D-Day veterans share their stories with commandos ahead of Normandy return

D-Day veterans shared their experiences with today’s generation of service personnel before returning to France for 80th anniversary commemorations.

Around ten Normandy survivors – the youngest 98 – were invited to recount their stories with serving RN, RM and RAF personnel, plus the general public at the D-Day Museum in Southsea, plus help the Commonwealth War Graves Commission light the first of 14 torches (one for each nationality which fought in Normandy) as part of its ‘light their legacy’ campaign to keep the memory of the 1944 generation alive.

Because 2024 is likely to be the last time we see D-Day veterans gather in any significant number before our greatest generation passes into history.

All those present were frail – walking with sticks or using wheelchairs, many wearing hearing aids – but mentally sharp as a razor…  and clearly enjoying their day in the sun.

Like former Royal Marine Keith Whiting, 98 years old, but with a smile from one ear to the other as he found himself among the ranks of 47 Commando.

They are taking a large Landing Craft Utility to Normandy to support 80th anniversary commemorations, culminating in memorial events in Port-en-Bessin, a village liberated by commandos in 1944.

Men running to the beach in 1944 in such craft would have been protected by the umbrella provided by Mr Whiting and his comrades in the bombardment force.

Mr Whiting was one of the Royal Marines in X-Turret on June 6 1944 sending ‘iron greetings’ – 15in shells – to the German defenders.

Two things stick out in particular for the veteran of that momentous day. Firstly, the battleship’s eccentric skipper who wore a Maori ceremonial skirt over his trousers all day for good luck. The second the pipe made by the same skipper to report the record number of shells Ramillies fired.

Indeed, so many rounds left the barrels that they needed replacing when the battleship left the line a few days later.

Called in to support the advance of Allied armour pressing inland, spotter planes directed Ramillies guns towards a wood blocking the tanks’ path. “By the time we’d finished the shooting, there was nothing left of the wood,” Mr Whiting recalled.

Such a hammering took a toll of the marines in the turret. “Health and safety?” Mr Whiting laughed. “We shoved bits of toilet paper up our noses and in our ears. After a while you’d start to bleed, so you left the turret, took a break, replaced the toilet paper, and went back to your post.”

Aged just 19 John Dennett was an ‘old hand’ at amphibious operations: North Africa, Salerno, Anzio. “I saw a bit of the world before bloody Normandy,” he said. On June 1944 he crossed the Channel as an anti-aircraft gunner on Landing Ship Tank 322, charged with deliver 12 tanks in the second wave.

Seeing the armada crossing the Channel on the night of June 5th-6th filled him and his shipmates with confidence. “The sight was unbelievable and I knew there and then we were part of something big, you felt that nothing could happen to us.”

LST 322 lived a charmed life – spending some time on the beach awaiting the tide to refloat her before she could sail back to Portsmouth to pick up fresh troops and equipment.

“We had no idea of the bigger picture – we were aware of the chaos and carnage around us, the tide bringing bodies back in. It was only later that you begin to realise how lucky you were – it could have been any one of us lost.”

In later life, Mr Dennett, from Wallasey, Wirral, has made it his mission to both educate later generations about the sacrifices of his comrades in Normandy – and helped veterans of more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan deal with what in 1944 was battle fatigue, today PTSD. It earned him the British Empire Medal.

“That means more to me than any other medal I’ve received,” he said, his jacket covered with an array of decorations for his WW2 service.

Marine Samuel Rudge described involvement in the 80th anniversary as a “privilege”. He continued: “The veterans are inspirational, they inspire us and events like today or going across to Normandy allow us to show how much we appreciate them.”

His 47 Commando comrade Marine Archie Smoker said one word summed up the achievements of the D-Day generation: admiration.

“We cannot be more grateful for what they did for us,” said the 22-year-old. “Now, with the veterans almost all gone, you have to remember their sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy. And it is something we will never forget.

“Speaking with the veterans brings home the reality of D-Day – for them it was all too real.”