Lowestoft D-Day veteran dies aged 94
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
He was a quiet hero, a man who spoke little of his experiences of war in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. But Peter Hemp's service for his country was quite extraordinary and saw him play a vital role in the Normandy Campaign of 1944
Little did 14-year-old Peter Hemp realise that the work he began after leaving school would prove invaluable to the country's war effort just seven years later.
Mr Hemp, who has died aged 94, joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and used the skills and knowledge he gained as an apprentice mechanic at Days Garage in Clapham Road in Lowestoft where he began work after leaving Morton Road School.
After undergoing initial training in Shropshire, he was then posted to Stirling, Colchester and Newmarket where he used his mechanical prowess in his role, driving a recovery truck towing a trailer filled with spares. On the night of the D-Day invasion, he recalls hearing aircraft flying ahead. Shortly afterwards, he was posted to Essex to prepare for active service in northern France as part of the Normandy campaign to sweep the Nazis back.
He joined a mobile team, 113 Workshops, REME, which dealt with the maintenance and repair of army equipment, a unit which was manned mainly by tradesmen who were able to offer running repairs to vehicles which were needed by soldiers: 'I had to drive a 15-tonne recovery lorry, towing a 10-tonne trailer,' he recalled.
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As he travelled over the Channel to Normandy in the summer of 1944, one of the ships in the Allied convoy 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 and 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 don't stop!'' he said.
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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 broken down vehicles – when he returned to Normandy in subsequent Junes as a veteran, the ceremonies held at Bayeux ceremony were particularly poignant as they were so close to where he was stationed in 1944.
After 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, who survives him, 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 pair married when Mr Hemp managed to arrange two spells of 10 days leave to get married. He was 21 and Dorothy was 20 and they tied the knot at St Margaret's Church in Lowestoft.
In 2016, Mr Hemp was presented with the prestigious Légion d'honneur medal – France's highest military honour – for his bravery and service. Until recently, he made the annual pilgrimage back to Normandy with his colleagues from the Norfolk and District Normandy Veterans' Association to visit the beaches where he landed almost 75 years ago.
Photographer Denise Bradley and I have travelled to Normandy with Norfolk and Suffolk's veterans since 2014 and on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, we took a group of veterans to Sword Beach, taking time out from the official pilgrimage to enjoy the beautiful beach for pleasure rather than duty.
Peter was the most enthusiastic of all to paddle in the sea, having only recently given up his regular sea swimming at Lowestoft. His trousers were rolled and his socks were off before we even got out of the car – as the others prepared to feel the sand beneath their toes, Peter was already in the sea.
As brown as a nut thanks to the amount of time he spent outdoors, he delighted in being on the beach, telling me that he never felt as at home as when he was close to the sea.
We will remember him, for our times together in France, the Normandy Veterans' meetings in Norwich and for the incredible sacrifice that he and his comrades made for us all – the old brigade grows smaller every year, Peter's loss will be felt deeply by those who remain.