A project of Back to Normandy (www.backtonormandy.org) and Fred Vogels (www.fredvogels.nl).
An interview with George Batts, National Secretary Normandy Veterans Association (NVA). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwQM4VfftME
The NVA will disband in November 2014. This interview was made, one day after the official 70th anniversary of D-DAY. George tells me about his experiences with the world leaders, present in Normandy. His view on the future of commemorating D-DAY
This interview is part of a DVD (The Last Pilgrimage) I especially made as a gift for all the participating veterans on their last official trip to Normandy. The NVA will sent a copy to all these veterans.
The trailer of this DVD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heSsvUtlYAI
This story was written by George Batts and Alastair Dutch and published in the New York Times with permission on Back to Normandy
KENT, England —I have no idea what time it was on June 6, 1944, when we boarded an enormous troop ship in Newhaven, England, but it was dark. Some hours later the order was given to line up to board the assault craft — the small boats tied up alongside the ship that would take us to the beach. So there we were, in a line across the deck, with a small pack containing explosives, tin hat, loaded rifle, full ammunition packs and a bandoleer with even more ammunition. Continue reading the main story We were all nervous, but one of my abiding memories is standing with a whole tin of corned beef in one hand and a hunk of bread covered with thick butter in the other and thinking, “If I am killed and this is the condemned man’s last meal, I wish it was some of my mum’s home cooking.” (As it turned out, that was the last piece of bread I ate for about four months — it was hardtack biscuits from then on.)
When we were about four miles from the shore we were ordered to get into the craft, which bobbed several feet below the deck. We lined up to make the jump one by one, from one moving deck to another. Continue reading the main story George Batts in Normandy in June 2014, left, and Mr. Batts in 1944, above. Marie Liesse for The New York Times, left; Courtesy of George Batts, above. The sea was choppy, rising up and down by about 16 feet, bringing the smaller craft up next to the ship and then moving them out of reach, so we had to judge the right time to jump and hope for the best. A few of our blokes misjudged it and were crushed between the hulls. Once we were in the craft we took off for shore. Everyone knew that they might be dead within minutes. I feel sure we all prayed; I certainly did. And I remember thinking of home: my mum and dad and my sister, Marian, and my girlfriend, Eileen, and that we might never see each other again.
The ramp went down at Gold Beach and our training took over. I didn’t think about the other men. There was no time; it was all about keeping yourself alive. We jumped into water that came up to our chests and waded to shore, loaded with equipment that was only getting heavier as it got wetter. We ran up the beach, looking for cover. The Germans were firing along the beach from houses at Le Hamel; casualties were mounting. When I got up against the sea wall, I looked back and saw dead and mutilated bodies everywhere, in the sea and on the beach. I had arrived in France.
GEORGE ROBERT BATTS interviewed by Suzanna Zepmeisel
Note by Fred Vogels:
George gave me his story when I visited him (together with Alastair Dutch) at his home in the UK. It was published in a book " Life at the sharp end"
George has been decorated by the French President Sarkozy personally with the Légion d'honneur.
When the Second World War started I was just 14 years old and living in Sussex in the south-east of England. From that date, mine, and all other lives, completely changed. Food, sweets and clothing were rationed and many items could only be obtained with coupons. Everywhere we went we had to carry a gas mask and many areas were restricted for travel. German air raids and the `Blitz` meant sleepless nights and my schooling was mainly spent in Air Raid shelters. This was accepted by everyone as there was always someone worse off than oneself. All of we schoolboys longed to join one of the forces - I suppose to be heroes! ljoined my school squadron of the Army Defence Training Corps with a view to joining the Royal Air Force on flying duties. I failed the medical as I was colour blind. I was offered ground staff duties but in a tit of pique I volunteered for the army.
Thus on March 18th, 1943 at the tender age of seventeen and a half I was instructed to report to Fulwood Barracks, Preston -the home of the `Loyals` - a Lancashire Regiment. Six weeks `Primary` training followed and then I was a fully fledged soldier. I was posted to the Corps of Royal Engineers where every imaginable trade, craft and involvement in actions was evident.
My first `Privilege` Leave - seven whole days and I travelled home to Sussex with full kit, covered in mud and looking goodness knows what. Crossing London by underground - Paddington to Victoria - In full kit in rush hour is quite some experience. I arrived home to a very proud Mum and Dad.
I must have looked a sight when I arrived with an ill fitting uniform, muddy and unwashed. My Dad, an ex Grenadier Guardsman, just said ‘What in hell mob are you?` and promptly cleaned my uniform, kit and rifle and polished my brasses - I don’t think I was ever that smart again!
My unit was posted to Scotland for ‘Combined Operations Training` but whilst on this I volunteered for a very advanced Special Section Course which would have taken three months plus. This entailed becoming extremely tit, learning mine laying, mine detection and clearance, setting and removing booby traps, use of all weapons and so on and so on. To my young years all very exciting. I therefore finished as a highly trained soldier.
From here more training, schemes and such like with ‘Combined Operations`. Little did we realise where did would all end but soon found out! Eventually, we were sent to the south coast and housed in tents until the invasion day came about.
I did manage to get home forthe weekend of may 2Oth and told Mum that the rumours were that we were moving_ Mum dragged me into Horsham on the Saturday afternoon, to Copnalls to have my photograph taken - obviously thinking as I was off into `action`that I could be killed!
We embarked on a Landing Ship Infantry [LSI] craft to cross the Channel and then transferred to an Assault Landing Craft [ALC] for the final few miles of the journey. The ALC was rising up and down with the swell and we clambered down the rope netting to board. The craft was rising up and down a phenomenal number of feet so we just jumped and hoped for the best. We were still some 4 to 5 miles from shore and numbered some 30 men on board.
My everlasting memory is standing waiting to board the Assault Craft with a whole tin of corned beef in one hand and a big chunk of bread and about half an inch of butter on it on the other. I still like corned beef. I was thinking `l am going to be killed and this is my last meal`, As it turned out this was the last bread I had for some four months.
I landed on ‘Gold Beach` at Le Hamel and the stories, scenes and situations on the beach have been well chronicled in many books and reports and I feel do not need repeating. Suftice to say, I was one of the lucky ones. As I was with a Port operating Company our job was then to unload all stores, food, ammunition and supplies. This was at first mainly done with DUKW but as soon as the `Mulberry Harbour` was completed, we operated from that.
Thus we unloaded everything that was needed in a Theatre of War. Troops landed here and a succession of vehicles could always be seen going on and off the harbour. Ambulances carrying the wounded came directly to Hospital ships to take them back to England - as also were Prisoners of War. The harbour was a wonderful and effective construction and managed to ensure a continuous supply of all that was necessary. We had the odd German plane endeavouring to get through but the actual fighting moved on.
There were 12 hour shifts at the `Mulbery` plus guard duties at our bivouac camp. The main worry initially were German snipers. l remember always being worried in case l was shot by a sniper with my trousers down when going to the toilet in a wood or similar!
The storm on June 19th was a frightening experience but although the `Mulberry` was damaged we were soon back to work.
Eventually the ‘Mulberry Harbour` outlived its usefulness and in October my unit commenced to move across France, finally °
arriving in Belgium where we used the ports of Ostend, Antwerp and Bruges for the same purpose.
In mid April 1945 my unit was sent back to England where we prepared to move to the Far East for the invasion of Malaya. Quite a journey -the Bay of Biscay was rough, the Mediterranean beautiful, the Suez Canal interesting, the lndian Ocean very rough and life on board restful if boring.
Arriving in Bombay was a new experience, the weather hot and humid and the so-called tropical kit issued was a sight to behold. My shirts were about three sizes too large; the shorts of pre-1914 vintage with legs that turned up for the day and down for the night! All of us had different looking items of Khaki and none of it fitting. We looked an absolute shambles rather than a fighting unit of the British Army.
On June 6th, 1945 we boarded a troop ship and some 34 days later arrived in Bombay where we were again mobilised for an invasion. We left on a merchant ship to be landed at Port Dickson as part of Operation Zipper. Our journey would take us through then Straits of Malacca. This is only a few miles wide and at the time both sides were held by the Japanese. We were convinced that we would not survive.
However, the Atom Bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered. Thus we ended up being used to guard Prisoners of War and eventually to operate the docks at Singapore.
After a few months, life became very bearable but we were whisked off to Java to deal with the trouble there and eventually hand the area over to the Dutch. Back to Singapore and a few months later the ambition of every serviceman - going home and demobilisation with life with our families.
We eventually arrived at Southampton, disembarked and assumed it was straight home. But no! The first thing was to go through customs where some of us were searched. l had to pay seventeen shillings duty on a couple of pairs of nylon stockings! The Customs Ofhcer was very apologetic but still insisted on the payment, this despite the please of being away for over four years. Not having the money meant borrowing from a friend!
Thus the welcome homel From there to lnkerman Barracks in Aldershot for `demob`, transported in good old ‘three tonners`. The journey should have been around sixty minutes, the Polish drivers did it in half that time. l kept on thinking that l had made it thus far and it was all now going to end here and now!
We were given a suit, hat, shoes and raincoat, final pay and a travel warrant. We did have to return the kit we were in. Thus my service finished on July 4th, 1948 - but I remained on the Reserve.
l had been away for almost five years, had been to many countries, seen sights that were wonderful and others so horrific that one should never experience and last for the whole of life. l had made many friends, lost many friends, experienced comradeship that cannot be explained and remains with you forever, determination in the hope that future generations will not lose their youth the way we did and that all the sacrifices made by so many will not be in vain.
l had left home nothing more than a school boy but returned a very experienced grown man, having lost many friends and comrades.