On 13 June 1944, my Dad, Enos Griffith Owen, a farmer's son from Cardiganshire, was on board ship, with a party of RAF Engineers, heading for Omaha beach, Normandy. He was nearly shot before he put a foot on French soil... by an officer on his own side.
At 18 years of age he had been appointed co-driver of a 3-ton lorry. He was in a convoy heading from Eastbourne to Gosport. The driver was a local lad and he was desperate to see his heavily pregnant wife before he left for France. He pretended that the lorry had broken down in the middle of the convoy and when all the other vehicles had passed by, he diverted straight for home, taking my Dad with him. Dad was treated to tea and cakes before the lorry joined the ship at Gosport.
They were the last vehicle to board ship, so they would be the first to be off the other end. They sailed overnight and got to somewhere north of Omaha beach early next morning. When the time came to disembark, the officer in charge called for the driver but he was nowhere to be found - Dad never saw him again - he had either jumped ship or fallen overboard.
The Officer, who was understandably jumpy, called for the co-driver to remove the vehicle. No one had ever asked Dad whether he could drive a lorry. In fact, Dad had never driven any type of vehicle in his life, not even a tractor. The officer was furious and drew his pistol and for a few moments, Dad thought he was going to be shot. The officer came to his senses and drove the lorry off himself, with Dad sitting in silence by his side.
The first party of RAF Engineers had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. At the end of the day 8 men had been killed and 38 wounded. 28 out of the 35 vehicles on the first ship were sunk before they reached the beach.
"When we landed, several days later, somewhere to the north of Omaha beach, most of the debris had been cleared. What first struck me was the colour of the soldiers around and heading back to the ship for home. They looked a ghostly grey colour, probably through shell-shock. They took no interest whatever in us. I could see the Beachmaster talking, I presumed, to some local farmer, enquiring where the shots were coming from. I decided to join them (I had some knowledge of basic French. After all, I hadn't long left school). My pals kept shouting, "take cover Taff" but I was too interested in finding out what went on.
Before nightfall we moved away from the beach-head, along some narrow country roads and pitched tents next to some Canadian Engineers. I soon got used to the terrific noise, the low flying aircraft overhead, the tanks and some shelling. At dusk all would become quiet and found this more unnerving than the noise. Around midnight, the German aircraft would come over.
Our work supposedly was to build landing strips for our fighter aircraft to land and re-fuel. However, the battle seemed to me to be very one-sided, during the day it was always our aircraft in the skies overhead, no Germans. We were thus clearing roads, through Caen (which was completely flat) for tanks and vehicles to pass through. I remember being completely dumbstruck at the extent of the damage everywhere.
The weather seemed pretty foul; it seemed to be raining all the time. Every morning I woke up in a pool of water, in a hole, which I had dug for my hips for a better night, sleep. Then, around August I think, the Germans suddenly pulled back to set up defensive positions on the Rhine.
Everything and everyone thus tore up through France and into Belgium. The winter of 1944 seemed very quiet, with no movement by either side. The winter was cold, with some snow on the ground. Then at the end of December I woke up one morning and couldn’t bear to put my boots on. The Sergeant was yelling so I decided to report sick. I seemed to deteriorate very quickly and was sent, by ambulance, to a hospital in Brussels. I was now unable to move at all, I couldn’t even open my mouth. The journey in the Ambulance was agony, the roads seemed so rough, and I wanted to shout and scream but decided that there was no point. Spent a month or so in the Brussels hospital and could see others being brought in, unconscious, with similar problems. In the end, the Doctor, a Group Captain and former Harley Street Specialist, decided to send me back to the UK.
The ward I was in had about 40 beds, the sick and wounded were coming in and after about five months I was the longest "serving " patient on the ward I remember one chap asking the Doctor when could he get up. The Doctor replied, pointing to me "see that fellow in that bed over there, when you see him getting up, you'll have a chance".
I was eventually discharged in May 1945, on VE day in Europe. The last words of the Specialist were "if you lead a quiet life, you could live for several years." His diagnosis was bang on!! . "
The war killed my Dad, he died aged 81 of heart failure caused by a damaged heart valve. This valve was damaged by the Rheumatic Fever he contracted in Belgium. The MOD accepted this and he was classified as 40% disabled. I'm sure he would have lived well into his 90s if he hadn't gone to war
It would have been his 87th birthday today. He was a gentle man with a great sense of humour who was physically fearless, which was nearly his undoing on a couple of occasions. He was my number one fan and encouraged me to be the best I could be. He is buried next to his beloved grandson Rhodri. They were similar in so many ways. RIP both.