D-Day: ‘I don’t know how many times I sang Abide With Me’ says veteran
- Credit: Su Anderson
Brothers in arms Arthur and Cyril Scoffield took part in the D-Day landings.Steven Russell met them. Here are their stories, in their own words
Brothers Arthur and Cyril Scoffield, old soldiers with infectious laughs, demonstrate perfectly the ability of the human spirit to endure the worst of times yet still emerge able to recognise the good in life.
Both have seen things no-one should see. One of Cyril’s jobs off Normandy was to retrieve the bodies of troops and collect their identity tags. He remembers bodies cut in half by the fighting. His brother, now 98, tells of seeing a head washed around by the tide. Later, he’d witness the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp.
It all gave Arthur nightmares once he returned home. “I used to kick out, Mother used to say,” he says of wife Winifred. He also couldn’t bear wash-day – the smell reminded him too much of Belsen. Arthur, a sergeant with the Royal Engineers, had spent three days there, after it was liberated, installing a temporary water supply. “Thousands of bodies there, nearly all naked...”
Both men have been back to Normandy, for previous anniversaries. Cyril, 88, will be there today, hoping to attend a ceremony at Bayeux cemetery. A touch of ill health – and a daunting quote of about £800 for travel insurance! – means his brother will be there in spirit if not in person.
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Arthur remembers marching with fellow veterans at Arromanches in the past, and meeting dignitaries such as Prince Charles. Tears have been shed, it’s true. Both men admit visits to France can bring a lump to the throat. “You can’t really explain it,” says Arthur, a great-great-grandfather. Cyril adds: “At the time, you never thought anything was going to happen to you. You were young! I never had nightmares, but I used to go over and over in my mind for months afterwards what happened and what we’d done.”
Here are their stories, in their own words.
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Arthur Scoffield was born in Dillwyn Street, Ipswich, early in 1916. He was a French polisher, and then worked at the engineering firms of Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies, and Cranes.
He joined the Territorial Army in 1933, wed Winifred in 1938 – they’d be married more than 70 years, having five children – and early in the war manned searchlights at Landguard Ford, Felixstowe. Arthur later laid mines and volunteered for bomb disposal, being wounded in an explosion in Liverpool.
Then came the events of 1944.
“At the end of April to beginning of May we finished our landing exercise... We made our way to Studland Bay and Brownsea, where we made our final exercise, fitting our charges to obstacles and mine-clearing exercises. After that, we had three days’ leave.
“On returning to units, we were transported to a camp in the New Forest, which was sealed. One of our lads had toothache and two officers escorted him to a dentist and back again.
“On the 1st June we left the camp and boarded our mother ship at Poole harbour. There was not much room on board a merchant ship which had been transformed into a troop ship. I managed to grab a hammock, which had to be stowed away each morning.
“On the evening of Sunday 4th June we set sail, feeling nervous and a bit afraid, as we knew this was the one. The weather was worse after leaving harbour and I used some of my pills and bags.
After about four hours, we turned around and made it to Poole harbour again – I never thought that would happen. Had a good kip and settled down again. The weather improved. We were told if the weather stayed as it was, or improved, we would be away again. Again, we weighed anchor and left Poole, this time for ever. There were hundreds of craft – troopships, tank landing craft, warships, destroyers, etc, with barrage balloons attached to some of them.
“Reveille was about 4am, then breakfast and checking all gear. We had a drum head service; the padre came and spoke to us all – quite a comfortable feeling...
“Warships Rodney, Warsprite and Belfast and other ships opened fire on the defences and we had to shout to be heard. Our turn came to use scramble nets in quite a swell, four to eight feet – so had to time your leap from net to assault craft to avoid injury... above the noise of the gunfire I heard a terrible scream and saw a young Canadian crushed between landing craft and ship. This affected me quite a bit. We were about five miles offshore when we boarded the landing craft. It was a very rough trip; I think all of us were sick at some time.
“At about 7am some of the naval vessels started marshalling us in position for our run into our allocated beach area, which was Juno Beach. During this operation, some craft collided with each other. Also, we were in range of the German batteries.
“Things looked chaotic at times. Some craft lost their steering. Others had engine failure, and I saw two tank transporters sink; also, at least two infantry craft – the first sight of corpses and injured men floating in water.
“Amongst all this, we were comforted by hearing naval officers giving orders in a calm voice over the loudhailers. We started our run-in about 7.20am, which took about 10 minutes. We were now in range of machine gun fire. The ramp dropped and I was up to my chest in water. I made the beach and sent a silent prayer... We fixed our charges... When all the commanders’ arms were raised, our officer in charge of the operation would raise his arm as a signal... and when he lowered his arm we started running up the beach, counting up to five, at which we laid on the beach, facing the sea, so that our helmets gave us protection from shrapnel.
“Each of our charges had 10-second fuses, so we didn’t have much time to run up the beach into position... we saw several bodies and body parts, including a head, washed around by the tide.
“The job got done nearly perfect, so next job was mine-clearing – clearing lanes wide enough for tanks etc. We should have had help from flail tanks but they were sunk. We moved up to the fishing port of Courselles about 10.30am. We’d lost 74 men in the first three hours, killed or wounded. We all finished bruised or cut, some of it from machine-gun fire hitting shingle... The fighting around Courselles was, at times, intense and lasted about two hours. After the breakout, and moving to open country, the Regena Rifles found themselves facing a number of minefields etc. We were one of the squadrons and field companies called on to clear lanes and barbed wire. Our casualties were quite small but the infantry took a hammering.
“As we progressed, we all linked up, found little resistance and by the evening were about two miles inland. We had our first real stop for food.
“On board our mother ship, when we were issued with lifebelt, sickness pills and bags, we were also given two 24-hour packs. Each was about nine or 10 inches square, waxed and waterproofed, containing – as far as I can remember – self-heating tins of soup, beans, hard biscuits, cigarettes, matches, toilet paper and a folding tommy cooker on which you placed a tablet that you lit which generated heat for porridge etc.
“About 10pm we tried to settle, sleeping in a field with our two blankets for cover.
“That, basically, was my D-Day, rightly called the longest day, as mine started more or less at 4am. Roughly, start to finish, 18 hours. In that time I don’t know how many times I sang Abide With Me! It was my inspiration.”
A few days later, he met his brother… in strange circumstances!
“Our squadron, 26 Assault Squadron, were resting and waiting while made up to strength after our losses. I heard that Cyril was nearby, so, scrounging lifts, I found their camp and asked if I could see Marine Scoffield, only to be told he was on ‘jankers’ (punishment). I was allowed to see him and found him down this hole, digging a latrine pit. We were granted time together and, over a beer, Cyril told me he had become separated from his outfit when his landing craft crashed, and eventually scrounged a lift to Bo, which was out of bounds at that time... After a while, I had to make my way back to my squadron, so we said our goodbyes.”
After the war, Arthur joined Eastern Electricity as a linesman and continued in the Territorial Army until 1961.
Cyril was in the Royal Marines. He’d also grown up in Dillwyn Street, Ipswich. Leaving school at 14, he’d become an apprentice with engineering firm Cocksedges and joined up at 17.
“I was still only 18 when I left Southampton on D-Day. We had been camped at Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s land, waiting for departure, which had been delayed by the bad weather. We anchored at Sword Beach and I was part of the three-man crew on a landing craft taking men and supplies from ship to beach and back again. We did trips to Sword Beach, Gold Beach and the Mulberry Harbour. We were strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe and subjected to sniper fire from Arromanches. Rumour had it that some of the snipers were Frenchwomen who had married German soldiers.
“Our craft was attached to a mine-laying cruiser, the Adventure, and used as a ‘trot’ boat – that is, as a messenger.
“That night, we were told to take an officer from the Mulberry Harbour to the hospital ship in stormy weather, with very rough seas. When we approached the hospital ship, one minute you could see the barnacles on the bottom and the next you were looking down one of the funnels – it was that rough. The officer we had on board could not make the jump from our craft to the ship and so we had to return.
“On the way back, the waves broke the back of the landing craft and we started taking on water. It was about midnight. We reported to the Adventure that we were sinking and were ordered to run our craft to the beach, where it disintegrated and sank.
“We were told to wait by the craft until we were picked up. However, the longest day turned out to be three more long days, with no rations and no sign of relief, so we made our way to Bayeux, which was deemed to be out of bounds.
“We were picked up by Army redcaps and taken back to the beach. In the meantime, some of our outfit had turned up for us and were waiting to take us back to block-ships, where we were charged with not standing by.
“The mechanic and I were put ashore and held in a barbed wire compound. The coxswain was demoted to marine.
“I was digging latrines alongside German prisoners of war when I heard a familiar voice say ‘What you doing down there, boy?’ I looked up to see my brother, Arthur, standing at the top of the trench.
“The sergeant in charge, hearing that my brother had come to find me, let me out for a while and gave us two tickets to get a bottle of beer each from the NAAFI.
“I was released after 11 days and set out to see if I could find Arthur again, but by then they had moved on.
“After returning from France, we were sent back to Germany as an Army of Occupation and stationed at a U-boat pen. We returned to Dover, were reformed and joined the Aquitania, to take Australian prisoners of war back home. Before I was 20, I had sailed around the world! When I returned to civvy street, I resumed the apprenticeship with Cocksedges... and stayed for 50 years.”
Cyril married Phyllis in 1945, before that voyage on the Aquitania. They have a daughter. Both brothers still live in the Ipswich area.