Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Brexit Britain, ironically a country where 75 years ago, very young servicemen, now very old D-Day veterans, fought to liberate a Europe it subsequently joined and now wants to leave

On this day 75 years ago, the old men below all took part in the Normandy landings in Northern France on Tuesday, 6th June 1944. They played their part of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 'Operation Overlord' which marked the end of the German occupation of France and the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe. They were individual, very young, fighting men, among the 60,000 who were part of the 160,000 Allied troops who led the invasion of five heavily fortified beaches, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The Operation had casualty rates comparable to those in the bloodiest First World War battles as well as those on the Eastern Front  during the Second World War.

Bill Fitzgerald, now 94, was a 19 year old infantryman in the Queen’s Royal Regiment was part of the third wave of troops landing on Gold Beach.
“There were landing craft getting blown up and you could see 40 men completely gone and that is something you never forget. You are just hoping for the best and praying everything went well. On arrival at Gold Beach there were bodies floating in the water, but you didn’t have time to feel anything. You were helping each other, hoping to get off that beach straight away. There was a beach master shouting "Get off the bloody beach as quick as you can – up, up!" So, we got off as soon as we could and regrouped in the woods.”

Bill was invalided out of the war on June 15 when his leg was snapped in two by shrapnel from a German shell. “I remember going up in the air and coming down and hitting the ground again. A soldier grabbed my helmet and put it over my face saying, ‘Keep still Bill, keep still’. I never found out who he was — I call him my unknown saviour — but he stayed with me until the stretcher-bearers turned up. What I didn’t know was the shrapnel had broken my femur in two.”

Stephen Brown, now 95, was a second lieutenant in the 23rd Destroyer Flotilla which opened up the barrage against the German beach defences recalled :
“The afternoon of June 5, 1944 was a dark and rainy day. The bombardment had been postponed 24 hours because of the weather but there was a gap that enabled us to set off. Before the invasion, we were each handed a letter from General Eisenhower wishing us fortune on the ‘great adventure’ as he called it. The noise [of the barrage] was deafening when it started. You got the feeling that nothing could survive where the rocket launchers had fired. But my goodness, they were still firing back at us. It was another hour before troops started landing. I remember thinking, ‘I’m rather glad I’m not down there’.”

Ron Smith, also 19, approached Sword Beach on Landing Craft Tank 947 in the first wave at 7.30am has said :
"I could hear shells going over my head. The noise was like 20 Tube trains at once and I think that is what deafened me. Those shells were the size of a small car. The skipper said: "I don’t want anyone to stand up, just stay down." We kept our heads down.” As their troops began to disembark, a shell hit one of the tanks carried by the landing craft, blocking the exit ramp. The tank exploded, killing a colonel on board and forcing the landing craft to retreat to Britain.

Ron returned to Normandy around ten days after D-Day but a mine sank his boat off the coast of Arromanches. With the crew he crew managed to swim to a nearby merchant ship which lay half-sunk in the harbour and was stranded there for 14 hours with only a bottle of rum between them.

Frank Mouque, another 19 year old and a  corporal in the Royal Engineers and was tasked with clearing mines and obstacles on Sword Beach :
“The first thing you did when you got on the beach was lay on your back with your feet in the air to get rid of all the water in your boots. The beach was total chaos. It was total noise. There were beach masters shouting and pointing and directing because everything was landed almost immediately. You could hear the warships firing." 

“When we got there I ran up the beach towards a parapet. Once there, my sergeant crawled over to me and asked me to clear a footpath to the road. He gave me a roll of white tape and I said to a lad ‘Come on’. I was shocked when he said ‘I’ve only been in the army for six weeks’. I showed him how to dig with a bayonet and look for fuses sticking up, because if you snapped one off, a bomb full of ball bearings would explode. It could take your legs off or kill you.” 

Joe Cattini, 21 years old and a military driver, wasn’t meant to arrive in Normandy until nine days after the invasion, but ended up in one of the first waves on Gold Beach. As a military driver he had dropped several officers at Southampton Docks, but was then grabbed by a sergeant major and told they needed a driver for one of their ammunition lorries. Of the sea crossing he said :
 “It was bloody rough. A lot of the boys were sick. Some of the younger ones were crying for their mums and the NCOs and officers were going around and trying to sort them out.”

Joe landed with his lorry at about 10am after a section of the beach had been cleared of obstacles and mines. “They laid carpets down so we didn’t sink into the sand. There were bodies floating in the sea and on the beach. I had been in the civil defence reserve during the Blitz in London so it didn’t faze me, but the stench and carnage was terrible."

Joe stayed with his unit through fierce fighting in Normandy where at Tilly-sur-Seulles they met stiff resistance and in one action the 6th Green Howards lost 250 men trying to capture the village of Cristot.“We had four weeks in the bocage (Normandy’s wooded terrain) and made six advances and retreats.” After the War he was awarded the Legion D'Honneur.

Mick Jennings, 20 years old was serving on Landing Craft Tank 795 carrying men of the US 531 Engineer Shore Regiment said :
"The crossing to Normandy was very rough and sea sickness among the American soldiers was rife. They could not wait to get off our ‘God damned boat’. There was no escape from the smell of vomit, it was everywhere.”

His landing craft put ashore at 10am on Utah Beach in the fourth wave but after delivering their men and trucks it was stranded as the tide receded. They knew they were easy targets for German gunners, "we ran up the beach to seek shelter and saw shells landing between the craft, which punctured holes in the side of the landing craft. As the shelling continued, I jumped into a foxhole already occupied by an American soldier, who shared his K Ration chocolate with me. Other members of the crew took refuge in a blockhouse, where they found the dead body of a German soldier. They took his helmet, pistol and a hand grenade as souvenirs. The combination of youth and wartime made people very callous but now, all these years later, I wonder about him, his family, who he was and where he came from.”

Raymond Lord, a 19 year old infantry soldier with the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment said : “I didn’t know what to expect as it was my first time in battle. I had joined my battalion after they had just done eight weeks’ landing training and the hardest thing I had done was a route march from Skegness to Hull, so I went over as green as grass. I was sick as a pig on the journey over to France, with the ship rolling and rocking.”

He was part of the second wave on Sword Beach around 7.45am : "After the landing craft doors opened I just kept moving and there were lads getting shot each side and I remember thinking it’s my turn next. We sheltered behind a knocked-out DD tank on the beach. You had to duck and dive and get off the beach. The first German I saw was laying on the roadside and he had been shot. It’s very upsetting and it fills me up at times.”

Sam Twine also 19 was in charge of the skippers’ quarters on HMS Ramillies when they opened up their barrage said : “An E-boat fired two torpedoes at us and we managed to turn the ship at 90 degrees so one went port side and one went starboard. Unfortunately one hit a Polish Navy vessel behind us, there were lots of casualties. One of my friends was sewing them up in canvas bags. It was terrible. As I recall a Hurricane airplane coming from England swooped down towards us and because they couldn’t identify it they fired on it and brought it down. I was told they managed to land somewhere. We could see the landings. I think I knew I was as safe as most people could be. We fired all our shells except we kept one in each barrel in case of trouble on our way back to England.”

Patrick Thomas, who was a 19 year old member of the crew on the landing craft LCH185, which landed 25 Royal Marine Commandos in the first wave on Sword Beach at 7.25am.

“As we were approaching the beach all was quiet until machine gun bullets hit the hull. When the guns opened up HMS Warspite and HMS Belfast were firing and then the rocket craft moved in and it was like a wall of thunder, a flash of light, and the beach disappeared in smoke.”

“I was covered in blood and the upper deck was a wreck with dead and dying. Eventually the ship sank into the water and I had to get out because she turned turtle. I saw my friend Jack Ballinger’s lifebelt in the water, which he had custom built. I saw Jack a few yards from me and he had been badly injured and was drowning. A telegraphist had both legs broken and was screaming in pain and fear because he thought he was about to die and I gave him the lifebelt. Jack eventually disappeared beneath the waves. I was thrown a line and pulled in by another ship.”

Leonard “Ted” Emmings, was a 20 year old coxswain driving a landing assault craft, which landed 36 Canadians on Juno Beach in the first wave at 7.35am.
The doors opened when we hit the beach and the troops ran straight onto the beach. I lost two of my seamen and three Canadians went down getting off the boat and then the heavy firing stopped. When I saw my stoker, he was huddled up in the corner and he took a stray bullet and died. As I went to come astern and leave the beach I hit a mine. It killed one of the stokers and we came out and sank. We were taken to the depot ship and put on with another Landing Craft Assault ship to go back to the beach, but by then it had died down a bit.There was a lot of sniping by this time and you saw the guys go down.”

Leonard lost many of his Canadian comrades including a Canadian sergeant with whom he’d spent 14 months training who "didn’t get two yards up the beach before he was killed. People should know that the Canadians came over here, they trained over here and died over here. I just wonder how many got back to Canada after the War."

John Dennett was a 19 year old who crewed a landing craft dropping off  tanks and lorries on Sword Beach, would make 15 trips back and forth to Normandy over the next few weeks, towing pieces of the Mulberry Harbour and carrying equipment into France before taking wounded and prisoners back to England. They could fit 200 stretchers onto their ship.
“A lot of lads lost their lives and that is why we like to celebrate and go back and remember them. They have had nothing out of life except to fight for their country and we have enjoyed our freedom.”

Chelsea Pensioners Bill Fitzgerald, left, and Frank Mouque sit together during a D-Day 75th anniversary photocall at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London.Bill was taken to the field hospital and from there he was flown home and spent the next nine months in recovery. After his wartime experiences, Bill married his childhood sweetheart Eileen in 1948 and had two sons. “Eileen was a great support. She was the one who looked after me and got me through. She used to say to me ‘You’re climbing up the walls in the night-time’."

"When you come back and settle down and get married, all the years you always remember, lads really, 19 years old, you can see their faces and know their names. You never forget it. It was something you had to live through. My wife was my counsellor. A lot of people broke down and there was no counselling. The blokes who fought out in Japan had it much worse — they came back like zombies. What we went through was chicken feed compared to what they went through.”

“I think about it all the time. You never forget. You always remember the lads who didn’t come back." 

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