Memories never die for the dwindling army of defiant D-Day heroes; France recognises gallantry of Midlands soldiers who fought on Normandy beaches.
FRED Hill, one of the Midlands' dwindling band of D-Day veterans, sat upright, fixed me with eyes that still burn diamond bright, and insisted: "I am not a hero. I came back. The heroes didn't come back."
The public disagree with the Stourbridge 94-year-old's assessment of his part in the Normandy landings - the biggest amphibious military operation in history when it took place 75 years ago, in June 1944.
So do the French government. Last week, at the Royal British Legion popin centre in Birmingham's New Street they presented Fred and fellow Combined Ops veteran Percy Horton with the country's highest military and civilian honour for gallantry, the Legion d'honneur.
The medals were pinned to their chest by RBL county president Elaine Butcher. Looking on were 18 fellow D-Day survivors.
All were among the 300-strong "army" of old soldiers who boarded cruise ship Boudicca, chartered by the RBL, for D-Day 75 - a heart-rending return to the land and sand where their friends laid down their lives. Rifles and bayonets have been replaced by walking sticks but time has not erased the steely defiance in the warriors' weathered faces.
Some were left scarred and all are reluctant to discuss the horrors of June 6, 1944 - which befell allies and enemy alike.
Fred and 93-year-old Percy, a medical orderly, waded onto the shale of Juno Beach, a crimson-tinged killing field where 340 Allied soldiers - many of them Canadian, all of them young - lost their lives. A further 574 were wounded and 47 captured.
"The last person I treated was German," said Percy. "He was 16-years-old and had lost both legs. He died in my arms. I've tried my best to try to forget it."
That is one mental battle Percy, from Stoke, has failed to win.
"On one occasion, there were German tanks and our tanks and two children lying in the middle of the road," he said. "They had been run over by German tanks. I went over with our troops but they were dead.
"I've tried my best to forget that but when I see children going to school, that's when it hits me.
"Different people said, 'I'll kill every German there is', but when you see small children wandering about and women crawling out of the rubble, how could you kill them?" The Nazis attempted to kill Percy, who went on to become a packer in the pottery trade, but he dodged the bullets and shells. A bout of dysentery temporarily stalled the medic's march through occupied territory.
Nudging me, Percy pulled a dogeared photo from his jacket pocket. He scanned the image of a young soldier clutching the shattered remnants of a German shell. "That's me," he smiled. "They fired three buzz-bombs at us and a lump from one hit the roof. That's what I wrote on it."
The mishapen slug of shrapnel bore the defiant message "Missed Me!" A more recent treasured keepsake was handed to Percy by a six-year-old boy during this year's Normandy Festival at Bayeux - part of the Legion's pilgrimage. The handmade card says simply, "thank you".
The years have not blunted Percy's edge. He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Bayeux and quipped: "Your time is nearly finished."
"She said it was," he grinned, "so I said, 'Don't know what your plans are - but we could do with a new Prime Minister."
"War is no good for anyone," said Fred Hill, involved in communications among the teeming humanity on Juno Beach, "but there are times when it has to be done.
"There was no way out. Unless we went and did what we did, I wonder where we would be now. We got to the point where there was a hate relationship between us and the Germans, it was hammered into us, a kind of propaganda, if you like. Now it's gone.
"You can't explain the emotions of the day, it's something that bites into you. I grabbed my tin hat, pulled it down and held on to it. I'm yet to meet a person on that beach who wasn't scared."
Some hid their shredded nerves better than others.
Fred, who, after shedding his khaki uniform, found work in the Birmingham motor industry, was stunned to witness a group of young Canadians playing dice during a lull in fighting.
The navy's Frank Preston, who manned a landing craft, made the mistake of joining a game with the Maple Leaf-bearing heroes - and was quickly fleeced.
The Streetly 95-year-old chuckled: "The Canadians were good lads. They were playing poker and I'd always liked a little gamble. They said, 'Hey, bud, do you want to get in?' and in 10 minutes I was skint."
Their sergeant, who'd witnessed the game, was furious. Frank said: "He went over to them and said, 'This man has brought you here, shot his way through and you've taken his money. I was saying, 'No, Sarge, fair enough - I played, I lost'. But he took his hat off and made them put the money in it.
"I ended up with four times more than I had put in."
Frank had an added worry during the battle. In the heat of the moment, he'd made a Harvey Smith salute to one senior naval officer and feared repercussions. But his insolence went unpunished.
In the midst of such savagery, friendships were forged. On the battlefield, there was time for a flutter. Those gathered last Thursday morning wore their medals and berets with pride, but their memories were bitter-sweet.
Some, like Solihull's Albert Price, paid a heavy toll for the liberty of future generations.
They had their stories - not of the horrors witnessed, but the camaraderie that existed between the band of blood brothers. They chuckled through a succession of anecdotes.
A member of 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards, Sherman tank gunner Albert ploughed through the soft terrain of Gold Beach - one of three British and Canadian-designated landing sites - and into the pit of fierce Third Reich resistence. I was looking through the tank's magnified periscope and suddenly someone shouted 'gun'.
"There was a loud bang and we just went up in flames."
Shrapnel sheared the now 94-yearold's leg and blood spilled as Albert struggled to scramble clear of the burning vehicle.
"The floor was on fire," he recalled. "The commander was halfway out, but had been badly injured in the arm. I tried to push him out but he was struggling and I was kicked a number of times."
Albert managed to emerge from the white-hot, metal coffin, but was strafed by machine gun fire. For him, the war was over. He spent 11 years in Canada after the conflict and, back home, worked as an insurance assessor.
Albert's heroics began before the Normandy beaches. He is the only survivor of Operation Smash - a Dorset test of the army's Duplex Drive amphibious tanks. Seven men drowned and seven tanks were lost during the rehearsal just six weeks before D-Day itself.
RBL county president Elaine Butcher described this week's gathering as a celebration of "extraordinary people doing extraordinary things". The vets present strongly disagree: to a man, the pensioners present were at pains to point out they were just doing their job.
That near-nonchalant approach was best summed up by Legion d'honneur recipient Percy.
During the solemn presentation ceremony, he pointed to his chest and announced: "Put it up here, duck!" Elaine added: "On behalf of a simple woman, may I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your courage and bravery."
Norman Williams, from Stafford, feels "bravado" is a better description. As a member of the Inns of Court reconnaisannce regiment which gathered its men from members of the legal profession, the now 94-yearold arrived one the continent days after June 6 and was involved in a thrust to the Danish border.
"We were told to get there before the Russians," he said.
"My troop officer was 18. I realised after the war they wanted young men full of bravado. I do look back with some pleasure because of the chaps we knew.
"I think we all hated the Germans, that's how we dealt with it. But I soon realised there were two classes - the Germans and the Nazis. The Germans were really just like us."
Percy Horton, inset left with the remnants of a German shell
Sword Beach being invaded by Allied troops on the morning of June 6, 1944
From top, Fred Hill, and Norman Williams
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Aug 29, 2019|
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