Les Fryatt was just 20 years old when he sailed from London docks bound for Normandy in his first combat mission, bombarding German positions to support the D-Day landings.
Twenty-four hours after the first Allied troops made grinding progress on the beaches, Mr Fryatt received his orders to target enemy defences dug-in further inland.
Although he is modest about his role in the Royal Artillery, as part of a 10-man combat team he played a critical part in demolishing German positions so infantry soldiers could break their lines.
In the build-up to D-Day on 6 June 1944, he was among more than a million Allied troops who moved throughout southern England to undertake the greatest amphibious operation the world had ever seen. “We were held in a park surrounded by barbed wire at London docks. Something was in the wind. An old fella shouted out to us: ‘Good luck to you lads, give it to them’,” he recalls.
Mr Fryatt, who has five grandchildren and lives in Thornton Heath in south London with his wife Jeanette, celebrates his 91st birthday on Monday. The retired BT engineer is still tack sharp with a full head of hair, but his eyesight is not as good as it used to be and he is not quite so mobile getting into the bath.
Without the installation of an expensive walk-in shower room, he and Jeanette – who will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary in August – feared that they would have to leave their home, where they have lived for the past 30 years. Although the local council made a contribution to the cost, they were still coming up short.
Luckily for Mr Fryatt, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – one of two being supported by The Independent’s appeal for Homeless Veterans this Christmas – agreed to give him a grant of £500 for the renovation. “It has made such a big difference for both of us,” says Jeanette, 80.
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
1/20 Glynn Barrell
Glyn Barrell is among the veterans hoping to benefit from the self-build scheme in Plymouth
2/20 Rachel Holliday
Rachel Holliday is converting a police station into a hostel
3/20 Androcles Scicluna
Veteran Androcles Scicluna says performing boosted his confidence
4/20 Christopher Cole
Christopher Cole, 51, from London, spent three years in the Army but left in 1982
5/20 Maurillia Simpson
Former servicewoman Maurillia Simpson with the medals she won at last year’s Invictus Games
Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard
6/20 Martin Rutledge
Head of The Soldiers’ Charity, Martin Rutledge, says charities sometimes allow emotion to dictate their choices
7/20 Ben Griffin
Ben Griffin wants to open people’s eyes to the cycle of political violence
8/20 Robin Horsfall
Robin Horsfall, who fought in the Falklands and helped end the Iranian embassy siege
9/20 Mark Hayward
A bed for the night and food helped Mark Hayward out of misfortune
10/20 Ashley Rosser
Ashley Rosser, who served in the RAF, at the Veterans Aid hostel in east London
11/20 Dave Henson
Britain's Invictus Games captain Dave Henson says veterans’ charities helped rebuild his life
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
12/20 Hugh Milroy
Hugh Milroy dispels myths about war-zone veterans through his work as the CEO of Veterans Aid
13/20 Andy MacFarlane and Julie Taylor
Former soldiers Andy MacFarlane and Julie Taylor work at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Solihull under a covenant connecting veterans with employers
14/20 Mark McKillion
Mark McKillion's experience of living on the street eventually left him feeling as though the only way to escape was to end his life. He survived his desperate jump from Westminster Bridge, and VA's help has restored his "faith in humanity"
Nigel, a navy veteran, remembers living on the beach in the run-up to Christmas, when it rained every day for a week. He slept on a bench for seven years whilst suffering from Parkinson's disease.
16/20 Keith Cooper
Before Keith Cooper had his place confirmed at Avondale House in Newcastle, he was working out whether he could afford to buy a tent to live in
17/20 Simon Weston
Simon Weston, a Falklands War veteran, said even something as simple as a cup of tea can be an important step in getting the life of a homeless veteran back on track.
18/20 Ian Palmer, professor of military psychiatry
Ian Palmer, the first professor of military psychiatry to the British Armed Forces, says that the depiction of all ex-service personnel having post-traumatic stress disorder may stop people who really need help from getting it
19/20 Douglas Cameron
Evgeny Lebedev with Douglas Cameron, who had a hernia operation while serving in Burma
Johnnie Shand Kidd
20/20 Veterans Aid
General Sir Mike Jackson, President of ABF The Soldiers' Charity, called for donations to the Homeless Veterans appeal
Recalling the operations around D-Day, Mr Fryatt says he and his comrades sailed through the night, up the Thames and across the Channel on a troop ship laden with 5.5-inch artillery guns and troops. They unloaded at Caen.
His team began shelling German positions, the stench of cordite all around and the deafening booms of the shells ringing in their ears. Then came months of brutal fighting across France and Belgium and into Germany.
“The one that stuck in my mind was a German tank with two bodies out of the top of it, they were just hanging over,” he recalls. “And there were a lot of dead horses.”
Mr Fryatt also witnessed the liberated French punishing female collaborators, shaving their heads. “We were told not to get involved.”
Asked how the troops coped, he says: “It was terrible, but you was always laughing, I don’t know whether it was nerves or what, you just carried on. When you’re with a load of lads for so many years, there’s just two or three of you together, you’re like brothers, that’s what you miss, you can’t beat the comradeship.”
Mr Fryatt was demobilised in 1947, having been stationed in Germany for three years, narrowly avoiding being dispatched to fight the Japanese.
But on returning to London, the city he knew had been devastated. “You didn’t get this counselling what happens today. My friends who I used to go out in the evening with, some were killed, some had moved.”
In the summer of 2014, the French government awarded Mr Fryatt the Légion d’Honneur along with all D-Day veterans.Reuse content