Veteran Stories:
George Wallis

Navy

  • HMS Hawkins opening fire, D-Day 1944. Mr. Wallis was on board at the time this photo was taken

  • Photo of training class on HMS Caledonia, 1939

  • HMS Barham, just prior to being torpedoed in December 1939

  • HMS Hawkins en-route to Ceylon, 1939

  • Log Book from HMS Hawkins, showing the activity of the ship as it bombarded the shoreline of Normandy for Five days after D-Day, 6-10 June 1944

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"To get this church we had to bring the steeple down. We went right into the estuary of the river, they never told us we can fire at churches. We’re moving in to deal some damage to something in the town of Isigny-sur-Mer. The beach was so full of dead."

Transcript

We went in on the 5th [of June, 1944] and we were called back because the weather was bad and [General Dwight] Eisenhower [Supreme Allied Commander] was still a bit shaky about going in. But he asked the weatherman what’s it like on the 6th and he says it’s going to be a bit better. And we went in on the 6th [D-Day] and we stayed in on the 6th.

And, as we [the Royal Navy heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins] were going in, I was in the engine room but my day job was generators and compressors, that’s compressing air. And the chief ERA [Engine Room Artificer] said to me, when you come to anchor, you’re coming off shift and you’ll have to look after the lighting and the air compressors to put the air up to the guns and fire. Because they need air in the guns for when they fire, the cordite fumes are still in the barrel, they used to blast air into the barrel, pushed all the bad air out, rather than come back to the men and hurt themselves, poison. I was doing that job for the five days, once we were in there.

But just as we were going in, a stoker went up to the galley, where they cook all the food to bring some chocolate. We used to call it kiber, it was a hot chocolate drink. And he came over to me and he said, “the coast is in the site,” and he was whispering in my ear; he was about 18 I think. And he said, “and the Royal Air Force is hammering them to hell all along the coast.” I said, “why are you whispering?” And we haven’t come to the position to start firing ourselves yet and he burst out laughing and I did. But he was nervous; so was I. Really nervous because there was mines all laid in the water there, really where we were going. They’d laid 33 million mines around the water there. But that’s how, it gets you a bit nervy anyway. Nobody’s brave in going into action, I don’t care a damn what you say.

We went into about two miles in the coast. To get this church we had to bring the steeple down. We went right into the estuary of the river, they never told us we can fire at churches. We’re moving in to deal some damage to something in the town of Isigny [-sur-Mer]. The beach was so full of dead. They nearly pulled Omaha [Beach, one of the American D-Day landing beaches] out, but Eisenhower said, see what else we can do and we went in and damaged this church. They [the German shore defenders] were spotting them and telling their guns what to do. So they were keeping them [the Americans] down on the beach all the time. They were using it as a spotting place. But to destroy a lovely Catholic church is terrible. I sat in it, it was a lovely church.

And tell you the truth, about four years after, we went over there, didn’t we? And I went right along the coast where we did all this stuff. And then I went into Isigny and I saw the church, a lovely church, it was, Catholic church, I’m not against any religion at all. I’m a Presbyterian. And I looked at it and I could see it being repaired in different places and there was a stationary office in the square, it was in the square of the town. And I went in this place and I said to the Frenchman in there, I said, “can you understand any English?” Well, a little, he says. I said, “that church out there, was it very damaged?” “Oooh, terribly damaged,” he said. And he went out and got a book and opened it to me. And my God, it was in a terrible mess. I never told him my ship done it. It was in a terrible mess. It was flat.

We had some Canadians with us that day over there, to see the sights we invaded, and she had one of these talkers [tape recorders] and she says, George, “speak into that and tell me what happened when you were here.” I couldn’t speak.

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