D-Day veterans: The last voices of the longest day
Like D-Day itself, recording the memories of the last surviving veterans of the Normandy landings has been a race against time. John Lichfield explains why it matters, 70 years on
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Sunday 01 June 2014
Today is D-Day plus 25,565. The pivotal Western European battle of the Second World War is about to pass over the horizon of living memory. Of the 61,000 British soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago this Friday, fewer than 500 are still alive.
The ranks of the 130,000 Americans, Canadians and other nations who took part in the greatest amphibious invasion in history have also been cruelly thinned by time. This week's commemoration of the Normandy invasion – attended by the world's leaders from the Queen to Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama – will be the last witnessed by large numbers of survivors.
A year ago, The Independent helped to launch an appeal to ensure that the voices of British veterans of the entire 10-week Normandy campaign – the survivors of the survivors – were not lost for ever. The appeal, though not complete, has been a great success.
Thanks largely to the £10,000 raised by Independent readers, more than 100 interviews have been filmed for a permanent archive, organised by the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA). At least another 150 interviews are being arranged. To reward our readers' generosity, the NVA has allowed us to publish a selection of the interviews given by the dwindling band of British D-Day veterans. Their memories – recorded in some cases for the first time – offer a compelling eyewitness account of the invasion as seen from different vantage points: the infantryman; the sailor; the airman; the officer; the tank man; the gunner; the landing-craft commander.
Like D-Day itself, recording the "Normandy Voices" has been a race against time. Several veterans have died since their memories were recorded, including Ernie Brewer, the gunner represented here, whose funeral takes place today. His wife, Jeanie, has given permission for the interview to appear as a tribute to him.
As George Batts, 88, the NVA's national secretary, himself a D-Day veteran, says: "I passionately wanted an archive which would help future generations to understand what happened and to warn them that it must never happen again. These interviews speak for themselves.
"War may occasionally be necessary but it is never glorious. Another world war must be avoided at all costs. If you go around the 17 British war cemeteries in Normandy, you will see how young so many of us were… 18, 19, 20."
How important was the battle of Normandy? Vladimir Putin's presence at Sword Beach on Friday is an overdue recognition of the immense contribution of the Russians to the downfall of Nazism. All the same, it would be wrong to dismiss, or marginalise, the importance of the second front opened on 6 June 1944.
Popular memory focuses on D-Day itself, but the fighting continued for another 10 weeks until 20 August. Despite the American near-calamity at Omaha, casualties on the five D-Day beaches, and in the preliminary airborne landings, were lighter than Allied commanders had feared. It is estimated that about 4,400 Allied troops, airmen or sailors died on 6 June 1944, of whom about 1,500 were British. Some of the later close combat, in and around Caen, or at the foot of the Cotentin peninsula, or in the Falaise pocket, was as murderous as anything on the Eastern Front. There are 17,769 British war graves in the Normandy battle zone.
Without a successful Normandy invasion, Adolf Hitler could have deployed many more divisions to resist the Red Army. He would have had more time to deploy his modern weapon of terror, the V-2. The war might have continued for many years.
Alastair Dutch, a retired diplomat who is the executive producer of the NVA project, says the interviews will be maintained in a permanent archive at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth. Several will be broadcast on Radio 2 during a D-Day concert from the Royal Albert Hall on Friday evening which will be streamed live to 200 cinemas around Britain (ddayconcert.com).
"Without the readers of The Independent, this project could not have happened," Mr Dutch says. "We are grateful for their generosity but we do need more money to complete the recordings by November, when the NVA has agreed to bow to time and disband."
Contributions can be made: by PayPal to NVA Overlord Productions (email@example.com); by bank payment to NatWest a/c 48090379, s/c 60-60-08, account name: Normandy Veterans Association Overlord Productions; by cheque payable to 'NVA Overlord Productions' sent to George Batts, National Secretary, NVA, 1 Chervilles, Barming, Maidstone, Kent, UK, ME16 9JE
Chief Coxswain Douglas Turtle DSM, 90 The Landing Craft Commander
Chief Coxswain Douglas Turtle DSM, 90, was a Royal Navy petty officer who commanded eight landing craft full of US Rangers. They were among the first troops to land on Omaha, the bloodiest of the five D-Day beaches
"The destruction was terrible. They had machine guns just on the cliff... I looked, and opened the doors. There were hundreds of men, all huddled up against the cliff edge, most of them dead, most of them bleeding. And on the beach, well there wasn't much beach. It was high tide. We were just landing on bodies...
"You do these things automatically. You don't do them because you're brave or anything. You do them automatically.
"I jumped out of my [landing craft] and I got the strength of 10 men. I lifted this [landing craft] up and I turned it around. I don't know where I got the strength from... All the Rangers were able to get out, but they were killed when they went up the beach.
"On the port side of me, [another landing craft] came in. It must have been 150 soldiers on there. It hit one of these mines, went up in the air, bodies flying all over the place: heads, shoulders, arms and legs – all over the place... It brings it all back. It's terrible. Seeing all these men killed. I thought 'What for? What for?'
"Oh, God, Omaha beach...horrendous. The poor lads..."
Jack Webb, 90 The Infantryman
Jack Webb, 90, was a private in D Company of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. He was one of the first British soldiers to step ashore on Juno, the Canadian-British beach
"The naval officer in charge ran so far up the beach that, having done all these waist-high training exercises, I didn't even get my boots wet. I just stood straight ashore on dry sand... There were bodies washing around in the shallows and all I could think was: 'Oh what rotten bad luck – they'd trained for anything up to two years and they barely made the shore'.
"We got up under the sea wall where there was a commander sitting there with his face a mass of blood... It was rather like being in a film when you felt like any time now they'd be saying, 'That's the end' and, 'Have a nice dream'. Bodies washing up everywhere.
"The thing is, we were just cannon fodder. There's no other word for it... And, of course, we were so confident… It was almost like a military tattoo... You had all these hundreds of ships that pass you at sea and planes going over and over and you think, 'Well, you can't lose!'"
Ernie Brewer, Driver/Operator G Battery 5th Regiment Royal Horse Artiller The Gunner
Ernie Brewer, Driver/Operator G Battery 5th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, landed on Gold Beach. He fought all the way to Germany and was one of the first British soldiers to enter the Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Mr Brewer, from Radlett in Hertfordshire, died last week, aged 89. His funeral will be held today
"It was absolutely startling on the morning of 6 June... Such a revelation, it was unbelievable. The big guns were firing from way back, firing [shells as big as] kit bags over. There were little landing craft running all over the place, barges with rockets on... It was absolute chaos. I've never understood how they managed to creep that lot in there, under cover of darkness and secretly.
"As someone who had gone through the London Blitz, this was noisy but, you know, in London it was going up and coming down. This time it was going sideways.
"I was very busy and very exhilarated, extremely so. Late teens, adrenaline flowing. Me, London boy, a bit of revenge in there, yes but I was excited. The thought of what might happen to you never occurred to you... The thought of failure, getting hit, getting killed, somebody else had that, not me – weird, weird situation."
Roy Dixon MC, 89 The Officer
Roy Dixon MC, 89, was a lieutenant and troop leader in the 5th Royal Tank regiment
"Just before we embarked. they gave us maps. That was the first time we officially knew we were going to France rather than Belgium or somewhere like that...
"We had three Cromwell [tanks] and one Firefly, a Sherman with a 17lb gun. When we had been issued with these Cromwells in England, the soldiers, experienced as they were, were horrified. They had had [American-built] Shermans before – quite a good tank – and suddenly they were issued with these new British tanks, which were small, vertical armour, easily penetrable and a hopeless 75mm gun.
"All through the campaign... we knew we could penetrate the German Mark 4 – your ordinary standard tank – but as soon as you met a Panther or a Tiger – fortunately there weren't many of them around – you couldn't really engage them. Ordinary 75mm [guns] couldn't penetrate them at all...
"I was very lucky to be wounded... I happened to be sitting outside the turret... and an airburst went off just above my head and a bit of shrapnel came down between my legs and into the back of my gunner below me. So I missed it by a fraction of an inch and he was killed. Extraordinarily bad luck for him and extraordinarily good luck for me."
Michael Gibbons DFM, 89 The Airman
Michael Gibbons DFM, 89, was Flight Engineer on a Halifax bomber with 138 (Special Duties) Squadron which dropped agents near Bayeux in the early hours of D-Day
"Worst thing was – apart from flying – you were about 10 people to a group and you wake up one morning and there's three missing. That is terrible. My old school friend, who joined up with me and we went to training together, he was killed... And also there's another friend of mine in the squadron. He was a sergeant, he was a rear gunner, and he got shot down. His wife was having a baby in about three weeks' time.
"At the briefing, they said we're doing a D-Day landing. There will be a lot of fire; a lot of aircraft around. So we couldn't say anything to anybody, including to Shirley, my wife (my girlfriend at the time). So we climbed into the aircraft. We left England round about 10 o'clock in the evening. We dropped five SOE [Special Operations Executive] people... Then we returned the same way and got back at about 4.30 in the morning.
"News came through, the invasion had landed... I was like, 'Yeah I did it, didn't I'."
Eric Gower, 90 The Tank Crewman
Eric Gower, 90, a trooper in the East Riding Yeomanry, landed in a Sherman tank on 6 June 1944 on Sword, one of the two beaches where British forces landed
"The beach master was an army sergeant. He was absolutely wonderful... We were the first of our group to land and he was trying to keep us away from spots he thought were dangerous. He managed to get us into an avenue through the sand dunes which had been roped off and, I would say, within five to six minutes of hitting the beach we were off... into the houses and farms behind the sand dunes.
"[German prisoners] when they saw a Sherman, they used to go like that [he makes a cigarette-lighter gesture]... because when they were hit, they would go, 'Puff'.
"I got slightly wounded on the third day. I was thinking, 'This might be my trip back home', but they already had medical centres set up and took a few pieces of shrapnel out of my right arm and two out of my right thigh. The shrapnel was shavings from inside the tank. We were hit twice, but the shells did not penetrate. The inside of the tank splintered and I got pieces in me. After three or four hours, they wrapped me up and sent me back to my unit."
Peter Thompson, 88 The Seaman
Peter Thompson, 88, was born on 6 June. He spent his 19th birthday as a Leading Seaman on a landing craft which brought British troops to Sword beach
"The captain comes and says, 'This is it, chaps – we're off to Normandy to liberate France'. We thought it was another exercise, but it wasn't...
"... The crossing was quite rough; it was a rough day; all the soldiers were seasick; some of the crew were seasick... Soldiers were glad to be getting ashore and killed [rather] than stay on board and be seasick. There was a mess everywhere.
"All the day we were off Sword beach, there were just three aircraft. One came in and dropped a bomb, nearly hit my sister ship... The bomb actually fell almost in the bow doors and killed one or two people.
"We had superiority of air cover, thank God. If we hadn't had that, it would have been a hell of a job.
"The most vivid impression was... when the wounded started coming on. All we could do as crew members was go round and give them a cigarette or cup of tea; even hold their hand for a minute and say, 'All right mate, you'll be all right. Don't worry too much'. You saw blokes who had lost their legs... We had lots of them on board. They put them everywhere; 500 of them."
All interviews were conducted and filmed by Brigadier Clive Elderton, and transcribed by Andrew Broome
Parts of this footage will be broadcast on Radio 2 during a D-Day concert 'D-Day 70 Years On' from the Royal Albert Hall on Friday which will be streamed live to 200 cinemas around the UK. To find participating cinemas go to www.ddayconcert.com
Normandy veterans who wish to take part – NVA members or not – should make contact via firstname.lastname@example.org
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