My longest day: the veterans remember

What happened in Normandy on 6 June 1944 was the most audacious invasion in history. Here the participants in Operation Overlord tell the story a brutal, bloody and brilliant day
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The Independent Online

BILL STONEMAN

BILL STONEMAN

Sergeant, 20, 138 (Special Duties) Squadron

We didn't know that it was D-Day and took off from RAF Tempsford at 11.15pm on 5 June. We were over the target area - beyond the Normandy beaches and behind the German lines - from about 1.30am to about 4am.

First of all we dropped agents and saboteurs - a mixture of British and French - with supplies such as ammunition, guns and explosives. Then we released these decoy parachutists. They were about three feet high, made of canvas and rubber with actual parachutes, and they were dropped to confuse the enemy and make them think they were British or Allied paratroopers.

The British called them Ruperts. Some of them exploded on impact, and others made a noise of gunfire when they landed. They enticed the Germans to send their troops and armoured vehicles to attack them. There was gunfire from the enemy positions, but no one hit us.

You don't have time to be scared. I had done 13 operations before, so I was quite hardened and professional by that stage. As the rear gunner, I was searching the skies for any German night fighters. The pilot gave me the instruction to lower my guns as there was a convoy coming up beneath us.

We were extremely low, only about 50 to 100 feet from the ground. I didn't see any fires or anything explode, but I must have done considerable damage because I had four guns and each fired 1,150 bullets per minute. It must have been quite terrifying for them.

We didn't hang around and immediately set course for home as we'd done our job. We got back about 5.30am. We were certainly excited when we were told that it was D-Day. I was thrilled to have been in on the action. But I was anxious for those chaps who were about to go up the beaches - I had come back to a nice warm bed and an eggs and bacon breakfast.

ALEC McCALLUM

Flight engineer, 21, on the aircraft that released Lady Irene, the first glider to land at Pegasus Bridge

I was stationed at Tarrant Rushton airfield in Dorset. There had been hints that we were involved in something important, but it was all very secret. A few days before D-Day, we had a visit from [US President] Eisenhower. He was very friendly, and I remember him saying that we were going to meet our wicked enemy and that the eyes of the world were upon us.

On the evening of 5 June, we saw that there were six Halifax aircraft and six gliders on the runway, so we knew something was happening. We were just told we would be flying at 11pm. It was a beautiful evening, quite still, and we just started up our engines and off we went. Not a word was said in the aeroplane. I was glad I was there. I wouldn't have missed it. I realised that it was history in the making.

There was patchy cloud, and I could see a glint from the Channel below. As the flight engineer, I had to monitor engine temperatures. By the time we got to the French coast, they were at the limit because of the strain of pulling the glider. There was nothing I could do about it. I just had to hope they didn't go any higher. We released the gliders as we reached the coast, at nine minutes after midnight. It took ours seven minutes to land, and it did so within 50 yards of Pegasus Bridge. They took the bridge in 15 minutes. There was one fatality, Lieutenant Brotheridge - the first casualty on D-Day.

We got back to base at about 2.30am, had breakfast - bacon and eggs, I imagine - and went to bed. In some ways, it felt like just another day. We had been flying missions over France for months, dropping agents, SAS troops and supplies for the resistance. It was dangerous, but no one talked about that. One day, someone would be riding his bike around the airfield; the next you'd be sending it back to his family. That was just the way it was.

CHARLIE JACKSON

Private, 25, 2nd Battalion, Royal Lincolnshire Regiment

We left from Portsmouth in the early hours of the morning. It wasn't a very nice crossing. I was frightened before we landed, wondering what we were going to encounter and whether we would get back or not. As we were approaching Sword beach I looked over the side of the landing craft and saw an English brigadier go floating past with his legs blown off.

All you could see ahead of you were troops, tanks and landing-craft. There were German prisoners of war on the beach, who were getting shelled too. Then you had to fight your way through the anti-tank traps - iron stakes and barbed wire along the beach. I was in a Bren-gun carrier. There were shells flying both ways. You expected one, but you didn't get it.

We then made our way across the fields towards Caen. When you got into the orchards or fields you had to dig trenches and get down out of the way and then fight your way through. There were a lot of wounded lying about, dead people and even dead animals. It was a very hectic and frightening day, you didn't know what would happen next.

My most vivid memory is trying to get off the beach and seeing all the wounded soldiers lying about. You couldn't do anything to help them, you had to get moving yourself. Seeing them made you feel very downhearted. I had a couple of friends who got shot. I think I was very, very lucky to get off that beach. I had nightmares when I first came home. I wish it had never happened: all those people lost their lives.

ERNIE KNIBBS

Royal Marine, 19, with 536 Landing Craft Assault Flotilla. He was among the first wave on to Sword beach

At about 5am, we headed for Sword beach. Our job was to get the troops on to the shore in the best possible condition. We were carrying men from the East Yorkshire Regiment. The sea was rough, and I can only say that sick-bags were the order of the day for the troops. They were good blokes, all of them: there was no backing out. I think they were all probably anxious to get on to dry land as soon as possible.

We had practised the invasion again and again in Scotland, so it felt like an exercise until we got within 100 yards of the beach. Then the Germans suddenly threw everything they had at us, from all directions. The Allied warships behind us were also firing over our heads. The noise was tremendous.

I was just thankful that our landing craft was carrying tanks either side of it. I knew that they would be the first to be hit. It was a selfish way to look at it, but that was what was going through my mind. And I was right: three mortar bombs hit the landing-craft tank beside me, but didn't do it any harm - it was made of reinforced steel.

H-hour was 7.30am, and we got there five minutes early. So we had a choice: either we could stay off the beach like sitting ducks, or we could go in. We went in - joint first on to the beach.

I don't know if I was scared. I had so much to do that I didn't have time to think about the situation. I never thought I'd be hit. I was only 19 years old. I suppose I felt invulnerable.

On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I went back to Normandy and visited the Hermanville military cemetery. It was full of members of the East Yorkshire Regiment. It was then that it really hit me that most of the men I took in never got off the beach.

TONY COLGAN

Private, 20, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He drove a Bren-gun carrier on to Gold beach

I spent the days before D-Day moored in the middle of the Channel on a landing-craft. It was an open boat, with no shelter, so you slept where you were. We just stood around chatting, passing the time. If someone's about to shoot at you, you do tend to be a bit anxious, but I don't think anyone was shaking scared. Of course, when we finally got close to Gold beach on the morning of D-Day, it was quite scary. From two miles off, you could see that all hell was breaking loose: there were shells flying, machine-gun fire, naval ships firing over your head, aircraft all over the place and hundreds of boats. As I looked at the beach, I said to myself: "You will not survive this day."

In fact, we had an easy landing because we were in the second wave and the beach had already been cleared. The ramp went down and a naval lieutenant said: "Off you go, lads, and good luck!" I drove down the ramp and into about six feet of water.

When I got on to the beach, I could see the casualties, but you don't look at them; you don't do anything about them. It's an accepted practice in battle: there are medics to deal with them.

We got off the beach without any trouble and proceeded inland. After several miles, we saw six RAF fighters above us. They spotted us, dropped a bomb behind our truck and machine-gunned the column. The bullets were no more than three or four feet from me, but they missed all of us and only wounded the truck driver. We were so far inland, they assumed we couldn't be Brits. That was by far the most dangerous moment of my day.

RICHARD FITZWILLIAM

Platoon commander, 24, with 6th Battalion Green Howards

About half an hour after we left Southampton on the Empire Lance, we had a sherry and a chat with the commanding officer to wish us luck. We disembarked into our landing craft at 5.30am and had a two-hour wait as we were due to land at 7.25am. We were the first wave to land on King beach. I felt a certain amount of exhilaration. My platoon had to capture the command post of the Mont Fleury Battery. I had 35 men, and the other three platoons were to give us covering fire.

There was a huge minefield, so I took a road to the command post. A machine gun fired at us. I had this wretched Sten gun, which locked. My Sergeant Major knocked out the machine gun, and saved our bacon. We captured the post and attacked the guns. I lost five men on the way. We had a battle with some Germans about three miles inland. We wiped them out, I'm afraid. About four miles inland, a shell landed behind me. One chap was killed. I had a splinter through my leg. That was it. Five hours later, I was evacuated back to a first-aid post. Next day, I was evacuated back to England.

I'm very proud of what I did. It was a tremendous day for me: at 24 years of age, there we were, the biggest armada ever.

LESLIE BEDDISON

Coder, 20, with Force J, Royal Navy, at Juno beach

We took some men from the Canadian Special Services division to Juno beach at about 7.30am. As far as they could, the French partisans had cut the Germans' communication wires. We presumed - you didn't ask questions - that these Canadians were going in to lay their own lines, and this was why we were first in before any of the army got there.

There was only about 12 of them and we helped them off with their gear. The occupants of a lot of the small craft were leaping into the water, but we went directly on to the beach because the skipper said that if they had to fight, they'd fight in dry clothes. I helped them off and then saw them mowed down by crossfire from German machine guns. It was never confirmed but, as far as I know, they were killed immediately. There was so much going on that we had to pull off again. It was pretty scary. We couldn't help them, because our guns were anti-aircraft and had metal guards so that they would only fire into the air.

It was just rotten. I'd seen dead people before, but to see people fall like that, it wasn't nice. There were bodies from other craft, some headless, on either side of us rolling in the waves. The noise was the worst. There were shells screaming over: you didn't know which way to dodge as they came from the Germans in front of us and the battleships behind.

We spent the day ferrying supplies to the beach, dodging the other craft. It was chaotic. There was no organisation at all. People think this was planned. The whole thing was a fiasco, to see so many people killed in such a short time, for which they'd been trained. I've been back to that beach and I wondered how we had the nerve to go in. I don't consider myself a hero: I'm just one of the lucky ones who came back. I still have nightmares.

JAMES BELLOWS

Signal sergeant, 27, 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment. Landed on Gold beach

On the morning of 6 June, I was woken by the sound of aircraft and went up on to the bridge of our landing craft. Dawn was breaking and the sea was full of warships of every description. As I arrived, they all started firing. The Normandy coast looked like one big cloud of smoke. I thought: "Nothing could live on that shore." But I was wrong. When we landed, none of the obstacles had been knocked out.

We landed at 7.30am, but we got stuck on a sand bar about 500 yards off the beach. The young officer, a sub-lieutenant, had to decide what to do. To be frank, he panicked and said: "Craft away!" - which meant the men had to go ashore. I said: "What the blazes do you mean? We're in deep water."

But he was in charge, so the first tank had to go. It went into 10 feet of water with a plonk. There was only a foot of the turret showing above the surface with six men gripping on to it like grim death. But they made it ashore. Then the second tank went out. All of them drowned, except for two. The next to go was an armoured bulldozer, and it went straight down - so that was two more dead.

The majority of the men were on the trailer being towed by the bulldozer, and as that went down the trailer tipped and drowned some more. I think about 15 to 20 men out of a total of 25 drowned in total. It was horrific. Next thing I knew, a shell hit us, so I dashed up to the bridge. The young officer was up there panicking. He dived for the telegraph, which controlled the ship, saying: "I'm going back to England for repairs." I said: "You're going nowhere until you get me ashore."

Once I got on to the beach, dead and wounded men were lying everywhere. Men were being washed up. In that day, we lost more men than any other unit of the British or Canadian forces. It was 60 years ago, but it crops up every day. I wake up in the night sometimes and it's still all so real.

DENNIS KENWARD

Private and nurse, 21, with 40th Field Surgical Unit, Royal Army Medical Corps

We boarded a landing-ship tank on 1 June, and all the while we were aboard they were playing music on the loudhailer by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. I suppose it was to keep our morale up. We arrived at Sword beach at about 1pm on D-Day.

The first thing I noticed was the terrific smell of cordite because there had been so many explosions. There weren't any wounded, as they had been cleared. All the time there was the sound of the guns from the battleships. It was almost deafening, but it gave us courage. We came to an orchard about 2km from the beach where there was a line of about 40 stretchers. The first one I tended to happened to be a German soldier who was severely wounded. I knelt down and he said: " Wasser, wasser bitte." I lifted his head and gave him some from my water bottle.

Under the Geneva Convention, the Royal Army Medical Corps treats prisoners the same as our own people, though we weren't allowed to give them penicillin because of limited supplies. In the meantime, the Germans were firing over the tops of our heads on to the beach to prevent other soldiers landing. But when you're 21, you don't have any fear.

There were all types of casualties. If people were given morphine, an "M" was marked on their foreheads, and the time they were given it, so that someone else wouldn't give them more too quickly. We were looking after people from about 2pm to 11pm, by which time we were so exhausted we just lay down and went unconscious. I feel proud of what I did. I didn't kill anybody, but I hope I saved a few lives.

BASIL HEATON

Lieutenant, 20, 86th Field Regiment. As a gunner, he helped to co-ordinate covering fire from the heavy artillery for the initial infantry assault

I was first off our landing-craftin a Bren-gun carrier. I went on foot to supervise the disembarking of the guns and when I got back I found my signaller, Gunner King, with a bullet in his head. He was dead. We carried him to the sand dunes and laid him out near some German soldiers who had given up. Gunner King was a black man, a Jamaican, the only black man in the battery, and he was our first casualty.

There were snipers and Spandau fire from the beach defences, and 75mm guns firing at us from the west. Of course, one was frightened, and this was the first time I'd been shot at, but as a young officer one was brought up not to show fear.

The moment we got off the beach, we got into action. I was the assistant command-post officer, and had to help co-ordinate the deployment and fire of two troops, a troop being four guns. The big guns are perpetually on duty. One's got to be totally alert and ready to fire at a moment's notice. That's why I still can't let a telephone ring to this day; if it rings, I always pick it up at once in case it's someone calling for SOS fire or defensive fire.

We knew we'd done something extraordinary. It was the greatest land, sea and air operation ever launched and it was a great privilege to have taken part. On the other hand, I spent a long time trying to forget it, particularly the nasty parts.

ROY HINE

Flight lieutenant, 22, in 218 Squadron. Navigator on a diversionary mission over the Pas-de-Calais on D-Day

We took off at 45 minutes past midnight on 6 June from our base at Woolfox Lodge in Rutland. We had known for some time that D-Day was on its way because we had been more or less confined to camp. The atmosphere on the base that afternoon had been very optimistic. We had a drink in the mess, chatted, that sort of thing.

Our destination was the Pas-de-Calais. It was all part of a big hoax to make the Germans believe the invasion would take place there and not in Normandy. The Allies had arranged for a body to be washed up in Spain with papers on it containing details of these phoney invasion plans. Apparently, Hitler was convinced that the invasion would be at the Pas-de-Calais. There were seven aircraft from the squadron taking part, and each had a doubled-up crew: two pilots, two navigators and so on. The idea was to fly along a carefully chosen position line towards the Pas-de-Calais, dropping strips of metallised paper at regular intervals. When the strips opened out, just before they hit the water, they looked like a fleet of seven ships on German radar screens. To make it work, we had to keep to the position line exactly, and that was my job. When we had dropped the first batch, we had to fly in a loop, ending up closer to the French coast. Then we dropped an- other batch. This created the illusion that the convoy was progressing towards the coast.

There was no conversation in the aircraft that night. It was strictly business. I was glued to my instruments. We knew that the German fighter planes could home in on our transmission equipment, but fortunately we didn't get any trouble. On the way back, we were able to see the invasion armada heading for Normandy. It was a fantastic sight. We were flying for four hours and 20 minutes, and soon after we got back to base, we got a telex confirming that our mission had been successful. I don't know how long it held up the German troops, but it certainly helped. We went to bed pretty soon after that came through, and slept for a long time.

DAWN COX

Hydrogen clerk, 22, WAAF

I was responsible for ensuring that all the balloon sites in England had got sufficient gas. They used to phone me in the morning and tell me how many cylinders they required. It was decided that balloons would be flown above the ships on D-Day to protect them from aircraft.

A week before, I was informed that I had to get so much gas down to a certain place. They didn't give me a name, it was all very secretive. I was quite excited and very relieved that something was being done. Troops were over there and we didn't seem to be doing very much for them. Then, of course, it was cancelled twice. I felt very responsible, making sure that the gas was there on time and in the proper place.

On D-Day itself, I was at headquarters in Chessington, Surrey. I was very relieved when I heard the broadcast on the news that they had invaded France. At the time I was living at home because my mother was recently widowed, so I spent the evening listening to the news. I felt very proud, but of course I couldn't say anything as I was sworn to secrecy. The balloons did help to distract the aircraft because they didn't know what they were. They thought they were bombs or something like that. I would very much have liked to have been over there.

To make a donation to the Royal British Legion's D-Day Appeal, call 0845 845 1945 or visit www.britishlegion.org.uk

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