‘It is gradually dying away’: D-day veteran keeps story alive 80 years on

<span>Ken Cooke is the last member of the York Normandy Veterans Association.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Ken Cooke is the last member of the York Normandy Veterans Association.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The first ship Ken Cooke ever saw was the one that took him from Southampton to the beaches of Normandy in the early hours of 6 June 1944. He was 18 and an infantryman in the 7th battalion of the Green Howards, known as the Yorkshire regiment, with six weeks’ basic training under his belt. “You could walk across the harbour without getting your feet wet, you know, that many ships,” he recalls.

Cooke, now 98, was one of 160,000 men sailing under dark skies on a vast armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 ships and 500 ancillary craft and merchant vessels, tasked with launching the liberation of Europe.

That morning, along with 24,969 other British soldiers, he would step on to French sand somewhere along the five-mile stretch of land between between La Rivière and Longues-sur-Mer – codenamed Gold beach.

Lying on his bunk below decks, Cooke felt the heavy judder as the Empire Rapier pulled out of harbour at 2am. But he was not fearful or even nervous. He had been called up while working as an office boy in a factory in York alongside his father and could have no conception of what awaited him on the other side of the Channel.

Eighty years on from D-day, Cooke is fit and well but one of a dwindling few in Britain left to speak of the experience, as well as the last man standing of the York Normandy Veterans Association. When he returns on Thursday to Gold beach for the 80th anniversary of the launch of Operation Overlord, he can be assured that the locals will shower him with love and gratitude.

But if he was not concerned about his fate eight decades ago when he leaned nonchalantly over the side of his landing craft to take in the “fireworks”, Cooke does admit to misgivings now.

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In Britain, he believes, memories of the sacrifices made are fading despite his efforts to give talks in schools to recount the heroism of those who did not return.

“Today, a lot of them, I don’t think they are bothered about it,” he says. “You get people going on Remembrance Sunday but, I don’t know, it is gradually dying away somehow.”

It is with that in mind that he tells his story.

After leaving school at the age of 14 in 1939, Cooke joined his father working in a Royal Ordnance factory, ferrying cups of tea and messages between the workers constructing anti-aircraft weapons.

It was the phoney war phase, when battle between Britain and Germany was yet to begin in earnest. An abiding memory is of two burly police officers one day arresting a man in the office for allegedly spying for the Germans. He recalls that his father, who had previously volunteered for the St John Ambulance when working in the mines, was called up as a medic.

Then in 1943, shortly before Christmas, it was his turn: a letter arrived at the home he shared with his parents. “Come here – you’re in,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know what it meant to go in the army.”

He continues: “I went to Richmond for our basic training – and it really was basic.” Hair was cut, arms were jabbed to inoculate against foreign diseases, and squares were marched.

On the range they were given 10 rounds – five to be shot at 100 yards and a further five at 200 yards. “The next time I fired my rifle was in Normandy,” Cooke says. “That was the training for D-day.”

He was moved between barracks, ending up at an American camp just outside Southampton. “And then one morning at reveille, we were told: ‘Get all your gear together.’ We were put on some trucks and went down to Southampton.

“I had never seen a boat and had only seen a beach once, on a day’s outing at Skegness. It was two or three days before D-day.”

On the evening of 5 June, the soldiers played cards and settled into their bunks. “Then at 2am someone said: ‘Hey, we are moving.’ We tried to sleep but at half past three over the tannoy was the reveille.”

The soldiers went to the ship’s mess for breakfast: scotch porridge with salt, corned beef sandwich, a mug of tea and a tot of rum. “We went back to the bunks, got our gear together and went to the top deck,” he recalls.

A tremendous allied bombardment of the German positions on the coast had begun shortly after 5am, lighting up the dark sky. “We could see the explosions, the rockets. But to me, as an 18-year-old, it was like a Boy’s Own adventure.

“The officer said: ‘Get ready lads.’ We were about six or seven mile out. There were scrambling nets down to the landing craft. We went down.

“Some people were unfortunate. As the landing craft was going up and down, you had to be careful, had to time it. We saved two who got their feet stuck.

“We heard of stories on other ships of people falling between the two ships, with all their gear on; they had no chance.”

Cooke was in the middle of the 30-man landing craft. “Some were lying down, some were being sick. I was just leaning over the side watching the fireworks, watching the explosions.”

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Cooke’s craft stopped a couple of feet from the sand at 7.45am. “I stepped into about six inches of water. There were rockets going over my head. There were bullets buzzing about but I wasn’t bothered about that. The only way I can explain it, it was like I stepped in a puddle. That was how I felt. I wasn’t bothered by the bullets – I was worried about my socks.”

The soldiers had been told to get off the beach as swiftly as possible. “If anyone was shot we were to leave them, the medics would take care of them,” Cooke says. “We were to get into the countryside as fast as we could.”

Cooke and his fellow soldiers were quick to traverse the beach. It was less deep than those faced by US troops farther west, and Cooke does not believe any of those immediately around him fell.

“When we landed, on our left-hand side there was a gunning emplacement and the barrel was stuck up on the air, twisted, and there were some German prisoners of war clearing up,” he says. “Those were the first Germans I saw.”

Cooke and the others were tasked with “hedge hopping” through the countryside, clearing the closest villages of German troops. He does not recall firing his weapon once that first day.

“The next time I saw Germans was marching down a road and there were five or six Germans in the gutter, pretending to be dead,” he says. “I spotted one of them, his eyelids blinked. I called a sergeant over and they were rousted up.”

They got as far as some German trenches where they settled down for the night. “But you could hear the bombers going over, and explosions,” he says.

“The following day they brought breakfast on trucks. Someone says: ‘Where’s Jack? Where’s Bill?’ Someone says: ‘They were killed near that tank on the beach.’ That’s when it sunk in that all this we were doing was very, very serious. All that excitement of the day before went.”

Cooke was injured a month later, on 4 July. “We were going along this road, by a hedgerow. We knelt down to have a rest and I don’t know whether it was an 88mm shell that had come over and hit a tree or an air burst where a shell explodes in the air. But I heard shouting and screaming and I felt something in my back and my legs.”

He was treated in a field hospital where German soldiers were also receiving attention. “Someone told us that one was an SS chap and he wouldn’t have a blood transfusion, and he wouldn’t have it because it might be contaminated with Jewish blood.”

Cooke was shipped back to England. But it was not the end of his war. After surgery, a period of rehabilitation in a hospital outside Aberdeen, and two weeks leave at home in York, he received a letter to report to Leeds in February 1945.

“I finished up going to an aerodrome down south in Stansted, flew to Brussels and was trucked to join up with the Highland Light Infantry. My own regiment had got a pasting at [the Dutch city of] Nijmegen and had been split up.”

Cooke fought on to the Rhine “but there was a barrage before we went over – hell of a noise”, he recalls. “We went across on a canoe type of thing.”

Cooke’s war eventually ended outside Bremen. “We got in a position, we were in slit trenches, settled in there and just chatting and on our right hand side on a lane we saw these two Germans coming towards us,” he says. “We told them to stop and put their hands up, and one did but the other ran off down the field. There was six or seven of us and not one of us hit him. The other chap was an American – a German American who had been over to Germany to see his relatives on holiday and they had collared him.”

Two days later Cooke and his comrades came under attack from rockets. “We all said, ‘It was that bugger that got away’. The man next to me got shot in his leg and I helped him back to the first aid station. The next thing I know I am on a Bren gun carrier with a card on my chest saying ‘psychoneurosis’ – shellshock or whatever they call it. I don’t know what happened, no idea”.

After the war, Cooke worked at the confectionery company Rowntree’s in York, where he met his wife, Joan, and he retired more than four decades later.

His son Stephen, 64, has childhood memories of his father suffering from nightmares but it was only in the 1990s that Cooke started speaking of his experience of the war. “There was an article in the local paper one day and unbeknown to me my wife answered it,” Cooke says. “They wanted to speak to people in the war about their adventures. Stephen rang up and said: ‘What’s this about my dad in the paper?’ He was 30 years old.”

Cooke’s recollections and those of other veterans were used in an award-winning verbatim play, Bomb Happy, and a plaque below a stained-glass window at St Lawrence’s parish church in York commemorating the Normandy landings bears his name. But remembering can be hard.

“Things do come back to you when you see things,” Cooke says. “I used to get flashbacks but gradually when I joined the veterans association, talking to the veterans … it gradually helped to get rid of these. Some things you’ll never get rid of. Sometimes, say I’m reading a book or tape or watching telly, something clicks up here and I’m back.”