I got my call-up papers in 1943. Them that didn’t have a trade went straight into the Army, but I was an apprentice electrician, so I ended up in the Navy. I was assigned to the Beagle, a B-class Destroyer in Plymouth. Like a lot of lads, I saw war as an adventure. My parents didn’t see it like that. We lived in south London and they’d lost friends in the Blitz. They’d also lost my brother in Italy and they weren’t keen on losing another son.
Sailing the Arctic Ocean
My first day at sea was in early ’43. For a while, we were on the Russian Convoys, escorting supply ships across the Arctic Ocean. Rough seas and freezing temperatures. Absolute hell! The older blokes used to laugh at us. While we were spewing our guts up, they’d nick our grub.
June 6 – D-Day dawns
In the lead up to D-Day, we docked in Portland and immediately realised what was happening because the sea was packed with hundreds of landing craft. Everybody set off in the early hours of June 6 and when we first saw Gold Beach, it looked quite beautiful. We could have been arriving for a holiday. The Germans knew we were coming though and, as the men started landing, we could see the bullets taking them down. Some of them didn’t even make it out of the water. The noise was incredible… the crackle of the smaller guns, the boom of the big guns. The sound seemed to roll right over your head.
I was there: Churchill's funeral
A terrible night
There was a lot of movement over the next couple of days and the entire coast was filled with landing craft and men. All being watched by the German E-boats. On June 9, we were off the coast of Cherbourg when one of the American landing craft was hit by a torpedo. As it turned over, the oil set the water alight. It was the middle of the night, but the flames lit up the whole area and we could see about 250 men burning… screaming. A terrible sight!
We sailed over and tried to pull them out, but as soon as you grabbed one man, another would grab him and some of our lads were getting pulled into the water. And when you did get hold of one, he would squeeze so tightly that it pierced your skin. Nothing but fear and bewilderment in their eyes. They were covered in burns, oil, sick… the toilet stuff. By daybreak, we couldn’t see any more men in the water, so we headed back to Portsmouth. We lost 50 or so of those poor American soldiers. Some of them died as you pulled them out of the water. Died right in front of you.
Life after the war
After the war was over and I went back to being an apprentice, there were occasional days when I thought, ‘Blimey, I was there on D-Day’. But most of us wanted to put all that behind us. I had a girlfriend, I learned to drive, and I could go into a restaurant and eat a proper dinner! It was time to forget what we’d been through and start enjoying life again.
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