'After the war I didn’t want to go back to France' - Family and friends in tribute to Normandy campaign veteran
Blessed with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour, Gordon Drabble belies his advanced years, but – as with most people his age – is now beginning to slow down somewhat.
Born in Sheffield in 1924, the Normandy veteran turned 95 in October, with his former comrades throwing him a birthday bash at Farm Road Social Club last month.
The grandfather-of-four’s wartime tales read like a the story of an outlandish comic book, but were sadly all too common for the men who fought during WWII.
Badly injured by a bomb in Normandy before being attacked again in hospital just days later, Gordon was then transported out of France on a boat which was then itself torpedoed.
He was fortunately transferred to a destroyer before the hospital ship sank, and finally made it back to England, marrying his first wife, having two children and establishing a long-standing career in sales with Cadbury.
Gordon says he never had any urge to relive his wartime experiences until 1981, when the Sheffield branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association was founded.
“After the war I didn’t want to go back to France,” he says.
“I just wanted to get on with my life, my career and my family.”
Growing up in Crookes, Gordon spent his childhood summers on Bolehills park and in the Rivelin Valley before joining a cooperage – or wooden cask maker – when he left school.
He says he wanted to join the forces at the outbreak of war but was too young, volunteering instead as an 18-year-old in 1942 and being called up in January 1943.
After six weeks of basic training, he was sent to Dover where decoy military preparations were underway to lure the Germans away from the true invasion in Normandy.
Gordon was eventually deployed to northern France 10 days after D-Day, before being injured and beginning the long and dangerous journey back to England.
His war wasn’t over there, however, and he trained other infantrymen while back in the UK before being posted all over the Middle East until he was demobbed in 1947 at the age of 23.
The passage of time has sadly meant there are now only 11 Sheffield Normandy Veterans left, with Gordon and his 99-year-old former comrade Cyril Elliott two of the most active members.
They were both there for Armistice Day last Monday, but now share the burden of the solemn ceremony between them.
“I read the exhortation but he always lays the wreath because I can’t get down anymore,” he says.
“The last time I tried all my medals fell off!”
In fact, Gordon is now the only remaining founder member, with the man he set the branch up with almost 40 years ago Bert Cooper dying five years ago.
And sadly, as well as many of his former comrades, Gordon also lost his first wife to cancer almost 30 years ago.
But he found new love with current wife Violet in 1993, with the couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary last year.
“I never thought we would get to 25 years but we made it,” he said.
As well as the association party, Gordon has also been honoured with his own spot in an exhibition of photographs of Normandy Veterans.
After being shown to the public in a gallery in Oxford, the exhibition will transfer to the National Memorial Arboretum in Lichfield.