‘I would have done absolutely anything to get off that boat’: Norfolk Normandy veterans fight to ensure bravery is never forgotten
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
It's a very different battle to the one they fought on Normandy beaches 73 years ago today but, for the D-Day veterans, it is just as vital – to ensure that what happened is never forgotten.
The events of June 1944 are still within living memory, but every year the chance to hear at first-hand the stories from those who participated in an event that changed the course of history lessen.
This year, it is expected that only a few hundred veterans will return to France.
Today in Arromanches in Normandy, those who are willing and able will gather to remember those no longer able to make the annual pilgrimage to the beaches and those who lost their lives in a campaign which marked the beginning of the end of the war.
The Norwich and Norfolk District Branch of the Normandy Veterans' Association will be amongst their number with six veterans – Harry Bowdery, Len Mann, Len Fox, David Woodrow, Alan King and association secretary, Jack Woods.
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Jack served with the 9th Royal Tank Regiment.
'I landed on June 19 1944 – the Allies were well-established by then but were being held up by German forces. I'd never been into battle before, but I was ready to do what I had to do,' he said.
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'I was violently sick on the way over and would have done absolutely anything to get off that boat.
'I remember one of the first things I saw was a German infantry patrol lying dead right across the road – I wondered how it could be justified that these young men had been slaughtered. It seemed like madness.
'Every time you moved into attack you had no idea what you'd come up against. There wasn't time to be frightened then but when you had your days off, that's when the fear kicked in.
'Our greatest fear was being burnt alive inside your tank – really, they were like huge steel coffins. After Caen, we were involved in the crossing of the Orne River and the crossing of the Seine which was crucial to ending the Battle of Normandy.'
Jack spent the rest of his war in Le Havre, Dieppe, Arnhem, the Ardennes, Roosendaal and the corridor to the Rhine, in Holland, Belgium and in Italy.
But his experiences in Normandy have never left him and call him back to the French beaches every year.
He is determined that the legacy of the remaining veterans will be to ensure the continued commemoration of the men and women who fought in the brutal battle for freedom.
'While we are here, we can shout about it, but what happens when we are all gone?' he said.
'I will go back until I can't go back anymore. I have to. When I am here I feel my friends back with me, I feel them beside me. They may be dead, but remembering them keeps them alive. And one day, it will be our memory that needs to be kept alive.
'It is only by remembering the horror that we can try to ensure that nothing on a similar scale ever happens again. It's not about glory hunting, it's about learning the lessons from war and not repeating the same mistakes.'
Today, the veterans will be honoured by a town that has never forgotten their bravery and sacrifice and which decks its streets in red, white, blue, spangled stars and maple leaves every year to welcome returning heroes and heroines.
There will be a service, a parade and entertainment, culminating in a spectacular firework display at midnight.
The Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious assault ever launched, involving an invasion force of more than 156,000 soldiers and in total, British and Commonwealth casualties on D-Day numbered around 4,300. Thousands more died in the ensuing Normandy Campaign that opened the Allied march to Paris.
Stacia Briggs and photographer Denise Bradley are in Normandy with the Norwich and District NVA.