Leslie Harry Postill has survived more near misses than most. At 96, a former anti-aircraft gunner for the Royal Navy, he still has flashbacks about the D-Day Landings.
But he’s also survived aerial attacks from Stuka fighter planes, torpedo attacks, being rammed by German submarines, the frozen perils of escorting Russian convoys through the Arctic Circle and he was sunk twice in the English Channel.
Speaking from his home in Whinmoor in Leeds, the great grandfather-of-six, who has one daughter and two grandchildren, still exhibits impressive powers of recall from his time during the war.
To begin with, he says Normandy was not what he expected.
“We were in Italy and bound for southern France but then we were switched to cover the D-Day landings,” reminisces Leslie, who is married to Joyce.
“We got loaded up with troops in England and then set off for France. When we got there, it was just like a summer’s day, there was no action. As we got nearer, we thought something would happen, but nothing did, it was just absolutely quiet.
“We landed 450 soldiers onto the beach, along with 170 electricians, two tanks with chains on and the beachmaster. We were stood for about three-quarters of an hour on the beach and not a thing happened. They told us to pull away and sent us back to England for more troops.”
He goes on: “When we came back, it was all hell let loose. Our job then was to unload, then pick up the wounded and broken down vehicles. We did that about six or seven times, going back and forth between Normandy and England.”
Leslie says his ship would get as close as it could to the beach, all the while attempting to evade enemy gunfire.
He recalls: “Wherever you went, there were bombs and shells falling. You couldn’t be frightened because it was all happening – afterwards, you thought to yourself, ‘How the hell did I do that?’ Our job was to bring the wounded out.
“Our ship had sleeping accommodation for about 600 men, there wasn’t time to wait for the hospital ship and so we loaded them and took them back to England.”
After Normandy, he was immediately deployed to Antwerp to help with another invasion, although he says the fighting there was nowhere near as bad.
However, Leslie says Normandy was not the worst experience he witnessed during the war.
“Italy was much worse,” he says. “There, they really were fighting to keep you out.”
Leslie is the son of a foundry worker and a tailoress and grew up in Armley with his two brothers and sisters, all now dead. He attended Whitehall Road School and left at 14 to work as a tailor. He actually signed up and joined the Royal Navy at 17-and-a-half and was already at sea when the powers-that-be found out.
“You weren’t mean to enlist until you were 18,” explains Leslie. “They found out I was underage but I was already on a boat. The captain stepped in and said they would take me from when I turned 18.”
He served with the Royal Navy from 1941-46, during which time he worked all over the world, at one point escorting Russian convoys through the Arctic Circle, for which he was awarded one of Russia’s highest military honours, known as the Ushakov Medal.
“When you went on Russian convoys, if it wasn’t ice and snow, it was bombs. Stukas used to come down and when they did they made an awful whistling noise. If you’ve never heard it, you never want to. We used to have to wait until they got into the attack dive before we opened fire, otherwise you had no chance of hitting them.”
Attacks did not just come from the air.
“There were torpedo attacks as well,” says Leslie. “I remember the first time I saw one, I just stood there, transfixed. They would come in so fast. The worst thing was when they sent out a fan of torpedos. We once had our bows blown off but we were never sunk by one. Then there were ‘ramming subs’ as well.”
As if aerial bombardment and submarine attacks weren’t enough, the crew also had sub-zero temperatures to contend with during their long, arduous convoy journeys, lasting up to 13 weeks, from America to Russia.
“The weather was so unpredictable, it could be bright sunshine one minute and then the next, you were in a snowstorm. We constantly had to chip ice from the guns. We all had to wear special gloves on deck, if you got caught without them, you were in big trouble, because if you touched any metal with your bare skin, it would just stick fast.”
Leslie also recalls being sunk three times, twice in the English Channel.
“The first time it happened, we were in the water for about two hours. We had life belts on and we weren’t frightened because we knew someone would be along to pick us up before long. The second time it happened, we were in the water for about half an hour.”
However, during another sinking, this time off the coast of Africa, he was forced to take drastic action.
“Our boat was close to the beach and we were just pulling away when we got hit. The boat began to sink and it was listing.
“Another ship, HMS Zetland, came to our rescue. The captain pulled alongside us but said that because ours was leaning, he could only do it once.
“We all had to jump from our ship to theirs, it was about three or four feet across. Anyone who fell down between the two ships would have been crushed. Luckily we all made it.”
In October 2017, Leslie was awarded the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Légion d’Honneur, one of France’s highest military honours. It was his 10th medal.
After the war, Leslie returned to tailoring, working in a number of businesses, including Lewis’s and Burtons and later at Monk Bridge iron and steel works on Whitehall Road, which is where he met Joyce, marrying her in 1976.
Until just a few years ago, he was an avid, trophy-winning Crown Green bowler and in his younger days he bred budgerigars.
At 96, he is mostly housebound now and is not as active as he used to be. Reflecting on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, he says: “Sometimes I think it should all be forgotten about and then other times, you think about your pals. I lost some good pals in the war.”
Read about Frank Baugh’s D-Day memories in tomorrow’s paper.