Leeds nostalgia: D-Day beaches were hell on earth

IN WHICH WE SERVE: Bill Haigh, 85, (Royal Navy), John Lavender, 89, (Coldstream Guards), and Gerry Simpson, 78, (Army), members of the D-Day Normandy Old Comrades Association.
IN WHICH WE SERVE: Bill Haigh, 85, (Royal Navy), John Lavender, 89, (Coldstream Guards), and Gerry Simpson, 78, (Army), members of the D-Day Normandy Old Comrades Association.
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The three surviving members of the D-Day Normandy Old Comrades Association Pudsey branch have spoken of their memories.

They have some fond and not so fond but nevertheless poignant recollections of time spent in the armed forces.

John Lavender, 89, a sergeant in the Coldstream Guards, landed on the Normandy beaches two weeks after D-Day and recalls the memory as “hell on earth”.

“It was horrendous, you cannot describe it,” he said.

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John, who joined the Army in 1942, was a tank commander for much of the war, riding in US-built Shermans. He recalled: “I’ve been in one or two scrapes. I can remember being fired on by 88mm shells from the Germans – it’s not a nice experience but we survived it. I remember the beaches at Normandy, it wasn’t a pretty sight.”

John, who returned to his job as a textile manager at W Yates, Bramley, added: “When the war finished, we were all relieved.”

Bill Haigh, 85, joined the Royal Navy towards the end of the war and travelled the world as part of his job – he was a ship’s cook. He said: “When you’re young, you can do anything, I don’t think half of us would have done what we did if we had not been young and daft. In those days you either joined up or you were a conscientious objector. There are people who even today say to me, I wouldn’t have done it but they weren’t there – we had no choice and besides, we had been brought up in a fairly strict manner where you basically did as you were told.

“For me, I couldn’t get in quick enough. I didn’t think the war would last and for me, it didn’t, I joined in 1945 and got a cruise around the world.”

Gerry Simpson, 78, (Army), secretary of the club, joked: “There was a saying, ‘The Navy gets the gravy, the army gets the beans, beans, beans...’

“This branch formed in Pudsey in the 1970s. There used to be a lot more of us, around 40 or 50, and when we were all together it was great but over the years our members have diminished and now we have finally decided to disband.”

Now deceased Stan Ellis was also a member of their group. Times Past spoke to Mr Ellis, a former Royal Marines Commando, in November 2010 and got his story.

Then 88, he recalled taking part in battles in North Africa, Sicily and the Normandy landings in 1944.

The great-grandfather said at the time: “The Normandy landings were hell. Unless you were there, you cannot understand it.

“There were more shells than anything. A friend of mine, McKenzie, was stood right in front of me and was killed by a sniper.

“There was no time to stop to help those who fell, you just had to go on.

“It was just coming light, I remember the sound was terrible. It was not just enemy shells but our guns were going too. I got up on to the beach and about 200 yards in found a pill box lifted right out of the ground by one of our shells. I took some bits of concrete from it and still have them.

“Two days later, I had the top of my head blown off by a shell.

“I don’t remember anything about it, just waking up having been operated on. That was the end of the war for me.”

Mr Simpson added: “We would like to thank everyone who served in the war and all of those who stood up and were counted, because they helped make the country we have today.”