Operation OVERLORD: 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles in Normandy

On 6th June 1944, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles landed in Normandy, France. An uneventful crossing soon gave way to an arduous battle across north France.

Training at No. 1 Combined Training Centre, Inveraray, Scotland began for 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles in 1942. At first, they made use of basic boating equipment, plywood and canvas crafts with outboard engines. By early 1943, the battalion was shaping up and readying to re-join the front lines. Almost called up for Sicily, they instead remained in the United Kingdom. Other plans lay ahead.

Late May 1944, found 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles under lockdown at Camp A7, The Lodge, Lavender Road, Waterlooville, Hampshire, England. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Cecil Harris and Major Basil James Fitzgerald Donlea solidified plans for what was to come. Officers sorted secret maps into craft loads. Such was the secrecy that maps would only be open once the vessels set sail. Thousands of “wave-top” aerial photos showed the Normandy coastline, assembly areas, beachheads, 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, for example, 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, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles had a phenomenal amount of information before going to Normandy.

1st June 1944

Camp A7, The Lodge, Lavender Road, Waterlooville, Hampshire, PO7 8BX.

On 1st June 1944, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles enjoyed a bright and sunny day at Waterlooville. Preparations for the invasion of Normandy were well underway but the mood was relaxed. A series of inter-company football matches occupied the soldiers in the morning. A restful afternoon followed.

3rd June 1944

Gosport, Hampshire, England.

On the evening of 2nd-3rd June 1944, loading of Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) took place at Gosport. The weather remained bright and sunny throughout the day as the LCTs set sail and moored off Southsea.

4th June 1944

Camp A7, The Lodge, Lavender Road, Waterlooville, Hampshire, PO7 8BX.

The following day, 4th June 1944, saw Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) parties depart from Waterlooville. They soon returned to Camp A7 rather than loading at Southsea. The planned invasion had been postponed due to bad weather conditions.

5th June 1944

Southsea, Hampshire, England.

During the morning of 5th June 1944, Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) parties embarked at Southsea. All involved knew the extent of the undertaking ahead, yet the mood remained seemingly calm. On board vessels, soldiers enjoyed a satisfactory meal of bread and fresh vegetables, in addition to their “compo” rations. At 1730hrs, the Landing Craft Tanks slipped their moorings at Southsea and departed out into the English Channel. Large Landing Craft Infantry vessels followed shortly afterwards.

6th June 1944

The English Channel.

Calm waters in the English Channel made for an uneventful crossing until approximately two hours before landing. The waters grew choppy, seasickness took hold of many of those on board the Landing Craft Infantry. Tablets issued to all those in the battalion helped some but the hearty meal enjoyed before departure did not rest easy in others. Spirits remained high, however. The mood was lifted by the sights and sounds of the huge convoy and the number of Allied planes in the sky.

As the vessels turned towards the shore, gun batteries at Villerville, Benerville-sur-Mer and Houlgate opened up. Shells bombarded the convoy, delaying the landing slightly until an assault brigade rendered the guns unoperational. The coastline looked familiar, almost identical to the aerial photos. Some had expected total destruction along the beaches and yet many buildings in the photographs remained untouched on the horizon. Along with 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment and 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Rifles were ready to land.

Lion-sur-Mer, Calvados, Normandy, France.

At 1200hrs, the first Landing Craft Infantry vessels containing 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles landed in Normandy. Arriving at Queen Red Beach, Sword on a wide, sandy beach to the west of Ouistreham, the battalion first caught sight of the enemy. From houses and dunes along the beach, German snipers walked forth with hands over their heads. The beaches had mostly been cleared by vehicles from No. 79 Assault Squadron, though a number of shells and mortars continued to fall from distant batteries. The battalion sustained a few casualties on the beach.

Casualties at Sword Beach

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Company Injury
Gooding Lance Corporal Support Shrapnel wound to head.
Troughton Rifleman Headquarters Shrapnel wound to head.
McGrath Rifleman A Shot in thigh.

The first obstacle to overcome for the Rifles, however, was the swelling sea. Although well-trained and well-used to amphibious landings, this was wetter than ever before. Some riflemen landed in 4 feet to 5.5 feet of water. Many of the soldiers were small in stature and found it difficult to reach the shore in their soaking-wet kit. Added to that, many of them were weighed down by carrying bicycles.

Among the first ashore were Company Sergeant Major Walsh of A Company and Rifleman Michael “Sticky” Ryan M.M. of B Company. They formed a lifeline allowing many of the following riflemen to pull themselves from the water.

Once ashore, the Rifles made their way to the assembly area at Lion-sur-Mer, about half a mile inland. There they reconnoitred with Officer Commanding Headquarters Company Captain M.D.G.C. Ryan. Along with a party of guides, Ryan had landed with an assault brigade an hour ahead of the battalion. As shells and mortars continued to fall, the Rifles sustained further casualties. Brigade Commander Brigadier J.C. Cunningham M.C. was evacuated and Lieutenant Colonel Ian Cecil Harris took temporary command.

Périers-sur-le-Dan, Calvados, Normandy, France.

Major Basil James Fitzgerald Donlea M.C. assumed temporary command of 2nd Battalion. Captain A.G. Seelers, a Mortar Platoon Commander sustained wounds to his legs from small arms fire and was evacuated from the assembly area. Once gathered and sorted out, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles received their next orders. They would move to high ground northeast of Périers-sur-le-Dan, dig in for the night, and prepare to move forward.

On the way to Périers-sur-le-Dan, the battalion 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 re-joined the battalion, handing the brigade over to Colonel A.D.G. Orr D.S.O. Having reached Périers-sur-le-Dan by nightfall, the Rifles dug in at the end of D-Day.

Remembered on 6th June

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Whitehorn Edmund James Rifleman 7016638

7th June 1944

Périers-sur-le-Dan, Calvados, Normandy, France.

On D-Day+1, 7th June 1944, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles was dug in at Périers-sur-le-Dan. Orders came through that the next objective was to capture Cambes, a small village in a thickly-wooden area about 6 miles inland from the coast. With D Company under Captain John Richard St. Leger Aldworth at the vanguard, the battalion would move out in a southwesterly direction via Le Mesnil.

The belief was that Cambes was lightly defended, although with surrounding woodland and a ten foot high perimeter wall, it was impossible to ascertain enemy positions. Aldworth’s D Company received instruction to move out and take the village with the rest of the battalion in reserve.

Cambes-en-Plaine, Calvados, Normandy, France.

At 1700hrs on 7th June 1944, D Company moved forward on Cambes with support from a squadron of tanks of 1st East Riding Yeomanry. The rest of the battalion remained in reserve, halted by the edge of the woods. Four enemy fighter planes appeared overhead machine gunning the rear companies but causing no casualties. This attack prompted the first encounters between soldiers of the Rifles and locals who showed them good will. Ahead, D Company found Cambes much more heavily defended than first thought.

The approach to the woods proved costly. Enemy snipers and mortar fire held up the battalion. D Company split with two platoons attacking the village from the left of the woods. The other platoon and Headquarters 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 sustained 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 due 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 H.M. 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.

Remembered on 7th June

Last Name First name(s) Rank Information
Aldworth John Richard St. Leger Major 117163
Bradley Arthur Joseph Rifleman 7017126
Connolly John Rifleman 7010230
Hartley Peter Rifleman 3654396
Kane Thomas Lance Corporal 7011474*
Kane William Henry Rifleman 7018769*
Kohler Albert John Edward Corporal 7016376
McAllister George Rifleman 7009594*
McAllister Ronald Rifleman 7015463*
Miller Hugh Henry Corporal 7014297*
Rooney Henry Lance Serjeant 7013785*
Rowley Owen Lance Corporal 7021446*
Sewell Nicholas John Rifleman 7019849
Smith Herbert Corville Rifleman 7019849*
Williamson James Campbell Rifleman 7018176*

8th June 1944

Le Mesnil, Calvados, Normandy, France.

On 8th June 1944, D-Day+2, the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles made a reconnaissance for a battalion attack on the heavily defended village of Cambes. He set out with cover from battalion snipers under the command of Serjeant F. Pancott and Commanding Officers of 33rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery and 1st East Riding Yeomanry.

Anisy, Calvados, Normandy, France.

At 1630hrs, Company Commanders received instructions for the upcoming battalion attack on Cambes. They then made their reconnaissance of the ground between Anisy and Cambes. Conditions were not entirely satisfactory with open ground rising for around 400 yards before a flat and wide open 1,100 yard advance into the village. A party of two officers and three N.C.Os, including Captain W.H. Baudanis M.M., the Platoon Commander, and three Section Commanders of No. 11 Platoon, went forward to scout a route for a potential night patrol. On the way, they encountered an enemy patrol of one officer and ten soldiers. The soldiers of the Rifles engaged the enemy, killing five and taking six prisoners of war. There was no loss of life or injury sustained to No. 11 Platoon or the officers of 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles.

Le Mesnil, Calvados, Normandy, France.

Meanwhile, another enemy patrol of around 30 German soldiers attacked C Company at Le Mesnil. The Rifles company drove off the patrol but sustained one fatality and five wounded.

9th June 1944

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.

Le Mesnil, Calvados, Normandy, France.

On the night of 8th-9th June 1944, C Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles carried out a nuisance raid on enemy positions at Cambes. The German retaliated with an attack on C Company’s location at Le Mesnil. Both actions caused no further loss or injury to the battalion as sporadic mortar and machine-gun fire continued through the night.

Cambes-en-Plaine, Calvados, Normandy, France.

At 1515hrs on 9th June 1944, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles began their attack on Cambes Wood. A Company with support from C Company would take the left-hand side of the track leading from Anisy. B Company with support from D Company would approach on the right-hand side.

A Company under Major W.D. Tighe-Wood and B Company under Major J.W. Hyde crossed the line first, with the attack supported by a Royal Navy cruiser, 3rd Divisional Artillery, two troops – one self-propelled – of 101st Battery, 45th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, Sherman tanks of 1st East Riding Yeomanry, and demolition and mine clearance teams of the Royal Engineers. This combined effort achieved their first objective – clearing the front of the village – by 1630hrs. Records suggest the soldiers advanced in good order, well spaced out, directed and steadied by a Commanding Officer on the left.

On reaching the ridge, 400 yards from Anisy and 1,100 yards from Cambes, the two companies of the Rifles came into enemy view. Mortar and machine-gun fire opened up from the woods. Still, the advance continued, soldiers maintaining distance, showing “the same unconcern” as they would in a field firing exercise.

A Company lost 3 platoon commanders on the approach. Lieutenant Robert Stewart Hall was killed by enemy fire, while Lieutenant D. Walsh and J.H. St. J Cooper sustained injuries.

At the first objective, C Company with Armoured Vehicles of the Royal Engineers passed through A Company. Enemy 88mm guns firing from La Bijude took out the vehicles, but C Company continued to fight through the woods to their final objective, securing the far edge of the village.

On the other side, D Company, depleted in number following the previous days’ actions passed through B Company securing their objectives. With the leading companies in place, the battalion’s supporting No. 11 Anti-Tank Platoon under Captain C.R. Gray moved forward. All gun detachments set out in the face of heavy and accurate fire from enemy 88mm guns and mortars. With the exception of one detachment that took a direct hit from an 88mm shell, all guns were moved into position. The heavy enemy fire continued for 5 hours, creating difficult conditions for the companies attempting to dig in.

On reaching a U-shaped hole in the 10-foot high perimeter wall, the battalion pushed on through in the face of a barrage or mortar fire and shelling. The surrounding woodland was a scene of devastation with the bodies of the dead of both sides lying where they fell. One platoon of A Company made it to an abandoned farmhouse. Rifleman Stanley Burrows bravely returned through the mêlée to inform Captain Montgomery of their whereabouts.

By the end of the day, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles casualties were 3 officers and 41 other ranks killed, 7 officers and 131 other ranks wounded and evacuated, 3 officers and 3 other ranks wounded and remaining, and 1 officer and 10 other ranks missing. This was a total of 11 officers and 182 other ranks from the battalion. Medical Officer Captain C.R. Wright of the Royal Army Medical Corps and his staff of orderlies showed great courage and professionalism dealing with patients with calmness but also with a level of humour.

Many of the wounded had been amazingly cheerful, joking in the face of the most frightful wounds.

Remembered on 9th June

Last Name First Name(s) Rank Information
Bailey Edward Francis Rifleman 7016406
Bingham Stanley Henry Rifleman 7044554
Creasy Basil William Sidney Rifleman 7015952
Diserens Robert Charles Lieutenant 264682
Gordon James Calderwood Rifleman 7011740*
Halfpenny John James Rifleman 7015482*
Hall Robert Stewart Lieutenant 177406
Hursey James Rifleman 7018479
Lillicrap John Francis Rifleman 14206465
Macarthy John Papworth Rifleman 14655604
Martin Henry Rifleman 6985604
Maynard Cyril Rifleman 7019794
Merry Kenneth Walter Lance Corporal 7022576
Michaelides Michael P. Rifleman 7020577
Mullan Robert James Rifleman 7021305*
O'Callaghan Patrick Joseph Rifleman 6975889
Patterson John Rifleman 7020205
Patton Richard George Rifleman 6979411
Payne Ernest George Corporal 7019311
Rice William John Rifleman 7011646*
Rogers Ernest John Corporal 7017531
Scott William John Rifleman 7011203*
Shore Robert Rifleman 14216344
Valentine Henry J. Rifleman 7016349
Varham Joseph Charles Clifford Rifleman 5391622
Wilson Denis Rifleman 14552116

Royal Ulster Rifles After D-Day

In 2014, to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, members of the military visited Cambes to examine the role played by the Royal Ulster Rifles after the landings.

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