To mark the recent 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings that proved to be a pivotal moment in the Second World War, Pete Thomas, co-author of ‘A District At War’ and ‘Two Towns Go To War’, which tell the story of Irlam and Cadishead’s involvement in the First and Second World Wars has taken a look at people from the District that featured in the campaign.
After months of secretive planning and the massive build-up of men and materials, the Allies were ready to invade the European mainland. Men from Irlam and Cadishead were in training with various units, in widespread locations across the British Isles preparing for the invasion. The original landings were planned for 5th June and many of the assaulting troops had already been loaded onto the transport ships in readiness for the landings when a storm broke, which resulted in a 24 hour delay. Unfortunately the troops on the transports had to remain on board throughout this time and many suffered from seasickness. Finally orders were given and the invasion began with a massive airborne assault, with American paratroops landing near Carentan, France, on the west flank of the invasion area, and British paratroops on the eastern flank.
During the night of 5th/6th June nearly 5,000 landing ships and assault craft carrying 130,000 troops, escorted by the Royal Navy, set sail for France. Tuesday, 6th June was a dull and wet day, with low cloud and choppy seas. After a night-time naval and RAF bombardment of the German coastal defences, the British, Canadian and Free French soldiers came ashore on three Normandy beaches: Gold, Juno and Sword, and the Americans on Utah and Omaha. The troops faced varying levels of opposition, depending on the strength of the local enemy forces and the effectiveness of the naval bombardment in each particular area. As the landing crafts came into sight the German troops opened up with artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire. The landing craft also had to negotiate mines and underwater obstructions and a number were lost.
Cadishead Seaman Lawrie Cottam was serving with Landing Craft 180, which had been transferred from the Mediterranean to the highlands of Scotland as part of the preparations for the Normandy landings: “While we were in Invergordon, our officer told us to let it slip that we were going to invade through Norway. This was a ploy and it actually worked. Hitler did send divisions to Norway, expecting us to invade there. Suddenly on the 1st June 1944 we were told to head post haste right down the coast to Brighton. We reversed into the canal, between Brighton and Hove gas works and were packed in side by side. On 3rd June the wagons started to roll up on the dockside bringing loads of assault troops. The soldiers simply walked across to the outside craft and filled each craft to the limit. It wasn’t a bit like summer. The weather was dull and grey and cold. We set sail and sailed all night. Early the next morning we landed on the beach in Normandy. D-Day had started.”
Irlam man, Able Seaman Jack Ainscough, served on board Landing Ship Tank No. 415 (or ‘Large Stationary Target’ as the crews commonly called them). As suggested by their official name, these ships were used to land tanks after the first assault waves had cleared the beaches. When the landing crafts hit the beach the men charged down the ramps, sometimes into deep water, while shells and bullets struck the water around them and some troops were hit before they reached land.
James Alban Davies of Higher Irlam was a ship’s medic attached to Landing Ship Tank LST 420. As with many of the men involved, this was his first time in action. His son provided the following account: “As the huge Allied Fleet crossed the Channel he remembered that it almost had the atmosphere of a regatta, that is until the big guns from the battleships and cruisers opened up and began to saturate the distant shoreline with their massive explosive firepower; the roar of the big shells and multiple rocket batteries passing overhead, and the disappearance of the French coastline in a cloud of black smoke and flames; that was when the reality of it all began to sink in for Jim. After landing at Sword Beach, his duties involved setting up a field hospital on the beach to treat the badly wounded combatants of both sides before they could be ferried back to England.”
Once they reached the beach the men were faced with landmines and barbed wire, as well as the continuing shelling and machine-gun, mortar and rifle fire. By 8am the first assault waves had landed and work was underway to establish the bridgeheads needed for the landing of the following waves of men and materials.
Four local men lost their lives on D-Day: Kenneth Sydney Bell of Cadishead and Arthur Hilton, James Sweeney and Benjamin Wilson of Irlam. Corporal James Sweeney and Private Ben Wilson served with the 1st Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. Their battalion was among the first wave of troops to land on Sword Beach, between the Normandy towns of La Breche and Lion-sur-Mer.
Gunner Kenneth Sydney Bell served with the Royal Artillery (attached to No. 3 Commando). They landed shortly after 9am in the second wave at La Breche, in the centre of Sword Beach. The landing crafts came under artillery fire as they neared the beach and three of the craft were hit, sustaining casualties.
Corporal Arthur Hilton served with No. 48 (Royal Marine) Commando. The commandoes landed on sector 7 of Nan Red sector of Juno Beach where they met considerable pockets of Germans resistance in the beach area. Two of the six landing craft were caught on undersea obstacles and the commandos were forced to swim for shore. Many drowned while others were shot as they assembled on the decks. Once ashore many of the men took cover behind a seawall, which protected them from most of the enemy fire, however, once in the shelter of the wall they were pinned down and it was difficult to advance. Eventually, they made their way off the beach and launched the assault on Langrune-sur-Mer, which was captured after severe hand-to-hand fighting and heavy losses.
Another local man, Corporal Frank Dixon of the Royal Corps of Signals, landed at Utah Beach in the American sector. As Frank and his fellow soldiers left their landing craft they ran into a creeping barrage of enemy artillery and he was severely wounded in both legs, back and left arm when a shell exploded near him. He lay in an exposed position on the beach until being picked up by medics later that day. Frank spent the remainder of the day and night in a nearby wooded area until evacuated on the morning of the next day.
Other local men known to have landed on Sword Beach on that fateful morning include Royal Marine Harry Bannister of 41 (Royal Marine) Commando, Private Douglas Ashton of the Royal Tank Regiment and Sapper Albert Luke, a crew member in a modified Churchill tank of 5 Armoured Engineer Regiment.
While the landings were underway the ships of the Royal Navy sat off the coast to safeguard the landing ships and also to bombard the German fortified positions that lined the Normandy beaches. Stoker Frank Taylor of Higher Irlam was on board the monitor, HMS Roberts, which was stationed off Sword Beach with the objective of destroying the Houlgate Battery.
Many other Irlam and Cadishead men took part in the initial D-Day landings and also in the landings in the days, weeks and months that followed. The hard fought successes on D-Day created the platform the Allies needed to defeat the Germans. Irlam and Cadishead, like most towns and villages in Great Britain, contributed enormously to Victory in Europe.
Next month Pete Thomas will be looking at local people and their involvement at the start of World War One, A hundred years ago with war declared on the 28th July 1914.