Ulster D-Day veteran recalls: ‘I saw dead bodies lying and floating’

William Cooke was 18 years old when his boat landed on D-Day amid the chaos of bombing, shooting and boats bumping into one another.

The Ulsterman never set foot on the French coast on that momentous day because his role as telegraphist — a morse code operator — was to stay with the landing craft to send or receive messages.

But even though he remained for three nights in the relative safety of his vessel, bouncing around just off Sword beach, there was no escape from the grave risks caused by allied firing and German retaliatory shelling.

At one point, the helmsman on William’s boat invited him to look over the edge.

“I saw lots of dead bodies lying about, and floating about too,” William recalls, now aged 88, and living in Laurelvale in Co Armagh.

He had been born in Newtownhamilton in February 1926 and signed up for the services at Clifton Street, Belfast in June 1943, aged 17.

His mother had learned morse and as a young woman took reports of the Great War for the post office at Ballyjamesduff in Co Cavan. “I always had an interest in Morse,” William recalls.

After training in Skegness, he was sent to signals school near Plymouth in early 1944. William’s role was such that he was not taught to fight and never held a weapon.

The signals men knew there would be an invasion, but not where or when.

At the end of April, they went to Southampton, where he “kept two diaries in case one was confiscated”.

One day in late May, he and a colleague went off to get clean clothes, and returned to a crowd at the jetty.

“I saw Sir Alan Brooke, and then saw Winston Churchill coming off a landing craft. Eisenhower was there but I wouldn’t have known him.”

Days later, the king also visited paid a morale-boosting visit ahead of the massive allied bid to wrest the continent from Nazi control.

On Friday June 2, William and his crew were briefed that they were heading to Normandy. All shore leave had been cancelled, to maintain the secrecy of the plans. 
On Saturday they loaded the landing craft, which was to carry lorries, tanks, bren guns and around 20 Green Howards infantrymen across the English Channel.

The flotilla of 12 craft left at 1pm on Monday June 5 for the slow trip, at a pace of around 5 knots.

It had been postponed for a day due to the weather, but “it was just as bad on the day we left,” said William, who did not get seasick.

They crossed in darkness. When William went on deck, he could see craft all around.

They beached 30 minutes late, at 9.05am on D-Day.

William cannot recall the strength of the German resistance: “Between big ships firing and aircraft, I didn’t know what was going on. I was just sitting there with my earphones on me.”

Asked if he had been frightened, William tells the News Letter: “I suppose I was scared.”

After unloading the vehicles and men (whose fate he never learned) in about three minutes, the landing craft with its crew of a dozen pulled off the beach to await events offshore.

“It was chaos going on the beach and chaos going off, all these craft coming in, some of them weren’t in the right places.”

Cables under their vessel had got entangled so that the boat was inoperable. A strong tide pushed them eastward.

William’s purpose was to receive messages (there were none) or send them if there was reason to do so (there wasn’t). Otherwise, he had to stay awake and maintain radio silence.

“I maybe got a wee doze now and again. I sat in that seat the whole time.”

At one point the boat, its engine room full of water, drifted six miles east, close to enemy beaches. It was then towed back towards Arromanches and Sword beach.

“I had been sleeping, and opened my eyes and we were tied to a craft full of German prisoners.”

They stayed at the beach through ongoing shelling, until on Friday a trawler towed them back to Southampton. That fraught week was followed by 48 hours’ leave, when William visited his sister in Cheltenham.

Later in June, his vessel returned to France. On a third journey, at the end of the month, they went to Omaha beach, where Americans had encountered the most fierce resistance of D-Day.

By then it was stable, and the crew got ashore for a few hours.

“They had everything up there you want at the American camp, all free.”

There was beer, sweets, and a band playing. William heard that it was the Glenn Miller band.