As Ken Cooke stepped off his landing craft onto the beach at Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944, one thought flashed through his mind.
“I know it sounds strange but I wasn’t bothered about the bullets flying around, all I was bothered about was that my socks were wet through,” he says.
It was ten to eight in the morning and Ken was among the second wave of British troops that landed on Gold Beach, part of an armada of vessels carrying more than 129,000 Allied soldiers to France in what was the biggest seaborne invasion in history.
Today, Ken is one of the last surviving members of York’s Normandy veterans and his experiences, along with those of four other comrades, have been retold in a new play written by local writer Helena Fox.
The 92-year-old is part of an ever dwindling band of brothers who fought on D-Day. “There’s not so many of us now,” he says, sitting in his living room. “There were more than 60 D-Day veterans in York when I first joined and now we’re down to just four.”
Ken was just 18 when he was called up for service in December 1943. He left his parents’ home in York and after six weeks initial training joined the Green Howards.
He had no inkling during his training of the daunting task that lay ahead. “We did no training as regards to D-Day. Some people went up to Scotland where the beaches were similar to those in Normandy, but we didn’t have any of that. The only beach I’d been to before was in Skegness where I went as a child with my family.”
Ken’s regiment was sent to an army camp on the South East coast. “There were about 150 of us and we were directed to this officer who had some trestle tables laid out with photographs of the French coast and this was the first time we knew what we’d be doing and where we were going.”
Next they went to Southampton where they boarded an American liberty ship and set off for the Normandy coast. “It was all new to me. It was the first time I’d even been on a boat,” says Ken.
“We settled down and at half past three the bells went off. We went to the mess deck and had Scotch porridge with salt, not sugar, a corned beef sandwich, a cup of tea and a tot of rum. Then we went up on deck, climbed down the scrambling nets and into the assault craft and set off for the beaches.”
He vividly remembers the moments before they landed. “There were rockets and explosions going off and I was just watching it all. I was an 18 year-old and at the time it felt like an adventure. I’d never seen anything like it before.
“We had a good driver on our craft because I only stepped into a foot of water.” Others weren’t so lucky. “The current was very strong and caused the sand to form mounds which meant they thought they’d landed so they dropped the ramp and the men stepped off into ten foot of water. With all their kit they had no chance. The same thing happened with some of the tanks which went straight down,” he says.
“We got off the beach as quickly as possible and went inland. We had to pull back at one point because we’d gone quite far and they were worried we might get cut off. It’s hard to explain but you didn’t have time to be frightened it was only the following day that you started to think about what happened.”
Ken survived that harrowing first day but many didn’t. Although the British lost many men on their beaches, codenamed Sword and Gold, it was the American soldiers at Omaha who bore the brunt of the casualties on the first day.
An estimated 10,000 Allied troops were either killed or injured, and tens of thousands more would join their ranks in the bitter struggle to loosen the grip of Nazi tyranny across Europe in the long months ahead.
Among the casualties were some of the men they had trained alongside. “We were in a trench the next day and the East Yorkshires came past and one of the lads shouted over that a lad called Dennis had been killed. Well, we knew him and that brought it home to us,” he says.
“When you’re a little kid you used to play cowboys and Indians and at the end everybody would get up and go home. Over there if you went down the chances were you didn’t get up again.”
Within a month of landing in France Ken was badly injured by a shell while on patrol. He suffered shrapnel wounds to his back and legs and was shipped back to England before spending five months convalescing in hospital.
But after recovering, rather than being discharged, he was sent to rejoin the British troops across The Channel.
He arrived in Brussels in March the following year, joining up with the Highland Light Infantry. “I asked ‘why can’t I go back to my old regiment, the Green Howards?’ and they said they’d got a pasting at Nijmegen and had split them all up and put them in regiments that were short of men.”
Not long afterwards he was injured a second time during a mortar attack outside Bremen in Germany. “It was shell shock or ‘bomb happy’, that’s what they called it. I think today they call it post traumatic stress disorder.”
This time his war was finally over and he was sent back to England. “On VE Day I went to see the doctor ready to be demobbed. He examined me and asked when I’d been injured. When I told him last July he just said, ‘you should never have gone back.’”
Ken eventually returned home to York where he met and married a local girl called Joan with whom he had a family. He got a job with Rowntrees where he worked for nearly 50 years before retiring.
It’s now 73 years since Ken took part in the D-Day landings but he still makes the pilgrimage back to the Normandy beaches and war cemeteries to mark the June anniversary and to pay his respects to his fallen comrades. “If it wasn’t for D-Day we wouldn’t be here now. We don’t know what would happened,” he says.
“There’s been a lot of talk recently about the First World War and the Somme but people don’t seem as interested in D-Day as they used to be.
“We sometimes go to schools to give talks and we used to go to supermarkets with our collection tins. I was in a supermarket on one occasion and a student came up to me and asked who we were collecting for and I said ‘the Normandy Veterans’, and he asked ‘what’s Normandy?’ And I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s one of the reasons why he hopes this new play reaches as wide an audience as possible. “It’s an important part of our history and if our stories can help get the younger generation interested and make them want to find out more, then I think that has got to be a good thing.”
For more information about the Normandy veterans visit www.spiritofnormandy.org.uk
Fundraising appeal for play
Helena Fox’s play Bomb Happy, an expression used during the Second World War to describe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), is based on the first-hand accounts of the last four surviving D-Day veterans.
It tells verbatim accounts of the experiences of veterans Ken Smith, Albert Barritt, Ken Cooke and George Meredith. The memories of Dennis Haydock, who has now passed away, are also included.
The play is due to tour venues across Yorkshire during October and November and has launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise £5,444 to cover the production costs.
To support the appeal go to https://everwitchtheatre.com/bomb-happy-york-normandy-veterans/ or call Nick Beilby, oo-ordinator of York Normandy Veterans on 07948 418774.