“I thought it was a way to escape,” says Douglas Parker of the day he joined the Army aged 18 in 1941.
He left his tough job making metal window frames at a Sheffield factory, but instead of being the break for freedom he’d hoped for, it put him on the path to one of the defining and bloodiest fights of the global conflict, the Normandy landings.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says, recalling the events of June 6, 1944 at his home in Intake, Sheffield, ahead of this year’s Remembrance commemorations.
Now 96, Douglas is one of the last surviving veterans who took part in the initial assault on foot 75 years ago, landing on Sword Beach at 7.20am as an infantryman with 2nd battalion East Yorks Regiment.
The invasion – a colossal feat involving troops, tanks, planes and ships – killed or injured 10,000 Allied soldiers in a matter of hours as they strove to gain a foothold in mainland Europe that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Today Douglas is dressed smartly in a regimental tie and a blazer that shines with medals as he valiantly overcomes failing sight and hearing to tell his story.
“It was really rough,” he says of D-Day. “We were boxed in for quite a while. But it had to be successful, and it was. If it hadn’t, it would’ve been a catastrophe. It was the worst part of the war, it was in such a small area.”
Training for the Battle of Normandy – codename Operation Overlord – started not long after Douglas was enlisted, and took 18 months.
Most of the practice took place out of enemy agents’ sight in Dumfries and Galloway, before his unit was moved to Waterlooville, near Portsmouth, ready for the decisive attack. “Our division was hand-picked to do the assault, we were the first ashore,” he says.
Douglas sailed across the English Channel on the Empire Battleaxe, one of several infantry landing ships. He and his comrades then made the final journey to the beach in purpose-built flat-bottom craft that each carried around 35 men and were fitted with a ramp into the sea.
“It was just pot luck who was going to get there first,” he says. “Our objective was to make the place clear for all the thousands of troops to follow, and that’s what we did. We had heavy casualties.”
Before the ship landed, Douglas’ platoon sergeant Eric Ibbotson was killed when a loaded Sten gun accidentally fell from a table. The ammunition ricocheted around, severing the main artery in Eric’s thigh.
Douglas, who was acting as platoon runner, was the last off the ramp. “I dashed out, and I could see the machine gun bullets hitting the sand about 10 yards in front of me.”
He hid behind a metal anti-tank obstacle before pressing on. “I ran up and there was this chap, Corporal Wilkinson, lying on the sand. He said ‘Help me, help me’.
“I dragged him to a little stone wall, laid him behind there and shouted to the stretcher-bearers who were hard at work, but he died. He was one of those enthusiastic soldiers – ‘Let’s get at them’. He’s buried at Hermanville Cemetery.”
The invasion strategy meant Douglas was at the front throughout as more troops landed behind to storm the beaches. “I remember it was dark and we said ‘That’s it, dig in’. There was no food. We had something to keep us going, probably hardtack biscuits. We might have got some tea.”
Though he is one of the few Yorkshire D-Day veterans still alive, Douglas is not the only one who has shared his harrowing recollections on the 75th anniversary of the campaign.
They courageously charged ashore into a blizzard of gunfire and shelling and were left bearing the physical and mental scars of war.
“We’re not heroes. The heroes are still there,” says fellow D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, who was then an infantryman with the Green Howards. His war ended when he was sent home with shell shock.
“These experiences what we’ve had and what other veterans have had, you don’t talk about them because they’re too terrible to talk about,” he says. “You’ve seen things you shouldn’t have seen...There’s some who’ve never talked about it.
“I feel very, very lucky,” he reflects. “To say what we went through, that we came through it. I feel myself and anybody else who came through it very, very lucky.”
“Some of us were lucky, and other people weren’t so lucky,” says Douglas, of his fallen companions. “I think war is futile, there’s no doubt about that. There are no winners, there can’t be.”
After D-Day, Douglas made it all the way to Bremen in Germany. He remembers the huge sense of relief he felt when the war ended.
“It was a terrible thing. Hitler killed millions, didn’t he, not thousands. It took England a long time to get back on its feet though, there was a lot of poverty. There were no jobs, and a lot of people were on war work anyway in the steelworks.”
The European Union originated after 1945 partly as a means of securing peace and avoiding further brutal conflicts, but Douglas is in favour of Brexit. “We were doing quite well on our own,” he reasons. “England is a different country to a lot of Europe.”
Douglas went to the Middle East with the Army to serve in Palestine before being demobbed in 1946. He returned to manufacturing window frames in Sheffield, where he met his wife Maureen, a shorthand typist, at a City Hall dance.
They wed in 1952, spending 67 years together until her death aged 90 last month. Their sons John, 58, and Stuart, 55, are joined by five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.In 2016 Douglas was among a group of former soldiers from South Yorkshire to receive France’s highest distinction, the Légion d’honneur.
He has made poignant journeys back to the Continent to pay his respects at war graves, and travelled to France with the Royal British Legion on the MV Boudicca cruise ship in June for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He was the only Sheffield veteran on the trip.
As a civilian, he suffered what would now be identified as post-traumatic stress disorder, and once visited a doctor only to be told: “Don’t come here wasting my time again.”
Douglas is still disturbed by the war’s full horror. “The most terrible thing was the murder of the Jewish people. Little children, two or three years old, walking into those death chambers to be gassed. How could anybody do such things to children?”