William Cooke was a disappointed man when he wasn’t able to get to the D-Day 70th event in Normandy. “I had everything booked, but it turned out I couldn’t get, due to the circumstances,” he said.
It would have meant staying on for another four days after the commemorations in France, and, aged 88, the Mullavilly man just didn’t fancy that.
But his great friend, Colonel Arthur Reid in nearby Tandragee (William lives in Laurelvale), had planned to go, and he was able to get the respected WWII hero that special 70th Medallion, minted for the occasion. Not only that, but there was a special presentation of the Medallion at The Palace, Armagh, by Lord Mayor Robert Turner, which William deemed a great pleasure.
During the momentous events of the summer of 1944, William was just 18 when the massive armada left England for the great onslaught to liberate Western Europe. Having trained in Skegness and Plymouth, he wasn’t taught to fight and never held a weapon.
As D-Day approached, he was sent to Southampton, when he saw Sir Alan Brooke and Winston Churchill – “Eisenhower was also reportedly there, but I wouldn’t have known him.” And King George VI was also there to boost morale on the eve of the historic landings.
The young William was on board a landing craft, carrying lorries, tanks, guns and about 20 members of the Green Howards across the Channel. They left on Monday, June 5 at a stately pace of five knots, and arrived at 9.05am on D-Day.
When he went on deck, there was chaos all around, although as a wireless operator, it wasn’t his job to land on the beach – he had to stay on board and return with the craft to England for another load.
There was chaos all around, “with big ships firing and aircraft. I just sat there with my earphones on – it was all rather frightening. Between the big ships and the aircraft, I didn’t know what was going on. I saw dead bodies lying on the beach and floating. It was chaos.”
After the men and supplies were disgorged onto the beach, William’s craft was disabled with cables entangled underneath, and it took on a lot of water. After drifting, it was towed back towards Arromanches and Swords beach and tied to craft full of German prisoners – “then we were towed back to Southampton.”
Later in June, the repaired vessel returned to France three or four times with supplies, “but things were much different then, with the Allies having pushed inland”. On the last voyage, they heard the dulcet tones of the wonderful Glenn Miller Orchestra coming from one of the beaches, although Miller himself had been lost at sea when going ahead of the band – he was never found and the baton was taken over by another leader.
William was sad at not making the 70th trip, having gone on a number in the past. But Colonel Reid and wife Eileen joined a party of Royal Ulster Rifles which included two veterans – Major General Corran Purdon (Rtd) CBE MC CPM who took part in the raid on St Nazaire in February 1942 and was captured by the Germans, escaped and ended up in the notorious Colditz, and was awarded the Military Cross.
The other veteran was RSM Billy McConnell of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment and 6th Airborne Division. He landed in a glider near Ranville when he was 18 – Major Ronnie Wilson of Portadown was also a member of the Battalion and landed in the same place.
During their visit, the Reids attended various wreath-laying and remembrance services. These included ceremonies at villages liberated by the Royal Ulster Rifles – like Cambes-en-Plaine and Longueval. And there was a ceremony at Ranville Cemetery – all in the presence of the local Mayors, allied to visits to Pegasus Bridge and the Nerville Battery.
Sadly, one of Ulster’s great heroes of the landings, Sir John Gorman CVO CBE MC DL, Irish Guards had died just before the anniversary – he destroyed the first German Royal Tiger Tank on July 18, 1944.
Colonel Reid laid a wreath at the memorial to Sir John which was erected by the people of Cagny – “one of the most moving actions I did on the trip” - to a man who was sadly buried the previous Monday.
Said Col Reid, “It was my pleasure to bring William Cooke’s Medallion back for him and it was typical of Lord Mayor Turner to present it to him and honour a legend like William.”