Lest We Forget Continued (page 20)
8311885 Staff Sergeant Herbert Victor OCKWELL.
1st Wing Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corps. Killed in Action 6th June 1944, Age 27.
During April 1944, a plan was devised for the assault and elimination of a German coastal gun battery near Merville, some one and a half miles from the Normandy coast of France. The gun battery was believed to consist of four 150mm calibre guns capable of firing on Sword Beach, the planned landing area of the British 3rd Division on D Day. The neutralisation of the battery was vital to the success of the sea-borne troops. The assault plan was for the main body, 600 paratroops of 9th Parachute Battalion, to drop on DZV early in the morning of D-Day and, equipped with anti-tank guns, mine detectors, flame throwers, explosives and bridging ladders, carried in two Horsa gliders which would also land on DZV, move to and assault the battery. At the same time (0430 hours) as the main body attacked, three Horsa gliders piloted by volunteers from the Glider Pilot Regiment and carrying a coup de main party of fifty paratroops of “A” Company, 9 th Parachute Battalion and eight Royal Engineers from 591 Parachute Squadron would crash land on the battery complex. Just before the ground assault the RAF would bomb the battery with 99 Lancaster bombers for ten minutes. It was hoped that the bombing of the Merville battery would stun the defenders and blow gaps through the minefields and barbed wire defences. In fact this was to have disastrous results for the glider pilots on their approach to the landing zone. The smoke from the bombing raid made it difficult to distinguish anything clearly on the ground.
Airlife Publishing Limited of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England have very kindly given permission to use the following material on Lance/Sergeant Herbert Victor Ockwell from the book – “One Night in June” by Kevin Shannon and Stephen Wright which was published in 1994 in the UK.
One of the gliders involved in “Operation Tonga”, and the assault on the Merville Battery was Horsa glider Chalk number 66 of “A” Squadron piloted by Staff Sergeant Vic Ockwell, and his second pilot Staff Sergeant Ron Hellyer of the Glider Pilot Regiment. Their glider carried a very mixed load: Five sappers from 591 Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers accompanied a jeep and trailer full of explosives, also on board were the bridging sections for crossing the anti tank ditch of the Merville Battery, a motor cycle and a war correspondent. Before take off Ron Hellyer remembers vividly, drawing in chalk on the nose of Horsa HS 129 the insignia “Wombat Mkl” and Vic (Ockwell) writing his wife’s name “Sybil” on the other side.
They took off in wave two from RAF Harwell in Berkshire at 2315 hours on 5th June 1944, towed by an Albemarle (V1620) of 570 Squadron RAF piloted by Squadron Leader Grice. S/Sgt. Ron Hellyer remembers the problems caused by the bombing raid on the battery by the Lancasters. “We were completely engulfed in thick black smoke and were being battered by gale force winds. Our tug had vanished from view and I know that our pitching and rolling and yawing must have made his Albemarles flying attitude impossible. Whether we were released or our tow- rope broke, I will never know, but suddenly we were in free flight. Vic (Ockwell) grabbed the controls and released our tow-rope. As we were still over the sea, I left my seat and told our troops to stand by for ditching. I picked up our fire axe and as Vic nodded in agreement, I hacked away at the cockpit screen in front of me.
Regaining my seat and strapping myself in I noticed that we were just crossing from sea to land at about 900 ft and ASI of 80-85 mph. Beneath us were concrete fortifications, fields and hedges and thin lines of green and red tracer glancing up at us. Vic was calm as usual and flying straight and level whilst we were both searching for recognisable objects or even a lighted landing zone. Being over land I shouted back to the troops to cancel ditching and prepare for a crash landing. We were now at about 400 feet and Vic suddenly applied flap and I saw we were headed for what looked like a ploughed field. Vic, superb, unflappable Vic, was in complete control. Nothing was said – we had a gale blowing in through the shattered perspex which deafened us. Then it seemed as if hell had broken loose. Our port wing must have fouled an anti-landing post, or some other immovable object. The aircraft slewed violently to port and bashed its nose into the ground. The noise of splintering and crashing was horrendous and then I knew nothing more. In the remains of his Horsa Ron Hellyer was drifting in and out of consciousness. Next time I opened my eyes there was no one about. I could still not move my body, but found that my arms and legs would move”.
After a while he realised what had happened, he had been thrown through the windscreen still strapped in his seat with part of the cockpit floor still attached. After releasing himself he found he was unarmed. He hid in a dense thicket overnight, the next day he saw German soldiers carrying some bodies from the wrecked glider.
He goes on to say:
“I don’t know for sure how many or who they were, but I think I was the only survivor.” Ron Hellyer was captured before he reached Allied lines and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. This probably explains the reason why Staff Sergeant Vic Ockwell is buried in St Marie Cemetery, Le Havre, which is some distance away from the actual dropping zone. Le Havre is an important French town and port on the north side of the estuary of the River Seine. It is the terminus of the Paris-Le Havre railway line. St Marie cemetery is one of the town cemeteries, but is actually situated in the commune of Granville-St Honorine.
Herbert Victor Ockwell was the son of William G. and Rose Ockwell, and husband of Dyfi Sybil E. Ockwell of Newtown, Montgomeryshire. During the war S/Sgt. Vic Ockwell lived with his brother, Bill Ockwell, and sister in law Gladys, at Inglesham, Highworth.
The following information has kindly been given by Doctor Tony LEAKE, ex 8th Parachute Battalion, who lives in Rottingdean, Brighton. He also very kindly put me in touch with Denis Edwards, and Bill Elvin, (both ex Normandy veterans,} regarding Jesse Cheesley and Peter Ely.
On the evening of 5th June 1944, Tony Leake, who was a young Rifleman in 8th Para Bn. was at Blakehill Farm, airfield near Cricklade with the rest of the battalion ready for take off for the invasion of France. It was at about 2300 hours on 5th June when they enplaned in Dakotas of 233, 271 and 575 Squadrons RAF and dropped in Normandy about 0500 hours British Double Summer Time (6th June).
He was with his battalion during some severe fighting until the 17th August when he was shot up by a German machine-gun. Three bullets went through his smock but luckily he only had superficial wounds. After treatment he rejoined his battalion, and later jumped again over the Rhine on 24th March 1945.
After the war he went to medical school and qualified as a doctor in 1954. He was a GP for thirty-four years and retired in 1988. Since his retirement he has been doing research about the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. Some of his articles have been published in Pegasus Journal and in the Eagle. In a letter from Dr Tony Leake he writes:
You may be interested to know that a soldier of 8th Parachute Battalion was killed on 6th June 1944, and is buried in Watchfield Cemetery. He is 3600656 Private NW. RICHARDSON, and was killed by flak whilst waiting to jump. The rest of the stick jumped and his body was brought back to England, presumably to RAF Watchfield. (Most likely to RAF Blakehill Farm). As far as is known Private Richardson was the only parachutist in 8th Para Bn. who was killed by flak when over Normandy. He was 25 years old when killed in action, and is buried in Grave 278 in Watchfield Military Cemetery, Berkshire. (Now Oxon).