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D-Day landings re-visited

PUBLISHED: 15:39 03 June 2009 | UPDATED: 10:44 23 August 2010

D-Day: brave soldiers wait to storm the beach

D-Day: brave soldiers wait to storm the beach

THE beach was filled with bodies when I arrived. So many brave men were simply cut down by gunfire and left to die in agonising pain. We must remember what they did, they fought for the freedom we have today and paid the ultimate price. Gravesend-born

MAN OF THE SEA: Jack Roots who served at D-Day in the Merchant Navy.

THE beach was filled with bodies when I arrived. So many brave men were simply cut down by gunfire and left to die in agonising pain. We must remember what they did, they fought for the freedom we have today and paid the ultimate price."

Gravesend-born tugboat worker John Roots' memory of the D-Day Landings is extraordinary.

For the hundreds of stories re-told in the years after the conflict and immortalised in the Hollywood blockbusters there are many more untold.

As millions prepare to honour the dead from WWII on the 65th anniversary this Saturday, 86-year-old 'Jack' vividly remembers the dead lying on the beach having taken part in the horrific fire fight, but during three months of service off the beaches of Normandy he only went ashore once.

Instead as a member of the Merchant Navy he was involved in the greatest engineering feat of WWII - the Mulberry Harbour.

Built in secret the harbour - bigger than Dover's current port and harbour - was towed across the English Channel from Poole to be put together off the coast of Normandy.

There it remained for several months, its workers supplying frontline troops with food, ammunition and equipment. Many workers on the floating masterpiece never reached the beach but all could see the horrors it had borne.

"Those men on the beach went through hell. It was hideous. But you must remember the massive operation to keep this assault going as the troops made their gradual way through the beaches and subsequent towns.

"At 21-years-old I was working on the tugs in Gravesend when I was sent on this mission. We left on D-DAY when those brave men died but we arrived later, not much later, but you could see the devastation and hear the gunfire from far out at sea."

Mr Roots was part of a fleet of tugs escorting 17 ships to the coast of Normandy. They carried two artificial harbours Mulberry B - nicknamed Port Winston - constructed off Arromanches at Gold Beach and Mulberry A at Omaha Beach.

Put together like a vast jigsaw puzzle, when both were fully operational, they were capable of moving 7,000 tons of vehicles and goods each day.

Each of the two artificial harbours was made up of about 6 miles of flexible steel roadways that floated on steel or concrete pontoons. The roadways were code-named 'Whales' and the pontoons 'Beetles'. The 'Whales' ended at giant pier heads that had 'legs' that rested on the seabed. The whole structure was protected from the force of the sea by the scuttled ships, sunken.

The main port was built on giant stilts sticking in the air, so when the tide or swell rose so did the platform allowing work to continue whatever the time of day or conditions.

When agreed by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister he was berated by some, including the Americans. And despite the British harbour at Gold beach landing 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of goods US Navy Admiral John Leslie Hall said: "It's the biggest waste of manpower and equipment that I have ever seen." It was no surprise the American harbour was reduced to rubble on June 9 when the storm hit and the British operated Mulberry Harbour was recognised as a pivitol success in winning the war.

Mr Roots added: "It was a remarkable plan. The convoy could only travel at 4 knots so although we left at the same time when we arrived many had been cut down in the sea or on the beeches and were already dead.

"We did not go ashore, our job was to keep the supplies coming and it was a massive task.

"The 17 ships were sunk to protect the harbour. The first one we opened the seacox to let it sink but it took forever and fell in the wrong position. The next 16 we blew the bottoms out and they went straight down and in the correct spot.

"Remember this was all part of the secret D-Day Landings plan. Churchill had agreed it and although many thought it was a crazy idea it was genius. The person who came up with the idea was as much a part of D-Day victory as anyone. Without this the troops could not continue, it was vital and the success of the entire operation depending on this working."

During the day tugs would ferry goods to and fro, with orders from the dispatch centre. Trucks would be loaded to drive supplies on to the beech and through the towns to troops as they fought their way through the occupied towns taking heavy casualties.

Mr Roots, who worked on the tug 'Empire Betsy' spent three months off the coast and after having nine days leave returned for a couple of weeks.

During his time he endured a terrifying storm that broke up many of the concrete slabs and threatened the success of the operation and nigh-time bombing raids by German fighter pilots.

But he smiles when he recalls some of the more trick jobs he endured, he added: "There were all sorts of nationalities, you didn't really mix but this Greek ship had 17 sheep on board. At night they made a racket walking up and down on the metal decks and you just could not sleep. It was quite strange when you consider where we were and what we were doing. The next day we slung them over our shoulders and took them ashore. I'm sure they made a nice dinner."

During his months at sea he only made it ashore once to deliver mail and hailed those who fought on the beeches as the 'bravest of the brave'.

He was in Iceland when the war ended and his tug was used to ferry American and British soldiers away from battlefields.

He recalls seeing American troops eating donuts and partying with majorettes girls and deafening music and was humbled by the British who sat on the beech chatting with not even a cup of tea after their horrendous war efforts.

"The films are realistic in that respect," he joked. "The Americans had everything and us Brits just got by, but boy, what a job they all died."

Mr Roots only returned to the Normandy beeches in Easter this year and was almost moved to tears by the stunning white headstones at the Commonwealth graves.

During a visit to the D-Day museum he was treated like a returning hero and asked to sign the 'Golden Book' when staff heard he helped build the harbour.

He added: "To be honest I never really had much time for the French but going back was amazing. There were children all talking in French and I asked what they were saying. 'They are thanking you Sir, they are thanking you for building the harbour'.

"I am so glad I went back it was very emotional, I did not know how I would feel. Going on the anniversary would have been too much, too emotional but it is important we remember.

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