back to map >

Return to Normandy
D-Day Beaches, Normandy

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sir David Willcocks shows his daughter, Sarah Shuckburgh, the hillside where, 60 years ago, he fought in the fiercest battle of the D-Day campaign.

Behind a mossy stone wall, cider apples ripen in a small orchard. A dusty cart track disappears between fields of rustling, waist-high corn towards a distant hamlet. Larks sing in a cloudless sky. It is almost impossible to imagine the battle fought here nearly 60 years ago, a few days after D-Day, that would be remembered as the fiercest and most costly of the Normandy campaign.

My father, (now Sir) David Willcocks, was there as a 24-year-old intelligence officer (43rd Wessex, 214 Brigade, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry), but until now I have never heard him talk about Hill 112, nor of the events that led to his winning the Military Cross.

Just once, on a summer's day in 1964, as we drove through Normandy on our way to a family holiday, did he broach the subject, when he suggested a walk on the hill where he had fought 20 years before. I was 13. The outing sounded boring, and I refused to get out of the car. The rest of the family set off and were gone for an age. When they got back, I was shocked to see tears in my father's eyes. My sister and brothers were subdued, and I knew I had missed something important. I have often thought about that day, and wondered what I might have learnt about my father had I not been sulking.

Forty years on, reading about other veterans' plans to visit battlefields, I suggest that we return to Normandy.

At first my father is reluctant. Since the war, he has devoted his life to music, as choirmaster, conductor, composer and director of the Royal College of Music. His recordings include many with the choir of King's College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Music for 16 years, and with The Bach Choir, which he conducted for 38 years. He still tours the world as a choral conductor and, at 84, his extraordinary stamina is undiminished. He is not someone who looks back.

He tells me Normandy will have changed completely. He won't remember anything. I wouldn't find it interesting. And anyway his schedule of concerts means that he has no free time for months. But at last he agrees, and our expedition is inked into his diary.

And now here we are, my father and mother, my sister and I, checking into a quiet hotel in the Bocage, a region of Calvados with sunken lanes and thick hedges, just inland from Arromanches-les-Bains. Later, we walk along the cliff towards Gold Beach, where my father's battalion landed on June 22, 1944, when the sea was so rough that the soldiers had to jump into chest-deep water and wade ashore, carrying weapons - and bicycles - over their heads. Precious items, such as photographs, were stowed under helmets. My father was one of over two million men to land in Normandy that summer.

"By the time we arrived, the beach had been made safe, with mines cleared from a marked area of sand. We followed signs saying "43rd Wessex This Way", past deserted concrete pillboxes and over the sand dunes to an assembly point in a trampled cornfield. What I remember above all is the stench of rotting cattle and gunpowder. Most of the dead soldiers had been buried, but there were dead animals everywhere."

My father is by nature cheerful, but next morning, I see an unfamiliar, introspective side of his character. In the medieval centre of Bayeux, weighty volumes catalogue the name, rank and burial place of thousands of soldiers killed here in 1944. My father, ashen-faced, searches the grim pages. "So many of my friends died," he murmurs.

We drive first to the war cemetery on the outskirts of Bayeux. Here, heart-breaking ranks of headstones gleam in the sunshine. Roses, lavender and other colourful flowers bloom over each grave. The grass seems impossibly green
and trim, the stone an ethereal white. Among many stone-carved Wessex wyverns and Cornish coronets lies the
grave of Lt-Col Atherton. My father stands, sombre and drawn, silently remembering, as bees buzz eagerly among
the flowers at his feet.

"Jack Atherton was my CO, and as his intelligence officer, I knew him very well. He was a wonderful man. He was killed on the first day of action." Nearby lies Major Perceval Coode. "He died the day after Atherton. He was popular with everyone, and a great friend of mine. At the time, you just say `Oh dear, old Perceval's caught it.' There's no time for emotion.

"I'd never seen a dead body before I arrived in Normandy, but here corpses were lying everywhere you looked. When we could, we'd dig a grave and mark the spot with a wooden cross. You'd make a mental note to write to the widow when you got a chance."

The next cemetery, in fields near the hamlet of St Manvieu, is smaller and even more poignant. In the corner of its hauntingly beautiful garden, my father finds the grave of Captain Basil Aimers.

"I'd served with Basil since I joined the battalion in 1941. He was an Irishman, a lovely chap, always cheerful. We played a lot of bridge together. He often talked about his girlfriend, Rosemary, and after he was killed, she wrote to his mother regularly until his mother's death many years later. I know Rosemary still thinks about him."

At Banneville-la-Campagne are another 2,000 graves, including that of my father's second CO, Lt-Col James. In a small chapel, my father signs the Book of Remembrance and I feel a lump in my throat as I read the other inscriptions. "I found you at last, Dad," writes one visitor. "Never forgotten, my dearest husband," writes another. "I took 60 years to come, but here I am, brother," says one, from Australia.

The next day, unfolding yellowing War Office maps retrieved from my parents' attic, we drive between hedgerows strewn with wild flowers, and past sunny pastures where black and white cows graze peacefully, to the village where my father first saw action.

"We started the advance towards Cheux at two in the morning, in pouring rain," he tells us. "The roads and fields were sodden and muddy, and we finally jettisoned the useless bicycles we'd carried ashore at Arromanches and lugged all the way from the coast. Everything was chaotic. Our anti-tank guns and other vehicles got held up in the narrow sunken lanes, and we arrived in Cheux without them. The troops we were meant to replace had withdrawn too soon - before we got there - so the village was back in German hands. It was my first experience of the confusion of real war."

As Intelligence Officer, my father had to report to the CO on all four companies in the battalion. "I was visiting the orchard where one of our companies was based, when I heard some tanks rumbling towards me," remembers my father. "I realised they were too big to be British. I jumped into a shallow ditch with another officer, Hugh Jobson, and we waited as six Panther tanks thundered down. One halted right above our heads - the giant caterpillar tracks were either side of us, not two feet away. German tanks were bigger and more resilient than our Sherman tanks. Shells just bounced off them like ping-pong balls. After what seemed like an age, the tanks rolled on towards battalion headquarters."

What followed on that day made the 5th DCLI famous along the entire front - in their first half hour of action, with only 20 killed or wounded, the battalion destroyed five Panther tanks. To knock out one was a considerable achievement. To get five, manned by SS troops, was extraordinary. But among the dead in those first 24 hours were Atherton and Coode, the friends whose graves we had visited that morning.

Having regained and held Cheux for three days, 214 Brigade's next task was to push on to Colleville, a strategically placed hamlet a mile to the south. The countryside here is gently undulating, but the thick hedgerows and deeply rutted lanes hampered the movement of tanks and artillery. Ripening cornfields provided cover for snipers, and the walled farms and compact villages of Calvados favoured defence. The infantry divisions inched forward, bitterly contesting each field and hedgerow.

"Operation Jupiter was planned by Montgomery to draw German forces towards Caen, and allow American troops to break out to the south and then swing eastwards with less resistance," my father explains. "More and more German forces were being brought in, and by this time we were facing seven Panzer divisions. We were in the Colleville area for three days, under constant bombardment."

The battalion's next orders were to occupy Fontaine Etoupefour, a village near the River Odon. "I'll never forget the terrifying walk down the railway line," my father says. "We took all night to get there, in pitch darkness, stepping over fallen telegraph poles, tangled cables and twisted rails, and stumbling into craters, with shells exploding all around. You didn't know where the next one would fall."

We look at the army map. "It's only three miles," exclaims my father in surprise. "But it felt like 20. It was incredibly frightening. We crossed the Odon, and crept on as far as Fontaine Etoupefour by moonlight. We dug slits, and spent the next day hiding there, behind enemy lines, with German patrols walking past a few feet away. Then we got an order to go back to Colleville, so we faced the terrifying railway walk again. That was where my friend Basil Aimers was killed."

The Odon, so hard to cross with artillery and tanks, is now a tiny trickle, but with steep, densely thicketed sides. More men died crossing this stream in July 1944 than crossing the Rhine. Throughout these advances, the goal was the ridge of land between the rivers Odon and Orne. Now we drive there and park near a memorial to the 43rd Wessex Division. This time, unlike that summer's day when I was 13, I get out of the car.

Hill 112 - its height in metres above sea level - is nondescript as a topographical feature. But in July 1944, this windswept mound was of enormous tactical importance, with its wide views in every direction, especially towards Carpiquet airfield and heavily fortified Caen. Field Marshal Rommel declared: "He who controls Hill 112, controls Normandy." One of Operation Jupiter's goals was to take the hill at any cost.

The attack began before dawn on July 10. Unshaven and exhausted after two sleepless nights, my father and his colleagues watched the battle's early stages from Fontaine Etoupefour. My father was with his Commanding Officer when Brigadier Essame ordered the 5th Battalion DCLI to join the attack.

"It was immediately obvious that this was to be a tough assignment," says my father. "The Brigadier made no
attempt to disguise the danger." Despite Allied air supremacy, the plan was to use infantry and artillery rather than
air bombardment. At 8.30pm, the 5th DCLI started to advance, under smoke, towards enemy tanks that were dug in
on the crest.

"Our own tanks hadn't arrived in time, and the infantry were very vulnerable. Within minutes, machine-gun fire had killed nearly all of B Company. Mortar bombs and shells were exploding all around us. We found we couldn't dig proper ditches through the tangled tree roots. When it got dark, the situation became even more confused. We lost touch with C Company for several hours. We were completely outnumbered, and the German attacks were relentless and overwhelming. We had to fight at close quarters, hand to hand. Everywhere, men were lying wounded or dying. It was a terrifying night."

The fighting continued all night and through the next day. For his conduct, my father was awarded the Military Cross, but, with typical reticence, all he will say today is that he was far less deserving than others in his battalion.

During the chaos, an unauthorised order to withdraw - possibly of enemy origin - lost the battalion hard-earned ground. Communication lines had been cut, and the soldiers were exhausted, having not slept for three nights. By 3pm, only one senior officer - a major - was still alive. He made the difficult decision - risking a court martial - to withdraw without orders, before the rest of the battalion was annihilated.

"I lost many friends on Hill 112," my father says quietly. "We had been training together for four years, but none of us ever anticipated such heavy casualties." He stands silently, his face sombre, but his bearing still upright. All around stretches a tranquil landscape, dotted with farms and orchards.

Hill 112 was never captured - the Germans held it until they retreated in early August. Later, when my father's battalion returned to the hill, they found bodies heaped around partly-dug trenches, scattered across cornfields, and clogging the River Odon.

On the 60th anniversary of the battle, my father will be conducting the Fauré Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. Some of his thoughts, of course, will be for the music, but most, I suspect, will drift back to friends and friendships he still treasures, and to lives cut short almost a lifetime ago in a tiny corner of Normandy that the French - in tribute to the men of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry - have, for 60 years, called Cornwall Hill.

Normandy basics

Getting there

P&O Ferries (08705 202020; runs ferries from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and Le Havre from about £180 for a car, driver and passenger. Brittany Ferries (0870 536 0360; and Condor Ferries (0845 345 2000; have services from Portsmouth to Caen and Cherbourg, and from Poole to Cherbourg. Prices vary according to sailing and time of year.

First published by the Telegraph

back to map >