SHORTLY before D-Day, Stanley Hartill remembers his unit being issued with French money and encouraged to make wills.
He was a member of RAF Servicing Commando, a group of around 180 highly skilled ground crew sent to Normandy to operate an airstrip.
They were assembled at a guarded camp at Old Sarum near Salisbury, in the run-up to D-Day.
“We used to write letters but we didn’t know that none of the letters were being delivered. They were thrown up a corner for security,” said Mr Hartill, of Bournemouth’s East Cliff.
“We proceeded from there down to Fareham. Then suddenly at nine o’clock on June 5, we were all assembled, we were given a hot meal and we were told we were to change our money into French francs – so we got a good idea then where we were going to go.
“And lastly they said if anybody hasn’t made a will, would they care to make one now in the tent nearby?”
His ship sailed from Gosport and was off the Normandy coast at about 4pm on D-Day.
“We were just getting ready to land on Juno Beach and word came through that everything was halted because the Germans were massing a whole hoard of Panzer tanks just south of Caen.
The rumour was that they were going to try to break through right to the beachhead and push us back all out into the sea,” he said.
“We were forced in convoy to go up and down the Normandy coast and about 1am, pandemonium broke out.
“All of a sudden we looked and we saw a torpedo coming from some German E-boats right at our ship. It missed our ship but blew up the ship alongside which had got some of our sister unit on it.
“Then another torpedo just missed our ship again. All together, four ships went up in flames.”
His unit landed just south of Juno Beach in the early hours of June 7.
“As we were in the landing craft coming off, all of a sudden there was a plop-plop and someone said ‘What’s what?’.
They said ‘Don’t worry, they’re German shells’, because the Germans were just firing haphazardly into the bay, hoping to hit a ship.
“When we landed, the first of our lorries went off and it hit a mine. It’s the most frightening thing because you drive across this beach to get to the road and there are mines everywhere.
“The army lads had blown a breach in the sea wall for us to get back out onto the road and the very first thing I saw was an army lorry full of German prisoners of war. I’d never seen a German POW before that.”
The Army were cutting down corn and laying a track so an airfield could be established at St Croix Sur Mer. Servicing Commando worked through the night to have the airfield, B3, ready by dawn on June 10.
“About 10am, 36 Spitfires landed, led by Johnnie Johnson, the Canadian Wing. The cheers that went up from the ground crew, all the Army lads, when our Spitfires started landing, it was just as if a football team had scored a goal.
“We started to refuel them all from jerry cans and within 20 minutes they were ready to take off. Instead of having to come all the way back to England, they were helping our lads on the front line.
“During the afternoon, we had a deputation from the frontline soldiers especially to thank us for the help that we’d given them and the boost in morale when the soldiers could see Spitfires landing in Normandy.”
Two days later, an American Flying Fortress escorted by 10 fighters brought a VIP visitor.
“I went down to the taxiing area and beckoned the pilot into our dispersal area. I parked him in a bay among the corn, ran round to the crew to see why they’d landed, if they’d got technical problems.
“But before I could do anything, out jumped the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, General Eisenhower. He never spoke, just looked. I looked up at the cockpit and there sitting in the cockpit in the second pilot’s seat was the second in command, Air Chief Marshal Tedder.”
The VIPs were “bundled off” in jeeps before returning around three hours later and flying off to England.
“That was General Eisenhower’s very first visit by air to Normandy,” said Mr Hartill.
‘Our lads didn’t look a day over 18...’
WHILE the Army was building the B3 airstrip, Stanley Hartill visited Vur-Sur-Mer and saw something he would never forget.
“Three of us went into this church and the whole length of the aisle, very neatly laid out on the left hand side, were dead Allied soldiers – and an equal number, exactly on the other side, were dead German soldiers.
“We walked through and had a look and it was quite pathetic because our lads, they didn’t one of them look a day over 18. They were just lying there dead but they looked so young.
“That’s when I started to cry, because I felt ‘God almighty, they’re some mothers’ sons you know and they’ve given their lives. Let’s hope as they’ve given their lives, it’s for good and it’s appreciated.”