For Normandy veteran Frank Rosier, the young troops who stormed the beaches on D-Day had a secret weapon strong enough to defeat the Nazis – a sense of humour and a righteous anger.
The 89-year-old, who served as an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, was in the second wave on Gold Beach on D-Day.
He will be among about 150 British ex-servicemen returning to northern France this week to mark the 71st anniversary of D-Day, a military invasion which changed the course of history.
For some troops, now aged in their late 80s and 90s, it will be the last time they cross the Channel to remember lost comrades who helped bring liberation to Europe.
Ahead of the commemorations, Mr Rosier described how the troops consisted largely of teenage volunteers who wanted to do their bit in the war effort, and how he would never describe the horrors he saw on that beach, even to the Queen.
He said: ‘This 18-year-old “Look out Hitler here I come” came to a grinding halt for a few seconds. What lay on that beach wasn’t for an 18-year-old to see.
‘The boys will say there was a red sea, that’s all you’ll get out of them, they won’t tell you what lay on that beach. It takes a hell of a job to get me down on those beaches now, although I went through much worse.’
He said the determination of the troops, who were woefully ill-equipped, led to the operation being a success.
He said: ‘The boys who joined up as infantry had no rifles. They were sent to Dunkirk, one rifle to defend the whole battery, those boys at Dunkirk were fighting Tiger tanks with their fists but such was that anger and that anger stayed with us throughout the war.’
He said the other weapon was the soldiers’ resilience.
The boys will say there was a red sea, that’s all you’ll get out of them, they won’t tell you what lay on that beach. It takes a hell of a job to get me down on those beaches now, although I went through much worseFrank Rosier
‘It was a rough sea, nine out of 10 of us were seasick and I always say the British Army has a weapon, and you see it in Afghanistan and Iraq recently, it’s that wonderful sense of humour.
‘I wasn’t first wave. I was second wave, and imagine the rough sea, they were going down the scrambling net, carrying 45lb of kit plus your weapon rifle 9lb.
‘I never heard of anyone falling we had practised enough anyway, but the humour – “If you fall in the boat you will only break your leg don’t worry about it, if you go in the water with that weight you’ll drown pretty quickly, you won’t feel a thing”, “shut up”...
‘What better way of getting rid of fear. I approached the beach, seasick, those who weren’t seasick were going round with tins of soup “Have a bit of this mate, have a fag”, “Oh shut up”. “What better way”. That all goes when you land of course.’
Mr Rosier, who volunteered at the age of 17-and-a-quarter and whose two brothers were killed in the war, added: ‘We weren’t accustomed to it being war, it takes a few days to suddenly realise this is serious, we’re not training any more, you are not going to get the referee come up and say ‘You’re dead’ and you get up and have a cup of tea, you’re not playing, for want of a better word.’
He said the response from the enemy was not what he had expected. He said: ‘We couldn’t find a German to have a game of cards with.
‘There was a bit of sniping but these snipers were Russians and Poles forced to fight and they didn’t want to fight and they kept missing so they were easier.’
He added: ‘We Brits fight so differently, we don’t throw away men.
‘We went up the beach, one killed five injured, Omaha they kept bunging men on the beach and couldn’t get off it, that’s why they lost so many men.’
Mr Rosier, whose wife Margaret died in 1997 aged 72, and whose only son, David, died six years ago at the age of 56, said that the war was fought in a different time, under a different mentality, when they were guided by Winston Churchill ‘without politics’.
He added that his main feeling about D-Day and the war was ‘the realisation that we were right, we didn’t know about holocaust, we found about that as we moved on and they were finding these places.
‘We fought for something you can’t taste, you can’t feel it, you can’t see it, you don’t know it’s there until somebody takes it away, that’s called freedom.
‘This country, we don’t know how free we are nowadays.
‘After the war, we built council houses, we built the National Health, there was a certain energy in us to do things. A wonderful spirit.
‘There was so much help. It’s amazing how much people helped one another.’
When asked if D-Day defined who he was, Mr Rosier replied: ‘Not arf.
‘The only thing when I am going over there this weekend, no offence to those organising it, most of us just like to ponder around on our own, go to visit old friends.
In Hermanville cemetery there are 13 of my platoon laid there, the oldest 19, and I think I’ve had such a smashing life and those lads lay there for me, for you, they gave so much and they can never be forgotten.’
Mr Rosier, who was born in Chelsea, London, but now lives in Cowplain, was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government for his work with the Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA) and he was the secretary of the Portsmouth branch until it disbanded last year.
Three months to the day after D-Day, Mr Rosier was hit by shrapnel from a mortar bomb near Le Havre while collecting eggs.
He lost the sight in his right eye and spent four years undergoing operations in hospital.
Mr Rosier said: ‘There was no self-pity, it was banned by the nurses.’