D-Day minus two years
Spring, 1942, was a bad time for the Allies. In North Africa, the British were taking a pounding. In Russia, the Germans had launched a gigantic offensive, aimed at Stalingrad. In the Far East, the Japanese had overrun the American and British colonial possessions and were threatening Australia. In France, and throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Hitler was triumphant. The only bright spot was that America had entered the war. But to date that event had produced only a few more ships, and no troops, no planes, hardly even an increased flow ofLend-Lease supplies.
Throughout much of the British army, nevertheless, boredom reigned. The official phoney war was from September of 1939 to May of 1940, but for thousands of young men who had enlisted during that period, the time from spring, 1941 to the beginning of 1944 was almost as bad. There was no threat of invasion. The only British army doing any fighting at all was in the Mediterranean; almost everywhere else, duties and training were routine - and routinely dull. As a result, discipline had fallen off. But discipline had suffered anyway, partly because the War Office had feared to impose it too strictly in a democracy, and partly because it was thought to dampen the fighting spirit of the men in the ranks.
Obviously, many soldiers rather enjoyed this situation: they would have been more than content to stick out the war lounging around barracks, doing the odd parade or field march, otherwise finding ways of making it look as if they were busy. But there were thousands who were not content, young men who had joined up because they really did want to be soldiers, really did want to fight for King and Country, really did seek some action and excitement. In the spring of 1942, their opportunity came: Britain had decided to create an airborne army under the command of Major-General F. A. M. 'Boy' Browning. This would be the 1st Airborne Division, and volunteers were being called for.
Browning had already become a legendary figure in the army. Noted especially for his tough discipline, he looked like a movie star, dressed with flair, and was married to the novelist Daphne du Maurier. It was she who in 1942 suggested a red beret for airborne troops, with Bellerophon astride winged Pegasus as the airborne shoulder patch and symbol, pale blue on a maroon background.
Wally Parr was one of the thousands who responded to the call to wear the red beret. He had joined the army in February, 1939, at the age of 16 (he was one of more than a dozen in D Company, Ox and Bucks, who lied about their age to enlist). Posted to an infantry regiment, he had spent three years 'never doing a damn thing that really mattered. Putting up barbed wire, taking it down the next day, moving it... .Never fired a rifle, never did a thing'. So he volunteered for airborne, passed the physical, and was accepted into the Ox and Bucks, just then forming up as an air landing unit, and assigned to D Company. After three days in his new outfit, he asked for an interview with the commander, Major John Howard.
'Ah, yes, Parr', Howard said as Parr was marched into his office. 'What can I do for you?'
'I want to get out'. Parr stated. Howard stared at him. 'But you just got in.' 'Yes, sir', Parr responded, 'and I spent the lasty three days weeding around the barracks block. That's not what I came for. I want to transfer from here to the paras. I want the real thing, what I volunteered for, not these stupid gliders, of which we don't have any anyway.'
'Now you take it easy', Howard replied. 'Just wait.' And he dismissed Parr without another word. Leaving the office, Parr thought to himself, 'I'd better be careful with this fellow'.
In truth, Parr as yet had no idea just how tough his new company commander was. Howard was born December 8, 1912, eldest of nine children in a working-class London family. From the time John was two years old until he was six, his father. Jack Howard, was off in France, fighting the Great War. When Jack returned he got a job with Courage brewery, making barrels. John's mother, Ethel, a dynamic woman, managed to keep them in clean clothes and adequately fed. John recalls, 'I spent the best part of my childhood, up to the age of thirteen or fourteen, pushing prams, helping out with the shopping, and doing all that sort of thing'.
John's one great pleasure in life was the Boy Scouts. The Scouts got him out of London for weekend camps, and in the summer he would get a fortnight's camp somewhere in the country. His chums in Camden Town did not approve: they made fun of his short pants 'and generally made my life Hell'. Not even his younger brothers would stick with the Scouts. But John did. He loved the out-door life, the sports and the competition.
John's other great passion was school. He was good at his studies, especially maths, and won a scholarship to secondary school. But the financial situation at home was such that he had to go to work, so he passed up the scholarship and instead, at age fourteen, took a full-time job as a clerk with a firm of stockbrokers. He also took evening classes five nights a week in English, maths, accounting, economics, typing, shorthand, anything that he thought would be useful in his work. But in the summer of 1931, when he returned to London from Scout camp, he discovered that his firm had been hammered on the stock exchange and he was out of a job.
By this time the younger Howard children were growing, taking up more space, and the house was bursting. John offered to move out, to find a flat and a job of his own. His mother would not hear of his breaking up the family, however, so he decided to run off and enlist in the army.
He went into the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. The older soldiers, Howard found, were 'very rough and tough. ... I freely admit I cried my eyes out for the first couple of nights when I was in the barracks room with these toughs and wondered if I'd survive.'
In fact, he began to stand out. In recruit training, at Shrewsbury, he excelled in sports - cross-country running, swimming, boxing, all things he had done in the Scouts. To his great benefit the British army of 1932, like most peacetime regular armies everywhere, was fanatical about sports competition between platoons, companies, battalions. When John joined his battalion, at Colchester, the company commander immediately made him the company clerk, a cushy job that left him with plenty of free time for sports. Then he was sent on an education course, to learn to teach, and when he returned he was put to teaching physical education and school subjects to recruits, and to competing both for his company and battalion in various events.
That was all right, but John's ambitions reached higher. He decided to try for a commission, based on his sports record, his educational qualifications - all those night courses - and his high scores on army exams. But getting a commission from the ranks in the peacetime army was almost impossible, and he was turned down. He did get a promotion to corporal, and transferred to teach in the school at the Regimental Depot at Shrewsbury.
And he met Joy Bromley. It was a blind date, John being dragged along simply because his buddy had two girls to look after. Joy was supposed to be his buddy's date, but John took one look at her and lost his heart forever. Joy was only sixteen (she lied and told John she was seventeen), slim but with a handsome figure, pert in her face, lively in her carriage, quick to laugh, full of conversation. She had come on the date reluctantly - her people were in the retail trade in Church Stretton near Shrewsbury, she had already been dating a boy from Cambridge, and, as she told her friend, 'I'm not allowed to go out with soldiers'. 'Well, it's only for coffee', her friend persisted, 'and I've made a promise'. So Joy went, and over the coffee she and John talked, the words, the laughs, the stories bubbling out. At the train station, John kissed her good -night.
That was in 1936, and a courtship ensued. At first it was secretive, Joy fearing her mother's disapproval. They met under a large copper beech tree at the foot of the garden at Joy's house. John did not much care for this sneaking around, however, and he decided to proceed on a direct line. He announced to Joy that he was going to see her mother. 'Well, I nearly died', Joy recalled. 'I thought mother wouldn't see him', and if she did, then 'she would flail me for making such an acquaintance'. But Mrs Bromley and John got along splendidly; she told Joy, 'You've got a real man there'. In April, 1937, they were engaged, promising Joy's mother they would wait until Joy was older before marrying.
In 1938, John's enlistment came to an end. In June, he joined the Oxford City Police force. After a tough, extended training course at the Police College in Birmingham, in which he came in second of 200, he began walking the streets of Oxford at night. He found it 'quite an experience. You are on your own, you know, anything can happen.'
It was here, on the streets of Oxford at midnight, with the young undergraduates staggering their way home, the occasional thief, the odd robbery, the accidents, the pub staying open after closing hour, that John Howard first came into his own. He had already demonstrated that he was reliable, exceedingly fit, a natural leader in games, a marvellous athlete himself, in short one of those you would look to for command of an infantry platoon, perhaps even a company, in time of war. But these qualities he shared with thousands of other young men. However admirable, they were hardly unique. What was unique was Howard's love of night. Not because it gave him an opportunity to indulge in some petty graft, or bash in a few heads - far from it. He loved the night because while walking his beat he had to be constantly alert.
He was a man of the most extraordinary energy, so much energy that he could not burn it off even with daily ten-mile runs and twenty miles of walking the beat. What could burn it off was the mental effort required at every corner, past every tree, literally with every step. Expecting only the unexpected, he was always on his own, with no one to turn to for reinforcements or advice. To be so intense, for such a long period of time, through the dark hours, brought Howard to a full use of all his gifts and powers. He was a creature of the night; he loved the challenge of darkness.
Howard stayed with the police until after the war began. On October 28,1939, he and Joy were married. On December 2, he was recalled for duty as a full corporal with the 5th Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry, and within two weeks he was a sergeant. One month later he was Company Sergeant Major. In April, he became an Acting Regimental Sergeant Major, so he jumped from corporal to regimental sergeant major in six months, something of a record even in wartime. And in May, his Brigadier offered him a chance at a commission.
He hesitated. Being Regimental Sergeant Major meant being the top man, responsible only to the commanding officer, the real backbone of the regiment. Why give that up to be a subaltern? Further, as Howard explained to his wife, he did not have a very high opinion of the incoming second lieutenants and did not think he wanted to be a part of them. Joy brushed all his objections aside and told him that he absolutely must try for the commission. Her reaction ended his hesitance, and he went off to OCTU - Officer Cadet Training Unit - in June, 1940.
On passing out, he requested the Ox and Bucks, because he liked the association with Oxford and he liked light infantry. His first posting was to the Regimental Depot at Oxford. Within a fortnight he feared he had made a terrible mistake. The Ox and Bucks were 'a good county regiment' with a full share of battle honours, at Bunker Hill, in the Peninsula, at the Battle of New Orleans, Waterloo, and in the Great War. Half the regiment had just come back from India. All the officers came from the upper classes. It was in the nature of things for them to be snobbish, especially to a working-class man who had been a cop and had come up from the ranks. In brief, the officers cut Howard. They meant it to be sharp and cruel, and it was, and it hurt.
After two weeks of the silent treatment, Howard phoned Joy, then living with her family in Shropshire. 'You'd better plan to move here', he told her. 'Because it's just horrible and I need some encouragement or I am not going to stick it. I don't have to put up with this.' Joy promised him she would move quickly.
The following morning, on the parade ground, Howard was putting four squads through different kinds of training. He already had his men sharp enough to do some complicated manoeuvres. When he dismissed the squads, he turned to see his colonel standing behind him. In a quiet voice, the colonel asked, 'Why don't you bring your wife here, Howard?' It was a sure indication that the C.O. wanted to keep him in Oxford and not follow the normal routine of being posted to a Battalion. Within a week, they had found a flat in Oxford and John had been accepted by his fellow officers.
Soon he was a captain with his own company, which he trained for the next year. At the beginning of 1942, he learned that a decision had been taken for the 2nd Battalion of the Ox and Bucks to go airborne in gliders. No one was forced to go airborne; every officer and trooper was given a choice. About 30 per cent declined the opportunity to wear the red beret, and another 20 per cent were weeded out in the physical exam. It was meant to be an elite regiment. The sergeant major came to the Ox and Bucks specially posted from the outside, and he was everything a regimental sergeant major from the Guards' Honour Regiment should be. Wally Parr speaks of the man's overpowering personality: 'That first day', says Parr, 'he called the whole bleeding company together on parade. And he looked at us, and we looked at him, and we both knew who was boss.'
Howard himself had to give up his company and his captaincy to go airborne, but he did not hesitate. He reverted to lieutenant and platoon leader in order to become an airborne officer. In three weeks, his colonel promoted him and gave him command ofD Company. Shortly after that, in May of 1942, he was promoted to major.
The men of D Company - half from the original Ox and Bucks, half from volunteers drawn from every branch of the army -came from all over the United Kingdom, and from every class and occupation. What they had in common was that they were young, fit, eager to be trained, ready for excitement. They were the kind of troops every company commander wishes he could have.
Howard's platoon leaders also came from different backgrounds. Two were Cambridge students when they volunteered, and one was a graduate of the University of Bristol. But the oldest lieutenant, at age twenty-six, was Den Brotheridge, who, like Howard, had come up from the ranks. Indeed, Howard had originally recommended Den, then a corporal at the Regimental Depot, for OCTU. His fellow platoon leaders were a bit uneasy about Den when he first joined up; as one of them explained, 'He wasn't one of us, you know'. Den played football rather than rugby. But, the officer immediately added, 'You couldn't help but like him'. Den was a first-class athlete, good enough that it was freely predicted he would become a professional football player after the war.
Captain Brian Friday was Howard's second-in-command. Six feet tall, a quiet steady type, Friday was ideal for the job. He and Howard hit it off, helped by the fact that Friday's father had also been in the Oxford Police force. Friday himself had been in the motor car trade. He was in his mid-twenties. Lieutenants Tod Sweeney and Tony Hooper were in their early twenties; Lieutenant David Wood was all of nineteen years old, fresh out of OCTU. 'My gracious', Howard thought to himself when Wood reported, 'he is going to be a bit too young for the toughies in my company'. But, Howard added, 'David was so keen and bubbling with enthusiasm I thought, "well, we've got to make something of him". So I gave him a young soldier platoon with mature NCOs.'
Sweeney describes himself and his fellow subalterns as 'irresponsible young men. Life was very light-hearted, there was a war on, lots of fun for us. John was a dedicated and serious trainer and we were rather like young puppies he was trying to train.'
Brotheridge provided enthusiasm and humour for the group. He would gather the platoon leaders together, then read to them from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. They could scarcely get through a sentence without breaking down in peals of laughter. Weekend evenings they would drop into the lobby of the local hotel, where a good number of'dear old ladies from London, who wanted to escape the bombing, had taken up residence for the duration'. Den and his cohorts would sit properly enough, but then Den would start whispering orders. The grandfather clock was the objective - David was to sneak behind the sofa, climb over the bar, go through the kitchen, and attack the clock from the rear; Tod should leap out the window, dash around to the door, end charge in to attack from the side -and so on. Then Den would shout, 'Go', and the ladies watched aghast as these young men dashed about.
Howard was pleased with his company, officers and men. He especially liked having so many Londoners in it. The regiment moved to Bulford, where D Company was given a spider block, near the barracks but separate from it. So, Howard notes, 'right from the first there was an atmosphere of D Company being on its own'. He set out to make it into both a family and a first-class combat unit.
In North Africa, Hans von Luck was fighting in the only war he ever enjoyed. As commander of the armed reconnaissance battalion on Rommel's extreme right (southern) flank, he enjoyed a certain independence, and so did his British opposite number. The two commanding officers agreed to fight a civilised war. Every day at 5 p.m. the war shut down, the British to brew up their tea, the Germans their coffee. At about 5:15, von Luck and the British commander would communicate over the radio. 'Well', von Luck might say, 'we captured so-and-so today, and he's fine, and he sends his love to his mother, tell her not to worry'. Once von Luck learned that the British had received a month's supply of cigarettes. He offered to trade a captured officer for one million cigarettes. The British countered with an offer of 600,000. Done, said von Luck. But the British prisoner was outraged. He said the ransom was insufficient. He insisted he was worth the million and refused to be exchanged.
One evening, an excited corporal reported that he had just stolen a British truck, jammed with tinned meat and other delicacies. Von Luck looked at his watch - it was past 6 p.m. -and told the corporal he would have to take it back, as he had captured it after 5. The corporal protested that this was war and anyway the troops were already gathering in the goods from the truck. Von Luck called Rommel, his mentor in military academy. He said he was suspicious of British moves further south and thought he ought to go out on a two-day reconnaissance. Could another battalion take his place for that time? Rommel agreed. The new battalion arrived in the morning.
That night, at 5:30 p.m., just as von Luck had anticipated, the British stole two supply trucks.
Heinrich Hickman, meanwhile, had gone through the campaigns in Holland, Belgium and France of 1940 as a gunner on an 88mm gun. In 1941, he volunteered for the parachute regiment, and went to Spandau for jump school. In May, 1942, he was in the middle of his training.
In Warsaw, Vern Bonck was doing his best to stay out of the German conscription net by working with extra efficiency at his lathe. Helmut Romer, fourteen years old, was finishing his school year in Berlin.
At the bridge over the Caen canal, there were as yet no elaborate defences, and only a tiny garrison. Still, the garrison was large enough to make the lives of the people ofBenouville, Le Port, and Ranville miserable. The Germans helped themselves to the best of everything, paid for what they did purchase with nearly worthless printing-press francs, took all the young men away for slave labour, made travel even within the country almost impossible, imposed a curfew, and shot dissenters. By May, 1942, the Gondrees had decided to do something about it. Georges joined the local Resistance, which advised him to stay put and use his situation to gather information on the bridges and their defence. This he could easily do on the basis of what his wife heard in the cafe. Let there be no mistake about this action - the Gondrees knew that if the Germans caught them, they would be first tortured, then hanged. But they persisted.
In May, 1942, Jim Wallwork was also in training camp. Jim was a Manchester lad who had volunteered for the army at age 19, in 1939. His father, who had been an artilleryman in the Great War, had advised him, 'Whatever you do, Jim, don't for God's sake join the infantry. Get in the artillery, the biggest gun you can find; if possible, the railway gun.' Naturally, Jim ended up in the infantry, bored to tears, although he did make it to sergeant. He tried to transfer out, into the Royal Air Force, but his commanding officer blocked the move because he wanted to keep Wallwork with him.
Then in early 1942, when a call went out for volunteers for the Glider Pilots Regiment, Jim signed up. By spring he was training at Tilshead, Salisbury Plain. 'It was rather rough', he recalled, 'because I was doing my own equipment, polishing my own brass, going on those God-awful run-marches, and drills, and all sorts of that nonsense.' What he most feared, what every man in the Glider Pilots Regiment most feared, were the letters, 'RTU'. They stood for Return to Unit, and they meant disgrace, failure. Jim managed to stick it, and by May, 1942, he was at flight training school, learning to fly a small aeroplane.
Howard's own family was growing. Joy, living with relatives at Church Stretton, was pregnant. During the war Howard was a virtual teetotaller, partly because he wanted to keep a clear mind, partly because 'I saw the mess a lot of people were getting into, making bloody fools of themselves, and I wanted to set an example for my own subalterns'. The child was due in late June but not actually born until July 12. During the fortnight between the due date and the actual delivery, Howard was so irritable and bad-tempered that his subalterns found him unapproachable. When news of the successful delivery arrived in Bulford, everyone was so relieved that a huge party developed. Howard, drinking straight shots of whisky 'to wet the baby's head', got royally drunk.
By July, Howard was pretty much on his own, allowed by his colonel to set his own training pace and schedule. Initially he put the emphasis on teaching the men the skills of the light infantryman. He taught them to be marksmen with their rifles, with the light machine-gun, with the carbine and the pistol, with the Piat and other anti-tank weapons. He instructed them in the many types of grenades, their characteristics and special uses.
The basic weapons of a gliderborne platoon of thirty men included the Enfield .303 rifle, the Sten carbine, the Bren light machine gun, 2" and 3" mortars, and the Piat (projector infantry anti-tank). The Enfield was the old reliable British rifle. One or two men in each platoon were snipers, each equipped with a telescopic sight for his rifle. The Sten was a 9mm submachine gun that reflected Britain's inability to produce quality weapons for her troops. The Sten was mass-produced, and distributed to thousands of fighting men, not because it was good but because it was cheap. It could be fired single-shot or automatic, but the weapon frequently jammed and too often it went off on its own. In 1942 David Wood accidentally shot Den Brotheridge in the leg with his Sten, in fact, after forgetting to put the safety-catch back on. Brotheridge recovered, and indeed he, like all the officers, carried the Sten by choice. Weighing only seven pounds and measuring thirty inches in length, it had an effective range of a hundred yards and used a box magazine holding thirty-two rounds. For all its shortcomings, it was deadly in close-in combat - if it worked.
The Bren gun was a light machine gun, weighing twenty-three pounds, normally fired on the ground from a tripod, but also from the hip. It had an effective range of 500 yards and a rate of fire of 120 rounds per minute. There was one Bren gunner per platoon; everyone in the platoon helped carry the thirty-round magazines for him. In rate of fire, in depend ability, and by other measurements, the Bren was inferior to its German counterpart, the MG 34, just as the Sten was inferior to the German Schmeisser.
The Piat was a hand-held rocket, fired from the shoulder, that threw a three -pound bomb through a barrel at high trajectory and a speed of about 300 feet per second. The hollow charged bomb exploded on impact. Effective range was supposed to be 100 yards, but the men of D Company could never get more than 50 yards out of the Piat. Being spring-loaded, Piats were inaccurate and subject to frequent jamming. They also had a nasty habit of glancing off the target unexploded. No one liked them very much, but all got proficient with them.
They all also learned to use a Gammon bomb, a plastic explosive charge developed from the 'Sticky Bomb' and designed by Captain Gammon of the paratroopers. You could throw one with a stick and it would cling to the clogs of a tank, or even throw it by hand (as long as it did not stick to the hand). Except for the Piat, Gammon bombs were all a glider platoon had to fight tanks, and the men learned what they had to know about them. Much of the training was with live ammunition, which caused some accidents and an occasional death, but the British had learned from Dieppe that it was essential to expose green troops to live ammunition before sending them into combat.
Howard taught his men about German weapons, how to use them, what they could do. He taught them how to lay and find mines, how to take them up. He gave them a working knowledge of elementary first aid, of cooking in a billy can, of the importance of keeping clean. He made certain that they could recognise the smell of various poison gases, and knew what to do if attacked by them. He insisted that every man in his company be proficient in the use of natural and artificial camouflage, and know how to read a topographical map. His men had to know how to use a field wireless, how to drive various army vehicles. Most of all, Howard put the emphasis on teaching them to think quickly. They were elite, he told them, they were glider-borne troops, and wherever and whenever it was that they attacked the enemy, they could be sure of the need for quick thinking and quick response.
Howard's emphasis on technical training went a bit beyond what the other company commanders were doing, but only just a bit. Each of Howard's associates were commanding top-quality volunteers, and were volunteers themselves, outstanding officers. What was different about D Company was its commander's mania for physical fitness. It went beyond anything anyone in the regiment had ever seen before. All the regiment prided itself on being fit (one officer from B Company described himself as a physical-fitness fanatic), but all were amazed, and a bit critical, of the way Howard pushed his company fitness programme.
D Company's day began with a five-mile cross-country run, done at a speed of seven or eight minutes to the mile. After that the men dressed, ate breakfast, and then spent the day on training exercises, usually strenuous. In the late afternoon, Howard insisted that everyone engage in some sport or another. His own favourites were the individual endeavours, crosscountry running, swimming, and boxing, but he encouraged football, rugby, and any sport that would keep his lads active until bedtime.
Those were regular days. Twice a month, Howard would take the whole company out for two or three days, doing field\ exercises, sleeping rough. He put them through gruelling marches and soon they became an outstanding marching unit. Wally Parr swears - and a number of his comrades back him up - that they could do twenty-two miles, in full pack, including the Brens, mortars and ammunition, in under five and one-half hours. When they got back from such a march. Parr relates, 'you would have a foot inspection, get a bite to eat, and then in the afternoon face a choice: either play football or go for a cross-country run'.
All the officers, including Howard, did everything the men did. All of them had been athletes themselves, and loved sports and competition. The sports and the shared misery on the forced marches were bringing officers and men closer together. David Wood was exceedingly popular with his platoon, as was Tod Sweeney, in his own quiet way, with his. But Brotheridge stood out. He played the men's game, football, and as a former corporal himself he had no sense of being ill at ease among the men. He would come into their barracks at night, sit on the bed of his batman. Billy Gray, and talk football with the lads. He got to bringing his boots along, and shining them as he talked. Wally Parr never got over the sight of a British lieutenant polishing his boots himself while his batman lay back on his bed, gassing on about Manchester United and West Ham and other football teams.
Howard's biggest problem was boredom. He wracked his brains to find different ways of doing the same things, to put some spontaneity into the training. His young heroes had many virtues, but patience was not one of them. The resulting morale problem extended far beyond D Company, obviously, and late in the summer of 1942, General Gale sent the whole regiment to Devonshire for two months of cliff climbing, and other strenuous training. He then decided to march the regiment back to Bulford, some 130 miles. Naturally, it would be a competition between the companies.
The first two days were the hottest of the summer, and the men were marching in serge, ringing with sweat. After the second day, they pleaded for permission to change to lighter gear. It was granted, and over the next two days a cold, hard rain beat down on their inadequately-covered bodies.
Howard marched up and down the column, urging his men on. He had a walking stick, an old army one with an inch of brass on the bottom. His company clerk and wireless operator, Corporal Tappenden, offered the major the use of his bike. He refused, growling. 'I'm leading my company'. From gripping the stick his hands grew more blisters than Tappenden's feet, and he wore away all the brass on the end of it. But he kept marching.
On the morning of the fourth day, when Howard roused the men and ordered them to fall in, Wally Parr and his friend Jack Bailey waddled out on their knees. When Howard asked them what they thought they were doing, Wally replied that he and Jack had worn away the bottom half of their legs. But they got up and marched. 'Mad bastard', the men whispered among themselves after Howard had moved off. 'Mad, ambitious bastard. He'll get us all killed.' But they marched.
D Company got back to base on the evening of the fifth day, marching in at 145 steps to the minute and singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers'. Loudly. They came in first in the regiment, by half a day. Howard had lost only two men out of 120. (His stick, however, became so worn that he had to throw it away.)
Howard had radioed ahead, and had hot showers and meals waiting for the men. As the officers began to undress for their showers, Howard told them to button up. They had to go do a foot inspection of the men, then watch to make sure they all showered properly, check on the quality and quantity of their food, and inspect the barracks to see that the beds were ready. By the time the officers got to shower, the hot water was gone; by the time they got to eat, only cold leftovers remained. But not a one of them had let Howard down.
'From then on', Howard recalls, 'we didn't follow the normal pattern of training.' His colonel gave him even more flexibility, and the transport to make it meaningful. Howard started taking his company to Southampton, or London, or Portsmouth, to conduct street fighting exercises in the bombed-out areas. There were plenty to choose from, and it did not matter how much damage D Company did, so all the exercises were with live ammunition.
Howard was putting together an oustanding light infantry company.