|"Don't leave me Sarge"|
"Keep 'em moving"
|St. Honorine La Chardonerette.|
The village of St. Honorine stands out alone in the open plain, on a slight rise surrounded by orchards. Any hostile movement by the Allies could be seen by the Germans at an early stage. They had an observation post atop the factory chimney, at Colombelles, a suburb of Caen.
Orders had been issued for the capture of St. Honorine and accordingly we assembled in the orchards on the afternoon of 12th June. We were to cross our start lines at 0400 Hours 13th June. I was a Bren gunner in a section of “D” company.
We settled down in the orchard in our own Platoons, having a smoke, and holding nervous conversations. We talked about nothing of any real importance and, as I recall, we seemed to avoid the subject of our forthcoming attack at all costs. We eventually found our own little space and settled to our own thoughts. I suppose I was dozing but I remember knowing I was going to get hurt, I knew I was not going to be killed, but I knew I was going to be wounded. When you next see a film where someone says they know that they are going to die, believe them, for it surely does happen.
We reached our F.U.P. (Forming up Position) without incident and settled down to wait for the field guns to open up, four minutes before Zero hour of 0400. We were lying or crouching down when the artillery opened up and, to our horror, the guns had ranged in on us. We suffered twenty or so casualties before we had even moved but as the barrage crept forward we got up and followed our exploding shells toward our objective through the standing corn.
We in “D” Company were to make our way to a large Chateau type building that was surrounded by a wall some twelve to fourteen feet high, which was to be breached by our barrage. Once the wall had been breached, we made our way through the garden and several of my platoon found cover in a ditch. My sergeant, 2933041, A (Sandy) Sinclair (from Stirling), and me made our way forward to the corner of the wall so as to lay down fire on the Germans. We had several new guys with us who were novices at this and we had to keep telling them to keep down. I do not know if it was curiosity, bravery, or stupidity, but they kept on standing up. One by one, they were killed. I was just yelling to one boy, he had only just turned twenty, when he was shot through the temple and killed instantly by a sniper. As it turned out, five of the twelve killed in that ditch died of shots to the head. Sandy and I were going frantic by this time spraying bullets at everything that moved and we eventually cleared the snipers and things got a bit quieter, by this time it was about 0800 hours. About a half-hour later the Germans opened up with artillery and mortars and we were to hear “Moaning Minnies” for the first time. “Moaning Minnies” was our name for the German six barrelled mortar that made a horrendous screaming sound when it was fired. A lot of their shells exploded in the trees scattering shell fragments everywhere, so much so that it wasn’t even safe at the bottom of a slit trench.
Sandy and me crept forward to a small orchard for a look-see and to our dismay we counted ten German tanks and self-propelled guns heading our way. We made our way back to our position by the end of the wall and waited for the tanks. Luckily the tanks sat back and pumped shells over the heads of their advancing infantry. Two or three of the tanks were knocked out by our Battalion six pounder, under command of Sergeant Mackenzie, which made the rest of the tanks disappear. However, the infantry kept coming. I was firing the Bren, with Sandy reloading it with fresh clips of ammunition, but we could not halt the Germans advance. The Germans had set up a Spandau heavy machine gun and were spraying our positions with heavy fire, inflicting casualties all around us. Sandy was just fitting a fresh clip of ammunition on the Bren when he took a full burst of machine gun fire through his upper arm, tearing most, if not all, of his flesh and muscle away. I kept the gun firing and Sandy, I don’t know how, kept reloading the Bren with his one good arm. I was firing tracer and the German machine gun pinpointed our position. The next burst of fire took the barrel clean off the Bren and a spent bullet that had caused the damage lodged in my cheek where the two jaw bones hinge.
I just went crazy. I fitted the spare barrel, which we always carried, and just ran at the Germans, firing the Bren gun from the hip as I went. I don’t really know to this day what I was doing but I managed to take the Spandau crew out only to eventually meet a tank and some dozen or more Germans. I took a few of the soldiers down before making a hasty retreat back to Sandy. When I reached Sandy he was in a very bad way. He had lost so much blood that he had gone into shock and had passed out. I managed to drag him by his tunic collar out of the line of fire and under cover and set up the Bren for another expected counter attack, but we were ordered to withdraw.
Sandy and I were picked up by an Airborne officer in a Jeep and the Pratt said if we had run away like that in the first war he would have had us shot. Because of the Adrenaline, anger or the fear, or whatever it was I just flew at him and said if he tried it I’d f****** shoot him. I also told him it was a bloody funny Home Guard that we were fighting, which is what we were told we would be facing. Unfortunately, a Bren gun is no match for a German tank. Sandy and I were driven to a dressing station back somewhere near the beach, where, he went into one tent and me to another. I have not heard of Sandy from that day to this. I don’t even know if he survived. If he did make it, and I hope that he did, I would not be surprised if he lost his arm as it was a terrible wound.
For my actions that day I was awarded the Military Medal, the citation to which reads as follows:
On 13th June 1944, after the attack and capture of St. Honorine-La-Chardonnerette, Private Sands was Bren-gunner of a section of D company which had consolidated in some enemy trenches. About 0915 hours a heavy counter attack developed and Private Sands` section was attacked by about twenty Germans and a tank. Private Sands was wounded in both legs but continued to operate his Bren-gun until the attack on his front had been repulsed. He refused to be evacuated and crawled to a position from which he could engage another expected counter attack. He did this, continuing to operate his gun until the company withdrew. Only then was he evacuated.
Citation for the Military medal Evacuation Ticket Military Medal
Sergeant Mackenzie was also awarded the MM. for his gallantry and leadership that day. He had to manhandle his gun into a position where he could fire on the German tanks.
Captain Watty Yellowlees, our medical officer, was awarded the Military Cross for tending the wounded under heavy fire. I think he was probably the bravest man I ever met. At least when you carry a weapon you have the feeling that you can protect yourself, even if it is a somewhat misguided thought. All that Watty Yellowlees had to hide behind was a small Red Cross on his medical satchel. True bravery?
After receiving medical attention and having my wounds dressed, which included minor wounds to my legs, (I hadn’t even noticed that they were bleeding) I was tagged with an evacuation ticket, which meant, I was going back to England. I was back at the beach area waiting to embark on ship when, I was called out and sent back to my unit. You cannot imagine my anger, as it seemed to me that people were being sent home with what appeared to be minor ailments. I arrived back, Head swathed in bandage, blood staining my tunic and trousers, feeling decidedly sorry for myself.
.On 22nd June at 0330 hours I was once again on my way back into St. Honorine, but this time we had tank support with us. We had taken all our objectives by about 0800 hours and waited for the inevitable counter attacks. At one point we were faced with thirty-five German Mark IV tanks, the majority of which were halted by our artillery, although a half dozen made it into the orchards supporting their infantry. We suffered again with German snipers, with unsuspecting officers and N.C.Os being the main targets. “Moaning Minnies” opened up again, along with artillery and tank shellfire, causing heavy casualties. All went relatively quiet at about mid-day, though we were mortared and shelled fairly heavily all afternoon. If it had not been for our divisional artillery firing non-stop in support of us, I doubt if we would have been able to hold out. At about 2300 hours we handed St. Honorine over to the 2nd Seaforth and retired into Brigade reserve.
For the twenty-three days of June, from 7th to 30th, our casualties were the heaviest we were ever to incur in any month for the rest of the war. Both battles for St. Honorine cost 5th Camerons one officer and thirty-six other ranks killed, fifteen officers and one hundred and sixty nine other ranks wounded with seventeen missing.
Just after the capture of St. Honorine, someone decided that the factory chimneys, at Colombelles, should be taken out. The divisional artillery looked to be having a competition amongst themselves to see who would bring them down first. We started to bet on which, and how many shells it would take. We watched the whole episode take place and it seemed that the guns were firing armour-piercing shells instead of high explosive. The first few rounds, though accurate, were going clean through the chimneys without exploding. Needless to say that, eventually the chimneys were cut off just below the half way mark. The exercise at least lightened our hearts a little after the fighting we had been through.
It was about this time that we saw our first V1 flying bomb. I was on guard duty, manning the Bren gun, when I heard what I thought was a German motor bike coming up the road. I readied the gun to open fire when we saw what we thought was a small plane with its tail on fire flying towards us. All of a sudden it turned tail and headed off to whence it came, hopefully landing on the very persons who had launched it. We of course had no idea that we had just witnessed a piece of history in the making, as the first V1 was launched on June 13th 1944.
After the battles for St. Honorine we were treated to the spectacle of Typhoon aircraft, firing rockets at German Tiger tanks. The Tiger tank may have been the best in the world at the time but it was no match for our Typhoons. On one occasion a Typhoon had just taken out a tank and had one of its rockets left. The Pilot spotted a German motor cycle trying to escape along a road, and swooped down and launched its rocket. The motor cycle and rider disappeared leaving just an oily stain in the road. When the rocket exploded it lifted me fully four feet off the ground, I was shaken but not hurt. One guy near me was hit by a piece of shrapnel costing him an eye, but at least he wouldn’t have to go through any more horrors of war. Apart from what was etched into his memory.
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