Britons recall turning point in Europe 'NOW OR NEVER'

June 01, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

PORTSMOUTH, England -- D-Day dawns gray and murky in Mary Verrier's memory. Ships fill the harbor like a floating mosaic. A vast army marches toward the sea. Thousands and thousands of soldiers and their terrible, rumbling war machines jam the streets.

"I remember mostly the quiet cheerfulness of the chaps," says Mrs. Verrier, who was a very junior nurse not yet 17 on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

She stood by the roadside at the seafront, where a mobile aid station had been set up on South Parade Pier to treat minor injuries among the embarking troops.

"All the troops were going past," she says. "All nations: the United States, 1st Army, some of them must have been, Canadians and the English troops.

"I think one or two of the boys knew they weren't going to come back. You'd say good-bye, then you'd put out your hand and perhaps touch them, on the face, or the hand."

"You were going into the unknown," says Ken Illsley, who landed on Juno Beach just afternoon with the Royal Berkshires, now part of the Duke of Edinburgh's Regiment.

"You didn't know what was out there," he says. He was just 20. "I was scared stiff.

"I don't mind admitting it. If anybody tells you they were not scared on D-Day, they're lying."

Mrs. Verrier remembers the messages written on the trucks going past: "Look Out! Driver Can't See!" . . . "Thank you, Portsmouth" . . . "Hitler Here We Come!"

"The chaps were having jokes," she recalls. " 'Be back soon, see you later, nurse.' 'Right,' we'd say. 'Take your place in the queue, soldier.' "

She was a fine, handsome Portsmouth girl, very shy but more than a bit cheeky.

"You got told off by the sister for answering them," she says. Head nurses were severe guardians of the virtue of their younger charges.

"Some of the braver chaps came to give you a kiss on the cheek," Mrs. Verrier says. "For which we were really told off: 'Put that soldier down, nurse!' It was only a brave chap that stepped forward to sneak a kiss in those days, I'll tell you!

"I remember the feeling that at last something was happening," she says, the elation still in her voice after 50 years. "At last we're on the move."

Britain had been at war for nearly five years. The people were weary. Tired of rationing, of one egg a month, one rasher of bacon, a dollop of margarine once a week. Tired of sacrifice. Bored with slogans exhorting them to ever greater effort.

On the home front

One day, Mrs. Verrier saw a butcher dealing dog biscuits under the counter. She wanted some. He said that she wasn't one of his regular customers.

"I said, 'If you don't serve me with some dog biscuits, I'll go and find a constable who'll see you do!'

"He says: 'You're very cheeky.'

"I says: 'It's survival.' He sold me four great big square dog biscuits."

She took them back to the hospital, asked pathologists if they were fit for human consumption, got powdered milk to mix them into a mash and shared it with her mates.

"I'll tell you, it did keep us going," she chortles.

People were perpetually hungry.

"I went down to under 7 stone [98 pounds]," she says. "I fainted one morning in the hospital grounds because I was just plain hungry."

As the troops marched past to their embarkation points, children came out with buckets and bowls and the soldiers tossed their money in. "We won't need it where we're going," they said. The kids spent the day mailing letters for the men.

"Then suddenly they were gone," Mrs. Verrier says. "The whole lot of them. Gone over the horizon.

'A funny peace'

"You thought: 'Where have they gone? Who will come back? How will they come back?' I'm not ashamed to say tears trickled down my face. And a funny peace settled on the city. A funny peace."

Hours later she was back at her post at Queen Alexandra Hospital, which took in some of the earliest casualties.

Thousands died on the beaches of Normandy. More were wounded.

"Then the wounded came back," she says. "Then we knew they had hit Normandy and it was a hell on earth out there.

"I don't think anybody had expected the sheer volume of the injuries," Mrs. Verrier says. "The dreadful injuries and burns some of the fellows had. Especially eye wounds and burns.

"I remember Sister Whitelaw saying, 'See to the boys' eyes. Light their cigarettes. Just touch them and let them know you are near.'

"That was very hard, very hard," Mrs. Verrier says.

"The whole of the front of our hospital was one mass of stretchers," she says. "There were rows and rows of stretchers -- Americans, English, Australians, Canadians, Poles, Germans, French and slave labor camp Russians who had been forced to be soldiers by the Germans.

"I remember the quietness of the men," she says, "how they lay there patiently, waiting their turn."

A new spirit

But D-Day had nonetheless brought a new spirit, a bit of hope, the turning point that everyone had been longing for.

FTC "There was a life and an air about everybody," Mrs. Verrier says. "There was a sense of here we go. This was it. Now or never. At last we were going to hit 'em back."

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