D-Day +1 veteran recalls memories of Normandy landings on 75th anniversary

Posted: 04/06/2019 | Scottish War Blinded

A D-Day Plus One veteran who recently became a member of Scottish War Blinded after his sight deteriorated has recalled his memories of the Normandy landings.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which of course saw Allied forces invade Nazi-occupied France.

Now, former Signalman John Mitchell, of Galston, is highlighting the importance of remembering the operation.

John grew up in the lace factory community of Newmilns, East Ayrshire, and was called up in 1942, aged 18. After primary training at Bridge of Don Barracks of the Gordon Highlanders in Aberdeen he was assigned to the Royal Signals.

The young Private began an intense training period to become a wireless and line operator, kick-starting his army role which would lead him to the Normandy beaches.

John (left) in uniform as a teenager and right, aged 94, holding his Legion D’honneur


'You didn't know what was happening'

“Training was very intensive, with many hours of Morse code to try and get up to a certain speed of so many words per minute,” explained John, now aged 94.

“I was sent to Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield and Kirkburton for training, then Hunterston on the coast of Ayrshire and Seamill.

“We did our D-Day training along the west of Scotland beaches. Nobody knew where they were going at that time. But you knew you were training for invasion. You were going out on different exercises, you’d be at one bit of beach one day, the next you’d be up in the hills, usually bogged down in wet weather.

“We then moved from Hunterston down to an estate in Weybridge. As a Signalman, though I was sitting behind a wireless, everything I did was in code. I didn’t know who I was talking to. You were working to a particular station and you didn’t know how important the messages were.”

A few weeks before D-Day, John was moved down towards Gosport, where he and hundreds of others were held in holding stations – and he says he could sense things were “hotting up”.

“You knew you were expecting an invasion some time but you didn’t know when,” John said.

“You didn’t know what was happening. Strict security was the order of the day and phone calls were forbidden.

“We had to waterproof our trucks with tape and plasticine and an upright pipe for our exhaust. Then we were on the cobbled slipway at Gosport and on to a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) which had space for about 20 tanks and some room left for smaller trucks like the one I was on.

“I think these vessels had a speed of 13 knots and bobbed about like corks when at sea because of the shallow draught.

“The size of the truck I was in was like a small ice cream van and had a small window in each side with a door at the rear. On board we carried a PIAT (rocket launcher) with a dozen rockets, a Sten gun and two Lee Enfield 303 rifles with ammunition. We had to black out the windows at night and used a Tilly lamp for lighting.


The journey at sea

“We set out on our journey not knowing what might lie ahead. Most of the troops on board were Canadians, out to make up for their treatment at Dieppe.

“When the ship was bobbing about a bulkhead door swung and my head was injured. The little finger of my right hand was burst open and I had to get attention. The person treating me asked if I would still be able to fire my rifle, and I replied that I could hold a pencil and operate a Morse key and be of more use in that department. My treatment would most likely be minor in comparison to what he may have to deal with later.

“When we were at sea, news came through about the landings and we knew for certain that this was not another exercise but the real thing.

“In between bouts of seasickness, the Canadians spent most of their time gambling and did so right up until we were called to our trucks preparing to land. There was a blanket on the floor of the deck covered with the new French currency. Someone must have landed a very rich man and I hope he lived to enjoy it.”


The beaches

John’s vessel landed on Juno Beach near Courselles on D-Day +1 and recalls the area being packed with ships.

John said: “There have been so many articles written about what we were to see on the beach with the noise of battle and all the bodies, and I am sure that anyone who was there will have special memories of their own. I am just as sure that a lot of them will have tried to eradicate them from their minds.

“There was the beach master with his megaphone shouting to everyone to get off the beach and it was fortunate that the engineers that had landed before us had done well, as there was a break in the wire and a way through marked with tape.

“We went on as far as we could to try and find the rest of our unit – some of whom had landed with bicycles on the first day. We went so far until we were told to stop unless we spoke fluent German, we were ordered to pull in off the road onto the edge of a field behind a Canadian truck.

“When we could move in the early morning, the Canadian driver drove forward a couple of yards and hit a mine and the truck was destroyed. There are some incidents that you do not forget.

“You were stuck in fields, you were put on a wireless set and you’d work back and forward to whoever. You were sitting in a thing like a small ice cream van with a wireless set and a table and lamp beside you, and you were there for hours so you didn’t know a lot about what was going on outside.

“To start with, I was put onto a half track and on the radio set working to the Battleships Ramilles or Warspite, two of our ships that were bombarding enemy strongpoints. That is what we were led to believe, remembering that we were sending our messages to a set with a given call sign, like ABC, for example, and the messages were coded. One could only hope that the job being done was worthwhile.”

John’s unit made its way through France, then Belgium, Holland and finally into Germany in April 1945.

“We were stuck in the area for six weeks before we got moving. It came in spasms – sometimes you felt you were doing very well once you moved out and sometimes you moved on very quickly, and then all of a sudden you came to a halt and you were stuck for a wee while. I was sent out to work with a couple of units.

“When the news came of the German surrender I was just sat at the wireless. You turned your station down to get the news, then back up again and just heard the war was over. It was a non-event as far as we were concerned, no celebrations and no reaction. But you were glad, knowing you’d come through alright.”

Back in England, John was kitted out to head out to the Far East, but following the drop of the atom bomb and Japan’s surrender he was instead sent out to the Middle East.


Back home to Scotland

He returned to Scotland after he was demobbed in 1947, and married his long-term girlfriend, May, in 1948 and dedicated himself to a career in the textile industry.

“You wanted to forget most of the things you’d seen and wanted to forget that part of your life,” he explained.

“You tried to forget it and concentrate on the present and the future. I resolved to work hard and learn as much as I could about my trade.”

In 2015, John received the Legion D’honneur at Glasgow City Chambers in recognition of the part he played in the D-Day operation, which he described as “quite overwhelming”.

Now, having recently celebrated 70 years of marriage with wife May, who is also 94, the father-of-two and grandfather-of-one says he feels very lucky to have lived such a long, healthy life.

He has sight loss due to eye conditions glaucoma and macular degeneration, but has recently become a member of Scottish War Blinded, which has provided him equipment including anti-glare glasses and lighting, enabling him to maintain independence despite his sight loss.

He reflected: “I’m lucky I’m still here, I’m very fortunate.

“Young people are very understanding. I think they should cherish their freedom – it was hard won. Cherish it and respect it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”