A moving and touching experience, but one that he wouldn’t have missed for the world. These are the feelings of Amble war hero George Skipper after he attended the poignant D-Day commemorations in France last week.
In the words of the 91-year-old veteran of the Normandy Landings, he was treated like a celebrity while he was across the Channel for the 70th anniversary tributes. Posing for pictures, shaking hands and even appearing on French television and in a national newspaper.
It was no less than he deserved.
George was only 20 when he landed at Gold Beach, as part of the massive Allied invasion of German-occupied France.
This young lad, born in London, had only married his sweetheart, June, a week before.
Days later, he was in the thick of D-Day.
“I was scared,” said George, thinking back to June 6, 1944, when the Allies stormed the beaches of northern France in the face of withering resistance from the occupying German forces.
He was aboard a merchant vessel which had crossed the Channel in a huge flotilla, and was unloading fighting vehicles onto the landing craft during the initial phase of the operation.
George said: “We were a mile-and-a-half from the beach when we stopped to load equipment onto the landing craft for the offensive.
“My mate Paddy was boarding one of the boats and shouted for me to hurry up and get aboard.
“I was in charge of a half-track vehicle, so I said I would take the next landing craft.
“I watched the boat with Paddy in it get about a hundred yards when a German Stuka dive-bomber came in and dropped a bomb on it.
“It must have been a direct hit amidships because it blew the landing craft clean out the water, killing everyone aboard.”
George landed at Gold Beach at 3pm, having waited offshore from 11am.
“There were bodies everywhere, there was firing, shells landing all around me and there were obstacles on the beach,” he recalls.
“But the naval bombardment was terrific. I don’t think we would have made it if it wasn’t for that.”
George says that the early scene in the film Saving Private Ryan, which shows troops storming Omaha Beach, captures the horror of the D-Day landings.
Thankfully, he was one of the lucky ones, making it through D-Day having endured the worst the German defenders could throw at him.
His war would continue though. By December 1944, George was in the Ardennes as part of a special 11-man team, the 43rd Field Security Unit, which was made up of Army interpreters who would interrogate captured enemy soldiers in the field.
He made it to Germany and was demobbed in Hamburg in 1947.
George has been back to France since the harrowing events of the Normandy Landings, but he admits that his latest trip across the Channel for the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day had extra significance.
The grandfather of eight is president of Warkworth and Amble District Royal British Legion Branch. He received a grant from the Big Lottery Fund – Heroes Return 2, to help him attend the D-Day commemorations. He was accompanied by Branch chairman Jeff Watson.
“It was nice to go back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said George.
“There were so many people there, thousands. We were treated like celebrities. I have never had so many pictures taken of me in my life. It took 10 minutes to walk 10 yards because people would stop to talk to you, and everywhere you went people would salute you.
“We visited several cemeteries and laid wreaths, it was very moving at times.”
During the trip, George attended the ceremony at Pegasus Bridge, as well as Sword Beach and Bayeux.
He was in the company of famous faces such as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama, as well as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, who he got to meet.
He said: “I shook hands with Prince Charles and told him that I had landed on Gold Beach. He said that I was lucky to be alive.
“I also met Camilla. She was lovely and said to me that she was thankful for what I had done.”
George, who is remarried and living with wife Mary, 92, at their Gloster Park home, had another unforgettable moment during his return to France.
In what he describes as the proudest moment of his life, he met his 28-year-old grandson, Luke, who is a REMI Corporal based in York, at Sword Beach. Luke was dressed in full uniform and was granted permission to join his unit at Sword Beach after they had heard that George was going over.
George is also set to receive a special accolade for his D-Day heroics.
In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings, the French Government has advised the Ministry of Defence that it wishes to award the Legion d’Honneur to all surviving veterans; not only of the landings, but also the wider Battle of Normandy, the Invasion of Provence (Operation Dragoon), the Liberation of Paris and the Liberation of France.
Jeff said: “It was very much George’s trip and it was a privilege to be there. He couldn’t walk for being stopped. People wanted their photo with him and there were women kissing him. He was delighted to be there.”