70 years on for real life ‘Private Ryans’

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At 7.25am - ‘H-Hour’ - on June 6, 1944, the world witnessed one of the largest ever seaborne invasions and the culmination of years of secret planning.

On D-Day 135,000 Allied troops landed along the beaches of Normandy. More than 2,500 were killed and 8,000 wounded in that one day alone.

The men who took part then were strapping young lads in the prime of their late teens and early 20s.

The ones who survive today are frail old men in their 80s and 90s - and this year will mark what will no doubt be the last significant anniversary of their achievements.

It is also likely the last time most of them will make the journey back to France - and all week The Star’s Deputy News Editor Sarah Crabtree has been there with them, recording their stories and witnessing their return.

Today, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day itself, Sarah spoke to four of the Sheffield infantrymen - the real life ‘Private Ryans’ of the harrowing Hollywood film - who landed in those first hours of the invasion, struggling ashore in a hail of gunfire, seeing friends cut down at their side.

CHARLES TAYLOR’S STORY

D Day veteran Charles Taylor (88) from Woodhouse

D Day veteran Charles Taylor (88) from Woodhouse

Charles Taylor, now 88, from Woodhouse, was 18 when he landed on Gold beach one hour into D-Day in a second wave of infantry with the Green Howards. He saw comrades machine-gunned down at his side, and was later wounded himself, in his right arm, by shellfire in August 1944.

Five years ago Charles, who worked as a tailor and then a wages clerk on Civvy Street, returned to Normandy for the first time since the war, to the seaside village of Ver-sur-mer which he had helped to liberate. He was presented by the villagers with a commemorative medallion depicting his company sergeant major Stanley Hollis, the only man awarded the Victoria Cross on D-Day.

“I don’t often let those memories of D-Day back into my mind.

“Most of the time I try not to think about it.

D Day soldier Charlie Hill from Gleadless

D Day soldier Charlie Hill from Gleadless

“All the places we’ve visited this week have horrible memories for me. A lot of things happened I don’t want to recall. You could be talking to someone one day, and the next day you were digging their grave.

“I thank the Lord I’m still alive. I don’t know if there’s any luck about it. I am alive while so many are in those cemeteries. How do you explain why? There is no reason.

“I was a signaller with the 7th Battalion Green Howards. I was boarding the ship and halfway up the gangway a fella asked me my name and if I could operate a radio. I said yes and he took my gun off me and gave me a radio.

“I remember one day - the day before my 19th birthday, so it was June 19, 1944 - we were heading somewhere inland. It started to rain, and three of us sheltered under a tree. We couldn’t get where we’d been going because the rain was that heavy, and someone said ‘We’d better stop here’. We all drank brandy and waited.

“Standing under that tree, the rain pouring down, drinking our brandy - it’s one of the things I remember the most.”

CHARLIE HILL’S STORY

Charlie Hill was a 19-year-old private with the Green Howards when he landed on Gold beach at 7.25am on June 6, 1944. Now 89 and a great-grandfather-of-two, the retired parks groundsman lives in Gleadless with his German wife Betty, 93. This year’s pilgrimage will be his eighth return to Normandy for D-Day commemorations.

“Going back to Normandy always brings back memories. You think about the ones who were killed, and the ones who’ve passed away since. I feel very lucky to be able to go back for the 70th anniversary this year. Lots who’d have wanted to have passed away.

“I was 19 that day, just a lad, and setting sail for France I thought I was playing cowboys and Indians. I soon grew up. The next 24 hours turned you from being a boy to a man.

“Because I was young I got through it. It was the older chaps who broke down - men in their mid-20s with wives at home. They were the ones whose nerves went.

“But we were infantrymen, at the front. We had to keep moving forward, no going back.

“Morale was good as we set sail from Southampton. We were singing songs and were given a photo of what the beach would look like. We were told the RAF would be dropping 200 tonnes of bombs on a lighthouse to the left of our beach - but when we arrived it was still standing.

“Our Landing Craft Assault boats were lowered from the ship seven miles from the beaches, and as our LCAs got close to shore we had to jump off, each man carrying something. I had to carry three-foot mortar shells. The sea was choppy, and the first chap out of our craft drowned. He was a sergeant named Hill like me.

“It was chaotic on the beach. We’d been told to follow this particular path - but in the mayhem nobody followed any path. Everyone just wanted to get off there as fast as they could. And somehow I got off the beach all right.

“The next day, June 7, we were bombed by three American Typhoons – what they call ‘friendly fire’ now. We lost all our medical staff, all of them, killed.”

DOUG PARKER’S STORY

Doug Parker was 21 when he joined the first wave of foot soldiers for the Normandy landings.

Doug landed on Sword beach with the East Yorks Regiment at ‘H-Hour’ - 7.25am - the first moments of D-Day, and fought until the end of WWII finishing up in Palestine.

Now 91, he lives in Owlthorpe, Sheffield, and has five grandchildren. His son John, a vicar, is accompanying him to Normandy for the 70th anniversary - his 12th return trip since the war.

“I don’t recognise myself as a war hero. What about all those who got killed? They are the true heroes. I was just a lucky man.

“The most terrible thing about D-Day for me was losing my platoon sergeant before we even arrived at the beach.

“His name was Eric Ibbotson and he was brilliant, like a father to me. He was 31 and had fought at Dunkirk. He wasn’t one of those bullying sergeants - he did his job but had a joke with you too. He used to say, ‘You’ll not have those good looks when you come back, Doug!’.

“But on the ship over to France, before we’d even got into our landing craft, he went to see a friend on the same vessel.

“The sea was very rough and the ship rolled, and someone’s loaded Sten gun fell from a table and went off. A bullet ricocheted around the steel bulkhead and went right through the main artery in Eric’s thigh. He was dead even before we’d arrived, just because of a pointless accident.

“As we neared France we transferred into a flat-bottom Landing Craft Assault boat with a ramp that dropped down into the sea.

“When we got near the shore and the ramp dropped, we all ran out and went dashing up the beach.

“We’d spent 18 months training for D-Day, in Scotland in Dumfries and Nairn, but the struggle across the beach, the noise and the casualties, were indescribable.

“They were expecting heavy casualties - 70 per cent was the estimate - so our only objective was to pave a way for the next troops landing. It had to be successful, irrespective of casualties. It was as simple as that.

“As we ran up the beach we were met with heavy machine gun fire. We suffered so many casualties there and then.

“I saw machine gun bullets spraying into the sand a few yards in front of me. I threw myself down and they were getting closer all the time, but I never felt afraid, I don’t know why. Suddenly they stopped. I just got up again and dashed on up the beach.

“As I went I found a wounded comrade, Corporal Wilkinson, who said, ‘Help me, Doug’. He was in a bad way. I dragged him up the beach and laid to attend to him. I shouted to the stretcher-bearers, ‘Look after Wilkie’ but he died. He is buried in Hermanville Cemetery with all the other East Yorks comrades I landed with who were killed in the landing. We had 211 killed or wounded just that day.

“We fought our way off the beach, moving forwards until late at night. It was the longest day of my life.

“I suffered post-traumatic stress for a long time after - not that that’s what it was called then. Once I went to see a doctor but he told me: ‘Don’t come here wasting my time again’.”

My main memory is shells raining down, the sand erupting all around... and bodies

Bert Holmshaw is travelling independently to Normandy, to show his daughter Christine the beaches where he fought. The 89-year-old former mechanic lived on Birley Spa Lane at Hackenthorpe before retiring to Mansfield with wife Betty. He arrived at Sword beach two hours into D-Day, but because of an air attack on his landing craft was unable to disembark until noon.

“The two most poignant places for me this week are Sword beach, and the village of Periers-sur-le-Dan. I landed on Sword, and that’s where the major international events are being held today. And we lost a lot of soldiers, in particular my friend Jack Bushem, at Periers.

“We were stationed just outside there when Jack was injured in a shelling attack. He was sent back to England for surgery but died on the operating table. Periers was the last place I saw him, so I shall stop and think about him there.

“Every year the mayor of the village invites us survivors, and the descendants of those we lost, to a remembrance event. So I’ve been back a lot, for the 50th, 55th, 60th and 65th anniversaries, and some in between.

“My main memory is shells raining down, the sand erupting all around, burning tanks and bodies everywhere. It was a bloody nightmare. We saw bodies bobbing in the sea, washed up on the shore, and the beach littered with burning trucks.

“I was serving with the 3rd British Infantry Division, the 7th field artillery unit. We’d been due to arrive at 9.25am - but due to bad weather we were laid off the Isle of Wight longer than expected.

“The ship arrived off Normandy about 9.45am. I was waiting to be lowered by lift on to the lower deck when we were attacked by two fighter bombers. The LST was put out of action and we couldn’t get off.

“In the end they backed up another LST and tied the two ships together. It was about noon by the time we finally made it.

“All through that night we were continuously bombed and Jock Bell, our electrician, was killed.

I was just one of the lucky ones.”