Royal Engineers sapper pays emotional tribute to D-Day fallen comrades

‘Don’t say I’m a hero, all the heroes are dead’: Royal Engineers sapper who stormed ashore in the first wave at Gold Beach in emotional tribute to his fallen comrades on D-Day 75th anniversary

  • Harry Billinge, 93, landed on Gold Beach in France at 6.30am on June 6, 1944 
  • He’s raised more than £10,000 for the Normandy Memorial Trust in recent years
  • Emotional BBC Breakfast interview saw him apologise for ‘getting a bit choked’
  • Spoke about traumatic wartime experiences, saying: ‘When I landed it was hell’

A 93-year-old D-Day veteran who raised thousands of pounds for a memorial in Normandy insisted today the real heroes were his fallen comrades 75 years ago.

Harry Billinge, of St Austell, Cornwall, was an 18-year-old Royal Engineers sapper when he landed on Gold Beach as part of the first wave of troops to arrive in France.

In recent years he has raised more than £10,000 for the Normandy Memorial Trust to build a monument to the dead by relentlessly collecting donations near his house.

And in an emotional interview with BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty this morning, Mr Billinge told her: ‘I’m very sorry I’m getting a bit choked. 

‘Don’t thank me, and don’t say I’m a hero. I’m no hero, I was lucky. I’m here. All the heroes are dead, and I’ll never forget them as long as I live.’

Mr Billinge, who made a final pilgrimage to Normandy today, spoke about his traumatic experience after landing on the beaches at 6.30am on June 6, 1944.

The soldier landed along with about 600 other men from the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers, the only Welsh battalion to take part in the landings. 

Harry Billinge, 93, insisted he was ‘no hero’ in an interview on BBC Breakfast this morning

The D-Day veteran gave in an emotional interview to BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty

He said: ‘When I landed it was hell. You cannot put words to D-Day. Whatever I told you would be a load of rubbish because I’d never seen anything like it in my life. 

How Harry Billinge’s unit was the only Welsh battalion to take part in the D-Day landings 

Harry Billinge was a Royal Engineer with the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers – the only Welsh battalion to take part in the D-Day landings.

The Borderers were founded in 1689 and were known as the 24th Regiment of Foot until 1881. Their most famous moment came when they won 11 Victoria Crosses in one day at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu War in the 1870s.

But by 1944 the Borderers spent three months training for the landings.

On the eve of the invasion, many men are said to have asked to see their parents before sailing as they thought it would be for the last time.

However their Commanding Officer threatened deserters with hanging and urged them to show courage.

The crossing was very choppy, with one soldier saying: ‘The flat bottomed boats were all over the place. I have never felt so ill in all my life.

‘As day broke, everyone came up on deck to see the Normandy coast hove into view. The cliff edges were wreathed in smoke and dust. To our far right much heavier fire seemed to be occurring on Omaha beach’.

The battalion landed at Gold Beach with about 600 men under command of 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division at 6.30am on June 6, 1944.

Sergeant Dick Philips, who was in the unit, said: ‘When we landed there was a lot of shelling and it was a bit hairy.

‘As we were leaving the beach there was a chappie going up the bank and a shell exploded at his feet in the sand and we saw his body coming toward us in the air.

‘Further on there was a farmhouse surrounded by a high wall with double gates, and an elderly lady was outside jumping up and down, clapping her hands at all these fellows leaving the beach.’

Among the battalion’s completed objectives on the way to Vaux-sur-Aure was to capture a German radio direction finding station near Pouligny.

The men advanced the furthest on D-Day out of all the British units, and they lost just four men – two by mortar fire and two from sniper fire.

The South Wales Borderers were absorbed into the Royal Regiment of Wales in 1969.

‘You had the ships firing over your head, and you had the Germans firing at you from inland – 88mm guns they used, which would blow you off the face of the earth. 

‘All the mines and that were taken away by fail tanks that was caused a Hobart’s Funny. They cleared certain paths to get the men off the beach as quick as possible.

‘There was a beachmaster. One bloke I knew was an SAS bloke. They were saying ‘get everybody off the beach’. And a lot of poor fellas never got out of the sea.’

Asked what he was told before landing, Mr Billinge added: ‘Keep your head down. They didn’t tell you anything. Just get on. You know what it was going to be.’

He spent two years in hospital where a consultant tried to help him forget the horrors, but he said: ‘I’ve got such a vivid memory, they couldn’t help me at all.’

Mr Billinge also told how his family was heavily involved in the military, with his father becoming a soldier in 1905 with the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire). 

He has worked to raise funds for the memorial which will honour 22,442 members of the British armed forces who died in the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy.

Mr Billinge laid a wreath today as part of the inauguration event attended by Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron at Ver-sur-Mer.

A sculpture created by David Williams-Ellis was unveiled during the event, marking the beginning of construction – which is anticipated to be completed within a year.

The memorial will include a roll of honour of the names of 22,442 members of the British armed forces who died in the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy. 

He said the funraising was ‘more important than anything I’ve ever done in my life’, adding: ‘I knew a lot of good men, all lovely young men, who are not here, who paid the sacrifice. They went the whole way. 

‘Walked the seven mile, and then another mile after that. I can’t explain. All I know is Normandy veterans love one another beyond the love of women. 

‘If you was in a whole in a ground with a bloke, you got to know him. My generation saved the world, and I’ll never forget any of them.’  

Asked about how he was felling this morning, Mr Billinge said he was ‘tired, weary and very sad’, adding: ‘Remembering everything – I can’t forget.’ 

His fundraising is particularly driven by the memory of the horrific moment he saw his friend Lance Corporal Joseph Neades killed in action in front of him.  

Veteran Mr Billinge returns to Gold Beach in 2018, 74 years after landing on D-Day in 1944

The proud Cockney, who grew up in Petts Wood in Kent, has been in Cornwall for 70 years after being advised to leave London for a better quality of life.

He set up shop as a barber and became president of the local clubs for the Royal British Legion and Royal Engineers.

His fundraising fame has even spread to the continent, which he visits every year to carry on his collections while making his annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries of Normandy. 

Mr Billinge will be spending his free time this week collecting as usual in Arromanches – only this time with a giant banner. And he plans to continue fundraising in St Austell when he returns home.

Mr Billinge has managed to raise more than £10,000 for the Normandy Memorial Trust by relentlessly collecting donations in St Austell high street near his home in Cornwall

As an 18-year-old Royal Engineers soldier, he landed on Gold Beach at 6.30am on D-Day

Veterans suggested the monument because – while there are cemeteries – there is no national memorial combining the names of all those who died under British command in Normandy.

The Government has provided a £20million grant and the trust is hoping to raise a further £9 million through its 22,442 Sacrifice For Freedom campaign.

The Prince of Wales is a royal patron and the great grandson of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill, has also backed the plans.

The youngest known D-Day veteran, Jim Radford, 90, has released a charity single, The Shores Of Normandy, to also help raise funds for the campaign.

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