In 1943, Sergeants Holmes and Bateman from the 111th carefully recorded their names on the wall at Crownhill Fort.
In June 1944, Plymouth Sound was bursting with ships and the city was packed with thousands of uniformed men. Vast numbers of tanks and guns were stored around the city, with the constant buzz of training and preparation.
Suddenly one morning, Plymothians awoke to find the city eerily deserted. All the ships, men and their machines were gone. It was June 6th 1944, D-Day.
Instead of advancing up the heavily-fortified beaches, the 111th were presented with mayhem and a coastline awash with the dead.
Their colleagues in the Stonewall Brigade had been hit the hardest, over one third – over 1000 men – were killed or wounded in the first wave. The first ten minutes were a disaster. Several companies no longer existed at all, obliterated by the firepower of the German forces entrenched in the ridge forts above the beach. Even the Germans were astonished and dismayed by the slaughter they witnessed. The German commander made this report to his headquarters:
At the water’s edge at low tide, the enemy is in search of cover behind the coastal obstacles. A great many vehicles – among these 10 tanks – stand burning at the beach. The obstacles demolition squads have given up their activity. Debarkation from the landing boats has ceased, the boats keep farther seawards. The fire of our strong points and artillery was well placed and has inflicted considerable casualties among the enemy. A great many wounded and dead lie on the beach.
There were so many dead that there was no room on the beaches for the next wave of soldiers to land. In the chaos, Bateman and Holmes found themselves on the beach under fire with no artillery and no radios to warn their colleagues of the situation. The amphibious trucks that had been transporting their new 105mm howitzers to the shore had either been hit by German forces or swamped, sinking in the English Channel.
The truck with Bateman and Holmes’s guns was struck by a wave and sank while being launched. Another six amphibious trucks sank while circling for six hours, waiting to land.
The survivors of the 111th gathered on the shore, under fire and aware that all their training had come to nothing. Suddenly their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins announced to his disheartened and terrified men: “To hell with our artillery mission. We’ve got to be infantry men now”
They grabbed rifles from the dead and moved along the seawall, urged on by their resolute commander, only for their commander to be shot by a sniper’s bullet.
The two men who had written their names so proudly on the walls of Crownhill Fort, Sergeants J S Holmes and W J Bateman, are not on the list of casualties. They made it home, back to Virginia.
This story is from Bloody British History: Plymouth