Wearside Echoes: The devastation of D-Day

WARTIME SAILOR: Les Beddison -  one of the first on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 1944.
WARTIME SAILOR: Les Beddison - one of the first on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 1944.
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DURHAM man Les Beddison was one of the first to land in France on D-Day. Here he recalls the death and devastation which greeted him.

IF there is one thing guaranteed to make World War Two veteran Les Beddison shudder it is to call him a hero.

Trained in code-breaking rather than battlefield techniques, the Durham man none-the-less found himself at the centre of the D-Day invasion – as one of the first to land on Normandy’s Juno beach.

“Half of us were lost in the first 100 yards. Men were dropping like flies. There was smoke and flames and noise and the wounded and dead were rolling about on the beach in the waves,” he said.

“I don’t consider myself a hero. We were just ordinary people expected to do extraordinary things. I’m just lucky that I survived and I still have nightmares about it. It was absolute chaos.”

Les, the youngest of three children, was born in Neville’s Cross in 1924 and, after studying at Durham Johnson Grammar School, took a job as a clerk at the Post Office.

“When war broke out my older brother went into the Royal Army Service Corps and my sister joined the WAAF. I tried to apply for the RAF at 16, but my parents tore up the form,” said Les.

“They wanted to keep me safe, as my sister and brother were already away. But, when I reached the age of 18, I immediately joined the Navy. I just wanted to play my part.”

Les initially trained as a wireless mechanic, but purposely failed his exams after finding it boring. A chance to study codes and cyphers proved more to his taste, and he passed with flying colours.

After turning down a recommendation for a commission, young Les was posted to 3rd Submarine Flotilla, where he served on the depot ships HMS Wolf and HMS Forth.

But, despite “meeting many interesting people,” the teenager eventually “got sick of the job” and, when a chance to join Special Forces came up, he jumped at the offer.

“I ended up in Combined Operations, training in the Isle of White, the New Forest and Weymouth, and living on an infantry landing craft from January 1944 until D-Day in June that year,” he said.

“It was all very basic. There were no real facilities aboard the craft, no showers – just two hand basins. It was hard, but I was just one of many, many people going through the same thing.”

All leave was cancelled in the days before the invasion and, on June 4, thousands of troops from France, America, Canada and across the UK descended on Southampton for the operation.

“It was organised chaos, really,” recalls Les. “There was no-where to put so many men, so they just sat outside in the rain. All we could do was go round giving them cups of tea to cheer them up.”

Bad weather thwarted plans to launch the invasion on June 5 but, the next day, Les and his pals found themselves sailing across the stormy Channel to take up position off the coast of France.

“We were transporting some men from the Canadian Special Forces and went directly onto Juno beach, because the skipper said that, if they had to fight, they’d fight in dry clothes,” said Les.

“There were only about 12 Canadians, and I helped them off with their gear. We were among the first to land, and within two minutes all were dead – mowed down by German machine guns.” Les dived for cover on his landing craft, but it offered little in the way of protection. Flinging himself flat, he felt bullets whiz over him. The ricochet from one left a cut on his head.

“Noise, smell, smoke – so much was going on,” he said. “It was just luck that I didn’t get shot. I was under fire, right in the thick of it. People talk about Guardian Angels – I must have had one that day.

“One of the worst things was that there were no medics – that was shocking. It was really grim to see so many people fall. I thought I’d forget it as I got older, but it is still a vivid picture in my mind.

“We couldn’t help because our guns were anti-aircraft and only fired into the air. I went with some others to use our rifles, but we couldn’t match the German snipers and machine guns firing at us.

“The photos of Juno beach don’t do it justice. It was so congested, you couldn’t move. There were so many young men killed before they even got on the beach. There were just heaps of dead.”

Les spent the rest of D-Day ferrying supplies to the beach – a difficult task made almost impossible by constant shell and machine gun attacks from the German and the congestion of Allied craft.

“It was just rotten. I’d seen dead people before, but to see people fall like that, it wasn’t nice. There were bodies from other craft, some headless, on either side of us rolling in the waves,” he recalls.

“The noise was the worst. People shouting and crying out and shells screaming over: you didn’t know which way to dodge as they came from the Germans in front of us and the battleships behind.

“It was chaotic. There was no organisation at all. People think D-Day was planned this way, but the whole thing was a fiasco. I wondered if I would live to see another day.”

As D-Day finally drew to a close, Les and three comrades set up camp in a nearby empty house and, after grabbing a few hours sleep, it was back to beach to help out – without proper food rations.

“I ended up being drafted to a frigate, and my first thought was that at least they had showers!” said Les. “But, when I went for a wash, I heard an explosion. A boy of 17 had had his head blown off.

“I kept thinking things couldn’t get any worse, but they did. I joined 42 Commando after that, and was passed from pillar to post, working in signals, with just the clothes I stood up in for weeks.

“Finally I got to a Norwegian ship, which was like a cruise ship compared with what I was used to. As well as showers it had beer and food I had never seen before – absolute luxury.”

Les eventually made it back to Britain in September 1944, where he was transferred to HMS Colossus – a new aircraft carrier built in Newcastle which was part of the British Pacific Fleet.

“I went back to codes and cyphers and spent 55,000 miles on that carrier,” he said. “We travelled to places like Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia, finishing off near Cape Town.

“I got the chance to work on the Colossus machine at this time too, which had been developed to crack codes. We didn’t know what it was, though, as no-one ever told us. We just called it CCM.”

Finally demobbed a few months later, Les went on to marry his sweetheart Jo in June 1946 – almost a year to the day of the D-Day landings.

“I met Jo when I was based in Southampton,” said Les. “She was in the Wrens and we met at a dance. Originally she was from Sandhurst and her father was in the Household Cavalry.

“She moved up to Durham with me after our wedding, and we lived with my parents until getting our own house. We were lucky to have many happy years together before she sadly passed away.”

** Do you have wartime memories you would like to share? Write to: Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.

Sidebar: How the BBC reported D-Day

Thousands of Allied troops have begun landing on the beaches of Normandy in northern France at the start of a major offensive against the Germans.

Thousands of paratroops and glider-borne troops have also been dropped behind enemy lines and the Allies are already said to have penetrated several miles inland.

The landings were preceded by air attacks along the French coast. About 1,300 RAF planes were involved in the first wave of assaults, then 1,000 American bombers took up the attack.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill has told MPs that Operation Neptune - the codename for the Normandy landings - is proceeding “in a thoroughly satisfactory manner”.

He said the landing of airborne troops was “on a scale far larger than anything there has been so far in the world” and had taken place with extremely little loss.

The assault began shortly after midnight today, June 6, under the command of General Bernard Montgomery. Upwards of 4,000 ships and several thousand smaller craft crossed the Channel.

The Allied naval commander, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, said the landings had taken the Germans completely by surprise.

He added: “There was a slight loss in ships but so slight that it did not affect putting armies ashore. We have got all the first wave of men through the defended beach zone and set for the land battle.”

But US President Franklin D Roosevelt warned that the invasion did not mean the war was over. “You don’t just walk to Berlin, and the sooner this country realises that the better,” he said.

** It is estimated that 2,499 American troops died on D-Day and 1,915 from other Allied nations including Canada and Britain.

Sidebar: Colossus facts

Colossus was the world’s first electronic, digital, programmable computer.

The machine was used by British code breakers to help read encrypted German messages.

Thermionic valves – vacuum tubes – were used to perform the calculations.

Colossus was designed by engineer Tommy Flowers at a research station in Dollis Hill.

The prototype, Colossus Mark 1, was operational at Bletchley Park by February 1944.

An improved Colossus Mark 2 was launched just in time for the Normandy Landings.

Ten Colossus computers were in use by the end of the war.

Winston Churchill ordered the destruction of most of the machines after the war.

The Colossus project was classified as Top Secret until the 1970s.