British D-Day veteran Noel Wilkes (pictured as a soldier and today) recounts his experience of wartime France to his great-nephew, Peter Stewart.
When war broke out in 1939, I was just 15 years old. The papers to enlist came on my 18th birthday, but my employer got me a six-month deferral. Time passed quickly and soon I had to report to Chichester barracks, which was then the Royal Sussex regiment. We were moved to Fort Brockhurst, near Gosport and attached to the security police. Our role was to supervise large convoys carrying live ammunition and shortly before D-Day there were several dummy runs with what looked like hundreds of ships in the Solent. I would often ask myself how on earth they would manage to manoeuvre all those ships across the Channel.
Finally, D-Day was upon us and the last instruction we received while in Britain was to make a will. Our platoon was attached to the Canadians and I was in charge of six petrol tankers. We arrived in France [on Juno Beach] on 6 June 1944 in really stormy weather and our vehicles were loaded on to landing barges which swayed constantly. We were supposed to climb carefully down the side of the ship on to the barge, but I remember our platoon officer shouting ‘Jump boys or that will be the last of you.’
I could not recognise anything in France. As I drove half a mile, faced with a barrage of shells whizzing overhead, to a spot on the road where I had to camouflage my vehicle, all I could see were flattened villages and towns engulfed by fire. I had to drive extremely carefully as tracks leading off the very few stretches of road that remained intact were covered in landmines.
Many harrowing images have stayed with me over the years, but one that particularly struck me was of piles of beautiful cavalier horses all shot dead and littered along the sides of the road. What a wicked waste. Another image which I will never forget is of the French people, who would have given us the earth in exchange for a couple of cans of petrol.
I also have fond memories of the French and of Normandy. It was the Christmas following D-Day and we were near Falaise. Our platoon was looking forward to a plain army Christmas meal but the local people insisted on inviting us to their homes for a proper celebration. When I returned to Normandy for the 65th anniversary, as soon as the locals saw our medals they would shake our hands and start clapping while others would let us go to the front of the queue in a restaurant.
As chairman of the Royal British Legion in Evesham, Worcestershire, it was an honour to organise a trip for the 65th anniversary of D-Day in 2009. I went with a group of cadets and it proved very enjoyable.
I am delighted that we have raised more than £9,000 for the 70th anniversary trip, which I think will be my last, as I have just celebrated my 90th birthday. There are very few veterans left and my hope is that the younger generations, in years to come, will continue to remember the extraordinary events of D-Day.
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