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We were lucky to get off the D-Day beaches
8:00am Friday 6th June 2014 in Echo News
Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landings which were to be instrumental to the Allied victory in the Second World War.
After years of planning, almost 62,000 British troops landed on the northern coast of France as part of Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Echo reporters CAROLINE TILLEY and HELEN BARNETT tell the stories of those who took part in a day which changed the war.
IT may have been 70 years ago, but Don Sheppard still remembers everything about June 6, 1944.
The Basildon veteran was just 24 and among back-up troops readying themselves to storm the Normandy beaches.
By the time 5pm came on that fateful day, bodies of fallen soldiers littered the beach.
Mr Sheppard, 94, said: “The Canadians had already assaulted the beach and there were quite a few bodies they hadn’t retrieved.
“It was pretty lively.
“We had a hell of a lot of naval people behind us firing over our heads as we went in.
“Actually, only last week I was invited to HMS Belfast. She was our command ship off the beaches on the day.”
On that historic day, the assault started shortly after midnight with thousands of paratroopers and glider-borne troops being dropped behind the German lines in Normandy, northern France.
This was followed by an invasion from the sea, which started at 6.30am, with about 160,000 British, American and Canadian troops landing under heavy enemy fire along a 50- mile stretch of the Normandy coast.
The troops came ashore on landing craft, bringing armoured tanks, weapons, ammunition, supplies and equipment with them.
For Mr Sheppard, a sapper in the Royal Engineers, it was not the first time he had been in the line of fire.
Called up when he was 20, he had served in Sicily and north Africa, taking part in assault landings and was considered a seasoned soldier.
He said: “The fewweeks after I was called up I went from being a boy to being a man because of the assault training.
“D-Day was pretty frightening really. We all got anxious. I had been in action before, but there were some guys there that day who never had been. It must have been absolutely frightening to them.”
Mr Sheppard made it to the chaos of the beach after leaving his boat.
He said: “We were all bunched up in an area and were struggling to get off the beach.
“There were shells and a whole lot of people killed.
“By the end of the evening we were directed to help the 6th Airborne Division, which had landed at Pegasus Bridge.
“It was one of the first places to be liberated. We were directed to back them up and that’s where we stayed until August.
There were a lot of panzer attacks...luckily, I survived.”
The longest day – aerial photographs of British troops landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day
While it went over Mr Sheppard’s head at the time, he said just how young he and his friends were is more apparent to him now than ever.
He said: “I think, looking back on it, we were only young guys. Fighting in the desert was totally different to Normandy. You could see your enemy because you were in open spaces.
“In Normandy, there were hedgerows and people hiding behind stuff. When I look back, I think we were lucky to get off the beaches really.
“It was pretty rough.”
Like many previous years, Mr Sheppard, a member of Normandy Veterans’ Association, Southend and District Branch, has travelled to Normandy for the commemoration.
With many others, he will remember those who were lost during the invasions, 70 years ago today.
He added: “You look at those white crosses and you see the ages. Some of them were 16 or 17. They just jumped off the boats and they were dead.”
Liberation hero–Fred Wildman was a Royal Marine commando who landed on Gold beach on D-Day
Everything people enjoy today happened because of our fight on the beaches of Normandy
FRED Wildman will be among many D-DAY veterans travelling to Normandy to visit the beaches he landed on 70 years ago.
Mr Wildman, 91, of Southwold Crescent, Benfleet, set off for France today on board a ferry for a series of special ceremonies commemorating D-Day.
At the age of 21, Mr Wildman was one of 400 men in his commando unit who travelled to the beaches in June 1944.
At the end of the mission, there were just 88 men left amid a maelstrom of horror.
He said: “There were times when I didn’t know if I would make it.
“It was something between horrendous and awe-inspiring. You have a sea of black with craft of all sizes and a sky black with planes and gliders and you had battleships firing.
“We were in small landing crafts with 32 in each one. Most got blown up going. Some of us ended up swimming and wading in for the final bit. We had to push bodies aside as we waded.
“After the strenuous training, we were more or less looking forward to it to show our skills, but after that, a lot of it became about survival.”
Mr Wildman will travel to Normandy from Southampton with his wife Rose, 94, and son and daughter, Tony and Kim Wildman.
He will travel to all the beaches which were part of the landings.
He added: “Obviously for us, it will be the very last time we will go as a commemorative year.
“There won’t be many more left because we are all out-growing it.
“It’s important to recognise what happened because everything that people are enjoying today didn’t happen out of the blue. It was a fight. People have died for it and any enjoyment people are having today is because of the First and Second World Wars.”
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