IF the war experiences of Bob Roberts were made into a film, critics would say the story was unbelievable.
He was the second man to set foot on Juno beach on D-Day and performed an act of heroism credited with saving thousands of lives.
As the Allies liberated Europe, he was unexpectedly reunited with the younger brother with whom he used to play soldiers – only for his brother to be killed in action the next day.
And after predicting he would never reach Germany, Mr Roberts’s war was to finish yards from the border.
Mr Roberts was a 21-year-old corporal in the Canadian army when D-Day came. He had enlisted in 1942, crossed on the Queen Elizabeth and was stationed at various points along the south coast – the longest spell being in Bournemouth, where he met his ‘English rose’, Vera.
Bob and Vera marry in 1945
On June 6 1944, the Canadian forces attacked Juno beach. Mr Roberts, 91, remembers being the second man to set foot on the beach. The Germans had not yet realised what was going on, he said, and the beach was quiet.
“There was nothing. A whole crowd of us were in the town. Several boatloads had offloaded. Then of course the shelling started,” he said.
He and a colleague, Private Aurele LaCroix, went into Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to look for snipers.
“A Frenchman took us in his front room, showed us a big trap hatch and said ‘This is where they go. They go down they go down there and out through a trench under the houses to the cliff face. They’ve got their guns out there.’”
After reporting to their section leader, the soldiers returned – LaCroix carrying a personnel flame-thrower. They followed the trench until they discovered two people manning a machine gun.
“I let go a burst of machine gun fire about knee high and they came down. LaCroix let go a couple of lashes of flame and set their clothes on fire and they were screaming and shouting,” said Mr Roberts.
Other Germans rushed to the scene. “They thought it was something that came in from the sea that caused the fire so they started piling on top and beating out the flame. I let go another burst of machine gun fire across them and he let go a couple of more licks of flame and the whole lot were in chaos,” he said.
He added: “Three days later, it came out in the paper that these two brave men took out this machine gun post from behind and saved thousands of lives. That’s what was said.
“If it had happened later on when things were more organised, there’d have been a big splash about the Victoria Cross or something but there was nothing more said about it. It was just all in a day’s work.”
By late afternoon, the town was taken. The French were singing their national anthem and thanking their liberators.
Corporal Roberts noticed a young French woman taking an interest in a soldier’s sten gun.
“He took it off and was showing her how it worked,” he said.
“Her father snatched it off her and shot her right between the eyes. We couldn’t believe what we’d seen.
“And he said ‘She’s a collaborator. She was going to shoot you. She was going to turn that gun on you.’”
Bob Roberts did not then know the whereabouts of his brother Ernie, who had also enlisted. He remembers how their father had made hobby horses for the children when they were small – and in a scene straight out of the song Two Little Boys, four-year-old Ernie had broken his.
“He was bawling his head off and mother came out. She said, ‘Soldiers don’t cry, they’re brave men, they help each other’. She just picked him off his horse and set him on the back of mine.”
On August 25 1944, having been on the frontline ever since June 6, Bob Roberts told he would be getting four days’ leave.
“Our second division started coming in to take over from us.
“I didn’t even know he had left Canada but Ernie walked up and took my place.
“The first thing I said was ‘Where’s your horse?’. We had a joke and a chat for 15 minutes and wished other the best of luck and that and we took off.
“He went and attacked the next morning and was killed.”
Mr Roberts always said he would not get as far as Germany. But on February 25 1945, now an acting sergeant, he was told his regiment was to capture the first town across the German border.
They were crossing an open field when “all hell broke loose” and his comrade Al Daley was killed. Mr Roberts took refuge in a shell hole, where he remained for six hours until three tanks advanced around him.
“I jumped out of this shell hole and took about three steps and turned around to signal my platoon to come on and follow the tanks – and just then, about three seconds after I got out, a shell landed in that hole, smothered me with mud and water and a big lump of it hit me in the right leg and smashed my knee and my leg.
“That was the end of my war.”
He bandaged his own leg and walked, using a dead soldier’s rifle as a crutch, until he could walk no longer and waited for the stretcher bearers.
Bob Roberts married his late wife Vera in December 1945. They briefly moved to Canada, but jobs and homes were hard to come by. They returned temporarily to Britain and stayed.
“I had 65 years of happy marriage and I’ve got a good family that all look after me now,” said Mr Roberts, who lives at Bournemouth’s War Memorial Homes.
“I’ve got no regrets.”
Little and large moment
AS his unit made its way through France, Bob Roberts was involved in a rare comical moment.
It came at the liberation of Calais, when Mr Roberts – around 5ft 4in tall – detained the man thought to be the tallest in the German army.
The German was Jakob Nacken, who measured 7ft six-and-a-half inches.
“Everybody started laughing. The German prisoners were giggling and my lads were, and I knew what they wanted, to take some pictures.
“He was the tallest man in the German army and after the war he went to New York and he appeared as the tallest Santa Claus in the world.
“Later he appeared in a circus as the tallest man in the world with the shortest man in the world.”
VIDEO: Amazing exploits of D-Day veteran Bob Roberts, the second man to set foot on Juno beach
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