JUST before the fate of the world was to be decided in one last bold throw of the dice, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel predicted, “The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”

The date was June 6, 1944, and precisely 15 minutes past midnight, Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe began.

When you mention D-Day the images that immediately spring to mind are the five thousand ships carrying more than a quarter of a million soldiers and sailors, who bravely waded ashore to meet the wordless hell that awaited on the Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beachheads.

Yet just after the witching hour and before these beaches were stormed at six-thirty in the morning, Allied paratroopers had already dropped behind enemy lines to engage the Germans in fierce fighting throughout Normandy in a bid to secure vital objectives, without which the whole operation to free Europe from the scourge of Nazism would be doomed to failure.

Abergavenny man Ray Batten was one such paratrooper who dropped from the skies to boldly lay the necessary groundwork that would stop the Nazi war machine in its tracks and cast Hitler into a pit of no return.

Like thousands of other British troops, Ray played a pivotal part in D-Day, a part which also made the pages of Cornelius Ryan’s classic 1959 book, and feature film of the same name - The Longest Day.

“One of the things they don’t portray in the War films and books I have seen is the god-awful stench of slaughter and hordes of men who haven’t washed for days,” recalled Ray, who at the time of being interviewed was a 90-year-old with a memory as sharp as a pin, admiringly capable of salvaging minute details from a well-lived past

“Because of the situation we were in, obviously personal hygiene wasn’t top of the agenda, but the smell of unwashed men coupled with the smell of war is something I’ll never forget.”

Ray’s journey into the elite ranks of the paratroopers began four years before Operation Overlord when he joined the territorials in June 1939.

After signing up with the 3rd Battalion of the Monmouthshire Regiment and a brief period in Abergavenny, where he was born and bred, Ray was moved to Tenby where he became a motorcycle dispatch rider.

Ray recalled, “My time at Tenby stands out because it was there where I met the best R.S.M (Regimental Sergeant Major) that I had the pleasure to serve under. He was brilliant. I’ve met a few in my time and when you’re in the army a good R.S.M can make all the difference to your experience as a soldier.”

From Tenby, Ray was moved to Londonderry in Northern Ireland where he remembers traveling the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle on his motorbike for 20 months, carrying dispatches and enjoying the experience.

From Northern Ireland Ray was sent to Prescot and based in a camp on the grounds of a large manor house.

“I remember we made trips into the bombed areas of Liverpool to salvage bricks and so forth that we would bring back to our camp to make huts,” explained Ray.

Whilst in Prescot part of Ray’s training consisted of hours of swimming practice in indoor pools wearing full kit which he described as very difficult. Ray explained, “I remember when we were in Rostrevor in Northern Ireland one of the officers set up a demonstration of men in full kit who had to swim from the boats to land. A measure of how tough the conditions were, is that six of those men never made it, and I think after that the decision was made that indoor swimming sessions would be safer.”

In 1943 Ray was moved from Prescot to Yorkshire where his battalion received a notice that the newly-formed Paratroop regiment needed volunteers.

“I always wanted to do something special in the army and the word was that the Paras were the regiment to join,” said Ray.

Consequently, Ray was sent to Chesterfield and got his first experience of just how different life in the army would be as a Paratrooper.

“The training in the Paras was a great deal tougher and different from what I’d previously experienced. We had a solid month of marches that were a world apart from what I was used to in the 3rd Mons. We were allowed to march all over the place because of a countryside scheme that was in operation at the time and we even spent a night camped at Nottingham Football Ground.

“We also had to run a certain distance with a fully-kitted man on our backs, climb rock faces, and carry these huge tree trunks for miles.

“They also had a rule that we were never allowed to walk around camp, but had to run everywhere we went.

“The training was hard but we were trying to make the grade in an elite force and we had to live up to that. That’s the thing with being a Para. You take immense pride in being one and are fully aware beforehand of the honour and respect that goes with the red beret.”

Naturally, a lot of Ray’s training revolved around one thing - the ability to fearlessly and safely drop out of an aircraft.

Ray recalled, “We had a tall metal tower and you would jump off the platform on top to give you a feel for the real thing.

“It felt very unpleasant and peculiar at first but you soon got used to it. And by the time we left Chesterfield, we were able to do 15 foot breakfalls.”

After passing his initial month of training Ray went to Manchester and was based at RAF airport Ringway where the parachute training was stepped up a notch.

“They had a lot of gadgets in the hangars at Ringway to get you used to dropping such as dummy fuselages and you learned to jump both through the door and a hole in the floor.

“Once you were competent in training they took you up to do the real thing,” said Ray.

“We had eight jumps to pass before we got our wings and the first three of those were out of a hot air balloon from about 700 feet up.

“You’d be in a box with about four other men and an instructor and you’d be pretty much shoved off when it was your time to jump.

“Once you hit the ground there’d be an officer waiting who told you what you might be doing wrong, telling you to keep your feet together and so on.”

After completing the first three jumps from a balloon, Ray’s next five jumps would be from a converted Whitley bomber and he openly admitted, “You can’t help but be a little nervous when you’re jumping from a plane. I remember one of those initial jumps was at night and because there was a complete blackout of all lights at the time, it was pitch black and you couldn’t see a thing.

“After jumping, you’d feel yourself dropping, before you heard the crack of the chute and then the sensation of being pulled back up. It’s always in the back of your mind that the chute won’t open no matter how many jumps you do, but when it eventually does you simply concentrate on preparing to do a breakfall as you approach the ground.

“To this day I can still remember the great feeling of exhilaration I had after my first jump. It felt like all my fears had been conquered.”

After receiving his wings, Ray opted to join the 13th Para Battalion and was based at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain about 1000 yards from Stonehenge. As it also transpired, in the bunk opposite Ray, was none other than English cricketer Godfrey Evans, once described by Wisden as 'arguably the best wicket-keeper the game has ever seen.’

Ray revealed, “One thing about being in the Paras is you got better food and an enormous amount of it. The parachute pay was above the normal as well.”

At Larkhill the training picked up apace, “I was the fittest I’ve ever been at that time. In the morning we’d always go on a five-mile run and we’d be doing two marches of 50 miles in the space of 14 hours.”

Ray added, “It soon became known that there was going to be an invasion of Normandy, so the training became geared towards that end.

“As D-Day got nearer, we moved out to a transit camp in Oxfordshire that was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and no one was allowed out.

“We had a briefing where we all sat around this big sand table of the area we were going into and we had to memorise it.

“We were only there for a week, but it was touch and go if D-Day would take place at all because the weather was so changeable during that period.”

“I remember waiting on June 5 to see what was going to happen, when the commanding officer announced that the Met office had identified a break in the weather and we were told we were going for it.”

Ray and his fellow Paras were taken by lorries to Broadwell airport and about 11 pm the night took off to play their part in history in the making.

“I remember although it was only an hour before midnight it was still light because the clocks were set at double British Summertime during the war,” explained Ray.

“We boarded the planes carrying an enormous amount of kit each, enough to last us for three days, and as the Dakota aircrafts took off I remember thinking what a moment and what a sight.

“There was just this long, long line of Dakotas heading towards the skies, each one full of 20 Paras. The deafening roar of the engines coupled with the significance of where we were heading and what we were doing really did take your breath away.”

The Dakotas arrived in Normandy a little after midnight on June 6 and were received by a German welcoming party.

“Soon as we hit the coast, the anti-aircraft guns opened up and we encountered our first taste of German efficiency,” said Ray.

“Two of the Dakotas were shot down in flames and the men on board were never seen again.”

Ray went on to describe how Seven miles inland, in the Pegasus Bridge area, shells were exploding all around them and you could hear the shrapnel hitting some of the planes.

And it was into this hellish cacophony and chaos that Ray and hundreds of other men in the British 6th Airborne Division had to jump.

Their mission was to both reinforce Major Howard’s tiny force holding the vital bridges and to seize and hold the town of Ranville, thus anchoring the left flank of the entire invasion area, before the first waves of American and British troops landed on Normandy’s five invasion beaches between 6.30 and 7.30 am.

As the lightly armed paratroopers didn’t have enough firepower to stop a concentrated armoured attack, the success of the holding action depended on the speedy and safe arrival of anti-tank guns, special armour-piercing ammunition, and more men that were due to arrive at Normandy at 3.20 am in a fleet of sixty-nine gliders.

Perhaps the most important of all the 6th Airborne’s missions was the destruction of a massive coastal battery near Merville which Allied intelligence believed could slaughter the troops landing on Sword Beach outright.

“Shuffle down the aircraft, let go of the cable, turn right at the door, green light on go and jump,” recalled Ray remembering the discipline and drill necessary to throw yourself from the fire-lit skies into the unknown and in many cases - death.

“The sky at this point was lit up by tracer bullets and there was shrapnel everywhere. The wind was far too strong for safe parachuting. Needless to say, the jump was full of incidents.”

It was the strong wind that Ray mentioned which caused him to be blown towards a small wood and a situation which has been captured for posterity in the pages of the ‘Longest Day’.

"I could see the trees coming up on me and I kicked my feet out. I then crashed through the branches and came to a halt about 15 feet from the ground, swaying back and forth from my harness.

“Although I could hear lots of bullets and explosions going off, I became aware of a burst of machine gun fire a little to the left of me.

“I heard someone coming towards me slowly and softly and decided my only option was to stay still, close my eyes, and play dead in case it was the enemy.

“Whoever it was came and looked up at me for awhile and my ruse must have worked because they quickly moved on. So in hindsight, I think playing dead saved my life.”

Freeing himself from the parachute and dropping to the ground in what he describes as quite a ‘jarring fall’, Ray was fortunate in that his pilot had dropped him just on the edge of the drop zone.

Locating the revendouz points thanks to the distinctive call of the hunting horns used by the commanding officers, Ray met up with other men from the 13th Battalion and set to work clearing a place for the gliders carrying the valuable anti-tank guns to land.

“Because only three of our sappers had managed to make it we had to clear what we called Rommel’s asparagus ourselves. It entailed blowing down poles and filling in the holes that the Germans had put in place to stop the gliders landing.”

Once the initial tasks at the landing zone were completed, the 13th Battalion liberated Ranville and held it throughout June 6, turning back persistent and heavy attacks made by German armour and infantry.

Ray said, “After a whole day and evening of heavy fighting, the gilders arrived with the equipment and troops that momentarily turned the tide for us as the Germans retreated.”

At about midnight of that day, Ray was sent on a reconnaissance mission to see what was happening and his observations played a crucial role in the events to follow.

“On my patrol, I heard the sound of many, many tanks and immediately ran back to base to report. The message was quickly relayed to the warships offshore who heavily shelled the area the tanks were in and broke up the attack.

“The potential attack was later assessed to be so big that should it have happened they would have driven our men back into the sea.”

 Ray in 2010
( Ray in 2010: Tindle News)

In the days to follow the Germans attempted several times to break into the battalion's position, but the Allies held their ground.

And one decisive battle in particular stands at the forefront of Ray’s mind.

“We had been holding Ranville for a number of days and had been promised that three British tanks would soon arrive to help us out.

“Whilst waiting for them to arrive we found ourselves at one point being plastered with hundreds and hundreds of shells from the German Tiger tanks for a solid hour.

“Then, just as the panzer grenadiers were about to attack, our three tanks arrived, but almost instantly the German tanks let rip and ours just disappeared in balls of flame.

“The poor lads inside were cremated alive and it was terrible to see.

“Before we knew it the German infantry were approaching and the company commander ordered us to hold our fire until they were 50 yards away.

“We concentrated all our machine guns on their position and just devastated them. Once they saw the infantry attack had failed the tanks retreated, but I remember our medical officer went out to see if he could help any of the wounded Germans and he was just killed outright by a single shell from one of those tanks.”

By August 17 the enemy began to hastily withdraw from Normandy, their lines broken by combined American, British, Canadian, and Polish attacks. The 13th Battalion took part in the pursuit of the defeated Germans, who put in a fierce rear-guard resistance.

From August 22-24, the battalion fought in heavy action at Pont L'Eveque and suffered many casualties.

“I remember from D-Day onwards, you never really got the sense that the war was in the final stages, there was still so much more fighting to do,” said Ray.

“As we advanced I remember how all the leaves had been stripped off the trees and how black and rotten everything looked. The air was thick with the terrible stench of decomposition and unwashed men. The invasion had been a success, but there was still a long way to go.”

Following three months of continual fighting and after chasing the Germans to the banks of the river Seine, the 13th Battalion was ordered to retreat to the beaches and home.

Home as he knew it had changed immeasurably for Ray, who explained, “When I got back to Larkhill it was so strange. There was no one there I knew any longer and it felt so empty. The casualties had been very heavy.”

Returning from the war Ray trained as an instructor and remains proud to have helped train a lot of young men to earn their wings.

Ray later went on to become a Charge Nurse at the former Pen-y-fal Hospital in Abergavenny, where a simple quirk of fate, saw him working and becoming friends with a German who was a soldier in one of the Battalion’s that had attacked Ray’s.

Ray and Cynthia on their wedding day
(Ray and Cynthia on their wedding day: Pic Supplied)

Ray, alongside his beloved wife, Cynthia, also went on to have German grandchildren, as a consequence of their daughter Susan moving to Germany and getting married.”

“It’s strange how things turn out,” admitted Ray, “The war seems such a long time ago now, but I can remember it as if it was yesterday. In war, there are always some things you’d like to forget and some stories you’ll never tell, but I’ll always remain proud to have served in the Paras and to have done my bit.”