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ArticlesD Day Remembered

D Day Remembered

It was seventy-five years ago when I, as a ten-year-old child, woke up one morning to the persistent drone of an armada of aircraft flying overhead. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen to hear BBC announcer John Snagge telling the world that “under the command of General Eisenhower allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began to land armies this morning on the Northern coast of France”. Outside in the morning air, the sky seemed black, horizon to horizon, with literally hundreds of gliders being towed to war by Douglas skywagon aircraft. The roads, which had recently been crowded with miles of parked up convoys of U.S. Army vehicles, had emptied under the direction of white-helmeted military police as they made their way for embarkation at the port of Weymouth. After the busy activity of recent weeks and the passing of the last aircraft of the aerial invasion a noticeable silence fell over the land, interrupted only by the occasional jeep speeding important messages from one point to another.
For the previous nine months, we had been under the friendly occupation of the U.S First Infantry, “The Big Red One”. They had arrived already battle-hardened from combat in North Africa and Italy. Being shipped back to England they were anticipating a return to the United States only to find it had been decided that with their already notable battle experience they had been selected for the vanguard of the intended invasion of Europe. Even commander General Bradley admitted that the decision to involve the 1st Division in a third amphibious landing caused him concern. Their arrival in Liverpool had been shown on the newsreels at the Regent cinema in Lyme but our first sighting of them was outside our granny’s bungalow outside Rousdon where both my brother and I had been evacuated. Playing in the road, where traffic was very sparse due to the war, we heard the sound of a convoy of heavy trucks labouring up Bosshill from the Axe Valley we saw them appear over the crest and down towards us. As they drew close a head thrust out of the window and, giving a ‘wild rebel yell—ephwaah!’ threw a hand full of stuff at us. The next truck did the same, and the next, suddenly we realised that the ground around us was being covered with packs of chewing gum and chocolate bars. We were being liberated!
A new commandment was issued by our headmaster, Mr Freeman at our school in Uplyme, “Thou shalt not ask Got Any Gum Chum!” The infestation of US Army encampments by children pestering for goodies became something of a concern to both British and US Army authorities, but their generosity otherwise seemed boundless. “Two Hundred Gate Crashers at Yeovil Party”, reported one headline in the Pulmans Weekly News. Strangely, wartime regulations stated that the US Army had to obtain permission from the British Ministry of Food to use American ingredients in any food used for party fare for British children.
Headquartered at Parnham House near Beaminster the 16th Infantry Regiment of “The Big Red One” were accommodated in tented and Quonset hut encampments, and civilian billets in Bridport, Lyme Regis, Abbotsbury, Litten Cheney and marshalling areas in Long Bredy. During those nine months of build-up we had soldiers tramping along our roads, playing war games in our fields, rumbling around with their half-track vehicles and strange amphibious vehicles, leaving a litter of unwanted food from their small boxes of personal ‘K’ field rations for us kids to scavenge,-packs of shortcake biscuits, small bars of chocolate, tinned spam, small tin of Nescafe, and a pack of five Lucky Strike cigarettes cast away by non-smokers.
As D-day approached restrictions on civilian movement were applied. Magistrate’s courts became busy with prosecuting people for not carrying their identity cards and young women from upcountry were gathered up in surprising numbers. If you were under sixteen years of age you were free of restrictions so free to roam. We would cycle down the back way from Uplyme to Lyme Regis where an American Cannon Company had secretly parked ranks of jeeps already with small howitzers attached read for the ‘Off’. Suddenly convoys started gathering along roadsides parking bumper to bumper. The DUKW’s of the Amphibious Truck Company departed their base in Beaminster, passing the neighbouring hostel of Woman’s Land Army girls and a few breaking hearts, no doubt.
I was a member of Uplyme church choir and remember sunrays glinting on the brass buttons and badges worn by the many GI’s who attended in the congregation at that time. Another chorister of that time, from Symonsbury church, a soldier from New York State, Pfc. Andrew Mapes of the First Infantry was shipped across to Omaha beach on D Day. Today there is a brass plaque in the choir stalls to commemorate his name. He fell among the dead and wounded on D-day.
It is not too hard to imagine the dangers the man wearing the red cross on his helmet had to face when he heard the frantic cry “Medic….hey medic, up here!” As one said “There are few things worse than being a rifleman in the infantry, but being a medic is one of them. When the shooting is heavy the GI can press himself deeper into the ground and doesn’t need to go out into the open on a mission of mercy”. It was one of those medics, an army surgeon of the 16th Infantry Regiment who was to leave his new bride in Lyme Regis. They had married just prior to the invasion. Captain Apanasewicz had been badly hit and wounded himself but insisted on crawling to other soldiers around him on Omaha Beach, injecting them with morphine. He was evacuated back to England but died shortly after. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and is buried in the American cemetery in Cambridge. Mrs Apansewicz lived a widow until her death in 2005.
Another remarkable hero was Sergeant Philip Streczyk who fought in five major battles with the Big Red One in WW2. He was awarded the Silver Star four times, one during the landings in Tunisia and another in the invasion of Sicily. During the invasion of D-day, he was in command of a 31-man assault team. Upon landing on Omaha Beach they were greeted with a scene of carnage as bodies were lying everywhere having been cut down by heavy machine gun fire from a pillbox atop of the cliff. At the rear of the beach, a gulley through the foot of the cliff giving a route off the beach was blocked off by a barrier of barbed wire. Sergeant Streczyk lost seven men crossing the sands only to find his remaining team trapped along with other teams of the Regiment who had landed alongside. The only way to break out of the trap was for one man, or several, to risk their lives by crawling forward with little more than wire cutters or Bangalore torpedos – 20-pound tubes packed with explosives-and exposing themselves to enemy fire while they attempted to cut their way through the tangle of wire, and they knew that German tanks could be on their way. Two men tried it but were cut down. Sergeant Streczyk picked up the cutters and took over. With practically every German weapon within range zeroing upon him he dashed to the wire, snipped a way through and waved his troops through. For clearing that route as a way off that deadly beach he was personally awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Eisenhower and the British Military Cross by General Montgomery.
Regimental Commander General Ed Wozenski said of Streczyk “He was one of my platoon sergeants. I think he is the greatest unsung hero of World War 2. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first on the beach and it was the path that he took which I picked up. The rest of our battalion followed, and then, later on, I think almost the whole of the remaining corps went up that same path.”
His team, now able to climb through the gap and up to the top of the cliffs then positioned themselves behind the pillbox for an attack. They overcame the Germans inside with the help of Sergeant Streczk’s knowledge of Polish. For like many of the defenders of those Normandy beaches they had been dragooned into service with the Wehrmacht during the invasion of their countries earlier in the war. The sergeant managed to talk them into a bloodless surrender.
As a bridgehead was gradually secured over the following days ships to-and fro’d across to the invasion beaches, some carrying army nurses, some probably from the 400 bed US Army hospital in Axminster, others returning to the UK with German prisoners of war. One Canadian reporter enquired of an incoming POW, what he thought of England, the German shouted back “Three years ago Adolph Hitler told us we would be coming to England. Well,” holding his crossed wrists in the air in a mock gesture of captivity, “here we are!”
So, at this time of commemoration of D-Day, a very respectful salute to all those young GI’s who came to help us ‘Limeys’ out during those uncertain times, and which, at great cost to them, led us to Victory.

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