Last June I was a volunteer carer assisting 13 Dday veterans in their return to Normandy for the 72nd anniversary of the Dday landings in WW2. We took 13 veterans, aged between 89 and 102 years old over the channel from Portsmouth to Normandy for a week filled with remembrance ceremonies, visits to locations to pay respect and to the bars where they wanted hang out with their fellow comrades. Some came every year, others had missed a few, for one it was his first time back since 1944. It meant so much to them to return to the battle fields, two veterans even flew all the way from Australia, including the 102 year old. It was a very emotional week, a roller coaster each day with tears of laugher and sadness.
All the veterans were fantastic company with their stories and innocent flirtatious behaviour. It was all bravado of course. Many of them had families and adored wives of 72 years and at home that they couldn't wait to return to and spoke of often.
By the end of the trip I had learnt many rude songs and jokes and was constantly kept on my toes with their pranks. A couple of the more cheeky veterans would frequently pretend to fall out of the car, clutch their chest in pain or pretend to be unresponsive mocking their age and our duty to return them home safety to their families. The veterans were all so witty and sharp with a funny response any question, perhaps not expected by men who already have, or are soon to get a birthday card from the queen. These great granddads were real gentlemen of the old school. Polite, complimentary of the women around them in the sweetest way, always making sure they passed through the open doors first, but they were also lads. “I don’t feel 92, I feel like I'm 21!” Frank said with a big smile. The endless banter between the comrades, hilarious jokes, pranks, stories of girls and almighty reprimands from their war days provided endless entertainment. Those men can drink. We hadn’t even got off the ferry and entered France before some of them had very rosy cheeks. Many of the notorious characters even earned themselves nick namesfrom us volunteers, which, I’m sure were names they were proud of and only enhanced their endearing laddish behaviour.
‘Calvaldos Al,’ like all the veterans, first got a taste for the local sweet apple brandy during his Dday campaign back in 1944. On his return with us 72 year later he carried around his own brandy glass is his medal jacket pocket, and with rocket speed whipped it out to be filled at any lose reference of ‘drink’ or ‘refreshment’. He dunked his fresh croissant in Calvados every morning at breakfast. He literally worshipped the potent Brandy, I don't remember seeing any other form of liquid passing his lips the whole trip. Calvados Al was singing and dance partner to ‘dancing Fred’ .They were a brilliantly entertaining double act at 3am in the morning. Yes thats right, these near centrenians were still up drinking and singing at 3 am until we literally had to beg them to go to bed as we were so tired and had to get up early. “Drunk Fred” always had a huge grin on his face and a glass of red wine in his hand. He was the charmer who loved the ladies and was always last to bed, but up and dressed before anybody else had even made it to the bathroom. The granddads without a doubt out partied the youngsters and were sprightly at 7am the next day and ready to go again when we could barely get ourselves out of bed.
To see these granddads who had been dancing and singing the night before in tears at memorials and ceremonies, remembering their fallen friends and the brutal horrors of war, was heartbreaking. No words could offer comfort, even 72 years later. They were just teenagers when they were forced to fight. Many nearly died in work camps as prisoners of war, survived their ships being bombed when all their friends drowned and saw indescribable terrors they still can’t talk about.
Calvados Al’s outcome could have been so different had he not missed his regiments ship departure in 1944. He missed it, he's proud to say, because he had just married his now wife of 72 years and he wanted a few extra days with her. He was arrested at home by the military police and imprisoned for a week for taking unauthorised leave. His sentence was shortened as they needed men, so he was simply put on the next departing ship. Calvados eventually worked as a builder and driver on the Mulberry line, the harbour that was built in the UK, and shipped over in pieces, and whose ruins still lie on Arromanches beach. He then saw active service all the way to Berlin, when the war ended.
He got as far as the ruins of the Reichstag, the German parliament building which had already been looted by the Russians. He has a photo of himself, in a Nazi uniform he found, smoking a cigar and with a glass of Calvados in his hand, the ruined Reichstag in the back ground wearing some of the unissued German medals he found there and still has in his possession. The Nazis were so sure of their victory, they commissioned medals for battles that hadn’t even been won. The medal he wears in the photo is for bravery in the victory of taking Moscow, with ‘Moscow’ engraved on the bar of the medal. It was battle they never won. Because of his delayed and unregistered departure to Normandy, Calvados has been struggling to get his own medal, his Legion d’ Honour award.
Fred Lee was the joker of the group, always a drink in hand, always singing a song or chatting to the ladies. He even came with us at 1am, drunk, to Pegasus Bridge! The life of the party. One evening in the pub Fred pulled out some photos from his pocket. It was of the ship he was aboard during the Normandy campaign, HMS Nith. He was a stoker and on June 24th had been asked to take an extra watch on the port side of the ship. Every other night of the campaign he had been on the starboard side. He continued, "that night a German plane bombed the starboard side I would have normally been on. I lost nine mates that night. “Why did I survive?”
Sam Biggs, incredibly, came all the way from Australia by himself to join us in Normandy. The frequent German bombings of his hometown of Bangor, Northern Ireland convinced Sam to enlist. “I decided to join the navy. I went to the recruitment office & lied, telling an officer I was 18. He saw through me & told me that because I was under-age I should try the army. Again, no luck. The next day, I went back to the navy thinking I’d get another recruitment officer but it was the same one as before. I guess he admired my persistence and told me I was the right age to join the Royal Marines. I’d never heard of them.’’ His mother, who was bedridden with arthritis, cried. Sam was sent to Alexandria when German field marshall Erwin Rommel was about to invade and Sam received his first commission as a gunner on the HMS Orion. The Orion left Alexandria in 1942, taking convoys through enemy territory along the North African coast whilst Sam shelled German aircraft.
Fast forward to Dday, June 6, 1944. “We opened fire at 5am and kept on until 2pm,’’ he said. “By 7pm we had no ammunition and had to return to Portsmouth to reload. We were shelled the whole way. We were about to leave the next morning when 1400 Lancaster bombers flew over us to go on bombing raids. What a sight." Later in the war, Sam would find himself sick with dysentery. "I left hospital and was given half an hour to get on to another ship, HMS Argonaut, which was going to Japan, via Australia,’’ he said. After leaving Australia for Japan, we experienced Kamikaze planes and we had no idea what we were heading for.’’ American and British ships were bombing Japan and Argonaut’s role was as a guard ship.
He wound up in Shanghai when the Japanese surrendered and said he was close enough to Japan to see the mushroom clouds created by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The father of five returned to England for surgery to some of his wounds before being discharged in 1946 and moving to Australia in 1948.
In 1938, another of our veterans, Mervyn was evacuated from London to the countryside where he lived with his aunt and cousins. He fondly remembers swapping his meat rations for tinned peaches. Mervyn landed on Gold Beach in June 1944. From there he made his way through Europe before taking part in the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp. As a Jewish servicemen, I can't even begin to imagine the feelings he felt upon passing the gates of such a hideous place.
Taking 13 near centrenians out of the country was not a simple undertaking, there were many things to consider. Navigating our way around Normandy to ensure we arrived to ceremonies on time didn’t always go smoothly. We had to carefully consider where we could park that wasn't too far to for them to walk. Had they taken their daily medications? Do we have the wheel chairs packed in the cars? Shirts ironed? Where is the nearest hospital or doctor?
If you’ve ever been to Normandy during the first week of June, you’ll know its like a summer festival. The only cars on the roads are 1940’s military vehicles, driven by enthusiasts from all over the world who have even dressed in matching uniform from the era. The busy towns are decorated with bunting, flags and camouflage. War time music blares out from the temporary stages erected when the bands and singers are taking a break. The veterans themselves are celebrities. When walking through town the veterans were mobbed by well wishers thanking them for their service, wanting their photo or autograph, or simply wanting to shake their hand. I asked a few of the veterans how they felt about the anniversary turning into a festival, of the ones I asked, they all said they didn’t mind as long as they paid their respects to the fallen.
There were many tears shed as we all said our goodbyes in Portsmouth. For me those tears were an outpouring of pride to be in their company, sadness at having learned in graphic detail what these men as teenagers had to go through and an acknowledgement that I may never see some of these heroic, wonderful granddads ever again. I’m immensely proud of having been part of their journey. It sadden me so much to think that many of them, after a week surrounded by people were going back to empty homes. It was a huge honour to have accompanied them on their journey and to have had the privileged of their company.
Now as I prepare for this years trip, something Fred said as he broke down laying a reef at a cemetery still haunts me. With tears running down his cheeks he whispered “We’ve learnt nothing”.