On the morning of Tuesday, 6 June 1944, Sergeant William Norman Clague landed with No. 6 Commando unit at Normandy. The following Monday, on 12 June 1944, he was killed in action. Sergeant Clague was 26 years old at his death.
The scale of World War 2
Between 1946 and 2019, there have been many world historical events which fill history books: the Iron Curtain falling across Europe, men walking on the moon, the Vietnam War (amongst others), the reunification of Germany, the death of Princess Diana, the September 11 attacks, and so on. For each of those world events, almost every person I’ve met experienced those events as a witness from afar – “Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?” “Where were you when Princess Diana died?” “Where were you when the September 11 attacks happened?”. Those were events where the overwhelming experience of most people in my sheltered life were observers who heard about them second-hand.
World War 2 was on a different scale. When my grandparents spoke about World War 2, they told me stories of what they did during World War 2, not where they were when they heard about it. World War 2 wasn’t something that most people in our civilisation merely witnessed – World War 2 was something that most people experienced.
That immense scale of World War 2 is reflected in the sixty million deaths according to Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book. Many hundreds of million people suffered various injuries, and literally billions of people were involved in various ways. My limited human brain can’t comprehend those numbers. I agree with the horrific maxim attributed to Joseph Stalin but more likely first coined by Kurt Tucholsky, “The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. A hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic!“.
Thus, when I remember the sacrifices of my predecessors who fought for our freedom, I prefer to think of the stories of individuals – because I have no capacity to think of the experience of billions of people. Hence, I’ve attempted to tell part of the story of a small bit of one man’s service in one theatre of World War 2. This is very much an imperfect effort – an attempt to make a small contribution of a few brush strokes to a much bigger picture of World War 2. If you are interested in seeing a bigger picture, some of these books are outstanding.
Mining the Archive of Overlord
After watching the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray remastering of the movie OVERLORD (1975), I saw an accompanying featurette MINING THE ARCHIVE (2007) talk about how the the movie interwove genuine war footage with the fictional story. MINING THE ARCHIVE mentioned a Sergeant Clague – which I instantly guessed must have been a Manx person with a surname like that. I loved the movie OVERLORD because it contrasts a “dreamlike meditation on human smallness within a large, incomprehensible machine.” That perfectly reflects my perception of World War 2 – the combination of millions of tiny stories to form a grand narrative.
Living now on the Isle of Man, I was curious about who Sergeant Clague was, and thanks to the wonders of Google, it was clear that he was Manx. However, in a paper by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, titled ‘D-Day Filming: For Real. A Comparison of ‘Truth’ and ‘Reality’ in “Saving Private Ryan” and Combat Film by the British Army’s Film and Photographic Unit‘ he wrote, “Unfortunately, we know little more about Norman Clague”. Hopefully this article helps to fix that.
One Man, Sergeant Clague
Sergeant William Norman Clague was the son of William Joseph and Catherine Robina Clague, of Douglas, Isle of Man. With William born in the final months of World War 1, the Clague family lived at 21 Derby Road, Douglas – still a residential area today. It appears that ‘Norman’ was his preferred name, and his field grave was marked as Sgt N Clague when he was first buried.
William had a sister, Violet, who he wrote to during the war. This is likely the same Violet Clague who is recorded in the Douglas Borough Cemetery Burial Registry as passing away on 22 June, 1957 at the age of 41. This would have made her approximately two years older than William.
When Clague signed up to the Army, he was assigned serial number 3775712 and joined the Army Film & Photographic Unit, as part of the Kings Regiment (Liverpool) 8th Irish Battalion. Prior to the Second World War, the Kings Regiment had a pre-existing connection to the Isle of Man, with the 1st Isle of Man Rifle Volunteers being assigned to the Kings Regiment since its formation.
Clague trained with the Army Film & Photographic Unit, which was only formed after the war began. Britain had not a single cameraman in uniform on 3 September 1939.
After the completion of his training, like other cameramen, he was immediately promoted to Sergeant.
Above: Army Film & Photography Unit students in training during the war © IWM (H 30987)
Sergeant Clague’s Approach and Landing
Clague was assigned to No. 6 Commando for the invasion. This was a batallion comprised of around five hundred men, and was one of five batallions which formed 1st Special Service Brigade. The commandos were trained as an elite infantry force, and on D-Day, the 1st Special Service Brigade attacked on the eastern-most edge of Sword Beach.
On the boat to France, Clague recorded his daylight transit, which is now available online here from the 2:17 mark of the film.
In the image below, their unit planned to attack just west of the River Orne, north of the town of Caen.
Their landing point was at Hermanville-sur-Mer – a wide and open stretch of beach. On the map above, only a small area was shaded as the target – to either side were shoals which blocked landing craft.
Beyond the beaches which were famously named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, the beaches were more specifically divided into seventeen sectors. These were labelled alphabetically from Able (at the far west, or left as looking at the map above) to Roger at the far east near the River Orne. Clague went ashore with No. 6 Commando at Queen beach, amongst the east-most units of the invasion.
This is approximately where the Bill Millin statue exists today.
Clague’s CommanderDescribes the Approach
No. 6 Commando’s commanding officer on D-Day was Lieutenant-Colonel (later Brigadier) Derek Mills-Roberts, who subsequently published the story of his service as ‘Clash By Night: A Commando Chronicle‘.
After the war, he described the unit’s approach to the French coast on D-Day:
“It was full daylight as we approached the shore and prepared to land. Just a little time before we had passed close to a large capital ship anchored several miles out, and had seen her guns blazing away against a shore battery to our left. As we passed close by her we saw one of her gun crews, wearing what looked like white protective clothing, emerge from a turret to wave and give us the thumbs-up signal. The coastline ahead was low and flat and covered in a fog-like haze after the recent tremendous assault bombardment from the air… Away to our right a destroyer was on fire from stem to stern, but I had no time to look at her as I had to keep my eyes glued on where our landmark should be. As I leant on the forward edge of the bridge there was a shattering explosion, and the craft in line with us and to our right went up with a full-blooded roar. A shell had pierced her petrol tanks – several thousand gallons of high octane fuel can cause quite a bang.“
“I had got our landmark now but it was still indistinct in the smoke haze. The heavy swell had lessened inshore, but our way was barred by huge iron stakes and on the end of each was a live mine… The shell fire was now more intense and the splashes round us more frequent. Our men were lying flat on the deck behind the cover of their bullet-proof casings. We would strike the beach any second now. On these occasions the officer always goes first. I took up my position on the port bow with Alan Pyman in a similar position on the starboard bow. As the landing-craft touched, the two light gangways were slammed ashore, but almost immediately the sea took the stern of the vessel and my gangway swung adrift. There was no time for delay and I jumped into the sea, followed by Corporal Smith and those on the port side of the ship.Clash by Night, Brig Derek Mills-Roberts
Clague’s unit landed at around 8:40am on 6th June, 1944 – almost three hours after sunrise at 5:57am in Normandy that day. At the time, the soldiers used British Double Summer Time, which is the same as Central European Summer Time today.
Below is the beach as it was in September 2019. You can see the wide and open nature of the beach, with little cover from enemy fire in ordinary times. Soldiers reported that by the time that Clague’s unit came ashore, the beach was somewhat sheltered by damaged and destroyed vehicles from earlier invasion waves.
“British and French commandos encountered tough resistance in the seaside town of Ouistreham, on Sword’s eastern extremity, but were able to clear it of enemy strongpoints. By 13:00, the 1st Special Service Brigade had reached the bridges on the River Orne and the Caen Canal, linking up with paratroops of the 6th Airborne Division, who were holding the bridges, after earlier disabling German gun batteries in a fierce night-time battle at Merville.”Sword Beach – Wikipedia
Once ashore, the commandos moved inland, near to the river Orne. In taking the villages of Le Plein and Saint-Aubin-d’Arquenay, they suffered more casualties – by the end of 7 June (D-Day +1) six men had been killed – two officers and four enlisted men. In addition, a further forty men were recorded as wounded. During this time, and the subsequent days, shots came from the eastern side of the nearby river – snipers and mortars from time to time.
All this time, from Tuesday (D-Day) through to the following weekend, Clague and his unit were still within five kilometers of their landing point: a little further than the distance from the sea terminal in Douglas to Union Mills. Each night was noisy, as 6 Commando was shelled by German troops, and 6 Commando returned fire.
During this period, he recorded allied troops moving through the town – and his fellow soldiers milling around. Note the white flag waved by the civilians in the first snapshot below.
During this time, the Brigade’s commanding officer, Brigadier Lord Lovat, visits in the pouring rain, while the unit continues to skirmish with German resistance. Mortars fly back and forth, with Germans continuing to fire from the eastern side of the river, near the town of Breville.
His Final Day: 12th June 1944
The commanding officer of No. 6 reports:
Place: In the field, Le Plein
a.m. – We shell enemy all day. They shell us.
p.m. – 2200 hrs Brigade order 2 & 6 Troop to withdraw from trenches to permit 12th Para Btn to pass through and attack BREVILLE. This attack is preceded by a very heavy barrage which is answered by enemy counter barrage. 12th Para Btn suffer heavy casualties forming up. We suffer 1 Offr & 15 O.R’s casualties. 12 Para Bn take BREVILLE. Brigadier Lord Lovat wounded. C.O. takes over Brigade. Major Lewis takes over Commando.Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts’ diary
One of those casualties was Sergeant Clague. True to the end, he was behind the camera, not in front of it. In his final hours, he continued to record the efforts of his brothers-in-arms.
During this skirmish, a German mortar landed, killing him and others. It was sudden. Despite his role as a cameraman, it was not a movie scene. It was another horror of war. A man struck down at 26 years of age. His individual sacrifice contributed to a broader narrative. The cost of war was very concentrated for Sergeant Clague, and the benefit was dispersed to billions of people who live more freely today as a result. As a young man, he left no descendants behind, no wife – but he did leave behind a loving family and a grateful nation.
Clague’s Ordinary Heroism
In every way that was important, Clague was a hero – he selflessly went to war, and literally helped to tell the history of one of the most important battles of the last century. In doing so, he made the ultimate sacrifice. There are no available records that show he even fired his gun at the enemy – instead of shooting with a rifle, he shot with a camera.
In a way, Clague’s heroism was deeply ordinary – it was not a heroism of glamour, it was a heroism of playing his role in one small part of the front. Clague’s heroism was the heroism of a civilian soldier standing up when he was called to do his duty. Clague answered the call, to perform his job, when he was asked to do so. In a way, his heroism was banal – he was like so many other millions who stood up when he was asked to do so. That his countrymen and women stood up does not diminish his sacrifice. Indeed, it magnifies it, because Clague, like many others did their duty when they were needed most.
In reflecting on his service and his sacrifice, I’m grateful for their legacy of freedom.
Lest we forget.
You can see raw, unedited, clips of Sergeant Clague’s recordings from British Pathé here:
From 2:17 onwards here, on the boat heading towards the Normandy coast (note his slate at the 2:17 mark)
Ashore, away from the beach (again, his slate is shown at 5:17 here)
You can see some of Sergeant Clague’s recordings in:
CBS News – D-Day anniversary: Watch archival video of the iconic invasion in Normandy. I think some of the video at 0:27 of the boats are from Clague.
Interested in the story of D-Day? Watch the movie “Overlord” followed by “Saving Private Ryan”.
The multiple-award winning film, The Longest Day, tells the story of Clague’s area of Normandy, along with his brigade’s assault on Pegasus Bridge in subsequent days.
- During World War 2, the rank held by Norman Clague was spelled Serjeant, but I have used the modern spelling of Sergeant throughout. The Serjeant spelling is used on his grave in France.