Missing D-Day by a clutch

This story originally ran in the November 7, 2014 edition of The Guide.


Ninety-one-year-old Killarney war veteran Ray Brown remembers a lot about the Second World War, even if he didn’t “see” a lot on his European tour.

He recalls several incidents of friendly fire – causing all too frequent casualties of war; he recollects how much fun he had when he was on leave in Western Europe; and, most vividly, he remembers the near misses.

Perhaps what he considers to be his biggest near miss came just prior to the largest seaborne invasion in history, D-Day.

“In Portsmouth, before June 6, they were all lined up to go on the LSD (Landing Ship, Dock) boats across the channel,” said Ray. “We were about the fourth one of these LSD boats ready to go, and the clutch went on our tank. So they just bypassed us. We were left sitting in England while the rest of the guys had to go to France. That was D-Day. I missed that by a clutch.”

Most of Brown’s regiment, The Fort Garry Horse, landed in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, as a part of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, in support of the 8th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. The operation began the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe, which Ray would join less than two weeks later. 

“So I went over there (coast of Normandy, France) and we landed on the 18th (of June, 1944),” he said of the day they drove their tank ashore. “We were about 20 miles in when we saw our first action – taking an airport – the 4th of July I think we started. We lost one officer, and we got to the airport, and we sat at the airport for maybe two weeks.” 

Next, Brown and his troop were called to join the fight in Caen, Normandy, where, unbeknownst to them, an intense Allied bombing campaign had just destroyed 70 per cent of the city and killed 2,000 French civilians. 

“We started on the push for Caen,” he said. “We finally made it there, but there was nothing left of the city but rubble. I’ve got a picture of one of the guys sitting on some of the crap there.” 

The Allied armies along the French coast were up against the largest concentration of SS Panzer divisions assembled since their violent offensive against the Red Army in Russia the previous summer. Some of the Waffen-SS divisions facing the Allies in Normandy were the most fanatical and disciplined of all; soldiers indoctrinated by Hitler’s propaganda and bent on revenge for the ‘terror bombing’ of German cities.

Being a Sherman tank gunner, Brown didn’t see a whole lot of the enemy, at least not up close.

“The first German prisoner I saw was a kid; he must have been 15 years old, with glasses about a quarter of an inch thick. If he’d took his glasses off he’d have been completely lost I think. So that was the first German prisoner, and I figured they didn’t scare me too much,” he said smiling. “But there were other ones that were a little nasty.”

In fact, Brown said he really didn’t see much of anything most of the time.

“Where I sat, I couldn’t see nothing, unless I put the periscope up,” he said. “I never knew where I was, to tell you the honest truth. You don’t see anything, and 90 per cent of the time I wasn’t looking out. All you’d see is trees, dead cows, dead horses, dead people. And it didn’t smell very good either.”

Friendly fire was another harsh reality that Brown witnessed on a few different occasions on their trek along the French coast. He remembers losing one of their tanks after it strayed away from the group and was hit by another, badly injuring the occupants; one of their cooks was killed when their camp was accidently bombed; and another of his closest calls involved a horrible friendly fire bombing.

“We were holding the line somewhere, just in case of an enemy raid, and we were told to move out,” he said. “So we moved out, and the Polish Armoured Regiment moved in there. Well we’d only been moved out about a half an hour, and the American Air Force come along and bombed them. Just about wiped them out. Some of them came running back, and wondering who the heck they were fighting anyway.”

After making their way up the coast of France, Brown’s regiment spent that winter in Nijmegen, Holland.

“We stayed in the SS barracks there, which was good,” he said. “It gets cold in Holland too, and the lights went out now and again. They told us that when the lights went out when the SS was there, they’d go to town and get a hold of the guy in charge and shoot him or hang him up, and put the next guy in charge. The Germans never went without lights. But that’s what they’d do. The Dutch themselves told us that. We weren’t quite that bad.”

From that point of the war (around January of 1945) onward, Brown doesn’t remember much action; just cold repetitious routine, and the odd warm-up.”

“Every morning we’d check the tanks and set the radios,” he said. “If it happened to be too cold outside, we had one tank there with a flame thrower on it, and he’d fire a flame away out there and everybody would run out and get nice and warm from the fire. We never suffered too much. We thought we did though,” he laughed. “But those people (in Holland), they had nothing.”

He also remembers his leave from the army, and how much more enjoyable the holidays were than the war, although some stories aren’t fit for retelling in the newspaper, he admitted, smiling again.

“I had more fun on leave, on holidays,” he joked. “I left Germany on holidays, and there was only about a week of war left. I went to England, and by the time I came back, the crew commander in my tank was wounded and the driver was killed. But the driver, the gunner and myself were the three that went from June 18 (1944) to Germany (1945). Just the three of us. There wasn’t very many tanks like that.”

After returning home to Killarney after the war, Ray and his wife Gertrude were married in January of 1946. They had two daughters, Patricia and Beverly. Ray farmed for a bit, and later got his diesel engineering ticket. He then worked for Frank Collyer in Killarney, he said.

Gertrude passed away a few years ago, and Ray lives by himself in his King Avenue home. He keeps in regular contact with his daughters and their families.

As he proudly showed off photos of grandchildren and great grandchildren on his iPad, he also pointed out dozens of bumper sticker style sayings and jokes that he’s accumulated. 

“This is the stuff I like,” he said, as he gestured to more digital humour amongst the family photos. “Even the war, I find a lot of it funny now. At least what I remember. I really like to laugh.”

70 YEAR PIN – Local Legion VP Marlene Chandler presented 96-year-old war veteran Ray Brown with a 70 Year Legion Pin recently for being a continuous member at the Killarney Legion. View Ray’s war medals below.

Killarney’s Ray Brown holds up a photo of himself, along with his medals from the war, after sharing some of his WWII stories with The Guide back in 2014.

SOME OF RAY’S MEDALS – Veteran Ray Brown’s WWII medals are on display now in the Killarney Legion Clubroom. The medals (from left) are: The War Medal; The Canadian Volunteer Service Medal; The Defence Medal; The France and Germany Star; and The 1939-45 Star. Information about these medals, along with Ray’s Discharge Certificate, and a photo of his regiment are encased in glass in the Clubroom for all to read. 

Ray Brown near the beginning of his WWII tour.

Ray’s friend, Freddie LaSalle, sitting atop the ruins of the devastated city of Caen in Normandy, France.