‘You were doing a job, there was no time to be frightened’

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Matthew Japp lives in an ordinary semi-detached house on an ordinary street in Marton.

He does what many people of a certain age do, sits in an armchair and complains about aches and pains and the fact he can’t get out and about as much as he used to.

D-Day veteran Matthew Japp, aged 100.

D-Day veteran Matthew Japp, aged 100.

In short, if you didn’t know him, you’d think he’d lived a very 
ordinary life.

Which is almost an insult 
because this is a man who did something extraordinary, 
something the majority of us alive today couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

On June 6, 1944, 70 years ago today, Matthew landed on Gold Beach at Normandy and began liberating Europe from the grip of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

He was 30-years-old then. He is now 100. Sat at home, staring at his medals, the memories of what he lived through remain vivid.

On several occasions as we talk his eyes well up with tears. It is hard for him to dwell on the things he saw.

Nowadays soldiers who have been in battle get help when they return to ordinary life, they are cared for and looked after.

The soldiers who fought in the Second World War didn’t get any of that. Despite witnessing some of the most grizzly things imaginable they were left to get on with their lives and cope the best they could.

Matthew worked in a grocery store before volunteering to join the Army. He couldn’t have imagined the horrors he would see and it is no wonder he spits his answer when I ask him what he now thinks of war.

“It is a terrible stupid thing, a complete waste of time,” he says, voice quivering with anger and emotion.

“Some of the things I saw, bodies being scraped out of tanks ... that will never leave me. I had nothing against those men. So many lives wasted. The people who instigate war should be put against a wall and shot. So many millions died.

“I wish there was never another war, but there will be. We never learn.”

Born in Glasgow, Matthew moved to Blackpool at the age of 14. “My father was gassed near Ypres in the Great War and he was never the same afterwards,” he said. “We moved to Blackpool for the clean air.”

He started work at one of the town’s George J Mason Ltd Grocer shops, working 12 hour days and earning 12/6p a week.

The Hitler invaded Poland and the Second World War began.

“Rationing came into force and I got fed up of cutting out little square coupons and filling in forms,” Matthew said. “I felt it my duty to join the Army so I went to the recruiting office in Caunce Street and volunteered.

“I was told to go home and wait as they couldn’t cope with the men they’d got. Six months later I got a letter ordering me to
 report at a Preston Army office for an interview.

“I was asked what sports I played and my hobbies. I told them I had little time for sport but spent my leisure hours reading or trying to get American radio stations on my Burndet radio.

“He asked me to sign a paper and gave me the King’s shilling ... I spent the shilling in a pub a few doors away.”

Matthew was called up to the special operator training battalion, the Royal Signals based in Wiltshire.

The unit of around 30 men was so secret it was some time before they learned they were training to be intercept operators. As well as some tough physical training, they had to learn the Morse Code in German and Japanese (“there are 120 letters in the Japanese alphabet – you felt dizzy after a lesson”).

His job was to intercept messages sent by the Germans, put it in code, and transmit it back to HQ.

He served in the desert in Egypt, in Italy where he met Winston Churchill, before being recalled to England to begin preparation for D-Day.

“The training was tough,” he said. “Every morning at seven we were outside in all sorts of weather doing physical training and a three mile run, stripped to the waist. We practised hand grenade throwing and wearing our gas masks by staying a few minutes in a gas-filled shed, then rushing out and firing ten rounds rapid fire at moving targets.”

On June 6, 1944, Matthew boarded a ship at Southampton to cross the English Channel.

“I remember looking back at the Isle of Wight and wondering if I’d ever see England again,” he said.

“I don’t remember being scared, just anxious. Once we landed on the beaches you went into auto-pilot. You were doing a job, there was no time to be frightened.

“Besides I’d done it before. I’d been involved in the landings at Sicily and I’d been fighting in the desert for three years so I was used to fear. I had seen horrible things – driven down roads littered with corpses, some in grotesque bunches, grey faces covered in flies. There was always a smell of death in the air and you got used to it.”

Matthew drove a three-tonne truck off the landing craft at Gold Beach, Normandy. It briefly became stuck in the sand but he managed to make it off the beach and inland.

“There was a lot of gun fire and we were strafed by planes, they could have been German or ours, I don’t know – you didn’t trust any of them. When you saw them coming you hit the ground and hoped for the best,” he said.

“We stopped the first night in a freezing country lane and I remember sleeping, or trying to, in the driver’s seat. It was freezing and uncomfortable.

“We carried on driving forwards the next day and after some almighty bombing and shelling the Germans were forced to withdraw.

“We just kept going. We slept anywhere we could – in a field, in a ditch, a farmhouse barn ... wherever we could find. There was insects crawling all over but you were so tired you just flaked out.

“I don’t think I was aware we were starting to win the war. All I was aware of was that we were doing a good job and getting good information about the enemy positions.”

Eating Army biscuits and whatever else he could find, Matthew spent months advancing through France and into Belgium, where he witnessed the joy of the people in Brussels when they were liberated.

“The locals couldn’t do enough for us, inviting us to their homes,” he said. “I’ve never seen people so happy to see us. They had a rough time under German occupation.

“It was a good time. I was just happy to be alive.

“When we were off duty we went into town and all the cafes were full of people rejoicing. There was music and laughter and all the locals bought beer for the soldiers.”

He spent Christmas Day 1944 sleeping above a cowshed, “as cold as I’ve ever been in my life”. New Year’s Day his unit was attacked by German aircrafts. “But our guns bagged two before breakfast and we were seldom troubled by them again,” he said.

On VE Day, Matthew was in Bremen.

“One of our patrols had located a warehouse in which were large barrels of wine,” he said.

“We sent a driver with a three tonne truck to stock up. He arrived back with one barrel of red and one of white wine and we all queued to fill our mugs and water bottles. It was a hell of a job to find a sober man that day. We were ecstatic the war was finally done.”

Matthew went back to his old job at George Mason’s after the war, then became food controller for Blackpool’s Lobster Pot group of restaurants.

He married Nini, who he’d met in Brussels, and had a son, Michael. He has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“I feel lucky to have come through such a horrific war and to have lived such a long life,” he added. “It could have been very different.”

His family couldn’t be more proud of him, and so should the country.

An ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing – we all owe Matthew Japp our thanks and respect.

* Tomorrow: A widow’s story of 
her D-Day hero