Today is the 75th Anniversary of Operation Neptune, or D-Day as it is more commonly known. It was a crucial part of Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy. Neptune was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Altogether some 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June 1944. One of them was my father, Sub Lieutenant Henry Smith RN, aged 19 years. He was second-in-command of a Landing Craft transporting Canadian troops and their tanks to Juno Beach.
Fourteen thousand young Canadians went ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day. The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price they paid was high – the battles for the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. But at the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha.
My father met my mother when he’d been sent to Middlesborough Docks for two weeks in the summer of 1943, to pick up and sea-trial his brand-new landing craft that had just been manufactured in the massive dockyards on Teesside. She was a Wren, serving as the secretary to the Royal Navy Captain in charge of constructing sections for the huge concrete Mulberry Harbour that were eventually floated to the French coast to form a crucial part of the Allies’ successful landings. Early in the fortnight secondment he’d gone to a dance and my mother approached him and asked him for a dance. As she always said, “I saw your dad across the village hall in his uniform and I thought I’m having him, he’s mine.” Those of my dear readers who knew my mum will know how totally out of character this was for such a shy and modest lady, but she was clearly struck by love at first sight. Over the next few hectic days they found time to meet at every opportunity. He then went back to Portsmouth to prepare for France. But he wrote to her every day and proposed to her in writing from his tiny cabin aboard his small craft. He then managed to get back briefly to Teesside to marry her in the simplest of
ceremonies with no reception afterwards (rationing prevented this) before he left to meet his fate on the beaches. My mother knew of the mortal danger he was to face, in her role she’d seen all the secret plans for D-Day, but she couldn’t say anything to him. Their parting must have been heart-breaking for them both, but especially so for her. He continued his daily letters written in ink on the thinnest of paper in his beautiful copperplate hand, I have them all safely stored. Again, there’s nothing remarkable in them except for the simple expressions of love and longing that jump out of every page. My father came home safe from Normandy, thank goodness. So many of his comrades did not. Subsequently he was due to be posted to the Far East, he’d even been issued with his tropical kit, but the Americans dropped the bomb on Japan and the war came to an end. He was demobilised and went onto live a long and happy life.
He never once spoke about his experiences. He became a schoolmaster teaching maths at secondary level, his children were born, he worked hard, created a home, there was absolutely nothing remarkable or unique about him. He didn’t seek fame. He didn’t make a fortune. Like millions of other returning servicemen on both sides from all nations he was just a modest, hard-working, loyal, loving family man grateful for his lot, thankful he’d been granted the chance to live and determined to do his best for the ones he loved.
In 2003, on their 60th Wedding Anniversary and recognising the paucity of their original wedding, we organised a wedding party for them with the whole family present. Heidi (my old Bentley) was bedecked with white ribbons and as we drove through town to the party we’d arranged in a local restaurant he waved at the crowds enjoying every moment. It was the last time I remember seeing him truly well and happy.
The following year, on 6th June 2004, a street party was organised in my village to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of D-Day. Because of his service Dad was invited as one of the guests of honour but he was most reluctant to attend. He said he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, but I suspected there were more visceral emotions at work, he’d once admitted to me in an unguarded moment that he still felt guilty that he’d survived when so many others had not. I eventually persuaded him to come along, and even to wear his medals (which he had only done once before in my entire life). I’m so glad I did; none of us realised just how ill he was, I cherish the memory
of the time I spent with him that day. During the afternoon he slowly relaxed, drinking beer in the warm sunshine and chatting amiably with everyone. But despite the many questions, he still didn’t tell us any stories about his war.
Later, after he and my mother had gone home, I rang her to see if he was alright after such a demanding day. “Oh yes, dear”, she said. “He’s in bed, he took his medals off and put them on his pyjamas. He’s gone to sleep wearing them.”
D-Day was less than a full lifetime ago. Seventy-five years is nothing. My own father was there. For me, this momentous occasion places into context all the current pointless bickering about Brexit. The simple courage of my father and his countless comrades contrasts markedly with the vacuity of every one of our current political leaders throughout Europe. Do they all really have such short memories? Are they all really so shallow?
So, I would like to pay my personal tribute to all the men and women who took part in the D-Day landings, they deserve our eternal respect and gratitude. Let us never forget their sacrifice. Let us not underestimate the legacy of peace they’ve left in Europe. God bless them all.
Read more of Martin's Log
Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.