Peebles war hero makes memorable return to D-Day beaches

John McOwan.
John McOwan.

“100 years from now your children’s children will say, ‘They must have been giants in those days’.”

We are 25 years shy of that milestone, but last week Borderers took heed of Lord Lovat’s famous words as they took part in commemorations both at home and abroad marking the 75th anniversay of Operation Overlord, also known as the D-Day landings.

At home, veterans gathered in Hawick’s Wilton Park to lay a wreath at the town’s war memorial last Thursday.

While across the English Channel others took part in commemorations on the beaches in Normandy.

Among them was 98-year-old veteran, Sergeant John McOwan, of Peebles.

Last week he sailed back to Normandy with 300 fellow veterans, 75 years to the day after their first journey to those foreign shores.

“The whole trip was very emotional really,” John said this week.

“This was my first time back to the beaches.

“On the actual beaches there’s not really an awful lot to see, it’s just sand and water.

“But I tried to picture it in my head and go back 75 years and visualise myself coming in on a landing craft.”

Prior to setting sail on the MV Boudicca to Bayeux for the 10-day trip with Poppyscotland, John attended commemorations in Portsmouth before sailing to Poole, Dorset and across to La Havre.

“Once we got there it was on to coaches for various trips.

“They closed the whole motorway down for us. Rows and rows of policemen were there and even they were waving to us.

“I spoke to Mr Macron, the French president, and had a chat with Theresa May.

“Prince Charles was there with Camilla, too, but I didn’t manage to catch them to make the hat-trick.”

Mr McOwan served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical engineers attached to the 8th Army and landed on Sword Beach on D-Day.

“I was wearing my beret with the REME badge last week and of course a lot of the soldiers saw my badge and came over to have a chat.

“They were very interested in my experiences.

“There were so many nice army people there and everywhere we went was beseiged with tourists.”

John was one of six veterans from Scotland who made the trip, and he admits he was in two minds about going back.

“It’s a long way for a 98-year-old, but they looked after us all so well.

“It was much more than I expected. I said to someone coming home that life was going to be awful flat when we got back.

“It was a long trip, but it was very comforable and very sad in a way, but we were very well looked after.

“It was really most memorable.”

John, a widow since the death of wife Betty in 2000, was accompanied on the trip by his son-in-law James Birney, while his daughter Esther and his three granddaughters eagerly followed his journey on television back home. And bedecked in his beret and tartan trews, John was easy to spot.

“When we set sail we were escorted by a fleet of destoryers and passed the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, where all the crew stood to attention and gave us three cheers.

“I was up on deck waving my flag at the time and my granddaughter saw me on television.

“We really were given a most memorable send off.”