My grandfather was there on D-Day. As I understand it he was one of the Royal Engineers, who went in on D-Day -1 to clear mines from the beaches. He once told me that only two of his group came off the beach alive. He didn’t like to talk about it – in fact I don’t think he ever really told my mum anything – but once or twice he told me a few things, particularly after I went on a school trip to Normandy in the Sixth Form and visited Arromanches.
He’d spent much of his war working on the railways and in the run up to D-Day he had been helping build the floating docks for the Mulberry Harbour. After D-Day he continued on the advance through France and into Germany, ending up in Hamburg working on boats in the port. I don’t know what went on the way to Hamburg or when he was there, but he talked about that even less than D-Day (and he didn’t talk about that much). I know that he and his friend gathered tins of cigarettes from the water as they landed in France and dried them out – he saved some to smoke as a treat for his 21st birthday in November 1944 and I saw some pictures of the Officers Mess at Hamburg, but that’s about it.
He was never properly demobilised – he was released from his unit to go and become the foreman at the factory he’d worked at before the war – and he still had his log book – the last entry before he was sent back was that he was due to be sent to the Far East. Thank god his factory needed him. His cousin Eustace – who worked in a gentleman’s outfitters in town – was sent to the Far East and died as a POW working on the railroads. I think the only time I ever saw my Grandpa cry was when I found the information on the Commonwealth War Graves website that Eustace was remembered on a memorial for soldiers with no known grave.
I can’t imagine my Grandpa killing anyone. But logic dictates that he probably did at some point on the beaches, or on the way through France. He certainly had nightmares about what had happened – but I only know that because my grandma told me. But he carried on with his life, never complaining, and only applied for his medals in the 1980s right before the deadline for getting them – and only then because my Grandma told him to do it.
I remember watching the 60th anniversary commemorations – and talk that they could be the last time the veterans were there to mark it. I’m glad we have another opportunity to remember what those young men did on the beaches of Normandy all those years ago – and for children now to see the veterans and hear their stories from their own mouths. When I was at primary school in the late 1980s, most of us had grandparents who had served in the war – now it’s the ones lucky enough to have great-grandparents who have that first-hand link.
When I was little I had a great-uncle (well we called him uncle, but he was the husband of one of my grandma’s cousins) who was a First World War veteran – Uncle Richard had a limp and was really quite deaf from all the shelling and almost even more fascinatingly to me (as I was obsessed with Queen Victoria at the time) had been born in the 1890s. The earliest Remembrance Day parades that I can remember – 70 plus after the Armistice – had quite a number of World War One veterans marching past the Cenotaph. Now, they are all gone – the Great War is out of living memory, and in 20 years time, World War Two will be too.
My Grandpa would have been 91 this year, but he died four years ago in July. I still can’t really talk about him without crying – in fact just writing this I’m getting teary-eyed. His life was about so much more than the war – he spent more than 40 years as chief engineer at two of Northampton’s shoe factories, he was a lecturer at the local college, he married and had his family after the war. I lived next door to him from the age of 3 and considered it a bad day if I hadn’t seen him at least once. When I was little understand why he didn’t go to Remembrance Day Parades, or wear his medals like the people on the TV did, but now I understand – he didn’t want to let a terrifying, horrible and scary part of his life define the whole of the rest of it.
But it is important to remember what those young men and women did for our freedom – and to honour them while they live, record their stories and we make sure that the children of today hear as much as they can about what happened, from the people who lived through it, to make sure that it doesn’t turn into just another chapter of the history books.