11:49am Friday 6th June 2014
By James Connell
A VETERAN of the D-Day landings gave a final emotional salute by the graves of his fallen brothers-in-arms for the 70th anniversary of the invasion which turned the tide against the Nazis.
Noel Wilkes organised the four-day coach trip after collecting funds through the Royal British Legion because he was determined to honour the sacrifices of the young men who never came home.
A previous visit five years ago, which brought tears to his eyes, was funded by a £10,000 lottery grant.
Undeterred when funds were not available this time, the 90-year-old of St Mary’s Road, Evesham, took upon himself the Herculean task of organising the trip.
He hopes the visit, a few days before the official commemoration on June 6 , will allow a quieter time to reflect on the conflict.
He will be at the helm of a 55 strong contingent who will visit sites which include the Pegasus Bridge, Arromanches and Ouistreham, important sites on Gold and Sword Beaches, the German battery featured in the film “The Longest Day”, museums, the war cemetery at Bayeux and Utah and Omaha beaches.
Mr Wilkes is one of only two local veterans of the landings on the trip as the men who played their part in this pivotal campaign dwindle away with time.
The coach trip will include 24 cadets (air, sea and army) as Mr Wilkes believes it is important to keep alive the sacrifices of the fallen to future generations.
There will also be six standard bearers, one musician, six wreath layers and a padre.
Mr Wilkes, then a young corporal with the Royal Army Service Corps, landed on Juno Beach just days into the Allied campaign in Normandy, which represented the turning of the tide against the Nazis, paving the way for Allied victory.
The D-Day landings, the largest seaborne invasion in human history, commenced on June 6, 1944.
Mr Wilkes remembers a rough crossing aboard the cramped Empress of Canada, where it was standing room only.
The choppy waters caused many of the men to suffer bouts of sea sickness and from there they climbed onto the landing barges.
He knew well enough he might never come home, writing his will before he entered the field of conflict.
The men had to provide fuel to the Allied convoys as they advanced and he still recalls the shriek of the shells landing nearby.
He said: “My platoon commander said ‘it’s okay when you can hear them - when you can’t hear them you ’ve got to worry!’ One shell landed about 50 yards away. They whistle and we did jump out of our skins.”
When they arrived there were 34 ambulances waiting to come back on the barges from which the troops had only just disembarked.
Mr Wilkes remembers how the men fed a hungry French shepherd, sharing some of their biscuits.
The shephered repaid them for their kindness with a gift of a bottle of Benedictine.
But the memories were not all pleasant, particularly the dead horses at Falaise, shot by the German cavalry before they retreated in the wake of the advancing Allies.
He said: “They were all along the sides of the road, the dead cavalry horses that the Germans had shot while they were retreating.
“It was a pitiful sight. There was no need for them to do that really.”
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