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1944: 'You remember for the rest of your life'Sixty years after D-Day, On This Day journalist Christopher Sleight talks to his grandfather about his memories as one of the first soldiers to land on Sword Beach, Normandy.
My grandad, Fred Bromley, was not even 20 years old when he joined the 84th Chemical Weapons Company, Royal Engineers, in 1941.
His experiences in the Far East and Europe during World War II left him unwilling to talk about the war until just a few years ago.
On the morning of 6 June 1944 - D-Day - Corporal Bromley was the second man to drive down the ramp of his Landing Craft Tank (LCT) and onto Sword Beach - the eastern tip of the Allied invasion in Normandy.
The doors of Fred's LCT were opened before they reached the beach and he watched as the first vehicle drove down the ramp and disappeared completely under the water.
He knew that if the driver took his foot off the accelerator for a second, water would shoot up the exhaust and stall the engine.
"All of a sudden I saw this blue hat appear and they came out. They were still sat there. They disappeared under the sea and just came out further up. That's guts."
I try to imagine what it must have been like, poised at the top of that ramp in the early morning light with the full racket of war blazing away around me, wondering if I would even make it to the beach.
Would I have been able to do it? I don't know. My grandad didn't have a choice.
"You couldn't tell them you didn't want to go," he remarks, dryly.
So 23-year-old Corporal Bromley followed his orders and drove down the ramp. Cold water rushed into the cab and over his head.
His truck had started to tip over in the deep water: "I got in a shell hole - nobody told me it was there... I kept my foot down. It straightened itself up and I came out."
Fred was a Royal Engineer attached to 5th Beach Group. These men could be identified by the white bands on their helmets and they were in charge of Sword beach.
They cleared mines and obstacles, directed troops and vehicles and unloaded box after box of supplies from the landing craft. The more experienced ones also taught fresh soldiers the rules of survival.
"I said to my lads, 'Look! Watch me and don't ever get in front of me.'
Machine gun fire
"You can walk up until [bullets] chop the sand at the side of your feet. Then you step back a couple of steps."
Fred spent more than a month living and working on Sword under constant threat of enemy fire.
He can remember parking his lorry - full of mine-detecting equipment - behind a bungalow near the beach. From there he watched a nearby cornfield swaying in the sea breeze, before realising it was machine gun fire cutting through the crops, not wind.
And then there were the big guns.
Sword beach was the most exposed landing area to enemy fire, with several German "strongpoints" to the south and, beyond the River Orne, the Merville Battery to the east.
"It used to shell the beach. It came out at a certain time - somewhere around teatime - and pounded the beach to hell. It nearly got me a time or two."
One evening Fred was filling up some 45-gallon drums with water when he heard the familiar rushing sound of an incoming shell. He dived behind a low brick wall to take cover.
"I lay down flat in there and when I got up the back of my truck looked like a big watering can - all the oil tins were leaking."
"The first fortnight you never got a wink of sleep," Fred says.
He specialised in mine clearance, but the beaches were the gateway for the troops and supplies feeding the growing Allied force in northern France and the work never stopped.
Unloading live shells from the LCTs was one of the worst jobs - especially under enemy bombardment, which Fred says was "a bit dangerous".
As was looking for German snipers in nearby woods. One objected to Fred trying to spy him out with binoculars and took a shot which missed his ear by inches.
He also unearthed more than 200 enemy soldiers holed up in a bunker.
"We let a round or two off above their heads to let them know who was in charge... There was nothing very special in that - I just happened to be there at the right time."
A week or so after D-Day he was asked to look after a civilian professor, who had arrived in Normandy to try to out a new inflatable ramp for landing craft. They became close friends.
Fred was in the following truck.
"I took my mine-detecting gear, strapped it on and went over to the white line and fished my way to him... He was conscious but bust to pieces.
"I got him over my back and fetched him back in the same direction I'd come to make sure we'd be alright."
These terrifying experiences are etched into my 83-year-old grandad's memory, yet he talks about them with humour and understatement.
Sixty years ago, he was one of two million men who took part in Operation Overlord. They faced the unimaginable and for them there is no need for hyperbole.
"You don't forget anything like that - you wouldn't. You remember that for the rest of your life.
"It's alright people saying they weren't frightened, but if they weren't they were bloody idiots - that's all I can say.
"I was frightened to death. But you had to do it."
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