‘Help us find heroes of Normandy invasion, so Sheffield can say special thank you on 75th anniversary’

Normandy veteran Gordon Drabble with Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis and Graham Askham, secretary of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association
Normandy veteran Gordon Drabble with Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis and Graham Askham, secretary of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association

A mission is under way to track down as many Normandy veterans as possible to join huge 75th anniversary commemorations planned in Sheffield.

The city wants to pay thanks in style next June to those who liberated Europe by taking part in the D Day landings and the ensuing campaign during the summer of 1944.

Normandy veterans Gordon Drabble, Les Giles, Cyril Elliott, Eric Fowler, and Douglas Austin at the planting of a memorial tree in Weston Park

Normandy veterans Gordon Drabble, Les Giles, Cyril Elliott, Eric Fowler, and Douglas Austin at the planting of a memorial tree in Weston Park

Hundreds of people are expected to gather in Weston Park on June 15 next year to remember the brave souls involved in what remains the largest amphibious invasion ever seen.

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The Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association is trying to trace survivors to take part in the parade that day, which could prove a last hurrah for many of them as advancing years take their toll.

The group’s secretary Graham Askham said: “We’re trying to make it a really special day for these chaps. It could be the last chance many of them get to parade in Sheffield, and we’d like to invite as many veterans as possible.

Members of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association during a recent visit to the the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell

Members of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association during a recent visit to the the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell

“We owe them for the freedom we enjoy today, and which we too often take for granted. It’s important we show our gratitude because without them the world could be a very different place.”

READ MORE: South Yorkshire D-Day veterans receive France’s highest military honour

An oak tree commemorating those who served in the Normandy campaign was recently planted in Weston Park, where a memorial bench and stone dedicated to them is due to be unveiled as part of the ceremony next June.

A flypast is also planned, along with a reception at Firth Hall for Normandy veterans, and the association is hoping for a huge turnout by the public, cadets and veterans of other campaigns to mark the occasion.

The invitation is not restricted to Normandy veterans from within Sheffield, with the association casting its net as wide as York and Nottingham.

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John Quinn, who lived on City Road, in Sheffield for most of his life, was part of an advance fleet which cleared mines and obstructions guarding the coastline, enabling landing craft to reach the beaches on D-Day.

The horrors he and his comrades encountered remain undimmed in his memory.

“It was terrible what we experienced. We were the lucky ones because we survived but nobody should ever forget those poor soldiers who never made it back,” said the 94-year-old former lorry driver, now living in Mablethorpe.

“There were 17, 18 and 19-year-olds who were shot down as soon as they set foot on the sand, and robbed of the chance to lead the lives they should have led.

“I feel very strongly that we must continue to remember and be thankful for the sacrifices they made to give people the freedom they continue to enjoy today.”

John is one of a select few British servicemen to have been awarded the Croix de Guerre – France’s highest military honour for bravery – after risking his life to rescue a boat-full of stranded French soldiers while under heavy enemy fire.

But it is the eerie atmosphere of the night he approached the French coast ahead of the D Day landings proper which sticks most strongly in his mind.

“We landed on June 5, five minutes before midnight, and we could hear the dogs barking, church bells ringing and the Germans talking as we got closer,” he said.

Gordon Drabble, president of the Sheffield Normandy Veterans Association, was part of a later wave of infantry which landed in France about 10 days after D-Day.

In typically understated style, he described the campaign as ‘hairy going’, describing how he saw action on most days and was badly wounded when a piece of shrapnel pierced his shoulder during a mortar attack which killed a fellow soldier standing just yards away.

The 94-year-old former Cadbury’s rep, of Lodge Moor, told how when the association launched in the early 80s it had 70 or 80 veterans among its members but there were now just 10.

“Sadly the numbers are dwindling and there probably won’t be many veterans who are still able to attend commemorations for the next big anniversary in 2024, so it would be nice to make this a big one,” he said.

“We’d like to have as many veterans as possible, whether they’re members of the association or not.”

The D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, on France’s northern coast began the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe, but not all Normandy veterans took part in that initial invasion, with many arriving later to bolster the forces on their march to victory.

The commemorations in Sheffield will take place on June 15 so veterans who are still able to can attend memorial events being held in France on the anniversary of D-Day itself.

For more information about the Sheffield commemorations and if you know a Normandy veteran who would like to be there, call Graham Askham on 0781 2682 040 or email graham@askham.eu.