D-Day anniversary brings back vivid memories for veterans

S/Sgt Derek Burton (second from right) with the Light Aid Detachment in Pola, Yugoslavia EMN-140906-172138001
S/Sgt Derek Burton (second from right) with the Light Aid Detachment in Pola, Yugoslavia EMN-140906-172138001
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Staff Sergeant Derek Burton, 91, from Stamford, and Private Brian Stewart, 89, from Oakham, spent the anniversary of the D-Day landing reflecting on their memories from 70 years ago

S/Sgt Burton will visit the beaches and battlefields of Normandy in two weeks.

The 91-year-old wants to pay private homage after the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary on Friday last week, when it is “less crowded”.

S/Sgt Burton’s 31st Tank Brigade arrived in Normandy a day after D-Day. Describing his role as a “superior AA man” he said: “We recovered the damaged tanks and repaired them.”

Afterwards his unit moved to Belgium, then Holland, crossing the River Rhine in Germany.

On June 30 Mr Burton, who lives at Welland Mews, will return to France, with his granddaughter Rachel Scott, 32 to visit the beaches, cemeteries and places where he stayed.

S/Sgt Burton used to drive a Churchill tank with “a drainpipe sticking out to make it look like a gun” and used to recover heavy vehicles damaged by gun fire, were stuck in ditches or had fallen off landing crafts.

“We followed the tanks into action by tuning into their radio wavelength,” he said.

It meant dodging bullets and jumping into trenches to avoid the shrieking Stuka dive bombers. He did not want to elaborate on the horrors of the water logged, stinking trenches filled with bodies.

But he recalled the kindness of strangers: “On my birthday on 10 June I was able to cut a cake. It was handed to me while we were queuing for the ship in Portsmouth. A woman used all her ration to bake a cake for a soldier who was a complete stranger. I was very moved.”

After the war, his unit was posted to Goslar, Germany, then Trieste, until being demobilised in 1947.

Mr Burton, who came home on leave on March 15, 1945 to marry Eveline, an electric welder in an Essendine factory, said: “We were married for 55 years, but she never told me what she was did because she had signed the Official Secrets Act.”

The couple moved from Derbyshire to Bourne in 2000. Eveline died a week later and Mr Burton, who could “no longer bear to stay in the house” moved to Stamford.

Private Brian Stewart, from Oakham, was just 19 when he landed on Sword beach on June 6, 1944. Seventy years on he says the memory of the D-Day landings are just as vivid.

The 24-hour wait for the Channel’s weather to improve so the invasion, originally planned for the 5th, could go ahead, dodging shells and artillery, and losing comrades were all images that flashed before his eyes while watching on TV the 70th anniversary commemorations on June 6.

“It was very emotional,” said the 89-year-old, whose working life was devoted to the Armed Forces.

“My close friend, Pte Dean, 25, was in front of me and hit by a bullet. He died before he could get down from the ship,”

He has been back to Normandy five times to visit the sites of intense fighting during the D-Day landings and cemeteries where British and Allied servicemen are buried, in particular Pvt Dean’s the grave .

An office boy until he volunteered, Pte Stewart’s 6 Commando unit was among the first to arrive at Sword beach.

He said: “I was carrying a bike on my shoulder and when I put it down on the beach a shell landed and took the front wheel off so I had to walk.

“People around me were killed and wounded. But we could not stop as we had to get out of there pretty quickly.”

The unit also had to had to meet at noon that day the 6th Airborne Division who had captured the strategically- vital Pegasus Bridge, to limit the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.

Pte Stewart said: “We advanced towards River Seine and then returned to the UK to get reinforcements because of the large number of casualties. We went back and attacked German positions in Holland, then Germany, crossing the rivers Rhine, Aller, Wesser and Elbe.”

The 6 Commando unit was poised to go to Japan when the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, heralding the end of the war.

Pte Stewart lives in Warn Crescent with wife Jean and has three daughters Sheena, Sara and Deborah. His son, Jonathan died five years ago.

After leaving the Army in 1948, he joined the Air Force and served at RAF North Luffenham (now St George’s Barracks) until retiring.