D-Day veteran recalls first learning of invasion as he made his way to beaches

A 99-year-old D-Day veteran has recalled how he first learned he was taking part in the invasion as he was making his way across the Channel to join forces that had already landed at Normandy.

Signalman John Mitchell, of the Royal Signals, was only 15 when he started making his first contribution to the war effort working in a lace factory in Newmilns, East Ayrshire, producing material used to develop camouflage for soldiers.

In the evenings, Mr Mitchell attended Cadet Forces, where he learned about aircraft and morse code until he was called up for national service in December 1942.

He completed his basic training at Bridge of Don Barracks in Aberdeen and within days of his first operational posting in Surrey he was ordered to head south for the build-up prior to the June 1944 invasion.

“Before I knew it, I was sitting on the cobbled slipway at Gosport on an LST (tank landing ship), which had space for about 20 tanks and some smaller trucks, one of which I was in,” he said.

“These vessels had a speed of 13 knots and bobbed about like corks when at sea because of the shallow draught.

“When we were at sea, news came through about the landings and we knew for certain that this was not another exercise. It was the real thing.

“We landed on the night of D-Day plus one, on Juno Beach near Courselles. There have been many articles written about what we were to see on the beach with the noise of battle and all the bodies. I am sure that anyone who was there will have special memories of their own.”

Mr Mitchell told Legion Scotland he believes those who took part in Operation Overlord will have done their best over the intervening decades to “eradicate” some of their worst memories of the conflict from their minds.

He recalled how he became detached from most of his unit after managing to break through German lines and was ordered to stop from advancing any further until the next morning when he witnessed a truck being blown up by an enemy mine.

“The Canadian driver drove forward a couple of yards and hit a mine. The truck was destroyed. There are some incidents that you do not forget,” he said.

“We did our best to back out and eventually we found our unit. To start with, I was put onto a halftrack and on the radio set.

A PA graphic showing the beach defences faced by the invasion force on D-Day
(PA Graphics)

“I was working with two battleships – the Ramilles and Warspite, I think – which were bombarding enemy strongpoints. It wasn’t long until I witnessed the effect of bombs having been dropped on a concentration of Germans trying to cross a river.”

After Normandy, Mr Mitchell made quick progress through France before moving on to Brussels in Belgium, a place he remembers fondly.

“We were given a great welcome, being showered with flowers, and given grapes, peaches and pears,” he said.

“But Turnhout was a special place. I was invited into a house and made friends who seemed to accept me as part of their family. That friendship is still ongoing.

“Sixty years later, my wife and I managed to return, and when we did, we were honoured guests.”

Mr Mitchell recalled providing communications for a US division while he was in Belgium which led to a rapid deployment through further European towns and cities.

“I remember the Germans counterattacked in strength in the Ardennes and ran riot through the American lines,” he said. “They were eventually beaten back and, before long, we were going into Germany.”

Mr Mitchell left the army in 1947 and returned to work in the lace trade. He now lives in Galston, East Ayrshire, where he grew up.

In 2015 he learned he was to receive the French Legion D’Honneur in recognition for his service to France.

Last week, Mr Mitchell attended a torch-passing ceremony at Edinburgh Castle as part of the 80th anniversary D-Day celebrations. He has said he hopes to attend many more this week.

Claire Armstrong, chief executive officer of Legion Scotland, said: “An imperishable thank you is owed to John and so many more of his generation.

“John wasn’t just heroic during D-Day, but throughout the course of his generation’s war.

“We are proud to count John as a friend and we will be dedicating a period of thanks, and a period of remembrance, in our hearts and minds on the 6th of June, 80 years to the day since his participation in the D-Day landings.”