The devastating moment mortar fire hit a line of troops – killing three soldiers on the battlefields of Normandy - is described in a veteran’s haunting memoir of D-Day in an account that paints a vivid picture of the reality of the historic assault.
British Army veteran William Glen, who was then aged just 24, told how he was wounded when mortars hit, blasting him off the ground, while an 18-year-old comrade was ‘blown across a road’ and killed, as lines of British soldiers marched single file through the French countryside.
Three of his comrades died after their legs were blown off when a mortar hit – a memory that still lives with him vividly today, 75 years later.
Another of his companions lay dying next to him.
As the nation marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, Forces Network re-visits Corporal Glen’s account of how he narrowly survived the attack that killed his comrades – before he even encountered any German troops.
“We never even saw a German.
“We never fired a shot.”
The veteran, from Glasgow, who has just celebrated his 98th birthday and who has also written three fictional novels, gives the graphic account of the attack in his personal memoir which is named after another of his strong memories - ‘Single File’ – in honour of the thousands of troops who filed one behind the other in lines as they marched into their positions.
Mr Glen, who completed his memoir aged 97 and who still carries shrapnel in his body, told of his experiences earlier this year in interviews with Jim Gellatly and David Sivills-McCann, of BFBS Scotland and Forces News, and here we visit his story again as many veterans visit Normandy for what is likely to be the last time for the D-Day 75 ceremony.
Mr Glen, who was a Corporal with the Highland Light Infantry when he was deployed for D-Day and who became a sergeant when he was demobilised in 1946, read a few lines from his memoir, saying: “This is a story about me coming back from Normandy.
The journey was rough and we were jostled from side to side but I felt quite safe lying on a stretcher.
“Suddenly, the ride smoothed out. We were still travelling but it was less turbulent.
"Then we stopped, I was on the beach. As I looked up, I saw the bow of a large landing craft.
"It was aground on the sand and the bow door was wide open.
“My heart was racing - I was going home.”
However, it was the harrowing events leading up to his homecoming which offers younger generations a chilling portrayal of the realities of war.
That one moment stands out as an evocative reminder of the traumatic environment Allied soldiers encountered as they marched bravely into battle – although Mr Glen does not describe his actions as brave.
Describing the scenes he faced and the moment mortars hit, Mr Glen said:
“I can’t get that out of my mind. That’s always in my mind.”
He said it was important to get his words down on paper, so that younger generations could learn a first-hand account of what happened during D-Day.
He said: “I think it’s very important – in another four or five years, there won’t be any survivors of World War Two, we’ll all be dead and gone.
“To get that in writing, to let young people know what happened in war.
“OK, there’s nothing brave about that, or heroic, but that’s just what happened to us.
“It was horrible.”
He added: “What happened to us in two days – these four men got killed, and I got wounded.
“And we never even saw a German.
“We never fired a shot.
“We never saw an angry German.
“But it’s good to get it on paper.
“When I’m gone, somebody can read about it.”
Describing the mortar attack, Mr Glen said: “We were moving out of the village in the morning, moving up in to position, and on the way up, single file.
“We were walking – that’s what the book’s about – single file.
“Everywhere we went, we walked single file.
“You followed the man in front and we were marching up the road in single file.
“And a mortar bomb dropped in front of us.
“Right in the middle of platoon headquarters section.
“And three of them were killed.”
He described how his sergeant, who was platoon commander, and two others were killed in the blast right in front of him.
He said: “There was a young lad, Will Reynolds, he was only 18.
“He was blown right across the road.
“He was sitting at the side of the road, not a mark on him.
“But he was stone dead.”
However, in the midst of battle and with a mission to fulfill, his platoon pushed on as mortars fell – they could not stop to grieve the fallen.
He said: “We could do nothing – we just had to walk on, march on.
“It was up to the stretcher bearers, to come and attend to them, you see.
“Further up the road, we left the road and went into a corn field.
“And we took positions in the corn field, lying in the corn field.
“And another mortar bomb landed – behind my section.
“It lifted me up off the ground about 12 inches.”
He described how his comrade was lying next to him when the mortar fell.
He said: “When I turned around to look at him, there was a hole in his cheek.
“He was making a gurgling noise.
“So I shouted for the medics to come to get him."
But like many casualties on the D-Day battlefield hit by falling mortars, the medics could do little other than carry bodies away.
As he lay watching his comrade dying next to him, Mr Glen then realised he had not escaped the impact of the mortar himself.
He said: “I discovered that I had no feeling in my feet.
“So I rolled over and lifted my head and looked down, expecting to see my trouser legs dangling, you know, with no feet – because I could not feel them.
“But my boots were there, but they were ripped wide open.
“Brand new Army boots.
“That was me, wounded.”
He told how he was in hospital for three months convalescing and in a convalescent home for another three months.
“I never went back into action again.
“I was very fortunate – being wounded and being brought back to Britain.”
He again said his time in Normandy was not about bravery.
He said: “When I was in Normandy, there were thousands of men there.
“If I’d have put my hand out, I would have touched somebody.
“We were all doing what we were trained to do.
“I never felt any fear – until of course I was wounded.
"Then all I wanted to do was to get a way out of it.”
He said writing about his experiences in D-Day in a memoir was more straightforward for him than writing fiction.
He said: “I know exactly what happened. I know exactly what was said.
“To me, it’s so vivid in my mind that I can remember it as though it was yesterday.
“The book is not about me.
“The book is about the four men who died.
“They did not come back – they are still there.”
'Single File: Memories of the Normandy Landings' by Glen Williams is available for Kindle (priced £1.99), with all proceeds going to the veterans' charity Erskine.