“It was havoc on the beach, with people just dashing and tearing around, trying to save their lives. We saw quite a few people die and a lot of bodies floating in the war,” Maurice Sadler recalls of D-Day.
Now 94 and living in Scarborough, Maurice was just 19 when he had a vital role in the Allied invasion as a gunner responsible for taking out German snipers and machine gun positions on board a support craft assisting Canadian soldiers landing on Juno beach, one of the five beaches Allied forces landed upon on D-Day.
Despite the horrors unfolding in front of him, Maurice says he had no time to be frightened in the midst of battle as he controlled a huge ‘pom-pom’ gun normally used as an anti-aircraft weapon.
“You could see these people firing at us and see shells landing alongside the ship,” he says. “We had to try and pick out where they were coming from.”
He says in the heat of battle, there was a great sense of satisfaction when he managed to hit a target.
“Obviously we were very pleased when we did it. I was getting shelled and bullets were flying over me. The way I thought of it was it was either him or me. I wasn’t frightened, during battle I was never scared.”
Maurice and his 90 fellow Royal Marines on board Landing Craft Flak 21 were also sent to the nearby Gold Beach invasion during D-Day to bombard the German positions before returning to Juno. He says his main feeling at the end of an historic day was relief.
“We were very glad that nobody had got hurt on our ship. There were only two chaps who got slightly injured by shrapnel when the bullets had hit the sides of the ship. We were quite happy we had managed to do our job.”
Maurice, who was born in Middlesex, had signed up to the Royal Marines in May 1942 when he was 17 – a year after his older brother Edward, who was 21, had been among the 1,415 men killed in the sinking of battlecruiser HMS Hood by the German ship Bismarck.
He says his parents had mixed reactions to him following in his brother’s footsteps to join the military. “My father was alright but my mother was very, very upset. She had a nervous breakdown when she had heard about my brother but with me, she came around eventually because I felt I had got to do it. There was a war on and all the young blokes were joining up. I didn’t see why I should stay behind.”
Maurice says he went along with five friends with the intention of joining the Royal Navy but was deemed too tall and told to apply for the Royal Marines instead.
After specialist gunnery training in Portsmouth, Maurice was assigned to Landing Craft Flak 21 with their initial missions involving escorting convoys along the British coast which were at risk of attack from German planes. “We had one or two attacks along the coast but you just prepared yourself. We were told what to expect and look out for.”
He says the crew were only told of the D-Day invasion plans the day before it occurred. “It was not until 24 hours before we went. We were a little bit apprehensive, we didn’t know what we were going to meet.”
When they did land on Juno beach after the fighting was over, the craft’s steering was damaged after hitting rocks and they had to return to Portsmouth for repairs to be carried out. Maurice says despite the end of the fighting, the beach was still a dangerous place to be as the Germans had left booby traps and he saw one man killed in an explosion as he attempted to pick up a seemingly-abandoned motorbike.
After the repairs in England, the craft was sent back out to the Normandy coast for 16 weeks to protect the Allied supply route – known as the ‘Trout Line’ – from attack by German aircraft, torpedo boats and small motor boats packed with explosives. Maurice says the assignment was more nerve-wracking than D-Day in many respects.
“We had to go up and down looking for one and two-man submarines that were trying to sink our ships. I was scared then. If you did get hit, you knew it was your lot. Two LCFs went down and we lost quite a lot of friends.”
It was after this posting that Maurice met the woman who was to become his wife, Mary Burke. Mary came from Coventry from a military family and as a 16-year-old had been working in the Owen Owen department store in the city until it was destroyed in the German blitz of Coventry in November 1940. In 1943, she signed up to the Women’s Royal Naval Service and was posted to HMS Robertson in Sandwich in Kent, which was a supply base for landing craft. The pair met after Maurice was posted there following D-Day.
His last wartime posting was to the support staff of the Royal Marines School of Music in Scarborough. “It was like a holiday to us after what we had been through,” Maurice says.
Despite the distance, he also managed to continue his blossoming romance with Mary. “I used to keep in touch with her by telephone and wrote letters,” he says. “When I got a long weekend, we went to London. We made arrangements that we were going to get married.”
He survived the remainder of the war, much to his parents’ relief. “My mother was more than pleased, she was over the moon when I came home. My father was always very proud and he always told everyone about my war service.”
Maurice and Mary got married in May 1946 in Coventry and have been together ever since, recently celebrating their 73rd anniversary. He says there are some simple reasons for their happily-married life – “do as you are told and don’t argue too much! And don’t go to bed feeling upset with each other.”
The couple, who had two children and are now great-great-grandparents, initially lived in London but moved to Coventry in the 1960s when Maurice got a job working for Rolls Royce Aero Engines. After retirement in 1990, the couple moved to Scarborough in 1996 as their daughter and her family had settled there and have lived in the town ever since.
Maurice set up a Royal Marine Association branch in Scarborough after moving up there but says there are only around six members now left. This week, he has joined other veterans who served on D-Day in attending the commemorations down in Portsmouth.
He says he has previously been back to the beaches of Normandy on two occasions for the 25th and 50th anniversaries of D-Day – on one occasion apologising to the locals for his part in destroying a church tower during the assault. “I said ‘I’m sorry I knocked down your church tower’. They said, ‘don’t worry, we rebuilt it and it is better than ever’.”
He says the return visits had been deeply emotional experiences. “It brought back a lot of memories. It made me very glad we had made a difference. It was nice to know who we had been fighting for.”
In 2015, Maurice was awarded the Légion d’honneur for his part in the Normandy campaign.
Maurice says the passage of time and the loss of many of the people he served alongside due to old age has made remembering the events of 75 years ago this week particularly poignant.
“I feel like it was 95 years ago some mornings. But you have flashbacks every now and again to the day. You sit down and start thinking about it.
“Let’s face it, would you have liked to have been under Hitler and be told what you can and can’t do? At least we have got our freedom.”
Special photoshoot for Maurice and Mary
Maurice and Mary recently had a photoshoot with photographer Glyn Dewis as part of his ongoing project to document the memories of Second World War veterans.
Glyn says: “I was inspired to start the ‘War Time Portrait Project’ having always had a keen interest in the events of World War Two, and this combined with my photography I felt was the perfect way to give something back; to take classic portraits of those who served and gave so much and to give them something that can be treasured and kept within the family.
“As corny as it may sound, this really does feel like something I was meant to do; the reason I became a photographer and on the journey I’m meeting, photographing and become friends with such wonderful people.”