Aftermath of the biggest military operation of war
The devastation in Normandy’s coastal towns in the aftermath of D-Day made for a sight Jack Russell will never forget.
War was a world away from his peacetime life as a teenage gardener in the picturesque village of Dickleburgh, Norfolk.
When Jack, who now lives in Morecambe, arrived at Sword Beach in Normandy on the morning of June 11, 1944, he was filled with excitement.
The first thing he saw as he reached the coastline was the huge HMS Prince of Wales.
“It was an impressive sight. I will always remember that: this big war ship. You don’t see that every day, and we thought, this is it; this is the real thing,” he recalls.
Jack joined the Army in 1941 at the age of 19 and was part of the 504th Infantry Brigade of the 43rd Wessex Infantry Division.
He served with his regiment around the Kent coast until they were called up to D-Day.
He trained for 12 weeks at Bulford Camp, Salisbury, before meeting his future wife, June, during a posting in Bradford. They married in the February before D-Day and he was still full of elation from being a newlywed when he went to war.
Jack, now 97, says: “You could see the shells exploding onto the land. A lot of people say, were you scared? But you’re just apprehensive about what’s going to happen, and a bit excited.”
But the adrenaline soon faded when he came face-to-face with the reality of warfare.
Jack, whose job was to find and decontaminate drinking water for nearly 100 front-line fighters, landed with his regiment on the sixth day of the operation. And the days leading up to that point had been filled with scenes of destruction.
Allied forces had bombarded Sword Beach from sea and sky from 3.30am on June 6. The 6th Airborne Division had taken control of two bridges spanning the Orne River and Caen Canal, the second being renamed Pegasus Bridge.
And Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Parachute Battalion had destroyed the German four-gun battery at the town of Merville. But the battalion paid a huge price, losing half of its attacking force.
The British 3rd Infantry Division had landed at 7.25am to take advantage of the rising tide. Together with French and British Commandos, they had battled against Germany’s 711th, 716th Infantry and 21st Panzer Divisions.
The enemy had scattered minefields and ditches along the shore and attacked the Allied soldiers from the sand dunes and nearby coastal towns, like Merville and Le Havre, with a deadly combination of mortar shells and 500 75-mm and 155-mm machine guns.
Human bodies, discarded equipment and destroyed vehicles were strewn across the beach.
But allied troops shattered Germany’s defences and liberated villages like Ouistreham before continuing towards the city of Caen. Troops heading south had faced snipers, camouflaged in holes in the roads. By evening, the 3rd British Infantry Division had secured an approximately 8km deep bridgehead to the west of the Orne River.
By the time Jack arrived, Normandy was in tatters.
The British suffered nearly 630 casualties, but the enemy’s total was far higher and many Germans had been taken prisoner, reducing the French houses that lined the beach to wreckage.
Jack vividly remembers the chaos left behind in the towns surrounding Sword Beach when his platoon sought refuge in a farmhouse for the night.
He says: “When we landed, we went to this French farm. We found a camouflage net and it was all rolled up. We fetched it down and there was a body in it, a Canadian paratrooper, you know, so we gave him a burial. I always remember that.”
But it wasn’t the only devastating reminder of Nazi control found in the Normandy communes.
Jack remembers the terrible fate dealt from one British soldier to another when a working Nazi bomb was discovered.
“He’d fallen off his motorbike and bent the handlebars,” Jack recalls.
“Outside this building were a load of bombs that you fire from the shoulder, German ones, and they were on a tube and he said, ‘Oh that’ll just do,’ because there was a hole in the tube.
“He shoved the handlebar in and it went off, straight into a soldier, into his stomach, and took all his uniform.
“There was no blood, just a bomb sticking out. That was a silly thing to do. I don’t know what he thought he was doing. I don’t know whether the other soldier died.
“It went straight into his stomach and they rushed him off in an ambulance. I remember it distinctly.
“He was just playing about. He didn’t realise there was a bomb on the end of the pipe and he just bent it and it went off. Boom.
“The Germans had left them. There was a big stack piled up.”
Destruction soon became as ordinary a sight as rain during Jack’s 14-month service at war, which saw him spend Christmas in 1945 in a camp, before crossing the river Rhine to the Swiss Alps, and finishing in Spandau Barracks in Berlin.
He was demobbed in October, 1946, at the age of 25 and moved to Bradford to be with June, with whom he had four daughters. They moved to Morecambe in 2012.
The diamond couple, who celebrated 75 years of marriage this February, have built a lifetime of sparkling memories. But Jack’s time at D-Day still casts a shadow in his mind.
“The Germans didn’t want to fight anymore than we did but they had no option. We’re all human beings; we just talk different languages, that’s all. They were just flesh and blood like we were and it shows how stupid war is, absolutely stupid.”