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Back to the beaches of Normandy - D-Day remembered

John Harrop (91) D-Day veteran  at Friary Court, Eastgate. EMN-140906-183854009

John Harrop (91) D-Day veteran at Friary Court, Eastgate. EMN-140906-183854009

 

John Baker meets a D-Day veteran: When John Harrop thinks back to the brutal Normandy beaches on 6 June, 1944, it brings a tear to his eye.

As one of the seamen leading the way for the ground troops to the coast of France, John and his colleagues played a vital role in paving the way for triumph in the most savage of conditions.

He returned to those beaches on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, but for the 70th on Friday (6 June) he stayed closer to home, attending a service at Peterborough’s war memorial.

John (91): “When I was 19 I was never frightened of anything, but when I think back it brings me to tears - you can’t stop that.”

John joined the forces as a 19-year-old in 1942, and within a few months qualified as a radar operator.

Speaking from his home at Burton Street, John said: “I had been a member of the Sea Cadet Corps and thought that if I was called up I would like to be in the Navy, so I wasn’t worried.

“In fact I would describe myself as interested. Where I lived in Halifax there had been a couple of bombings, so I was aware of what was happening.”

The early months on service saw John posted across the waters of the UK, at bases in the Isle of Man, Great Yarmouth, Glasgow and Dunfermline.

The latter was a particularly dangerous station for John and his colleagues, as part of a convoy which would travel down to London bringing supplies, travelling on a lethal section of the North Sea known as E Boat Alley because of regular German attacks.

By May 1944 the build-up to the Invasion of France loomed, John was stationed in HMS Hornet at the time, and said: “There were thousands of boats of all nationalities , just waiting for the big day.

“Everyone was on leave but we couldn’t go anywhere. A few pubs were open, but most of them had run out of beer!”

Operations continued along the Belgian coast and John was lucky to survive when a torpedo exploded near to his ship, in one of World War Two’s most tragic circumstances.

The Ostend Disaster saw the single largest loss of men and boats in the entire war.

After he was demobbed John joined the fire service, working in Gwent.

But after retiring in 1981 he was assigned a task on the other side of the UK - setting up the fire prevention systems at Queensgate shopping centre.

He moved to Werrington with his late wife Grace, before moving to Burton Road in 2012.

John, who has a son of the same name, said: “I went back to Normandy on the 50th and we had a smashing time, but I remember on the way there, every hundred yards or so, there was a French person waving.

“They take it all very seriously and remember what was done.”

Related: Gallery: Peterborough falls silent to remember D-Day landings, 6 June.

Share your wartime memories by commenting on our website, submit your own stories, photos and videos to us, or on Twitter @peterboroughtel or email - news@peterboroughtoday.co.uk

In his own words: John Harrop’s D-Day

In the middle of May we were sent to take up a position in Southampton water, alongside the scores of landing craft and other vessels.

On 4 June we were mustered on the messdeck of the boat and informed that we would be on the initial landings and that our job would be to lead in the Canadian troops at Juno Beach at about 7am on 5 June. It would be our task to escort them the last two miles.

Later that day we were told the landings had been postponed due to bad weather and all crews were to remain on-board.

It was a bit rough on some of the troops who were stranded offshore rolling about in a choppy sea, many of them suffering from seasickness.

The next morning the weather had abated somewhatand at about 3pm the skipper informed us we would be taking up our convoy at about 5pm, after which we would proceed to

Normandy.

We slipped and sailed to our position near the front of our section of the convoy, which gradually moved off slowly as we began our passage around the Isle of Wight.

I was detailed as lookout on the bridge as I would not beneeded as a aradio operator until we were nearer the French coast.

It was a cloudless sky at sunset, and the sight of the fleet of so many ships around us gave me a feeling of safety.

The night passed very slowly, we could hear aircraft passing overhead - no doubt softening up the targets near the landing areas, or perhaps attacking targets further afield to mislead the Germans.

We remained on four hour watches until we got to within 10 miles off the French coast, when we went to action stations.

I closed up on the radar because of the congestion of ships in the area, because of the congestion of ships in the area it was not possible to pick out hostile targets.

As it became daylight it was possible to see the vast range of ships and boats on the horizon. In the sky it was full of bombers and fighters heading for the French coast.

The battleships and dreadnoughts opened fire, bombarding the coast and the landing areas.

We had taken our place at the head of the landing craft escorting landing ships towards our designated area.

We went as far as we could until we reached shallow water, the landing craft were then on their own making their way onto the beach.

At this time we were under fire, explosions taking place around us. The heavy shelling from the battleships passed over our heads sounding like an express train going through a tunnel.

The 12 inch shells were very frightening, even the crockery in the galley was clinking with the vibration.

Some time later we were told to report to our control ship, a cruiser HMS Dido, for further instructions as the landings continued along the beaches.

Shore batteries were firing on the fleet and hits were being made on some some ships around us, one large ship around 200 yards away received a direct hit and exploded, sinking in about three minutes.

We were now employed on various tasks ferrying people around the ships and delivering messages.

Shortly after we returned to the beaches a strong gale blew about 10 days after D-Day, we had to drop anchor to sit it out.

Being confined to our boat and not able to move for 10 days, we had run out of foodstuffs and were short on water, surviving on hard tack biscuits and water.

The biscuits were so hard they had to be softened in water before they could be eaten.

When the storm eased we could proceed to the supply ship and got fresh bread and water - what a relief that was, we were all suffering from sore gums.

 

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