Seventy years after the D-Day Normandy landings, GREG LAMBERT speaks to Lancaster’s very modest war hero Russell Dunkeld
“I can’t believe it’s been 70 years,” sighs Russell Dunkeld.
Now 88 years old, Russell is alert and sprightly, with a broad smile, great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye.
He speaks proudly of how he’ll soon become a great great grandfather for the first time.
But when he talks about the events of June 6 1944, dark memories come flooding back.
“You put things to the back of your mind but there are some that never go away,” he says, taking a puff on his roll-up cigarette.
“I have millions of memories. I used to wake up at night, my insides trembling like a jelly.”
As a teenager, Russell was drafted as a Royal Navy medic on board one of some 7,000 Allied vessels involved in the D-Day landings.
His job was to stretcher the wounded, the dying and the dead from Sword Beach at Normandy, while shells and mortars exploded all around him.
Young Russell stood just 5ft 3 and a half, weighed seven stone eight, and was just 18 years old.
“It was bloody frightening,” he says. “I was lucky to get out alive but you don’t think about that at the time.”
Lancaster born and bred, and educated at Marsh and Dallas Road schools, Russell joined up and served on his first ship, HMS Brighton, in 1943.
When the destroyer was handed over to the Russians, he returned to base at Chatham, Kent.
And but for a practical joke by a petty officer, Russell might never have been at D-Day in the first place.
“There were 25,000 of us in the barracks, waiting to be given D-Day jobs, although none of us knew that at the time because it was all a secret. The officer told me to volunteer for ‘Party Monkey Draft’ and I’d get seven days leave at Grimsby. But he’d tricked me.
“Next thing I find out I’m on the medical party on Landing Ship Tank 304.
“I was one of 20 seaman stretcher bearer medics. We carried 18 Sherman tanks and 25lbs of guns. I had my own gun, but I never had to fire it.”
The ship set off for German-occupied Normandy on June 4 but had to turn back due to storms. It finally crossed the Channel the following day. At around midnight, the largest seaborne invasion in history began.
Around 1,300 RAF planes and 1,000 American bombers bombarded target areas in northern France. Then thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches at Normandy to get in behind enemy lines.
“We got within 100 yards of the shore and there were shells landing all over the place, 1,000 bangs a minute,” he says.
As the invasion began, the boat became a makeshift hospital as brave Russell and his mates darted onto Sword Beach, risking their lives to save others.
“There was this young lad who’d been blown off his motorbike by a mortar bomb. One of the surgeons said to me ‘here, hold this’. It was this lad’s foot. I held it while the surgeon sawed it off. He said: ‘Don’t just stand there looking at it, get rid of it.’ So I flung it onto the sand.
“At one point I was on the beach and there was a hobnail boot, all nice and shiny. I pulled it out, and there was a leg still attached to it.
“You shouldn’t have to see things like that. It was mind-boggling.
“I came across another young lad, only about the same age as me. He had a bullet hole where your appendix is.
“He was quite lucid, talking away, talking about his girlfriend and his home. I held his hand while he died.”
By nightfall on June 6, Russell’s team had carried 365 wounded onto the ship. “We had the wounded on board all night and had to look after them all.
“Most of them couldn’t use their arms. We had to feed them all with bacon, tomatoes and a cup of tea. It was bloody chaotic.
“There were bed pans and pee bottles everywhere. But we had only four deaths out of the 365, which wasn’t bad.”
The next day the ship returned to Chatham, then loaded up and returned. In total, Russell made 26 trips to Normandy until mid-August.
“I went three days without sleep, we were that busy. It was bloody hard work. We’d also pick up Germans who were either prisoners or wounded. I sat down beside one of them to tend him, and he spat in my face. So I clouted him and walked away.”
Russell later served in the Far East and eventually left the Navy in 1946, returning to Lancaster to become a fireman, a job he held for 30 years. Today, the widowed father of two lives alone in his small sheltered flat in Hala, his living room bookcase crammed with books on both World Wars, which he says are his passion.
He has seven war medals, which he downplays humbly, saying: “I got them for summat and nowt.” Those who deserve most acclaim, he says, were the infantrymen whose brave actions on the Normandy beaches were a giant step towards victory in the Second World War.
“They fought hard, did them lads,” he says.
“They are the real heroes.”
l See our video interview with Russell Dunkeld at www.lancasterguardian.co.uk