Remembering the day that freed Europe

D-Day veteran Sam Palmer ANL-140206-143857001
D-Day veteran Sam Palmer ANL-140206-143857001
Have your say

To listen to Sam Palmer talk about landing on the D-Day beaches 70 years ago today, you might think he and his fellow Royal Engineers had an easy time of it.

True, by the time he landed on Sword Beach, it had been secured, but the work the engineers had to do was dangerous and essential if allied forces were to move off the beachhead.

Commandos are seen here wading ashore from landing craft, onto the beaches of Normandy, June 1944. ''Royal Engineers' heavy equipment was brought ashore on tank landing craft like those in the background . Crown Copyright  ANL-140206-143834001

Commandos are seen here wading ashore from landing craft, onto the beaches of Normandy, June 1944. ''Royal Engineers' heavy equipment was brought ashore on tank landing craft like those in the background . Crown Copyright ANL-140206-143834001

“The infantry went in front and our job was mines, bridges and demolition,” he says, with deceptive understatement.

But in conversation the 90-year-old former Sapper (RE private), born in Bury St Edmunds, remembers: “One Bury lad, Frank Bradley, got shot in the shoulder by a sniper while we were building a bridge.”

Routes through minefields were not usually cleared using mine detectors, but by sappers prodding the ground with their bayonets.

“When you found one you marked it and someone behind you disarmed it,” he said. But then he added: “When you visit the Normandy cemeteries you see quite a lot of Engineers’ graves where two or more are buried in the same grave. It’s where they were killed together by a mine.”

Then the true horror of it dawns — these men are buried in one grave because their remains could not be separated after the blast.

Sam, whose family lived in Ixworth when he joined up in 1941, was one of nearly 160,000 men who landed in Normandy on June 6 1944, of whom 4,414 were dead by the end of the day and many more never survived the drive into Germany that followed.

Until then Sam had been training in England, Wales and Scotland. He recalls the last few days in England were spent in barbed wire ‘cages’ as part of the security operation.

“I was on Wanstead Flats,“ he said, which is on the southern edge of Epping Forest. “We had military police all round the fences to see civilians didn’t talk to us.

“We only knew we were going to France because they gave us french money. We didn’t know where in France — we thought it would be Calais or somewhere near and handy.”

But this was to be no quick Channel hop. His troopship, carrying British and Canadian forces, left Southsea on June 1 for an invasion planned for June 5. The weather became so bad the invasion had to be put off for 24 hours, but the men could not disembark, so they had to weather the storm aboard the crowded ships.

“We just had to sit there in the boats,” Sam said. “Quite a few were seasick.”

On the 6th, the weather had improved enough for Operation Overlord to begin.

“You could see all the bombers going over. I only saw two German aircraft on the first day — they had been punished beforehand. It was reassuring.”

He describes Sword beach as ‘not difficult to get onto’ but he remembers the shells of the constant bombardment the warships were still giving the defences hurtling overhead.

Then the moment he remembers most about the day: “It was going down over the side of the ship on rope ladders to the landingcraft, wondering what was going to happen.

“We never had any training for that. We were trained to cross rivers by wading, but we didn’t have any for getting over the side into the landingcraft.

“It was very frightening. Being that young age [20] it’s a case of excitement and fear, a mixture of the two.”

On shore he remembers wrecked buildings and civilians trying to get away from the beaches. Everyone expected a German counter attack.

The Royal Engineers’ first job was to bridge the Rover Orne to aid the allied breakout from the precarious beachhead. They assembled the pre-fabricated Bailey Bridge on the bank under fire and it took about half a day to span the river.

“With a small river like that, you could build it on the bank and just push it across,” he said. “With a wider river you needed floats.”

The Orne bridge was the first of many. Engineers put up 274 Bailey Bridges in France alone in 1944 and General Montgomery later said: “Without the Bailey Bridge we should not have won the war.”

Sam’s unit moved forward with Canadian forces who faced some of the toughest fighting because they came up against some of Germany’s best equipped armoured divisions, whose Tiger and Panther tanks outclassed Allied machines.

“You could often see them ahead of us,” he recalled. “Our tanks had to sort them out.”

After D-Day Sam’s war took him as far as Holland, where he took part in Operation Market Garden, the ambitious and doomed ‘Bridge Too Far’ attempt to take the bridge at Arnhem.

He was then sent home from Belgium to take three weeks embarkation leave to go to the Far East.

“We got halfway there when they dropped the atom bomb, so we were taken to Trieste,” he said. “I was demobbed in Austria. I was given a civvy suit and we got a boat home.”

It must have been a relief for his family back in Ixworth because his older brother Ernest had been killed in the Royal Navy at Christmas 1939 and his other brother Bert, was also serving in the navy in the Far East. Bert’s adventures did not end with the war because he was aboard HMS Amethyst when the communist Chinese trapped her in the Yagtse in 1949.

Sam, who now lives in Fornham St Martin, returned home to rejoin his father’s building business, Palmer and Son, and to marry Ixworth girl Margaret. Until she died two years ago, they attended D-Day memorials in Bury’s Abbey Gardens each June 6 and went to Normandy for the various anniversaries.

“I consider I’m one of the lucky ones — a lot of people didn’t come back,” Sam said quietly. “No, a lot of them didn’t.”