‘I feel the presence of the lads we lost’ - Norfolk D-Day veterans return to Normandy after 75 years
PUBLISHED: 06:00 06 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:33 11 June 2019
As every year passes, the Allied World War Two generation slips into history. Our veterans put their lives on hold to answer their country’s call when it needed them most and today, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we remember them.
With every funeral for a D-Day veteran that takes place, there is one less witness to the Longest Day.
Norfolk's veterans have fought hard to take their place amongst the dwindling numbers of comrades who will stand on Normandy's shores on June 6 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, as each year falls away, more of the firsthand witnesses to what happened on the beaches of northern France all those summers ago are gone.
Today, Normandy will be subject to another invasion.
More than two million remembrance tourists are expected to descend on the area of France where, 75 years ago, 156,000 Allied troops landed. But the most important guests in Normandy will be the veterans whose first impression of this beautiful corner of France was far from the peaceful place it is today.
Testament to that bloody day are the vast cemeteries with their simple white stones which stretch for row after row in every direction from the beach heads, each marked with the name of a son, a father, a friend, an uncle who gave their life for freedom: throughout the Normandy campaign, the beginning of the end of World War Two, 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing. And now, most of those who did make it home are gone, too.
But from Norfolk, a loyal band of brothers has returned to mark a day that none of them will ever, or could ever, forget, on the beaches which were the landing - and dying - place of thousands of soldiers who set off across the grey English Channel and stepped into the sea and into heavy artillery fire.
Those men who were there in 1944 are now in their tenth decade
And while some may salute the fallen from their wheelchairs, their desire to be in France, to remember those who never came home and to pay their respects has never been stronger.
"Every year, the anniversary is at the forefront of our minds at all times. We have made a pledge to return to France as often as we can to make sure that those who we lost and left behind are never forgotten," said Jack Woods, 95, a veteran of the Normandy campaign, who lives in Norwich.
Jack saw service with the 9th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment in Italy and France as well as taking part in the fiercely-contested Battle of the Reichswald, as the Allies pushed into Germany in 1945. He is now the secretary of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association.
His memories of his time in Normandy are at their strongest when he stands on French soil.
"We sailed for Normandy during the storm and I was as sick as a dog: all I wanted to do was die as the LST (Landing Ship Tank) we were on did everything but sink," he said, "some of our tanks, which we had been told in the UK were impenetrable - were blazing away merrily on the skyline, giving out clouds of black smoke or a firework display of exploding ammunition; those of the crews who survived were coming back, their faces registering the shock of what had happened to them.
"It didn't take long for me to realise that we were killing people that were just like us - ordinary young lads. I thought right there and then, 'this is not right'. It took me months to get back to normal when I came home and I haven't been the same since. When you live through something like that, it lives with you forever.
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"I feel the presence of those who died there when I am in Normandy. I hear them. They do not want to be forgotten."
Today, world leaders will pay homage to those involved in the D-Day operation on June 6 1944 and the ensuing battle for Normandy that paved the way for Hitler's defeat and Norfolk's veterans will remember that freedom is never free: a price must always be paid.
A heroes' trip
Corporal David Woodrow of the 652 Squadron AOP lived in Blofield as a child and went to Norwich High School, at that time based at St Giles Street in Norwich.
He trained as an engine fitter and by late May 1944 was based at Purfleet ahead of the Normandy invasion with 3,000 other soldiers.
He sailed for northern France on June 5 and landed on Gold Beach on June 6.
"When I saw the beach, it looked like a huge distance to cover. It was being hit by heavy artillery - I just wanted to be off the beach and into safety as quick as possible," he said.
"It was 75 years ago but it feels like yesterday when I am back here in Normandy."
David and his unit found themselves disorientated and made their way to Bayeux to pick up new maps - back towards the landing beaches, they ended up in Plumetot where they prepared an airstrip for their squadron to land.
Planes were operational by June 9.
David was involved in the entire Normandy Campaign and then pushed forward towards Berlin.
After the war, David returned to Norfolk in 1947, married wife Jean in 1955 and had two children. He still farms in Topcroft on the site of a former USAAF base and returns to Normandy every year.
Today, he will represent the Royal Airforce at the new British memorial overlooking the beach where he landed 75 years ago to the day.
"I look around and it still looks like it did in 1944 but in other ways it's completely changed. It's a lifetime ago but feels so close," he said.
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