Patrick in 1943 aged 18
Patrick was born in Stockport in August 1925. He attended Our Lady’s School in Stockport until he was 14, leaving with his standard 7 certificate. He then went to work in a cotton mill, replacing bobbins when they were broken. One day, Patrick was sent home as he arrived at work late that morning. He took this opportunity to volunteer for the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment (a county based infantry regiment) and received his call up papers at the end of August 1943.
The Normandy Campaign
The Fusiliers provided Patrick with rigorous initial training at Harrington barracks in Formby. This lasted 10 weeks and covered a range of topics, from shooting to drill. Patrick approved of this training, thinking that it taught him everything he needed to know to be a soldier. It was soon after this that Patrick and his battalion were picked out to play a part in the D-Day landings at Normandy. He was put into a unit of about 20 men that were to act as reinforcements, to be sent where they were deemed needed.
One of the things that sticks in Patrick’s mind was how busy Southport was when he arrived there:
‘brilliant sunshine, brilliant weather, happy-go-lucky Southport absolutely full of military, naval men, air force persons – you couldn’t walk’
This happy atmosphere was a stark contrast to events that would happen in just a few days. Patrick and his colleagues were transferred to an ‘embarkation camp’ in short order. Although the troops were treated well, there was an air of seriousness as nobody was allowed in or out of the camp without an exceptionally good reason. In fact, Patrick remembers that very few civilians were even allowed near the town itself, due to the scale and secrecy of the operations. Soon they were ordered to march in formation along the Southsea pier (which was reinforced with steel scaffolding poles to cope with the sheer number of troops moving over it), and onto the boat that was to ferry them across the English Channel and to the beach at Arromanches.
The men sat crammed together, moving only to stretch their legs or use the toilets (which were shared between about 300 men). Patrick remembers the Captain of the ship announcing over the microphone that his was the only voice that they would hear from now on, and that “Tonight it’s a special occasion, you get a rum ration, and those that don’t require it I insist that you must take it”.
As dawn broke, Patrick remembers the sea being populated by ‘every ship in the world’, and one of his friends remarking that looking at the churning waters was like ‘looking into the jaws of death, like Dante’s Inferno’. The atmosphere was chaotic, with artillery guns firing from ships and fierce small arms fire in the distance. Troops were moving quickly all over the ship, not an easy task with metal studded boots on metal floors! Whilst waiting for the final order to disembark from the ship, Patrick remembers he and his friends huddling around another rum ration, forming ‘a bloody tea party’ according to their Sergeant when he found them. He had come to get them on to their landing craft that was to take them to the beach.
Patrick remember that he felt ‘a million miles’ away from the beach as he got into the landing craft. As they grew closer, they could all hear the distinctive ‘ping’ of small arms fire from the Germans hitting their boats. He realised that this meant he must be disembarking soon as these weapons only had an effective range of about 500 yards. The ramp for the landing boat came down and the soldiers had to vacate the craft as quickly as possible. His account below starts as the Landing craft opened up:
‘There was no question of hanging about. You’d be kicked off. [They were told] if the man in front of you hesitates, push him’. With that it was time to leave: ‘This Corporal’s sat in front of me, I said – I knew where he’d been, you know, he’d been in Sicily and all that I said “Is it as ba?..” “Oh” he said “We’ve not started yet”. I said “Oh, no, no”. He said: “It depends how deep that water is” and all that. He said: “Are you afeared?” I said: “Oh, aye.” He said: “We all are.” Any rate, he said “You see this belt?” the webbing belt, he said “Grab hold of that, wherever that goes you stop with it. But run.” I said “Right”, and he’s off.’
And with that they were in the water, getting up to waist height and above, heading towards the beach. Patrick got onto the beach and remembers that ‘you could see sand and shale’d hit you’ – bullets were hitting the ground close enough to him to hit him with debris.
There was a brief period of respite when Patrick and the other soldiers happened upon 3 Royal Marines sharing out cigarettes (Jack recalls that the army issued all soldiers with 7 cigarettes a day, and that most of them smoked). This moment of relative calm preceded a chaos on the beaches, with troops all dashing around to areas cleared of mine tape, trying to find their comrades in arms. It was now uppermost in Patrick’s mind to find the rest of his battalion. However, this was not to be. The Sergeant in charge of Patrick was told to take the men to another location. Almost immediately, he removed his map from the map case and asked Patrick to dispose of it. A confused Patrick said that the case would stop the map getting wet and received the reply of “It won’t stop me getting shot if the sniper spots it.” – German snipers had a habit of aiming at those with reflective map cases first, as they tended to be officers.
Patrick and the rest of the troops began patrolling towards their destination. He recognised that ‘we’re following those that had done the initial assault. We were still part of the D-Day thing but we were following them’, as he was greeted with the horrifying sight of dead British soldiers on his route. His unit was then roped into the task of transporting 300 German prisoners of war (POW) back to the beach. He briefly flirted with the idea that he might be allowed back on to the landing craft and back across the channel. However, they were given another destination as soon as they had delivered the POW’s – ‘so much for spending the night in Portsmouth’.
Indeed, the war was not nearly over for Patrick. He was moved to the area surrounding Tilley-la-Campagne, a site of some of the most ferocious fighting after D-Day, as British forces tried to take the town on over 20 occasions before succeeding. He was then retrained as a driver in September 1944 after being wounded, so that he could continue supporting the war effort.
Patrick carried on driving after the war by driving for a local builder; although the cotton mill had held his job open (as they were legally obliged to do) he felt he’d seen too much of life to be working inside a factory. Upon a recommendation from an ex-army colleague, he joined the police in 1951. He retired in 1978 ending his career serving for 15 years as a detective in the CID.
Patrick Lannon died on 21 April 2012 aged 87.