When D-Day dawned for South Shields sergeant

As we prepare to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy during the Second World War, historian and regular contributor Dorothy Ramser takes a personal look-back at the momentous military operation – in which her father, Sergeant MI Dickson, took part.

By Peter French
Tuesday, 04 June, 2019, 10:19
Preparing for D-Day.

Here is the first part of her account.

“The men taking part in the assault on D-Day on Gold Beach had embarked on their landing craft on June 3, with every armoured vehicle and piece of equipment being chained down in case of bad weather.

“The metal decks were packed to capacity, making it difficult for soldiers to walk about.”

The invasion flotillas, said Dorothy, slipped their moorings on the morning of June 4, but were delayed by Eisenhower for 24 hours due to bad weather.

“Sgt MI Dickson, serving in the Hertfordshire Yeomanry, which formed part of 69th Brigade of Tyne Tees 50th Northumbrian Division, was in a craft anchored at Sandown Bay, off the Isle of Wight, enduring driving rain and high winds with their flat-bottomed landing craft heaving and crashing in the waves.

“In the cold, miserable soldiers lay vomiting under vehicles or anywhere they could keep dry, until thankfully the order was given and they were once more moving silently across the Channel in complete darkness, in what is now described as the greatest armada the world has ever known.

“Throughout the crossing the assault troops could hear the steady drone of Allied band fighter aircraft heading for France.

“Each man knew his particular task by heart, having been thoroughly briefed on their part of the mission, with photos of the beach and coastal defences and maps of the minefields and underwater obstacles.

“Commanders were expecting high levels of fatalities among these assault troops, and the men were warned of the importance of getting off the beach, as life expectancy was thought to be 30 minutes for soldiers in the first wave.

“None doubted how many in Europe would be counting on their success, as their only hope of freedom from their brutal Nazi occupiers. Operation Overlord, as the D-Day landings were named, had to succeed.”

Dorothy tells how each man was issued with meal rations for one week as well as six tins of self-heating soup, two tins of self-heating cocoa, two 24-hour rations, a life belt, a water sterilizing kit, two bars of chocolate, a bag of biscuits, a packet of chewing gum, 20 cigarettes, one emergency ration of chocolate and two vomit bags which given the crossing, were essential.

“At dawn, the whole sea was covered with ships of every description and at 5.30am Operation Neptune, the bombardment of the French coastline, began with mighty HMS Belfast firing the first salvo.

“The noise was deafening as rockets and shells screamed through the air over the landing crafts filled with soldiers.

“The smell of cordite permeated the air and a protective smokescreen drifted across the beach.

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“As Gold beach came into view, the houses converted into strong points by the Germans could be seen to be on fire, the engineers had neutralised mines and marked some lanes through the underwater obstacles, but several vessels had been hit and there was much congestion at the smoke-filled shoreline, with men shouting or screaming when shrapnel or a bullet tore into them.

“Many brave men who had landed first to clear paths for the landing craft, lay lifeless and bloodied, floating in the water.”

Meanwhile, the men of the 6th Green Howards were soon in the thick of the action, wading waist-deep through the bitterly cold water towards Gold beach from where heavy German gunfire was coming from onshore pillboxes.

Although one of the “swimming tanks” of the Dragoon Guards dealt with them, the British troops were held up by enemy grenades until two sergeants bravely ended that particular deadly threat.

As a result, the Green Howards quickly secured their first objective of the Mont Fleury battery.

Then as they advanced up a hill, they again came under fire, prompting CSM Stanley Hollis to charge a machine gun – earning him the only VC to be awarded on D-Day.

At 10.30am Sgt Dickson’s 342 Battery of 86th Hertfordshire Yeomanry were in action near Ver Sur Mer, having landed on Gold Beach at 8.05am where they had remained for almost 1 hour, firing their Sexton Self Propelled Guns from the shallows, in support of the 6th Green Howards push inland.

At 10.30am, Sgt Dickson’s 342 Battery, of 86th Hertfordshire Yeomanry, were in action near Ver Sur Mer, having landed on Gold Beach at 8.05am, where they had remained for almost an hour, firing their Sexton self propelled guns from the shallows, in support of the 6th Green Howards’ push inland.

Throughout D-Day they were in constant support of 6th Green Howards and did not rest until midnight when the final objective was reached.

Towards midnight they halted just west of Martragny; they were seven miles inland. Only the 50th Northumbrian Division managed to get as far inland.

Ver-Sur-Mer is the chosen site, just behind Gold Beach, where a new memorial is to be built in remembrance of the 22,442 British servicemen and women killed at Normandy.

Every name will eventually be inscribed on the stone pillars of the memorial which will be unveiled on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Next time, Dorothy tells how more South Shields men took part in the D-Day landings.