Harrogate D-Day hero, 97, loses his final battle after show of courage to the end

Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton was one of a dying breed. A hero of World War Two, he lost his final battle at Harrogate Hospital on New Year’s Day at the age of 97.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 6th January 2022, 9:49 am
Looking back - The late John Rushton returns to the beaches of Normandy in 2019 as part of the events for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Looking back - The late John Rushton returns to the beaches of Normandy in 2019 as part of the events for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

For more and a video interview with the late John Rushton, click on this link

The manner of his passing was a peaceful one, a far cry from the events of June 6, 1944 when - on that day of reckoning - he stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Sign up to our daily Harrogate Advertiser Today newsletter

At least 2,500 troops were killed in the opening 24 hours of the Allied invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Aged 20 at the time, Royal Marine John ‘Jack’ Rushton survived his D-Day baptism of fire on the sands of Sword Beach in the face of a furious German barrage.

In later years he would receive the Légion d’honneur medal from the French Government for his bravery in those crucial hours.

Struck down by illness, last week saw Mr Rushton summon the last reserves of that fighting spirit, this time in Harrogate Hospital’s Wensleydale Ward under the watchful eye of family members.

His son David, one of four children, said, although the family had not seen it coming, they were proud of the way Mr Rushton had battled all the way to the end.

“His health had worsened in recent years,” admitted David. “He had been in Lister Care Home in Ripon which did a great job with him. But he took ill with an infection on the Tuesday straight after Christmas.

“It didn’t seem too much to worry about at first. He was doing okay. But the following day we got an emergency phone call saying he had deteriorated badly.

“He then fought all the way for the next four days like a proper marine.

“He was out of it a lot of the time but he was restless and his breathing was strong.

“On New Year’s Day night the situation suddenly changed. His breathing changed. It was like he suddently ran out of energy. He just went.

“The staff in the Wensley dale Ward all looked after him so well. In the end his passing was quick and peaceful.

“We were all so proud of him. He was fighting all the way to the end.”

The sort of man who believed the real heroes of D-Day were not survivors like himself but the thousands of comrades who were killed or seriously wounded, John Rushton was born in Doncaster on May 24, 1924, where he was brought up, before leaving school to become an apprentice joiner just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

Although his regimental beret and tie always retained pride of place at his home on Beech Road in Harrogate, John was never one to embrace the limelight unnecessarily.

He had come into the public eye in recent years thanks to a series of important Second World War anniversaries and commemorations where the scale of his remarkable contribution to a moment of history was finally laid bare and recognised to the full - even if he remained modest about his own achievements.

One memorable trip in 2019 had seen this remarkable war veteran return to Normandy for the final time as part of a major series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

David Rushton said the scale of the reaction to news of his father’s death had made him realise just what an impact he had made on the world.

“The family has received an awful lot of goodwill messages since the weekend from friends and relatives and other people. They must reach into three figures,” he said. “It was very comforting for the family to realise how many people cared for him.

“He really did leave his mark on the world. We are all very proud of his legacy.”

After surviving D-Day and further military adventures in the Royal Marines in India, John Rushton was demobbed in 1946.

His post-military life saw him take up a rich and varied career, settling down in Harrogate in 1972 with his wife Jean and four children Michael, Paul, David and Catherine. A member of St Robert’s Church in Harrogate, Mr Rushton retired in 1988 and turned to his interests in the local brass bands and the Royal Naval Association.

He was widowed in 2012 but remained devoted to his family, including grandchildren Sally, Hannah, Ben and Nicholas and great-grandchildren Finlay, Lucas, James and Ella.

Although it is still to early for the final details, the family is now planning the funeral with the hope of including a military element in accordance with John’s final wishes.

“The regulations say he is entitled to have a military aspect to his send-off, though it isn’t that he wanted a gun carriage or anything like that,” David explained. “We have started looking into the procedure required to have the military standards and a bugler.

“My dad always said he would like a bugler from the Royal Marines at his funeral.

“He has left such a great legacy, we want to send him off in the appropriate manner.”

D-Day memories: The late John Rushton's first-hand experiences on that fateful day in 1944...

"I consider myself one of the lucky ones. My protection against the bullets was a khaki uniform and a beret. That was it. Not even a helmet.

"The build-up had started around Easter time in 1944. The fields started filling up with troops and the roads were full of lorries. I was 20-years-old, two weeks before D-Day.

"We knew by then that something was coming but we didn’t know when.

"It was bloody awful when we eventually set off in the landing craft in the dark at 10pm. It was pouring with rain. We were too concerned with the state of the weather to be nervous or scared.

"Our job was to look after the Centaur IV tanks supporting the infantry going onto the beaches, supporting Canadian troops and our commandos.

"On the way there we were lying under the tanks in the landing craft on boxes of ammunition. If they’d hit us, we’d not have know about it.

"There would have been one big bang and that would have been it.

"It was getting light when we arrived just after six o’clock at Sword beach.

"There was morning mist. The landing craft we were on went onto the beach and not long after there was a bang at our arse end.

"We must have hit a bottle mine. We stopped in the water.

"The landing craft couldn’t move any further. We opened the doors and started to get the tanks off the landing ramp.

"Down we went but we came to a dead stop. It was the wrong sort of sand. We couldn’t move. I said “we’re sitting ducks here”.

"I told my blokes to get the ammo off the landing craft. We were under fire when we hit the beach.

"Two German fighter-bombers came down and gave us a bit of a rattle but didn’t hit anything and then disappeared.

"At one point we heard a bang and turned round to see one of our Bren gun carriers get blown up by a mine. We’d just walked over the exact same spot.

"When I look back at D-Day I wouldn’t have missed it. It was needed. We had to do it.

"People ask me if I think I am a hero. I say ‘no, do I ‘eck as like’. The real heroes of D-Day are the people we left behind."

Harrogate MP’s tribute to true hero

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones, pictured, described the late John Rushton as a “true hero” and said his contribution in the Second World War must never be forgotten.

“For those of us who were not fortunate enough to know Sergeant Rushton personally we mourn the loss of a true hero and record our thanks for all he did. It is right that we do so.

“His family and friends will be mourning the passing of a much-loved man.

“What struck me most about John was his modesty when describing his service on the western front and in the Far East in 1944 and 1945.

“He describes supplying ammunition to the front under heavy fire, walking through minefields and much more which are way outside our everyday experiences.

“He relates these events in such an understated way - often with great humour.

“Through people like Sergeant John Rushton we got a glimpse of what brave men and women did for our freedom in the Second World War. Their sacrifice was huge and must never be forgotten.

“There are so few D-Day heroes left that we must not allow their testament of service to ever be forgotten.”

For more and a video interview with the late John Rushton, click on this link