Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day – a day that changed the outcome of the Second World War and the course of history.
Ten years ago we spoke to many of the heroes of D-Day to mark the 60th anniversary celebrations. Many have sadly passed away in the intervening years. But their legacy lives on.
Throughout this week we will be re-telling their remarkable stories in their own humble words.
John Brereton was a real life James Bond.
The troop Sergeant Major was part of 30AU Royal Marine Commando – Ian Fleming’s Naval Intelligence unit. His mission was to discover the launching sites of the V1 (Doodlebug) rockets targeted on the south of England. He was later involved in the surrender of Admiral Doenitz and personally escorted him to an interrogation unit. He passed away in June 2011, aged 91.
Before being selected for 30AU in January, 1943, John Brereton had served with the Fifth Submarine Flotilla, HMS Dolphin, where he was responsible for amending their Confidential Code Books.
He was torpedoed while serving in the Mediterranean on HMS Barham and, for a second time, on HMS Coventry.
With 30AU, he was trained at Amersham and, already fluent in French, was taught Italian and German by the Army Education Corps. Following Normandy and Paris, he was assigned as military commander to Commander Curtis DSO, RN, to join with the 1st French Armoured Division, operating from Cassis, near Marseilles, onwards to Bayonne. These operations, including photographic spying, were ultimately passed on to Cdr Glanville, prior to operating from Genappe, Belgium, with Lt Lungar RCN.
After the war he served with the 3rd Commando Brigade before returning to the UK to spend nine months in Sherborne RN Orthopaedic Hospital. After two further operations, arising from parachute injuries during the war, he was unable to proceed for a commission and was invalided from the RM.
“Before joining Ian Fleming’s unit, I had served from 1939 to 1943 in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and North seas, during which I was torpedoed twice.
“From January, 1943, I trained in 30AU at Amersham for intelligence operations and, subsequently joined with the 1st American division in North Africa and on to Sicily and Italy. I returned to the UK in January, 1944 to train for the D-Day invasion.
“About 10 days before D-Day my troop of 70 men and myself were confined, with the American division, in the New Forest, completely cut off from the outside world, with no outside communication.
“Every day we had to study a mock-up of the beach and terrain where we were to land (Omaha). Before the landing, we were transported in a large transport ship carrying the landing craft. Before lowering the landing craft, a Tannoy message invited anyone who so wished to take communion with the Catholic padre. I joined with the Americans and some of my colleagues.
“My troop landed near Omaha; our other troop near Utah which we were to join later. It was a terrible spectacle – we were absolutely pinned down for some time. All we could see was carnage – dead bodies scattered everywhere. After a while, we slowly advanced. The bombardment from the warships enabled us to gradually advance with my troop.
“One particular spectacle I will never forget – I rushed into a large domed gun turret and found about 30 Germans with no physical injuries but with ghastly white faces, all killed by bomb blast.
“A German doctor was in front, having amputated a soldier’s hand, lying against him with all his instruments scattered in front of him.
“We slowly advanced – our column on higher ground above the American column. Three Spitfires circled above us, giving us air cover.
“Suddenly, a fourth Spitfire joined on and tailed off, swooped down and machinegunned the American column, blowing up an ammunition truck. We all scattered, covered in debris.
“There were a lot of American casualties. The Spitfire had crash-landed in enemy territory and a German pilot flew it back – it was shot down seconds after the attack.
“Towards the evening we were all exhausted, dishevelled and took cover in a ditch. I was violently sick.
“Well into the night the Germans counter-attacked with scatter bombs, and by dawn we had 30 per cent casualties. All the animals in the field were blown to bits.
“The American ambulances took our casualties back. All bedraggled and weary, my captain and my diminished troop joined our comrades from the other landing.
“Our first consolidation was in a farmhouse near Carantan. With our Colonel (Wooley), we prepared for our targets in the Cherbourg peninsula and Normandy.
“I was a trained linguist and photographer and I was teamed up with an RAF scientist, Flt Lt David Nutting (later Wing Commander), to infiltrate through the American bridgehead into enemy territory. We had to search and find the camouflaged launching sites of V1s (doodle bugs), scattered in Normandy – targeted for the south of England. I found the first one in Neuilly la Foret – with sentries posted all around.
“David did the scientific details and I photographed all details and appurtenances with map references and Greenwich Mean Time. As we completed our work, the Germans opened fire on us. We beat a very hasty retreat and at full speed re-entered the American bridgehead. A Hurricane from the nearest airfield flew the photographs and scientific data back to NID in Whitehall – Ian Fleming’s HQ.
“My troop and I went on further missions to Paris, the south of France, on to Belgium, Holland, Germany and on to Kiel, where we took part in the surrender by Grand Admiral Doenitz.
“I personally took him and his retinue in an armoured vehicle to a special interrogation unit.
“He consequently served seven years in prison.”