North East veterans visit Normandy for anniversary of D-Day landings

D-Day veterans from the North East returned to France to mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings. The Journal spoke to a few of them

John Tuttiett Members of the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service have helped remember fallen soldiers of World War Two in a small village in Northern France
Members of the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service have helped remember fallen soldiers of World War Two in a small village in Northern France

Charles George Skipper uses a word The Journal can not repeat to describe how scared he was on June 6, 1944.

By 11am that fateful day, the ship which was transporting the young Charles and the armoured car which he was to drive was within touching distance of the Normandy coast and lined up alongside the rest of the invading fleet, ready to land.

However, Charles would have to wait as the fleet could not yet land. Fighting raged on Gold Beach. Naval bombardment of German coastal defences by Allied dive bombers was “terrific”. The Nazis were firing back. Allied tanks were “sinking”.

It was not until four hours after reaching his destination that the infantry man was able to leave his ship.

Charles landed at 3pm, driving through bodies in the water and as shells exploded around him. He didn’t even get his feet wet.

“It was terrifying, yeah,” he recalls. “I was only 20.”

Seventy years later to the day, Charles, now 91 and living at Amble in Northumberland, was back at the scene of those terrifying moments, but not at Gold Beach.

He was a few miles to the East at Sword Beach for a commemoration attended by the Queen – whom he met during his visit – Barack Obama and the president of Russia.

Yet it was not their presence which had the biggest impression on George. His grandson Luke Skipper, who has been in the Army 10 years and is from Whitley Bay, was there on marshalling duties.

“(It was) one of the proudest moments in my life to see him there,” beamed the veteran.

 

Charles also met his namesake prince twice, and wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at various commemorative events during his stay in France. He visited Pegasus Bridge, scene of a key battle during the invasion, and Bayeaux cemetery, where so many of his friends who lost their lives in the landings were buried.

The veteran, who has visited Normandy on two previous occasions, said: “It was very moving at times. It was very touching.”

Charles, president of the Amble and Warkworth branch of the Royal British Legion, was treated like a celebrity, getting mobbed by locals wanting their photo taken with him or thanking him for freeing their country or continent.

Not far from Pegasus Bridge, another North East veteran returned to the scene of his D-Day experience.

Billy Ness from Newcastle travelled to the small village of Ranville, where he touched down by parachute in the early hours of June 6, 1944, part of the first group of liberators to land on French soil in Operation Overlord.

Billy saw many of his comrades killed just minutes after they dropped silently from the night sky, but the remainder of ‘C’ company the 12th (Yorkshire) parachute battalion secured their objective.

The build-up to his landing is one Billy recalls vividly.

“During our training we knew something was up, something was going to happen, but we never thought we would be going into France at night.

“Hitler had stopped using parachutists after the disaster in Crete where so many were killed.

“We were told on June 2 that we were going to attack two bridges, one over a river and the other over a canal but we had to secure them and not allow them to be destroyed as they were vital for the allies push to Germany.

“We were all ready on June 4 but it was cancelled and the weather the next day sounded even worse but we were told it was on.”

With a laugh Billy says of the parachutists’ meeting with the padre before they set off: “Holy Joe did his thing and then offered the lads pocket bibles and we all took one, I’ve still got mine.”

Then it was off to the converted Stirling bomber, 20 men in each one. Each of Billy’s comrades signed a five Franc note and one then wrote on it ‘Thanks for the lift, here’s the fare.’

The note was handed to pilot Eric Keen, who kept it as a treasured memory for many years.

After D-Day, Billy would twice be wounded on duty, getting shot in the leg on one occasion. The bullet remains there to this day.

Privates Dick Atkinson from North Shields and Charles Eagles from Sunderland, landed at the same spot as his Mr Skipper.

The two men served in the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), landing at Gold Beach on D-Day and fighting their way deep into the French countryside.

Two members of the DLI who they served with were captured and held at Chateau D’Audrieu.

Their bodies were not found until two weeks later after the Germans had eventually been cleared from the chateau and the British were able to search it and its grounds.

It was not until the relevant war files were opened 50 years later that the full horror of what had happened to the men was uncovered.

After being captured, they were interrogated by the SS before being taken outside into a nearby orchard and executed in cold blood.

Privates Atkinson and Eagles were present for the commemorations as a bronze plaque was unveiled by the regimental association at a ceremony at the village of Audrieu’s war memorial, 70 years on.

Members of the association, the local mayor, French Veterans and members of the local community were also present.

Meanwhile, a memorial to other fallen members of the DLI was unveiled at the village of Lingevres, in the presence of members of Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service which helped bring it about.

The village was an important, heavily-defended crossroads as members of the DLI continued their campaign to gain valuable ground.

Fighting there lasted for more than 72 hours with the British troops eventually victorious.

Many members of the regiment along with other British servicemen were killed capturing the village.

When members of the fire and rescue service discovered that there was no permanent memorial to the men they decided to do something about it.

With the help of a quarry from Hetton-le-Hole and the proceeds of fundraising around the area, a memorial stone has now been erected in the courtyard of the local church.

A contingent from the fire and rescue service travelled to France to be present at the unveiling of the memorial in the presence of three DLI D Day veterans, members of the DLI Association and local officials and villagers.

They were joined by school children from the local primary school, who during the service of dedication sang, in English, God Save The Queen and then the French national anthem.

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