Father’s diary gives personal insight into D-Day landings

Norman and Leslie Ashton Hill EMN-140806-221425001
Norman and Leslie Ashton Hill EMN-140806-221425001

Friday marked the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a major turning point in the Second World War. David Ashton Hill’s father Norman was one of the thousands of men from England who took part in the invasion. In this feature he gives us an insight into what the men faced through the pages of his father’s diary.

My father, Norman, was Adjutant in Horncastle for part of the Second World War immediately after the Dunkirk Evacuation.

It was at Horncastle that he met my mother, Leslie Neal Green who was working for WarAG locally. They fell in love and married in the church at Ashby Puerorum on November 21, 1942.

Norman kept a diary during the war and, in reflection, I thought it might be interesting to your readers to have a first hand account that, hopefully, illustrates the concerns and atmosphere of those days some 70 years ago.

It is titled a ‘Personal Diary’ but his work was kept by the War Office until he managed to get it released in the late 1950s.

In the Normandy Landings, Norman was part of the 11th Army Division and arrived across the channel after many delays one week after the initial attack had taken place, nevertheless the battles were still raging and the scenes was still very perilous.

Wednesday 14 June 1944

A brisk clear day with a stiff sea breeze. Foam sprayed from our bows and we watched the sea-horses dancing on top of the waves. A very fine sight to see so large a convoy steaming in two lines ahead – we were the third ship, and so had a good view from the lead.

Spent the day fairly hectically in organising the unloading. We anxiously awaited a sight of the beach-head. What a sight! Lines of ships of all shapes and sizes – battle-ships, destroyers, corvettes, merchant ships, motor launches, and so on.

We were to land on QUEEN ROGER beach – the most Easterly one, just opposite OUISTREHAM. We anchored about two miles off shore at approximately 22.00 hours but had no unloading to do that night.

J.S. proved jumpy and snapped quite unnecessarily – that attitude always makes me see red. There was an air-raid shortly after our arrival – all the ships made smoke, and the warships put up a large amount of ‘flak’.

Thursday 15th June 1944

A long day of organising unloading – which went fairly well, except for some delay at the end. A couple of ‘rhinos’ and a L.C.T came alongside – first loads left just after lunch.

Bosche were shelling the beaches and the Eastern flank – it looked nasty. Later we heard that one of our units had had some casualties. Our lads were very lucky – the shelling abated for them.

A British battleship came in to quieten the Bosche guns, but after a few salvoes was severely shaken herself by a number of shells that landed very close to her, and she withdrew. The cruisers barked all day, shelling the shore batteries.

At 1800 hours we came under Bosche shelling ourselves; the first three ranging shots landed some 400-yards from the ship. Later ones came closer – one actually punctured the jerricans on the tail of our ‘rhino’. Luck held with us, and there were no casualties.

It became very uncomfortable waiting about for unloading to be completed – this was not finally cleared until 22.00 hours. Even then some hot-headed R.E. officer made me leave two vehicles on the ship – these were collected by a later craft.

We waded successfully with our vehicles – about 3’ 6”of water. I stood up in my car with Arthur Harland. The beach looked badly knocked about – houses were shattered. Everywhere was a thick layer of dust which choked you. One walked a few steps and was covered white all over.

I sorted out our column when clear of the beach. A Divisional Liaison Officer by some amazing chance came to meet me – there was no other method of finding one’s way. He succeeded in getting lost; and landing the whole column down a narrow track, eventually meeting an uncrossable ditch.

After a good deal of reconnaissance, aided by the welcome light of Brock’s benefit over the beaches, I decided to turn the column round. This took approximately two to three hours in the dark with minefields either side. We then set off for our destination at 0330 hours the following morning, keeping clear of short cuts.

It was very eerie passing through the little villages, some of whom had received a severe battering. No sleep this night, but still that is not unusual in this sort of show.

Friday 16th June 1944

Arrived with my convoy of vehicles at about 0600 hours at Brigade HQ – this was a small orchard just SOUTH of LE CANET.

We passed Divisional HQ at LANTHEUIL on our way, and were greeted into our area with a rain of Anti-aircraft fire – a Bosche plane had just passed low overhead, but I had not noticed the machine-gunning; must have been fairly tired after a hectic night.

Met Brigade Major and Brigadier, who seemed relieved to see me bring the Armoured Command Vehicles and White Scout amongst my party. We parked round the edges of the orchard in the hedges with our camouflage nets up.

Was glad to have some breakfast which the Mess Staff had produced out of landing rations. Various jobs to do during the morning, including visits to division and all the units. Heard of casualties to 4 KSLI – two jeeps hit on L.S.T, and 2 Independent M.G. Company – one killed, two wounded, and one missing. Otherwise complete, which was very good, considering the dangerous beach on which we all had to disembark.

Slept in a ditch by the side of my car; very comfortable though still in battle-dress trousers and shirt. Quite noisy night owing to the activities of the Anti-aircraft, who put up a tremendous barrage, which appeared to be bursting mostly above us. Brigade Major found a large piece of shrapnel near his head in the morning.

Saturday 17th June 1944

Another glorious day – almost as good as June in England. Felt a little more refreshed after a night’s sleep, though still slightly hazy. Organised the office in the Armoured Command Vehicle and spent the day mostly in visits to the units. Saw padres in the afternoon re Church Services – they are a helpful lot, and we have a grand crowd with us.

Spent another night in the ditch – again very noisy; this seems a normal procedure for the Anti-aircraft to make our lives precarious at this time of night.

Sunday 18th June 1944

Up late; breakfasted at 9 o’clock. We are still re-organising for our big show. Mess Staff have worked wonders with all sorts of rations – we are all on landing rations, which consist of all essential items potted and compressed; a porridge cube approximately ¾”, a meat cube, and a tea cube of the same size, some chocolate and very sustainable biscuits, plus a few boiled sweets. We shall not see any bread for many weeks to come; but one gets accustomed to eating biscuits instead.

Visited units. Went to a delightful little service in an orchard at 1800 hours taken by Rev McConachie, our Church of England padre. We sang a few hymns sitting around on the grass under a radiant June sun. It seems so much easier to obtain contact with reality in the open. It was very sincerely taken, and a small altar had been erected out of a few boxes on the grass near a fruit tree.

Slept again neath the sky and Anti-aircraft barrage.

Norman was injured when his jeep was hit by a shell in December 1944 and he was repatriated for treatment and recovery.

He returned to the army in the spring of 1945 and then at the cessation of hostilities, he was seconded to the War Crimes Tribunal in Berlin where he worked on interrogation and investigation until late in 1946 when he returned to his young family near Horncastle.

Leslie today lives Greetham. Norman died in Spain, where he had retired to in 1991 and is buried in Estopona.

They had three children, Jenifer who died at West Ashby three years ago, myself and Elizabeth, who is a retired university lecturer.