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From bloody battles to egg-hunts: A D-Day veteran shares his memories

D-Day veteran, Desmond 'Steve' Stanford of Walsingham, an engineer on one of the landing craft, who is preparing to return to Normandy for the first time in 50 years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

D-Day veteran, Desmond 'Steve' Stanford of Walsingham, an engineer on one of the landing craft, who is preparing to return to Normandy for the first time in 50 years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2019

Desmond 'Steve' Stanford was a Royal Navy mechanic during D-Day. In the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the landings, he shared his memories of the time with reporter Stuart Anderson.

D-Day veteran, Desmond 'Steve' Stanford of Walsingham, an engineer on one of the landing craft, who is preparing to return to Normandy for the first time in 50 years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYD-Day veteran, Desmond 'Steve' Stanford of Walsingham, an engineer on one of the landing craft, who is preparing to return to Normandy for the first time in 50 years. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

He remembers the sound of shells screaming overhead and the horrific sight of blood-soaked beaches. But he also recalls lighter moments, like a hunt for eggs amidst bemused French villagers even a chance encounter with the King.

It has been 75 years since Desmond Stanford, from Walsingham, landed on the D-Day beaches and half-a-century since he's been back for a visit.

The 96-year-old former navy mechanic is now returning to France with hundreds of other veterans to mark the anniversary of that pivotal Second World War battle.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "A son of mine is coming over from New Zealand to go with me, and I've got no bad feeling about it."

Desmond 'Steve' Stanford, D-Day veteran, with some of his medals. Picture: COURTESY OF MR STANFORDDesmond 'Steve' Stanford, D-Day veteran, with some of his medals. Picture: COURTESY OF MR STANFORD

Mr Stanford, who's known as Steve but had the nickname Ginger in the navy, was a 21-year-old engineer in charge of 12 landing boats which ferried soldiers ashore in the heat of the invasion.

He still has his diary from the time, telling of the rough, 14-hour journey across the Channel in a 30ft landing boat that was designed for much shorter trips.

Mr Stanford said: "When we got to the fleet, we went to the troop ship, filled it up and took them to Gold Beach. I got off, and stayed on the beach to see if there was anything wrong with other boats when they came in.

"We went in under the guns of the Ajax and our other cruisers that were firing from 15 miles out, the shells screaming overhead. We were more afraid that some of our ships would drop their shells on shore than what the Germans were throwing at us."

Desmond 'Steve' Stanford as a young sailor. He worked his way up to become a chief petty officer. Picture: COURTESY MR STANFORDDesmond 'Steve' Stanford as a young sailor. He worked his way up to become a chief petty officer. Picture: COURTESY MR STANFORD

Mr Stanford slept on the beach for the following three nights and was then stationed in nearby Arromanches eight months.

He remembers meeting a nurse on the beach very early on, who he fears could have later been killed.

Mr Stanford said: "When one of the troop boats came in there was a woman on board. She had been on the hospital ship and they said she wouldn't get off. I said to her 'do you want to get yourself killed?' We were being sniped at awfully. She said she just wanted to see the war, and I said, 'walk around the other side of that tank there and you'll see it!

"Later I heard that the first woman who made it ashore had died. It could have been her but I never found out."

A postcard of Arromanches-les-Bains which Desmond 'Steve' Stanford has. The D-Day veteran was stationed in the Normandy town for months after the invasion. Picture: COURTESY MR STANFORDA postcard of Arromanches-les-Bains which Desmond 'Steve' Stanford has. The D-Day veteran was stationed in the Normandy town for months after the invasion. Picture: COURTESY MR STANFORD

After the battlefront had moved on the sailors left on the coast turned their attention to other matters.

Mr Stanford remembers: "All we had was powdered eggs to eat, so the skipper told me to take somebody and find some fresh eggs. Me and Blondie [a fellow sailor] looked around this hamlet, but all the chickens had been taken inside. We found two old ladies - one was over 100 - leaning over a gate and we said 'œufs!' but they couldn't understand.

'Blondie got an idea and he put his hand under his bottom and tried to make the sound a chicken made when it laid an egg.

"The old girls kept a straight face, and one took Blondie by the hand, led him through to a hut and left him to open the door - we assumed that was where the chickens were. But when he opened the door, it was the toilet! They laughed so much at that but they kept us in eggs afterwards - we knew where to get 'em."

Desmond 'Steve' Stanford with a map of the D-Day beaches he has in his living room. Picture: STUART ANDERSONDesmond 'Steve' Stanford with a map of the D-Day beaches he has in his living room. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

Mr Stanford still has his diary from the time, as well as a prayer book he carried with him, but had to fish out of the Channel.

But he said it was a long time before he regained his faith after the war.

He said: "After what I saw that first day, I thought, well, if somebody can't stop this, I'm not going back to church again.

"But my mother, bless her, convinced me to go to church when I moved back to Walsingham."

Desmond 'Steve' Stanford, D-Day veteran, at his home in Walsingham. Picture: STUART ANDERSONDesmond 'Steve' Stanford, D-Day veteran, at his home in Walsingham. Picture: STUART ANDERSON

That was not for another 37 years, after a career in the Midlands as an engineer and then a section director for a soft-drink company's fleet of vehicles.

He and his wife, Peggy, were married for 61 years, and she died just 12 years ago. They had four children, and he now has 43 great-grandchildren and even a couple of great-great-grandchildren.

A royal nudge: When Mr Stanford met the monarch

Mr Stanford's meeting with King George VI came in the build-up to D-Day when he was stationed at Buckler's Hard in the New Forest.

He said: "I was working in one of the boats, and somebody gave it a nudge. I jumped up and said 'what the so-and-so do you think you're doing?' That boat turned out to be the admiral's barge and the King was on board.

"The King got off and said 'where do you come from?' I said 'I'm from Norfolk' and he said, 'I know you do, I can hear that!'"

Mr Stanford said his shipmates doubted the story when he got back to the mess that evening.

"They said 'where have you been? You were going to miss you're tot of rum, so we saved it for you!' I told them I was stopped by the King. They said 'no you didn't, don't give him that tot!'"

But Mr Stanford had the last laugh next morning when the sailors lined up in a guard of honour at the church in nearby Exbury.

Mr Sanford said: "The King came through, and he said to me 'we meet again, young man.' They had to eat their words then because they realised I did see him!"

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