England, Normandy, France
87th Chemical Mortar Bat, 4th Inf. Div, VII Corps
D Company of the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion sailed to England
in April, 1944 on the "Queen Elizabeth". During the crossing
she had no protective escort and relied on the vessel's speed and
a zig-zag course as a safeguard against German submarines. Conditions
aboard were very crowded. Every inch of the ship was used. Overall,
the troups were in high spirit. We arrived in Scotland on the morning
of April the 6th. To my complete surprise I discovered, anchored
in the Firth of Clide, a number of war ships of the Free French
National Navy, proudly flying the tricolor. Hard to describe the
thrill of this sight!
Following a long train ride from Glascow through
the beautiful hills of Scotland and England, we finally arrived
in Tiverton, Devonshire on Easter morning. This was to be our final
assembly point before the invasion. There, we were billeted in private
homes. Despite the war's devastating effect, the British people
were warm and welcoming us, often sharing goods which were either
rationed or hard to obtain. The family which opened their home to
us had a son in the service and treated us as one of their own.
English taverns as well as frequent dances at the New Hall were
all well attended by the GIs. I remember wondering if there was
a war on! One sunny afternoon I went to sleep on the grass in a
public park and woke up with a start. A frightening dark cloud,
shielding the bright sunlight, was directly above me! It was an
anti-aircraft balloon flying too low. We were at war all right!
After some reorganization, we took part in extensive
training operations, one of which was the "Tiger" exercises.
It consisted of making an amphibious landing on the beach at Slappson
Sands and proceeding with full combat gear to "secure"
the beach. We also marked time with mortar drills, calisthenics,
classes on mine detectors, lectures on butterfly bombs, card games,
writing home, reading, etc.
On May 30th, the orientation on D-Day began. Every
effort was made to introduce us to the general topography of the
land without revealing the actual location of the strike. Knowing
of my special relationship with France*, an intelligence officer
invited me to discuss the area with him and I remember mentioning
the "hedgerows" as a possible problem. Security was very
high and we were confined to quarters, with armed Military Police
patrolling our compound. The activity all around us was infectious.
Convoys of troops, equipment, weaponry were everywhere. In Torquay,
our port of embarkation, the number of ships at dock and moored
at sea were an indication of the magnitude of the operation.
As D-Day neared we became more aware of the coming
task. The exuberance of yesterday became resignation. We often thought
about our families back home, wondered if we would die or how we
would perform in combat. *My father was American and Mother French.
I was born and raised in Paris and lived under German occupation
one year before finally escaping in 1941.
D-Day June 6th, 1944
On the first of June, our unit boarded the English "Empire
Gauntlet". Our mission was to hit the beach, and turn right
along the water's edge instead of going inland. Our objective
was the village of Quineville, approximately six miles away.
On the 5th of June at noon, the ship's public
address system informed us that D-Day would be the 6th of June,
with H-Hour at 0630 hours. We sailed toward Calais as a feinting
move and at midnight turned south toward our assembly area. The
"softening up" had already started. Punctuating the night,
flares and bombs accompanied by thunder could be seen and heard
from the deck of our transport.
The naval operation began at daylight....
In the breaking daylight we discovered that we
were in good company; the mighty battleships Nevada and Texas were
close by and began to pound the French shore with a deafening roar
in preparation for the landing. Countless troop transports, destroyers,
mine sweepers, landing crafts and an umbrella of air protection
signalled that things were heating up. Waves of the 101st airborn
paratroopers passed overhead on their way to their drop zones behind
the enemy lines (a few days later we would find countless dead bodies
of these brave 19 years olds).
The weather was not cooperating. Ever since we
weighed anchor, the sporatic cold rain and unusually strong wind
had whipped up the channel into huge waves making the navigation
of the smaller vessels, very difficult.
A unit of combat engineers, trained to blow up underwater obstacles,
was lowered over nets hanging from the bulkhead of our ship into
the dancing landing barges. Not an easy job... the GIs, overloaded
with their equipment and under poor light, would lower themselves
down the wet and slippery net while the landing craft, carried by
the waves, would come up and down unpredictably making the operation
nearly impossible and very dangerous. At 05:00 am. it was our turn
to lower ourselves into our LCI and join our assigned assault wave.
We formed large unending circles with other landing barges while
waiting, for what seemed an eternity, for the signal to turn toward
The apprehension, bucking of our barge and waves
washing over the vessel were such that we all became miserably seasick.
Predicting this possibility, the US army had provided us with small
paper bags should we need them. We used them of course, but as the
bag became wet the bottom opened up and we were now vomiting into
a paper tube! What was our state of mind at this point? Were we
afraid? Yes, we were of course but this fear was tempered by the
moment. There was just too much happening at the same time. Too
many questions to answer: What was waiting ahead, how will we react,
the noise, the motion of the barge, the waves crashing over us,
being sick and cold or was it hot?, Later, we all agreed that feeling
as miserable as we had been, we all prefered to get ashore as soon
as possible no matter what was waiting for us.
Finally we got the GO signal. We turned toward
the beach, forming a line of landing crafts and the engines began
to roar indicating a surge in power. I must say that this moment
was exhilarating, looking over the edge of the barge and getting
closer to the beach, we could see that we were fully engaged with
the German defenses. Some landing crafts were on fire, others sunk
into the shallow sandy bottom. Others returning empty for another
load. German artillery, mortars and small arms fire pounded our
forces and getting closer we saw the bodies of our dead 4th Division
infantrymen lying in the sand. Some American tanks had made it ashore,
others had become disabled and provided us with some temporary protection.
WE WERE IN FRANCE!
After the landing ramp went down we all disembarked
at once and I found myself standing in four feet of cold water with
lots of equipment and trying to wade in. There was a lot of fighting
ahead. Dead soldiers were floating in the water or dying on the
beach waiting for medical help. Ahead, the 4th Infantry line was
still making its advance. A young soldier in front of me had just
been shot and medics were trying their best to stop the bleeding.
The German artillery and mortars were pounding continually. A short
distance ahead P-47 fighters were bombing and strafing the German
lines while looking for targets of opportunity. The battleship's
big guns were supporting the whole show by shelling roads, gun emplacements
etc. To my great surprise I found that a German soldier was shooting
at me. I tried to find cover behind a Sherman tank which had been
disabled. Whenever I looked on one side of the tank or the other
the German sharpshooter kept trying to hit me. Waves after waves
of American gliders and paratroopers flew over us and were dropping
a short distance ahead.
Later we moved up the beach and found protection
behind a concrete wall and regrouped there before resuming the attack
inland. We had made it!
The shoulderpatch of 4th Infantry Division to which the 87th Chemical
Mortar Battalion was attached.
The shoulderpatch of VII Corps.
The 4.2 mortars used by the Chemical Mortar Battalions.
A piece of Robert's citation for the Silver
Robert's gained medals and decorations for an
outstanding service time!
The Hurtgen forrest in Germany. A cold, wet
and dangerous place where the 4.2 chemical mortar's fire power prooved
itself over and over again.
(Robert at right in front)