Veterans’ D-DAY tributes

PUBLISHED: 16:40 10 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:49 25 August 2010

HERO: Robert Watts.

HERO: Robert Watts.

BEFORE he joined the Royal Navy in 1942, Robert Watts had already seen the disastrous effects of war. As a 16-year old electrician in the City of London, he had enrolled as a fire-watcher. He also joined the Home Guard. From the tops of buildings he watch

BRAVE: Men wait for the order to storm the beaches on D-Day

BEFORE he joined the Royal Navy in 1942, Robert Watts had already seen the disastrous effects of war. As a 16-year old electrician in the City of London, he had enrolled as a fire-watcher. He also joined the Home Guard. From the tops of buildings he watched London burning, as incendiary and high explosive bombs devastated the City.

Once fully enlisted he was drafted to a tank landing craft. Little did he realise he was to be among the first to hit Juno beach on D-Day...

THE landing craft approached Juno beach early on June 6 1944, Robert Watts made his way to a small cubby-hole at the front, writes Pete Cook.

Inside was a lever, which he had to pull to lower the ramp. The vessel was packed with Canadian soldiers, many of them so seasick from the crossing that despite the dangers, they couldn't wait to get ashore.

Two Centaur tanks were positioned on raised platforms to the rear of the craft, which enabled them to fire over the door as they went in. Their engines were already running.

"Our landing craft was the first in," said Robert, now 85, of Cowper Close, Welling.

"I shall always remember the breathtaking sight of so many crafts of all different types, making their way towards the beaches. There were heartbreaking events to follow as many were blown up by mines.

"The sound of guns and mortar fire was intense. Behind us the 16-inch guns of the battleship Warspite opened up, and as the shells screamed overhead the blast hit us in the back of the neck knocking our helmets forward. "I didn't feel frightened. I was concentrating too hard on what I was doing."

As the craft hit the beach he heard the order 'ramp down' but at first the lever wouldn't budge and seemed to jam. Then it gave and the ramp dropped.

"The tanks went off first," said Mr Watts. "As they went I heard the rat tat tat tat of machine gun fire and bullets pinged off the steel hull. Some of our soldiers were hit and there were a fair number of bodies on the beach ahead of us. But I was really impressed at the orderly way in which those men went off the landing craft into action. They knew exactly where to go and there was no fuss.

"I was also amazed at the magnificent way things were organised on the beach. Matting had been laid down for the vehicles, there were sign posts up, and there was this military policeman directing traffic as if he were on point duty."

As the landing craft began to reverse off the beach it struck a mine and the engine room was flooded.

All three engines were swamped as well as the generators. It meant the landing craft was now in the way of others trying to come ashore. Because of this, he and the rest of the 16-man landing craft crew, saw more of the beach landings than had been intended. "Dive bombers came over," he said. "You could hear them scream and all the cover you had was the mess deck. We weren't hit, though bombs landed all around. The craft next to us caught one though and I think three men were killed."

Most distressing of all was to watch soldiers coming of adjacent landing craft into deep water, dragged down by their heavy boots and drowned.

"We slung lines out," he recalled, "And we did save a good many. But it was a tragedy. You couldn't help thinking of the families of these men."

Eventually the engines and generators were functional and the landing craft was towed off into deep water. Then began the work they were intended to do, ferrying troops and supplies from the big Liberty ships onto the shore. But he fell sick and had to be taken back to Portsmouth on a hospital ship and by the time he returned to the landing craft, the war had moved on to Holland. The vessel carried everything the troops needed, plying the Dutch waterways. It was often loaded with German soldiers being ferried to prisoner of war camps.

"The Dutch people had been deprived of just about everything for a long time," he said. "Mostly they wanted cigarettes.

"I was on guard duty one day when a little girl came up. Her face was black with dirt. She said: 'My daddy says ask the man if he has any soap'. We found them some. Next thing I knew the whole family was there. They gave me a piece of silverware and a big slice of cake. They were so grateful for the soap."

Pete Cook

NORMANDY veterans have been invited to a special event next month attended by forces sweetheart Vera Lynn.

The War and Peace Show at The Hop Farm in Paddock Wood is due to take place from July 22 until 26 and will give veterans the chance to meet fellow comrades and paraphernalia from the Second World War. Miss Lynn is due to present some 1940s' entertainment. Other attractions will include a flying display of a Spitfire and Messerschmitt as well as a procession of military vehicles.

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