D-Day: Dad was special. I never really appreciated that
PUBLISHED: 11:31 06 June 2019 | UPDATED: 19:00 06 June 2019
Eddie Young found love in Suffolk with a Land Girl. Then in 1944, with the Royal Army Medical Corps, he landed on Juno Beach. This is his story
"D-Day was not, of course, the end of the story," confirms Catherine, the last of Eddie Young's four children to be born. Mind you, it was a while before she learned exactly what his life had been like during the Second World War.
"I have a booklet written by a fellow RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) soldier from his unit. It charts their whole journey from the beach, through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and on to the border with Denmark.
"It tells of them pulling over to the side of the road to hear Winston Churchill's radio broadcast announcing the Germans' unconditional surrender. It contains detail that reveals both the horror and effect of war.
"Dad never spoke about it until he started to get visits from an old pal who had been a stretcher-bearer in the unit. Norman Ebbatson was a proud veteran who wore his British Legion outfit and medals with pride. More importantly, he could talk for England and it was through him that I learnt more, and Dad was happy to answer questions.
"On their way through Germany they had passed close to Belsen (the concentration camp near Hanover). The captain went to see if they could be of assistance. He came back to say they were not needed and told the lads 'You have seen enough already'. I think that says a lot."
What was Catherine's father like? "Kind, generous, honest, trusting, modest, friendly and never threw anything away. Which is how I know so much! And bits of string and old wood always come in handy, don't they?"
Among the things she has is his account of D-Day, written shortly after the event. We'll hear more soon of how, following the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk, Eddie's unit regrouped at Framlingham. Here he met his wife to be, a young lady in the Women's Land Army. They married in the Suffolk town in June, 1941.
First, back 75 years. Eddie Young had been promoted to lance sergeant but reverted to corporal at his own request so he could stay with the friends he had signed up with. We find him in the Royal Army Medical Corps, travelling up and down the country, preparing for the chance to liberate France.
Green and pleasant land
"After months of intensive training for our part in the organisation of a beach group, we waited, I must admit sometimes impatiently, for the day when we were to set foot, once again, on the shores of the continent," he wrote.
"We often wondered how, when or where the invasion would take place. In our 'briefing' we saw a relief map where the initial landing and beachhead were to be made, but it only intensified the question of 'where?', as codenames - or, I should say, fictitious names - were used for the towns and villages shown."
Finally, on June 3, they left their camp and set off for Southampton docks. "As we hurried along the road, life appeared to be carrying on much the same as normal; but for my part, as I gazed at the passing fields and villages, I wondered how long it would be before I would see England's green and pleasant land again."
Near the docks, "people came to their doors and windows to see us pass and I felt a lump rise in my throat as I saw a woman cry as she waved to us".
Eddie's party boarded a Dutch ship, the Mecklenburg. It anchored off the Isle of Wight. Then, "on June 5, as a climax to days of rumours, word passed around like wildfire that tomorrow was to be D-Day. Even then, it seemed unbelievable that this day, so eagerly awaited by all freedom-loving peoples of the world, was at hand".
The great day was here
They set sail just before midnight, the destination still not known. "But part of that question was shortly to be answered, as I was summoned to the cabin of the officer in charge of our party. In his cabin I saw a map of the invasion beaches. Even though exact details were lacking, I could see with my limited knowledge of French that it was part of the coast of France.
"We gathered the boys together and studied the map; and after hearing the messages of goodwill from HM The King and General Eisenhower we settled ourselves for a few hours' sleep."
They were up at 4.30am. "In the distance one could see, through the thinning darkness, vague outlines of other craft, and with the dawn came a sight never to be forgotten. As far as the eye could see, there were craft of all descriptions…"
They were between the Cherbourg peninsula and Le Havre. "Already, columns of smoke were rising from the heavy and accurate shelling of the Royal Navy. To our right, the Americans were making their presence known too. Planes roared overhead, making their way to shore. The great day was here. The day for which we had for years prepared, planned and waited."
Eddie and colleagues watched the first batch of assault troops leave the Mecklenburg. Other assault craft were weaving past. "The sea seemed to be full of these little boats."
Eddie and his comrades waited, a couple of hours or so, to be collected. "Some of the assault craft began to appear, returning from the beach, and we kept an anxious lookout for our own boats. Only four out of six returned, but we were glad to see that some of the crews had been rescued.
"In answer to shouts, they gave the thumbs-up sign and shouted 'It was easy'. This news cheered us up no end…"
A fresh wind was by this time making the sea heavy. Twice the steel hawsers anchoring the landing craft to the Mecklenburg broke, but eventually they began to embark, along with stretchers and other equipment.
"I know I had quite a thrill as I descended the Jacob's ladder, for, as I looked down, a seemingly-great gap yawned between the boats, only to be closed as a heavy swell caught the LCT (landing craft) - but I made it."
They had to turn back because of mines. While waiting, members of the King's Regiment danced reels and other steps to the tune of their piper. "This amused the chaps greatly and even our bearded naval commander joined in the fun, but some seemed deep in thought…"
Flying balls of fire
Finally, off again. "A few of the LCTs had hit mines and grounded. Great columns of smoke were rearing shakily into the sky, showing to some of the invaders, for the first time, the rigours of war."
Now it was Eddie's party's turn to land, on Juno Beach. "We shuddered as we entered the sea waist-deep and pushed and plodded our way to shore."
They reached Graye-sur-Mer, where their main field dressing station would be set up - an advanced surgical centre for troops fighting inland.
"Darkness came only too soon on that first hectic day and with the low cloud gave good cover to the spasmodic raids by single and sometimes a couple of enemy aircraft. But what a reception these intruders received - the whole sky seemed to be full of flying balls of fire and, to quote the words of a soldier, 'Everything seemed to be thrown at him: pots, pans, kitchen ranges and steel helmets'.
"It was during an interval of one of these raids that we saw a huge fire burning and columns of smoke appearing over the beach itself.
"We learned later that it was a raft conveying some of our men and vehicles ashore. Unfortunately it had hit a mine, but luckily all were saved and I had a job during the early hours of D + 1 issuing fresh clothing to the sea-soaked survivors."
Eddie and his unit settled down to snatch a few hours of sleep as best they could, "and we heralded the grey dawn ready to face the rigours of the day and the inevitable breakfast of porridge and biscuits of our 24-hours pack".
That's where his account of June 6/7, 1944, draws to an end.
More about the man
Eddie was born in 1918 in Ardwick, Manchester. He grew up there, and then Gorton.
"The family could not afford to send him to Manchester Grammar School so he went to work as a telegraph boy. Before the war he followed his father into the St John Ambulance," says Catherine.
"Knowing that war was imminent, he chose to join up - with the Royal Army Medical Corps, 125th Field Ambulance, a territorial unit - with many of his friends in Manchester.
"Choosing a non-combative role comes as no surprise to me as he was a very caring person. He joined on May 4, 1939, for a period of four years."
During the Dunkirk evacuation, he was brought out on a larger ship "and not one of the little boats".
He'd been promoted to corporal the previous February, and then lance/sergeant on May 12. "On his request, he was demoted to corporal in November, 1941. I know this was done so he could stay with his mates from Manchester, because now the unit was being reformed into the First Field Dressing Station."
Why did he go to Framlingham?
"I don't really know. But it was the first stop of many. They went the length and breadth of Britain in the next four years. Curiously, a lot of the places had castles. Barnard Castle, Alnwick, Wales, Scotland.
"John Bridges, who wrote A Suffolk Town In Wartime about Framlingham, told me it was used for a great many troops during the start of the war.
"I'm not sure how long they were there exactly but he met my mother in October/November 1940 and they were married June 2, 1941, at St Michael's by Canon Lanchester, and the indications are that the unit was still there.
"There was a wonderful write-up in the local paper. It talks of a large gathering and says my mum had become a well-known figure in the town, being a popular milk girl.
"They were both 23 - or nearly, because my mother's birthday was the 12th of June. She was given away by her grandfather because her father had died in the 1920s, we think from wounds sustained in the First World War.
"They had a one-night honeymoon in Fairfield Road, at a cottage belonging to the farmer she worked for. I have my mother's diary from that time and there were plenty of visits to the pictures, although it doesn't say where, and dances galore - some at the Area School, some at the Assembly Room and some at St Michael's Rooms."
"Mum was born in Tottenham and the family by then were living in Ilford, Essex.
"She, like Dad, was keen to play her part in the war and joined the Land Army and was sent to Seale-Hayne Agricultural College, Newton Abbot, Devon, in August, 1940, for a four-week training course.
"She was then sent to a farm in Framlingham, arriving just after the bomb that fell on College Street in October, 1940. She was always disappointed that she was the only Land Army girl there.
"The first farm belonged to the Sly family and then she went to a farm on the Badingham Road. Among other jobs, she had to milk the cows in the morning and then wheel the milk cart through Framlingham.
"They met at one of the dances and Mum always said she married Dad because he was such a good dancer.
"Some time after the wedding, Mum was advised to stop the Land Army work as it was too much, physically, for her. She then went to work for the Refugee Council in Poplar and fire-watched on the town hall."
Not a Suffolk woman, then. Or was there something in the distant past?
"Aah! We knew we had some background in Suffolk, and only last year my brother, who is compiling our family history, and I found the farmhouse in Chevington where our great-grandfather was a farmer.
"He left there to become a groom in Mayfair and my grandmother was born in Berkeley Square! Only because her parents were in service."
No more dancing
After the Normandy landings, Eddie then goes on that trek through Europe.
"By then Dad was a family man as my eldest sister was born in January, 1945. I'm not sure when he left the army but it would seem to be, from records, January, 1946.
"They settled in Ilford, two doors down from my grandmother, and then out to Newbury Park. Dad went into the civil service, working his way up through the Post Office, Transport and Environment.
"Mum, who had been a secretary on Fleet Street, did not return to work until I went to grammar school. She then had a variety of temporary jobs. Dad's work took him to Ipswich in 1967, which is when we moved here. (He came to work in Ipswich because of his role with The Department of the Environment.) And Mum came to work for the EADT (as a copytaker)."
Sadly, Irene had an accident in 1979 that left her disabled. She and Eddie could no longer go dancing "and they never went again, because she couldn't bear to watch others dancing badly".
Eddie died in 1992, aged 74. His wife was 95 when she followed in 2014.
Catherine says: "When he died and I looked through his things, I found more than one letter where people had written to thank him for his work, both paid and voluntary. He was special. And I never really appreciated that."