D-Day 80: The battle of Normandy in the words of Sheffield's D-Day heroes

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This is the story of D-Day, told by the brave Sheffield men who were there

They were Sheffield’s last D-Day heroes.

Sadly, the brave band of last known survivors who took part in the operation to land in Normandy and start the liberation of France from Nazi tyranny have all passed away. None are here to remember to anniversary

But their words and memories of how they took part in Operation Overlord, now 80 years ago, remain in their interviews with The Star over the years.

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Here we look back at their accounts, and remember their bravery.

Bert Holmshaw, of Jordanthorpe

Picture shows Bert Holmshaw during his time in the armyPicture shows Bert Holmshaw during his time in the army
Picture shows Bert Holmshaw during his time in the army | Submitted

Bert Holmshaw, from Jordanthorpe, was just 19 when his landing vessel moored at Sword Beach barely two hours into D-Day.

But, just as the lads were about to disembark, the craft was attacked by Nazi fighter bombers with machine guns and bombs.

He remembered D-Day as ‘a bloody nightmare’ and returned to Normandy many times to pay tribute to the friends he lost.

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“My memory of D-Day is of the shells raining down, the sand erupting all around, and burning tanks and bodies everywhere,” he told The Star for the 70th anniversary in 2014.

“We saw bodies bobbing in the sea, washed up on the shore, and the beach littered with broken down trucks.”

Bert served in the 3rd British Infantry Division and his Landing Ship Tank had been scheduled to arrive for the assault on Sword Beach at H+2 Hours – 9.25am.

“But due to bad weather we were laid off on the Isle of Wight longer than expected,” Bert remembered.

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“I spent the time being seasick, playing cards, and rechecking my engine’s waterproofing, because I was the driver-mechanic of a truck carrying tools and spares for Howitzer guns.

“The ship beached in Normandy at about 9.45am and we immediately dropped the ramp and started to unload the lower deck cargo of tanks and armoured vehicles.

“I was waiting to be lowered into the lower deck when we were attacked by two fighter bombers. One bomb exploded under the bow end of the ship. I dived under my truck for cover, completely forgetting about the trailer-load of ammunition.”

Bert, who years later was awarded France’s highest order of merit the Legion of Honour, eventually made it off the LST and across the hell of the beach, but always remembered one comrade in particular who was not so lucky.

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D-Day veteran Bert HolmshawD-Day veteran Bert Holmshaw
D-Day veteran Bert Holmshaw

“All through the night we were continuously bombed and Jock Bell, our electrician, who survived the attack on the ship and the beach landing, was killed,” he said.

Inland the next day, Bert and his fellow soldiers helped to liberate the village of Périers-sur-le-Dan – but it was here Bert lost another good friend.

“We were stationed just outside Périers when my friend Jack Bushem was injured in a shelling attack,” Bert recalled. “He was sent back to England for surgery but died on the operating table. Periers was the last place I saw him, so whenever I returned to Normandy I would stop and think about him there.”

Bert was born in Hillsborough in 1924. He married wife Betty in 1949, had two daughters Christine and Janet, and the family lived in Base Green, Hackenthorpe and Jordanthorpe.

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After the war he was employed as a mechanic and later worked for the Ministry of Transport, as a Senior Vehicle Examiner. His role led to a move away from Sheffield and work in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Stourport, before he returned to Birley Spa Lane.

He and Betty eventually retired to Mansfield but Bert always kept up his affiliation with the Sheffield branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association.

Bert died peacefully at the age of 96 in 2021.

Gordon Drabble, of Lodge Moor

Gordon Drabble as a young man during WWIIGordon Drabble as a young man during WWII
Gordon Drabble as a young man during WWII

Gordon Drabble was a teenage infantryman when he landed on Gold Beach in Normandy three or four days after D-Day in June 1944.

Two months in he was wounded by shellfire during the Battle of Falaise Gap, and was even torpedoed on the ship sailing him home.

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“You don’t forget some things – the horror of it,” he told The Star in 2009 for the 65th anniversary of D-Day. “You remember the bad times, too well sometimes.”

Gordon was brought up on Stothard Road in Crookes and worked initially for a cooperage before becoming a civil defence messenger boy at the start of WWII. He volunteered as an 18-year-old in 1942 and was called up in 1943 before being posted to Dover.

“Before D-Day we were stationed in Kent as decoys, with dummy tanks and dummy guns,” he remembered. “We were causing a diversion to make the Germans think we would be going over to Calais. We would get in barges, go out to sea a bit, and come back. It was all a ruse to confuse them, which it did. Even after the first landings on June 6 the Germans still thought D-Day was a diversionary tactic and failed to move their armour.”

Gordon, who by 1944 was a 19-year-old lance corporal with the South Staffordshire Regiment, was in a follow-up unit of soldiers who landed on Gold Beach on D+3 or 4.

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“By then the beach had already been taken so we weren’t under attack the way the first wave of infantry had been. Bayeux had also been taken, so we moved up to Caen ready for attack. Even so we had casualties in those early stages, killed by shellfire. At one place I had one of our sergeants killed at the side of me by machine gun fire. He is buried in a cemetery in Fontenay.

Normandy D-Day veteran Gordon Drabble from Sheffield.Normandy D-Day veteran Gordon Drabble from Sheffield.
Normandy D-Day veteran Gordon Drabble from Sheffield.

“I was wounded in the August. I got a flesh wound in the arm, and was helping two other injured men to a first aid post in an old German bunker when the Germans started shelling again. The top of the bunker was hit and I was injured again in the shoulder into my chest.

“I got to a hospital in Bayeux but could hardly move my arm at all by the time I got to the beach again. And I was on the ship sailing for Portsmouth when it was torpedoed – I was in a cabin at the top and I was thrown from my bunk. I crawled out on deck and was eventually evacuated onto a destroyer which got me home.”

Gordon was demobbed in 1947 after postings around the Middle East, and later enjoyed a long career in sales with Cadbury.

He later went into schools to tell of his experiences.

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“I feel very lucky to have survived the war,” said Gordon in 2009, “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 down.” Gordon died in 2022, aged 97

Jack Quinn, of City Road

Jack Quinn pictured as a Royal Marine in WW2.Jack Quinn pictured as a Royal Marine in WW2.
Jack Quinn pictured as a Royal Marine in WW2.

Jack Quinn was awarded the Croix de Guerre - the top French bravery medal - for the incredible courage he displayed in saving seven sailors on a stricken boat during the D-Day invasion.

Jack, who was the last surviving member of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association, was born and bred in Sheffield, where he lived for most of his life on City Road before moving a few years ago to Mablethorpe, in Lincolnshire, with his wife Shirley.

He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for a courageous rescue mission during the D-Day landings, has sadly died aged 99. He was described as a 'magnificent' man.

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One of the first to arrive at Normandy beaches Jack was among the first troops to reach the French coast on D-Day, actually arriving on Gold Beach at five minutes before midnight on June 5, 1944, when he was aged just 19.

He was a coxswain who worked with frogmen during the early hours to clear German mines and make the famous Allied invasion possible.

As the action unfolded, against orders he bravely went to the aid of French troops on a damaged craft which was drifting towards mines.

No sooner had he got the seven sailors on board, Jack recalled, than their boat 'went up in the air'.

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It was a remarkable act of courage for which he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.

But he modestly said he 'just did my job', adding: "A lot of other men did valiant things, but nobody saw them doing it."

Later on D-Day, Jack was ordered to take his craft urgently to Arromanches to rescue two Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents who were being pursued by the Germans.

He got them on board under fire as the enemy approached, saving their lives, before taking them to a hospital ship.

Jack Quinn, who was the last surviving member of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans AssociationJack Quinn, who was the last surviving member of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association
Jack Quinn, who was the last surviving member of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association | National World

'It was terrible.... They were dropping like flies'

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Jack, who was also involved in the liberation of Guernsey, recalled crouching in the grass on D-Day as the Germans realised the invasion was underway and began firing.

"We watched the first infantrymen as they landed on the beach," he said.

"It was terrible. They were running, getting shot at, treading on mines, going up in the air. They were dropping like flies. It was chaotic. Those lads on the beaches had it very rough."

Jack added that he was 'really scared' but 'you just got on with it'. When he first came home, he said, he was afflicted by terrible nightmares from which he often woke up screaming.

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The former Royal Marines corporal went on to become a lorry driver, working for the state-owned British Road Services.

Jack had six children, including his two stepchildren.

He would return every year to Ranville War Cemetery to lay a cross at the grave of his friend Cyril, who had been in the same boat when he was shot dead during the war.

Jack died in January this year, aged 99.

Cyril Elliott, of Crookes

Cyril Elliott, pictured when he was 23 years old. Cyril Elliott, pictured when he was 23 years old.
Cyril Elliott, pictured when he was 23 years old.

Cyril Elliott, who served in the Royal Army Service Corps and was once attached to the Guards Armoured Division, was nearly killed during the war when shrapnel from an exploding German shell near his lorry killed both the men on his left and right. But he survived the war and spent most of his working years as a postman before retiring.

Born on May 31, 1920, Cyril was one of six brothers living on Longfield Road, Crookes. He was called up in 1942, at the age of 22.

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On the completion of his training, he chose to be a driver and joined The Royal Army Service Corps. Surprisingly he was posted back to Endcliffe Hall in Sheffield to learn how to drive. After passing his test, he was attached to a company in Bradford to learn about emergency bridge building, where Cyril met his wife Lilian.

After completing his training he was sent to Westgate-on-Sea and from there he went on to Tilbury Docks and was loaded onto an American Liberty ship for his onward journey to take part in the Normandy Landings.

“My first night on board I was put on watch, looking out for mines or any other dangers,” said Cyril. “I was frightened to death."

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Cyril remembered Dakotas and Halifax bombers flying above, towing large gliders carrying airborne troops as they crossed the channel. But he and his colleagues had to wait off the coast while the Navy bombarded the German battlements.

“When it was time to land on the Normandy shores the landing craft couldn’t get close enough to land safely.

“All the vital vehicle parts on vehicles were waterproofed to protect them from sea water.

“As they weren't quite close enough they had to plough through the sea the last few metres to get on shore.

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“The man in charge shouted, ‘Keep your foot on the accelerator pedal, I can’t get closer to the beach’.”

Cyril Elliott, pictured. Picture: Marie CaleyCyril Elliott, pictured. Picture: Marie Caley
Cyril Elliott, pictured. Picture: Marie Caley

When they got on to land all the protective equipment had to be removed as it would overheat the engines. Eventually they started to advance into France.

“There were lots of soldiers lying dead on the beach,” said Cyril.

His job once on land was to transport pontoon bridges, used to replace bridges damaged or destroyed by the German forces in retreat. This brought Cyril close to the fighting and he had several lucky escapes.

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After the war he went back to his old job at Cooper and Turner for a while, before becoming a postman – a job he did for 31 years until his retirement.

Cyril was awarded The Legion D’honneur in 2016 – France’s highest military award recognising the veterans for their efforts on D-Day – from the French ambassador.

He died in October 2023, aged 103.

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