Normandy, 1944 and 2009 (or One Man’s Lucky War)
By Alan Boon, November 2009
After finishing basic training in 1942, I apparently failed the Morse test – so instead of being sent as a wireless operator in a tank, I went to the RAMC Medical College in London (where I met my wife to-be) and after 3 months was turfed out to start x-raying with the 102 Field Squadron Hospital in Ormskirk.
In March 1944 I was sent for a week to fill-in a vacancy at a Manchester Military Hospital. I couldn’t understand why I had several foreign civilians to x-ray with damaged legs. “Oh, they’re practising parachute jumping at the local airport before being dropped in France,” I was told. On the Saturday there was free entry to a football match at the city stadium – England v Scotland (England won 8-3!).
Lucky breaks continued – in April 1944 all leave was stopped, but my wife to-be, working night-shift on a teleprinter, intercepted a signal saying, if you could prove you had arranged to be married, you could have 5 days compassionate leave. She contacted me, and my boss, Major Flood, the Radiologist, saw that I got it. July 1944 saw the 500-strong unit camped in woods on the South Coast prior to the crossing to France. The night before we sailed my new wife arranged a weekend compassionate leave to visit (she said) her grandfather in Brighton. We sneaked into one of the deserted bungalows on the beach front, and the next day she stood on the deserted platform waving off the whole unit.
We landed at a Mulberry Harbour in Northern France – walked along the long pier, then across the sandy beach and continued for 6 miles or so following PLUTO (pipe line under the ocean) and slept under the hedge for several nights until our tents and other equipment turned up. Within 2 or 3 weeks we had a 1,000 patients. Convoys of ambulances would come in the middle of the night (there was still fighting around Caen). If you were the duty radiographer (there were three of us) you were woken to deal with the urgent cases.
By October 1944 Lady Mountbatten had been out East, and had come home saying there weren’t enough hospitals out there – so we were pulled out of Normandy and sent up to Scotland to wait for a boat to India, which wasn’t until January 1945. So that was the end of my Normandy experience No 1. You’ll have to wait until the editor orders me to write again to say how I got to Rangoon, Saigon and Singapore.
Normandy, end of September 2009
I went on the last of the four Poppy Tours – just four days and 13 of us including a retired Major as leader. We went by coach, starting from the Union Jack Club (24 stories high!), next to Waterloo Station. Then by ferry to Calais, coach to Caen – our HQ. The whole tour was organised like a military expedition, and, because of the small number, we became very close. The weather was like high Summer, except for Sunday morning, which was very foggy until midday. We visited all the beaches, and all the military museums (where I was given free entry). At the Mulberry Harbour Museum when they found I had landed there in 1944, I was wheeled into an office to sign what they called their ‘golden book’ and was given a medal in a case from the Mayor of Arromanche! We toured small towns and villages where various small, but important, engagements took place, and there are little memorials. We looked at, and entered, various German defences, including one where there were dressed German soldiers, a large naval gun and an Ak Ak gun. The door was closed, then there followed a series of very realistic (and loud) sound effects and voices, both German and English.
The Bayeux British cemetery, with 4,500 memorials was most beautifully cared for. For some reason the Major suggested that I lay the wreath and as I was wearing a baseball cap with RAMC badge I saluted, – the first time in civilian life. At the American Forces Cemetery, with 9,500 graves, the crosses were all of Italian marble – but no plants or flowers.
Bayeux War Cemetery
As we were there at 4.30pm the ceremony of ‘Taps’ took place; the broadcast trumpet call which caused all the many visitors to stand still silently, and two smartly dressed Americans, young man and girl, slowly, and very reverently, lowered the very large flag, folded it neatly and drove off (at seemingly attention still) with the folded flag held flat. An American lady I was with stood to attention with her hand across her chest..
Various strange things happened to me to make the four days special. Walking above Omaha Beach we passed a small party of Americans. A young lady touched me on the shoulder and asked if I’d been in Normandy. “Yes”, I said, “Non-combatant”, pointing to the badge on my cap. She said, “I want to thank you for what you did and shake your hand’. We also came across a retired Major-General on Arromanche Beach. He was leading a small party from Brittany and insisted on shaking my hand. Oh, and there was the French lady from Pegasus Bridge café who wouldn’t let me pay for the four coffees I’d asked for.
However, the one visit I cannot forget. The foggy Sunday morning we visited a French church cemetery where there were one or two hundred paratrooper graves. Then I saw, shrouded in mist, two RAMC graves (attached to a para-regiment), both 20 when they died in June ’44, and their army numbers both 142—–, and I was 20 then, and my number was 14274102, and I felt it could have been me, and I had a little cry.
Oh, I almost forgot, I got a grant of £500 from the Lottery to go back! So you see, what a lucky war I had!
14274102, Cpl, RAMC,
102 Field Hospital, 69th Indian General Hospital, and hospital ship mv. Maetsyker.