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Today, in the first of a two part episode, we’ll hear from Brigadier General Radley-Walters. Radley Walters was a tank commander in the Canadian Army, and was the Western Allies’ leading tank destroyer in WWII. He was a part of the invasion forces on D-Day.
Well, with the unit I was with, interestingly enough, we were an infantry battalion in Canada for two years, and we had been posted to Newfoundland. Newfoundland at that time didn't belong to Canada. So when we came back to Canada, after posting in Newfoundland in the fall of '41, they said, "You're going to be a tank unit." And at that time we all looked at one another and wondered what tanks were, and so on, in 1941.
So the training was shifted completely from infantry to armored. And we went to the armored school, some of us, to train as instructors, because as instructors, we were going to train our regiment. So then we shipped off to England, I went over in the early spring of 1942. And at that time worked with the British, going to British schools to bring up our skills. And we took driving and maintenance, gunnery, wireless training, and tactical training with the British. And then they brought the regiment over from Canada. We as instructors fell in with them, and started training our regiment in England. And that was great fun, because in one of the skills we were reasonably decent instructors, and the other two or three skills, we were assistant instructors. So all through 1942, we were doing what I think would be called the basic training of getting an armored regiment actually up to scratch. From then on, we started working with various infantry battalions from various divisions, especially the second and the third division.
And I would say about 1943, in the summer of 1943, I think I was a lieutenant then, I think though the feeling was, we're going to invade Europe someday, somehow, and we'd better get together with the infantry and learn, first, everything about cooperating, one with the other, the infantry, artillery, and the tanks. But more importantly, learn a lot about watermanship training, because we're going to have to get on a boat somewhere and go across this channel and land on the other side.
So for all of the fall of 1943 and coming around to 1944, we were on the water a lot. We would go up to Kirkcudbright in Scotland, up to Castle Toward, [inaudible], and so on and get our basic training as to how you get on a landing craft tank. The people who went with what they call the DDs, duplex drive, the ones that floated were doing their individual training. I didn't do that because we were in a reserved brigade, so we got a landing in about nine feet of water, and we were waterproofed for nine feet. But all the business of, A, starting from an assembly area and each particular unit moving down to a beach to get, to the beach in the right order, to load that particular craft in the right order, to move that craft out, and so on, took a long time. And at the end, I think we got reasonably professional about it.
Then as we moved down into Southern England, I think the interesting thing was that, I was 1734, my landing craft tank, I would put on five tanks on LCT 1734, and you got to know the crew. You got to know the skipper. He was from Halifax. And consequently, as we came onto the beach and came down, you sort of looked around, and you'd see a hand waving. Oh, there he is over there on the left 1734, and on you would load. And that was the guy that took us in on D-Day.
So I think that's important. And somebody asked me, "What was the most important thing that you learned during the war?" And I said, "For God's sakes, getting to know one another, at least your friends, you can walk up and you're not strangers, and so on when you're trying to do business." And I'm sure that's so on civvy street, but as sure as hell so in the service, in the Army. And we had fun, we kept moving all the time. You'd be in one camp for like, we started Aldershot, and then we went up to Hindhead, and then we went to Headley and Tweenways, and then came down around the Southern coast, all the little villages, New Milton, down by Southampton, Portsmouth and so on.
And then finally the Canadians were moved, because we knew then something was happening, and we were then moved into camps just before D-Day. And we were in those camps for about two weeks and you'd start sort of reasonably far inland from the sea, about eight or 10 miles. And as the thing progressed, you went from one camp down to the other. And as you moved, you got all your surplus equipment was taken from you. Men were being selected, those that couldn't make it, and so on. Equipment was being checked completely. So that by the time you got down, when we got down to Gosport to land, we had all the administrative work done.
I was a troop leader, you'd walk with a pack of red, white, blue, and so on pieces of paper, and each one was meaningful. One would have your personnel list on it. One would have your equipment list on it, and so on. And as you came to military police or traffic control people, you handed a piece of paper to them, they left that little bit of column through, and so on. And I don't think the historians talk very much about that, but that I think is probably one of the most important parts of that whole bloody landing, as far as Canadians and British, and I'm sure as far as Americans are concerned. And that whole business of putting that puzzle to getting to get the right man, on the right boat, at the right time, and so on, was very important.
And we moved out three days before D-Day, and we went out of the Isle of Wight, and we just went around in circles with the landing craft. And we were supposed to land on the 5th of June, of course, the bad weather, and so on. We didn't, we went in on the 6th, I was with the reserve brigade, which was nine brigade, three infantry battalions, and our regiment, which was the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, 27th Canadian Armored Regiment. And we landed after the assault had hit the beach at Bernières-sur-Mer.
Well, when we got a board and so on, it was windy as the Dickens. And the waves were, I think the Navy called it force four, which means that they were four or five feet high, the waves. And when we got out in the channel, of course, the first thing is, we’re not all sailors. So I'd say three quarters of them were sick. And then on an LCT you bring two tanks, two tanks and one in the door and you then have chalk blocks and then you chain them down so that they can't move from and so on.
And just before landing, when you're mile outside, the drill was that you undo do these chains, pull the chalk blocks out and so on. And the tank's ready to roll off. When we got out there, not at the beginning, but sooner on that first, second day, start taking water in over the sides. So you're walking around in over your boots in seawater, and you're just laying there pitching.
The skipper, his crew's a very small crew on an LCT and in front of the bridge. And down below, there's a little room where you can put about 15, 20 men in there. And they're all sitting in there sick as hell and running to the side and puking over the side and not feeling very well. And just wished that somebody would start this thing up and get to France. And I think everybody was just so happy when they saw the French coast and said, "For God's sakes, we'll get our tracks on dry land and get out of this muck." I think that was pretty universal for everybody on the craft I was with. They were just deadly sick, even to the point that some of the DD tanks... We had to change the drivers on them and put him in the tanks or somewhere with the guy who wasn't sick and would take over the driving.
But sea sickness is, I guess we have cures for it now, or we try to anyway, but in those days we didn't and you just were sick. Wind, scudding, clouds right down on the water. I always say it's just a normal day in England, about April, May, June, because there's so much of that dirty weather in that part of the world.
I think the other thing too was amazed, just completely amazed as we went in great circles to see everybody joining it. And the first thing you look to your front, behind you, to the right, to the left and the whole channel just seemed to be full of ships of every description and type. What's the difference between an LCT and an LST and an LCA and a destroyer. And so you could pick out the ones that were the fighting one, but all of these others, even though we had had reasonable amount of practice in loading and unloading. Well, you saw the world of the Navy in front of you on the water. And there it was from mine sweepers to destroyers, to all the landing type craft that they had.
And of course the infantry were on the bigger ones and some of our tanks were on the landing ship tank. Now that's that big devil that takes about 40 or 50 tanks and comes in and right on the beach and opens up the front. But that's great for the reinforcement. It's not any good for the people that are going in. At the beginning, the people going in at the beginning all went into small crowd landing, craft assault, which the infantry of platoon or infantry or landing craft tank, which was equivalent of about a platoon of tanks. And in that way if you lost one, you only lost a part of the packet.
But I think basically sickness, seasickness, nobody could eat. We had what they call [comple] packs, which were wooden packs with three day rations for a tank crew. I don't think they ever broke the lids of those to look at the food.
And the other thing is we didn't know where we were going. I didn't know where we were going. We were going France. Well, I thought we were going to France, but I was the senior officer on that. I was a captain and I had a bag, a note, just an ordinary, like an note bag. And it was all tied with wax and so on at the top. And it was in the hands of the skipper. And at a certain time, he was told to give me the bag and I would then open the bag and I had five tanks. So there were five sets of maps, all of our wireless codes, which went into each tank. And so on what frequency we're using and the various other uses. In other words, all of this information is there. And I remember.. Well finally the orders came to disperse or to distribute I should say this information in which it was very vital to all of us. Now we know exactly where we're going. Now we know the beach that we're going in on. We had seen these beaches or I had seen these beaches, the corporals and the sergeants had, but I had seen these beaches on models. I had seen them on a mockup and so on, but where was it, God knows. And now it's confirmed.
So I thought at this particular stage it was damn important that they get these maps out and stick their heads in them and really find out all about it because it's being critical at this stage of the game, that after all this training, everything that we've done, four years sitting around, now we're going into action. And they take the damn maps and the information I give them and they just stick it behind the wireless set. And the old bogus map, which they'd been using on exercises, was in their pocket sort of crumpled a bit. And that's what they relied on when they hit the beach. And some of them, as I said, relied on it, not just when you hit the beach two and three days later, you could see crew commanders still looking at the old bogus map and making comparisons with what was there and what was on the map and seeing how accurate.
And if you ever interview Hubert Meyer, he tells an interesting story about the Germans capturing Canadians and seeing these bogus maps. And they just couldn't believe that all of the gun positions, the machine gun positions, the strong points and so on, we're all on these bogus maps. And he said, "They knew. Where did they get this information from?" Obviously from the French underground over a period of time so that they could build up that information on their bogus maps. And he tells a very interesting story and saying, "Gosh," Matter of fact, he said, it helped us in the end because some people were still using bogus maps and using the bogus names and the various points and so on the bogus map, but they had a bogus map at divisional headquarters and they could say, "Well, so and so is here. And so here, here's where they're probing and this is what they're trying to do. And so on." So from an intelligence point of view, I suppose it backfired a little bit, I don't know how much, but it was helpful really on both sides.
We were part of nine brigade, which was the idea was that two Canadian brigades would grab the beaches and hold the coastal villages. And the third brigade with armored support would break through either on the right or the center dependent on which one looked successful at a particular time and would then go right through and continue on to our final objective, which was the airport at Carpiquet just south of Caen. So we waited until the beaches had been taken. The little village of Bernières-sur-Mer had been taken. The divisional commander had finally made his decision that was the beach he was going to put his reserve in on and we went through. In our beach, actually it was hit by the queen zone and the Fort Garry horse hit our beach. And then right behind it, another battalion, which was the French Canadian battalion, The Régiment de la Chaudière. And then we came through.
So as far as opposition against a brigade at Bernières or on the beach, there was not, except in shelling, and only light shelling and mortars. And when we hit the beach, you say, "Well, what did you see?" Well, I saw a number of Canadians lying there dead and covered with a gray blanket. And I saw a number of Germans with their backs against the wall with one Canadian, with probably 30 Germans, just sitting there with no weapons, having been taken prisoners at the beach out of the strong points and so on. On the left, you could see 75 millimeter gun, couple of machine gun positions that had been destroyed and the old gun just sticking out of the hole and nobody in there. But as far as our infantry concerned, they had gone through and were clearing up still the village of Bernières-sur-Mer.
One hell of just about every building was burning because from the pounding first from the air. See, it was pounded at night by the Royal Air Force pounded in the morning by the U.S. AF then pounded by the artillery and pounded by the Navy and then pounded by the artillery, which was afloat. And they fired from the actual craft, the 25 pounders. And they put down a number of land mattresses from landing craft that fired multiple rockets. They called the rocket ship LCR. And these, I think fired 36 rockets at the time.
So that whole area was really plastered and burning and so on. And you'd sort of say, "What do you remember?" Well, I remember the dead and I remember the prisoners and I remember the uniform, which again was different. Right away you see the old gray German uniform, the queer helmet and the MG 34, which we don't see in training the MG 42 lying on the beach or something. “That's a different weapon, isn't it?” And then in some areas where going up from Bernières-sur-Mer all up that road, but the Germans obviously tried to get away and were cut down on the road and guys just lying in the ditch dead. And a lot of the respirator and their meins and so on probably distributor, somebody kicked them around or something. And then on, in your own infantry, walking beside you, and every time you stop saying, try and get up here and you pull them up. And so that was the tank was moving. Sometimes we'd have eight or 10 infantry hanging on to get a lift up into the assembly area. Because once we got into the assembly area, we were going to sort ourselves out. It was important to get off the beach as fast as you can. And get up there. Point I'm saying is when you do it with a lot of people, all you've got is the traffic jam and that's what we had.
I don't suppose anybody slept then that night, the first night, because I think just the complete shock and what you saw, you entered a new world basically and the old energy was pumped up and everybody was keen and you're going to see a German everywhere you looked, not that you did, but you thought you were going to. So I would say people took a great deal of, I mean, I'm sure the first trench that was ever dug by the infantry, we was dug well that night, that first night, I'm sure the first position that the tanks took up. I know my own. I looked at it and I backed up and I went through and I took it again. I went, I can't see quite enough, well enough on this side and so on.
Yeah, we were very keen. You look a month and half later and Christ you'd lie in the back deck and have a snooze, you'd say, oh, this position, I think pretty good. Because he'd had a little bit of experience and you knew, well you're going to move anyway because that's what they did the last time. And yeah, I think you were alerted more and more enthusiasm.
Now with regards to the landing, I think, when I spoke to a lot of guys, other than the fire and the bloody little village being smashed to hell, and the whole dramatic part of going through that sea wall and so on, but the holes had been made, the assault units had landed. I remember, I suppose the first thing that caught my eye going in was all of the artificial obstacles that the Germans had put in there. They'd put elements C, they put in post driven into the ground with mines on the top, and we were coming in just about as the tide was getting reasonably high, and the engineers had put freeways through, and they'd marked them with flags and so on, so that the skipper said, "I'll get you ashore." And he must have drove her right to the bottom, because instead of putting us nine feet of water, he put us halfway up the beach. He was sure it was a Navy responsibility to get the troops ashore, and he drove us ashore. No question about it. We worried afterwards whether he ever got off, because... But they had bulldozers and stuff on the beach that would come at the front and then push the craft off.
And the tremendous confusion, when I say confusion, then the great number of vehicles that are all trying to move through three holes through the sea wall. And you know what it's like in a traffic jam in a big city? Well, this is the same thing. One at a time had to go through this. And as we got through, there was this church at the end of Bernières-sur-Mer, and to my dying day, if there's ever a guide that took us through to where we want to go, was that church steeple. And through we went, and we'd looked, and there, "Keep going on the church fellows." I think in that little village, there are three or, no, I think there's five little roads that come off the beach, but they all come to one road beside this church. And we had studied our maps. We had studied air photographs. We had a pretty good idea of what Bernières-sur-Mer looked like, when we were in England. And as a matter of fact, we had bogus maps, and even Bernières-sur-Mer we knew it, but we knew it by a different name. I think it was called... No, it wasn't Duluth or Detroit, but it had... and Caen had a different name. So that as we moved through the village, there were two things I think I should say, we noticed looking over at the right of the tank or the left of the tank, you saw German signs with a skull and crossbones on it, yellow, barbed wire, achtung minen.
So that meant stay on the bloody road, don't go off in the field. And then the church, and there that church just stood like a beacon out in front of us. And it was the guiding light that I think everybody will remember. Trying to get all of this traffic lined up on one road, past that church, and then break out into the open. And as I remember my commanding officer, the commanding officer of the brigade, and the divisional commander were all trying to play military police at that corner, and everything was stopped. And if the Germans had ever had any aircraft and so on to come in, I think we've been very vulnerable.
But we also off the LCTs, the landing craft tank, and all along the beach, were these balloons flying at about 500 feet, I guess, in which was to try and stop fighter aircraft from coming in and strafing you and bombing you.
So when I look at the reports today and you ask me, and I go over some old notes and so on, a lot of the guys thought it was like an exercise in England. We had done it so well in England, until that evening. And then as we move up into our assembly area, we are loading the North Nova Scotia Highlanders on our tanks and bringing them through in an assembly area. And then everybody's getting sorted out. Because you don't have your organization so nicely placed on each little ship, you only got three tanks here, five tanks there. Finally, you got to go back into your tank companies, get straightened out. Same thing with the infantry, it's from this section, that platoon, and so on, that squad, they're all mixed up. So it took us about an hour, two hours at a little place called Bény-sur-Mer. And there, we then, as per our rehearsals in England, assembled together, they got on the tanks and we started to go for our objective, which was Carpiquet, the airfield at Carpiquet. And that night, well, right up until about 10 o'clock at night, we started moving through the little villages on our way. And when the darkness fell, that we were ordered to hold a fortress area, we didn't get to our objective, a fortress area, and the infantry dug in and the tanks took up positions. We had run into German resistance up to that time, but the resistance was from mortars, from artillery, from machine gunners, from the odd sniper, and so on. Nothing that we couldn't look after ourselves and we'd brush it aside. But it meant that you'd be stopped for 20 minutes, stopped for half an hour and then go again, stopped for a little bit more.
And then the next morning off we went, and we started early in the morning to get to our objective. And we go through a little village called Les Buissons, and then we get into Buron on and Buron running into some stiff resistance. And then two tank squadrons and three infantry companies with a lead company getting into a little village called Authie, and our reconnaissance further again, about another 1,000 yards in front of us, and then we're hit by 12 SS Hitlerjugend division. Hit by about four companies, three or four companies. Well, actually it was the part of two lead battalions and about 40, 45, 50 tanks. And, of course, we're all out in the open, on the move. They've seen us come, and they're waiting for us. And the first volley of fire takes out quite a number of our tanks. And we get into one hell of a mixed up fight. Their tanks then start rolling towards us with their infantry across the wheat fields. And the wheat fields at that time were nearly up to your hips. A man could lie down in a wheat field and you wouldn't see them. But they came driving through there and they cut off the company at Authie. They created a fair amount of damage amongst ourselves. They took a number of prisoners and shot them. I think they shot 39 of them in the little village in Authie. Two of our crews in my particular squad and an officer were taken up to the Abbey Ardenne. And the Abbey Ardenne, they were interrogated and they were all shot up there.
So that basically was a sort of very rude awakening after this sort of rather reasonable landing. And the second day was one of our toughest days. And I think it's always interesting to see the inaccuracies. I had taken an AFE recognition course, and I knew tanks reasonably well, enemy tanks, and the number of crew commanders saying, "I hit a Panther, we knocked out a Tiger." This was all nonsense. Now I find out that there wasn't a Panther or Tiger in that battle. They were all PZKW Mark IVs. So it sort of makes you think that maybe our training in England, at that time, we smartened up pretty quickly once in action. But our training in England, we could have spent a little bit more time on AFE recognition.
So when the battle was over, they pushed us back about a mile, I guess. And then we took up a position with what we had left, and the infantry. Mind you we had two infantry battalions coming behind us and they got their anti-tank guns in position. Unfortunately, our artillery was a little bit too far behind. And when they tried to bring their guns up, they ran into fields that had Germans in them. So they had a fight on their hands just to get their guns into position. And for about three hours, we didn't have any artillery fire. And that hurt us very, very badly.
Once the guns start coming in... And I could tell you a human story of, they called them FOBs, Forward Bombardment Officers. And during that period of getting sorted out, there was this Jeep with a forward observation officer, a couple of them, Navy guys. Here are the Navy guys in this long wheat. And we wondered, what in the hell the Navy's doing here? Because in training in England, we'd never trained with these people. And my Colonel found out that they were forward bombardment officers off the battleship, I think it was the Rodney. Certainly, it was the Roberts was one of the ones with 16-inch guns on it. So he said, "Come with us." And they played around with their radio sets, that is the armored tank radio sets. And sure enough, they got on the right wave band of the Roberts. And I think basically the tremendous amount of fire, and Meyer says, when he writes his history in the prison afterwards, said that the murderous fire that was coming in from the Navy and the artillery was the reason that they didn't drive us back to the beach. And I also remember about two weeks later that those two Naval officers were being looked after lavishly by our CO who wanted to keep them, I think, forever.
And the interesting thing about that, and I don't know whether the historians have mentioned this, Meyer, or then General Witt and the German corps commander didn't understand the range of the Roberts and the battleships. And, consequently, they brought their divisional headquarters in much closer than they should have. The French underground were reporting every move of a German headquarters, sending it back to the battleships. And this is how General Witt was killed, because the Roberts opened up in right into Caen, and blew, well, it didn't blow the place down, but came very close to, and killed him and a couple of his officers at that time. And those guns went way beyond Caen, and went out to something like, I think, it's 28 miles inland. And this tremendous power that you had in the cradle of your hand, wasn't understood by too many people at that particular time. But certain people did understand it and used it, I think, extremely well. And certainly getting it out of that hole when the artillery came in and the Roberts opened up, there was no question that everything, as far as the German pushing us, was stopped, and they took very heavy casualties too.
At the end, the number of casualties is always interesting. We lost 21 tanks, and now that I go back and speak on the battlefield with Germans and so on, they don't always like to say how many they lost. Meyers said he lost six or seven. I think Hubert Meyer, his second in command, said they lost 14. And I think 14 against 21 is about right. Because I think their first volleys that they fired, they cleaned out six or eight tanks in that first volley.
And on certain locations where they were close in, say, they were firing oh, 1500, 2000 yards in front of us, and there happened to be a German position, say, in a farm with two or three barns around it and two or three buildings. And you'd see these rounds coming in and all of a sudden there wouldn't be any house. There wouldn't be any barns. There wouldn't be anything. They'd just clear the whole thing completely, just like sort of a small atomic bomb. And everybody would sort of clap their hands and say, "Good show. Let's do it again."
We came back into a little place called Les Buissons, where more or less from where we started the first morning, the infantry dug in. The artillery then were in great shape and they just kept pounding the Germans. The tanks pulled into positions. Matter of fact, we were able also to salvage a few tanks. That's one thing about the old Sherman, that if you hadn't blown it completely apart, it was a well made tank, and if tracks or sprockets or things of that were off or even engines were out and so on, and you could hook on with a tank recovery, you got that thing back and going again in reasonable shape.
I can remember about a month later going into that same area again and losing 11 tanks, out of 15, there was only three guys myself left, when we got on the objective. The next day I had, or not the next day, the next week, I would say, the next week we had seven of those 11 back on the road again. So with a hole clean through the final drive or a hole through the engine or so on. And they'd worked night and day, 24 hours a day, the mechs in refurbishing them and getting them back on the road.
And we always hear about the fighters and all the stories about going in here and pounding that and killing that, and so on, we don't hear very many stories about the guys that kept fixing them. And I remember going back after the war and walking across the fields with some of these guys, and I said, "Remember when we came to here and you looked to your right and there was that old water tower to the right and that little red house down by that bush over there." And they said, "I don't don't remember anything." Well, I said, "Christ, were you fellows with us during the war, and so on?" They said, "Yeah, but you don't forget, when the light came on, and so on," most of the time they were sleeping and they were right around the clock all night. So I said, "Do you know where you are?" "No," they said, "wasn't any trouble finding the tanks that were knocked out, because the Fort Garry Horse and the 1st Hussars were sister regiments, and we had tactical signs, ours was 53, which was written on the back and big number, 53 on the back, the first Hussars was 51, the Fort Garry Horse was 52. So they'd go along with the mechs and they'd say, "Yeah, there's two 53s over there in the field, on the left." And the other guy would say, "Yeah, there's a couple of 51s over here." So the mechs, they didn't even need a map. They just go by word of mouth, following where the regiments had fought.
And I think these little stories are not always talked about and known. But you go right across Europe that way, without a map. All you'd be doing is following a regiment or following an infantry battalion, because you had a team in which you had gun mechanics, you had electricians, you had vehicle mechanics, tank mechanics, and then what we call motor mechs were the ones that fixed the wheeled vehicles. So you had specialists on track vehicles, specialists on wheels, specialists on guns, specialists on radio sets. And what you did is you didn't try and fix the radio sets not working, pull the bloody radio set in, put a new one in, take it back, and they would fix it back over the next hill. So you weren't holding up that vehicle, whilst the radio set wasn't working. That sort of approach. Gun doesn't work, machine gun doesn't work, pull the... We always carried an extra couple of machine guns in the turret. Machine gun doesn't work, do the first IA action, second IA action, gun still not work, pull out gun, put in a new gun. When they come up, the fitters at night, throw the gun that's not working to them, get a new replacement gun, stick it behind you. And that's the way it went. And all the tricks of the trade, which I don't think you learn in training.
And these are tricks of the trade. And I remember the first thing was we got in France, and everybody was sort of ready to go, and we're all 21, 22, your age for God's sake. And I said, "Go to sleep. Now, everybody lie down, go by your tank, pull a tarp over you, and get a good..." And they all laughed at me. And they sort of said, "Well, geez, Major Rad is saying, 'God bless my soul, you got to go to sleep.' And here it is two o'clock in the afternoon, and so on. We're all talking and smoking." And I said, "Go to sleep."
But I can tell you about a month later, they were looking to me to tell them to go to sleep. It had just changed over, and they were dead tired by then. Because we went from the beach right through the capture of Caen. And then second division comes in, and because we were the only independent armored brigade in that area, we start supporting the other division. And consequently, I think we went for 56 days straight without a break.
That was Brigadier General Radley-Walters. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear the rest of his D-Day Invasion story.
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