'If the man in front of you drops dead, ignore him': D-Day veteran, 100, tells of horrors of Normandy landings

5 June 2024, 12:39 | Updated: 5 June 2024, 14:26

John signed up as Volunteer Reserve to RAF on the Saturday after his 18th birthday in 1942
John signed up as Volunteer Reserve to RAF on the Saturday after his 18th birthday in 1942. Picture: John Westlake

By Andy Ballantyne and Christian Oliver

A 100-year-old D-Day veteran has told of the horrors of the Normandy landings 80 years after the Allies stormed the French beaches.

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"We were told if the man in front of you drops dead, you've got to ignore him, get ashore and make sure we get a good foothold," John Henry Westlake told LBC from his nursing home at St Minver, near Wadebridge in Cornwall.

In the weeks before the Normandy landings, he was leading a small Recovery and Salvage Unit (RSU) team in Stapleford Tawney, Essex, repairing aircraft. John's team were then told to convoy down to Portsmouth where they would disembark for France.

John's daughter Rita Westlake explained that while his unit was travelling west to join the other troops they passed through London where "everyone was coming out of the offices".

"Granddad, who was working in shipping, was just about to go into London Bridge station when my father saw him. He lept out the back of the lorry and said goodbye to his father."

John signed up as Volunteer Reserve to RAF on the Saturday after his 18th birthday in 1942, this photo was taken as soon as he had been kitted out.
John signed up as Volunteer Reserve to RAF on the Saturday after his 18th birthday in 1942, this photo was taken as soon as he had been kitted out. Picture: John Westlake

Read More: READ IN FULL: King Charles' moving speech at 80th anniversary of D-Day landings

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John - who joined the RAF on his 18th birthday despite trying to get himself enlisted earlier - said he arrived to find his fellow soldiers "making sure everything was ready for combat". He said they had "painted white stripes on their aircraft - three on each wing, underside and topside".

"Then the typhoons took off," he said.

"Troops had already been parachuted behind the lines in France," the veteran explained. "They weren't allowed to use the radio - nothing like that."

John and the other troops then crossed the channel overnight and arrived at dawn on Juno Beach.

Once they got onto the shoreline they stormed through a cornfield where they had to find their transport.

"The lorries were already coming off the tank transporters. We had to go and look for them and find our lorry, sit in it and wait for it to move. When everybody was more or less off, the driver was told to go and find the airfield."

He said they had to wait three days for an airstrip to be completed where they continued repairing typhoons from "dawn to dust".

John Westlake after being awarded the Legion d'Honneur and the Thank You Liberators medal from the Netherlands
John Westlake after being awarded the Legion d'Honneur and the Thank You Liberators medal from the Netherlands. Picture: John Westlake

John said: "When we did get back to our airfield, I made myself a cup of tea. We had a little collapsable fire... and a little tin kettle.

"I always carried water with me in a water bottle. In those days, we had milk, sugar, tea, all in a little cube. My god, didn't it taste good. It was horrible stuff - they wouldn't drink it today. But after travelling like that..."

Concluding his thoughts, John continued: "We hoped there would never be another war. What do they get out of it? You build it up, we'll knock it down. And then we're all friends and we start again. There's no victor in a war.

Rita - also a veteran in the Women's Royal Army Corps - said he only discovered her father had landed on Juno Beach after her mother died when she took him to an RAF museum and he pointed at an image and said: "That's where I landed".

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