Extract from RE Museum website article: ‘6th Airborne Divisional Engineers – D Day 1944’ (2006)
The 6 Airborne Division Postal Unit RE, was formed in late 1943, under the command of Captain JCG Hine RE. The unit was based at Kiwi Barracks, Bulford with an establishment of 1 officer and 25 other ranks.
Although at first there was little enthusiasm among the Divisional Staff for the Division’s ‘Postmen’ to take part in the actual airborne assault on the Continent, it was however finally decided that in the interest of administrative efficiency and the maintenance of morale that elements of the unit should accompany the assault forces prior to H Hour.
On 31 May the Division was sealed in its marshalling camp at Tarrant Rushton, its postal unit provided the only official link for the private soldier to the outside world. To maintain security all private outgoing mail was collected by the postal unit and forwarded to holding offices where it was not released into the postal system until after the news of the landings had been made public knowledge by the news agencies. The last delivery of mail to the assault troops was made on D-1 (5 June).
The plan was that the Captain Hine and five others (Sergeant [Noles?], Corporal Wakefield, Sappers Huggins, Lloyd and Griffiths) were to travel in the gliders and Lance Corporal Holme and Sappers Thornton, Woodhurst and Harper with the parachutists (attached to 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron RE) while a ‘follow-up’ group of 12 men were to come in by sea on D+1 or D+2. It was intended that the first 10 ‘posties’ should set up a Field Post Office (FPO) on D Day which was to be located near the Division Headquarters (Div HQ – Château du Heaume, Ranville) in the Divisional Maintenance Area (DMA) and to be operational by D+1 (7 June).
Captain JCG Hine RE who travelled with the gliders later wrote of his experiences:
“It did not seem long before we were on our way to the airfield. We took our seats in the glider and then we were off. With nothing to do, my imagination began to run riot, and after a time I began to wonder where we were. I had worked out that we must have been in the air for something like three hours, when suddenly someone shouted that we were over the coast. I felt cold. A few more minutes and the tow rope went and then we were down to a rough landing. The glider was groaning, cracking and splitting open. Someone was shouting “Out”. There seemed to be a hell of a noise going on. I grabbed my tin hat, and marvelled at the sense of security it seemed to give me.
Then I was out.
Nearby, a glider went up in flames and another straddled a wall. It was as though all hell had been let loose and I thought “if ever I get out of this, I shall be lucky”. I wondered how my “jumper” lads had fared. (Later I found to my dismay that one had been wounded in the leg and thigh and another in the backside.) I’d no idea where we were, but discovered afterwards that we had come down west of Ranville, and close to one of the bridges over the River Orne which had been seized earlier by men of the Division who had crash landed in gliders right on target. It seemed to me at the time that the chances of getting a postal service started were about as good as those of winning the pools.
Then, all at once, the organisation began to take over. Someone was shepherding us off the landing zone and I remembered I’d got to make my way to Div HQ, where ever that might be. I saw a military policeman and asked him if he knew where Div HQ was. Pointing to a lane, he said, “Up there”. I set out and, after walking for what seemed to be about half a mile, came to a house which, wonder of wonders, turned out to be Div HQ. Standing there was the DAQMG who wanted to know what sort of trip I’d had and which way I had approached Div HQ. He said, “You’re lucky to have made it, old man. There are snipers busy down there and they have already got seven or eight chaps”. He also said there was a lot of activity between the Div area and the coast and that it was out of the question, for the time being, to think of getting back to the beaches to collect and dispose of mail as had been planned.
A short time afterwards, one of my corporals turned up. He’d left the UK with a stock of stamps and some other postal equipment but had become parted from it in the shock of landing. Having reported in, he went back to the landing zone, and after a search which took some time, he came back with the missing items intact.
Soon others of my lads reported in and we “set up shop” in a barn in the Div area. Conditions were pretty primitive and we spent a lot of time in the slit trenches. But from D+1 [7 June 1944], post orderlies called daily and we despatched outgoing mail. How we got back to the beaches to make the despatches is another story, but we did, and I have personal proof that the mails despatched got home for, on D+5 [11 June 1944], my mother (a widow) received some Ranville butter wrapped in cabbage leaves in my emergency ration tin”.
On D+2 (8 June) members of the unit managed to make their way to ‘Sword’ beach where they contacted the Beach Group Army Post Office S698 and with them had the distinction of making the first mail despatch from Normandy. The following day Cpl Wakefield and Spr Thornton were wounded by mortar fire when crossing the bridge over River Orne on D+3 (9 June).
On 10 June (D+4) the first element of the seaborne party of one corporal and four sappers arrived at the DMA. It was not until 13 June (D+7) that the Division received its first mail delivery in the field. The mail had been forwarded through 30 Corps Postal Unit RE, who landed on ‘Gold’ beach on Saturday 11 June (D+7). The following day mail was dropped by parachute. The unit returned to the UK over the period 7-9 September 1944.
Simon Fenwick MSc MBA (2006)