The cliffs at Vasterival loomed over them and the Phare d’Ailly lighthouse winked rhythmically out over the calm waters. As the lighthouse beam brushed over, someone on the cliffs must have spotted them, as a series of white star shells burst overhead and turned the brightness up from dawn to daylight. Shortly afterwards three RAF fighter bombers streaked overhead and headed inland along the line of the River Saâne, drawing enemy fire away from the commando convoy on its final approach into Orange 2. A volley of flak and the dashed line of tracer bullets punctuated the sky.
Pat sprang out of the landing craft and scrambled up the steep, pebbled beach until he reached a barrier of barbed wire just above the high tide mark. The commandos had come prepared for this. They began to make bridges of chicken wire to clamber across but the enemy opened up with mortar fire and wiped out eight members of B Troop with their first shell. Fortunately, the Germans then decided to increase their mortar range and began to focus their attention on the retreating craft but without scoring any further hits.
Once across the wire, Pat joined the remainder of B Troop, Force HQ and F Troop in running towards the east bank of the River Saâne, their attention momentarily diverted by a nightdress-clad old lady who had emerged from one of the nearby cottages to yell, “VIVE LES ANGLAIS!” and proffer swigs from the bottle of wine she was clutching.
The grass alongside the swollen, overflowing river was long and made the going difficult but they were encouraged by the crump of mortar bombs and crack of small arms fire indicating things were progressing well over at Orange 1. After they had waded as fast as they could for about half a mile they came to a bend in the river which was their pointer to turn east across open ground until they reached a small wood at Blanc-Mesnil. An almighty boom and a wall of flame visible above the trees swelled their confidence that the Orange 1 party were achieving what they had set out to do. From the wood, B and F Troops split up and headed in different directions towards their forming up points.
Pat accompanied F Troop as they made their way through the woods until they reached the rear of the battery compound which was surrounded by an embankment and topped with barbed wire. They found an area of the perimeter fence that had been trampled down by German soldiers sneaking back late from leave and so were able to get over fairly easily. Once inside the complex, they came upon a group of enemy soldiers in a farm courtyard, preparing a counter-attack against the Orange 1 group. The startled Germans were cornered and cut down in a barrage of Tommy gun fire.
Pat and F Troop continued to move forward through a patchwork of cottages and hedges all the while coming under heavy fire. As they were moving along a lane towards the battery, a German materialised in front of Pat and threw a stick grenade at him; Pat instantly retaliated by hurling a grenade back. Both men flung themselves to the ground until they heard the double thunderclap of the explosions and then, while the dust was still flying, they leapt back up to resume battle. The German was up a fraction quicker and fired a shot that passed through Pat’s left palm and lodged in his wrist. The enemy soldier then swung his aim towards one of F Troop’s Sergeants so Pat grappled the weapon from the German’s hands and killed him with his own bayonet. It was only then that Pat became aware of the pain in his hand so he stuck a field dressing on it, gritted his teeth and carried on.
Elsewhere in F troop other personal battles were raging; a sniper had killed the troop commander Captain Roger Pettiward as he led the charge. His subaltern, Lieutenant John Macdonald was mortally wounded by a stick grenade. Troop Sergeant Major Stockdale had his foot blown off but continued to fire and pick off the enemy from a sitting position. Sergeant Horne took over command but then he was also killed. F Troop was now without officers, warrant officers or NCOs so ignoring the machine gunfire that was peppering the area, Pat dashed out into the open and joined F Troop to assume command.
Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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