Sunday 31 July 2016

A Quiet Hero

A Tribute to One of Liverpool's 'Quiet Heroes'
 - John H (March 1924 - May 2016)

As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme is being commemorated this summer, it seems an appropriate time to offer a personal tribute to a man who played his part in the D-Day Landings in World War II, just 28 years after "the war to end all wars".

John was born in Liverpool in 1924 and there were early signs that he would grow up with a sense of duty and responsibility. Ronnie, his younger brother, remembers John as his 'protector', spending time reading to him when he was very young, to the extent that Ronnie was already a proficient reader by the time he started school. Ronnie also relates an incident when John was was appearing in a school musical, with Ronnie and their mum in the audience.

'...The floor suddenly collapsed and crashed down sideways into the basement below, plunging everything and everyone into darkness. Mum and I were trapped in the rubble and smashed furniture and unable to move. After a time we heard noises above and a hole appeared...there was John, bloodied and battered, smiling down at us and leading our rescue. He was later taken to hospital for treatment where he met the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. He congratulated him on his bravery and gave him half-a-crown. John of course shared the money with Mum and me - he was nine years old.'

As a teenager - although that description hadn't yet been coined - John excelled at cricket, football and amateur boxing, but it was not until the 1960s that Ronnie introduced him to the game of golf, which became a passion which lasted for the rest of John's life.

In 1941, John, unwilling to wait for conscription into the army, lied about his age and volunteered for the Royal Navy. 

John served in Malta, Palestine, France and the Atlantic and before his demob in 1946 he was on leave in Weymouth when he met Freda - a Liverpool girl on holiday with a friend.

The romance flourished and the couple were married in Woolton, Liverpool, in March, 1948. Freda had saved enough clothing coupons to buy a white wedding dress and, like many post-war brides, her honeymoon nightdress was made from parachute silk!

I first met John and Freda when I was a young schoolgirl and they moved into the house next door with their baby daughter. It was around 1950 - I can't be sure of the exact date because from the moment they set up home in our terraced block I felt as if they'd always lived there. They were a lovely young couple with an adorable baby - and a second soon arrived to complete the family - what more could an impressionable 11-year-old wish for. I always felt welcome in their house, Freda was an excellent home-maker and I picked up many hints from her as a I grew up, which I put into practice when I was running my own home and bringing up my children. Of course, as a child, I didn't think that behind the scenes life probably wasn't easy for the young couple in those early post-war years, there must have been times when money was tight; yet both little girls were always beautifully dressed thanks to Freda's dressmaking skills.

When I married in 1960, Linda and June, were my bridesmaids, and although the family eventually moved back to Woolton, and we moved out of the city, we kept in touch as my own family grew and the two little girls I'd babysat also grew up and married. Family and friends were devastated when Freda died at the age of fifty-two after a short illness. After some years, John moved out of Liverpool and made his home in Suffolk after meeting and beginning a new life with Marion, but we still kept in touch. The last occasion we met was at Linda's 60th birthday party, John having managed the long drive north despite being in his 80s. And as I'd remembered throughout all the years I knew him, he was still smiling, still cheerful.

It was 2004, when Linda and June organised a visit to Omaha to celebrate John's 80th birthday, that they first learned of his experiences on D-Day. He told them that during all the horrors of that day, he had focused on a church steeple above the beach. They found the church, which had been bombed by the allies at 11am as German snipers were using it, and as they sat together, John broke down and at last spoke to his daughters about what had happened. When they returned home after the trip, John put pen to paper to record his thoughts and experiences and I can do no better than quote his own words.

'We leave home for Portsmouth on Tuesday, 13 July, and stay the night at the Holiday Inn... We were awake early to board the ferry for Caen...arriving mid-morning, then made our way to Bayeux which would be our home for the next few days. After unpacking and freshening up we would start our journey to Omaha beach.
   ...I didn't know what to expect when I arrived, after all it was sixty years since I was last there, and under very different circumstances. I think I felt more nervous than I did all that time ago. Arriving at the beach the memories came flooding back, not very pleasant ones. How would I know where we landed? I knew I could see a church spire in the distance, and if I could see it again I would know exactly where it was we landed.
On June 5 1944, we set off for an unknown destination. We all had an idea it was something big, we knew it would be France because we'd had the Americans aboard for over a week and they had all been issued with French francs. We sailed through the night and anchored off the French coast till daybreak, having no idea of where we were. We set off towards the beaches just after 6am, everything seemed so quiet till we were due to let the ramps down to let the tanks off, then all hell let loose. There were small craft alongside us with about forty men aboard, just disappearing, bodies all over the place. The Americans were dropping like flies all over the beach. The tanks disembarked onto the beach and I thought at the time, at least they had some protection, the poor infantry didn't have much. I will never forget that day as long as I live. I thanked God for his protection that day, and have thanked him every night of my life since.'

[Sixty years later] We walked down onto the beach and the memories kept flooding back. The first thing I looked for was the church steeple; stepping back along the beach I got a glimpse of it and knew then that I was in the right place. Walking back up from the beach, seeing all the old gun emplacements - it was a wonder anyone came out alive. The French government have given all the land above the beaches to the Americans, so that nothing will ever be built on it. It seemed so peaceful and hallowed compared with 60 years ago. I was one of the few lucky ones.
   A short drive from Omaha, we arrived at the village of St Laurent and found the church, Notre Dame. It had been badly damaged during the war but has been fully restored since. I went into the church with my family to pay my respects to all the men who lost their lives all that time ago. Seeing the church 60 years ago, little did I think at the time that one day I would be praying in it and I am grateful to my family for making it possible - a very emotional experience.'

John goes on to describe the next part of his journey, his visit to the American Cemetery; to Arromances, the scene of the English and Canadian landings, and its museum, where the Vets were made welcome and thanked for their part in the liberation. He mentions seeing the D-Day films at Cinema 360, which he describes as giving a good insight into what took place. He also visited the LST and Landing Craft Association Memorial in the town centre and writes of his sadness and the emotional impact of the day. His account continues:

'Friday 16th, this is the big day. We are due at the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen at 11am for the presentation of a chest badge. It is being presented by the French Government to all the Veterans, in order to pay tribute to those who have come to Normandy to remember their fallen comrades. We arrived at the Abbey in good time and were made most welcome, there were supposed to be eight of us, but for some unknown reason only two of us turned up - nevertheless, they decided to carry on with the ceremonies. We were introduced to the Mayor, who was going to conduct the ceremony, his speech was in French but translated into English by a young lady. After the very emotional speech our chest badges were brought in on red velvet cushions and presented to us by the Mayor, I felt really proud and it was nice to have my family present at the ceremony. Food and drinks were laid on for us after the ceremony and we were given a book and a poster to remind us of our visit. These memories will be with me for ever...

   Leaving Caen, we headed for Le Havre, another place which held special memories for me. It was quite a time after the main landings that we had to call at Le Havre, to pick up a German E-boat and take it back to England. Arriving at port in darkness and thick fog, we were unable to find the harbour entrance, the skipper decided to drop anchor for the night and wait till morning. At daybreak we could see the harbour entrance but before we had the chance to do anything a voice over the loud hailer informed us that we were anchored in a minefield! It took quite a while to haul up the anchor, couldn't rush things, everyone had their fingers crossed, saying a few prayers I expect, and hoping we didn't hear a loud bang. It would probably have been the last bang we would have heard in our lives. Another lucky escape.
   We ended up in harbour for six weeks, our engines had broken down. Lost touch with the outside world and found out later that we had been posted missing. It must have been a very worrying time for my family. We were unaware what was happening at the time. We had no food supplies for all that time, had to live on emergency supplies that we had on board, consisting of corned beef and hard tack (dog biscuits). Thanks to the American army they gave us some of their grub to help us along.'

John ended his re-visit to Normandy on Saturday, 17th July, 2004 and completes his account with these moving words:
'I just hope the younger generation will not forget us. We Vets are not heroes, we don't pretend to be, we just did what we had to do. We were all youngsters ourselves at the time and we all thought we were fighting for freedom for everybody. Please protect that freedom, nobody with any sense wants wars. Don't let our efforts be wasted.'

In 2015, a year after the 70th anniversary of D-Day, John's daughter, Linda, read an article in a newspaper stating that as a gesture of appreciation, the French Government were awarding the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, to all surviving Veterans. She subsequently applied to the MOD, filling in an on-line form giving John's Naval ID - Able-Bodied Seaman - and explaining his role on D-Day:
   'On board LCT 798 serving as AA3 Gunner for initial landing at 6am on Omaha Beach, 4th June, 1944, taking Americans in to land on beach. Also subsequent landings made on the same day.'

By now, John health's was deteriorating; Linda knew that time was running out as the medal could only be awarded to surviving Veterans, not their families, but she carried on her own battle to win this well-deserved tribute for her father. The look of pride in John's eyes when he learned that he was to be a recipient of the honour was reward enough for her determination.

John passed away in May, 2016, surrounded by his loved ones. Sadly, his brother, Ronnie, was unable to make the journey from New Zealand, his home for many years, but he sent a moving tribute to his much-loved older brother which was read out at John's funeral. It ended with the words:

'The sailor has gone out with the tide.'

 RIP John; a 'quiet hero', you were the perfect role model for your four grandsons and great-grandson and will be sorely missed by all who knew you.