Captain Ian Hammerton, 91, from Dartford, Kent, is one of a small band of surviving D-Day officers. As a lieutenant, He was among the first soldiers to land at Juno Beach on 6 June 1944. He commanded five “flail” or “crab” tanks, belonging to the 22 Dragoons, equipped with a boom and chains to detonate mines.
“Relief at being off that damned landing craft is what I mostly remember. I had been violently sea-sick all the way across. Just as we cleared the last screen of boats, the sea-sickness stopped… Once we reached the beach, we had to manoeuvre the tank around the bodies of dead Canadians….I suppose we were being fired upon but I have no memory of that. We just wanted to get off the beach as quickly as possible.”
Mr Hammerton’s tank backed into the sea to drag away a grill constructed from railway track which blocked a ramp onto the promenade at the small seaside town of Bernieres sur Mer. His tank engine, flooded by sea-water, packed up. His crew took the machine gun from the turret and advanced on foot.
“Just below the sea wall, we came across a padre who was comforting a Canadian who had been shot in the head. The poor chap wanted a cigarette but there was nowhere left to put it. I remember thinking: ‘all credit to you padre. You are right in the front line’.
“We moved on and two Frenchmen came from nowhere. They shook my hand and said “Bienvenue en France”.
“We fought on clearing mines for tanks and the infantry until one am that night. We slept on the ground, wrapped in damp blankets that someone had fetched from our tank back on the beach…the next morning I woke to the sound of someone saying in French ‘Russes, Russes’. A group of German soldiers appeared with their hands up. All their papers were from Russia. They were Russians, captured on the eastern front by the Germans and given the choice ‘fight for us or be shot’.”
Mr Hammerton took part in two savage tank battles, codenamed Epsom and Goodwood, fought to the west and east of Caen in late June and mid-July. His section of five tanks suffered its first casualties in “Epsom”. “One of our tanks veered to the left in the smoke and we lost it. We found the remains the next day. Three of the boys were lying on the ground nearby. They had been machine-gunned as they tried to escape. We found the other two inside. Only the bottom half of their bodies remained…”
Mr Hammerton fought all the way through the Normandy campaign, through northern France and into Belgium and Germany. Two of his men were killed, and he narrowly escaped death, when his section of tanks were fired on by a German mobile gun near Bremen in May 1945. The war in Europe ended the next day.
After the war, Mr Hammerton became a music teacher and deputy headmaster, close to his home in Dartford, Kent. “On 6 June, I would never teach music. I would tell the pupils about D-Day and about the war.
“It is important that people remember. My generation won’t be around much longer. That’s why I think this project to record our memories before it is too late is important. I’m still in touch with some of the boys that I fought with but their numbers are falling all the time. It’s upsetting, losing comrades again.”