In a modest house, in a modest avenue behind the market place in Christchurch near Bournemouth lives the man who liberated the last fortification held by the Germans on D-Day. It was a tower in the Normandy seaside town of Ouistreham. He did it accompanied by just a crane driver and his mate and a sergeant known as Big Jim. And they were armed with only two sten guns that they had never fired and an innocent determination. With guts and naivety Bob Orrell, now 86 and at the time 25-year-old Lieutenant Orrell of the 9/1 Field Company, quite unexpectedly managed to capture 53 German soldiers. And a piano. At midnight on the night of June 9th, he and his comrades marched the prisoners to the nearest PoW camp. “I’d never seen it before so I don’t know how the hell we found out where it was!” he says now. They marched them in a single file. “I thought I’d get it so that one bullet would go through them all.” They left the Germans to their fate in France, but the piano remained with them for the rest of the war. They took it wherever they went and on every Saturday night they had a dance. “From a morale point of view, it was the best piece of equipment that anyone could have.”
To a younger generation the dignified modesty of a man like Bob Orrell has an almost unworldly feel. He and his wartime comrades experienced moments of history in conditions of conflict that seem barely intelligible even to a modern soldier. Civilians can only listen with quiet respect as these men and women tell tales of their bravery with an everyday shrug – how they lived in slit trenches barely wide enough to lie down in, wet and muddy for weeks on end, somehow grabbing sleep; how they crossed the channel on that historic invasion day in boats some so small they could only carry five of them and others big enough for two hundred. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit,” he says speaking easily yet with care, “we didn’t feel fear, more trepidation. The whole of our lives revolved around this single act. There was nothing else in those days. We just had to beat the Germans. In some ways life was really easy because you had no choices. You had just one fixed direction and you were wholeheartedly into it. You didn’t know what the bloody hell was going to happen or what was going to land where, but you had an unquestioning aim.”
He had joined up after completing his engineering exams in Bury in Lancashire. His father had been a cotton mill manager but the slump had hit the family badly. By the time Bob left school The Depression was at its height. He had always wanted to be an engineer and got an apprenticeship as an articled pupil in a small village called Tottington. He did well in his exams. “He got the gold medal,” says his wife of 59 years, Nancy, over lunch. “I wasn’t going to tell him that”, says Bob, “Just as I wasn’t going to tell him that I got mentioned in dispatches. I always suppose for the Tower, but they didn’t say”
Throughout the war he was an engineer, after a brief administrative mishap that signed him up to the Royal Army Medical Corps. “I think it was because I was serving my apprenticeship with a surveyor who was a sanitary inspector”. He started in Wales at Barry Island, moved to Scarborough and then served a longish stint at the Experimental Bridging Establishment in Christchurch where he met Nancy who was working on the switchboard. They eventually married in 1945. But before D-Day his company spent a month under canvass in Billingshurst. Then on the night of June 5th they received orders to move to Southsea.
“No one knew anything about the invasion”, he says, “There was tremendous security and we didn’t know what was going on till we got on board.” The company was split between two boats “in case we were shelled and you didn’t want to lose the whole organisation.” He and two hundred men, almost strangers to each other, set off for France arriving between 5 – 6pm later that day. “We were part of the assault group Sword and we landed somewhere between Roger and Queen – code names for the beaches. I was recce officer and we had landed on someone else’s beach because they had closed down the one we were supposed to land on. So I went off to look for everyone on this tiny 50cc folding motor bike. “ He is still unsure how he identified a rendezvous. “I’ve been wondering ever since”, he laughs. And for the second time in our conversation he says with a twinkle “I don’t know how the hell we did it”.
Bob’s job was to recce the area and find out what was going on. How much did he find out? “Not very much. I think I’ve discovered more from reading books and novels about D-Day since,” he says. But on the third day he saw the Tower. “There was a large area which was obviously a strong point. I had a look around and put in a report. There was lots of engineering materials lying around and I knew it would make a good depot for us because a lot of the kind of stuff we were bringing in was in fact there”. He produces a copy of the report which lists among other things: “ mild steel (MS) bars, odd lengths of RSJ, large amounts of electrical cable, steel tubing 2” 3” 4”, about 3/4 mile of rail track, cement – 50 tons, 10 concrete mixers …….. And 1 large power house (not yet investigated)”
“I had arrived at this place on my motor bike. I’d got a bigger one by then. Bloody hell what’s all this lot round here? Is it all mines? You know, you get of your bike and there’s no signs of any mines and you’ve got your bayonet with you and you start prodding the ground for anything metal.. .. And then you think ‘this is damn silly you can’t go on like this just forget it ‘ you can’t get anywhere otherwise.” He laughs.
At ten o’clock that night notice came through that the command wanted to know what was in the “large power house (not yet investigated)”. He commandeered the crane driver and his mate “because they hadn’t been doing anything that day. And we had been flogging our guts out”. And with 14 lbs of explosives off they went to investigate not knowing what to expect. “We didn’t really have any idea. I thought there might be some Germans dead in there. I just didn’t know.” He pauses and laughs gently. “It was the first time I had ever encountered anything like that”.
“When we approached the tower I thought I heard a noise and I also realised that there was an observation gun pointing down to where we were. Whether they had their sites trained on us I don’t know. We put about 7lbs of explosive round the hinges, which should have been ample. But nothing dislodged. The Germans must have heard that first explosion. We tried lifting the door off its hinges. But again no success. So we placed the remainder of the explosives on both edges of the door, lit the fuse and retired. That time we managed to blow the door completely off. We threw in a couple of hand grenades and went in.” They were surprised to hear a voice say in perfect English “Come upstairs Johnny, it’s alright.”
Bob declined. “Actually I said ‘Bugger that. You come down’ “. And two officers descended the stairs and explained that there were 53 of them in all. With some considerable understatement Bob says now, “well we were a bit out numbered. 53 were a lot more than I had been expecting. But they were as mild as could be really.” Given their numbers wasn’t he nervous that they might try and overpower him and his three colleagues. Why didn’t they? “Well I like to think it was my tone of voice! Actually the main thing that intimidated them was that they must have seen the sheer scale of what was going on around them. I think they had probably stayed quiet because they might have been doing a very useful job for the German army getting them information”.
After marching them to the PoW camp, Bob went back with the German Captain to investigate the Tower. “I told him to go in front of me because if there were any booby traps he could have the pleasure of setting them off rather than me. He just did what he was told” He didn’t try and run? “Where would he have gone? And I said to him ‘if there’s any funny business going on, all those chaps that we have just captured will be killed when they get to England”. He laughs heartily. “You see I was making up the rules of war as I went along.” When they got into the Tower, they found that the Germans had been having a party. All over the floor there were half drunk bottles of wine and liqueur. “I’d never seen a bottle of liqueur before that”.
Finally coming face to face with any enemy to whose defeat his short life had so far been dedicated, how did he feel about that German Captain? He thinks hard. “I don’t know that I had any special reactive feeling as though I wanted to jump on him or strangle him or anything like that. In the end they were just prisoners in my care and I had to just pass them up through the line.” Did he maybe have any curiosity about who the German was, about his family? Immediately he says no. It must have been just such a curious moment. What do you think when you look back on it now? “That it was just such a curious moment! “ And he laughs quietly.
That moment changed his life, Bob says now. “It was definitely the biggest moment in my life. I think it gave me more confidence in myself. It was such high drama. One part of me was saying to the other part ‘what the hell is going on now?’ and you sort of fight your way through every minute wondering what’s going to happen next. I guess I dealt with the unexpected and got through it all right”.
He has tried to trace the Germans, but with no success. We also tried for this article. But all the leading German expert on D-day, Baron Keusgen, could tell us was that the soldiers must have been from the 1st Division of the Heeres-Kunsten-Batterie (1/HKAA 832). But, he added, it would be almost impossible to find them as so many of the German records from the War were simply burned.
And for Bob Orrell, once the war was over he wanted just to get on with life. He never saw his three comrades again. “The crane driver and his mate may have been killed. Their truck took a direct hit when we were in Nijmegen”. At the end of the War there was a new life already. “What we had fought for had arrived and you wanted to forget the whole thing. I got rid of my officers uniform as soon as I could.”
The first time he went back to the Tower was in 1984 with his family for the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It was in ruins. But, modest to the end, he let slip to the information office in Ouistreham a little of the story. And they passed it on to a Frenchman called Fabrice Corbin, who has bought and restored the Tower and opened it as The Museum of the Atlantic Wall. Although they do not speak each other’s languages they get on famously. Bob Orrell is the Museum’s most honoured guest. What he did to capture the last German look out on D-Day is now commemorated in the museum and that and his medals stand testament to his bravery. “I got the oak leaf on my medals for being mentioned in dispatches. It was just for good service really. Not valour”. Many of us alive and free today would admiringly disagree.