Courageous Robert, 92, joins comrades on beaches in remembering those who didn’t come back
As the country remembers its war dead, Emily Horton meets 92-year- old Sheffield veteran Robert Maxwell on a special trip to the battlefields of Normandy where he fought as a young commando in World War II.
“Last month, I met 92-year- old Robert Maxwell from Dore, ,as he returned to the D-Day beaches where he landed as a young Royal Marine commando in June 1944.
Then aged just 19, Robert found himself part of the Allied assault on Normandy that began the reclaiming of Western Europe from its Nazi oppressors.
Thanks to the Royal British Legion, Robert was joined by 12 other veterans for a fully funded six-day tour.
The sight of these courageous, resilient men standing together, reciting their stories, resplendent with medals and old regimental caps, was striking enough.
And as you can imagine, it was all a bit scaryRobert Maxwell
More remarkable still, however, was the evident camaraderie between this group of total strangers; the shared empathy born of a bloody, all-consuming episode in a long-ago sliver of time.
In the quiet cemeteries containing the graves of their fallen colleagues, the valiant survivors recalled the experience of fighting their way up from the beaches.
Eyes filled with tears, bodies trembled with emotion as the memories came flooding back.
It was a once-in- a-lifetime trip for Robert who was joined by wife Sylvia, daughter Debbie and grandson Jack.
With an eloquence and charm that belied his advanced years, Robert was the most engaging of companions – often taking to the tour bus microphone to lead his fellow comrades in the turbulent remembrance of things past.
Robert’s specialist Commando unit was tasked with securing the port of Ouistreham – a strategic site in facilitating Allied progress into France.
Ahead of the main attack on the beaches and under the cover of darkness, they arrived into Normandy in the early hours of D-Day.
“I was part of an advance party of four men escorting two marine divers whose objective was to deactivate mines that intelligence had informed us were planted onto the port gates damming the Caen canal,” Robert explained.
“It was imperative that we prevented the Germans from detonating any possible explosives as they realised an Allied attack was immiment, because it would have destroyed the waterway and therefore our proposed route of advancing into the city of Caen,” he continued.
Of course, with such close, hand-to- hand fighting Robert was to see his inevitable share of tragedy.
“As we arrived, we were able to evade several German sentries without detection but we simply couldn’t get around one soldier without causing alarm,” Robert recalled lightly, before adding,
“Unfortunately, this presented us with only one scenario: he unfortunately had to go...”
The divers were then able to go about their business below the waterline without incident.
Robert said: “When they reappeared some time later, it was to report that there was no signs of the reported explosives after all.
“The canal had been saved, which was welcome news given the fact that the Allies had planned to occupy Caen within 24 hours of our landing, but its liberation was to actually take over a month of fierce fighting...”
“That was to be my first glimpse of action and as you can imagine, it was all a bit scary,” Robert said, with an understatement characteristic of his generation and modesty.
Fortunately for Robert, in addition to his family being on hand for moral support, so was our tour guide, ex-policewoman Eugenie Brooks who was kindness itself, dispensing hugs and kisses to the veterans throughout their emotional week.
And how they needed it: 93-year-old Stanley Taylor from Croydon, Greater London, was utterly overwhelmed to stumble upon the graves of 23 comrades in a single cemetery.
As for our French hosts, they were truly wonderful. The young staff at Arromanches Museum were typical, embracing the veterans upon their arrival and giving each of them a memento, presented with heartfelt thanks for their vital part in securing the freedom of France.
Naturally the recipients were tickled pink, the simple kisses of the young women reassuring the veterans that the hardships they endured in that rapidly receding past are still remembered more than 70 years on.
All of which points to an imperative: that as many veterans as possible are made aware of the existence of these trips.
In small, but effective ways, they contribute to the store of healing, bringing families together and giving veterans permission to shine a soothing light into this harsh, tumultuous corner of their lives.
And one final thought. It is a privilege both rare and shocking to see a fragile 90-plus- year-old, tears streaming down his face, shuffle laboriously across the sands on which he once landed as a vigorous young man of war.
But when he tells you of his fears for tomorrow, castigating the warmongering of the President of the United States, one cannot help but recall the words of a despairing Macbeth and wonder whether, in the end, all our brave yesterdays have only lighted fools the way to dusty death.
For more information as to the Libor Fines Funded Normandy Tours organised by the Royal British Legion, please call Arena Travel on 01473 660800.
To read more of Emily’s interviews and veteran news, follow her @elhorton1