D-Day: Yorkshire's last surviving D-Day veterans recall the horrors they saw - and those left behind

Veterans from Yorkshire who survived that fateful day recall their experiences, the horrors that they saw, and paid tribute to their fallen comrades. They spoke to Ruby Kitchen.

To Jack Mortimer he is just a simple soldier. But as he closes his eyes, flashing back to D-Day on Normandy’s beaches, it’s those left behind that he sees.

It’s their call that echoes in the thunder of gunfire, from that fateful day on June 6, 1944, as he inched his way ever closer to shore.

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As the shells shook, and the waves churned and the sea turned red around them.

York's remaining D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, looks at the Commonwealth War Graves at Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate, as the 80th anniversary gets closer,  photographed by Tony Johnson for The Yorkshire Post.York's remaining D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, looks at the Commonwealth War Graves at Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate, as the 80th anniversary gets closer,  photographed by Tony Johnson for The Yorkshire Post.
York's remaining D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, looks at the Commonwealth War Graves at Stonefall Cemetery in Harrogate, as the 80th anniversary gets closer, photographed by Tony Johnson for The Yorkshire Post.

“There was no time to be frightened,” he says now. “We knew that it was a battle that had to be won to win the war.

“I’m grateful to have survived. I am sorry so many had to die.”

This was the largest seaborne invasion in history, and one of the bloodiest battles in the Second World War. Operation Overlord, known as D-Day.

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A driver and despatch rider, first from the ferry, Mr Mortimer recalled how his vehicle had landed in two or three feet of water offshore.

Jack Mortimer, from Leeds, now aged 100 one of the last surviving veterans of D-Day. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James HardistyJack Mortimer, from Leeds, now aged 100 one of the last surviving veterans of D-Day. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James Hardisty
Jack Mortimer, from Leeds, now aged 100 one of the last surviving veterans of D-Day. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer, James Hardisty

“All along the beach there were ships landing,” he said. “I was the first off. There were guns, it was noisy. Chaos really. Just thousands of soldiers...

“I simply made my way off the beach. Followed the tracks, until I got to a little country road. The beach master was there, shouting, and there was all this noise.

“Big battleships out in the Channel, and shells and mortar flying over our heads.”

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As a boy, Mr Mortimer had worked the fruit and veg stall at Morley Market, helping to fund his way through Grammar School. Then came war.

He was 20 years old when he landed on Sword Beach. He is 100 now, and will return with the Royal British Legion (RBL) in coming days to mark the 80th anniversary.

“I’m just a simple soldier,” he insists again, from his home in Seacroft in Leeds. “We all did our little bit. And that made a victory.

“I’m proud of being a D Day veteran. I’m proud of my medals. I’m more proud of my generation.”

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Some 150,000 Allied troops were to land on five French beaches that morning of June 6, 1944, marking the start of the liberation of western Europe.

This year, fewer than a handful from Yorkshire are to return. As the ravages of time marches on, there are not many veterans still surviving.

Among those fit to travel in coming days is Ken Cooke, from York. Mr Mortimer. And Harry Birdsall, of Wakefield.

Having been called up three months before D-Day, aged just 18, Mr Birdsall recalled how he had set off on a steam train from home with just £2 in his pocket for training in Richmond.

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In almost no time at all, he was to find himself ferrying supplies to the coast in preparation for the Normandy landings, “cowering” in his lifejacket as he boarded a ship at Dover.

As a driver, attached to the Royal Army Service Corps, Mr Birdsall would go on to Germany, helping to evacuate prisoners of war from the Belsen concentration camp.

This June 6, the father-of-three will also return to Normandy with the RBL. Then Ken Cooke, aged 98, who will travel with the York and Normandy Veterans.

“It means a heck of a lot to me, to return,” he said. “It’s going to be emotional. It’s probably going to be the last time.

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“For the veterans, we’ve always gone to see our pals,” he added. “This time we will probably say goodbye.”

Mr Cooke, a Rowntrees Factory Worker, joined up as a teenager in December 1943 with the friends he had played football with as a boy. He was to lose them in France.

Their ‘adventure’ was quickly to turn, he said, as the reality of war ravaged its claw. On Gold Beach to a barrage of bullets, he was among the second wave to fight their way to shore.

This year he will return to the British Normandy Memorial, near Ver-sur-Mer.

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“I’ve always said I’m not a hero,” he says. “The heroes are the people who don’t come back.”

And he added quietly: “We have to remember. We’ve got to rely on the youngsters to see that it doesn’t happen again. It’s in their hands now.”

Cyril Booth was a Royal Signals engineer, attached to the 75th Anti-Tank Regiment. He landed near Bayeux, six days after D-Day.

The great-grandfather, from Wakefield, will celebrate his 100th birthday in just a few days, on June 24. He can remember the war, as clear as day.

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He is adamant that he was just a “little cog” in this vast machine. He was not firing on the frontline, he insists, he did not have to face the fears that others did. He paid tribute to his fellow veterans.

“People don’t realise what war was like,” he added. “We do need to remember, from time to time. There were a lot of deaths.”

Mr Booth enlisted in the Army aged 18-and-a-half. Already an engineer at E Green & Son, Wakefield, he could have been in the reserves but he was determined to volunteer.

There was two years training, before he was sent to France, and then Germany and Burma. He can remember travelling through the docks at London, and the crowds waving them off.

Then the devastation at Caen, fires burning around him.

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“My job was to go at night, and do any repairs,” he said. “That was it. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, compared to others. We had to be back before daylight, or we would have been shelled.

“I was attached to an active regiment. It took me nearer the frontline, maybe, than most people got. But it was a job we had to do.”

There was a Mention in Despatches, for distinguished service. But Mr Booth remembers late one night, driving back in the early hours of the morning, as a Scots regiment was marching on to the front line.

They walked in tidy rows, pipes blowing, on either side of him.

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“That day there were 75 per cent casualties,” he said. “They are ones we should remember.

“War is a terrible thing. To me the ones who deserve the medals are not here to collect them.”

Back with Mr Mortimer, in Leeds, he too reflects on lessons learned. He has no time for war. He watches the news with great sadness.

He has learned much about what happened on D-Day, he added, since he landed as a boy on Normandy’s shores.

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Early that morning, the 6th Parachute Brigade had landed near Le Havre and took out the big guns which were trained on Sword Beach.

“Had they not done that, I wouldn’t be here,” he wondered. “The ships would have sunk in devastation. I’m very thankful to those fellows.”

Now, said Mr Mortimer, it’s the “daft” things he remembers. Blackouts, and air raids, and the spiralling whine of a siren’s call. Of his late wife Flo, who died just four days before his 100th birthday.

This month, as he prepares to return to France, Mr Mortimer is only too aware that it may be for the last time. There aren’t so many now.

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He goes for remembrance, he said, and to pay tribute to the fallen. Tears fill his eyes, then, as he delivers the haunting words For the Fallen on Normandy’s shores.

“They gave up their lives,” he said. “They gave their all.”

He softly added: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”

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