WWII BRITISH & AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN WALDITCH
In September 1939, Walditch was a much smaller village than it is nowadays. There were no Manor Fields or Valley View. Uplands was only partially built, none of the 20th century infill houses existed nor the houses converted from farm buildings. There was no village green and the school had been closed in 1922. The Real Tennis Court was no longer used for its original purpose.
Walditch was mainly a community of tenant farmers and farm workers. The Hyde, owned by Mr and Mrs Joe Gundry, had domestic staff and a team of gardeners. They also had a home farm, dairy house and cottages and were the principle land owners in the village.
Walditch had a small village shop at the T Junction and a post office still identifiable as “Ye Olde Post Office”. There was also a reading room, but no pub.
It can reasonably be assumed most of the villagers would have known little of life beyond Bridport, so the arrival of British soldiers in 1939 and American soldiers in 1943 must have been quite a culture shock. However it does seem once they had settled in and got to know each other, they generally got on well and friendships formed.
The government had absolute power to requisition houses and land for the war effort.
229th Eastbourne Battery, 58th Sussex Field Regiment RA (TA)
September 1939 – 5 April 1944
An advance party arrived during September to prepare for the arrival of the battery in October.
Officers were accommodated in the Hyde although the battery commander had a billet at Battlecombe (East Road). The other ranks (ORs) mostly had billets in the village, East Road and Crock Lane, sometimes in a garage or an out- building. There was accommodation in a barn at Manor Farm Court and possibly in the stable block at the Hyde. It was said that those that had private billets were the fortunate ones as sanitary facilities were otherwise described as primitive.
The real tennis court was the ORs dining room, canteen and where entertainment could be provided. The sergeants had their mess in the adjoining anteroom. One of the Hyde Cottages became the battery office and the signals used the village hall.
The battery comprised 3 troops each with four 18/25 pounder guns. Troop A was located in the field behind the tennis court, which was also the parade ground. Troops B & C were at the top end of Uplands (known by the soldiers as the Little Road) where there were 2 or 3 Nissen huts and hard standing.
Church parades were held on some Sundays and sometimes one of the soldiers would pump the organ. He was friendly with the daughter of the organist and after the war came back to marry her. She lived at No1 Beverley.
Mrs Rawles, the post mistress, was regarded with affection, a bit of a character and a source of “little titbits of news”. Although tea was rationed, somehow tea was supplied 10.00-11.00am. She had a pretty daughter, no doubt another attraction. Whenever there was a football commentary on the wireless she would close the post office!!
The battery departed on 5th April 1944 to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Belgium and France, but were back in the UK by the beginning of June having been evacuated from Dunkirk. They later served in the Middle East, taking part in the battle of El Alamein. They then went on to take part in the allied invasion of Sicily (op Husky) and served briefly in the following Italian campaign. The regiment was back in England by December 1943 and reformed into the 84th Medium Regiment RA (TA)
The regiment landed in Normandy on D-Day +1 (7th June 1944), advancing with the British and Canadian armies through NW Europe ending the war north of Bremen.
A plaque donated by the battery was dedicated in the church on Sunday 24th June 1950 in the presence of former members of the battery and their Chaplin.
'E' & 'G' Companies, 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
(the Big Red One), United States Army
6th November 1943 – 17th May 1944
Initially, about 300 soldiers arrived in Walditch and set up camp. They had disembarked at Liverpool the evening before, having returned from campaigns In N Africa (op Torch) and Sicily (op Husky). Immediately after disembarking they travelled by train to Dorset.
The regiment was combat depleted and soon after arrival in Walditch replacements arrived from the USA. By the time of their departure each of the companies had a strength of approximately 220 all ranks.
Officers were billeted in the Hyde and the sergeants in 3 of the Hyde Cottages. G Company was accommodated in Nissen huts in the field behind the real tennis court. The location of the E Company camp is unknown, but there is absolutely no doubt they where somewhere in the village. It has been speculated it could have been in the field in front of the Hyde or the same site as G. Perhaps one day metal detectors or land owners will come across the site
The tennis court was used for servicing vehicles and also for dances. It is thought James Cagney (a famous American actor, dancer and film star of the time) entertained in the court.
Two trees at a difficult to reach place, on private land, have carvings by the American soldiers.
They were here to prepare for allied landings on the beaches of Normandy then in secret planning for 1944. The training was tough and intensive, even so, there were plenty of opportunities for sport, entertainment and leave, also to mix with the locals who welcomed them into their homes. The British, were subjected to shortages and rationing and the Americans were generous in providing food, also sweets, chocolate and chewing gum for the children. One Walditch resident mentions her family received butter, sugar, bacon, flour and other gifts. There were frequent dances and parties.
When off duty the soldiers found most of their recreational opportunities in Bridport. The pubs, 'movies' and fish and chips were popular. There were two cinemas and usually queues to get in. It is apparent they mostly enjoyed themselves while here. A soldier (E) recuperating in Oxford after being wounded said of Bridport...”Oxford was kind of different to Bridport. Bridport everybody was friendly. Oxford was a kind of stuffed shirt place”.
It all had to come to an end and on the 17th May they departed as suddenly as they had arrived the previous November to a marshalling camp near Dorchester, later sailing from Portland to land in Normandy, France on D-Day, 6th June 1944. E Company landed in the first wave at around 0630hrs on the heavily fortified Omaha Beach with G Company following 30 minutes later. Right from the start things started to go badly awry. Most of E Company was put ashore up to 1000yds from its designated landing place and suffered very heavy casualties.
However, a section of E Company, known as the 'Spalding Section', led by 2nd Lieutenant John Spalding, did land close to its appointed landing place, similarly G Company commanded by Captain Joe Dawson. The beach was in chaos with heavy casualties and it was looking as if Omaha would fail. Their original orders were now impossible to follow. Initiatives taken by the Spalding Section, Captain Dawson, and splendid team work by their soldiers were instrumental in saving the day in opening up the first route to reach the top of the bluff. This then became the main route off the beach for following troops for much of the day.
After reaching the top Spalding's section was directed to take out fortification (WN64), attacking it from the rear. Dawson took his company towards Colleville-sur-Mer, the 2nd Battalion objective for the day, firstly dealing with an observation post in the church and then moving on to Colleville where they met stiff German resistance and became surrounded for a while, though ending the day having captured a part of Colleville.
After being discharged onto the wrong part of the beach, Captain Ed Wozenski, E Company commander, rounded up those men he could find alive and under intense machine gun and small arms fire made his way along the beach taking the earlier opened route to the top, joining up with his Spalding section. Then with his depleted Company, now down to about 30 men, moved on to protect the right flank of G Company.
Anybody visiting Omaha and standing on the viewing platform will be looking down on the route taken by Captain Dawson, 2nd lieutenant Spalding and their men to reach the crest of the bluff. This is where Dawson reached the top of the bluff on D-Day and is known as 'Dawson Point'.
They were all heroes on the day, but one other person that must be singled out is T/Sgt Philip Streczyk who was second in command of the Spalding Section. Spalding was inexperienced and had the good sense to take advice from a battle hardened Streczyk, who was renowned for his bravery.
All those named and others were awarded the Distinguished Service (DSC), the second highest American decoration, awarded for “exceptional valour against an armed enemy”. Additionally T/Sgt Streczyk was personally decorated with the British Military Medal (MM) by General Montgomery.
After the breakout from Normandy, the 16th Infantry Regiment was in almost continuous action through France, Belgium, Germany ending up in Czechoslovakia where they met up with the Russians.
At least 3 Bridport girls married soldiers stationed in Walditch. Sadly 2 of them were killed on D-Day (6th June 1944).
From April 1944 the entire coastal area to about 10 miles inland was closed to visitors. Movement in or out of the zone required authorisation. Any violation was liable to prosecution. Only school children and those going to boarding schools or universities were allowed to enter or leave.
On 13th May 2012 a plaque in their memory was dedicated in Walditch Church at a special service, with American and British Standards paraded
Every year, with the approval of the United States Ambassador, the United States Flag is flown from the church flagpole on the 17th May, the date they departed for the last time.
This account cannot do full justice to the role of these two companies on D-Day. A lot more can be found on the internet and in books. An account by Robin Stapleton –“ American Soldiers in Walditch & Their Part on D-Day, 1943-44” is deposited in the Bridport Local History Centre, the Dorset Archives in Dorchester and the D-Day Museum Southsea (Portsmouth).
There is a D-Day museum in Portland.
The Parish Council is grateful to Robin Stapleton for providing text and photographs.