Lest We Forget
For some three and a half years the 4th and 5th Battalions had occupied most of the positions along the Channel shores in Kent and Sussex. When D Day came on the 6th June the 43rd Division which the 5th Battalion was part of still had a short time to wait, as they were break-out troops, standing by to exploit the initial landings. Eventually Reg Edwards and the rest of the battalion embarked on "Operation Overlord" on Sunday 18th June, which was hot and sunny. That morning the Infantry Landing ships sailed out of Newhaven Harbour. Not long after setting sail a gale sprang up and after sixteen hours of buffeting they arrived off Arromanches landing on the floating piers of the "Mulberry" harbour at "Gold Beach". After getting ashore and going on to the village of Sommervieu, which was not far in land. Reg remembers a French Cafe being open for business which seemed strange at the time amid all the scenes of battle.
Running south-west from Caen is a long ridge of rolling downlands. Along these flat-topped hills runs the road from Caen through Eterville and Hill 112 to Esquay.
Reg Edwards and the battalion were to see some severe fighting in the capture of Hill 112 including the village of Maltot in the valley beyond. While on Hill 112 Reg was run over by a British Tank while in a slit-trench, and had to be dug out by his mate Private Ken Bowers from Cheltenham and his Commanding Officer, Major E.R.B. Field who was later killed in the war. Luckily Reg was unhurt.
The position was very strongly held by the 10th SS Panzer Division which comprised tough, experienced and battle- hardened troops. On the morning of l0th July at 5am the 4th and 5th Battalions Wilts, and 4th Somersets started to advance up the slope of Hill 112. They reached the road on top of the hill about an hour later without great difficulty. The real battle now started, hehind and around them were Germans concealed in pits in the corn, who now attacked with Spandau automatic machine-guns, rifles and grenades, and down the slope in front lay the main enemy positions. With the 5th on the right who were pinned down by intense fire from Tiger tanks and machine-guns was Company Sergeant- Major (Smudger) Smith from Highworth, who was going forward in a Carrier with fresh ammunition, when up the road from Esquay came an enemy tank shooting all the time. Sgt-Major Smith seized the PIAT, ran forward through the corn and knocked out the tank by firing from the hip, which most deservedly won him a Military Medal.
The Wiltshires casualties on the 10th July were thirteen officers and over two hundred other ranks, which gives some indication of the fierceness of the battle. The Wiltshires held their positions for another week until going in to reserve at Mouen. The 5th Battalion then went back to Verson for about three days for a rest period and then moved and prepared to attack Maltot. The attack started at 18.30 hours on July 22nd, 1944. It was during this action that Reg Edwards had his rifle shot out of his hand, luckily with no ill effects. Next morning Reg said Maltot was a dreadful sight to see, and there was a sickly smell of death everywhere. During the day more Germans came to light, making a total of over four-hundred prisoners. Reg and the rest of D Company helped to clear the houses in the village and then dug-in at the far end. The Tiger tanks then re-opened fire with devastating effect. It was during this time that the slit-trench that Pt. R. Edwards and Capt. S.L. Maskell-Dicker was in received a direct hit killing the Captain instantly and burying Reg who had to be dug out once again. The next day Reg and his mate, (Ken Bowers) went back to see if their packs was still in the trench, which they were, and Reg remembers a tin of emergency chocolate was intact also a hand-grenade was undamaged.
The 5th Battalion were then relieved by troops of the 53rd Welsh Division and returned from the front line for a rest period.
The next action for the battalion was at Mont Pincon during August 1944, where there was some very severe shelling by the enemy. During this action the 5th Bn suffered some heavy casualties. Eventually the 5th Wilts took Mont Pincon with the 4th Bn following.
The next big assault that the 5th Wilts was involved in was the crossing of the River Seine at Vernon on the evening of 25th August. During the crossing of the river, which was over 200 yards wide at this point, several companies of the Wiltshires had difficulty in making it across, being badly shot up. C Company which Reg was in was successfully carried across by one of the remaining DUKWS, (large amphibious three ton lorries shaped like boats) and eventually made it to the top of the bank in the darkness. At daybreak C Company advanced down to the road and into the wood. One platoon advanced through the wood, on approaching the edge the enemy was waiting for them, the men in the front positions were killed. The rest of the platoon went for cover and it was at this point that Reg had another lucky escape when a cannon shell nicked the sleeve of his tunic. The wood was then taken by the Wiltshire men, where they dug in. By 5am they had secured a bridgehead after some fierce fighting with more Germans being taken prisoner of war. The 5th Wilts were given a fortnights rest at Gasny which was their first opportunity for a rest and refit since the fighting had started over two months back. Reg said the troops were entertained by Flanagan and Allen, Florence Desmond and Mr Pastry, (Richard Herne) and several other comedians.
After leaving Gasny the battalion advanced through France into Belgium and then to Holland. At Nijmegen the bridge hadn't been taken so the troops had to wait in the streets. After moving through Nijmegen the 5th Wilts went through the village of Lent going towards Ellst in the dark when the Germans opened up with small arms fire. The Wiltshire men then dug in about fifty yards from the enemy and waited for daylight. It was during this time that Reg had a pain in his back and was sent back to the Regimental aid post at Lent. During the journey back a mortar shell exploded near the Jeep which Reg was in and he received some shrapnel wounds. He was taken to a school not far from the bridge which had been converted into a hospital. The Germans then started bombing the bridge and Reg was moved to a hospital in Nijmegen for about two weeks. One day after seeing a doctor, a card was placed on his bed with "Blighty" written on it. He was then taken by ambulance to Eindhoven, stopping for two nights, and then on to Deippe, which was a tented hospital. Eventually Reg, along with eight other British wounded was put onboard a hospital ship which was full of wounded German POW's, arriving at Southampton and then by ambulance to Wakefield Yorkshire and then to Harrogate General Hospital where he was operated on to remove the shrapnel from his back. While at Harrogate during Christmas 1944 Reg went down with measles. Eventually he was sent to Halifax Convalescence Depot and then on to Felixstow to a Wiltshire Regiment holding unit for one day when he was diagnosed as having yellow jaundice. He was hospitalised at Felixstow which was a large house converted into a hospital. Then transferred to Colchester for one night and on to Braintree American Hospital and was there during VE Day. From there Reg was sent to Cambridge Maternity Hospital where one ward was converted for army yellow jaundice patients. Once again Reg was moved, but this time to Ely for convalescence in the Bishops Palace.