Peter Davies D-Day Story
His two brothers already in uniform, Peter Davies joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve at the age of just 17 in 1941. He trained as a wireless operator in Blackpool before joining the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942 and went on to serve with the 1st East Riding of Yorkshire Yeomanry. The first fighting Peter saw was when he landed on Sword Beach in Normandy with his tank crew on June 6, 1944. His memories of the conflict are captured in Peter’s book World War 2 and Me.
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Now 95, Peter said: “I was 20 years of age on D-Day. It’s a long time ago and some memories have faded but some of it is still as clear today as it was then. It was a baptism of fire really. We knew what was coming, in as much as we had done two exercises in the months beforehand. The whole regiment was put on trains and taken to Scotland even though we had been on an exercise off the east coast only a week before. We went to the other side of Stirling and we couldn’t understand it! It turned out that the coast there faces north which is the same as the French coast and the tides were the same, so it would replicate the tides we would have to cope with. We had known for six months that something was happening and the obvious place was France.”
In the build up to D Day the Sherman tanks were waterproofed to enable them to cope with up to six feet of water. Peter’s regiment was confined to camp in the New Forest for 48 hours before moving down to Gosport and loading up onto the landing crafts on June 3, 1944. The night of June 4 brought violent storms pushing the operation back from June 5 to June 6. Peter’s regiment was due to form part of the third wave of attack.
“We were soldiers and we knew what we were facing. We felt we were adequately trained and fit enough to tackle the job. Being young men – we were all around 20 or 21 – nothing bothered us. We wanted to get on with it. Of course, nowadays I would stop and think! We had practiced the landing two or three times but there was a tremendous volume of troops, tanks and ships all bunched up on D Day. It looked like the Channel was full of ships from little ones to the great big ones.”
In the event, their landing was put on hold as the guns at Le Havre were causing heavy casualties on the beach and they were delayed for 30 minutes while an attack was launched on the Le Havre gun batteries.
“HMS Warspite was firing over our heads which sounded like a screaming express train. To see a massive battleship like that rocking back with each salvo was incredible. Every time it fired it rocked the ship sideways and I heard afterwards from one of the navy lads that the commander had told them to fire half salvos because they were breaking the crockery on board every time they fired!”
The landing craft couldn’t get close to the beach so the tanks were offloaded onto ‘Rhinos’, large metal rafts powered by outboard motors that proved difficult to manoeuvre. Peter’s crew managed to steer around vehicles already abandoned both in the water and on the beach. But after arriving on French soil they learned that their Brigadier had been killed which resulted in some confusion as to which plan they would follow. It was at this point that Peter’s experienced his first brush with death when he got out of the tank to remove the waterproofing from the gun muzzle.
He said: “I heard a small ping and a whine. In the general noise going on all around, I took no notice, until I heard a distinct second ping and saw a chip of paint disappear from the barrel beside my left hand. Suddenly I realised somebody out there was deliberately firing at me!”
It was an important lesson which would stand Peter in good stead in the difficult days that followed. Indeed, it wasn’t just enemy fire he had to worry about. He said: “I was machine gunned by a Spitfire walking through a village one morning because it mistook my tank helmet for a German helmet! I ran like mad and dived into a ditch but a young French girl was hit by a richocheting bullet. We later learned that the little girl had been taken over to Portsmouth hospital on one of the boats and had the bullet taken out and returned to her family on the same day. One small act that I remember to this day.”
Although he was a Corporal, Peter reflected that rank didn’t seem to matter it such circumstances. “You are sometimes making decisions for your friends and that is hard, being responsible for putting them in danger. But at the end of the day each individual makes his own choices – whether to step right or left could mean the difference between life and death. We had to accept that sooner or later someone would be hit.
“Humour was essential. It is essential to life that you laugh even in the most dangerous and ridiculous situations. It was important to have a sense of humour. There was always one clown in every group you found yourself in and at the most dire moments they would say something stupid; but it breaks the tension and lets you laugh. Even at the most dangerous moments when your life is in danger humour comes to the surface. The British squaddie is known for it.”
Peter plans to return to the Normandy beaches once again this year to pay his respects to the friends he lost. He said: “Going back to Normandy always brings back memories and there is one in particular that always surfaces. My regiment was lucky on D Day itself. We only lost one man who drowned going in. But on the second day I lost a lot of my friends. Out of 12 of us I was the only one to survive. They are all buried in a little village churchyard in Normandy that I always go back to. I was lucky. It’s one of those things that has stuck in my memory and I always make a point of going to see them. We had only gone a few miles into Normandy.
“This will probably be the last time veterans can make the return journey to Normandy now there are so few of us left. We are not getting any younger and every year the numbers are fewer so I think it is likely that this trip will be the final one.
“There are still a few of us from my regiment. We revisit the places we fought all those years ago. One of my old comrades will be going this year and it will be good to catch up with him. He and I were together in wartime in Normandy and have been old friends ever since.”