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History & CommunityDerek Stevens 05/09

Derek Stevens 05/09

After delivering assault troops onto the beaches of Normandy surviving landing craft returned to embarkation ports to pick up reserves and equipment. It was on one of these returned vessels  a war correspondent  witnessed the loading up of one of the complete hospital outfits bound for the forward areas of the invasion. Officially described as an evacuation hospital the personnel included nearly forty US Army nurses. The hospital was so complete that it could be operating within an hour of its arrival at its destination. These young women were all given officer status, the Surgeon General of the US Army having ordered so to give them authority over male orderlies who might refuse to take orders from women nurses. They were also given equal pay and allowances.

The nurses wore battle dress over lightweight smocks impregnated against gas, each carried a 20lb pack, together with kitbags and gas masks. All were experienced nurses from general hospitals across America. “We are complete down  to the last safety pin,” said one and removing her helmet wiped her sweaty brow saying “But, phew, I shall be pretty glad to get some of this outfit off.” The reporter glanced into her respirator bag and noticed that in addition to her gas mask there was a fountain pen, cigarrettes, matches, candy, a mirror, a powder compact and a lipstick. In her spare hand she carred her K-ration pack. She was all ready to go to war.

Those nurses would soon be tending casualties from the invasion beaches and preparing them for return to the UK where 94,108 beds in American hospitals in southern England were awaiting them. By 1945 there would be 17,345  nurses serving in the European Theatre of Operations.

As the evacuation hospital cast off another returning vessel moored up  to the empty berth. It was carrying the latest batch  of prisoners from the other side, tired unshaven, dirty and dejected. Among them were Russians, Poles and Czechs dragooned into the Wehrmacht during Hitler’s  victorious blitzkrieg into eastern Europe. Many were clearly relieved, some were boys in their mid -teens. I was told of one Russian lad of no more than 13.

There was, however, a number of  German paratroopers who rather stood out among the rest. Some of them had been in service on the Russian front.

I had the oppotunity to board this vessel. Hundreds of empty tins were ample evidence of the feverish way these men had eaten their supplied rations on the way over. The skipper told me that he had allowed the prisoners up on deck as they crossed from the invasion beaches allowing them to see the vast armada of allied shipping which lay offshore. They were visibly amazed he told me, and their amazement was compounded as we approached England and passed  a mighty convoy outward bound. There was hardly a man among them who did not look as though he had had enough of this war.

Another newspaper reported that a train load of German POWs had stopped for a few minutes at a station in a South of England town. One onlooker on the platform addressed a German looking through the window, “Well Jerry, what do you think of England?” he asked. Another German thrust his head out of the window and answered  in broken English. “Three years ago,” he said, “Herr Hitler promised we come to England”. He shrugged and placed both fists together as if they were handcuffed. “Vell” he added with a smile “Ve haf come!”

Who said the Germans have no sense of humour?

During previous months to D-Day I was puzzled by passing American cars, not in olive drab but in civilian black. The passengers inside wore dark navy style  uniforms. I now assume that they were personnel of the US Coast Guard Rescue Flotilla passing along between their bases at Poole, Weymouth, Brixham and Falmouth. They had been dubbed  the Matchbox Fleet because of the wooden construction of their small cutters. US Coastguards were also employed as boatswains on many of the invasion landing craft. Their efforts in the Channel that day in which they lost 15 crewmen, and in the days that followed until the establishment of the bridgehead on the Normandy shore, earned them another sobriquet, The St Bernards of Normandy, for they were to rescue over 1,500 allied soldiers sailors and airmen  in their cutters.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie’s Georgian holiday home on the banks of the river Dart near Brixham was requisitoned at this time for the US Coastguard. It has recently been restored at the cost of £5.4m and opened to the public by the National Trust. When it was handed back to the author by the American coastguards they offered to paint out a frieze in the library depicting scenes of their activity in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. She insisted it be left as a historic memento of their stay.

The RAF Air Sea Rescue launches based at Lyme Regis, removing the canvas covering the white invasion recognition star painted on the foredeck, took up station off Portland Bill. They were to rescue the crew of a  RAF Warwick Bomber and, later in the day, the crew and soldier compliment of a British Horsa glider floating off the French coast having not quite made it. The rescue launch crew had to puncture the sides of the glider to sink it out of harms way. All the survivors were returned to the Cobb at Lyme.  A few days later they had a crash call to the south of Lyme Bay where they picked up the American crew of a downed B17 Flying Fortress. Returning to Lyme Regis the airmen were transported to the US Navy airbase at Dunkeswell from where they were flown back to their home base.

Meanwhile Lyme’s very own minesweeper, HMS Lyme Regis, together with sister ship HMS Bridport, were being employed in the clearing of enemy mines off  Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches where British and Canadian invasion forces were successfully landing. Among these troops were those of the Dorset and the Devonshire Regiments, among them men from homes in the towns and villages of East Devon, South Somerset and West Dorset. They were to successfully fight their way to become the liberators of the coastal city of Le Havre, one unit having to ‘requisition’ a taxi and a fire engine to help them along the way –  but that’s a story to come.

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