I HAD TO DRIVE MY LORRY THROUGH THE WATER TO REACH LAND - BILL HARTLEY’S STORY
Bill Hartley was 21 years old – or, according to the Army’s records, 22 – when he landed on Gold beach the day after D-Day, June 7, 1944, with the Mobile Light Anti-Aircraft regiment.
Brought up in Hillsborough, he had fibbed about his age to join the TA aged 16 in 1939.
Now 91 and a grandfather of three, the retired sales rep lives in Killamarsh, and is treasurer of the Sheffield branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association.
“I always wanted to be a soldier, so I joined the TA at 16 – though a letter ‘from my mum’ I’d written myself said I was 17.
“Before Normandy I’d served two-and-a-half years in the desert, with the Eighth Army at El Alamein in 1942 and into Tunis, before coming back to England in 1943 to be trained for D-Day. In a way I was battle-hardened – I’d seen a lot of action already. But it never crossed my mind to think I’d ‘done enough’. I always wanted to be a solider, that was it, kill or be killed.
“In Normandy I was a driver and radio operator responsible for telegrams and wirelesses.
“We were dropped hundreds of yards from the beach, way out in the sea, and I had to drive my lorry through the water to reach dry land. I was frightened to death.
“The worst part was worrying I was going to get stuck, or if the lorry would make it being so wet. We had been told to seal every part of our vehicles with gum, and luckily that meant I made it to land.
“Things had calmed down a lot on the beaches from the day before, but there were tanks flying around and hundreds of ships in the sea.
“The memory that sticks in my mind more than anything is that of the beachmaster – a 6ft 6ins hulk of a man directing the traffic with a megaphone.
“I was lucky – I went straight off the beach. I drove that fast and hard I didn’t look back.
“I’ve only been back to Normandy once since, for the 60th anniversary.
“Going back this week, seeing Gold beach and Caen, is moving – but really Egypt is the more emotional place for me. I had a friend killed there, Fred Hooper, aged 18, from Liverpool, and I’ve visited his grave.
“This will be my last time going back to France. I feel very lucky I am able to make it back at the age of 91.”
I FEEL PRIVILEGED I HAVE LIVED LONG ENOUGH TO SEE THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY - DOUG AUSTIN’S STORY
Doug Austin, now 90, was 20 when he landed on Gold beach on June 30, 24 days after D-Day, with the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. The retired Trusthouse Forte garages executive, who worked on the opening of Woodall Services in 1968, lives in Harthill.
“I was attached to the third tank battalion Scots Guards, part of the 6th guards tank brigade. When I was posted to Salisbury Plain for training the popular song at the time was Bing Crosby’s You Are My Sunshine.
“I’d been called up aged 19 – I got a year’s grace because my father had died and I was the eldest of the family.
“From Salisbury Plain I went to Thoresby Park, Bainbridge, and Cumbria. It became apparent when we moved down south again, to Ashford in Kent, that something serious was in the offing. But we carried on with on-the-job training, the maintenance of vehicles, map reading, camouflaging... We didn’t go down to our port of embarkation until the end of June.
“I heard about D-Day on the radio, same as anyone else. I was apprehensive about going there myself, actually hoping we would miss it.
“In the end we sailed from Portsmouth to Gold beach, and we landed when the tide was out. There were still some vehicles on the beach, and the Mulberry Harbour, but there wasn’t much time for looking around. We just got inland quickly.
“I spent my 21st birthday on July 23 in Normandy, and then the big event was the Battle of Falaise Gap in the August. After that we went on through Belgium and Holland.
“I finished up on VE Day, May 8, 1945, on the Baltic.
“After that I signed up for 22 years in the Army, although in the end I only did 18. I left in 1960 – I spent three years in Hong Kong and my last posting was Germany.
“I met my wife, Lieselotte, in Germany in 1949. We kept in touch through letters and got married in 1955 in Hong Kong. Sadly she died in 2006.
“I’ve been back to Normandy before, on the 50th, 60th and 65th anniversaries of D-Day.
“I feel privileged I have lived long enough to see the 70th anniversary too.”
I WAS SCARED, REALLY SCARED. YOU JUST GOT ON WITH IT - JACK QUINN’S STORY
“I actually arrived at Gold beach five minutes before midnight on June 5, at 11.55pm.
“The frogmen worked through the night preparing the mines, so when the first Allied boats came into view the following morning, they could blow the mines up. If we had done it too early the noise would have alerted the Jerries we were coming.
“When the Germans realised on the morning of D-Day, they were firing at everybody. We were on the beach, crouching in the grass, as we saw the boats arriving. We were glad they were coming – we’d been hoping it wouldn’t be another Dunkirk, that we’d get left there stranded.
“We could see boats for miles – little boats, big ships, the HMS Belfast firing shells over our heads.
“Then we watched the first infantrymen as they landed on the beaches. 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.
“I was scared, really scared. You just got on with it. But it did affect me afterwards – when I first came home I used to scream in the night and have nightmares.
“At about 10pm on the evening of D-Day, I saw a boat full of French sailors broken down in the sea, drifting towards the mines. If they had just touched a mine their whole boat would have gone up, killing them all.
“I took my boat and set off to rescue them, and no sooner had we got the seven sailors safely on board than their boat went up in the air.
“The French Embassy wrote to me in 1945 to award me the Croix de Guerre. A French lieutenant had seen the rescue, and the citation said I was ‘continually active under enemy fire’. The Jerries had been firing at us the whole time and we were being bombed and shelled, but I never really realised. I just went.
“I didn’t rescue those men for the valour – I just did my job. I couldn’t watch them drifting into mines.
“A lot of other men did valiant things, but nobody saw them do it.
“I’ve returned to Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day every year for the last decade. Each time I make sure to visit Ranville Cemetery, to place crosses on the graves of several lost comrades.
“Going back this week for the 70th anniversary is emotional. I always have a bit of a cry when I am there.
“But I am just glad I am fit enough to go back. So many haven’t made it this far.”