We were the frightened kids who didn’t know if we would see tomorrow…
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press ©2004
Today we continue our series telling Norfolk's D-Day stories, ahead of Friday's 70th anniversary of the landings. Stacia Briggs – who is travelling to France with a group of the county's veterans – recounts more tales from Norfolk servicemen who fought in the campaign.
Lenn Mann, 12th Battalion Devonshire Regiment
'I should have gone over in a glider for D-Day but there weren't enough and so I had to go by boat. I was in the Channel for six days and it was absolutely terrible: the sea was really rough, there were waves coming over the boat, it was awful. On the fourth day, we were told it was all off. On the fifth day, we were definitely going again. On the sixth day, we went. 'I landed on the beach at Arromanches at around 7am on June 6. Luckily for us, the Navy and RAF had knocked out the big gun placements and we were able to just walk on the beach with no opposition. We made our way to Ranville, all the time with planes strafing us. I went in with the idea that if I got killed I wouldn't know anything about it.'
Private W Evans, Battalion The Royal Norfolk Regiment
'After spending many hours on the landing craft crossing the Channel and being seasick, I was glad to get on the beach. It was more like the manoeuvres that we'd done so many times before. I couldn't believe it was the real thing. We had no trouble on the beach. Once off the beach we slowly advanced along narrow dusty roads with Jerry snipers banging away at us. So far we had covered two or three miles and we were doing well until we came to a cornfield. Then Jerry machine guns in a small pill box opened up. 'The lads were soon being cut to pieces as the machine guns, with their tremendous rate of fire, scythed through three-foot high golden corn. I remember one of the company cooks getting a bullet in his neck.'
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Lance Corporal E Seaman, 1st Battalion The Royal Norfolk Regiment
'On D-Day, we had a hell of a baptism – I was detailed to go with 8 platoon across cornfields where the Brigadier put us in front of our own tanks and we got slaughtered. 'We had so many wounded and killed I was the only stretcher-bearer left. Of the other ones, Pte Woolf was killed and two, 'Fanny' Grimes and 'Tricky' Power were badly wounded. I, and one of the riflemen to help me, bandaged and carried them down to an old track across the fields where RAMC ambulances picked them up. 'At midnight that night, a padre joined the eight of us left and we buried the dead. Then he took us back to his HQ for a cuppa and we rejoined the Battalion just in time to attack Lebisey Wood for that first time.'
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Phil 'Splish, Splash' Johnson, Royal Marines
'The weather was terrible. D-Day should have been June 4 but they couldn't leave. The troops in the boats were sitting in a sea of sick waiting to go – you can imagine the smell. 'I shall never forget it. We carried 50 young men and they were trying to wade through the rough sea in full gear – some were so blinded they were walking out to sea. There were bodies on the beaches and in the water. 'I was one of the lucky ones. I was going back – they were going to hell. 'It is so important that we never forget what happened all those years ago and get the message across to the young generation. Thousands of men died on those beaches and in the fighting that followed.'
Len remembers the noise and the fears
Len Fox, who will travel to Normandy this week, was working at Robert's shoe factory, Fisher's Lane, Norwich, when the war broke out. On D-Day, he was serving as a dispatch rider. 'It was like hell on earth. Warships, troopships, barges, landing-craft, inshore rocket craft, planes overhead, barrage balloons, the noise nearly bursting my ear drums. 'The warships at sea were pounding targets further inland with heavy shells and a continuous line of barges and landing crafts were headed for the beaches, some of them catching their hulls on underwater obstacles and blowing up. 'The beach was still under fire from the Germans and the beach master was shouting at us all to 'get the hell off the beach!' he didn't have to tell us twice. 'I was only 19-years-old and I'd never been away from home before. 'We were frightened kids who didn't know if we'd see tomorrow – I had no idea what it would be like, but I'd never imagined that. One thing stuck in my mind: 'If I die now, I won't know who won the war'. Mines were exploding and one of our trucks was blown up, killing one of the lads from our platoon. 'I remember seeing bodies, parts of bodies, floating on the sea and on the beach. It was the first time I'd seen a dead man and I felt quite sick.'
How Norfolk beaches played their part in the preparations
Airpower was the key to the Overlord invasion plan but, as D-Day approached, concern began to mount over whether it might be a double-edged sword. In particular, there were fears that intensive bombing of German coastal defences might so pockmark the beaches with craters that Allied troops could be bogged down as soon as they were ashore. The experts of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces decided to test various assortments of bombs and fuses on a beach as much like those in Normandy as they could find. The site chosen was at Thornham on the north Norfolk coast. Nearby Brancaster beach had already been used to see if Normandy beaches could support the weight of Allied tanks, now – a month from D-Day – the might of Anglo-American airpower was unleashed on this remote Norfolk seashore to discover whether the intricate bombing plan might be a recipe for disaster. Mitchell and Marauder bombers, laden with 100lb, 500lb and 1,000lb bombs, as well as rocket-firing Typhoon fighter-bombers, pummelled the beach. Then the AEAF's chief expert on bomb damage, Solly Zuckerman, who had flown as 'tail-end Charlie' in the last of the bombers, landed nearby to inspect the results. Satisfied that Overlord would not be a replay of the Western Front in the First World War, the experts gave the green light for the operation.