D-Day veteran from St Neots is honoured for his role in liberating France
- Credit: Archant
In June 1944, Sidney Wildber, who was aged just 21, left his St Neots’ home and everything he held dear to make a perilous journey across the English Channel to face an unknown enemy.
He waved goodbye to his wife Brenda and 11-month-old baby daughter, proud to be serving his country, but oblivious to the horrors he would witness during the now historic Normandy landings - sights that would leave him suffering nightmares for many years to come.
D-Day veteran Sidney, aged 94, has recently been awarded the Legion d’honneur from the French government, which honours those who took part in the allied invasion of France in 1944, helping to liberate the country from German occupation.
The former Royal Marine, who is still incredibly fit and cycles to his allotment most days, admits he was “a right mess” when he came home from war and it is only in the last 15 years that he has been able to talk about the things he witnessed.
He sailed from Southampton on the morning of June 6 and remembers with clarity the German bombardment that greeted him and his comrades as they landed on Sword beach.
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“The Germans were firing at us from the concrete dugouts and shattered buildings,” he said.
“Our job was to escort and provide cover for the landing troops as they disembarked from the troop carriers into landing craft. There were a lot of casualties. We were doing this for three days and three nights until our forces had secured a mile or two inland.”
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Sidney then watched in awe as aircraft started to arrive and the parachute regiments began landing on the beaches. He said there were “hundreds of them”. He remembers later that he and his crew landed at a seaside town called Leon-Sur-Mare, near Caern, which was occupied by the Germans. It was here that Sidney, the ship’s gunner, watched in horror as another ship, HMS Swift, hit a mine.
“What a terrible sight it was,” he said.
“We picked up 51 survivors, some were wounded and most were shell shocked and we took them to a hospital ship.”
While the fighting was going on all around him, Sidney and the other men were given rations and enhancements to keep their spirits up, which included alcohol and cigarettes.
“We all looked forward to the rum ration. Every day the coxswain would pour a tot of rum, and the same amount of water, into pint mugs. I must have drank a few gallons in two years. We received duty-free cigarettes and tobacco. We could buy a weekly allowance - these were Players Navy Cut and Senior Service and they were larger than today’s cigarettes and had no tip.”
After six weeks in France, Sidney came home for seven days’ leave and then returned for another six weeks to protect the locks at South Beveland in Belgium.
“The Germans were on the island of Walcheran and they sent frogmen to blow up the locks,” he explained.
“This task was almost as life-threatening as D-Day. After being there for six weeks we were given six weeks of stress leave. We went to a Salvation Army hostel in Brussels and it was so lovely to have nice white sheets and a soft bed after two years of sleeping in hammocks with rough old blankets. We returned to ‘Civvy Street’ in 1946 and on the day that war ended the skipper ordered “splice the mainbrace” which meant a double tot of rum.”
Sidney, who has two daughters, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, has been married to Brenda for 73 years and spent his post-war years farming in St Neots. He received his Legion d’honneur a few weeks ago after a family friend applied to the French government on his behalf and said he was proud, but he knows he was lucky to survive the slaughter.
“We were lucky to make it back to Civvy Street, so many didn’t.
“I still have a letter from the Royal Marines paymaster in Portsmouth from 1946, it says 1,466 days war increment pay at 6d a day, that means I was paid 6d in old money for every day I served.”