D-Day veteran Bill Milward tells Gareth Butterfield the story of the part he played in the largest seaborne invasion in history.
CORPORAL Bill Milward, of the Royal Army Service Corps, was 28 at the time of the D-Day landings and drove a DUKW amphibious vehicle to ferry supplies to troops.
Ahead of the invasion, Bill was told to report to Towyn in Wales to teach other drivers how to handle the six-wheel-drive trucks so they would be ready for return trips unloading liberty boats from America.
It wasn't long before an order came to load up the trucks and move in convoy to Portsmouth, where they stopped in a special holding camp just outside the city.
"Once in, you couldn't get out," Bill explained. "It was utter secrecy. Then, on the Sunday before D-Day, two of us with DUKWs loaded with supplies were moved out to Portsmouth Harbour where both vehicles were loaded on to an LCT (landing craft transport).
"And there we stayed until 6am on the morning of D-Day.
"Our craft moved out into an armada of ships and craft of all shapes and sizes, all getting into some sort of order, everything moving ever nearer to the French coast."
Bill's DUKW was one of two which were dropped about a quarter of a mile out at sea to make their own way in. They landed on Gold Beach, a tactical name for one of the landing beaches, at about 4pm, and picked their way through the debris of shattered Army equipment.
Bill said: "Praise to the lads who made the landing by wading ashore under fire and to those lads who were clearing the beach of sunken boats, blown-up vehicles and some bodies of those unfortunate lads who didn't make it.
"After landing, the senior beach officer asked drivers in turn what they were carrying and told them where to park.
"My DUKW was loaded with hundreds of lavatory buckets and the other was loaded with rolls of hessian, wooden poles and shovels. Well, the officers and other ranks had to go somewhere!"
Bill and his men camped out with Canadian troops until his company arrived to help with the huge task of unloading the ships. The company worked night and day, ship-to-shore, off-loading the liberty boats from America.
Thousands of tonnes were brought ashore and quickly delivered to the units on the front line – ammunitions and petrol being the most urgent.
"Sometimes it was a bit dodgy when the seas were rough," Bill recalls. "But all this eased when the Mulberry Harbour was floated across the Channel and put in place."
Eventually Bill was able to get on the move across France and then into Holland, staying with local families overnight.
"My friends and I were lucky to be in a farmhouse." Bill said. "Because of the shelling, the people went down in the cellar to sleep, and we had the floor of the front room. I was so impressed with this family I promised to keep in touch.
"I kept my promise and still visit most years even today." The invasion had moved quickly and Bill was diverted from usual military duties to help gather sugar beet from fields in Belgium, which had no transport, to the sugar factory in the Netherlands.
During this work Bill met another family in the Belgian town of Assenede. Again, Bill promised to return and now, at the age of 98, he is still keeping that promise and hops over to Belgium whenever he visits Holland.
Bill might enjoy rekindling fond memories of his time spent with families overseas but the war has left him with memories of more disturbing experiences.
He recalls his company being moved on to Belsen concentration camp.
He said: "Once inside we saw little groups of people crouched on the ground picking at blades of grass to eat. And in a large courtyard there was a mountain of naked bodies piled on top of each other."
Bill, who lives a remarkably independent life at his home in Peak View Drive, has five medals to show for his time in the war.
"But to those sceptics, concentration camps were real, evil places," he says. I have worked in two so I know just how terrible it must have been for those poor people.
"I shall never forget. God bless them all."