Survival and sacrifice: Private Newman's war

As a 19-year-old paratrooper in the Sixth Airborne Division, Gordon Newman was among the first to hit the ground in the Allied invasion of Europe 60 years ago. Next Sunday he will be back in France with thousands of others to remember the fallen. Simon O'Hagan meets him; and below we tell the extraordinary story of a French boy who watched the landings from the beach
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Gordon Newman is so matter-of-fact about his D-Day experiences that after a couple of hours in his company you almost wonder what the fuss is about. Almost. The word "just" crops up a lot in his conversation. That was just how things were. You just got on with it. It was just what you had to do. You dug your slit trench, the mortars rained down, you fired back, and you just hoped it wouldn't be you who bought it.

The terrifying blizzard of mortar and shell fire went on for days. Death was all around him. But while there was fear all right, on the whole it wasn't shown. "You were with so many other people," Mr Newman says. "You were all in the same boat. You'd trained together, lived together. You all supported each other."

That support doesn't end with the passing of 60 years. This week Mr Newman will be in Normandy to remember and to pay his respects, as he has done almost every year since the first time he went back, for the 25th anniversary in 1969. The number of veterans who return is always dwindling, but, at 79, Mr Newman is one of the youngest and fittest and he says he will carry on going back even though everyone is talking of this D-Day anniversary as the last of the really significant ones. Not him, though. "So what if it's the 60th," he says. "Every anniversary is important."

Mr Newman, from Croydon in Surrey, did an apprenticeship in printing before being called up at 18, towards the end of 1942. He went into the Royal Corps of Signals along with a school friend called Roy Bickerton. From there the two young men volunteered for parachute training and joined the Parachute Regiment. That is how, on the eve of 6 June 1944, they found themselves preparing to fly across the Channel and drop into occupied France as members of the 6th Airborne Division.

It was the last time Mr Newman saw Roy. "I don't know exactly what happened. We think he was with a group that were hit by Allied bombs - friendly fire. There's no grave for him. But there's a memorial with his name on it at Bayeux. He's just down as missing." It is for Roy, and for the other men Mr Newman knew, that he says he goes back each year.

Meanwhile, Pte Newman was fighting his own war. D-Day aircraft reached France hours before anyone on a boat - men in gliders who landed a few miles inland from the beaches, and those like Mr Newman who parachuted out of a Stirling bomber at 500 feet. "There were hundreds of us coming down at the same time. You had a compass and you had to make your way to a rendezvous point. I was one of the lucky ones. I landed within 100 yards of where Iwas supposed to be. But some gliders came down in the sea, some landed 10 miles off course. They just couldn't find their way in the dark. So we were very scattered."

Within hours the Allies had made their first breakthrough - the capture of Bénouville Bridge. It was in the nearby town of Ranville that Pte Newman helped set up an HQ in the grounds of a château, and ran telephone lines to battalions engaged elsewhere. The 40 or so men he was with endured bombardment for days.

"It was quite a dangerous job," Mr Newman says, with classic British understatement. "There were six of us in my little section. Two of the others were killed and three were wounded." Elsewhere those who had landed with him behind enemy lines were caught up in some of the fiercest close combat of the war. Yet he says that of all the things that stick in his mind, no memory is as powerful as that of seeing fields covered with the bloated carcasses of dead farm animals - and of the stench they gave off.

Mr Newman beat the odds to survive the war. Of the 10,000 men of the 6th Airborne Division who came over on D-Day, 1,700 were killed in the battle for Normandy and another 2,800 were wounded. But he didn't just go unscathed through 12 weeks of that summer in France. He was back the following winter, serving in the ferocious campaign in the Ardennes. In March 1945, he was part of the perilous crossing of the Rhine.

After the war ended, Mr Newman served another two years, remaining a private throughout. "My talents went unrecognised," he jokes. On being demobbed he returned to printing, going on to set up his own business. He married and had three sons, the family settling in Caterham in Surrey. For the past 18 years he and his wife Maureen have lived in a secluded corner of Bexhill-on-Sea, and for a long time they owned a house on the Cherbourg peninsula, quite close to the scene of D-Day.

Another theme in Mr Newman's life has been Crystal Palace Football Club. A long-time season-ticket holder, he recently queued for five hours to get tickets for a big play-off match against Sunderland. "Now that's what I call heroic!" he says. It's a typical Gordon Newman joke, making light of what he accomplished in the war, challenging the listener not to show him too much reverence. Another time, he recalls the prospect of a parachute not opening. "Oh no. You wouldn't want that. Might twist your ankle, mightn't you?"

A lot of his wartime recollections are accompanied by laughter - not because the events he describes were funny (though some were), but more, it seems, because they were so extreme and so absurd and shaped by nothing more than sheer luck. He has no idea how he survived. "Just kept my head down!" Which of course could not have been the case.

Mr Newman is a spry, compact figure. There is an undaunted, mischievous air about him. His family says that he is not given much to talking about the war - which is true of so many veterans. But that he offers no great claims for himself only makes him all the more remarkable. It is as if, having survived the war, it was only ever about the ones who did not come back, not about him. That is what seems to underpin his annual visits to Normandy, which for the past 18 years have involved Mr and Mrs Newman in organising a coach full of Parachute Regiment veterans and their families and friends.

They have remained independent of official visits, and the added ceremonial and security surrounding this year's events are "a bit of a nuisance". There has been form-filling and bureaucracy, as well as the cancellation of a traditional picnic because the Newmans are not sure they will have access to the places they normally go to.

But of course Mr Newman will be there. In a sense, perhaps, he always is.

How the battle raged around them

Midnight: Pte Newman is among paratroopers landing behind German lines. Other troops arrive in gliders like these British Horsas, some of which crash. Fierce close combat follows.

05.20: Sunrise. Landing craft cross the Channel. Allied ships fire at German guns on the beaches in advance ofthe landing. Bombers have now pounded the same fortifications for three hours.

06.30: The US 1st Army approaches Omaha and Utah beaches at low tide. Casualties are extremely heavy on Omaha, where the German guns have yet to be destroyed.

07.25: Low tide on Sword, Gold and Juno beaches where the British 2nd Army begins to land another massive force of troops and tanks. It is watched by Michel Pain, 8, whose story is below.

11.30: Exits from most beaches have been secured and troops take the fight inland, abandoning bodies and burnt-out tanks. Troops left on Omaha are in a battle that will last another two hours.

16.00: Allied forces take towns further into Normandy. Hitler finally orders Panzer tanks to join the defence but it is too late. The landings are successful, providing the turning point of the war.

Next week the 'IoS' will be in France with Mr Newman as part of its comprehensive coverage of the D-Day celebrations