By Pat Hurst, Press Association
Gripped by fear as deafening bombs exploded and bullets tore past him, killing comrades left and right, Royal Marine Commando George Simms was one of the first on the beaches on D-Day.
As the ramp dropped on his landing craft, the 20-year-old former butcher’s boy from Manchester gripped his rifle and jumped into the waist-deep sea water as “all hell broke lose” when the enemy opened fire on the beach ahead.
Two years earlier he had walked into a Royal Navy recruiting office as a volunteer wanting to “do the hardest thing” and the officer pointed him to the Marines.
Now 95, he was selected for the Commandos, the elite unit to act as the “tip of the spear” and first to land on Sword Beach as the biggest air and seaborne invasion in history launched in Normandy.
Waiting for him were land mines, anti-tank obstacles, dive bombers and machine gun boxes manned by thousands of German soldiers.
“I don’t honestly think there could ever be a day like that day on D-Day, when we were in action,” Mr Simms said.
“Fear. Fear. Absolute fear. There was nobody brave that day, nobody saying ‘Come on lets go and do it’.”
But Mr Simms, and thousands of others like him, had to do it to liberate Europe from the Nazis.
So at 08.45am on June 6 1944, the landing craft carrying Y Company, 41 Royal Marine Commando went ashore as Operation Neptune, the first wave of the invasion force landed.
Mr Simms said: “We knew we were going into battle but we never realised what it was going to be until we did it.
“We had two machine guns on the beach, both raining on the spot where we landed, and we had that many casualties you wouldn’t believe it.
“Hundreds headless, because the machine gun on the beach was fixed for heads as soon as you landed.”
Most of his officers were killed in a direct hit on the boat they were on and he lost contact with his comrades in Y Company amid the chaos.
They were left to try to dig in in makeshift trenches, the soft sand offering little cover from the incoming fire.
“The boat was hit so we just got split up and I never saw any one of my unit that day,” Mr Simms said.
“It was bloody unbelievable, you had to be in it to know it.
“Low flying airplanes flying over the top of you and dropping bombs on you, bombs, not just machine gun fire.”
More than 600 men were killed in action on Sword Beach alone in the first hours of D-Day, but the Allies managed to get a foothold, creating a beachhead for the landing of thousands of troops and tanks.
The Marines’ job was to puncture the German defences to open the way for the 8th Infantry Brigade to go ashore.
Twenty-four hours later Mr Simms was carried from the battle by comrades, severely injured.
Ambushed in a fierce counter-attack, he was blasted by an anti-personnel bomb, his body peppered with shrapnel.
Evacuated back to England, he spent VE Day in hospital but eventually made a good recovery, though he still has metal fragments in his body.
“I had a lot taken out … pieces as big as a ha’penny,” he said, though Mr Simms counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
“All my closest friends, lads that I joined up with, was all killed.
“Most of them were sergeants and corporals and that, Bert Heywood and people like him, and they were smashing bloody friends, really looked after me and yet … I can’t bear to go back.
“We should be proud of what we did and what our comrades did, but it was so horrendous.
“Ninety percent of them never made it back. That’s why they disbanded 41 Commando because we got so heavy casualties.”
After the Allied victory Mr Simms felt he had “had enough” of war and joined the fire service, again serving the public for 30 years before retirement.
In the run-up to D-Day he recalls the months of gruelling training at the RM Commando Training Centre at Achnacarry Castle, near Fort William in the mountains and forests of Scotland.
Despite his wheelchair Mr Simms still retains an impish wit and barrack-room humour.
“We did a lot of mountain climbing in Scotland,” he said, “and when we landed on D-Day the beach was as flat as a f****** pancake.
“Typical, train for months on bloody mountains to get us to do that, and when we get there it’s flat.”
Mr Simms and wife Connie, now dead, had three sons and he now has 11 great-grandchildren.
He lives at Broughton House, a home for armed service veterans in Salford, Greater Manchester.
For years he found it difficult to talk about his experiences but believes what the war meant should not be lost on younger generations.
“Everybody will tell you the same – you never talk to your direct children but you talk to your grandchildren about it,” he added.
“There’s a big Jewish school near us. And they have groups of children that come in to us and they sit round us and talk to us.
“You know the first thing they said to me, one of ’em, I said ‘Come on, ask me some questions, ‘cos I don’t know what to tell you.’
“She said ‘Did you win the war?’
“I said ‘I hope so, you wouldn’t be here now.'”
Broughton House is appealing for funds to build and run the UK’s first £14 million Veterans Care Village, on its site.
Pic by Pat Hurst/PA Wire