THE BUILD UP TO D DAY
An extract from The Bedford Boys
By Alex Kershaw
6 June 1944, 12.30am: The British troopship Empire Javelin steamed steadily across the Channel. Among her passengers were 34 young men from the small Virginia town of Bedford. They belonged to the 116th Infantry’s Company A, a select 200-man unit. After 18 months of arduous training, Company A had been chosen from among the 15,000 GIs in the Army of the United States’s 29th Division to spearhead the most critical US assault of the entire war.
Bedford boy Lieutenant Ray Nance, 28, managed to get a few hours’ sleep. He awoke at 2am, dressed in full combat gear. He had not even removed his boots. Nearby were five fellow officers from Company A. By lunchtime, three of them would be dead.
In the non-commissioned men’s berths, a few dozed fitfully. Most sat in silence, alone with their thoughts. Other Bedford boys lay in bunks writing last-minute letters home. Nance knew that some would not live to write another. He felt responsible for them all. He had grown up with these men, trained them to be first-class soldiers, censored their love letters to girls he knew back in Bedford. The men under his command were family.
As Nance was getting up, 21-year-old British Sub-Lieutenant Jimmy Green was being woken by an orderly and told that his flotilla commander wanted to see him urgently. Green was second-in-command of the flotilla, but in full command of the first wave of boats that would land Company A in France. Green’s commander told him the boats would have to leave earlier than planned because weather conditions in the English Channel were so bad. Green grabbed a cup of tea and a ‘bite to eat’ and then drew his weapons from the Empire Javelin’s store. He had no illusions about what lay ahead. There would be heavy casualties. In his last shore briefing, he’d been told to expect to lose a third of his men and his boats.
After breakfast, Ray Nance gathered his kit and climbed up a gangway. A heavy canvas curtain stopped light seeping on to the deck from below. Nance stepped through and into pitch blackness. He went to the rail and looked out at the dark waters, swelling ominously. Suddenly, he noticed Captain Fellers at his side. Fellers had, like Nance, grown up on a farm outside Bedford. The two were cousins. Twenty-nine-year-old Fellers was tall and thin, with a prominent chin and rolling gait. He was suffering badly from a sinus infection and looked tired and concerned. Before embarking for France, Fellers had confided in Nance, telling him that very few would come back from France alive. Fellers had studied the Allied intelligence and countless aerial shots and concluded that Company A was being sent to face certain slaughter.
Fellers and Nance both looked out to sea.
‘We stood there awhile,’ recalls Nance. ‘We didn’t say a word, not a single word to each other.
I guess we’d said it all.’
An anti-aircraft gun broke the silence, tracer bullets spitting through the sky, and then a searchlight caught the blaze of an exploding plane. ‘That brought it home to me,’ remembers Nance. ‘This thing is real. It’s not an exercise.’
A loudspeaker called the British naval crew to its stations. The troops knew they would be next.
‘Now, hear this! All assault troops report to your debarkation areas.’ As 34 Bedford boys emerged from below into the cold darkness, Nance touched every one of them lightly on the arm. ‘It was a gesture, a goodbye,’ he says 60 years later. ‘They were the best men I have ever seen in my life.’
The men included husbands, three sets of brothers, pool-hall hustlers, a couple of highly successful Lotharios, a minor-league baseball player destined for great things, and several Bible-reading, quiet young men who desperately missed their mothers and dreamed of home cooking.
The Bedford boys checked weapons and kit, exchanged scribbled home addresses ‘just in case’, wished each other good luck, and tried to bolster others who suddenly looked terrified.
‘This is it, men,’ a loudspeaker blared. ‘Pick it up and put it on, you’ve got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line.’