2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles began their training in combined operations in 1942. That summer, they traveled to Inverary, Scotland to No. 1 Combined Training Centre. First, they made use of basic boating equipment of plywood and canvas crafts with outboard engines.
By the beginning of 1943, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles was ready for war. They had almost gone to Sicily but at the last moment, the battalion remained in the United Kingdom. A Canadian regiment made the journey to the Mediterranean. A bigger task lay ahead for the Rifles.
Ten days before D-Day, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles found themselves sealed in a camp. There was no entry or exit permitted as Lieutenant Colonel Ian Cecil Harris and Major Basil James Fitzgerald Donlea made plans.
Planning the Attack
Officers sorted secret maps into craft loads. The opening of maps was only permitted once boats had set sail such was the secrecy. They issued thousands of maps. Each officer had fourteen and each section leader had seven. Officers also carried two folders of aerial photos. These “wave-top” views showed the coastline, assembly area, beachhead, anti-tank ditches and the town of Caen.
Pre-invasion briefing made use of bogus maps and phony place names. Every detail of the maps was accurate apart from the names of towns and villages. Caen became Poland. Other sites took the names of Japan, Mexico, Dublin, and Belfast. The men also had access to enlarged, detailed maps, models, stereoscopic photos and other aids. Despite the required secrecy, the Rifles had a phenomenal amount of information before going to Normandy.
Two days before D-Day, officers and men of 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles began to embark on Landing Craft Infantry No. 973. The mood and the seas were calm as the men ate fresh vegetables and bread to maintain energy levels. They played cards, ate, and slept as they made the crossing to Normandy.
An Uneventful Crossing
The calm seas of the English Channel made for an uneventful crossing until about two hours before the landing. Then, the waters grew choppy. Seasickness took hold in Landing Craft Infantry No. 973. Issued tablets aided some but the heavy meal before setting off did not help the queasiness.
2nd Battalion was part of 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd (British) Infantry Division. They would land with 2nd Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment and 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers. As the landing craft turned towards the shore, batteries at Villerville, Benerville, and Houlgate opened up. Shells bombarded the convoy, putting a delay on the landing while the assault brigade took out the guns. Battleships Warspite and Ramillies returned fire.
The coastline looked familiar, identical to those aerial photos. Many buildings along the coastline stood undamaged. This surprised the Rifles who expected total destruction.
On Sword Beach
From 1200hrs on 6th June 1944, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles landed on Queen Red Beach, Sword, to the west of Ouistreham. What was once a pleasant French summer resort was now a killing field. By the time the Rifles came ashore, vehicles from 79 Assault Squadron, 79th Armoured Division had cleared a path. Major Redmond Cunningham from Waterford, Ireland commanded No. 1 Troop. German snipers already stood with hands raised, captured in the houses and sand dunes lining the beach.
This was the second time in four years, 2nd Battalion had been in France. This would even the score for the German victory at Dunkirk.
By that point, the swell of the sea had increased. Although prepared for wet amphibious landings, the water levels were greater than the Rifles thought. Most disembarked the landing craft into between 4 and 6 feet of seawater.
Soaked from head to toe, the men struggled ashore as shells and mortars fell around them. Many of the smaller riflemen weighed down in heavy uniform and kit went under. Some men carried bicycles to make the journey easier but discarded them in the waves.
Company Sergeant Major Walsh of ‘A’ Company and Rifleman Michael “Sticky” Ryan MM of ‘B’ Company were among the first ashore. They formed a lifeline allowing many men to pull themselves to shore. The Rifles suffered a few casualties on the beach due to enemy shell and mortar fire.
Injuries Sustained At Sword
Some of 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles injured on Sword Beach on 6th June 1944.
|Rank||First Name||Last Name||Company||Injury|
|Lance Corporal||Gooding||Support||Shrapnel wound to head.|
|Rifleman||Troughton||Headquarters||Shrapnel wound to head.|
|Rifleman||McGrath||A||Shot in thigh.|
Assembly at Lion-sur-Mer
From Sword Beach, the battalion moved around half a mile inland at speed. Their designated assembly area was the small village of Lion-sur-Mer. There, they met the Commanding Officer of ‘HQ’ Company Captain MDGC Ryan and guides who landed around 1000hrs to make a reconnaissance.
Shells and mortars continued to fall resulting in further casualties. Brigade Commander Brigadier JC Cunningham MC evacuated after receiving injuries. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Cecil Harris assumed temporary command. They also lost Mortar Platoon Commander Captain AG Sellers who suffered small arms fire wounds to his legs. Sergeant McCutcheon took command and those gathered at Lion-sur-Mer watched the airborne troops arrive.
Dug in at Périers-sur-le-Dan
From Lion-sur-Mer, the battalion received orders to occupy high ground to the north-east of Périers-sur-le-Dan. On the way, they fought hard, capturing seven German snipers and ten other prisoners of war. As well as enemy troops, they took onboard weapons and equipment. Lieutenant Colonel Harris rejoined the battalion, handing the brigade over to Colonel ADG Orr DSO. Having reached Périers-sur-le-Dan by nightfall, the Rifles dug in at the end of D-Day.
Costly Attack on Cambes
7th June 1944 was D-Day+1. 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles moved south-west towards the village of Cambes-en-Plaine. Six miles inland, thick woods surrounded the village. ‘D’ Company under the command of Captain John Richard St. Leger Aldworth led the way via Le Mesnil.
With woods surrounding the village and ten foot high walls surrounding them, it was difficult to pinpoint enemy positions. ‘D’ Company set forth to find Cambes more defended than they thought. The rest of 2nd Battalion followed.
At around 1700hrs, ‘D’ Company moved forward supported by the tanks of East Riding Yeomanry. The rest of the battalion remained in position by the edge of the woods. Four enemy fighters appeared overhead, gunning the rear companies but causing no casualties. Here, the men of the Rifles encountered their first French locals, many of whom showed them good will.
The approach to the woods proved costly. Enemy snipers and mortar fire held up the battalion. The troops split with two platoons attacking the village from the left of the woods. The other platoon and ‘HQ’ Company attacked from the opposite side. As Captain J Montgomery led these men, machine gun fire opened up. The Rifles sustained many casualties.
Captain Aldworth suffered fatal injuries. Another platoon commander Lieutenant H Greene sustained injuries leaving him unable to continue. Captain Montgomery ordered a withdrawal from the woods due to the ferocious opposition. The tanks had been ineffective die to the high walls and thickness of the woods.
‘D’ Company withdrew to join the rest of the battalion deciding that a continued attack would prove too costly. The reserve companies sustained some casualties from mortar fire. These included Carrier Platoon Commander Captain HM Gaffikin. The battalion withdrew to Le Mesnil and took up a defensive position.
This single attack cost ‘D’ Company its commander and 14 other ranks. One officer and 11 other ranks suffered injuries and 4 other ranks were missing. Two stretcher bearers from the Medical Section died while tending the wounded. The loss of Captain Aldworth hit the battalion hard. He was well-liked and something of an institution having been with the battalion for almost two years.
Reconnaissance Patrol from Anisy
On 8th June 1944, the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles carried out reconnaissance for the attack on Cambes. This took place with Lieutenant Colonel Hussey (33 Field Artillery) and Lieutenant Colonel Williamson (East Riding Yeomanry). Battalion snipers under the command of of Sergeant F Pancott provided cover.
The plan was to attack from the village of Anisy, around 1200 yards west of Le Mesnil and 1500 yards north of Cambes. Company commanders received the plan at 1630hrs.
The ground between Anisy and Cambes was open, rising for 400 yards from Anisy then open and flat into Cambes. Captain William H Baudains MM carried out reconnaissance for a night patrol route. He took the platoon commander and three section commanders of 11 platoon. They encountered an enemy patrol of one officer and ten men. They killed five, taking the remaining 6 prisoner, sustaining no injuries in the process.
Defending Le Mesnil
At the same time an enemy patrol of around 30 men attacked ‘C’ Company’s defensive position in Le Mesnil. The Rifles repealed the attack suffering one fatality and 5 men wounded. ‘C’ Company retaliated with a nuisance raid on Cambes that night under sporadic mortar and gun fire with no further losses.
The Taking of Cambes
The German Army held Cambes-en-Plaine and Galmanche, a village 800 metres south of Cambes. Both were well defended outposts. Another two villages, Buron and St. Contest lay 1,000 yards south and south-west of Galmanche and were also held by the Germans. To the east, 800 yards south-east of Cambes, they also held La Bijude and the village of Epron, a further 500 yards south.
The plan was for 9th (British) Infantry Brigade including the Rifles to take the entire St. Contest area. Taking the wooded village of Cambes-en-Plaine was vital to this plan. 9th (Canadian) Infantry Brigade would provide covering fire from a position 2,000 yards to the west.
2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles made use of the many other troops including the Royal Navy, Royal Artillery, tank regiments and Royal Engineers.
The Rifles would attack Cambes over the open ground between Anisy and the well defended woods. ‘A’ Company would take the left hand side of the track from Anisy with support from ‘C’ Company. ‘B’ Company with support from ‘D’ Company would approach on the right hand side. ‘A’ and ‘B’ were to clear the front of the village and guard the flanks while ‘C’ and ‘D’ passed through to take the far edge of the village. The attack was set for 1515hrs.
A cruiser from the Royal Navy gave a five minute barrage onto the village of Cambes. There followed heavy fire from the Royal Artillery, anti-tank gunners and the East Riding Yeomanry. Royal Engineers carried out demolition and mine clearances. Armoured vehicles moved with the battalion providing support.
The battalion advanced in formation through an open cornfield on the slope towards Cambes. Keeping even space, they advanced in “good order” even in the face of heavy fire. The Commanding Officer of the East Riding Yeomanry expected them to hit the ground but the Rifles carried on as if it were a training exercise.
This advance was anything but a training exercise though, and many men perished on the slope into Cambes Wood. ‘A’ Company under Major WD Tighe-Wood lost three platoon commanders. Lieutenant Robert Stewart Hall died on the advance to Cambes Wood. Lieutenants D Walsh and JH St. J Cooper received injuries meaning they could not continue. Despite these losses, Major Tighe-Wood lead the company to their objectives.
‘B’ Company under command of Major JW Hyde came under heavy fire around 400 yards from their target. Sergeant Kavanagh of 11th Platoon engaged the machine gunners with his Bren gun groups and directed a tank to the German gunners. Killing several of the enemy gunners enabled the company to pass through the village.
The battalion reached a U-shaped hole in the 10-foot high perimeter wall and pushed on through into the woods. A heavy barrage of mortar fire and shelling ensued. The woods were a scene of carnage with the dead of both sides lying all around.
A platoon of men from ‘A’ Company made it to a farmhouse in the woods. Rifleman Stanley Burrows returned through the melée to inform Captain Montgomery of their position.
On D-Day+3, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles took and held Cambes-en-Plaine. Until that day, two-thirds of the men had not been in action. The German Army put up strong resistance but the Rifles showed great determination and bravery.
TO BE CONTINUED…