'I was sick, I was frightened': Poignant memories as veterans return to Normandy
PUBLISHED: 20:23 05 June 2018 | UPDATED: 15:48 06 June 2018
Copyright: Archant 2018
Alan King remembers the lurch of the boat, the dreadful seasickness and the gnawing fear which gripped every man as they waited for orders to disembark to a French beach on an early morning in June 1944.
“Anyone who says they weren’t terrified is a bloody liar,” he said, “exactly 74 years ago at this very moment, I was sick, I was frightened, I had no idea whether I was going to live or die.”
Mr King served with the East Riding Yeomanry as a radio operator and had just turned 20 when he landed in Normandy: he has returned to the northern region of France for the 74th anniversary of D-Day, an annual pilgrimage made with the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association.
Alongside him are fellow D-Day veterans Len Fox, Jack Woods, David Woodrow of the 652 Air Observation Squadron, Royal Air Force and Harry Bowdery of the Royal Navy who have all returned to pay respect to those who did not come home and those who, over time, have joined rank with their fallen colleagues.
“Every year we think it might be our last, but I think we are all determined to keep coming back for as long as we are able,” said Mr Woods, secretary of the Norwich group, “I was about 15 when the war started and it felt as if it was something happening to other people.
“Even when the bombers were overhead, they were making their way somewhere else. Then they made their way to Norwich and I realised what it was that I had to stand up for, what I had to do. The war is part of me now and to come back is my duty.”
Today, Mr Woods - who served with the 9th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment - will be in Arromanches for a special service held beside the beach which ends with a parade where veterans from all nations receive an ovation from well-wishers as they walk, or are wheeled, down the French town’s high street.
For Roger Hemp, remembering D-Day this year will hold extra poignancy. A little over six months ago, his father Peter Hemp - who served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers - died, aged 94. The pair last returned to Normandy together.
“Dad didn’t talk much about his Normandy experiences, but the fact that he wanted to come back and that it was so important to him means that I had to come for him this year. I will lay his wreath for the REME on D-Day on his behalf,” said Mr Hemp, who, like his father, lives in Lowestoft.
“This is my first D-Day without my Dad and it will be hard, but I am here for him, to do what he would have done for the men who served beside him and didn’t come home.”
The veterans, their carers and association members travelled to Normandy on Sunday and will remain in France until Friday, attending a host of memorial services, ceremonies and parades from their base in Caen.
Len Fox was a despatch rider for the Royal Service Corps. He said: “I will return for as long as I can. When we were in France, we just wanted to come home. Now we are at home, we can’t help but think of France.”
Mr Woods added that next year’s remembrance services would be scaled up to reflect the milestone anniversary: hotels are already fully booked in the area for 2019 and the event is likely to be attended by world leaders.
“For us, every single year that passes is as important as these big anniversaries. None of us knows if we’ll be able to come again, but if we can, we will. The stories of what happened 74 years ago need to be remembered.”
On June 6 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy. Getting ashore was only part of the mighty challenge that faced the Allies, who then embarked on the Normandy Campaign which marked the beginning of the end of World War Two.