D-Day: The Suffolks’ longest day
- Credit: Archant
D-Day occupies a major chapter in the history of The Suffolk Regiment – its soldiers faced one of the most fortified positions on the Normandy coast.
Troops had been preparing for about a year – the training in Scotland involving live ammunition and resulting in real casualties.
The First Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment was charged with following two assault battalions whose job it was to establish an exit from the Normandy beaches. Its specific target was to capture two Nazi strongholds just inland.
One was a gun emplacement codenamed Morris. The second was believed to be a battalion HQ defended by machine-gun posts and anti-tank guns. It was codenamed Hillman.
Little trouble was expected. Both would be heavily bombed first; and, once the assaults were under way, troops could call on naval firepower if needed, along with back-up from the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers.
It didn’t quite go to plan.
What military intelligence didn’t know was that Hillman was a regimental HQ – a tougher nut to crack – and had machine-gun nests behind concrete and steel. Also, the fortress was largely below ground and was protected by barbed wire and minefields. The surface of the bunkers was concrete and steel 3.5 metres thick.
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The Suffolks landed at Sword Beach at 8.30am on June 6, an hour after troops of the East Yorkshire and South Lancashire regiments had fought their way off the beach. They made short work of the Morris battery, whose guns had suffered heavy bombing. There had also been air-raids a few days earlier and the German gun crews threw in the towel as the Suffolks readied their attack.
Sixty-seven prisoners were marched to the village of Colleville Sur Orne, which had earlier been cleared by the battalion.
And so to Hillman – and a big shock. It gave the Nazis a free view down to the sea… and sight of the Suffolks moving up. The British troops were being shelled too. One shell-burst nearly wiped out a platoon.
Hillman had escaped the bombing designed to weaken it, and the naval firepower was a non-starter because the officer due to direct the guns had died on the beach.
A five-minute bombardment by the Royal Artillery didn’t scratch the bunkers but did give a platoon then chance to crawl through corn and blow a hole in the perimeter fence. The Royal Engineers managed to damage a 22ft section, with a mine clearance team then creating a safe path to the fortress.
There was a second barbed wire fence, however, about 50 yards from a steel machine-gun turret.
A device called a Bangalore torpedo – the kind the Royal Engineers had used to make the first hole – failed to detonate. Shielded only by the effect of smoke grenades, Lt Mike Russell negotiated his way through the minefield to get and set off another torpedo. His bravery won him the Croix de Guerre.
Of course, the German machine-gun crew opened fire on the first assault platoon to crawl through. The troops were pinned down, with even an anti-tank weapon powerless against the 18-inch-thick armour. A second platoon charged through, only to be met by bullets. Four men made it to safety. A plan was hatched to create a huge path through the minefield so tanks could get close, and shield troops. Preceded by a five-minute barrage from the Royal Artillery, tanks and soldiers advanced on Hillman.
A private, Tich Hunter, received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery. He advanced on the main machine-gun turret, firing his bren gun from the hip.
The Nazis manning it were either killed or fled; the German gun fell silent. Bombs were dropped down ventilation shafts to flush out the Nazis and 50 prisoners were taken. A pause came at about 8pm, with patrols set up around Hillman.
At 6.45am the next day, June 7, the immaculately-dressed commander of Hillman, Oberst Krug, emerged from his underground lair and surrendered. With him were two Nazi officers and 70 men of other ranks.
For the Suffolks, the first 24 hours of the liberation of Europe drew to a close. But there was little time to rest – the First Battalion set off to relieve the Royal Warwick Regiment and then take part in the bloody fighting for Chateau de la Londe.