Normandy veterans who never ran out of steam

Veterans Ken Cooke and Ken Smith from the York Normandy Veterans on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.  Picture: Tony Johnson.
Veterans Ken Cooke and Ken Smith from the York Normandy Veterans on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. Picture: Tony Johnson.
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Not many survivors of the events in France 75 years ago remain, but two of them – three if you include the train they were on – enjoyed a day out in Yorkshire today.

With so few members left, the Normandy Veterans’ Association has officially disbanded, but its outpost in York has remained defiant until the last.

“We decided to keep the veterans together for as long as they’re fit enough,” said Nick Bielby, secretary of the branch, as two of his members climbed aboard a steam locomotive on the Worth Valley heritage line at Haworth in West Yorkshire.

Their mode of transport would have been familiar – the US Army Transportation Corps S160 class engine nicknamed Big Jim had been constructed in America in 1945 and then shipped to France to help with the clean-up in the aftermath of the Normandy landings. It has been at Haworth since 1977.

Ken Cooke, 93, who was a private in Yorkshire’s Green Howards, said he was no stranger to such memorabilia, having had a loco on the Derwent Valley Light Railway named in his honour.

“I was totally shocked when the curtain went back,” he said. “Everybody had known what was happening except me.”

Ken Smith, 94, who was a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, said: “Railways were part of our lives in the army – they were how you moved around. I can recall one journey where we travelled in cattle trucks and had to crawl through small gaps in the vehicle sides carrying our rifles and scrambling over sleeping bodies to find a place to sit.”

Flying Officer Douglas Petty, 96, who went up in Lancaster and Halifax bombers from RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, was also due to join the excursion but was not well enough to attend.

He said earlier: “I completed 31 missions over enemy territory and was fortunate to survive when you consider 47 per cent of bomber crews were casualties.”