Hull photographer's remarkable forgotten account of D-Day in Normandy unearthed ahead of 80th anniversary

British troops disembark at Arromanches, code-named Gold Beach, in Northern France shortly after the D-Day landings began the Allied invasion of the continent during the Second World War - June 1944. Inset, a cutout from John Robson's accounts of D-Day fighting in Normandy as published in the Hull Daily Mail in 1944
-Credit: (Image: Findmypast’s Photo Collection/Hull Daily Mail)


A Hull Daily Mail photographer's remarkable forgotten account of the D-Day efforts in Normandy has been unearthed ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Second World War operation.

A vast collection of records and historical newspapers archived on Findmypast has brought to light some incredible stories from decades past including a fascinating first-hand account of the D-Day fighting in northern France by John Robson, who was a Mail photographer at the time.

Born in Hull in 1911, John was listed in the 1939 Register as residing with his wife Dorothea and family on Inglewood Drive, working as a press photographer.

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This era saw photography cement its place as a crucial element of news reporting. The advent of smaller, lighter portable cameras enabled freelance and employed press photographers like John to swiftly and conveniently capture that front page image.

When war erupted, John, like millions of others, enlisted and was assigned to an infantry regiment. He served in Africa and Sicily before participating in Operation Overlord.

Throughout his service, John maintained a diary of his daily experiences, which he sent back to his colleagues at the Mail.

John, although not an official war correspondent, contributed significantly to the millions of newspaper reports filed by those on the front lines. By late 1944, the press camp at Supreme Allied Headquarters in France was bustling with 1,000 correspondents who filed three million words each week.

Cutout from the Hull Daily Mail in 1944 of photographer John Robson's account of the D-Day landings in Normandy
Cutout from the Hull Daily Mail in 1944 of photographer John Robson's account of the D-Day landings in Normandy -Credit:Findmypast/Hull Daily Mail

His daily account of D-Day, which was published in the Hull Daily Mail in August 1944, provides a raw and often heart-wrenching account of the effort. He was part of one of the advance parties tasked with clearing the mines on the beaches of Normandy and preparing a road for other troops.

His day began before dawn and ended after 11pm, only to be summoned for a two-hour sentry duty.

Despite being soaking wet, heavily laden with kit, and facing tank shells, infantry bullets, artillery fire, and physical and mental exhaustion, the men of his unit advanced 10 to 12 miles in a single day.

In one particularly moving extract, he details his apprehension when approaching the beach on D-Day:

“Five minutes to 'go'. Small arms fire was now hitting and whispering around the craft. All were silent aboard. 'Prepare to land' broke the sinister silence. Mine detecting party first – another shock to my system. I dared to peep over the gunwale of the L.A.C. during a lull in the firing. Hell fire. We are the leading craft. Glancing into land, I wonder how far into those mine-strewn sand hills and woods, houses, screening machine gunners and mortar men, I was going to get unhurt.”

He goes on to give a full account of the landing:

“We are all very quiet as the craft begins to ground. The bows are beginning to lower now. I prepare to jump into the sea. Not yet! The craft did a little waver, noses nearer and further up the beach— grounds again, and then stops. I jump as a third man into four feet of sea, swirling with the current. I can see figures laying prone to the earth firing at us through the smoke of a burning tank, which is a salvation for something which had gone adrift with the smokescreen on our sector of the beach. The R.E. lad on my left side gives a grunt, goes down, floundering in the sea, swirling around in the current to be drowned most likely. My fingers just slide over his clothes as I make a grab at him. I was helpless to do anything much for him, burdened as I was with all the kit. I couldn't even fire my rifle for protection.

As we near the edge of the water we spread out. Other craft have grounded further along the beach. We are now abreast of them. They are disembarking with all types of material about their person, just as helpless as myself to shoot back the beach defenders. Some of the boys go down at the water's edge for a breather, but they come under direct machine-gun fire which criss-crosses the whole beach. Thank Heaven! I do the right thing in mustering every inch of energy and setting off to run up the beach as fast as my heavy feet will plough across the sodden sand. How its resistance torments me. I see a sand mound slightly ahead just as I'm about all in. I make a super effort and leap clumsily behind it.

“I turn towards the sea, witness the rest of the company coming up the beach, striding over, and even taking over from the victims of the enemy's fire. Soon the whole of the company is on the beach —at least those who make it, and thanks to the extensive amount of briefing before we left, everyone slips into their position quickly, to await the O.C. of the company, in order to take the lead before plunging inland to meet any resistance, leaving the beach defences to the naval and aerial bombardment. I take this opportunity to make last minute adjustments to gear and tin hat, which fell over my eyes during dash up the beach.

An infantry unit undergoes its briefing on receiving assignment for D-Day. Captain Robert C. Crission is addressing the men. Circa May 1944
An infantry unit undergoes its briefing on receiving assignment for D-Day. Captain Robert C. Crission is addressing the men. Circa May 1944 -Credit:Findmypast Photo Collection

“Now the beaches are strewn with casualties, especially on our left. The firing has become denser still. An 88 mm artillery gun opens up Flail Tanks (used for gaping minefields) as they thunder up the beach. First shot misses its target, hits the beach 20 yards from the company, diminishing the company's personnel still more. The second shot didn't miss its target. I know I swore aloud for them to get us off the beach, which is now becoming an inferno. I've got the scares a bit bad now. Never in the whole African and Sicilian skirmishes have I been so scared as I am now.

“Almost synchronised with my appeal, the O.C. of the company ordered 'Fix bayonets!' jumped up and plunged up the rest of the beach on to the minefield. We follow trailing the white guide tape for the rest of the company to follow. How surprising under the turmoil of it all. As I couldn't find time to be terrified now. My terror for mines has forsaken me. I charge on over the mines, full of confidence in making the other side without mishap. How I'm staring at that far fence now. I've started to come out of the minefield. To have won some world championship in sport couldn't have given me more satisfaction as I step out of the minefield.

“Now the company passes in single file out of the mines. There are gaps in it. I fear the worst for some as I have heard detonated mines explode. As the last of the company comes through, so we are to return over the mines to make an official vehicle gap. But new orders have it that we push on with the company until the objective is taken.”

To mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Findmypast is making millions of its records available to the public for free online between June 6 and 10. This includes over 75 million newspaper pages, military records, and nearly 300 historical images of the D-Day landings within its extensive photo collection.

Jen Baldwin, research specialist at Findmypast, said: "There is so much that we can still uncover about the lives and experiences of those that served in the Second World War. Forgotten accounts like this one give us the opportunity to understand the horrors of D-Day through the eyes of those who were there, but are sadly no longer with us.

"I’d encourage people across the country to delve into our newspaper pages and historical records to discover the detail of their family’s wartime story – from soldiers on the beach, Red Cross nurses who attended the wounded, or Home Front volunteers who offered crucial support. You can do this for free on Findmypast over the D-Day anniversary.”