D-Day: ‘It was pure luck whether you died or not’

Peter Handford with diary and cigarette case, complete with bullet hole,  from D-Day Peter Handford with diary and cigarette case, complete with bullet hole, from D-Day

Sunday, June 8, 2014
10:12 AM

Andrew Clarke remembers his conversations with late friend Peter Handford about an amazing near-death experience just after Peter left bullet-riddled Sword Beach

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Peter Handford's belongings that slowed a Nazi bullet.Peter Handford's belongings that slowed a Nazi bullet.

Peter Handford worked as a sound recordist for the film industry and after the war went on to win an Oscar for his work on the Robert Redford-Meryl Streep film Out of Africa. He also worked for Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

But for an amazing stroke of luck he may not have survived the Normandy beach landings.

Although he volunteered to serve as part of the British Expeditionary Force which went over to France in 1940, when he returned to northern France in 1944 he went not as a fighting soldier but as a film cameraman.

Because of his experience in the film industry, he was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant in the Army Film Unit and ordered to record the liberation of Europe for the newsreels around the world.

Peter Handford's diary is a stark reminder of his lucky escape.Peter Handford's diary is a stark reminder of his lucky escape.

Armed only with a wind-up clockwork camera and a pistol, he landed on Sword Beach with the British forces and captured the Normandy landings on film.

Peter dodged bullets, flying shrapnel and mortar shells as he ran for cover up the beach. He managed to get off the beach unharmed but two days later, as the fighting became a series of skirmishes in the narrow lanes leading up to the coast, Peter had a brush with death.

As he filmed British troops clearing farm buildings and scurrying across fields, a German sniper hidden in a copse of trees got Peter in his sights and fired. The bullet hit its mark but Peter was blithely unaware he had been hit in the chest.

The bullet had penetrated his diary, kept in the top pocket of his battledress, gone through dense layers of pressure bandages which formed part of an emergency medical kit and punched a hole through the outside of his silver cigarette case.

But there it stopped. He was unaware he had been shot until he took off his jacket to go to bed that evening. As he removed his battledress and opened his cigarette case he noticed a spent bullet nestling between two crushed cigarettes.

Had the bullet penetrated any further, it would have entered his heart and killed him instantly.

He said years later: “We were running and jumping in and out of shell craters. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, so I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed getting pushed back by the force of a bullet.”

The close-quarters fighting was in sharp contrast to Peter’s previous visit to France in 1940 when, apart from dodging attacks from Stuka dive-bombers, he never really saw Germans.

He was part of a Royal Artillery unit stationed near The Maginot Line, near the French-German border.

“We were supposed to guard the airfield from enemy aircraft and from being over-run by German troops. But the trouble was we didn’t have any guns. When we were sent to France, we only had one rifle to share between us.

“The artillery was ancient. We had three inch, ex-naval guns. They were quite unsuitable for anything, really.”

They were so out of their depth that when the Germans did arrive they didn’t know what to do. “On the night of May 9/10 we were all in bed. We had one man on guard and we heard this terrible noise rather like an approaching thunderstorm.

“I thought this sounded a bit odd and within half an hour this thunderstorm had advanced to bomb our aircraft – none 
of which had ever taken off – and they were all destroyed on the ground.”

During 1942 and 1943, after Peter joined the Army Film Unit, he made his first visit to Suffolk, where he rehearsed the invasion with the various tank battalions at Dunwich and in Thetford Forest.

He said of the later assault on the beaches: “I consider myself extremely lucky because a lot of us were killed or badly wounded. We came in on a landing craft and I landed on the beach with a commando unit.

“I jumped into the water – just trying to keep my camera dry. As soon as we were on the beach we tried to get ourselves off it.

Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers really did show what it was like. It was very realistic.

“I think we were only on the beach for three or four hours but it seemed a very long time because we were so exposed.

“Funnily, I didn’t worry about it because our job was to take photographs. It was pure luck whether you died or not. I could never understand it.”

Two sergeants under his command failed to return from a filming trip and he had to find them. What he discovered brought home the realities of war.

“Their jeep had received a direct hit and had caught fire. There were three skeletons inside and that was it. This was what was left of my two cameramen and their driver.”

There was a lot of fatalism about working in a war zone. “You couldn’t worry about getting shot or killed. You just had to keep your head down and get on with your job.”

Peter also filmed the Free French taking back Paris from the retreating German army.

“The atmosphere was electric. We were overwhelmed with people. We managed to film and photograph the whole parade. Going in with the Free French was fantastic.”

Peter died at home in north Suffolk in November, 2007, having become a pioneer of location sound recording and working on such classic films as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, Oh What A Lovely War, Murder on The Orient Express, Dangerous Liaisons and Gorillas In The Mist.