John Rayner has sent in this fascinating story written by his father, Gunner Edward (Tich) Rayner, who was heavily involved in the Battle for the Odon while serving with the 131st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery in June 1944.
Part 1: The Odon – Capture and Escape – by Tich Rayner
What follows is an account of a battle from D-Day plus, in Normandy 1944. The participants were:
Capt. Peppiatt – Forward Observation Officer
Gunner Tommy Gray – Wireless Operator/Bren Gunner/ Driver
Gunner Edward (Tich) Rayner – Wireless Operator/ Bren Gunner/Driver
Gunner Maurice Stennet – Driver
(All members of a Forward Observation Post of 131st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery).
The night of 25 June and early morning of the 26 June 1944 was spent moving up with our infantry friends, in our case the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. Over the training years we had got close to the Gordons and they to us.
At 0730hrs a tremendous bombardment of known enemy positions opened up, involving between 700 and 800 guns, including the guns of heavy naval units lying off the Normandy coast. The noise was ear splitting, but I was wearing my earphones clamped firmly on so it wasn’t too bad for me.
On Pep’s (Capt. Peppiatt our OC) orders I checked in with regiment to make sure all was well with communications. It was our sister brigades’ turn, the 44th and 46th. They were by now committed to battle as we could hear the rattle of the bren guns and the bang of tank shells interspersed with enemy machine guns and the crash of German mortar fire from multi-barrelled pieces, known to the British troops as Moaning Minnies for the horrible noise they made in flight. It was obvious to us that a terrible battle was developing just ahead of us and it was not long before we were committed.
We were approaching the village of Cheux when a three-ton truck full of ammunition just ahead of us was struck by an enemy shell and exploded into a ball of fire. Sergeant McDowell who had been following us on his motorbike, closed up to our carrier for cover.
Cheux was a shambles. Vehicles of every type crowded the one narrow street. Snipers were everywhere, while mortars crashed down all around us causing chaos and destruction and spreading confusion all around.
We cleared the village and found ourselves in a sunken lane. Bocage country. We had heard about it and now we were in it. As we went along we came across a medical station in which the medics of the Gordons had set up and were performing minor miracles for the wounded of both sides that the stretcher bearers brought in. Now we had to find our company, A-company. They had got through Cheux quicker than us, as we were on foot.
Suddenly we were called up by the CO of the Gordons, who told us that “A” company would be in Collville by now, the next village on, and to get ourselves up there as quickly as possible. Ahead of us lay a narrow lane blocked by a dead cow. A quick look at the map showed us we were on the right route.
Quickly, Pep told the driver to drive over the poor cow and drive on. The road we took from Cheux to Collville was really a country lane. It went straight for about 300 yards, then took a 90-degree left turn, then another 500 yards into Collville.
On our left as we proceeded was a large wood. On the right side there was an extensive corn field. As we slowed down for the sharp turn it occurred to us that we were alone. We saw no one ahead of us. It was as if we were driving down an English country lane. The battle in Cheux now seemed remote and unreal. Indeed we could have been on exercise in England.
However, this all changed the moment we turned the corner, for there in front of us less than 50 yards away was a company of German SS infantry advancing towards us. Who was the more surprised at this moment we will never know.
In a flash Pep ordered our driver to return the way we had come, and as we hightailed it back, a section of the enemy was waiting for us, armed with Panzerfausts. They let fly and took the track off our bren carrier. We were prisoners of war.
Our captors were elated, while we were in complete shock, white-faced and speechless. We were made to climb out of our carrier, disarmed and ordered to sit on the road-bank.
It wasn’t long before another carrier came along the road from Cheux. It was only minutes behind us. It was a vehicle from the Gordon Highlanders and we watched in horror as the Germans destroyed it with clinical efficiency, killing all the crew. There was nothing we could have done. The whole business made us even more depressed and aware of our own precarious situation.
It was getting dark when the Germans decided to move us out. We were marched through into Collville, where a large vehicle towing an artillery piece picked us up and took us behind German lines.
After a while we were made to dismount, and then marched off again, this time with a column of soldiers who were withdrawing to new positions. Soon we were to leave this column, with our original captors taking us over and leading us to a farmhouse which seemed to be some sort of headquarters. There we were told to bed down for the night.
We obviously slept the sleep of the exhausted, for the next thing I knew it was morning, with the Germans telling us to get up ready to move out. Minutes later we were marched out of the building and taken down to a small village which we later identified as Baron. There we saw German infantry digging in and preparing the defences.
Some sort of orders group seemed to be taking place nearby. The participants merely glanced at us and carried on. We were then told to lie down behind some trenches that had been dug, but a belligerent German NCO made us lie in front of the new trenches as if we were sand bags. A German officer who saw this immediately countermanded his orders and reprimanded the NCO.
We were then marched away further back to another house and told to stay there and not try to escape or we would be shot. With that our captors walked out and left us.
The worst was yet to come. A few shells had crashed down on Baron earlier in the morning while we were being marched about. Pep told us that someone not too far away was ranging our artillery. It became clear that the ranging period was over, for suddenly the air was full of the shriek of shells as salvo after salvo crashed down into Baron and grew intensively until the explosions became as one.
We were petrified at this ear-splitting noise. The house we were in was being hit and began to disintegrate around us. On our way in we had seen some slit trenches in the garden so we dashed out of the house and dived into them. (It’s a good job the Germans didn’t think we were trying to make a break for it.)
During a lull in the bombardment they made us go back into the house and told us not to leave again. After we went in they threw a grenade towards the back door. We got the message.
We then sorted out a place where we thought we would be safe. We all took refuge under the stairs, praying that the house would not collapse on top of us and bury us. By now the shellfire had reached a crescendo and it was obvious that a full scale attack would follow.
All this time Pep had kept us calm, reassured us and behaved in a brave officer’s tradition, keeping us alert for any opportunity to escape if possible. He was only the same age as us – 22.
We stayed under the stairs wondering what was going to happen next, expecting any moment that the Germans would come to take us away. Gradually the light faded. It grew dark and still no sign of the Germans coming into the house, although we could hear them outside. Had they by any chance forgotten us? Surely not. Maybe they were busy repairing their defences. They knew where we were so we stayed under the stairs and kept as quiet as possible, not trying to attract our captors.
Eventually we all fell into an exhausted sleep, the events of the day proving too much for us; the Germans, the bombardment, the uncertainty had taken their toll of our frazzled nerves.
Morning light streamed through the shattered windows of our house when we awoke. During the night I thought I had heard heavy machine gun fire in and around the village but now all was quiet. Where were the Germans? Had they suffered during the bombardment or did they consider we were of no importance?
Pep called for our attention. He said we were going to try and make a break for it if the coast were clear. “Stay where you are. I’m going out to have a look to see what’s on. I’ll be back.”
When he got back he told us the Germans were still there but our troops were coming very close down the lane towards the village. “When I say go, we’ll make a run for it, so run like hell when I tell you to,” he said. We crept to the door and waited. “Are you ready? Then let’s go.”
We ran – oh how we ran. Fear lent us speed. Behind us we heard a shout and then bullets were twanging around us, and still we kept going, around a bend and straight into the arms of a British patrol. We were elated. We were also breathless as we poured out our story to the amazed patrol, telling them what had happened to us. The patrol commander said that we were lucky as the whole AGRA plus heavy naval units had taken part in the bombardment of Baron.
The patrol, which was part of a KSLI battalion, had us taken back to their battalion headquarters, where we had a little difficulty persuading their general that we were British soldiers and not Germans dressed up as such. During our capture all our identification, apart from our dog-tags, had been taken from us.
Eventually a jeep was produced to take us to where our own people were. We had just left the KSLI battalion headquarters when the Germans put down a heavy mortar barrage on the area. Once again we were lucky no one was hurt, and apart from minor cuts and bruises incurred when our carrier was destroyed, we were all in good health, physically if not mentally.
At last we began to see our divisional troops dug in just outside the village of Tourville. We were glad to see Gordon Highlanders as we always felt comfortable when they were with us. We found our battery commander, Major Campbell, who was with the Gordon’s Battalion HQ. With him was D troop carrier and our counterparts.
We said goodbye to our KSLI driver and went to report our return. We were greeted with astonishment as everybody thought we had been killed. They had found four bodies and had assumed they were us. They had in fact found the Gordons whose bodies were badly burnt.
We were also told that Sgt McDowell, our signals sergeant, had been shot trying to escape back to our lines and that we had taken quite heavy casualties within the division. This depressed us quite a lot. It was a sad return to unit but at least we were alive and ready to fight another day.
Unfortunately, our carrier driver was declared unfit for duty after he started to shake uncontrollably. The ordeal had been too much for him. On the orders of the Gordon’s MO, he was evacuated, never to be seen again in our unit.
Our next job was to be debriefed, and then back to our regiment where we were re-equipped. We had lost most of our equipment and only had what we stood up in. We slept the night in a tent at HQRA. The next morning we were awakened and told to go and get some breakfast. We hadn’t eaten for three days!
At the cookhouse the RSM, who didn’t know about us, began to berate Tommy and me for wearing no hats, not shaving and generally having the appearance of a pair of hoboes; he also cast doubts on our parentage. However, when it was explained to him just who we were he couldn’t have been nicer to us. He organized hot water, towels and razors. He even ordered special first class breakfasts for us with a pat on our backs and a well done lads, and made out we were “bloody heroes”, something we were not.
After a debriefing by the HQRA intelligence officers, another jeep was produced to take us back to our battery, where once again we were hailed as someone special.
The euphoria soon came to an end. The Germans counter-attacked fiercely around the villages of Cheux, Collville and Tourville. Their intention was to cut off the dangerous corridor the 15th Scottish Division had driven from Cheux down to and across the Odon, now known as the Scottish corridor, which was now being exploited by other divisions in 8 Corps, namely the 11th Armoured Division and the 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, the latter now fighting like hell around the village of Baron for the heights known as Hill 113.
Quickly Pep had us re-equipped with clothing, weapons and ammunition. We were to wait a few more days to get a new carrier and driver (although Tommy and I were dab hands at driving, our forte was as wireless operators and map readers).
By nightfall we were on our way back where we had come from, namely Tourville. Here we rejoined the Gordons and for the next few days withstood furious counter-attacks. We were also subjected to shelling, mortaring and tank attacks which threatened to drive us out.
Our Scottish Infantry were magnificent. Everywhere the Germans got a foothold they were met by ferocious defence by the infantry. It was the Germans who eventually broke off these engagements as their casualties were appalling, but it was an exhausted 15th Scottish who were pulled out for a rest.
In this, our first battle, it was the green troops of 8 Corp who had triumphed, taking on the elite Waffen SS and giving them a bloody nose. The bloodsoaked battle of the Odon was over and we had learned a lot which would hold us in good stead for coming battles.
Pep had shown us what a fine officer he was, brave without being reckless, and above all being cool-headed and that he cared for his men, as shown during our captivity. It appeared to be his first priority. We in our turn respected him and were prepared to follow him anywhere.
In the after-battle post-mortem, Pep decided that under no circumstances would the Signals Sergeant follow the Troop Commander’s carrier into battle on a motorcycle. The loss of Sgt McDowell in Cheux had hit him hard. It had been in Pep’s own words “a waste of a first class NCO”.
Normandy was a sniper’s paradise. The closed-in countryside with its thick ancient double hedges enclosed snipers perfectly, and anyone not in an armoured vehicle was in serious danger. Sgt McDowell had paid the price of a policy whereby the Signals Sergeant followed behind the Observation post (OP) team until the OP was chosen, then return to the gun position to bring the line laying section up to the OP. Pep felt it wasn’t worth it.
Time was now spent cleaning and checking our new equipment; there was a new carrier and radio sets to be netted. In fact everything that we lost in our first outing was replaced. From a suggestion from Pep we named our carrier the “2nd Venture” and it was in this vehicle that we stood on the far side of the Elbe in May 1945. There was a lot of fighting to be done before then, and our crew lost mates getting there…
Part 2 – THE FIGHT FOR HILL 113 - by Tich Rayner
The division was resting after a gruelling battle. We had in the Odon battle incurred over 4,000 casualties, including more than 1,000 men killed. It was a hard blow to a new and, until then, untried division.
But we had weathered the storm and the men who had gone into battle green troops had emerged as veterans. A healthy respect had been engendered into the Germans for the 15th Scottish Division and that continued until the end of the war.
And so we prepared for another hard slog, the taking and holding of Hill 113, which lies behind the River Odon, overlooking the village of Baron which we knew very well. It was going to be a night attack and we had the benefit of artificial moonlight – searchlights reflecting off the underside of clouds – giving us the advantage of seeing where we were going.
On a dark night in July we formed up by the church in Baron, only 50 yards from the house where we had earlier been kept prisoners. The Gordon Highlanders were to lead the attack and naturally we were with them. Already the Germans appeared to know that something was up, for it wasn’t long before their mortars began to bombard our start lines, giving us casualties before we moved forward.
Our own artillery opened up with a tremendous creeping barrage. It got so that we couldn’t tell Incoming fire from outgoing shells and mortars. I reported to Pep that all was well with our radio links, then the command to move out was given. This time we were on foot, with me carrying the Nr.18 set on my back. Our carrier was to follow when called for.
By now the Germans were thoroughly alarmed; red flares were soaring into the sky from their lines, obviously an alarm system. Their machine guns opened up with deadly crossfire down the slopes of the hill.
Fortunately for us, a lot of the enemy fire was going over our heads, landing in Baron village. Our Brigade Headquarters (227 Highland), which was in Baron churchyard, received a direct hit, killing our Brigadier and his staff. Our CO, Lt Col John Bailey, took over the battle from there.
Now it started to rain, a steady drenching drizzle. Whatever the searchlights were doing against the Germans, they were doing to me. It was like advancing down a lane with constant headlights coming towards you. Pep had to keep checking his compass bearing to make sure we were on route.
We felt thoroughly miserable. What with the weather and the regiment asking for SITREPs (situation reports) which we were in no position to give as yet, we wished we were somewhere else. The noise of the crashing artillery and mortars was awesome and was enough to scare the life out of everyone. Just ahead of us a fire fight broke out, with stens, brens and rifles going flat out.
By now our artillery had crept forward into the rear of the enemy lines beyond the crest, while the German guns faltered as if mindful of their own troops.
Meanwhile some of our infantry had broken through the enemy positions and after a short, sharp, vicious fight the enemy disappeared into the darkness. The Gordon Highlanders had won through again. It was with thanks to God that we sank into an enemy trench to organise ourselves and send a SITREP.
The following dawn came up with a thick wet mist. Visibility was about ten yards at the most, but if we couldn’t see them they couldn’t see us. An eerie silence enveloped Hill 113, both sides digging in on their new positions.
By mid morning we were reasonably well prepared; our tanks had moved up at first light and were hull down around and in front of our trenches. Our carrier had been brought up to us, so we were able to have a wash and shave and cook a hot meal. This was to prove to be the last hot meal for a long time, for as the mist rose, so did the Germans. They started sharp counter-attacks, each preceded by a salvo of shells and mortars.
Our first attack came at about 1100hrs, supported by two troops of MK IV tanks. It originated from behind a ridge about 400 yards in front of us and followed a creeping barrage of heavy, accurate artillery and mortar fire. Within minutes vehicles were being hit and set ablaze.
Companies of German infantry started to advance towards our position. Pep began shouting fire orders: “Uncle Target, Uncle Target, Uncle Target!” At the same time, forward observers from the Medium Regiments were calling their fire orders, as were the heavy mortar OPs.
Soon our guns reported ready. We watched Pep. He was waiting for the right time to call fire. When he did so, 72 guns from our regiment opened up. The destruction and carnage was terrible. The medium guns and mortars joined in. It was like a devil’s cauldron. This was our first experience of such a barrage – the mass of bursting shells just in front of us.
The German infantry had had enough and as quickly as they had appeared they disappeared behind the ridge from where they had come. The German tanks, however, stood off and continually shelled ours.
The tank immediately in front of us took a hit and started to burn. Once again Pep showed us what a fine officer he was. Without a thought for himself, he jumped out of our trench and, with my sidekick Tommy Gray with him, went out to try to help the crew of the burning tank. It was, however, too late to save the men from the burning inferno.
Unfortunately the German mortars descended upon our position, and before Tommy could get back he was wounded in the back. Pep helped Tommy to his feet and supported him back to our trench, where we tended his wound. He was evacuated soon after.
Our anti-tank lads had got the range of the German tanks and they decided to break off their attack.
This, then, was the battle for Hill 113. For the next few days we repelled counter attacks, but the enemy never budged us off the hill. This was one of the finest moments of the 15th Scottish Division. A few days later we were relieved by the 53rd Welsh Division and we went to the rear for a well-earned rest.
We meet some interesting people when we visit events around Kent to tell people about our work to preserve and enhance the Memorial to the men who fought for Hill 112.
One of those was Matt Oliver, who is confident that his grandfather Stephen William Oliver fought on Hill 112 with the Second Battalion Glasgow Highlanders.
Matt told us: “My grandfather kept very quiet about his time and part in the war. After returning home injured, he moved to the Military Police and was posted in Malaya. He had fonder memories of his time in this unit, and we have an entire photo album, warrant card and warrant book for this [later] period.
“I have a copy of his service records and after spending a fair bit of time online have managed to piece together an idea of his service and what he must have been through when in the Glasgow Highlanders.”
Matt would be interested to hear from anyone in the Lingfield, Surrey, area, who may have any more information about his grandfather’s time in the army. He also reminded us of another great resource for researchers, the War Diaries of the 15th Scottish Division, which details key dates relating to their part in the operation. You can find it HERE [link to https://www.15thscottishdivisionwardiaries.co.uk/war-diaries}
Get in touch via our contact page if you would like Matt’s details, and meanwhile enjoy the pictures he sent, below.
Bill joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps as a member of the 60th rifles in 1940 as a Rifleman.
He qualified as a bren gun carrier driver at Castle Camps Aerodrome in Cambridgeshire, was put on the staff as a driver and dispatch rider for the colonel and later transferred to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire, where he passed as an operator wireless and line, joining a section of new recruits who were sent to Canterbury in Kent.
Bill was billeted at the King's School near the cathedral. After around nine months he moved to Kent College ahead of various moves around Kent including to Harrietsham and Tenterden.
He was finally transferred to Seaford to provide communications to the 59th anti-tank battery and others in the 179 field regiment, with which Bill landed in Arromanches in Normandy. He stayed with that unit until the end of the war in 1945.
Pearl notes it is unclear where Bill was at the time this picture was taken. “It could have been on the training grounds in Kent before D-Day. Bill is sitting in the front row on the left with his beret pushed back.”
Bill Lovett with his new wife Ellen Francis (Helen), whose maiden name was Robson. They married on 18 December 1943 as Michael’s Church in Croydon after a six month courtship.
Pearl recalls: “Bill carried this photo of Helen with her note on the reverse – “all my love, Helen” throughout the war. Wherever he was he pinned the picture onto any available surface. The drawing pin mark can clearly be seen.
The inside of the card shows the route Bill and his division took after landing at Arromanches.
Bill found this article in a newspaper when he was in his seventies. “He realised to his amazement that the soldier on the left hand side with the helmet askew was in fact him.”
Bill did not collect his medals until after the war, but in his final years he was persuaded by children to apply for them.
Pearl added: “If anyone recognises any of Bill’s fellow comrades in the top photograph or has any other information about his regiment, I would love to hear from you via the Hill 112 contact details.”
Terry Foskett first visited Hill 112 in July 2009 on the 65th anniversary of the
battle for Hill 112. “Dad was still alive then and was most interested in the fact
that I had visited,” he recalled.
Terry was living about 114 miles away at the time, in the Dinan area of Brittany,
and in the coming months spent a lot of time driving through the Odon Valley.
“If it was not misty, I could see Hill 112 every time from the motorway into Caen,” he said. “That July I traced the route of the 43rd Wessex Division from JUNO Beach to Hill 112 and to Mount Pincon.”
For most of his career, Terry was as a purser in the Merchant Navy, and he spent 27 years serving on board Queen Elizabeth 2. “In April 1982 the ship was taken over by the MOD to play its part in the Falklands War,” Terry said. “I never thought I would be involved in conflict, but Cunard and the MOD were asking for volunteers.
“When I phoned my parents, they asked me whether or not I was going. I told them I had volunteered. In reply, my dad said the most memorable thing he ever said to me. It was: ‘I thought you would’.” In 1991 Terry served on board another Cunard ship supporting Operation Desert Storm.
The photograph shows Terry’s dad Albert outside his home at Earsham, Norfolk, smartly dressed for the British Legion Remembrance Day commemoration. “I did not know it at the time, but it was the last time I would see dad alive,” Terry commented.
Terry recalls his dad’s life and career:
Dad was born on 2 March 1920 in Brentford, Middlesex, and attended Chiswick Grammar School.
Just after dad turned 19, my grandfather, who had served in World War I in the Royal Horse Artillery, encouraged my father to join the Territorial Army. He told him there was a war coming and that if he volunteered, he could choose his unit, which he would not be able to do if he was conscripted. Dad choose the Royal Signals and joined the TA on 27 March 1939.
Activated on 25 August 1939, dad was deployed with 2nd London Corps Signals and sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg in late September 1939. It is probable that his actual unit attached to HQ II Corps was 47 (Middlesex Yeomanry) Signal Squadron (V)*.
He was evacuated from Dunkirk on 1 June 1940 having walked from La Panne, Belgium, to Dunkirk, France, having first helped to deactivate the signals truck he had been travelling in. He sailed overnight from 31 May on the SS PARIS, arrived safely in Ramsgate in the early morning of 1 June and phoned my grandmother to say he was safe. He was than transferred to Northern Ireland, where he subsequently met my mother. They were married in September 1942.
On 10 January 1944 dad was posted to 43rd (Wessex) Division Royal Signals, embarking for Normandy and JUNO Beach on 19 June 1944. He stayed with the 43rd during the rest of the campaign in North West Europe, remaining after the German surrender to carry out occupation duties with the BAOR. A Sergeant when the war ended, on 3 March 1946 dad was demobilised to the General Reserve and was finally released in February 1954.
In March 1954 the family left Brentford, Middlesex, and moved to Great Baddow, Essex. Dad subsequently worked for Essex County Council as chief engineer for Mid Essex. After leaving the county council he became a consultant for an electrical company, finally retiring in 1990. My parents moved to Earsham, Norfolk in 2002 and dad quickly became active on the local area council and in the Royal British Legion. Dad died in Earsham on 4 August 2011.
*Source: The Royal Corps of Signals: Unit Histories of the Corps (1920-2001)
Bob Curtis, from Warwickshire, first became aware of the Hill 112 Memorial Foundation in July 2017 after visiting the Normandy grave of his uncle, Joseph Alfred Curtis, for the first time. During that trip he visited the Memorial and also met Monsieur Gilles Osmont, President of Odon Cote 112 Association.
Bob has spent the past four years researching the life and untimely death of his uncle, Joseph Alfred Curtis, who served with The Herefordshire Regiment and died on Hill 112 during Operation Epsom in July 1944.
He tells us: “I am committed to preserving his memory, and those of his comrades, and understanding the part that the 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment played in Operation Epsom and its immediate aftermath.
“Officially Operation Epsom lasted five days, from 26 to 30 June 1944. The Herefords had five men killed in action during this ‘official’ period but then lost another seven, including my uncle, on 1 July. The events of the first week in July seem to have been overlooked by historians but deserve to be recognised as a significant part of the story of Hill 112.” During his visit Bob became friends with Vincent and Maryvonne Robillard, who live in Evrecy and now regularly put flowers from their own garden on Joseph’s grave. Here, Bob tells us about the life and career of Joseph Alfred Curtis:
Joseph was born on 30 March, 1917 in Coventry, the fourth child of eight children born to Charles and Eliza Curtis.
He attended Red Lane School, which is where he met Ruby Bird, who would become his wife on 6 August 1938. After leaving school he worked at Hewins and Mills Butter Manufacturers as a butter blender and warehouseman
Joseph and Ruby moved in to 61 Elgar Road, Coventry. Their first son Robert was born on 19 February 1939 and the following February Joseph was enlisted into the Territorial Army and given the number 4036562. He was sent to the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry Training Centre at Shrewsbury.
On 30 July 1940 Joseph was posted to the 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment, stationed at Castlewellan in Northern Ireland. By November 1941 they were based in Crewe and Joseph began his long association with the four-man bren gun carrier, qualifying as a driver/mechanic in March 1942.
They converted to the Lorryborne Infantry Brigade of the 11th Armoured Division (The Black Bulls) in May 1942. Training continued at various locations around the UK and on 29 November 1942 Joseph was granted the rank of Corporal, enabling him to assume command of his own bren gun carrier. Four days later his second son, Alan Joseph, was born.
By the time Joseph had completed a "Waterproofing of Carriers" course in December 1943, he was part of Support Company Carrier Platoon within 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment. The 65-strong platoon was made up of 13 bren gun carriers which also carried PIAT anti-tank weapons.
In April 1944 the regiment was based at Aldershot. One week before D-Day a group photograph of the Carrier Platoon, Support Company, 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment was taken.
On 10 June, D-Day plus 4, Joseph embarked from Albert Dock in London aboard an American motor transport ship. After being delayed off Southend, he and his colleagues landed on the extreme eastern edge of Sword beach five days later. The platoon made its way to the battalion assembly area around the village of Cainet, about six miles inland from Gold Beach, where it joined the rest of the 11th Armoured Division.
In a letter to his eldest brother Walter, dated 18 June 1944, Joseph said that throughout the time the vehicles were being moved from the ship on to a flat landing craft they were being shelled by what appeared to be the only big onshore German gun that was left.
He said nobody seemed to be taking any notice of this gun. The shells were dropping all around them, right up to the beach where they landed, hardly wetting the wheels of the vehicles. Joseph mentioned that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were supporting them well and that Spitfires were flying over nearly all day. As usual, he also said: "Send me a few cigarettes, give my love to Mam and tell her not to worry about me.”
Joseph’s regiment then spent a surprisingly leisurely two weeks, de-waterproofing the vehicles, training, reading, swimming, playing sports and getting plenty of rest.
In a letter to Ruby dated 20 June, he wrote: "Things are going very well over here and everything points to success.”
He added: "We have had plenty of rest. There is a great variety in our rations. Do you know? We had tinned sliced peaches for sweet yesterday and they tasted delicious, and we are not short of a drink of tea. Is Bobby behaving, and is he learning at school? Tell him I want a little letter from him, or perhaps he can draw something for me. I bet Alan is a rogue now that he can get about more.
“Well, sweetheart, I'm afraid I must close now as the light is getting bad and it is time for bed. Goodnight darling, God Bless you and the children. Yours forever XXX Joe XXX I love you XXX".
All this time, though, thousands of shells were constantly passing overhead from the offshore warships attacking the German positions around the city of Caen, which was proving difficult to liberate. The great storm from 19 to 22 June badly damaged the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, disrupted supplies and added to the delay.
Some of the troops in the regiment were beginning to wonder just when they were going to see any action. Despite having had four years of thorough training, Joseph’s regiment had not experienced combat.
Joseph’s last letter to Ruby and the children was written on 27 June. The letter must have been written during the morning because it contained no hint that at 12:15, the battalion would be moving up to an assembly area at Norrey-en-Bessin.
Joseph finished his letter: "Well sweetheart, I haven't any more time to spare at the moment, so I will close now, with all my love to you and the children. Yours forever XXXXXX Joe XXXXXXX. The 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment, was about to play its part in Operation Epsom.
Operation Epsom had begun in earnest on 26 June, which proved to be a difficult day. By the end of it the village of Cheux had been taken, but most of the eight Scottish infantry Battalions had suffered losses running into three figures.
By 5.15pm the next day the 15th Scots Division had achieved its objective of reaching the 13 feet wide bridge over the River Odon at Tourmauville. They found it intact and unguarded and declared it capable of carrying all vehicles.
By that evening, 159 Brigade, comprising The 1st Herefords, The 4th KSLI and The 3rd Mons, began the advance towards the bridge to relieve the Scots via Cheux and Colleville.
By 2am on 28 June The Herefords were in defensive positions in Tourmauville and KSLI were similarly placed in Baron, just three-quarters of a mile to their left. The 3rd Mons arrived on the north bank of the river by dawn.
Hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles began crossing over the small bridge on to Hill 112. The objective of VIII Corps was to reach and cross the Orne river only five miles away across the hill. The Herefords were under fire from Carpiquet airfield, Ruray Hill to the north west and Tiger tanks to the south.
The next day, mortars continued to rain down incessantly on the Herefords. British tanks lost control of the hill tod the 9th an 10th SS Panzer Divisions and at 3.05pm the enemy attempted to infiltrate on the right flank of the Herefords from the direction of Gavrus. The situation was restored after a fire fight using machine guns and mortars. There were considerable casualties in A and C companies due to shells bursting in trees.
Since dawn, air reports had been coming in showing large scale enemy movements from Flers, Argentan and Vire. General Roberts concluded that the British troops were out on a limb and the order came down from General Dempsey to "call it a day".
General Roberts ordered the withdrawal from Hill 112, but said present positions would be maintained and that the bridgehead over the River Odon must continue to be held (by 159 Infantry Brigade). The withdrawal took place between 11pm and 4am, leaving the Herefords in Tourmauville and the KSLI in Baron "to face the music", as the CO of 159 Brigade, Brigadier Jack Churcher, later said in his book "A Soldier’s Story”.
The Germans re-occupied Hill 112 on 30 June and were ready to attack. Thankfully 159 Brigade were supported by 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry Shermans and the might of 12 artillery regiments of 8 Corps AGRA.
At 10pm the 10th SS Grenadiers moved in to attack. The British barrage, including that coming from 16" Naval guns 21 miles away, saved the day. Brigadier Churcher calculated that 8 AGRA fired 38,000 shells on to the German positions from 3am to 4:30am.
Sergeant Frank Moppett, a member of Joseph’s Platoon, said: "It went on for hours and we suffered mentally as much as the Germans - the constant scream of shells overhead, the crash of German shells exploding amongst us".*
During the barrage, the 3rd Mons were on the high ground on the west bank of the River Odon. Joe How noted: "A night of bangs and crashes and flashing light. In the bridgehead across the river the Herefords and Shropshires were getting a pasting. Explosive flashes darted rapidly about in the valley below - strings of tracer curved slowly and gracefully into extinction - flames flickered in the darkness and Very lights hung seemingly motionless over the valley. The noise was deafening. How I wondered, could anyone survive down there.”*
The events surrounding the death of Corporal Joseph Alfred Curtis on 1 July 1944 were established from four different sources:
Firstly, from the book "The Black Bull - from Normandy to the Baltic with the 11th Armoured Division" by Patrick Delaforce. On page 42 it recounts: On 30 June a determined counter attack, in Frank Moppett’s (Herefords) words "was only held off by our divisional artillery, who were superb. Their DF fire saved us". On the next day he was ordered: "No fighting Moppett, just a recce, but no one had told the Germans". He took his carrier gingerly up to the top of the hill, which gave a good view over Esquay, and found six to eight knocked-out tanks and eight or ten wounded Germans. As his Company CO, Captain Barneby, arrived in a second carrier, Moppett spied enemy helmets peeping above the high yellow corn and the Herefords were immediately swamped with fire. Captain Barneby was hit, and died later, and Corporal Curtis, the smallest man in the Regiment, was killed on the spot. A mortar then fell on top and wounded four more men.
(Joseph’s Army record confirms his height as 5 feet 1 inch.)
Secondly, from the Herefords’ War Diary: July 1st 12:00: B Coy supported by Sqn of Churchill tks carried out offensive sweep on high ground ref.939620 to clear it of enemy who might have remained from previous night’s attack and to deny him O.P's. Sweep entirely successful. One or two M.G. posts mopped up.
(No casualties’ names appear throughout the whole war diary).
Thirdly, an extract from a sympathy letter dated 27 July 1944 sent to Ruby from Herefords Captain G H Lloyd: "There is not a great deal I can tell you about the circumstances. He was out on a Carrier patrol a little forward of our position with his Platoon Commander. The country was difficult to see far in owing to the woods and crops of corn. Two or three German machine guns opened up on them from the flanks. The patrol did its job and returned but sustained a few casualties, it was then that your husband was killed. His Platoon Commander was also wounded seriously and died soon after. It was a bit of very bad luck, but unavoidable I fear in War. Your Husband is buried in the corner of a little orchard on the edge of a very small village which we were holding (Tourmauville). A few more of our lads be buried there too".
Fourthly, an extract from "A Soldiers Story" by Brigadier J.B.Churcher: "The following day (01-07-1944) we had to clear off some remnants of Boche machine gun detachments still on our side of the crest line and this we did with the aid of a squadron of Churchill tanks which could move across the front keeping below the sky line and winkle out with our Carrier platoon the elements which the Germans had left behind. This was successful and we lost our first serious officer casualty in the shape of Captain Barneby, commander of the Carrier platoon".
Note - The map reference 939620 mentioned in the War Diary entry of 1 July refers to the 1943 Standard British Army 1:25,000 tactical map used at the time. The contours on the map were produced without access to the territory being mapped, and the maps of enemy occupied Normandy had printed on them "not been checked on the ground". Map reference 939620, according to the map contours, should be at the top of the hill, but in reality the top of the hill is a further 148 yards away. As Sergeant Moppett’s account said he took his carrier to the top of the hill, which gave a good view over Esquay, this information has been used to determine a likely position of the area where Corporal Curtis and Captain Barneby lost their lives.
Note - It was not until January 1947 that the family was informed of the final resting place of Joseph, at Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery. Here Joseph lies with ten others from his Regiment who died on Hill 112. The remaining man, Captain Barneby, is buried at Secqueville-en-Bessin War Cemetery.
*Source - "The Black Bull - from Normandy to the Baltic with the 11th Armoured Division" by Patrick Delaforce. Delaforce served with the Royal Horse Artillery of the 11th Armoured Division as a troop leader in Normandy. He wrote more than 20 military history books.
Note - Lt-Col J B Churcher, as Commander of the 1st Herefords, received the D.S.O. for operations over the River Odon.
The Herefords did indeed maintain their position defending the bridgehead. A lot of credit was given to Brigadier Churcher, CO of 159 Brigade, for the decisions he took throughout this period.
The Germans occupied the hill, but they seemed to be on the defensive, establishing a buffer in front of the Orne crossings rather than creating a springboard for further advance. Despite this, from 1 to 5 July the War Diary shows the Herefords were troubled by mortaring. The loss of seven men on 1 July bears witness to the severity of the situation.
By 5 July the battalion was very tired. In the afternoon an advance party of the 4th Dorsets arrived to take over and by 2am the next day the relief was complete and the battalion was on its way back to a rest area at Fresny-le-Crotteur. When 23 year-old Corporal Reg Worton (S Company Carrier Platoon), came off Hill 112 after 11 days fighting with hardly any sleep, he was said to have been “in a coma for many hours.”
The twelve soldiers of 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment who were killed in action on Hill 112 were:
Pte. Frederick Ward - 4041922 - Died 28-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. John Vernon Davies - 4105557 - Died 29-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. Edward Royston Higgins - 14645780 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. George Henry Cooke - 4104881 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
L.Cpl. William Alfred Rycroft - 4032353 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
Capt. Richard Paul Barneby - 63916 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Cpl. Joseph Alfred Curtis - 4036562 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Pte. Charles Vincent Bell - 4041611 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Pte. Sidney Charles Evans - 4039307 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. John Henry Jones - 5127583 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. Graham Hugh Lloyd - 4105413 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. Albert Edward Jones - 4039548 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB) (Key – OE = Operation Epsom; TOB = Defence of The Tourmauville Odon Bridgehead)
Bob Curtis later discovered that Sergeant Frank Moppett had given an eye witness account of the events of 1 July 1944 in a book called Hill 112 - Cornerstone of the Normandy Campaign by Major J.J.Howe, probably in 1984.
Having been forwarded two pages of the book by Phil Jackson, Bob said he was “stunned and shaken by what I read”, adding: “The account brings home the horror of war in all its brutality, particularly concerning my uncle’s death. Yet it took place amid cornfields on a day when ‘All around was quiet. The sun shone in a blue sky. We could forget the war was on’.”
Sergeant Moppett’s account began on 1 July 1944, after a tremendous British artillery barrage of 38,000 shells on to the German positions on Hill 112 had taken place between 00:30 and 04:30.
“The terrible night turned in to a silent dawn. The hunt for the intruders started. Sergeant Moppett of The Herefords was sent forward along the Esquay road, up the slope of Hill 112. His task was to assess the effect of the British artillery fire.
“Arriving at what I thought was the crest, I ordered the men to dismount (from their bren gun carriers). We went forward on foot. It was a false crest. The real one was 100 yards further on. All around was quiet. The sun shone in a blue sky. We could forget the war was on.
“Then I saw the turret of a tank on our left. I crawled through the corn with Lance Corporal Morten. It was knocked out. Behind were several more.
“We returned to the road and moved over the crest. Then I realised why the Germans wanted the hill. You could see for miles - over to Esquay and on to Evrecy and right over the Orne river. Everything was still quiet.
We moved on. Carnage. Dead Germans everywhere, literally in piles amongst the wheat. There were seven or eight knocked out tanks.
“At the side of the road we found a row of wounded Germans. They had received some first aid treatment and then been left for the night. The first man was blond, blue eyes looking into mine. His right hand was blown off and he was leaning his head on the stump. ‘Wasser, wasser (water, water),” was all he said. Next to them was the remains of a headquarters. I
collected some marked maps. The Platoon Commander, Captain Barneby, had come forward.
“As we were discussing the maps my look-out shouted ‘Sarge - Steel helmets in the corn!’ On our right, about 100 yards away, we could see German helmets moving.
“All hell let loose.
“From Esquay, straight up the road, and from both sides came Spandau fire. Captain Barneby was hit in the first burst. I got him into a carrier and sent him back to the RAP.
“My bren guns were answering as best they could. I shouted for the carrier with the 2" mortar and the Vickers gun. It slewed round to give us some cover. I called for everyone to mount. Corporal Curtis was killed instantly, shot through the head as he fell into the carrier.
“I jumped on to the sloping front and we withdrew back over the crest. Then I pulled into a field and got the brens into position in case we were followed. A mortar bomb exploded amongst us. Lance Corporal Morten had shrapnel in the thigh and the Corporal was wounded in the face; one of the drivers was blinded.
“Back in the ‘safety’ of The Herefords’ position, Sergeant Moppett lost another driver who was hit in the head by shrapnel.
Captain Barneby died of his wounds.
“I had a moment of panic. In my first engagement I had lost my Platoon Commander, a Corporal, a Lance Corporal and two drivers. After four years of training together for the war, half my section had gone in a couple of hours.
“How long would we last, I wondered.”