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GNOSALL PARISH NEWS
Produced by publishers of The Popular Village Monthly
JOIN THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION GNOSALL BRANCH
You do not have to be an ex service person or a serving member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, anyone can join! For more information, please contact the PRO Mr David Winterbottom on: 01952 691131 or email: email@example.com
John Cornwell enlisted when he was just 15 and took part in the D-Day landings aged just 17, becoming the youngest survivor.
As the youngest survivor of the D-Day landings John Cornwell made a special effort in June to pay his respects to the young soldiers who did not come home following the liberation of Normandy.
Mr Cornwell, aged 92, only revealed his true age when he was asked to explain why he was 63, and not 65, when collecting his war pension on retirement.Being a "big, strong lad" he enlisted at Gloucester in 1942, aged only 15.
Less than two years later he was to see the horror of D-Day, fighting his way up Sword Beach on his way to capture the town of Bayeux.Speaking ahead of a visit to Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings, Mr Cornwell said: "I always go to the headstones of the other young lads, the 16-yearolds and 17-yearolds, who did not come out alive."There were no John Waynes on that day, we were all young men, many of us scared and a long way from home. I'm forever grateful I came out alive to tell the story." John was born and grew up in Cheltenham, working at the town's gas works after leaving school. But unhappiness at home led him to enlist under the pretence he was born in 1924, and not 1926.
It took him two goes to convince a recruitment officer to let him in. But he managed it and within a week of signing up he was dispatched to Colchester for training. Joining the 2nd Battalion Gloucestershire regiment, 56 Infantry Bridge, he was to take part in the D-Day landings aged just 17.His platoon were to land behind the Royal Hampshire Regiment on a section of the beach called Jig Green before advancing to take Bayeux.Being a lefthander he was armed with a Bren light machine gun weighing 24 pounds, much heavier than the eight-pound rifles.The target was to liberate the town by midnight. But it was not that simple.Mr Cornwell, speaking from his home in Southam near Cheltenham, said: "It was something we had been training on for months, but when we came up behind the Hampshires, we saw they were taking a beating with many, many casualties."It was a horrible sight."We ended up having to move three miles up the beach to the King Red sector where, when it was my turn, I jumped into three feet of water, struggling to hold onto my gun and pack.
"The water was freezing and the noise all around was terrible. We did manage to get ashore and moved on to Bayeux, but too late to take it by midnight."The following morning, we were able to take the town." Two weeks later John was badly injured in an explosion south of the town. His hand was broken and his left leg shattered.It was the end of his war and he spent two years in and out of hospitals back in England.
At Gloucester City Hospital, plastic surgeons worked on his leg although now it is two inches shorter than the right. Having recovered, he went on to work as an engineer for Smiths Group in Cheltenham. He married his wife Betty, who he met at a youth club in Cheltenham, and the pair had three children.But Mr Cornwell would not talk about the war until the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, when he returned to the Normandy beaches and visited the vast cemeteries.Three years ago,he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur and was told he was the youngest recipient of the award. He said: "16 out of the 34 soldiers in my platoon survived, so many of them young boys."When you see the headstones at the cemeteries you see so many with the dates June 6 and June 7, and then the ages. So many died. I will always make sure I pay my respects to the young men who died around me."
He added: "The war was part of our history. People should remember the people who put their lives down for their country. John is among the 300 veterans who embarked on the RBL organised boat to Normandy that departedon the 2nd June. He then attended several events to mark D-Day.In Cheltenham a short parade and service of commemoration took place at the Town’s war memorial on Thursday 6th June
David Winterbottom – PRO for the Gnosall and District RBL Branch.