Dryburgh (Part 2)

  24 Apr '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Dryburgh – a novel in parts (read part 1 here)

Explanatory Note

What you have in your hands is an account of history in the old sense. For the Greeks who invented it – Herodotus, Thucydides and the others – the word histor meant a witness and what witnesses saw with their own eyes and reported, that was history. Most of what you will read I was witness to; I saw it with my own eyes.

Too disorganised and episodic for a diary, what follows is more of a journal, a record of what I remembered and wrote down, sometimes at the time, sometimes later when there was time. I have also occasionally added material about events that took place elsewhere and I did not witness but help explain why what happened happened.

Everything I did, I did for the best as I understood it, and of course I made terrible mistakes and calamitous misjudgments. My actions sometimes caused heart-breaking sadness and I will carry the guilt and regret for those to my grave. But I tried to act in the best interests of my country, more particularly in the interests of the best of my country. God knows, others behaved wickedly and brought down shame on all our heads.

What you have is a true record of a most momentous time, a period when the world was changed utterly.

Through bright and dark times, I kept in mind lines from Walter Scott. He is buried with my kinsmen in our ancestral place, and even though he wrote spitefully about my people, he captured the wellspring of why I did all that I did as the world hurtled towards the edge of an abyss.

          Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
          Who never to himself hath said,
          This is my own, my native land!


2. Götterdämmerung

6th June, 1944

Rum, vomit and fear, all soaked by salt spray. That’s what I remember. As the flat-bottomed landing craft whumped down on the choppy seas of the Channel, sometime yawing from side to side, men retched, soiling their clothes, smearing sick over the packs of those in front of them. Some, even though their throats were raw from dry heaving, took a swig of fiery, sickly sweet rum as the canteen was passed around. Some men vomited into their helmets and let the continuous spray rinse them. Holding tight onto a bow rail, I forced myself to look ahead fixedly, determined not to vomit. This was bad enough, but God knows what we would face when the landing craft finally stopped throwing us around and the ramp went down at 07:25.

Fear makes a mockery of us all, voiding our bowels as well as our stomachs, making our hands shake and our hearts race. But the truth is that fear keeps us alive. It makes us react, incites us to retaliate, lash out, be violent, and to kill. When the sergeants assembled the three platoons on the deck of the transport ship, waiting for the order to embark on the landing craft, I shouted for them to gather round for some brief words I had rehearsed many times in the previous twenty-four hours. A senior officer had firmly advised me to keep it brief and not to try to rouse emotions. The Borderers were all regular soldiers and some had been under intense fire on French beaches before, at Dunkirk. Nevertheless I sensed that they looked to me, of all people, for reassurance – of any sort. What I said was banal. On the page, it even looks dull, uninspired, not fitting for the moment. But on that night before that morning, nothing could be banal. All was heightened.

Borderers! In a short time the ramp will go down and we will face the enemy. Reconnaissance tells us that we will see a beach at low tide, a sea-wall, a road behind it, and a row of houses on the other side. At all costs, we must get off the beach as soon as we can. Go forward. Do not stop. Take the fight to the enemy. God speed, and God protect the Borderers!

The truth was that I believed in neither God nor my ability to lead these soldiers to victory, safety or even survival. I had been given my commission not for any military merit but because I could speak German fluently and had been in the officer training corps at my university. And also, I suspect, on account of my family and its history. Titles carry obligations as well as privileges, and also the baseless assumption of an inherited ability to lead men. As the ceaseless spray washed over the landing craft and men retched as it slapped down on the sea after each swell, my hands were shaking and my head spinning. God knows what we were about to face. I prayed that such courage as I had would not fail me, my legs would move and I would not dishonour my name.

But nothing, I suspect, had prepared even the most experienced regular soldiers and officers for the sights that greeted them on embarkation at Southampton. The 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers boarded one of more than five thousand ships about to set sail from the Channel ports to rendezvous in a sector south of the Isle of Wight. It was an astonishing armada, but one travelling in the opposite direction from the Spanish. On every side the sea was studded with dark, looming shapes: huge battleships, the Warspite, Ramillies and others, many cruisers, even more destroyers, minesweepers, transport ships and craft I could not identify. Armed, waiting, hoping against hope, more than one hundred and fifty thousand men were being carried by this armada to attack the Normandy coast. Surely it was enough, surely sheer numbers and firepower would overwhelm the German defences. As we steamed southwards, the edging light on the eastern horizon picked out smoking funnels, masts and the spikey outline of batteries of great guns. It was a belly-hollowing sight.

But most of all on that night voyage, I remember the pipes. Cutting through the hum of the engines of the ships and the wash of the choppy sea, I could distinctly hear bagpipes playing and immediately recognised ‘The Road To The Isles’. Its familiar lines, the far Cuillin are putting love on me, or by Tummel and Loch Rannoch, and the tangle o’ the Isles rang round and round my head. The Borderers cheered, glad to have something to distract them. It was not a war rant, but a march of sorts, one that crossed another sea, and its jaunty melody somehow sent us into battle in better spirits. Later, I learned that Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, had asked his piper, Bill Millin, to play, telling him that the Scots ought to lead the invasion of Hitler’s Europe. Other ships heard the skirl of the pipes and captains ordered more music to be played over the tannoys as the armada steamed through the fateful night. Perhaps we were bands of brothers after all.

When their commando landing craft reached its beach, Lovat apparently asked Millin to play ‘Highland Laddie’and ‘All The Blue Bonnets Are Over The Border’. Crazy, but somehow the music seemed to dissipate the terror around the men. A German prisoner of war taken that day said they did not take aim at Millin as he marched up and down the beach, his drones and their tartan trim an easy target, because they thought him a madman. An extraordinary image as war raged around the lone piper.

From the transport ship I could see a pale dawn rising, no sun but streaks of light blue on the eastern horizon. Above us, squadrons of Lancasters and other planes I did not recognise droned towards the French coast, and moments later we saw flashes as their bombs burst over the land. It was encouraging. Perhaps we would find the German defences pulverised, soldiers emerging from the rubble with their hands in the air, ready to surrender. From that moment, time began to accelerate so rapidly that I began to do everything without thinking, relying only on instinct. The ship’s tannoy crackled, ‘Prepare to man your boats.’ There was no turning back now.

My three platoons had to climb down the sides of the ships using scramble nets in the half darkness. The sea was so rough that the landing craft bobbed up and down alarmingly, and despite the efforts of the crew, the swell opened up gaps between it and the transport ship, or the two clanked as they collided. Some men carried more equipment than others and my radio operator had great trouble. But enough of us had made the descent to be able to pull the scramble net tight against the landing craft. We bundled him down, although he yelped when he cracked his elbows on the metal deck.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the briefing had identified our objective as Queen Beach, near the small seaside town of Ouistreham, not far from Caen. Air reconnaissance had shown defences, pillboxes and artillery batteries behind a long sea wall. It would be vital to reach it, get over it, cross the road and get behind the defensive line. The plan was for amphibious tanks to land first, attack and attract fire, and before that bombers would attempt to make craters for infantry cover. But the two hundred yards of the beach below the wall looked to me like the perfect killing field. To say nothing of wading agonisingly slowly through the sea before it was reached.

Three regiments each supplied a battalion in the first wave: the KOSB, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Lincolnshire Regiment. Scotland, Ireland and England. For completeness, we should have been joined by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

Despite the choppy sea, the crews of the landing craft had managed to get us all in formation so that we would reach the beach at approximately the same time, 07:25. A staggered series of landings would have been disastrous, allowing defenders to concentrate their fire on each in turn. But before we could move forwards together, thunder boomed and fire rent the sky. The naval bombardment began. It was deafening, as though the heavens were exploding. Behind us, the Warspite and the Ramillies fired their huge guns, and the shells shot over our heads like express trains racing out of a tunnel. My chest tightened, and the pressure waves pushed hard on our landing craft as salvos from the battleships, cruisers and destroyers made the great ships recoil. The roar and the lighting flashes should have made us cheer, but in truth the overwhelming instinct was to cower and flinch, and hope none of the shells dropped short.

When the guns were finally silenced, it was like a signal. Now it was our turn. The formation of landing craft moved forwards like a monstrous metal tide. We were carried into the eye of a gathering storm, one that would burst on us in moments.

I looked over the edge of the forward ramp and it seemed in the eerie grey stillness that the winds of the world swirled around us. When we reached the shallow water of the foreshore, the ramp would be let down and I would lead my men onto the killing field. In all my life, I had never felt such hollow loneliness.

I was jolted back into the moment by Sergeant Bell shouting in my ear, ‘Thirty minutes to landing, sir!’ I turned and nodded. ‘You’ll be all right, sir,’ he added with a tight, grim smile. That flash of kindness told me we would fight for our country and against a manifest evil, certainly, but most of all, we would fight for each other. We were a band of Borderers, and perhaps brothers too.

Maddened by fear, finding themselves in the jaws of hell, skeins of seabirds flew low and fast just above the surface, like tracer fire. God knows what carnage was happening on the farms inland with animals running in blind panic as shells exploded and bombs tore craters out of the fields.

As we moved closer, I could see that the Ulsters on our left were holding formation. And then a moment later I felt the shock of finding we were in range as a rattle of metallic pings tinged off the sides of the landing craft. A hail of what must have been machine-gun bullets hit us. I could hear them whipping through the air. In an instant reflex, we all cowered down below the hull. The moment we let down the ramp, we would be fired on. We were in their sights.

‘Be ready,’ I roared to Sergeant Bell, ‘to give the order to disembark!’ My watch had 07:25 precisely. I risked looking to my right to the line of KOSB landing craft and then left to the Ulsters. They had all halted or were slowing but none had let down their ramps. Why the moment of hesitation? A sense of ‘you first’? Were they waiting for one craft to charge the beach and attract fire before giving the order to disembark? Surely not.

We were not now under fire. Now was the time to go, whatever any other commander decided. On the beach I saw two disabled and abandoned amphibious tanks. Had there been a successful landing? Had some broken through? Where? The Ulsters’ ramp inched forwards, and I shouted, ‘Now!’

Grinding, cranking down through what sounded like rusty gears, the ramp splashed into the water. Grabbing the handrail, losing my slippery footing, almost falling through it as the craft suddenly shifted, I scrambled down. The shock of the water sharpened my senses even more. Up to my waist, it made me pump my legs and move. The Borderers followed. I turned to Sergeant Bell and as he opened his mouth to speak, he was hit in the face. He toppled forwards, instantly dead, knocked me down and saved my life. Others pulled at the straps of my pack and I spluttered upright, waded ashore, soaked, breathless with shock.

Enemy fire was sporadic. Thoughts flickered. Perhaps they were too few to direct their guns at every landing craft at once. But they clearly had snipers, perhaps in the tall houses I could see, picking off the first down the ramps, those men moving so agonisingly slowly through the water. And one of them had missed me and killed my sergeant. Now on wet sand, I ran, stumbling as it gave way under my boots, and made for the sanctuary of an abandoned tank. Taking cover behind it were half a dozen other Borderers. At that moment, a landing craft behind us was hit by a shell, killing and maiming many, buckling the hull. The Germans had wheeled artillery into their defensive line, the tank was a big target – we had to move, get off the beach. Ahead of us, out in the open, a young recruit, clearly terrified, was digging feverishly with his entrenching tool. He made me move. Roaring for them to be on me, I sprinted out with my men from behind the tank, a spray of machine-gun fire throwing up sand in front of me, and I grabbed at the boy’s pack and dragged him behind me. We were forty yards from the sea wall and safety.

‘Run! Run! Now!’ Screaming at my men, we ran, pushing at the loose sand with our boots. The young soldier scurried like a crab behind me. And was shot dead, by the snap of a single report, only a few feet from me. Another sniper kill. I began to think myself lucky. Or next.

We hunkered down behind the sea wall, chests heaving, safe for the moment. The respite gave me the chance to turn and see what was happening behind us. Many had not been lucky. A tide of blood streaked the white foam of the foreshore. Wounded men called out pitifully. Some were still behind the abandoned tanks. They needed to get off the beach. But below the sea wall, I could see most of my men. Maybe thirty had made it. They crouched, holding fast to their rifles, looking at me.

About a hundred yards to my left was a gap in the wall where a concrete ramp led down to the beach. If the amphibious tanks had advanced, that was the only way they could have gone. If . . . If they had trundled up the ramp, we should follow because they might have used their 75mm guns to clear a path through the pillboxes and trenches that must have been strung out along the road. My watch said 08:00. We had been on the beach long enough. To act as a runner, I took Corporal Lauder. He had played rugby in the Border League, and agile and quick, he could take back orders.

Still roaring over our heads, the naval bombardment was directed further inland, or so I hoped. When Lauder and I reached the concrete ramp, we crawled on our bellies up to the level of the road. In each direction, we could clearly see fire spitting from gun emplacements, pillboxes and the upper floors of the seaside houses. For some reason, I remembered how the brightly painted shutters folded back on each side of the windows. Further along, I saw the smoke of artillery fire. Wherever the Lancasters had dropped their bombs, it was not here. But directly in front of us, between two houses that had been badly damaged by shelling, there was a trail of destruction, where tanks had flattened fences and headed inland.

Don’t stop and think. Think when you have stopped. Without realising that I had learned it, that was the visceral lesson of an extraordinary morning on Queen Beach. Moving targets are harder to hit, and if I could only keep my men moving forwards, the picture would change constantly, forcing the Germans to turn, to look for us, to throw up barriers, move back from prepared positions. So long as we could keep moving, I felt sure confusion would be our friend as well as our enemy. We were in a strange land and the Germans knew it well. But we were running with the tide of history. Surely we were.

The radio crackled into life and Private Mallen pressed his fingertips on the headphones, trying to find the right wavelength amongst all the deafening noise and the static. With two other units of Borderers joining us, we had moved inland, the map telling me we were about half a mile west of Ouistreham. We had exchanged fire with retreating defenders who knew and used the landscape to make their escape. Having set up a perimeter around a deserted farm-steading, we needed to contact brigade headquarters, wherever they were, for fresh orders. Now what? Having got off the beach, our mission was to push on and take the city of Caen, about eight miles to the south. But we needed more than infantry. Tanks, more firepower, greater numbers and clear leadership were wanted amidst the confusion.

‘That’s brigade, sir,’ said Mallen, handing me the headphones. I could hear only part of what Colonel Murray said, but gathered enough to know that we were to rendezvous at 18:00 north of the village of Hermanville. ‘Must mean the Germans have it,’ said Mallen, ‘the Hermans.’ Not very funny, but a break, a jolt, a different train of thought.

The naval bombardment had been pitiless. We saw many dead cows and horses, but it was the awful, elemental bellowing of those that had been savagely wounded that haunted our steps. I shall never forget catching sight of a horse with most of its hindquarters blown away, an awful mass of blood and bone. Shrieking in agony, it was dragging itself forwards with its forelegs, trying to run away from its pain. Corporal Lauder reprimanded men who spent bullets ending the suffering of wounded animals, but I told him to leave it. Before death had come screaming out of the skies, this had been dairy country. Tiny lush fields were enclosed by ancient hedges, and their peace had been shattered as bombs blew open ragged craters and dense blackthorn and juniper were smashed down by advancing tanks. Idyllic though this place must once have been, it was also dangerous. Known as le bocage, it was perfect for ambush.

I have no memory of falling. Only of coming round, dizzy and choking. The back rim of my helmet had hit the ground so hard after I somersaulted that the chinstrap was choking me, only freeing when I rolled onto my side. I had no idea if I had been hit, no pain, no feeling in my limbs or torso except a floppy disarticulation. Corporal Lauder’s face loomed over me. ‘Mortars, sir,’ he shouted, inches from my face, his voice echoing down a long tunnel. ‘We need to get off the road.’ I realised I was lying on my revolver, glad I could feel something jabbing into my side, and my rifle lay a few feet away. I tried to roll onto all fours but collapsed slowly sideways. Lauder dragged me into a ditch choked with briar and willowherb. From a long, long way away, I heard, ‘You’re not hit, sir,’ and darkness closed over me.

Badly concussed, or worse, the pain in my neck excruciating and overwhelmed with nausea, I came to at the sound of engines. No more than a few feet from where I lay, I saw the wheels of vehicles passing, mostly slowly and silently. Time seemed to collapse on itself and light at first faded and then brightened. When Lauder broke into my nightmares, arriving with stretcher-bearers, I realised that many had marched past me thinking I was a goner, another casualty of a bocage ambush.

Like church spires rising above the fog, my recollections of the following few days are sparse, only sharp, fleeting impressions. My left side was at first numb and I pissed myself more than once. But after feeling returned, I could stand, unsteadily at first, rocking on the balls of my feet, and then I could walk. I was desperate to return to my unit. Such was the intensity of my newfound sense of responsibility that I felt I had let them down. I wanted to know who amongst my band of Borderers had survived the mortar attack, where they had been deployed and who commanded them.

At the field hospital, a sergeant from the Royal Ulster Rifles told me that a German panzer division had counterattacked, driving a wedge between the British forces who had landed at Sword Beach and those who had come ashore at Gold and Juno. And that Caen had not been taken. ‘Didn’t have the kit, not enough armour.’ The city was heavily defended, and the Germans were fighting like men possessed, giving ground grudgingly, apparently heedless of losses in the face of much superior numbers. Overwhelmed by casualties, real casualties – and not confused malingerers like me – I had no difficulty persuading the orderlies that I was fit and should not take up room.

‘The Jocks are up ahead, sir,’ said a sergeant from the Royal Signals. ‘Heavy fighting at Hermanville, and beyond.’ Stiff, limping and constantly thirsty, I made my way to where my unit might have been. ‘March towards the sound of distant guns’ was a standing order given by Napoleon to his marshalls, and even though it was probably apocryphal, it was what I was doing.

Waving green wheat beginning to turn biscuit-ripe is an image that has stayed with me, and still sends a shiver of fear up my spine. It was dusk at the edge of a broad field, not typical of the enclosed bocage but just as deadly – an open killing field like the beach. The Ulsters had advanced across it, taking very heavy casualties from hidden machine-gun nests at the edge of the village on the far side. But they took it, showing immense determination, and the Borderers came behind to reinforce and consolidate.

I remember seeing one of the Paddies carrying a Sten gun as though it was a toy and opening up at a target I could not see. Showing remarkable physical courage, he charged a sandbagged emplacement, constantly firing, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Hände hoch! Hände hoch!’ Maybe too many of his mates had died. When he kept coming, they surrendered. Astonishingly, attacked by only one man, the Germans stood up with their hands held high. But two made a fatal mistake when they suddenly turned away from the Ulsterman. He mowed them down instantly.

9th July, 1944

The night before the attack on Caen, Colonel Murray ordered me to leave my unit and stay by his side throughout the operation. As a fluent German speaker, I was to interrogate prisoners. Intelligence about the strength of enemy resistance had been very poor and two panzer divisions supported by grenadiers and other units had held up our advance for a month. The positioning, supply and robustness of artillery and machine-gun emplacements had also hampered us greatly. I frankly doubted if prisoners of war would give up any information but Murray insisted we try to extract what we could. I suspected he thought I was still not fit enough to lead my Borderers.

Clearly, I had suffered a severe head injury but showed no outward signs of having been wounded. That spurred me to protest that I should be allowed to return to my unit, but the colonel was adamant. He had another reason for keeping a German speaker on his staff. There had been massacres of Allied prisoners. Waffen SS panzer grenadiers had killed seventeen captured Canadians, and other atrocities had been discovered as the Germans retreated. On both sides, I suspected.

Our startline lay to the east of Caen, on the far side of the River Orne. It ran through the middle of the city. In the centre were the Royal Ulster Rifles, and from the west, having broken through from Juno Beach, the Canadians and their armour would attack. At 09:00 we moved off, at first under heavy shellfire. It was misty, and the badly damaged buildings on the outskirts loomed up like ghostly ruins. And when ghosts emerged – civilians who had been sheltering amidst this chaos – we almost fired on them. One old lady carried a bottle of cognac in one hand and two crystal balloon glasses in the other. A spectre from some other world.

Suddenly there was a rattle of machine-gun fire, and as we scrambled for cover, she walked over to us as though it was a mere irritation. ‘La haut! La haut!’ She pointed to a church tower. ‘Up there!’ To keep the Germans’ head down, the Borderers kept up a steady volley of fire until a bazooka could be assembled. A direct hit just below the topmost window silenced the machine gun, and moments later five Germans ran out of the doorway quickly enough to disappear into the narrow streets of the old town. There was no time for cognac.

Advancing slowly, darting from doorways to street corners, covering each move with rifle fire, the Borderers slowly cleared the town despite snipers downing several men. French civilians pointed out German positions, and through bomb craters and around tremendous piles of debris strewn across the streets, our men made their way down to the river. I was certain many local people had died in the bombardment. Near a railway bridge, a young boy pointed out les boches and a well-defended battery. But after a sustained and merciless series of mortar volleys, the defenders lost heart. When five of them surrendered, I recognised the uniforms and insignia of the Waffen SS.

‘Your bombers destroyed our cities, murdering thousands of our people, mothers and children, and we seek revenge!’ The SS captain was defiant. To my astonishment, they admitted to killing Canadian prisoners but would tell us nothing about the strength of German forces in Normandy. ‘If you defeat us, you will soon be fighting the Russians alone!’

Colonel Murray was unequivocal, despite my wanting to question the prisoners further. As soon as was feasible, they would be shot by firing squad and I should take the Germans to the rear, to HQ. And if possible, their execution should take place with other POWs watching.

Even though I had seen nothing but death for a month, the colonel’s orders took me aback. His summary judgment was certainly justified. Seventeen Canadians had been murdered. But something niggled at me. Were we not better than them? Should we not send them back across the Channel and then follow the processes of the law? But then, in the chaos of war, witnesses may die, facts may become forgotten or twisted. For now, there was no doubt. These men, these black-uniformed Nazis, these fanatics, had admitted murder, and they were about to suffer the ultimate field punishment.

‘Götterdämmerung!’ shouted the captain. ‘That is what will descend on you from the skies if you dare to put one foot in the Reich.’ The five prisoners had been lined up against the ruined gable of a farmhouse. Behind the five soldiers selected to perform the execution, hundreds of German POWs watched, made to sit on the ground, their guards with their weapons cocked and ready. ‘The Führer will call down the wrath of the gods and the whole world will burn – and he will renew it in the flames. Ruin waits for you.’ They had refused blindfolds. I noticed that one of the younger soldiers, little more than a boy, had pissed himself and was shaking. Just before I gave the order to fire, they all saluted and called out, ‘Heil Hitler!’ The force of the close-range volley slammed them all back against the gable wall, and the captain spun and fell on his side.

Gritting my teeth, I walked over to the crumpled tangle of bodies to put a bullet through each head. When I came to the captain, I crouched, fired into the ground beyond him and whispered, ‘Stay there and do not move.’



Alistair Moffat was born in Kelso, Scotland in 1950. He is an award winning writer, historian and former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Director of Programmes at Scottish Television. He is the founder of Borders Book Festival and Co-Chairman of The Great Tapestry Of Scotland. You can find more of his books here.

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