Percy Aplin joined the 5th Battalion of the Devons (TA) before the war. At this time,he was working as a gamekeeper near Plymouth. He enjoyed his TA soldiering. When war broke out in 1939 his unit was mobilised. Initially, he was based in Plymouth. Later, Percy was transferred to the 12th Battalion of the Devons and found himself being deployed on Home Defence duties. He spent a few years on the South Coast, including the Isle of Wight, as part of this country’s defence against a possible German invasion.
At some stage, Percy’s Battalion was given a new role. The unit became known as the 6th Airborne Battalion and was based at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain. He received the coveted red beret, but his unit continued to wear the Devons cap badge. The new role of his unit was ‘airlanding’. The Battalion started training as a glider unit. They used the old wooden ‘Horsa’ gliders which would be towed by aircraft such as a Dakota or Wellington bomber. They trained mainly on Salisbury Plain using the military airfield at Netheravon. Percy found sitting in a glider, being towed by another aircraft (which they called ‘tugs’) – and with no parachute – “a bit scary”. You could get about 20 men inside a Horsa, less, of course, if a jeep or other cargo was being carried.
After some training in airlanding skills in East Anglia and experiencing one emergency landing, it became clear that they were to be used on some ‘big operation’ in 1944. For some weeks they were incarcerated at Brize Norton airfield – not allowed to leave the camp for security reasons. At one point, Percy was called to the Medical Officer. Unsure why he had been summoned, Percy discovered that the MO was the son of his boss in civilian life on the estate near Plymouth! He could see the family likeness.
On 5th June 1944, there were still no briefings but, in the early hours of the 6th June, his Company emplaned in Horsa gliders and they set off across the Channel. At the same time the rest of his Battalion set sail for France. Percy’s Company was part of the overall plan for the Airborne parachute and glider operations to capture important bridges over the rivers and canals between the French coast and the large town of Caen. He describes the feeling on the flight over to France as very tense.
Percy’s glider landed on target in a cornfield at a place between Pegasus Bridge and the village of Ranville. Dawn was just breaking; the light was dimpsie*. Though the corn was high, the Germans had constructed obstacles (wooden posts and wire cables) in the fields to deter glider landings.
Soon after Percy’s glider landed on French soil, his unit had to withstand any German counter-attacks and to prepare for operations in an enemy-held country. Quite soon, Percy’s section was engaged by a German machine gun post. The Germans promptly gave themselves up and were captured. However, the enemy was not going to be so accommodating in the future. Percy’s Company soon met up with the rest of his Battalion which had arrived in France by sea, landing at Sword Beach near Ouistrehan. The Battalion was heavily counter-attacked by the Germans near Breville where almost an entire Company (120 men) was wiped out.
After these initial setbacks, Percy’s unit was ordered to advance in an easterly direction towards Honfleur. Percy says that many of the soldiers, like him, were country people who knew how to milk a cow or to kill a chicken. So their rations were supplemented from time to time. However, he says that the farmers did not really mind. They would rather have marauding British soldiers on their farms than German soldiers.
At one point, during this period, Percy’s section was advancing over rough ground when some Germans opened fire on them from the right flank. Percy was leading his section and, at first, it only seemed like a few shots were fired. However, to his great dismay, Percy saw that one of his colleagues had been hit and was seriously wounded. The colleague called out “Happy – I want a drink”.(Happy was Percy’s nickname, originating from his surname). Percy, without considering his own safety, scrambled down to a brook to collect some water. He carried the water in his helmet to the wounded man. By this time Percy’s section had moved on and the wounded soldier (Pte Plumridge) told Percy that the Jerries were still shooting and told Percy to leave him and to catch up the rest of his mates. Percy was now in a real dilemma, but he decided to go on as Plumridge had said. He caught up his mates. That evening, at about teatime, Percy and one other, again with no regard for their own safety, went back to their wounded colleague with a stretcher. They recovered Pte Plumridge to safety and he was taken off to a field hospital. At about 3.0am or 4.0am the next morning, Percy’s CO arrived to tell him that Plumridge had died of his wounds. A short time later, Percy Aplin was told that he had been awarded the Military Medal for his courage and bravery in dealing with his wounded colleague whilst in the face of the enemy.
Soon afterwards, Percy’s unit returned to ‘Blighty’, only to return again to Europe during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Holland. During the operation to cross the Rhine, his unit was, once again, ordered to carry out an airlanding (gliding) task. They landed on the far side of the Rhine at a place called Hammerkon. This time the glider landed on a railway line. The wooden aircraft smashed up badly, but Percy was not hurt and nor were any of his colleagues. A short time later, whilst Percy was moving over some open ground, the Jerries opened fire and Percy realised that he had been hit in the back of his leg. He managed to bandage the leg with his field dressing, but the wound became too severe and he had to go to a hospital in Belgium for 6-7 weeks. After that he was sent back to ‘Blighty’ for convalescence. In fact, he did not return to Europe and he rejoined his unit when it returned to Bulford after the war ended. Some time later, Percy was demobbed.
Percy then resumed his job as a gamekeeper, spending much of his later life on the Dillington Estate.
* An old Devon word meaning "twilight" or "dusk".