Bernard Jordan: D-Day veteran whose visit to the 70th anniversary celebrations last year was hailed as his 'Great Escape'

The former Royal Navy officer was determined to honour for the last time his comrades who had died in the mighty Allied assault

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bernard Jordan embodied the spirit of initiative and derring-do of a generation whose like may never be seen again, when he left his care home last year at the age of 89 to join the 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Efforts to get him a ticket had foundered, yet the former Royal Navy officer was determined to honour for the last time his comrades who had died in the mighty Allied assault that on 6 June 1944 began the liberation of Europe from under Hitler's Nazi jackboot. Unbeknownst to the staff of The Pines Care Home in Furze Hill, Hove, East Sussex, Jordan buttoned his war medals beneath his grey macintosh coat, left his wife of 68 years, Irene, who also lived there, and set off for the festivities with a coach ticket and a £30 passage secretly booked on Brittany Ferries' crossing to Caen.

The uncertainty of his mission, just like the touch-and-go hesitations of Eisenhower faced with a narrow window of opportunity to launch the invasion those long years ago, was to blossom into magnificent victory. He took his place in triumph, hailed by fellow veterans recognising one of their own, to sit within 100 yards of the Queen and world leaders as the ceremonies unfolded.

Back in Britain there had been consternation, with worried staff at The Pines alerting police and checks made on coaches, railways and taxi services. Only when a fellow veteran telephoned to say that Jordan – always known as "Bernie" – was alive and well did his wife, friends and helpers breathe a sigh of relief. He was staying at an hotel in Ouistreham, the port for Caen, at the eastern end of what was the wartime Sword Beach. "I expect I will be in some trouble," he said, "But it was worth it."

Jordan's most vivid memory of arriving on the French coast for the first time, with the 1944 invasion fleet, a few days short of his 20th birthday, was, he recalled, the opening of the electrically operated bow doors of his Tank Landing Craft before a terrifying barrage of enemy gunfire.

The boy who enjoyed playing with yachts and dinghies in south coast harbours as he grew up, being educated locally in Hove, had taken himself off to Portsmouth and enlisted as soon as he turned 17 in 1941. He joined the Royal Navy as an electrician – a Marine Engineering Artificer, known as a "Sparks" – and was posted to the destroyer HMS Intrepid.

It meant enduring ice and heavy swells when venturing out from Britain's most northerly naval base, at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands. Intrepid was to escort 19 Arctic convoys to and from Murmansk and Archangel, supplying Britain's ally Soviet Russia with war materiel on what came to be regarded as the worst journey in the world.

At the start of May 1941 Intrepid was escorting other destroyers during mine-laying in the Faeroes-Iceland Gap; she was then deployed on anti-submarine duties out of Hvalfjord in Iceland. It seems therefore likely that Jordan may well have been one of the members of the boarding party that, about this time, on May 9 1941, retrieved a German naval Enigma cipher machine from the U-boat U-110.

"I was once on a mission to recover one of the Enigma machines froma U-boat which we'd forced to surface by dropping depth-charges, and crippling it," Jordan recalled. "We boarded the submarine and recovered the machine."

This may have been the documented incident when the German boat, damaged in an encounter with several British vessels off Iceland, had been forced to surface. The machine and code books were left behind when the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship. He had done so fearing that Intrepid's fellow destroyer, HMS Bulldog, was about to ram the boat and kill them all; in the event she stopped short.

The find of the naval machine, an item more complex than German army or air force versions, was a crucial advance in Britain's desperate fight to overcome the Atlantic U-boat "wolf packs" that were sinking too many ships in the convoys on which she depended for supply.

Naval records note that Intrepid and Bulldog did indeed work together. The two ships certainly shared escort duties in these same northern waters in August that year and it is likely that men from other ships assisted on the boarding party.

Its leader, Lt David Balme, from Bulldog, says in a report that his ship was very short of officers and men. To strip U-110 at speed he had to assemble a human chain to hand items up ladders inside the boat. The man who unscrewed the precious machine from the table in her wireless room was himself, according to reports, "on loan" to Bulldog. So the young Jordan from Intrepid might well also have been seconded to the task.

Jordan is likely to have been on Intrepid when later that month she joined the hunt for the battleship Bismarck. She was detached to Iceland for refuelling, then was unable to re-join because of engine problems.

It appears that the young artificer was thought well enough of to be given an officer's commission before the war ended. A photograph shows him in uniform with a lieutenant's double gold stripe on his sleeve. Among the medals awarded him was the Atlantic Star.

By 1946, however, he seems to have gone back to civilian life. A wedding photograph shows the handsome, dark wavy-haired bridegroom not in naval uniform but in a smart double-breasted suit escorting his erstwhile sweetheart Irene, out of the church. The couple had no children; Irene survives him.

Jordan earned his living as an electrician in Hove, and soon was taking part in local politics, standing as a candidate for Brighton and Hove's town council in Goldsmid ward. He was elected as a Conservative councillor, and served for 34 years. Before his D-Day adventure a memory he treasured was meeting the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The encounter came, however, only after his own decision to cross the floor and become a Labour councillor.

He was elected town mayor and wore the red, fur-trimmed robes and gold chain at civic events from 1995 until 1996. Of his Channel dash last June, which admirers dubbed his "Great Escape", he said: "I loved every minute. I'd do it again tomorrow!"

Bernard Arthur Jordan, war veteran, electrician and politician: born Hove, East Sussex 16 June 1924; married 1946 Irene; death announced 6 January 2015.

Comments