- Heroes Return
- Release date:
- 8 5 2013
Robert Coupe crouched in the darkness waiting to advance. From sea, sky and land an allied barrage thundered down on the ancient city of Caen falling to silence just before dawn. Moving stealthily through cornfields thick with German mines the 100-strong infantry division entered No man’s land into the jaws of a ferocious and relentless enemy counter attack from which only 18 would survive.
Robert 88, is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we commemorate the 68th anniversary of VE-Day bringing the European war to an end we are reminded of the ultimate sacrifice made by our brave servicemen and women and of the recognition they so truly deserve in securing the peace and freedoms we enjoy today.”
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Blackpool lad Robert was called up for Army Service. He underwent basic training before being posted to the 5th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, part of 197 Brigade of the 59th Infantry Division being prepared for the invasion of Europe.
Assigned to No 12 Platoon ‘B’ Company, Bob’s Company Commander was Major Ervine-Andrews, awarded the VC at Dunkirk. Robert said: “He was a crack shot and determined that his ‘B’ Company should be also. He made the training as realistic as possible, and it weeded out anyone who could not take it. We did not like it but we certainly appreciated it when in action later on in Normandy.”
Landing on Sword Beach on the morning of D-day under a hail of enemy fire, he recalls:
“We were all so seasick. I didn’t care whether I got shot or not. I just wanted to get off that landing craft and get my feet on the ground. The Navy boys brought us as close to the beach as they could and then we waded to shore with water up to our armpits.”
Once on terra firma the troops made a dash for nearby fields and small villages, many of which had been demolished by allied bombardment. Once a beachhead had been established Robert and comrades were given the order to march on Caen as part of Operation Charnwood, an Anglo-Canadian offensive to capture the German-occupied French city an important Allied objective during the opening stages of the Normandy Invasion.
Robert recalls; “Caen was the key to Normandy. If the Germans broke through at Caen they would have been on the beaches in no time. And they knew that if we punched through them at Caen that would be their lot in France“
On the evening of 7th July the combined divisions secured positions for a three pincer attack on the City with the 3rd Canadian Division attacking from the right, and British 3rd Division from the left. Robert’s division, the 59th, would form the crunch point in the centre.
He recalls the prelude to the attack: “I heard the sound of aircraft engines, and 500 Lancaster Bombers flew overhead, dropping 2,600 tons of bombs on Caen. The sight of them flying into that wall of flak to deliver their loads made the soldiers realise what brave comrades they had working with them. It boosted our morale no end, and from then on any jibes about ‘Brylcreem Boys’ were definitely out.”
As the bombers departed for home, the guns of the offshore Fleet opened up and shells from the battleships, monitors and cruisers joined those of 21 regiments of allied artillery, ranged on German batteries and fortified approaches to the City.
Bob recalls: “The barrage thundered steadily on through the night and around 0500 hours we began to advance through cornfields and orchards towards Caen. The fields were mined. The Germans were ready for us as they knew we had to come by this route. As we crossed into no man’s land the hidden German guns opened up with ferocity. In the waist high cornfield when a soldier fell wounded he disappeared from view and many lads bled to death because Medics couldn’t find them. Casualties were heavy, and we on the frontal assault felt we were battling at impregnable forces.”
However, after a relentless battle the combined divisions drove deep behind enemy lines, and by the early hours of the following day Robert and his comrades had entered the Northern end of the City and the fate of the German defenders were sealed. But the price was high.
He recalls: “One hundred of us set off but only eighteen of us arrived. Our main adversaries in the battle were the 1st and 12th Panzer Divisions and elements of the 21st Panzer Grenadiers. These so called elite troops played every dirty trick in the book, and they knew plenty from their Russian front experiences, fanatical in the extreme and happy to die for Adolf Hitler. They got their death wish in the ruins of Caen.”
He continued: “One SS soldier who was lying seriously wounded in a field hospital was told that he needed a blood transfusion. He asked the doctor ‘is that English blood? If it is I don’t want it’ and when the doctor said ‘yes it is and if you don’t have it you will die’ the German replied. ‘Well, I’ll die for the Fuhrer’.”
From Caen the division moved on to the Falaise Gap where the British and American Forces trapped the Germans in a pincer movement as they tried to escape through fields and villages. He remembers; “A lot of them were killed trying to get away. But we eventually closed the gap taking about 15,000 prisoners.”
It was here that Robert was hit by a bullet which slammed into his helmet knocking him unconscious for three days. He woke up in a Bayeux hospital. He recalls: “I really needed time to recover. I had terrible nose bleeds. Every time I tried to do anything it started to bleed, gushing blood all over my uniform. However, Robert’s hard won experience of battle earned him a promotion to NCO Corporal and he was swiftly deployed to the 1st East
Lancashire’s at 's-Hertogenbosch in Holland as the allies moved on to Arnhem and from there up the River Rhine and finally into the German heartland.
Towards the end of the war Robert was assigned duties as a policeman at an allied intelligence centre in Hanover, near Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
He recalls: “We never saw the camp. At this time they had started to burn it down as there was typhus and there were over 10,000 unburied dead.”
On VE day 1945 Robert was attending a lecture at the centre. He remembers: “A soldier suddenly burst into the room shouting ‘the war is over!’ The officer giving the lecture told the soldier to ‘get out coming in here with messages from the BBC’ and carried on with the lecture. So we all had to sit there and wait until the news came through our official channels.”
Robert was then destined to fly out to Kentucky and then on to Okinawa as part of a reformed division to join the American invasion of Japan, but prior to departure the atomic bomb was dropped so he stayed on at Hanover until finally being demobbed on 10th July 1947.
Soon to travel to Normandy on a Heroes Return 2 grant Robert will visit cemeteries and attend 69th anniversary D-Day commemoration events to pay his respects to fallen comrades.
The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015. This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme opened in 2009, will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK. For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
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