It was 2015 and there were rumblings of concern among the remaining members of York Normandy Veterans. The group, once sixty-strong had dwindled to just five and those left were worried that their memories of D-Day would be lost; their experiences from a critical moment in British history that saw so many young men lose their lives, could well die with them.
A chance conversation between coordinator Nick Beilby and Helena Fox of North Yorkshire theatre company Everwitch inspired a project which aimed to make sure that was not the case.
“They were particularly concerned that as a nation we may come to forget their young comrades who never returned from France,” Helena recalls.
“Having given talks in schools and to the public for many years, they were actively looking for a way to keep their memories alive for future generations.”
Helena’s vision was to document and share their verbatim experiences through a play and she set about interviewing the veterans. Ken Smith and Ken Cooke recounted their stories, alongside 94-year-old Bert Barritt, who landed on Sword Beach.
George Meredith, who served in the Royal Ordnance Corps, and Dennis Haydock, who was a member of the Coldstream Guards, also shared their memories, though both men have passed away since - and two more have joined the veterans group in recent years.
“I could really hear and see everything they were describing,” says play director Helena. “I was transported from their living rooms onto the beaches and battlefields.
“It was shocking to think how young they were and how little training they had to prepare for D-Day and the horrors they would witness. What became apparent was that this wasn’t just going to be a play about the events of D-Day but about the hidden world of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the lifelong impact of this condition.”
It is why the play was named, Bomb Happy - a term used during the Second World War for the shell shock that soldiers experienced. The production toured around Yorkshire in 2017, but is being staged again to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day as part of commemorations commissioned by York Civic Trust, and funded by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund and Two Ridings Community Fund.
“The intangible experiences of people like Ken and Ken are what make a city and their stories are really important,” says David Fraser, the civic trust’s chief executive. “You can see the profound effect that a few months in 1944 had on Ken and Ken, but not just them, their families they left behind. And it wasn’t just the 1940s - 75 years later, they are still feeling the effects.”
Five performances of the show will take place at York Army Museum from June 14 to 16, with a chance to meet the veterans afterwards. It will then tour to two secondary schools and two cadet bases in the region, and one performance will be live screened for schools across the country. The play text is also being released by Methuen Publishers and copies will be going to ten York secondary schools.
Danny Mellor, 26, who plays Ken Cooke, says: “I don’t think I would have been able to go on a landing craft to the complete unknown with heavy artillery fire, whilst friends around you, and people you don’t even know - are getting shot and killed. We will never truly understand what it was like but the play gives a real insight.”
“There’s a living history to it,” adds Joseph Sample, 24, who plays Ken Smith. “There’s a whole person’s life behind the text.”
The commemorations also include a York Army Museum D-Day 75 exhibition, running until September 7, a talk on uncovering the veterans’ stories at York Explore on Thursday and an archive showcase of Second World War stories in the same venue on June 13.