told me and a few men with us to make a holding force until they started back. I stayed, all right, until they got a head start. I found a little gully and crawled back far enough to get under the cover of some bushes. Then I passed the captain and a major running as hard as I could.

We retreated back to our old lines and dug in. While I was digging, a shell almost dropped into my foxhole. One did drop into the hole next to me, and a small exploding shell almost cut the soldier’s arm off. We stayed there taking all that the Germans could throw at us until almost nightfall, then we moved across the meadow and dug in.

I went back by myself the next morning to where the men had been killed. One of my best friends and eighteen others lay dead in the little orchard. You could almost cross the orchard by walking on the bodies. They were all in a line, just as they had entered the orchard in an attack. I don’t want to cite any names, because someday their people may chance to hear or read this. So I will say “one of the boys,” as he lay there, had his hand extended straight up in the air as though he was reaching for someone or something. I can see that picture in my mind today as plain as I did on that morning as I stood alone and looked over the battle area. He was wearing a pair of black gloves that somebody had probably sent from home. I could not bring myself to wear gloves in combat for a long time after that, and even now I never pull a pair of gloves on without thinking of him.

No comments:

Post a Comment