As his company rose up and began to advance into the cornfield, Blitz veteran Richard G. Clements thought it looked like something from a B movie—then the SS Panzergrenadiers defending the Norman village of Maltot opened fire.
By 1942 Richard G. “Clem” Clements had already seen too much death and destruction. For three years he had served on an RSD (Rescue, Shoring and Demolition) section during some of the worst days of the Blitz. Armed with little more than a tin hat and a pick and shovel, Clements had witnessed the grisly aftereffects of Germany’s terror bombing on London’s civilians. Twice, buildings he was working in collapsed on him, and his own home received a direct hit from a German bomb.
Once the tide had begun to turn and the worst of the bombing ended, he grew bored and volunteered for the army. At first, the transition from rescue worker to soldier was a difficult one. One day a warrant officer accused recruit Clements of not taking the war seriously. Incensed, Clements shot back: “Oh, I take the war seriously enough. I’ve seen it. Have you? No. You haven’t. It’s the army I can’t take seriously. While you lot were sunbathing on the south coast, I saw a 500-pound bomb hit the road in front of me and bounce over a railway bridge before exploding. I’ve gone around a park in the dark looking for parachute mines, and been blown out of the gate when one went off. Then I come down here and you have me running around a field carrying a rifle for which you have no ammunition, while some twit sits in the bushes throwing penny bangers at me to simulate shellfire—and you call that serious?”
Somehow he made it through his recruit training and before long the 31-year-old Clements found himself in an infantry platoon in the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment, which was a part of the 43rd Wessex “Wyvern” Division’s 129th Brigade. Composed of Territorial Army units from the southwest of England, the 43rd mustered approximately 18,000 men split up among three infantry brigades that were roughly equivalent to U.S. regiments.
The Wessex division was originally scheduled to land in Normandy in the second week of the June 1944 invasion, but bad weather in the English Channel delayed its departure for a week. With British forces struggling to seize Caen, as soon as the weather cleared, Clements’ battalion and the rest of the division were rushed to waiting ships in Newhaven and embarked for Normandy. Clements picks up the narrative:
I was sleeping out as usual and waiting, along with my mates, to make the trip to France. The invasion had been announced a couple of days earlier, and the question was no longer if, but when. Still, it was something of a shock when I was abruptly wakened from my slumbers by much commotion in the yard where I lay down. I still was unsure of what was happening, and somehow or other I arrived in formation with my full kit. How I got there I’ll never really know for sure, but all I can say is thank goodness for good mates. We were rushed to Newhaven and hurried aboard transports.
Came the dawn and I was up on deck. What a sight! There were ships as far as the eye could see, and not only ships, but huge concrete structures that were being towed by three or four ships each. Each of these monoliths was about the size of a couple of houses and had a machine gun positioned on the top. There were other even stranger forms in our convoy, but despite their differences they were all headed toward France.
The crossing was short, and Clements’ battalion arrived off Juno Beach on June 24. His ship was brought into the improvised Mulberry harbor at Arromanches that was teeming with Allied vessels. The men were then loaded onto landing craft, which took them to a floating pier.
The pier was a mile and a half long, and we were glad to be off it. Everything and everyone around us was moving at double speed. Lorries were coming down another pier in an endless stream and tanks down still another. Once on shore, we were marched through a village and eventually up to a cliff top. From there we all got a good view of the goings-on down below. In addition to the three piers, and assault craft being used as ferries, there was the “duck pond” where waiting DUKWs [amphibious trucks] circled before being loaded from the ships in the harbor.
A cutting had been shorn into the cliff top where we were, and the amphibious DUKWs would run from the ships in the harbor directly up onto the beach, where their contents would be unloaded onto trucks. They moved in a constant circular stream, never stopping. We had hardly had a chance to catch our breath since being alerted for the movement to France. Now that we had a chance to look around, it seemed we had nothing to worry about. Nobody seeing the Mulberry harbor could doubt that the Germans were finished.
After the battalion had been assembled and the men issued rations, they were marched off to a small village, and Clements’ section was assigned to a farmhouse. While the Tommies waited, some of them decided to heat up the cans of soup they had been given on the bluffs overlooking the invasion beaches.
It was at this farm that we remembered the two cans of soup we had received. A few hardy souls decided to try out this new ration. They were the size of standard soup tins, but down the center was a tube containing an inflammable compound, which was ignited by striking it like a match or putting a cigarette on the end. What nobody had told us, however, was that it was necessary to punch a hole in the can before lighting it. As a result, several of my mates had the uncomfortable experience of having their meal explode in their faces.
After three days waiting around for the rest of the division’s equipment and supplies to be organized, Clements’ battalion moved out to reinforce Operation Epsom, the drive by British troops to take Caen. Begun on June 26, Epsom was a massive two-corps offensive to capture the city that had been Bernard Montgomery’s primary D-Day objective. But Caen was still in German hands, and that was now preventing an Allied breakout from Normandy. Within days the British advance had ground to a virtual standstill due to the fanatical resistance of several SS panzer divisions. As Clements’ battalion approached, the 15th Scottish Division was battling to establish a bridgehead over the Odon River that would allow Montgomery to attack Caen from the southwest. Following behind the attacking Scots, Clements had a hint of what the future might hold for him and the rest of his battalion.
Eventually, our respite came to an end, and we were marched from our billet along hot dusty lanes to relieve the Scots Guards at La Gaulle. As we moved along, the sound of war became more intense, the howling of incoming naval shells [fired from the monitor HMS Somerset] being joined with the sharp crack of German 88s and our own 25-pounders. When we began to hear Spandau machine guns and our own Brens, we knew we were very close to the battle area.
Along the way we lost quite a few from carpets of mortar rounds that began falling on us. Eventually we broke out cross-country and advanced through St. Mauvieux and Norrey. As we reached La Gaulle, we were sickened by the sight of two dead men from the Royal Scots straddling a barbed wire fence as we entered the village. We moved along through a sort of spinney when suddenly fire broke out ahead of us. All of us dived for cover, but after a short while we were given the signal that it was all clear ahead.
It seems that a sniper had lashed himself to the top of a tree and opened fire as soon as the leading troops had passed. There was no other trouble, and shortly afterward we passed over a large stream and came on a field strewn with bodies. Severe fighting had obviously taken place not too long before. Troops were busy clearing the field. I saw our padre tying a rope round a German wrist, then going back a distance and pulling the corpse over. When I asked, he said, “It’s a dirty shame—the enemy are booby-trapping their own bodies—this is the only way we can be sure everything is safe.” We continued on and passed a tank laager. The field was laced with slit trenches that had corrugated sheets, camouflaged with soil, which could be dragged over the top of the hole for better concealment. It seemed that snipers lay doggo in these slits and waited for rear echelon types. One had come up in the middle of the tank laager, in the middle of the day, and loosed off a couple of shots. One of the tanks loaded a 6-pounder and blew the sniper’s head off. They were only kids, but all totally lost to reason.
We eventually bedded down in a farm, and my section had the use of a large barn, in which was a very large bed that I christened the Cinderella bed. It had a huge feather mattress on a magnificent carved wooden frame. For some reason, the troops around me were edgy near my new discovery. I have no sense of smell, but they had and apparently it was pretty bad. On investigation, the neighboring barn had a horse in it which had been dead for a very long time. It was us or him, so they went off in search of a Bren carrier and some rope that they strung round the animal’s neck and hitched it to the carrier.
Once everything was ready, the sergeant shouted, “Right, move ’em out!” Off went the carrier, off went the horse’s head and out came a rush of gas from the badly bloated carcass. As we waited for the stench to diminish, I went poking around and found six bottles of very nice Claret. I was hoping to share this with the boys, but some clot told our officer, Lieutenant Pierson. Not long after, the bottles were confiscated, and nobody got so much as a sip. We did all notice, however, that the next day Pierson was noticeably tired and emotional.
Like the others, this rest soon ended as well, and we were told it was time to make our way to the front. For the first and only time during the war I rode to battle, grabbing a perch on a “Quad,” about as exposed a position as I ever wanted to be in. I was comforted somewhat by the sight of the “Red-Caps” [MPs], which lined the road. As long as they were around, I knew that we were not in any immediate danger.
As we got nearer the smoke of battle, the MPs thinned out and finally disappeared altogether. We were going into the line to relieve the “Durhams” [Durham Light Infantry, which was holding a needle-thin bridgehead over the Odon], and by the time we reached their positions it was dark. Not just dark, but black like a coal cellar with the door closed. The last chap I spoke to before settling in cheered me up by saying as he left, “Watch out for Jerry—he is likely to patrol round in rubber shoes.”
I was petrified. Then I started to collect myself and thought, Well, if I can’t see him, he certainly won’t be able to see me. I got my back against a bank and prepared to spend the night. When the sun came up, we found ourselves in yet another farm and immediately set to work digging slit trenches. Sergeant Alan Caldwell was digging beside me, and suddenly he was just gone. It all happened so fast, his shovel seemed to hang in the air. I was shocked but busied myself digging. A moment later Caldwell reappears, picks up his shovel and shows me a neat bullet hole through the blade. We were being sniped at!
The Germans had an unpleasant habit of leaving snipers behind when they retreated, and after a few shots this one was driven away and we resumed digging. We settled down on this farm for a couple of days. The enemy was somewhere out there about a thousand yards at most, and the farm was still working. The farmer asked me one day if it was safe for him to carry on, and I said: “Look mate, we are here and they are there. Sooner or later something is going to give, and you will be in the middle of it!” A couple of hours after this conversation we were mortared pretty heavily. The farmer took the hint, and he was next seen trotting off down the road in his trap—family in tow.
It got fairly quiet for a while then, and we had a chance to take stock of our situation. We took a mental roll and discovered that we had lost 28 men in just four days [approximately a third of Clements’ company]. We had not even been in contact with the enemy and we were being bled to death. I was not alone in wondering what would happen when we actually went into combat.
One of the lighter moments of our time on the farm involved what was forever remembered as “the banquet.” Fed up with compo rations, and seeing all of the food wandering around the farmyard, we assassinated a chicken or two, pulled up some new potatoes and peas and prepared for a feast. While one of my mates scrounged up a bottle or two of wine, I improvised a pie. Just as we were about to sit down to enjoy this bounty, our colonel turned up on an inspection. Everything in sight was technically loot, and we were all staring at 99 years in the glasshouse for sure. Just in the nick of time, one quick-thinking member of the mess named Quigley leaps to his feet, whips out a chair and says, “We were just waiting for you sir,” and plonks a glass of wine in his hand. The colonel drinks it up and says he really hasn’t time to hang around as he has other units to visit. He congratulates us on the morale in our section, and off he goes. Laughter all around was the next course in our meal.
After eating, I stumbled upon a tub, boiled some water and took my first hot bath in weeks. I told the lads about my discovery, but before they could take advantage of it we were shelled again. One shell actually fell down the chimney of the building we had been using as a cookhouse—I guess they thought the smoke was significant. Things soon got even worse, and after a time some men from the Middlesex Regiment came up behind us and started to fire their Vickers heavy machine guns over our heads at a target that was not so very far away.
During the fusillade none of us dared poke our heads above our holes. Growing frustrated, and looking for some sort of distraction, after a time I turned to Caldwell and said: “Sod this for a lark. Let’s have some tea.” So I started to brew up on a “Desert Rat” stove, which was nothing more than a soil-filled tin hat that had been soaked with petrol. No sooner had I got the fire going when Lieutenant Pierson scurries over and hisses, “No fires, it could give away our positions!” “OK, sir,” I answered. “I’ll just finish this off on that burning Bren carrier over there.” The carrier was only about 10 yards away and really burning well. The lieutenant was about to say something when the flames reached the ammo on the Bren, and it started banging away and flying off in all directions. Pierson made his excuses and left. It all came to nothing. We never saw the enemy, and afterward we left to begin our advance on Hill 112.
Sitting between the Odon and Orne rivers, in early July 1944, Hill 112 was one of the most important pieces of real estate in Normandy. As one German defender later remarked, “He who controls Hill 112 controls Normandy.” Without that important high ground, Montgomery had little hope of swinging around Caen or of breaking out into the French interior. Although the hill had been seized at the start of Operation Epsom, a fierce counterattack by elements of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions on June 30 had driven off the British. Now it would be the turn of Clements’ division to retake the vital high ground. The first week in July saw the 43rd launch a series of attacks against the hill and on the nearby villages of Baron, Eterville and Maltot.
First it was the turn of the 43rd’s 130th Brigade, which began its attack on July 10. The 214th Brigade soon joined it. After regaining some of the hill on that day, Clements’ battalion dug in to hold it while getting ready for its own effort to clear the nearby village of Maltot. While the brigade waited, Clements and his comrades endured the slow wasting of their battalion as casualties mounted from snipers and enemy artillery fire.
It was not long after going into position on Hill 112 that I came within a whisker of being killed in action. We were dug in at the top of the hill with an armored unit nearby “in support.” [Churchill tanks from B Squadron, 9th Royal Tank Regiment, supported the 5th Wiltshires on Hill 112.] Proximity to armored vehicles was not a good thing. Tanks draw fire of all sorts—artillery, aircraft and bombs. In addition to these hazards, locked up into their tanks, the drivers had a hard time seeing the slit trenches of their comrades in the PBI [poor bloody infantry]. Wise soldiers quickly learned that when tanks were nearby it was best to get out of their holes.
Stuck as we were on top of the hill, we really could not escape them. Every night they went out in front of us to form a screen, and every morning at first light they came streaming back over our positions to take up their own rest positions behind us. There must have been some sound tactical reason for this recurring maneuver, but none of us in the infantry ever found out what it was. Instead, we just got used to our own morning ritual of re-digging our slit trenches after the tanks had passed. One day a Bren carrier was towing a 17-pounder through our area when there was a bit of a strafe. The crew bailed out and took off—we never saw them again. They left their carrier in the middle of our position, about 10 yards from my trench as it happened. We waited a couple of days for the crew to return to collect their ride, but nothing ever happened. Like tanks, artillery pieces tend to draw fire, and the longer we waited the more uneasy we became.
Somebody must have said something to someone else, because eventually one of the crewmen was detailed along with four others to see if the carrier was drivable. After reaching our positions and having a reconnoiter, the party decided that this would best be accomplished at first light. I was not part of this conversation and, as usual, was in my slit trench trying to get a bit of sleep. Suddenly I hear all of this noise—engines starting, metal banging, and I decide it might be a good idea to poke my head up and see what is going on. Just as I poke up above the parapet, there is an almighty bang. Something heavy strikes on the edge of my slit trench just in front of me and throws dirt in my face and knocks me back in. Then there is another awful bang. I grab my rifle and come up a little cautiously but no more fire.
The Bren carrier was over on its side, and all round were the driver and his helpers. They weren’t dead. They were moving and moaning. In the far distance I could make out the tanks taking up their daytime positions. I got out to see what was going on. Of the five men surrounding the carrier, four had lost both feet and some bits of leg, while the fifth had lost one foot and had his other leg broken in four places. The gun had lost a wheel, and the Bren carrier had lost two of its bogies, one of which had hit my trench before bouncing on another four yards.
Oddly enough, no one else seemed to have heard anything, and there was no movement from any of the other trenches around. I shot up the road to find stretcher-bearers and to get through to HQ for some transport. Upon arrival I began shouting, which eventually woke up some of the troops, including some stretcher-bearers. Not that they were a lot of use once they got back to the carrier.
Most of them had not seen anything like this, and they started to go into shock. Having some experience with this during the Blitz, I managed to shake them up a bit and get them busy tending to the wounded carrier party. Seeing one of the bearers in some sort of trouble, I went over to him. “What’s up?” says I. “Well,” he answers, “we ain’t got no splints, see, and in the manual it says if you’ve got no splints to tie the broken leg to a sound one. But this bloke don’t got no leg at all.” “Then use a bloody rifle,” I shouted at him.
I helped the medics in doing what they could to help and get the wreckage cleared away and then wandered off to see what had happened. It was quite easy to see where the fire had come from, as there was a direct line between the body, the carrier and the line of tanks. Some of the tanks were still moving. A little cast around and we found the AP [armor piercing] shell, clearly marked as one of ours. So it was obvious who had fired the shot, but what was not so clear was why.
After further inquiries we found out that as the tanks were making their way back through the somewhat misty early morning, one of the gunners had dimly seen some figures who were evidently swinging an antitank gun round his way. Without so much as a “so what,” he immediately put two rounds into the gun and the carrier. The men in the carrier party were wounded by the bits of Bren gun carrier that were flying about at a foot off the ground. I checked afterward and the main part of the bogey that hit my trench had missed me by at most a couple of inches. For days after this sorry incident, we were picking up odd boots, or bits of boot with feet in them. There was never any sort of official inquiry as far as I know. I told my story to our major, who seemed unwilling to believe that our own tanks could have done it, and he warned me not to spread my conclusions around.
Soon we were pulled off the line [on July 19], and I was very glad to leave our tanks behind. We went back into R&R where we got more bombs than we had in the front lines. Wicked little antipersonnel bombs, thousands of them. When they fell on hard roads they looked like the splashes from a real heavy rain. I don’t think we had any casualties as we all remained under cover, but they were murder on the sheep grazing around us. The bombs fragmented on impact, and the fragments cut through at about six inches off the ground. When the shelling stopped and we could look up, the poor sheep were hobbling about on their knees, their feet either taken off or their legs broken at knee high.
The rains set in about this time and all the slit trenches were soon full of water. When a crump came, it was a choice of being hit by shrapnel or catching pneumonia. At nightfall patrols would be sent forward to take up positions for observation, of what we had no idea, and meals would be brought up to these lonely men. One of these observation posts had taken up positioning in an abandoned farm building. One night the company cook was sent out with the rations and missed his bearing. He wandered into enemy lines. After laying low for a bit he eased his way back to our own lines the following morning. The observation post, of course, got no food. When it was my turn to do this duty, we heard a noise out in front of us and carefully went out to investigate. We were a bit taken aback to see a long line of troops crossing our front. Getting a bit closer and catching their guttural tones, it turned out they were the 51st Highland Division.
Taking great care not to surprise them, I asked where they were going. “No idea, laddie,” was the answer. “I’m just following the Jock in front.” Nor did we ever find out what they were doing there. After a few sleepless nights on patrols and a few restless days in our slit trenches, it was announced that we were finally going to go into battle.
With Hill 112 and nearby villages still hotly contested by both sides, it was now the 129th Brigade’s turn to try to drive the Germans off. Twelve days earlier the 130th Brigade had been mauled trying to take Maltot. In what was dubbed Operation Express, Clements’ battalion, along with the 4th Wiltshires and 4th Somerset Light Infantry, would drive the defenders of the 10th SS Division from the village once and for all. Supporting the infantry in the attack were Churchill tanks from the 9th RTR.
The LOB’s [left out of battle] were told off, and expressed their usual hypocritical regret for not being able to join us. Ammunition on a generous scale was soon issued and we got ready to move. My load on this occasion was 200 rounds of small-arms ammunition, four magazines for the Bren gun, four cases of mortar bombs and six grenades in the belt. It amounted to more than 56 pounds, and this was in addition to all my other gear. Seeing as I could hardly move through the mud with this lot, I asked if some of this stuff couldn’t go on the Bren carrier. “No!” barked the platoon commander, “the Bren might get knocked out.” Frustrated and fearful, I shot back: “Well, I’m not exactly bulletproof! If I get hit with this lot I’ll take half the platoon with me.”
With my plea unanswered, I moved off with the rest of the platoon. The intelligence people said we would have no problem as the enemy had vacated the village we would take. All we would have to do is walk in and settle down.
The platoon came out of a sunken road and into a huge cornfield. Ahead of us we could see our objective, the village of Maltot. Up until now we had been on the reverse slope of the hill and unable to see anything, but now the scale of the operation we were taking part in became apparent. Troops and tanks stretched away on either side of us for as far as the eye could see.
We were told to flatten ourselves and wait for the creeping barrage to start. Protected by this screen of artillery, we would rise up and advance. It all seemed a bit excessive for a walk into a supposedly empty village, but apparently nobody had told the Germans that they were not supposed to be in Maltot. As soon as we started to move, their machine guns opened fire from all directions.
One poor soul, a German, was lying in the middle of the cornfield with his girlfriend when all the firing started. He jumped to his feet and stood paralyzed for a second or so before running like a mad thing for cover. I felt sorry for him and hoped he made it.
We continued on with the bullets scything through the corn about waist high. Men started dropping here and there. I got down and fired off the mortar to give smoke cover for what it was worth and then collected the Bren magazines from the fallen. I thought at the time that we might need them later.
By this time the troops at the head of the advance had made it across the field and gone through a hedge into an orchard. I followed on and found a real mix-up. I was looking for a familiar face when I felt something flick my sleeve. I thought nothing of it and felt nothing until a few minutes later when I saw that my rifle was covered in blood. I stopped and thought, “I’d better do something about this,” and then, WHAM! I was hit again.
This one I felt. It was like being hit in the middle of the back with a cricket bat. I went down. My main feeling was one of shock—this wasn’t in the script. Up till then it was all like walking through a poor movie. Everything that was happening was happening to someone else. Now it was real. I wiggled my legs as far as I could and decided I hadn’t suffered a spinal injury, and carried on with some difficulty to staunch the bleeding in the arm. An artery had been pierced and the blood was jetting out like a small fountain.
In the meantime Wilkinson comes along with his Bren gun. “Hit?” he asked. “Where is he?” I estimated him to be up one of the trees and pointed it out to “Wilkie,” who does no more than plonk himself down behind me for cover and opens up on said tree. He is firing tracer. An officer leans out of a nearby tank and asks, “What’s the trouble?” Wilkie says, “Sniper—up tree over there.” “Oh,” says the officer, “don’t worry about him,” and mutters something down inside the turret, whereupon the tank opens up with its gun, not on the branches, but on the trunk of the tree, which is brought down sharpish. Another word through the turret and the tank surges forward and proceeds to run over the tree, its branches and anything that might be in there.
By this time I had taken stock and stopped the bleeding from my arm. The wound in my side seemed pretty extensive, but finding I was mobile I set off toward the rear.
It was really odd—where we were among the trees in the orchard was general confusion, everybody shooting at everybody else, smoke and noise and tanks rushing about fairly aimlessly. When I got a bit farther back I could see lines of prisoners being urged toward the rear, stretcher-bearers were working quietly away. I passed up on the stretcher-bearers and got a lift back to the base aid station on a Bren carrier. The driver handed me a full bottle of whisky, of which I took a swig and passed it up to another casualty. Then I kept my eyes on the road. After a while I shut them tight and kept them closed. The Bren was getting out of the area as fast as it could with the driver well down under cover, but from my vantage point on the top of the carrier I could plainly see all these mines scattered about in the corn, which the driver couldn’t. The journey seemed interminable, though it could only have been about 10 minutes before I was dumped at the forward dressing station, relieved of my rifle and pack, put on a stretcher and stuck in an ambulance that took me off to Bayeux.
As bad as his wounds were, Clements might be considered lucky. The next day, the battalion was attacked by Tiger tanks and many of his friends perished as the steel giants crushed the Tommies’ slit trenches under their tracks. By the time the fighting in Normandy came to an end in August, the 5th Wiltshires had suffered 75 percent casualties. To the best of Clements’ knowledge, none of the original members of his company survived the war.
Unfit for further frontline service, Clem recovered from his wounds and spent the rest of the war guarding German prisoners in the UK. After V-E Day, he was sent to Germany as part of the occupation forces. He died in May 2004 at age 95.
Ralph Maresco befriended Clem during the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. For further reading, see: The Fighting Wessex Wyverns: From Normandy to Bremerhaven With the 43rd Wessex Division, by Patrick Delaforce.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.