Deafening sound of explosions rings on for Heysham D-Day veteran

The sound of explosions battering the air dominates his memory.

Thursday, 6th June 2019, 12:03 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th June 2019, 1:03 pm
Philip met and married his wife Betty during the Second World War, and the couple celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary in 2013. (s)
Philip met and married his wife Betty during the Second World War, and the couple celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary in 2013. (s)

But the moments of eerie silence were just as terrifying.

Philip Broomhead, from Heysham, had enjoyed the serenity of life as a gardener in York before landing in Normandy on D-Day.

“Most of the time you were frightened to death,” he says.

Philip met and married his wife Betty during the Second World War, and the couple celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary in 2013. (s)

“You only made any movement at night, as you could easily be picked off by a sniper. It’s not an experience I’d want anyone to go through because you never knew what was around the corner.”

Philip joined the West Yorks Territorial Army in April 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of World War Two.

From spring 1940, his regiment occupied Iceland for two years following the German invasion of Denmark. The men endured depressing winters and 24-hour daylight as they guarded the country from an onslaught by Hitler.

He returned to Britain in 1942 and transferred to The Green Howards regiment to help prepare for D-Day.

Philip Broomhead, of The Green Howards.

And on June 4, 1944, 24-year-old Philip boarded a landing craft near Portsmouth, packed with half a dozen infantry soldiers. He was the driver of a Bren gun carrier – or a British Universal Carrier – a four-person vehicle, smaller than a tank, with a light machine gun.

In an account he wrote for the Review Magazine he said: “Everywhere we moved there were troops and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, tanks and half tanks, and self-propelled guns all draped in camouflage netting. On all sides there was feverish activity with the issue of ammo and emergency rations. It was the giant logistical operation of Overlord. We were just one small part of it.”

But it was only when they set sail and saw barrage balloons flying above destroyer ships that they knew D-Day had begun.

“I felt terrified as we’d been rumoured to expect about 50 per cent casualties,” Phillip told the Post. “When we boarded we just thought it was another practice.”

Troops repairing a Bren Gun Carrier. Credit: Getty Images.

But with a storm brewing, speculation buzzed and word trickled down that D-Day was delayed for 24 hours.

“It was a relief, but we couldn’t disembark so it was hardly comfortable,” Phillip says in his account.

“The sea all around was chockablock with crafts. Suppose Jerry came over – we were sitting ducks that he couldn’t miss. The hours dragged on until at last it was dark again.”

On June 5, around 10pm, operation commander General Dwight Eisenhower finally gave the order.

“At last we were on the move. It would soon be all over one way or another,” Philip adds.

“The journey was terrible because the craft is flat-bottomed and isn’t meant to ride in rough seas. It’s not comfortable at all and it was very cold and windy.

“As we crossed the seas we talked about anything and nothing, but only in whispers as sound carries at night. The only sound was the throb of the diesel engines and the swish of the sea against the sides of the craft.”

In the quiet of the night, the men and their captain marked their final moments of peace with tots of rum.

“As dawn arrived we looked around in the half light and were amazed as we made out the number of crafts on all sides. The sea was alive with hundreds of ships of all sizes.

“Soon the bigger ships were belching fire towards the shore, which we couldn’t yet make out. D-Day was on.”

The beaches, for the most part, were deserted; but firing thundered inland.

Clouds dominated the skies as crafts approached the shore to off-load troops. The air swelled with explosions: British Zed Crafts launching rockets; destroyers blasting shells; and Germans lobbing mortar bombs.

“You can’t hear mortars. They come straight down in a lob and there’s hardly any warning. You only hear them when they explode,” Phillip told the Post.

Their craft pushed on, landing in the first wave of D-Day on Gold Beach at 7.25am. Planes shot past as they headed back to England after softening up the beaches and dropping off paratroopers.

The flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons and both the 81st and 82nd Assault Squadrons of the Royal Engineers also arrived to clear away mines and make a safe passage off the beach.

In his Bren carrier, Phillip trailed an American Sherman tank. The Sherman was fitted by the British Army with flails which pounded the ground and detonated mines buried in the sand.

“And it did,” he says. “Until it missed one. It came to a standstill after a big explosion. The bomb went off and damaged the track so the vehicle couldn’t move.”

To the west, heavy Nazi fire rained down from the beach front town of Le Hamel on the assault teams on the right flank of the 231st Brigade. Only one of the flail tanks managed to create a safe pathway off the beach.

The tracks were destroyed for the remaining vehicles, leaving working mines scattered about. Still, the dogged determination of the British could not be hampered and they turned the Shermans into shelter.

On the left flank, the flail tanks detonated the German bombs and within an hour they had created four lanes leading the 231st Brigade off the Le Hamel beaches.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Churchill “Petard” tanks decimated German strong-points along the beach with their 290mm spigot mortar guns, hurling 18kg missiles known as “flying dustbins”.

Phillip then joined his regiment’s infantry as they hastened inland to La Rivière village. The 6th Battalion of the Green Howards teamed up with the 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment and the leading units of the 69th Brigade in street fighting that lasted until 10am. The British triumphed over the Germans, with a deadly combination of infantry, tanks and off-shore guns.

Allied soldiers had also seized the roads from La Rivière and Arromanches to Bayeux before capturing the Le Hamel commune.

“There was a lot of dead Germans on the roadside and medics were taking our casualties back to ships. It was a sobering experience,” Philip says.

“After progressing further we came to the end of the day and were glad to stop and sleep beside the vehicles. That was the end of D-Day.”

After discovering the French port of Caen had been flattened by Allied bombs, Phillip drove to Holland.

He suffered a shrapnel wound in his left leg during the second Battle for Arnhem, an Allied airborne assault, code-named Operation Market Garden, which was launched on September 17.

His injury was treated by medics on the spot, who gave him a hot drink and no penicillin, and bandaged up his leg. It left behind a hole – but he was soon back on duty.

“We all had a saying, ‘You’ll be alright if it hasn’t got your name on it,’ meaning the bullet or shell coming towards you isn’t for you. It was a light-hearted way of passing it off,” Philip says.

After the war he was sent to Germany to protect a poultry farm from the black market. Demobbed in 1946, he returned to England to live with his wife Betty, who he married during the war.

He worked for the Lancashire College of Agriculture and scooped awards in Gardens in Bloom for a community garden he helped create in the late 80s in Heysham.

Philip and Betty also celebrated their platinum wedding anniversary in 2013 and had three children.

Over the last 73 years, the veteran has immersed himself in a quiet life. It’s a world away from the terrors of D-Day.