On the 75th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe’ Day our Chairman John Phipps has put pen to paper, remembering some of the veterans we have had the privilege to meet over the years and reflecting on what their thoughts might be of the strange times we are living through at the moment.
Parallels have been drawn between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Second World War; two global crises which have encouraged us all to work together in the fight against a common enemy. One of the distinct differences is of course our inability to be physically close to those we love. Today as we commemorate 75 years since peace in Europe was won, we are of course sad not to be able to celebrate the occasion by getting together and hearing the stories of those who lived through that extraordinary time. It is heartening to see so many communities up and down the country doing their best to mark the moment with union flag bunting and modest tea parties abiding by social distancing; determined to pay tribute to the generation who risked everything to secure the peace we have enjoyed for 75 years. Bless ’em all!
“Who are the veterans we can’t see as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe? What do they think of today and what were they hoping for 75 years ago? Most of all they are a generation commonly sharing an extraordinary lack of entitlement; their upbringing and life experience has taught gratitude for what they have, with an enviable sense of contentment.
At the first Armed Forces Day in 2010 I telephoned Bob and invited him to take part in the ceremonies held in the Liverpool Town Hall. “Am I allowed?”, he simply asked. After he lost most of his family in the 1941 Blitz, Bob volunteered for the King’s Regiment and was in the D-Day assault on Sword Beach and fought through to the surrender nearly a year later. Returning to ‘civvy street’ as a builder’s labourer, he didn’t go back to Normandy for 66 years. Like so may of his fellow veterans in the 1950s and 60s, he settled down with a growing family; with little money it was bucket and spade holidays at the nearest coastal resort. A return to Normandy was an unaffordable self-indulgence.
Grateful for the last 75 years which were so nearly snatched away, our Veterans talk about their “big lives” since 1945 and count their blessings with enthusiasm. They’ve had careers and families and many now talk proudly about their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Connections are severed during lockdown but, despite great age, many embrace modern technology and keep in touch that way. Patrick for example prefers e-mails as he can’t hear well on the phone. They don’t think of themselves as heroes: “…it’s the lads under gravestones in France who are the heroes.” They wonder what achievements were missed from those whose lives were cut short. For combatants in uniform and indeed for all those playing their part on the home front, it was a few years of intense living. Looking back on this anniversary it’s not so much about war, but a nostalgia too for younger selves living through a period of fear and excitement. Most of all they recall being part of a great national effort, like today, initially for survival, then for victory & freedom.
Piper Bill Millin of Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade exemplifies the brave eccentricity of the British soldier. In 1952 at the inauguration of the ‘Three Men on the Hill’ memorial at Spean Bridge, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother knowingly commented to Bill that people would be telling his story for a thousand years! Upon landing on Sword Beach on D-Day morning, Lord Lovat instructed Millin to walk along the water’s edge, playing his pipes “to encourage the commandos as they landed”, in his Cameron highlanders kilt, a soft beret and armed with just his ceremonial dirk. Now people gather at Millin’s statue on the edge of Sword Beach, treating it as a focus of liberation where the allies from across the water landed that morning to free Europe.
Ralph landed on that same beach; when the ramp fell down he drove his Bren Carrier onto the wet sand as fast as he could: “I didn’t think about what they might do to me; I was so sick, I just wanted to get off that bloody boat.” As the fighting progressed Ralph drove his small tracked vehicle across France, the Low Countries and into Germany. He spent VE Day in Lubeck, then after the war he: “…got a job as a driver in the new NHS.” Michael from Tring flew his glider into France in support of the invasion. He and his fellow pilots and navigators were returned quickly to their home airfields so they could do the same again the next day: flying at night, no engine, no navigation aids, then landing in enemy territory. Glen Jones, a butcher from South Wales, sat in his Jeep in one of those Horsa Gliders as it landed at Ranville in the early morning of D-Day. Who would do that? Health & Safety? Only Glen and the pilot survived the landing, with Glen driving through the glider fuselage to be on his way.
Today’s generation knows about the US assault on Omaha Beach, depicted graphically in Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’, yet it was the Royal Navy who took the GIs to Normandy and led the bombardment. Richard on HMS Ajax came down from Scapa Flow. Ted from Swansea was a crewman on battleship HMS Rodney as it steamed around Cornwall to be on station, joining nearly 7000 other ships and landing craft deployed for the invasion. John from Middlesborough made two trips on a Liberty Ship from Falmouth to Omaha, whilst Frank from Wiltshire was coxswain on a landing craft taking the assault troops up to the beach. Just last year Frank met one of those GIs from the same feeder ship in Normandy.
George from Brighton served in Coastal Forces and witnessed the Omaha slaughter from just offshore on his MTB: “a scene I will never forget; all those young men – gone.”
As the invasion fleet assembled in Portsmouth, Cyril (aged 100) commented there were so many ships assembled in Portsmouth, it seems like you could use them as stepping stones to the Isle of Wight.
The girls played their part. 98 this month, QAIMNS nurse Vera is spending lock-down gardening at her home in Cumbria. She was crossing the Channel with fellow Nursing Sisters on the Langibby Castle, when as dusk fell they scrambled down the netting to the landing craft below. A hazardous performance in a choppy sea, one slip to a watery death, but the Royal Navy Marines below carried on whistling cheerfully. All were in it together and the men looked after their precious cargo, landing them onto Gold Beach: “…have you ever tried to run up a sandy beach in full kit, boots and a loaded back pack?” The young women went straight to work in makeshift tents, dealing with the severely injured: “We spooned the new penicillin directly into open wounds; many lives were saved.”
John from Melksham settled on Merseyside after the war and returned to his trade of bricklaying. In 1942 he lied about his age and joined the Royal Navy as a gunner. Shipped on the Queen Elizabeth liner to Philadelphia just before Christmas, he picked up his new LST and crossed the Atlantic, fully loaded, for Operation Torch. He went on to take part in operations in Malta, Tunisia, the landings at Sicily, Salerno and Anzio. During a dockyard repair in Birkenhead he met his wife to be, before setting off for Portsmouth to carry out 15 landings on the invasion beaches. After the war he and Joyce founded a local football club which has recently celebrated its 70th year. In lock-down, at 95 John walks around the pitch most days. His great nephew does his shopping and John marks each weekend by cooking his Sunday roast.
Jack from Lincolnshire trained at Achnacarry (Castle Commando) and was part of an elite force of 150 divers who spent the night before D-Day laying charges on the underwater defences to the beach approach. Once HMS Belfast opened fire, they triggered the charges and the rest is history. Jack was booked to visit Guernsey for the liberation celebrations where 8th May is more meaningful in the Channel Islands than just VE Day. Jack was in the first boat to dock in St Peter Port: “The people were starving; we quickly handed over 200 loaves of bread and they gave us a couple of the biggest crabs I’ve ever seen. This would have been my first time back since 1945.”
Magnus from Caithness had the longest journey back to Normandy, but judged it worthwhile to pay his respects. Richard and Ronnie were Dunkirk veterans involved in the D-Day invasion. “We will fight them on the beaches” was certainly true for them in 1940 and 4 years later in Normandy.
Frank from Carrickfergus would join the group each year and liked to visit Bernaville in the American Sector. He’d been based there in a Mosquito night fighter squadron: “The Yanks couldn’t fly at night, so we used their base which had a temporary strip of felt and bitumen. We supported the troops advancing, but then started chasing the Doodlebugs aimed at London.” Frank was a consultant engineer and worked into his late 80s on a variety of projects throughout Africa.
Bill Pendell MM modelled for the central statue of the D-Day 75 Garden which was featured last year at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Now positioned at Arromanches overlooking the Mulberry Harbour relics, Bill is a fitting symbol of all the troops who landed along that coastline, nearly two million by August 1944. His friend Joe landed nearby with the Royal Artillery at Ver-sur-Mer and is especially keen to be at the opening of the new Normandy Memorial, now postponed to next year. Meanwhile at 97, Joe is hunkered down at home in Eastleigh, keeping in close touch with his extended family on Facebook.
Veterans’ children would often begin their Normandy visits expecting interminable ‘Uncle Albert’ stories beginning with: “During the war…”, but they came home with new respect for Dad. They’d seen first hand the gratitude from the French people: “Thank you for our freedom; thank you liberating us and for everything you did in 1944.” They saw the rows of gravestones and understood then the lottery of war. Even in a selfish way they could see how we of following generations so nearly did not exist, realising perhaps for the first time what Dad and his pals achieved those 75 years ago.
Of course it’s a long time ago, but these elderly men and women are part of us. They are tucked away during this pandemic so we can’t see them and talk with them, but if you get a chance to do that in due time grab it with both hands.“