Symphony in B-Flak
ENGLAND (Part 5)
April 22nd we were rolling along toward Blandford once again, the same 110 miles, and most of us hated retracing our tracks. As a famous general once said, "There is no such thing as a strategic retreat", and although we were not in retreat, we felt that convoy experience must have influenced the General considerably. The trip itself was uneventful, and most of us were deep in thoughts of the days gone by at Lippitts Hill as well as the days to come.
No bands, no cheers, no welcoming party were there to meet us as we entered Camp Blandford. We ourselves were not too happy to see the old place.
During our absence the place had assumed a different aspect. The old NAAFI never did open up, but instead the American Red Cross occupied the building and it was to open soon. Nearby, however, a NAAFI was in operation and tea was the favorite beverage. Cookies, cakes, sandwiches, mineral waters, and of course beer were also served.
We immediately occupied our assigned barracks, and the necessary scouring started. Then as Station Complement we drew K.P. (by the scores of men), security guard, fire guard, M.P., clean-up duty for both Red Cross and NAAFI, and theater guard, as well as the necessary battalion motor pool guard.
This wasn't work, it was plain drudgery, for it was repeated daily with unvarying monotonous regularity.
We were fortunate, for one day a week we had a pass in which we could get away from all this. Our pass trucks took us to Bournemouth, Hants, which was a seaport resort town. It was a beautiful but dead city to most of us on account of wartime restrictions and rationing. We then turned to places like Blandford city itself and Salisbury which were hardly more interesting, but no one ever refused a pass.
Nothing unusual happened, but that same word could be heard in whispers here and there, and getting increasingly louder and louder, "Invasion of Fortress Europe".
We could feel and see the step-up of allied air attacks as well as troop movements. All night and day large Halifaxes could be seen and heard, carrying their lethal loads from an airport nearby. Maneuvers of troop-laden gliders were an everyday occurrence.
The Germans made several counter-air raids, and one night the ack-ack could be heard in camp. A few days later there was an alert, a Focke Wulf 189 observation plane was spotted about 20,000 feet high.
By this time we were under new leaderslhip. Captain Klatte had been appointed Battery Commander at Lippitts Hill, and he now chose as his First Sergeant Elmer G. Guthrie. Although we regretted the passing of the old regime, we were happy and confident under the new.
Preparations to move were presently undertaken, and advance parties were sent to lay out our future home on the Salisbury Plains. Finally on May 11 we left Blandford, for good we hoped, and travelled 27 miles through Salisbury to a place on the Plains called Stonehenge, Wilts.
On arriving at the chosen spot we saw to our surprise just one large panorama of fields, a part of the Salisbury Plain, reputed to be one of the coldest spots in England. After a few days we believed every word of it, for in the mornings our pup tents and surrounding areas were thickly coated with hoarfrost. This frosting continued well past the middle of May, and the wind was always northerly bitter.
At Stonehenge we were situated across the road from one of the most famous monuments of antiquity in the British Isles and in the world. There in a field stand solid blocks of stone. Some are 20 feet or more in height and they have aroused the curiosity of many for centuries. The theories that they were the scene of human sacrifices or that they were Druid Temples are both unfounded. Traces have been found to prove that the Megolithic race of the late stone age was present there (2500 B.C.). People known as "Beaker Folk", because of their use of earthenware drinking vessels, migrated and spread westward from the Rhineland at that time. The stones have been traced as far as 180 miles from their present position, and still others may have been brought from Ireland.
As before, "Invasion talk" filled the air, and we knew beyond a doubt that we would be a part of it. At any rate, this was a "Staging Area".
On May 17 a group of our boys left with one gun for artillery orientation and firing under tutelage of Field Artillery officers of the First Army. The position was a moor, near the city of Withypool, Somerset, 75 miles distant. We had several lectures there, and rules and ballistic tables for the correction of fire were presented and explained. Our fire was directed at an unseen target, and our shells must in their travel clear two small villages. Finally after several dry runs, punctuated with continual checking and double checking of surveying and orientation, and the application of corrections to the guns, we were ready to fire.
We completed what proved to be very successful terrestrial firing. Through the coordination of our spotters at the OP's and our computers in the Fire Direction Center we found that either air-bursts or impact bursts could be had when desired. These air-bursts are commonly called "Whispering Death" by our infantry.
When we returned, we were addressed once more by our Brigade Commander, General Timberlake. This time he told us that we were elected to bring AA protection to the beaches -- as soon as possible. He then directed us to take the darned helmets off, open up our shirts and "for crying out loud, get some names and pictures on your vehicles". He went on to tell us that water-proofing would be imperative and special precautions should be taken with all equipment. Finally he closed his speech by saying, "Men of the 115th, I salute you", and we then knew for certain that we would hit the beach with his 49th Brigade and the First U.S. Army.
The following days were filled with the work of water-proofing and all became master craftsmen in the use of Bostic, Asbestos Grease, and Admiralty Cloth.
The whole world by this time was tense. The one-time whispers of "Invasion" were now booming shouts. Preparedness was in effect all through the United Kingdom. One night we were awakened and ordered to disperse, for above hovered a hostile plane, and almost immediately it began to drop illumination flares at such a low altitude that some of them struck the ground while still burning. It was obviously an observation plane taking pictures.
Our first premonition of the significance of June 6 came to us while we were on a routine hike. Glider-towing transports and a vast air armada seemed almost a sure indication that D-day had arrived. Upon our return to the Battery area, our expectations were confirmed by a special communique which Lt. Moore read to us. Part of the suspense was finlally over and we prepared to assume our part in the gigantic operations taking place.
We left Stonehenge on June 8 and shortly later arrived at Winchester, Hants, our Marshalling Area -- a movement of only 28 miles. Along the route we had ample opportunity to view the English people's enthusiastic reception of the news of the Invasion. They were exceedingly jovial, they served us tea and crumpets, and they left nothing undone towards cheering us along our way. Already the wounded and some of the assault troops were returning. Now we could FEEL the war in every fiber of our being.
At the camp in Winchester the officers were briefed on the landing operation. We drew "ammo" and PX rations. We also donned our impregnated clothing as a protective measure against the possible use of gas. Since we were not to remove these clothes for a week, the odor in which we lived and moved was somewhat less pleasant than that of Lelong's Chanel. Halazone tablets for purifying drinking water and sea-sickness pills were also issued us, but fortunately a real necessity for them never arose. March Order was given at midnight on the 9th and we proceeded the short 12 miles to our POE at Southampton, Hants.
At the port our light equipment was immediately loaded on a Liberty Ship, the Edward M. House, complete with barrage balloon. Several hours were required to free the boom on the ship's crane from the mast, hence there was a delay in loading the heavy equipment.
When finally the radar and "cats" and guns were hoisted and lowered onto the deck or into the hold, it was fascinating to watch how toy-like they were handled. Meantime many of us had already had our coffee and were fast asleep in the huge warehouse on the dock.
An uneventful day followed, spent in roaming around the dock. At 1400 hours we drew anchor and soon we found ourselves in the midst of a huge convoy of ships. It was the Rendezvous Point, and we rested there for three and a half hours. At 1830 the fleet began its hundred mile trip across the Channel.
THE CHANNEL EXPEDITION
Life aboard ship was an unceasing effort to ward off anxiety and boredom. Resourcefulness and ingenuity prevailed, and a high degree of morale was maintained. Card games, the Galloping Cubes, and GI conversation were the contributing factors. Whatever the subjects of conversation might have been, we feel safe in saying that down deep in his heart each man was thinking along these lines and in this order: (1) The Beach; (2) Home; and (3) Girls.