A short tribute to my dad who went ashore on 6th June 1944.
Dad never talked much about that day 75 years ago, a quiet man at the best of times he was more prone to sit quietly reading his favourite books which were American cowboy books or sitting at the table working out to become rich by working out permutations on the Football pools. We never became rich because believe it or not he never posted the Pools, he just liked to work it all out bless him.
Whenever I or my brother asked him about his war experiences he would clam up and as young boys we could not understand why.
However, it was only after the film the Longest Day when he took both of us to see the film that he finally opened up. It had bought back all the memories that he had locked away in his mind. Both my self and my brother came out of the film full of questions because to both of us our dad was a hero, he had been there and done what we had seen and had come home.
The truth of the matter though like a lot of old soldiers he did not consider himself a hero, just a man who had to do what he had to do and had done it to the best of his ability. He had tears in his eyes when we came out of the film and the first words he said to us was that it was never like that.
Then when we got back home he began to recall everything about that day, He was at the back of his landing craft that was speeding its way to Sword beach and it was good fortune that saved his life. He remembered the bells ringing except they were not bells but machine gun bullets hitting the front of the landing craft. He remembers wetting himself because he was so scared of what he was about to face, he remembers the doors clanging down his friends at the front who he had trained with being hit and slumping down dead or wounded, He remembers the shouting the screams of officers telling them to get out, he remembers being pushed towards the opening having to climb over the bodies of his mates.
Then he remembers a small, miracle as the machine gun that is targeting his craft stop firing, then he is out and his training kicks in and he is wading ashore rifle held high, he remembers stepping on the beach and falling exhausted only for his sergeant to grab him and kick him to his feet then pull him along to cover where they both fall exhausted, Then they are up after a small respite and begin to find Germa targets, He remembers the Germans falling back after a while and they slowly begin to move off the beach, he is wet cold hungry and scared.
He sees more of his mates some dead many wounded, he remembers all the blood and the moaning, He remembers stopping and getting his fags out lighting a few up and putting them in the mouths of his comrades telling them everything is OK, help is on its way, it must have been bad, dad was a forty a day man and I never saw him share his fags with anyone, not even my mother. That habit would one day kill him many years later the fags would do what no German or Nazi could do. Years later he would explain the difference between a German and a Nazi, He would explain that he had the utmost respect for the ordinary German soldier and a deep hatred for the fanatical Nazi ones.
Dusk is now falling and he finds himself separated from his regiment, he has passed through the town and is on the outskirts. He is still hungry all he has eaten all day is a couple of bars of chocolate and had drunk water from his canteen which is now empty, it's now dark so he decides to slip into a ditch by the side of the road he thinks its the safest thing to do, he thinks tomorrow, he will catch up with his Regiment wherever it might be. He can still hear the explosions and the rattle of machine gun fire but he slips into a deep sleep exhausted.
Daylight comes and he wakes up turns his head and he is out of that ditch like lighting what he has seen leaves him shaking, he has shared that ditch with a dead German so he does the only thing he can do, he lights up one of his fags to calm his nerves. He then hears the rumble of a tank so he is back in the ditch as quickly as he came out of it. He is in luck it's a British tank so he hitches a lift, it takes him to where many more Brit soldiers are and he reports to an officer who tells him to go and get some scoff then come back to him and he will find out where his regiment is.
Later that day he is reunited with his mates who are only a mile away, He swears to himself he will never again get separated. They are off again this time to assault a small village where a pocket of Germans are holed up they route them out losing a few more men. This is what they are doing time and time again, moving from one French Village to another, all the time pushing the Germans back.
Then one day they are walking across a field in a skirmish line, unknown to them it’s been mined and a few feet away one of them steps on a mine it explodes blowing off the leg of the soldier. A piece of shrapnel hits his leg it's not much of a wound to his dismay and the medics patch him up and he carries on while the soldier who lost his leg goes home.
This is his life now, moving slowly from village to village town to town. Some weeks they did nothing enjoying the respite from war, then in a flurry of movement, they would be off, linking up with other British Regiments for a bit of a push.
Suddenly they were not in France they had crossed over into Germany, unknown to all of them the final push was on, which brought its own danger. Germany was now fighting for its life which brought out the fanatical master race of devout Nazis who would rather lay down their lives than surrender.
Ambushes were frequent, He remembers one such ambush with anguish because this particular ambush he was caught up in was by a group of boy soldiers no more than 14 years of age, they killed five soldiers and wounded seven more. They were eventually captured alive, one of his officers in a fit of rage ordered them to be taken deep into the woodland and dispatched, shots rang out and the soldiers ordered to do this task came back minus the boys. Years later while out shopping with my mum he met one of the soldiers tasked with this vile job and he asked him outright what had happened, we could not do it he said so we gave them a good beating and made sure they understood what would happen if they ever saw them again, then let them go firing over their heads. I think he was glad to hear this.
Unknown to him he was about to be shipped home wounded. It was six months before the war in Europe ended. They were about to cross a river over a bridge, and unknown to them on the other side were Germans who had been tasked to blow the bridge, they had not been able to lay the charges in time so they did the only thing they could do to slow the advance they lay in wait ready to ambush. Dad and a few others had hitched a ride on one of the tanks. He was on the lead tank when it reached the middle of the bridge the Germans opened fire with everything they had the Tank was hit with rounds coming in fast and furious dad did the only thing he could do, he and a mate leapt over the side and made their way to the bank of the river. The problem was they had made their way to the wrong bank, there was another problem, dad had lost his thumb on his right hand, but he never noticed he had lost it. He only noticed it when his mate looked down and saw the blood, the pain came and all he could do was grit his teeth while laying low, they spent the rest of the day and night hiding, and then suddenly it was all over, he was on his way back home. to learn how to live his life without a thumb. Losing a thumb might not sound too bad. However, try using your hand without a thumb, tieing your shoelaces, using a knife and fork, and writing a letter. He spent six months in recovery learning how to do all the things we take for granted.
He was lucky of course especially when you consider that out of 1,000 men who joined at the same time as him in the same regiment only twelve came home alive. 200 odd had died in the first few weeks of landing in France.
In 1975 dad died taken from us way too early. Emphysema was the course, that forty-a-day habit did what no German could do.
In 1991 I took my family on holiday to France. On the way back home we decided to spend a few days in Bayeux just a few miles from the beaches. We wanted to see the villages and towns where dad had been along with the beaches. What we saw was very moving, cemeteries with rows of white headstones, we visited the British and America, Canadian then visited the Museum where we found a very large glass cabinet which held all the Regiment cap badges that took part in the landings. at last, after scouring them all we found dads, the Herefordshire Regiment.
We went and stood on the beach where he landed. The German gun emplacements are still there and I marvelled at the bravery of all the men who had had to face them. The cover he had told me about did not exist so the only place of safety must have been right up against the concrete emplacements where the machine guns could not get at them. When he talked about the German targets he must have meant the ones inside those concrete bunkers.
When I first joined our armed forces in the late 60s I had not told my parents. I passed my exams and then had a medical, then I told them. I remember their faces even today. My mother's face turned white, while my dad's face turned blood red and he leapt up from his chair and quite literally punched me shouting YOU BLOODY FOOL WHAT HAVE YOU DONE. I could not understand it and I shouted back well you joined, he shouted back I had to, you bloody well dont and he turned on his heel and walked out of the house. a week later I was off. Not a word from him just a shake of his head. Months later they both came to my passing-out parade. my life had changed forever and dad stood in front of me looking me up and down, he walked around me, then stood in front of me and said, well you will do lad, work hard, use that brain you have, follow the orders given to you and you will go far. It was a great life and I had no regrets whatsoever. I went all over the world had adventure after adventure. I even become an officer and reached the rank of Major by the time I left, which was not bad for a boy who came from a council estate. However, it was not until 1982 while lying down looking up at the stars with my bayonet fixed waiting for the order to move out and help take a small rocky crag on the Falklands that I suddenly realised why my dad did not want me to join all those years ago and why he never talked about his experiences through France and Germany, then it hit home minutes later as the sky lit up with flares and tracer and the crack of bullets as they whizzed past, and what he must have gone through and how worse it must have been for him. We lost 23 lads with around 80 wounded he lost 200 with countless wounded in the first few weeks and nearly 1,000 never came home from his regiment. Oh yes, it was far worse for him and his generation.
Well, that's my dad and what he did on the 6th of June and after. Many of us have stories like this one, all my school friends had dads like my dad quite a few had dads who fought in the Pacific war as well, all brave souls who did their country proudly when the chips were down. Long may they live in our memories.