When Harley and I visited Normandy earlier this year we were privileged to be able to visit some of the famous D-Day beaches and contemplate the events of 70 years ago when the liberation of Europe from Nazi dictatorship began. Much is said about the actual landings on the beaches, but I mentioned then about the contribution that airborne troops also made to the operation. Sometimes I feel that this vital contribution is not given the full focus that it deserves, because without it the whole operation would not have been the success that it was. I am not decrying what happened on the beaches, merely drawing attention to the oft forgotten massive contribution by the airborne operation
In the hours leading up to D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, 13,000 allied airborne troops either parachuted into occupied Normandy or arrived by glider under cover of darkness. They had set out from fifteen airfields across southern England and crossed over the English Channel in a massive stream of 220 aircraft that was described as being nine aircraft wide and five hours long! Soldiers from all of the allied nations were involved, but the majority were British and American. Let me tell you a little about one of those American soldiers.
Daniel L. Reiling was a classic Mid-Western American kid, he didn’t have the easiest of starts in life, he never knew his father and at times life was a little tough. Determined to get on in life he joined the U.S Army as a career soldier. He progressed well through the ranks and married a good-looking girl from Chicago, named Florine, whose father owned restaurants and whose mother came from Britain. By the time that the war in Europe was raging Daniel was a Sergeant in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Soon he found himself and his men crossing the Atlantic to Britain on a troop-ship which constantly zig-zagged to dodge the deadly threat of Nazi U-boats. On arrival in the U.K. the troops were posted to various locations for more training and preparations. Some lucky ones managed to get leave, which Daniel did and took the opportunity to visit his wife’s family, though by all accounts the poor chap was suffering from influenza and spent a fair bit of his leave in bed being looked after by his wife’s uncle, my Grandfather William. You see now that there is a big family connection here!
Following his leave, Daniel returned to his unit and began the final preparations for the Liberation of Europe. His regiment was allocated to two airbases, RAF Membury and RAF Greenham Common. Unfortunately, we have not been able to ascertain yet exactly which one Daniel’s platoon was at, but we will! On the evening of 5th June 1944 the various airfields involved swung into action. At Greenham Common, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, dropped in to encourage the troops. Men and equipment were prepared and loaded onto the C-47 transport aircraft which at the assigned time taxied to the runways and began to take off. Sergeant Daniel L. Reiling and his men would have been dressed in full combat kit armed with a variety of weapons, they sat in total darkness inside the noisy vibrating fuselage of the C-47 as it took off and turned South towards Normandy.Once over the French coast the pilots took the aircraft down to the jumping altitude of 500 feet The green jump light came on at 00:48 and Daniel threw himself out into the Normandy night, landing in a field near to Saint Martin de Varreville and set about making life difficult for the Germans! By 06:30 St Martin had been captured and shortly after the German garrison at Mésières was taken as well. Five days later the town of Carentan was liberated after fierce fighting that included a bayonet charge. The 502nd then moved to assist in the capture of Cherbourg before stepping down for regrouping and rest, before rejoining the war and fighting their way across Europe, finally capturing Hitler’s private residence and many senior Nazis at Berchtesgaden in May 1945.
By the end of the conflict Daniel had been promoted to Master Sergeant and shortly after was promoted to Sergeant Major, one of the youngest in the Army. Later he was to see action in Korea and became an officer, finally rising to the rank of Major.
During WWII and the Korean War, Daniel was in a total of 13 major campaigns. In all that fighting he was wounded in the leg during the Ardennes offensive near Bastogne, but never received the Purple Heart. He won two Bronze and one Silver Star plus several other wartime decorations. Sadly, he died young in January 1969. I guess you could say he lived a full life, a real american hero, a John Wayne kind of guy. In our family we are all incredibly proud of him; none more so than my cousins, Florine, Peter, Paul and Marianne.
Over the last few weeks I have been able to visit the remains of both RAF Membury and Greenham Common. There’s not much left at either place to recall events of 70 years ago. There is however, another old base about 60 miles away from Dookes H.Q. that also played a prominent role in that airborne assault, RAF Upottery, here there is still quite a lot to see. Last evening I took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage with Harley and my mate Greg to the old airfield and remember the events that unfolded on that fateful night.
It was a super evening to be on a motorcycle and riding through the beautiful Devon countryside I pondered if it was like this all those years ago? An old sentry post is now a memorial to those young men who left to fight in mainland Europe. The old airbase was quiet and still and much has reverted to farmland, though the runways, control tower and a few other buildings remain. Just by luck we met the local farmer who gave us permission to go on the site. It was with some awe that I turned Harley onto the main runway, the strip of concrete and tarmac from which 81 C-47’s took off, this was hallowed ground indeed! It seemed fitting that an American motorcycle was visiting the place where so many young American soldiers took off, some never to return.
In some places the grass is beginning to win.
After spending some time soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to leave the ghosts of the past to enjoy the sunset. As we rode off the airfield we were aware of other people who were gathering to pay their respects as well.
Stopping to chat with one guy he observed that we have much to be thankful for, we have indeed; like a super ride home west into a crimsoning sky on a growling Harley Davidson! I’d like to think that those young paratroopers would have approved!
The battle patch of the 502nd, I think that this will look good on my leathers!
Dedicated to all those who came by air in 1944.