My Account

D-Day – the Normandy Beach Landings

5 June 2024

One of the things that stands out from archives here, is the amount of personal writing. The documents, war diaries, daily orders and regimental histories are detailed and valuable, but it is the diaries, postcards and letters that move our understanding of the past from the official records of history to the personal experiences of those who were there. They are saturated with the immediacy and raw human emotion that comes from someone writing about their experiences as and when they happen. I am noticing how each conflict sees soldiers faced with the unfathomable and using their writing as a way of coping. Diaries allow them to record and make sense of experiences, as well as providing an outlet for emotions and creating a tribute to those lost. Letters home provide an emotional vent and also a connection to those far away, those they may never see again.

Last year I found a series of letters in the archives from Corporal William ‘Willie’ Cunningham to his wife Molly in Edinburgh, and also his baby daughter Joan. They span the months of June to August 1944, coinciding with the D-Day Landings on 6th June. Operation Overlord was scheduled for June 1944 and, from 1st June, there were rumours that they would imminently embark. Unusually vile weather meant that it had to be put off and the 1st Bn KOSB had to wait fretfully where it was stationed near Portsmouth. They were led by Lieutenant Colonel Renny and 1st Battalion was to be some of the first on the beaches. Willie’s first letter in the collection conveys this feeling of waiting and not knowing what will happen next.

Saturday 3rd June 1944

Army Post Office, England

My own darling Molly,

               I have only a few minutes in which to write this as we will be moving off. I received your Tuesday letter after I posted mine last night, so I will try and answer it completely in the short time. Thank you for the stamps dear, they will do me fine. I shan’t need to buy any more now, what I have will do me. Please do not worry too much dearest over me, it is not good for you or Joan. I will look after myself, never fret. I have something to look forward to and come home to, it won’t be many weeks till I am home to you, after I have done my job of work. I’m not in the least scared or worried about it dear so don’t you worry, please. I expect all my letters will be green envelopes now as I have quite a store.

In the next part of the letter he talks about quite mundane things; a friend starting work after being on the dole, Joan having a check up from the doctor, a friend Jack being stationed in a different camp. Every letter closes with an outpouring of love and best wishes to Molly and Joan, eager for her to know how much he thinks about her, never wanting her to worry.

               Well my darling I will close now, it will probably be a few days before I will find time to write again but don’t worry, as I said before.

               Cheerio dear Molly and Joan. God Bless you both and look after you. I will always love you darling and you’ll be forever in my thoughts. Remember I am doing this for you and her. All my love darling and love to mum and dad and Rab. Always your faithful Willie. XX

P.S. Never mind the blades now dear, I may not receive them. WC.

The entry in the 1st Battalion war diary for the 5th June states that the operation was postponed for 24 hours and the next letter Willie is still waiting and wondering about what Molly is up to and what will happen next, with the rumour of ‘any moment now’ hanging in the air expectantly.

Monday 5th June 1944

Army Post Office, England

My own darling Molly,

               An opportunity has come for me to write to you so I am taking advantage of it. The weather is very bad – both yesterday and today have been wet and squally with the result we have been kept back from what we were about to do. Maybe just as well, I should hate to have been caught out in this weather, it’s bad enough where we are lying.

               “Boris” and I are together this time and he and I are helping to do cookhouse, there’s been no complaints so far! I have bags of sweets here, I wish I could send them to you dear, choc. As well lying in my pocket getting wasted for I seldom eat it, we get a bar every day and 7 cigs free. That reminds me darling do not send me anything more as I shan’t get it – even stamps. I won’t be getting any of your letters for a while – and dear only knows when you will get this one my darling.

               I am sitting beside a wireless listening to Francis Day in Band Box and wondering if you are listening to the same programme – or are you busy with the wee girl? She’ll take up the most of your time now – oh I wish I could get home my dear. I also wish the weather would calm down so as we could get on with our job.

               Well my dear I will close now. Look after yourself dear and the wee one. Hope it won’t be long before we see each other again. The war may be over sooner than we expect.

               All my fondest love darling and God Bless you both. Always and forever your adoring and faithful husband –



By the time Willie writes another letter to Molly, D-Day has already happened. On 6th June 1944 the fleet sailed for the shores of Normandy. The weather had barely improved and the journey was marred by stormy seas and sickness.

Thursday 9th June 1944

Army Post Office, England

My own darling wife,

               At last I have managed to snatch a few moments to write you a few lines. Do not worry darling I am still alive and kicking, although we have had a sticky time of it, but things seem to be going alright.

               We had a fairly rough passage over the Channel and it was the nearest I’ve ever been to being seasick – but wasn’t.

               The country is no different from England, every bit the same, and there are still plenty of civvies knocking about but their houses are nothing but rubble more or less. They just seem to take the war as a matter of course. Several of the villages we took are still inhabited and the villagers cheered and waved lustily as we rumbled through. We took a good number of prisoners some of whom were quite young. This is our third day, the weather on the whole is not bad but last night it just poured down and we were dug in in a wood – the third night without sleep. I have had no mail from you of course dear, that will take a while I guess. I do hope you are keeping your chin up darling. I enclose a little memento, I have 300f or so left and no where to spend it.

               I must close now dear as we are about to advance. All my devoted and true love dear Molly. I love you with all my heart. Give the wee girl a hug and a kiss for me. May God grant that we shall soon be together again Molly. X Forever yours X Willie XXXX

As the letters continue, Willie describes his experiences as the battalion successfully advances through the Normandy countryside towards Caen, undergoing heavy fighting around Cambes Wood. Also in the archives is a diary, written retrospectively, by Sergeant Hartle, recollecting waiting in Portsmouth, the D-Day landings and the 1st Battalion’s progress through Europe.

The 1st Battalion KOSB was called to stand by in the sealed camps approximately 7-8 miles north of Portsmouth and then was transported to the Portsmouth Harbour where the assault craft was waiting. This was the second time within 24 hours that this procedure had taken place. “D” Day had been cancelled the day before due to bad weather in the Channel.

               We cast off and left the harbour with quite a number of other craft and sailed past the Isle of Wight. South of the island we could see numerous other ships of various sizes. As we sailed into the English Channel, the assault craft began pitching and tossing and, coupled with the oily smell of the boats, quite a number of the troops were sea-sick.

               At the crack of dawn, we could make out the battleships Warspite, Ramillies and other battleships. They were all firing in the general direction of the French coast. We appeared to pass very close to these battleships and when they fired a broadside it sounded as if a train were rushing through the sky.

               We received the order to get dressed and prepare to land. The ramps went down and as we ran off the LCI, there was a German soldier. His hands were on his head in a state of surrender. He was nearly swept away by the rush of 16 Platoon, “D” Company, as they ran up the beach. I could hear the Company pipers playing “Blue Bonnets” as we got onto a road that ran parallel to the beach. We were confronted with a minefield and were told to get down on the ground due to the amount of snipers who were in the buildings. Commandos were busy dislodging them. We also received news that the Paras on our left flank had managed to knock out the guns at Merville that had dominated “Sword” beach.

               I could hear the phut-phut of a German mortar forward left of our position and the bombs falling close to where we were lying down. This went on for about half an hour, then a burst of M/G gunfire put paid to the German mortar. We were instructed to move on. We skirted the minefield and moved into a village called St. Aubin. We still had the collapsible bikes that we had landed with. We entered an orchard and I noticed a platform built in the branches of a tree. It had been a sniper’s hideout, but he had left in a big hurry. His smock with a wallet inside was still hanging on the platform.

The battalion had already had its first casualties. A German shell hit one of the support carriers, killing all the crew. Additionally, the Brigadier had been wounded along with some more officers.

               We were now ordered to dig in and take up all-round protection positions. In the late afternoon, the sky forward left of our positions was filled with air-craft who flew over 6th Airborne positions dropping supplies by parachute. In the meantime, the infantry companies of the KOSB had managed to get a brew of tea. “D” Day was coming to an end and the initial surprise was wearing off. The German Army started stiffening its resistance.

For the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, a series of interviews were conducted with KOSB veterans who vividly and eloquently recounted their experiences of the time surrounding 6th June 1944. Carried out in 1994, the interviews are both retrospective and reflective, video diaries of a time now outside of the lifetimes of most people. Geoffrey McCreath from Berwick describes the Channel crossing. “The Channel was tremendous. I mean, when we woke up and went on board for breakfast we were surrounded by boats. There were big ships, small ships, aircraft flying in. The noise was tremendous. They had these big mortars firing rockets, they were rocket ships which were pounding the beaches as we went in. It was quite rough”. He goes on to say how they used their aerial photographs, comparing them with the land around them, checking to see that they had landed in the correct position. Each man was issued with waders, something he said he had never experienced before, and he only had to put one foot into the water, with the next landing firmly on the beach. By the time McCreath landed, two previous battalions had already landed and had taken most of the heat of the action.

He was only 20 when he landed on the beach on D-Day, with 36 men under his command and he states in the interview that he felt that the experience, and the events that followed, turned him “from a boy into a man very quickly”. In front of the camera, he mulls over his past experiences, considering how many men were lost in the action that followed over the next few weeks and months. He pauses over what he calls the sobering thought that, had it not been for an injury he received, he thinks it very unlikely he would have ended up talking on camera 50 years later.

This archive material relating to D-Day falls into two categories; that which was created as the events were unfolding, and that which has the separation of decades, a buffer between the event and the memories of it. In a time when most communication is fleeting and digital, the letters, and diaries of the D-Day experience feel all the more valuable. They provide emotional connections between loved ones far away, as well as those of us removed by the span of 80 years. They create a link between memory, pain and community, and give a sense of the shared experience of those who were actually there.

Top magnifiercross