Back to the beaches: The Norfolk men of D-Day return to Normandy 75 years on
PUBLISHED: 06:00 06 June 2019
On the 75th anniversary of D-day approaches, Norfolk heroes are among the handful of surviving Normandy veterans making their way to France to commemorate the landings, in which 156,000 allied troops launched an audacious attack in pursuit of freedom.
It began just after midnight on June 6 1944 as troops dropped behind the intended invasion beaches to disrupt German communications and then, at dawn, the sea turned black with boats and thousands of men swarmed on to five Normandy beaches.
Today marks 75 years since an armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 ships and 500 naval vessels crossed the narrow strip of sea from England to German-controlled Normandy and the Allies D-Day invasion of France began.
Years of planning came down to one brutal morning: seasick soldiers groggily making their way down landing ramps and jumping, wading, swimming or crawling to shore and making their way off the exposed beaches.
Young men, some not even 20-years-old, dragged up to 80lb of equipment on their backs as they faced a sodden race to safety, German machine-gun fire raking the sand, wounded soldiers dying in the sea, unable to keep their heads above water, others dying before they could even get their feet wet.
Len Fox, now 94, remembers June 6 1944 with crystal clarity. It was the day that transformed an ordinary 19-year-old lad from Norwich into an extraordinary hero, a battle where a short stretch of sand felt like a boundless desert to exhausted troops.
Today, he will join his comrades in Normandy to commemorate D-Day 75,
"On the way over we were all sick due to the rough sea. On arrival we were offered food by the ship's crew but none of us could eat as we looked at the most awesome sight and sound imaginable," said Len, who landed near Arromanches in Normandy on D-Day.
"Warships, troopships, barges, landing craft, inshore rocket craft, planes overhead, barrage balloons, all hell being let loose, the noise bursting my ear drums.
As a 19-year-old it was the nearest thing to hell I'd ever seen, and that's where I thought I was.
"The big warships out to sea were pounding targets further inland with heavy shells which sounded like an express train going through a station and a continuous line of barges and landing craft were making for the beach, some of them catching their hulls on underwater obstacles and blowing up."
When he received his order to disembark, Len climbed down a rope ladder and soaked to the skin, he watched as the ramps on the barges were lowered and the trucks drove on to the French beach.
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"Mines were exploding everywhere and one of our trucks was blown up, killing one of the lads from our platoon. While all this was going on, Jerry was stonking [shelling] the beach with mortar and artillery fire," said Len.
"We knew that there were going to be casualties but we never realised what it would be like. It made a boy into a man overnight."
Len and his company rendezvoused in a nearby orchard overlooking the beaches where they quickly 'dug in' under constant shelling.
"We were all in the same boat, basically, all of us were scared, wondering what would happen to us. None of us were brave, we had a job to do and we got on with it as best we could," he said.
"I remember looking down at the coastline and there was a red line all the way across as far as you could see. Along the edge of the beach there were body parts on the sand and floating in the sea, the tide was red with the blood of those lads that didn't make it. It made me feel quite sick."
More than 4,000 Allied troops died on June 6 1944 and another 420,000 would die in the Normandy Campaign which followed. It is difficult to comprehend the scope of Operation Overlord, the decisive battle which sounded the death knell for Hitler's dream of Nazi domination - the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken before or since 1944, it heralded the beginning of the end of World War Two.
Operation Overlord was top secret, but the people of Norfolk knew what was happening six hours before the first landing craft hit the Normandy beaches - they had been woken just after midnight by a mighty roar from above: the skies were alive.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, huge formations of Liberators, Dakota planes and gliders filled the sky above Norfolk.
For years, everyone had been hearing the noise of aircraft, but this time it was different - this time, their roar heralded the beginning of the longest day and the bloody battle for victory.
The Liberators were part of the huge bomber force that took off to pave the way for the troops on the ground.
All over Norfolk, the American Airforce had been briefed for the D-Day sorties and they flew more than 230 missions on that day, many from airfields in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Spearheading the aerial assault was the 446th Bombardment Group, based at Bungay. Their targets were enemy defences behind the planned beach-heads, although as it turned out, there was little to fear from the Luftwaffe, which two years earlier had blown Norwich apart in the Blitz.
Some crews made as many as four missions on D-Day and a group of fliers from Seething volunteered to take part in the final raid - thankfully, they returned home unharmed.