Friday, June 6, 2014
Preparations for the Normandy landings on this day 70 years ago caused confusion for ally and foe alike as British, American and Canadian forces readied themselves to retake Europe.
Nancy Bowstead was a war substantive subalertern, defending Wales from airborne enemies with the artillery when ‘Operation Neptune’ took place.
Remembered decades on as D-Day, the servicewoman’s first insight into the mission came when, as the eldest grandchild, she was granted leave to return in early May to Lancashire for her grandmother’s funeral.
En route through the valleys she was puzzled – the verges beside a vast stretch of the railway were lined with new, but seemingly abandoned, army vehicles.
On her return five days later, the tanks and trucks remained, still with no one guarding them.
She mentioned the sighting to her officer colleagues, who thought the forces must be getting ready for something.
“Perhaps we are about to do something drastic,” they told her.
But then, with the summer months approaching and the nights getting shorter, the Germans had less cover to use and the war quietened down, at least for the artillery.
That was until one sunny evening, when Nancy was sat out in the officers’ mess lining the Bristol Channel from Cardiff to Pembroke, and as far as the eye could see – hundreds of boats, big and small.
Yet, there wasn’t a light, not a sound.
The convoy’s silence continued through the night, and the servicemen and women awoke to find the ‘graveyard’ empty once more, gone from under their very noses.
Gossip established that the boats would not be travelling up-river to Stratford, so they could only be going up the English Channel or into the Mediterranean – and that’s exactly what the Allies wanted their enemies to think.
So, while German command fell for the ploy and deployed its best forces to the south of France, British, American and Canadian forces were attacking the north.
They landed in droves on the beaches of Normandy, stopping for nothing in an advancement that proved pivotal in turning the tide of the war.
British forces paid a heavy toll for the attack, taking the brunt of the retaliation when the Germans realised they had been duped.
It is a mission burned into the consciousnesses of those involved, and even those like Nancy who were more remote.
“How many other people saw them? It’s a memory I will never forget,” said the nonagenarian.
Now an avid advocate for Blind Veterans UK, she spent eight months knitting an enormous flag for the charity’s 75th anniversary.
Nancy is a member of Sidmouth’s branch of the Royal British Legion, with whom she attended a royal garden party on Wednesday.
Residents can reflect on the D-Day landings in a service at Sidmouth’s war memorial led by the Reverend Philip Bourne at 9.45am today (Friday).