D-Day: ‘This isn’t a holiday. It’s a pilgrimage’

D-Day veteran Ted Bootle, who used to live in Laxfield and now lives in the Lowestoft area. D-Day veteran Ted Bootle, who used to live in Laxfield and now lives in the Lowestoft area.

Friday, June 6, 2014
3:00 PM

Ted Bootle is in France, aiming to lay a wreath in honour of those who fell. The 90-year-old D-Day veteran, who retired to Suffolk, tells STEVEN RUSSELL how visiting the beach where he landed in 1944 can still bring a tear to the eye

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A photograph of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree, proprietor of Cafe Gondree (it became the Pegasus Bridge Cafe), Major John Howard and Captain David Wood.A photograph of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree, proprietor of Cafe Gondree (it became the Pegasus Bridge Cafe), Major John Howard and Captain David Wood.

Teenager Ted Bootle was keen to join up during the Second World War, like his mates, but he was in a reserved occupation and the firm making aircraft parts was loathe to let him go. “You felt, actually, as though you were one of these conscientious objectors, and I wasn’t one of them!” he remembers.

“Apparently my first lot of calling-up papers was sent to the company and they promptly said ‘No, you can’t have him.’ The second lot came to me. I thought ‘Right. It’s my turn.’ I left it right to the last minute. I went and saw the manager and said ‘I’m going in the army tomorrow.’ ‘You can’t do this!’ ‘Well, I’ve done it. I’m sorry!’”

That was in 1943.

Ted, who will be 91 in November, was born in Bethnal Green, east London. His family moved out to Dagenham when he was about 10.

After joining the army he did basic training in Northern Ireland. Being a bit handy mechanically, he was put in the Royal Army Service Corps, which was responsible for transporting all the vital things soldiers needed. In Derbyshire he was taught to drive, and how to take a lorry to pieces and put it back together again.

Later he sort of volunteered to attach to the 6th Airborne Division – there was some extra money in that, he smiles – and went to a place outside Salisbury for training in pushing panniers out of planes and things like that.

On Monday, June 5, 1944, Ted and his colleagues were told “Right, we’re going to take a long run today…” They headed east. Hitting the A127 Southend arterial road reminded Ted he wasn’t far from home. Before long they pulled into a field and grabbed a few hours’ sleep.

At about 10pm the call came. They drove onto the quay at Tilbury, onto a big net that lifted lorries up in the air and down into the ships’ holds. As soon as the vessel was full, the motor started and it was away.

The men didn’t know where they were going or what the plan was.

“We seemed to be going for hours and hours,” says Ted. They snatched fitful sleep in the cab.

“All of a sudden the ship stopped. They called out to me ‘Ted, where are we?’ ‘Well, I don’t know!’ ‘Climb up those steps and see where we are.’ So I climbed up, pushed the hatch away, looked out, and you never saw so many ships in all your life. Thousands of ships there were.

“The next thing we knew, the navy, who were to the side of us, they started firing over the top. All we could hear were the noises of the shells, over the top. They were shelling the beach.”

Was it scary?

“I was only 20. Didn’t worry about much!”

Once the firing stopped, landing craft arrived and started to get the lorries up from the hold. “That was all right until they dropped one right down onto another one. Killed one of our blokes. We had to clear up after that; it put us hours behind.

“The landing craft took us towards the shore. We did go into about three feet of water. The only way I could drive the lorry was to put my right toe onto the accelerator and the other foot up high. If you put your foot down properly, you had a boot full of water.

“We got to shore and went out onto the beach road. We didn’t get too far before this chap said ‘We have to turn right here.’ It was the silliest thing he ever did: down this lane... with Germans at the top.”

The Nazis fired, the British returned their shots, and Ted turned his lorry around as swiftly as he could and put his foot down.

By now it was well into the morning of Tuesday, June 6 – which would come to be known as D-Day, marking the start of the liberation of occupied Europe and leading to the end of the war in about 15 months.

Ted and his colleagues found themselves back on the beach road and reached a key position a few miles inland at Bénouville. It’s better known as Pegasus Bridge, where they were due to deliver their load of supplies: food, medical items and ammunition.

The troops holding the bridge had been there since about midnight, and were pleased to be restocked.

The bridge had been captured through the element of surprise. Six wooden gliders, with 181 men from the 2nd Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry, had taken off from Dorset not long after 10.30pm the previous evening. They were towed by Halifax bombers and bound for two small but strategic bridges over the River Orne and the Caen canal.

The gliders landed within yards of the bridges, which were seized within about 10 minutes, according to historic accounts. The success of Operation Deadstick, as it was known, helped stop German tanks reaching the beaches later – thus easing the way for the allied forces.

Surreally, Ted and his pals enjoyed a quick drink of calvados, the apple brandy produced in Normandy, at a café near the bridge before returning to the fray.

There was not, actually, much firing going on. “Funnily enough, when we got there it was pretty quiet,” he remembers. Earlier, when they approached the beach, there had been some to the right, where the infantry had gone in. In fact, Ted reports, the greatest threat to their safety during their time in Normandy came from “friendly fire”.

“We were fired on by the Americans! Driving down the road, we’d got the white star on the top, plain as anything. We’d washed it daily to make sure it was visible, but they came down, tuhr-tuhr-tuhr. I thought ‘This is nice…’”

After that initial call at Pegasus Bridge, Ted and the team drove backwards and forwards, distributing supplies to groups of soldiers dotted about coastal Normandy. “We did that for about six weeks.”

Afterwards there was an abortive trip to Arnhem with ammunition and other supplies. It was only later, once more detail emerged about the D-Day landings and it could be put in some kind of perspective, that he came to realise the importance of that key operation in the winning of the war. “I’m glad I was there, really. We found it… I don’t know what to say… not exciting, but it was an experience.”

On Monday, Ted and relatives left for Portsmouth and a ferry to France. He’s hoping to take part in commemorative ceremonies at Sword Beach and Ranville, where one of those bridges was.

He’s been back to Normandy before, the last occasion for the 65th anniversary five years ago. During one trip he met up with his former commanding officer and they found the grave of a fellow serviceman who fell.

This week, Ted’s staying at Ranville with a French family he met several years ago.

“Everywhere you go, the French people say ‘Hello’. And they see the cap with the badge on.” They’re still very grateful to those who helped to liberate their country.

Does it bring a tear to the eye? “Sometimes it does…” he admits.

Ted’s planning to lay a wreath on behalf of the Royal British Legion’s Stradbroke and District Branch, of which he’s a president.

“Some people think this is a holiday,” he says, as he pulls on his coat and prepares to leave for the ferry. “It isn’t a holiday. It’s a pilgrimage.”

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