My involvement with the Stockport and District Normandy Veterans has been through my own father’s membership of the organisation. We had been on a family holiday to Normandy during the 50th Commemoration in 1994 and both he and his brother (as Normandy veterans) were received with a welcome of respect and warmth from the Normandy people which moved us all. My father died in 1995, and when the 60th Commemoration was planned in 2004, we used it as an opportunity to pay homage to both the surviving veterans and those who had lost their lives, as well as the memory of my father. As a family, we joined the Stockport and District branch from May 27th – June 2nd 2004. This annual pilgrimage that the veterans undertook was shadowed by writer Ray King and photographer Mike Grimes from the Manchester Evening News and by a reporting team from Granada TV, so that their itinerary was covered in both the local press and regional television.
I returned from sharing that experience convinced that each of those men (and women) had stories which needed to be recorded and preserved for posterity, and contacted experts who could give me advice for the task of preserving personal accounts. Colleagues at The University of Manchester gave guidance in terms of oral history research and appropriate reading¹. A former teacher facilitated contact with an expert in the training and the character of army personnel², who generously not only allowed me to ‘practice’ on him (deconstructing my initial attempt to capture his story) but who also provided details about recruitment, initial and specialist training of conscripts; of military jargon during WW2; of ‘a routine day at the office’; the mechanics of the Normandy Invasion.
I began interviewing veterans in 2005, with the intention of looking at the impact of a life-changing experience on their education and training aspirations, but a secondary purpose of recording the oral accounts of the Normandy Campaign. Increasing work demands meant that the ‘research’ was subordinated and it was the 65th Commemoration in June 2009 which provided the impetus to take the resources I had collected and make them widely accessible. This was made possible by two research assistants who completed the transcriptions and profiles and to built the resources in a first website launched in November 2009. The accounts of veterans interviewed have been authenticated through their military ‘Pay Book’ and reading and research.
To undertake personal family research this is the website link: http://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/Records
A number of factors have become evident through this collection of data:
o Oral accounts have become polished through the re-telling, so that they do not portray the normal features of spontaneous speech and are generally presented as chronologically cohesive.
o There is a sense of a corporate, or shared, experience. Veterans will have heard a similar experience being recounted and will incorporate it into their own account; it is not an untruth. A number clearly remembered the Captain of their embarkation ship telling them that they were lucky because he was “endeavouring to keep your feet dry” recounted using the same ‘posh’ voice; two prisoners of war undertaking the same route march from Corinth to Salonica told the story of a local, heavily pregnant woman who held out half a loaf of bread to the starving Allied soldiers and was hit to the ground by the rifle butt of one of the guards “an Aussie was so mad he took one swipe at the Jerry and flattened him only to be shot dead by another guard just behind”. These stories would have been a shared experience and become part of the soldiers’ lore.
o It took most of the veterans a number of years before they felt able to talk about their experiences; when they left the army they just wanted to get on with the rest of their lives and for the most part were busy establishing post-war lives. It was the onset of retirement and the need to replace the comradeship experienced through work with another form of networking that these armed forces organisations began to flourish. The Stockport & District Normandy Veterans was not formed until 1988, 45 years after the Invasion. It was common for family members whose fathers had died earlier to discover that they knew little of their fathers’ involvement “because they never talked about it”.
o The veterans sometimes felt under pressure to present a ‘face’ which showed that they had educational status to those who were interviewing them, especially to a young researcher who has attended a prestigious university. Confirmation of educational qualification was usually supplied by those who had attended school up to matriculation.
o There was a uniformity of understanding that discipline and training was an essential component in preparation for the role to be undertaken. They understood that they were a small cog in a major operation, and usually reported that ‘I just followed orders’.
o The NCOs who delivered the initial training were initially viewed as harsh and unfeeling but by the end of the 6 – 8 weeks had built up a feeling of trust with the recruits under their command and were seen as a ‘mate’ but also in change. In the army it was viewed as a process of changing the young recruits from ‘Mummy’s boy’ to man.
o The NCOs on the Campaign looked after the 18/19 year old boys (Patrick Lannon hung on to the webbing belt of his NCO as he ran off the landing craft; Percy Redfern was protected by the driver & the driver’s mate whilst clearing the beach)
o There was an element of excitement in enlisting and being sent to fight; in hindsight veterans reflected that they were young and didn’t understand the implications of what was involved.
o There was a real sense of ‘sorting’ the recruits at the recruiting office; those skilled in engineering were directed to the Navy; those with a better education & a mechanical inclination were directed to the R.A.F.; for the Army, the question was always: ‘What job do you do?’ followed by ‘What education?’ Those with a little education but ‘something about them’ were directed into RE; REME; RA; Tank Corps. The ability to drive was a skill in high demand (Bill Ward indicated that of the 100 recruits he enlisted with, about 13 could drive).
o Colonel John Greenhough reflected that “one’s memory stores dramatic moments but they don’t come to the mind in any order”. The events were real; they may not have happened in the chronological order indicated in the account.
o One researcher (a history graduate) reported that one of the interesting things that emerged was the view of the veterans about the Hitler Youth they encountered. In historical works on the subject, the predominant view is that the Hitler Youth movement was ineffective in indoctrinating young Germans, but several veterans mentioned them for their arrogance when captured. This comment was reinforced in a number of the accounts.
¹Max Jones, Jones, M. (2007) ‘War and National Identity Since 1914’, 20th-Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change, Longman, pp. 79 – 94.
Summerfield, P. (2005) ‘Oral History as a Research Method’, Research Methods in English , Edinburgh University Press, 47-66.
²Colonel John Greenhough
³ Researchers: Colin Brooks and Russell Crowley