Sheffield soldier 'mown down' in first wave of D-Day attacks lived with shrapnel in head for rest of his days
Joe Roberts was one of the first men to land on the Normandy coast on D-Day 75 years ago.
The 27-year-old, from Woodseats, didn’t even make it out of the water before he was shot in the arm, as a barrage of bullets turned the water around him red with blood.
Having powered on and made it ashore, he was knocked unconscious when a tank exploded behind him and shards of metal were sent flying into his back, neck and head.
Such were the horrors he experienced that day, Joe could rarely bring himself to talk about it and was too traumatised to ever return to the scene.
He survived and made it home to raise a family with his wife Kathleen, before dying aged 91 in 2008, though she says he was never the same after what he endured that morning.
Medics managed to save his tattered right arm, after he begged them not to amputate. But they were never able to remove a piece of metal embedded close to his brain, and the shrapnel lodged in his back would also trouble him for the rest of his life.
While the physical wounds eventually healed, Kathleen told how he never fully recovered from the mental scars inflicted that day.
“They just mowed them down. They shot him in the arm while he was in the water and when he made it onto the beach a tank blew up behind him and he thought at first his head had been blown off,” said Kathleen, aged 97, who is one of the Women of Steel who kept the factories running while the men were at war.
“It knocked him out and he lay unconscious on the beach from the blast, which covered him with shrapnel, which stayed with him forever.
”The shrapnel was always rising to the surface throughout the rest of his life and when you ran a hand across his back you could feel it beneath his skin.
“He had to stay on the beach until they took him back that evening, and he saw things which nobody should ever have to see. It must have been horrendous.
“Joe was never the same after he returned. It preyed on his mind until his dying day.
“He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all his life and I used to dread Remembrance Sunday and occasions like that because he would get so upset.
“He landed on Gold Beach, near the village of Ver-sur-Mer, and he could never go back. You could have offered him a million pounds and he would have refused because he said what happened was too horrible.
“He didn’t talk much to me about D-Day because he found it so hard. He told my dad more than he told me, and I remember my dad saying to me once ‘don’t ever question Joe because that lad’s been to hell and back’.”
Joe had been a manager at a cutlery works in Sheffield city centre before he was called up at Christmas in 1939 and joined the Fifth Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment.
He served as a sergeant in the deserts of North Africa, where he spent nearly four years and fought in numerous battles including the notorious clashes at El Alamein in Egypt.
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Kathleen, with whom Joe tied the knot while on leave in 1941, twice received telegrams informing her he had been wounded in action over there.
It would be 10 days after D-Day, having been praying desperately for him since news of the invasion broke that morning, before she received a third telegram telling her he had again been wounded.
“As soon as I heard the troops had landed in France I went straight to Attercliffe Church, which was operating out of the scout hut because the big church had been bombed,” she said.
“I got there just after 5am and there were quite a few there before me. I was in there for quite a while and the vicar was really lovely.
“When I went to work I couldn’t settle because I was thinking about what was happening over there. The others were telling me to concentrate and asking ‘are you trying to kill us all?’.
“It was 10 days before I found out what had happened to Joe, when my dad came to work with a telegram from the War Office saying he had been wounded and was in transit.”
Joe was initially taken to a hospital in Epsom Downs, in the south of England, from where a sister wrote to tell her he had been the first wounded soldier to arrive and was so badly traumatised she couldn’t see him ‘being rid of this for many years’.
He was soon transferred to the Royal Hospital in Sheffield via a train delivering casualties to their homes across the country, which Kathleen said had to be escorted by fighter jets to ward off Nazi air attacks.
“As soon as I found out he was there, I headed over and I was astonished when the ward door opened and there were so many young men swaddled from head to toe in bandages. There were some terrible cases – mostly airmen who’d been badly burned,” she said.
“I was wondering how I was ever going to find Joe, when I heard someone shouting ‘I’m not going back. I’ll do away with myself before I go back’ and I thought I know that voice.
“I went over but the sister had got there before me and was giving him an injection to send him to sleep and telling him ‘you’re never going back Joe, so stop worrying’. It was so distressing seeing him like that.
“He was convinced they were going to patch him up and send him back. This was a seasoned soldier who’d spent four years fighting in the desert and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was so traumatised.”
Joe, who had two daughters with Kathleen, was in and out of hospital for about a year before he was able to return to work.
Although Joe is now gone, Kathleen, who has three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, still finds war commemorations incredibly hard because of how D-Day affected him.
While he was alive, she explained, he found it hard to cope with the painful memories Remembrance Sunday dredged up.
“Joe would cry when it was covered on TV or the radio, and I’d go over and give him a hug,” she said.
“I used to say ‘I’ll turn the TV off’ but he said ‘no, I must watch it’ because he was thinking of his mates who weren’t here any longer.
“Despite everything he went through, he always said he was one of the lucky ones because he’d made it back.
“I still find it hard watching the commemorations now, but my daughters and I are so proud of Joe for what he did that day.
“I was watching this morning but I had to stop because I was going for an eye test and didn’t want to turn up with my eyes covered in tears.”