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.
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.
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