The Commandos were among the first ashore, scorning steel helmets for their famous green berets.
They were led by Lord Lovat and a piper. “Give us Highland Laddie, man!” ordered the officer as the commandos hit the beach.
Among them was George Jones, of Wednesfield, who became entangled in some of the bloodiest fighting of the day.Between the beach at Ouistreham and Pegasus Bridge, four miles inland, his 500-strong unit, No 4 Commando, was constantly under fire. In the fight for Normandy, all but 80 were killed or wounded.
Sergeant Clive ‘Joe’ Stringer from Brownhills was a Commando who went ashore at Juno beach, near St Aubin-sur-Mer. It was a scene of horror, with the advance forces pinned down on the beach. Sgt Stringer was the first of his section into the water, under constant machine gun fire.
At a heavily fortified strongpoint, he was ordered to take his section and blow up the massive wall. With stick grenades exploding round them, they positioned explosives at the foot of the battlement. Sgt Stringer was hit by shrapnel and covered in blood, with multiple wounds.
He fought on regardless and for his courage was awarded the Military Medal, pinned on him by General Montgomery, six weeks later.
Stan Whitehouse, from Netherton, was one of the youngest British squaddies to hit the beaches on June 6, 1944, a 17-year-old Black Country lad who lied about his age to get in.
He recalled the smallness of a private soldier’s war: “Thirty yards that way and maybe 30 yards behind. That’s all you can take in, all you dare to look at.”
Ken Leighfield, of Wolverhampton, went ashore at 7.30am on Gold Beach at the resort of Arromanches. He was a professional soldier of 24, a corporal in the Durham Light Infantry who had seen action in Sicily and Malta. He was eternally gratefully for having had his baptism of fire before D-Day.
“When you first go into an attack, you think you can kill everyone,” he said. “You find out very quickly that they can kill you, too. The two ramps went down. All I told my section was to get off the beach as quick as they could and not stop for anything. Suddenly I was up to my waist in water. I must have looked like a water rat.”
His unit had a successful D-Day. But a few days later Corporal Leighfield was leading a patrol inland towards a farmhouse.
“We cut a big gap in some barbed wire. I called the patrol forward then – bang! – and then shells started exploding.”
The first impact was a machine-gun bullet which bowled him over and left him seriously wounded. On that fateful day his 120-strong company suffered 90 men killed or wounded.
Bill Bennett, of Kidderminster, was an 18-year-old able seaman in the Merchant Navy. He went ashore on Gold Beach totally unarmed – yet ended D-Day with an award for gallantry. The teenager was with Pluto – the remarkable Pipe Line Under The Ocean – which pumped petrol from the UK to France to fuel the invasion. He and his colleagues went ashore on Gold Beach, tasked with linking up the pipeline under the sea with the beach.
“The resistance wasn’t so bad as we were right under some cliffs, but there were a lot of shells and dive-bombers. I wasn’t allowed to carry a gun because I was from the Merchant Navy, although I had to wear a Royal Navy uniform. I didn’t really think about having no weapon as I was too busy concentrating on getting the job done. I don’t remember any of us talking about being scared. We just got on with it.”
During the morning, an engineer with Mr Bennett was shot through the shoulder by a fighter plane strafing the beaches and ships. Mr Bennett helped transfer the wounded man from the trawler Grampian to a destroyer for treatment. This, coupled with his other actions on D-Day, earned him a mention in dispatches.
Ken Parkes, of Wednesfield, landed on Juno Beach and survived the Normandy Campaign by a miracle. On the push inland his unit was pinned down by German snipers. “I was with the gun and a shot rang out, with the bullet shattering my rifle. My sergeant-major shouted: “Parkes, get your bloody head down or it will get shot off.” A few minutes later he popped his head up and bang, the sniper got him. He was shot right through the temple.”
Mr Parkes went ashore as a 20-year-old on a self-propelled anti-tank gun in support of Canadian soldiers leading the assault.
“It was fairly quiet because the bombardment and assault troops were keeping the Germans quiet. The sea was really rough, and the rockets the ships were firing over our heads at the Germans on shore was a fantastic sight. That really made us feel more confident about what we were heading into.
“Our first attempt to get ashore failed because they tried to drop us too far out for the tanks. We eventually landed in about three feet of water, but still managed to get ashore. I remember on the evening of D-Day we thought we had travelled around ten miles inland. But then an officer came around asking for volunteers to keep going because it turned out we had only gone just over a mile, it just felt more because of all the extra ground we had to cover to avoid gun emplacements and so on. Of course, we all knew you don’t volunteer for anything like that, but eventually I think someone else did.”
Mr Parkes, from Ashmore Park in Wednesfield, was with the crew of a self-propelled gun mounted on the chassis of a Sherman tank. He stayed with the Canadian troops until they had taken the airfield at Carpiquet in July.
“Then we were used as a roving unit, going where we were needed. We were after the German Panzer tanks. We’d open fire on them from 500 yards. When you hit them with high explosives they just blew right up. But we had to watch out for the German 88mm canons. If we got caught out by them we were in trouble.”Subscribe to our Newsletter