D-Day: Emotional trip back to Normandy for Lowestoft’s Peter Hemp

The Norfolk veterans prepare to leave Norwich for France. Peter Hemp places a sign on the coach. Picture: Denise Bradley The Norfolk veterans prepare to leave Norwich for France. Peter Hemp places a sign on the coach. Picture: Denise Bradley

Friday, June 6, 2014
3:12 PM

Seventy years ago, Peter Hemp was waiting to head off to the beaches of northern France.

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BACK THEN: Peter Hemp, centre, with colleagues and the Scammel breakdown recovery vehicle that he drove in the Second World War. He named it ‘Dot’ after his new wife Dorothy.
Picture: SUPPLIED.BACK THEN: Peter Hemp, centre, with colleagues and the Scammel breakdown recovery vehicle that he drove in the Second World War. He named it ‘Dot’ after his new wife Dorothy. Picture: SUPPLIED.

And this week he began another momentous journey across the Channel – to mark the day that thousands of Allied troops took part in the largest seaborne invasion in history.

As part of the events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Mr Hemp has joined 14 other men and one woman from Norfolk and Suffolk on their final major pilgrimage to Normandy.

The trip will be particularly poignant for Mr Hemp, 91, and his fellow members of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association (NDNVA) as the organisation is being disbanded nationally in November.

Accompanied by his wife Dorothy, Mr Hemp left his home in Lowestoft at about 5.30am on Wednesday.

Although he said he was looking forward to the trip, he admitted it would be an emotional experience.

“It will be tinged with sadness, as this is the last time the association will be going,” he said.

On leaving Morton Road School at 14, Mr Hemp became an apprentice mechanic at Days Garage in Clapham Road – and the skills and knowledge he gained would later prove invaluable.

After being called up to join the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), he underwent initial training in Shropshire and was then posted to Stirling, Colchester and Newmarket. In the following months, he used his mechanical prowess in his role, driving a recovery truck towing a trailer full of spares.

Mr Hemp recalls being on guard duty on the night of D-Day and hearing aircraft flying overhead. But he was then posted to Grays in Essex to prepare for active service in northern France.

He joined a mobile team – 113 Workshops, REME – comprising a variety of tradesmen, with a fleet of lorries carrying tools. “I had to drive a 15-tonne recovery lorry, towing a 10-tonne trailer,” he said.

In the summer of 1944, Mr Hemp was part of an Allied convoy heading across the Channel to Normandy when one of the ships was sunk in the Straits of Dover. He said: “All the lorries were loaded on to a ship at Tilbury and the convoy set sail, but one of the vessels was sunk. I was lucky to have survived that journey.”

He recalls landing on Juno beach in France in early July, being lifted from the ship to a tank landing craft and then onto the beach. “We were told: ‘put the vehicle into first gear, put your foot down and not stop!’” he said.

Mr Hemp and his colleagues then set up their mobile workshop in a cider orchard just outside Bayeux. Using his recovery truck, which he named “Dot” after his wife Dorothy, he helped tow in broken down vehicles.

With the veterans due to take part in a service at Bayeux cemetery today – close to where he was based – Mr Hemp admitted: “The service in Bayeux cemetery will bring back a lot of memories.”

On being demobbed from REME, Mr Hemp worked at Parry’s garage in Oulton Broad for seven years, and then at the Brooke Marine maintenance shop, where he remained until his retirement.

His wife Dorothy enlisted as a Wren and worked with Coastal Forces Section at HMS Minos in a building on the corner of Waveney Road and Suffolk Road until she was demobbed in 1947.

The veterans’ trip, which ends on Tuesday, has been funded by the NDNVA and The Journal’s publisher Archant, with Mr Hemp helping out at a fund-raising collection at Morrisons in Lowestoft in February.

To mark the D-Day commemorations today, the heads of state from 17 countries will attend an event at Sword Beach in Normandy. About 700 veterans from the UK are also expected to be at the service.

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