John’s journey back in time

John Helme at Utah beach in May 2015.
John Helme at Utah beach in May 2015.

A Lancaster World War Two and D-Day landings veteran has returned to Normandy to pay his respects at the graves of his fallen friends.

John Helme had always regretted never returning to Normandy and had felt that he probably never would.

John Helme during a visit to Normandy.

John Helme during a visit to Normandy.

However, earlier this month and at the age of 91, John, his grandson Liam and two of Liam’s uncles, John and Steven, took the trip back to Normandy for the second year in a row.

John’s first trip to Normandy last year was the first time he had left the country since the war.

John was helped on his trip with funding through the Big Lottery Fund – Heroes’ Return.

Liam said: “We had planned the trip for 2012 and were allocated funding, but just before booking the trip, my grandad decided to back out as he didn’t think he could travel.

John Helme during a visit to Normandy.

John Helme during a visit to Normandy.

“We were determined to still make the trip and so we kept trying to convince him he could do it.

“He finally gave in and we made the trip in May 2014. He enjoyed himself so much and felt as if a weight had been lifted.

“We did not manage to go to all the places that he had been during the war, which is why we returned this year.”

The family began last year’s trip with a brief visit to pay their respects at the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha, before arriving at Arromanches-les-Bains the following day.

John Helme in the Pegasus museum earlier this month.

John Helme in the Pegasus museum earlier this month.

There they visited the Arromanche 360 cinema to watch a 10 minute D-day film, and then sat and looked out at Gold Beach and the remains of the Mulberry Harbour, which John had travelled down on two separate occasions during the war.

Tehy also visited the D-Day museum, where John signed the veterans’ visitor book.

The museum presented him with a medal to thank him for his service and for coming back.

The next day the group took a trip to Bayeux. looked around the museum, went to Bayeux Cemetery and found the graves of men from John’s original regiment – the 65th Anti-Tank Regiment, the Norfolk Yeomanry.

Liam said: “Throughout the duration of the trip, local people and tourists stopped us everywhere we went.

“They took pictures and shook his hand. The locals thanked him for his service and for liberating them.

“He became quite famous in the area we stayed. The hotel also gave him a free meal to say thank you and he also got free entry into the museums and cinema.”

For this year’s trip, the family stayed in the same hotel in Arromanches-les-Bains.

From there they visited the two beaches that they didn’t manage last time, Sword and Juno, as well as Pegasus Bridge and the museum.

They also visited Caen as well as revisiting some of the places from the first trip, including Bayeux.

John, from Skerton, first featured in the Guardian in 2010, when he told his story of his experiences during World War Two.

He survived the war “without a scratch” although he managed to cheat death twice in one day while deployed as an Allied gunner in Italy in 1943.

John’s father, John senior, had not been so fortunate in 1917 during the First World War when a shell left a hole in his arm.

Nearly a year after John’s birth in 1923, the family, including his sister Freda, 14 months older, and brother Frank, two years older, moved from Buller Street to Lancaster’s Westfield War Memorial Village, which had recently opened for wounded soliders.

After leaving Dallas Road School aged 14, John began an apprenticeship as a decorator with Stanley Wall in Gage Street.

But in June 1942, following his brother before him, he was called up for service, aged 18, sailing to Tripoli in Libya where the men were assigned to regiments.

John joined the 65th Anti-Tank Regiment, the Norfolk Yeomanry, and was with the seventh armoured division, which was posted to Italy.

But on June 10, 1944, John was among troops sent to Normandy as part of the D-Day landings.

After arriving in bomb-devastated Hamburg in December, John spent 14 months in Germany.

Post-surrender, his work included helping “displaced persons” from countries like Poland and Estonia, who had been set to work in camps, on to trains back to their homelands.

Then, one day, he was called to the sergeant’s office and given an hour to decide whether he wanted to go home. John believes Stanley Wall had requested his return so he could finish his apprenticeship.

John’s brother Frank, who fought in North Africa and then in Italy, returned a year later.

In 1948 John married Clara, an usherette at the Grand Theatre in Morecambe whom he met on the prom.

They had two children, Barbara and John junior, who still live in Lancaster.

John went on to work as a decorator for ABC Cinemas and then for Lancaster City Council before retiring aged 58 due to problems with his back and arm.

John, who has lived in Norfolk Street for 50 years, has six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, although Clara sadly died in 2001.