Notable Residents - A Sappers's D-Day, Len Butt 1926-2021
Len Butt's account of his experience of the invasion of Europe, June 6th 1944.
Len, born in Emsworth in 1926, spent his early years in one of the cottages at the junction of the High street and North Street where Central Building stands he now lives in Westbourne but is still a frequent visitor to Emsworth.
EARLY MARCH 1944
With less than year's service, I found myself
posted to 184 Field Company (Royal Engineers).
time this Unit was stationed on what was then
Netley Common on the outskirts of Southampton.
It was a
large tented camp which the Unit was sharing
with the Nova Scotia Highlanders of Canada and a
Canadian Engineer Company.
arrival I was to discover that my Unit, together
with 83 and 84 Field Companies and 619 Field
Park Company (i.e. bulldozers, plants etc.,)
were the 'Engineer' element for the 3rd Canadian
Divisions Beach Group and, as such, we
would be in the forefront of the Division's
assault on the 'Atlantic Wall'.
I was eighteen, very green and with no previous
experience of landing craft. My only experience
would be on Exercise 'Fabius III'. This took
place at the beginning of May when we sailed out
of Southampton to land the following morning at
the Witterings in West Sussex.
returning after the exercise, we found that
during our four days absence, the camp had been
sealed off. (Apart from, two occasions when we
marched out to form up with 9ther units of the
Division for inspection by VIP's. First by
Winston Churchill, General Smuts, and Mr.
MacKenzie King and then by General Montgomery).
We were not to leave the camp again until we
embarked for D-Day.
remaining days left to us before embarkation
were hectic and an intensive whirl of final
preparations, briefings and issuing of the
specialist equipment we would carry with us.
these specialist items were what was known as
'prepared charges' - explosive devices for
Each of our Sections would be, required to carry
a 25Ibs 'prepared charge'. Our Section Corporal
held a ballot for the Item and I drew the short
straw. Sgt Brown, my Platoon Sgt was most
comforting. We were re-rehearsing loading an
kit when he happened along. I was standing
wearing my rucksack, equipment etc., some 100Ibs
in weight. He stopped to check me over and,
patting the 'prepared charge' perched on top of
my rucksack, cheerfully informed me that the
charge was quite harmless until primed with the
detonator and fuse. He went on to say that even
if hit by a bullet it would be safe and then
added, 'unless it's a tracer. In that case I
would save myself the shilling for a burial
blanket. He wandered off chuckling. My reply to
his humorous aside is unprintable.
The maps and models used for our briefings were
in incredible detail. These, together with the
aerial photographs, many taken at sea level,
enabled us to form a very clear picture of our
particular stretch of beach, including the beach
obstacles and the strong points awaiting us.
discovered that we would be landing on Juno-Nan
Beach,, right in front of Bernieres-Sur Mer,
and that on disembarking we had to rendezvous by
the sea-wall. There we would be met by our
Platoon Officer (Lt Phillips) and the
reconnaissance Sgt and party who would have
landed with the Assault Infantry (Queen's Own
Rifles). We were due to land some 30
after the first assault.
the end of May we were issued with French francs
thus leaving little doubt as to our destination.
Thursday 1st June
the Company was addressed by the Commanding
Officer. His main comments being:-
he considered it a privilege that we were
wearing 3rd Canadian's Divisional Flash and that
we would be supporting the Divisional assault on
the Atlantic Wall.
reminded us of the sacrifice by Canada at Dieppe
in August 1942 and how the lessons of that
tragedy would be of benefit to us in the task
concluded by expressing his confidence that we
would all do our utmost in supporting the
Saturday 3rd June
to discover the camp placed on instant readiness
(ready to move in one hour) and to be
informed that as of now we were on 'Active
Service'. (My Army Discharge book clearly states
- Service NW Europe. 3.6.44).
the day in an increasing state of tension. Each
hour seemingly longer, until just before last
light. Then into the camp rolled a large company
of TCV's (Troop carrying vehicles). Within a
very short time we had loaded up and were on our
way into Southampton docks,
approached the dock area, convoys were
converging from all points of the compass. It
was incredible. Yet such was the organisation
and control that in a comparatively short time
we had threaded our way to our allocated dock
basin, were we unloaded and eventually embarked
on our LCI - the same one we had used on
exercise 'Fabius III'. No mean feat in the near
darkness loaded down as we were. It was amazing
that no one finished up in the water as we had
to scramble over several craft before reaching
our own vessel.
was quite a small vessel. Some 180' long and
with a very shallow draught, some 5' at most.
Platoon accommodation was the forward hold. A
steel box some 20' x 20' lined round with tiers
of steel bunk frames but no bedding because of
fire risk. This was our transport for the
During the exercise Fabius III, we had
experienced balmy summer weather and had spent
only one night on board. Even then, under almost
ideal conditions we had found
considerable discomfort. With cramped
conditions, and the overall pervading stench of
diesel fumes, our Channel crossing would prove
to be a far sterner test.
morning of June 4th saw us still tied up in the
dock basin. At about mid-morning we started out
of the dock, but with the enormous number of
craft involved it was hours before we cleared
the docks area to start sailing up the Solent.
Suddenly amazement! We were turning back and all
around us other craft were following suit and we
would spend the rest of the day returning to
dock. Rumours started and then we noticed a
rapid deterioration in the weather. It was
nearly dark when we finally tied up once more.
We were then informed of a 24 hour postponement.
Even in the relative shelter of the dock basin
we were to spend a rough and fitful night.
Morning, 5th June.
orders to leave our kit aboard, we were
disembarked on the quay to feed and stretch our
legs. We were confined to the dockside warehouse
for this purpose.
afternoon we re-embarked, noting some
improvement in the weather. Later afternoon saw
us once again underway. The previous 24hrs had
been a considerable trial with everybody getting
keyed up and tempers fraying. Now, suddenly,
everything seemed to change. We could almost
feel the urgency of our craft as we progressed
up the Solent.
fortunate in being allowed on deck at this time
for as we progressed, what a sight to behold.
Before our eyes the Solent was filling with
ships and landing craft. From the enormous dock
complex of Southampton, from Portsmouth Harbour,
the Hamble and every conceivable inlet, endless
streams of vessels were converging and forming
approximately 8pm our flotilla was sailing in
line fairly close to the Isle of Wight
shoreline. Sailing close to and parallel with us
were lines of 'Fighting Chasseurs' carrying the
1st SS (Special Service) Brigade commanded by
Lord Lovat who, in the morning, would land on
'Sword Beach' to go to support the 6th Airborne
passed Osborne House with its manicured lawns
and its buildings glistening in the evening
sunshine, so the sound of Bagpipes echoed across
the water. Played, I believe by Piper Mullen.
Cheers rolled across the Solent. It was a moment
I would never forget.
afterwards the Platoon Sgt. opened his copy of
the sealed orders. Then to inform us that the
die was cast. In the morning we would be on the
coast of Normandy. Shortly after this momentous
news we were ordered off deck. With a last look
at home, I went below, in the knowledge that I
was in good company as a member of the Third
Expeditionary Force to sail to the Continent in
the past 30 years, and that history was in the
cleared the eastern tip of the Isle of Wight,
heading for the assembly area some 10 miles out,
we became fully aware how rough the seas still
were in the aftermath of the storm that had
delayed D-Day. Our craft was buffeted by waves
5' to 6' high and we were all very soon reduced
to a state of inertia. The only relief from the
monotony was at about 1 am when the air Armada
carrying the 6th Airborne passed over. We could
hear their passing even above the pounding of
the waves. By morning nothing would deter us
from waiting to leave our storm-tossed craft and
landing on Terra Firma.
dawn and we struggled to sort ourselves out and
prepare for events. We shortly received orders
to kit and get into our positions for landing. I
was fortunate to be No 2 in the queue to go down
the starboard gangplank (Although not
appreciated at the time). This meant I was up on
deck sheltering behind the forward hatch, but
able to see over both sides of the craft.
approximately 10 miles out we started our run
into the beach. What an astonishing sight to
behold. First we passed close to HM
ships, Warspite, Ramilles and the Lord Roberts.
All engaging shore targets with their main
armament. Next we passed very close to HM
Scylla, Flagship of the Eastern Task Force. Then
HMS Belfast and Diadem, and finally through the
destroyer and gunboat screen. Everyone seemed to
be shooting. The noise was deafening.
about a mile to go we received the warning for
beaching and, hitching up our kit, we awaited
events. At this time I was fully aware of the
251bs of explosive perched on my back.
hard jolt we beached and I found myself
instinctively following Sgt Brown down the
gangplank; plunging off into chest-high water we
waded ashore. To my amazement, there in front
was the sea-wall at Bernieres. We had landed
exactly as planned during briefing.
previously ordered, we quickly gathered by the
sea-wall and began to take stock. We were not
left waiting. Sgt Brown quickly started to issue
orders and I found myself with my section
ordered to clear mines from the dunes on top of
the sea-wall. The rest of the Platoon were set
to work on the mass of obstacles along the
foreshore; many of these being mined. Armoured
bulldozers were already at work and AVRE's had
already flailed and blown two exits off the
landings at Bernieres had been further delayed
by bad weather. Starting some 30 minutes late.
This was to cause a considerable handicap in the
beach clearance with the tide racing back in to
cover many obstacles before they could be
finally cleared. It would take until early
afternoon before the beach could be reasonably
cleared. Nevertheless, sufficient progress was
made to enable the follow-up Brigade and
Artillery units to start landing some two hours
after the H-Hour.
starting our clearance task, I found myself as
No 1 in a clearance team - i.e., operating a
mine detector. Thus equipped, I started to sweep
the area chosen. I stopped almost immediately.
There staring at me was my very first mine.
Indicating to my No 2 whose job was to mark the
mines as found, he came forward to place a
marker. Then he too stopped. We looked at each
other and then back at the mine. Neither of us
had seen or been instructed concerning the mine
in question (It turned out to be Belgian).
type of problem would occur again before the end
of the day. Too late, it was realised that
during our all too brief training in the UK,
many of us had seen and handled only British,
German and Italian types of mines.
problem was overcome but only at the expense of
.unnecessary casualties. In the meantime work
had to proceed.
landing few of us paid much attention to the
conditions on the beach, being intent on
reaching our RV point by the sea-wall; but now
as we got down to work, we began to realise how
fortunate we had been. There were a considerable
number of casualties around. As well as wrecked
tanks and landing craft all along the beach, we
now discovered that all of our reconnaissance
party were among the casualties. Lt. Phillips,
the Sgt and two of the sappers were dead. By the
end of the day some 20% of the Platoon would be
among the toll.
two hours after H-Hour, the follow-up Brigade
started landing. We were quite surprised when
from a fresh wave of LCX's the Nova Scotia
Highlanders came streaming ashore carrying
folding bicycles. At the time Jerry was still
barely a mile up the road and one of our wags
called out that they wouldn't be able to claim
mileage allowance. Nevertheless the Nova
Scotians would have the last laugh by making the
deepest Infantry penetration inland on D-Day.
Early evening an alarm was raised to the effect
that a German counter-attack had broken through
to the beach between us and Sword beach.
Everyone stood to. We awaited events with some
apprehension. Time ticked by with tension
mounting. Suddenly from across the channel came
the sound of many aircraft The noise getting
clearer and louder. Raising above the current
sounds all round us. And there, what a sight to
behold. The 6th Air Landing Brigade coming in to
reinforce the 6th Airborne Division. Some 500
tugs with gliders in tow. As spontaneous
cheering echoed around the beach, the gliders
were detaching and swooping into land.
the sky seemed to be filled with anti-aircraft
fire, very few aircraft seemed to
of the Airborne reinforcement, all tension had
vanished. The general feeling being that
we were here to stay.
Just before last light some 4 or 5 German
bombers appeared overhead, dropping bombs at
random. All being shot down for their cheek. It
seemed to put the seal on D-Day. Although not
As a young and green sapper, I hoped I had
played my part on an 'Historical' day. I had
been lucky and had seen the D-Day sunset. Some
Field Coy., R.E.