D-Day: The Ipswich brothers who helped liberate France
PUBLISHED: 09:37 06 June 2019 | UPDATED: 19:00 06 June 2019
Arthur and Cyril Scoffield saw some awful things on the beaches of Normandy in 1944
Five years ago I sat down with two Suffolk brothers who had been part of the D-Day landings. The memory sets the back of my neck tingling even now. Particularly the moment Arthur Scoffield said: "I don't know how many times I sang Abide With Me."
Many accounts of war are sanitised - often because veterans don't want to revive terrible memories; partly to save the rest of us from the dreadful details - but the brothers told it how it was. And that was good. If we're to understand the past, we must know the full story.
One of Cyril Scoffield's tasks off Normandy involved retrieving the corpses of troops and collecting their identity tags. He remembered seeing bodies that had been cut in half.
His brother told of a head washed around by the tide. Later, he'd witnessed the horrors of Belsen concentration camp, near Hanover.
The experiences gave Arthur nightmares once he returned home. "I used to kick out, Mother used to say," he said of wife Winifred.
Yet despite all they saw, the brothers hadn't let it mar their lives. They celebrated the good in people, had well-honed senses of humour, and their laughter was infectious in 2014. Testament, one imagines, to the resilience of the human spirit.
Lump to the throat
Cyril was 88 when I met them then. His brother was 98. Both had been back to Normandy in the past, to pay their respects, and Cyril was heading off for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Ill health - and an eyewatering quote of about £800 for travel insurance - meant his brother was staying at home in Ipswich.
Both admitted visits to France could bring a lump to the throat. Cyril said: "At the time, you never thought anything was going to happen to you. You were young! I never had nightmares, but I used to go over and over, in my mind for months afterwards, what happened and what we'd done."
I sent a silent prayer
Arthur was born in Dillwyn Street, Ipswich, in 1916. He worked as a French polisher, then at engineering firms of Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies, and Cranes.
He joined the Territorial Army in 1933, married Winifred in 1938, had five children, and manned searchlights at Felixstowe. Later, he laid mines and volunteered for bomb disposal. The brothers served separately.
Royal Engineers sergeant Arthur recalled nearing France in June, 1944. "Warships Rodney, Warsprite and Belfast and other ships opened fire on the defences and we had to shout to be heard.
"Our turn came to use scramble nets in quite a swell, four to eight feet - so had to time your leap from net to assault craft to avoid injury... above the noise of the gunfire I heard a terrible scream and saw a young Canadian crushed between landing craft and ship. This affected me quite a bit.
"We were about five miles offshore when we boarded the landing craft. It was a very rough trip; I think all of us were sick at some time.
"At about 7am some of the naval vessels started marshalling us in position for our run into our allocated beach area, which was Juno Beach. During this operation, some craft collided with each other. Also, we were in range of the German batteries.
"Things looked chaotic at times. Some craft lost their steering. Others had engine failure; and I saw two tank transporters sink; also, at least two infantry craft… the first sight of corpses and injured men floating in water.
"Amongst all this, we were comforted by hearing naval officers giving orders in a calm voice over the loudhailers. We started our run-in about 7.20am, which took about 10 minutes. We were now in range of machine-gun fire.
"The ramp dropped and I was up to my chest in water. I made the beach and sent a silent prayer..."
'The suicide squad'
The job of Arthur and his colleagues was to clear obstacles - often with explosives and often while being fired at - so the main force could advance. They were nicknamed "the suicide squad"; and the pal working beside you could suddenly be killed or injured.
Arthur explained: "Each of our charges had 10-second fuses, so we didn't have much time to run up the beach into position... we saw several bodies and body parts, including a head, washed around by the tide.
"The job got done nearly perfect, so next job was mine-clearing - clearing lanes wide enough for tanks etc. We moved up to the fishing port of Courselles about 10.30am.
"We'd lost 74 men in the first three hours, killed or wounded. We all finished bruised or cut, some of it from machine-gun fire hitting shingle... The fighting around Courselles was, at times, intense and lasted about two hours.
"After the breakout, and moving to open country, the Regena Rifles found themselves facing a number of minefields etc. We were one of the squadrons and field companies called on to clear lanes and barbed wire. Our casualties were quite small but the infantry took a hammering.
"As we progressed, we all linked up, found little resistance and by the evening were about two miles inland. We had our first real stop for food."
'Eighteen months to live'
At about 10pm they tried to get some rest in a field.
"That, basically, was my D-Day; rightly called the longest day, as mine started more or less at 4am. Roughly, start to finish, 18 hours. In that time I don't know how many times I sang Abide With Me! It was my inspiration."
Arthur actually took shrapnel in his leg and back. In England, his doctor gave him 18 months to live - a prognosis Arthur defied by quite some margin.
He joined Eastern Electricity as a linesman and was in the Territorial Army until 1961.
Early in 2016, weeks before his 100th birthday, Arthur was presented with the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest honour for bravery - for his part in liberating the country.
He died in 2017, aged 101. Arthur was remembered for his one-liners. Once, after a fall that saw him taken to hospital, he was asked if he was diabetic. "No," he told staff. "I'm Church of England."
Held in barbed wire compound
Cyril was a Royal Marine. After leaving school at 14 he became an apprentice with engineering firm Cocksedges before joining up at 17.
"I was still only 18 when I left Southampton on D-Day," he said. "We anchored at Sword Beach and I was part of the three-man crew on a landing craft taking men and supplies from ship to beach and back again. We did trips to Sword Beach, Gold Beach and the Mulberry Harbour.
"We were strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe and subjected to sniper fire from Arromanches. Rumour had it that some of the snipers were Frenchwomen who had married German soldiers."
One night, they were told to take an officer from Mulberry Harbour to the hospital ship in very rough seas.
"When we approached the hospital ship, one minute you could see the barnacles on the bottom and the next you were looking down one of the funnels - it was that rough.
"The officer we had on board could not make the jump from our craft to the ship and so we had to return.
"On the way back, the waves broke the back of the landing craft and we started taking on water. It was about midnight. We reported that we were sinking and were ordered to run our craft to the beach, where it disintegrated and sank.
"We were told to wait by the craft until we were picked up. However, the longest day turned out to be three more long days, with no rations and no sign of relief, so we made our way to Bayeux, which was deemed to be out of bounds.
"We were picked up by Army redcaps (military police) and taken back to the beach. In the meantime, some of our outfit had turned up for us and were waiting to take us back to block-ships, where we were charged with not standing by.
"The mechanic and I were put ashore and held in a barbed wire compound. The coxswain was demoted to marine."
Reunited with brother
"I was digging latrines alongside German prisoners of war when I heard a familiar voice say 'What you doing down there, boy?' I looked up to see my brother, Arthur, standing at the top of the trench.
"The sergeant in charge, hearing that my brother had come to find me, let me out for a while and gave us two tickets to get a bottle of beer each from the NAAFI."
Cyril was freed after 11 days.
"After returning from France, we were sent back to Germany as an army of occupation and stationed at a U-boat pen. We returned to Dover, were reformed, and joined the Aquitania - to take Australian prisoners of war back home.
"Before I was 20, I had sailed around the world! When I returned to Civvy Street, I resumed the apprenticeship with Cocksedges... and stayed for 50 years."
Cyril also died in 2017, but predeceased his older brother - Arthur, aged 101, standing and saluting the coffin as it left the church.