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D - Day Part 5

Trooper Ralph Burley

The source for this particular entry comes from an interview with Trooper Ralph Burley from C Squadron 1st Hussars conducted by John Gregory Thompson in Toronto, 12 August 2003. It has been recounted in the book, “Juno Beach Canada’s D-day Victory: June 6th 1944”, by Mark Zuehlke, pg. 111/112, 162/163, and 179/180.

Trooper Ralph Burley

One of the key tasks of the assault force was assigned to Lieut. Ladd Irving and Sgt. Lamb commanding two Sherman Vc Fireflies. Their task was considered critical to the successful landing of B Squadron, 1st Hussars on NAN GREEN beach directly in front of Courseulles-sur-Mer. Their mission was to engage and destroy, by direct fire, an 88 mm anti-tank gun emplacement at the mouth of the River Seulles. This heavy concrete bunker was set up so the gun could fire down the beach into the flank of landing craft and tanks landing on the beach. It was protected on the seaward side by a concrete wall and might well survive the less accurate naval and air bombardment. A few days prior to June 6, Lieutenant Fleming Ladd Irving and Sgt. Lamb, from the 1st Hussars reserve force were brought forward and linked up with two Sherman Vc Fireflies. They were loaded onto LCT # 2041 in Portsmouth June 3. On that day the 1st Hussars' 'C' Squadron and Regimental Headquarters tanks were lined up on a street next to the Southampton docks to load on several Landing Craft Tank. Trooper Ralph Burley was loitering beside the tank in which he was a gunner when a group of the regiment's officers came up and one announced, "This tank won't go in on D-Day." Burley and his mates were dismayed. They had been working towards this moment for years and now were to be denied a role. The officer curtly informed them that the tank would be shuffled over to join the regiment's rear echelon elements as a security detail and would land well after the invasion. No sooner had Burley absorbed this unwelcome news than the Squadron Sergeant Major approached Burley saying, "You're not getting off that easy." "You're going with Lieutenant Irving. He's going to be on a landing craft with two 17-pounder Shermans mounted on the bow and you're going to be ammunition detail. You and three other guys." The twenty-one-year-old Torontonian joined Lieut. Irving's party on LCT 2041 and found the two tanks chained down on the vessel's bow. Irving told the four men they were to pass ammunition stored behind the tanks up to the loaders while the gunners engaged a fortification next to Courseulles-sur-Mer that was protecting a German gun. The lieutenant explained that the ammo-passing detail was necessary so that when the tanks finished the fire mission, they could immediately land with still full ammunition racks.

The Sherman Firefly was the most powerful tank in the allied arsenal at the time

LCT 2041 was to conduct a run in to the beach just ahead of the assault force, engage the bunker and then head back out to sea, turn around and land at H-Hour along with B Squadron. They would then assist the Royal Regina Rifles’ move inland. The sea state on that morning was State 3 which made for a rough ride in to shore and gave the two Sherman gunners a challenge. Standing behind the tanks in readiness to hand ammunition up to the loaders, Trooper Burley and three other Hussars tried to ignore the icy seawater sloshing around their ankles. The LCT was heaving in the swells, making it hard for the men to keep their balance. During the crossing, some of the tankers had tried cooking up some food with a propane burner, but Burley had been too seasick to eat any. Everyone was seasick now and the run towards shore was a misery.

Then the two tanks opened fire with a deafening crash that set Burley's ears ringing despite an earlier attempt to protect his eardrums by wrapping a scarf around his head. Burley and the others formed a chain and started passing shells to the gun loaders. Coming up from a crouch while passing one round up to the man on the back of the tank, Burley struck his forehead on a bracket bolt mounted on the tank and opened an inch-long gash above one eye. Blood blinded him and the trooper was gripped by a convulsive fit of vomiting. Frantically swiping the streams of blood from his eyes so he could see enough to handle the shells and attempting to ignore the vomiting attacks, Burley kept passing the ammunition. Because the shells were being manhandled through the hatch in the top of the turret, the tank crew commanders were forced to use periscopes to direct the guns onto the target. Halfway through the shoot, one periscope lens became so covered with seawater that the crew commander was no longer able to see through it. "Somebody get up here and wipe off these periscope sights," he bellowed. Burley's crewmate, Trooper Harold Newburgh, jumped to the task by straddling the 17-pounder's barrel and reaching up from this position to wipe the periscope lens clean with a rag. Just as he finished the job, the gunner accidentally triggered the gun. The muzzle blast from a Firefly is tremendous and when the badly dazed Newburgh returned to the deck, Burley saw that the man's eyebrows had been blackened and singed by the blast. Although the LCT carried two hundred rounds of loose ammunition for use in the fire mission, Irving ordered ceasefire after each tank had fired only about thirty rounds. However, by all reports the bunker had been successfully engaged. There were no reports of B Squadron tanks being taken out by anti-tank fire from this bunker. The LCT then broke off its advance and swung back out to sea in order to land with the main body of B Squadron’s tanks. The long gun on the Fireflies made them unsuitable as Duplex Drive vehicles and as a result all of the unit’s Fireflies were in C Squadron, which was scheduled to land 45 minutes after the assault wave. However, in order to get their heavy guns into action sooner these two were landed early.

The 88mm bunker on NAN GREEN. Note the many hits

Approaching the shore Trooper Burley and the rest of the ammo passing party were huddled down behind the protective cover of the tanks inside the LCT'S armoured hull because of the heavy small-arms fire striking the craft. On the bridge, one of the Royal Navy sailors was returning fire with a pintle-mounted 20-millimetre machine gun. When Burley looked up to see how the man was doing, he was no longer visible and the weapon was burning. He thought German bullets must have hit it. The front ramp dropped and Burley could see the shore coming up fast. "What's that sticking out of the water near shore?" Burley shouted to one of the sailors. "Looks like bulrushes to me.""Bulrushes be damned," the man bellowed. "They're mines on cedar posts." That should make it pretty exciting, he thought. As the LCT started weaving through the obstacles he could hear posts scraping against the sides of the craft, but no mines exploded. Then the LCT bottomed out and the signal was given for Irving and Lamb to disembark. The tanks rolled out into water only three feet deep and Irving yelled over his shoulder how happy he was with the nearly dry landing as the two Shermans barrelled onto dry ground and headed up the beach. Unfortunately Lieut. Irving would not survive the day as he was killed that afternoon when his tank was hit by a 50 mm AT Gun.

Juno beach was covered with Hundreds of stakes topped with mines or artillery shells.

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