Lieutenant Norman Poole was an SAS paratrooper who, as part of a six-man team, was one of the first to set foot on French soil in the early hours of the D-Day Normandy Landings, on 6 June, 1944.
In today’s world where celebrity and fame are craved and achieved for doing relatively little, his bravery and selflessness epitomised a bygone era in which the fortitude of young men and women ultimately led to the Allied victory during the Second World War.
His exploits of heroism later earned him the Military Cross, with a citation commending his “bravery in operating behind enemy lines for six weeks and, despite overwhelming odds, his resolute leadership under dangerous and testing circumstances”.
As part of Operation Titanic, the team was one of four being dropped by the British Special Air Service (SAS) in the Cherbourg Peninsula, with the brief of distracting, deceiving and drawing the German high command’s attention away from where the American 82nd Airborne Division was being dropped.
Flown in under the cover of darkness, on a variant of the four-engine bomber, the Handley Page Halifax, Poole, along with Captain Frederick Fowles and four troopers, all from 1st SAS Regiment, jumped shortly after midnight into the pitch black skies over Le Mesnil Vigot, north-west of Saint-Lô, and south of the Cherbourg Peninsula. The skies were only lit up by the explosions of anti-aircraft fire.
In addition to his five comrades, Poole was parachuted in with 200 dummies, which contained simulators and explosive charges, to simulate the dropping of an airborne division.
The mission, however, started badly as Poole was knocked unconscious while exiting the aircraft and Fowles and the troopers were all dropped short of their intended drop zones.
Upon regaining consciousness, to continue the deception as planned, Poole played his pre-recorded battle sounds, including weapon fire (machine gun and mortar fire), and men shouting orders to confuse the enemy; the others did likewise.
Within 24 hours or so they had managed to regroup close to the village of Remilly-Sur-Lozon. Furthermore, the SAS were to locate and open fire on the German forces, but to ensure the success of the operation allow some of them to escape, in the hope they would report the parachute drop in the region.
Subsequent intelligence suggested that they successfully diverted a German Kampfgruppe from the 915th Grenadier Regiment and the 352nd Infantry Division reserve away from the Omaha and Gold beaches and the Airborne Division drop zones; believing an airborne division had landed, the German troops were occupied searching woodland instead of heading towards the invasion beaches.
The main D-Day invasion of German-occupied Europe, the largest seaborne invasion ever attempted, took place at daybreak. Despite heavy losses, by the end of the first day, more than 155,000 Allied troops had arrived and established positions along the Normandy coast line; more than 75,000 British and Canadian troops and 57,500 US troops landed by sea during the day with more than 23,000 landing by air.
Because Poole and his comrades were dropped further in land they were surrounded by German troops, but had been told to expect relief from the advancing American troops within ten days. During the intervening days, however, the men found themselves not only evading capture but also Allied shelling and bombing raids.
With one member wounded, movement was slow but they successfully transmitted radio reports of German troop movements and carried out sabotage such as cutting telephone lines. Poole also managed to despatch the carrier pigeon (he had parachuted in with it strapped to his chest) to SAS HQ with important information; his was the only one to get through.
Twelve days after landing, Poole heard a radio report of two wounded US soldiers hiding nearby; at huge risk to himself, he travelled five miles cross-country to bring them in, travelling by night and hiding by day.
With the Americans’ progress hampered by stiff resistance, Poole and his comrades found themselves in greater peril as the weeks passed. Their first instinct was to avoid capture, as under Hitler’s now infamous “Commando Order”, they would potentially face torture and execution.
After a couple of skirmishes with German troops, Poole’s team was approaching the US lines in the north of the peninsula when it was forced to take cover in a ditch during a sudden German counter-attack which pushed the Americans back. They were found by an enemy patrol who threw grenades at them, wounding every member of the party except Poole and one other. Poole then helped to carry the wounded across No Man’s Land to a house which provided some shelter.
After making several journeys across open ground swept with fire, he prepared makeshift defences and got water for the injured.
Hours later, the Germans returned, surrounded the house and after a brief fire fight they were taken prisoner, after 41 days behind enemy lines. Following interrogation and threatened with execution, Poole, a fluent German-speaker, managed to persuade his interrogators that they were not members of the Special Forces.
While being transported by train to a German PoW camp, Poole had another brush with death. Moments after moving compartments, the train was attacked by British Hawker Typhoons and all were killed in the compartment he had just left.
Poole subsequently spent ten months at Oflag 79, an officers’ camp near Braunschweig, central Germany, before the camp was eventually liberated by the Americans. After brief recuperation, in late 1945, he was posted to MI9 and served in Athens with the Allied Screening Commission.
Born in Winchester in 1920, Norman Harry Poole was the son of Harry and Elisabeth Poole and was educated at Peter Symonds College.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, he was commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment (1940) and, after instructing at the Parachute Regiment Battle School, he was “head-hunted” and transferred to 1st SAS Regiment in 1943.
After being demobbed in 1946, Poole trained as a banker, working initially for the National Provincial Bank in Winchester, before working his way up the career ladder to become the NatWest regional manager for the south-west of England and South Wales, based in Bristol. He finally retired in 1980 and moved to Portishead in Somerset.
In retirement, he enjoyed walking and playing bowls but particularly playing with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as family holidays to Swanage, in Dorset.
He married Elizabeth in 1956 and the couple had two daughters; his wife and oldest daughter pre-deceased him. He is survived by his younger daughter Alison.
Known to his friends and family as a “really joyful man, full of life”, like many, Poole kept his wartime record and experiences to himself and revealed very little as “he did not want to betray the SAS in any way”.
Despite receiving many requests to appear on television shows and interviews over the years, Poole never accepted – with the exception of one programme for Canadian TV. Although the recipient of the MC for bravery, he always maintained: “The really brave ones were the ones who died.”