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Veterans' voices tell of the deadly drama of Normandy

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

With each passing year, more of the voices of D-Day are stilled.

There will come a time when there will be just one left to tell their story, the Harry Patch of the D-Day generation.

We have delved into our archives from the time of past anniversaries to tap into just a small sample of the anecdotes of the many Shropshire folk who played their part on land, sea, and air.

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George Rowley, of Queen Street, Castlefields, Shrewsbury, was a pilot of a Halifax bomber, which was tasked with pounding the defences.

He was a flight sergeant at that time, and he and other pilots of 76 Squadron flew from their base at Holme on Spalding Moor after their commanding officer briefed them to attack a coastal defence gun battery, saying: "Well chaps, this looks like it, but your guess is as good as mine."

He was a witness to a vast air armada, including troop carriers and fighters, while below there were hundreds of ships making their way to the French coast.

"We were briefed to attack our target and bombed from just beneath the cloud base. We hoped the guns that we had been briefed to put out of action had been silenced," he recalled.

One of his squadron's Halifax bombers was lost along with the crew with seven.

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On return to their Yorkshire base the bombers were immediately refuelled and rearmed, ready for the next operation.

Mr Rowley was later a Flight Lieutenant and during his five-year RAF career was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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Anti-aircraft gunners during the operation took few chances, sometimes blasting away at both friend and foe.

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"As soon as we heard an aircraft, we were firing. It was so bad that we had orders not to, because we were shooting at our own aircraft,'' Jim Weaver said.

"We didn't have time to check,'' said the Royal Navy seaman who was attached to the Merchant Navy.

Mr Weaver, of Wellington, manned a 20mm anti aircraft gun on the cargo ship SS Yewpark.

The 1,000-tonner carried Army supplies such as tents and medical equipment over on the first day.

"We had troops on deck which we managed to get off when we got there, among all the pandemonium.

"We couldn't get our cargo off because we relied on DUKWs (amphibious vehicles) or barges coming alongside, and we hadn't got what the Army wanted. They were desperate for ammunition and petrol at that time.

"We were there a couple of days before we got unloaded. We were right in the thick of it, lying at anchor, which was not very pleasant. If you are moving about you are less of a sitting duck.''

Later the vessel's cargo was petrol in Jerry cans, which it continually took across the channel to the British and American beachheads.

"The memories which will always stay with me is the experience of being among all the activity on D-Day on land and sea and being so young, unaware of the danger of the cargo we carried,'' added Mr Weaver, a retired carpenter and joiner.

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Paratrooper Harry Morgan, who lived in later life in Wellington, was injured two days after D-Day and wrote an evocative letter from his hospital bed describing his descent into "fortress Europe" in the first hour of D-Day – six hours before the seaborne forces stormed the beaches.

The letter, to a work colleague, said in part: “When you jump out of a plane on a scheme in this country, the first thing you notice is the peace after the roar of the aircraft engines. But this time it was entirely different. I dropped out and I thought I was in a Belle Vue firework display. Red and green lights (German ack-ack) and tracer bullets whizzing about all around you.

“But I must have prayed at church the night before because I got safely to the ground. But once I touched the soil of France I stopped there flat as a pancake, for not 20 yards from me was a German machine gun. Just to add a bit of spice to it, some kind gentleman threw three grenades at me. I lay quite still for a minute or two and got up, but nothing else happened. I suppose they thought they had killed me.”

His story continued: “Jerry’s first big attack came on Wednesday evening, and he used his mortars with deadly accuracy. . . Anyway, we repulsed that attack and gave him something to think about. Jerry had left 40 dead in one house alone.”

He was wounded when a bullet hit his rifle and then passed through his cheek and lips. He had also suffered shrapnel injuries from the grenades.

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There cannot have been that many twins who landed together on D-Day, but Geoffrey and Ronald Litherland of the 2nd Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry were among them.

The 19-year-old brothers both landed on Sword beach with the battalion. They had joined up together at Shrewsbury, and served together in the mortar platoon of 2KSLI.

Geoffrey said: "We landed on Sword Beach on the morning of D-Day at 10.30 hrs. That evening we had reached Bieville and set up our mortars behind the north wall that surrounds the chateau.

"I did not return to Bieville until 1991 when I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of the chateau, Mademoiselle Lucie Voyt. I have been back four times and have always been made very welcome.

"When the Germans came to Bieville, Lucie had moved away and did not return until after the war. On the evening of D-Day the chateau was still burning. It had been set on fire by the Germans."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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