‘The real heroes of D-Day are those we left behind’ - The remarkable story of 95-year-old Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton

Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton is in France laying a memorial cross for his comrades who never came home from World War 2.
Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton is in France laying a memorial cross for his comrades who never came home from World War 2.

Harrogate war veteran John Rushton, 95, set sail across the English Channel for Normandy last Sunday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day - this time by ferry, rather than in a landing craft.

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Leaving his Harrogate home last weekend, he embarked on a poignant journey back across the sea in memory of a friend and colleague who died in battle.

Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton insists he is no hero.

Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton insists he is no hero.

In the company of one of his three sons, David, and his partner, the lively but frail former Royal Marine was determined to return to the beaches where he and thousands of others risked their lives for the liberation of Europe on June 6, 1944.

This time round, Mr Rushton - who retains his sense of humour if not his health - did not be setting foot on Sword Beach, which has now been built over.

Instead the focal point of his nine-day trip during the international commemorations of the biggest seaborne invasion in world history will be nearby Arromanches, 18 miles along the coast where a D-Day museum is located.

Mr Rushton said: “It’s not the first time I’ve gone back to Normandy. I’ve built up some very good friends in France and I will be meeting some of them. In the past I’ve given talks to French school children about D-Day. The French care about it.”

John Rushton is pictured seated on the front row, far right, during his training for D-Day.

John Rushton is pictured seated on the front row, far right, during his training for D-Day.

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Until Mr Rushton’s health declined in recent years, he was also honoured to be invited to lecture about the war at Ashville College in Harrogate.

Widowed in 2012 and now largely immobilised after a series of falls, Mr Rushton’s heroism was recognised in 2016 when he received a medal of the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest award.

Allied troops deliberately did not land at Arromanches on D-Day, leaving the coast clear for a vital portable harbour (nicknamed Mulberry Harbour) being tugged over from southern England.

As well as placing a memorial cross at the grave of his fallen D-Day comrade, Corporal Youngblood, alongside 69 other Royal Marines who lost their lives, he intends to stay until next Tuesday but hopes not to be too busy.

Memorial crosses are laid on the Normandy beaches to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Memorial crosses are laid on the Normandy beaches to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Mr Rushton, who is also being joined in France by his daughter Catherine, said: “I’ve had lots of offers of engagements but there’s too many to fit in.

“If I did them all I would be knackered!”

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Most of us cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Here, 95-year-old Harrogate D-Day veteran John Rushton, a courageous former Royal Marine who stormed the beaches 75 years ago, gave his account of that momentous day in history to Graham Chalmers...

“I decided this week to take a memorial cross to Normandy to put on the grave of my comrade and friend Corporal Youngman, who got killed on D-Day.

Services were held across Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Services were held across Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

There are about 69 Royal Marines in the same cemetery a few miles from the beach where we landed.

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.

I’d joined the army cadets in Doncaster when I was 16, then spent 13 months in the Home Guards before joining the Royal Marines in December 1942 where I became a corporal at first before being made a sergeant in the amphibious support regiment.

I came to Harrogate to do training on a 25 pounder artillery course at Pennypot Lane then on the moors.

Then it was down to Braunton near Barnstaple in Devon for field training in amphibious armoured support.

We’d already been to Troon in Scotland to learn how to waterproof tanks.

The build-up started at 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 something was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. There had been false alarms before when the weather stopped the ships but this time it was on.

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But it was still bloody awful when we 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.

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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. The engineers had to get the tracks back on the tanks.

I was in charge of an ammunition party. I said “we’re sitting ducks here”.

I told my blokes to get the ammo off the landing craft and move the boxes of ammunition to the sea wall on the beach.

We were under fire when we hit the beach. Two Focke-Wulf 190 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. We got to the sea wall and the ammo was safe. I guessed right that it was the best place to be.

We stayed two days to help establish the beachhead after D-Day. I only saw one German in the flesh. He was sitting on our landing craft. A prisoner of war. We gave him a fag and a warm drink.

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He was quite happy. His war was over.

Then we got back to a troop ship, HMS Black Prince, and were back in Britain at barracks near Bristol.

From there I went to North Wales to practice with boats and landing craft before being shipped to India.

I had my 21st birthday in India where we were training with armed amphibious US Buffaloes with guns and flamethrowers.

The plan was to invade Malaysia and throw the Japanese out. Then they dropped the Bomb in Hiroshima.

Word got round and the lads went mad, but the commanding officer said if we’d had to have invaded, three-quarters of us wouldn’t have come back.

The war was over. We were going home.

But the Indian navy had mutinied and were threatening to bombard Bombay (now Mumbai) so we got sent by train to tell those gentlemen to give up.

I finally got home on the Stratheden, a big cruise liner which had been turned into a troop ship, and arrived in Portsmouth.

I left the Royal Marines in 1946.

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, the ones who are buried across there.”

Sword Beach: The facts

D-Day - or Operation Overlord – began just after midnight on June 6, 1944.

Thousands of vessels carrying almost 160,000 troops crossed the Channel, heading towards a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast to begin the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.

Sword, commonly known as Sword Beach, was the code name given to one of the five main landing areas along the Normandy coast during the initial assault phase.

Stretching eight kilometres (5.0 mi) from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, Sword Beach, was the easternmost landing site of the invasion, nearest to the key objective of Caen.

The Germans had installed machine guns, mortars, bunkers, anti-tank lines and mine fields in the dunes.

At 4pm the Germans attempted a counter-attack with the support of the 21st Panzer Division but were beaten by Allied tanks and air power.

By the end of D-Day, the British had lost 630 men, but had landed 29,000 troops on Sword Beach.

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A key figure in the creation of town's Tewit Youth Band

After leaving the Royal Marines in 1946, John Rushton returned like so many others in his generation to civilian work and family life.

He got a job in a colliery near Doncaster, where he was from, as a wages clerk before becoming a bursar in a college at Castleford.

In 1971 he moved to Harrogate with his wife Jean where he acted as registrar at Harrogate College of Further Education for many years.

As a man who first got involved with marching bands as a teenager in the cadet corps at Doncaster in 1938, Mr Rushton went on to play a pivotal role in the origins of the Harrogate’s Tewit Youth Band which continues to win national awards to this day.

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Along with the late Leighton Rich, he was one of the founders in 1975 of this silver band, which remains one of the most distinguished in the United Kingdom, an organisation which has introduced so many young people to the joy of community service through music, including many trips to mainland Europe, spreading the message of peace and friendship.

Mr Rushton contnued acting as drum major for the various bands with Tewit for 34 years.

He was still marching with Tewit Band in his late 80s until ill health meant he had to stop.

Even now, they still use the original sash and mace he personally made for the outfit.