'This is a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Names have been changed because it would be improper to attribute to real people words and actions that have been invented, no matter how plausible they might be. However, the Ninth Battalion and its heroes really did exist. They are as authentic as the gratitude of those who visit the fallen at Ranville Cemetery and who, every year on 6 June, celebrate the veterans’ return to Normandy.'
Thus begins the introduction to the novel Wingwatch, a work of fiction firmly rooted in historical reality and aiming to pay tribute to it. This page is about those who really were there, the protagonists of the decisive days and weeks of World War II.
The following is a summary of Fred Glover's own testimony, published by Neil Barber in The Day The Devils Dropped In (Pen & Sword Aviation, UK, 2002).
In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Fred Glover (above) was part of a group tasked with reaching the Merville battery aboard one of the three gliders that were to begin the assault from within the fortified zone. The pilot was unable to make out the objective due to the fact that the necessary signalling materials had been lost, along with much of the material that had been parachuted in beforehand. When the glider flew over the battery, the garrison – alerted by the first glider – was ready to open fire. Tracer fire pierced the wings and fuselage; later on, Glover would remember having seen his own legs jerk upwards, without realising in that moment that he had been hit. The pilot undertook evasive maneouvers to escape the anti-aircraft fire, bringing the glider down in an orchard half a kilometre to the east of the objective. In the crash-landing the glider lost its wings and tail section, and the paratroopers who emerged unscathed helped the others – among them Glover – to escape through a large gash on the right-hand side; they then found cover in the craters produced by the air-raids that had taken place in the preceding days and hours.
From there, they could make out a group of men moving towards the battery through the darkness. They could only be enemy troops, and so the paratroopers opened fire. This firefight prevented German re-enforcements from reaching the objective while the attack was underway. When they realised that their comrades had taken the battery, the paratroopers who were able to move made their way towards the pre-arranged meeting point. Glover also attempted to join them, but the pain from his wounds was too great. A medic administered morphine to him and to three other wounded men (among them two Germans) before leaving them inside the crater.
They were found there by an SS patrol; luckily for Glover, one of the Germans in the crater was conscious and able to explain that he had been treated by a British medic. Had this not been the case, it is probable Glover would have been executed (this was the order that had come down from high command, and the fate that befell other captured paratroopers).
Glover was transferred from Merville to a German field hospital, and then moved several times before ending up at the Hôpital de la Pitié in Paris. In the capital there reigned an atmosphere of impending defeat, and Glover and the other servicemen feared that they would next be moved to a prison camp inside Germany itself. For this reason, taking advantage of an increasingly distracted guard unit and the acquaintances he had made among the French medical staff, Glover decided to attempt an escape; unfortunately, as he jumped from the infirmary roof, his wounds re-opened. The men of the French Resistance who had been waiting for him took him away and treated him, but the next day they advised him to go back to the hospital – he would receive better care there, and the fleeing Germans were abandoning the wounded prisoners anyway.
Back at the Pitié and practically ignored by the Germans who at this point cared only about getting out of Paris as soon as possible, Glover slipped into the officers’ quarters and stole a Luger pistol with holster and magazines. Thus armed, he awaited the arrival of the first Allied tanks of General Luclerc’s division, along the Paris Boulevards, among hundreds of thousands of deliriously happy citizens. The celebrations stopped when somebody opened fire on the crowd from the top floor of a building situated behind Glover and a comrade he had met at the hospital. They were paratroopers, and acted as such; they entered the building, mounted the stairs – with difficulty, given that both were convalescing – and came across an old lady who ran past them, screaming and pointing to a door left ajar at the end of the corridor. They threw it open and Glover, noting movement behind a curtain, fired two shots. He did not have time to check whether he had hit anyone because the room began to disintegrate in that very moment, under fire from the street by a tank that had spotted the source of the shots. Both men sped back outside to save themselves.In the following weeks Glover, armed with a rifle, lent a hand to the partisans patrolling the streets, before his new comrades advised him to return to England to seek proper treatment for his wounds, which had deteriorated. The Resistance entrusted him to the care of an American officer and, before he left, Glover gifted his Denison smock to the head of the first Resistance group with which he had entered into contact in Paris. After a few hours spent at a field hospital, he was loaded onto a C-47 and transported to England.
Above: Fred Glover at Merville in 2013.
What you see at the centre of the photograph showing A Company of the British 9th Parachute Battalion (below) really is a dog: a German shepherd called Glen, held on a leash by Emil Corteil, a nineteen-year-old private charged with taking care of him.
The ‘Paradog’ was trained to jump from the aircraft with a parachute similar to that used for bicycles (which weighed around the same) and, once on the ground, to run messages between the various combat units, locate anti-personnel mines and, using its acute sense of smell, signal the presence of enemies in the area. Such a small and fast ‘soldier’, it was thought, was a hard target to hit.
During training he enjoyed jumping into the void, but on the night of the jump into Normandy, terrified by the anti-aircraft fire, Glen ran and hid beneath one of the benches where the paratroopers sat on the Dakota. Corteil and a companion were forced to grab the animal and, quite literally, throw it out of the hatch. A short time passed before the ‘dog-sitter’ was able to jump as well, but the two managed to find one anotehr on the ground, or rather in the fields flooded by the Germans, miles from the objective, Merville Battery. They joined a group of about forty men led by James Hill, commander of the 3rd Brigade, of which 9th Battalion was a part, and took five hours to cover the two kilometres separating them from Varaville.At 06:45, as they walked towards Gonneville, they were targeted by Allied warplanes, whose pilots had taken them for the enemy; the attack decimated the group. The few paratroopers who emerged unscathed continued on their way after administering morphine to the wounded. For weeks, nothing was heard about Emil or the Paradog, who were given up as lost. At the start of September, Gordon Newton, who you will be able to read about in another chapter dedicated to the true heroes, was charged with leading a group in the Gonneville zone to give a decent burial to Allied troops who the Germans had hurriedly thrown into the earth in the hours following the landings. It was he who spotted a radio device still attached to a transmission technician inside a crater and, right beneath it, a body which he immediately recongised as belonging to Corteil because the dagger tied to his belt had an unmistakable handle, which the ‘dog-sitter’ had carved himself. And Glen? He was underneath his best friend, who was still holding his leash. Together in life and death. They now both lie at rest in Ranville cemetery (below).
ALEC ELLIS FLEXER
This letter is on display at the exhibition The 100 Objects of the Battle of Normandy, hosted until 31 December by the Caen Memorial. Alec Ellis Flexer, Lance Corporal of 'C' Company, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, wrote it to his family on what he thought was the eve of his jump into Normandy. As a matter of fact, D-Day was postponed for 24 hours.
Born from exiled Russian parents in 1922, Alec left school at 13 to work in a Montreal factory. He joined the Canadian army at 19 and volunteered for the Airborne forces. After training at Fort Benning (USA), he was sent to England in June 1943. An avid music lover, he brought his violin with him.
His battalion was assigned to the British 3rd Parachute Brigade (6th Airborne Division). Its task on the night of 5-6 June was to protect sappers while they destroyed bridges over the river Dives in order to delay the advance of enemy reinforcements.
'3 June 1944, England
'Dear Mom, Pop, Beryl
'By the time this letter reaches you, you will be aware that my postal address has changed. And instead of writing 'England' after my date, I will most likely have the name 'France' written in. The papers should have really splashed the invasion news about, and I can visualize your feelings when they read that an Airborne Invasion has taken place. We have just been given the liberty of divulging the fact that for the past 2 weeks, we have in a transit camp, awaiting our plane ride to the meet the 'Foe'. I have no doubt, that by now, I should have met him, and more of his kind. What a feeling - it is strange, that here the actual is only 24 hrs away from you (This should all occur to-morrow night) and yet it still seems far away. I hadn't intended to write anything, except vague hints, which I hoped you would be able to read between the lines of my preceding letters. I dare say, you have, - but to-night the entire camp has been told that we were at liberty to say all, except the objective we were to take (if we do).
'Please don't picture me in the vain-glorious role of a hero. Many's the time, these past days, fitting 'chutes, priming grenades, cleaning weapons, that I have felt the qualms associated with an invasion. I have no doubts, that to-morrow I will reap the full rewards of all this.
'I usually give way to sentiment - but I think I will keep my decorum this time. I don't want these news to affect you - after all, I am one of possibly 3 million others. You should look at it in this light.
'My mind has been buzzing with all kinds of thoughts since we have been first briefed. Telling us what our jobs were, and how much it would affect the course of the beachhead. You can't help but feel these little pangs of pride in you, and when as now, this letter is being typed to the ribald singing of some night-club canary, who is screeching her lungs out to provide entertainment at large, you can only feel the calmness that all this is being carried out to. Millions of people know that to-morrow great events will take place, and yet, it is only in our hearts that we know it will happen. This letter is being repeated countless of times throughout the entire country, millions of soldiers, no doubt, feel as I do, and writing as I am. Whatever they are thinking, I am sure, is also no different from what their neighbour is.
'We all want this war to end - no one more than the other, and whatever qualms, we will naturally feel, will be quite orderly, and to be expected. The news from Italy are encouraging, very much so, why can we not expect the same from Fortress Europe. I am sure it will be. All I will ask of you, is to take this letter as it's being written. I am looking at things level-headedly, and am certain that nothing has been left to chance. We are a healthy fighting bdy of men, and have no doubt that we will take good care of ourselves and give any hun a fight for his money. Your continued, steady writing, is all I ask for. It is the best medicin any person craves for, especially, those with invasion nerves.
'I don't feel that there is much more to write at present - rest assured I will give a good account of myself.
As the paper cutting above shows, Alec Ellis Flexer was killed in action a few hours after the jump. His violin was sent back home to his family in Montréal. The helmet on display beside his letter (below) belonged to Paul Martin, also of 'C' Company.
The following is the account of Geoff Pattinson's war experience in his own words. The text is taken from the reply he wrote to me when I informed him that I had written a novel inspired partly by the deeds of the 9th Battalion in Normandy. The modesty he shows in defining himself 'a survivor, not a hero' is typical of true greatness.
'It was intended that the three gliders carrying sixty 'A' Company men, plus a few engineers and explosives, crashed inside the compound of the battery and engage the garrison from within, causing a diversion during the main attack from outside.
'Unfortunately, two of the gliders landed outside the target and the third glider force landed in England. I was in this glider. During the flight my feelings were one of apprehension, I was wondering what I had let myself into. There was no talking, each with his own thoughts in the darkness not knowing how far we had travelled.
'Suddenly there was quite a jerk and a bit of a noise, we were now gliding, the tug having let go the tow rope.
'The landing was very heavy and bumpy, then silence. We braced ourselves in readiness to pile out, but before we could so the officer came along the aisle instructing us to stay where we were. He climbed out, then came back shortly and told us to get out in an orderly fashion. The tug rope had snapped and as luck would have it came down on a landing strip at Odiham aerodrome in the South of England. I do not know how the others felt, but all my pent-up feelings disappeared and were replaced by a certain amount of relief.
'We were transported back to Brize Norton by road, having taken off from there. Another glider was made available and around 17.00 hrs we emplaned for a second go at getting to Normandie. Came in to land at Ranville Plain, all quiet except for sporadic gunfire in the distance. The officer marched us up hill on to a road leading to Le Mesnil crossroads, before there we got into a ditch which afforded good defence. For the next three days we defended the position against several attacks.
'Withdrawn from there, on D+3 (Friday) evening the group was moved to some woods adjacent to Château St-Côme. What remained of Battalion were there and had dug in. That night the Germans mortared the site very heavily, quieting down round about dawn.
'D+4 (Saturday) in the morning a six men patrol which included me entered the badly damaged Château to clear it out, but it had been vacated. The patrol sergeant sent a corporal and myself to get to the far side of some stables which lay behind the Château to spot any movement. Getting through the stables to the open country, we had not gone very far when a group of Germans appeared. Trying to get back to the stables the corporal made it, the Germans by now were using a light machine gun and as I just got to the opening I was wounded on both legs. Now face down on the stable floor I tried to get up and found I could. With a shambling sort of run I got to the woods and found the Regimental Aid Post. The fact that I had been shot set up some fear in me, but once I was being attended to I calmed down.
'Deemed unfit to continue, I was taken to the beach head for evacuation back to England. I had had my batism of fire, something I did not want to experience again. It wasn't to be.
Pattinson shaking hands with the French president François Hollande in Ranville, on 6 June 2012.
'Rejoining the Battalion on its return to the United Kingdom, the strength was made up by volunteers pressing forward to join the Parachute Regiment.
'Late December the 6th Airborne Division was sent to the Ardennes, after which they dropped over the Rhine. Moving through Germany to the Baltic and meeting up with the Russians. The war was over, the Germans capitulating on 8th May 1945.
'This was followed by being sent to Palestine, where I stayed with 9th Battalion until May 1947 when I was sent back to UK for demobilisation.Now it was really over for me. I was back to being a civilian, a survivor, not a hero.
Pattinson with Eugene Noble, the American pilot of the Dakota aircraft currently on display at the Merville battery museum.
This is one of the most celebrated photos of D-Day. The four officers synchronising their watches beneath the propellers of an Albemarle at the airbase in Harwell are, from left to right: ‘Bobby’ de Lautour, Don Wells, John Visher and Bob Midwood. They were part of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, specialists in reconnaissance and signalling attached to the 6th Airborne Division of which the 9th Battalion, which took a leading role in the action that inspired the novel Wingwatch, was part. De Lautour, who everybody knew as Bobby – an abbreviation of his Christian names (Robert Edward-Vane) – was of Canadian origin. Born in Vancouver in 1916, he moved to England with his family when he was still young and, after finishing his compulsory education, studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts for two years in order to become an actor. When war broke out he enrolled with the Grenadiers, where he attained the rank of captain before presenting a request for transfer into the Airborne Division. He achieved his commission, but a short time later – July 1942 – he broke his leg and was declared unfit for service in the Paras. He did not give up and a year later, in perfect shape once more, managed to get himself readmitted into the Parachute Regiment, but he was forced to give up his rank and was demoted to lieutenant.
In April 1944, during training for Operation Overlord, a photo of him during training appeared on the cover of Picture Post. On the evening of 5 June, after having synchronised his watch with those of the other officers, he left for Normandy as head of a group charged with signalling the landing zones for his companions, who would follow a few hours later. The task was completed with only partial success because a large part of the signalling material was lost during the jump. Among de Lautoir’s misadventures was his landing in a trench used by a French farmer as a manure dump, with consequences that can well be imagined. Following the attack on the Merville Battery, de Lautour reached his comrades of the 22nd at Bas-de-Ranville, before carrying out support activities to various units strewn across the zone, among them the 9th Battalion. He was re-promoted captain because a large number of his superiors were either wounded or killed. It was he who, on 20 June, led an attack on the Germans’ forward positions near Le Mesnil in order to test their strength, capturing prisoners for interrogation in the process. The mission was crowned with success, but de Lautour was wounded and died as he was being taken to a field hospital.
On 29 June 1944 the Picture Post published an homage to de Lautour beneath the title ‘A boy grows to be a fighting man.’ On the page (above) there is a photo of him with Princess (and future Queen) Elizabeth, visiting the company’s base a few weeks before D-Day, and six images from his life, between the ages of three and twenty-seven. De Lautour was one of the most loved British war heroes because he was part of the common people: not a military man by career, he was a normal civilian who volunteered to serve his country in its hour of need.
When war broke out (1939), Gordon Newton was fifteen years old and working in a factory that produced a metal alloy using silver paper. In 1942 he signed up with the army, who assigned him to the Royal Sussex Regiment. In 1943 he presented a request for transfer to the Airborne Division.
On 5 June 1944, a paratrooper with the 9th Battalion, he was on board one of the gliders tasked with opening the assault from within the Merville Battery. Tall and well-built, he was entrusted with the heaviest infantry weapon: a flamethrower, stowed beneath the bench where he was sitting. During the flight across the Channel, the braking parachute positioned behind the tail opened, cutting the glider’s speed and altitude; it would have landed in the sea had the co-pilot not intervened by cutting the straps that held it in place. Having arrived in the target zone, the glider was greeted by anti-aircraft fire; one projectile hit the flamethrower, rendering it useless, but luckily not causing a fire that would have killed all those aboard the glider. When he believed he had spotted the battery, the pilot disconnected his craft from the Albermarle that had been towing it, but he immediately realised that he was about to land in a village (Gonneville) and swerved towards one of the flooded fields. Newton and the others emerged from the glider in waist-high water and began to wander through the countryside, only running into a group of Canadians several hours later, who then led them to the makeshift brigade HQ. From there they were sent to occupy the château Saint-Côme and the surrounding woods, south of Bréville, of crucial strategic importance because of its elevation, which offered a good view of the south and west, towards the bridges across the Orne and the Caen Canal, which had been taken during the night. Heavy and continuous German counterattacks ended only on 12 June with the taking of Bréville by a mixed contingent of paratroopers and infantry supported by armoured vehicles.
Newton and the remnants of the 9th Battalion were transferred away from the front line on 17 June, but in the following weeks they returned to to carry out patrol duties. In September they went back to England, and in December they were back in action. This time they were fighting in the Ardenne, in order to blunt the last German offensive of the war. In March 1945 Newton took part in Operation Varsity, an airborne assault against German territory east of the Rhine in order to make way for the advance of three armies under General Montgomery.
Next came a rapid push towards the Baltic which ended at Weimar, where the battalion arrived on 2 May with orders to stop the Soviet advance at all costs. After days of tension in which armed confrontation between the two ex-allies became a real possibility, the situation stabilised following the armistice (8 May). Their next destination was the Pacific, but Japan surrendered before the battalion reached their final destination. Newton and the others were re-routed to Palestine for peace-keeping operations.
Above: The panel decicated to Newton in the exhibition prepared by the Pegasus Memorial in 2012.
In 1947 Newton left the army with the rank of corporal. He was twenty-two, and spent the next thirty-three years in the police. Here he filled various roles, among them directing the Hendon driving school (near London). Retirement was not for him, and so – after having left the police – he employed the skills he had acquired at Hendon to train anti-kidnapping squads in various hotspots including the Philippines, Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. In 1997 he became an honorary citizen of London and in 2005 France conferred upon him the title of Knight of the Legion of Honour. Secretary of the 9th Battalion Veterans’ Association, he returns to Normandy every year to celebrate the anniversary ot D-Day with the other ex-servicemen.