The iconic image of the foot soldiers wading ashore on the battle-scarred beaches of Normandy is woven into the fabric of Britain.
But not all the heroes of Normandy took part on D-Day,June 6, 1944, the first day of the initial invasions.
Many thousands came later, in the days after the first landings, to reinforce the troops, bolster the front lines, build bridges and set up airfields – and full membership of the Normandy Veterans’ Association was open to any who served during the invasion of Normandy, from June 5 to August 20.
The Star’s Deputy News Editor Sarah Crabtree – an honorary member of the NVA’s Sheffield branch after a decade of friendship with the group – is in France with two veterans, on a pilgrimage to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day this Friday.
Gordon Drabble, now 89, was a lance corporal with the South Staffordshire Regiment when he arrived at Gold beach in a later wave of infantry about 10 days after D-Day.
The retired Cadbury’s rep lives in Lodge Moor – and is making this week’s return trip to Normandy with wife Vi and the eldest of their 13 grandchildren, Sarah Edmonds, 37.
Tomorrow, in a special ceremony in Caen, Gordon is to be one of 22 veterans presented with the Legion d’Honneur – the highest decoration in France – for his work with the Normandy Veterans’ Association. He is president, welfare officer, secretary, social secretary and events secretary of the Sheffield branch.
“I have been back to Normandy several times since 1944. Going back again this year in an act of remembrance. It’s not a holiday.
“Nowadays the trees are beautiful and green. Then they were shattered, the bloated bodies of cattle in every field. When their corpses were hit by shellfire the stench was unbelievable.
“I was in Normandy nearly eight weeks, and you don’t forget some things. We had three sergeants in our platoon killed in Bordel Wood near Caen, one at the side of me by machine gun fire. He is in a cemetery in Fontenay.
“We were a follow-up unit, I suppose since most of us hadn’t been in action before and didn’t have much battle experience. We were assigned to the Wolverhampton Territorial Unit, experienced men who had been in Dunkirk, picked because we were rookies. But they were good to us.
“Until then we had been stationed in Kent as decoys, with dummy tanks and dummy guns, trying to fool the Germans into thinking any landings would be in Calais. We would get into barges, go out to sea a bit, and come back. It was a ruse to confuse them, which it did. Even after the first landings on June 6 the Germans thought D-Day was a diversionary tactic.
“Before we set off for Normandy we hadn’t received much news about the operation. All we knew was there had been a successful landing and several successful advances.
“We were held up by rough seas, and when we landed at Gold beach it had already been taken, so we weren’t under attack like the first wave of infantry. Bayeux had also been taken, so we moved up to Caen ready for attack there. On July 5 a massive bombardment was launched on Caen. There was bombing from the air and heavy shelling from the sea. The next day we moved into the ruins of the city.
“On August 12 I took part in the first day of the Battle of Falaise Gap – the beginning of the end of the Normandy campaign. We were in a dense wood at the top of a hill when heavy shelling started and were overrun. I got a flesh wound in the arm and was helping other injured men to a first aid station when we were shelled again, and I suffered another wound in the shoulder.
“I got to a hospital in Bayeux and could hardly move my arm. I was put on a ship for Portsmouth, but it was torpedoed mid-Channel. I was in a cabin at the top when I was thrown from my bunk. I crawled out on deck and was eventually put on a destroyer which got me home.
“I feel very lucky to have lived to be 89, lucky to have survived the war particularly in the infantry, and to be able to go back again for the 70th anniversary.
“But I don’t like the word heroes. I don’t think it’s apt. Everybody was in it together, you just got on with it. There were times when you were scared but you just kept going.
“You didn’t want to let anybody else down.”
‘WE HAD TO STOP THAT MAN’ – PATRICK STRAFFORD’S STORY
Widowed great-grandfather Patrick Strafford, aged 88, from Firth Park, was 18 when he landed on Gold beach eight days after D-Day, D+8.
He had volunteered for the KOYLIs – the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – under age at 17, by pretending to be 11 months older.
A month after his arrival in France he was so badly wounded that he lost a finger.
“I’ve no regrets about the war. We had to stop that man. His approach to life and the things he wanted to impose on other people were evil. I am proud to have been part of the force that liberated Europe.
“I tried to sign up twice but was sent away because I was too young. But there was an age group registering older than me, and I went in with them and brought my birthday forward 11 months. Evidently they didn’t want proof.
“I was so keen to sign up because of the Blitz Sheffield in – my 15th birthday was spent in the Bachelors pea factory, bombed out of our home.
“We landed at Arromanches and the sight was staggering. The beach was pretty much established but there were still beach obstacles every few yards, most with mines designed to blow the bottoms out of our landing crafts.
“It affected me seeing so many lads killed, even the Germans, of a similar age.
“On July 16, 1944, after weeks of fighting, I took part in an attack on the enemy stronghold of Barbée Farm in Normandy. The shells were falling like rain. I could feel the bullets buzzing very close. The next thing was the shock of being hit. I saw the shattered bones of my left hand with my index finger just hanging on. I had to be operated on, and my finger removed.
“After the war I had quite a bother putting the age thing straight. I went into an office on West Street trying to tell this woman my real age so I could draw whatever money there was to draw.”