'We caught them by surprise': war veteran shares memories of D-Day

D-DAY MEMORIES: David Birt reminisces about his role in the D-Day assault  when he was a teenage sailor on the British light cruiser HMS Ajax.
Photo: JUDE KEOGH 0624WAR3

D-DAY MEMORIES: David Birt reminisces about his role in the D-Day assault when he was a teenage sailor on the British light cruiser HMS Ajax. Photo: JUDE KEOGH 0624WAR3

THIS time 70 years ago, following the D-Day landings, teenage sailor David Birt walked up the path of his home in Yorkshire to surprise his mother, who had seven sons away fighting in World War II.

After 10 intense days as a radar operator on the British light cruiser HMS Ajax as it bombarded the coast of Normandy, Mr Birt was granted a few days leave before joining the conflict again, this time in southern France.

“My mother was amazed to see me. She couldn’t believe it,” he said.

“In those days all the news about the war come through on the radio and she’d heard I was on the Ajax in the thick of it.”

Mr Birt, 88, recalls the day that turned the tide on the German advance across Europe, as though it was yesterday.

“We sailed from our port in Scotland and when we got close we knew something was up, despite everything being secretive up until then,” he said.

“We were in one of 38 convoys up and down the coast. Everywhere you looked it was just ships, there were 700 of them.”

When the word came, Mr Birt took up his radar position and the guns from the deck of the HMS Ajax began blasting the enemy gun installations on shore.

“They started firing back at us, but they just couldn’t reach us, they kept falling short,” he said.

“We didn’t lose a man and there were more than 500 of us on board.”

Today, the only legacy of the spritely veteran’s war service is that he has to wear hearing aids, as a result of him standing in close proximity to the gun deck aboard the ship.

Thinking back to the initial bombardment at Normandy, Mr Birt said it was over quickly.

“It only took us 19 minutes to knock their guns out before the landing assault. We caught them by surprise,” he said.

Also at Normandy that day was Mr Birt’s older brother, who was fighting in the British Dragoon Guards and was among the allied forces who stormed ashore.

Miraculously Mr Birt’s mother was able to welcome all seven sons back home at the end of the war.

“One of my brothers lost a leg and another a part of his hand, but we all survived,” he said.

Among Mr Birt’s D-Day memorabilia is his original army pay book, photographs and a 50th anniversary medal to mark the D-Day landing.

janice.harris@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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