Stories of D-day veterans: ‘They feared they had lost the war’

<span>Jim Walker (left, with hand on hip) and his shipmates in front of the Houses of Parliament in 1944.</span><span>Photograph: Bill Walker/Guardian Community</span>
Jim Walker (left, with hand on hip) and his shipmates in front of the Houses of Parliament in 1944.Photograph: Bill Walker/Guardian Community

On 6 June 1944, allied troops took part in Operation Overlord, a combined naval, air and land assault on the beaches of Normandy, which led to the liberation of Europe and the end of the second world war.

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of D-day, five people share their relatives’ experiences of the largest seaborne invasion in history.

‘He was only 18 at the time’

My uncle James (Jim) M Walker was a member of the crew of US LST-538, which landed on Omaha beach on D-day. Born in 1926, he was only 18 at the time. He wrote a remarkable letter to my parents describing trying to repair a broken landing craft on the beach, dodging shells and bullets, and – most remarkably – being torpedoed by a German S-boat on the way back to London, where it was put into dry dock on the Isle of Dogs.

While his ship was being towed across the Channel, and because they had been torpedoed before, the men were frightened and slept on deck, not in their bunks. When they saw V-1 rockets in the sky, they had never seen anything like it before, but assumed it was one of Hitler’s vengeance weapons. They feared they had lost the war because of the effect the rockets would have. Walker died in 2010, aged 84, in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Bill Walker, 79, retired college administrator, Staunton, Virginia, US

‘Getting on to the beach was very hazardous’

My father, Rex Richard Joseph Wintle, born 8 September 1924 in Cheltenham, was a D-day veteran who drove supplies of all kinds, from food to ammunition.

He was part of the initial invasion force that landed on Gold beach shortly after D-day. They waited in the Channel because of terrible weather and many of them were very seasick and lost track of what day it was. Many of them could not swim, so getting on to the beach was very hazardous.

He finally passed away on 13 August 2016 from his war injuries (a piece of shrapnel moved and pierced his colon; due to his advanced age of nearly 90, he was unable to fight off the infection). This is just a small description of the true bravery of ordinary soldiers who gave us our freedom. Shirley Kelly, 66, retired NHS worker, Malvern, Worcestershire

‘He was responsible for fixing the ship’

My father, Charles William Lenard Brown, was born in 1921 and was a corporal in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) posted to the command ship HMS Largs, the HQ and flagship of Sword beach. Along with a colleague, he was responsible for fixing the ship, which played a leading part in the successful landing, in time for D-day.

The ship had people from all three services working on communication with the headquarters in the UK, the three service commands, and the beachhead landing site. There was a big problem with this, and my father and a colleague solved this problem.

Above is the original typed citation attesting to this important communication fix. He served on Largs for all its landings in Europe and the far east, earning five battle star medals for his courageous deeds. He died aged 66 and never spoke to me about this – I found out from a box of his war letters, photographs and medals. Martin Brown, 74, retired, London

‘A naval shell blew the tower apart’

My father, William Clifford (Cliff) Nowlan, who would have been 100 this year, was a member of the crew on a landing craft tank (LCT) taking Canadian infantry on to Juno beach with the first wave. He was born in 1924 and lived all his life in Preston, Lancashire, starting as the flour boy at the Co-op and then in groceries until enlisting in the navy during the war.

After landing the infantry, the LCT pulled back and hit an underwater defence, which holed it and it sank. My dad, who never learned to swim, was pulled from the water by another vessel, which was then also holed. He ended up back on the beach. They were under gunfire from a church tower in Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. Then a naval shell blew the tower apart.

The only good thing, he said, was that having lost their LCT, they weren’t sent overseas to prepare for an invasion of Japan. He never went abroad again until their 50th wedding and D-day anniversary, when we gave them a holiday in Jersey and they travelled over for the day to Juno beach. He died in 2004 aged 80. As a youth I used to wear his old sea boots from D-day as wellingtons. Never appreciated it at the time. Anthony Nowlan, 68, retired doctor and information scientist, Bath

‘They hadn’t seen each other all war and ended up in the same foxhole’

My father-in-law, Robert Cameron Brunton Murray, was one of 13 siblings. In 1944, two of his brothers were in the navy and both served on D-day delivering troops to one of the beaches. William (Bill) Leonardo Quilietti Murray was born on 11 June 1921, and Leonardo (Leo) Murray was born on 16 December 1924, both in Edinburgh.

Leo’s craft got into difficulties and had to be towed – by Bill’s. They hadn’t seen each other all war and ended up in the same foxhole, where Bill gave his brother a pair of socks to wear as Leo’s boots and socks were soaked. This initiated a longstanding joke: every time they met, Bill would ask for his socks back and Leo would say, “He’s never going to let me forget this”. Haward Soper, 69, honorary associate professor of law, Leicester