Saturday marks the 71st anniversary of D-Day. MATT CLARK discovers what it was like to be on the Normandy beaches in June 1944 from three York men who were in the thick of it.

ON the eve of Operation Overlord General Eisenhower told his troops: “You are about to embark upon a great crusade...the eyes of the world are upon you.”

But come morning, infantry signaller Ken Smith's eyes were fixed on something else; his gun and how high he could keep it above the ruinous salt water.

Mr Smith had just leapt off his landing craft, heaving in the rough seas, its deck swimming in vomit. The one in front had just taken a direct hit and was going around in circles. Although Mr Smith knew most of the men on board, orders prevented him going to help.

Everyone around was quiet and apprehensive, in stark contrast to the almighty racket of exploding shells. There are no atheists among men going into battle, says Mr Smith. Even non-believers had offered some form of prayer to some notion of a God.

"I was shaking violently, I wasn't scared, I was terrified," he says. "There were bodies rolling in the surf and you brushed against them as you went ashore. At 19 I'd never seen a dead body before, I grew up very quickly that day."

Mr Smith felt a hand on his shoulder. When he turned round there was a small lad who said in a quivering voice: 'I'm scared mate'.

"I told him we'd stick together and look out for each other," says Mr Smith. "The shaking stopped, I had reason to show example. We splashed through the water and zigzagged up the beach.

"When I got halfway up he went down. But you weren't allowed to stop, that was seen as an excuse not to go forward, I had to let him go."

Mr Smith heard an encouraging voice urging him to keep going, but there were no such words of comfort when he reached his company commander. In fact the air turned blue because when Mr Smith handed him the wireless's microphone it didn't work. With good reason, a bullet was lodged in the transmitter and another in its battery.

The radio had saved his life.

"As a signaller I made a good target. Then I was ordered to go back against the other troops to a dead signaller and take his set. It's a wonder I wasn't shot as someone running away."

While D-Day may have been terrifying, Mr Smith believes we focus on the event too much, because, he says, what came next was far worse.

"I didn't even fire my gun on D-Day. When the Germans released their armour, a few days later, the fighting was really raw. We were outgunned and out-tanked."

British divisions bore the brunt on the eastern flank and casualties - especially among the infantry - were heavy.

By August the number had reached a quarter of a million. In October Mr Smith became another one, wounded on the Dutch-German border. He'd served for almost five months, which is a long time for an infantryman; most of whom only lasted five weeks.

"It's alright talking about band of brothers, but you never made friends, because the man you shared the trench with today was gone tomorrow," he says. "You didn't even get to know his name."

Despite the war ending in 1945, Mr Smith wasn't released from military service for another two years, being instead sent to Palestine. When finally demobbed at York's Imphal Barracks, he called in at the first church he passed.

"I'm not a religious man," he says. "But I knelt at the altar and took an oath that I would never again handle another weapon, because I'd been responsible for the killing and wounding of several hundred people.

"Even as an old man, that doesn't get any easier."

Fellow infantryman, Bert Barritt is a believer and remembers saying his prayers on the landing craft before jumping into the water at Sword Beach.

"I committed myself into God's hands either way, " he says. "I wasn't saying I believe in you so look after me. I was 19, it was all new, a bit of excitement and danger. You didn't want to be thinking you're going to die."

It wasn't enemy fire that was the worry, but shells from British warships, peppering the beach and beyond.

Mr Barritt didn't get far on the first day. In training someone had made a model of the beach to show the troops how many houses and streets there were to navigate and they were told in which direction to head.

But with the confusion of war it didn't play out like that. Mr Barritt's unit was just told to follow the battalion in front. However, there was the small problem of them being out of sight. The men didn't meet up until late that night.

"I remember hearing cows moaning, wanting someone to milk them and some of the soldiers were doing just that," he says. "We must have walked a few miles, then at half past nine we were told to start digging in. The sergeant dropped each of us five cigarettes on the wet grass and I remember we had a can of soup, that warmed up when you pulled something off the top."

It was ready in just four minutes because of a heating element running through the centre of the can that was lit by a fuse. In1944, the British, US and Canadian armies started giving this product to their soldiers. It came in a variety of flavours, such as tomato, oxtail, pea and mock turtle. The ration was developed by Heinz and ICI, so troops could take a hot meal, because they weren’t able to light fires for cooking.

"After D-Day we did a few patrols, we were on guard and we moved around a lot," says Mr Barritt. "Three weeks later we were about to go on a genuine attack, but before it started I was wounded and sent back to England. I was out for four months."

Dennis Haydock was a bit more protected from stray rounds because he landed in Normandy on board a Sherman Tank; a mess tin on wheels he calls it.

"We used to think we were glad to be in a tank, rather than being an infantryman, because they didn't fire bullets at us, he says. "But I suppose we were a big target and discovered that they fired big things at you."

Mr Haydock had never been to sea or indeed out of England until June 1944, but he had to wait 48 hours to do so, because the weather wasn't suitable on D-Day.

"We drove off the landing craft, the water wasn't very deep and from the beach we headed south," he says. "We had to make it safe for our lot to fight. I think we did the job we should have done."

The campaign went well enough for Mr Haydock's crew until August when at Sourdeval, near Caen, two months after D-Day, their tank was destroyed by a shell.

The men were a sitting target and needed to get out quickly, cross the river bridge and rejoin their battalion. But the Germans blew it up, which meant there was only one thing for it.

"Unfortunately I couldn't swim, but I did manage to feel underneath the water the handrail of the bridge," says Mr Haydock. "Without that I don't know what I'd have done."

It's amazing that Mr Haydock survived the volley of crossfire, even more incredible that he could pull with his left arm, because it was littered with shrapnel.

"When you're in a tank and hit by an armour piercing shell, the inside of the tank breaks into little bits. I was in one that got hit and I was wounded in my arm, just inches from my heart. Some of the shrapnel is still there and when I have an injection I always say don't put your needle in there or you'll blunt it."

After a spell of recuperating, Mr Haydock was sent to rejoin his unit in time for the battle to liberate Enschede in April 1945. The war was moving on at quite a pace by now and within a few weeks Mr Haydock's tank rolled safely across the German border.

"The people were very nice although I shouldn't imagine they were very happy to see us," he says. "I actually enjoyed being in Germany."

These three men were members of the York branch of the Normandy Veterans Association until 2014, but with dwindling numbers, it was wound up last year. Along with the city's other D-Day survivors, they have now formed a new, independent group.

The men have also returned to Normandy a number of times since the war. On one visit their coach passed an elderly man who was tending a grave. When he saw the medals he smiled and went over to shake everyone's hand.

"He gave me an embrace and thanked me for liberating his village even though his mother was killed on that day," says Mr Smith. "I felt somewhat at a loss to hear this. We destroyed nearly every town and village during the campaign and around 50,000 French civilian casualties. But we're now welcomed with open arms."

  • The experiences of York’s Normandy veterans have been filmed and recorded as part of a project by archivists at York Explore Library. You can now read more about the men and discover their stories at the Library through their archive collections.