D-Day Story: William John Arnold

German prisoners captured during the Allied push through Belgium. (Photo: National Archives)
German prisoners captured during the Allied push through Belgium. (Photo: National Archives)

My name is William John Arnold, I was born on December 5, 1921 at Henlow, England and I am a British citizen. [March 18, 1999 Note: Now a dual U.S./British citizen.] In June, 1944 at the time of D-Day, I was a Captain in the Durham Light Infantry Regiment in the British Army.

I had enlisted as a rifleman, in the King's Royal Rifle Corps, on February 5, 1941, and, after attending 168 Officer Cadet Training Unit for three months, was commissioned in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant on July 19, 1941.

I trained in England with the 5th Battalion King's Shropshire Infantry as a Platoon Commander, and was sent to the Middle East in July 1942. There I joined the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry in the 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division in the 8th Army in the Alamein line as Mortar Platoon second in command and became Battalion Transport Officer (BTO). I was promoted to Captain in November 1942.

After the African and Sicilian campaigns in which 50th Division was very heavily involved, we returned to the United Kingdom in November 1943. We were stationed in the counties of Essex and Suffolk in eastern England and immediately began combined operations training.

At the same time, we began acquiring new vehicles, and gradually waterproofing them to enable them to drive through moderately deep water. All the while we continued to teach driving skills to our private soldiers and NCO's, most of whom had never driven at all.

As an aside, there had been one occasion in Libya in 1943 when we had to get officers to drive many of our trucks as we had insufficient regular drivers, and none of our private soldiers and NCO's could drive.

In March 1944 I was made Brigade Transport Officer of 151 Durham Infantry Brigade consisting of 6th, 8th, and 9th Battalions Durham Light Infantry plus attached field artillery, engineers and other supporting arms. We were told that the brigade would be augmented for the invasion of Europe by numerous other supporting arms.

My memory does not serve to recall all, but they were to include medium artillery, certain "funny" tank units from 79th Armored Division, barrage balloons and an anti- aircraft artillery regiment. As far as I can remember, there were to be about 3,000 vehicles under brigade command for the invasion itself, compared to maybe 900 or 1,000 in the normal strength brigade.

Our training was interspersed with small exercises and then, in April 1944, we moved to the New Forest area near Romsey, north of Southampton on the south coast of England. Incidentally, traveling by motorcycle on this two day move in showery weather, I developed malaria, presumably acquired in Tunisia, or Sicily. For several days doctors thought I had influenza. Then an American navy doctor at the Netley Naval Hospital near Portsmouth found the malaria bug in blood samples. Fortunately I recovered in time to rejoin my unit a couple of weeks before D-Day.

On a comic note, my Brigadier, Ronnie Senior visited me in hospital and was put out a bit to receive a sharp reply when he addressed a senior American nurse as "sister," which is, of course, a very proper rank in British nursing. My wife had been sent for because of my high temperature and my mother accompanied her. I remember my wife's disgust when the Brigadier thought my mother was my wife, believing my wife to be much too young to be married.

The move to Romsey placed us close to open spaces for maneuvers and to the coast for combined operations exercises. All this culminated in a mock assault on the Isle of Wight. One of the lessons from that assault was that much of our vehicle waterproofing was quite inefficient. Many vehicles "drowned," causing us to reappraise our methods, and to check on, and improve the waterproofing of all our vehicles.

We were, of course, a well blooded, experienced infantry brigade with several major campaigns behind us. But this extra training was vital to bring us up to the standard required for the biggest combined operation of all.

About ten days before D-Day we moved nearer to Southampton. In fact, we were almost in the city in tented accommodation on Southampton Common and, from that time on, we were forbidden to leave camp, or to telephone, or to have any contact with anyone outside the camp. Our vehicles had been moving onto ships in small groups for some time.

They were dispersed over a number of ships to minimize losses by a particular unit in the event of ship sinkings. This was a major lesson learned in the Sicily invasion, when our field regiment, that is the 74th, suffered many truck losses when the ship carrying them was sunk.

The direct result was that three battalions, 6th, 8th, and 9th DLI had to yield their personnel carrying 3-ton trucks to the 74th Field Artillery Regiment -- to tow its guns. And, then of course, the infantry companies, deprived of their troop carriers, had to march rapidly over one hundred miles in two days and a bit in intense July Mediterranean heat, so that they were exhausted on arrival at Primosole Bridge in front of Catania and were quite unable to deal with the German paratroops newly flown in from rest and recreation in southern France. Other infantry battalions suffered similarly. That was a digression. Returning to my personal experiences it is necessary to give a brief idea of the duties of BTO.

Out of action, the prime purpose of the job was to coordinate the activities of the MTO's of the subordinate units, to make sure they carried out all army orders concerning vehicles and driving. This meant ensuring that maintenance and training were properly carried out, and that vehicles were correctly equipped and secure when they could not be parked in guarded compounds.

On the whole, drivers were self disciplined. After all, if they misbehaved, they would be returned to rifle companies in their infantry battalions and endure the much more rigorous infantry training and combat experience.

In action, the BTO was in command of "B" Echelon, comprising all non-fighting vehicles and having under his command the Brigade Electrical and Mechanical Engineer, and Brigade Royal Army Service Corps officer as well as battalion MTOs and quarter- masters. He was responsible for ensuring that officers under his command, or supervision, properly serviced forward units with food, water, ammunition and other essential supplies. When the brigade was on the move, in a non-combat situation, he had to send scouts ahead of the main body, to find suitable parking for all the numerous vehicles well before they arrived.

I believe it was on June 1st that we left camp and marched the few miles to Southampton Docks. This was a strange experience because the road was lined at frequent intervals with military policemen wearing green arm bands. That was a rare sight indeed. I do not recall ever seeing policemen with green arm bands on any other occasion. There were few visible civilians as we marched through the streets. Clearly they were being held back from those streets. We marched straight on to LCI 502 of the U.S. Navy.

This brought back miserable memories of the invasion of Sicily when the British LCI I was on struck an offshore rock and we were stranded on it. Fortunately, the rock held us firmly and we could not sink. The Italians began to bombard us with heavy mortars and we were all very nervous because of our indefensible position. When the ramps were lowered it was clear that disembarkation would have to take place in more than six feet of water.

This was something of a problem because although we might have got ashore, had we been unencumbered - every man coming off that ship had to carry something ashore. And then, whatever he took had to be serviceable, for use as soon as he got ashore. Fortunately, the Naval Officer in Command was already ashore and we borrowed his landing craft personnel (LCP - which we called the Admiral's Barge) and were soon carried ashore.

Reverting to Southampton, the next day or so was spent in loading rations and other supplies, including radios, bicycles, and several other items. For my part, I was to carry a mountaineering rucksack. As far as I can remember, this held a 24 hour or it might have been a 48 hour ration pack, clean underclothes and socks, shaving kit and a white towel wrapped around a bottle of Johnny Walker red label scotch whiskey together with 200 Gold Flake cigarettes, not in a carton, but in a yellow paper wrapper. The whiskey and cigarettes belonged to the brigade officers mess.

In addition, I was equipped with a 75 CC James Airborne Motorcycle to use in the early days of the campaign until my jeep came ashore. As another aside, our brigade major, Lord Long of Wraxall, had agreed to take my jeep in exchange for his Humber four wheel drive staff car, an offer which no junior officer could refuse. The reason for his generosity was not altruism, but that the jeep was more suited to his visits to units in forward areas.

To continue my account, the little motorcycle was not heavy, but impossible for one person to carry down a landing craft ramp. So my servant, Private Blair, a canny wee Scot, had worked beforehand with one of our mechanics to produce two two-foot long steel tubes, each with a U-shape kink in the middle.

The idea was for one of the tubes to go through each wheel from side-to-side, so that we could carry the bike ashore between us. We had some rehearsals and mutually agreed, because of our different heights, that he would take the tube through the front wheel and I, the rear.

We sailed from Southampton in the early evening of June 5th and were soon in very choppy water. I had been many thousands of miles on troop ships, but had been unable to overcome my sea sickness. So the crossing was a misery for me personally. We, the officers, tried to persuade the men to get some sleep, but for the same reasons we could not sleep, neither could they. And, the conversations that went on during the night were many and varied. I don't remember too much about them, but as we were second flight and not assault troops, most of the people aboard seemed to be wondering whether the leading troops would have cleared the beach and established some type of beachhead, because we were not equipped for close combat, bearing only personal arms. In my case, it was a simple 38 Webley pistol.

Hopefully, we expected to be able to wade ashore and establish temporary rallying points behind the beach, so that our vehicles could be told where to go immediately after driving ashore. I spent some time with the skipper of the LCI on the bridge during the night. Fortunately, the night was warm and fairly quiet. There was also plenty of hot, sweet tea which Private Blair had rustled up somewhere.

Our voyage was running on schedule. We were due to land at about 7:30 as I recall it, so about an hour beforehand we donned oilskin waders tied with tapes under the arm pits. The LCI slowed down but we could see nothing in the direction of the shore. Everyone became edgy because of the unexpected lack of noise. Gradually, the coast came into view and there was still no firing, shooting, or other action. And, suddenly there we were, nosed onto Juno Beach, at a village called La Riviere. The ramps went down on each side of the ship and we were off.

As Private Blair stepped off the ramp into the water carrying the front end of the motorcycle, he tripped on something under water and stumbled, allowing the bike's engine to dip under water. Fortunately, I was still on the ramp, and I was able to cling onto the bike like grim death and, eventually between the two of us, we got the bike ashore.

Of course the magneto was soaked in salt water, and by all the laws of science, the engine should not have started, but start it did at the first kick. I told Blair to stay and keep the engine running until it had dried out say fifteen or twenty minutes. In the meantime I removed my waders which had split in the water. Incidentally, Private Blair's had not. And, my boots, socks, and clothes below the waist were completely soaked. I had no handy change of clothes so everything had to dry on me.

Fortunately, again the day was warm and I did not suffer unduly. Time was rolling on, so I established B Echelon in its correct location and found the MTO's of 8th and 9th DLI in their proper places and made sure they understood their orders. The MTO of 6th DLI was not to be found although we knew he was ashore somewhere, because he had been seen earlier on.

By that time the bike had dried out, and so I rode it inland and located Brigade Headquarters about a mile from the beach, reporting to the Brigade Major and Staff Captain that we were ashore. I had to hurry back to the beach because it was about time for our vehicles to start coming ashore.

While I was strolling up and down trying to work out what was happening, I met General Montgomery. He spoke to me and asked if I was still doing the same job as when we met on the beach in Sicily, just under a year before. I explained my job, and he moved on his way, humming to himself, and distributing cigarettes to anyone who wanted to take them.

Happily, our vehicles started to arrive just then, and I satisfied myself that they were being well received and directed by the unit representatives. I noticed with great pleasure that our mess and cooks' truck had arrived. I held them for a few minutes while I made sure everything else was working properly. And, then I went with them back to B Echelon, where Private Blair had some somewhat sad news for me. I had left my rucksack with him and he had begun to unpack it for me, upon which he discovered that the bottle of scotch had broken and soaked the towel and ruined the cigarettes, staining everything it touched a bright yellow from the cigarette wrapper.

It was by now early evening, and as phone lines had not yet been laid, I went to Brigade HQ for last orders of the day, and finally returned to B Echelon quite late at night. I found it to be well organized and I went to sleep in a bivouac put up by Private Blair, who was already asleep somewhere else. That was my D-Day.

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