Seventy years ago tomorrow history’s biggest military invasion landed in Normandy on D-Day to free Europe from Nazi occupation.
On June 6, 1944 around 4,300 Allied personel lost their lives. Among the liberators who helped win peace for us and who survived is Ron Mayes, 89, from Haverhill who was one of the soldiers who landed to face the German defences on D-Day itself. The news that he was injured by lunchtime was reported in the Echo in August 1944. Now 70 years on, as the Queen and other royals are paying their respects in France this week, he speaks to the Catherine Turnbull about his memories of that day.
Ron Mayes was almost 18 when he went to Cambridge from Haverhill in 1942 and volunteered for the Army.
After training in Colchester he joined the 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, based in Shrewsbury, which was then stationed in Lockerbie, Scotland.
“I was an infantryman and I spent most of my time walking up and down mountains until we got sent down to Haywards Heath in Sussex. We were in a sealed camp under canvas so we knew we would be off soon. Our route marches were under guard,” he said.
“On June the 4th we knew we were going the next day but we spent all night cruising around because the weather was too bad to cross the English Channel. The stench of diesel oil made us all nauseous. Eventually we set off on the night of the 5th from New Haven. I remember lads chucking spare coppers at the kids as we went.”
The channel between England and occupied France was teeming with ships whilst planes roared overhead. Mr Maye’s landing craft tipped out the soldiers at about 10am on Sword Beach, near Hermonville. The Germans were still firing as the men came ashore.
“We were up to our waists in water. It’s sounds funny, but our first objective was to get inland and change into some dry socks or we would get sore feet - not a good thing for a foot soldier,” he said.
“We were going up a track towards the Periers Ridge and the Germans were shelling us. I got hit in the chest by shrapnel. the wound was only the size of my thumbnail but it caused internal bleeding. So I landed on the beach on D-Day and was injured and being sent home for my wounds by lunchtime.”
Mr Mayes spent a night in a bivuoac on the sand dunes before he was shipped off in a big craft which carried tanks. After 12 weeks in a Canadian hospital in Hampshire he was sent to a civilian hospital in Carlisle.
“What a contrast it was. In the Canadian one you were treated like royalty but in Carlisle there was an old matron standing there to keep an eye on you.”
After recuperation he rejoined his regiment and was sent to Belgium in the December where he trained to cross The Rhine on barges.
“Winter set in and it was terrible on the front line,” he said. “We spent Christmas in holes in the ground in the mud and snow. The slit trenches were 5-ft long. We were on the move through some fierce battles. Sometimes we got the chance to be billeted with families.”
The 2nd Battalion fought its way from Overloon to Venray and towards the River Maas, where it spent the cold, uncomfortable winter of 1944-45. At the battle for Kervenheim in February, one of Mr Mayes’ comrades, Private James ‘Jock’ Stokes was awarded the VC for bravery and died of his wounds. The Rhine was reached within a few days.
Mr Mayes said he made some of his best friends during the war, but was glad he didn’t have a wife or girlfriend to worry about.
After the war ended he was put on a plane for Egypt. “ I then had to guard refugees in Cyprus until 1947. When I was demobbed I came home and met my wife Anne straightaway.”
Sadly Anne died last month. The couple had a son and daughter, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Mr Mayes worked in the building trade and afterwards at Wisdom. “I have never owned a passport,” he added. “I’ve lived all my life in Haverhill apart from the war years. I never felt the need to travel again.”
He is not one to put on a beret and blazer or pin medals to his chest - he keeps these in a tin. But he does have a framed copy of a painting of the battle for Kervenheim hanging in his hall. And he has visited the memorial garden at Westminster where his regiment is remembered.