FOR four weeks in the spring of 1944, Don Aiken and thousands of others slept in tents in the woods around Southampton.
They had trained relentlessly for the task ahead. Now they were waiting for the orders to go.
The mission was adventurous and risky - the D-day landings in France, an attempt to start pushing back Hitler’s troops and bring the Second World War to an end. Don, now 87, then 18 and fearless, remembers it like yesterday.
“We’d been there so long, in that big camp on the south-coast, that we were desperate to get D-day over and done with,” he said. “On the night before, June 5, we boarded a huge ship and set sail across the Channel. About three miles off the French coast we jumped onto a flat barge and that took us to the beach.
“We were under attack the whole time. There was a tremendous noise, gun-fire all around - the Germans firing at us, our ships firing back.
“I saw dead bodies, lots of them floating in the water. Some were flattened by tanks. It was a grisly sight but I can honestly say that we weren’t particularly bothered by it. It wasn’t nice to look at, obviously, but there was so much to do that you just got on with it. Plus I was young and when you’re young you are very resilient.
“Our job was to get off the beach and advance as far inland as we could before nightfall. We knew what the terrain was like because in Southampton we’d been studying replica models of the area where we were landing.
“But it was hard, especially those first few weeks in Normandy. Every day we were under pressure because it was such close country the Germans could hide. They could even conceal tanks without you knowing they were there.
“My job was reconnaissance so I had go in front of infantry to find the enemy, which is the most dangerous part. It was a very chancey business.”
Don, who lives on Penrose Avenue, Marton, seems to have coped with the horrors of war better than most. Many former soldiers are haunted by what they witnessed and experienced. But Don, serving in the Reconnaissance Regiment Corp, appears to have emerged relatively unscathed.
After Normandy, he advanced through France, into Belgium and Holland, before fighting fierce battles at Arnhem, then crossing the Rhine. He was in the thick of it and had several lucky escapes.
“The hairiest moment was when I was on an ammunition truck with two other soldiers which came under fire from a German plane,” Don added.
“I heard this bang and next thing I know the corporal who had been sat on the front came running past and gestured to me to run after him, which I did. When we came back afterwards we found the driver dead. The cannon shot had exploded in the cab. Considering I’d been sat on three tonnes of ammunition about two feet behind him, I was rather lucky.”
Don might have played a major part in helping win the war, but he didn’t get to savour the moment of victory.
“By that point we were in Germany. We weren’t allowed to mix with Germans, so to keep us occupied there was an order we should clean our tanks and armoured cars all day. You did that with a mixture of oil and petrol, which you rubbed all over the armour with a rag. Everybody else was celebrating back home... it didn’t seem very fair.”
After leaving the army in 1947, he joined the fire brigade and served for 30 years.
Now chairman of the D-Day and Normandy Veterans Association, and vice-president and secretary of the Fylde Ex Service Liaison Committee, Don is looking forward to Remembrance Sunday, which he thinks is vital.
“We need as many people as possible to get together and collectively remember these people who gave their lives for their country,” he added.
“But I didn’t think then we’d still be fighting wars 60 years later. They said the First World War would end all wars, but I don’t think there is such a thing. I don’t have any grudge against Germany. I never did. They were the same - a lot of young lads sent into the same position as us. It was a matter of either kill or be killed, it was as simple as that.”
Playing a key role helping Afghanistan
JOHN Greenhalgh is playing a key role in helping the Afghan police get control of their country.
But not long ago he used to have a very different lifestyle, spending his days working at Blackpool Tower and serving in a town centre pub.
He might have been happy with that too, had he not got chatting to a customer one day.
“I served in this pub and it was really busy and very pressurised. I got talking to this old guy who was reminiscing about when he’d been in the Army, and he told me I should make a go of it. He basically steered me in that direction, and 12 years later, here I am, in Afghanistan,” recalled Colour Sergeant Greenhalgh, as he’s now known.
The 31-year-old, a former pupil at Devonshire Infants School, has served in Iraq and is now on his second tour of Afghanistan.
“Last time I was here I was a platoon sergeant, which made me responsible for about 30 soldiers,” he said.
“That would involve patrolling out to local towns and settlements, sometimes getting shot at by insurgents, the Taliban. It was really quite dangerous, a lot of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device).
“Now there has been a lot of changes. We’ve taken a step back and we’re allowing the Afghan police and the Afghan army to take the lead on most of the operations which are done, and we support them in whatever way we can.”
John, whose parents Joe and Cath and sister Kelly all live back in Blackpool, says he is aware of the dangers of serving in Afghanistan but doesn’t feel scared or worried.
“The reason for that is the training we receive, the medical facilities available to us and the procedures we go through, to get the casualties off the ground and back to the hospital- it is quite phenomenal to be honest,” he said. We’re also well looked after. We’ve got phone booths and internet so we get in touch with loved ones at home. We’ve got a gym and weights to keep the lads fit and focused, and we have catering staff who provide us with three very good meals a day.
“That’s one of the reasons Remembrance Sunday is so important to us all, particularly in the Army, because we pay our respects to those who have fought in previous conflicts.
“I look on Second World War veterans as heroes. They worked with very basic equipment in really harsh conditions.
“The guys nowadays have a lot available to them and to call yourself a hero you have to do something special - and a lot of them still do.”
We gave our lives ..... and that should not be forgotten
GWEN Marsden MBE is a remarkable lady. She would never describe herself in those terms but it is that modesty which makes her the inspiration she is.
Growing up in Harrington Avenue, South Shore, and a pupil at Collegiate High School, Gwen decided to do her bit in the Second World War after the death of a cousin in battle.
She joined the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army) and became a radar operator.
“It was something totally different to what I’d previously done, because I’d worked in the Ministry of Pensions at Norcross before I joined up,” said Gwen, now 88-years-old.
“Radar is like television, the same sort of thing. A blip comes on the screen - that’s an aeroplane and our job was to plot its course and send a warning down to a plotting room below. After our warning we’d send one of our planes up to intercept it.
“The doodlebugs (flying bomb) were the easiest to spot because they moved so fast, much quicker than a plane. They were the ones that put us most at risk too, because we were based on the east coast so were right in their path.
“If our guns got on to the doodlebug and shot it down, it would drop right on to us. I was never nervous or frightened. I’d been trained to do a job and you just did it.
“We worked 24 hour shifts and it was tiring. We got half a day off a week and a few of us used to go into Grimsby on the bus. But we were so tired we always feel asleep and the conductor had to wake us up.”
After the war ended, Gwen was on an army base on the south-coast when she was called out in the middle of the night. She fell on a pile of Tarmac and the X-ray revealed not just a splintered bone but a “great big cauliflower” in the middle. It was a tumour.
“We didn’t have protective clothing when we were doing the radar work. We just wore cotton dungarees. I used to go in the back to do repairs, even though we were told not to. That set off cancer in the thigh bone,” explained Gwen.
“I went to see a consultant at Christies and he told me either I had my leg amputated or I’d have six weeks to live. At 22-years-old, it was quite a blow.
“But I don’t blame anyone. You either sit back and moan or you get on with my life, and that’s what I did.”
Gwen’s army days were done but she became a hotelier in Blackpool, then moved to Ludlow where she was awarded an MBE for 35 years service on the parish council and for her involvement with the Women’s Institute and the church.
She now lives at BLESMA, the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association on Lytham Road and hopes the work she and thousands of others have done for the country over the years will be remembered.
“But I don’t think kids today know enough about it,” she added. “A lot depends on parents and that generation after us - the parents of today - they are the ones at fault because they haven’t passed it on to their children.
“You cannot live in the past but it is there. It is what we did, we gave our lives, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.”