Scottish D-Day heroes make poignant pilgrimage to Normandy
Only those who were there could truly describe the longest of days – June 6, 1944.
A pivotal moment in World War Two, D-Day ultimately led the Allies to victory in Europe.
For those who survived the onslaught at Normandy, it’s a day that has lived long in their memories.
And in this, the 75th anniversary year of the landings, some 300 of the survivors – most now in their 90s – are making a poignant pilgrimage to the beaches on which they served.
Poppyscotland, Legion Scotland and the Royal British Legion have chartered the cruise ship MV Boudicca to take them to Bayeux in style – exactly 75 years to the day since the infamous landings.
After setting sail from Dover on Sunday, the veterans took centre stage at national commemorative events in Portsmouth on Wednesday before retracing their famous journey across the Channel today (Thursday).
Among those on board are six Scottish veterans who, prior to their departure, posed for stunning portraits to highlight their remarkable stories – taken on a Graflex Super D large format film camera made in the USA in the 1940s.
Dr Claire Armstrong, chief executive of Legion Scotland, said: “The remarkable stories of these six Scottish veterans provide us with an important reminder of both the bravery and tragedy which surrounds that day.
“It will be an honour and a privilege to host these incredible gentlemen and to recognise the immense contribution of an entire generation.”
Prior to their departure, we met one of the veterans, Denis Gregson, at his home in Airdrie.
He vividly recalls the 1944 journey from Portsmouth as a 19-year-old coxswain with the Royal Marines.
Denis (94) said: “We were part of the 605 flotilla.
“There were six of us – four deckhands, a stoker and me – manning the landing craft. It was a flat-bottomed boat so we were all pretty seasick during the crossing.
“There were thousands of ships heading in the same direction so we had to do it in relay which meant we arrived at Gold Beach around noon that day.
“Our first job was getting three cooks from the 8th Army (the Desert Rats) and their lorry to shore – they’d had enough of the choppy seas and wanted off!
“We dropped them off just to the left of Gold Beach and then joined up with the rest of our flotilla.”
Denis and his crew were there to ferry supplies to and from shore but quickly ended up stranded.
“We were beached near Gold Beach when a steel cable got caught up in our propellor,” he said.
“It was the next morning before an engineer got to us.”
During their beaching, Denis and his crew stumbled across a sight that they all lived to remember.
“Three of the crew went onshore to get a break,” he said. “There was some lovely countryside around Gold Beach so they took a walk.
“About half an hour later, they came back and told us about this field where all the men who had died that day were laid out.
“Later, the other two deckhands and I went ashore where we too saw the field.
“I can’t tell you how many bodies there were – it looked to be a lot. It’s a long time ago but, thinking about it now, it was not pleasant to see that.”
The noise of that longest of days has also lived loud in Denis’s memory.
He said: “The guns never stopped firing for a full 24 hours; from morning through the night to the following morning.
“I always wondered what the French civilians thought of it – farmers getting up for their work and being caught up in it all.”
Denis spent more than three months in France, with just one three-day break from the action. But once he and his crew helped to create a mulberry harbour – to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto Gold Beach – they returned home.
He was later posted to Kiel, a submarine base in Germany which was guarded until the war ended.
He then escorted a German destroyer to Rosyth and by Christmas 1945, Denis was back home in Leeds.
Demobbed in August 1946, he married Doreen in July 1949 and became a cooper, moving to Airdrie where he has lived for more than half a century.
Denis was honoured with France’s highest medal of distinction, the Legion d’Honneur, in 2016 in recognition of his service on D-Day. He visited Normandy last year with the Legion and was keen to return this year.
He added: “Historian Dan Hill is travelling with the veterans and is trying to find out if any of my crew are on board. We all survived D-Day and it would be incredible to meet up with them again.”