Don Walker, who has died at 94, was a veteran of the Normandy landings of 1944 who returned home to Sheffield an ex-prisoner of war so thin that his family barely recognised him.
His death leaves just 10 survivors in the city’s branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association.
For him, the “longest day” was not June 6, when the landings began, but July 17. It was then, as a 20-year-old tank radio operator with the 147th “Hampshire” battalion of the Royal Armoured Corps, that he took part in one of the biggest tank battles ever fought, on the plains south-east of Caen.
The objective of Operation Goodwood was a limited attack to the south, to take the rest of Caen and the Bourguébus Ridge beyond, from the Germans. But small advances came at enormous cost to the allied forces.
“We were supposed to straighten out the German line but the Germans straightened us out,” Mr Walker recalled on the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
His Churchill Tank was struck by an 88mm shell from a German Tiger tank. The Churchill exploded into flames, and his four crewmates were vaporised. Nothing of them was ever found. By a miracle, or quirk of fate, he was thrown, unscathed, into a cornfield and captured by the Germans.
The tank was among 314 Allied vehicles lost during Goodwood alone; his comrades among 3,474 casualties
“For many years, I couldn’t talk about it,” he said. “It was like my whole family had been killed, except me. A tank crew is very close. You eat together. You sleep together. You wash together. And then suddenly there is nothing left of Jock and Geordie and Matt.”
In German custody, he was shunted from one location to another – a farmhouse where he was shackled with ropes, a henhut guarded by the SS, stables where he was paraded before a firing squad.
Eventually he was packed into a stifling cattle wagon, 30 PoWs in each, and driven to the Stalag 4B camp near Leipzig. He was listed as missing in action, feared dead – and for six months his family in Heeley thought he had been killed.
He returned to Normandy after the war, most recently in 2009. He wanted, he said, to be close to his comrades, “to try to find their names on the memorial to the missing”.
After the war, he married Cynthia, raised a family, and became a book-keeper in the steel industry. A keen cyclist, he liked to go for rides in the countryside and to watch Sheffield United play. He had been a fan for 88 years.
A year ago, at a ceremony held in Sheffield Town Hall, he was recognised with France’s highest military accolade, the Legion d’Honneur.