August 1944

"Liberation of Honfleur"

 

by

Jim Corbett

 

Foreword by Webmaster

Jim Corbett landed in Normandy as part of the 6th Airborne Division and he tells of his experiences as his unit entered Hornfleur and his links with that town now. After his service in Europe he was shipped to India for training to fight the Japanese but luckily the war ended and Jim finished his service in Kowloon before being demobbed.

Jim then joined the Police Force and served 30 years before retiring in 1976, but not content to sit back he entered local Goverment enforcing planning laws. He feels he's done his bit - 5 years fighting for his country - 30 years Police Service - and 11 years serving the local community.

Jim lives in the West Country of England and enjoys retirement with his wife, three children and five grandchildren.

 

Now read Jim's memories and his return to Hornfleur.

Each year, as the end of August approaches, I return to Honfleur in Normandy.

My annual pilgrimage serves two distinct purposes; to join with the town's citizens in celebration of their liberation, and to honour the memory of four comrades who lost their lives bringing it about.

This year was special. It was the 60th anniversary and probably my last visit. My own advancing years and my wife's increasing ill-health combine to make it unlikely that the trip will be repeated. In addition - to my great pleasure - nineteen members of my extended family were making the trip to participate in the celebrations.

Jim Corbett & Frank Dougan

As I stood on the dais in the Town Hall, waiting my turn to speak, my thoughts inevitably returned to that momentous day in 1944. The 6th Airborne Division had broken out from the bridgehead where they had been holding the east flank of the Invasion Force since D-Day, and were advancing on a broad front towards the Seine. With great difficultly, (because all the bridges had been blown) we crossed the river at a small town called Touques. We had been marching, in full kit, since dawn and were hoping for a rest and a brew-up - but fate decreed otherwise. Somewhere, back at HQ, a senior officer had ordered a small fighting force to race through the enemy lines in an effort to reach Honfleur. The objective was to prevent the enemy from destroying the port installations: obviously, of inestimable value in supplying the Allied advance through France and beyond.

For a reason we should never discover, they chose us - 19th Platoon of the 12th Devon's, 6th Air Landing Brigade!

Of course, being Airborne Troops, we were without transport, so we commandeered the local Fire Engine, together with a Citroen Baker's lorry (painted white to distinguish it from military vehicles). I remember the best seats were on the Fire Engine, but I was a bit slow off the mark and had to make do with the Baker's lorry, squeezing myself in the middle of twelve other lads.

After some minor skirmishes and an attack in a wood, we eventually reached a hill overlooking Honfleur at 1700hours. Even though it appeared that, elsewhere, the enemy was in full retreat, we were all pretty sure that, because of the Port equipment, Honfleur would be heavily defended.

We were only 24 men and lightly armed. As I took my accustomed place in the front of No: 1 Section, I became acutely aware that the 6th Airborne Division and, in fact, the whole British Army, was some 20km. behind us, and not of immediate assistance.

The Famous White Truck, Touques 1944

At the "O" group meeting at the top of the hill, the Platoon Officer gave his orders, I well remember his words. "We shall just have to walk down this hill and see if they are going to defend the town. No 1 Section will lead as usual and keep well spaced out".

At face value, I suppose it was a reasonable proposition - in fact, as far as I was concerned, the only thing wrong with it was the likelihood of it being me who would be the first to find out if Honfleur was defended! I looked down the hill with its narrow streets and houses on either side. It was deathly quiet!

While they were letting the civilian vehicles return to Touques, I remonstrated quietly with Wally Edgar, the Platoon Sergeant, " Perhaps we should wait for some tanks to come up." I suggested. But Wally replied, "Jim , you have the honour of leading the whole Division into Honfleur, and if you live long enough to tell the tale, one day you may be really proud of this moment." As I recall at the time, I felt that this was not exactly reassuring, but it turned out tobe prophetically accurate.

Avoiding the grass verges (German skull and cross-bones signs indicating they were mined), I led off down the hill. Scanning the houses each side, I searched for signs of machine guns which would have easily cut us to pieces before we could hit the ground; but there was no sign of life. As we got further down the hill, a few shops came into view and I began to hope that Honfleur was completely abandoned.

Then as we approached a crossroads, I suddenly caught sight of two little faces at the bottom of a stone wall. I used the telescopic sight on my sniper's rifle and confirmed they were children. They disappeared, to be replaced by two adults undeniably French. Relieved, and not realising that I must have appeared a frightening sight, I stood up in order for them to see my British Airborne uniform. With my dirty, unshaven face, crossed bandoleers on my chest and two grenades hanging from my smock lapels, I'm sure I was not a pretty sight!

Quickly to reassure them, I shouted, "Anglais,.. Anglais", and they all came out from behind the wall, laughing and crying as they ran towards us and embraced. When I had caught my breath, I asked them, "Where is the Boche". They pointed vaguely East , in the direction of Le Havre. Unfortunately, this was not so! They were, and later to our cost, assembling in the Station and St Leonard's Cemetery on the far edge of town.

As more citizens appeared, there was a lot of back-slapping and kissing, and we were carried down the hill in an emotional crescendo of noise that I shall never forget. We reached the bottom and turned under an archway into the harbour frontage. Here, I received my first glimpse of this beautiful town. The sun was beginning to drop towards the horizon, and the port was filled with small boats, bobbing on the incoming tide. On thebroad quayside, many shop-keepers were still displaying their wares in a scene that was both peaceful and picturesque.

With my Platoon Sgt. Wally Edgar in Combat Gear

During the last three months, through all the battles of Normandy, we had witnessed indescribable horrors: villages and towns completely erased with the stink of death around them. But here in Honfleur, we were, for the first time, discovering what "La belle France" really meant.

A large crowd, shouting "Soldats Anglais", gathered quickly and showered us with fruit and flowers from their stalls. As they began to realise that, after four years of enemy occupation, liberation day had finally arrived, their collective faces showed joy and relief. It was liberation with minimal civilian casualties and minor damage to their historic town. In many ways, the citizens of Honfleur had been dreading the advance of the Allies, fearing a last-ditch battle to secure the port for supply purposes. Now, for them at least, they thought the war was over, their happiness complete. However, it was not yet the cessation of hostilities, as we were about to find out!

Suddenly, huge naval guns from Le Havre opened up and this peaceful scene was rudely shattered. The enemy, safely ensconced on the other side of the Seine Estuary, had decided to give us a brutal reminder of their presence by sending over a salvo of shells and mortar bombs which fell amongst us creating havoc. Soldiers and citizens alike scattered to find cover.

I dashed into the nearest shop and expecting a counter attack, climbed the stairs to a bedroom with windows on the first floor overlooking the harbour. Jimmy Gilbey, a Lancashire lad followed me and took up a position at the second window. Then the heavy artillery from Le Havre opened up again and I heard the unmistakable whine of an incoming shell. I hardly had time to duck in under the sill when the shell struck a glancing blow on the nearside shutter window, showering me with glass. There was a strong smell of cordite mixed with burning wood and I turned to see the last six inches of an enormous shell buried in the headboard of the bed. It was glowing white and red alternately, setting the bed on fire. Thinking the shell was fused to explode any second, we got out of that room in a hurry, it was safer on the street.

Taking the Salute at Ken Amis Grave site - St Leonards Cemetery Honfleur.

(On the left) Jim Corbett - (Right) Frank Dougan - Frank was the Bren Gunner in the Section and always walked behind Jim, eventually carrying the Bren and four magazines from Normandy to the Baltic.

It was only later that we realised just how lucky we had been. A few centimetres to the left and that huge shell would have demolished the whole building and us with it. Jimmy Gilbey was amazed that we were still alive and said to me, "I knew I was lucky to be born on the 13th". This was a strange coincidence, as I was also born on the 13th (the same day in fact). Of all the soldiers present, he had chosen to follow me into that building, sharing with me the same birthday, which was supposed to be unlucky. But poor Jimmy's luck gave out six months later on the summit of a snow covered hill in the Ardennes. He was bringing up the rear of a fighting patrol when a German sniper shot and killed him.

As the main enemy forces retreated towards the Seine and safety, there was further military action on the other side of Honfleur. This was the locality where we sustained our fatal casualties. Having finally secured the town we left the next morning after handing over to the Belgium Piron Brigade, which had been gallantly fighting along the coast road from Deauville, but whose wheeled and tracked vehicles had been held up by large craters in the road at Villerville, about seven km from Honfleur.

Thus ended liberation day in Honfleur - and so begun my long association with the town and its friendly citizens. The Mayor, Council and citizenry have been extremely generous to me over the years; presenting me with no less than five medals and honoured with the Freedom of Honfleur. This year I was asked to inaugurate a new road to be named after 6th Airborne Division; this will lead to a Housing Development, Leisure Centre and Sports Complex to be completed over the next four years.

Dedication of the Airborne Avenue 2004

If you ever have a chance to visit the Flower Coast in Normandy, you must take the opportunity to visit this picturesque harbour town situated on the west bank of the Seine opposite Le Havre. In the late evening I like to sit at one of those quayside bars, just under the window where I had that remarkable escape.

With Ken Ames brother and Sister at Graveside, Honfleur. (Ken was killed on Liberation Day)

But as I sit there with my memories, I have to confess I am often troubled by feelings of guilt. Why should I who survived, enjoyed sixty more years of happiness, been blessed with children and grandchildren, while many of my war-time companions were cut down on the threshold of maturity.

 

Framed Plaque Presentation - 2004

It is hard to justify that, the price they paid for liberation and freedom, but I for one, will never forget them.

Jim's Medals: 1939/45 Star - War Medal - Defence Medal - France/Germany Star - Victory Medal - (Presented by Honfleur Town Council - Honfleur 50th Anniversary Liberation Medal plus five more heavy bronze medals - Freedom of Honfleur in 2001 in the shape of a large Silver Key mounted on purple plinth).

Copyright Text & Images: Jim Corbett

 

 

 

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