At the beginning of 1942, 19-year-old Bob Sullivan was called up. He originally trained as a sapper, but later applied to join the airborne forces and trained as a paratrooper in June 1943. He learned to jump from a Whitley bomber, before being posted to the 3rd Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers, part of the 3rdParachute Brigade in the 6th Airborne Division.
“When I joined them, they were being used to send replacements to the 1st Airborne Division, who had been fighting in north Africa and were getting ready to attack Sicily. They suffered a lot of casualties. I was lucky not to be sent on a draft to the 1st Division, otherwise I could have finished up at Arnhem”
In June 1943, a new airborne division was formed, called 6th Airborne Division and 3rd Parachute Brigade joined it. Towards the end of that year, Bob learned to jump from a Dakota, which he describes as ‘a Rolls Royce’ compared with the Whitley:
“You had bench seats, instead of sitting on the floor, and a safety procedure, where each man checked the other man’s parachute to make sure it wasn’t fouled up in any way. We jumped with our weapons as well – the machine gun, the radio, everything, in kit bags weighing about 60lbs.”
Jumping into Normandy
The men trained hard for about a year, until the end of May when Bob says “we knew something was happening”:
“On the last weekend in May, the entire division moved on to the transit camps and on RAF airfields. My troop went with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The division was to protect the east flank of the seaborne landings. To do this, they had to seize two bridges – one over the Caen canal and the other over the river Orne. Three Parachute Brigade was given the task of seizing the Merville gun battery, which was thought to be a threat to the ships landing on the beaches, or the ships at sea. The other task was to destroy the bridges over the River Dives, about six miles east of the river Orne. There were five bridges to be destroyed – four roads and one railway.”
The jump was scheduled for the night of Sunday 5 June, but was delayed for 24 hours because of bad weather. That evening remains fresh in Bob’s memory:
“There were 16 of us on my plane. I don’t think anyone was frightened, just exhilarated. The only one of our squadron who’d been in action was the OC. The rest of us were virgin and I think that was an asset, because we didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for. And we had no responsibilities – no wives or children. The average age was 21, but we had a lot of 19-year-olds. We didn’t question serving our country. We were all anxious to test ourselves and most of all you didn’t want to let your mates down. You were true to your mates.
The atmosphere on the plane changed. The singing and the wisecracks died off and everyone was with their own thoughts. We got ready and waited for the red light to come on. As we neared the coast, we could see the flak – the anti-aircraft fire and the tracers whizzing through the sky. I was excited and wanted to get involved. This is what we’d trained for. Everyone felt untouchable.”
When the green light came on to jump, the plane tilted unexpectedly causing Bob and the other waiting to jump to lose their footing. This meant that most of the men didn’t land at Vareville as planned. Bob recalls the strange atmosphere when he reached the ground:
“I was shocked because I’d taken part in mass jumps before and the dropping zone is littered with discarded parachutes, all sorts of paraphernalia and equipment. The chaps are all moving towards their rendez-vous points. I landed in pristine conditions. Not a soul about. I headed in the direction I thought the containers were in and I met another chap who jumped before me going the wrong way. I turned him round and we made our way towards the containers. There was a bit of flak in the sky and the odd aircraft and the cattle were mooing – obviously disturbed by the bangs and all that was going on. It felt unreal.”
When the squadron was finally reunited, they were four men short. Taking explosives and accessories with them, they set off through flooded fields for a hill village called Robehomme. After using explosives to demolish the nearby bridge, they were told to rest before returning to the village.
“I lay on the edge of the crater I’d blown and fell asleep. I was woken by gunfire. A couple of lorries carrying Germans had heard the bang and come out to investigate. Our people on sentry opened fire on them and that was the firing I’d heard. It was the first time I’d been under fire. They outgunned us and we were told to make our way back. I crawled through on the edge of the road through the long grass. I remember the tracer bullets going overhead – they light up as they’re fired – and my heart was in my mouth. But we all made it back.”
The following day they set off for HQ – and Bob had his first direct encounter with the German army:
“A German staff car pulled up. They were lost and mistook our troops for their own troops. They asked the way, realised their mistake and tried to get away, but of course they were blasted.”
After that, they made their way to a place called Le Mesnil
In the days that followed the Germans were attacking continuously. Bob’s troop were told to drive the enemy from a ridge of high land and form a line of defence along it:
“It wasn’t all that high, but it gave a commanding view of the seaborne landings. We held it throughout, resisted all the German attacks.”
The Battle of Breville
There was a gap in the Allies defensive line at the village of Breville, which was fiercely fought over, changing hands several times in what Bob describes as “a bit of ding dong”. Finally, on the evening of the 12th, it was captured, the fighting died down and the Germans moved round to the other side of Caen, where they were repelling the people landing on the beaches.
Bob’s battalion resumed their normal work of building roads, lifting and laying mines, erecting defences, constructing command posts and fortifying buildings. By this time Bob was a corporal:
“I had to take a small group of blokes out at dusk and lay booby traps to catch enemy patrols who were trying to infiltrate our lines. Then we’d have to go out before first light to retrieve them, to make sure our chaps didn’t get caught. So it used to be a bit hair-raising.”
After a couple of months, the airborne division made their way towards the river Seine and were withdrawn from battle at the end of August and returned to the UK in early September to collect replacements and retrain.
“We were as vulnerable as anyone else”
Looking back at his D-Day experiences and the deaths he witnessed, Bob reflects on the lives lost and damaged:
“To be honest, when we took casualties, you’d feel sorry for the bloke who lost his life or his limbs, but I was thankful it wasn’t me. The attitude that you were untouchable went. For all our bravado we realised we were just as vulnerable as anyone else.
Some of the chaps lost their minds. You had to get a grip of yourself. At times you felt terrified. You thought your last moment had come but you got a grip of yourself and got on with it. When people died you were sad because you knew a lot of their background. Although you never met the family, you knew all about them. But at the same time you felt relief that it wasn’t you.”