RAF Service Teams, Liberated Europe

Thinking about David O’Connell this afternoon, I remembered a long section in Anthony Cotterell’s account of D-Day and afterwards, in which he meets an RAF team come to service the aircraft and construct airfields to support the invasion troops. Anthony had not been allowed to cross the Channel with the Armoured Brigade he was attached to, and his problem on the day after D-Day was to find them.

Major Anthony Cotterell, 1944 – Soldier-Journalist

WEDNESDAY, 7 JUNE 1944

The problem now was to catch up with and join the Armoured Brigade. I hopped on an ammunition lorry which took me no more than a few hundred yards before turning off into a field, in which was encamped some sort of rear echelon of the Armoured Brigade.

My next venture was rather more profitable. I got on the back of an RAF lorry, carrying men on their way to service planes as soon as strips had been put down on which they could land. They had come straight from the beach, and were still virginally surprised by everything they saw.

‘Look, there’s a donkey. Over in that field,’ said one of them ‘Wonder they haven’t eaten it.’

We passed a soldier leaning domestically in his shirt sleeves from the upper window of a house. ‘Looks at home doesn’t he?’ said one man. ‘Going to the dance tonight?’ he shouted to the soldier.

‘No fucking dance here,’ shouted the soldier.

We were in a long procession of traffic passing along a hedgeless road with some sort of green crops on either side. We advanced cautiously, and presently stopped. There was a constant rumble of gunfire ahead of us. We regarded the surrounding countryside with marked suspicion, expecting shots to ring out at any time. In the field near where our lorry had stopped there were three dead Germans. The RAF men were seeing this for the first time and their reactions were mixed. Some got out to look. ‘Hope you all come back,’ said one non-looker.

The first German was a big lumpy youth who had been killed by something which had blown away part of his face. He lay there with a grenade which he had been about to throw, just fallen out of his hand. A few yards away two more were lying face down. One of them had had the side of his body blown away. Their kit had been looted and the remainder of their belongings lay scattered about them. ‘Buggers are well clothed, say what you like,’ said one of the RAF men.

There were two more lying in the young crops. One had had his head blown in and his face had been crushed into his upturned helmet as though someone had systematically kicked it into pulp. The fifth man had been pepper-potted with bullets and lay with his head in a cluster of wild flowers. Their faces were all a mixture of death-house grey and fruit-juice purple. The RAF men were sickened by the cold and final brutality of what they saw. A few minutes before they had been gaily, adventurously going off to war. The landing, which no doubt they had envisaged for months as unlimited carnage, had temporarily seemed comfortably romantic and pleasantly safe, though spiced with a satisfying sense of potential danger. The bodies made them realise that they hadn’t seen anything yet.

‘Photograph there you know. Probably of his mother,’ said one man.

‘Well, it’s the only way to win the war isn’t it — killing them,’ said another.

‘It’s like a piece of raw meat,’ said a third man staring at the most pulped of the bodies.

‘What do you think did it?’

‘Reckon someone bashed his head in with a rifle.’

‘See that photograph of his wife there?’ The procession showed signs of moving on and we hurried back into the lorry.

Later, trying to sleep in a field, Anthony has a wonderful moan about the discomforts of the night:

It was now 10.30 p.m. so as soon as the lorry had gone, I made ready to settle down for the night with the flail tanks, which on the approach of darkness came together in a soap-box formation, with their soft-skinned supply vehicles sheltered inside. They want a lot of sleep. It took them hours to settle down for the night. By the time they had manoeuvred their nine tanks into a triangular formation, had picked the guard, held an administrative conference, and settled down for the night, the air-raids started over the beach-head. The noise from there was accentuated by a troop of Bofors sited a hundred yards from us.[1] I had pitched my sleeping bag in the dusk under the tailboard of one of the two soft-skinned two-ton lorries in the middle of the blockade. The Sergeant-Major was sleeping on the tailboard above me. He had a strangely persistent tenor snore. The newly arrived airfield construction group kept shouting at each other all through the night. Of course it was reassuring to hear them so anxious to build their airfield, but I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps tomorrow would do. Added to all this the guards kept changing rather argumentatively. So sleep was rather patchy and ended altogether with a stand-to at 5 a.m.

Text from Anthony Cotterell’s manuscript, typed up on return to England.


[1] Bofors – a type of anti-aircraft gun.