'We were frightened but had to do our duty' - D-Day veterans tell their 75th anniversary stories
LOCAL Second World War veterans have shared wartime tales about their experiences of D-Day to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the landings.
Codenamed Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy took place on 6th June 1944 to liberate German-occupied France from the grasp of the Nazis.
The largest air, land and sea operation in history, areas across Dorset and Hampshire played a role in the lead up to D-Day and evidence can be seen at places such as Lepe Beach where remains of the pier-heads used to load military vehicles onto ships still stand just off the shore.
Sidney Hewson - Royal Navy
Anchored off Ryde on the Isle of Wight the very evening before D-Day, Sid recalled: “There were so many ships that if we put them all in a line we would be able to walk over to Normandy.”
He continued: “At three o’clock on the 5th of June we received word that we would be leaving for the French coast so we all made sure we got a damned good meal.
“All the boys were nervous about the prospect of what we would be facing out there and anyone who said they weren’t frightened was either mad or telling a lie – but we knew we needed to carry out our duty so the fear quickly left our minds, we were there to do a job.”
At 6pm Sidney’s minesweeper left under the cover of darkness to sweep a section of the channel a mile wide.
“We swept the area twice because we had a letter from the admiral saying we should expect around 80% casualties – so we swept with another ship behind us that would dispose of the mines, and another ship following that one sweeping again.
The next morning was D-Day, and the Allied troops were set to land on five beaches with the Americans landing on zones named Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, Canadians on Juno Beach and the British on Sword Beach and Gold Beach which Sidney on the Cockatrice helped to clear.
“We finished at around 5am and swept Gold Beach to a few hundred yards of the coast because it was far too shallow to go any further,” he said.
“Suddenly all hell broke loose. The British ships were firing at the Germans and the Germans were firing back – we were sitting right in the middle of all the chaos but luckily we were able to escape the hellfire of shells.
“My locker was on the inside of the hull and an armour-piercing round had gone straight through it and chewed up my best number-one suit. I had worn it only twice and it cost me 10 and sixpence!”
Sidney spend a fortnight on the beachhead with his crew before leaving for Portsmouth. Out of the flotilla of seven minesweepers on the approach to Gold Beach, the HMS Cockatrice was the only one to escape undamaged.
“We did what we were trained to do and we lost only two ships due to mines out of the 5,000 that were destined for France. It was a combined effort and all the medals we got truly belonged to the ship, it was never an individual effort and the Cockatrice was a wonderful vessel.
On leaving the navy in 1946, he returned to his job as a hosiery worker, but soon grew tired of making ladies’ stockings and moved into the wine trade. Finally, he utilised his talent for woodwork by becoming a wood machinist at Southampton before taking early retirement at the age of 62.
Bill Ward - Royal Engineers
Bill Ward (94), another D-Day veteran from Lymington, was based in the New Forest in the Royal Engineers at the time and worked in a port operating company responsible for loading and unloading ships.
“On D-Day we were all called together and told that the Allies had landed in Normandy on three beaches and we were ordered to pack everything up as we would be moving the next day.
“One of the things I remember about my time in the New Forest before D-Day were these tins of soup we were given which had a fuse coming out of the top that ran all the way through to the bottom.
“You would light the fuse with a match or lighter and by the time the flame had reached the length of the fuse, the soup would be hot and ready to eat. It was an ingenious idea.
“We were moved to a concentration area that was still in the Forest before we were sent to Weymouth. I remember seeing the whole bay filled with thousands of ships of all sizes.”
From Weymouth Bill got onto a boat that was heading to Arromanches in France where he would be based for six weeks repairing the harbours and unloading the ships.
He explained: “When my company got on the boat we were not really scared but we were not excited either. We landed knee-deep in the sea and had to scramble to the shore. We could hear guns firing in the distance, it all felt like such a big experience.
“Our work began from there where we helped build the Mulberry harbour that was used to land men and vehicles. Once it was built we had to unload the supplies, food and equipment from the ships and DUKWs, which were amphibious land and sea vehicles known as ducks.
“We used to get fed up and very tired in the service life but the spirit among the lads was very good. We all had pride in our unit and made sure we put it first.
“Even before D-Day, on the last night of our six-week training, we went out in celebration with our full gear on, boots and everything, even though we had proper shoes because we were so proud of ourselves, we thought we were the cat’s whiskers.”
Bill served in the Royal Engineers for four years before he was released from the armed forces and returned to civilian life. He worked as a booking clerk for London Transport for 48 years.
William Magrath - Royal Marines
William Magrath (99) from Highcliffe, who will soon celebrate his 100th birthday, was in the Royal Marines at the start of the war and was appointed coxswain of a landing craft that were used to storm the beaches in Normandy.
In the weeks leading up to Operation Overlord, William and his crew carried ‘signals’ between ships moored in the Solent near Portsmouth and also practised landings on the coast around the Isle of Wight and near Christchurch.
On D-Day his landing craft was lowered down from the deck of a carrier ship which was anchored a mile off the shore and he undertook many trips back and forth from the boat to the beachhead.
He said: “For the first two days it would be myself, a deck hand, an engineer and about a dozen men who were ready to fight on board the landing crafts, and I would be transporting them to the land and then I would return to ferry over more soldiers and supplies.
“Things were happening all the time and it was an effort to keep up with what was going on.
“The main thing I remember about D-Day was how damned lucky I was to be able to come back. When I saw all the young lads who were just 18 lying on the floor dead, I thought that someone up there was looking after me.”
Once the Mulberry harbours were built a fortnight later, William’s role was completed and he returned to Portsmouth.
After the war he joined London Transport and trained to become a bus driver. Having been promoted to inspector, he continued to work for London Transport through to his retirement.