Hannah's prize-winning essay took the form of a fictional account based on an interview with and information from Wilf Coates
The plane engine roared into life disturbing silence of the night. It was only twenty-four hours late, but now we were off! I hurried the stragglers on board, before boarding myself closely followed by the Captain. No one spoke much; I felt the apprehension (even if I was trying to hide it), I could see the young boys around me mouthing their prayers or holding their head in their hands. Some, were airsick, others suffering with claustrophobia. Every so often the Captain would break the tense silence, giving snippets of advice. Through the walls of the craft we hear the German artillery, trying to shoot us out of the air like an amusement game. This was the sole difference between that plane and a strict clinic.
Captain gave the order and with practised precision we obliged. All forty men strapped themselves into their life saving parachute. Then in perfect synchronisation we fastened them up and checked the persons in front, what a job, telling some one they were safe and all that you had done was hit them on the back. The side was pulled open; the cold morning air sung my cheeks and caused me to rub my eyes. We all stood in pondering silence. Then, with unexpected grade the Captain jumped out of the door, causing us to follow in rapid succession. The air rushed against my head and body ,the white parachute opened in the slipstream above me, slowly and instinctively I let the rope on my kitbag drop steadily. The fairly calm wind helped a lot. As my kitbag touched the ground it jerked the rope and I touched down soon after. As my kitbag touched the ground it jerked the rope and I touched down soon after. Through darkness I saw the white parachutes that were my battalion. It was truly an amazing sight.
As I disentangled myself from my chute I saw the Captains torch beam across the ground before hearing his cricket its call cutting arouses the air like a whip. I glanced round as I scrambled to the Captain. I saw tow of the lads in trees. It appeared that we had luckily landed within a hundred or so yards from each other.
Carefully and quietly Captain conducted a head count he ordered us to unfasten those caught in trees and search out the wounded. As I looked round I realised that we weren’t far off the bridge. Far across field a sign read ‘Ranville’. The orders and battle plan ran through my head.
“You should land on the outskirts of Ranville, then you should march the two miles to the Caen Canal. There you shall capture the bridge and hold the bridge until relived”. Even then I knew this was all dependant on the success of the pathfinders.
We reassembled, then information we made our way to the bridge. Keeping alert; I wished the bridge remained standing. I wasn’t fond of the alternative (rubber dinghies). Still, I could only hope. Turning a corner the next few minutes flashed before me like a slideshow on fast forward it was memorable.
Enemy soldiers lined the bridge, protecting it from us! In a smooth gesture captain had us form an arrowhead formation, guns cocked ready; ready to advance and attack. The order came clear and crisp through the nerve sodden air, with an energetic surge we charged; firing as we went. It was like training in the early ours of a typical spring morning. We were greatly outnumbered but we all believed that our training was far superior. I had rehearsed this in my head, only worse.
At the very beginning I had pictured a heroic victory, then it slowly became a blood bespatter nightmare. As I fired I closed my eyes, only for a second and as I opened them, I was relieved by what I saw. The only enemy soldiers left were lying on the ground with gaping wounds in their bodies. I didn’t know where to look without feeling some guilt.
Crickets sounded! The look of relief on the Captains face was enough. The lads grinned; their boyish grins illuminated the night as if by magic. Regaining his professional manner the Captain made us take our defensive positions. For all the agony suffered by the lads and myself this was the turning point. We had achieved half of our objective! I was wriggling with happiness. I had done what I had set out to do. I forced myself to regain composure. I was in charge until the Captain had finished tending the wounded. Hours passed, glory wore off. Tiredness and hunger set in.
Tempest Fugit! Whoever said that should try putting himself in my shoes. Holding a grudge in the middle of Wartime France, under orders! Didn’t he take into account the necessary factors of needing a cup of strong tea and fairy cake?
Still we hadn’t been relieved, so we stayed put. The gunfire ceased and I promised myself that I wouldn’t complain as often (about trivial matters like early mornings). As the sun rose it gently lifted the shadows off a sleepy Normandy. In the distance the sea attack sounded, the scent of battle lingered on the air. Captain was on his rounds. I stole a glance at my watch to see hour thirty-seven commence.
Thirty-six cold hours, sitting on this bridge. Feeling bored for at least twenty-four of them. Then “Attention! Wait to be dismissed” Captain ordered. From my position I saw (or hoped I saw) the reinforcements, marching towards us. As they approached I learnt that they were the Oxford Buckinghamshire glider troops. They arched in sequence down the hill, with full respect the Captain saluted his nationalistic pride shining like a halo. The other Captains saluted in response. They confirmed that there WERE the back up and we had been relieved! “Diii-sss-missed” Captains’ voice rang out; you could hear him relishing every syllable. Silently cheering in delight we raced off the bridge. We unpacked and tried to make ourselves presentable for the people of Ranville. As we neared the outskirts we regained our formal drill, marching into town to symbolise liberation was novel. The reception was breathtaking.
There was food, nice tasty fresh(ish) foods. They must be clean out of sugar and lard rations. Beautiful French liqueurs, you know the type, that gently warm your insides. How strange it was to be greeted with gratitude instead of gunfire. Civilians told us, we were a pillar of hope, a reminder of wars passed. They would touch freedom once more.
“Stop! Attention!” Captain bellowed above the crowd, this voice echoing through the town. His eyes smiling like the Cheshire cat. “Dii-sssi-missed” His smile like the sun itself. The crowds roared. I cheered with the lads. Looking round I saw each and every member of my battalion looking content but shattered.
Without warning I was engulfed by energy. I had run at a football, the little French lad passed and I kicked it high into the air, just as I had in my early years. The lads and me stood passing the ball, showing off, watching the French lads copying and reliving our youth. The older soldiers stood conversing and calling ‘foul’ or ‘offside’ and a few shouted ‘how ay’. Those feelings would stay with me forever.
My time in the army! The best time in the army any officer could ask for. In retrospect D-Day was immense. I knew then it was big. I didn’t know how big, but I decided it was of substantial proportions. Sometimes I can still hear the nervous tension, the hungry yearning to move in. Occasionally when the morning wind stings my face I remember the silence of my jump, the wind whipping against me. The steady decline and the thud of my kitbag. My emotions race when I remember the thirty some white parachutes falling from a black sky. I watch the football on the television and remember the liberation of Ranville.
To those involved in Operation Overlord – we are in your debt!
6th Airborne Division - official website
Account of Wilf Coates to Hannah Hatfield
Hannah's interview with Wilf Coates
Geoffrey Pine-Coffin, commander of the 7th Light Infantry
Tommy Kelly - another 7th Para veteran