Friday, 17 May 2019

Britain, mired in Brexit, is still a country for and is grateful to the valour of an old D-Day veteran called Harry Read

Harry Read is 94 years old, but on D-Day on June 6th 1944 he was a fresh-faced 20 year old who was a wireless operator and, as part of the invasion of German-occupied France, was parachuted into Normandy. Serving as a signalman with the 6th Airborne Division attached to the 3rd Parachute Brigade, he has vivid recall of that fateful day and remembers one of his final briefings :

 “One of the briefing officers, whether it was deliberately or an onrush of untoward honesty, I don’t know, but he said : "We ought to tell you, we are expecting 50% casualties on landing." It was very sombre. Being young, we thought we were immortal. It’s going to happen, but not to me. But at over 50%, the odds are slightly against you."

“I remember, it was a bright sunny day. And I went to a quiet place in the camp. I sat down and thought very deeply about what I was going to do. I came to the conclusion I would do everything I could to live up to being a para in enemy country. I wouldn’t surrender. I would be ready for any opportunity when it came. I settled it within my heart and within my mind”.

Now, after 75 years, as part of the D-day commemorations, Harry has prepared to parachute into Normandy on June 5, with practice skydiving back in September last year. This time he will be no cumbersome battery strapped to his right leg, which on D-day failed to release on time and so pulled him sharply down into a bog, an area deliberately flooded by the Germans which would claim the lives of almost 200 of his comrades before they could fire a single bullet.

This time "when I board the Dakota, I will go and sit in seat 12. Because that was where I sat on that day. It is a stupid thing to do at my age. Elderly men don’t do parachute jumps. There is a delight in jumping. But I resonate more with the sacrifice than I do with the celebration. The sacrifice enabled the celebration to take place, of course. And I will think of my mates who died."

He recalls he boarded his aircraft “pretty well full of adrenaline”. As they approached the coastline of Normandy “we could see this magnificent fireworks display ahead of us, except it wasn’t fireworks. We flew into this dreadful situation. We could hardly keep our seats. We were bouncing here, there and everywhere from the shockwaves from shells. We could see the tracer bullets.” His Dakota took a sudden great turn upward to the right and he realises now, it had been caught by a shell.

As he jumped into the darkness, at 00.50 on D-day, he could see ahead of them one Allied aircraft going down in flames. On landing, he found himself alone. The pathfinders, whose job was to set up markers, had earlier been dropped in the wrong DZ, he said, and he had no idea where he was, or where he should head to.

“I had fallen into one of these deep trenches. I was immediately submerged. But fortunately my knees helped me. And the strong grasses enabled me to pull on them to get myself out.” He pulled himself slowly from flooded trench to the next, discarding his accumulator battery “because it was jolly heavy.” After an hour, he met another paratrooper, Paddy from Galway and exchanged passwords :  “ham and jam”. For the next 16 hours the two slowly crawled through the swamp and eventually came across a farmhouse.

Harry and Paddy kept it under observation for several hours, in case it had been occupied by the Germans and then ventured to knock. Inside was a welcoming farmer, and a group of other bedraggled paras taking shelter. Together, they would push forward to their appointed HQ at Le Mesnil. He "was quite surprised at the very small number of men that we had there. The size of the casualties on landing was very obvious.”

Harry went on to see action as a wireless operator throughout the Battle of Normandy, from 6 June when he landed, until 7 September when he left France and said, with perfect understatement : “I was very fortunate to survive the whole thing,”

Harry said : “Parachute jumps are dependent upon reasonable weather but all being well I will be jumping again on 5 June – almost to the hour since my jump into Normandy 75 years ago.” 
Awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, in 2016, he said he was looking forward to the challenge next month :
            “Yesterday is not our best, our best is tomorrow.” 

An interview with Harry together with some of his poetry : http://www.pegasusarchive.org/normandy/harry_read.htm

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