It is dawn on the 6th June 1944; D-Day. A young British infantryman is crowded with the rest of his platoon in belly of a landing craft off the coast of Normandy. The vessel has two naval ratings on the rear deck. One is steering, the other navigating and handling the deck work.
Suddenly a stray shell explodes close to the craft. The two sailors are blown into the water never to be seen again. The landing craft drifts out of control. The young army officer in charge desperately asks if any of his men have any boating experience.
Our young soldier has done just a little sailing before the war,
his fellow soldiers propel him up to the helm and he realises the challenge he faces. He has never been so scared in all his life.
The original boat crew had compass and charts that showed the location of enemy mines and underwater obstructions. Compass and charts were blown away with the crew. Smoke and spray and the watery dawn light mean that visibility can be measured in feet. Anyway our new helmsman has no idea which way to steer.
Suddenly out of the noise and smoke of the battle another landing craft sweeps by at speed. Thinking quickly our amateur sailor opens the throttle and desperately follows the other craft.
He knows his life, and that of his comrades, depends on him getting them safely to the beach. His best hope is to stick with someone who seems to know the way. His strategy works. The other landing craft twists and turns as it heads towards the beachhead. Our man shadows their every move.
At last he sees the landing craft ahead run on to the beach and he does the same. The ramp goes down and he leaves the tiller, picks up his rifle and pack, and wades ashore to become a soldier again in the battle to liberate Europe and win the war.
He never thanked or even met the crew of that other landing craft. They had long gone by the time he and his comrades had got ashore.
It is June 1994, Ann and I are on holiday on a campsite in Normandy. All France is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the the D-Day landings. The French have minted a special medal to mark the fiftieth anniversary.
Every participant in the landings will be presented with the medal at ceremonies all along the coast. Some have come in their caravans and will have a holiday as well as collecting their awards. Our campsite is full of British D-Day veterans most of whom have never been back since the war.
Fifty years on, these are old men, exactly the sort of old fellows you meet on any caravan site at home or abroad. The kind of ‘good old boys’ whose most exciting story you expect will be about the steak they burnt on last night’s barbecue.
But no, the stories are amazing, of modest heroism, of ordinary people doing unbelievable things. One or two have bought souvenirs of those momentous events fifty years ago; an army pay book, a scrap of uniform, a few old faded photographs.
Outside on one camping table is a small hand-made model of a landing craft. The old chap who made it sits beside the table sipping a cup of tea. Another old man passing is halted in his tracks. The model hypnotises him.
He questions the model maker. Why has he made that particular landing craft? Why that particular number? The man’s answer is simple. “It was my boat, I was the helmsman, and I landed it on the beaches on D-Day.”
Fifty years on a young infantryman, now in tears, at last has the chance to say thank you to the man he never met, the man who had saved his and his comrades lives. It was quite an evening on the campsite that night.
This article in various forms has been printed in many magazines and periodicals including the Sunday Mirror. It even won an award.