16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DESMOND STANFORD, aged 101

ON THE BEACH

Born in the North Norfolk village of Walsingham, Desmond’s father was Victor, the village blacksmith. His mother, Kate, was a nurse and Desmond had a younger brother.

For some reason, Desmond was always nicknamed ‘Steve’. He had bright red hair.

He was a good sportsman and represented the village in both football and cricket. Later on, he played for Fakenham in both sports.

Walsingham, Norfolk Cup Winners 1920. Father Vic is middle row, 5th in left to right. Two other Stanfords are in the team (courtesy Walsingham Memories)

Upon leaving school aged fourteen, Desmond went to work at the village garage, Edmondsons, where he filled customer’s cars on the forecourt. He showed an interest in, and an aptitude for all things mechanical.

Consequently, Desmond got an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering at Massey and Bridges in Fakenham.

Massey and Bridges (courtesy Fakenham Archive)

Then the war broke out. Desmond decided to enlist.

He tried to join the RAF. He passed almost all of the entry tests but failed on the very last one. “The final test had me pressing coloured buttons when the lights switched up – I couldn’t do it.”

It transpired that Desmond was colour blind. The RAF immediately turned him down.

Disappointed, Desmond wandered down the corridor and into a waiting room. Sitting there, was a Royal Navy (RN) officer. They got chatting and Desmond mentioned his apprenticeship. The Navy man told him mechanics were desperately needed in his service.

So, Desmond applied to the Royal Navy. He was accepted this time but was asked to complete his apprenticeship before joining up.

During the two years it took him to finish it, he was a member of the Walsingham Home Guard.

Desmond finally joined the Navy in 1941. He was immediately made a Petty Officer and was to HMS Mastodon in Hampshire. This was an on-land RN station, which was crucial to the preparations for D-Day.

Desmond’s bright red hair, he earned him another nickname – ‘Ginger’.

By 1944, Desmond had been promoted to Chief Petty Officer. He was put in charge of a unit of twelve men.

Desmond (courtesy Remembering D-Day)

On the 24th May, Desmond was alone on a barge in Hampshire, when another boat bumped into it. He swore at the other vessel, before noticing it was flying the Admiral’s flag. Leaning over the side was King George 6th.

They started chatting about Norfolk as Walsingham is just 15 miles away from Sandringham.

The following day, the King inspected the troops. When he got to Desmond, he said, “Hello, young man. We meet again.”

Desmond knew something significant was about to occur as he was unexpectedly given three days leave. He telegrammed his mother, Kate, asking her to meet him in London.

They met at his aunt’s house in Hendon, and Mum brought his younger brother along. His uncle was a speed cop and teased Desmond about how slow the military were to ‘get cracking’ in beating the Germans.

When Desmond got back to base, his unit had been temporarily assigned to the Royal Marines and he was put in charge of a ‘Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel’ (LCVP) boat and was told they were sailing to France.

LCVP (courtesy Wikipedia)

D-Day was about to begin.

Desmond was actually in charge of twelve LCVPs.

They set sail on the 4th June 1944, but the gale force weather was so appalling, they had to turn back.

They tried again on the 5th June. The weather was still terrible – but not quite as bad as the day before. On the journey to France, many of their supplies and jerry cans full of petrol, were swept overboard.

Desmond was slightly sea-sick, but noted how many of the marines were really ill. He was surprised, expecting them to be used to such conditions.

All the soldier’s personal effects were drenched, as was their spare clothing. Many of their most important items were dry, due to having been put inside condoms.

Desmond had put his ‘chartlet’ (maps) inside such an item. (In later years, he had his chartlet framed and put up on the wall of his home).

He had to refill the LCVP with petrol. To do this he had to lie face down on the deck. His crew mates held his legs so that he wouldn’t be swept overboard.

The journey took 14 hours. Desmond later said that the LCVP was not built for a journey to France in calm conditions, never mind such trying ones.

“When we got to the fleet, we went to the troop ship, filled it up and took them to Gold Beach. I got off and stayed on the beach to see if there was anything wrong with the other boats when they came in.”

His was the first LCVP to land on Gold Beach on the 6th June – D-Day.

The Allies were already under fierce attack from the Germans. “It seemed impossible for a living thing to exist on the beaches.”

He landed under the ‘protection’ of the guns of HMS Ajax (and other ships), fifteen miles out at sea. They set up a constant bombardment.

“We were more afraid that some of our ships would drop their shells on shore than what the Germans were throwing at us.” In later years, Desmond remembered the endless screaming of the shells as they flew above him.

Desmond was continually repairing the LCVPs as they arrived. He remembered having to clear propellors of the debris they had picked up in the water – often human body parts.

He was also expected to repair any vehicles on the beach whilst being under persistent enemy attack. He remembered mines, strafing from the Luftwaffe and snipers. He claimed he only survived due to his Home Guard training.

Unlike most of the soldiers who got off the beach as soon as possible, Desmond was forced to stay there for the duration.

“I was on that beach the first three days and nights of the assault – and the worst thing was when the tide went out. I still have nightmares about it to this day.”

He also remembered being plagued by mosquitos.

The first night he slept in a crater. On the second and third nights he slept in a German trench between two pill boxes. “I’ll say this for Jerry – he certainly knows how to build fortifications.”

After three days, Desmond was found by his Commanding Officer (CO). He was asked what he had eaten. The reply was soup out of a can – usually cold.

The CO told him to come back to the newly created command post in Arromanches for a decent meal. Desmond replied he couldn’t go as he looked such a mess.

The CO said, “Everyone will be pleased to see you, regardless.”

After that, Desmond was billeted in Arromanches, but still worked on the beach in the day – and continued doing so until February 25th 1945.

Postcard of Arromanches before D-Day (courtesy EDP)

He remembered seeing Winston Churchill, who visited Gold Beach on the 12th June.

Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, visited on the 14th June.

De Gaulle was not popular, so Desmond’s men jeered and heckled the French leader from afar.

De Gaulle was furious and sent a Navy officer over to quieten the men, and take the name of their officer in charge (Desmond). The RN officer took his name, winked and said he was notorious for losing things.

Desmond never heard anything more about the incident.

During D-Day and the aftermath, his LCVP had fallen apart.

His unit were assigned to a depot ship (formerly a merchant ship), from the Belgian Congo. He remembered how kind the sailors were, feeding them and washing and drying their clothes – even though neither side could speak each other’s language.

After this, Desmond would never tolerate racism.

Then, his men were moved to the minelayer HMS Adventure. Desmond recalled they would drop a mine into the sea, watch it explode and many fish would land on the decks. Luckily, one of his unit had been a fishmonger in civilian life, so everybody dined well each night.

However, the captain of HMS Adventure had Desmond’s unit removed for being, “too noisy.”

They briefly joined HMS Misoa, a tanker converted to a troop landing ship.

Desmond found an abandoned American LCVP. He sailed it round to Omaha Beach, but nobody wanted it – so he took it as his unit’s new boat.

Desmond remembered the kindness of American soldiers and sailors. They would constantly give them extra rations, supplies and clothing – even keepsakes.

On one occasion, he wanted to give something back. A young American soldier had run out of bullets for his machine gun, so Desmond handed him a fully loaded machine gun belt as a thank you.

Desmond was granted a couple of days leave and returned to England. He caught the train to London. As he arrived at Liverpool Street, there was an almighty explosion. People screamed and dived under the seats. The station had been hit by a ‘V2’ rocket (a ‘doodlebug’).

V2 (courtesy BBC)

Upon return to France, he got another short spell of leave for New Year’s Eve 1944. With a friend, he hitch-hiked to Rouen, to enjoy the celebrations.

Being in a different uniform, they were stopped by the French Resistance and thrown into prison.

After two nights, the French realised they were British sailors , released them, treating them like royalty for a few days.

Returning to his unit, Desmond was moved inland and was based at Bayeux. He was billeted with a café owner and remembered that the food was ‘marvellous’.

British soldiers in Bayeux (courtesy war-documentary.info)

He was still working at Gold Beach and was given twelve new ships to use.

Shortly afterwards, they were returned to England, where his unit were split up – to his disappointment.

Desmond was sent to the Far East, but was still in transit when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Consequently, he went back to Britain and was demobbed.

Desmond returned home to Walsingham where, his mother played matchmaker. She told him that local girl, Peggy Wright, was ‘up for going to the pictures’ with him.

He then asked Peggy out. For their first date, they cycled to the cinema in Wells – six miles each way.

Soon afterwards, Peggy and Desmond got engaged and were married in 1946. They were to have four children – three boys and a girl.

Desmond and Peggy (courtesy EDP)

They lived in Walsingham for a while, then they moved to Fakenham. Subsequently, Desmond got a job as a transport manager and they moved to Nottingham.

In 1983, Desmond took early retirement and the family returned to Walsingham to look after his elderly mother, Kate. They lived in the house he had grown up in.

Desmond and Peggy loved to go on cruises.

They once took a cruise to Alaska. On the way, the ship stopped in Vancouver. A group of American men got on board.

Desmond recognized the badge they were wearing. It was given to all American veterans of D-Day. They were a group who met up annually to share their stories of the Normandy landings .

They invited Desmond and Peggy to share in their celebration. They even asked Desmond to give a talk about his experiences.

After Desmond had finished, the main speaker began. He told a story of a Royal Navy officer who had given him a fully equipped machine gun belt when he was desperate and had run out of bullets.

He said he was so grateful that he had the belt mounted, and it was on the wall in his lounge at home.

He then turned to Desmond and said, “But whatever happened to your red hair?” Desmond had not recognized him.

In retirement, Desmond became an avid wildlife photographer, winning many awards and competitions. He loved walking and made his own walking sticks. He was a keen ornithologist and played for the village bowls team.

Peggy died in 2007.

For Desmond’s 100th birthday, a large party was held. Members of the family came from as far as New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Ireland.

Desmond and his daughter Heather (courtesy EDP)

Desmond said, “I’m too stubborn to die, and I like to think I’ve got another five years in me.”

Sadly, he hadn’t. He died aged 101.

At his funeral, the church of St. Peter’s in Great Walsingham was packed. His coffin was draped in the Union Jack with his medals and naval cap on top. A bugler played the Last Post.

RIP – Regularly In Peril

 

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