I met Roy Walker and his wife Anita in 2017. They were a quiet charming couple who lived in a small but tidy bungalow in Chyngton, Seaford surrounded by a well maintained garden.
I chatted to Roy about his experiences in the Second World War and I am embarrassed that I did not take many notes as his story was so fascinating. I regret not telling you of his story before but today, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing has prompted me to share some of what he told me.
Roy was born in South London in 1926 but at the age of 10 his family moved to Welling in Kent. He seems to have had had a happy carefree childhood and when the war started he was still as school.
Roy joined the Sea-Cadets and on leaving school at the age of 14 got a job at the Vickers-Armstrong Works in Dartford. The factory made shells, bombs and mortars for the war effort. Roy worked in an office but remembers seeing the production line workers whose skin had turned mustard yellow with the regular contact with the chemicals. The factory was an obvious target for air-raids and he remembered sharing cramped air-raid shelters with the canary-faced workers as the bombs dropped around. A direct hit on a factory packed with explosives would have been devastating.
In the evenings, Roy attended his Sea-Cadet sessions at Bexley and learnt general seamanship but specialising in signalling. He learnt the phonetic alphabet, semaphore and flag recognition. In 1942 he was promoted to Boy Leading Signalman. One of his roles was to attend the local cinema where at the start of every performance of Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve” Roy had to hoist the Royal Ensign at the side of the cinema screen as a bugle played.
Roy attended a Sea Cadet School in Slough to hone his signalling skills. It was here that he was to learn Morse code although it seems that most of the time was spent on cross country runs, scrubbing floors and pealing potatoes. From Slough was sent to Scotland via Skegness where he was inoculated.
The Army Camp in Scotland was a converted holiday camp near Ayr and after further training, in October 1943 he was issued with his bell-bottoms, number C/JX579027 and posted to HMS Pembroke at Chatham. In effect he was based at the Borstal near Rochester awaiting a posting to a real ship.
On 20th January 1944 a teenage Roy was sent to HMS Mylodon, a shore base (later to be under the umbrella of HMS Odyssey.) Roy’s first posting was to Lowestoft where, under great secrecy trawlers were being converted into mine sweepers. Next he went to Great Yarmouth and was posted to the crew of an LTC (Landing Craft – Tank). He learnt how to manoeuvre the craft but because the vessel was flat bottomed there was a lot of sea-sickness even though they were in the quiet waters of the Orwell estuary. It was here that Roy noticed many of the military craft moored alongside the banks of the river were not actually real but were fakes covered in camouflage netting. (This was a part of the diversionary tactic to fool the enemy into fearing that an invasion would be made from the East Coast towards occupied Belgium)
Early in June 1944 Roy and the rest of his troop were summons to the massive Woolverstone Hall, an 18th century stately home on the banks of the Orwell. Here he was issued with an army uniform and a Webley .45 pistol. He was told to pack up all his naval and personal equipment and that the skipper of his LTC had secret instructions in a sealed envelope. A this time Roy had no idea what was going on and the imaginations of him and his crew were running riot with excitement.
Late on 5th May 1944 Roy’s LTC was loaded onto a ship at Parkestone Quay, Harwich which was a part of the Seventh Army Division. The ship also carried Sherman tanks, lorries and an officer’s staff-car. Roy did still not know where he was going. He starting chatting to a former ‘Desert Rat’ who helped him with his webbing and camouflage. It was when they were in sight of the French coast that the secret envelope was opened and Roy was given his orders. His LTC was to land at Le Hamel (Gold Beach) but on landing 18 year old Roy was to make it to the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer where was to work for the Navy Flag Officer (British Assault Area). Courseulles was about six miles to the east on Juno Beach.
One can imagine what was going through Roy’s mind as he hung on to the gun-turret of a tank as the LTC ramp went down and dipped its nose into the sea. He was deposited onto the beach under a cacophony of noise. The whole amazing scene was crowded with soldiers, and German prisoners of war who were all engaged in frantic activity. Roy just stood on the beach aghast at what he was witnessing. The shoreline was a continuous assembly of ships, craft, tanks, vehicles, men equipment and stores. Assault boats, DUKWs, LST and LCTs were continuously disgorging men vehicles and equipment from an armada of larger ships on the horizon. He was surprised to see German prisoners of war helping to free some vehicles that had got stuck in the sand. Some of the scene has hidden behind filthy yellow/brown smoke screens whilst salvoes of shells continuously hissed overhead towards the shore where there were still pockets of German resistance. Most of the houses on the seafront had been destroyed. There were many bodies on the beach. Overhead ‘shark-fin’ barrage balloons were being deployed.
Roy spent the night in a slit trench with an army colonel who was able to give him a map and the next morning (7th June) Roy set out to walk along the packed beaches to his rendezvous point on Juno Beach. At one point he stopped and sat on a raised tarpaulin to eat his lunch of hard-tack biscuit and bully-beef. To his horror he discovered that he was sitting on a pile of drowned men – mainly tank crew who had not survived the landing assault. Roy has never forgotten this unwitting act of disrespect. He eventually made it to Courseulles and became one of the staff of the Naval Officer in Charge. He was camped in a cottage garden but his base was on top of a concrete water tower which although vulnerable to attack afforded a magnificent view of the beach-heads and the armada of ships beyond. From this unique position he maintained communication between the shore and the hundreds of ship along the Normandy coast. He witnessed the ‘Gooseberry’ Harbours and a temporary airfield being built and heard the noise of the Battle for Caen just 10 miles away from his post.
Over the next few days Roy witnessed many enemy air-attacks. He remembers sleeping with his head in his wooden compo ration box to protect him from any shrapnel. Roy even remembered an elderly French lady who had survived the bombing and shelling and who carefully walked through the war debris to present him with four newly laid eggs as a gift. Other ‘gifts’ arrived from the skies when the Luftwaffe dropped propaganda leaflets over the beaches.
The Norman front gradually moved inland, gradually pushing the Nazi invaders back and Roy moved inland too. His memories of the subsequent months were interesting and I could have chatted with him for days however his reminiscences of D-Day are so poignant on this the 75th Anniversary of the great day.
Quiet spoken Roy Walker wouldn’t describe himself as a hero but in my eyes he certainly is. We owe a great deal to men like Roy who helped to free the western world from the tyranny of fascism. Not only Sussex but the world owes you its respect Roy.