D-Day Dispatch: The first reporter on the beach

NORMANDY (Reuters) - Seventy years ago, Reuters correspondent Doon Campbell was the first reporter to set foot on the Normandy beaches with the sea-borne forces seeking to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.

Doon Campbell poses at a press centre in London, June 4th, 1994. Campbell was a editor of international information organisation Reuters, which he joined in 1943 at the age of 23. REUTERS/Stringer

Campbell was 24 at the time, the youngest British war correspondent covering the invasion. He stayed with Reuters for 30 years, covering other events including the assassination of Gandhi. He died in 2003, aged 83.

The following is taken from his book ‘Magic Mistress – A 30 year affair with Reuters’, published in 2000:

“A smudge, brown on black in the far distance, marked our landing-area. The craft zigzagged the last mile or two, dodging the shells now coming out to meet us. There were ships everywhere, one or two smoking or even sinking, some fouling uncleared obstacles, but most of them swinging massively towards the hazy coastline that was Normandy.

“For the final lap, the skipper opened the throttle, and at 09.06 we rammed Sword Beach. The ramp thrown down from the landing-craft was steep and slippery, and I fell chest-deep into the sea lapping the mined beaches.

“The commandos, their faces smeared with camouflage grease, charged ahead. I struggled. My pack, sodden and waterlogged, strapped tight round my shoulders, seemed made for easy drowning. But a lunge forward, helped by a heave from a large corporal already in the water, gave me a first toehold.

“Ahead lay the beach. It was a sandy cemetery of the unburied dead. Bodies, some only half-dead, lay scattered about, with arms or legs severed, their blood clotting the sand.

“Behind me, through fountains of water raised by exploding shells from the coastal batteries, little ships were nudging into the shallows, and behind them a vast armada of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and close support vessels put down a paralyzing bombardment.

“It would be no good trying to bolt up the beach with the commandos, though many of them were also carrying collapsible bicycles. For me, every step was an effort under the backbreaking load of my pack.

“Dripping wet, like my trousers, it felt as if I weighed a ton. While the commandos surged ahead until swallowed up in the brooding woods, I edged along the protective shelter of a garden wall, crossed the pot-holed road into a field and stumbled into a ditch about 200 yards (180m) from the beach. There I stayed with the wounded.

“We fought to stay alive in that shallow furrow, clawing at the soggy soil for depth that at least made us feel a little less exposed to the withering mortar and shellfire. Whether falling short or whistling overhead, it never let up.

“Earth spurted in with every near miss and more water seeped through our clothes. But we thanked God for that damp dirty ditch.

“With every pause in fire, I was wrestling to ease myself out of the commando pack harness. When it was finally detached, I opened it almost furtively, and found my portable typewriter undamaged.

“I got a sheet of paper in and started pecking at the keyboard, but it was hopeless; every time I tried to type, a mortar exploded a few yards away or hit the lip of the ditch and a shower of dirt clogged the keys. So I tore a page from a school exercise book and scribbled a few lines from ‘A ditch 200 yards inside Normandy’. It never reached Reuters.

“Leaving the ditch, I wriggled and crawled back to the beach, flinging myself flat every few yards, then spurting forward again when I imagined the Germans might be reloading.... A naval officer, operating a shuttle between Normandy and the English coast, agreed to take my grimy bits of paper and try to get them back to Reuters. I gave him 5 punds, and never saw him again.”