Norfolk D-Day hero awarded France’s highest military honour has died
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
One of the last D-Day heroes who landed at Normandy on June 6 1944 at the age of 21 has died just days before the 75th anniversary of VE Day
Neville Howell was born on Christmas Eve 1922 in Great Yarmouth and joined the army at his father’s suggestion when he was 14 years and 25 days old in 1937.
He was one of four boys and three girls at home and the decision was made partly due to a crowded house and a lack of food.
“The decision was my father’s rather than mine,” Mr Howell recalled, “my father had been a military man during the First World War for the Royal Norfolk Regiment and although I was reluctant to join, I didn’t want to go against my father’s word.”
He was sent to Woolwich for a year and underwent “very strict” training which would often start at 6am and not end until 9pm and after which he passed out as an Artillery Trumpeter.
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Barracked in Norwich, with the Field Regiment Royal Artillery when he was 16, he watched his regiment go to war in France in 1939 and felt frustrated that he was too young to join them.
In 1941, he joined the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery and arrived in Egypt as a Sergeant in July 1942, taking part in the battles of Alam Halfa and El Alamein.
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Returning to England in 1943, he was posted to another battery, 234 Battery (H Troop) which was re-equipping with American M10 Tank Destroyers.
In May 1944, he travelled south to Winchester.
He recalled: “We were kept on a lock-down until we were taken to a landing craft in Southampton. We left on the Saturday evening, got aboard the Sunday morning and sailed to the Isle of Wight where we anchored and waited for the signal.
“We knew it wasn’t a practice run. We’d been given service issue French money and my troop commander had show us photographs of the beach we’d land on in France.
“We started off on Monday evening, sailing through the night and as it got light we we found ourselves not far from Gold Beach.
“I’d seen it all before, but for people seeing it for the first time it was frightening - out of the five in our tank, four had been in similar situations and one of us was green.
“We hit the beach at 7.25am - there was a big bang and we found ourselves going back out to sea with a damaged landing ramp and a flooded engine room.
“When we were stuck I was using a boat hook to pull people out of the water who were injured. Some of them were in a terrible state - those images stay with you.”
Having landed on the beach and narrowly avoided being hit by a shell, Mr Howell’s unit began to move inland. On the way, they stopped to speak to two women at the gate to their garden.
“After a couple of minutes one of the ladies told us there was a German soldier in the large shed in the garden and would it be safe for him to come out now,” he said.
“I assured her he would not be harmed, and to tell him to come out. He came with arms raised, and on our side of the gate I motioned him to lower his arms.
“As soldiers go, he was an old man, and he had tears in his eyes as he tried to interest me in family photos he took from his pocket.
“There was a narrow road leading in the direction of the sea, and I pointed down the road for him to go. After a quick farewell to the ladies he went, with a look of disbelief, that so soon after becoming a prisoner, he was set on his way alone.
“Soon after there was a crash as someone took the top off the church, which tumbled down onto the road somewhere about where the German would have been. I’ve often wondered if he made it to the beach.”
Mr Howell’s unit then took part in the Normandy Campaign and supported the infantry of the 15th Scottish Division during Operation Epsom where he lost a close friend, Ron Barlow and narrowly avoided death himself via friendly fire.
He buried his friend in a slip trench, marking it with a wooden cross.
Mr Howell remembered the physical and mental toll of war: he saw female collaborators having their heads shaved, met Belgian schoolboys who had seen American prisoners-of-war being executed by Germans and saw inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after it was liberated.
He spoke with great affection about the animals he encountered during his service, about the wounded dog he helped euthanise and his upset at the killing of a kestrel that had nested on top of his battalion’s headquarters.
While he said the war had left him with many scars, most psychological from having witnessed such terrible warfare, the conflict did gift Mr Howell the love of his life: it was in the Netherlands that he met Gerda, the woman who became his wife on December 20 1945.
The couple, who were devoted to each other had a daughter, Nevina (a combination of Neville and Geradina’s first names) and a son, John, four grandchildren – Stacy, Shain, Donna and Neil – and four great-grandchildren, Adell, Keira, Zak and Tia.
Mr Howell went on to work at the Bird’s Eye factory in Great Yarmouth before enjoying a long retirement with his beloved wife.
Nevina said: “I admired my Dad immensely for what he did in the war and for the person he was. He was a kind and loving man with high principles and he would always speak up if he thought someone was being treated unfairly.
“He had a hard childhood and a tough upbringing, but when it came to how he felt about children, he would always say that they were the best people in the world.
“He was gentle and loved nature. When I was growing up he was always rescuing wild animals and helping them recover and he always said that animals had been here before we were and that we should respect them.
“Right up to a few weeks before he died, he was still walking across the road to the seafront to feed the birds. He is irreplaceable and I will miss him forever.”
Mr Howell was an active member of the Norfolk and District Branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association and the Royal Anglian Regiment Association until relatively recently.
He had made the pilgrimage back to Normandy on several occasions and always took time to speak to anyone who came to shake his hand was a much-loved member of the Gorleston community – his beloved Gerda passed away in 2013.
In 2017, Mr Howell was awarded with France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur medal for his bravery in Normandy.
Neville Howell passed away in his sleep on May 4, just four days before the country celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the efforts of quiet heroes just like him.
Mourning the loss of a true gentleman
Photographer Denise Bradley and I have returned with Norfolk and Suffolk’s Normandy veterans for the anniversary of D-Day for the past six years and were due to travel to France this year for the 76th before Covid-19.
Neville was a much-loved part of many of these trips and Denise and I were hugely fond of him: he was always the last man standing after a night of drinking, always ready with a story or a song.
I remember in particular Neville telling me the story of how he had to return to bury his best friend Ron Barlow, even though he got in trouble for it with his superiors, because he couldn’t bear to leave him by the roadside. There were tears in his eyes.
I remember how touched he was when French schoolchildren came to give their thanks to him for what he did all those summers ago and how he would always insist on the coach stopping so he could lay his cross on his friend’s Portland stone grave.
I remember the way he talked about his beloved wife Gerda, who passed away in 2013, and thinking how enviable the great love they had shared was.
I remember being sad as we laid a wreath for a veteran who had passed away several months before a Normandy trip and him telling me that at least the death of old men was the natural order, a sharp contrast to the slaughter of young men on blood-soaked beaches.
Neville was a good man, a true gentleman and he made our trips to Normandy even more special. We will never forget him. Stand easy, Sergeant Howell.