John aged 20, October 1942
John was born in Ancoats, Manchester on 14th July 1922. He received his elementary education at Buckley Hall with one of his brothers, returning home when he was 14. In order to improve his level of education, he went to night school on the advice of his father. Here, he studied at English, Maths and manual skills each night. At the same time, he was an apprentice at the local heating engineering company. John’s night schooling was interrupted by the advent of WWII, and the company was shut down in 1940 because there was no steel available for non military use.
When he was 18 (in 1940), John volunteered to enlist in the Royal Air Force as an aircrew member, but was told that his level of education wasn’t good enough. Because of this, he decided to work in a local textile factory and wait for his call up papers, which duly arrived in May 1942. At this point, John was one of only 4 men working in the factory.
The call up papers specified that he was to go to Infantry Training Camp for 6 weeks initial training (Because there was such a desperate need for soldiers, this had been shortened from 12 weeks in order to get troops out to the war as quickly as possible). During his selection and training, John’s displayed a high level of aptitude with mechanical tasks, and was posted to the Royal Engineers at Chester for a further 8-10 weeks training. This consisted of working with explosives and other tasks that were needed for the war. Upon completion of this, he was then posted to Blackpool Technical College to learn how to work with sheet metal, an opportunity that was only open to about 40 soldiers in the army at any one time. John passed out of the college as a grade C tradesman, and was posted to a unit at Eastbourne.
It was at Eastbourne that John had the opportunity to volunteer to go to diving school in February 1943, which he duly took and moved to HMS Excellent, a shore based naval gunnery school with a diving school attached. The only initial requirement was that he was able to swim, but he was quickly trained in a number of specialised skills. After studying at a series and lectures and a number of practical tasks, he qualified in April 1943 to carry out maintenance work underwater to a depth of up to 48 feet. He was then posted to Scotland, where he helped complete the building of an underwater jetty. This jetty was later to be used in the D-Day landings. He then rejoined his unit at Southampton and worked on building a jetty for military vehicles.
In the months before D-Day, John was posted to London to work for a construction company that were building ‘Mulberry’ harbours. These were huge, temporary ports that were taken across the channel in order to provide a quick and easy way to unload troops and equipment without a permanent harbour having to be built on site, and were vital for the success of Operation Overlord (the name given to the operation which included the D-Day landings). Once this was done he returned to his unit, which was preparing for the D-Day landings.
At this point they were confined to camp until further notice. Although details of the upcoming landings were being kept secret for security reasons, John and the others guessed that the jetties they were working on had something to do with this. There were also other indications of impending operations:
“A couple of days before [the 5th June], a big influx of craft came in the basin where we were working, the port basin at Southampton. And there were big ships, little ships, all sorts. And we wondered what was happening, there was so much activity.”
The Normandy Campaign
The next morning (D-Day), John came to the basin to find it deserted, all the ships well underway to land troops and equipment on the beaches at Normandy. He noted that for him it was “work as normal”, with excitement mounting and news from the landings constantly being relayed through the newspapers. However, a lot of the news relied on hearsay because of security, so John assumed that he would only be required to go to Normandy if heavy casualties were sustained and his unit was needed as a replacement. In July they received orders to move to Dorking in preparation for a move to France. John still vividly remembers acting as a Bren-gunner for one of the lorries for the move, and “the doodlebugs, they were actually flying about then”.
The move was completed without incident, and John and his unit found themselves in a transit camp in Southampton. This was the final “holding” stage that soldiers were required to wait at before travelling over to France, with no-one allowed out of camp for any other reason. Two days later, they were marched down to the harbour, boarded a merchant ship and began their journey to Normandy.
The ship landed at the beach head at Aramanches (D+42), and quickly moved along the mile-long bridge that connected it to the shore. John remembers that “all the debris was there, the scattered vehicles out of commission, they’d been shattered up and bombed or shot at”. The beach was relatively quiet, but the devastation from earlier operations was still there as a clear reminder of what had gone before. The unit quickly moved to Bayeux, a small town a few kilometres from Arromanches. Sleeping was a case of grabbing bivouac and getting rest as and when the opportunity presented itself. From there it was on to Caan, which was “Heavily devastated. Absolutely gone”. John and his colleagues were constantly on guard as they moved into an old French barracks that had been occupied by the Germans and was still booby-trapped.
John stayed in Caan until December, tasked with clearing the rivers and canals of obstruction that had been made when the bridges across them were blown up. This was tiring works, and saw John and his team constantly hauling salvage from the water with the help of German POWs;
“We were in and out, in and out every day removing more and then moving up the river or the canal, doing a bit more and so on”.
After the war, John returned to civilian life and focused on getting further qualifications by going to a technical college and completing his apprenticeship as a heating fitter. He was later promoted and became a project manager, and retired in 1990.
John found his 4 years of army experience invaluable, as in his words it gave him “a lifetime of experience in a very short time” teaching him worldly values over and above the formal education he received. He recalls how he thought he was quite clever, but quickly realised there was an awful lot he didn’t know. He obviously acknowledges that he saw some horrible things during his time in France, but is keen to stress that the army helped make him the man he is today.
John Flanagan passed away in August 2009 aged 87 years