Pure courage:

Nor­folk’s D-Day he­roes re­turn to Nor­mandy for a spe­cial an­niver­sary this month. Sta­cia Briggs tells three ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries


75 years on from D-Day, three ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries

They are a dwin­dling brigade of old sol­diers: the young men who once ner­vously waited for the sig­nal to move for­ward on D-Day are now edg­ing to­wards the grand age of 100.

Seventy-four Nor­mandy sum­mers and a life­time have passed since sol­diers ap­peared on French beaches like a sur­prise storm, run­ning to­wards a bar­rage of mortar fire, smoke and uncer­tainty to play their role in the lib­er­a­tion of France and the de­ci­sive bat­tle that fore­shad­owed the end of Hitler’s dream of Nazi dom­i­na­tion.

Ev­ery year, a hardy band of broth­ers makes the pil­grim­age to France to re­mem­ber those they had to leave be­hind, the com­rades who fell in the bat­tle for free­dom, a cam­paign which marked the be­gin­ning of the end of the Sec­ond World War.

Among them will be Nor­folk’s D-Day he­roes who are still fit enough to travel: blue-blaz­ered vet­er­ans no longer pa­rade through the streets of France in

their hun­dreds be­fore a cer­e­mony or ser­vice – it is es­ti­mated that fewer than 500 Bri­tish vet­er­ans are still alive and only a hand­ful will be travelling to Nor­mandy this year to mark the 75th an­niver­sary of D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, Al­lied Forces from Bri­tain, Canada and Amer­ica landed on the beaches of this beau­ti­ful re­gion to lib­er­ate the French from their four-year oc­cu­pa­tion by the forces of Nazi Ger­many.

Ser­ried ranks of ships, glid­ers and planes dis­gorged 156,000 Al­lied sol­diers on to the beaches of north­ern France and by the end of what be­came known as The Long­est Day, many had paid the ul­ti­mate price for our free­dom.

To­day, the new­est bat­tle is to pre­serve the mem­o­ries of those who fought in north­ern France and were trans­formed by one dev­as­tat­ing, yet tri­umphant, sum­mer be­fore they are lost for­ever.

Here are just three sto­ries of unimag­in­able brav­ery. Len, who lives in Nor­wich, re­turns to north­ern France ev­ery year to re­mem­ber com­rades who were lost, a bat­tle that turned wet-be­hind-the-ears boys into men in a mat­ter of hours and to make a poignant re­turn to the short stretch of sand that, 75 years ago, felt like a bound­less desert to a heav­ily-laden man with a pound­ing heart.

On D-Day, Len had watched from his ship as all hell let loose on Nor­mandy’s beaches, wait­ing for the word that would un­leash him into a mael­strom of shells, bul­lets and danger. Less than 20 years old, Len was a long way from Nor­wich.

Len’s army papers ar­rived on July 1, 1943. He was 18. Af­ter train­ing in Black­pool, he was sent to Here­ford for unit se­lec­tion and later posted to Bas­ingstoke on a Royal Army Ser­vice Corps course, where he was taught to drive and be­came a mo­tor­cy­cle dis­patch rider.

On June 5, 1944, Len and his com­rades went to Tilbury Docks in Lon­don where they pre­pared to set sail be­fore ac­tion was post­poned. Af­ter an­other rest­less night at the race­course, it was back to Tilbury where Len joined an American Lib­erty ship and was is­sued with sea­sick­ness pills.

“On the way over we were all sick due to the rough sea. On ar­rival we were of­fered food by the ship’s crew but none of us could eat as we looked at the most awe­some sight and sound imag­in­able. War­ships, troop­ships, barges, land­ing craft, in­shore rocket craft, planes over­head, bar­rage bal­loons, all hell be­ing let loose, the noise burst­ing my ear drums.

“As a 19-year-old it was the near­est thing to hell I’d ever seen, and that’s where I thought I was.”

Ar­rv­ing in France, the lor­ries from the ship were winched on to a Rhino barge and Len climbed down a rope ladder. Soaked to the skin, he watched as the ramps on the barges were low­ered and the trucks drove on to the beach.

“Mines were ex­plod­ing ev­ery­where and one of our trucks was blown up, killing one of the lads from our pla­toon. While all this was go­ing on, Jerry was ‘stonk­ing’ (shelling) the beach with mortar and ar­tillery fire,” said Len.

“When I got to the beach, there was a beach mas­ter who was telling us in no un­cer­tain terms to get our back­sides off the beach as quickly as we could. When I was run­ning across the beach we were be­ing stonked by Ger­man ar­tillery. I nearly tripped over a Ger­man hel­met on the beach – when I looked down, his head was still in it. It brought home to me – this is what war is about.

“I re­mem­ber look­ing down at the coast­line and there was a red line all the way across as far as you could see. Along the edge of the beach there were body parts on the sand and float­ing in the sea, the tide was red with the blood of those lads that didn’t make it. It made me feel quite sick.”

A fa­ther of three and grand­fa­ther, for more than 30 years, Len has returned to Nor­mandy to hon­our those friends and com­rades who never came home.

“Some­times I think to my­self ‘was it worth it?’ Three of my friends who were blown up at the cross­roads are buried in Bayeux and I don’t think I could cope if I thought it wasn’t worth it. We have to think of how im­por­tant the Nor­mandy cam­paign was in the course of the war,” he said.

“Peo­ple call us he­roes, but we weren’t he­roes, we were do­ing our job. The real he­roes are the ones that lay in the ground in France.” “I should have gone over in a glider for D-Day but there weren’t enough and so I had to go by boat. I was in the Chan­nel for six days and it was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble: the sea was re­ally rough, there were waves com­ing over the boat, it was aw­ful,” he said.

“On the fourth day, we were told it was all off. On the fifth day, we were def­i­nitely go­ing again. On the sixth day, we went. I landed on the beach at Ar­ro­manches at around 7am on June 6.

“Luck­ily for us, the Navy and RAF had knocked out the big gun em­place­ments and we were able to just walk on the beach with no op­po­si­tion. We made our way to Ranville, all the time with planes straf­ing us.

“I went in with the idea that if I got killed I wouldn’t know any­thing about it. When we went to at­tack Bre­ville, 162 men were killed in five min­utes and there were just eight left in my pla­toon.

“It was ter­ri­ble. We got caught up in our own shell fire. Some shrap­nel went into the back of my head and my fam­ily were sent a let­ter telling them that I was miss­ing with gun­shot wounds to the head. I ex­pect they had a shock when they re­ceived a let­ter from me!

“They wanted to keep me in hos­pi­tal, but I wanted to get back to my mates. We all looked af­ter each other the best we could, we were fam­ily. I still think about my com­pany com­man­der who got shot a few yards in front of me and died in the arms of my sergeant. To­day, peo­ple come and say thank you to me and I say: ‘well, we had to do it. If we didn’t, they would have been over here.

“We have to re­mem­ber and re­spect the lads that were killed out there, who never came back to their fam­i­lies and who made the greatest sac­ri­fice of all.”

“I landed on June 19, 1944 – the al­lies were well-es­tab­lished by then but were be­ing held up by Ger­man forces. We were in ac­tion for the bat­tle for the Odon River and the cap­ture of Caen – I’d never been into bat­tle be­fore, but I was ready to do what I had to do,” he said.

“I was vi­o­lently sick on the way over and would have done ab­so­lutely any­thing to get off that boat. I re­mem­ber one of the first things I saw was a Ger­man in­fantry pa­trol ly­ing dead right across the road – I won­dered how it could be jus­ti­fied that these young men had been slaugh­tered. It seemed like mad­ness.

“When you’re 18, be­ing al­lowed to drive a tank is ab­so­lutely bril­liant – it’s al­most like hav­ing a mas­sive toy to play with. But when you have to drive that tank in ac­tion, it’s a dif­fer­ent story al­to­gether.

“Ev­ery time you moved into at­tack you had no idea what you’d come up against. There wasn’t time to be fright­ened then, but when you had your days off, that’s when the fear kicked in and you knew you had to do it all over again. Any­one who says they weren’t fright­ened is ly­ing. It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect – the first time you go into ac­tion is the best be­cause you don’t know what to ex­pect.

Af­ter that, you knew and you were fright­ened.

“When I was on rest days, I’d just pace about and wait and wait for the word. Your greatest fear was be­ing burnt alive in­side your tank – re­ally, they were like huge steel coffins. Af­ter Caen, we were in­volved in the cross­ing of the Orne River and the cross­ing of the Seine which was cru­cial to end­ing the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy.

“I’m lucky – I don’t have the flash­backs any more, but some peo­ple do; they still have night­mares, they still scream in the night. They can’t for­get what they saw.”

Jack spent the rest of his war in Le Havre, Dieppe, Arn­hem, the Ar­dennes, Roosendaal and the cor­ri­dor to the Rhine, in Hol­land, Belgium and in Italy. But his ex­pe­ri­ences in Nor­mandy have never left him and call him back to the French beaches ev­ery year. He will ac­com­pany the re­main­ing hand­ful of Nor­folk D-Day vet­er­ans who are still able to make the jour­ney to France to re­mem­ber the com­rades they left be­hind.

“I will go back ev­ery year while I’m still able,” he said, “I have to. I know that when I am back there, my friends are back there with me. I feel them beside me. They may be dead, but re­mem­ber­ing them keeps them alive. When we were there, all we wanted to do was come home, but now we need to go back.”

He is de­ter­mined that the legacy of the re­main­ing vet­er­ans will be to en­sure the con­tin­ued com­mem­o­ra­tion of the men and women who fought in the bru­tal bat­tle for free­dom.

“While we are here, we can shout about it, but what hap­pens when we are all gone?” he said. “One day, soon, it will be our mem­ory that needs to be kept alive. Ev­ery year, there are fewer of us re­turn­ing to Nor­mandy, but when we’re there we’re still the same young men we were then. Stick­ing to­gether, fight­ing for each other.

“We won’t be for­get­ting the peo­ple un­able to make the trip, the vet­er­ans who are too frail to make that last jour­ney. They will be a vi­tal part of the an­niver­sary, just as they were a vi­tal part of what hap­pened on D-Day. We will go to Nor­mandy for those too frail to travel them­selves and to re­mem­ber those who never came home. An­niver­saries come and go, but we will never for­get, Nor­mandy is with us ev­ery day of our lives.”

Denise Bradley

BE­LOW, FROM LEFT: Len Fox Len (2nd right) in Relk­ling­hausen, Ger­many 1945 Len Fox re­mem­bers land­ing on this beach on D-Day at Ar­ro­manches

Antony Kelly

ABOVE: D-Day landings veteran Len Mann RIGHT: Sprow­ston Nor­mandy veteran Len Mann

Denise Bradley

ABOVE: Nor­mandy veteran, Jack Woods, on Pe­ga­sus Bridge BE­LOW: Nor­wich and Dis­trict Nor­mandy Vet­er­ans David Woodrow, from left. Harry Bow­dery, Jack Woods, Len Fox, and Len Mann, at the me­mo­rial to the 2nd Bat­tal­ion of the Devon­shire Reg­i­ment at As­nelles

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