Veteran Stories:
Eric Alfred “Lofty” Saunders

Navy

  • Commando Service Certificate presented to Marine Eric Saunders, March 12, 1946.

    Eric Saunders
  • Eric Saunders on the Isle of Wight, January 1942.

    Eric Saunders
  • No. 41 Royal Marine Commando, part of "X Troop", in Dundonald, Scotland, 1943, just before leaving for Sicily.

    Eric Saunders
  • Photograph of graves in Salerno War Cemetery, Italy, 1989. Photo taken by the mother of Kenneth W. Gilbert, a friend of Eric Saunders' who is buried there.

    Eric Saunders
  • Eric Saunders' comrades from No. 41 Royal Marine Commando, X Troop, Sicily, 1943.

    Eric Saunders
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"When I came to, all I could see was a ring of red bloody faces and guys were screaming for their mother."

Transcript

Everybody volunteered but about five percent. So the No. 41 Royal Marine Commando was formed. From there on, it was just hard training. We had to go to commando school, we went to street fighting schools, we did everything under the sun and did a lot of pretty hard training. But it was fun. That was in Scotland, we had to go up to Scotland to get our commando training. After that, we went back to London, where we did our street fighting training in the east end of London which was all bombed out. It was just a perfect place to learn street fighting. The streets were just rubble.

So we spent a couple of weeks there and during that time, there were air raids constantly and so that wasn’t very pleasant. Eventually, we went back to the Isle of Wight. That was where we had originated from, after we became the [No.] 41 Commando, before we went north to the commando school. We went back to the Isle of Wight and we continued our training there for quite some time and then early in 1942, they sent us way up to Scotland, on the west coast of Scotland, a little place called Duntrune, small village where my particular troop was stationed. We continued our training there and it was from there that we boarded a ship one day and we headed for the Middle East. We didn’t know what to expect. But that turned out to be the Sicily landings. That was our first experience with action, all the action right up through Sicily.

But after Sicily was taken, we were drawn back out and put in a holding area for a while and told that we, our services wouldn’t be any longer required there, we’d be going back to England. But it didn’t happen that way. They decided they were going to make a raid at a place called Salerno, just partway up Italy. There we were supposed to have gone in the Salerno Valley and cut off the Germans from behind, cut off supplies. And that turned out to be a pretty bad deal because we didn’t know at the time but sitting up in the hills around the Salerno Valley, there was a huge German concentration, defensive position all in the hills. They were a panzer [German armoured] division up in there.

We landed at night, it was dark and went up through, we land at a place called Vietri [sul Mare]. And it was built on, more or less on a side of a hill. We went in almost unopposed, we climbed up through Vietri and out into the valley on the other side. And there we took our positions in amongst the grape vines and dug in and waited for daylight. When daylight arrived, we started to move around and that’s when we found out that the Germans were looking right down on us and they just let us have it. We were head to head, and we lost a lot of men. And we had to dig in deeper and find what cover we could, what was left. And we did that and we were there for several days. There was other troops that had landed a little farther south on the other side of the valley and we had to wait for them to come up through. It took them several days to make it up through. Eventually, they made it. In the meantime, we had been beaten up pretty badly. They withdrew us all one day, there was a huge viaduct that ran across this sort of valley, there was a bit of cover there, so they drove us all back under these arches there and we reformed the unit and out of what was six troops, we now had just three.

The idea was that we were going to assault this German position, together with the other troops that had come up from the south. So we did, we formed up and we took up a position in the foothills we were going to start our attack from. And there was a huge barrage that came down from the navy, or naval guns onto the German position or should have been on the German position, something went wrong and one salvo landed right in the middle of us. And that again killed a lot of our guys but we still rallied around that and what happened then, we sort of had to rearrange your attacks you had. We eventually went up into the hills and with the rest of the guys, we did manage to route the Germans out of there. Well, that was quite a happy ending to that deal except for all the men that were lost.

Eventually we set sail and we got out into the Atlantic and we ran into a German wolf pack of submarines [German U-boat tactic designed to attack convoys] . Well, they chased us all over the place. After the convoy, we lost two or three boats, the convoy was told to break up and make their own way. And so our ship, being one of the faster ones, took off and all you could hear when we were down below was tick, tick to a big explosion. These were depth charges going off. But we eventually outran the pack and got away clean. But instead of getting back to England in five days, it took eight days. We arrived in Glasgow eight days later and went up the Clyde [river], anchored off of Glasgow in the Clyde for the night, we were to go ashore the next day and they had an air raid there. One of the boats right next to us got sank. A lot of guys that had been rescued on the convoy lost it.

We went ashore the next day and of all places, they took us to one of the coldest areas in England, that’s on the west coast of Wales. Oh, it was terrible. Just coming back from hot country, it wasn’t very good. They eventually gave in and they took us out of there and they headed south. We all boarded a train and they headed down south towards the south coast. And of all places, where did we land? In my hometown, Hastings. So that was great. I was able to get home very shortly and I’d have to get on the bus and go home in the evenings; that was great. So we stayed in Hastings for, oh, I think we were there for, oh, about three or four months. I had a wonderful time there.

And when we got to Portsmouth, we knew that something big was going to happen because there was hundreds of troops around. We were put into an area there in a big park under strict silence and there was all kinds of troops there. And as of course you know, the history of D-Day, when D-Day was cancelled a couple of times and then eventually it happened. We went aboard ship in Portsmouth, landing craft, and away we went to France. Oh, we landed on D-Day. When I landed, I made it to the top of the beach [Sword Beach], I don’t know how. Machine gun fire was unbelievable and the shells and mortars. I got to the top of the beach and got down behind a sand dune and I looked around and more or less on my own and most of my guys were scattered around there behind me. So I moved along the beach a little bit, sand dune, just a few feet to join up with another two or three guys that were there.

And we were just about getting ready to fire on these… with our rifles…whatever we had up the spout as we called it, and get ready to fire at these machine guns. They were in a large building overlooking the beach and they were every window had a machine gun in it I think. But just as we were doing that, a big boom and that was it for me; that was the end of it. I don’t remember very much for a few seconds. When I came to, all I could see was a ring of red bloody faces and guys were screaming for their mother. A guy behind grabbed me, pulled me away. Eventually, we got back down to the waterline and they took us up toward one of the landing craft. I was back to England. Spent a few months in the hospital. Eventually, I went to a camp that they had formed up in North Wales, which was a convalescent camp. Started doing a bit more training, exercising things and, but I never really got fit enough to go back again out to France again. They called me in one day along with three or four other NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] and they said, we would like you to go down to the training area where we originated our training and see if you could do some recruiting down there to get these young recruits to join the commandos. So that’s where I went and that’s where I spent the rest of the war. So for me, D-Day was the shortest day. Salerno where we landed in Italy was probably the worst.

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